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Melvyn Reeves, Retired Civil Servant

February 10, 2014
by the gentle author

Here is Melvyn at the Jane St Coronation Party in Stepney in June 1953. He is the one with the curls at the centre on the right, and to left you can see the legendary flyweight champion Smilin’ Sammy McCarthy bringing a touch of his celebrity glamour to the occasion. No wonder Melvyn was astonished at the drama and excitement of his childhood world in Jane St, and chose never to leave this favoured corner of the East End.

“When people call me a stick-in-the-mud, I say, ‘Yes!’” Melvyn admitted to me with a triumphant smile, “When they ask me, ‘Why did live you with your family, why didn’t you move away?’ I always say, ‘Why?’” When I went to my college interview, they said ‘Have you listed your university preferences in order of their distance from your home?’ and I said, ‘Yes, that’s right!” And I went to Queen Mary University in Mile End and got a first class degree in Maths.”

In 1961 Melvyn’s family moved from Jane St, when it was demolished, into a newly-built council flat just a few streets away. Fifty-three years later, Melvyn lives there alone – now that his parents have died and his sister has moved away. “I used to be fat but after I lost my mum it fell away and I went from eleven and a half stone to eight and a half stone,” he revealed. Yet Melvyn is happy to be at the centre of his own personal universe and, after a decade of being the sole occupant, he is contemplating the bold step of having the place redecorated this spring and replacing the chintz curtains and floral carpet with decor that suits his personal taste.

“I do miss having someone to argue with and someone to tell me what to do,” he confessed to me when I visited him there one rainy afternoon last week.

“I was born at the Maternity Hospital in Commercial Rd on 8th December 1949, I grew up in Jane St and I moved here with my mum, dad and sister when I was eleven. My mum was very upset when Jane St was demolished as a Slum Clearance because it wasn’t a slum! They used to have a contest to see who had the cleanest front step in the street.

We were the last family left in the street to go and it got very eerie. She had offers to move out to lots of places beyond the East End but she turned them all down and the lady from the council said, ‘If you keep turning them down, you’ll have nowhere.’ Then they suggested the Mountmorres Estate and we didn’t know where it was, but as soon as she realised it was nearby she was quite happy. She had been born just two streets away in Fenton St and she was reluctant to leave Jane St, but she was pleased when we got here because before we had no bathroom and only an outside toilet.

We weren’t poor, we were just the same as everybody else in the street. Those houses would be worth one and a half million each if we had them now. The first immigrants in Jane St were a Cypriot family at the top of the street and we children were too scared to go near them. There was a guy called ‘Dirty Dick’ who had a cockerel than ran out into the street, we never went near his house either. If we played football at the far end of Jane St, the mothers would come out of the houses and say, ‘You don’t live at this end of street, go back to your own end and play football.’ So I guess we were quite parochial in our way.”

Once he graduated from Queen Mary University, Melvyn returned to the Central Foundation Boys School in Old St where had been a pupil to work as a teacher. “I was only there for four years, but people locally still know me as Mr Reeves the Maths Teacher,” he told me, amused at the persistence of this former identity nearly forty years later. “I have never worked more than five miles from Stepney,” he continued, revelling at his personal success in securing an entire career of employment close to home, working as an Inspector for the Inland Revenue and then in IT at the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs before retiring ten years ago.

Recently, Melvyn visited Mulberry School, built upon the site of his former home in Jane St, and showed the pupils his Coronation Party photograph as evidence of the wonders that once were there – and in the hope that they may have the good sense to follow his own example and enjoy the benefits of staying put.

“My Russian grandfather, Hyem Ryefsky, was born in Novgorod in 1878 and died in Stepney in 1953″

“My Polish grandfather Henry Laibglit was born in Warsaw in 1880 and died in Stepney in 1967. He fought at Ypres during the First World War. He came to this country around 1900 and was a Market Trader in Petticoat Lane until the late fifties, selling all types of luggage and suitcases.”

“My mum – Leah Esther (nee Laibglit), known as “Lily”, born on 28 April 1915 and died in May 2003.”

Lily’s Freedom Pass

Melvyn as a baby in Jane St with his dad and cousin Arnold “My Dad – Abraham, commonly known as “Alf”, was born on 20th June 1914 and died in June 1998. He was a cabinet maker before the war, a skilled riveter during the War and worked afterwards for the Post Office, sorting letters at the Eastern District Office in Whitechapel”

Melyvn as a toddler

Melvyn’s first car

Melvyn  and his sister Sheree

Melvyn on holiday at the seaside with his Aunt Polly

Melvyn with his parents Lily & Alf and his sister Sheree

Melvyn as a schoolboy

Melyvn and his dad have a bit of fun

Melvyn at his Bar Mitzvah

The receipt for Melvyn’s Bar Mitzvah party in Whitechapel, 1962

Melvyn as a young man

Melvyn at the recent wedding of his neighbour Nurul Islam

Melvyn Reeves

Images courtesy Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives

Read these other Stepney stories

In Old Stepney

Vera Hullyer, Parishioner of St Dunstan’s

Norman Riley, Metalworker

Fred Iles, Meter Fixer

Marie Iles, Machinist

Fred Wright, Head Messenger

11 Responses leave one →
  1. marianne isaacs permalink
    February 10, 2014

    Thank you for your story Melvin. I am curious as to how you got the names Reeves . So many people were “given” their name by immigration officials whp couldnt be bothered spelling anything too complicated . You must know your area like the back of your hand , a rare thing in a big city.

  2. Joe permalink
    February 10, 2014

    Excellent pictures, and how wonderful to see Muslim and Jew as friends. Israel take note! I loved the picture of the wedding, where clearly both men are at ease with each other.

    I wish you’d do a series on those other east enders, and examples of Jewish and Muslim and Christian unity, the Neturei Karta — I lived in the same area as these men for years in Stamford Hill and Manor House, and have the greates respect for them.

  3. Victoria permalink
    February 10, 2014

    Very much enjoyed reading about Melvyn Reeves’ family history and life in Stepney. I get the sense of inner contentment about life lived thus far. Hope the redecoration goes well!

  4. February 10, 2014

    When I was younger I couldn’t wait to get as far awas as possible – now I realise how wise Melvyn was to stay in the East End! Interesting story to read, and all the best to Melvyn! Valerie

  5. February 10, 2014

    A moving life story with many ups and downs. Mainly the ups should stay in good remembrance! First of all: The Coronation Party in 1953 and the “first car”!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  6. Roger Carr permalink
    February 10, 2014

    A wonderful story about an ordinary everyday person -
    such an antidote to the celebrity rubbish that we are supposed to be fascinated by.
    Learning a little about Melvyn and family, I start the day with a smile on my face.
    L’chai-im.

  7. James Mackay permalink
    February 10, 2014

    My very best wishes to Melvin, a man whose background and life have been very different from my own, but with whom I share our date of birth, 8 December 1949: now we are 64! James

  8. joan permalink
    February 11, 2014

    I too moved into the Mountmorres Estate, in 1963 when I was 6 months old. My parents were thrilled with their allocated 13th floor, Lathom House, flat. They had previously lived in Katherine and Matilda House in Wapping which had none of the mod cons (I particularly remember the underfloor heating) that Lathom House offered. We stayed there for 16 years until rehoused across the Commercial Road to flats just by Albert Gardens. Unlike Melvyn I left Stepney to go to university. Of course I couldn’t afford to live there now, though like a homing pigeon I am not far away.

    Joan

  9. Christine Orchard permalink
    May 24, 2015

    Thank you Melvyn for your interesting story and great photographs. I grew up in the East End. My primary school days at Robert Montefiore School, when I lived first at the Salvation Army Hostel, Hopetown, Stepney and then in rooms at the top of a house in Grey Eagle Street. We then moved to Nelson Street and I attended Tower Hamlets School for Girls [now Mulberry] when it first opened.
    I am currently researching a Polish Jewish family who lived in Jane Street from at least 1939 until it was pulled down. Your article was very helpful.
    Best wishes
    Christine.

  10. Rachelle marks permalink
    September 4, 2015

    We lived at no 52 Jane. St where are you now

  11. Ra helle permalink
    January 21, 2016

    Please email or call me on 07855122454

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