A Conversation With Milly Rich
Recently, I enjoyed a light lunch at the Victory Services Club in Marble Arch with Milly Rich and you can read our chat below. I hope Milly will not consider me indiscreet if I reveal that she is in her ninety-ninth year, yet is blessed with the vital nature and lucidity of thought of one many decades her junior.
“You know, being nearly a hundred is a lot of years to account for…”
Portrait of Milly Rich by Patricia Niven
The Gentle Author – Are you from the East End?
Milly Rich – I am from the last place I have lived! But I was born at 19 Commercial Rd on October 23rd 1917, which of course was during the First World War and my mother, Leah, told me that the air raid warnings were sounding at the time. People were terrified of air raids but my she had a basement under her shop in Commercial Rd where she took shelter.
My mother made corsets and she taught me to make them too. Corsets were a vital part of a lady’s outfit in those days because – of course – smart clothes needed a good foundation and a good foundation was a nice heavily-boned corset with a strong steel bust in the front. Everybody had remarkably good posture, not slumped – like you see today – over a hand-held computer.
The Gentle Author - Your mother was proprietor of the shop?
Milly Rich – I have a picture of her standing outside the shop with her two assistants when she was not yet twenty. She was very creative, very artistic – and she got her first job in an embroidery factory in Hanbury St. Then she opened a shop at 87 Brick Lane and – many years later – it transpired that the young man I married was the son of the owner of the embroidery factory where my mother had once been a designer. So the world is full of concentric circles!
The Gentle Author – Tell me about your father.
Milly Rich – My father, Morris Levrant, was an ‘émigré of the Empire of Russia’ and I know that because he went to America first and patented an airtight valve for bicycle tyres when he was thirty. He was very clever. My mother said he spoke nine languages and he was an inventor. He was born in Siedlce in Poland where my daughter has traced our family back to 1733.
He left a wife and three children in New York when he came to London and my mother’s father was not very happy about that. Apparently, my grandfather put him through hoops to prove that he was properly divorced. I do not know how he got the divorce but he obviously did because otherwise they would not have allowed the marriage. My parents were married in Princelet St Synagogue and I was born in 1917, so I suppose they were married in 1916.
The Gentle Author – Do you have brothers and sisters?
Milly Rich - I had one brother, Mossy. He is dead now, he died at seventy-five years old. I suppose it speaks volumes for the kind of life we led that he had rickets, which is caused by malnutrition. He was very good with his hands and became a jeweller and worked in Black Lion Yard and Hatton Garden.
When the Jews were promised a homeland in the Balfour Declaration, my father decided he would settle in what was then Palestine. Of course, he was an inventor, and he was agog to go and be an inventor there – he was a clever chap. So in 1921 we set sail.
The Gentle Author - You shut the shop in Commercial Rd?
Milly Rich - Yes, we got rid of it and went off to Palestine but a war broke out there and, in the first month, my father was killed and he was buried there. He was only forty when he died and left three children in New York. We found them not very long ago. The two sisters were still alive, they were ten and eleven years older than me. We went and stayed with them, and they were lovely. They turned out to be artists and designers too
When my father died, my mother was expecting my brother, so she could not come back from Palestine at once but she did not speak the language and, of course, my father had all the money – she was stuck in Jaffa. Fortunately my uncle – my mother’s sister’s husband – came to the rescue and got us back to England. By that time, I was three, I remember. And we were stuck in Boulogne because I had a watery eye – they thought it was catching – an eye disease, maybe trachoma but it was just a trapped eyelash.
On our return, we stayed with my uncle in Whitechapel. He had a jewellery shop opposite the Whitechapel Gallery, it was museum as well in those days. I remember they had a septic mouse in a case on the stairs and an illuminated panorama of Medieval London on the landing. It was lovely, I used to stand and stare at it for hours.
We stayed there until my uncle found the shop at 192 Bethnal Green Rd. It was flanked on one side by the Liberal Party headquarters, Sir Percy Harris was the MP, and on the other side by a newsagent. They were not Jewish, but everybody was on excellent terms and there was no anti-Semitism where we were.
We lived above the shop and we had tenants as well, who had to come through the shop. Originally, it been a house and garden but it had been transformed into one great long space. My mother had a curtain put up to screen people walking through because they had to cross our parlour, which my mother also used as a fitting room for the corsets.
Women used to come in and treat her as an agony aunt. Like a hairdresser or a dressmaker, she was a recipient of confidences. All the locals would tell my mother their troubles which invariably were to do with their husbands. They used to speak Yiddish so that I should not hear but, knowing they were speaking so I could not understand, I soon picked up Yiddish. I never let on that I could and, of course, I would tell the stories to my friends at school which was a source of much merriment.
There was a window in the parlour so my mother could see if anyone came into the shop. My brother used to climb up to look through it at the women trying on the corsets and, of course, a good time was had by all!
The Gentle Author – What took you out of Bethnal Green?
Milly Rich – I won a scholarship to Central Foundation School in Spital Sq. It was a fee-paying school at the time and there used to be quite a division between the scholarship girls and the fee-paying pupils. I was a great reader and I have always loved words and I had a good vocabulary. The other children did not like it. “Oh you’ve swallowed a dictionary,” that was a great insult. I did not care, did I? From there, I won another scholarship but I could not make up my mind whether to go to the London School of Economics, because I wanted to be a journalist, or St Martin’s School of Art.
In the event, I decided I would not train to be a journalist because I was not going to learn shorthand – I was not going to take down anybody else’s words. So I took the place at St Martin’s instead and hated it. We used to sign in and go off to the local Lyons teashop and sit there for hours, making patterns on the tablecloth with the salt cellar. Eventually, my mother could not afford for me to stay there any longer because I only got ten shillings a week and I did not like it anyway – I do not like any form of regimentation.
I got a job inscribing certificates because I was quite good at lettering and I did that for a couple of months. It was trees in Israel. They kept planting forests and I used to write ‘five trees planted in the name of so-and-so on the occasion of his this-and-that.’
I did not do it for long, I got a job in a drawing office instead. I told them I could do it, even though I had never held a drawing pen in my life. They said, “Well, here’s one – take it home and bring it back tomorrow, completed.” I went into an art shop and asked, “How do you do this?” They showed me a drawing pen and how you filled it and how you used it, so I went home and I did the drawing and I took it back the next day and I got the job. The drawing office was quite fun actually, I enjoyed it there. It was right at the top of Crown House, which is still there on the corner of Drury Lane and Aldwych. We used to feed the pigeons and there was a Sainsbury’s around the corner which delivered lunch in a box. You got a sandwich and some orange juice and a piece of cake for sixpence.
You know – being nearly a hundred is a lot of years to account for.
The Gentle Author – Tell me about Moss, your husband.
Milly Rich – We met at a play-reading group. He was a writer, and I always liked plays and acting and so on. We met there and he would walk me home.
The Gentle Author - Where did he come from?
Milly Rich – His father had the embroidery factory in Hanbury St, where my mother had once worked doing the patterns although we did not realise that at the time. It was only when our parents were introduced that they realised that they all knew each other already. Small world. People were so ready to help each other, I do not know if people are still like that in the East End, but they were once. I remember the blackshirts marching down Bethnal Green Rd and shouting “The Jews, the Jews, we’ve got to get rid of the Jews!” Whenever they passed our shop, my brother used to be outside yelling.
The Gentle Author - Did you feel threatened?
Milly Rich - I do not think I was aware of it, but I became aware because Moss used to take me to the political meetings and the Unity Theatre. When there was the Battle of Cable St, we went there. I remember leaning on the lamppost outside Gardiner’s Corner and we were all yelling, “They shall not pass, they shall not pass.”
The Gentle Author – That was eighty years ago.
Milly Rich – Then war was declared and we all thought the first air raid would obliterate London. Everybody was terrified and I had known Moss four years, so he said “We’d better get married right away, while we can,” and he got a special licence. I did not want any fuss and I told my mother, “I’m not having any ‘do’” because getting married, especially in Jewish families, was a great occasion you know. I said, “I’m not having any family there.” It was the custom then – I do not know what people do now– for the woman to take the man’s name but I did not like that, so I said, “If I have got to take your name, you have got to take my name.” His name was Rich and my name was Levrant so we became Levrant Rich, which sounds quite good.
The Gentle Author- Was that unusual in those days?
Milly Rich – Goodness knows! Moss was very easy about it, he said he did not care. My mother said she would kill herself if we did not get married in the synagogue, but I said “I’m not having anyone there , I don’t want a fuss,” so she agreed she would not tell anyone. But when Moss and I arrived at the synagogue, standing outside wreathed in smiles was my fat Aunty Milly and her husband. I said, “I’m not going to do it!” and we turned tail and ran away, so we did not get married that day.
We came back the next day and got married when nobody was there. We got no photographs, nothing. It was just the two of us, and Moss had to go back to work because he was in the timber importing business, doing the advertising, and everybody thought the work was absolutely vital. So he went back to work and I went shopping in Petticoat Lane for a couple of cups and saucers and a saucepan.
Moss had found us an attic room at 4 Mecklenburgh Sq and we went back there. It was one pound a week which was a lot of money for rent. There was an oven on the landing which four other tenants used and we each took a turn to put a shilling in the meter. Sometimes, I would come back early and find the landlady on her knees fiddling the meter!
When the air raid siren went, we dashed down to the shelter which was just opposite. One night we got a direct hit. The thing shuddered but it did not go off and we were marshalled out by wardens. I remember walking up Gray’s Inn Rd with fires blazing on either side right up to Euston Station. There were aeroplanes droning overhead and the church opposite the station was on fire. We were ushered into the station and we spent the rest of the night there, before returning to Mecklenburgh Sq.
Although our rent was one pound a week, Moss earned four pounds and I earned two pounds and a bit, so we only had just over six pounds as our total income. After our pound rent was paid and Moss had ten cigarettes delivered each day, I used to be able to send stuff to the laundry. They would come and collect and deliver it, all freshly ironed, and a sheet was tuppence to launder. Can you imagine? Shirts and everything. I never did any washing myself. As well as Mrs Pointy the landlady, there was a caretaker who kept our two rooms clean for two shillings a week, which was very nice. Mrs Pointy used to feed her cat cods’ heads and the smell – I can still smell it – was absolutely indescribable.
The Gentle Author - Nowadays in London, many people spend half their wages on rent.
Milly Rich - I was just thinking about the nature of progress. When I was young, it was usual for a woman to stay at home and the man would bring home the money – his wage could support the wife and the family. Now two wages are not enough, do you call that progress?
Transcript by Rachel Blaylock
Milly, aged one and a half in 1919
Milly, aged five in 1922
Milly, aged twenty in 1939
Moss in 1939
Milly & Moss’ Marriage Certificate, 1939
Milly’s London Transport card, 1939
Milly & Moss in the forties
Milly & Moss in the eighties – Milly & Moss were married for seventy-two years
You may also like to read about