Mike Donovan was one of the 5 boys and 3 girls born to hard-working couple Tom and Flo Donovan in the Wilson Grove cottages. His parents won the house in a council lottery for large families and Mike spent his whole childhood there, plus the first two years of his married life until he and wife Susan were given a place of their own. Since then they have always lived locally, as have their three daughters, Alexis, Ashleigh and Shannon, writes Michael Holland.
The young Michael had a pretty normal upbringing for Catholic kids: St Joseph’s Paradise Street Infants School, with lots of Latin church services under the beady eye of Father McKenna, and the legendary Procession round the streets of Rotherhithe once a year. St Joseph’s was followed by St Michael’s Secondary School. ‘All me brothers went there except Tommy, who won a scholarship and went across the river to school, and Kevin who said he wasn’t a Catholic and went to a Protestant school… There was murders over it!’
First Holy Communion
St Peter’s Church in Paradise Street, adjoining St Joseph’s school, looms large in Mike’s life: he and his siblings were christened there, he attended mass there with the family every Sunday, his daughters were all christened and confirmed there, and his father played the piano for the church functions. ‘The Old Man was a great piano player by all accounts,’ Michael reminisces. ‘He used to play in the old picture houses too; he started at The Trocette in Tower Bridge Road – And he couldn’t read a word of music!’ said the proud son, who also told of how his dad would play in the local pubs: ‘It was a bit of bunce for him, weren’t it?’
A big part of life for many in the 50s and 60s was the annual trip to pick hops. ‘One of my earliest memories,’ he starts, ‘is getting in the back of the lorry to go down hopping – It was such an adventure!’ The Donovans always went to the Guinness hop farm in Bodium, where all the hops went into the brewing of Guinness. ‘It was a real family affair with aunts and uncles… I’ve got hundreds of hopping stories, and some I shouldn’t tell…’ He then told one he shouldn’t have told.
L-R: Brother Kevin, Aunt Rose, Mum Flo, Dad Tom, and Me
Besides the adventures to be had as a kid down hopping, Mike remembers an early family holiday on the Isle of Wight, ‘a caravan in Whitecliff Bay Holiday Park,’ he recalls. ‘Neither mum or dad drove so we got there by train, then a ferry, and then we walked. I always remember that walk – it was like a thousand miles!’
Having a garden, the Donovans were able to keep chickens and rabbits, and many was the time that their livestock provided Christmas dinner to less fortunate family members. Michael has heard many tales of how his parents helped those in need, even one of his mum buying more drink for a cousin’s wedding when the young couple found themselves short.
Mike’s early memories of childhood was playing Tin Tan Tommy in the street and getting up to no good on the old bombsites that still very much scarred the area in the years after the war ‘Also,’ he remembers, ‘being within walking distance of several youth clubs, I went to the Rydal Boys’ Club in the Bermondsey Settlement, and they used to take us camping every year in the school holidays, usually two weeks in Lyme Regis. For some that was the only holiday they got… The workers there also got a couple of my mates on apprenticeships at Enid Garage.’
With 8 children life was never going to be easy for the Donovans. ‘I always remember my mum having at least three jobs,’ says Michael. ‘She worked at Guy’s Hospital, cleaning the dental department from 4 in the morning, come home and get everyone ready for school, then worked in the kitchens of St Michael’s School. About 3 o’clock she’d come home, get the dinner ready and then go back out cleaning again, in offices.’ There was a pause as he let that sink in.
Living just yards away from the Thames it is no surprise that the river was a big employer in the Donovan household: ‘Dad was a docker, Terry was a lighterman, brother-in-laws were crane drivers, Uncle Charlie was a Union Rep… My brother Tommy was also in the docks but fell down the hull of a ship, got seriously injured and was invalided out; a charity paid for him to do The Knowledge, so he became a black cab driver. By the time it came to my turn to go in the docks they were closing down and I didn’t fancy going all the way to Tilbury!’
Mike’s first job was at a mail-shot place near Victoria where a big sister was supervisor and got him a shift there after school. He picks up the story: ‘I used to run home from school, change, then run to Rotherhithe Station, get two trains to St James’s and then run to the office. I was never late,’ he says with the pride of a man with a real work ethic. He was 14 and when it was time for him to leave school at 15 he was offered a job as a motor mechanic in a Volvo dealership in Ealing, which he accepted. When it came to handing in his notice to his ex-Guardsman boss, he was offered a job in the mail-shot printshop and three times more than Volvo was willing to pay him. ‘I nearly fainted!’ he says, looking as shocked as he must have 50 year ago. That happy young employee was sent to printing college and had 5 good years at the firm, even meeting his wife there.
‘I queued up for our first house together Downtown, in Shipwright Road,’ he declares. ‘I slept on the pavement overnight and was second in the queue. In the morning I went in the office and bought the plot where they built the house for us.’
After those early years in the print, Mike, changed career to cleaning, where he rose to manager, then he got into security, and on to waste disposal until the congestion zone came into play and meant to continue he would have to find thousands of pounds ‘just to collect a bin at the Elephant for 6 quid!’ It was time to move on again.
There was then a few years trying to make a go of The Justice, by the Bermondsey riverside, which he tells me was just a hobby, a sideline to his other work. ‘We did a great Sunday lunch, which would be fully booked 3 weeks in advance,’ begins the workaholic, ‘but you wouldn’t see a soul from Monday to Friday… But as good as the Sundays were at paying all the bills, it wasn’t enough.’
After that came Dun’s Deli, which many people say served the best ham, egg and chips in London. Michael says it was a ‘semi-retirement plan because I liked cooking, but it was the hardest I ever f**king worked!’ Open 6 days a week from 7 o’clock in the morning, then Sundays spent at the cash & carry; the long hours meant a lack of quality family time.
But while Mike was cooking in the deli he would see the bored young people in the square outside and thought of an idea to utilise the empty space above the shop. Along with a big land developer, he persuaded local charities to support his idea, and soon that empty space was fitted out with 8 work stations to create the Bermondsey Community Kitchen where the young could come and be trained up to a Level 2 City & Guilds in cooking. With deserved pride he runs off a list of places where former BCK students are now working: ‘Three in Tate Modern, one in Marco Pierre White’s, another in the Tower of London, two in Pont de la Tour, and one more in the newly opened Dixon Hotel.’ Michael Donovan’s reward is when the families of these young chefs come and thank him personally for helping to turn their children’s lives around. ‘It’s not just me,’ he stresses, ‘it’s the trainers, the funders, and the young people themselves who make it happen.’
For the Donovans there doesn’t seem to be a day for rest and relaxation. ‘I like to fish but I ain’t been for ages now; we’re always on the go, always have something to do with the charities we work with or some catering to organise…’
Yes, those days of holidays in caravans and hopping huts have been swapped for hotels and city breaks, but Michael and Susan Donovan don’t look like they are going to slow down any time soon. I asked what kept them motivated when many of their generation are retiring. ‘It’s having Shannon late,’ he says in an instant. ‘Having Shannon late has kept us young, without a doubt… There’s a lot going on here right now and 22 year old Shannon’s enabled us to embrace the changes in Bermondsey and move with the times.’