St Peter’s School in Little Saffron Hill Clerkenwell
When my brother Berto was less than four years old he toddled up to the top of Little Saffron Hill all by himself, and followed the older children into St Peter’s school. Mamma panicked and went everywhere looking for him; and she eventually found Berto sitting in a classroom with the other children. As he was so happy sitting there, the teacher decided to let him start school there and then.
When it was my turn to start school, I was not so keen. When Mamma took me to meet the nuns on my first day I started screaming and yelling in protest. The nuns desperately attempted to pacify me by distracting me with two dolls, but I determinedly clung on to a wooden partition as the nuns tried to drag me away from my Mamma. Eventually when my strength gave in, and I was suddenly forced to release my grip with a jolt, I found myself flung against the door, which resulted in me banging my head. This made me cry even louder. So, I began my first day at school with red swollen eyes and a large purple bump on my forehead. However, after a time I did get to like school and would even look forward to going.
St. Peter’s School had been built in 1877, for the growing number of children of Italian and Irish immigrants in the community. It was a three storey building. At some point a newer wing had been added. The school was divided into sections. The Infants School, located on the ground floor, was where the younger boys and girls were taught together. Then there were the Juniors and Seniors where the boys and girls were separated and educated independently. The girls and infants had only a small yard as a playground which was squeezed in between the convent and a factory. The sunlight hardly ever penetrated into this gloomy enclosed space. To one side of the yard was the girls’ toilet block. Also squashed into the middle of the yard was am iron fire escape which ran up to the top floor where the boy’s playground was rather strangely situated on the sloping asphalt roof of the building. Thus the classrooms for the Junior girls were situated on the first floor, and the boys’ classrooms were on the top floor.
Mr. Lawrence was the school caretaker. He had an arduous job as it was his early morning task to rake out the ashes from inside the 25 grates that heated the school. After raking out the ashes he would have to lay and light new fires. For the rest of the day he would have to lug heavy buckets of wood and coal upstairs from the basement to keep the fires glowing all day.
In reality, in winter months, the fires provided only a modicum of heat in the draughty old classrooms. The children who sat near the fire roasted, while the more unfortunate ones who sat further away froze. Our bottles of milk were always placed in front of the fire to warm.
In the summer months when the windows were left open for ventilation, the teachers would have to fight to be heard by the children because of the incessant rattling and clattering of the machines of Mildner’s Printers, and the horse-drawn carts delivering to the Hunter Penrose factory just opposite the school.
The mellow aroma of tobacco as it was processed would permeate the air from the Lloyd’s Bondman’s factory in Clerkenwell Road. Also, in the late morning, delicious cooking aromas would begin to make our mouths water as our mothers prepared the family’s midday meal.
The Girls School
As a Catholic school, St. Peter’s was run by nuns, the Sisters of Charity, who had their convent right next door. Sister Margaret was the Headmistress of the Girls School. Sister was nicknamed “Moggy” by the children. She was very strict, prim and proper and had a superior air about her. This was accentuated by the dark blue woollen robes, large whimple and starched white-winged head-dress worn by the Sisters.
Sister Margaret specialised in administering the cane to any girls who had misbehaved. Another punishment was being hit on the hand with a ruler. If you were hit across the palm it wasn’t too bad; however, if it was rapped across your knuckles, the pain was intense. All offenders’ names were entered into the dreaded “Black Book” among with the crimes and their relevant punishments by Mr. Taylor, the boys’ headmaster. Sister Agnes (we nicknamed her “Fanny”) taught the younger children. Some mischievous children would play tricks on her by sticking chewing gum under her table. They even invented a song which they chanted behind the nuns’ backs: “Fanny and Moggy went down a dark hole!” Sister Mary and Sisters Cecilia and Agnes, were Infant School teachers.
Miss Daisy taught in the Infant School, and also gave piano lessons out of normal school hours. Mamma and Papà, hoping that I might be musical, sent me to her to learn to play the piano. However, I don’t think I possessed any special talent, and I was rather lazy about doing my practise exercises, much preferring to go out and play with my friends. Perhaps the fact that Miss Daisy tended to fall asleep during my lessons didn’t help my tuition, and it was soon decided that I should give up any musical ambitions. Other Infant teachers were: Miss Mary, Miss Winnie, Miss Lily, Miss Proctor, and Miss Lemour. There was also a Miss MacVay who liked to wash her hands in a bucket of warm water at the end of a lesson. Perhaps she considered us to be contaminated.
Here I am in a photo when I was in the Infants School.
I’m in the middle row on the far right
Below is another photo taken of a class of Infants.
(My twin cousins Lina and Lino are in the second row, second and third from the left)
Here I am in a photo when I’d moved up to the Juniors – in an “all girls” class, taken in the cramped school yard.
(I’m in the bottom row, on the far right with the mass of thick curly hair)
Miss McDermott was an Irish teacher. When it was time for “elevenses”, she would send a couple of girls who had been elected as “table monitors,” down the road to Ted’s Café to fetch a pot of tea and a crusty roll. We had to hurry back with the tray so that her tea didn’t get cold. As our lesson continued, Miss McDermott would go through the ritual of removing her false teeth and placing them in front of her on the desk. She would then take the crusty roll and crunch it in her hands. We children looked on enviously. How our mouths watered and our empty bellies rumbled.
One day Miss McDermott was teaching addition and subtraction. Her character had a nasty streak, and, on occasion, she used to enjoy picking on a pupil. She would give a pupil a sum to do and wait for the poor pupil to promptly spit out the answer. There was one poor girl who was struggling to master the rules of subtraction; she gave the wrong answer. Miss McDermott was not amused and in a fit of frenzy she grabbed ahold of the girl and held her upside down in order to humiliate her in front of the rest of us. The girl somehow managed to escape her grip, sped out of school and ran home. Her mother, who was a very large Cockney woman, soon arrived on the scene, and menacingly lunged at our teacher knocking the blackboard flying. She succeeded in grabbing Miss McDermott by the neck and started hitting her. Soon the cavalry arrived in the form of Sister Margaret, and the other nuns and teachers who endeavoured to intervene and break up the fight. Meanwhile, I and all my classmates watched on in astonishment, enjoying every moment of the dramatic, and free, entertainment, a welcome diversion from our normal studies.
Every St Patrick’s Day Miss McDermott patriotically came to school dressed in green. One day as she was climbing the iron staircase, we got a glimpse of her baggy knee-length knickers which we called “passion killers”. They were a lovely shade of emerald green too!
Other teachers were Miss Moloney, Miss Leaper, and Miss Proctor, however my favourite teacher was Miss Kelly, who was far more kind and gentile. She always seemed to have a soft spot for me. Miss Patterson was young, quiet and taught handicrafts. She was quite young, shy, and inexperienced. Some of the older girls were rather cruel and did their best to make her life difficult.
The Boys School
Mr. Taylor was Headmaster of the Boys School. Mr Delaney suffered from “shell-shock” and used to like a little tipple and a pinch of snuff when no-one was looking. If a lad annoyed him he’d grab the boy by the cheek and then give him a wallop. The teachers of the older boys: were Mr Goddard for Sport, Mr Murtagh, Mr Stephenson, Mr Keeton and Mr McKee. Mr Leaper had a class for newly arrived Italians who couldn’t speak English. There were always new kids arriving.
This a photo of some Junior boys.
(My cousin Lino is in the bottom row holding the sign)
Our education was pretty basic, focusing on the three R’s (reading, writing and arithmetic), mixed in with a little geography and history. With our school being Catholic, religion featured quite heavily. We were taught most things by rote, times tables, spellings, poems, prayers, catechism – often not really understanding the meaning of what we were reciting. We were taught to fear God, respect honour and obey our parents and work hard.
The “Nit Nurse” also used to visit the school regularly to inspect our hair for head lice. Some unfortunate infested children were taken away to a “Cleansing Station” where their heads were doused with a vile smelling lotion, which you could detect a mile off. Sometimes the poor children would have to have their heads shaved. For dental treatment (after eating all those sweets) we were sent to the school dentist in Spencer Street, Coswell Road, or to the Royal Free Eastern Dental Clinic, near Mount Pleasant.
From time to time a Doctor and a Nurse would come to the school, to give the children a medical inspection. I really used to dread these occasions, as they would always take a great interest in my bad leg, I had an untreated congenital dislocation of the hip. They would utterly humiliate me by making me strip off and poke and prod me in great detail. I used to live in fear that the doctor would send me to hospital for surgery. However Mamma was very opposed to me undergoing an operation, for fear that I might end up even more crippled if things went wrong.
As we got older, for certain domestic subjects, we girls had to travel by tram to another school in Theobalds Road. Our teacher for these classes was a Mrs Watson, who evidently did not much like us Italian children, and we girls didn’t much like her either. We used to know exactly how to wind her up at the beginning of class by chanting: “Good Morning Mrs. What’s ……On!”. Here we were taught Housewifery where we were instructed on how to cook, carry out household tasks such as washing, cleaning, sweeping, dusting, polishing and making beds. She also tried to introduce us to motherhood and she made us bath a life-size baby doll.
For Laundry classes each of us was supposed to bring in some small article of laundry to be washed. (Mamma provided me with a pillowcase, but always commented that it came back far dirtier than when it left the house!) First we had to fill a galvanised bath with scalding hot water, which was potentially very dangerous, and definitely wouldn’t be allowed for health and safety reasons these days. One week a friend of mine, Marie Ferrino, whose mother was blind, forgot to bring her item for washing, so Mrs Watson foolishly provided her with her own pair of woollen gloves. Marie did as she was told, but innocently washed the gloves in very hot water. As a consequence the gloves shrank to a minute size. Needless to say Marie was then in very deep, hot water with Mrs Watson !!! Another time Mrs Watson decided to pick on me, and claimed that I and my friend were late for class, although this was not true. Mrs Watson delighted in sending a note back to Sister Margaret, the Headmistress, detailing our bad behaviour, and requesting that we should be punished. For this injustice both my friend and I were awarded the privilege of receiving the cane, the one and only time I ever got the cane – for something I had not done.
Woodwork and Metalwork
For some lessons, such as Woodwork and Metalwork, the older boys had to go to Wild Street School in Keeley Street, Kingsway, where they were taught by Mr Bailey for Metalcraft. Mr Wheeler taught woodwork and he had an unfortunate limp and the boys would sometimes “take the Mickey” out of the poor soul and whistle the Laurel and Hardy tune.
Exercise and Sport
Sports and getting “fresh air”, if there was any to be found in the middle of London, were encouraged especially for the boys. Mr Goddard encouraged the children to take part in athletics and to play cricket. He also took the boys to Endall Street Baths so they could learn to swim.
Mr Taylor, the headmaster was a keen football supporter. St Peters School had an excellent football team, the lads won many cups and championships during this era. They were known as The Italian Boys and wore tops with black and amber stripes and on the left breast there was a flash with the colours of an Italian flag. Many of the children’s families could not afford to buy them proper football boots, so often the boys just wore ordinary boots or shoes. They practiced hard in the boys playground on the roof of the school. They competed against all the other school teams in the area, often on pitches made of cinders. At Finsbury Park they were actually able to play on turf. Some of the best of the Italian team were selected to play for Islington, and football scouts were always on the lookout for new young talent, the most successful being Joe Bacuzzi. He went on to spend most of his football career playing for Fulham but he chose to continue living in Clerkenwell up until his death, at the age of 78, in 1995. His son, Dave Bacuzzi, was also a notable footballer who played for England.
There is more information on the Bacuzzi’s here:
When I reached the age of 14 there was no prospect of me staying on at school. I wanted to learn dressmaking and I got a job in a clothes factory, that worked for C &A. I started by picking up pins off the floor, and then went on to sewing on buttons, it was a production line, doing the same job day in day out. There seemed no prospect of me learning much quickly here so I begged Mamma to try and find me a placement where I could learn the many skills involved in dressmaking.
Photos have been accredited to the photographer / owner. Images marked * are in the Public Domain.
All other photos belong to my family or I have taken myself – © Louise Shapcott