May 2009

A load of tyres had been found in a garage adjoining the play site.  The door had been broken open a long time before, and these tyres appeared inside.  The children had brought them up, rolling them out of the garage and stacking against the wall between, climbing up and throwing them over.  Smaller children puffed, pushing black rubber hoops as big as they were in the gaps between school and tea, and on the weekends.


There were fifty or more of these tyres sent rolling across the tarmac and falling one on top of the other.  When we arrived they were scattered, some stacked into tall tubes, some in little conversational heaps.

“We made the best clubhouse out of these,” one girl told me, pointing at where it had been.  “We piled up loads and made walls, there were jails to put people in and you could climb really high to look out.  It was a wheel house.  We went to the little shop to buy some food but we didn’t have enough money, but this nice lady bought us a big chocolate bar, and we all came back to eat it.

Later the children piled them up to clamber over, in a giant wobbling heap that caught at ankles and stained the palms with rubber.  They sat at the top, chatting and giggling, before dismantling the whole thing and rolling them out of the centre, towards the wall or back down the hill.

By the next week they were gone, and the new enthusiasm was sliding down a paved slope on cardboard sleds.


I am lucky enough to live in a relatively quiet part of town.  There are large council estates all around and certainly many barriers to children’s playing outdoors, but at the end of my road is a little dead-end street faced by kitchen windows, where children kick balls, whisper in doorways and blow bubbles.  This is rare, particularly in London, and gives me the vague impression at times of walking past the 1950’s.  Opposite them is a small rectangular green where children play football with their friends or fathers, where mothers push babies and toddlers stumble through the grass.  This little green has been identified as a Pathfinder play space and is currently receiving a makeover.

It’s on my way to the local tube station, so I pass it most mornings and evenings.  I see it in occasional afternoons too, walking through a sea of children headed home from school, and I have watched the changes of this Pathfinder site in slices, like stop-motion photography.

First came the Herras fencing, in big and detachable sheets that dog walkers and children squeezed around, muttering.  There was a general air of Something About to Happen, even though nothing as yet had.

They tore a curving line through the turf, one that didn’t seem to connect with the entrances and exits and did not follow the desire lines people had made over time.  It did seem a generous shape, however, and was suggestive of further alterations.

Bits of inexplicable play equipment began to arrive, twisted pipes that lay in clattery stacks against a tree, sheets of metal.

Rocks and rubble were deposited by the truck load, and at this point there were children there whenever I passed, before school, after school and all weekend, throwing dirt at one another and kicking the stones into piles and out again.  It was an unintended but glorious demonstration of loose parts theory.

This I did not see, but my housemate told me she had passed a police officer shouting at some children there, “You, throwing rocks!  Stop that now!  I can see you!”

Dirt came again, massive piles of it that were shifted into a small mountain over the rubble and scattered into sweeping drifts that had small leafy plants plugged into them at regular intervals.  A slide was set up, one end firmly embedded in the mound of earth.

Bank Holiday Weekend – the last day of the financial year and the busiest at our green.  The dirt mound was covered in turf, flowers stuffed into the earth, signs erected ‘Play Here’ and the twisted metal fences removed.  It was open!  The children came and scrambled all over it.

But new turf needs to be watered daily, and no workers came for a week.  The rectangles of turf dried and shrank almost immediately, leaving gaps like brown grouting between them.  They let go of the earth then, and slid one down against the other like the scales of a fish, slipping under children’s feet as they returned to climb.  The kids just laughed and dared one another to charge up the hill, fell-running.

The children took the sheets of turf and held them in front of their feet, sliding down the hill and shouting “magic carpet!” until the loose parts were all exhausted.  The turf crumpled at the base, leaving the dirt exposed.  The flowers were dry and their petals falling to pot pourri.

Once the moveable elements were exhausted, the children stopped coming.

This morning I came past again and saw that workers had relaid the turf in a new, crossways pattern, and set up a watering system at the top.  The dying plants had been removed and new ones set out, still in their pots, to replace them.  The workers were sitting on a new bench they had installed, eating sandwiches before dusting the crumbs off themselves and setting about the play space.


Clara Ellen Grant (1867 – 1949)

Clara Grant was a primary school teacher and settlement worker in London’s East End, who moved from the West Country to Bow at the turn of the last century.  She became Head Teacher at the Infant’s School in Devon’s Road in 1900, quickly instituting a number of thoughtful changes that directly improved the lives of the children in her care.

She revised class room techniques of structure and punishment, provided a hot breakfast for the children in her care, supplied them with some clothes and shoes and – most famously – created and distributed Farthing Bundles.  Intended to provide children with toys to call their own, they were available for a token cost and the proceeds were directed back into the Settlement funds.  These packages eventually earned her the affectionate nickname of the Bundle Woman of Bow.

“Farthing bundles are full of very human things such as children love,” Clara explained. “Tiny toys of wood, or tin, whole or broken, little balls, doll-less heads or head-less dolls, whistles, shells, beads, reels, marbles, fancy boxes, decorated pill boxes, scraps of patchwork, odds and ends of silk or wool, coloured paper for dressing up, cigarette cards and scraps.”


Queuing for Farthing Bundles in Fern Street, 1930s

These proved so popular that children were queuing up from quarter to seven in the morning, even though they only went on sale from eight.  They tried various methods of limiting the numbers but they were still selling far more than was practical and in 1913 the famous wooden arch was introduced.  Emblazoned with the legend “Enter Now Ye Children Small, None Can Come Who Are Too Tall”, this limited the bundles to the youngest residents.

She died in 1949, shortly after receiving an OBE from, but farthing bundles were sold until 1984, the school was renamed the Clara Grant Primary School in 1993 and the Fern Street Settlement continues as a centre for the local communities  to this day.

Her grave is in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, with a head stone in the shape of an open book.  I recently went past it, and saw someone had added this wooden arch, in memory of one of the remarkable people who dedicated their lives to improving those of their neighbors in London’s East End.


For more information on Clara Grant, there are some links below: