School Dinners

Although I was unaware of it at the time, when I now reflect back on my early childhood in the 1940’s and  50’s, it is not difficult to see how society has changed in it’s attitude towards the education and development of young children. Today children are encouraged to develop their natural talents and self expression apart from the task of learning when at school. My experiences back in “the good old days” were totally different as a form of strict total compliance with the education system was the norm required.

This strict regime even filtered through to school dinners. When I was 7, I normally went home during the dinner break. We call it lunch break now but in my era it was known as the dinner break. There was a period of time however due to family circumstances when I was required to remain at school and eat their dinners.

My school like many others did not have the necessary canteen facilities to prepare food on site, it was cooked centrally elsewhere and transported in sealed steel containers to the school. It must be one of the unsolved riddles of science how food prepared  and transported in this way can undergo some form of catalytic reaction during the journey to make it totally inedible on arrival. Apart from the meat of the day, all vegetables were pre-boiled to destruction and the dessert, (afters as we used to call them), usually  consisting of semolina, (frogs spawn), or a thick pink blancmange. Even to this day pink is my least favourite colour. Most notable of all was the potatoes. These were never whole and boiled but always mashed and served with an ice-cream scoop. Normally at home my mother would remove the eyes from a potato when she prepared them, but the mass production line at the centralised kitchens meant this was never done. Consequently the mashed potato  apart from being tasteless was full of hard little lumps.

There is not much in life that I am squeamish about but little lumps in potatoes do make me violently sick if they touch the back of my throat. During my period of “enjoying” school dinners, I threw most of the food away, not because I was not hungry but because I found it totally inedible. The mashed potatoes I never made any attempt to eat.

One dinner time my own class teacher was supervising the school meal and spotted me throwing the untouched mashed potatoes away. This teacher, a female, possessed a domineering personality but had somehow clearly missed out on charm school and common sense classes during her own education. I was immediately made to retrieve the mashed potatoes and deliberately given a loud lecture for everyone else to hear about the starving people of Africa and there was I throwing away good food. With that I was ordered back to the table with no uncertain instructions to eat the mashed potato.

I just sat at the table doing nothing, not out of any form of rebelliousness but simply because I knew I could not eat this terrible food. Eventually the number of children in the dining room thinned out until I was the only one left remaining and a clear target for my teacher. Once again she ordered me to eat while beginning another sermon on wasting food. This stand-off went on for some time during which I was subject to many threats of punishment but all to no avail. I simply could not eat the food. Any attempt at an explanation was immediately cut short. Eventually the time to resume classes rapidly neared and my teacher clearly wanted to move on. I was finally told if I took one big mouthful of mashed potato, I could leave the rest. Summoning up all my willpower I eventually tried this. Sure enough, as soon as the lumps in the potato touched my throat I was violently sick. It was a completely involuntary reaction but I spewed all the contents of my stomach over the dress and jacket of my teacher who was sitting directly in front of me.

I last saw my reaching running out of the dining room screaming not to be seen for the remainder of the day. It wasn’t until later a rare feeling of self satisfaction of one-upmanship settled over me. Even to this day if I am ever served mashed potato from and ice-cream scoop I cannot eat it, lumpless as it may be. Never again was I made to eat mashed potato as school.

Strangely enough, there was always one day a year when the school dinners were delicious. For some reason this always on the same day that Government school inspectors made their annual check on the school. I however suspect this was pure co-incidence.

Loss of Innocence

I recall the day I lost my innocence, not in terms of a more personal encounter but in an unexpected and even more unwelcome introduction to the seamier side of life. I left school at 15 and was for the first three years of my working career a telegram boy. The first year on a pedal cycle and then on a motorcycle when I became legally old enough to ride one.

After two weeks of basic training I was assigned to a Post Office in Poplar, London. At that time in 1960, Poplar was mainly a mix of both private and social housing to the north and located at the tip of shipping docks to the south. Large areas of Poplar suffered heavy bomb damage during the Blitz leaving a mixture of old and newer buildings.

I was given my first batch of telegrams to deliver which I duly sorted into a logical order and off I set into this brave new world of mine. I took longer than normal in delivering the telegrams which was anticipated as I was as yet unfamiliar with the area. The route took me to various businesses and houses north of the West India docks and into the area of Limehouse. Part of this area was also known as China Town stemming back to the days of ships arriving from the Orient with numbers of Oriental seamen that used to frequent the area.

My very last telegram was to a large but dilapidated house on a side street off the main road that led into the West India Docks. Although I was unaware of it at the time, the building could be better described as a house of ill-repute. I duly parked my bicycle at the kerbside, knocked on the door of the house and stood back a few steps awaiting for my call to be answered. I did not have to wait long as the door was quickly flung open wide. The next few seconds left me somewhat speechless as framed in the doorway towering above me was an extremely obese woman shamelessly wearing a corset with attached suspenders holding up stockings and nothing else.  I think I must have stood there for about ten seconds with my mouth gaping wide open in shock before incoherently mumbling something about a telegram to deliver. The lady, if that is what she could describe as, took the telegram, tore the envelope open and read the contents. She then looked directly at me and offered me a tip. However, I will always remember her exact words. “What would you like deary, half-a-crown, ( two shillings and sixpence), or half an hour?” All I remember was running in great fear if not outright terror to my bicycle and pedalling away from this den of iniquity at great speed. I feel certain I must have broken both world records for sprinting and speed cycling on the same day.

I suppose on reflection that having only left school a few weeks earlier I was starting to feel quite adult. I suspect many young adults who have recently left school feel the same. This experience was however somewhat ego deflating and made me realize that I was at heart, still just a schoolboy. I think I learnt on that day that adulthood develops much more gradually with life’s experiences and not overnight like many youngsters like myself  may have thought at the time.

Put another railroad sleeper on the fire

In the early part of my firefighting career, chimney fires were quite a common occurrence. Between 6 -8 such fires a night in winter on my own fire stations ground in East London was the norm, apart from any other emergency incidents that needed dealing with. Today, chimney fires are something of a rarity. The reason being the growth of central heating systems which for most homes did not exist in the earlier part of my career. Most of the housing in the area covered by my fire station was of the cheaply built terraced house variety. Most of the housing was built overnight around the 1880’s onwards to cater for the rapidly growing population drawn to the area by the promise of work in the docks that bordered the River Thames. Heavy and often socially unpleasant industry often nested cheek by jowl with housing in this area.

The area I used to cover was West Ham, Plaistow and Canning Town, the latter being one of the areas worst affected by the Blitz in World War II. Much of the terraced housing was Dickensian by today’s standards and certainly not built for the conservation of heat. None were insulated and most had no foundations with the buildings being erected directly onto the London Clay. Heating was normally provided by a single hearth fire in the living room. Although other rooms would have also have fireplaces, due to expense, the normal practice was for the entire family to huddle around the one fire in the winter. Fuel was normally coal or coke but many families in East London supplemented these with what was known as “Tarry blocks”. Roads in the area were originally constructed with a layer of wooden blocks heavily preserved with tar (bitumen) and creosote. The blocks also became heavily impregnated with oil from motor traffic. With the rebuilding of roads, thousands of tons of these wooden blocks were torn up to be quickly purchased by local fuel merchants. Smoke from these wooden blocks quickly caused the chimney flue to become lined with a layer of oil soaked soot and were the cause of many a fire.

Originally most of this type of housing was rented accommodation. The introduction of the Rent Act fixed rents at a low figure and many landlords found they made insufficient income to make owning the properties worth their while. Landlords were also faced with the dual problem of no one else wanting to buy a property with sitting tenants that could not be moved. Consequently much of this already dilapidated housing stock fell into further disrepair. Income from rentals was usually insufficient to cover repair costs and many landlords simply no longer bothered.

One particular chimney fire I went to in one of these houses has become permanently lodged in my mind. When we arrived the fire had spread from the hearth to the living room. Although the Fire Service normally manages to arrive at an incident with a few minutes of a call being received, at the time of this incident in the 1960’s, few houses had telephones. The public often relied on running to a public telephone box to make an emergency call or running to a neighbour who might have a telephone. In this case, the resident was an elderly widow in her eighties who ran to the public call box when her chimney caught fire, only to find her living room alight on her return.

This elderly lady was really the cause of her own problem. Like many elderly widows at the time she would have lived on a meagre pension. Like many who supplemented their fuel with cheap Tarry blocks, this lady had managed to obtain an old railway sleeper from a railroad track. Like the Tarry blocks, this too was heavily impregnated with preservatives and years of accumulated oil. This railroad sleeper was about six-foot in length and very heavy. The lady had somehow managed to lift the sleeper and place one end in the fire. Due to the height of the fire grate above the living room floor, the lady had propped the other end of the sleeper on the end of a flimsy wooden orange box (crate). Apparently as the end of the sleeper in the fire blazed away, she would occasionally lift the other end up and shove the sleeper further into the fire.

Eventually the flames from the end of the sleeper in the fire set her chimney alight and she ran out of the house leaving the fire unattended to find a public telephone box to call the fire brigade. While she was out of the house, oil in the rest of the wooden railroad sleeper now heated by the fire readily caught alight and the fire spread along the length of the sleeper which in turn set the wooden orange box alight. The burning orange box  rapidly weakened and collapsed allowing fire not only from the orange box but also the sleeper to spread through her living room. It was a form of chain-reaction of events that set her living room alight. Although the fire brigade arrived within a few minutes of the call being received, the elderly lady had arrived back home a few moments before our own arrival and was now hysterical at what she found.

Although we found a much larger fire than we had anticipated, it was in fire fighting terms a small fire which we quickly extinguished before dealing with the chimney fire. Smoke damage to the house was however considerable. To the lady however it was the end of the world. It was unlikely that she would have had any fire insurance and equally unlikely that the landlord had any either. Many simply did not bother with insurance due to the low rental income.

I never did find out what happened to this lady although I suspect local social services would have assisted her. This area of the east end of London also had a great community spirit with neighbours often helping those in need.

Even now after more than forty years have elapsed since this incident I sometimes reflect with amusement at the vision of this destitute elderly lady shoving another length of the railroad sleeper onto the fire. The vision however also conjures the vast difference in social conditions that now exist to what I originally remember. It is more likely that today the elderly lady would not be living in such impoverished conditions but either in a residential home for the elderly, or subsidised sheltered housing. The community spirit in the area although it still exists is now much faded. Most of the terraced housing is now either privately owned and modernised with the worst of it demolished by slum clearance programs to be replaced by social housing.

I sometimes look at Street View on either Google Earth or Google Maps at the areas I used to protect. Much of it is unrecognisable to what I knew. I sometimes find the swathes of social housing that replaced the old housing stock is often not to my taste but on the other hand, it is a vast improvement to what existed before.

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