Poulsen, who died at the age of 89, was, at various times, a fur-nailer, taxi-driver, fireman, sub-editor, novelist, dramatist, historian and poet, but his greatest achievements were as an autobiographer and lecturer.
He was born in Stepney, east London, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants born October 15 1911. The profits of his father’s photography business were barely sufficient only to support two adults and four children, and the family lived in two rooms in bitter poverty.
Poulsen was educated at Old Montague Street elementary school, which he left before he was 14. Three-quarters of the boys were Jewish, and the rest were divided between Catholics and Protestants. To solve this delicate problem, the headmaster murmured a prayer, which no one could overhear, and set the boys to sing, instead of a hymn, a chorus from Gilbert and Sullivan, for whose work Charles retained a lifelong affection.
After leaving school, he had a number of "boys" jobs until he became a fur nailer, with alternate periods of overwork and unemployment. Tiring of this, he passed the Knowledge of London Tests and became a taxi-driver in 1935. Having thus acquired an extensive knowledge of London, he set out to educate himself. At Stepney public library, he acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of Dickens. At the Old Vic, he learned to appreciate Shakespeare. His love of classical music was also kindled by hearing Beethoven at Circle House, the leftwing educational centre, near Aldgate.
In 1930, he joined the Young Communist League and then the CPGB, which he stayed in until dissolution. As a young man, he rejected his parents’ orthodox Judaism, while retaining his respect for their way of life. He was a founder-member of the League of Militant Godless, on the Soviet model, which briefly existed in the early 1930s. In later years, he adopted a more tolerant attitude towards religion.
Poulsen was on the barricades in Cable Street. He volunteered as a fireman from the outbreak of war, served through the blitz and East Anglia and, in 1944, accompanied the allied invasion force in the Fire Service’s Overseas Column. A political argument with another fireman inspired him to write English Episode (1946), a novel about the peasants’ revolt of1381, which was translated into Russian and Polish. He worked as a make-up man and caption writer on popular educational books, before returning to the cab trade. The Word Of A King, his own dramatised version of English Episode, was produced by the Unity theatre in 1951. Through Unity, Charles met his wife Edith, an Austrian Jewish widow who had escaped with her daughter from wartime Vienna. They married in 1949. Edith shared Charles’s political ideals and intellectual interests.
Following demobilisation Charles worked for some years as an editorial assistant, sub-editor and staff writer on several encyclopaedias and works of popular education, but in 1950 returned thankfully to the security of the cab trade.
He found his real vocation in the 1960s, when he began conducting highly popular evening classes on London history – including local and national history, architecture, literature, and biography – at WalthamForest and Chingford, Essex. He continued with these for 20 years, when old age forced him to discontinue them. In this period, he wrote three more books; Victoria Park (1976), a study of East End history, The English Rebels (1984), and Scenes From A Stepney Youth (1988). He died on September 30th 2001 at the age of 89.
Sources include: Guardian 14th December 2001
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