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Sheila Bell of Great Eastern Buildings

August 23, 2017
by the gentle author

(Click on this photograph to enlarge it)

Can you spot Sheila Bell in this photograph of the residents of Great Eastern Buildings celebrating Victory in Europe Day at the Grey Eagle in Quaker St on 2nd May 1945? Look more closely, there she is sitting in the front row, to the left of the girl in a floppy hat. Sheila has a bow in her hair for this special occasion.

Unfortunately, this picture was not too much use when I met Sheila at Victoria Station recently to hear about her life at Great Eastern Buildings on the corner of Brick Lane and Quaker St. Yet, as Sheila began to tell her story, I quickly recognised the little girl in this photograph of a lifetime ago.

“My grandparents, George & Sarah Keppel, lived in Great Eastern Buildings and my great-grandparents, Emma & Frederic Lewis lived in the same flat before them – before that I do not know. My nan never went out to work, she stayed at home, cooked the dinner and kept the house, and my granddad worked down Spitalfields Market. He started off as a porter but he was a carpenter by trade, so he made the ladders for the guys in the market. He hired two rooms in the next block at the Buildings and did all his carpentry work there. I used walk in there and smell the fresh wood shavings. He had a black iron glue pot and he made me stir it. It looked like toffee but it did not smell like toffee, I can assure you.

My parents lived in the Buildings as well and, as soon as I was born, I was taken to the Buildings, as the fourth generation of my family there. My mother worked in Truman’s Brewery as a bottling girl, she wore a green overall, a white apron and clogs, and my father was a smoked salmon curer in Frying Pan Alley, opposite Liverpool St Station. We lived in flat number sixty-eight Great Eastern Buildings, on the second floor. I was brought up in those Buildings with Jewish, Irish and Maltese, and we all rubbed along very nicely.

There always used to be a lot of workmen in and out of the Buildings, fixing things, and my first memory was of playing with a load of sand and water. Me and my cousins used to make sandcastles in the builders’ sand. That was our life! We lived in two rooms. We shared a wash house with a mangle and three sinks, two normal-sized and one butler’s sink with two taps. There was no hot water and each of the four flats on the landing shared the wash house. If you wanted a bath you had to boil a kettle. We had a tin bath like everybody else and an outside toilet that we shared with the three other families. We took it in turns to clean the toilet on a weekly rota system.

I do not remember a gas stove but I do remember a black range. You could lift the lid with a poker and put coal in. The kettle was always on the hob and there was an oven to the side. On Sunday, my nan would black-lead the range and it used to gleam. It had a white hearth and she used to whiten it, that was her pride and joy. It was always done, and our two rooms were kept clean. One room doubled as a front-room-come-kitchen, -come-everything really. We had old armchairs in there and a settee made of Rexine, that looked like leather but it was plastic and, in the summer, it used to stick to your legs, so we had to put a blanket on it. We had an old piano, I think everybody in those days had a piano. There was a little sink in the corner for the bowl and jug which we kept in the bedroom. That was all you had plus a table and a cupboard.

In the bedroom,  we had a double bed and a single bed, if you had more than one child or if anybody came to stay. Unfortunately, that was how it was. We put up with because we did not know any different. I was the eldest and I had a younger brother. Now my nan had two rooms and my mum had two rooms, so my brother slept in the front room which meant mum and dad had the bedroom, my nan and grandad had the other bedroom and I slept in the other front room on a made-up bed. I used to lie on the floor and listen to the trains shunting in the goodsyard. Both flats were opposite each other across the same landing.

When I was fourteen, the flats were modernised by combining two, so then we had two bedrooms, a kitchen and a lounge. They put in electricity. It was amazing because I had only known gaslight since childhood. We did not know we were born! It was like a palace. I had my own room and my brother had his own room. It was our home and they did not move us out while they modernised, they just worked around us.

As children, we used to love to run through Wheler St Arch because it was always dark and gloomy with gas lamps – it was a dare really. We liked to go down Spitalfields Market and pick up the specks – the damaged fruit –  and we used to bring them home. We did not have any other fruit. At Christmas time, my granddad came home with a sack full of specks. All the family would get together round the piano. My Auntie used to play the piano fantastically, sitting on a crate of brown ale. My nan never went out all week but on a Saturday night she went with out her friend and they would go either to the Two Brewers on the corner or the Grey Eagle. On a Saturday night, when she did not go out, my nan and I, we would get our pillow and put it on the window sill, and sit with our cups of tea and wait for the pubs to turn out. There would be fights and it was entertainment for us.

My granddad used to have a stall at the top of Brick Lane on Sundays and sell nuts and bolts, and I took tea to him in a white enamel flask. The market was packed in those days and, by the time I got there, the tea would be splashed everywhere, so he only got one cup out of it.

My first job was for Durrants the printers opposite Mount Pleasant Post Office in Clerkenwell and I absolutely hated it. I was sixteen or seventeen and I used to come home black with ink. Then I went into the rag trade, machining at Universal Underwear – it was very highbrow, we made it for Marks & Spencers – just off Shoreditch High St. I loved it and stayed there for ten years. I did an apprenticeship and my first week’s pay was four pounds, nineteen shillings and eleven pence. I thought I was rich!

After three months, they put you on piecework and I used to earn a fortune. Twenty or thirty pounds a week was a lot of money in those days. I was a saver and there would be times when I only had a shilling and sixpence in my purse but that was fine. I have always put a bit by because you never know what might happen. My parents did the same and they taught me not to spend money on non-essentials. Then, if you really need that money you do not have to go to anybody, you have got it there. My mother was very independent and my parents never owed anybody any money. I only ever wanted to pay the rent and put food on the table.

When I was twenty-five, I left Great Eastern Buildings to get married. I met my husband Riaz at Queen’s Ice Skating Rink in Bayswater. It was a ritual, I used to go there every Friday. Every Saturday, we went to the cinema and, every Sunday, we went to the Mecca Ballroom in Leicester Sq. We had a fantastic social life. We moved to a rented two bedroom flat in Hackney Downs when we got married and my daughter was born in Lower Clapton Rd at the Salvation Army Hospital. My husband was an aircraft engineer at Gatwick and the travelling was too much for him, so they offered us a flat down there and we stayed thirty years.

I still miss the community spirit of Great Eastern Buildings. Nobody went without, the people in those Buildings would give you their last ha’penny even if they had nothing.”

The Grey Eagle photographed by Philip Marriage in 1967

Corner of Grey Eagle St today

Steven Harris, who also grew up in Great Eastern Buildings, managed to identify these people:

Little girl at front, right of centre, with floppy white hat is Joyce Gibbons (my Aunty Joyce).

Next to floppy white hat, toddler with bow in hair is Sheila Bell herself.

The lady to the left, with her arm up, may well be Franny Vigas.

Behind Franny, with the dark hair is Sarah Keppel (Sheila’s grandmother)

The shorter of the two men, just to Sarah’s right, is Sheila’s granddad, George Keppel.

To George’s right, with her back against the pub wall is Lily Bell (Sheila’s mother)

Further to the right, holding two children (you can just see her head against the pub window) is Bessie Lee, sister to Lily Bell. The two children were Lorraine and Ronnie Lee.

Staying at the back and just along from Bessie Lee and her children, are two dark haired women – they were sisters, Celia and Sarah Bawes.

One forward and three along to the right from Lily Bell is a blond girl with roundish face – that was Betty Wright (who was long standing friends with my Aunty Pat)

Third row back, a little to the left of the roll of honour, with her beret pulled down at a sharp angle and standing slightly alone, is Phyllis Greenslade.

To the extreme right of the photo, sitting next to the honours roll, is Pat Green.

Third row back, to the left of the central line of children, is George Hall (with finger in mouth).

To the left of George is, I believe, my very own nine-year-old dad – Eddie Harris!

George’s sister, Rosie, is the blond girl with big smile, one row forward and three along to the right of George.

Sheila Butt (nee Bell)

You may also like to read about

Steven Harris at Great Eastern Buildings

Two Spitalfields Shopkeepers

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Vanda Human permalink
    August 23, 2017

    Interesting article, but I get so angry when I see how people have destroyed old building with their graffitti. Do they have no respect for anything.

  2. August 23, 2017

    What a brilliant story, thanks for sharing it

  3. Jane permalink
    August 23, 2017

    Sheila very much identifiable from the older photograph to today’s. Same spirit and light in the eyes, with chin tilted up to meet the world still there. Sheila and her family very much embedded in the history and fabric of the London East End. A great read.

  4. John Hooker permalink
    August 24, 2017

    Very interesting article, I remember these buildings.
    The families of Keppel and Vigas living in the same buildings are also interesting.
    I lived on Dinmont Estate and went to Sebright school.
    Both Stephen Keppel and Betty Vigas attended the same school and both families lived in the same block of flats off Pritchards road overlooking the Rec.
    They would be in their early sixties now.
    Coincidence ? Or part of same families mentioned in the article ?

  5. August 27, 2017

    Hi John yes you are right Stephen Keppel is my cousin and Betty vigas her sister grant was my mums best friend glad you found it a good read thank you Sheila.

  6. steve permalink
    September 11, 2017

    Hi Sheila,
    Thanks for sharing the memories. I too remember the old wash houses in the buildings (the middle section of left hand block only), running around Wheeler arch and the endless variety of people living in the buildings. I never had a piano – but did have a clip around the ear from time to time!

    I so well remember the pubs though – Two Brewers and Grey Eagle – where my grandmother cleaned at the Two Brewers and my dad took a good hiding at the Grey eagle!

    Glad to know that you squeezed up like the rest of us – at one point we had 4 bunk beds in the one bedroom.

    So much has gone, so much has changed and even if the buildings were slums, would we not all go back if we possibly could? Thanks for the memories :-)

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