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Memories of a Childhood Stay in Plumstead

 

Valerie as a 11 year old schoolgirl

Why does the mention of Plumstead and Purrett Road Junior School, as it was formerly known in the ’50s, still bring a warm glow to my heart?

I lived on the Downham estate and attended a local school when my mother announced she was to have a ‘big operation in hospital’. In 1954, my sister Gillian was placed with one aunt and my brother Raymond and I were placed with another for six weeks; Auntie Ciss, short for Cecilia, who lived in Plumstead. This situation arose soon after we had resettled after a six months stay in the middle east where my father had been working. I was filled with excitement and fear. What adventures might lie ahead and would my mum be all right?

I liked Auntie Ciss. She soon introduced me to the local Public Baths, which I loved. Huge baths filled with steaming warm water, the usual medicated soap and clean towels. I could stay for a long time soaking and relaxing my cares away. Auntie also ushered me to the outside loo, which I hated.

Auntie had visited Purrett Road school to brief the staff thoroughly about my situation. She was a Scot and pronounced, to my young mind, Purrett as ‘Parrot’. This latter name I latched onto easily. To integrate smoothly into my new class the teacher, by way of introduction, encouraged me to tell stories about my recent travels and visits to market souks and stony, desert lands. My brother reminded me that we were also taught the descant to the hymn Crimond which seemed very advanced at the time.

Valerie at age 10 with her younger brother Raymond and her older sister Gillian.

However, to my astonishment these exotic places almost paled into insignificance when I discovered that there was little segregation between boys and girls. We played together and, most importantly, we partnered each other in country dancing, apparently with no embarrassment. This was a welcome revelation. For a short while, there was to be no more boys and girls sitting either side of a school hall for an excruciating length of time until the strain ruptured into girls moving to partner girls with the boys looking on.

Thank you Michael Box and Master Heinz for partnering me so well and thank you to my teacher who made my short stay so memorable. Finally, thank you Auntie Ciss, for the kindness and sensitivity you showed a worried little girl of 11 years and the generosity you showed my family until my mum was safely home again.

Valerie Cunningham, aged 11.

At St. Nicholas' Church in Plumstead where Auntie Ciss's son Ronnie married. Auntie Ciss (surname Strong) is to the left of Ronnie and Uncle Charlie to the left of her. My brother and myself are on the end of the front row - I am about 13 years old. My sister (16) is directly behind my brother (11) and my mum is behind her to the left. My dad is to the right of the bride.

Photos: Valerie Cunningham

 



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