Jil Cove, Spitalfields Resident
As Phil Maxwell’s exuberant portraits reveal, Jil Cove is one of the most quick-witted women you could hope to meet. She first came to Whitechapel in the nineteen fifties as a nurse at the Royal London Hospital, and then worked as a probation officer, putting East End villains on the straight and narrow for a quarter of a century, before becoming leader of the campaign to save the Spitalfields Market – when famously she had all the developers running around in circles for fifteen years. As a consequence of this and all her other work for the community over this time, Jil is universally respected in Spitalfields, even by those who would consider themselves her adversaries. Today she lives in a small block of flats beside Petticoat Lane, where she is proud to count eight different nationalities amongst her neighbours in the building and where, as we sat in her cosy kitchen, she recalled a few impressions from the passing years.
“When I was eight years old, I said, “When I get married, I’m going to marry a black man and have a black baby.” My parents were generous to a fault but they had terrible views about black people. And I know my politics doesn’t come from them because they both voted for Margaret Thatcher. So I think it may be part of my rebellion. We lived across the road from a convent in Brighton and one day when I became a beatnik and wore no shoes, my dad said, “What will the nuns think? They’ll think we can’t afford shoes!” My mum thought I was going through a phase, but it was a sense of rebellion and a sense of justice too.
I trained as nurse in Brighton, and then applied to do midwifery at the Royal London Hospital. My mum came with me for the interview and there were drunks lying on the pavement all along Whitechapel, and she said, “You can’t come here!” but that was why I was attracted to it. I was working here in 1957, when the Windrush came over, and I worked alongside the first influx of black nurses, while my mum couldn’t believe black people were even allowed in the hospital.
After a couple of years, I was advised to give up nursing because I had a slipped disc, so I decided to try to become a probation officer and I got to know a psychiatric social worker at the Toynbee Hall in Commercial St where they had an outpost of Grendon Underwood prison – for inmates with personality disorders. At that time, the building where I live now was for ex-prisoners coming in and going off into the world, and she had a flat there but she needed a back-up to keep an eye on things, and I’ve been here ever since.
One of the things I do remember is walking down Brick Lane and, if you were on your own, Bengali guys would come up and ask “Do you want to come with me?” They were here without their familes in those days. But I discovered if you carried a briefcase, it was, “Good Evening, Miss Cove! Nice to see you.”
In all the twenty-five years I worked in probation, I only took three people back to court for non-co-operation. You saw them for half an hour a week and you were supposed to influence them. My policy was radical non-intervention – I didn’t interfere with them and they didn’t interfere with me, but I was always there if they needed help. I think one of the things that me and my friends who worked together in the service for all those years valued was that we were left alone, but we had a small budget to do things – even as simple as getting a cat speyed.
One poor man, he was convinced the neighbours were sending sinister rays through the walls and ceiling, so we bought baking foil and helped him line the flat with it and it worked, it calmed him down. I remember one family in particular, the dad was a forger, the boys committed offences and the daughters would get pregnant, but somehow the mother held it all together – the kids were immaculately turned out and I always wondered how she did it. Another of the guys I worked with had done a lot of really nasty offences, a real tough nut. He was doing his A levels in prison and I visited him, and he said he’d just read the Diary of Anne Frank and it made him cry. It was November, and I said I wouldn’t retire until he got parole, and he got out next June. He’d never been to the theatre before so I took him to see Julius Caesar – you saw how you could change someone’s life and that’s what made it worthwhile. It was a nice job and I wouldn’t have left, but there was change towards a more punitive approach. In those days you could actually do social work. At my leaving party at The Water Poet, I got so drunk I was drinking pints of vodka and gin, and then they took me home and I drank half a bottle of rum.
On my sixtieth birthday, I had my first tattoo and I paid for it with my first pension money. He said, “You’re my first pensioner, and I’ve never done a daffodil before!” I went home and told my mum. I said, “I’ve had a tattoo,” and she said, “That’s disgusting!” So I thought, “If I can still disgust my mum at sixty, I must be OK.”
Jill told me she has not been to the Spitalfields Market for years, even though it is only quarter of a mile from her home. “The building we got was marginally better than the building they wanted to put there,” she confided, summing up the outcome of her campaign, “But when you’re up against the City and the Local Authority, you don’t stand much of a chance. At the end of the day, there was money.” Yet over time, Jil has been proved right in her case against the development, because in the rebuilding of the market, it was taken away from the residents and is no longer the community focus it once was. Meanwhile, Jil Cove’s influence continues to prevail in Spitalfields because she is woman of great spirit and humour, a passionate unvanquished fighter.
Jil at an event in Victoria Park in the nineteen seventies.
Photographs copyright © Phil Maxwell