Several events shaped my early life. None more so than going to a grammar school. One of the biggest social changes after the War was the possibility of kids from poor backgrounds taking the 11+ (an IQ test) and gaining admission (admittance is perhaps a better word) to a secondary school of this kind. My school was originally founded for the poor kids of Bermondsey but over the years had been hijacked by the middle class, who did the equivalent of “busing in” their kids. The school, St. Olave’s and St. Saviour’s, is over 400 years old. One early student was John Harvard, who went on to found a little educational establishment of his own in Massachusetts.
You can see a picture of St. Olave’s here. And an 1810 drawing of an earlier building that housed the school here. The older drawing gives you an idea of just how rural south London was in the early 19th century. It was inhabited by the Romans, who even built a bridge across the river, but most of the city grew on the northern side of the Thames. The school was named after the patron saint of Norway, King Olaf II, who fought alongside the Anglo-Saxon King Ethelred the Unready against the Danes in the Battle of London Bridge in 1014.
In England you move from primary to secondary school at around the age of 11. The photo is of my first-year class (late 1961 or early 1962). I’m the one fourth from the right in the front row. For the first few years, I found the experience traumatic.
I was a shy, working-class boy. Perhaps 10% of the school’s intake consisted of people from a similar background. We were looked down upon by the headmaster, who was a first-class tyrant. Beating was still allowed (with canes or “chillilos”). Obviously not enamored of the grammar-school system, which heralded a real sea change in British society, he regarded us local boys as louts and hooligans. He referred to us as “barrow boys,” a term used to describe cockney types who sold (and still sell) fruits and vegetables in the street. The closest translation I can think of is “chinamero.”