1950s classroom tales and corporal punishment: Gospel Oak school memories revisited

PUBLISHED: 07:00 01 March 2020 | UPDATED: 15:49 03 March 2020

A Gospel Oak teacher rings the bell to bring an end to playtime. Picture: Henry Grant

A Gospel Oak teacher rings the bell to bring an end to playtime. Picture: Henry Grant

James Dwyer

“We’re like brothers - it’s as if we’re an extended family.”

Class 2a, June 1954. Picture: Henry GrantClass 2a, June 1954. Picture: Henry Grant

In September 1952 the Second World War had finished, the Cold War was gathering momentum, King George VI had not long died, the NHS was in its infancy, Winston Churchill was prime minister, and rationing continued.

At the same time, an innocent cohort of pupils began their journey at Gospel Oak School in Mansfield Road, unaware of the special, lifetime friendships they would form.

Wind forward nearly 70 years, and their unique, historic memories - and the sense of camaraderie and community that came with them - are marked in print and picture.

'Gospel Oak Primary School Memories 1952-56' retells the classroom tales of the 1950s through photos, biographies and stories of the students themselves.

Lunch time for hungry pupils. Picture: Henry GrantLunch time for hungry pupils. Picture: Henry Grant

The idea was hatched in 2018 during a tour of the now modern Gospel Oak Primary School facilities, which followed on from a class reunion in 2002 for Gospel Oak's 50th anniversary.

Former pupils Leeroy Murray and James Dwyer, both 74, returned to Hampstead Heath to discuss with the Ham&High how their school memories are now not only etched in their hearts and minds, but their very own book.

"The funny thing is, none of us have changed," Leeroy said of the band getting back together.

"We have all lived very different lives but actually all of our basic personalities have stayed the same - the way we relate to each other was and is the same.

A pupil being interviewed for a place by headmistress Ms Bartholomew. Picture: Henry GrantA pupil being interviewed for a place by headmistress Ms Bartholomew. Picture: Henry Grant

"It's like we're brothers. We know each other extremely well and it's as if we're an extended family."

James said: "Although we all live different lives, when we come together we just talk.

"It's amazing and it isn't just reminiscing, we talk about our everyday lives as well. We have this bond."

More than the connection between the group, the book charts how the school navigated the economic and social currents of the post-war era and how education reflected the atmosphere and practices of the time - including corporal punishment.

The stairs leading to classrooms, with the dining hall in the background. Picture: Henry GrantThe stairs leading to classrooms, with the dining hall in the background. Picture: Henry Grant

At Gospel Oak, there were two sizes of canes - one for students up to 10 years old, and a larger one for anyone above.

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Leeroy recalls: "Everyone would line up for waiting for their turn.

"I would go into the headmistress' office to collect the punishment book, which was a traumatic experience in itself.

"She was terribly stern - she would go to the cupboard, get the cane and ask what I had done. I would say 'nothing miss'.

"Then when I went in she took her first swipe and I moved it.

"She said to me very calmly: 'Every time you move you'll get another one', so that's how it went.

"I was just very playful, excited and wanted to do silly things and show off to the girls - and that was hard to contain!

"It didn't make me bitter, and I didn't come away with a chip on my shoulder about the world. I just thought those are the rules and that's what happens when I break them."

On their 2018 return to Gospel Oak school - which was built on a bomb site - James and Leeroy, alongside 10 of their former classmates, noted how the school had still retained its unique charm and character.

They admired how multicultural the school had become - a far cry from their time when James said he could recall only one non-British student.

Now, with their book published, they hope it can act as blueprint for other Camden schools to tell their stories too.

"We're hoping the book will grow as a living chronicle," Leeroy said.

"It gives colour to history - these are real lives, not something static, looking at how people coped with education of the time.

"It might be a dream but we hope it will inspire people over the years in Gospel Oak and other schools to contribute or make their own books."

James added: "We're not in it for money, it's just a very personal thing for us and we want it to grow so it becomes a Gospel Oak community."

The Gospel Oak school book can be bought at the Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town and Daunt Books in Hampstead, or by contacting

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