So Long, Marge Hewson
Marge Hewson died yesterday, and today I am republishing my pen portrait of her as tribute to a woman who lived her life on Brick Lane and was loved by generations of pupils at Christ Church School, where she was Nursery Nurse for over forty years.
Marge Hewson, Chicksand House, Spitalfields, 1959
On any school morning in Spitalfields, you may always rely upon spotting Marge Hewson between eight thirty and nine o’clock – traversing the streets from Greatorex St to the Chicksand Estate – trudging around in all weathers, ringing doorbells and collecting up her beloved charges until she has acquired a crocodile of as many as twenty small children, that she ushers safely to Christ Church School in Brick Lane where she has been Nursery Nurse for forty years.
As a consequence, she is one of the most popular people you could ever meet, cherished by generations of local people for whom Marge’s benign presence is an integral part of their childhood landscape. “As big as they are, they’ll still stop me and ask for a hug in the street, even teenagers.” she revealed with a proud blush, as a significant indicator of the outcome of a life lived at the very centre of her community.
“I must admit I have never got away from here, but I am not unhappy with it,” confided Marge upon quiet consideration, when I dropped by to visit her at the school yesterday after four o’ clock, once it had emptied out of pupils and peace reigned. “You can’t really put into words what it was like,” said Marge to me, with characteristically shrewd reserve and a self-effacing smile, before proceeding to evoke her Brick Lane childhood with lyrical ease.
“I was brought up in Flower & Dean St just off Brick Lane – the “Flowerie” we called it. Just a few small shops and tenements, all pulled down now. You knew everybody and everybody knew you, and nobody had any money. You learnt to stand on your own two feet, I think I had a very happy childhood.
Children don’t have freedom now. When I was ten, me and my friend would take a picnic and go to Victoria Park and spend the whole day there. We were often out on the street until ten o’clock at night. There was a policeman on the beat and we used to stand around the lamppost until he came at nine thirty, and he’d say “It’s time you went home.” So we’d stay until he came back on his round again later and then we’d all run home to bed.
We weren’t allowed to go up Brick Lane beyond Princelet St because of the Maltese cafes with prostitutes standing outside. We used to try to bunk into the Mayfair cinema across the road if we could get in the back door. At the bottom of Osborn St was a bomb site called the Chimney Debris where we played, and we went to Woolworths to buy bamboos, and make bows and arrows, and played Robin Hood there. There was no TV, so I went to the library every day. I used to go swimming every day too, at the Goulston St Baths and I balanced my little brother with his bottle where I could see him in the changing rooms, so I could keep an eye on him while I swam lengths. Then we’d buy stale cakes from the bakery on the corner afterwards.
Every Saturday we played Bagatelle, or Newmarket with the four kings, and we had a jar of pennies and my mother would turn them out, and as a family we’d all sit down together. I’d see all the boys come on leave from National Service on Saturday night to visit their girls. They’d all go up Whitechapel Waste to Paul’s Record Shop, where I was too young to go – the boys in their suits and the girls all dressed up. And on Sunday mornings, there was always an escapologist in chains who escaped from a sack on the corner of Wentworth St, it was lovely to go and watch him.”
Christ Church School is a hundred yards from Flower & Dean St where Marge grew up and – while her contemporaries have moved out of the neighbourhood – apart from a foray to the Isle of Dogs, Marge has chosen to live within walking distance of her old territory and she finds it suits her very well. In her time, the East End has transformed through slum clearance and rebuilding, and the movement of peoples in and out of the neighbourhood. And although she would never claim it, Marge through her emotional presence at the school over four decades has become part of the consistent identity of this place as a magnanimous harbour to newcomers, carrying forward the best of the old into the new East End.
“I began here at the school in 1979 before East Pakistan became Bangladesh, there wasn’t too many Bengali children here then but as others left and more arrived it became 100% Bengali. Now I see another change, we have more children of different races, including Colombians and Eastern Europeans which makes it a truly multicultural school. When the Bangladeshis first came there wasn’t much English spoken, they used to turn up at all times of the day and with layers and layers of clothing against the cold.
At first we had only one big classroom and fifty children with just me and one teacher. A lot didn’t speak English and sometimes I would take a child home but the mother wouldn’t answer the door because she didn’t understand the language, so then I’d have to grab a passerby to translate. Conditions were hard for Bengalis, with families living in one room in tenements, and we worked as a team to help with their problems, taking them to hospital or the doctor if they didn’t speak English.”
I realised Marge Hewson was reluctant to talk about all the work she did, because she chooses discretion when speaking of the past disadvantage of those who are her community today. Instead she wanted to confess how much it means to have this role at the school which has given her such profound emotional reward and sense of belonging.
“I came here for six months and I stayed forty years, and there are children here now – I knew their parents when they were little. I like this school, I know all the people and I know this area back to front. I’ve got a lot of affection for the families round here. If I lost my purse, or I needed anything, I could knock on any door and they would help me, I know. I love my life in Brick Lane.”
Chicksand House 1959 – Marge on the right, with Sandra her sister-in-law and Mary her mother-in-law.
Marge at Chicksand House with her first child, 1961.
Marge enjoys a knees up at a wedding in the sixties.
With a class at Christ Church School, 1977.
In the school playground with her husband Philip, a cab driver, in the nineteen seventies.
Marge Hewson, Nursery Nurse
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