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Mickey Davis at the Fruit & Wool Exchange

March 6, 2012
by Mike Brooke

On the day Tower Hamlets Council meet to discuss the redevelopment proposals for the London Fruit & Wool Exchange in Spitalfields, it is my pleasure to publish this memoir by Mike Brooke recalling his uncle Mickey Davis – affectionately known as “Mickey the Midget” – who became a popular hero when he took the initiative to organise the shelter in the basement of the Exchange where as many ten thousand people took refuge nightly, escaping the London Blitz.

Mickey Davis & his wife Doris in the shelter beneath the Fruit & Wool Exchange, 1941

The last time I saw Mickey Davis I was as tall as him – and I was only seven or eight, back then in the Spitalfields of the early nineteen fifties. He came to my school, Robert Montefiore Primary in Deal St, as guest of honour for our annual prize giving. I recognised him in the corridor as we left the assembly hall afterwards, standing against the wall watching us return to our classrooms. I was the proudest kid on the block – because the guest of honour was my Uncle Mickey.

He was, I recall, Deputy Mayor of Stepney (the old Metropolitan borough that later became absorbed into what we now call Tower Hamlets), a very short man, a midget through an accident at birth or defect, I’m not sure exactly. But Mickey was a giant of a man to the community he served in those post-war years and a “people’s hero” of the London Blitz of 1940, several years before I was even born, as I discovered as a journalist working in the East End more than half-a-century later.

I must have been about eight when I roller-skated through the streets of Spitalfields one afternoon and found myself in Fournier St and decided to pop in to see aunt Doris and husband Mickey who lived in a large flat on the first floor of 103 Commercial St, part of the London Fruit & Wool Exchange opposite Spitalfields Church (now known as Christ Church). The kitchen overlooked the indoor wholesale trading area and there was always a faint smell of fruit and veg in the background, while the front room overlooked Commercial St, roughly level with the overhead wires of the 647 and 665 trolleybuses. It seemed quite a posh apartment to an eight-year-old.

But I didn’t go inside that afternoon. My grandmother, aunt Doris and my late father Henry’s mother, answered the door and told me immediately that uncle Mickey was dead. It was an abrupt manner to an eight-year-old, but I knew she was upset. I left and skated straight home to Granby St, along Brick Lane, rushing to tell my mother. She had not heard about Mickey yet, but knew he had been in hospital. We did not have a phone in the house in those days.

Doris and my mother Connie had been great friends during the War and worked together. It was through Doris that my mother and father met when he came home on leave from the Royal Navy in 1943. He visited his sister at work and took a fancy to Connie. They married while he was on leave and he was recalled back to Plymouth to rejoin his ship on their wedding night, so my mother once told me.

My mother immediately put a coat on and went over to see Doris that day in 1954 when I told her about the death of Uncle Mickey. It was not until decades later that I learned the full story of Mickey Davis – and how he organised a shelter committee during the early days of the Blitz at the Spitalfields Fruit & Wool Exchange – when the BBC contacted my family in the nineteen eighties, researching a possible documentary, though I do not think the programme was ever made. It was another two decades before I did my own research for an article about Mickey Davis for a commemorative supplement in the East London Advertiser, where I was Features Editor, marking the seventieth anniversary of the start of the Blitz in September 2010,.

Mickey, who at three feet  three inches tall was known as ‘”the Midget,” was an East End optician who threw his energies into organising and improving shelter life, I wrote. He had emerged as the unofficial leader who pushed for improvements to health and safety in one of the East End’s biggest air raid shelters at the Spitalfields Fruit & Wool Exchange in Brushfield St. While the local authority, Stepney Borough Council, was concerned by the 2,500 people crammed into the shelter each night, with its lack of sanitation, risking disease and infection, and lack of facilities for food, lighting and heating, it was left to Mickey set up first aid and medical units, and raise money to equip a dispensary. He even persuaded stretcher bearers and others to come in on their off duty times to minister to the sick and injured. As a popular activist and orator, he  became indispensable to the people, pushing the authorities into action.

Long before medical posts became the official practice, well-to-do friends of Mickey provided his Spitalfields public shelter with drugs and equipment. A GP friend made two-hour journeys each day to the East End to spend his nights among the poor. Eight years before the NHS was set up, Mickey’s shelter in 1940 had a free medical service already up-and-running. He even devised a card index system of everyone who used the shelter, and introduced hygiene practices and protection against disease. He persuaded Marks & Spencer to donate money for a canteen and used the profits to provide free milk for children. When the wartime Government eventually appointed official shelter marshals, Mickey was replaced – but the first action of the Spitalfields Shelter Committee undertook was to vote him to be Shelter Marshal, responsible for 2,500 people.

His thinking in 1940 was a fore-runner of the post-war Welfare State that emerged in 1948. He was a man known affectionately among East Enders as “the midget with the heart of a giant.”That was the Mickey Davis, who I am proud to have called “uncle.”

Mickey Davis, popularly known as “Mickey the Midget,” who became a hero of the London Blitz – photo by Bert Hardy

Mickey (in the foreground) convenes a planning meeting in the basement of the Fruit & Wool Exchange in 1941 – photo by Bert Hardy

Musical entertainment for people sleeping in “Mickey’s Shelter” in the Fruit & Wool Exchange.

The space of “Mickey’s Shelter” unchanged today.

Graffiti remaining from the days of the shelter in the basement of the Fruit & Wool Exchange.

The Fruit & Wool Exchange today.

The Auction room at the Fruit & Wool Exchange in the nineteen thirties.

Bert Hardy photographs © Getty Images

Photo of Auction Room courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

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At the Fruit & Wool Exchange

Glenys Bristow in Spitalfields

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11 Responses leave one →
  1. Grenville Mills permalink*
    March 6, 2012

    Great images and a heritage that every member of Tower Hamlets Council needs to understand and defend against destruction – saving the facade isn’t enough. If our councillors truly represent the will of the people of Spitalfields they will preserve The Fruit and Wool Exchange for future generations of East Londoners.

  2. March 6, 2012

    It could be so much more than another block of officers hidden behind a cosmetic ‘heritage’ facade. LBTH will say yes to it because they want the business rates, but a more creative reusing of the building that might engage with local communities and tourists alike would be better for the area, for the borough and for London as a unique place.

  3. joan permalink
    March 6, 2012

    The story of Mickey Davis is inspirational. There seems to be a vogue these days for splitting children in primary schools into houses (I’m guessing the influence of Harry Potter). These tend to be named after local achievers. So here in Stratford they are named after the Quakers who resided in these parts – the Frys and the Gurneys; the young war hero Jack Cornwell and the champion of antiseptics Joseph Lister. It would be nice to think that in some Stepney schools there is a Mickey Davis house.

    Among the papers I inherited when my granddad died was a preprinted form sent to him by Mile End hospital in 1936 informing him that his wife had died and he needed to come and sort out funeral arrangements. We forget what life was like before phones.

    Many thanks to Mike Brooke for this story.

    Best wishes,

    Joan

  4. Chris F permalink
    March 6, 2012

    I probably asked this last time you posted an article about Mickey, but does anyone know where Mickey is buried? Is he commemorated anywhere? If not, then he should be. We’ve raised lesser mortals onto loftier pedestals.

  5. March 6, 2012

    Thank you Gentle Author for bringing us Mike Brooke’s memoir of his uncle, Mickey Davis, and with those photographs too. Wonderful.

    Mickey, may your giant contribution be recognised and your kind and community-hearted spirit be there tonight….

  6. Annie permalink
    March 9, 2012

    Sounds like the building has been saved – good news!

  7. jeannette permalink
    June 28, 2012

    totally missed this one, thx so much.

  8. Michael permalink
    August 9, 2012

    Hello Mike.

    Mickey was my grandfather. I never had the honour of meeting him; I wish I had.

    The BBC documentary to which Mike referred was never made, nor was the film that was was to have Bob Hoskins play my grandfather (not sure how that would have worked), and nor was a blue plaque ever placed outside 103 Commercial Street. For years there’s been talk about finding some way to honour a man whose life was devoted to helping others, but we’ve never been quite able to get there. Perhaps it’s time to renew our efforts. I love the idea of a Mickey Davis house in a school somewhere.

    In the meantime, I think tonight I’ll simply raise a glass to my grandfather.

    Sleep well, Mickey.

    Michael.

  9. November 18, 2012

    it is really amazing how some things are unchanged for years

  10. kate Saunders permalink
    March 1, 2014

    A message for Michael (Mickey’s grandson). Hi Michael I am Mickeys niece (eldest daughter of Mickey’s brother Alf). You must be my second cousin. I knew my uncle had two daughters Patricia and Simone. I would love to get in touch. you can reach me by email katesaunders666@btinternet.com

  11. kate Saunders permalink
    March 1, 2014

    Hi Chris,

    My uncle is buried in the jewish cemetery at Rainham.

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