Leslie Norris of Bethnal Green
Leading this splendid parade advancing manfully down the Old Ford Rd is Leslie Norris, Warrant Officer of the London District Air Training Corps, at the head of the very first Bethnal Green Carnival in 1952 – and such was the joy that Leslie felt in being at the centre of his community, evident in this heroic image, that it remains undiminished even half a century later.
Growing up in the streets around Hackney Rd, Leslie earned the nickname “Ginger” and although now, at eighty-five, only a few fiery-red hairs in his eyebrows remain as clues to its origin, when I visited Leslie in his current home in Essex, he was eager to declare his enduring emotional loyalty to Bethnal Green. “Even though I live in Romford, I am an East Ender,” he confirmed to me absolutely with a proud grin.
Born at 26 Hassard St, Bethnal Green, to Florence, a French polisher and Albert, a seed merchant, Leslie grew up “with a whole family of aunts and uncles all within a mile of each other,” and the interweaving streets around Columbia Rd – where he attended school – were the centre of his world. “Friday evenings we’d do jobs for the Jewish women,” recalled Leslie, laughing in delight at how resourceful he and his pals were at the age of ten. “We’d get sixpence from Mrs Leibowitz, Mrs Brodsky and Mrs Bukowski because they weren’t allowed to work, and we would run errands, clear up and light the fires for them. And we used to go to the Spitalfields Market at closing time with a knife and ask for offcuts of fruit in a bag for our mums – and that would be our supply for the week.”
At first, when Leslie’s father took over his brother’s sawdust business, Leslie helped out by delivering the sawdust to the jewellers in Hatton Garden, but his first real job was as a “glue-boy” in a furniture factory in Columbia Rd. “At the age of fourteen, I once pushed a barrow with an oak dining table and four chairs all the way to St. Anne’s Rd in Tottenham – I know it was 7th September 1940, because afterwards I had to rush home and put on a suit for my brother’s wedding. And then that night, during a raid, three of my cousins were killed.” he recalled in sober contemplation. Next, Leslie went on to work in a saw mill in Ezra St – but the events of September 1940 meant that he had already determined to join up as soon as he was old enough and in 1943, after training, he became a wireless officer in the Royal Corps of Signals, serving in Burma.
Back home after the war, Leslie centred his existence around St. Hilda’s East on the Boundary Estate. “It was the place everyone met in those days. We’d go every night. We used to love to dance – even though we only had five records to dance to!” he enthused. Possessing the charisma of a natural leader, Leslie became both Chair of the Senior Club and Captain of the football team at twenty four, organising camping trips and days out – involving his contemporaries from the immediate neighbourhood who all became life-long friends. And the exuberant photographs vividly communicate the spirit of carefree Summer jaunts and youthful high jinks that presided, illustrating how St. Hilda’s performed a crucial social function, as Leslie confirmed with a gleam in his eye. “Twenty marriages came out of those years at the club,” he boasted, “including my own” – glancing quietly to a nearby photograph of Joyce Lucretia Graves who died in 2007, whom Leslie had known since she was seven and whom he married on the 29th March, 1952.
“Joyce was determined we should marry in St. Leonards, Shoreditch, but we were out of their parish and the Reverend, a guy by the name of Rutter, wouldn’t permit it.” admitted Leslie. Fortunately a priest that Leslie knew during the war stepped in and performed the ceremony “with bells and everything,” he informed me, triumphantly. And when thick snow made wedding photos impossible outside the church, Leslie and Joyce led the wedding party over to St Hilda’s East where they requisitioned the gymnasium for their pictures.
Many years later, Leslie discovered his great-great-great-grandfather John Norris had been married at St Leonards in 1786. And he and Joyce returned to the church, where Leslie’s ancestors had made their vows more than two centuries earlier. “We went back for our fiftieth wedding anniversary in 2002 and renewed our vows,” revealed Leslie, recalling the congregation of nearly two hundred people that came to greet him and Joyce as they arrived at the church. “It was beautiful to be back again,” he confided to me tenderly, before adding, “Some joker asked if I was wearing the same suit!”
In the fifty years that passed between these ceremonies at St Leonards, Leslie worked as a butcher at Smithfield, maintaining his ties with the area and becoming a Freeman of the City of London – even though he moved from Bethnal Green with Joyce and their two children, Ian and Colin, in 1968 to live among the green fields of Romford. Demonstrating his passionate sense of community, Leslie was President of the St John’s Ambulance, Mile End Division for thirty years, and became Vice President of the South West Essex Burma Star Association, so I was not surprised to learn that he was awarded the O.B.E. for his service to others.
“I still sing the school song to myself every night,” Leslie told me, revealing the depth of the connection he feels to Bethnal Green even now, and, quite unselfconsciously, he sang the opening verse, beginning, “Columbia, the name we treasure/ Thy name ever dear to me/ Thy memories will always bring me pleasure/ Through far away I may be…” just as he remembered hearing other soldiers sing it in the tents in the jungle when he was serving in Burma so many years ago.
And as I listened, Leslie Norris became “Ginger” Norris again and I understood the indelible impression that the vibrant life of this small patch of streets in Bethnal Green had in shaping his destiny.
Post-war celebrations in Cuff Place, where Leslie and Joyce lived for the first twenty years of their marriage – Joyce stands at the centre of the lower picture.
Leslie (on the left) with pals in Bethnal Green.
Leslie as captain of the St Hilda’s football team.
Leslie and Joyce on their first date, Southend, Easter 1949.
The first kiss.
On a Summer camping trip from St Hilda’s East.
Leslie and Joyce.
Leslie and the boys enjoyed getting into drag for a lark.
Joyce did the washing up in a field.
Leslie swept Joyce off her feet.
Leslie and Joyce on their wedding day after the marriage at St Leonard’s, Shoreditch, 29th March 1952, – photographed in the gymnasium at St Hilda’s due to heavy snowfall.
“We used to go every year to Ramsgate in the Summer, to the same house, for sixteen years”
Joyce sits among family on the beach at Ramsgate in the sixties.
A gathering at Leslie and Joyce’s in Romford in the seventies.
Joyce and friends enjoy a knees up.
Leslie and Joyce, 1973.
Leslie Norris of Bethnal Green.