Vivian Betts of Bishopsgate
Vivian & Toto outside The Primrose
You will not meet many who can boast the distinction of being brought up on the teeming thoroughfare of Bishopsgate but Vivian Betts is one who enjoyed that rare privilege, growing up above The Primrose on the corner of Primrose St where her parents were publicans from 1955 until 1974. Yet it was a different Bishopsgate from that of the present day with its soaring glass towers housing financial industries. In her childhood, Vivian knew a street lined with pubs and individual shops where the lamplighter came each night to light the gas lamps.
Living in a pub on the boundary of the City of London, Vivian discovered herself at a hub of human of activity. “I had the best of both worlds,” Vivian confessed to me, when she came up to Spitalfields on a rare visit yesterday, “I had the choice of City life or East End life, I could go either way. I had complete freedom and I was never in any danger. My father said to me if I ever had any trouble to go to a policeman. But all my friends wanted to come over to my place, because I lived in a pub!”
Vivian knew Bishopsgate before the Broadgate development swallowed up the entire block between Liverpool St and Primrose St. And as we walked together past the uniform architecture, she affectionately ticked off the order of the pubs that once stood there – The Kings Arms, The Raven and then The Primrose – with all the different premises in between. When we reached the windswept corner of Primrose St beneath the vast Broadgate Tower, Vivian gestured to the empty space where The Primrose once stood, now swallowed by road widening, and told me that she remembered the dray horses delivering the beer in barrels on carts from the Truman Brewery in Brick Lane.
In this landscape of concrete, glass and steel, configured as the environment of aggressive corporate endeavour, it was surreal yet heartening to hear Vivian speak and be reminded that human life once existed there on a modest domestic scale. Demolished finally in 1987, The Primrose had existed in Bishopsgate at least since 1839.
“My brother Michael was born in 1942, while Bill my father was away in the war, and Violet my mother got a job as a barmaid, and when he came back she said, ‘This is how I want to spend my life.’ Their first pub was The Alfred’s Head in Gold St, Stepney, in about 1946, and she told me she was washing the floor there in the morning and I was born in the afternoon. We left when I was three and all I remember of Stepney was walking over a bomb site to look at all the caterpillars.
In 1955, we moved into The Primrose at 229 Bishopsgate, directly opposite the Spitalfields market – you could look out of the window on the first floor and see the market. My first memory of Bishopsgate was lying in bed and listening to the piano player in the pub below. We had three pianos, one in the public bar, one in the first floor function room and one in our front room. On Sunday lunchtimes at The Primrose, it was so busy you could hardly see through the barroom for all the hats and smoke.
I used to go to Canon Barnet School in Commercial St and, from the age of seven, my dad would see me across Bishopsgate and I’d walk through the Spitalfields Market on my way to school where the traders would give me an apple and a banana – they all knew me because they used to come drinking in the pub. It was a completely Jewish school and, because no-one else lived in Bishopsgate, all my friends were over in Spitalfields, mostly in the Flower & Dean Buildings, so I spent a lot of time over there. And I used to come to Brick Lane to go the matinees at the cinema every Saturday. Itchy Park was our playground – in those days, the church was shut but we used to peek through the window and see hundreds of pigeons inside.
My dad opened one of the first carveries in a pub, where you could get fresh ham or turkey cut and made up into sandwiches and, in the upstairs room, my mum did sit-down lunches for three shillings – it was like school dinners, steak & kidney pudding and sausage & mash. She walked every day with her trolley to Dewhurst’s the butchers opposite Liverpool St, she got all her fruit and vegetables fresh from the Spitalfields Market, and she used to go to Petticoat Lane each week to buy fresh fish.
Every evening at 5pm, we had all the banks come in to play darts. On Mondays, it was the ladies of The Primrose darts team and on Wednesdays it was the men’s darts league. And, once each year, we organised the Presentation Dance at the York Hall. Every evening in the upstairs function room, we had the different Freemason’s lodges. Whenever I came out of my living room, I could always see them but I had to look away because it was part of my life that I wasn’t supposed to see. After I left school, I went to work for the Royal London Mutual Insurance Co. in Finsbury Sq – five minutes walk away – as a punchcard operator and, whenever it was anyone’s birthday, I’d say ‘Come on back to my mum’s pub and she’ll make us all sandwiches.’
Then in 1973, Truman’s wrote to my dad and gave him a year’s notice, they were turning the pub over to managers in April 1974, so we had to leave. But I had already booked my wedding for July at St Botolph’s in Bishopsgate, and I came back for that. Eighteen months later, in 1976, my mum and dad asked me and my husband to go into running a pub with them. It was The Alexandra Hotel in Southend, known as the “Top Alex” because there were two and ours was at the top of the hill.
Three months after we moved in, my dad died of cancer – so they gave it to my mum on a year’s widow’s lease but they said that if me and my husband proved we could run it, we could keep it. And we stayed until 1985. Then we had a murder and an attempted murder in which a man got stabbed, and my husband said, ‘It’s about time we moved.’ And that’s when we moved to our current pub, The Windmill at Hoo, near Rochester, twenty-eight years ago. We had a brass bell hanging behind the counter at The Primrose that came off a train in Liverpool St Station which we used to call time and we’ve taken it with us – all these years – but though we don’t call time any more, we still use it to ring in the New Year.
I’ve only ever had two Christmases not in a pub in my life, when you’re born to it you don’t know anything else.”
Vivian told me that she often gets customers from the East End in The Windmill and they always recognise her by her voice. “They say, ‘We know where you come from!’” she confided to me proudly.
The Primrose, 229 Bishopsgate, as Vivian knew it.
Toto sits on the heater in the panelled barroom at The Primrose.
Vivian at Canon Barnet School in Commercial St.
Bill and Vi Betts
“My first Freemason’s Lodge night when I was twelve or thirteen in 1965. My brother Michael with his wife Valerie on the right.”
Vivian stands outside The Primrose in this picture, looking east across Bishopsgate towards Spital Sq with Spitalfields market in the distance.
Vivian was awarded this certificate while a student at Sir John Cass School, Houndsditch.
Vivian on the railway bridge, looking west towards Finsbury Sq.
Vivian outside the door which served as the door to the pub and her own front door.
Vivian’s friends skylarking in Bishopsgate - “They always wanted to come over to my place because I lived above a pub!”
“When I was eight, we went abroad on holiday for the first time to Italy, we bought the tickets at the travel agents across the road and, after that, twelve or fourteen couples would come with us – my parents’ friends – and I was always the youngest there.”
Vivian prints out a policy at the Royal London Mutual Insurance Co. in Finsbury Sq.
“And what do you do?” - Vivian meets Prince Charles on a visit to Lloyd Register of Shipping in Fenchurch St.
“Harry the greengrocer and Tom the horse, they used to get their fruit & vegetables in the Spitalfields Market. My husband Dennis worked for this man when he was about twelve years of age, driving around the Isle of Dogs. He loved horses, and we’ve got a piece of land with our pub now and we’ve kept horses since 1980.”
Bill & Vi Betts in later years.
Vivian Betts at St Botolph’s Bishopsgate where she married her husband Dennis Campbell in 1974.
The Primrose in a former incarnation, photographed in 1912.
Bishopsgate with The Primrose halfway down on the right, photographed in 1912 by Charles Goss.
Archive photographs courtesy Bishopsgate Institute
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