So Long, Alfons Jedrzejewski Of Puma Court
I publish this as a tribute to Alfons Jedrzejewski - widely known as Alec – who lived in the Norton Folgate Almshouses for forty-five years and died there last week aged eighty-nine. I used to meet him regularly, coming and going through the gates, and now I shall always think of him when I walk through Puma Court.
Alfons Jedrzejewski (1926-2015)
I met Alfons Jedrzejewski – widely known as Alec – just over two years ago, when he returned to the Norton Folgate Almshouses in Puma Court, off Commercial St, after a ten month sojourn in Shepherds Bush, while the hundred and fifty year old dwellings underwent a renovation. He invited me round for tea in his newly-painted flat where I found him toying with the novelty of the new controls for his heating and hot water. Primarily, Alec was relieved to be back in the place he had lived for the more than forty years. “I prefer to be here,” he confided to me in understatement, rolling his eyes to communicate the alien nature of life in West London, “I feel more happy here.”
Hale and healthy then at eighty-six, Alec was born in 1926 in Tors in Poland. He served in the Polish army during World War II and came to London in May 1946 to start a new life after he discovered that all his relatives in Poland had been killed by Stalin. Just a few snaps and photobooth portraits in a frame upon the wall of Alec’s living room attested to the existence of his family, yet his flat also contained the memory of the last twenty-three years of his marriage to his wife, Halina, who had died nineteen years earlier.
When he first came to London, Alec worked as a house painter until – following Halina’s prudent advice – he took a job on the railway that would give him a pension, working for twenty-one years in the parcels office at Liverpool St Station. “A friend of mine, who worked at Kings Cross and lived at 8 Wilkes St, told me about these flats,” explained Alec, emphasising the importance he placed upon mobility, “you have good transport links here, underground, buses and British Rail.”
This was a significant detail because the unfailing highlight of Alec’s week was a trip to Leytonstone to visit his long-term girlfriend, Maria, and take her the fresh fish that she loved so much, which he bought for her at Asda. Like so many refugees before him, Alec discovered in Spitalfields a safe haven from the brutality of the wider world and lived out his existence peacefully here until the end. After my interview, I met Alec and Maria once or twice, strolling together arm-in-arm in the Bethnal Green Rd like a couple of teenage sweethearts.
For many years I passed the railings of the almshouses daily as I walked through Puma Court, leaving the clamor of Commercial St behind me and entering the peaceful streets of eighteenth century houses beyond. So I was eager to step through the old iron gates at last, when I visited Alec in this appealing backwater in the midst of the city.
Established at first in Blossom St in 1728, the current site for the Norton Folgate Almshouses was purchased in 1851 when the widening of Commercial St – to permit the increasing traffic from the London Docks – required the demolition of the former premises.
This neatly proportioned pair of brick houses in Puma Court, each containing eight rooms on two storeys, were built by architect T. E. Knightley in 1860. The first residents received two shillings and sixpence a month, a ticket for a quartern loaf of bread per week, six hundredweight of coal on 21st December and materials for dinner on Christmas Day. There were fifteen single people and one married couple living there in 1897, they each had one room and the average age was sixty-four. It was a humane endeavour, offering a secure refuge for those who could no longer earn a living and existing in sharp contrast to the poverty which prevailed ein Spitalfields at that time.
Over one hundred and fifty years, the Norton Folgate Almshouses in Puma Court have offered a safe harbour for life – as Alec’s story attests – and these thoughtfully-conceived dwellings continue to serve their purpose into another century, as the need for good quality housing at an affordable price in Spitalfields becomes ever more pressing.