Places were found for me at Kings College in London, to study Spanish, and Birkbeck College (an evening college) to study Latin. At both colleges I should be an external student going in only for classes, two or three times a week for each, as I remember. I would have to have something else to do for the rest of my time, and I would have to live somewhere. At this point, another unfortunate choice was made. It would make sense for me to get some experience in the field of social welfare, as that was the occupation I was working towards. St Margaret's House Settlement, in Old Ford Road, Bethnal Green, was an independent charity established in Bethnal Green in 1889 to serve both the local and wider community. At that time it was staffed entirely by women, and it was not until 1953 that the Council decided that men could be resident at St. Margarets House as well as women. I would live there as a student and join in the Settlement's activities in the community, having time off to attend my classes in college.
There were two reasons why I did not fit in to this community. Firstly, I was expected to attend chapel on a daily basis, and I was deeply disapproved of for not wishing to do so. I was baptised into the same rather obscure non-conformist church that my mother's family belonged to (The New Church of Jerusalem), and my father was a Unitarian. But although I seem to recall attending church with my parents from time to time, they were not regular observers, and I was raised to believe in God in only a rather general way. At the age of 16 (two years earlier) I had come to the conclusion that the Christian God was not believable, and I have never changed from that position, although I continue to find it unsatisfying to take a purely rationalist and scientific view. I did eventually receive a grudging dispensation from attending chapel.
My rational mind was rampant, however, in regard to the other source of my dissatisfaction. The women residents, all of mature years, as distinct from myself and the other students, appeared to be held tightly in the moral grip of the warden, a highly intelligent woman but with not much of the warmth of humanity that I could detect. The code of manners at table appeared to be dictated by her:
- you must not ask for something to be passed to you, but must wait for your need to be noticed by your neighbour;
- between courses each person must carry her own dirty plate into the kitchen, regardless of the chaos it caused in the kitchen for the cook; there was no question of stacking plates for one or two to carry;
- if boiled eggs were on offer everyone must open them at the narrow end, because that was the proper way to do it.
The first of these I can now view as a useful discipline for instilling into the selfish minds of adolescents a caring attitude towards others. The other two remain totally unjustified by any sort of reasoning that I can think of, and I remain indignant to this day at the thought of these mature women meekly opening their eggs in the way that they were told to.
[Dancing was certainly not encouraged in my day! St Margaret's was a dour and dreary place. Cartoon from the website of the present day St Margaret's House Settlement.]