Barbara Jezewska, Teacher
Barbara as a pupil of the Central Foundation Grammar School for Girls, Spitalfields
Barbara Jezewska was not born in the East End nor was she of East End parentage, yet she lived her formative years here and it left an indelible impression upon her.“I love the people, the places and the experiences that I have known, and look for every opportunity to go back and visit,” she confessed to me, “I consider myself so rich for having grown up in a time and a place that was quite extraordinary.”
Barbara grew up in Casson St, a modest back street connecting Old Montague St and Chicksand St in Spitalfields. Opposite was Black Lion Yard, known then as the Hatton Garden of the East End because it contained eighteen jewellery shops. Old Montague St had a sleazy reputation in those days – it was a busy thoroughfare crowded with diverse life, filled with slum dwelllings, punctuated by a bomb site and a sugar factory, and lined with small shops and cafes. There, long-established Jewish traders sat alongside dodgy coffees bars in which Maltese, Somalis, Caribbeans and others congregated to do illicit business.
While others might consider themselves disadvantaged to grow up in such an environment, Barbara’s experience was quite the opposite and she recognised a keen sense of loss from the moment her family were rehoused in 1965 as part of the slum clearance programme. Very little of Casson St survives today and the spot where Barbara’s house stood is now a park, yet it is a location that still carries immense significance for her.
“We moved to 1 Casson St in 1957 when I was three years old. We came to London from Paxton, Berwickshire on the border with Scotland where my mother, Elizabeth Carr, had been born. My father was Polish, born in Lublin, and when he was fifteen, he ran away from home and ended up fighting in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. He never talked about it but he had a graze on his arm that he said was from a bullet wound. I believe he met my mother while he was washing dishes at a West End hotel where she also worked. When I was eighteen he left and married again, and I only saw him a few times before he died. We became estranged and, in 1994, we got a phone call to say he had died in Poland.
My father couldn’t speak English when he arrived in this country, but he was very talented in music and he paid for guitar lessons out of his earnings. As a child, I remember him practising and practising and I didn’t appreciate what was going on, yet eventually he ended up teaching at Trinity College, Cambridge.
We shared the house in Casson St with a Greek family, the Hambis. It wasn’t partitioned, they had some rooms and we had the others. There was no bathroom, no heating and no hot running water. We did have an inside toilet but the Hambis had one in the back yard. They had five children and there were the three of us, so there was always somebody to play with and always something going on.
Across the street from us was the Beehive Nougat Factory (‘nugget’ as we used to say it). We rang the bell and asked for an old man we called ‘Uncle Alf’ who worked there, and he gave us sweets, handfuls of broken chocolates and nougat. We used to raid the bins of the textile factories and get cardboard tubes, then we’d stage incredible battles, lining up on either side of the street and hitting each other with the tubes until they broke. There was Mrs Miller who sold toys on Petticoat Lane, when she and my mother met they would talk for hours. One day, a dandelion seed – which we called fairies – floated by and went into Mrs Miller’s mouth while they were talking. She swallowed it and never noticed, so we always remembered ‘the day Mrs Miller swallowed a fairy!’ There was Mrs Isaacs, a widow who lived next door who spent all her time at the upstairs window, watching. If you did anything she didn’t approve of, she’d shout at you. One day, I was going to chalk on the wall and she shouted out, ‘Don’t you make a mess!’ I stuck my tongue out at Mrs Isaacs and she disappeared from the window, so I ran back inside and said to my mother, ‘Mrs Isaacs is coming,’ and she came round and said, ‘Your daughter stuck her tongue out at me!’
We used to play on the bomb sites and I climbed into a basement of a bombed-out house in Old Montague St. I was scared because there was a lot of rubble on top but I found some silver threepenny bits in a bag. We took them to the sweet shop and passed them off as sixpences. I think the shopkeeper realised they were silver and was happy to accept them for sweets. Round the corner in Hopetown St, lived Alfie and his parents who were the first get a television. So, at 4pm, we’d all queue up outside Alfie’s house – half a dozen of us – and ask to watch the Children’s Hour, and we’d sit on the kitchen floor to watch. The only time we went to the seaside was on a Sunday school trip, and they gave us Christmas parties at which we’d all get a present of a second-hand toy.
There were several tramps that I remember. Coco worked for the stallholders and slept in an empty building on the corner of Black Lion Yard, every morning he came out with his bucket of slops and threw it over onto the bomb site. Ivan used to wander up and down Old Montague St, and I think I saw two men trying to kill him once, dropping bricks from the roof as he walked past. Stinky Sheridan had one leg and used to sell matches in Whitechapel Rd. Whenever we saw the tramps, my mother who was a very kind person, taught me to respect them, she’d say, ‘Remember, that’s somebody’s son.’
In 1965, we were moved out as part of slum clearance to Brownlow Rd, off Queensbridge Rd in Haggerston. At the time, I was eleven and we thought it was very exciting. It was a maisonette with a bathroom, so we thought it was wonderful, but my experience when we moved was I felt lonely and missed the other children in our extended family. It felt strange. But being realistic, it would have been pretty awful staying in Casson St without any privacy or a bathroom.
I went to Robert Montefiore Primary School in Hanbury St and, when I left, I remember saying to my mother, tell the headmaster I want to go to the Central Foundation Grammar School in Spital Sq. I’d heard it was the good place to go. We were allowed out to wander around the Spitalfields Market at lunchtime. Every month the girls used to support a different charity there. We’d go down to the market and beg boxes of fruit and sell it at breaktimes and the money would go to charity. The art room overlooked the market and I did a painting of it that won a prize. I joined the choir so I could sing at St Botolph’s in Bishopsgate and get invited back for sandwiches and ice cream by the Worshipful Company of Fan Makers. I thought I was very clever because I went to a Grammar School.
My first job was at Fox’s the Chemist in Broadway Market, from four until six every day after school and all day Saturday for £2.50. At eighteen, I left school and worked for two years in the City at the National Westminster Bank in Threadneedle St. It was easy to get work, you could go to an agency and get a job, and if you didn’t like it you could go back in the afternoon and get a different one.
Then I did teacher training in Tooting. I couldn’t do it at eighteen because my father wouldn’t sign the grant form as he was about to remarry and didn’t want to commit himself, but when the divorce came through my mother signed. I asked to do my teaching practise in the East End and I was placed at Virginia Rd Primary School. I qualified as teacher in 1978, and I worked at Randal Cremer school in Hackney, I was part-time at Redlands School off Sidney St and deputy head at St Luke’s in Old St. I had wanted to be a teacher since the age of five, I think I just wanted a register and a red pen.
At forty-five, I had a son and we moved to Walthamstow and then to Hetfordshire, but I want to be back here – and one day I’ll be back. You can’t explain it to some people, because so many worked so hard to get out. My son Adem, he’s fourteen and I bring him to see the street art. I think he’s interested in the East End.”
Barbara keeps the button box from her childhood in Casson St. On the table are swatches from her mother’s dresses bought in Petticoat Lane and a necklace she made out of melon pips at age nine in 1963.
Barbara’s school report from the Central Foundation Grammar School in Spital Sq, July 1968.
Barbara, aged three.
The ‘goal’ where Barbara and her friends played football, photographed in the eighties.
Barbara, aged five.
The furniture factory opposite Barbara’s home in Casson St, photographed in the eighties.
Barbara (second from the left) in the Central Foundation School production of The Mikado.
Casson St under demolition.
Jerzy Jezewska, Barbara’s father was a celebrated guitarist who taught at Cambridge.
Barbara visits Columbia Rd in the eighties.
You may also like to read about