One of the effects of the London Blitz of 1940-41, and of the German air raids that continued thereafter, was the exodus of civilians from the most vulnerable parts of the city, initially temporarily, consisting mainly of women and children ‘evacuated’ into the countryside (I was one of them); and then more permanently after the end of the war, when Londoners were moved out of their bombed-out slums into brand new ‘housing estates’ in the surrounding suburbs and beyond. That process was facilitated by a programme of quality but affordable house-building by the post-War Labour government, at a time of abject national poverty, which must put all subsequent governments to shame. (Not all the re-housed welcomed it, incidentally, missing the close social camaraderie of their old haunts.) As a result, London grew enormously in area; especially to the east, where it swallowed up much of what had always been before then a comparatively rural Essex. That’s the origin of the much-derided ‘Essex Man’ and ‘Essex Girl’ of popular perception today: crude and vulgar, with unpleasant ‘Estuary’ accents; but nonetheless producing many of today’s most notable entrepreneurs and entertainers, including Jamie Oliver, Graham Gooch, Steve ‘Interesting’ Davis (who lived near me), and most of the great West Ham football team of the 1960s – including the three key players in England’s 1966 World Cup win.
This influx (or exflux) of ‘East Enders’ required, of course, not only homes, but also what were regarded then as the normal social necessities of life, including medical facilities, transport, churches, and schools. That’s where my Dad comes in. He came from the older, more traditional Essex, not exactly rural in his case (his father was a factory worker at Marconis in Chelmsford), but surrounded by countryside and talking in a dialect very different from either ‘Cockney’ or ‘Estuary’: rustic, almost bucolic, and a lot more musical and attractive to my ear – compare today’s Suffolk. His grandfather, I recently learned from research undertaken by my friend Sylvie Slater, was illiterate – but good with horses. Dad got a scholarship to the local Grammar School, and then won a place at a teachers’ training college (St Mark and St John, then in Chelsea), where he also succeeded in acquiring a London ‘External’ BA.
That fitted him to become a teacher – a huge step ‘up’, class-wise – at almost exactly the time that the growing London suburbs were requiring teachers, to civilize the bombed-out East End immigrants who were flooding in. Which he did; first at a Junior School, then becoming headmaster of a ‘Secondary Modern’ – that tier of schools designed to cater for the boys and girls who had failed the ‘11-Plus’, and so were deemed not fit for the ‘Grammars’. He would have preferred a Grammar himself, I’m sure, or one of the new ‘Comprehensives’ when they came along; but without having been to a proper university, that was out of the question. Social mobility in the fifties and sixties had its limits. Still, I never heard him complain.
The story doesn’t end there; and it’s a story I’d like to pursue. People like my father are nearly always lost to ‘history’, undeservedly, it seems to a historian like me. I ought to try to correct this in his case, out of filial love and duty if nothing else. And there is another consideration. This movement of poor East Enders into the Essex suburbs, and their transformation into a new, distinctive and ultimately significant stratum of British society, seems to me worth trying to understand from a social-historical point of view; as is the way it sucked in people like my father from the country areas around. Which is my serious reason for embarking on this project.
In fact it’s the only way for me to do it, because I have only the minimum of primary material to work with relating to my father directly. He died young, when he was 52 and I was 21. My mother survived him for forty years, and when she died I expected to find some papers at least; but there were none. She clearly had no sense of history, except as it pertained to the Queen Mother, about whom she had a file of newspaper cuttings. She had even destroyed, or mislaid – or perhaps he did – the music my father composed as a self-taught but talented amateur musician; together incidentally with all my own juvenilia – childish attempts at drawing, painting, writing (a thin book about Essex history and some science fiction) – which I also rather regret. But it’s the absence of anything from my father that I most miss now. Which leaves me having to search around for related material in other archives – the Essex Records Office for Essex Education Committee papers? contemporary newspapers? maybe his school, college, and local Methodist Church? – to fill out my own reminiscences, and those of his relatives and any friends and colleagues who may still be alive. There’s also a Facebook site for former pupils of the school he headed (now closed). I ought to know my way around this kind of material; I’ve been evidence-hunting about much older obscure people, after all, for decades now. And this will have the virtue of placing him in his historical context, which should be of wider interest than simply his story alone.
Besides, it will give me something to work on in my dotage. I need to research and write to give me the will to stay alive. This blog helps, but not quite enough. I’ll let you know how it goes.
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Bernard, I think you need to give yourself permission to write a full-scale memoir/autobiography.
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Nah! Too boring. And embarrassing, if I were honest about myself.
Even if it was true that you as a personality were boring, the times and places you inhabited were not, and neither is what you and your parents represented. You could not possibly be more boring than Sheila Fitzpatrick, and yet her ‘My Father’s Daughter: Memories of an Australian Childhood’ is excellent.
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