Fred Wright, Head Messenger
Fred Wright in his workshop
Around Arbour Sq in Stepney, there is a web of streets leading down to Albert Sq that have retained their nineteenth century terraces. It is among the best-preserved corners of the old East End and Fred Wright is one of the few of the generation born before the war who have stayed, passing his entire life among these familiar streets.
Today, Fred carries the history of the place through his life’s experience and has come to embody the generous ethos of the long-standing community that persists in this forgotten corner. Last week, Fred welcomed me to his immaculately-organised terrace house and showed me the lean-to workshop at the rear where he delights to restore broken furniture and give it away to anyone that wants it.
Yet, although he stayed in Stepney all his life, I discovered Fred is far from parochial in outlook, and the pain and suffering that he witnessed as an ambulance driver in his youth instilled a desire to serve his community through the Scouts and St John’s Ambulance. In a place where there has been so much movement of people, it was my privilege to meet a man who is proud to call himself one of the original residents.
“I’ve lived in this house for thirty years and before that I lived in Dunelm St which is the next street, so I have lived my whole life within four hundred yards here in Stepney. At first, I lived in Rule St on the other side of Arbour Sq, until it got bombed. My wife lived there before we got married, she was bombed out of her home and went to stay on Rule St. So I met her over the garden wall and the rest was history and we were married for sixty years.
It was a Jewish neighbourhood then, everyone was making shoes or doing tailoring in their front room. Savile Row made the jackets but the trousers and waistcoats were made here. You’d go round to a neighbour’s house and they’d be sewing buttonholes for waistcoats by hand. My mother, Maud, used to do ‘filling,’ stitching the lining of the sleeves to the jacket, that all used to be done by hand as well.
My father, Fred, died at an early age – thirty-eight years old – he worked for his father who was a furniture remover in Brixton. I was his only child and my mother worked hard to keep me. She was employed by Calmasses, a tailor opposite St Dunstan’s church, and she worked from eight in the morning until midnight. When she came home, she’d thread and wax a thousand needles ready for the next day. Her fingers would get septic cuts from the needles and, instead of sleeping, she’d be up soaking her swollen fingers in salt water all night so she could get the thimble on next day and go to work.
In my street, there was a taxi driver who had a taxi, no-one else had a car. We had only gaslight and there was no electricity or telephone. The dustman used to come right in through the house to empty the bin and put pink disinfectant in it afterwards. People used to work so hard yet they were all poor. I remember seeing improvised furniture made out of orange boxes with a curtain across the front. It was all rented property here in those days and if someone was ill, everybody else rallied round.
I was five when my father died but I had a happy childhood. We used to get wheels and make scooters from a plank of wood. My first job was at a foundry in Osborn St at the end of Brick Lane, round the back of Elfe’s the funerary masons. It was all right there – you learned quite a lot about how things are made. At eighteen, in 1944, I was conscripted and called up to serve in the war. I drove an ambulance based in Canterbury, and my job was to pick up casualties from the docks at Dover and take them to a hospital at in Kent. It was a trauma at first but you got used to it.
I had only just got married at eighteen at St Dunstan’s. Kathleen worked as a sample pattern-cutter at Laura Lee in Alie St. My father-in-law was a policeman based at the station in Arbour Sq and we lived with him in Rule St before we moved into our own place in Dunelm St. Thirty years ago, that was condemned and we bought this house for fifteen thousand pounds.
After the war, I went to work for Anthony Gibbs, Merchant Bankers, in Gracechurch St in the City of London. I worked my way up to the top job and became Head Messenger with thirty people under me. I’d walk around the City and all the other Messengers knew me. The Partners wore high hats and we got extra for brushing them. We all had privileges, such as putting out the fresh blotting paper in the boardroom or filling the inkwells, so everyone got a little extra. I worked there for thirty-five years until I retired at sixty-three. Two days later, I got a phone call, saying they’d opened up a place on the Isle of Dogs and ‘Could I supervise it for two weeks?’ and I was there for another two years. All the people I worked for treated me very nicely and I loved that work, and I still have a pension from them.
I was in the Scouts and the St John’s Ambulance for donkeys’ years. I was a Scout as a youngster and I wanted to give a little bit back. I went to the Buckingham Palace Garden Party three times with the St John’s Ambulance and, before it started, the Queen popped round in a head scarf and coat to ask us how we were, just like an ordinary person.
My wife Kathleen died eight years ago and now I go to the lunch club in Club Row three times a week. My son, Brian, lives in the Isle of Dogs and he comes every day to visit me. I’m eighty-seven and I know all the neighbours round here. I wouldn’t want to leave Stepney for anything, I’ve got all of my memories here. This is my sanctuary.”
Fred Wright (far left) Head Messenger at Anthony Gibbs, Merchant Bank, in the seventies
Fred’s father in law worked at Arbour Sq Police Station
Fred & Kathleen with their son Brian in the garden of their house in Dunelm St in the fifties.
Fred & Kathleen with Brian on holiday in the sixties.
High jinks on a scout camp
Fred’s cat Molly
“This is my sanctuary”
You may like to read my other stories of Stepney