Best Days Of Your Life? Find Out At The Ragged School Museum

By Richard Stacey | 21 March 2003
Shows a small boy drawing out a game of hopscotch.

Left: jumpers for goalposts? Hopscotch, one of the many joys of the playground. © Johnny Walker.

Knees grazed and laces undone, Richard Stacey headed to London to have look at a fantastic exhibition.

What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of school? Dreadful food? Strict teachers? Having to wear a uniform? Crocodiles?

School Days at the Ragged School Museum in Tower Hamlets explores all of these and more. Open until July 24, it brings together school memories and memorabilia from past and present residents of the Ocean Estate in Stepney.

It's not just a study of one area, though. As you enter there's a glass case filled with photographs of ordinary looking children, a typical school uniform, a sheet metal road sign, all reminders that school memories are, in some ways, universal. Whatever your age or background you'll find something to relate to.

It might be Sophia Johnson's salacious description of a typical school lunch in the seventies - "Shepherds Pie with vegetables and carrots, chips, mashed potatoes… apple pudding, rhubarb with custard, crumble, ice cream, jelly, fruit salad. They were really good and I was always back up there for seconds!"
Shows a poster made by children at a London primary school about healthy eating.

Right: a guide to healthy eating at one London primary school. © Ben Jonson Primary School.

Some of the recollections are less savoury. Margaret Tracey, 56, was a pupil at John Scurr Primary School in Stepney.

"Knitting - I've never been able to do it. I can remember being slapped round the head and called an idiot because I just couldn't master the knitting needles. I used to feel physically sick on days I knew I'd have to do this."

The show would be impressive enough if all it did was provoke such glimmers of recognition, but what makes it truly special are the more unusual memories. The Ocean Estate is home to many first, second, and third generation immigrants from Bangladesh.

One lady recalls travelling to school by rickshaw. Another, Mukul Ray, 54, went to school in a Bangladeshi village.

"If it is rainy season you often can't walk because it is water all the time. You used boat to prevent loss of kids from crocodile."

Shows two girls singing at a carol concert.

Left: bring back any memories? We've all been involved in one or two carol concerts in our time. © London Metropolitan Archive.

Many of the older contributors talk of a world closer to home, but equally foreign. Mary Ward, 96, attended school in South London.

"When I started school we had slates and slate pencils which used to make horrible squeaking noises… and you could spit on your finger and rub the slate out if you did something wrongly."

After reading her words I turned around, and saw a slate just like the one she'd used.

Nearby there was a photograph, a schoolroom full of children early in the last century. Some were smart and attentive, some had mussed-up hair, some were obviously in another world, gormless staring into space with their mouths half open.

I'd never seen any of them before, but something about their expressions struck a chord with me. Born before my grandparents, living in a world unlike any I've known, they looked remarkably like my classmates and I, twenty years ago, waiting for the school bell and time to go home.

A remarkable and moving exhibition.

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