Mavis Bullwinkle, Secretary
This is the first photo of the remarkable Mavis Bullwinkle, seen here attending a Christmas party in 1932 at the Drill Hall in Buxton St, hosted by Rev Holdstock of All Saints’ Church, Spitalfields – Mavis can easily be distinguished to the left of the happy crowd, because she is a baby in her mother Gwendoline’s arms. In this picture, you see her at the centre of life in Spitalfields and even though this hall does not exist anymore and the church it was attached to was demolished in 1951, and everyone else in this photo has gone now too, I am happy to report that Mavis is still alive and kicking, to carry the story of this world and continue her existence at the centre of things in the neighbourhood.
Mavis’ grandfather, Richard Pugh, was a lay preacher who came to Spitalfields with his wife and family from North Wales in 1898, where he held bible classes at All Saints and spoke at open air meetings and, in the absence of social workers, counselled men from the Truman Brewery in their family problems. His mother paid for him to return alone to Wales to see her for two weeks annual holiday from the East End each year. But Mavis’ grandmother Frances never had a holiday, she said, “Why should people take notice of you when you talk of living the Christian life, when you have an easier time than they do?” Then in 1905, Richard died unexpectedly of pneumonia and Frances was left almost bereft in Spitalfields. She had to leave the church house and take care of her seven children alone. She received a modest pension from the Scripture Readers’ Union until her youngest son, Albert, was fourteen, the Truman Brewery gave her a small grant twice a year and she took work scrubbing floors.
The family moved into Albert Family Dwellings, a large nineteenth century block in Deal St, where subsequently Mavis grew up, living there until it was demolished in 1975 when they were rehoused in a new block in Hanbury St. And today, when I visited Mavis in Hanbury St less than a hundred yards away from the site of Albert Family Dwellings and she described her grandmother who died when she was six, an extraordinary perspective became apparent, connecting our world with that of Spitalfields more than a century ago.“I remember her shape and her North Wales accent, a lilt.” Mavis told me, conjuring the image in her mind’s eye,” She would always call my father Alfred, when everyone else called him Alf. She was short of stature and she worked hard.”
Mavis’ testimony of life in the East End is one of proud working class families who strove to lead decent lives in spite of limited circumstances. “People like to think that they were all drunks who dropped their ‘h’s, and they were dirty,” she said, eager to dispel this misconception, “Years ago, people were poor but they were completely clean. You can wash without a bathroom, but it takes a lot of work. My father used to put the water on to boil and pour it into the bath. And in the Family Dwellings, it was very well maintained, low rents, strict rules and a uniformed superintendent. When my mother was small and people had large families, if the superintendent saw children playing after eight o’ clock, he’d say ‘Go to bed!’ and you had to do it. I often think of it now when I see children playing outside at eleven at night. Then, everyone used to know each other and help one another. If you were going away on holiday, you’d tell everyone and they’d wave you goodbye.”
Mavis’ story of her family’s existence in Albert Family Dwellings spans the original flat where her grandmother lived with her two maiden aunts, and then Mavis’ parents’ flat that she grew up in. Mavis took care of her mother and the two aunts, who lived to be eighty-six,ninety and ninety-five respectively, even after they all moved out – seventy years after they first moved in as an act of expediency. But by then the nature of the place had changed and it was condemned as part of a slum clearance programme. “It suddenly went down hill in the late fifties when the housing association sold it,” admitted Mavis with a regreftul smile, looking from her living room window across the rooftops of Spitalfields to the space where Albert Family Dwellings formerly stood, a space that holds so much of her family history. If Mavis had married, she would have left Spitalfields but instead she stayed to care for the elderly members of her family and worked for forty years as a secretary in the social work department at the Royal London Hospital, where she was born in 1932. A woman of dauntless temperament, even retired now, she returns one day a week on a voluntary basis to do typing for the friends of the hospital and on another day each week she does reading with a reception class at Christ Church School in Brick Lane where she is a governor.
In Mavis’ personal landscape, Spitalfields’ neighbouring territory, the City of London holds an enduring fascination as a symbolic counterpoint to these streets where she makes her home. “I love the City because I went to school in the City at the Sir John Cass School,” she confided with pleasure, “and my father worked as a clerk in the City, at the Royal London Oil Company for fifty-one years. To go from Tower Hamlets to the City, crossing Middlesex St, was like crossing the River Jordan to the Promised Land. Everyone in Stepney used to dream of living in the City. Before the war, all kinds of people lived in the City, caretakers and such, not just rich people like now.” And then Mavis ran into another room to bring a framed certificate to show me and held it up with a gleaming playful smile of triumph. It read, “Mavis Gwendoline Bullwinkle, Citizen of the City of London.”
Mavis Gwendoline Bullwinkle – Citizen of Spitalfields – is a woman who makes no apology to call herself a secretary, because she is inspired by the best of that proud nineteenth century spirit which carried a compassionate egalitarian sense of moral purpose.
Mavis’ mother’s family, the Pughs of North Wales, photographed in Spitalfields in 1900. At the centre, Mavis’ grandmother Frances holds Mavis’ mother Gwendoline as a baby, with her grandfather Richard at her shoulder, a lay preacher who died unexpectedly of pneumonia four years later.
Handbill for one of Mavis’ grandfather’s bible classes at St Matthew’s Mission, Fulham.
Mavis’ mother Gwendoline and her sisters at All Saints School, Buxton St, Spitalfields, 1904. g – Gwendoline, l – Laura, a – Ada and h – Hilda.
Mavis’ father’s family, the Bullwinkles of Bow in 1917. Her grandmother Lousia sits on the left and her grandfather Edwin on the right. Mavis’ father Alfred stands between his two brothers Harry and Ted, both in Royal Air Corps uniform. The eldest daughter standing behind her mother was also Louisa but known as “Sis.”
Mavis, with her parents Gwendoline and Alfred, and younger sister Margaret in Barking Park, 1939 – before Mavis & Margaret were evacuated to Aylesbury.
Mavis stands on the extreme left of this picture of the All Saints Church Spitalfields choir, 1951.
Mavis sits at the centre of the picnic at this Christ Church, Spitalfields, Sunday School outing to Chalkwell in the late fifties – presided over by Mrs Berdoe (top centre).
Mavis Bullwinkle in her Hanbury St flat today.