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Mavis Bullwinkle, Secretary

April 29, 2019
by the gentle author

This is the earliest known photo of the remarkable Mavis Bullwinkle, seen here attending a Christmas party in 1932 at the Drill Hall in Buxton St, hosted by Rev Holdstock of All Saints’ Church, Spitalfields – Mavis can easily be distinguished to the left of the happy crowd, because she is a baby in her mother Gwendoline’s arms. In this picture, you see her at the centre of life in Spitalfields and even though this hall does not exist anymore and the church it was attached to was demolished in 1951, and everyone else in this photo has gone now too, I am happy to report that Mavis is still alive and kicking, to carry the story of this world and continue her existence at the centre of things in the neighbourhood.

Mavis’ grandfather, Richard Pugh, was a lay preacher who came to Spitalfields with his wife and family from North Wales in 1898, where he held bible classes at All Saints and spoke at open air meetings and, in the absence of social workers, counselled men from the Truman Brewery in their family problems. His mother paid for him to return alone to Wales to see her for two weeks annual holiday from the East End each year. But Mavis’ grandmother Frances never had a holiday, she said, “Why should people take notice of you when you talk of living the Christian life, when you have an easier time than they do?” Then in 1905, Richard died unexpectedly of pneumonia and Frances was left almost bereft in Spitalfields. She had to leave the church house and take care of her seven children alone. She received a modest pension from the Scripture Readers’ Union until her youngest son, Albert, was fourteen, the Truman Brewery gave her a small grant twice a year and she took work scrubbing floors.

The family moved into Albert Family Dwellings, a large nineteenth century block in Deal St, where subsequently Mavis grew up, living there until it was demolished in 1975 when they were rehoused in a new block in Hanbury St. And today, when I visited Mavis in Hanbury St less than a hundred yards away from the site of Albert Family Dwellings and she described her grandmother who died when she was six, an extraordinary perspective became apparent, connecting our world with that of  Spitalfields more than a century ago.“I remember her shape and her North Wales accent, a lilt.” Mavis told me, conjuring the image in her mind’s eye,” She would always call my father Alfred, when everyone else called him Alf. She was short of stature and she worked hard.”

Mavis’ testimony of life in the East End is one of proud working class families who strove to lead decent lives in spite of limited circumstances. “People like to think that they were all drunks who dropped their ‘h’s, and they were dirty,” she said, eager to dispel this misconception, “Years ago, people were poor but they were completely clean. You can wash without a bathroom, but it takes a lot of work. My father used to put the water on to boil and pour it into the bath. And in the Family Dwellings, it was very well maintained, low rents, strict rules and a uniformed superintendent. When my mother was small and people had large families, if the superintendent saw children playing after eight o’ clock, he’d say ‘Go to bed!’ and you had to do it. I often think of it now when I see children playing outside at eleven at night. Then, everyone used to know each other and help one another. If you were going away on holiday, you’d tell everyone and they’d wave you goodbye.”

Mavis’ story of her family’s existence in Albert Family Dwellings spans the original flat where her grandmother lived with her two maiden aunts, and then Mavis’ parents’ flat that she grew up in. Mavis took care of her mother and the two aunts, who lived to be eighty-six,ninety and ninety-five respectively, even after they all moved out – seventy years after they first moved in as an act of expediency. But by then the nature of the place had changed and it was condemned as part of a slum clearance programme. “It suddenly went down hill in the late fifties when the housing association sold it,” admitted Mavis with a regreftul smile, looking from her living room window across the rooftops of Spitalfields to the space where Albert Family Dwellings formerly stood, a space that holds so much of her family history. If Mavis had married, she would have left Spitalfields but instead she stayed to care for the elderly members of her family and worked for forty years as a secretary in the social work department at the Royal London Hospital, where she was born in 1932. A woman of dauntless temperament, even retired now, she returns one day a week on a voluntary basis to do typing for the friends of the hospital and on another day each week she does reading with a reception class at Christ Church School in Brick Lane where she is a governor.

In Mavis’ personal landscape, Spitalfields’ neighbouring territory, the City of London holds an enduring fascination as a symbolic counterpoint to these streets where she makes her home. “I love the City because I went to school in the City at the Sir John Cass School,” she confided with pleasure, “and my father worked as a clerk in the City, at the Royal London Oil Company for fifty-one years. To go from Tower Hamlets to the City, crossing Middlesex St, was like crossing the River Jordan to the Promised Land. Everyone in Stepney used to dream of living in the City. Before the war, all kinds of people lived in the City, caretakers and such, not just rich people like now.” And then Mavis ran into another room to bring a framed certificate to show me and held it up with a gleaming playful smile of triumph. It read, “Mavis Gwendoline Bullwinkle, Citizen of the City of London.”

Mavis Gwendoline Bullwinkle – Citizen of Spitalfields – is a woman who makes no apology to call herself a secretary, because she is inspired by the best of that proud nineteenth century spirit which carried a compassionate egalitarian sense of moral purpose.

Mavis’ mother’s family, the Pughs of North Wales, photographed in Spitalfields in 1900. At the centre, Mavis’ grandmother Frances holds Mavis’ mother Gwendoline as a baby, with her grandfather Richard at her shoulder, a lay preacher who died unexpectedly of pneumonia four years later.

Handbill for one of Mavis’ grandfather’s bible classes at St Matthew’s Mission, Fulham.

Mavis’ mother Gwendoline and her sisters at All Saints School, Buxton St, Spitalfields, 1904. g – Gwendoline, l – Laura, a – Ada and h – Hilda.

Mavis’ father’s family, the Bullwinkles of Bow in 1917. Her grandmother Lousia sits on the left and her grandfather Edwin on the right. Mavis’ father Alfred stands between his two brothers Harry and Ted, both in Royal Air Corps uniform. The eldest daughter standing behind her mother was also Louisa but known as “Sis.”

Mavis, with her parents Gwendoline and Alfred, and younger sister Margaret in Barking Park, 1939 – before Mavis & Margaret were evacuated to Aylesbury.

Mavis stands on the extreme left of this picture of the All Saints Church Spitalfields choir, 1951.

Mavis sits at the centre of the picnic at this Christ Church, Spitalfields, Sunday School outing to Chalkwell in the late fifties – presided over by Mrs Berdoe (top centre).

Mavis Bullwinkle in her Hanbury St flat

16 Responses leave one →
  1. Marina permalink
    April 29, 2019

    What wonderful recollections … carrying us back to those times. And how stylish Mavis is!

  2. Greg Tingey permalink
    April 29, 2019

    V minor correction to the 1917 picture:
    “Royal Flying Corps” – please … part of the Army at the time.
    RFC & RNAS amalgamated 1st April 1918 to make the RAF ( IIRC )

  3. Susan permalink
    April 29, 2019

    I’m always awed by the women whose husbands died, leaving them to cope with often quite a brood of children. What incredibly difficult and exhausting lives they must have had. (I have no doubt there are many, many women around the world who are still having to cope with this kind of scenario.)

    Please do tell Ms. Bullwinkle (it seems oddly familiar to call her “Mavis”) how very elegant she looks – I LOVE that outfit!

  4. Ian Silverton permalink
    April 29, 2019

    Mavis, as an ex Pupil of Sir John Cass myself,1950s a bit later than yourself,I salute you for having survived so long having a great life in the East End, I myself loved going to school in the City of London,both mine where right in the heart of it,great place to live as I did when I went to work in Fleet Street, keep well and happy.

  5. Georgina Briody permalink
    April 29, 2019

    I first saw Mavis back in September 2015 when we both attended the unveiling of the Huguenot tiles at Hanbury Hall, Brick Lane, but I didn’t realise we had such a ‘connection’ in that I worked at the London Hospital in the early 70′s and realise our paths might well have crossed. I do remember the ‘characters’ of the day, both patients and staff, and still hold great affection for the place. Indeed I returned to the hospital last autumn but felt so sad to see how it is now but I realise changes have to take place and nothing stays the same forever.

    Also, my father’s family came from Bow and fully understand the ethos….’We didn’t have much but we had standards.’

    Also, in the 50′s my father was working in The City and wanted me to attend Sir John Cass School but, in those days, the docks were thriving and we lived on the south side of Tower Bridge when the bridge was constantly opening to let ships through, so he thought better of it!!

    GA, your article about Mavis Bullwinkle certainly brought back memories for me…thank you.

  6. Laura Thomas permalink
    April 29, 2019

    This is such a beautiful piece. One of my all time favourites. Great pictures too.

  7. Dudley Diaper permalink
    April 29, 2019

    Thank you for all this info on All Saints and Albert Buildings. The dates of their demolition are useful to me. My mother (Talitha Jane Elizabeth Saunders 1927-2009) and her 3 brothers and one sister grew up in Albert Buildings in the 20s-40s, attended All Saints School and church, and would have known names and faces here.

  8. Helen Breen permalink
    April 29, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what a great story about Mavis, her family, and her fulfilling life in near to her roots – with such wonderful pictures and mementoes. I liked your conclusion:

    “Mavis Gwendoline Bullwinkle – Citizen of Spitalfields – is a woman who makes no apology to call herself a secretary, because she is inspired by the best of that proud nineteenth century spirit which carried a compassionate egalitarian sense of moral purpose.”

    To which we can all say, “Amen.”

  9. Pauline Taylor permalink
    April 29, 2019

    Thank you GA and Mavis Bullwinkle, I really enjoyed reading this and the family photographs are great, I wish I had more photos like that of my grandfather’s family as he was true cockney born in a building in Whitecross Street, but none have survived even supposing that any were ever taken. I have never been able to discover where my grandfather lived between his mother’s death, when he was seven, and the 1891 census, but he was probably sent away to school. I shall never know I fear as the 1881 census has no record of him which I find very sad. But thank you GA for stories like this as they help me to understand what life was like in the City of London in the late Victorian and early 20th century days. How happy and smart Mavis looks and long may that continue.

  10. Anders Bellis permalink
    April 29, 2019

    Stories like this one are those that interest me the very most on Spitalfields Life, stories of the kind one finds under the heading Human Life.

    It is so easy for so many, in this day and age of celebrity hysteria, to be more or less uninterested in “ordinary” people, people like Mavis Bullwinkle … who are anything but ordinary! The most interesting life stories are not those of rock stars or famous actors or billionaire businessmen/businesswomen, but the life stories of so called “ordinary” people who live and whose families have lived not cut off from everyday society – who have not, so to speak, lived “sheltered” lives.

    Becfause they really have interesting and fascinating stories to tell us.

    Of this Mavis Bullwinkle is a fine example indeed. And one can not but also mention that she is a lady who looks elegantly stylish.

  11. Paul Loften permalink
    April 29, 2019

    My dad used to take me to visit his mother who was then living in a tiny house in Raven Row just behind the London Hospital . The house was a Victorian hovel with an outside toilet situated in concreted back yard about 10 sq ft. It was earmarked for demolition and she must have been the oldest resident there. She would talk about the times when the street was full of Jewish immigrant families and the hot biegel cart would come clattering down the street and tell me about the assortment of characters that lived there . I can still picture the narrow street. On the corner of the street leading up Whitechapel road was the site was a brewery with a massive black brick built chimney that towered over the area. I think the white letters Truman ran down it .although I cant be 100 pecent sure. The last time I saw it ,and that was years ago, there was a Post Office depot there with many parked red vans. The chimney had gone.
    Thank you both Gentle Author and Mavis Bullwinkle for the wonderful story . Mavis ,you are still lovely as ever. I cant speak for the Gentle Author though !

  12. April 29, 2019

    Mavis is a marvel. May I say she is an elegant version of True Grit? Her story, combined with
    this remarkable cache of intimate family documentation is a treasure.

    This post is a keeper, and deserves more than one reading and one look. I will return to this later this evening, with a glass of wine in hand. Saluting YOU, Mabel!

    Onward and upward.

  13. Suresh Singh permalink
    April 29, 2019

    What a beautiful women of elegance and moral purpose.

    I adored Mavis’s beautiful hats on a Sunday school visit, she made me feel safe and loved.

    I with deep sikhism bow down to Mavis Bullwinkle.

    She shone in Hanbury Hall amongst the grime. A true Dorcas Guild.

    She is true in my memoir Suresh Singh

  14. Paul Huckett permalink
    April 30, 2019

    A wonderful story . The surname Bullwinkle is shared with a much loved Australian war hero, the late Vivian Bullwinkel, albeit a slight difference in spelling . Her story is extraordinary in that she survived a massacre in WW11 and then internment by the Japanese Imperial Army . Her story is worth a read https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/P10676383

  15. Jill Wilson permalink
    April 30, 2019

    Yes – a remarkable lady indeed who I had the pleasure of meeting last year.

    And great to see all the added family photos and memorabilia (hurrah for the blog format which allows for all the extra visuals!)

  16. Jeannette permalink
    May 1, 2019

    How delightful to look Miss Mavis and all her people in the eye. I hope she will tell you more about life for so many years in the Albert Family Dwellings. Thanks to both of you.

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