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Kevin O’Brien, Retired Road Sweeper

December 31, 2016
by the gentle author

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

In Old Bermondsey

Ghost Signs of Bermondsey & Southwark

William Oglethorpe, Cheesemaker of Bermondsey

13 Responses leave one →
  1. December 31, 2016

    Kevin didn’t have an easy life, but I like that he lives where he belongs, and has friends and family there, that’s worth a lot. Good luck to him and a happy and healthy 2017 to you all. Valerie

  2. December 31, 2016

    Great story, thanks :)

  3. Georgina Briody permalink
    December 31, 2016

    So enjoyed this article having lived my childhood in the area returning in the 1980s for ten years and seeing the changes.

  4. Leana Pooley permalink
    December 31, 2016

    Happy New Year to the Gentle Author! One of the constant pleasures of 2016 has been reading the Spitalfields Life blogs – the best way to start the day. Terrific stories, wonderful photos and artwork, glimpses of contemporary life and history, inevitably a lot of work but much appreciated. In the uncertain future I hope that Spitalfields Life will remain the regular delight that it is now. With thanks.

  5. December 31, 2016

    Another colourful thread in the Gentle Author’s tapestry of London lives. I would love to know more about this gentlemen and the stories he could tell. I love the way he’s so matter of fact about his sexuality and I am left wondering if he ever learned to read more than street signs. If not, what an addition he would be to an adult education literacy class.

    This blog will be a such brilliant resource for social historians in years to come

  6. Nadi permalink
    December 31, 2016

    This fine man carries the history of the whole area in his bloodstream!
    Wonderful to read his account, not just of survival but of finding a home, livelihood and community in the streets where he was born. (.. bet he could tell some more stories about the “little fiddles along the line’ :-) )

    Thank you for your story Mr. O Brien, thank you gentle author for giving us all the opportunity to read such interesting and colorful accounts, and here at this years end let me wish the both of you, and all who pass here the very best for the coming year.

  7. pauline taylor permalink
    December 31, 2016

    Happy New Year gentle author to you and Mr Pussy of course. And thank you for all the interesting history that you bring our way so frequently, I appreciate all your hard work very much. Today’s offering is no exception as my great grandfather was born in Bermondsey Street (well not exactly in the street I hope but close by).

  8. Ronald McKenzie permalink
    December 31, 2016

    Well told story of a life lived well and hard.

  9. Neville Turner permalink
    December 31, 2016

    A very interesting story of Kevin’s life and how he tells of trips up to uptown Soho which was and still is a very contrasting life style to Bermondsey a sea of tolerance and interesting places which Kevin found uplifting and good for the soul, it seems that Kevin has found his place in the world.
    Good Luck Kevin
    A good profile to end the year on. Keep up the good work.

  10. January 1, 2017

    Dear GA….Happy New Year! A series of coincidences led me to your Fournier Street door in May. With Tim’s outstanding contribution I am doing something that was always there but with no way of expressing. The journey started in Islington and spread to Spitalfields. It is wonderfully complimentary to my first love. The Surrey Hills.
    With Kevin I could have nightmares about vinegar! Good luck this year.

  11. Mike Brown permalink
    January 1, 2017

    Your blogs are always an inspiration

  12. Richard permalink
    January 1, 2017

    Great story. Glad Bermondseys still home with all the changes.
    Sad about the Sarsons suicides. People had to relive their wartime experiences alone.
    Thanks.

  13. January 1, 2017

    What a fab blog to finish the year on. Thanks for introducing us all to Kevin – what a lovely man.

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