Category Archives: Down a Rabbit Hole

From scrap metal to national treasure. The history of the segregated playground.

You might remember hearing about this in the news: Outrageous’ and ‘disgusting’: segregated playground sparks fury. Developers Henley Homes had two playgrounds on one new build site in Lambeth. The large, central playground was allegedly intended for the children of those who privately own property on the complex; it was claimed that a much smaller area was designated for the children from the social housing block (Wren Mews). I’m choosing my words carefully as after all hell broke loose they strenuously denied these accusations but, given the experience of the residents it’s fair to say, few people buy their version of events.

The story caught my attention because the development in question is a stone’s throw from where I grew up and is on the site of a former school I am very much aware of, Lilian Baylis. Lilian Baylis was the local comprehensive, but I didn’t go there as my parents sent me to Roman Catholic schools instead. I remember being glad because it had a reputation, and I was a bit of scaredy-cat as a child.

My only interaction with the school was briefly going to Taekwondo lessons there on weekends. I was about seven or eight years old and hopeless. I wanted to be there because one of my school friends was into it. I couldn’t cope and never felt very welcome – the school gates were rarely opened for us, and we had to shimmy through the gap underneath the gate. Anyway, that’s another shit story – my point is that this news grabbed me because of the location and it made me angry. I know these things do happen, but it felt perverse to think of it happening there. If anyone belonged in the playground on that particular space, it was the kids of those who couldn’t afford to buy a property in central London.

This isn’t just a rant, though. The reason for this post is that I was researching the area for a project I am working on, and I saw some photos from the Lambeth Archives showing how the community came together to build the nearby Adventure Playground Park in the 1950s. Lambeth had suffered a lot of bomb damage during the War. You can see some of this in footage of Passport to Pimlico (sorry Pimlico, Lambeth claims this film, thank you very much) and The Guardian ran a great feature capturing behind-the-scenes.

I know the adventure playground well. I never went in. I walked past it all the time but wasn’t brave enough to go in. I was rubbish at any activity involving coordination, and if I’m honest, I was intimidated by the kids who could climb and swing. The park is across the street from the school, or so I thought. It transpired that the original adventure park was on the same site of the school, and therefore the same place (roughly) as the segregated playground.

I wish I could reproduce this photograph (https://boroughphotos.org/lambeth/lollard-adventure-playground-wake-street-lambeth/) but I am not sure how to get permission, and so a link will suffice. In it, you see a boy pushing a wheelbarrow as part of the community effort to build the Lollard Street Adventure Playground. The boy brought up on a rationed diet is very thin but clearly energetic. According to Lambeth Archives, the project was a joint initiative from the LCC, Lambeth Borough, the National Playing Fields Association and the local community converting a derelict bombsite into an adventure playground for children of all ages. I wish I could reproduce this photograph (https://boroughphotos.org/lambeth/lollard-adventure-playground-wake-street-lambeth/)

” This community-led initiative begun in 1955 was run by a voluntary association supported by grants and fund raising. It was a departure from traditional playgrounds with features that included; a grass area for camping, gossip, sunbathing and growing vegetables; a hard surface for ball games; rough ground for building bonfires, underground tunnels and cooking. Inside areas included a workshop and hut for painting, modelling plus lessons, also a caravan for girls ‘to keep house’. From modest beginnings 250 children were recorded during one day in 1958. The playground site was replaced in the 1960s by the Lilian Baylis School.”

https://boroughphotos.org/lambeth/lollard-adventure-playground-wake-street-lambeth/

That’s right , 250 children came together to build this amazing adventure playground some THIRTEEN YEARS after the War ended. You can see a map of the playground on the Lambeth Archives website. Although Wake Street and Ethelred Street no longer exist by that name, Fitzalan Street does and did at the time. Therefore, its clear what side of Lollard Street the playground occupied and its where the new development sits today – the north side of what was Lilian Baylis School.

SOURCE: NATIONAL LIBRARY OF SCOTLAND

Lollard Street was hit with an incendiary bomb on the first night of the Blitz, 7th September 1940 at 22.21 (SOURCE: LONDON METROPOLITAN ARCHIVES via The Guardian Website). According to bombsite.org a further three high explosive bombs hit Lollard Street during the War, two hit Fitzalan Street, one hit Gibson Road (which is as close to Ethelred Street as currently exists today) and there were several others close by. According to the Lilian Baylis website, a primary school was demolished by a bomb during 1941.

Imagine post-war Lambeth? Children playing in bombsites long after the war and when Elvis is on the radio as this drawing demonstrates. Those kids had years of derelict buildings, of dust, and of not being able to have more than barely enough. Imagine what an adventure playground meant to them? It was one of the first in the country and a place designed for imaginative play. The children who used it would mature during the Swinging Sixties, and they would mostly leave Lambeth and not come back. The patch of London they grew up on became derelict again, not because a bomb hit it but because it resided in a desirable part of London and that’s how it works. What goes up was at one point, forced down.Imagine post-war Lambeth?

I now understand why I was surrounded by identical, flat brown buildings growing up although I hadn’t bargained on them becoming iconic examples of modernist architecture. In fact, when I found the 2012 planning proposal for converting Lilian Baylis School online, I saw that the school was on the English Heritage Buildings Risk register. From scrap metal to national treasure.

Lilian Baylis Secondary School replaced the Adventure Playground on Lollard Street in 1964. It was initially named after Henry Beaufoy who had established a Ragged School in Doughty Street. That street is now known as Newport Street (absurdly you can find Damien Hirst’s ar gallery on Newport Street). In 1910 the Ragged School moved to the Beaufoy Institute which is a beautifully decorative building on the corner of Black Prince Road and Vauxhall Road. After the War, evacuation of students, and then several post-war amalgamations, Beaufoy School moved to the site of the Adventure Playground, which in turn, relocated to a smaller space across the road.

Beaufoy merged with Vauxhall Manor School (alumni include Charlie Chaplin albeit briefly) and was renamed after Lilian Baylis in the same year as I was born (1983). As part of a regeneration programme for Vauxhall a move was planned and completed in 2005.

The wheels of ‘progress’ move slowly and in between Lilian Baylis moving out in 2005 and developers moving in, a modern community project sprung up, using the derelict space for sports and recreation. There, in the south of the site, access to sports fields and facilities remain after the new residential properties completion in 2016.

I am not sure where I am going with this post. I just know that I grew up scared of playing outside. I was timid and intimidated by a community on its knees. I hadn’t joined the dots. I thought the Blitz was something that happened in the East End and Coventry. It was only watching Passport to Pimlico and recognising the railway arches that the penny dropped – the area I grew up in had been disappearing since the onslaught the Blitz.

When I was searching the photography archive, I didn’t expect to see children building new communities I didn’t expect that boy with the wheelbarrow and a slight look of mischief. And I didn’t think that in 2019 the playground that became a school would become flats that ALLEGEDLY segregates its poor children from enjoying the same freedoms those baby-boomers enjoyed all those years ago.

Memoir and Life-Writing

A year ago I took a short course at Goldsmiths. I’d wanted to take a course in writing short stories but it had sold out. I didn’t want to wait and so I went for a different course in memoir and life-writing. On the course, our teacher told us about an Irish expression, ‘putting on the poor mouth’ which is essential, exaggerating your woes for sympathy. Although I hadn’t heard of the expression, I recognised it as a tendency when writing about myself. To take the edge of my natural inclination, I decided to write about my relationship with my dad who was born in 1938 in County of Roscommon. I was born in London, in 1983.

Below are segments – I’ve left things out for family privacy.

38:83

And from the time that the continual burnt offering is taken away, and the abomination that makes desolate is set up, there shall be a thousand two hundred and ninety days.

— Daniel 12:11

I see my dad’s life in neat compartments, as a boy and a young man, he’s both a tearaway and a ‘Jack the Lad’; as a father, he is quick-tempered; and as an older father, when I came along as a surprised I see the man I know today, this is the mellow version. The truth is I do not know much about his past before my sisters were born. When he drank, you could sometimes get snippets of his past and although these were often full of sentiment my dad is not one for embellishment.  Other clues are contained in old photographs, like the one of him aged fifteen and in full military garb. Dad left home for the Irish army in the early 1950s. I know he got on a bus to the Curragh because he mentioned it when we were watching the Horses. He lied about his age to get in and you can tell this because the uniform is very much wearing him. I know that when he left the army he went back to his family home but didn’t last long. In London, he turned heads and broke hearts. When aged thirty, he settled down he continued to play up before Catholicism re-entered his life, not that it ever entirely left, and he mellowed. My birth took place in his 45th year, the mellow period.

The London period, the one when he had just arrived, is one I imagine vividly. I think of his early days in England as if it were a film – the film is in black and white, and his charm is amplified. He’s a few inches taller in the film version, and he has a full head of hair. This film is set towards the end of the 1950s and in it, Dad gallivants around town, changing jobs, digs and girlfriends every other week.

Of course, the reality wasn’t exactly like this; it was bleaker, and it was in colour.

I only hear about that time in snippets. When he’s had a few drinks and is in a sentimental mood. He doesn’t drink these days but when he did, these conversations took place in the kitchen. The kitchen was never the most comfortable room in the house, especially with the dinner table that belonged in a much bigger room, but without fail it’s where everything important happened. Dad would tell me about the scrapes he got himself into, like the landlord who didn’t let his tenants stay in their rooms during the day. When my dad slept in he needed to escape without the dogs giving him away. Or, on another occasion, when he didn’t have a train ticket, waited on the platform and he tip-toed between the backs of two rail inspectors who were counting their ticket stubs.

There was one evening when he told me quite a different story. As he sipped cheap red wine from a tumbler and smoked back-to-back rollies,  until they almost burnt his fingertips, his eyes looked beyond me the Big Bopper’s ‘Chantilly Lace’ transported him to a Camden pub in the late 1950s. I expected another funny tale but instead, he told me something that’s haunted me ever since.


He worked night shifts at the Post Office for nearly thirty years. If I didn’t go to school and I often didn’t, he’d come home and make my breakfast before going to bed himself. Usually, he’d make me a bacon buttie and a weak mug of tea. Afterwards, I’d quietly watch television while he was asleep and with only four channels at my disposal, I’d often choose an old movie or two – an Ealing comedy or a Gainsborough period piece. Sometimes dad would wake up in time to catch the end of a film or else we’d talk about it afterwards and he would try to remember if he’d seen it. He liked to work out whether the actors were still alive or, more likely, dead. We’d estimate their age in the film and working backwards, would suggest a possible age for the actor, giving us good odds on whether or not they were pushing up the daisies. The fun you could have before the internet!

Over time I watched increasingly adult content, making full use of the VCR. I watched films full of sex, swearing and sacrilege. I had to be cautious of course, I’d keep the volume low and listen out for movement upstairs. Was he getting out of bed or just moving on to his side? I’d pause if I heard the landing creak and then switch to something else, often appearing to have developed a brand new interest in cricket.

Increasingly the television became a symbol of our differences. There was a time before me when we didn’t have a tv at all, and I found school hard enough as it was, I didn’t want to be the only one who didn’t watch Neighbours or Top of the Pops. I couldn’t risk him catching me watching anything that confirmed his fears about televisions – that they were the devil’s devices taking up a spot in the holy place, a man’s home, and that they signified the end of the world. That’s how the tv in our house was always known, it was the abomination that makes desolate. We are still waiting for the apocalypse.

Dad felt uncomfortable about leaving the house at night, and the television was often at fault. He didn’t want anyone to know it was just us women in the house and needed to eradicate any signs of life. Increasingly, it was difficult to predict how he’d feel about you still being awake and watching the abomination that made desolate. We would routinely sit, without saying a word, watching a muted television in the dark and waiting for the sound of the gate locking behind him.

Before I was on the scence he used to place balloons by the front and back doors as a trap for really think burglars. I sometimes imagined clowns moonlighting as thieves, unable to avoid the balloons because of their enormous feet.

Years later, I returned to live at home in my late twenties, tail between my legs after another failed relationship. Not thrilled by my new circumstances I spent a lot of time out and would miss the unspoken, but very real curfew. Like my dad, I was partial to a drink or five and lost track of time.

One weeknight, he managed to open the front door before I’d so much as taken my keys out of my bag. He didn’t say a word, but his face cut me down to size. He ushered me upstairs and I grimly followed not daring to turn on any of the lights until I was upstairs. As I turned to do so, he put out his hand and in a loud and purposeful whisper said: get dressed in the dark. I don’t want the neighbours to know you get home at all hours.

He closed the door, and I sat on the bed, fully clothed and staring into nothingness.


There is only one story my dad ever tells me about me. After two weeks of holiday as a child, I must have been nine or ten, I came home with a tan (it was the only time, I almost always go from ghostly-white to tomato-red). Dad walked me around his old stomping ground in Camden Town and bought me diet cokes in some of the pubs he used to frequent. My brown hair had hints of blonde, and my green-blue eyes contrasted my tanned skin. And I was thin. And that is the proudest he has ever been of me. I peaked early.

There is a Tony Harrison poem called ‘Book Ends’. It was in the GCSE English Literature Anthology in the late 1990s. As a teenager who quarrelled with my dad about politics and religion, I found the poem was very relatable because I was young and obnoxious. The first half ends:

Back in our silences and sullen looks,
for all the Scotch we drink, what’s still between ‘s
not the thirty or so years, but books, books, books.

Now I know it was actually ‘looks, looks, looks’.