Happy Birthday Mavis Bullwinkle!
Today we are celebrating the birthday of one of Spitalfields’ best-loved residents, Mavis Bullwinkle. We count ourselves favoured that, apart from her six years enforced exile as an evacuee in Aylesbury during World War Two, Mavis has shown the good sense to spend her entire eighty years here. In this picture, you can see her standing at the door of the church house in Buxton St where her grandfather Richard Pugh lived when he came from North Wales as a lay preacher in 1898 to minister to the people of the East End, and it was here that Mavis’ mother Gwen was born in 1899. I regret that we cannot turn back the wheels of time, so that Richard could step through this door to wish his granddaughter a happy birthday, but the unfortunate reality is that he died of pneumonia in 1905 and left Mavis’ grandmother to bring up seven children alone – an event which created repercussions that resonate to this day for Mavis.
Yet Mavis displayed her characteristic good humour, amplified by her bright red ankle-length raincoat, when I met her outside Christ Church after morning prayers on an especially grey and cloudy morning this week. And it was my privilege to take a stroll around the neighbourhood with Mavis, as she pointed out some of the landmarks on her personal landscape, because after her eighty years, there are few who know Spitalfields as well as Mavis.
Although Mavis remembers Christ Church (or “Spitalfields Church” as she knew it) when her Uncle Albert Pugh was caretaker at during the nineteen thirties, she did not come here regularly until 1951 when her local church All Saints in Buxton St was shut. “I found it very gaunt with all that dark masonry,” she recalled, rolling her eyes dramatically and casting her gaze up to the tall spire looming over us. Then, in 1958, death watch beetle was discovered at Christ Church and this was shut too. “They found it on the Thursday and it was closed by the weekend,” Mavis revealed in a disappointed tone, “My sister Margaret was due to be married on the Saturday and she had to make do with the horrible hall in Hanbury St.”
Already the rain was setting in, so we set off briskly towards the Hanbury Hall and Mavis ameliorated her opinion of the place by the time we got there. “My uncle and his family lived here on the ground floor,” she explained, “the bedroom was on the right of the entrance and the living room and kitchen to left.” Mavis told me there was so much unemployment in the nineteen twenties that young men were encouraged to go to Australia and, eager to relieve the burden on his mother, Albert emigrated at nineteen, only to have an accident in the Outback that left him with a curvature of the spine. On his return, he found it even harder to get work until the rector of Christ Church appointed him caretaker. And when he died young in 1943, leaving a wife and two girls, the Rector arranged for them to have a flat in the market building at the corner of Brushfield St. Mavis taught at the Sunday School here at the Hanbury Hall from 1951 until 1981, while the congregation was in exile, and she stood in the rain looking up at the building in disbelief that so much time could have passed.
Then we set off towards the the north-easterly quarter of Spitalfields, once known as Mile End New Town, to the small web of streets which Mavis counts as home and that remains the focus of her existence. Taking a minor detour down Brick Lane to visit the former Mayfair Cinema – once an Odeon and now Cafe Naz – where Mavis came in her teens with her mother during the nineteen forties, “We didn’t come down here much otherwise,” she admitted with a shrug, “We did our shopping in Whitechapel or Bethnal Green.”
The nature of our odyssey caused Mavis to peer in wonder at her familiar streets. “When you live in a place so long you take it for granted, until it’s not there anymore and then you can’t even remember what was there before.” she confessed as we turned from Brick Lane into Buxton St, approaching Allen Gardens. Before the green field that we know today, Mavis recalls a warren of little streets here surrounding All Saints Church, the centre of her emotional and social universe growing up in Albert Family Dwellings in Deal St. This was the block her grandmother moved into in 1905 and Mavis moved out of in 1979 when it was demolished.
“The Reverend Holdstock used to give wonderful Christmas parties, and I had some of the happiest times of my life in here,” she confided to me as we stood outside the square rectory, one of the few old buildings remaining in the street today. “Around 1913, when my aunt Esther was young, she remembered meeting the cows coming up Buxton St to be milked, each morning as she was on her way to work at a factory in Shoreditch.” Mavis informed me, gesturing back towards the Lane and conjuring an image of the herd. When Mavis’ grandfather died, her Aunt Esther had to give up her training to be a teacher, working first as a nanny in the vicarage and then at a clothing factory. “She never got over it that she never got to be a teacher,” recalled Mavis tenderly, “and when she used to go on about it, I’d remind her that if she’d never gone to work in the factory she’d never have met her husband, Uncle John.”
Then we reached the patch of green where the church of All Saints once stood. “It was a very pretty church, late Victorian,” she told me, “built at the same time as the terraces round here. In those days people wouldn’t live somewhere unless there was a church. It was damaged by the bombing and once, when the rain came in the roof, the vicar made a hole in the floor with his umbrella so that it could drain away.”
From here, we walked down Deal St where Albert Family Dwellings formerly stood on the south corner of Underwood Rd. Only the the iron bollards labelled M. E. N. T. remain today to indicate that this was once Mile End New Town. Yet in Mavis’ mind it all still exists – the Prince of Wales pub on the corner of Buxton St, Davis’ Welsh Dairy on the north corner of Underwood Rd and Mrs Finkelstein’s sweetshop opposite, where for penny you could put your hand in a bran tub and get a little thing to put in your dolls’ house. Standing outside the former entrance of Albert Family Dwellings, Mavis recalled the evening of 2nd September 1939 when she and her sister Margaret were summoned to the school to be evacuated without being told where, and Mavis’ mother went home alone clutching a card with her daughters’ address in Aylesbury. Today, Mavis is probably the only witness to the former life of these streets that still resides in this location and the empty pavements are crowded with memories for her.
Mavis gave up a career in the City in preference to a lower paid job as a secretary at the Royal London Hospital because she wanted to be of service to people, and she worked there for forty years. Her grandfather Richard Pugh, the lay preacher from Wales, would have been proud of Mavis, following his example. The last of the Bullwinkles in Tower Hamlets, she fills with delight to speak of Spitalfields, and more than a century of striving and thriving in her family in this corner of the East End. Out of almost everyone I know, Mavis could most be said to be of this place. With a self-effacing nature, she has shown moral courage and selflessness in her work at the hospital, and in caring for her mother and two aunts until they died at ripe old ages. After eighty years, Mavis Bullwinkle knows what it means to live, and we salute her example and applaud her spirit.
Gwen Bullwinkle holds up Mavis in Hanbury St in 1933. “Every time my mother saw this picture, she would say, ‘Fancy taking us outside a pub!’”
Mavis by the War Memorial at Christ Church which her father Alf tended. “He used to grow flowers around it and keep it tidy.”
All Saints Sunday School in 1939 – seven year old Mavis is in the second row on the extreme right and her five year old sister Margaret is on her right.
Mavis outside the former rectory of All Saints Church. “I had some of the happiest times of my life here.”
Mavis & Margaret’s evacuation card, 1939.
Mavis stands on the spot where All Saints Church used to be in Buxton St until 1951.
Spitalfields’ celebrations for the coronation of King George VI, 1937.
Mavis in Vallance Rd outside the house of Quaker philanthropist Mary Hughes, daughter of Thomas Hughes. “Mary Hughes came up to my mother pushing me in a pram in the Whitechapel Rd in 1932 and exclaimed ‘Oh you wonderful mother!’ She was a little old lady dressed in black silk, from the nineteenth century, and my mother pulled away in fear. Only later did she learn who it was.”
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