In 1972 teacher Lois Acton started an ambitious and radical free school in Bermondsey that was outside of mainstream education – it was a school with no rules and after decades she met up last Saturday with her former pupils, writes Michael Holland…

Lois Acton is an activist extraordinaire. She has been on the side of doing good for just about all her life, campaigning for local communities, decent housing and good education. Her early years were spent in relative comfort up until her father was caught in a bomb blast and was unable to work again.

“I saw straightaway how those neighbours who were once friendly and polite treated us differently now that we were not well off,” she said. These memories are what pushed Lois towards always trying to help those who were in need of it.

As we talk, Lois and her daughter are filling up tables and notice boards in the Bermondsey Village Hall off Bermondsey Street with cuttings, photos, books and other paraphernalia from The Lamp Post School, the project she began for kids hanging about outside her Bermondsey Street flat with nothing to do. It is the 50th Anniversary of the school and she was preparing for the arrival of those who were once students to come and relive those happy times with people they have not seen for many years.

 

The school, in her flat, quickly grew into a phenomenon as she tore up the school curriculum and rule book to teach these young people in a different way. She left her job nearby comprehensive Alywin Girls School to set up on her own to help these young, unguided people. More time would be spent going to the theatre and museums than poring over books in classrooms, and they all had more one-to-one teaching than they ever had in a mainstream class. They had all been told they would not amount to much and been thrown on the scrapheap of life – Until Lois Acton stepped in.

She told of one 14-year-old boy’s eagerness to be a mechanic so she lied about his age and got him on a college course for over 16s. He now not only runs his own garage just yards from where the Lamp Post School was but owns the whole building. She told the tale of the young girl who could not stand school – or the way that she was taught – but is now the headteacher for two schools!

The reunion last Saturday

Lois was keen to tell of how well some of her former students did but also wanted to emphasise the amount of help she had from the most surprising people. “The Midland Bank manager next door used to help with the accounts and fundraising,” she recalled. “The Young Vic would give us free tickets, well-known actors would come and help the kids put plays on after we built a stage out of palettes on some waste ground, and the young teachers who came to work with me deserve all the praise they can get.”

As the time got nearer to two o’clock you could see Lois getting excited about seeing her ‘Lamp Post Kids’ again, and as they arrived in their ones and twos and with their own children you could see how pleased they were to see her.

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The News spoke to them about their Lamp Post experiences. Kim Barker, who after hearing about the free school on a BBC programme, contacted Lois and begged to be taken on, even though she lived out of the borough. Kim stayed for three years and remembers being allowed to focus on the journalism that she was interested in: “Lois took me to Fleet Street and I saw how a newspaper was put together, she introduced me to journalists, and got me to interview local people during the power cuts in the 70s to write a piece for a magazine.” Now she says, “I am so grateful for Lois starting the Lamp Post School because it changed my life and I don’t know what would have happened to me.”

Christine Rowe remembers Lois “taking us kids off the estate camping and giving us cookery lessons in her flat above the post office.”

Gary & Carleen Beadle

Gary Beadle attended the school with his big brother Rikki and little sister Carleen, all of whom are in the acting world. “We (the Beadles) encountered Lois in Bermondsey Street one day and she just took us on! She let us do cooking and painting in her flat, and took us to art exhibitions… She inspired us culturally and artistically and is a big mentor in my life… She put us in touch with the history of who we are at the British Museum, and stuff like that, but above all that she would always be kind, always the soft, guiding hand that gave us a moral compass. Without her, I don’t know where I would have ended up! She taught me and my siblings how to harness the energy we all had; she directed my life in a positive way and I am forever grateful.”

Gary’s biggest memory is coming from the local Snowsfields school and being unable to read and write. “I went to Lois and asked her to help me read and write and within a summer I could!” On Lois, he remembers how she would always give people her attention and give them confidence. “She never left anyone out to feel that they were a lost cause, as many had been told, and that was vital in helping us in life. I have a lot to thank her for.”

Alongside friends, neighbours and other activists she set up the Bermondsey Street Association and staged the first street festival in the 1970s – now an annual event, the electricity coming via a long cable from her flat at the junction of Morocco Street. Lois Acton still fights on. Currently, she is trying to save the Beormund Centre on Druid Street, Bermondsey from being developed and have it reopened as the community centre it was purpose-built for.

The Bermondsey Lamp Post School is currently featured in an free exhibition called ‘We Don’t Need No Education’ at Southwark Heritage Centre, 147 Walworth Road to find out more HERE

You can also watch the 1973 Lamp Post documentary on You Tube by clicking above at the top of the article or go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ckLNTTr4spw