The Queen Mother’s Rebel Cousin
Roger Mills, author of Everything Happens in Cable Street, is currently researching the life of Lilian Bowes Lyon, a forgotten and barely-documented woman from an aristocratic background who committed herself to the East End in the Second World War. Some would describe her as ‘The Queen of the Slums,’ but Roger prefers to call her ‘The Queen Mother’s Rebel Cousin.’
This house at 141 Bow Rd is not remarkable other than because it survived Hitler’s Blitz and the ravages of post-war demolition, which saw traditional housing stock replaced with imposing tower blocks and maze-like estates. What is remarkable is the story of the woman who occupied this house during East London’s darkest hour. There is no plaque on the wall to tell her story to passers-by on the busy highway. There is no book to be read or documentary to be viewed. There is – in fact – very little of her story to be found anywhere. This is surprising, given her background, her voluntary and literary work, and her close connections to the Royal family.
One autumn day while wandering along the Charing Cross Rd, I noticed a slim volume of poetry in one of the second-hand bookshops. On seeing the cover I realised that the author, Lilian Bowes Lyon, must be part of the illustrious and well-known family of that name. What intrigued me was the title, Evening in Stepney. Stepney is my part of town. Why, I wondered, had the high-born poet chosen to write about East London? What I uncovered gave me some of the answers, none of which I expected.
Lilian was a first cousin of the Queen Consort of King George VI – better remembered today as that much-loved matriarch, the Queen Mother. Lilian was a novelist, poet and, at one point in her life, the mistress of the man who would go on to become Prince Charles’ personal guru-in-chief. Yet during the Second World War, despite being born into a wealthy and aristocratic family, she chose to work and live in the desperate, bombed-out streets of East London. Here, she befriended dock-workers and dustmen. Some would describe her as ‘The Queen of the Slums’ or ‘The Florence Nightingale of the East End.’ Yet today, she is totally forgotten. Over several decades of research into the history of East London, I have not found a single reference to her in many hundreds of histories, autobiographies and studies that I have read. Apart from one brief account, she appears only as a footnote in the histories of men. Am I alone in being curious that she remains an unknown figure?
Lilian Bowes Lyon was born, the youngest of seven, just before Christmas in 1895. Her parents were the Honourable Francis Bowes Lyon and Lady Anne Lindsay. As a child, she was waited on by servants at Ridley Hall in Northumberland and free to roam through acre upon acre of the estate’s dense woodland and landscaped gardens. She was five years older than her cousin, Elizabeth. Lilian joined the future Queen in Scotland’s Glamis Castle to help nurse injured servicemen when it was used as a convalescent home during the First World War. She later studied in London and at Oxford. She travelled extensively, spoke several languages and between the wars wrote two novels, the second under an assumed name. ‘Not because it was libellous or indecent or politically tendentious,’ her friend, William Plomer, wrote, ‘but because it did not conform to [her family’s] conventions either that she should write, or that she should write fiction, or that, if she did, she should write fiction suggesting that life was not a wholly comfortable proceeding.’
The books are those of a modern freethinker, with hints of taboo sexuality, and in The Spreading Tree, outright condemnation of a class-ridden England. Plomer wrote, ‘I used to tease her and call her a Bolshevik, but I am not sure that she was a political being at all… She was a poet with an acute response to the creative stirrings, however blind and dumb, of every human being.’ Lilian was ahead of her time – William Plomer’s homosexuality was fully accepted by her in a time of anti-gay prejudice, to the extent that she helped him financially to buy presents for his lovers. Bohemians’ begat beatniks begat Beatles and hippies. She never lived to see the sixties and the flowering of freedoms that she championed. But if she had, I like to imagine her, an eccentric old dame, turning up to do readings at basement jazz clubs, ‘happenings’ and Pop Art exhibitions. She was to be cheated out of that by a premature and tragic death.
The thirties saw her reputation as a poet grow with publications such as The White Hare, and Bright Feather Fading. That decade also saw her conduct an affair with the white South African adventurer, Laurens van der Post, nine years her junior and already married. Laurens would become a household name in later years, beguiling the Prince of Wales and the television viewing public with his tales of encounters with the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert and his wartime experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war.
Lilian became a member of the Women’s Voluntary Service before the outbreak of war and assisted in the evacuation of the capital’s children to the countryside. She also guided bombed-out and traumatised Stepney children to the Hampstead War Nursery, partly run by Anna Freud, daughter of Sigmund. But her main association with the East End was to begin in a most unlikely place.
The Tilbury Shelter was formed from the arches, vaults and cellars of the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway goods station and an adjacent eight-story warehouse. Not being fully underground, it made a strange refuge from the bombs of the Luftwaffe. Yet every night it was bursting at the seams with East Enders desperate to escape the raids. At the start of the Blitz, the Tilbury was run by two separate bodies. On one side, vaults requisitioned by the borough council were authorised for shelter use. The connected warehouse site, however, was still being used as storage space. When bombing began it became clear that the vaults would not contain the numbers trying to get into them, and consequently the desperate crowd – aided by members of the local Communist Party – broke into the restricted area. Evidence indicates that it was occupied by up to 16,000 people every evening.
In all the shelters there was concern about the spreading of disease – scabies, impetigo, tuberculosis, diphtheria – and there were reports of lice. But anecdotal and official sources indicate that the Tilbury was the most filthy and disgusting of them all. ‘Hell Hole’ was a common description for it. There were just twelve chemical toilets in a curtained-off area, with some overflowing buckets for the children. As cold as the night might be, the temperature would rise, bringing about a foul stench from thousands of bodies who lacked any washing facilities. And at the heart of it, a mountain of rancid margarine, abandoned when the warehouse was overrun.
Lilian was a regular in the shelter, probably taking refuge when carrying out her work and, given her position in the WVS, almost certainly assuming a supportive role there. Eventually, the soiled margarine was removed and a clean-up operation begun when the situation – and the stench – could no longer be tolerated. So notorious was the Tilbury that it became a sort of subterranean cause celèbre, with artists such as Henry Moore and Edward Ardizzone joining the crowds. Also documenting the scene was the self-taught Rose L. Henriques, wife of Basil Henriques, founder of the local Oxford & St George’s Jewish Boys’ Club. Although she is known for philanthropic work, Rose’s paintings are less well remembered.
During 1942, Lilian Bowes Lyon came to live in Bow and composed her epic poem, Evening in Stepney. A brief entry about Lilian’s time here appears in The Queen Mother’s Family Story, written by James Wentworth Day and published in the sixties. It contains an interview with Lilian’s wartime housekeeper, Ellen Beckwith. Ellen recalls a royal visit – ‘The Queen Mother came one day. No fuss. She had a cup of tea with Lilian in the flat, and Lilian told her just what we needed down here,’ Other anecdotes feature the Duke of Kent dropping by and Lilian summoning Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, to Bow Rd to ‘give him a good talking-to and just show him what Bow needs.’ Lilian supposedly obtained a direct line to the Queen’s rooms at Buckingham Palace to berate one of the ladies-in-waiting for lack of free food and hot drinks during the VE Day celebrations. Ellen also recounts an incident of how during a bomb blast, Lilian was kicked in the leg by a hysterical woman. The inference is that the injury exacerbated a long-term diabetic condition. Lilian was resident in Bow until at least February 1945, but when her physical condition deteriorated she found herself swept back into the world of privilege she had attempted to escape.
I tracked the locations of Lilian’s life – the site of Tilbury Shelter, 141 Bow Rd, the series of West London houses where she spent her last days recovering from a series of grisly operations and her final dwelling in luxurious Brompton Sq. In constant pain, with both legs amputated, Lilian passed away there in the summer of 1949, yet continued to write her poetry until the end.
Later, I made a pilgrimage to the place of her birth in Northumberland and her final resting place. I was granted access by Durham University Library to her handwritten letters to William Plomer. Perhaps the most significant discovery I made was an article – she refers to it as a ‘letter’ – that William urged her to write about her time in, as she calls it, ‘dock-back-street-canal-and-sewer-land.’ The piece remains unpublished since it appeared in 1945. In it, she writes passionately about the lie of the ingrained class system in the ‘Two Nations’ of England and how social change could come swiftly, ‘if the whole lot of us faced the lie as we have faced the War.’
Her focus was the hardship faced by ordinary working class people, especially women and children. ‘The synthesis Marx had in mind, the social re-organisation on a higher level … depends on children,’ she wrote. ‘In one district here, where the Great North Sewer comes out, a district of gluey canals, of grinding machinery, of smells that are sour or sweetish according to which factory’s boilers were last cleaned, there is a children’s play-centre, where I often go, because it helps me believe that even the grimiest cocoon can’t kill the spirit of man. Except for this little centre … the children have nowhere to play, except the street. No room at home, often two large families divide the home between them, rents being high and the shortage of accommodation acute.’
The ‘letter’ tantalisingly refers to a diary kept by Lilian. It would be a fascinating read, possibly containing more of her views on politics, her local contacts and of another affair that she conducted with a married Jewish doctor while in East London. What happened to the diary on her death? Enquiries made to the highest family in the British social scale have brought about the reply that no archive relating to Lilian Bowes Lyon exists. The Royal circle tend to keep their secrets. I wonder if because of her left-leaning views, her romances, her circle of outsiders and her questioning of the accepted social order, Lilian is one of those secrets?
Lilian Bowes Lyon remembered outside the house where she lived 1942-45
Roger Mills at 141 Bow Rd
An extract from
EVENING IN STEPNEY
by Lilian Bowes Lyon
The circle of greensward evening-lit,
And each house taciturn to its neighbour.
The destruction of a city is not caused by fire;
What many have lost begets a ghostlier heritage
Or hails the unknown horizon; workaday street
A travel-ordained encounter, the breakable family
Fortified in defeat by the soldering air.
The destruction is in the rejection of a common weal;
Agony’s open abyss or the fate of an orphanage,
Mass-festering, mass-freezing or mass-burial,
Crime’s worm is in ourselves
Who crumble and are the destroyer.
Time to repair the infirmary soon, for tissue torn;
To plan the adroit, repetitive memorial.
The Tilbury Shelter, bombed second time, by Rose Henriques, 1941
The Tilbury Shelter in Stepney by Edward Ardizzone, 1941
The Tilbury Shelter in Stepney by Henry Moore, 1941
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