CHIT CHAT – Three Gracious Ladies, Mavis Bullwinkle, Henrietta Keeper & Joan Rose
Last week, I invited three gracious octogenarian ladies – Mavis Bullwinkle of Spitalfields, Henrietta Keeper of Bethnal Green and Joan Rose of Arnold Circus - along to the Bishopsgate Institute for a chit chat. Although they all lived within a mile of each other in the East End during World War II, they had not met before. Sarah Ainslie took their portraits, and I publish some excerpts of the chat here to give a flavour of what proved to be a lively evening.
Joan Rose - To reach eighty-six years of age and to sit here and look and see everybody smiling, it’s wonderful and I’m feeling very important at the moment. Who am I? I’m just a little girl who was born on the Boundary Street Estate in Shoreditch in 1926 from a family of costermongers, a cockney. One day, I thought “I’m sick and tired of going to Oxford Street and the department stores, I’ll go back to where I was born. I’ll go to the Boundary Estate.” And I strolled down Calvert Avenue and it was very emotional because it was at the top of the avenue that my grandparents – and I’m going back to 1874 – had a business. And I stood and I was trying to visualise my grandparents’ shop, which was a fruiterers and green grocers, when I noticed a little cafe on the right and I went in and met Leila McAlister. She has reopened my grandparents’ grocery shop and, from there, I have met such lovely people and I’ve been made Honorary Patron of the Friends of Arnold Circus.
Mavis Bullwinkle - I’m the youngest one here, I’m eighty in May. I’ve lived in this little area – Spitalfields – all my life, except for when I was evacuated to Aylesbury with the school. We were away for six years – which was very sad, to be away from your mother and your father. All things come to an end and, when I was thirteen, we came back home, which we’d been looking forward to. Every night we used to pray, “Please God, let the war be over tomorrow.” For six years we prayed and one day it was, and of course we had won, so it was marvellous, God had answered. Otherwise, I’ve lived all my life here, I’ve not married – I lived with my parents until they died. When I was a baby, I’m talking about 1932, my mother used to take me, in the afternoon, for a walk down Whitechapel Rd which was very lovely, you’d get the sun down there. It was the most beautiful road, Whitechapel Rd, very wide with trees – and you didn’t used to have so many stalls then. They had very nice shops and right at the top there was this big department store, Wickhams, and it was a lovely place to walk down.
Henrietta Keeper - I was evacuated when I was twelve and I was away for three years and came back to the doodlebugs – when the war was still on. My Dad didn’t think it was safe enough to be in the Anderson shelter – so we went up to an arch in the Bethnal Green Road and underneath it there were bunk beds. My friend, Doris said, “Me Mum’s worried about me, she’s down the tube, because the warning’s gone. Will you come with me down the tube?” So I linked my arm in my Mum’s and said, “No, I love my Mum and I want to stay here,” but she said “Oh come on.” She kept on and on, and I got fed up with it. All of a sudden, I thought, “All right, OK.” I was really going to go with her. I took two steps, and then I went back and put my arm into my Mum’s, and I said, “No, I don’t want to go. You go down there.” Everyone was racing to the tube, the police were all around, the traffic had stopped and big red buses were all lined up the length of the Bethnal Green Rd. So Doris went and there was a tube accident, one hundred and seventy-three people died, they all fell downstairs on top of each other and got suffocated – and I was saved, and I’m so glad I didn’t go.
When I was married, my husband done night work down at Smithfield Meat Market and because I was on my own in the evenings I used to write poetry. I always have to be doing something! I can’t go through life without doing anything. When I was a little girl, I used to hear my dad singing, he had the most beautiful voice and I sang in harmony with him and with my sisters – me, Marie, Kathy –we used to sing like the Andrews Sisters. I joined Tate &Lyle’s factory down at Silvertown as part of the entertainment and I was in their works concert party for thirty years, until everyone else died. We’d go every Tuesday and I’d sing. I’ve sung as far away as Ilford. I loved it, I loved every minute of it. My husband didn’t mind me doing it because they always came and picked us up, took us to the venue and brought us right back to our door, so we was safe. If they hadn’t have done that my husband probably wouldn’t have let me done it. I’m a cockney, always been a cockney but when I sing I don’t sing cockney.
Joan Rose - Everybody sings with an American accent now – do you sing with an English accent?
Henrietta Keeper -I tell you what, I talk really cockney don’t I? I mean you can hear me, but when I sing I sing the Queen’s English. I don’t know where I got it from. I’m eighty-five and I’ve had a lovely life, really.
Mavis Bullwinkle - I can’t tell you, after the war, how much the place changed because so many people moved away. My mother and father were here during the blitz, until he went into the air force. My sister and I, it didn’t cross our minds that they might get killed. We were too young to realise the danger, and my mother would make jokes about it when she came to visit us, so we didn’t dream she could be killed. We lived near Vallance Road in Deal St and the last but one V2 fell on a big block of flats in Vallance Road, Hughes Mansions – it was so close – at seven o’clock in the morning. My mother was filling up her kettle to make a morning cup of tea. All she saw was a flash, there wasn’t a sound, and she found herself surrounded with glass from the window. There’d been this terrible tragedy but she was alright. I really feel I can never complain. If I complain, I have to pull myself up and say, “Look, your mother wasn’t killed.’ But a lot of other people had been killed – and I tell myself, “You’ve got to live your life to make up for them.”
I thank God for regeneration. We prayed for years for somebody to help us because after the war, the sixties and seventies, they were hellish times here. Nobody cared about us, the people who stayed here. They did all this building because there’d been so much bombing – but the housing was only for people with children and once you got married there was no chance of staying in the area, even if your parents, grandparents had all lived there, if you didn’t have any children. And the area lost all these wonderful people who could have been useful. In our block where my parents lived, where my mother had lived since the age of four, we had two bedrooms, we didn’t have a bathroom. But my parents and us two children, both girls, although they’d lived there all their lives, there was no chance of us being re-housed. No chance of ever getting a bathroom. If they’d had a boy and a girl that might’ve been different – but because there were two girls there were just two bedrooms. The new estates were only for larger families, so you had this dead area here in Spitalfields – it was absolutely dead. We eventually got re-housed, when I was nearly fifty and my mother was nearly eighty, because the buildings got pulled down! Before that we had no bathroom.
I worked at the Royal London Hospital for forty years. People say to me, “Oh, you still live there?” and I say, “Why shouldn’t I still live there?” People ask, “Where do you come from? And you say ‘Whitechapel’ and they say ‘Oh, Jack The Ripper!’” My niece lives in Yorkshire and when I go up there, I don’t say “Can you show me the streets where the Yorkshire Ripper killed all those poor women?” I think there’s something peculiar about people who want to see where those women were killed. Here in the East End, we’ve always had a bad name. But you see how beautifully we’re all dressed? We’re real! We’re real Tower Hamlets people! Brought up in Tower Hamlets.
Question from the audience - Can you tell us about your first jobs?
Joan Rose – I worked at De La Rue’s, they used to print money in the City. I only worked there for two days because I didn’t like it, I didn’t even pick up my two days’ pay. My next job was as a machinist on the Bethnal Green Rd, in the building which is now Shoreditch House. I was fourteen and my mother said, “You have to find yourself a job, darling.” So I worked making khaki trousers for the army, but an air raid happened and I ran home because my mother was a very nervous person and I knew she was on her own. That was another week’s wages I never picked up, because I never went back. It was piece work then and at the end of the first week, I’d be lucky if I made eighteen shillings or a pound. Whatever I earned, I’d give it to my mother and she’d give me sixpence to go to the cinema. This was 1940 and – fortunately – my father, who had gone through the First World War, said he couldn’t go through another one, so he took us and we all went to live in Blackpool for ten years. I ended up being a teacher in a college, so I didn’t do too bad.
Mavis Bullwinkle – The Sir John Cass School Foundation used to pay for two girls to go to Pitmans’ College and I was a lucky one. At first, I worked as a shorthand typist in the City for five years but then I worked at the Royal London Hospital in the social work department for forty years. When I went for the interview, they said, “How much are you getting in the City?” I was only twenty-one and I was getting four pounds a week. They said, “Well, you won’t get that here – you’ll get three pounds and ten shillings,” and I had longer hours and worked Saturday mornings. But I was quite happy to do it. That’s the difference between hospitals then and now. Everybody – not just doctors and nurses, even the secretaries and the cleaners – they were all prepared to work for less money in a hospital because they wanted to do something useful. It was a totally different world. I didn’t think twice, it was what I wanted to do.
Henrietta Keeper - I was a machinist for thirty years in ladies’ tailoring. I was on the top machine and I ended up being a sample maker. They got their work, the guvnors, by taking my samples up the Richards Shop in the West End. They’d come back smiling, saying, “We’ve got work! We’ve got work!” Then we were alright for a few weeks. While everyone else was earning fifteen pound, I was earning between twenty-six and thirty pounds. I got my first job on Mare St in a firm making army denims. I’d just come home from evacuation and because I’d been away, I’d become a bit countrified so when they said “What’s your name, love?” I didn’t like saying ‘Henrietta’ – so I said the first name off the top of me head, ‘Joan!’ (to Joan Rose) I’m sorry about that, Joan. And I’ve been ‘Joan’ to me mother-in-law and all me neighbours, they all know me as ‘Joan’. I’ve got a lot of aliases. I’ve got a nickname, I had it when I was a baby. Shall I tell it to you? ‘Minxie!’
(The evening concluded with Henrietta singing an old cockney song that her father taught her.)
Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie
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