Josna Rege

62. Regulation Underwear

In 1960s, Britain, Stories on July 23, 2010 at 12:20 pm

Ham & High photo, courtesy of Gospel Oak website

Autumn, 1963: Gospel Oak Primary School, Hampstead, London. It was an inspired idea to make underwear part of our school uniforms. All of us, boys and girls alike, had to wear sturdy and sensible cotton-jersey pants and vests (underpants and sleeveless undershirts) in grey, green, or navy blue. There was only one regulation style permitted, which had to be bought at a particular department store in London, and in my view, this rule achieved  its intended democratizing effect.  It also allowed us to change for gym at a moment’s notice anytime during the school day, for our gym uniforms were simply our little pants and vests–soft, comfortable, and free from gender markers or distractingly revealing designs. Without wasting any time we removed our shoes, shirts, and skirts or shorts, and trooped happily into the gym, where we ran, tumbled, and climbed ropes until our cheeks were flushed and our hearts pounding. When it was time to return to the classroom, we were ready to sit down and concentrate for a while, until recess, lunchtime, or the next exercise break, for I remember having gym at least once every day, and sometimes other physical activities as well, such as English country dancing or swimming at a nearby pool.

Gospel Oak was a product of the education reform that had gone into effect in Britain after the Second World War. Opened in 1952, the school building was only a little older than I was, the old Fleet School having been destroyed by a bomb during the war. The classrooms were light and airy, the teachers young and experimental, and the educational philosophy enlightened and child-centered. Everybody likes to moan about school food, but I had no complaints. Even though I had always hated milk, I loved the little half-pints of cold milk that were distributed halfway through the morning, the children taking it in turns to be “milk monitor” and carry the tray round the classroom. And the lunches were designed to provide a fully balanced three-course meal, so that even a child from the poorest family would be guaranteed at least one square meal a day. I still remember the hot, sticky puddings with custard. Say what you will about English food, they were delicious.

Beside exercise, our days were filled with poetry and song. When the Beatles burst on the scene that fall, we all decided to compose our own Beatles’ songs. Mine went:

I’m a little Beatle (yeah yeah yeah)/And I crawl across the floor (yeah yeah yeah)/I’m just a little Beatle (yeah yeah yeah)/ And I can do the twist (yeah yeah yeah)/And it goes like this (yeah yeah yeah)

And so on. There was a French girl in our class who wrote hers in French : Je suis une petite Beatle (oui oui oui)….

Despite his name, our classroom teacher Mr. Deadman  bore no resemblance to a Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts.  I can’t remember much else about him, except that one day he told us that our singing lesson would be taught to us on television, switched on the set, and made himself scarce. I watched transfixed for the whole class period, and still remember Kelvin Grove, the Scottish song we were taught  in  fully interactive fashion.

I was at Gospel Oak for just three  months, and it was my only experience of primary school in Britain, as I was in secondary school by the time we returned for another short stay, five years later. Postwar educational reform was a noble social experiment, although it probably didn’t go far enough. I hope that a democratic education system will survive the drastic cuts being carried out by the new government.

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  1. I love the idea of regulation underwear for schoolkids! It sounds so practical — up to a certain age, anyway. None of my schools was nearly so interesting, although most weren’t bad. I was rabidly opposed to school uniforms back then, but see it much differently now. Heck, work uniforms might not be so bad in some cases, either. I remember living in England that workers of all sorts wore uniforms. Any who came to the house (plumbers, electricians, etc.) wore uniforms. They also expected a cuppa tea, which annoyed my mother because she didn’t always feel like making one, but I liked its old-fashioned civility. (Maybe if I had to make it all the time I’d have felt differently.)

    • Now I feel like a cuppa myself and am off to make it. Wish you were here to share it with me. Yes, of course the uniform underwear could work only to a certain age. In secondary school we had uniforms, but the idea of leveling class differences through dress worked only to a certain point, because people showed off through the shoes and coats they wore to school.

  2. What a great memory you have, Jojo! This brings up old memories of my first school days at Loreto in Shillong with our grey pleated skirts and white blouses and red ties. We also wore red sweaters.
    I remember my grandmother sent some red tights from America for me which were just the right color of red and I wore them to school one very cold wintry day. However, I was sent to the mother Superior who called my mother in and said that those tights were not acceptable because they allowed the mind to imagine what the leg was like up under the skirt! My mother kept her laughter to herself and promised that I would not be coming to school with them on again.

    • Marianne, I didn’t know anything about the school you attended before MH! I’m laughing to myself as I read this. Once they introduce the idea of imagining what’s under the skirt, it becomes hard not to think of it! It reminds me of an even sillier thing they did in the school I attended in England after MH. We weren’t allowed to wear skirts more than 6 inches above the knee, or five inches if you were under 5’4″; so they would assign the prefects, most of them male, to make us kneel on the floor and then measure the distance from the ground to the hems of our skirts. It was so ridiculous that it made the national news!

  3. Hello again Josna: the story was, back in the 1930’s when I was a child in the NW3/NW5 area of London, that a preacher would stand beside a large oak tree in that locality and preach the gospel. Just inside the entrance to Parliament Hill Fields, which stands at the junction of Mansfield Road/Gordon House Road there then stood an ancient oak tree. It was on its last gasp then. Propped up and having stout steel bands wound about it like bandages. It must have gone by now. Anyway, we all believed that that tree was the one ich gave the locality its name. This entrance to “the fields” was the nearest to where we (the Sharps) lived at that time. As we grew up we found that the fields led on to the Highgate Ponds, four in number I think, and to Hampstead Heath with its several ponds and also the open spaces of Ken Wood, The Spaniards, West Heath and Golders Hill Park. An immense area of countryside to be within an established town and right there on our doorstep;
    Your cousin Lesley attended Gospel Oak school I think and certainly lived in Mansfield Road. Love U.T

    • Dear Uncle Ted,

      Thank you for the fascinating history. So the original oak was still standing when you were a boy! I can’t believe I wrote a story about Gospel Oak without mentioning either Cousin Lesley or Hampstead Heath and Parliament Hill Fields. I feel like scrapping it and starting over! But of course the Heath deserves an entry all its own. And yes, not only did Lesley live down the road, but just for those three months I was in her class at Gospel Oak, and her steady, supportive presence was no doubt a big reason for why I felt so comfortable there right away.
      Hampstead and the Heath are so romantic to me, partly because I was born and spent early years there, but even more, because I know that Mum and Dad met each other and spent such happy times there with such a close group of like-minded friends. When Mum and I spent a few short days in Hampstead together in 1997, I think it was, I thought she looked at least 10 years younger almost immediately (as you all did in the pictures from that trip you took to Ireland in 1985).

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