Our junior school, behind the Islington Town Hall in Upper Street, was once called Sebbon Street School but was ‘rebranded’ as William Tyndale just before I went there. The school toilets were austere as were the 1950s teaching methods. Most of the teachers responded with a nod if – after raising your hand and asking permission to visit the school yard toilets. Only one or two would wait until they saw you squirming at your desk would eventually let you go. The boys “bogs” as we called them in those days were basic, consisting of a row of twelve disgusting, stained pans, with wobbly seats or without any seat at all. These were semi-enclosed with wooden cubicles. All were in a state of disrepair. Those more discerning of us would bring squares of newspaper with us, or sheets of “Izal toilet paper (impregnated with germicide)” to school, in case we needed to use the toilets. Opposite each pan cubicles was a four foot high rendered slab of cement, with a china clay gutter at the base of the render used as the urinal receptacle. The whole place was obnoxious. Many of the cubicle doors were either hanging off or had no serviceable bolt. Privacy was impossible.
In between the boys bog and the girls in that twenty five yard long brick built block, there was a separate toilet specially reserved for any teacher on playground duty. That hallowed place had a Yale lock on the door and entrance to that particular toilet was forbidden, to us children.
In those days, almost all adults, (including teachers) smoked cigarettes! Mr Walker was renowned for his addiction to the weed and when on playground duty he would ‘chain’ smoke Woodbine cigarettes. Unsurprisingly when aged nine, I also tried to smoke. Smoking quickly became a habit I craved. I and two other school friends would hide away in the boys bog, to secretly smoke one or the two cigarettes we had bought at the local sweetshop. A full pack of five Weight’s would be sold at nine pence. However the danger was that at any moment, a teacher might decide to patrol the toilets and these patrols were well known.
Was it serendipity or just plain forgetfulness, but one dinnertime my two friends and I noticed a teacher (perhaps Mr Walker) had left the key to their private toilet in the lock. I can only assume the teacher must have ‘been caught short’ and forgotten to retrieve the key. The result was I quickly pocketed that precious key. Over the following months we three boys would sneak into the teacher’s lavatory to smoke. It was a bit crowded with three of us in there, but I was always careful to make sure I had engaged the locking button on the lock itself. This prevented any teachers entering the toilet.
Sure enough one day whilst we were in there, I heard the key being inserted into the lock. With my index finger in front of my lips I was saying to the other two “don’t make a sound”. It seemed like ages before whoever it was, gave up on rattling the door trying to get in. We waited a good fifteen minutes before we came out in case the teacher was waiting outside to catch us. To be honest, I was glad to be out of there as I imagined the fuss that would have followed had we have been caught. We subsequently decided, the danger was just not worth the privacy, of secret smoking. A week or so later, the school caretaker had changed the lock, which we knew by the bright shining new key plate. I was relieved to slip the key I had stolen down one of the playground surface water drain gulley’s.
A few days later, the heavens opened and the most terrifying thunder storm broke over Islington, teachers were dispatched to usher us kids out of the playground – but I was pleased that such a storm must have washed my ill-gotten gain (the key) to God knows where.