Melvyn Reeves, Retired Civil Servant
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
Images courtesy Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives
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