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Laurie Allen of Petticoat Lane

October 1, 2010
by the gentle author

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

12 Responses leave one →
  1. October 1, 2010

    Did you catch that glimpse of ‘Tubby Isaac’s’ stall on the Sid James Look at Life film?

  2. the gentle author permalink
    October 2, 2010

    Tubby Isaacs can also be seen in “A Kid for Two Farthings”

  3. jeannette permalink
    October 3, 2010

    that smile!

  4. March 9, 2011

    Laurie is a good friend of mine. I got to know him when I took a walking tour with him back in 1996. He is a lovely soul. He is a man of many talents and is great fun to sit with and chat.
    Any time spent talking with him is time well spent!

  5. marianne isaacs permalink
    August 17, 2011

    What a great story . My ancestors were born in Harrow Alley which was just off Petticoat lane . I know it doesnt exist any more . Was it destroyed in the war?

  6. Vicky permalink
    February 3, 2012

    Marianne – Harrow Alley area has been redeveloped, but it still exists as Harrow Place.

  7. Sally permalink
    January 1, 2013

    Did you mean Sid Strong and not Jack. Sid was my cousin and my whole family used to auctioneer china and glass in the Lane including my father. The atmosphere in those days was fantastic.

  8. November 4, 2013

    i must have known laurie as i lived in herbert house next to wentworth dwellings. my friend laurence also lived in wentworth dwellings, it is amazing to find someone who remembers the names of our favourite playgrounds ? also our little gang the goulstons. i miss the old lane very much and it will always be home to me. thank you laurie for the memories.

  9. Roberta permalink
    August 12, 2015

    Sally is my cousin once removed and yes all the Strong family were in the market. Also had the warehouse on the corner of Middlesex and Wentworth Street until it was sold in about 1960

  10. December 30, 2015

    I come in late on this, Laurie mentions my grandmother, Mary Green – she used her maiden name despite still having been married but long separated from my rogue grandfather. I used
    to visit her often, even as a small boy and she visited me for years while I grew in the Norwood Orphanage in South London. Laurie mentions the smell of her clothes and they did indeed, but
    I got used to that, but contrary to Laurie saying she never changed her clothes, just see her for a
    fleeting moment in “A Kid For Two Farthings” and you’ll note her clothes are very different here. Because the camera was placed in front of my bubba’s stall, and the boy actor is to run past her, I would imagine this was arranged with her, so perhaps she changed clothes for this. I remember her telling me about the filming, as a boy (I was 13 by that time) though Mary was a quiet, unassuming person and very generous and respectful, despite her poor background. I also recently saw a picture on line of a woman at a fish stall in 1903 – to my amazement it was my great grandmother, who we must assume handed it over to Mary a while thereafter. It was also nice to see a person such as Laurie Allen, still there, and keeper of so many treasured memories.

  11. January 5, 2016

    hello Gerald i too remember mary green she never really said much when one bought fish from her, i remember she had a large barrel by her stall and always wore a beret. i saw the making of A KID FOR TWO FARTHINGS as i lived nearby in goulston st.i don’t think people really knew a lot about mary and just judged her on her appearance, you have to remember she had a messy job one which would not require to be fussy about how you dressed. she was part of the furniture in the lane.sadly most of the old characters have gone. best wishes ,

  12. Sally permalink
    April 17, 2017

    Roberta how many years have passed. The Lane was always our history.

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