Sunday, 1 March 2009

Best of British Article

Of Cuckoos and Conkers


(From 'Yesterday Remembered' article in Best of British magazine, February 2009 Edition)


First Installment


If you ever meet someone who says they come from the Cuckoo Estate, you can bet serious money that, within three minutes, they will tell you that Charlie Chaplin is the most famous Cuckooite.  Technically, that isn't true.


The estate was built during the 1930s, to re-house families from the more deprived areas of London.  The modern houses were regarded by the new residents as dreams come true.  They had front and rear gardens, two or three bedrooms, an indoor toilet and a bathroom that made tin baths redundant.


On the eastern boundary were fields where we could play football, climb trees or paddle in the pond.  To the south was the River Brent, where we fished for sticklebacks and retrieved golf balls, which could be sold back to careless golfers.  It was also where most of us learned to swim before we could afford the luxury of the local swimming baths.


The pride of the estate was Cuckoo Avenue, which was really two roads, running from north to south.  A tarmac walk down the centre, bordered by horse chestnut trees, was a prime site for those of us who were into conker tournaments. 


At the northern end of the avenue was what we called the Old Cuckoo School.  A huge Victorian building, surmounted by a clock tower, it had originally been built in 1856, as the Central London District School, a Poor Law school for children of destitute families and orphans.  This provides the connection with Charlie Chaplin who, along with his brother Sydney, was sent there when their mother was unable to care for them.  They attended the school from 1896 until 1898, so were never aware of the estate, which was built on land purchased from the establishment.  However, we all need a hero and Charlie is our claim to fame.




Second Installment


With the outbreak of war, the already tight-knit community became even more united and formed groups, among their neighbours, to help in digging out the ground, mixing cement and erecting Anderson shelters.


As the Blitz progressed, I ended up being evacuated to Wales.  The only problem I had there was when my new teacher asked me to stand up and introduce myself to my classmates.  From then on, I was followed everywhere by cries of 'Cuck-ooo!', which sounds even worse with a Welsh accent.


A year later, when I heard that my father, who was in a reserve occupation, had decided to enlist in the Army, I opted to go home.  Three months later, we were bombed out, and I spent 18 months with an aunt in Hertfordshire, before our house was made safe enough to move back.  By then I was old enough to go into the Senior Boys School, and always remember the woodwork teacher telling us to gather any timber from recently bombed houses to provide material for carpentry lessons.


I was elected to become the milk monitor, which involved helping a lady set out fifty beakers and fill them from churns, one third of a gill to each beaker.  Then I'd go off to summon the first class to the hall, return the beakers, refill them, and dash off for the next class.  This activity took up most of the morning, so I missed a lot of lessons.


Underground air raid shelters had been built in a field opposite the playground and, during the doodlebug siege, I became the sweet monitor.  If we sat down there for one hour, a teacher would produce a cake tin full of wine gums, and I had to hand one out to each boy, asking which colour they preferred, before digging around to select one and handing it over.  Grubby hands were never taken into consideration.




Third Installment


When the war ended, we had the most spectacular street parties, the bonfires doing more damage to the roads then the Luftwaffe.  The Old Cuckoo School became a youth club, among other things, and some of the rooms were rented out.  Many years later, in 1969, a rock group named Deep Purple used one of them to rehearse their first big hit.  At about the same time, another group named Spice also rented a room, overheard what Deep Purple were doing and, under their influence, became Uriah Heep.


As we grew into adolescence, many of the girls married American servicemen from a local Air Force base, which prompted their siblings also to leave home.  This exodus became known as 'moving beyond the Brent'.


A few years ago, two of the expats in American met up and, after holding a nostalgic reunion and swapping memories of the Estate, decided to set up a website seeking other former residents (  We now have a flourishing site with Cuckooites from all over the world recalling those times we had as children, and how we've moved on to new horizons and experiences. A crest was designed with the slogan, 'Beyond the Brent,' which has now been developed as a lapel badge or brooch. Last year a book was produced called, Memories of the Past,' which has been compiled from comments and photographs sent in by many people and, last year, a third reunion party was held in Our oldest surviving member is 102.


These days a lot of the houses are privately owned and, where a car used to be a rare sight, parking is now at a premium.  The Old Cuckoo School is still up and running and due for a major refit, and the White Hart, the local pub, continues to thrive.  If those of us that look back to our childhood have any concerns it is for our beloved conker trees, which apparently are falling foul of some disease.  I suppose that today, when youngsters have so many other ways to occupy their time, not many of those brown jems are employed to bruise knuckles, but we bore the scars with pride.


I have always wondered why the estate was called 'Cuckoo' because I can never remember hearing one in the twenty years I lived there.  No doubt someone will post a comment on our website to say that they heard them all the time.  We shall see.



Written by Derek Southon, Hadleigh, Suffolk


Ethel (Stevens) Damian said...

Wonderful write up Del. Congratulations.
Must answer your comment on why the estate was called 'Cuckoo'. In the Victorian era orphanages were named after the bird (the cuckoo) who drops her eggs in other birds nests for them to hatch and raise. Hence the name for the old Cuckoo school, and then the estate that was built around it.

Del said...

Eff, thanks a lot for that answer, I guess that it was logical when you think of the bird fostering out its young for someone else to bring up. I wonder how many of our gang knew that? Hope you're still enjoying the trek, Del.

Val B said...

Loved reading your article Del, but then as you know I am your number 1 fan. Interesting to hear from Eff the origins of our estate's name and it does make sense.
I remember when I was at Cuckoo Junior Girls and they changed the name to Brentside, rhe heading in the local paper said "School changes name to save schoolgirls' blushes". We apparently didn't like being called cuckoos.
Well I for one didn't mind and to this day I am proud to say I went to Cuckoo girls and lived on the Cuckoo estate.

Del said...

I know what you mean, Val. For years, though Cuckoo Infants, juniors and senior boys, I put up with the Cuckoo label. The powers that be waited until I left school and then changed it to Brentside. Looking back now I think that the original name was more distinctive. Del.

jim davis said...

Leave it out Del we understood you the first time. Also it is nice to see you back off your holiday Valb

tags said...

The School was originally located somewhere else and called The Norwood School.
However,In 1854, the school managers debated both extending the existing school, or transferring it to a larger site elsewhere. They eventually decided on the latter course and a 136-acre site was purchased at Hanwell for £13,000. The foundation stone of the new building was laid in in September 1856 as reported by the Illustrated London News


and type Cuckoo in their search box.

tags said...

Eff's version of why it was called The Cuckoo Schools is somewhat true as many orphanages were called Cuckoo Schools for the reason she gave. But it was not the case for The Old Cuckoo Schools otherwise named The Central London District School for the Poor.
In our case the School was called The Cuckoo Schools after an old name for the area it was built on.
It was originally the Norwood School and located elsewhere, but the new buildings, designed by the partnership of Tress and Chambers, were erected between 1856 and 1861 at a cost of £45,000. The Hanwell Schools, which also became known as the "Cuckoo" Schools (after an old name for the area), received their first admissions at the end of 1856. A total of 1,200 children could be accommodated on the site.

Val B said...

Jim you know darn well that I can't go on holiday while the mutt is so young. I've been busy with Blind Bowlers trying to raise the funds for new short mats. Nearly reached the target amount now so have taken a chance and sent the order off.

Grace said...

Great Article Del was that sreet party in greatdown,i remember i was to old to sit at the table so i was helping to serve the food ,and being a general dogs body but had a great time

Del said...

Grace, I don'tknow where that party was, it appeared on the site some time ago. I did query it with Tommy but he didn't know either. So, whomever sent it in, where was it? Del

jim davis said...

Valb if you think the mutt is too young, then just leave Ken at home and take the dog with you instead.

tags said...

Check this out, then type Cuckoo in the search box, then click on the Hanwell's Central London District School, scroll down and see the original drawing of the school.

Val B said...

Jim have you got a touch of the Dr A's? My partner is Frank - REMEMBER. Ken is my brother unless of course you thought you were talking to Yvonne.
The mutt stays where he is for six months then we will see.

jim davis said...

Sorry Val I have called Frank, Ken more than once. I seem to have a mental block re' Franks name. I am sure I am getting him mixed up with your brother. Silly me.

jim davis said...

Talking about Frank. There were two little old ladies that shared a bed. Let us call them Val & Yvonne. Well one night after laying there awake for some time. Val said, "Yvonne I want to be frank with you tonight," Yvonne replied, "Oh no you won't, It's my turn to be Frank you was Frank last night." Sorry Frank.

Scarlet said...

Frankly I don't give a damn!

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