Terry Penton, Painter & Decorator
You might think that the life of a painter & decorator might be uneventful, but this has not been the case for Terry Penton. “I’m thinking of writing a book,” he revealed to me, “I’ve been through so many things and so much has happened to me, and with everything I’ve done there is a story to tell.”
After bringing up his family in Bethnal Green, Terry moved to Chingford ten years ago. At one end of the street is the expanse of the King George V Reservoir and at the other is Epping Forest where Terry walks his dog every day, observing the sunset over the East End. “People don’t realise there’s sheep grazing in E4,” he informed me.
With a restless spirit and a fearless nature, Terry has always been open to the opportunities that life offers and, as a consequence, he has been granted an enviable breadth of experience and knowledge – as I quickly discovered when I sat down for a chat with him yesterday.
“I was born at 5 Treby St, Mile End, and lived there until I was four. John, my dad, was a Painter & Decorator for Stepney Borough Council. He died of lung cancer when I was three and we couldn’t afford the rent. Eve, my mother had four children so she took refuge at Parnell Rise Methodist Church and she worked there as a caretaker.
At the church, she met someone. George’d not long come from Jamaica on the Windrush. He was a bus conductor on the number eight route. She and George got married, and all her family disowned her and all her family disowned us too. The church wrote and said that now she had a husband we must get out. But we read it as because she had married a black man. They gave her one week’s notice.
I was six when we moved to Brooke Rd, Clapton. At first, it seemed everything was fine because there were other families from the West Indies but there was a lot of resentment and we had all sorts of trouble including bricks through the window. The black community didn’t like it that my step-dad had married a white woman. When my mother got pregnant and had another baby, one of the neighbours in the street asked to have a look, when she had it in a pram, and when they saw it was a mixed race baby, they spat in her face and called her a whore.
Because of my dad, I didn’t see colour. He brought me up like a Jamaican and I could speak the patois. I learnt that what colour or religion you are doesn’t matter, there’s good and bad in all. I was in a bunch of kids that included Irish kids, kids from Manchester, black kids, Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots. We hadn’t been exposed to racism so it didn’t matter to us.
After we moved to Brooke Rd, my step-dad started drinking and we had holes in our shoes – he had a nice suit and tie, and we had nothing. My mother worked in a laundrette and I used to go round the bins collecting Domestos bottles for the tuppence deposit on each one. I walked to Manor House on Saturday to wash motors at nine years old. We learnt to survive. My old man hit me with a buckle until I stopped him at sixteen.
I never liked school from day one. The only subjects I engaged with were Carpentry, Geography and English – and that was because you could write stories. I had an argument with a teacher who pulled me up to the front of the class and told me to bend over, and he kicked me and he caught me underneath which resulted in me having to have an operation. Three months later, I got out of hospital and went back and bashed him up. Then I got suspended and stayed suspended, I left school at thirteen years and four months. By then, I was working for a local butcher, going down to Smithfield at three o’clock in the morning and loading lorries up. I went back to school at fifteen but left after three months and started as a trainee butcher in Bethnal Green at West Layton Butchers at £3 a week.
They played pranks on me, sending me to walk all the way to the Roman Rd and back to buy wire mesh gloves when such things didn’t exist. At the time I thought it was meant to be funny, so what I decided to do was to throw a bucket of livers’ blood over them through the grille at the side door, while they was putting the rubbish out. Unfortunately, two old ladies walked past. One had just had a blue rinse and it was covered in blood, so she went into the shop to complain and I was sacked on the spot.
I couldn’t get another job in butchery because I couldn’t get the references, so I worked five years in the rag trade and then I went into the building game at eighteen, until I was twenty years of age when I got a job working as a mobile caretaker for the Greater London Council. I became resident caretaker in the Ocean Estate, Stepney. I was courting then and a maisonette became available in Bethnal Green, so I put in for it – only the local office didn’t like the fact that my girlfriend was living with me and I was told to get married. We married in St Matthews Bethnal Green on 29th March, 1980. After two years, my son Daniel was born in Barts Hospital, two years later my son Steven was born and twelve months later my son Frankie was born.
At that time, we were told that the GLC was handing over our caretakers’ contracts to Tower Hamlets, so at this point I joined the National Union of Public Employees as a Shop Steward, becoming Branch Secretary, Branch Chair and negotiating our terms and conditions, so we would be protected when the handover came. D-Day came on 31st October 1985, and if you didn’t sign your contract you were dismissing yourself. I was approached by management and offered a senior position if I got the other guys to sign, which I refused to do. Out of thirty-three caretakers, eleven refused to sign and were dismissed. We had to fight on our own because we were without contracts and I set up a tent and camped outside the Town Hall, and we occupied the Town Hall on an number of occasions. It went to court but, in the end, I left after thirteen years caretaking with nothing. I always believed being a caretaker was a kind of social work, I started a football team for kids on the block and I kept an eye on the old folks. A well-organised caretaker is the key to a good estate.
I became a member of Stepney & Bethnal Green Labour Party and went to Nottingham to support the miners, I was on the picket line in Wapping for a year and I was in Dover supporting the P&O workers. I even stood for election in Weavers’ Ward but got a disappointing six hundred votes.
While working for the Council, I attended Hackney Building College in my own time and did a City & Guilds in Painting & Decorating. I had three children and a wife, and rent to pay, so once I lost my job I went out and did Painting & Decorating. I also did decorative effects and I used to sell furniture and fireplace surrounds and then I’d marbleise them. I took a workshop in the Sunbury Workshops in the Boundary Estate but the recession kicked in and I couldn’t afford it. I was approached by a printer called “Johnny the Ace” who was looking for a little workshop to share for printing leaflets and flyers and he would pay 80% of the rent. So I partitioned the unit, and I could do my furniture at the front while he was doing his printing at the back.
A couple of months went by and I discovered he was printing money. I was faced with the option of going to the police and face the consequences of being revealed as a grass, so I decided not to say anything. But the workshop was wired and I was charged with conspiracy to produce counterfeit goods. The printer “Johnny the Ace” was working for the police, and it was a complete set up and there was nothing I could to about it.
I pleaded my innocence and told them I’d been set up, but I was advised by my barrister to go guilty and seek leniency. I received three years of which I served eighteen months. I’d been going to Tower Hamlets College doing an Access Course to go to University with a view to becoming a Probation Officer. I studied English, Maths, Sociology, Economics, Law and Politics. I went to London Guildhall University where I was studying for an Honours Degree in Law & Politics.
When I come out of prison, they approached me to return to University but I said ‘No,’ and I went back to Painting & Decorating. I’d like to give something back and I’d like to teach young people Painting & Decorating and decorative effects. My eldest son works with me as as Plasterer, I taught him Painting & Decorating. All my children work, they’ve got a sense of responsibility and they’ll never forget where they’ve come from.
Now we live in North Chingford and it’s not as friendly as Bethnal Green, but there’s this politeness here. People say, ‘Good morning’ and they thank the driver when they get off the bus. It’s taken me ten years to get used to it.”
Terry aged three with his father John in Ilfracombe, 1959 - “The Summer before my father died, we went down to see him at the convalescent home in Devon. He bought me a pair of woollen swimming trunks with a seahorse sewn onto them, and to this day I love seahorses.”
Terry as a six year old at his sister’s wedding, 1963.
Terry’s marriage at St Matthew’s, Bethnal Green, 29th March 1980.
Terry carries the banner for Stepney & Bethnal Green Labour Party in the eighties.
Terry with his family today
Terry Penton, Painter & Decorator
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