Joan Naylor of Bellevue Place
This is Joan Naylor, photographed last year in the garden of her house in Bellevue Place, the hidden terrace of nineteenth century cottages in Stepney featured in “The London Nobody Knows,” that I visited recently in the footsteps of Geoffrey Fletcher.
Joan moved into Bellevue Place with her husband Bill in 1956 when they were first married, and they brought up their family there. “When we first moved in it was known as ‘Bunghole Alley’ and no-one wanted to live there,” she recalled with a shrug. Originally built as a crescent of cottages around a green which served in the Victorian period as tea gardens, Charringtons built a brewery on the site, lopping the terrace in half, constructing a wall round it and using the cottages for their key workers. Enclosed on all sides, there is a door in one wall that led directly into the brewery, which remains locked today, now the brewery is gone.
Joan’s husband, Bill, was a load clerk whose job it was to devise the most efficient delivery routes and loads for the draymen on the rounds of all the Charringtons pubs in the East End. When Joan arrived, the brewery workers started early, commencing each day with a few pints in the tap-room before beginning work, and Bill was able to pop home through the door in the wall at nine o’clock to enjoy breakfast with Joan.
“If you looked out of the bedroom window, you could see a pile of wooden barrels a hundred foot high, and the smell of stale beer permeated the air.” said Joan, recalling her first impressions.“Nothing had been changed in the house. The brewery brought in the decorators but we still had a tiny bathroom off the kitchen and an outside loo. It didn’t bother me. When you think we brought up six of us in that house – I remember the ice on the inside of the window! We used to cut up old barrels to light the fire and they’d burn really well because they had pitch in them.”
It is with pure joy that Joan remembers the days when there were around a dozen children, including her own, living in Bellevue Place. They all played together, chasing up and down the gardens, an ideal environment for games of hide and seek, and there were frequent parties when everyone celebrated together on birthdays, Christmas and bonfire night. “There was always a party coming up, always something to look forward to,” explained Joan, because it was not only the children who enjoyed a high old time in the secret enclave of Bellevue Place.
Although unassuming by nature, Joan became enraptured with delight as she explained that, since everyone knew each other on account of working together at the brewery, there was a constant round of parties for adults too. It was the arrival of Stan, the refrigeration engineer and famous practical joker, to live in the end cottage, that Joan ascribes as the catalyst for the Golden Age of parties in Bellevue Place. You can see Stan in the pith helmet in the photo below. When all the children were safely tucked up asleep (“We had children, we couldn’t go out“), the residents of Bellevue Place enjoyed lively fancy dress parties, in and out of the gardens, and each other’s houses too. “The word would go around from Stan and we would go round the charity shops to see what we could find, but no-one would tell anyone what their outfit was going to be. It was lovely. Everybody had fun and nobody carried on with each other’s wives.” Joan told me.
Let us not discount the proximity of the brewery in our estimation of the party years at Bellevue Place because I have no doubt there was never any shortage of drinks. Also, number one Bellevue Place, the large house at the beginning of the terrace, was empty and disused for many years, and the brewery even gave the residents a key, so it could become the social venue and youth club for the terrace, with a snooker table, and a roof top that was ideal for firework parties. With all these elements at their disposal, the enterprising party animals of Bellevue Place became expert at making their own entertainments.
There is a bizarre twist to Joan’s account of the legendary parties at Bellevue Place, because she was born on the twenty-ninth of February, which means she only had a birthday every leap year. So, when she did have a birthday, Joan’s neighbours organised parties appropriate to the birthday in question. In the photo below you can see her reading a Yogi Bear annual as a present for her seventh birthday, when she was twenty-eight years old. I hope Joan will not consider it indiscreet if I reveal to you that she has now at last reached her twenty-first birthday.
It is apparent that the mutual support Joan enjoyed amongst the women in her terrace, who became her close friends, and the camaraderie shared by the men, who worked together in the brewery – all surrounded by the host of children that played together – created an exceptionally warm and close-knit community in Bellevue Place, that became in effect an extended family. Even though they did not have much money and lived together in a house that many would consider small for six, Joan’s memories of her own family life are framed by this rare experience of the place and its people in this particular circumstance, and it is an experience that many would envy.
Last winter, Joan moved out of Bellevue Place for good, but she had become the resident who had lived there the longest and remains the living repository of its history. Last week, I visited her in sheltered housing in Bethnal Green where she told me her beautiful stories of the vibrant social life of this modest brewery terrace, while her son John, who is a regular visitor, worked on his handheld computer in the corner of the room.
“We were very lucky to have lived down there to bring up the family,” said Joan, her eyes glistening with happiness, as she spread out her collection of affectionate and playful photographs, cherishing the events which incarnate the highlights of her existence in Bellevue Place. She may have first known it as “Bunghole Alley,” but for Joan Naylor “Bellevue Place” lived up to the promise of its name.
In this Bellevue Place fancy dress group, Stan wears a pith helmet and Bill is dressed as an arab.
Joan, as flapper, with her neighbour Harry.
Joan (holding the glass) and her neighbours as hippies.