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So Long, Leslie Norris of Bethnal Green

September 6, 2013
by the gentle author

As a tribute to Leslie Norris who died on Wednesday, I am republishing my profile of an East Ender who was a much-loved and widely-respected member of his community.

Leading this splendid parade advancing manfully down the Old Ford Rd is Leslie Norris, Warrant Officer of the London District Air Training Corps, at the head of the very first Bethnal Green Carnival in 1952 – and such was the joy that Leslie felt in being at the centre of his community, evident in this heroic image, that it remained undiminished even half a century later.

Growing up in the streets around Hackney Rd, Leslie earned the nickname “Ginger” and although – at eighty-five – only a few fiery-red hairs in his eyebrows remained as clues to its origin, when I visited Leslie in his home in Essex, he was eager to declare his enduring emotional loyalty to Bethnal Green. “Even though I live in Romford, I am an East Ender,” he confirmed to me absolutely with a grin.

Born at 26 Hassard St, Bethnal Green, to Florence, a French polisher and Albert, a seed merchant, Leslie grew up “with a whole family of aunts and uncles all within a mile of each other,” and the interweaving streets around Columbia Rd were the centre of his world. “Friday evenings we’d do jobs for the Jewish women,” recalled Leslie, laughing in delight at how resourceful he and his pals were at the age of ten. “We’d get sixpence from Mrs Leibowitz, Mrs Brodsky and Mrs Bukowski. We would run errands, clear up and light the fires for them because they weren’t allowed to work. And we used to go to the Spitalfields Market at closing time with a knife and ask for offcuts of fruit in a bag for our mums – and that would be our supply for the week.”

At first, when Leslie’s father took over his uncle’s sawdust business, Leslie helped out by delivering the sawdust to jewellers in Hatton Garden, but his first proper job was as a “glue-boy” in  a furniture factory in Columbia Rd. “At the age of fourteen, I once pushed a barrow with an oak dining table and four chairs all the way to St. Anne’s Rd in Tottenham – I know it was 7th September 1940, because afterwards I had to rush home and put on a suit for my brother’s wedding. And then that night, during a raid, three of my cousins were killed,” he recalled in sober contemplation. Next, Leslie went on to work in a saw mill in Ezra St – but the events of September 1940 meant that he had already determined to join up as soon as he was old enough and in 1943, after training, he became a wireless officer in the Royal Corps of Signals, serving in Burma.

Back home after the war, Leslie centred his existence around St. Hilda’s East on the Boundary Estate. “It was the place everyone met in those days. We’d go every night. We used to love to dance – even though we only had five records to dance to!” he enthused. Blessed with the charisma of a born leader, Leslie became both Chair of the Senior Club and Captain of the football team at twenty-four, organising camping trips and days out – involving his contemporaries from the neighbourhood who all became life-long friends. And the exuberant photographs capture the spirit of carefree summer jaunts and youthful high jinks that prevailed, illustrating how St. Hilda’s performed a crucial social function. As Leslie confirmed with a gleam in his eye. “Twenty marriages came out of those years at the club,” he boasted, “including my own” – indicating a photograph of his wife who died in 2007. Leslie had known Joyce since she was seven and they married on the 29th March, 1952.

“Joyce was determined we should marry in St. Leonards, Shoreditch, but we were out of their parish and the Reverend, a guy by the name of Rutter, wouldn’t permit it,” admitted Leslie. Fortunately, a priest who Leslie knew during the war stepped in and performed the ceremony “with bells and everything,” he informed me, triumphantly. And when thick snow made wedding photos impossible outside the church, Leslie & Joyce led the wedding party over to St Hilda’s East to use the gymnasium for their pictures.

Years later, Leslie discovered his great-great-great-grandfather, John Norris, had married at St Leonards in 1786. And he and Joyce returned to where Leslie’s ancestors had made their vows more than two centuries earlier. “We went back for our fiftieth wedding anniversary in 2002 and renewed our vows,” Leslie revealed to me, recalling the congregation of nearly two hundred that came to greet him and Joyce. “It was beautiful to be back again,” he confided to me, “Some joker even asked if I was wearing the same suit!”

In the fifty years that passed between the two ceremonies at St Leonards, Leslie worked as a butcher at Smithfield, maintaining his ties with the area and becoming a Freeman of the City of London – even though he moved from Bethnal Green with Joyce and their two children in 1968 to live among the green fields of Romford. Inspired by his passionate sense of community, Leslie was President of the St John’s Ambulance, Mile End Division, for thirty years and became Vice President of the South West Essex Burma Star Association, earning the O.B.E. for his service to others.

“I still sing the school song to myself every night,” Leslie told me, revealing the depth of the connection he felt to Bethnal Green, and, quite unselfconsciously, he sang the opening verse, beginning, “Columbia, the name we treasure/ Thy name ever dear to me/ Thy memories will always bring me pleasure/ Though far away I may be…” just as he remembered hearing other soldiers sing it in the tents in the jungle when he was serving in Burma so many years ago.

And, as I listened, Leslie Norris became “Ginger” Norris again and I understood the indelible impression that the life of this small patch of streets in Bethnal Green had made in shaping his destiny.

Post-war celebrations in Cuff Place, where Leslie and Joyce lived for the first twenty years of their marriage – Joyce stands at the centre of the lower picture.

Leslie (on the left) with pals in Bethnal Green.

Leslie as captain of the St Hilda’s football team.

Leslie and Joyce on their first date, Southend, Easter 1949.

The first kiss.

On a Summer camping trip from St Hilda’s East.

Leslie and Joyce.

Leslie and the boys enjoyed getting into drag for a lark.

Joyce did the washing up in a field.

Leslie swept Joyce off her feet.

Leslie and Joyce on their wedding day after the marriage at St Leonard’s, Shoreditch, 29th March 1952, – photographed in the gymnasium at St Hilda’s due to heavy snowfall.

“We used to go every year to Ramsgate in the Summer, to the same house,  for sixteen years”

Joyce sits among family on the beach at Ramsgate in the sixties.

A gathering at Leslie and Joyce’s in Romford in the seventies.

Joyce and friends enjoy a knees up.

Leslie and Joyce, 1973.

Leslie Norris of Bethnal Green

Commemorating the anniversary of the bombing of the air raid shelter beneath the Old Columbia Market Sq in which more than forty people lost their lives on the first day of the Blitz, 7th September 1940, there will be a wreath-laying next to Sivill House on Columbia Rd tomorrow at 1:00pm.

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Nicholas Broad permalink
    September 6, 2013

    What a wonderful life story, of a wonderful family man. May he rest in peace with his beloved wife.

  2. Brian permalink
    September 6, 2013

    Although I’ve been in Australia more than 60 years I’m still a Cockney (once a Pom always a Pom as an old Aussie chum used to say). Loved the post and the pictures.

    Of course one reminded me very clearly of our VE Day street party in Langley Crescent Dagenham where we lived after the war before emigrating to Australia.

    Thanks for the post I must get back more often to the Internet and catch up on all your posts for the last couple of months. They’re always so well worth reading

  3. Ron Pummell. permalink
    September 6, 2013

    I delivered the daily newspapers to the Norris family home in Hassard Street, Bethnal Green in the late 1940′s. Following the previous report by the Gentle Author I made contact with Leslie and we enjoyed lunch and a very long chat at his home. Leslie knew so many people.
    RIP Leslie Norris.

  4. Roy Servis permalink
    September 6, 2013

    Very sad to hear of the passing of Leslie, knew him and his brother Joe many years ago at G.W Potts in the meat market.

  5. jeannette permalink
    September 7, 2013

    singing his school song in the tent in burma.
    a life well lived, thank you, gentle author.

  6. Ian Norris (Les's son) permalink
    September 30, 2013

    Ian Norris

    More pictures of Dad’s funeral from the website of our local newspaper – note the welcome presence of St. John Ambulance, Air Training Corps, Royal British Legion, The Burma Star Association and the Romford Drum & Trumpet Corps – many thanks to all who turned out so smartly to give Dad a great send off and to all of Dad’s many friends and colleagues who attended to celebrate Dad’s life with our family………

    http://www.romfordrecorder.co.uk/news/funeral_1_2819763?storyId=1.2819764.1380301376

    http://www.romfordrecorder.co.uk/news/gallery_funeral_for_war_vet_leslie_norris_held_in_collier_row_1_2819764

  7. Lynne Ellis permalink
    October 10, 2013

    Hello , lovely photos ..That’s my mum June McBarron , nee Gladden , wearing sunglasses in the photo sitting round the table on the camping trip..

    We were saddened by Leslie’s death but very proud to have known him and to be invited to his funeral
    Rest in Peace Leslie

  8. March 13, 2014

    what a great man Leslie was ,salt of the earth cockney ,,,,you can take the cockney out of the east end but you cannot take the east end out of the cockney RIP……..

  9. Ty Sway permalink
    February 12, 2017

    Romford ceased being in Essex in 1965. Since then Romford has been in London, in the London Borough of Havering in east London.

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