Memories of St Paul’s Caretaker

Ron Holding tells us about his memories of St Paul’s CE Primary School, Primrose Hill…

I’m still wondering how many times I have opened gates, changed loo rolls; how many teachers, how many kids; I’ll work it out later.

My father-in-law was a school-keeper in Pimlico. He suggested I try for a job in a school. I had changed from being a chef to trying my hand in the building trade. Instead of mixing up custard and sauces, I was knocking up cement.

I went for my interview with Mr Simons (the Head) and the Governors, all eyes looking at me. I’d been trained to sit upright, hands in front and look ahead. I was petrified.

My wife Janette and I saw what was to be our future home next to the school. It was still being built, but had been pulled down twice. The first time the wall was at an angle and the second time they forgot the damp course. Third time lucky!

First day on the job, 1975

I started the job on 10 March 1975 in thick fog. I looked out of the window and heard a strange noise. It was my first sighting of the Royal Horse Artillery.

Ron and wife Janette

That first morning I met Harry Bristoe, my predecessor. He was wearing a brown coat and I thought “NO WAY am I going to be like Norman Potter in the old TV series, Please Sir.”

One of my first jobs was digging out the flower beds in front of the school. I dug down to my waist to clear it. We went to Tesco’s and paid 21p for roses. They are still there after all these years: Peace, Piccadilly and Red Princess.

Mr Simons used to walk round with his pipe in his mouth. It was never lit until school finished. Mrs Bennett, the School Secretary, smoked in the office. Miss Francis would be on playground duty with a cup of coffee in one hand, fag in the other. A child would run past her, up went the fag and cup and “BOY! Go and stand against the wall.”

I suggested to Mr Simons that we do a disco for the kids, as I was an established DJ. They continued for my whole time there.

Rex Price took over as Head. He had no sense of smell, so if a child had an accident in the toilets, he’d say, “Don’t worry Ron, I’ll do it.” I loved that man.

John Wilkinson

John Wilkinson joined us as Deputy Head. Oh boy, this was the start of something that changed St Paul’s. He arrived on his motorbike roaring into the car park. “Watcha,” he would say to everyone. He would take cricket and football wearing the shortest of shorts, causing a few comments from the mums.

He was a good friend of Roald Dahl, who came to our school one day. He sat waiting for the children to arrive and promptly lit a cigarette. I had to find an ashtray quickly, to stub it out before anyone came in.

At Christmas time, John and I would clippity clop over the roof pretending to be Santa’s reindeer. We got strange looks from people on the hill.

One sports day he tripped over a dad who received cracked ribs. The only time I raced him, we started running and a swift right arm sent me flying over the grass. I remember a child picking me up, and saying “That Mr Wilkinson, he MUST win all the time.”

John also liked being Batman. I had to go into the hall dressed as a baddie, tie up Katina the TA, and John would come and rescue her. All the kids were in hysterics.

John was promoted to Head after Rex retired. He wouldn’t believe me when I told him about Dunblane on the lunchtime news. And when we heard the 7/7 news, he told me to shut all the gates as he wanted to shut out the outside world.

There was a something about his presence. He could walk into a room and the children would quieten down, without any schhhhh-ing, which is the modern way of doing things. It was a thing he had. I wish I had it.

Losing Mark

The most traumatic experience was the loss of our beloved son Mark from a bowel tumour. When we learnt of his illness, John and all the staff were overwhelming with their support. We hired a boat on the Thames. The weather had been a bit lousy the week before, but lo and behold as we untied the boat and left, the sun came out and shone on us all week. I am not a holy person, but I liked to think someone was looking over us. A few weeks later, Mark lost his battle.

Next to the newsagent’s over the road were a chemist, greengrocer and bookmaker. I was in the chemist one morning when there was a gigantic bang and cracking noise. The shops dropped a foot into the ground. The vibrations from the trains had caused subsidence. The shops and flats above were quickly pulled down.

Silver Jubilee

At the Queens’s Silver Jubilee we had a party in the playground, followed by parents, children and staff racing on the hill. We went to Hyde Park, as all London children were invited to do a special country dance for the Queen. Afterwards I was taking photos, turned round and HRH was right behind me.

Country dancing was very popular and the children loved it. One day our new vicar, Richard Buck, walked in and saw them dancing round the maypole. He promptly told the Head to remove it as he thought it very pagan.

One day a stray kitten turned up outside our door. Whisky would sit in Year 5 on a child’s desk looking at the fish in the tank. One day, the child feeding the fish got distracted, turned his back, and Whisky legged it out of the class with the fish’s tail flapping out of his mouth.

We needed a portacabin for Year 6. Along came a crane and three lorries carrying the sections. It was an amazing sight, seeing them lifted over the main building of the school, and even more amazing that the children were sitting in the car park while the loads were going over their heads!

I had to call the police a few times, nothing major. Janette and I forged a good relationship with them, so much so that the doorbell would go with a “Ron, can we use the loo?” “Ron, any chance of a cuppa?”

When the first computer arrived at school, the screen was the size of a 26-inch telly and the keyboard was huge. No one could work out what to do with it. I think it just sat in the corner of the room, unused.

Eileen, lollypop lady

Eileen, our lollypop lady, would say that she had 220 children, and knew all their names. Sadly she had a heart attack at the crossing and died on the way to hospital. She was the Fairy Godmother in our Cinderella pantomime with the lines, “Cinderella, you shall go to the ball.” Every rehearsal, she forgot her words. We decided to write them on the back of her lollypop: it helped on the night, but she still had to put her glasses on!

One year a specialist surgeon played the Sherriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood. We had a dress rehearsal in the afternoon and he rushed back to Barts in full make-up to do an operation. He was singing his songs to the medical staff as he stitched up his patient.

We used to have a crate of paintings sent each month. One had colours splashed all over the canvas. I said, “It looks like a monkey has chucked paint all over it.” I looked later behind the picture, and it was indeed by a chimp.

At Mother’s Day concerts I always have a tear in my eye, especially when they sing “There is only one mother for me”.

At the Nativity the little angels wave at their parents, and children walk with candles, their faces aglow with concentration, the staff all hoping and praying that they don’t get too close to the person in front and set their hair alight ? it did happen once!

I remember our first Christmas Fair when we raised £200. Today it’s like a military operation, it’s so popular. We now incorporate it with our hugely successful Farmers’ Market.

In April 2011 we had a street party to celebrate the Royal Wedding: 220 children and parents in the playground eating lunch together.

On 11.11.11 Remembrance Day the children and staff formed a large square in the playground. I played the Last Post on our sound system and started to choke up. People watching in the park gave us a silent clap.

Olympic Volunteer

In 2012 I answered an advert for volunteers at the Olympics. During my interview I was asked why I wanted to take part. I said my Dad was a volunteer in the 1948 Olympics. I think this helped a little. Later I realised I was born during those Olympics. I drove athletes and VIPs around in a brand new BMW. I was so proud in the uniform, and very sad when it all finished.

Now I’ve had time to think about it: 1,666 pupils (I think); 6–8 toilet rolls a day (you work it out); umpteen cups of tea; and similar number of swearing under my breath.

All good things come to an end. Last summer I collapsed on a treadmill at the Royal Free. I needed stents and a pacemaker. That night my heart stopped for 14 seconds.

The months went by, getting myself back together again, missing the children in the school (yes, I did). Then I jumped out of bed and snapped my ankle.

It was a bad year, but the warmth from the children when they saw me made me quite emotional.

I have hung up my keys after 43 years of service. Maybe it’s time. The Governors and Head were very supportive, the parents and children I will sadly miss. I have many memories, some happy and some sad. St Paul’s will always be in my heart.

Article by Ron Holding
Photography by Sarah Louise Ramsay