Kitty Jennings, Dressmaker
Kitty, Amelia (Doll Doll), Jimmy, Gracie & Patricia Jennings, Gifford St, Hoxton c.1930
On Sunday afternoon, I walked over to Columbia Rd Market to get a bunch of flowers for Kathleen – widely known as Kitty – Jennings, who has lived in Hoxton since 1924. I found her in a neat block of private flats near the canal where for many years she lived with her beloved sister Doll Doll, whose ashes now occupy pride of place in a corner of the sitting room.
Once Barbara Jezewska, who grew up in Spitalfields and was Kitty’s neighbour in this building for seventeen years, had made the introductions, we settled down in the afternoon sun to enjoy beigels with salmon and cream cheese while Kitty regaled us with her memories of old Hoxton.
“Thank God we were lucky, we had a father who had a good job, so we always had a good table. There was not a lot of work when I was a kid, but we always got by. We were lucky that we always had good clothes and never got knocked about.
My father, Jim, he was a Fish Porter at Billingsgate Market and he had to work seven days. He was born in the Vinegar Grounds in Hoxton, where they only had one shared tap in the garden for all the cottages, and he was a friendly man who would help anyone. He left for work at four in the morning each day and came back in the early afternoon. We lived on fish. I’m a fish-mullah, I like plaice, jellied eels, Dover sole and middle skate. My poor old mum used to fry fish night and day, she was always at the gas stove.
I was born in Gifford St, Hoxton. There were five of us, four girls and one boy, and we lived in a little three bedroom house. My mother Grace, her life was cooking, washing and housework. She didn’t know anything else.
When my sister Amelia was born, she was so small they laid her in a drawer and we called her ‘Doll Doll.’ They put her in the Queen Elizabeth Children’s Hospital when she had rheumatic fever and she didn’t go to school because of that. She was happy-go-lucky, she was my Doll Doll.
One day, when she was at school, there was an air raid and all the children hid under the tables. They saw a man’s legs walk in and Doll Doll cried out, ‘That’s my dad!’ and her friend asked, ‘How do you recognise him?’ and Doll Doll said, ‘Because he has such shiny shoes.’ He took Doll Doll and said to the teacher, ‘My daughter’s not coming to school any more.’
I was dressmaking from when I left school at fourteen. My first job was at C&A in Shepherdess Walk but I didn’t like it, so I told my mum and left. I left school at Easter and the war came in August. After that, I didn’t go to work at all for five years. Then I went to work in Bishopsgate sewing soldiers’ trousers, I didn’t like that much either so I stayed at home.
Doll Doll and I, we used to love going to Hoxton Hall for concerts every Saturday. It cost threepence a ticket and there was a man called Harry Walker who’d sling you out if you didn’t behave. Afterwards, we’d go to a stall outside run by my uncle and he’d give us sixpence, and we’d go and buy pie and mash and go home afterwards – and that was our Saturday night. We used to go there in the week too and do gym and see plays.
On Friday nights, we’d go to the mission at Coster’s Hall and they’d give you a jug of cocoa and a biscuit, and the next week you’d get a jug of soup. It didn’t cost anything. We used to go there when we were hungry. In the school holidays, we went down to Tower Hill Beach and we’d cut through the market and see my dad, and he’d give us a few bob to buy ice cream.
Me and Doll Doll, we stayed at home with my mum and dad. The other three got married but I didn’t want to. I couldn’t find anybody that I liked, so I stayed at home with mummy and daddy, and I was quite happy with them. When they got old we cared for them at home, without any extra help, until they died. We had understanding guvnors and, Doll Doll and I took alternate weeks off work to care for them.
Doll Doll and I moved into these private flats more than thirty years ago. In those days, it was only women and once, when my neighbour thought her boiler was going to explode, we called the fire brigade. Doll Doll leaned over the balcony and called, ‘Coo-ee, young man! Up here!’
We never went outside Hoxton much when we were young, but – when we grew up – Doll Doll and I went to Florida and Las Vegas. I finally settled down and I didn’t wander no more. I worked as a dressmaker at Blaines in Petticoat Lane for thirty-five years, until it closed forty years ago and I was made redundant.”
Doll Doll, Kitty and their mother Grace
Kitty in her flat in Hoxton
Kitty places fresh flowers next to Doll Doll’s ashes each week
Kitty at a holiday chalet in Guernsey, 1960
Kitty Jennings with her friend and neighbour of sixteen years, Barbara Jezewska
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