Mannie Blankett, Hairdresser/Furrier/Lifeguard
“You can call me ‘Jack Of All Trades’ if you want,” suggested Mannie with a characteristic grin of self-effacement, when I asked his profession, as if he were more concerned to make things easier for me than to assert his accomplishments. Such is the philosophical detachment of one born in 1917, who saw the passage of the twentieth century, who is the last of a family of six children, and is a man at peace with himself.
While the January afternoon light faded outside, I was privileged to spend a few hours with Mannie in the peace of his modern flat looking down upon the Petticoat Lane Market.
“As a youngster, I remember going to the Pavilion Theatre in the Whitechapel Rd and seeing the boxing and wrestling. It was full of people and very popular. That was a long time ago, the end of the thirties, so you can imagine how old I am. The boxing ring was in the middle of the theatre with seats all round and upon the stage. It can’t have been expensive because I didn’t have anything. It must have been pennies. I remember an American boxer came over called ‘Punchy’ Paul Shaffer who knocked out all his opponents in the first round and there was Max Krauser the wrestler, a heavyweight who won all his fights.
I was born in Jamaica St and I left the East End at twenty years old, when the family moved to Stamford Hill in 1937. Jamaica St had all these bug-ridden houses then. We used to call them ‘red bugs,’ and they came out in the summer. Six of us shared a three bedroom house and we had no back garden or bathroom, and we had an outside toilet. Opposite, there was company that did deliveries by horse and cart, collecting and transporting goods. There were few cars around then, very few people had them, just the milkman, the baker and the coalman. I wish I could remember more about the old days. As a kid, my mother used to take me up to Brick Lane to buy clothes and I remember the market in Whitechapel all along Mile End Waste
My parents came from Poland. My father Harry was a furrier who had his own business in the West End and my mother Sarah had six children to bring up. Blankett & Sons had workshops around Oxford St and Soho, and I had a brother who worked there with my father. I went to South St School, then I won a scholarship to Mile End School in Myrdle St and I was supposed to stay until sixteen, but my mother took me out at fourteen. I didn’t want to work as a furrier, instead I worked as a hairdresser all over the East End, before my mother sent me to a hairdressing school to learn my trade for three years but I wasn’t keen on that – the hours were very long, eight in the morning until eight at night – so I went into the family business after all.
I worked there for a couple of years and I learnt all the parts of the trade, making patterns, cutting and nailing. At lunchtimes, I used to go swimming and sunbathing at the Serpentine Lido and I got chatting with the attendant and he said there was a job going as a lifeguard and suggested I apply. I worked at the Lido for five years, it was a seasonal job from Easter until September. At school, I had learnt to swim and won a bronze medal for lifesaving. I was in my late teens and I loved that job. In our English summers, you get weeks of rain and we used to sit and play chess all day.
I always wanted to travel and, one day, I saw an advert in the London Times offering return tickets to India for seventy-five pounds. So I got a ticket and it was to travel overland, so it took a month just to get there! I met this young lady, Pat Evans, and we used to write to each other. When I went to India, I gave up my flat in Blandford St, so she said, ‘When you come back you can stay at my place in Croydon for a night, if you need somewhere.’ I stayed ten years until she died. She used to do a bit of writing, she wrote stories and poems for magazines and had quite a few published. In Croydon, I got a job at the swimming pool in Purley Way, opposite where the old airport and I was there for five years.
I got called up in 1943 for three years and, when I came out, I did a bit of hairdressing and part-time work in the family business to get by. In the sixties, I worked in Housman’s Radical Bookshop in the Caledonian Rd and I was in the Peace Movement. I joined Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and became one of the Committee of One Hundred, including Bertrand Russell, Arnold Wesker, Christopher Logue and Vanessa Redgrave. We had demonstrations and, when they were arrested, we would step in to fill their places – I was arrested a number of times too.
When I was in Croydon, I got friendly with a guy who liked to dress up in uniform and do historical re-enactments, and he told me there was a VE Day Celebration coming up in the East End and they had two big bands playing including one led by Glenn Miller’s brother. So we went along and I met this woman who lived in Petticoat Sq. She was called Rene Rabin and that was twenty-five years ago. That was how I came back to the East End, to live in Middlesex St. Now I’ve lived in Petticoat Lane for twenty years and I like it round here. I have travelled a full circle in my life. ”
Mannie with his sister Anne and their parents Sarah and Harry Blankett in the thirties
The Pavilion Theatre as Mannie knew it in the thirties
In his flat in Petticoat Sq, Mannie Blankett looks down upon the Petticoat Lane Market
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