Peter described humble beginnings. He grew up on a council estate in London and painted a detailed picture of what he described as a ‘working-class childhood.’
“I think the term is ‘embourgeoisement.’ I would later become middle-class, but I was very much from a working-class family.”
“On the estate where I was born, we lived in a council house and the war was ending, and the thing that stuck in my memory was one end of the street putting a rope across, so that we, the working classes, couldn’t join in their celebrations. They didn’t want us in, and it was the first sign for me of differences between people – differences that mattered.”
“We only had two bedrooms. In one of the bedrooms, my sister, my two brothers and I slept – all together – for 20 years – and nobody thought anything about it. When I took my youngest son to the estate I grew up on, when he was about 11 or 12, he just couldn’t cope with the state of it. He couldn’t appreciate it.”
Peter recounted how his parents had grown up in poverty. They had been loving, devoted, and caring parents and he remembered them fondly.
“My father was too young for the First World War and too old for the Second, and I think he was a magnificent man, as with my mother. But he never had a ‘proper’ job… Well, he used to go around people’s houses collecting money for their coal. These were in the days of coal lorries coming along with horses and all the rest of it, rag and bone men. And he did that, all of his life, basically, and he used to work in a pub in the evenings.”
“He told me that where he grew up there was a house, built for people to…well, it was basically a ‘doss-house,’ in other words. And he used to tell me – and I had no reason for disbelieving him – that people would sleep on ropes, in a room, for sixpence or something, where you used to lean against a rope and sleep on it. I was fascinated that this was possible?!”
Peter’s father’s memories were indeed a reality for the homeless, exhausted, or too-drunk-to-make-it-home in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A ‘penny hang’ was, as Peter described, located in a cellar or basement. It commonly featured hooks in the walls, with ropes strung across from one side to another, at shoulder height. In the late evening, the homeless, drunk or exhausted, or those who had spent all their money, would enter the penny hang, pay a penny, and drape themselves over a rope, ‘sleeping’ as best they could (see picture).
A ‘penny hang’ where drunk, homeless, or exhausted people would sleep for the price of a penny.
Living through the war and working as a messenger boy.
Like many of his generation, the war was a part of Peter’s recollections. He felt that he had inevitably been affected by some of what he had been exposed to as a child.
“We went through the war years, yes, a bomb landed within five houses of us – people were killed. And down the next road, houses were destroyed, and we watched the bombers come over. And then the school was bombed, very close by, and all the children were killed. As a child, one never takes the whole thing in.”
“But I think I do in later life, actually. I’ve become quite neurotic about things. I have become increasingly neurotic over the course of my life – and I think the impact of the war years have played a role in that.”
“I guess it was always quite an exciting life really. I worked for five years as a messenger boy in London before I got my national service in the RAF. It was my first job on leaving school, at 14. My father came all the way to London with me and essentially got me the job – he saw it in the paper – a messenger boy – in central London. And my father came along and sat down in the interview with me, with the guy who was interviewing me. And I’d never seen a world like that before in the heart of the city of London. It was so nice – looking back now – that my father came to the interview with me.”
Peter worked as a messenger boy in central London.
After some years in the Air Force, Peter returned to work as a messenger boy in the city. However, he was quickly dismissed because he questioned the class system that was inherent in the city at the time.
“There was such a big class system – on the left-hand side of the door you had all the Eton boys coming in. And on the right-hand side the messenger boys went in through a small, less grand entrance, and we all knew our place and that sort of thing. I was picking up ideas about socialism and class, I think, and criticising it, and they didn’t like it – not one bit. And one day, I got the sack just like that! I never knew what I got the sack for – looking back it was because they saw me as somebody dangerous.”
“I challenged authority.”
At this point in his life, Peter discovered social work – a pathway in which he would forge a long and successful career that was deeply connected to his passion for social justice and equality.
“I used to read the New Society in my early twenties, you wouldn’t remember it, of course, I don’t think. It was taken over by the New Statesman. It was a lovely publication that looked at the sociology of Great Britain, and on the back pages they had lots of small adverts – not like the adverts today, but connection points. And one of them was from ‘Newbattle Abbey’ in Scotland, and it said “Do you want to come and do a year’s tuition? We’re a college for children who didn’t have an education when they were younger.”
“And so at 23 or 24, I went to Newbattle Abbey for a year, which completely transformed my life. And that got me into Technical College, where I met a marvellous lady who took me under her wing and managed to protect me during the two years of taking a Diploma in Social Studies, which again gave me a feeling and a sense of direction for Social Work.”
Newbattle Abbey Residential College for Adults
Breaking the mould and an abrupt ending.
The education he stumbled upon at Newbattle Abbey, in Peter’s opinion, gave him an opportunity to break the mould.
“I think if I’d never gone to Newbattle Abbey and studied, I would never have built up a sense of confidence to think “Well, I can do something else,” because it was just never known in my family. The job that my father took me to, as a messenger boy, was commonplace – and that’s where I would have ‘stopped’ progressing.”
“Then, suddenly, in my late twenties, I was working with people with terrible addictions. I did that for two years, and then I married, and we moved to my wife’s home city, and I went to the university and did a one year Social Work course which was great. I met some really nice people. I then worked for the local authority, went into teaching for a year at a university. Eventually, I became the team leader for Services for People with Learning Disabilities based in a hospital.”
Peter enjoyed a rich and interesting career in social work. Until it ended rather abruptly and unexpectedly.
“All of my life, until I was 55, I did a lot of emergency work as well as specialising in learning disabilities and community work. Then, one day, I was in a police car and this guy – through no fault of his own, he was very ill indeed – grabbed the wheel of the car and drove us all straight into a coach. He was killed instantly, and I woke up in hospital – the policeman was injured too.”
“And in an instant, that was the end of my career as a social worker, although they kept me on for a few years afterwards, managing as best I could with my injuries. Strangely, I probably did the best work of my life in those two years afterwards, when I wasn’t connected to a one-to-one approach to social work.”
Making a difference.
Peter is clearly passionate about social justice and making a difference in the world. When I asked him whether he felt that he had been able to ‘make a difference in his career, he answered:
“Yes, I really think we did. We could only do small things, of course. For example, we started thinking about social enterprises as a form of social work. I don’t know if you know, but social enterprises are not-for-profit companies that employ people with a range of disabilities or emotional health problems – people who wouldn’t get employment otherwise. And we managed to get them, in a small way, into some sort of paid employment, even though they were still on benefits.”
“It made us all think about the different world we could have, a world which could build these structures – and the enterprises are still going strong, all six or seven of them that we started – which could be an illustration to us all.”
“It’s about challenging the status quo, you see.”
Did you enjoy Peter’s story? Let us know in the comments below! To hear from others in the Extraordinary Lives series click here.
This is the first of many Extraordinary Stories to come. Guild Living is celebrating the extraordinary lives of older people living within our local communities through the ‘Extraordinary Lives Project’. We believe that every older person has an extraordinary story to tell, and we are excited to have the opportunity to bring to light the amazing life experiences of others.Interviews with those willing to share their experiences have been carried out under the supervision of Academic Researchers from the University of Bath.
Guild Living will exhibit and share the collection of wonderful stories on our website, on social media and in our interactive galleries, which will be set up in each of the towns and cities where our communities will be located.
Through capturing and presenting these stories, we will engage with local schools, community groups, charity organisations, and – most importantly – the locals where these older people live.
We are so excited to share these amazing stories with you and bring to light the amazing lives of older people right in our communities.