George Hawkins shares his 1950s Borough Polytechnic memories

In this profile, written by his daughter Michelle Hawkins, George Hawkins shares his experience as a student who graduated in 1953 at The Borough Polytechnic, now LSBU, detailing some of his favourite memories.

George Hawkins was born in 1929 in Deptford, south London. His father worked for Calders Docks and Hays Docks, Bermondsey, and his mother worked as an ambulance driver. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, George was studying for the ‘10+’ exam, a precursor to the ‘11+’, for grammar school selection. He recalls German planes flying overhead at Blackheath, many nights spent in an Anderson air raid shelter with his parents, and being evacuated to Folkestone which, ironically, was more of a bombing target than London! George was one of the South London Emergency Grammar Boys (SLEGS) who won a scholarship to a grammar school. Local councillor Herbert Morrison, later a Member of Parliament, instigated this SLEGS initiative. Herbert Morrison was also responsible for organising the Festival of Britain 1951 on London’s South Bank.

Outside of school, George joined the Air Training Cadets and later the Sea Cadets. He has fond memories of helping out at the local airfields where Spitfires and other now-iconic planes were based; as well as developing a lifelong love of boats, sailing and the sea. He received his School Certificate at 17 years old, and his first job was at Coates Brothers in Bromley, Kent. Founded in the City of London in 1877, Coates Brothers were initially general suppliers to the print trade but were soon specialising in printing inks. The company moved to Kent in 1936. In 1946, George's fledgling career there involved being trained in the chemical composition of paints, inks and varnishes. But this was interrupted when he joined the Army in 1947 to start his National Service in Cattrick, Yorkshire with the 8th Royal Tank Regiment. This mandatory two-year service was extended to a posting to Europe for another six months. When George returned to work at Coates Brothers in 1949, who had kindly kept his job open for him, the company encouraged him and the other laboratory lads to go to evening classes. They were given every Friday afternoon off to study at Borough Polytechnic, which is now called London South Bank University.

The company paid George's fares and fees for five years. George recalls: "It was a very valuable start because full-time studying was not universally available." He said: "The Borough Polytechnic was not a campus. The teaching rooms were spread around different buildings on the south bank of the Thames. It involved a mixture of practical work in a laboratory, lectures in a small hall and classrooms, and studying at home with books. I bought all my books secondhand." After completing his working week by studying every Friday afternoon and evening at the Polytechnic, George and his friends would gather at an Italian cafe called Ronchetti's on the nearby London Road, SE1. George said "The Italian owners were friendly and welcoming. It was warm and cosy, and a popular place for students to have a cup of tea and a light snack together afterwards."

After studying hard alongside his job for many years, George completed the course and was presented with ‘The City & Guilds Insignia Award’ in 1953. It was the equivalent of a chemistry degree in the technology of pigments, paints, varnishes and lacquers. The ceremony was held in the Hall with the Principal of Borough Polytechnic and it was an extremely proud day for George and his parents. He was the first person in his wider family to obtain a higher education qualification. It was the beginning of an exciting career that would lead him, his wife Sylvia and his young family from London to Berkshire to Belgium, back to Berkshire to Hampshire, and on to Surrey, where he now lives. George remains as curious as ever about so many topics, which has run in parallel with his passion for lifelong learning, manifesting itself through his always being an enthusiastic reader. This commendable trait has been passed on to his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Fast forward to today, and George Hawkins is 93 years old. He is pictured above, delighted to have recently received a commemorative book of 120 years of London South Bank University, which gave him such a great start. "What a beautiful book," he said. "It's so interesting to see how the Borough Polytechnic has grown and changed. Thank you for such a wonderful gift."


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