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Vol. LXIV, No. 9
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
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Princeton Personality by Jean Stratton

GLADLY LEARN AND GLADLY TEACH: “To be successful, you have to love what you do. Initially, I didn’t think I would like teaching, but I did. It gives you satisfaction to do something well. I got to love teaching and being able to put things in a way that kids could understand.” Gwen Southgate, author of “Coin Street Chronicles”, taught high school physics, chemistry, and general science, before writing her memoir.

Gwen Southgate’s Remarkable Journey Takes Her From 1930s-40s London’s South Bank to Princeton

“Not fer the likes of us,” said Gwen Southgate’s mother when Gwen wanted to apply for a library card in London in the 1930s.

“Why do yew say the Public Lib’ry ain’t for the likes of us?’ questioned Gwen.

“ ’Cos yew ’ave to pay fines if yew ferget to take lib’ry books back on time. An’ we ain’t got money fer no fines. It’s ‘ard enough puttin’ food on the table ev’ry day without that, thank yew very much!” replied May Redfern to her daughter.

“Not for the likes of us” is a recurrent theme throughout Gwen Southgate’s book Coin Street Chronicles. The memoir recounts her girlhood in the then impoverished south bank in London’s Waterloo area, her experiences as an evacuee during World War II, which took her out of London, offering her new experiences and opportunities, and ultimately, the revelation of education, the saving grace to a girl who was curious, aware, and eager to learn.

“In Waterloo, I knew no adult who had been in school after the age of 13. They just went to work,” says Ms. Southgate. “And the parents expected their children to do the same. I didn’t know that things could be any different. I didn’t even know what a college was until I was 16.

Bowled Over

“I had never seen a dictionary until I started taking French when I was 11,” she continues. “I was just bowled over! And that was a French-English dictionary. Then, I saw a Latin-English dictionary. I didn’t see a real English dictionary until I was 12. Up to that time, I had to figure out every new word from the context. I never knew you could just look it up.

“I was lucky with my parents though. My dad saw the value of education, and my mother was feisty and determined. I was able to escape because of my parents, my teachers, and being evacuated during the war.”

Gwen was born to Joe and May Redfern in London in 1929 in a one-room flat on Coin Street on the south bank of the river Thames. Younger siblings included brother Derek and sister Maureen. A young cousin, Bertie, also lived with the family.

They managed in cramped quarters, without hot water, heat, indoor plumbing, and often with no electricity. Struggling to survive in Depression era London, especially in that poor industrial section of the city, took energy, effort, and endless determination. Expectations of moving on to a better life were rare.

The family moved to six different locations — all in London — before the war (1939), trying to improve their accommodations, but one seemed little better than the last, and they continually faced the same hardships.

Despite this, there is a tone of optimism and resilience in Ms. Southgate’s book, which features a variety of colorful and memorable friends and relatives, especially her parents.

Old Vic

“Most of the adults in Waterloo had been born and bred there, but not my parents,” she says. “My mother was born in Portslade in Sussex on England’s south coast. My dad grew up in an orphanage that was probably in London. Both of them left school at 13. My mother went into service as a skivvy, and dad became a construction laborer.

“He read Shakespeare though, and when he might have enough money, he went to a play at the Old Vic. He had a set of Dickens’ works, and there were Grimm’s Fairy Tales and later, Anderson’s Fairy Tales, for me. Other than an occasional newspaper he brought home, these were the only written materials in the house.

“But he taught me to read, and he liked to do crossword puzzles, even winning a crossword puzzle contest. My mother later told me that Dad, who had been gassed in World War I and was not in good health, had said to her to make sure I had as much education as could benefit me.”

Gwen liked school from the very beginning, and right away that set her apart from many of her peers in school and her neighborhood. “I was like a sponge, absorbing everything.” She admired her teachers, who were instrumental in helping her on her ultimate journey out of Waterloo and its wrenching poverty.

“Mr. Pascoe, the headmaster of my elementary school, and Miss Ashley, headmistress of my grammar (high school) and a Latin scholar, were especially important to me,” she remembers.

Because Gwen enjoyed school and was a good student, she was different from her classmates. For them, school was basically something they had to do until they were 14, when most of them would go to work. She was taunted with “Teacher’s Pet” and “Book Worm”.

Clean Clothes

“I just wasn’t a good fit with them,” says Ms. Southgate. And because her mother insisted that she and her brother and cousin had carefully-brushed hair and wore clean clothes, school mates called her “Miss ‘Oity-Toity and “Stuck-up”.

In addition, she was plump as a child and teen, and the other girls teased her mercilessly — often cruelly — about her weight, and excluded her from playground group games. “There goes ‘ol fat’y! ‘Ol fat’y Arbuckle!” they would shout at her.

But there were good times, too. Playing hopscotch, jumping rope, and roller skating with the nicer neighborhood children, games with her brother and cousin, and listening to her mother’s humorous stories and poems.

“I was also occasionally taken to the movies by friends and relatives, and I adored Shirley Temple. I’d have given anything to be like her,” remembers Ms. Southgate with a smile. “I saw at least two of her movies, and in one, the most astonishing thing was that she had a black mammy. That set me back. I had never seen a black person before.”

Birthday Present

There were also rare trips to the seashore and occasional picnics, but by and large, Gwen was left to her own devices to create her own entertainment with her favorite doll or even with a variety of buttons. She also read Grimm’s Fairy Tales over and over again.

An unimagined birthday present was given to Gwen on her fifth birthday, when her mother presented her with a new dress, a copy of one they had admired in a store window, that she had then handsewn for Gwen. In addition, her one good friend was invited to tea. “There were no candles, no gift-wrapped presents, no party games,” remembers Ms. Southgate. “but none of these were missed, since we had no idea that they were the traditional trappings of birthday parties.

“At age five, I was blissfully unaware of such niceties; indeed, I was thrilled out of my tiny mind just to have a friend to tea; and iced cupcakes were another unlooked-for splendid treat.”

Another birthday was totally different. When she was eight, her father died, and this was a terrible blow. He had been especially supportive of her, and she missed their walks and favorite times spent reading together.

“It took several months to grasp the full implications of my fatherless state,” writes Ms. Southgate in Coin Street Chronicles. “No more evenings on Dad’s lap, reading a newspaper to him; or him reading to me and introducing me to the delights of the written word; no more Sunday walks with him, in St. James’s Park or through the quiet, echoing streets of the City of London ….

“As these realizations washed over me, one by one, in the months after my father died, I felt an overwhelming sense of loss.”

New Places

In 1939, war began in Europe, and with it, came dramatic changes in Gwen’s life. Like so many children in London, Gwen, her brother, and cousin were evacuated to safer locations, including a farm in Dorset and a mining town in Wales. She moved eight times during the war, and it had a profound effect on her.

“The evacuation gave me a different perspective. It literally broadened my horizons. I went to new places, new schools, and met new people. Except for the teachers who had come with us and some of the children, I was with total strangers. And, I had never seen anything like Dorset — it was lovely and green, with lots of sunshine. I was happy there.

“There was a background of serious worry, of course; but basically, we were very stoic, and we did go home on school holidays.”

She was aware of the bombings in London and the many casualties, but fortunately, Gwen’s mother and other family members survived.

It was during the war that, with the help of her teachers, Gwen began to lose the Cockney-type accent prevalent in Waterloo.

Waterloo Area

“It really hadn’t occurred to me to lose the accent,” she recalls. “I was aware that the written words in books were different, and I wrote differently, but my speech was typical of the Waterloo area. England was such a class society that no one who spoke like that would have opportunities to move up. ‘Not for the likes of us!’ With the help of my teachers, I learned to speak differently.”

Gwen went on to distinguish herself in her new school, where she felt comfortable not only with the academic curriculum but with her classmates. As she reports in Coin Street Chronicles, “To my delight, it was fast becoming apparent that I ‘fit’ in this new school in a way that I never had in Hatfield Street School (elementary school). At last! I was in a world of like-minded girls, girls with whom I had interests in common and who laughed at the same things.”

She especially enjoyed French and Latin in which she excelled, and later, she was introduced to physics and chemistry. She began to think of switching to the sciences as her field of study, believing it would offer more opportunities in the work force.

Attending college was nearly unheard of for someone from her background, but again, with the help of teachers, and her own ability, she was able to pass the entrance exams and received a grant covering three years at Bedford College at London University in Regent’s Park.

“It wasn’t easy to get into university then,” recalls Ms. Southgate. “It was 1947, and the country was flooded with military servicemen from the war. They were the first to be offered places. I remember my mother saying, though, ‘If you c’n do it, get on wiv’ it.’

“I felt very proud when I was able to go. Before I knew I was definitely going, it was a tantalizing thing that seemed just out of reach.”

Academic Challenge

Gwen loved it! “I liked the academic challenge and also feeling grown-up and independent. The time at college was wonderful. I discovered ballet, concerts, theatre, opera — all for the first time!”

She earned a degree in physics and math, and then in 1950, went to work in an electronics research laboratory in London. For the first time in her life, she laughs, she was surrounded by men.

“They were all men in the lab, and they were extraordinarily nice to me.”

One especially. It was there that she met her husband, David Southgate, a physicist.

Married in 1952, Ms. Southgate continued to work at the lab until the birth of the couple’s first child, Diana, who was later followed by their son Tim.

In 1959, David Southgate, who was working in solid state physics, received a job offer in Chicago, and the family made the huge decision to move to the U.S. “It was the time of the ‘Brain Drain’ to the U.S.,” notes Ms. Southgate, “and I’m not sure I thought of the move as permanent. However, I think it was easier for me jumping into a new world. I’d been doing that before. I had lived in so many places, I was used to change, and was very adaptable.”

They lived in Chicago for seven years, and two more children, Jennifer and Jill, were born there.

The Southgates liked Chicago, where they had made many friends, but then a job offer came from RCA Labs, and they settled in Princeton.

They really felt at home right away, reports Ms. Southgate. “I loved the scenery in Princeton. It reminded me of England, and Princeton seemed to have an English flavor. It felt like home, and I reconnected with history.”

Volunteer Activities

In Princeton, Ms. Southgate was involved in a variety of activities. She was a member of the YWCA, where she swam and played badminton. She also enjoyed tennis and hiking. She later read physics books for Recording For The Blind, tutored at the library, served as a Trustee for Princeton Nurseries, and was on the ethics panel of the Robert Wood Johnson Hospital.

Once her children were well established in the Princeton public schools, she decided to go back to school herself, and earned a master’s degree from Rutgers in Science Education.

“By this time, I knew I wanted to try teaching,” she explains. “I never thought I wanted to before, but now I felt it was right for me.”

She was hired by Highland Park High School, where she taught physics, chemistry, and general science for 21 years.

“I very much liked teaching,” she says. “I liked what it did for me and for the kids. In my case, I had to understand the concept of what I was teaching. And for the kids, seeing the ‘light bulb’ of understanding when they ‘got’ it was exciting for them — and for me.

“It was an excellent teaching experience. The students were smart, and education was valued there. And I did like teaching science.

Much to Do

The Southgates continue to enjoy many of the opportunities available here, including the chamber music series at McCarter and other concerts.

“There is always so much to do in Princeton,” points out Ms. Southgate. “We are both active in the Evergreen Forum at the Senior Resource Center, and David, who plays the violin, has been very involved in music here.”

A great reader, Ms. Southgate has run a book club, and remembers when Princeton was home to several book shops. “I also like the library, which is very good, and I remember when it was in Bainbridge House.”

Sailing is very important to both Southgates, and they spend much of the summer sailing their sloop “Adagio” in Maine, where they have a cottage on the coast. “We had learned to sail in England, and when we lived in Chicago, we sailed across Lake Michigan. We later sailed on Lake Carnegie, and when I got my first pay check as a teacher, we got a very small Day sailor.”

Traveling is also a pleasure, and they regularly return to England to see friends and relatives. Ms. Southgate was recently “back home” in the Waterloo area of London, where she gave a reading from her book.

They also travel to New England, and some years ago, enjoyed a memorable vacation in Washington State. “David and I spent 10 days backpacking in the wilderness in the Cascades. It was a wonderful experience, and the wildflowers were incredible.”

Casual Conversation

They often visit their four children and grandchildren, who now number 10.

In her spare time, Ms. Southgate likes to solve cryptic crossword puzzles from the Times of London, and she even creates them!

It was the family which was the impetus for Coin Street Chronicles, she reports. As she writes in the book’s introduction, “It was a casual conversation with my son, then about nine or 10, which sowed the seed from which this chronicle grew. An incident from my childhood had figured in that conversation, and afterwards, he stared at me as if I were a stranger, and said, ‘I never knew that about you!’ And I realized for the first time, that my children knew me only as I was then: a mother of four, living a comfortable, privileged existence in Princeton, New Jersey, enjoying an active social life with like-minded and well-educated souls.

“I vowed to myself that one day, when I had more time to myself, I would put pen to paper and leave my children with at least a skeletal outline of where I had come from. The seed lay dormant for a very long time. About a quarter of a century. Not until my children were grown with families of their own, and I had retired, did I put pen to paper.”

The book, published in 2008, has received high praise from readers, who appreciate Ms. Southgate’s ability to bring to life people and places in a personal and compelling manner. Her love of words is apparent.

Brilliantly Evocative

Notes author Elizabeth Socolow, who met Ms. Southgate at the Evergreen Forum: “I did not know at first that Gwen had begun to set this writing down for her children: all I knew is that it was brilliantly evocative and interesting to me, and I thought for any reader. It is about war time, and family and being poor, but perhaps more than anything, it is about the resiliency and the traumas a child experiences. It is almost as much about her siblings as herself, almost as much about the other evacuees she had not known before as about her ‘kin’.

“It is universal in its appeal, perhaps precisely because it captures a time, a place, and a dialect so perfectly. The actual sound of her mother’s talk, the orthography and music Gwen ‘caught’ is simply stunning. She surprised herself, she told me, by finding the sound of her mother’s voice so clear in her ‘inner ear’. Beautiful work.”

And Ms. Southgate’s longtime friend, Judith Pinch of Princeton, adds: “One reaction to the book is sheer admiration for Gwen that she wrote something she believed in. It’s a portrait of a time and place that we don’t know about here. What really came through in addition to the personal story is the value of education. Gwen said once that it was a miracle that a girl like her from the slums of London got a university education. That is due partly to the circumstances of the war, being sent to different schools, and having wonderful teachers. It is significant that she eventually became a teacher.

“One of the most touching things about the book is the poignancy of the separation of children from their parents during the war. I am very glad Gwen wrote the book. She is a remarkable and very nice person. I am proud to call her a friend.”

Exceptional Person

Another of Ms. Southgate’s friends of many years, Carolyn Leeuwenburgh, agrees. “Gwen is an honorable and honest person, an exceptional person, with very high standards. She has the courage of her convictions. She has been active politically, and has given an enormous amount of volunteer time to Rush Holt.

“We have a long-standing friendship that has meant a lot to me. She is a person who is there for you. I am so glad she wrote the book, and I was pleased to meet her mother when she visited Princeton.”

Indeed, Ms. Southgate’s mother came to Princeton on a number of occasions, and liked it enormously.

“Once she came with my aunt years ago,” recalls Ms. Southgate. “Two 82-year-olds who had themselves a ball! They wandered around Princeton, invariably getting lost, and being brought back to our house by kind strangers, until they learned to tie ribbons on trees to find their way back.”

The book has brought back many such memories, says Ms. Southgate. “It was a tremendously revealing experience. I had no documentation. As I started to think of it, whole scenes would come back. I learned so much about myself and the people I lived among. And I gained an appreciation for things I’d always taken for granted. It changed the way I thought about a number of things.”

And what would her parents think about it all? This remarkable journey she has been willing to share with us?

“Dad would be very proud,” she replies. “I’ve often wondered what my mother would say. I think she’d be tickled pink.”

Ms. Southgate will be a guest speaker at the Princeton Chapter of the English Speaking Union at 3 p.m. on Sunday, March 7 at The Lawrenceville School’s Kirby Arts Center. She will talk about Coin Street Chronicles and give a reading.

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