Tina Leonardi’s Story of Growing up
in “Little Italy”, Clerkenwell, London
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. Our mouths watered and our empty bellies rumbled. My Mamma could never afford to buy us rolls.
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.
When my brother Berto was less than 4 years old he toddled up to the top of Little Saffron Hill all by himself, and followed the older children into the 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.
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.
Me - Tina
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.
Here I am in a photo when I was in the Infants School.
← This is me -
middle row on the far right end
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.
This is me -
Bottom row on the far right
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.
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.
The entrance to St. Peter's School
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.