Henrietta Keeper, Ballad Singer
Friday is an especially good day to have lunch at E. Pellicci in the Bethnal Green Rd, because not only is Maria Pellicci’s delicious fried cod & chips with mushy peas likely to be on the menu, but also – if you are favoured – you may also get to hear Henrietta Keeper sing one of her soulful ballads. Celebrated for her extraordinary vitality, the venerable Henrietta (known widely as “Joan”) is naturally reticent about her age, a discretion which you will appreciate when I reveal that she is able to pass as one thirty years her junior.
Henrietta tucked into her customary fried egg & chips last Friday as the essential warm-up to her weekly performance while I sat across the table from her enjoying the cod & chips with mushy peas, and helping her out with her chips. “My husband died fourteen years ago, of emphysema from smoking and he ate a lot of hydrolized fat.” she admitted to me, her dark eyes shining with emotion,“When he died, I threw away the biscuits and I bought a book on nutrition and studied it, and now I’ve got strong. I only eat wholemeal bread, white bread’s a killer. I am keeping well, to stay alive for the sake of my children because I love them. I don’t want to go the same way my husband did.”
“Anna Pellicci makes me laugh, ‘She says, ‘Are you still here?”” continued Henrietta with affectionate irony, leaning closer and casting her eyes around the magnificent panelled cafe that is her second home,“I first came to Pelliccis in 1947 when I got married. No-one had washing machines then, so I used to take my washing to the laundrette and come here with my three babies, Lesley hanging onto the pram, Linda sitting on the front and Lorraine the baby inside.” Yet in spite of being around longer than anyone else, Henrietta possesses a youthful, almost childlike, energy and wears a jaunty bow in her hair. “I’m so tiny,” she declared to me batting her eyelids flirtatiously, “I’m just a little girl.”
As a prelude the afternoon’s performance, I asked Henrietta the origin of her singing and she grew playful, speaking with evident delight and invoking emotions from long ago. “It all started with my dad when I was a little girl, he had a beautiful voice.” she recalled fondly, “He was a road sweeper, but years ago there wasn’t much work – so, when he couldn’t get a job, he used to stand outside the pub singing. And people put money in his hat, and he took it home and gave to my mum. That was the only entertainment we had in those days. Everybody was poor, so the best thing was to go to the pub and make your own music. When I was sixteen years old, I used to sing duets with my dad in pubs. The first song I sang was “Sweet Sixteen – When I first saw the love light in your eyes, when you were sweet sixteen…”
Henrietta got lost in the sentiment, singing the opening line of Sweet Sixteen across the table in a whisper, before the choosing the moment to assure me,“I’m a ballad singer, I don’t like to sing ‘Hey, Big Spender!’ even though I think Shirley Basset’s marvellous – that suits her voice, not mine.” I nodded sagely in acknowledgement of the distinction, before she continued with a fresh thought, “But I like Country & Western. Have you heard of Patsy Cline and Lena Martell? I like that one, ‘I go to pieces each time I see you again…’”
Born in the old Bethnal Green Hospital in the Cambridge Heath Rd, Henrietta and all her family – even her great-grandparents – lived in Shetland St opposite. Evacuated at the age of ten to Little Saxham, near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, Henrietta found herself with a devout Welsh family who worked on the land and went to church on Sundays. Here Henrietta excelled in the choir and “that’s how I learnt singing. I got to sing, ‘My Lord is Sweet,’ on my own and I loved it.” she confided to me with a tender smile.
Returning to the East End at the time of the doodlbugs, Henrietta was out playing with her friend Doris when they heard the sound of the Luftwaffe overhead followed by explosions. In the horror of the moment, Doris suggested they take refuge in Bethnal Green Tube Station, but Henrietta had the presence of mind to refuse and went instead to join her family sleeping under the railway arches. That night, one hundred and seventy three people were killed on the staircase as they crowded into the entrance of the tube, including Henrietta’s friend Doris. “It’s not for your eyes,” Henrietta’s father told her when they laid out the bodies on stretchers upon the pavements in lines, but she recalls it in vivid detail to this day.
We ate in silence for a while before Henrietta resumed her story.“When my children started school, I joined the Diamond “T” Concert Party,” she told me,”I had a friend who worked at Tate & Lyle in Silvertown and one of the things they did for the community was organise entertainments. We used to go to old people’s homes, churches and hospitals, and I became one of their singers for thirty years. We had quite a laugh. The only reason I left was that everyone else died.”
I understood something of Henrietta’s circumstance, her story, the origin of her singing and how she made use of her talent over all these years. I realised it was imperative that Henrietta continues singing, if she is to seek the longevity she desires, and for one born and bred in Bethnal Green, Pelliccis is the natural venue. Yet there was one mystery left – why does everyone know Henrietta as ‘Joan’ ?
“My mum was called Henrietta, and because I was the eldest I was called Henrietta, but I hated it so I when I went for my first job interview, as a machinist in Mare St making army denims, I told them I was called, “Joan.” she confessed, “They was more cockney there than I am, they said, ‘What’s your name, love?’ and I didn’t like calling out ‘Henrietta’ because it sounded so posh, I just said the first name that came into my head – ‘Joan.’ All my neighbours and my mother-in-law know me as Joan, but my family know me as Henrietta. And that’s how I told a little white lie, in case you might be wondering.”
As our conversation passed, we had completed our meals. Joan ordered a piece of bread pudding to take home to eat later and I polished off a syrup pudding with custard. And then, the moment arrived – Henrietta took her microphone from her bag and composed herself to sumon the spirit of the place, a hush fell upon the cafe and she sang…
“I’m a ballad singer, I don’t like to sing ‘Hey, Big Spender!”
Henrietta Keeper - “I’m so tiny, I’m just a little girl.”
You may like to read my other Pelliccis stories