Betty Levy of Petticoat Lane
If you walked through the Petticoat Lane Market in the nineteen-twenties, you would frequently have seen Betty Levy with all her sisters playing hopscotch or skipping games in the street. You could easily have distinguished Betty because she was the baby with the mop of curls, and everyone knew Betty’s mother Hannah – famous as the best fish fryer in the Lane.
But maybe you do not remember, because maybe it is just too long ago for you? Yet that is certainly not the case for Betty herself. At ninety-two years of age, she remembers her childhood as if it were yesterday and given any opportunity she delights to break into the same songs she sang then, accompanied by the ingenious lyrics she composed herself.
Betty left Petticoat Lane in 1954 but occasionally when speaking of the Lane, she says “And I’m still here,” and you realise it is a statement which transcends immediate reality, because while Petticoat Lane has changed almost beyond recognition, Betty still carries a world and a society and an ethos that incarnate the Petticoat Lane she knew, the place she will always count as home.
“I was born here, in Rosetta Place off Frying Pan Alley and my mother Hannah before me. My grandparents, Mark and Phoebe Harris, lived in Rosetta Place too and if we went in their flat, they always gave us something to eat.
My family have been here for generations, I always understood they were of Dutch descent. My father, Isaac, worked in Smithfield Market, he sold sweets to the porters and we never starved, so he must have made a living. They called him ‘Kosher’ and he sold the sweets from a basket round his neck. He got them from a small warehouse in Commercial St run by Mr Sam. If we were well behaved, he gave us one.
I went to the Jews Free School in Frying Pan Alley, it was a good school with good teachers and they treated us well. My grandmother sometimes gave me a plate of roast potatoes and told me to go and give them to the children in the park, and she left fried fish on the window sill for people to take. Nobody starved in the East End.
When I left school at fourteen, I went to work making dresses in Middlesex St, we were taught how to do it at school and I moved from one factory to another to better myself. I made all my family’s clothes, my children and grandchildren, and their bride’s dresses. If you spend your life doing something, you get a talent for it – I got to be as good as anyone at it. And I miss it now, I wouldn’t mind doing it again, part-time.
I was only seven years married when my husband Danny died aged thirty-nine, I think he had a heart attack. I met him at a dance at the Hammersmith Palais. We met dancing, we were both good dancers, not fabulous but pretty good. We were married at the Beaumont St Synagogue and we lived with my family at first. Then we found a house in Milward St, Whitechapel, round the back of the London Hospital. Although I was one of a large family, I only had two children – a boy and a girl, Irene and Stephen. After Danny died, my family offered to support me, but I wanted to be independent. If you’ve got to do it, you do it. I worked making dresses and I kept us, because I didn’t want anyone else to bring up my children.
I love the East End, there’s something in the East End that’s nowhere else. It is my home.”
Four of Betty’s sisters in Rosetta Place c. 1925
“We played among the doorsteps, for hours and hours
We never had gardens, so we couldn’t grow flowers.
Some kids they never had shoes, ’cause their dads were on the booze
But, we all lived together the Christians, the Jews
And the Jewish Free School was in dear old Frying Pan Alley.
Now there is not any doorsteps, they’ve knocked them all down,
They built a tower block where we played around.
The kids don’t play now like we used to,
On everybody’s doorsteps, in the East End of town.”
Betty’s new lyrics to the melody of ’On Mother Kelly’s Doorstep’
The Levy Sisters. Sally, Phoebe, Lily, Carrie, Jennie, Becky and Betty (in front).
The Mitchell Family, neighbours in Rosetta Place. Betty Mitchell standing with Betty Clasper and little RayRay in front and Anita Mitchell, Barnie Mitchell, Siddy Segal and little Jo in line along the wall.
Some of the Levy grandchildren on the steps of St. Botolph’s Church Bishopsgate c. 1945. Alan, Diana, Bobby, Roy, Richard, Sallyann and little David.
Betty’s grandparents, Mark & Phoebe Harris, Spitalfields, c. 1920
Betty’s mother, Hannah Levy, daughter of Mark & Phoebe Harris, and famous as the best fish fryer in Petticoat Lane.
Betty’s father, Isaac in his ARP uniform.
Hannah Levy and friends in Frying Pan Alley around 1940.
Betty as a Land Army Girl in WWII, based at Sawbridgeworth in Hertfordshire.
Three Bettys (Levy, Cohen and Hyams) and three American airman at Westcliff-on-Sea c. 1945
At the centre (in a headscarf) is Betty with family and friends at the Coronation 0f Queen Elizabeth II. They slept out in Picadilly to be sure of getting a prime position.
Betty sings at her ninetieth birthday party, October 2010 at Beaumont St Synagogue.
Betty dances with her daughter Irene at the party.
You may also like to read these other stories of Petticoat Lane