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Sophie Spielman, Shorthand Typist

August 26, 2018
by the gentle author

Celebrating the ninth birthday of Spitalfields Life with a week of favourite post from the past year

Portrait of Sophie Spielman by Sarah Ainslie

I had the pleasure of visiting ninety-three-year-old Sophie Spielman at her immaculate flat in Treves House, an elegant modernist block at the Whitechapel end of Vallance Rd, designed by Ralph Smorczewski and built by Stillman & Eastwick Field in 1956.

As the most senior resident in the building, where she has lived longer than anyone else, and at such a venerable age, you might expect Sophie to be taking it easy. Yet she has reluctantly found herself the focus of recent national media attention as the spokeswoman and figurehead for the residents of Treves House and the neighbouring Lister House, who are confronted with the prospect of losing their homes as part of Tower Hamlets Council’s plans to demolish and redevelop the properties.

Blessed with natural dignity and possessing a innate sense of decorum, Sophie is an heroic figure who is able to face these current troubles with fortitude, viewing her situation from the perspective of one who has lived a full life and experienced a great deal. In particular, I was fascinated by the pleasing irony that Sophie who was born into an Iranian Jewish family, resident in India, should find herself at home in Whitechapel for the last half century, living among Jewish and Asian neighbours.

Sophie clasped her hands and gave me a world-weary smile, casting her mind back over the long journey which led her to the domestic happiness she found in Whitechapel, before confessing her disappointment that anyone could be so petty as to challenge her right to live out her days in her home of fifty-five years.

“I was born in Bombay but my parents were Iranians. My grandmother was called Rachel and my mother was Leah, they were born in Iran. When my grandfather died, my mother was still very small and so my grandmother brought her to Bombay. Those children that were married stayed in Iran but those that were young came with her to Bombay, where there was a Jewish community known as the Sassoons who were from Iraq. They came to Bombay and they were like the Rothschilds of the East, so there was help there. We stayed there and I went to a Jewish school that was founded by the Sassoons.

When I was older, I worked in the Bombay Telephone Company for about twelve years. I joined as a shorthand typist, but I preferred to work with my hands because that is what I like to do. So I went into the Inspection Department checking all the different parts that go into a telephone.

At that time, India was under British rule and I had very good English. Although I had an English and a Jewish education, I felt closest to the English. My brother went to Canada for a while. When he came back, he said, ‘I’m going to England, do you want to come?’ So I said, ‘Oh I’d love to!’ That was my dream to come to England.

When I came here in 1957, I was first in Stamford Hill but, when I met my husband Nathan Spielman and got married, he already had this flat in Whitechapel. He was moved here in 1959 from Anthony St which was demolished and the residents were all given new flats. He worked in the railways, as a ticket collector at Liverpool St Station. He told me had been involved in the anti-fascist movement and was at the Battle of Cable St in 1936. He passed away in 1982 when my daughter Gloria was nineteen. I only had one child, my one and only – but she has five children!

I worked in Nortons, the suitcase factory, as a secretary in the office. I worked there until I got married and Gloria was born. At first, I took her to nursery and, when she was bit older and went to school, I worked part-time in Hatton Garden, in an office where they received and sold jewellery.

When I first moved into Treves House in 1962, it was all new and modern and I thought it was very nice. Now it is different, the council has neglected it for years, but I do not want to move from here. We had very good neighbours. Most of the original residents have died or moved away, apart from me. There is one tenant still living in the flat that was his grandparents, who were the very first to move in. I have Nora, an Irishwoman next door who is a very good neighbour. She always comes and visits me and asks, ‘Are you alright?’ I still walk down to Whitechapel every day, I have done it since I moved in. It is the only place I know now.

According to what I understand, the council want to pull down all these houses to build new flats, but I am a leaseholder and it has a great many years to go still. So I am fighting, I am trying to find out what is going to happen. I would like them to improve these flats by taking care of the building. They promised to replace the windows and I went to three or four meetings. What happened to that money? I went to the meeting with the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, it was the same thing. They say, ‘Yes, yes,’ but we do not know what is going on behind our backs. I wish they would tell us exactly what they want to do. They do not discuss it with us.”

Sophie in Bombay in 1950

Sophie as a young woman

Nathan & Sophie Spielman

Sophie with her daughter Gloria

Treves House, designed by Ralph Smorkczewski and built by Stillman & Eastwick Field in 1956

Treves House seen from the garden

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Allison Holmes permalink
    August 26, 2018

    What a lovely and very beautiful lady. I don’t know the building but I’m always fascinated by the Jewish diaspora and how much good they spread around the places to which they have moved. Sadly, there are hardly any Jews living in Iran these days because of the deep and invidious anti-semitism in that part of the world.

  2. August 26, 2018

    What a lovely old lady. I remember Treves House from visits back home. What is the latest news on the redevelopment?

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