Why did the mole cross the road?
So that he could talk to the lollypop lady, of course.
Lollypop ladies are human zebra crossings. The first ones started working outside primary schools in 1967. The safe crossing with the yellow globe had been introduced by Leslie Hors-Belisha in 1934; and the black and white striped zebra crossings, so named by Jim Callaghan, appeared in 1949. Subsequent species were given the names of birds: pelican, puffin and toucan.
The Primrose Hill lollypop lady is Tina Nardo. She has worked at Primrose Hill Primary School for thirty-five years – but we won’t reveal her actual age, because the children are always asking her how old she is, and she prefers to keep it a secret. Her roles in the school have included classroom assistant, lunchtime supervisor first responder (that’s first-aider to you and me), special needs assistant and assistant caretaker.
“When I started, there were two schools and two headteachers. Mrs Router was in charge of the infants and Mrs Mawson was head of the juniors. Then the two were combined with one head, Mrs Hestor. She was followed by Brian Melling, Kaushi Silva, Jane Hunter, Paul Campbell and now Robin Warren. Paul moved things around a bit. Now all the administration is on the ground floor: the office, the library, the dining room and kitchen and the staffroom. Upstairs you have a hall and classrooms on each floor.”
And therein lies a story. The 1870 Education Act decreed that there should be compulsory education for all children, and in 1871 London passed by-laws enabling the Act to become a reality, which meant that the School Board had to build new schools for 112,000 children. Edward Robert Robinson was the architect entrusted with this task. He created the ‘sermons in brick’ that are still to be seen around London. By 1873 twenty-eight schools had been completed. The Princess Road Board School was opened in 1886 with 900 pupils. Typically, the schools were ‘three-decker’ – a design reflecting their three divisions of pupils: infants on the ground floor, older girls and boys taught separately on the second and third floors.
Up till then schools were designed with very large classrooms in which several groups could be taught simultaneously by teacher-monitors, who were thus more easily supervised. These new schools had separate classrooms, arranged round a hall, each classroom with its own teacher. Walk into Primrose Hill School today and you will still see this arrangement.
But before the children enter the gate they have to be escorted safely across the road by Tina. “I love the children. Over the years there may have been a different ethnic mix, but not so much as you might think. To me a child is a child. My job is to see them safely across the road, but there is more to it than that. I know every child and their parents. I am there to welcome them, and they always have a smile and give me a ‘Hello, Tina.’ ”
Tina was born and brought up in Bermondsey in the post-war years. “It was lovely. Never any trouble. In my opinion, children today are not given enough freedom to explore. It’s the health and safety culture, and it’s not just in schools. They are molly-coddled; but we were free to play outdoors. The only thing that people told us not to do was play on the bombsites. My Nan and Granddad lived just across the road from us, and my brother and I went to school in Tower Bridge Road. When my Dad came out of the army, he became a driver picking up fruit and veg from the docks and delivering to local tradesmen. My Mum worked in an orthopaedic corset factory.”
After Tina left school, her first job was in a cork factory, but she could have had her pick of dozens of factories. Bermondsey was thriving. It was the centre of the leather industry; and they say a sixpence was a ‘tanner’ because that was the cost of a hansom cab from the City to Bermondsey. The Alaska leather factory was a huge employer of women, and the Metal Box Company was big. There were numerous timber merchants and foundries. It seemed that everything a community needed was made in Bermondsey. All gone now, of course.
So what kind of cork factory was it? If you mention cork, what do you think of first? Wine bottles, probably. But it wasn’t that kind of factory. Cork trees only grow in SW Europe and NW Africa, and even today Portugal produces half the world’s cork and the bulk of the stoppers for wine-bottles are still made there. So Tina’s factory was probably started by William Bussey, who moved to Bermondsey from Nottingham in 1882. Cork was imported and split in the factory. Probably the sheets of cork were then passed on to other factories. To make what? Floor tiles and noticeboards, for instance; but cork is also used for cricket balls, the joints of woodwind instruments, badminton shuttlecocks, the inside of pith-helmets, fishing floats, the handles of fishing rods and the handles of conductors’ batons.
So that was Tina’s life in Bermondsey then. “My Mum lived on in Bermondsey until she died in 2012. We could see when we went to visit her that it was nothing like what it used to be. We never had any trouble when we were little. But now it’s all police sirens and boys getting into trouble.”
After her first job, Tina moved to different companies, usually working in the office and the switchboard. There was no shortage of work in those days. “I worked in a travel-agents, making reservations. Then with a quantity surveyor near Carnaby Street. This was in the 1970s, which was a brilliant time. We had one incident when one of the boys was given money to put on a horse in the Grand National, but he thought it had no chance so he put it on another horse. Of course the original one went and won, and the poor boy was so scared he didn’t come into work for three days. Then I went to the Mirror Group, where I met a few celebrities – Billy Fury, Cilla Black. But I missed the Beatles. This was fifty years ago.”
Tina then married and moved to Ainger Road, to a flat that was taken over by Circle 33. They started a family, a daughter and son, and moved to Chalcot Road. The children went to Auden Place Nursery and then on to Primrose Hill School, until the family moved to Belsize Park.
And so time goes on. Morning and afternoon, every school day Tina is there with her lollypop. “I like the parents and I like the children, so it’s easy to relate to them. The job suits me. I’ve worked with children so long that it’s automatic.”
Article by The Mole on the Hill
Photography by Lars Christiansen