The Return of Pamela Freedman
Pamela Freedman was a West End girl, born in 1923 in The Bricklayers Arms in Berwick St, Soho – the pub managed by her parents, Hetty and Albert Harris, just around the corner from The Blue Posts run by her grandfather. This was the only world Pamela knew, until one fateful day the treasurer of the pub’s Christmas Club absconded with all the savings and her father did the honourable thing, paying back the money to his customers out of his own pocket. It was a noble action that changed his family’s lives forever.
As a consequence, Hetty & Albert lost The Bricklayers Arms and in 1935, when Pamela was thirteen, they started a whole new life in the East End, managing The Princess Alice in Commercial St. “When my mother saw it, she said, ‘Never in a million years! I can’t live in a place like that.’ The state of it was disgusting,” revealed Pamela, when I met her at The Princess Alice on her first return visit since the nineteen sixties, gazing wistfully around at the location that was once central to her life, rendered barely recognisable by alterations now. “The brewery sent the builders in and when they opened up the old counter, the rats ran everywhere. When my mother saw the seamen’s lodging house on the top that was rotten and neglected, she was frightened she might fall through the ceiling – the first thing the brewery was demolish the top floors.” she told me with gleeful satisfaction, explaining the curiously stunted architecture of the building today.
Although it was inauspicious circumstances that brought them to the East End, Hetty & Albert created a vibrant life at The Princess Alice with a large crowd of friendly regulars – as the exuberant picture above testifies. But a far greater challenge was to come when World War II brought bombing, setting the East End ablaze, as Pamela recounted to me. “We had one night when the buzz bombs started, Daddy & I saw a buzz bomb catch three hundred people coming out of work from Old St. They all died. A lot of our customers were killed. We made dugouts in the cellar and we slept down there. We lay there listening to the clicking of the tram lines as the bombs hit. We kept coming up to see if anything was left standing. One night I came up from the cellar and everything was on fire. We told the firemen to take the beer and use it to put out the flames.We had no glass in the windows of the pub and the brewers said, ‘Stay open.’ We had no power and the brewers said, ‘Get candles and stay open.’ On the night the war ended, we sold out and we went up to the West End to celebrate.”
In the midst of this chaos, Pamela got married to Alf Freedman who lived across the street, “We grew up together and we were the same age. He was in the RAF for five years as a meteorological officer in North Africa, while I was a firewarden for three years. He came back from abroad and we decided to get married. Both families knew a lot of people and God forbid anyone should be ignored. It was the first big wedding after the war, Sandys Row Synagogue was too small, so we had it at the New West End Synagogue, St Petersburg Place, Bayswater and four hundred people came to the dinner. I was twenty-four when I got married and left the Princess Alice for good. All the draymen turned up early in the morning outside in the street to see me off. After I got married, I lived in a nice flat in Kensington but my husband was still away in the service. We were married nearly sixty years. We had a very good life. We worked hard and we went all over the world”
Destiny took her back to the West End, her place of origin, and the foray into the East End became a single episode in her long life, but I think Pamela’s experiences here endowed her with a fearless quality and an unsentimental appreciation of the value of existence that have remained with her. On the day in 1964 that her father Alf died at seven in the morning, the brewery expected her mother to open The Princess Alice, and although Hetty technically had a year’s grace as a widow, Pamela and her brother gave notice to the brewery at once. They departed the East End with their mother in a taxi and never looked back, until last week when Pamela returned to The Princess Alice at the invitation of her grandson Jeremy Freedman, Spitalfields Life contributing photographer. Although, wisely, Pamela did ensure they kept the contents of the cellar from The Princess Alice when they left, which she and her family are still drinking to this day, including bottles of whisky now worth over five hundred pounds each. But it was farewell to the East End, as Pamela herself said to me plainly, “We had no cause to come this way.”
Pamela Freedman is a person of extraordinary vitality, a charismatic diminutive woman with bright confident eyes, a shrewd yet upbeat generous matter and shrill energetic way of talking, constantly punctuating her speech with phrases like, “You tell people things, they wouldn’t believe you!”, “So many stories, am I boring you?” and her favourite exclamation, “Unbelievable!” This last word serves as her personal leitmotif when called upon to consider the events of her life. Yet she was as delighted and curious to meet Rebecca Lees and Nick Waring – the young couple who are the current landlady and landlord of The Princess Alice – as they were astounded to meet her.
Recalling her own time behind the bar, Pamela outlined her personal method of dealing with troublesome customers, “My secret weapon was a syphon of soda behind the counter. I could let go as well as anybody, because I didn’t care, even though I was the governor’s daughter.” she declared. Describing Hetty & Albert’s style as landlords, she said, “Everything had to be regimented, if you put a bottle the wrong way round, God help you…” A comment which drew a strong reaction from Rebecca, who dug her partner Nick in the ribs, “Just like me!” she exclaimed. Sizing them up with the benefit of a lifetime’s experience, Pamela revealed her approval of the current management, “You’re what I call ‘of the old school’, but it’s bloody hard work isn’t it?” she confided, as they all exchanged a look of mutual recognition.
Hetty & Albert Harris behind the bar at the Princess Alice
Hetty, Albert & Hetty’s brother Walter.
1. Albert taps a keg.
2. Albert connects the tap.
3. Albert tightens the tap.
These are the photographs that Alf & his wife-to-be Pamela Freedman exchanged when they were both twenty-one, before he left for North Africa in 1942 - “with undying love”
Pamela Freedman at The Princess Alice today, in the week of her eighty-seventh birthday
Pamela stands in Wentworth St, looking across Commercial St to The Princess Alice, on the occasion of her return for the first time in more than forty years.
Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman