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Cecile Moss of Old Montague St

August 29, 2013
by the gentle author

Cecile aged four

Although Cecile Moss lived in Old Montague St for fourteen years, this is the only photograph taken of her in Spitalfields, and it was taken for a precise purpose. A photographer came round to take it in 1955, the year Cecile arrived from Jamaica aged four years old, and the picture was sent back to her family in the Caribbean as evidence that she was attending a proper Catholic school with a smart uniform and therefore all was well in London. Yet in contrast to the image of middle class respectability which Cecile’s mother strove to maintain, the family lived together in one room in a tenement and the reason there are no other photographs is because they had no money for a camera.

Almost no trace survives today of the Old Montague St that Cecile knew – 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. In fact, Old Montague St offered a rich and stimulating playground to a young child filled with wonder and curiosity, as Cecile was.

The novel presence of black people proved a challenge to many East Enders at that time. “Sometimes, they knotted their handkerchiefs when they saw me,” recalled Cecile with mixed emotion, “and they’d say, ‘If you see a black person that’s good luck.’” Fortunately, Cecile’s mother’s professional status as a teacher proved to be an unexpected boost to Cecile in this new society and later Cecile became a teacher herself, an occupation that she pursues today from her home in New Cross Gate where she lives with her children and grandchildren. “Since the new overground train, I’ve spent a lot more time in the East End and I still have a lot of friends there.” she admitted to me when I visited her last week, “As you grow older, you tend to want to go back to your home.”

“We came to England from Jamaica in 1955, me, my sister Clorine and my mother, Marlene Moss, to Old Montague St in Spitalfields. She left my father and came over to live with her sister, Daisy. I was four years old and I didn’t know I was coming to England, I was traumatised. But I remember what I was wearing, I wore a double-breasted coat with a velvet Peter Pan collar and lace-up shoes. My mother was a teacher in Jamaica and she didn’t want us to look like refugees arriving in England. The voyage lasted ten days and we were met by my uncle at Southampton. It was very confined on the boat so that when I got off, I kept on running around.

We lived in a building where the Spitalfields health centre is today. We were 9b, above a shop where two elderly Jewish sisters lived. My mother cried for days because we had to share one toilet with three other floors, so it was really quite disgusting. I was told that I had come to get a doll. But it was an ugly chalky-skinned blond doll, and I was so angry and upset that I threw it away and smashed it, which made my aunt think I was a very ungrateful little girl. My mother,my sister and I all lived in one room. My sister was eleven and she remained silent, whereas my mum and I just cried a lot. I missed my family in Jamaica.

Because we were Catholics, we went to St Anne’s Catholic church and mother got talking to the priest. He told her she could teach in St Gregory, a Secondary Modern in Wood Close, doing supply work. When she started at the school she was shocked. One of the pupils was absent from the register and they said, ‘He’s gone down for GBH.’ My mother came back and asked my aunt, ‘What is this GBH?’ She said she was going introduce Shakespeare to the school but they said,‘We don’t want you bringing any of your kind of rubbish here!’

I went to St Patrick’s school around the back of St Anne’s and my sister, because she had already passed the eleven-plus, went to Our Lady’s convent in Stamford Hill. Yet I only lasted two weeks at St Patrick’s because the kids hit me and pushed me over. I can’t remember if they called me racist names, but I know I was terribly unhappy. My mother took me away and sent me to Stamford Hill too. I was five years old, and she put me on the 653 bus and told the conductor where to let me off. The people on the bus would look after me and I never missed my stop. I felt safe. So we lived in the East End but we went to school in North London. That was unusual but, because my mother was a teacher, we were middle class, even though we lived in Old Montague St which was a slum. Old Montague St had quite a reputation for drugs. There were dark tenements with dark passages with dark dealings.

When my mum got a permanent job at St Agnes’ school in Bow, she took me away from Our Lady’s at seven years old. So I never went back to school in Spitalfields but I used to play out on the street a lot. Most of the children I played with were second generation Irish with names like Touhy, O’Shea, Latimer and Daley - that’s who I grew up with. There was an older Irish boy who looked out for me, he said I was part of the gang. He told us we mustn’t speak to the people on Brick Lane because they were Jewish. He was looked after by his grandmother. She was a character. Every Saturday night, she went to the pub on the corner of Chicksand St and filled a jug with port or whatever and stumbled back singing, ‘Daisy, Daisy give me your answer do.’ And my mother cried and said, ‘Look what we have come down to.’ One day, the old lady, she tied a skipping rope across the street to stop the traffic so that we could play. When the police came along, she said, ‘The children have got nowhere to play.’ And we were all shocked, but later they opened a playground on the corner of Old Montague St and Vallance Rd.

I loved going to Petticoat Lane. Every Friday, my aunt would go and get a chicken – you could choose one and they would kill it for you. There were street entertainers, an organ grinder and man who lay on a bed of hot coals. Walking up  Wentworth St, there were all Jewish shops with barrels of pickles and olives outside. I was fascinated but my mother said, ‘That’s not our food.’ A lot of the stallholders were quite friendly to me and my mother because they thought we were the next wave of immigrants. There was a cafe I walked past with my mum, it was full of black-skinned men but I couldn’t understand what they were saying even though they were like us. They were Somalis. The men outside, they’d give me sixpence and put me on their knee. They liked to see me because they were away from their own children. I think we were some of the first West Indians here, there were no other black kids.

I spent a lot of time in the fleapit cinema on Brick Lane on Saturdays. But by the time I turned seven, my mum stopped me playing out. She forbade me, so my wanderings around Spitalfields stopped and I don’t mix with the kids on the street anymore. Instead I became more friendly with the kids I was at school with in Bow.

My aunt Daisy went back to Jamaica and my sister returned when she was eighteen. So it was just me and my mum in the end. We shared a bedroom and we had a sitting room, with the kitchen in the hallway. I was very embarrassed about where I lived and I didn’t bring friends home because it was a slum. All this time, my mother was not divorced, she was still married and it really held her back. She even had to ask a friend to his name down for her to be able to buy a television.

There was a hardware shop and other shops run by Jewish people, where they got on well with my mother. There was a bit of snobbishness because she was a teacher. It used to cushion me too, I was Mrs Moss’ daughter. When she complained, they used to say to her, ‘Never mind, we had it, now it’s your turn.’ Referring the racial prejudice, they meant it was something you put up with, then it would pass. And by the time I left Spitalfields, it was the Bengalis coming in, so it was quite profound what they said – it was a rite of passage at that time.

When I was eighteen, we moved out. Looking back on it, I’ve got to say it was a happy time. I knew when I’d forgotten Jamaica and made my transition to England. I played a lot on the stairs and I pretended to have a ‘post office’ there. One day my mother was there too, washing some clothes on the landing and she corrected my speech. ‘It’s not ‘spag-ETTEE,” she said, ‘It’s ‘spaghetti” And, I realised then, that was because I’d left Jamaica behind and I spoke Cockney.

Today I often teach immigrants, children for whom English is their second language, and I can say to them, ‘I know what you are going through.’”

Old Montague St 1965 by Geoffrey Fletcher

Cecile Moss

9 Responses leave one →
  1. August 29, 2013

    A great account. Life has changed so much: imagine having to share one toilet with three other floors. Looking at the current photo I can’t believe Cecile was born in 1951!

  2. August 29, 2013

    I’m really glad to see this posted again. If I had to choose one post, this would be the one. Thank you.

  3. Vicky permalink
    August 29, 2013

    This is also one of my favourite stories, so glad your re-published it – and The Old Montague Street pictures are great.

  4. August 29, 2013

    What a fascinating story. You look great Cecile Moss.

  5. August 29, 2013

    What a fascinating story – thanks!
    I live in Old Montague street and can see the space where you must have lived from across the road – and yes, it has changed! Not just those modern flats but there are more trees here too than in those wonderful Geoffrey Fletcher illustrations. That said, there is still one dark passageway from here to Whitechapel road, with the odd dark dealing still going on…
    I myself moved here with my daughter two years ago, after nearly 3 decades in France. I feel at home here among immigrants of all kinds, even though my own differences don’t show and life is much easier than it was for you and your mum. My mum’s family were Catalan refugees from the Spanish Civil war, my dad was born in the East End so I’m a mongrel at home where different cultures meet. I have some French family too so I can spot that there’s more and more French spoken by young passers-by in this street, alongside the dominant Bengali, and the odd bout of gritty Cockney swearing outside the women’s hostel.

  6. Min the Merciless permalink
    August 29, 2013

    What a brilliant story! Cecile looks fab. My mum’s from Willesden and I remember her saying she used to sit on the wall outside her house watching the first West Indians in the area go to Church in all their colour, fun and finery. She says she wished she could have run along behind them. Life in Willesden was very drab, she said. In the end, she became a ballet dancer. She still has a little soft spot for West Indians.

  7. August 29, 2013

    I so agree with your mum Min. I lived in Brixton and likewise used to wish I could dress up like the West Indians on a Sunday especially as Sundays could be very dull then. They were a joy to behold and I sometimes wonder if there is a photographic record of this somewhere. I loved the inside of their homes too with all the lovely Caribbean coloured crochet cushions, nets and ornaments.

  8. Molasses permalink
    August 30, 2013

    Inspirational!

  9. isa permalink
    September 4, 2013

    Dear Cecile I too was born in 1951 like you, and my first language was Polish.My parents were from PolandIt must of been such a change living in England after a warm country.The sharing of loos would have been grim but your writing of playing outside in those times reminds me how safe it was when I was a child playing all day without tvs,computers mobile phones just climbing trees and just exploring.

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