Tony Garrett, Porter, Postman & Chauffeur
Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I returned to the New Era Estate in Hoxton to meet Tony Garrett who lives there with his daughter Lindsey Garrett, Chairman of the Tenants Association and leader of the successful fight to save the Estate from corporate property developers.
A thoughtful man of quiet dignity, I was fascinated to hear Tony speak of his family history which reflects the dramatic changes in Hoxton over the last century. Today, several members of the extended Garrett family live in the New Era Estate as part of the long-established and closely-woven community that proved to be so resilient in the face of last year’s threat.
Tony is a proud father and fierce supporter of Lindsey and her achievements. His account reveals the origin of her political beliefs and sets the recent conflict into a wider perspective of social history – explaining why Estates like New Era came into being in the first place.
“Here at the New Era Estate, most people have lived in Hoxton all their lives and their families have always lived in Hoxton. I was born in Hoxton in 1949. At that time, it was one of the poorest areas in London and we lived in Essex St which was one of the worst streets in Hoxton. There were four families in each house – one in the basement, the ground floor, the first floor and the attic, where we lived in two rooms. There was our front room which was furnished with just a table and three chairs, and a back room with two double beds. My mum and dad slept in one and we three kids slept in the other. There was a toilet in the yard shared by all four families, and we had a gas ring on the landing and a cupboard which we called a larder, no refrigerator.
At ten years old, it was my job to take my brother and sister to the Public Baths in Haggerston each week. It was called a slipper bath. I got in first, then my brother and sister. It was just rows of baths with curtains round them and everybody used to go there. We had a tin bath but it wasn’t really practical, heating the water and carrying it upstairs. There was sixty houses in Essex St and everyone was poor, they kept their door keys on a string so you could reach through the letterbox to get it and open the door. Because nobody had anything, there was no jealousy.
My dad wasn’t there. He was a crook and he was in prison, but I didn’t realise that at the time. It was only later we found out we were poor. There was no social security or benefits then, and I wish I’d asked my mum how she survived, because she always got money to feed us – though we never had enough to eat and we were hungry all the time. Everyone was the same. My mum was always ill, she had pleurisy that became pneumonia which was quite a serious thing then. She was in hospital and they sent her away to a convalescent home out of London, so we couldn’t see her. We had to go into foster care – our grandparents couldn’t take care of us, there were already six of them living in their home in Falkirk St – they had eleven children.
When I was eleven, Essex St was demolished as part of ‘Slum Clearance’ and my father was released from prison. I remember coming home from my first day of secondary school and my mum said, ‘We’re moving.’ We moved into a newly-built three bedroom flat and it felt like Buckingham Palace to us. That was 1960 and I can still remember walking through the door. We had no furniture but people lent us bits and pieces. We had no blankets, in the old place we slept under coats on the bed in winter. It was full of bugs and fleas. Once a month, we went to this place where you took all your clothes off and they painted you with blue unction. You were blue for days, it was under your nails and in your hair.
The new flat was in a building called Touchard House and things seemed better for us there. We had a bit more comfort and a bit more food, until my dad went into prison again for another two years. My mum got ill again too, so the three of us went to my gran and we lost the flat, but later the council rehoused us in Queenhythe House.
When I was fourteen, I left school and got a job. I got in trouble with the police, just petty offences but after four or five times I was committed to borstal at seventeen years old. All my friends’ dads were either in prison or had been in prison, there was no-one I knew that didn’t have that. The justice system was different then, more severe and disciplinarian. After three offences, you were automatically sent to borstal – the minimum period was nine months and the maximum three years. It was like a boot camp and you had to work your way out. When you arrived you wore a red tie for three months, but then you could earn a blue tie and finally a green tie which meant you were due for release. You were assessed every month, and I was labelled anti-establishment and anti-authority. I did two and a half years, so it proves I could have been more sensitive. We had to get up at five and march in all weathers before making your bed pack. Your boots had to be shiny. It was like the army and all the officers were ex-military. It certainly worked for me though, because I was never in trouble again.
I was sent to a place called Moreton Hall in Lincolnshire. I was one of only two from London there – me and Johnny Hughes – and because we were this pair of Cockneys among all these Northerners, we got it harder than the rest. Every day was a battle. There was a lot of violence and if you were soft your life was hell. A lot of people used to abscond because of bullying.
I came out at nineteen and got a job as a porter down at Smithfield Market. Then I met my wife Christine and got married when I was twenty, and at twenty-one I had my first son, Nicholas. We had a flat about above a chemist in Blackstock Rd, Highbury, but it was terrible cold place with mice and we was rehoused in Sutton Dwellings, Old St. Times got better for us with Christine working and I got a job at the Post Office. I worked long hours, and we built up a bit of money and got a three bedroom council house in Broadway Market which we managed to buy under the right-to-buy, and we lived there for a few years. We had two sons Nicholas and Simon, and then twin daughters, Anne and Lindsey.
We sold that house and used the money to pay the fees for Lindsey to go to university. It funded four years at university. That’s when we moved back here to the New Era Estate in Hoxton. You had to be recommended but I had an aunt who had lived here her whole life, so she spoke to the caretaker. It was means tested and we had to fill in a form. We met the criteria and we moved in, and we’ve been here twenty-six years.
Over the years, I worked as a porter at Smithfield, Billingsgate and Spitalfields, then a postman and finally as a chauffeur for Islington Council. I liked that job but I got knocked over by a car and was ill for years, and was given a pension and a lump sum. So I left at fifty-five and haven’t been able to work since.
I’ve always been interested in politics and I’ve always been in the union and been shop steward. I’ve always been to the Left of everything. At the Post Office, I was asked if I’d ever been a member of the Communist Party and I used to be – because I believe in equality for all – so I said, ‘Yes,’ and they sacked me for that.
Lindsey is a fighter. I think she gets it from me. In her public speaking, some of the things she says, I can hear myself. She belonged to the debating society at the University of Northumbria. She just gets up and it comes to her. She was brilliant on the steps of Number 10. It’s confidence.”
Tony aged five standing in Hoxton Market with his father John Garrett and pals in 1953
Portraits copyright © Sarah Ainslie
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