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At Mile End Place

December 18, 2018
by the gentle author

Mrs Johnson walks past 19 Mile End Place

Whenever I walk down the Mile End Rd, I always take a moment to step in through the archway and visit Mile End Place. This tiny enclave of early nineteenth century cottages sandwiched between the Velho and the Alderney Cemeteries harbours a quiet atmosphere that recalls an earlier, more rural East End and I have become intrigued to discover its history. So I was fascinated when Philip Cunningham sent me his pictures of Mile End Place from the seventies together with this poignant account of an unspoken grief from the First World War, still lingering more than fifty years later, which he encountered unexpectedly when he moved into his great-grandparents’ house.

“In 1971, my girlfriend – Sally – & I moved from East Dulwich to Mile End Place. It was number 19, the house where my maternal grandfather – Jack – had been born into a family of nine, and we purchased it from my grandfather’s nephew Denny Witt. The house was very cheap because it was on the slum clearance list but it was a lot better than the rooms we had been living in, even with an outside toilet and no bath.

There were just two small bedrooms upstairs and two small rooms downstairs. In my grandfather’s time, the front room was kept immaculate in case there might be a visitor and the sleeping was segregated, until Uncle Harry came back from the Boer War when he was not allowed to sleep with the other boys. For reasons left unexplained, he was banished to the front room and told he had better get married sharpish – which he did.

I first met my neighbour Mrs Johnson when gardening in the front of the house. I said ‘Morning,’ but there came no reply.‘What a nasty woman’ I thought, yet worse was to come. Mrs Johnson lived at the end of the street and two doors away lived a vague relative of hers who was married to an alcoholic. ‘She picked ‘im up in Jersey,’ I was told. He drank half bottles of whisky and rum, and threw the empties into the graveyard at the back of our houses – sometimes when they were half full.

I would often go to our outside toilet in socks and, on one occasion, nearly stepped upon pieces of broken glass that had been thrown into our backyard. At first, I assumed it was Paul – the graveyard keeper – and went straight round to his house in Alderney St. I nearly knocked his door down and was ready to flatten him, until he became very apologetic and explained that Mrs Johnson had told him we were students and always having parties. True in the first count, lies in the second. Mrs Johnson knew quite well who the culprit was, as did the everyone else in street. I was still angry, so I threw the glass back where it came from  - which must have been a real chore to clear up on the other side

Sometime after all these events, Jane Plumtree – a barrister – moved into the street. She said ‘We must have street parties!’ and so we did. At the first of these, the longest established families in the street all had to sit together and – unfortunately – I was sat next to Mrs Johnson. She hissed and fumed, and turned her back on me as much as she could, until suddenly she turned to face me and said, ‘I knew your grandfather J-a–c—k, he came b-a–c—k!’ She spat the words out. I did not know what she was talking about so I just said, ‘Yes, he was a drayman.’

Later, I reported it over the phone to my Auntie Ethel. ‘Oh yes,’ she explained, ‘Mrs Johnson had three brothers and, when the First World War broke out, they thought it was going to be a splendid jolly. They signed up at once, even though two were under-age, and they were all dead in three months.’ Unlike my grandfather Jack, who came back.

Jack was married and living in Ewing St with his five children, but he was called up immediately war was declared because had been in the Territorial Army. He was present at almost every major piece of action throughout the First World War and, at some point, while driving an ammunition lorry, he got into the back and rolled a cigarette when there was no one around. He got caught and was sentenced to be shot, but – fortunately – someone piped up and declared they did not have enough drivers, so his punishment was reduced to six weeks loss of pay, which made my grandmother – to whom the money was due – furious!

When Jack and the other troops with him came under fire in a French village, he and an Irish soldier broke into a music shop for cover. On the wall was a silver trumpet which Jack grabbed at once, but his Irish companion grabbed the mouthpiece and would not let Jack have it unless he went into the street, amid the falling shells, to play. Reluctantly, Jack did this – playing extremely fast – and he brought the trumpet home with him to the East End.”

19 Mile End Place

Philip’s grandfather Jack was born at 19 Mile End Place

View from 19 Mile End Place

Philip purchased 19 Mile End Place from his cousin Danny Witt, photographed during World War II

Outside toilet at 19 Mile End Place

Backyard at 19 Mile End Place

View towards the Alderney Cemetery with the keeper’s house in the distance

Paul Campkin, the Cemetery Keeper

The Alderney Cemetery

Looking out towards Mile End Rd

Entrance to Mile End Place from Mile End Rd

Photographs copyright © Philip Cunningham

You may also like to read about

The Mile End Place Mulberry

At the Velho & Alderney Cemeteries

6 Responses leave one →
  1. mrs marilyn Robinson permalink
    December 18, 2018

    Oh, how interesting, I was born in Treby St back of the Mile-end station, I thought I knew every road and cemetery. I did not know Mile end place existed.

    What a lovely piece of history, Thank You x

    My Granddad had stalls outside the ODEON at Mile End, he sold sweets and fruit.

    My grandad’s surname name was Oakley.my grandparents lived in Burdett Road.

  2. Richard Smith permalink
    December 18, 2018

    Fascinating post. Thank you GA.

  3. December 18, 2018

    Great story. Thank you.

  4. Pete Wheeler permalink
    December 19, 2018

    Interesting article. The Grave yard keeper is holding a lamplighters pole. They came apart in the middle where the brass tube is and that held a wick and flint lighter. The pole was then put together with the lighted wick at the top to light the gas lamp. Saw it done many times in my young days in Bermondsey.

  5. David Ward permalink
    December 20, 2018

    The cemetery groundsman, did not live at the Lodge. My mum lived there from 1977 to 2011 during her time employed by the United Synagogue. She knew Mrs Johnson too well as the poor old dear was always demanding the cemetery’s trees to be cut down. She also had to deal with the broken bottles that came over the wall. We did not know it was a relative of Mrs Johnson who did this. We also remember Philip on his balcony taking photos and working in his darkroom at the time too. I have a lot of photos as well. Let me know if you’re interested.

  6. Ron Bunting permalink
    December 29, 2018

    Denny Witts Motorbike is a BSA 500 Single. Back around 1970 I found one in a relatives barn, and because, then, it was just an old army motorbike had no value, I rebuilt it into a Chopper…Today such machines are valued in the 5 figure range. https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C110377?image=2

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