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At The Central Foundation School For Girls in Spital Sq

May 24, 2014
by Linda Wilkinson

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.


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

You may also like to read about

The First Reunion of the Central Foundation School for Girls

18 Responses leave one →
  1. May 24, 2014

    Yet another day that my efforts to start my blog, are halted by the eloquence of Spitalfields Life. Linda writes with such eloquence (and grammatical accuracy that I aspire to – apologies), thank you for sharing a tiny snapshot into your life. x

  2. Beryl Happe permalink
    May 24, 2014

    A really entertaining read Lin, worthy of a ‘Commendation’,

    Mrs Dunford would be proud of you.


  3. May 24, 2014

    Linda, this is a brilliant blog. Loved everything you wrote and the recollections of the school had me in stitches. Although I was there earlier than you we still had a few girls who pulled off some notorious deeds. As you know my sister got into trouble with Mrs Dunford, along with a couple of friends who were in your class, for one of their little capers. I do hope you are going to write some more it has been such interesting reading.

  4. Cate McKay-Haynes permalink
    May 24, 2014

    Hello – just stumbled on this via the Spitalfields Life blog which I follow. I was wondering if anyone would remember my mum, Jean McKay-Dyson who was at Central Foundation after the war when she came back from Suffolk – so around 1945/46. She was there at the same time as Georgia Brown – mentioned above. My mum developed Alzheimers and died just as I became a mum myself (she died in 2005) so I am putting together a memory box for my children – who have no grandparents alive on either side. She adored her time at Central Foundation and cried the day she left school. If anyone is still around who knew her I’d love to hear from them – good and bad memories equally welcome! I’d love to talk to someone who would have been there then even if they don’t remember Jean. Thanks very much – I so wish mum could have read this. She did go back and visit shortly before she became ill. It meant the world to her, that school. Cate

  5. Susan Goldman permalink
    May 24, 2014

    Really enjoyed the reunion and the post today. Lin, you described Miss Russell perfectly, just as I remember her. Looking forward to reading part two tomorrow. Thanks to the Gentle Author, Lin Wilkinson, the very lovely Beryl who organised the event, Elspeth for organising the service at St. Botolphs church and for all the old girls from Central Foundation for making it such a wonderful day.

  6. c. beasley permalink
    May 24, 2014

    Brilliant Linda! Grace Crack was born in the prefab opposite ours in Baxendale st, her mother Lydia was Italian and excitable and once went for her husband with a breadknife. Hence fascinated to hear of her plumbing exploits.
    Miss Holt stories abound on the FB page, mine included, we spent many a history lesson listening to tales of her evenings with Bernard Levin, while Miss H stood with her back to the fire, skirt lifted, warming her rear.
    Roll on the book, Linda! We ll get on loose women yet!! Chrissie B.

  7. Nadjie Butler permalink
    May 24, 2014

    Thank you Lin for all your hard work on the day and for this wonderful piece. Not having a great memory, drawing from all of your memories is wonderful. Thanks again.

  8. Carol Stuart-Evans permalink
    May 24, 2014

    The thing I remember about Grace Crack was that she used to eat chalk!!

  9. Kate Hodgkin permalink
    May 27, 2014

    Fascinating stuff – though most of this suggests how much the school was already changing by the time I went there in 1973! Latin had gone (to my sorrow), and the tunic was an odd 1960s style zip front. I lived round the corner in Elder St but most of the girls came from much further away, because nobody lived in Spitalfields in the early 70s. The admirable Mrs Dunford was there, but the main teachers I remember were the splendid lefties – Jane Porter later Shallice, and a guitar-playing Trotskyist sociology teacher whose name to my shame currently escapes me – among many other good people. The music was memorable. We did Oliver, The Mikado, and – wildly – Carmen, inspired by an eccentric and ambitious music teacher whose name I’ve also forgotten! Some day I’ll dig out my old reports and remember them all again.

    And of course I was there for the move and the merger – it must have been 1976? So I’m puzzled by the Last Picture dated 1979. I now teach at the University of East London (not so far away!) and the occasional girl from CFS drifts through, but I’ve never got round to renewing contact with the school, though I’d like to. Hello to my old contemporaries … those memories are for another time perhaps!

  10. Sherry bryan permalink
    September 19, 2014

    Just found this article and was immediately transported back to the mid sixties. In fact, Grace Crack was in my class and the cause of her expulsion was shrouded in mystery…until now! Thanks for solving a near 50 year old question.

  11. Rosemary Hoffman permalink
    October 5, 2014

    jusy got round to reading this-Miss Jenkins was certainly rememebred-she was actaully retired when she came to the sshool and was really old fashioned !I left in 1963 so long before the move.

  12. January 25, 2015

    Hoq I enjoyed being taken back in time. I was a pupil at Spital Square from 1962 to 1966, have never thought about looking it up beofre, but would have loved to be at the reunion

  13. Marilyn Wigodsky nee Cole permalink
    February 8, 2015

    Hi All
    I remember when , in 1964, three of us girls truanted to go to Heatrow to see The Beatles return from New York. Somehow Mrs Dunford found out and we were in trouble. Does anyone else remember ?

  14. Penny Hooker (nee Long) permalink
    August 17, 2015

    I forgot to mention that I attended Central Foundation from September 1962 – 1967.
    I also swam for the School and was Eastlondon Schools Swimming Champion in Breast Stroke for the first 4 years. I unfortunately lost by a touch in my last year.
    Penny Hooker (nee Long)

  15. December 13, 2015

    I attended Central Foundation School 1957-62 and have such wonderful memories of my time there. I have only just found this site I would have so loved to have been at the reunion and the service at St Botolphs, who do I contact to find the date of the next reunion.

  16. Pauline Cook permalink
    April 15, 2016

    I am rather late to the party but what a treat this article has been.

    I had forgotten all about the smell of rotting vegetables from the market in the summer.

    Miss Russell…….”Cat. Scat. Atta her, atta her”
    Was she a little eccentric? I have looked for Bertrand Russell on google images and he looks exactly as I remember her.

    I was in form 1H in 1968 and can still remember the dreaded cross country St Buckhurst Hill.

  17. Christine Rhodes (nee Fuller) permalink
    March 7, 2017

    I was there 1964 – 1968. I was friends with Grace, she was such a laugh. She also got suspended for going to see the Rolling Stones. Her photo appeared on the front cover of the Guardian, which Mrs Dunfored read so she had no excuse for being off school.
    I got into a lot of trouble myself but it was a great time and so glad I went there. Although I didn’t take advantage of the education that was offered I have had comments from people saying they can tell I went to a grammar school. Happy days.
    Let me know if there is another reunion

  18. Jackie Haralambos nee jacqueline cole permalink
    February 6, 2019

    my sister and I both attended school in the l960s – had no idea that I would be able to find any info regarding our school!!! What a surprise and I have to say a bit of a shock!! I can clearly remember Mrs Dunford arriving as a young new teacher, who always smelt of some mysterious gorgeous perfume -a breath of fresh air. I have never considered a reunion………….however……might it be on the cards.? My school days are long behind me and my memories of those days are a little hazy except that I do remember an art teacher, the bottle green of the uniform and the berets! Heaven help you if you were seen travelling home without the beret – I think it merited a detention or conduct mark – am I wrong?? My elder sister aged late 70s’ now lives in Australia and I shall of course mention all this to her. Her name was Georgina Cole. Is there anyone around who can remember either of us. jackie

    Are there any ladies out there who remember either of us – would be intersted to hear from anyone old enough who might remember us.

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