Kevin O’Brien, Retired Road Sweeper
Kevin O’Brien at Tyers Gate in Bermondsey St with Gardners’ Chocolate Factory behind
On a bright cold morning recently, I walked down to Bermondsey St to meet Kevin O’Brien and enjoy a tour of the vicinity in his illuminating company, since he has passed most of his life in the close proximity of this former industrial neighbourhood. Nobody knows these streets better than Kevin, who first roamed them while playing truant from school and later worked here as a road sweeper. Recent decades have seen the old factories and warehouses cleaned up and converted into fashionable lofts and offices, yet Kevin is a custodian of tales of an earlier, shabbier Bermondsey, flavoured with chocolate and vinegar, and fragranced by the pungent smell of leather tanning.
“I was born and bred in Bermondsey, born in St Giles Hospital, and I’ve always lived in Bermondsey St or by the Surrey Docks. My dad, John O’Brien was a docker and a labourer, while my mum, Betsy was a stay-at-home housewife. He didn’t believe in mothers going to work. He was a staunch Irishman, a Catholic but my mum she was a Protestant. I’ve got six brothers and two sisters, half of us were christened and half ain’t.
I grew up in Tyers Gate, a three bedroom flat in a council estate for nine children and mum and dad, eleven people. It was quite hard, we topped and tailed in the bedrooms. From there, we went into a house with three bedrooms in Lindsey St off Southwark Park Rd. It had no bath or inside toilet, so it was quite hard work living there for my mum. Bermondsey was always an interesting place because I had my brothers and my sisters all around me, and I had lots of good friends. Our neighbours were good. We helped one another out and everybody mucked in. Those were hard times when I was a kid after the war.
We used to play in the bombed-out church in Horselydown. That was our playing field and we crawled around inside the ruins. There were feral cats and it was filthy. We’d come home filthy and my mother would give us a good hiding. My brother, Michael loved animals and he used to bring cats home with him but my mother would take them back again. He was terrible, he wanted every animal, he would fetch home pigeons – the whole lot.
We were playing once and I fell in the ‘sheep dip’ – one of the vats used for tanning leather. We were exploring and we climbed down these stairs but I fell through a missing stair and into this ‘dip.’ It sucks you under. It stinks. It’s absolutely filthy. It’s slime. They had to drag me out by my arms. I went home and my mum made me take all my clothes off outside the front door on the balcony before scrubbing me down with carbolic soap and a scrubbing brush. All of me was red raw and I never went back in there again. It taught me a lesson. My mum was hard but fair.
In those days, the industries in Bermondsey were leather, plastic, woodwork and there was a chocolate factory. Nearly everybody in Bermondsey St worked in Gardners’ Chocolate Factory at some point. My first job was there, I worked the button machine, turning out hundred and thousands of chocolate buttons every day.
I hated school. I never liked it. I really hated it. I used to run out of school and they had trouble getting me back. I roamed the streets. The School Board man was always round our house, not just for me but for my brothers as well – although they went to school and actually managed to learn to read and write. Me, I hated it because I didn’t want to learn. I left when I was fifteen and went to work in the chocolate factory, I started as a labourer and worked my way up to being a machine operator. It was better than the apprenticeship I was offered as a painter and decorator at three pounds a week. At Gardners’ Chocolate Factory I was offered nine pounds and ten shillings a week. I was still living at home and my brothers couldn’t understand how I could put half of my earnings in a savings book. They couldn’t save but I didn’t drink. I didn’t like the taste of it. I didn’t start drinking until I was twenty-one or twenty-two. I was a late starter but I’m making up for it now.
I was always in the West End. I loved Soho and I liked being in the West End because I was free and I could do what I wanted. As a gay man in Bermondsey, it was hard. So all my friends and the people I got to know were in the West End. There were loads of gay places, little dive bars in Wardour St, as small as living rooms. The Catacombs was one I went to, in Earls Court. That was a brilliant place. When I was thirteen, I got into The Boltons pub. It was hard work, getting into pubs but you got to know other people who were gay. You could get arrested for being gay and that was part of the excitement. There was fear but you got to meet people.
I was about fifteen when I told my mum I was gay. Her first words were, ‘What’s your dad going to say?’ That was hard, because my dad didn’t speak to me for nearly a year. He wouldn’t even sit in the same room as me. He was such hard work. If I was going out anywhere, my brothers and sisters would say ‘He’s going out to meet his boyfriends!’ But they all loved me and I loved my family. I could always stick up for myself. If someone said something to me, I’d say something back. I was one of those that didn’t worry what people thought.
I got the sack from the chocolate factory because I didn’t like one of the managers and I threatened to put him in one of the hoppers. I chased him round the machines with a great big palette knife and he sacked me, so I walked straight out of that job, walked round to Sarsons’ Vinegar in Tower Bridge Rd and got another job the same day for more money. It was a two minute walk. Within a matter of two or three weeks, I became a brewer. It was a good job but many people did away with themselves there. They climbed onto the vats of vinegar until they got high on the fumes and fell into it. People were depressed, they had come back from the war to nothing and they couldn’t rebuild their lives.
After the vinegar factory, I got a job with Southwark Council as a road sweeper in Tower Bridge Rd. I couldn’t read or write but I used to memorise all the streets on the list that I had to sweep. Even though I’d walked down many of these streets all my life, I didn’t know their names until I learned to read the signs. It was an interesting job because you got to meet a lot of people on the street and I got chatted up as well. I got to know all the pubs and delivered them bin bags, so I could rely on getting myself a cup of tea and a sandwich. There was always a little fiddle somewhere along the line.
It’s all office work and computers in Bermondsey St now, but I’m here because this is my home. This is where I want to be, all my family are here. There’s loads of locals like me. There’s still plenty of Bermondsey people. I’ve got friends here. We grew up together. It’s where I belong, so I am very lucky. We’ve got a lot here. I walk around, and I go to museums, and I look at buildings. I go to Brighton sometimes just for fish and chips, that’s a very expensive fish and chips!”
“There’s still plenty of Bermondsey people”
Kevin O’Brien at the former Sarsons’ Vinegar Factory in Tower Bridge Rd where he once worked
You may also like to read about