George Plemper’s Thamesmead
George Plemper was born in Sunderland in 1950. He moved to South East London in the 70s to take up the post of Head of Chemistry at the Riverside School in Thamesmead. Plemper documented his students and surroundings in Thamesmead processing the images in a bath in his flat in the Moorings. The pictures were shown in an exhibition ‘Lost at School’ in 1979. Although referencing Plemper’s own feelings about working in the education system the title of the show was taken literally and many understood it to be about the children. The photographs moved with him unshown again until 30 years later, with the new digital platform Flikr, they were uploaded by Plemper and received much recognition. In this story George writes about his move to Thamesmead and about his time in the area. The photographs have been selected by him.
I arrived in Thamesmead to take up my position as Head of Chemistry at Riverside School, Yarnton Way, at the start of the Autumn term in 1976. When I applied I did not know where Thamesmead was; I had a vague idea that it was some sort of new town on the banks of the River Thames. Riverside School emphasised the ‘pastoral care’ of its pupils. This appealed to me and I remember telling the headmaster of Riverside School, Dr French, that I wanted to use the camera to record the children’s lives at school in a positive, affirmative way and by doing so reinforce the pupil’s sense of self and self-esteem. These days it is likely that this sort of suggestion would be met with a look of horror or concern. Dr French however, simply smiled and told me he thought that this was a wonderful idea.
Ida, Sam and Eugene 1978. ‘These young lads were in my chemistry class. Each would go on to achieve wonderful things.’
With the window of my bedsit blacked out using a sheet of Rexine that I got from my Dad, who was an upholsterer, I made a makeshift darkroom and I was able to develop and print my photographs which I gave to the children to show their parents a day or so later. I was able to foster a caring, trusting relationship with my pupils and, mostly, they seemed to enjoy having their pictures taken by me. Some children told me that they did not want their pictures taken and this was OK.
Julia and Sanghita 1977. ‘Julia and Sanghita were in my tutor group, I came across them as I walked to the staff room during the morning break.’
When I first used the camera in the school yard the children looked on inquisitively – just what was going on?
B&W Photographic portrait of Jean Hazell
Jean Hazell 1978. ‘A photograph taken during a cover lesson. Sometimes the images on my ground glass screen would just take my breath away.’
For my part, I was never comfortable in the classroom, sometimes it would seem that I was having an out of body experience and I would find myself looking down at myself in the classroom thinking that this was not the way I wanted to be.
Paul Holland 1978. ‘Paul was friends with some of the lads in my class, he popped in to see them during the lunch break. They are behind the camera.’
When I held the camera in my hand my world changed. Like Superman emerging from a ‘phone box, I was much more confident and in control.
I learned that the council was allocating flats to people who they considered to be key workers. Just before Christmas I was given the keys to 502 Raymond Postgate Court, in Stage 3 Thamesmead (now called the Moorings). I moved into my flat in January 1977. I was one of the first people to move in to my floor; it was eerily quiet at night when the noise of the construction work stopped. In general, I was delighted with the flat. It was well built and communal hot water and heating was included in the rent. It was far better than my previous accommodation and better still it had a walk-in cupboard which I easily converted into a darkroom. My prints were washed in the bath.
Denise Smith 1978. ‘I took this picture during a cover lesson, after I took her picture, Denise said to me “Sir, why did you take my picture? I don’t like my face.” I told her she had a lovely face.’
With its makeshift medical facilities, a single shop and the occasional 272 bus, Stage 3 Thamesmead in the mid-70s was a cold and desolate place to live. In those days I spent most of my time living alone and, although it was far from the truth, I believed that my only connection to the world outside of my head was through the lens of a camera. It was a time when my own sense of humanity was slipping down the drain. Only the images that miraculously appeared in my developing tray kept me sane; they whispered to me that I was mistaken.
Without any thought for the future, I walked out of Riverside School in the summer of 1978. After a short period of unemployment, I got a job as a research assistant at the Polytechnic of the Southbank in Borough Road and In March of 1982 I moved from Thamesmead to Burrage Road, Woolwich.
Queen’s Silver Jubilee 1977. ‘A dinner lady invited me to their Silver Jubilee Celebrations, I did not know the children but I love joy and warmth in this picture.’
B&W photograph of three boys on the A Bridge that crosses the Eastern Way (A2016). Built in 1973. Photograph by George Plemper
Saturday Afternoon 1980. ‘I did not know these lads, our paths crossed as I walked back from Abbey Wood Station after my weekly shopping trip to Woolwich.’
My photographs were the subject of an exhibition entitled “Lost at School” which opened at the London Institute of Education sometime in 1979. Sadly, the title “Lost at School” was controversial. Although the title was meant to refer to my own personal circumstances and state of mind, almost everyone took it to mean that I was referring to the children. This caused a bit of bad feeling with the members of staff at Riverside School who felt let down and this is something that I regret. A lot of people at Riverside were very kind to me. That’s life I suppose.
Tak, Thomas and Peter 1976. ‘These first year lads were in my tutor group, it seemed as if the world slowed down as I looked through the viewfinder.’