I was delighted recently to hear from Coral Rutterford who often send her memories of growing up in Poplar in the 1940s. Coral attended Alton Street Primary School and in 1947, the school had a very special visitor, film star Paulette Goddard.
Now largely forgotten, Goddard was an American actress who became a major star in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s. Her most notable films were Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, and The Great Dictator.
Goddard was married for short time to Charlie Chaplin, before marrying actor Burgess Meredith in 1944.
Coral takes up the story:
The day I met a film star at school
I attended Alton Street Primary School way back in 1947 or thereabouts. I was in my final year there prior to going onto George Greens Grammar School which was located in East India Dock Rd at that time. I was 10-11 years old, my class teacher at that time asked that the next day would I wear some nice clothes and didn’t say why. I didn’t remember her request when I got home and it was forgotten.
I turned up at school next day wearing the same old maroon slip dress with a blouse that I wore all week as I didn’t have many clothes to change into every day. I did have a turquoise “best dress” and was only worn on weekends if the family went out. We were just an average working-class family, living in 2 rooms and money was tight, as it was for most people at that time, after recovering from the effects of the war still visible in the neighbourhood and still living with rationing.
It was time to assemble in the school hall as usual each morning for hymn singing and any information the headmaster wanted to pass on. Then I was pulled out of line along with other pupils in the other classes, one child each presented their class. We were all bewildered by this, I didn’t remember doing anything wrong.
Then the headmaster left the stage and went over to collect some visitors who were waiting at the back of the hall. As they made their way towards the stage a murmur of voices sounded excited and chatting was heard. The girls who had been taken aside at assembly, including me, were moved onto the stage as the special visitor made her way towards us.
She was a vision of beauty dressed in a white, long, short haired fur coat with a hood attached. Gold sandals at her feet and gold bangles on her wrist. Beautifully presented with hair and make-up. This was Paulette Goddard, a film actress who was married for a short time to Charlie Chaplin. He was a Londoner as we all were and he was famous for his acting in silent movies, portraying a short man dressed in black and wearing a bowler hat. He made several movies that made us laugh.
Once we kids got over the pleasant shock of seeing this lovely lady we were ushered up onto the stage and we stood around Paulette who was seated while the headmaster introduced her. She then spoke and advised us she was there to present food parcels to each of the pupils in the school on behalf of donations made by some Americans who realised how difficult life had been for us living in the East End during the war. Enduring continual bombing in the docklands area by Hitler’s air force, the area was flattened and there was a great loss of life that made life tough to get through each day.
Each girl who represented her class was given a parcel, it was heavy too. It contained foodstuffs, a tin of butter, some tinned meat, sugar, a big bar of chocolate, how wonderful to receive chocolate as we hadn’t seen chocolate during the war years, or any sweets at all. They stayed on ration for years after the war. Once rationing was removed and sweet shops were able to obtain stocks, they were swallowed up within hours and so we still didn’t get to buy them.
Other tinned products were included and we, as a family, were so grateful for the kindness shown to us. Other schools were included in this food parcel giveaway and they would have been as appreciative as we were.
The parents had to collect the parcel from school as it was too heavy for us kids to carry it home. It was such luxury after being so frugal during those war years, making do with bread and dripping because the food shortage was so great. We rarely saw an egg and a slice of tinned corned beef was a luxury.
After this event my uncle advised us that a photo of the event in Alton Street School was printed in the Daily Mail newspaper. It showed our group of class representatives standing around Paulette Goddard, what a memorable day for us all.
Coral’s memories is a reminder to us all that often a few everyday items can be luxuries when times are tough.