So Long, Irene Kingsley
Today, I publish my portrait of market traders, Irene & Ivan Kingsley, as a tribute to Irene Kingsley who lived her whole life around Petticoat Lane and died earlier this month.
Irene Kingsley, Herbert House, Spitalfields 1957
Although it may not be apparent to the casual visitor, Middlesex St is the boundary between the Borough of Tower Hamlets and the City of London. It is a distinction of great significance to residents of this particular neighbourhood, because – as Irene Kingsley, who lived there her whole life, put it to me with succinct humour - “When you are in the gutter, you are in Tower Hamlets but when you are on the pavement, you are in the City.”
“I live in the City now, but I spent most of my life in Tower Hamlets.” she added as a qualification, just in case I should take her quip in the wrong spirit. Although Irene had ascended to the lofty heights of a flat in Petticoat Tower on the City side of Middlesex St, she was not bragging that she had gone up in the world, but rather admitting that her heart remained back on the other side of the street where she started out. And when I went to visit her and her husband Ivan, I understood the difference at once, as I climbing the steps from the shabby Petticoat Lane Market into the well-tended courtyard garden of Petticoat Tower, quite a contrast to comparable developments in Tower Hamlets.
In the hallway of their flat on the seventeen floor more plants flourished, these were tended by the Kingsleys. I had only a moment to contemplate them before Ivan appeared to hustle me through the modest yet comfortable flat to the living room where Irene was waiting. Then, as I entered, my eyes were drawn by the yawning chasm of the view over the City from their window. “Everyone goes straight for the view!” Irene declared, exchanging a knowing smile with Ivan. “We used to be able to see the Tower of London, until they built that,” she said, indicating a blue glass block. “And we could see the Monument, before the Gherkin went up,” said Ivan, pointing in the other direction. With such an astonishing prospect, I could understand how anyone might get a little proprietorial.
“We’ve seen a lot of changes in Petticoat Lane.” Irene admitted to me as we sat down, exchanging another a glance with Ivan which was the cue for him to serve tea and biscuits. I knew this was the beginning of her story.
“I was born in Brune House in Toynbee St. My father was a bus conductor and my mother was a seamstress.” she explained, “My grandfather was a cobbler in Artillery Passage and my grandmother had a tea stall in Leyden St, she had seven daughters and they all worked with her, and as time went on all the daughters had their own stalls and they were passed down to grandchildren. I left school at fifteen to work in the office of a clothing factory in Golding St, near Cable St. Until I was fifteen, I lived at Brune House, then I to moved to Herbert House nearby to live with my aunt, she had a daughter of her own and she took me in because I lost my mother. She treated me just like a mother, she took over as my mother.
In 1956 I went to Los Angeles. I took the Queen Mary to New York and then I went by plane from New York to Los Angeles. I worked in the office of an insurance company and I loved it there but I was very homesick, so after a year I came back to pick up the pieces. I had various office jobs and I enjoyed travelling with girlfriends but I never settled down. When I turned fifty, I decided to go into the market selling baby clothes and that’s where I met my husband…”
At this point Ivan and Irene exchanged big smiles, because this was the part where it became a shared narrative.
“We both started out as casual traders,” continued Irene, still looking at Ivan and saying “casual traders,” as if it were a term of endearment, “You had to put your name down on the list and wait around until there were available pitches and it just happened that while we were waiting we used to go to a cafe together. Then the old lady at the stall next to us, she had a granddaughter and we were both invited to the Bell for a celebration and we haven’t look back since!
This was the moment when Ivan took over.“I am not an East End boy,” he announced, “though until I was seven I lived on Underwood St in Spitalfields and from there we moved to Ford Sq in Whitechapel, until in 1940 when we moved to Stoke Newington which in those days was upmarket. I ran a furniture factory in Newington Green until 1976, when I took a job as milkman and from there I went to work for Conway Trading in Toynbee St. They sold socks and underwear for men, and I learnt about that trade, so when they went bankrupt I put what I had learnt into practice, I used to go up North to the sock makers, buy stock and sell it to the retailers. I even applied for the lease to the Conway Trading shop, but for some reason the council refused me and the place is still empty, thirty-five years later.”
By now, I realised where this was going, because – like Irene – the climax of Ivan’s story was becoming a market trader.
“So I decided to start trading in the market.” he said, speaking like a true zealot, “Sundays was brilliant and when I started, even in the week, it was good. It was a wonderful experience because you met so many different kinds of people, all sorts, and, because you were all working in the gutter together, you got to know each other. We were all friends since we were all in the same position. At one point, the council wanted to stop casual traders for nine months, so we went on strike and marched to Bethnal Green Town Hall and demonstrated there. They realised the market could fold and they couldn’t take away the livelihood from seventy people, so from then on we got licences to trade. It was an education, and it was a hard life too, but while you are working you enjoy it.”
Irene and Ivan had stalls side by side and then they combined stalls, unifying their presence in the market, just as their lives became intertwined in marriage. “I retired from the market three and a half years ago when my husband was seventy-five and I was seventy-two, so we feel we’ve done enough.” explained Irene, clasping her hands in satisfaction. Yet both acknowledged that trading in the Petticoat Lane Market was a highlight of their existence, a source of livelihood, a social education and a romantic adventure too, which all goes to prove that sometimes the gutter can be a better place to be than the pavement.
Irene & Ivan Kingsley in their flat in Petticoat Tower.
Irene at Canon Barnett School, 1947 – she is the sixth from the left in the back row.
Ivan (centre) as a young man on Hythe Beach with his family.
Irene (left) at Riccione Beach in 1970 with her friends Phyllis Gee, Stella Spanjar and Celina Martin.
Ivan returns to Conway Trading on Toynbee St where he worked in the seventies. Ivan tried to lease it from the council forty years ago but they refused and it has been empty ever since.
Irene & Ivan walking through Petticoat Lane Market, in the shadow of Petticoat Tower.
Looking towards the City from Irene & Ivan’s flat in Petticoat Tower.
Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman