At The Central Foundation School For Girls in Spital Sq
You may recall last year it was my delight to collaborate with Beryl Happe in staging the first reunion of the Central School Foundation School for Girls at their former School Hall in Spital Sq which now houses the Galvin Restaurant.
This year there was also a Service of Thanksgiving at St Botolph’s, Bishishopsgate, and the tea party swelled from sixty to ninety guests with a long waiting list too. Today, writer Linda Wilkinson, ex-School Captain and celebrated author of two books about Columbia Rd, recalls her memories of Spital Sq. She and Contributing Photographer Patricia Niven went along to the reunion to create a series of portraits and interviews with the Old Girls that we will be publishing tomorrow.
Reunion of 2014 (Click to enlarge)
I had been away from Bethnal Green for twelve years when I moved back in 1986. One day on a walk through Spitalfields, I came across the shell of what was left of my old School Hall. Some things set in your mind as immutable, such was Central Foundation School for Girls. I went away and read about the valiant fight that had taken place to save the building but – as over the years it fell further into decrepitude – I felt something more should be done.
Some friends ran a drinks company, and we thought that we might buy it and turn it into a restaurant – so we contacted the agent who was handling the building and went to visit. Where the trampoline once stood, pigeons droppings had created their own strange artwork. The fabric of the roof was only kept watertight with a tarpaulin and the proud marble pillars were scratched and damaged – but the hole where I had managed to throw a shot put through the dais was still there.
We had no resources to take on such a task, so I walked away convinced that the bulldozers would finally remove all trace of it. Then, in 2009, a sign appeared stating that a restaurant was due to open there and I was delighted. There was a website so, being an Old Girl of the Central Foundation School and former School Captain, I wrote and offered to open the restaurant for them. A polite email from Sara Galvin of the restaurant management, asking me to write an article for their magazine about the school, firmly put me in my place.
I wrote my recollections and I got invited to the launch of the restaurant in my old School Hall. What I had not mentioned in my article was the ethos of the place and the staff, led by the headmistress Mrs Dunford – because we had a fabulous education there. I can say that Central Foundation School changed my life completely.
Yet my mother and father had been very chary of my desire to go to Spital Sq, as it was known locally. At the pre-entry interview with the Headmistress, my mother was frosty when she was quizzed as to my suitability to attend. On being asked what the problem was she said, “It’ll worry her brain. All that learning.”
Mother was politely asked to sit outside.
“Well, Linda dear,” Elaine Dunford said, “And what do you think?”
My brain survived.
RECOLLECTIONS OF CENTRAL FOUNDATION SCHOOL by Linda Wilkinson
Grace Crack was like the rest of us, a bright kid from London’s East End, with one exceptional quality – she utterly loathed going to school. One day before a Bank Holiday, she rammed the ball cock in the main tank of the school wide open. How she had managed to climb into the loft space was never revealed, but we imagine Grace had accomplices.
When the housekeepers returned to open up after the break they were met by a torrent of water. The school was comprehensively flooded, and this being a Grammar School, and if my memory serves me correctly, Grace was similarly comprehensively expelled.
At one time, it was a fee paying school and by the mid-twentieth century it still retained a few students whom, we were told, were private pupils. I cannot vouch for this but some of the girls commuted from as far away as Orpington in Kent so I imagine it was true.
The rest of us were a motley bunch. Many were Costermongers’ daughters from the almost-exclusively Jewish markets that peppered the area. The biggest of those of course was Spitalfields Fruit & Vegetable Market, then on our very doorstep. In summer, the smell of rotting vegetables perfumed the air. In winter, tramps settled around bonfires on the almost derelict Spital Sq. It was eerie to come across this Dickensian aspect of London when the swinging sixties was at its height.
Our teachers were a mixture of bright young things, the first real batch of the post-war generation and the old guard. All of this was overseen by the elegant and free spirited headmistress, Elaine Dunford, a wonderful teacher both of English and of life itself.
The old guard had some notables, amongst them Miss Jenkins. She was a brogue and tweed wearing harridan in her sixties who taught biology. She told us that she and her brother were two of the products of human breeding experiments between the Huxleys and Darwins. If so, eccentricity was their main product but she was also a great teacher and could bring science alive in a way I have seldom come across since.
Miss Russell (“roll the ‘R’ dear”) was rumoured to be Bertrand Russell’s sister. She took on the task of removing our glottal stops with true brio. Elocution was not something most of us had bargained for when we got into the school. We all knew we had to do Latin, which I loathed almost as much as Grace had hated school, but standing on a table reciting “I am a little Christmas Tree,” when I was the chubbiest in the class never filled me with glee. Even if turning us ‘Gels’ into ladies was a bit more of a trial than Miss Russell had expected, she never wavered. Yet, later in life, when public speaking became part of my life, I was more than grateful to that tiny bird-like woman whom at the age of fourteen I found faintly ridiculous.
Ranged on the other side of the staff room were the Communists. To a woman, the younger teachers espoused a red philosophy. No more so than when the 1968 Paris riots erupted and a good few of them upped and went over to join in. At the start of the next new term, we were encouraged to stand and applaud as they processed down the Hall with their bandages and plaster casts worn for all to see, like a political version of ‘Chariots of Fire’.
I shall never forget the poor plumber who came to unblock the drain beneath the sink in the caretaker’s utility room and was seen running screaming from the school with Mr Reeves, the caretaker, in hot pursuit carrying a human skull. “Come back, it’s bound to be Roman,” he cried. The school was built on a Roman burial site.
It was a fun and sometimes challenging schooling. I sometimes wonder how the present day doyens of education would react to a history lesson being halted whilst the teacher told us of yet another failed attempt to have sex the night before. It certainly beat Alexander the Great or the Punic Wars as a topic.
So our Hall is now a restaurant, a fitting use for a place that has seen a lot of life, fun and laughter over the years. It is a shame that Old Girl Georgia Brown (Lilian Klopf), who was the first ever Nancy in Lionel Bart’s ‘Oliver!’ is not alive to entertain us there.
As for Grace Crack, she was rumoured to have emigrated.
The Bishopsgate Institute is collecting a digital archive of memorabilia from Central Foundation School for Girls. If you have photographs, reports, magazines or any other material that the Institute can copy for the archive, please contact the Archivist Stefan.Dickers@bishopsgate.org.uk
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