Making of a London Irishman
Any time you’re Lambeth way
Any evening, any day
You’ll find us all
Doing the Lambeth walk!
Every little Lambeth gal
With her little Lambeth pal
You’ll find them all
Doing the Lambeth walk!
Everything’s free and easy
Do as you darn well pleasy
Why don’t you make your way there?
Go there? Stay there?
Once you get down Lambeth way
Every evening, every day
You’ll find them all
Doing the Lambeth walk.
Lambeth Walk, from the hit musical Me and My Girl which was first performed in London’s Victoria Palace Theatre in 1937
Friday 28 February 1919 was a bright, cold day in south London.
Dawn had just broken as Edmund (Mick) O’Sullivan, 26 and the father of two, prepared for work. It was a moment his third child imagined more than 70 years later.
“He brushed his great coat and polished the patent leather peak of his cap, above which were embroidered the letters GWR: the initials of the Great Western Railway where he had worked since he was 14. Using a button stick and a bluebell rag, he buffed up his buttons.
Elizabeth, his wife, said: ‘I’m not feeling too grand and I’m getting some odd pains. I believe the baby is coming!’
Mick replied: ‘That’s impossible! You’re only about seven months. I’ll get Mrs Baker.’”
“He ran down the stairs to his landlady’s rooms and breathlessly poured out the news. ‘Now, what’s your trouble, Sullivan?,’ the lady asked.
Mrs Baker always appeared to be stern and distant and, although a friend of many years, had never addressed Liz and Mick by their Christian or nicknames. Lizzie described the symptoms. Mrs Baker said immediately: ‘I’d better go and fetch Mrs Goater.’ Hurriedly, the landlady put on her coat and hat and bustled out of the front door. Mrs Goater lived in the next street and was the midwife who looked after the pregnancies in the area. Before district nurse services were established, expectant mothers paid weekly to cover the costs of a home birth. Mrs Goater wasted no time and, gathering up her little black bag, she hurried to the Cronin Road flat.
In the meantime, Mrs Baker knocked at the house, a few doors along the street, where Lizzie’s mother Mary had rented a room, and quickly told her of her daughter’s probable confinement. Mrs Goater arrived at the same time as Mrs Baker and together they went in to see Lizzie. After a few questions and a quick examination she said: ‘I believe you are right, the baby will be born today but I think we’ll have to call in the doctor, as it is so premature!’ Turning to Mick, who was waiting anxiously, she said. ‘I think you’d better get off to your work, as you will only be in the way here.’”
“Mick finished dressing and started his long walk to work at the south Lambeth goods depot, where he was a shunter. This took him along Peckham Road across Camberwell Green and up Camberwell New Road to the Oval, Kennington. Using the back-doubles, he crossed Brixton Road, Clapham Road and Wandsworth Road and paced up New Road to Battersea Park Road where the depot was. Meanwhile, Lizzie had been joined by two of her sisters: Bridget and Catherine. They were both married, but so far had no children. The labour was long and difficult. The doctor was summoned.
Finally, a tiny scrap of mortality weighing just four and a half pounds was born. His chances of survival were slim. Lizzie was still in pain, as no afterbirth had been delivered, and she was getting much weaker. At about 1am on 1 March, a second, stillborn child emerged. The mother and the undersized survivor had been fortunate. The urgent task was to ensure that the little boy was given the chance to live. The mother was unable to feed the baby and a wet nurse was not available, so he was immediately fed on the bottle. To Mick, the cost of food for the baby would be crippling, with milk at 11 pence a quart. He did not thrive and few thought he could possibly live.”
In this account of his entrance into the world, Mick’s son Edmund (Ted) O’Sullivan captures some of the anxiety that surrounded birth among the London working class in 1919. Infant mortality was still in excess of 5 per cent of those born. Many mothers died in childbirth or soon after. Birth defects were common. Ailments that are now quickly remedied were left untreated. There was no effective antiseptic. It would another 30 years before penicillin was widely available. Most births took place at home. Hospitals for the poor were seen as a step to the graveyard. There was no pain relief for the mother and no father was expected to be present at a birth, let alone witness one. Unless there was one in the family, a midwife cost money.
Home deliveries in the poorest families involved no professional help. Unsurprisingly, a healthy birth was a cause for genuine celebration and relief. Lizzie was to give birth seven times in 16 years. There was only one loss: the unnamed twin who died in the womb.
The survivor was weak and listless. The prognosis was poor. Lizzie’s brother Dan Hanlon, a navy veteran demobilized soon after the birth, was unimpressed when he first saw Lizzie’s new baby and exclaimed, to his sister’s disgust: “What a skinny dick.” That name was adopted almost immediately by the child’s family and Dickie he was called, for his whole life by his younger sister Lilian.
In Brixton, little more than two miles to the west, another couple were waiting the birth of their first child. The father, William Webb, the son of a Royal Navy able seaman, had been in Canadian Expeditionary Force in the Great War. He had suffered lasting damage to his health when he was gassed during the first German chemical attack on the Allied lines on Vimy Ridge in 1915. William Webb had risen to be a sergeant and served with distinction and valour. But there was a dark shadow in his past. Born in London in 1882, he and an elder half-brother had fled Britain for Canada at the turn of the century. There were rumours that their departure followed a criminal incident, even a shooting in which a policeman died.
William had worked in Canada’s forests before volunteering for the Canadian armed forces when the Great War began. He was on leave in London when he met Lily Ann Halligan, a red-headed London girl then aged 34. She was a member of a middle-class family of Irish descent that had lived in Manchester until the turn of the century. They married at St Anne’s Catholic Church in Upper Kennington Lane on 8 October 1917. William was one of the first soldiers demobilised with the end of the war in the autumn of 1918. Lily Ann found she was pregnant at the start of 1919. On 28 July 1919, she gave birth to a girl named Patricia May. Destiny had plans for the two children, among the first of the post-1st World War baby boom. Their fates were to be inextricably entwined.
The O’Sullivan boy had to wait for an official Christian name, as neither mother nor child were well enough to go out. After more than a month, the family braved the weather and walked to Sacred Heart Church in Camberwell New Road where Mick and Lizzie had married five years before. Mick suggested the baby should be called Edward after the officiating priest at the baptism. His father Daniel corrected him and said the canon was in fact Edmund Murnane. As a result, the boy was given the single first name Edmund. In adulthood, he was called Ted though he collected a further name during the 2nd World War.
Baby Ted was to take a long time to regain his meagre birth weight. Sickly and puny, he lay in his cot with a vacant look. “He’s looking at the angels,” the honest but insensitive Mrs Baker once declared. “You’ll never rear him!” The long winter eventually passed. When the finer weather arrived, Ted’s parents decided that the time of danger had passed. But the boy immediately developed a nasty cough. The doctor diagnosed pneumonia. Too ill to be moved, baby Ted was put in a tent. A steam kettle was played upon him. Eventually. The crisis passed and Ted started to recover. He was a slow developer and was still only crawling when he was well over one. Ted was forever picking up things and putting them into his mouth. One day, Lizzie heard him coughing and saw that he was turning blue. Responding to Lizzie’s shouts, the landlady Mrs Baker ran up the stairs, grasped the boy by his legs and shook the obstruction from the back of his throat. As it was dislodged, she shouted: “It’s gone!”
Lizzie screamed. She thought that Mrs Baker had said: “He’s gone!” On the floor lay a small piece of coal which Ted taken out of the coal scuttle. It was the first of Ted’s many close shaves.
The first years of Ted’s life were marked by constant crises. Childhood complaints like measles, chicken pox and whooping cough always made him more seriously ill than his siblings, but he survived without residual complications. Ted was small for his age and his fair skin tended to burn in the sun. The O’Sullivan family kept on growing. A fourth child and third son named Thomas was born in March 1921. Mick, meanwhile, had been promoted to head shunter. His pay was increased to £2.19.6d (£2.98) a week. The family was more comfortable financially.
The growing O’Sullivan family in 1922. In the September 1922, Ted, aged three-and-a-half, was enrolled in St Francis’s nursery school in Peckham where Danny and Nellie were already pupils. The school, which still exists, was run by Capuchin Franciscans but most of the teachers were Christian Brothers or nuns. He was able to play with Danny and Nellie in breaks in the large open playground across the road from the school. At dinner times, Italian ice cream vendors parked their stalls along the road. Ted looked but never could buy as he lacked the halfpenny needed. His family was still very poor. Marist brothers supervised the boys and were always kind to the fair-headed little boy.
William, Mick and Lizzie’s fifth child, was born in July 1923. Things were getting desperate in the Cronin Road flat. Early in 1924, Lizzie’s brother Dan told them of a future vacancy in the house next door to where he lived with his family. The address was 125a Shakespeare Road, and the building still exists. It was on Herne Hill, a better area than Peckham. Its three rooms were quite spacious and it had a scullery with a copper. There was a back garden, which looked out on to the large houses of Loughborough Park where there was even a tennis and bowls’ club. Mick negotiated a rent of 12/6d (63p) per week.
The O’Sullivan’s accommodation was the bottom floor of a terraced house which had a total of five rooms, a kitchen, an attic, a scullery and an outside WC shared by all the house’s occupants. There was no division between the two flats and the downstairs part was open to any person from upstairs. This was occupied by Mr and Mrs Frearson, their three grown-up boys and one girl aged about 11. Mr Frearson had fought in the 1st World War in the Royal Fusiliers and was, at heart, contemptuous of Mick, who had never served. Frearson was a window cleaner and kept a barrow which carried his ladders in the frontyard. Frearson plied his trade spasmodically around the big houses in the Herne Hill area. He regaled the O’Sullivan children with anecdotes of fighting in France and the key part he played in it. The whole house was bug-ridden. Mick, Lizzie and the children began a war against vermin. It was initially successful but infestations soon returned. Among the O’Sullivan children, there was a constant fear that bugs might be seen upon them. Houses did not have bathrooms, so bathing was done in a large tin bath in the scullery where the water was heated in the copper. The water was not changed for each bather but just topped up.
Mick was a keen gardener and had previously maintained an allotment alongside the railway lines at the South Lambeth depot. He grew vegetables which, in season, were sufficient for his large family. As soon as he moved into Shakespeare Road, he set to work on the neglected garden. On the other side of Shakespeare Road were railway sidings that were used mainly for goods and coal trucks. Coal was unloaded there from 20-ton wagons, weighed and put into sacks. All the coal vans were drawn by large shire horses. Horses to Mick meant manure. The children were dispatched to fill buckets from the horses’ favourite depository: Porters Hill, a short sharp rise in Shakespeare Road. But the back garden in Shakespeare Road was not to add much to Mick’s vegetable production, apart from runner beans and marrows, as he devoted it to flowers. Mick built a chicken coop and run in which were housed as many as 20 birds of various ages that he raised for eggs. The children never slept late. They had an alarm clock in the form of a cock that crowed at the first sign of dawn. New-laid eggs were often on the table and a chicken was killed on special occasions – two at Christmas. There were two tasks Mick hated: having to kill one of his chickens and repairing the children’s shoes.
As soon as they had moved into their new home, the young O’Sullivans were enrolled in the nearest Catholic primary. Corpus Christi school was located in Trent Road off Brixton Hill. It was a walking distance of two miles. Danny was very bright, so he was put into a senior class immediately. Nellie went in at standard three. Ted joined Miss Crilley in the infants. There was no way of getting a midday meal, except at the Robsart Street centre which was for the poor and unemployed and was, anyway, about a mile away. So they returned home at lunchtime. The children were as a result compelled to make the journey to and from school four times a day involving a total distance of nearly eight miles. School hours were 9am to 12 noon and 2pm to 430pm. Ted recalls with affection his early days at primary school.
“I enrolled with Nellie and Danny in Corpus Christi school and was taken immediately into a small reception class where, after a few days of familiarisation, it was discovered that my father’s claim as to my brightness was no exaggeration. Although just past my 5th birthday, I was well able to read and write. After all, I had spent almost two years at Saint Francis’s in Peckham. I was immediately transferred to Miss Crilly’s in classes one and two. Miss Crilly, soon to be Mrs Beggs, was a beautiful, blue-eyed, dark-haired Irish lady, so vivacious and different from the kindly but stern nuns. I could have stayed in her class for ever.”
“I remember how well I read. I had a properly-bound small book which I had received as a prize, or gift, on leaving St Francis’s. The name of the book was Mr Velvet Pile, a story of a mole. I had never seen a mole and don’t remember ever seeing one. This book, probably my first personal possession, I was to keep for a long time. I was considered a bookworm, as I seldom played with my brothers, probably because of my poor physique, and preferred to bury myself in a book. It was in Miss Crilly’s class that I was to first fall in love. The object of my affections was a small blonde girl named Angela Scriven. I adored her from afar but seldom had the courage to speak to her. This affair did not last long. As I progressed through the school, I would fall for a succession of beautiful ladies: the next was to be Monica Parkinson, followed by Eileen Geraghty and Gwen Boyle.”
The school holidays in the summer of 1924 were spent by Ted in Buckinghamshire. His uncle Percy Thurston had been an officer in India after the war but resigned his commission and returned to England. He had attempted the impossible in those days: to live on a subaltern’s pay. With his wife Bridget, Lizzie’s sister, and his two children Percy and Sheila, he established himself as the landlord and host of the Rose & Crown Hotel at Haddenham in Buckinghamshire.Ted’s parents thought the country air would set him up for the winter. For the five year-old, the village with its duck pond was a paradise. One lasting memory was a trip to Princess Risborough in a horse-drawn Hackney carriage. Ted tried to be friendly with his slightly younger cousins. But they had not recovered from the shock of coming to England with its weather, lack of servants, strange language (they were more used to speaking Hindi) and the odd hours and atmosphere of a village pub.
Percy Thurston was used to commanding soldiers and the atmosphere of the officers’ mess and tended to treat his customers as underlings. He was also addicted to abusive and blasphemous language. He frightened Ted who had had rarely been exposed to bad language. The worst he had heard was his father calling the Frearsons’ tallyman a “buggerbones” for disturbing his sleep after he had done a night shift by knocking on the door during the day. Ted was never to return to Haddenham. Percy lost his licence and moved back to London to live in two rooms in Milkwood Road, Herne Hill. He ultimately took a job with WH Smith’s wholesale newsagency delivering newspapers in the early mornings. Thurston was to return to the army in 1939 and attained the rank of lieutenant colonel in the war.
Ted’s education was progressing.
“I was promoted to Miss Gilling’s class at standard three after the school holidays in 1924. Miss Gilling was a lady who must have been approaching 60. Her teaching methods were remarkable in their effectiveness. My love of geography and history came from her. Around her classroom were coloured pictures of famous events in history. Miss Gilling would pin up one of the pictures and tell the class the story of some event or place that was to remain with me all my life. These stories would not only be historical, told as if she had been present at the time, but also would be geographical and topical. She was an enthusiastic traveller during the summer holiday and she would bring back postcards and snaps of her travels and use them as aids to describe these far-away places in detail. Thus I learnt about Venice and the Bridge of Sighs, St Marks, gondolas and canals and about Grenada, the Alhambra and many other places which gave me the desire to travel. But holidays abroad were completely out of the question for us.”
“Miss Gilling tried to help us to learn real prayer. We would be invited to close our eyes. ‘Do you see a bright light? Watch it grow. Now raise your hearts and minds to God.’ There would be quiet sniggering but the dear lady persevered with her own prayer. One of the wags opened his eyes and alleged he saw Miss Gilling lifting her dress to warm her bottom at the fire. I never saw the bright light and never have, although I have tried to pray all my life.”
“I remember the coal monitor, Teddy Massey, who was about 13 and incorrigible. To my knowledge, he never progressed beyond about standard five and was in his element, making his round with the coal bucket and stoking the fires in each classroom. He left school and went into the building industry where he found his niche. Keeping me protected from any extreme of temperature was a constant worry for my mother. In the autumn of 1924, whilst I was in Miss Crilly’s, I was given a green velvet coat. It was the cast-off from a relative. I wore it once only, as I declared it to be a girl’s garment.”
“Because I had been promoted to standard three, I was in the class where every child was prepared for their first holy communion which was normally when they were seven, an age defined by the church as marking the start of the age of reason. I had just turned six and their thinking must have been that I had the intelligence of a seven year old. Uncle Joe Hanlon crocheted a white collarless shirt for me to wear for the occasion. I said it was designed for a girl and hated it. My mother was in a dilemma. Joe had spent hours on this labour of love and she did not wish to offend him, so I was compelled to wear it. And because of our poverty, gifts of clothing were always appreciated. At the age of six, I started to serve Mass which was then said in Latin. I was keen to join my big brother Danny, who was in the choir and being groomed to take over as solo-boy.”
British politics were in turmoil in the disillusioning years that followed the Great War. There was a general election in December 1923 from which no party emerged with an overall parliamentary majority. When the Conservative government was defeated in parliament, King George V asked Labour leader Ramsey MacDonald to form a minority government. James Wheatley, a Catholic of Irish descent, was made Housing Minister and he pushed through an act that accelerated house building. The first Labour government lost a vote of confidence in the autumn of 1924. The Conservatives won the subsequent general election amid a frenzy about a Communist conspiracy inspired by the publication of the Zinoviev letter, a forged document attributed to the Russian Bolshevik leader of that name that called for revolution in Britain. Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin became prime minister for the second time.
In the spring of 1925, Chancellor of the Exchequer Winston Churchill restored the gold standard. The British economy immediately went into recession. The market was swamped by exports of German coal which was being sold cheap to pay reparations, financial penalties imposed on Germany as part of the treaty that ended the war. To deal with the coal price slump, colliery owners announced pay cuts and an extension in working hours. The National Union of Miners (NUM) refused the new terms and the employers locked out the miners. The Trades Union Congress (TUC), which represented most British unions, declared a general strike in sympathy with the miners from 3 May 1926. On that day, the railways ceased to operate. Ted remembered lorries, buses and trams being driven by strikebreakers with steel helmeted soldiers sometimes sitting alongside. The general strike was called off on 10 May. The miners continued to hold out amid scenes of increasing desperation until the winter. Ted saw Welsh miners singing in the street and collecting money to continue their struggle. Most returned to work on the employers’ terms. Mick said they had been betrayed and was critical of the role played in ending the strike by NUR leader Jimmy Thomas, a man he came to dislike. Percy Thurston incurred the contempt of the Hanlons and the O’Sullivans for joining the specials, a force of temporary policemen, during the general strike. If ever Thurston was to visit Shakespeare Road and his brother-in-law Dan Hanlon appeared, it was made certain they did not meet.
The summer of 1926, however, was a happy time for seven-year-old Ted. He had his first school trip to the seaside, to Herne Bay.
“It rained for most of the day. The beach was shingle, not sand, and the only shelter available was under the pier, which leaked. Coming home in the train, newspaper was stuffed between my body and my saturated clothing. I arrived home like an undersized drowned rat after being collected from the station by my worried mother. This was to be the last outing by train, as in the future, we would go by orange luxury coaches to resorts like Bognor, although (possibly due to the depression) the destination in 1929 was Oxshott Woods. Here, a party of six including myself got lost in the woods and held up the return journey by over half-an-hour. Even good Teddy received a ticking-off.”
The start of the 20th century saw an enormous expansion in education. Under the 1870 Education Act, attending government schools was free for all until the age of 14 and funded by taxation. Within the state system, voluntary bodies, including the Catholic Church, founded their own schools which could teach religion according to their own tenets.
The church had its own elementary, central, secondary and private schools as well as teachers’ training colleges. The buildings, their maintenance and any extensions were paid for from loans. It was said that the church built one establishment for itself and one for the banks. Day-to-day charges, like for salaries and equipment, would be borne by the local authority, which was funded by local taxes and central government. Grammar schools, which specialised in academic subjects, opened their doors to students who were considered clever enough to undertake study up to 16 and beyond. Admission to schools was secured by success at an examination taken at 11. But working-class parents were often unwilling to accept the financial burden of keeping their children out of the labour market once they reached the school leaving age. The solution was a system of central schools geared to vocational subjects including shorthand, typing, bookkeeping and handicrafts. Subject to a strict means test, poorer students could win an exhibition award, which was a grant of £1.1.8d (£1.08) per month, to support them after the age of 14. There were also trade schools such as the Beaufoy Institute of Engineering and the London School of Building. Entrance to trade schools was won by success in a supplementary examination at the age of 13. A central school for Catholics was opened in Brompton, west London. It was called the Oratory after the church to which it was attached. The problem for Catholics in south London was the shortage of Catholic grammar schools. The only one was Clapham Xaverian College. The next best option was Oratory Central School.
“In 1927, Danny, who did quite well at his exam, was interviewed with a fellow pupil George Scarfe and they were the first pupils from Corpus Christi to win places at the Oratory, the only Catholic central school in the whole of London. They progressed rapidly. At 13, they were awarded supplementary scholarships with direct entry into trade school with the consequent grant, which was more generous than the exhibition. George went to Beaufoy and Danny to the School of Building in Ferndale Road, Brixton.”
“Danny worked well at his trade which was plastering and decorating and remained there until he was 18. Danny was academically successful and an all-round sportsman. He represented his school and later his county at soccer, cricket, athletics, tennis and badminton. In some sports, he was so good he should have been a professional. Danny was also very musical. He played the piano and had a very fine soprano voice, which never broke but dropped to become a pure alto. Danny was a gifted boy who would have risen to the heights had he had the right advice and opportunities.”
Music was to be an important part of the O’Sullivans’ early years.
“In 1927, at the age of eight, I was accepted after a voice test as a member of the church choir. Danny, then 12, shared the position of solo boy with Henry Phipps, a pupil at Corpus Christi. Nearly everything we sang was in Latin, which held no difficulties for me as I had been serving Latin Mass for almost two years. We humble, poor boys beautified the great Masses and motets of Gounod, Mozart, Perosi and many others with our clear soprano voices backed by the men’s tenors, baritones and basses and accompanied by an organist who made his living on the professional stage playing a piano. The whole ensemble was directed by the talented Mrs Hart.”
“The two large families of near neighbours — the O’Sullivans and the Phipps – at one time, provided eight singers: a tenor, a baritone, an alto and five sopranos. People would come to hear a particular Mass. Tenebrae on Good Friday was a great attraction later. Father Milton joined us a curate in 1930 and introduced compline and vespers and the choir and servers sang alternately. He disliked the more ornate works of the famous composers. This once prompted him to leave the altar in the middle of a sung Mass in protest at the length of the Gloria, which had pages of amens.”
“There seemed to be no boundary between church and home. I spent Sundays at two or more Masses where I served or sang and came back in the evening for benediction and compline. We were a close bunch and were linked by our mutual interests: the school, the choir, the gym club and comics. One of our group Alf Elgee had enough money to buy the Magnet, Gem and other periodicals. The adventures of Harry Wharton and Billy Bunter filled the lives of little cockney boys with an interest in a boys’ public school as the dogeared magazines were passed around. My group comprised Alf, Tom Phipps, Billy Bristow, John Turner and me. We thought of ourselves as the Famous Five of Greyfriars.”
The O’Sullivans’ sixth child Lilian Catherine was born in August 1927. Soon afterwards the Frearsons moved out and the O’Sullivans rented the whole house for £1.2.6d (£1.125) a week, about half Mick’s weekly wage and more than he could afford. As a temporary expedient, he decided to let out two rooms. The first task was to clean the rooms vacated by the Frearsons. The attic became the bedroom for the four boys. Billy and Danny shared one double bed. Ted and Tom had the other. Pyjamas were unknown and they slept in their shirts. In the winter, they covered their bedclothes with overcoats. There was no floor covering and Ted’s Saturday task was to scrub the bare boards. There were no wardrobes or drawers and the children had few clothes to put in them anyway. Sheets were to be luxuries for the future. Cleanliness was paramount. Regular baths and changes of shirts and underclothes were insisted upon. Another strictly-observed ritual was a weekly, compulsory dosing with opening medicine. There were several possibilities: syrup of figs, liquorice powder, senna pods and, in emergencies, Epsom Salts. All were unpleasant.
There were now two sinks for the family; one in the scullery and one in the room. Nellie shared with Lilian. Mick took advantage of the free pass system for GWR workers and the family had holidays in Weymouth and Weston Super Mare, the nearest seaside resorts on the GWR network. These were replaced, following the birth of William, by day trips to places like Maidenhead and Monkey Island where Mick fished while the children helped the lock keeper with his massive gates. There is no record of a single fish ever being caught.
Economy in every activity was important. Home shoe-repairing saved money but not Mick’s temper. He had purchased a shoe foot with three sizes of lasts, a sharp knife, a hammer and a supply of nails. Buying leather meant an expedition to East Lane, Walworth. He always took a couple of his sons with him as company and spent a long time choosing the leather. On boot repairing days, the children all kept out of Mick’s way while Lizzie stood by with a supply of first-aid equipment because it was a bloody business. When times got hard, Mick used rubber from discarded lorry tyres. The result made the children look taller but they resented the advertisement of family poverty.
A humiliating Saturday ritual involved one volunteer from among the O’Sullivan children walking to Kingston’s fruiterers on Herne Hill. The unfortunate child would ask tremulously for ‘two pennyworth’ of damaged fruit. In a loud voice, the boss would shout: ‘Twopennorth of specks here.’ The shop staff were generous and they would fill a shopping bag with a variety of apples, oranges and other fruit in season. The O’Sullivans would cut out the damaged portion and gorge on the beneficial fruit. Ted believed the children’s clear and glowing skins were due to Kingston’s generosity. When times were really hard, the children would go to Brixton market to pick up fruit discarded from the stalls as the barrows were pulled away.
Technology was changing the world. The BBC started radio services in 1928. The age of voting for women was reduced that year from 30 to 21 in line with what applied to men. But the number of unemployed continued to rise and hit 1.3 million by the middle of 1928. In the 1929 general election, the Labour Party won a majority of the seats in parliament for the first time and formed its second government. In October, the month that the seventh O’Sullivan Bernard was born, the Wall Street crash triggered a worldwide recession. The British economy went into deep depression as world trade slumped. By the summer of 1931, almost 2.7 million people were registered as jobless. Almost half the Labour cabinet rejected a proposal for unemployment benefit to be cut to cover the soaring cost of the dole. MacDonald resigned as prime minister and formed a coalition government in August comprising Conservatives, Liberals and only four Labour ministers, one of them the former NUR leader Jimmy Thomas. A general election in October produced a landslide for the Conservatives who provided the majority of the members of the new National government.
Mick regarded MacDonald’s decision to form a coalition government as another betrayal. His old union adversary Thomas became a minister in the National government and was expelled from the Labour Party. He was subsequently suspended from the House of Commons for financial shenanigans. Thomas’ large chauffeur-driven Austin car was sometimes seen passing through Shakespeare Road. Mick wondered whether the Labour apostate was making some kind of point to him personally. There would have been little surprise in the O’Sullivan household when his son turned coat completely and became a Conservative MP.
They were difficult years for poor Londoners, but Ted was enjoying life.
“In my last summer at Corpus Christi school in 1929, Nellie and I were given an opportunity to go with the country holiday fund on a fortnight’s holiday. Nellie went to West Moors in Dorset whilst I went to Whitstable in Kent. It was not completely free, but it gave children a holiday away from London. The food was not up to my mother’s standard but I had the opportunity to explore. I often went off alone and made friends with the fishermen in the huts on the sea front. Here I feasted on shell-fish which they cooked in their huts. I also played in the hulks (old wooden warships) which were moored in the old harbour. It was a most enjoyable holiday and helped to build up my love for things maritime.”
“An early innovation due to Father Milton was the creation of a boy scout troop. The 41st Lambeth Group was started, with him as group scoutmaster. His scoutmaster was Peter Cuming. The assistant scoutmaster was a Mr Pedder, whom we called Ped. I was selected to be a member of the first eight, the Otter patrol, which was to launch the troop. I was the youngest, smallest and the poorest. My parents scraped up enough money to buy my uniform which was the probable reason for the lack of school uniform when I started at the Oratory. I loved the scouts and they were very good to me. But once again, money prevented me from taking a full part. The troop helped to pay for me at our first camp at St George’s, Woburn Park. I must have been a penance as my inherent weakness resulted in my being ill for almost the whole week. I stuck the scouts for about two years and they endured me but I always remembered with gratitude their kindness. Peter Cuming left his job and became a Cistercian monk, a vocation in which he rose to be the superior at Mount St Bernard’s.”
Ted made excellent progress at school and an opportunity for a much better education emerged.“I continued into Mrs Healy’s and, aged nine, was transferred into Miss O’Meara’s, who had the top three classes in one large room. Teaching such a variety of children must have been impossible and one became self-taught. Unsurprisingly, the brightest progressed rapidly. Three stood out: Patrick McGee, Gwen Boyle and Teddy O’Sullivan.
“In 1928, we sat the preliminary of the junior county exam. Passing the first hurdle, we sat the second exam during the winter of 1929/30. As expected, we had all done well but there was only one place at Clapham Xaverian College and it went to Pat McGee. Gwen Boyle and I were interviewed and we were both awarded places at the Oratory Central girls’ and boys’ school respectively.”
“In those days, the school year started after the Easter holiday in the state system. Gwen and I started making our long journeys daily by bus and foot to the Oratory. But poverty soon separated us. She took the 37 bus at the top of Spencer Road, where she lived. I walked or ran to Acre Lane and caught the bus from there. Both of us alighted from the 19 or 49 bus at Chelsea Town Hall and then walked. The difference was due to the fact that, often, my mother could afford only three pence and not the full four pence fare from Dulwich Road. The fare would be sixpence in total.”
“Another difference was the school uniform. Gwen wore the full uniform of her school. I was dressed in a cheap, royal blue blazer, donated by one of my cousins, and silver grey trousers. I took sandwiches whilst the other boys had school lunch in the dining hall. There was a class distinction caused by poverty and you could almost smell the difference. My sandwiches were almost invariably made with hard boiled eggs provided by our hens. The majority of the other boys were obviously middle class. Nevertheless, with very few exceptions, I got on well with them.”
There were further surprises in store at the new school for the Brixton boy.“When I first entered the classroom, I sat next to the boy who was behind me in the queue. My partner and friend for the next two years was Tedros, the son of a chauffeur at the Abyssinian embassy. This was how I was fortunate enough to accept persons of other races for what they were and not for how they looked. A clever boy, Tedros was to leave us when he passed the trade scholarship and went off to secondary school.”
“Tedros was occasionally untidy. Our English teacher Mr Crowley ringed grease marks on Tedros’ homework books in vivid red pencil and wrote: ‘Fish and chips’ and ‘Eggs and bacon.’ Part of his examination for the secondary school was a viva voce where school books were examined. With trepidation, Tedros handed over his English work. The panel of distinguished academics collapsed with laughter at the sight of the English teacher’s comments. Tedros thought that this had swayed the panel in his favour. Up to that point, he was not doing well.”
Apart from Corpus Christi, there were few Catholic elementary schools for children in the area that provided an education that made them acceptable to the Oratory. Consequently, in Ted’s year of two classes of about 45 boys each, there were only two from south of the Thames: one from Battersea and himself. The majority of Oratory schoolboys appeared to come from Highgate, Hampstead and the prosperous new areas of north and north-west London.Ted’s secondary school memories often revolve around unforgettable teachers. His experiences echoed those of generations before and since.
“My first form master entered our classroom with us and introduced himself as Burns, JC. We all knew that since he was a well-known footballer. He played left-half for Queen’s Park Rangers and England’s amateur 11. Later, he would transfer to Brentford and play, as an amateur, for the full English team. Standing in front of us, he bent a cane in his hand. ‘I like the cane,’ he said. ‘It helps my muscles when I wield it which I will do if you step out of line.’ Actually, it was all bluff and he was a kind and generous man and an excellent teacher of mathematics.”
Life in a Catholic secondary school designed for the middle classes was a world away from the reality of the O’Sullivan household where money was always short.
“Mum was often at her wits’ end and would say: ‘I can only give you threepence this morning.’ This would mean walking half-way or even all the way home across Chelsea, through Battersea Park, where often the only company were the deer, through Wandsworth, Stockwell and Brixton to Herne Hill. This was a distance of seven or eight miles. Never once was I accosted or even spoken to, although, for a great part of the year, I arrived home in the dark. Often, because of early closing of the park, I would have to climb the gates at the Queenstown end to get out.
“If I had a penny left, I would occasionally buy a stale sausage roll from Lawrence’s in Wandsworth Road as a treat for my mother. I would pause at Brixton market to hear the auctioneers and barrow boys selling off their wares of fruit and vegetables, china, clothing and rugs. I sometimes could not tear myself away, despite an evening’s homework in front of me.”
“The only alternative to the kitchen table in the warm, upon which to do my homework, was the cold, bleak front-room. So I was compelled to struggle amid the noises and odd missiles being thrown by my brothers. I received many a punishment for my poor homework. The work was hard but I managed to cope. At the exam at the end of my first year before Easter 1931, I was second in the class of over 40 and about 8th in the whole form. The next year was to see a good number of boys and girls from Corpus Christ joining Gwen Boyle and me at the Oratory schools.”
“With so much of the family’s single income going into rent, there was no provision for pocket-money. Working to earn a few pence during the week was out of the question as school, the journey, homework, choir and scouts filled my spare time. This left Saturday afternoons when, for a pittance, I helped the Co-op milkman. Driving a horsed milk float, his round was widespread, finishing up in the Herne Hill area. I had to be back for scouts at two o’clock. All went well until I fell over carrying a crate of milk, which caused a cut head and a permanent scar. Jobs were out, so I made the subscription for the scouts by doing housework which included the hated scrubbing of the attic. After about two years, I had to give up scouting as a new uniform was required. This was unaffordable so I made some excuse.”
“Before leaving the parish, Father Milton arranged a fortnight’s camp at an estate in Uckfield. From there, we hiked to Parkminster Abbey, a gigantic Carthusian monastery sited in the middle of Sussex. Here, each monk lived in his own cottage off the cloisters. We also went to Piltdown Pond where the skeleton of a primitive man had been found. It would be much later in the century when it was discovered that the two finders had perpetrated a vast hoax. But they had been honoured at the time, one with a knighthood. Piltdown man changed research and ideas about archaeological development for the next half century. The longest hike was through Lewes and down to the coast at Seaford, probably over 20 miles.”
“I owe scouting my life. I became a competent reader of ordnance maps and won, whilst an unpaid lance-corporal during the war, a company inter-section orienteering and map-reading competition. As a result, I was appointed a battalion instructor and, ultimately, company quartermaster sergeant rather than a line NCO. I survived the war. Most NCOs were casualties.”
“In the second year, our class teacher Mr O’Neill was a giant who was quite sadistic. The head Mr Summerbell did not discourage this as he had similar ideas. For this year, he was to be our maths teacher. After submitting our homework, after hours of toil, we would see him approach our classroom. If he came in a suit, all was well. If he was wearing his gown, we knew that in its sleeve were secreted a bundle of canes. These he used with enjoyment and gusto on almost the whole class.”
“One Monday morning, I returned to school after a bout of ‘flu. O’Neill collected the school building fund of two pence per boy, which was a voluntary subscription. The head later came to the class in a temper and asked why the class subscriptions were light. Picking on me, he asked, ‘Why?’ In desperation, I burbled out: ‘I didn’t hear.’ The head said to Mr O’Neill : ‘You know what to do!’ He then left the room. O’Neill collected the two pence I had kept to pay my fare home and went to his drawer where he kept a pair of size 12, thick-soled slippers and gave me six on my bottom for inattention. I cried all day and the bruises were seen by my parents after my long walk home. My mother wanted my father to go to the school. She had not enough money to give me the two pence and I thought that no one could miss it. It was just pride that had prevented me from telling the truth: that mother did not have twopence. My attitude to work and the school changed as a result of the teacher’s brutality. I was to be punished unjustly again but never would I cry or complain.”
“Not all the teachers were the same as O’Neill and Summerbell. JC Burns, despite his protestations when we first joined his class, turned out to be a just, kind and excellent teacher. He was a popular hero throughout the school and we considered being in his class to be an honour. He seldom lost his temper and never used the cane he loved. Mr Siddie Kerr, who took singing and history, was very kind, as was Mr Murray, a new teacher who took us in our third year. This was called the floating class as our assembly place was in the dining hall and we floated into different classes and areas for the rest of the day. When they had built the extensions in 1929/30, the governors were only interested in the school’s immediate needs. By the time we reached our third year following Easter 1932, many of our class had left, They were a year older than me and had reached the statutory age of compulsory education at 14.”
Ted’s thoughts began to turn to a life outside the Oratory.“When I was in the third year, a notice appeared on the school board inviting pupils to apply for vacancies at the Rotherhithe Nautical School. There, they could be trained and educated for entry into the merchant service or into the Royal Navy. I had read every Percy Westerman novel I could borrow from the Chelsea library. They told the tales of the apprentices on the Golden Dawn and other ships. The idea of leaving the Oratory appealed to me so I went home to ask my parents if they could give their approval. My mother immediately vetoed this because she still regarded me as the weakling of the family. So I carried on but was not always happy.”
“One of the pleasures of joining the third year and the floaters was being taught mathematics by Billy Blight, the senior Maths master. Between him and Murray, who taught English, French and Religion, life became bearable again. Mr Todd taught History and Mr Kelly, Geography. The bullies were at last at a distance. These people taught because they liked their subjects, both those they taught and those they were teaching. They did not knock-in, they tried to lead out. Did the others realise the damage they had done to countless frightened boys? Had they been happy, many more would be in the third year, poised to complete the five-year course.”
The family’s finances took a sharp turn for the worse. Mick had started a loan club where his colleagues would pay a regular subscription of sixpence (2.5p) a share and borrow money up to their contributions at a low interest rate when they were in need. It generated fee income for the family. It was so successful that at the end of 50 weeks, a sixpenny share produced £1.9.6d (£1.47) for a £1.5 shilling (£1.25) contribution. By the summer of 1932, practically every penny in the fund was loaned out. In September, Mick, then aged 40, developed appendicitis which became peritonitis. No-one collected what was owing. Lizzie was obliged to go to the South Lambeth depot to chase the amounts due but only received a part of what was owed. Mick recovered slowly. He dealt with the deficit in the fund from his own pocket. It was a disillusioning moment for the life-long trade unionist to discover his work colleagues were prepared to see him and his family suffer so much rather than repay what they owed. Inevitably, this had an impact on 13-year-old Ted.
“I will always remember the kindness of Father Leech, who was there to comfort my father as he was taken off by ambulance to King’s College Hospital. He visited Dad regularly, taking with him great quantities of fruit. In the next bed to my father was Billy Blight, my Maths teacher, who had been involved in a motor cycle accident. While they were in hospital, they became firm friends. Since there was no sick pay for a GWR employee at my father’s grade, the family income descended to 10 shillings (50p) a week, paid from a sick club, during his long stay in hospital. My sister Nellie was at Jeffcoats in London earning a pittance, most of which she willingly put into the kitty. Dan, still at school, had his grant and earnings from Bristow, most of which he surrendered. We had many chickens, but there was no one to kill them.”
“Our Christmas dinner in 1932 was a joint of flank of beef. Dad recovered and recuperated with a long stay at the GWR convalescence home at Par in Cornwall. We had nearly lost him. Mum must have thought that history was repeating itself. Her own father had died, leaving his wife to bring up a large family with little income.”
“Dad returned to work in the early spring of 1933 and the men who owed him money started to avoid him. He began to lose his faith in his fellow workers, for whom he had sacrificed much of his free time. He had jeopardised his own prospects by being ever-willing to back them, even though there were sometimes doubts of their innocence. He had led strikes, voluntarily collected union dues and many had rewarded him by cheating him. Management recognised he was a changed man. Mick was promoted to sub-inspector with undreamt of benefits: sick pay and a pension scheme. He got a uniform cap with gold braid on the peak and the word inspector embroidered above it. His superintendent said that the promotion was well-earned and long overdue.”
Mick continued to demonstrate his sense of social obligation. He had been a member of St John’s Ambulance Corps all his adult life and was a team leader for his depot. They entered many competitions, winning most, for which they were often awarded pieces of silver plate. These were displayed proudly in the front room. Now a teenager, Ted started to deal with the challenges of maturity which came at an early age in the 1930s. Money, however, was still a preoccupation.
“In February 1933, I turned 14 (the age when education stopped being compulsory and free) and qualified for the £1.1.8d (£1.08) per month exhibition. At last, I had money of my own, although I gave it all to my mother who provided me some when I needed it. After Easter 1933, I joined the 4th year. I had the only soprano voice in class but deliberately sang in my boots at assemblies, which strained my voice. I told Mrs Hart my voice was breaking and left the choir. I joined the altar guild instead which involved serving Sunday Mass at 8am, 1030am and 12 noon.”
“Not having scouts to fill Saturday afternoons, I took a job delivering meat for Hammetts of Herne Hill but not for long. It was both arduous and dangerous, so I was happy to give it up, particularly now I had a grant and Dad was back to normal. My friends and I started playing football on the cinder pitch at Brockwell Park in Brixton on Saturday afternoons and this developed into a sort of club. At about the same time, Father Leech suggested that the boys should meet together at the school to play games.”
“At his club there was no equipment; it was just a meeting place, as many of the members were at different schools and some were already working. He did the same with the girls. He called a meeting where he outlined his ideas of a proper club outside the confines of the school. He told us that he had been approached by Pat Glover, who had started a dancing school at 19 Brixton Hill. He was willing to let his premises at a nominal rent for a Sunday evening weekly social club meeting. He would provide a gramophone and we could use his premises to serve light refreshments. Glover would also let the premises for a boy’s club one evening a week and one for the girls. Father Leech asked for suggestions about the running of the clubs and I volunteered my services as honorary secretary. At school, I had been introduced to shorthand as a kind of vocational subject in the 2nd year. In the 3rd year, we learned elementary bookkeeping. In our 4th year, there were compulsory typewriting classes for two hours, one evening a week. By the time I left school, I had been taught enough to enable me to take down shorthand at normal conversational speeds, to prepare and keep accounts up to trial balance and simple balance sheets, touch type and have a general idea of the workings of an office.”
“Father Leech often visited Shakespeare Road. He invited Tom Phipps, Pete Chesterman and me to visit places like Chilworth Abbey. He had inherited a sum of money and liked to give pleasure. There was no motive other than kindness, unless he recognised some quality in us that he wished to develop. The biggest treat was when he took us to camp at Wonersh seminary for a week, during my last summer holiday from school in 1934. We walked all over Surrey and, by train, visited the Benedictine monastery at south Farnborough for vespers. In the adjacent tomb were the catafalques of Napoleon III, Empress Eugenie and their son, the Prince Imperial, who had been killed in the Zulu war while serving in a British cavalry regiment. Another trip was to Quarr Abbey in the Isle of Wight. ““I started having my sandwiches at the museums at South Kensington and visited the Science Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Imperial Institute and the Imperial War Museum. My favourite was the Imperial Institute where every day a film about a part of the empire was shown. Entry was free.”
Ted was beginning to find school an increasing headache. After Easter 1934 aged 15, he started another academic year.
“I now entered my fifth year, grandly called the sixth form. The class was reduced to about a dozen pupils out of the 80 which had started. The head’s dream of raising the Oratory to the standard of a grammar school had not succeeded. Cambridge senior passes (equivalent to GCSEs now) had been his goal, but the chance of a job during the great depression had tempted many boys. The exams were preparation for university but only a tiny percentage had that goal in mind.”
“I had to pass in five groups: English Language and Literature; Mathematics; French; Geography and History. Out went chemistry, Religious Education and Art. I hated the work. We once more had no classroom and were floating again. One fine morning, our class could find no place to study and we agreed to go up to the roof flat which was marked out for games. Most were studying but a couple were skylarking. The head stormed in and made us all stand on benches in the playground during the whole of the recreation period. Then, we were called in one by one, made to lean over his ornamental fireplace and were beaten six times across the buttocks. Summerbell was beside himself with rage. We were flogged mainly because that morning he had a bad temper. Most of us had done nothing more than study. Not for the first time, the head had killed any interest left in many of us.”
“The time arrived when my examination fees were due. I procrastinated and the worry made me quite ill. My father went to see Summerbell and it was agreed that I should postpone my Cambridge Senior test until the second sitting in December 1934. Returning to school in September, I found that I was even more isolated. Only a few of my contemporaries were left. A couple who had done well were talking about higher schools and some were to re-sit part of the exam. Sometime in October, Father Kelly called me to the presbytery where he told me of an opportunity to be employed in a famous company with excellent prospects. The firm was Hawkes & Company of 1 Savile Row, London W1. He wrote for me a flamboyant letter of application for the position of junior clerk. My parents agreed that it would be a golden opportunity. Many of my friends were pushing bikes as delivery boys.”
“Knowing how much I now hated school and my fear of the coming exams and the headmaster, my parents encouraged me to copy the letter with its beautiful Victorian English and sign my name after: ‘I have the honour to be, Sir, your most devoted servant.’ I posted it.Early the following week, I reported for interview by Philip B White, the company secretary. I was satisfactory and was engaged to start as an office boy the following Monday at 9am at the princely salary of 12/6d (62.5 pence) a week. I was given no credit for my abilities in shorthand, typing and book-keeping. I was glad to escape school. I told Summerbell the next morning that I was leaving for a good job with Hawkes. He questioned me about the salary and I lied. I said it was being negotiated. I knew that I had sold myself short.”
Ted started at Hawkes in October 1934. The company was already 163 years old. He began at the main office. It was a journey back in time.
“The atmosphere was Dickensian. Around the walls were stands on which were placed massive 900-page ledgers covered in canvas. There were ‘A’ ledgers for military customers and ‘B’ ledgers for civilians. Trade ledgers mainly dealt with export business including orders for Hawkes’ famous tropical helmets. Others were for Canadian military clients. The ledgers filled two sides of the large office. On a third side beyond the door and the telephone box, with its upright phone, was a long stand on which were placed the indexes for the ledgers.”
“The staff were seated on high, backless stools at sloping desks which were large enough to hold a ledger. Each desk was long enough to accommodate three clerks. The fourth wall had a fireplace which had been superseded by central heating. Seven people including me worked in the office. My duties were various but not difficult. The first was to deal with letters and look up the customer’s ledger reference and write it on the corner. I would then file, in alphabetical order, all the letters which had been dealt with and answered. Then, I would go to the cutting room with letters for the cutters, order book clerks, directors and others. The whole system, even then, was antiquated.”
“I was a dogsbody. I realised that I had jumped from the frying pan of school into the fire of mundane, lowly-paid work. In the private office was a large magnificent table at which the Mr White sat with two ladies who acted as private secretaries and assistants to the directors. My duty at about 4 pm was to collect all the post, correctly stamp it and post it at the post office at Herron Street.”
“A great number of the staff were Catholics. The Whites, who were almost the proprietors, were Catholics and many of the employees came personally recommended by another member of staff. An old Oratorian named Albert Quirke managed the boot department and was the senior salesman. During the football season, Albert would dash away at the stroke of 1 o’clock on Saturdays to watch Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Monday morning would see a morose man. ‘Lost again, Quirkie?,’ we would ask. Yet, Chelsea always managed to stay in the 1st Division. There were other oddballs. Hawkes was full of the strangest characters in every department.”
The Whites had entered the business through a relationship with Thomas Hawkes, the founder. It was originally a maker of harnesses, helmets and accoutrements. Thomas Hawkes made a name for himself by refusing to serve the Prince Regent. He is alleged to have said: ‘Six days do I serve my king, on the seventh, I serve my maker.’
In a loft above the counting house were books and ledgers going back to the 18th century. One account was that of the Duke of Wellington, as colonel of his own regiment. Hawkes’ name was made as inventors of the cork tropical helmet with which they outfitted the whole of the British Army in the wide-flung empire. Tailoring seemed to develop during the middle of the 19th century. Due to firms like Hawkes and Pooles, Savile Row became synonymous with gentlemen’s tailoring. A hand-made suit sold at 11 guineas (£11.55) in 1934. The price had not risen much by the outbreak of war.
The Hawkes’ building was divided according to function. In the basement, goods were stored for customers who were suddenly whisked overseas. There was an enormous safe where the books with client measurements were kept. The backbone of Hawkes’ business was civil and military tailoring. The measurements were like gold dust. There was a staff mess room where the caretaker’s wife served tea on a weekly payment basis. The largest room in the Hawkes’ premises was the packing room with an antiquated hoist to the cutting room. The foreman was Percy, a very short-tempered man who ruled his kingdom with a rod of iron. His staff of packers and messengers included a well educated and gentlemanly man suffering from dwarfism who was about four feet tall. Charlie, a cockney who whistled through his ill-fitting dentures when he spoke, was packer, cleaner, messenger, and odd job man. The fourth member of the team was a junior aged about 18.
“Before Hawkes moved from 14 Piccadilly before the 1914/18 war, the premises in Savile Row were a geographical museum. The embalmed body of missionary and explorer Dr David Livingstone who died in Ilaia in Africa in 1873 had lain in state in what became the cutting room. This was the hub of the business and accommodated the massive boards used by the cutters, a team of highly-skilled men who scissored cloth to the required size and shape. The head cutter was Mr George Ballingall, the managing director. When not cutting, he would sit reading a newspaper in a fitting room that he would instantly leave if the room was required. Ballingall, then aged about 60, had been born a son of a crofter in the Scottish Highlands. His son Ian was also a director. Ian travelled to Canada during the winter months and Hawkes became the main outfitters for officers in the Canadian army. George was the cutter for all full dress tunics, diplomatic wear and mess jackets and waistcoats. Among the other Hawkes’ characters was Mr Kilby, who was blind in one eye, hunchbacked and with a permanently dripping nose. Like Quasimodo, whom he resembled, Mr Kilby was a campanologist and one of the country’s leading exponents of bell-ringing.”
“There were a great many others: salesmen, travellers, shirt cutters, cloth buyers and trimmers. I loved them all. The tailors worked both on or off the premises. The indoor tailors occupied the top floors and sat cross legged on their benches. All were of the old school of craftsmen. Many were repair tailors and they were all proud of their title as journeymen tailors. Their wages were often as low as £3 a week, whereas outside workers, in small and large workshops on the other side of Regent’s Street, would have bulging bags with as much as £40 in them. Some of them worked for a number of tailors: Flights, Pooles and Hawkes and their ilk. Not one Jewish person was employed on Hawkes’ staff but a percentage of the outside tailors were known by names like Pepper, a common name for Russian Jews.”
The outside workers sent their kippers (delivery boys who always worked in pairs) to deliver or collect garments after fitting. Tailors had their own language: if they had been paid for a garment it was dead. A bad garment was pig or pork. Ted remembered the atmosphere created for visiting customers.
“The shop had a large door opening on to Savile Row. Here presided the sergeant. The carpeted entrance presented a quiet and dignified approach to what it was: a temple of tailoring. A large showcase reached from floor to ceiling in which were displayed flags, banners, helmets, accoutrements and uniforms, mainly from the time of the Napoleonic wars. Around the walls and in the window were displayed royal warrants awarded by the crowned heads of England and Europe. The large window was usually empty but, occasionally, contained a dressed dummy. In racks were displayed suit lengths of cloth. A large round table dominated the centre. It was surrounded by four massively-upholstered leather and mahogany chairs. The directors’ desks were placed discreetly on one side.”
“The end of the shop was blocked off by showcases of hosiery, boots and ready-to-wear items. These effectively sealed the shop from the hubbub of the cutting room. The final group of employees were the travelers. They were a mixed group of men who dealt with customers in their homes or messes. George Horsborough, who played for the London Scottish rugby team and later managed the Camberley branch, was a giant and always warm and friendly. Jimmy Spencer was fussy, impatient and a veritable curmudgeon. He had the territorials of the northern counties as regular Hawkes’ customers as well as the actual makers of the cloth from which we made their suits. Mr Harris, who lived in Brixton, took over Canada from Ian. There was Mr Westley, a born salesman of about 30. Another charming and gracious gentleman was Eric Fletcher, who was a salesman and manager of the hosiery department. He had as an assistant Walter Halliday, who joined Hawkes at about the same time as I did.”
“After about six months, I was called to the secretary’s office where I was told by Philip White that he had an important job for me. I would be given a smart uniform and my duties would be to greet customers as they arrived and show them to the fitting rooms or call a salesman. He more or less implied that my job would be essential to the smooth running of the business. It appeared to me that, not for the first time, I was to be very cheap labour. The old sergeant on the door had been paid a man’s wage. I got a rise to 17/6d (88p) a week.”
“Mr White said that he understood that I had a 14-year-old brother (Tom) who had left school. Would he like to take over my job? Tom said that he would be delighted. My parents were pleased. Working in Savile Row carried prestige but not much money. Tom settled in his job very quickly and he became a walking index due to his incredible memory. He could not be called O’Sullivan, as it was a Hawkes’ rule that no work names could be duplicated. He was to be called Henry, his second name, as there was already a Mr Thomas, whose real name was Phillips.”
“I hated being a doorman, hated the uniform and refused to wear my hand-made cap with its magnificent Hawkes logo. But since nobody was ever dismissed by Hawkes, I was eventually transferred to work in the ready-to-wear department. My place in uniform was taken by the packers’ assistant who appreciated the rise in status.”
Mick had for many years been in communication with his uncle William, his father’s elder brother and former De La Salle brother who was then living in Paris. Due to bad investments and inflation, William’s pension and savings were depleted. Mick invited him to come to London and live with the O’Sullivans.
“William, then aged 80, moved in during 1934. Both parties were shocked. My father had painted a very rosy picture of our home and surroundings, which to him were luxury. William, on the other hand, had rather exaggerated his poverty and the bleakness of his future. He was quite shaken at our poverty. We had prepared a room for him but he had no facilities, like a bathroom, only an outside toilet.”
“There was a consolation for William. He had Brockwell Park at the top of the long road. He would spend days there; the quintessential Frenchman in his spotless blue gabardine suit and a black beret, worn at a rakish angle. He had a handsome, pure white sweeping beard with a magnificent moustache which he would stroke when he spoke to a woman. William still had an eye for the ladies. He would lose his temper with my mother for failing to understand him when he unconsciously reverted to French. I would speak to him in my hesitant French. William encouraged me to try to go further than my school lessons.”
“William was to stay with us for almost two years and then moved to a private hotel in Streatham. As far as I know, there had been no formal charge by my parents but he made a voluntary contribution. Before he left, he gave my father £400, a fortune in those days and equivalent to two years of my father’s wages. He extracted a promise that he would find a home for Daniel my grandfather, then 75 and ailing, for the remainder of his life, free of charge.”
“William was taken ill and removed to the French hospital, which I visited several times. He died aged 88. His estate was in the hands of his French lawyers and any papers he had left were handed over to them. After a delay of many months, a meagre amount was handed to my father as a final settlement. My father, attracted by a promise of high interest, invested the £400 in a friend’s business. The man died within a year and left no record of the debt. Everything, including dad’s money, was left to his estranged wife.”
The pressure on family finances eased as the 1930s developed. Those in work got better off as prices fell. The elder children were working.
“Danny left the School of Building to enter a world that was still in the throes of the depression. Danny was a fully qualified tradesman – a plasterer – and was recommended to the Xelite plastering company, who employed him as an improver on one of their contracts. He was to work on the new Mayday hospital in Croydon. Our mother purchased him a bicycle at the Co-op and he cycled the seven to eight miles each way daily. The Saturday knockabout football team continued to meet, often challenging other groups to a game. During the summer of 1935, we met often at swimming baths and, when Brockwell Park lido opened, we met there. I suggested that we should become more regulated. We applied to join the South London Press junior Sunday football league. Placed in the lowest division, we were given a list of fixtures in mainly local venues. We discussed a proper strip. After a heated debate, my suggestion was accepted for green and yellow quarters, (reflecting the Irish flag) with white shorts and green and white-hooped socks. The team was called the Corpus Christi Juniors Football Club.”
“To raise money, and with the help of my brothers, we held a raffle that raised enough for the kit. We paid for the pitches as we used them. The kit was kept at Shakespeare Road and my mother voluntarily washed it weekly. I helped design a green, gold and white tie, which was sold at a profit for the club to its members. Cyril Tonkin, a Corpus Christi parishioner, agreed to manage the team, referee home matches and generally help the team out. My brother Dan, an excellent centre forward, joined the team. We recruited some good footballers and allowed older boys to join. We started to climb the league and found ourselves playing as far away as Hackney Marshes.”
“I was an early casualty of our success. I was compelled to drop myself for not being good enough. Simultaneously, I was running the club where dance classes had been started. As we became more proficient, members gradually dropped out of the dancing classes. We required extra evenings for additional activities. Brixton Conservative Association had a temporary building as an annex to the big house which was their headquarters and club. They let it to the church for three evenings a week. Sunday evenings were devoted to a social/dance. Tuesdays were for an adult whist drive. The entrance fees paid the rent for a whole week. The third night was a youth club.”
Corpus Christi presbytery had been housed in a large manor type house close to the church. In the 1860s, Corpus Christi was a mission parish, one of the first set up in London. It was run by Father Van Doorn, a Dutch priest, who promised the bishop he would build a church. Brixton at that time was the most prosperous suburb of London. Along both sides of Brixton Hill, Effra Road and Water Lane and, slightly further afield, Loughborough Park, there were a great number of large houses, with stables and driveways for their carriages. Brixton was a popular residential area for actors and music hall stars who lived in the large houses which abounded in Wiltshire Avenue and neighbouring areas and the many roads running into Brixton Hill. Transport was good. There were cabs, the railway from Father Van Doorn engaged John Bentley, who was later to design Westminster Cathedral, as his architect. He planned a massive, Gothic structure which he started to build in front of the presbytery, leaving at least 30 or 40 yards of trees and grass in the front. The plan was for a cruciform building with massive transepts. He finished what were to be the High Altar and Our Lady’s and St Joseph’s altars. Either the money ran out or that was considered sufficient for its purposes at that time. The building stopped. A massive temporary rear wall was built across the back of the transept and room was left for a modest porch.
“Father Leech, the curate who was so loved by the young people of the parish, was moved to Strood as parish priest. Father Matthew Walsh, who was from Drogheda in Ireland, took over. Tall and aesthetic looking, he wore clipped on pince-nez which added to his studious appearance. On his first Sunday at Corpus Christi, Father Walsh asked each person his name as they walked into the Sacristy. We gave our names but not our nicknames. After meeting the last O’Sullivan, Bernard, aged about seven, he said ‘Who and where is Dickie, the chap who runs the clubs?’ Shortly before, Father Kelly announced he was going to move out of the presbytery which was too large, antiquated and inconvenient. He had bought a smaller house on Trent Road and said that he wanted the youth of the parish to take over the house and to use it as they wished throughout the week. There would be no rent. The club would, however, be responsible for the rates. We had already gathered around us older parishioners as an ad hoc committee. My father was treasurer. I continued as secretary. Membership was restricted to Catholics aged 15 and over.”
“We painted each room in turn and augmented our meagre equipment with two quarter-size billiard tales and two table tennis tables. We also obtained a large radiogram on hire purchase. Books and playing-cards arrived. There was a quiet room, but no gambling. As secretary to the club, I kept exact records of all money collected and spent, although my father was nominally treasurer. At first, I submitted handwritten accounts to the committee. In 1938, Kathleen Stamp, Danny’s girlfriend and future wife, suggested that she could copy my accounts and type copies for the committee’s approval. She also placed them in paper files. The chairman praised the work and said the only difference from a professional accountant’s work was that the vouchers had not been saved and numbered. I learned a lesson which I was to apply later in the army.”
“Father Walsh soon settled in. On Sunday afternoons, London playing fields saw a figure with pince-nez dressed in full clerical garb of black suit and Roman collar running up and down the touch-line and shouting encouragement to the players. We finished the 1936/37 season at the top of the senior Sunday division of the South London Press League. At the start of the next season, I passed on the reins of responsibility for the team to Tom Phipps. Danny, now in his twenties, dropped out. But we had plenty of rising stars to fill team vacancies.”
“I had other interests: hiking, dramatics and cycling. A longstanding friend Pat Newbery accompanied me on exploratory walks through the Surrey hills. On bank holidays, we boarded trains at Clapham Junction or Herne Hill for stations like Guildford and then hiked in a circle for about 15 or more miles. Our favourite route was that introduced to us by Father Leech: Guildford, Shere, Blackheath, Chilworth, Wonersh for Benediction and then back to Guildford. The Corpus Christi club attracted people of many nationalities. There were Irish, Scots, Welsh, French and Italians. The only specifications were they had to be Catholic and over 15.”
“One evening, Father Walsh came into the club with three young, black men who were studying at colleges in London University. They wanted to join our club but only two were Catholics. We accepted them, but only one remained a regular. Ellis Clarke, from St Mary’s College in Trinidad, was reading law at University College and was a member of Lincoln’s Inn. He became a staunch member and accompanied us on our hikes. At first, the young ladies were reluctant to dance with Ellis but he was so expert they soon enjoyed his company. After being called to the bar, Ellis returned to Trinidad and later was appointed the finance minister of the West Indies federation. At the break-up of the federation, he was appointed governor-general of Trinidad and Tobago and awarded a knighthood. When the islands declared themselves a republic in 1976, he was their first president.”
“Time was found for cycling. Tom and I bought Raleigh bicycles for £4.19.6d each. Most Sunday afternoons, we would ride out. One Easter Sunday evening, John Turner, Tom Phipps and I cycled to Hove. We were wearing khaki shorts but all carried yellow ponchos. As we left, the weather was fine but, as we approached Mitcham, it started to snow. When we arrived at Reigate, we were in a blizzard. We did not give up and carried on to Hove, where we were virtually lifted off our bikes and put to bed at about 10.30pm. The next morning was a Bank Holiday. It was a sunny day which developed into a veritable scorcher. I was burned so badly, it was painful to wear trousers for the next few days. Other journeys I made, but with different companions, were to Uckfield to see Father Milton and to the Devil’s Dyke, Hindhead, Brighton and Minster (Sheppey) to join the family on holiday and many other places.”
At Hawkes, Ted was taking time to upgrade his own skills.“The ready-to-wear department grew with a range of evening, morning and lounge suits. I was appointed manager and assisted in the buying. During 1936 and 1937, I did an evening course in tailoring and cutting at the Borough Polytechnic. I became quite proficient but, foolishly, never told Hawkes. I remember walking home one evening in November 1936 and seeing a brightness in the sky over Sydenham. It was caused by the flames engulfing the mighty Crystal Palace. With my brother Tom, I was given responsibility for members of the Honourable Corps of the Gentlemen at Arms. We prepared their ornate uniforms for courts, levees and investitures. I was also called upon to prepare other senior officers: Air Force Marshal Portal and field marshals Allenby and Birdwood.”
“I was now a salesman and had become expert in dress, military ranks and decorations. I even waited upon the Prince of Wales, who became King Edward VIII in 1936, and his brother the Duke of York, who replaced Edward to become King George VI at the end of that year. When the Alexander Corda classic The Four Feathers was being made in 1938, I assisted Albert Quirke, who advised the producers, and chose from our redundant store the badge for the fictional North Surrey regiment depicted in the film.”
“Hawkes made the full dress and civilian clothes for the film’s stars including Ralph Richardson. He was wonderful man who would sit on a stool in the cutting room and chat with all and sundry. At Hawkes, we met many great men of the times including Field Marshal Mannenheim, President of Finland, the Maharajah of Kashmir and most of the Indian potentates. They bought their uniforms from Hawkes who were then probably the greatest military tailors in the world.”
Ted and Tom found a quicker way of getting to work each morning.“Henry (Tom) and I were fed up queuing for a bus on Brixton Hill, so we hit upon the idea of catching a train to Victoria and from there taking the 26b bus to Bond Street. The problem was getting up after a long night at the club. We aimed to catch the 853am train from Brixton station. We would leave home at 845am, run to Mayall Road and down the length of the long road and then along Atlantic Road, encouraged by the cheers of the shopkeepers, who were betting we would miss the train. If lucky, we would be at Hawkes just after 910am and pretend that we had been there for hours. Not many people were early at Hawkes since you could be there after 7pm the evening before. We seldom came home together, as I walked to Lambeth Baths. Henry, now an order book clerk, used the bus. The morning training turned me into an athlete.”
World events were about to turn the O’Sullivans’ world upside down. Adolph Hitler was made German chancellor in January 1933. That summer, German democracy was abolished. In August the following year, Hitler assumed absolute power in the German Reich as Fuehrer. In March 1935, he ordered the German army to re-occupy the Saar, which had been under League of Nations control since the end of the war, after its people voted in a plebiscite for reunification with Germany. A German rearmament programme was launched. In June 1935, Stanley Baldwin replaced Ramsey MacDonald as prime minister of the coalition National government. Elections in November produced a massive Conservative majority in the House of Commons. Labour gained seats and were clearly the second largest party in parliament. British politics were thrown into turmoil when King Edward VIII decided to marry Wallis Simpson, an American who had been divorced twice before. This led to his abdication at the end of 1936 and the succession of his younger brother Albert as King George VI. The start of the Spanish Civil War pitted the supporters of a left-wing government elected in July 1936 against most of the Spanish army led by General Franco who was backed by the Catholic Church. The government started to increase military spending.
“During the period from the time I left school in 1934 and the autumn of 1939, my life was too full for worries about the outside world. The depression was creeping away but the rise of the spectres of both Fascism and Communism filled the papers. I had been affected even before I left school. My sister Nellie’s firm Jeffcoats printed the Blackshirt, the weekly newspaper of Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, and she brought copies home. Innocently, I took a copy to school where it was pounced upon by my Italian classmates. I gave the paper to them each week.”
“The Spanish Civil War left me with divided loyalties. I supported the church but did not support Franco. I kept clear of politics. I had but three interests, my work, my home and my club and church (these last two were one to me). The Munich crisis of September 1938 showed Hitler to be a real threat. The War Minister Hore-Belisha’s changes at the War Office influenced Hawkes’ business. Re-armament, which was to brush away the last of the depression, was felt by Hawkes as early as 1937. The Royal Air Force (RAF) was expanded and short service commissions were introduced the following year. Hawkes lost its prominent position in the flood of orders due to a variety of reasons: price, service (we were too antiquated) and shortage of staff. Burberry’s, Alkits and Moss were breaking into the market. We refused to lower our standards. Everything was handmade, we still claimed.”
“The next branch of the armed forces to be expanded was the territorial army. Our travellers covered the country picking up orders. New cutters were engaged and the civilian ones were compelled to help out. In 1939, the Royal Academy at Woolwich and the Royal Military College at Sandhurst were expanded. Members of Hawkes’ staff joined the territorials.”
“The Military Training Act passed in April 1939, just over a month after Hitler seized what remained of independent Czechoslovakia, required all men aged 20-21 to do six months’ military training. I had celebrated my 20th birthday in February 1939 and was expecting to be called up.”
“I had a summer holiday in July 1939 with my friend Noakes, a squire in the Knights of Columba who enrolled me in his group in Bow. This enabled me to qualify to join their annual camp in Jersey. It was a halcyon time in which I saw all of that lovely island. The rest of the family went to Broadstairs. While working at a desk one evening after my holiday, we were discussing the international situation. My colleague Mr Harris said something like: ‘Just mark my words, you will see Germany sign a pact with Russia.’ We laughed at him. He was right. The German-Soviet pact was signed in Moscow on 23 August 1939.”
The consequence was war within a few weeks.
Mid-August saw many of Hawkes’ young men go off to territorial summer camp. Among these were Walter Halliday, Leonard Pannario and Edward White. They were not to return at the end of a fortnight. Two of them never did. About this time, Ted was summoned for a medical examination at the Labour Exchange in Coldharbour Lane in preparation for call-up to the territorials. After seeing a team of doctors and male orderlies, who all examined a different part of his body, he was interviewed by an elderly, military gentleman with a white, walrus moustache. He asked Ted personal questions including one about his work.
The Hawkes connection triggered an enthusiastic response:
“He said: ‘My tailors. Give my regards to Mr Ballingall. What regiment do you wish to join?’
I said: ‘The Royal Corps of Signals, Sir. I would like to be a despatch rider.’
‘Excellent,’ said the colonel: ‘Signals, it shall be!’
I was worried about my medical grade since I was convinced that I was not fit. I had prayed for much of the previous night that I would pass.
‘What grade am I, Sir?,’ I asked. ‘Why, my boy!, The very best. You are A1.’ I was overjoyed.”
There seemed to be nothing that could prevent the war. On the first day of the organised evacuation of children from London on Friday 1 September, 9,500 young people were moved from London. They included Lilian O’Sullivan, aged 12, and her younger brother Bernard, aged 10, who were dispatched to Horsham. Here they were separated and billeted in different houses. Bernard was moved three times before he settled semi-permanently in a Catholic presbytery.
In London, the blackout was imposed and anti-aircraft guns appeared. War was imminent.