Laurie Allen of Petticoat Lane
This fellow – so at home he is almost merging with the shopfront behind him – is Laurie Allen standing on a street corner in Petticoat Lane, assuming a characteristically nonchalant posture and watching the world go by. Through his debonaire stance, Laurie demonstrates his confidence, good humour and general optimistic attitude to life. Laurie grew up in Petticoat Lane and still lives in Petticoat Lane. He is at ease with the current of life in Petticoat Lane, that provides him with unceasing fascination and delight.“Throbbing with wonderment,” is his phrase for Petticoat Lane.
Yet Petticoat Lane does not exist on any map, which is appropriate, because for Laurie it is a mythic land of adventure and romance. Petticoat Lane was renamed Middlesex St in 1830 to define the boundary with the City of London, although everyone still calls it by its earlier name, now used to refer to all the streets of the market. This unwitting act of popular defiance is characteristic of the independence of spirit that reigns here in these shabby ancient streets of Spitalfields, which were long established before the roads beside the church on the more more fashionable side of the neighbourhood even existed.
Laurie grew up in Petticoat Lane in the post war years, in what is now remembered as the hey day of the Lane when it was a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood. Ask him anything about Petticoat Lane or its history and he will break into a smile of anticipation at the opportunity you have given him to expound upon his favourite subject, Petticoat Lane. “Yeah!” he exclaims to himself occasionally, when a reminiscence comes into focus and the full emotion of the moment comes back into the present tense. Unlike Marcel Proust, Laurie Allen can truly recall times past, because all his experiences stay present here in Petticoat Lane and he can run through them the way barrow boys once ran through the market, shouting “Wet paint!” to part the crowds.
For the last forty years, Laurie has lived in a small flat in Wentworth Buildings, fifty yards round the corner from Wentworth Dwellings where he grew up. Introducing his account of life in the three rooms his family inhabited, he described collecting firewood from the Spitalfields Market and his childhood wonder at the faces he saw in the flames.“It had a mystical quality about it,” he told me, raising his head a little as if to avert the heat. The abandoned bombsites were a paradise for young Laurie, and he christened them with evocative names to enrich his adventures there. Raising his eyebrows for dramatic effect, Laurie told me of China Town at the end of Middlesex St, Black Panther over in Devonshire Sq and the American Hole in Leman St, confiding their names as cherished secrets.
When Carol Reed came to Petticoat Lane in 1955 to film his classic movie of the East End, “A Kid for Two Farthings” – set against the vibrant life of the market – Laurie was given half a crown by one of the producers, as one of three boys running around the corner of Wentworth St in the background of a street scene. But the revelation to the eleven year old Laurie was fifties sex kitten Diana Dors, a platinum blonde in a cashmere sweater. Even today he winces to speak of this goddess. “All we had seen were our mothers and sisters, we had never seen a woman that shape before!” he admitted, tenderly raising his hands to his chest with prurient pleasure.
Walking through Petticoat Lane with him today you will be introduced to people worth meeting like Abdulla Fadli, ex-attendant at the former Goulston St baths for thirty nine years. Yet Laurie also recognises those that have gone who are still vivid in his mind. “The characters, the sights and sounds of Petticoat Lane are equal to any I have ever seen.” he informed me authoritatively, in the present tense while speaking of the past. There was Mary Green, selling pickled herrings from the barrel, yet she never changed her greasy stinking clothes. There was Prince Monolulu, the horse tipster who dressed like a primitive tribesman, calling “Pick a horse! Pick a horse!” knowing that one had to win. There was the soulful beigel seller crying, “Buy them hot – because when they’re gone, they’re really gone.” There was Jack Strong, a crockery seller who could fan out a set of plates like playing cards, throw them up in the air and catch them again, still in a fan. There was Jackie Bryan, selling dresses, calling out, “Buy one and I’ll get you into modelling, buy two and I’ll get you into films.” A topical spot of patter when”A Kid for Two Farthings” was being filmed round the corner.
Yet in spite of the compelling life of Petticoat Lane, Laurie saw all his contemporaries leave one by one, “People would get married or take a job out of the East End. The old boys and girls stayed on while the younger elements all moved out to North London to make a better life and buy a house.” outlined Laurie philosophically. “There’s only a couple of us left now.” he admitted with a grin.
I wondered if Laurie’s affectionate memories were a reaction to the poor living conditions that existed in Petticoat Lane, but he is insistent that this is not the case, “I knew nothing better and I wanted nothing better,” he said plainly, looking back over the intimacy and richness of experience that binds him to this place. Seeking an uncontestable example,“It’s just magic when you live with your mum and dad, and have your mates come and call for you to do something nice.” said Laurie.“It didn’t suit me to exit stage left. The East End is my life, I feel comfortable in my bolt hole.” he confirmed, “Even after all the changes, it has still got a lot going for it.”
Laurie Allen’s Petticoat Lane is a place that belongs to him. He is the least alienated person you could meet in the city. “I like people and people seem to like me.” he added, speaking the truth with a modest candour, as if this were explanation enough.
Click here to watch Sid James looks at Life – Petticoat Lane
From “A Kid for Two Farthings”
Diana Dors on Petticoat Lane, 1955
New photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie