Skip to content

Martin White, Textile Consultant

August 9, 2020
by the gentle author

Today it is my pleasure to publish the story of Martin White, who has heroically reopened Crescent Trading, Spitalfields’ last cloth warehouse, after the death of his business partner Philip Pittack

Martin White, aged two in 1933

“That was the difference between Philip & me,” explained Martin White, articulating the precise distinction between himself and his business partner Philip Pittack, “He was a Rag Merchant, whereas I am a Textile Consultant. I understand textiles, I know about suitings and have been dealing in them since 1946. Our different specialities complemented each other.”

Famous for his monocle and pearl tiepin, as well as his unrivalled knowledge, Martin White was one half of the duo at Crescent Trading, possessing more than one hundred and twenty years of experience in the business between them. Their continuous comedy repartee won them a reputation as the Mike & Bernie Winters of the textile trade.

In particular, Martin is known for his ability to make an offer on a parcel of textiles on sight. “Very few people know how to do it,” he admitted to me. “Recently, Philip & I went on a buying trip twice a year, but in the past I used to go buying every day.” Martin’s story reveals how he acquired his remarkable knowledge of textiles, developing an expertise that permits him obtain the quality fabrics for which Crescent Trading is renowned.

“My father, William White, was a leather merchant but he also had some boot repair shops and, because he was a bit of mechanic, he rebuilt boot repairing machines. And that’s what he wanted me to go into. We lived in a very nice house in Shepherd’s Hill, Highgate, but unfortunately my father was diabetic who didn’t believe in conventional medicine. He was a herbalist and he became very ill in his forties and died at forty-six.

I started work at fourteen for my two uncles, Joe Barnet & Mark Bass (known as Johnny,) at their shop in Noel St off Berwick St in 1946. I was a little boy who didn’t know anything and in those days fabric was rationed and very hard to come by. Joe used to go up north and he had contacts in Manchester who used to get him stuff from the mills. It was a tiny shop and everything we got we sold immediately. They were making thousands every week and I was getting two pounds a week for carrying the fabric in and out. I used to like touching the fabric and that’s how I learnt about it.

While I was there, my father died and another of my uncles, David Bass, came to see my mother and he said he would take me to work for him and give me a wage, so she wouldn’t have to worry about me. But when the two uncles I was already working for heard this, Joe Barnet sent his wife Zelda to my mother to say that, if I worked for David, I would take all their customers from Noel St and it would ruin their business. So Joe Barnet told my mother he would look after me. He had just formed an association with a government supply business in Bethnal Green and he asked me to go down there and watch because he didn’t trust them, and that was my job.

So the first Friday came and he gave me five pounds, that was my wages. The following week, I found a parcel of cloth for sale in Brick Lane and I bought three thousand yards at a shilling a yard and I sold it for three shillings and sixpence a yard. The next Friday, Joe gave me fifteen pounds but I realised I had no chance of furthering myself with him, so I left and started working with another boy of my own age, Daniel Secunda. We were fifteen years old. We had no premises. We used to stand by the post at the corner of Berwick St, and people came to us with samples and goods to sell. We took the samples and sold them, and we made a good living between the two of us. We were young and we were carefree.All the money we earned, we spent it. We were happy. We went out every night. And that lasted for about three years, before the business got hard when rationing ended.

Then I met a guy who wanted to go into business properly with us, Pip Kingsley. He took premises in Berwick St and formed P. Kingsley & Co. After a while, it became apparent that while Danny was a very good-looking and likeable fellow, I was the worker out of the two of us. So Kingsley got rid of Danny and rehired an old job buyer who had retired, Myer King, and we started working together. He was an Eastern European, a very big man who couldn’t read or write. He had the knack of job buying ‘by the look.’ He’d go into a factory and make an offer for everything on the spot. This method of buying was different to anything I had ever seen but it worked. By working with him, I learnt what to do and what not do. And that knowledge was the basis of how I did business from then on.

I was happy working with Kingsley & Myer, but then I met my wife to be, Sheila, and I decided that I wanted my share of the money that my father had left in trust for my younger brother Adrian and me when we were twenty-one. I wanted to get married, and Sheila had been married before and she had a little boy. She was very beautiful. She’s eighty-five and she’s still beautiful.

My brother Adrian was known as Eddie and, at the age of eleven while my father was dying, he contracted sugar diabetes, so they were both in hospital. In the next bed to him was George Hackenschmidt, a boxer who had done body-building and my brother became interested in this. It was a very sad thing, my dad died when they were both in hospital and an uncle said to Eddie, ‘When you get out, I’ll buy you anything you want,’ to make him feel better. So Eddie said, ‘I want a set of weights.’

It was back in 1945, Eddie was twelve and he got one hundred pounds worth of weights and equipped a gym in our garage, and he started doing these workouts in the American magazines that George Hackenschmidt had given him. Eventually, he became Charles Atlas’ body. They would take the head of Charles Atlas and put it on a photo of my brother in the adverts for body-building.

When we broke my father’s trust fund, Eddie was twenty-one and we each received eight hundred pounds. My brother only lifted weights and sat in the sun, so I said to him, ‘What are you going to do with this? Give it to me and we’ll be partners, and I’ll do all the work and you can sit in the sun.’

Now, I wanted to get married to Sheila and her father was a textile merchant but her family didn’t like who I was. One of them was A. Kramer who happened to be Dave Bass’ solicitor and he phoned me up to warn me off her. So I told him what he could do, and Sheila and I got married in a registry office in 1955. Sheila’s little boy was four and her father, Lou Mason, didn’t want him to suffer, so he came to see me at my business and I showed him what I was buying.

Then he approached me one day and asked if I was interested in looking at a parcel of goods he had found in Wardour St at a lingerie company called Row G. So I went to see the parcel and made an offer of seven hundred pounds on sight. Lou said, ‘We don’t do business that way,’ and I said, ‘I’ll do it how I want to do it.’

The owner said, ‘No,’ but two weeks later I went back. He took the seven hundred pounds and it was all sold within two weeks for eighteen hundred pounds. My father-in-law said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s wonderful, why don’t you come and work with me?’ I couldn’t say, ‘No,’ to my father-in-law. There was no option. I said to my brother, ‘We’ll have to part company and I’ll give you your money back.’ He never forgave me.

The very first deal that came along was Cooper & Keyward, they had a lot of rolls of suiting and it came to two thousand pounds. But when I asked my father-in-law for the money to buy it, he said, ‘I’m a bit short this week.’ I just about had the two thousand pounds so I laid out the money myself and took the goods, and my father-in-law was able to sell it to his customers.  On Friday, I said to him, ‘I need forty pounds to take my wife out,’ and he said, ‘We don’t spend money that way!’ So I fell out with my father-in-law. It turned out, he didn’t have the money to pay me because his business was going bankrupt.

I went round to get my goods which were in the basement of a shop in Berwick St and my mother-in-law was in the shop. A cousin came out and said, ‘You’re going to kill her, can’t we meet at the weekend and sort this out?’ At the meeting, my father-in-law accused me of being a liar but my wife’s aunt, Joyce, knew him and said to me, ‘I believe you.’ I never was a liar. She said to me, ‘If I lend you a thousand pounds, can you make a living?’

In Berwick St, Johnny Bass was trying to sell his stock at the shop where I had started work. The Noel St shop was full of fabric and he’d offered it to several people but no-one could assess what was there. He wanted four thousand pounds yet, because of my knowledge, I was able to cut a deal for two thousand four hundred pounds. It was Friday night and he said, ‘Give me some money.’ He’d just come of out of the bookmakers and he was penniless. I had a hundred pounds on me, so I gave him that and I had to find the rest of the money.

I went to get it from Joyce but she was in hospital. So I visited her and she said, ‘My husband Bert will get the money for you,’ and on the Monday he came with me to pay Johnny. Joyce had a property in Mansell St and I filled it up with the fabric and started selling it every day from there. Joyce was coming over to collect money from me in her handbag. She was charging me one hundred pounds a week rent plus interest, so I realised she thought I was working for her now but it wasn’t a partnership in my eyes and I wouldn’t go along with it.

I told her I wanted premises in Great Portland St and I needed money for that. It was agreed and that’s what we did. It was called the Robert Martin Company – Sheila’s son was called Robert. I got Daniel Secunda back to work with me. It was 1956, I had my own shop at last. And that’s how I became a textile merchant.”

Aged two, 1933

Aged three, 1934

Aged five in 1936

At school in Highgate, 1936

At a family wedding in September 1939. On the left are William & Muriel White, Martin’s parents. Beside them is Joe Barnet, Martin’s first employer, and his wife Zelda.

Martin’s brother Adrian (known as Eddie) who became the body of Charles Atlas

Martin White & Danny Secunda, his first working partner in 1956

Martin White & Philip Pittack, Crescent Trading Winter 2010

Crescent Trading, Quaker Court, Quaker St, E1 6SN. Open Sunday-Friday.

You may also like to read about

So Long, Philip Pittack

The Return of Crescent Trading

Fire at Crescent Trading

Philip Pittack & Martin White, Cloth Merchants

All Change at Crescent Trading

The Re-Opening Of Crescent Trading

August 8, 2020
by the gentle author

‘I want to sell my stock of textiles’

If you were eighty-nine years old and your business partner of thirty years died of Coronavirus, could you find the moral courage to go on? This is the brave step that cloth merchant Martin White has taken, re-opening Crescent Trading after the death of Philip Pittack. He and Philip were a charismatic double act, renowned for their ceaseless repartee and matchless knowledge of textiles. Last week, I went along to show my moral support, as the last cloth warehouse in Spitalfields reopened for business, and Martin confided his thoughts to me.

“On St Patrick Day, 17th March, I told Philip, ‘It’s too dangerous to be here and I am going home.’ I warned him, saying, ‘And you should as well.’ But ‘I’m not going,’ he said, ‘I’m not going…’

I called him every day from home and, the following week, he said ‘I’ve got take my wife to the hospital on Tuesday but have a good customer coming in, will you cover for me?’ I said, ‘No, I will not!’ I didn’t and I wouldn’t.

His wife’s visit to the hospital was nothing to do with the virus but she caught it and, all of a sudden, he began to feel unwell too. His daughter made him go to hospital, he was there for three weeks and they put him on a ventilator.

Philip had underlying health problems. For years, he had congestion of the lungs and diabetes. He also had several stents put in to deal with his heart problems and that fall didn’t do him any good. So he just couldn’t take the treatment for coronavirus. We all thought he was going to pull through but he didn’t, he died on 11th May.

Before we knew anything about the lockdown, Philip and I made an agreement about what to do with the business, whichever one of us went first. He was twelve years younger than me. I am eighty-nine and I was unwell for four months, so it left me in a strange and awkward position, which I have overcome. I have fulfilled all the conditions of our agreement.

Now I am working here on my own. I started coming in on Sundays and re-opened last week. I must admit I am delighted to be back. I love it, I love this work. I have been with Crescent Trading for thirty years but I have been in the trade since I was fourteen, that’s seventy-five years. I want to sell my stock of textiles.

Customers can only come in two at a time, they have to wear masks and use hand sanitiser. If they want to buy fabric, they can buy it. We are open for business.”

Martin White with his trademark monocle

Martin White & Philip Pittack in the old days

Crescent Trading, Quaker Court, Quaker St, E1 6SN. Open Sunday-Friday.

You may also like to read about

So Long, Philip Pittack

Philip Pittack & Martin White, Cloth Merchants

All Change at Crescent Trading

Fire at Crescent Trading

The Return of Crescent Trading

At The Halal Restaurant

August 7, 2020
by the gentle author

The Halal Restaurant is open again and is part of the ‘Eat out to help out’ scheme

Just before midday at the Halal Restaurant, the East End’s oldest Indian restaurant, Mahaboob Narangali usually braces himself for the daily rush of curry hounds that have been filling his dining room every lunchtime since 1939. On the corner of Alie St and St Mark’s Place, occupying a house at the end of an eighteenth century terrace, the Halal Restaurant has plain canteen-style decor and an unpretentious menu, yet most importantly it has a distinctive personality that is warm and welcoming.

For the City workers coming here – nipping across the border into the East End – the Halal Restaurant is a place of retreat, and the long-serving staff are equally comfortable at this establishment that opens seven days a week for lunch and dinner. Stepping in by the modest side door of the Halal Restaurant, it is apparent that the small dining room to your right was the original front room of the old house while the larger room to your left is an extension added more recently. The atmosphere is domestic and peaceful, a haven from the nearby traffic thundering along Aldgate High St and down Leman St.

Even though midday was approaching, Mahaboob was happy to talk to me about his beloved restaurant and I was fascinated to listen, because I realised that what I was hearing was not simply the story of the Halal Restaurant but of the origin of all the curry restaurants for which the East End is celebrated today.

“Usman, my father, started working here in 1969. He came to Britain in the merchant navy and at first he worked in this restaurant, but then he became very friendly with the owner Mr Chandru and soon he was managing all three restaurants they had at that time. The other two were in Collum St in the City and in Ludgate Circus. Mr Chandru was the second owner, before that was Mr Jaffer who started the Halal Restaurant in 1939. Originally, this place was the mess of the hostel for Indian merchant seamen, with rooms up above. They cooked for themselves and then friends came round to eat, and it became a restaurant. At first it was just three kinds of curry – meat, meatball or mince curry. Then Vindaloos came along, that was more spicy – and now we sell more Vindaloos than any other dish. In the early nineties, Tandoori started to come in and that’s still popular.

My father worked hard and was very successful and, in 1981, he bought the restaurant from Mr Chandru. At twenty-one years old, I came to work here. It was just on and off at first because I was studying and my father didn’t want me to join the business, he wanted me to complete my studies and do something else, but I always had my eye on it. I thought, ‘Why should I work for someone else, when I could have this?’ And in 1988, I started running the restaurant. The leases of the other restaurants ran out, but we own the freehold here and I enjoy this work. I’ve only been here twenty-five years while many of our customers having been coming for forty years and one gentleman, Mr Maurice, he has been coming here since 1946! He told me he started coming here when was twelve.”

Intrigued to meet this curry enthusiast of so many years standing, I said my farewells to the Halal Restaurant and walked over from Aldgate to Stepney to find Mr Maurice Courtnell of the Mansell St Garage in Cannon St Row. I discovered him underneath a car and he was a little curious of my mission at first, but once I mentioned the name of the Halal Restaurant he grew eager to speak to me, describing himself proudly as “a true East Ender from Limehouse, born within the sound of Bow Bells.” A little shy to reveal his age by confirming that he had been going to the Halal Restaurant from the age of twelve, yet Maurice became unreservedly enthusiastic in his praise of this best-loved culinary insitution. “My father and my uncles, we all started going round there just after the Second World War.” he recalled with pleasure, “Without a doubt it is the best restaurant of any kind that I know – the place is A1, beautiful people and lovely food. I remember Mr Jaffer that started it, I remember holding Mahaboob in my arms when he was a new-born baby. Every Christmas we go round there for our Christmas party. It is the only restaurant I recommend, and I’ve fifteen restaurateurs as regular customers at my garage. When Leman St Police Station was open, all the police officers used to be in there. It is always always full.”

Held in the affections of East Enders and City Gents alike, the Halal Restaurant is an important landmark in our culinary history, still busy and still serving the same dishes to an enthusiastic clientele after more than eighty years. Of the renowned Halal Restaurant, it may truly be said, it is the daddy of all the curry restaurants in the East End.

Asab Miah, Head Chef at the Halal Restaurant, has been cooking for fifty years. Originally at the Clifton Restaurant in Brick Lane, he has been at the Halal Restaurant for the last twenty-seven years.

Quayum, Moshahid Ali, Ayas Miah, Mahadoob Narangoli, Asab Miah and Sayed.

At 12:01pm, the first City gent of the day arrives for curry at the Halal Restaurant.

Abdul Wahab, Mohammed Muayeed Khan and J.A. Masum.

At 12:02pm, the second City gent of the day arrives for curry at the Halal Restaurant.

Maurice Courtnell, owner of the Mansell St Garage and the Halal Restaurant’s biggest advocate. – “The place is A1, beautiful people and lovely food. I remember Mr Jaffer that started it, I remember holding Mahaboob in my arms when he was a new-born baby.”

Mahaboob Narangoli, owner of the East End’s oldest Indian restaurant.

Halal Restaurant, 2 St Mark Street, London E1 8DJ
You may also like to read about
The Halal Restaurant’s Seventy-Fifth Birthday Celebrations

In Old Rotherhithe

August 6, 2020
by the gentle author

St Mary Rotherhithe Free School founded 1613

To be candid, there is not a lot left of old Rotherhithe – yet what remains is still powerfully evocative of the centuries of thriving maritime industry that once defined the identity of this place. Most visitors today arrive by train – as I did – through the Brunel tunnel built between 1825 and 1843, constructed when the growth of the docks brought thousands of tall ships to the Thames and the traffic made river crossing by water almost impossible.

Just fifty yards from Rotherhithe Station is a narrow door through which you can descend into the 1825 shaft via a makeshift staircase. You find yourself inside a huge round cavern, smoke-blackened as if the former lair of a fiery dragon. Incredibly, Marc Brunel built this cylinder of brick at ground level – fifty feet high and twenty-five feet in diameter – and waited while it sank into the damp earth, digging out the mud from the core as it descended, to create the shaft which then became the access point for excavating the tunnel beneath the river.

It was the world’s first underwater tunnel. At a moment of optimism in 1826, a banquet for a thousand investors was held at the bottom of the shaft and then, at a moment of cataclysm in 1828, the Thames surged up from beneath filling it with water – and Marc’s twenty-two-year-old son Isambard was fished out, unconscious, from the swirling torrent. Envisaging this diabolic calamity, I was happy to leave the subterranean depths of the Brunels’ fierce imaginative ambition – still murky with soot from the steam trains that once ran through – and return to the sunlight of the riverside.

Leaning out precariously upon the Thames’ bank is an ancient tavern known as The Spread Eagle until 1957, when it was rechristened The Mayflower – in reference to the Pilgrims who sailed from Rotherhithe to Southampton in 1620, on the first leg of their journey to New England. Facing it across the other side of Rotherhithe St towers John James’ St Mary’s Rotherhithe of 1716 where an attractive monument of 1625 to Captain Anthony Wood, retrieved from the previous church, sports a fine galleon in full sail that some would like to believe is The Mayflower itself – whose skipper, Captain Christopher Jones, is buried in the churchyard.

Also in the churchyard, sits the handsome tomb of Prince Lee Boo. A native of the Pacific Islands, he befriended Captain Wilson of Rotherhithe and his two sons who were shipwrecked upon the shores of Ulong in 1783. Abba Thule, the ruler of the Islands, was so delighted when the Europeans used their firearms to subdue his enemies and impressed with their joinery skills in constructing a new vessel, that he asked them to take his second son, Lee Boo, with them to London to become an Englishman.

Arriving in Portsmouth in July 1784, Lee Boo travelled with Captain Wilson to Rotherhithe where he lived as one of the family, until December when it was discovered he had smallpox – the disease which claimed the lives of more Londoners than any other at that time. At just twenty years old, Lee Boo was buried inside the Wilson family vault in Rotherhithe churchyard, but – before he died – he sent a plaintive message home to tell his father “that the Captain and Mother very kind.”

Across the churchyard from The Mayflower is Rotherhithe Free School, founded by two Peter Hills and Robert Bell in 1613 to educate the sons of seafarers. Still displaying a pair of weathered figures of schoolchildren, the attractive schoolhouse of 1797 was vacated in 1939 yet the school may still be found close by in Salter Rd. Thus, the pub, the church and the schoolhouse define the centre of the former village of Rotherhithe with a line of converted old warehouses extending upon the river frontage for a just couple of hundred yards in either direction beyond this enclave.

Take a short walk to the west and you will discover The Angel overlooking the ruins of King Edward III’s manor house but – if you are a hardy walker and choose to set out eastward along the river – you will need to exercise the full extent of your imagination to envisage the vast vanished complex of wharfs, quays and stores that once filled this entire peninsular.

At the entrance to the Rotherhithe road tunnel stands the Norwegian Church with its ship weather vane

Chimney of the Brunel Engine House seen from the garden on top of the tunnel’s access shaft

Isambard Kingdom Brunel presides upon his audacious work

Visitors gawp in the diabolic cavern of Brunel’s smoke-blackened shaft descending to the Thames tunnel

John James’ St Mary’s Rotherhithe of 1716

The tomb of Prince Lee Boo, a native of the Pelew or Pallas Islands ( the Republic of Belau), who died in Rotherhithe of smallpox in  1784 aged twenty

Graffiti upon the church tower


Monument in St Mary’s, retrieved from the earlier church

Charles Hay & Sons Ltd, Barge Builders since 1789

Peeking through the window into the costume store of Sands Films

Inside The Mayflower

A lone survivor of the warehouses that once lined the river bank

Looking east towards Rotherhithe from The Angel

The Angel

The ruins of King Edward III’s manor house

Bascule bridge

Nelson House

Metropolitan Asylum Board china from the Smallpox Hospital Ships once moored here

Looking across towards the Isle of Dogs from Surrey Docks Farm

Take a look at

Adam Dant’s Map of Stories from the History of Rotherhithe

and you may also like to read

In Old Clerkenwell

In Fleet St

In Mile End Old Town

In Old Stepney

The Education Of Audrey Kneller

August 5, 2020
by the gentle author

Audrey Kneller sent me this candid memoir of her years in Spitalfields which is it is my pleasure to publish for the first time. In the second of two extracts, Audrey describes her education in Judaism.

Deal St School Trip 1955 – Audrey is third from right, peering round the girl in front

In June 1953, my sister Yvonne & I were enrolled at the Robert Montefiore Primary School in Deal St on the corner of Hanbury St. It was not surprising, given the demographic of the area, that ninety per cent of the pupils were Jewish, so we felt at home in our new environment. I was eight and a half years old, and my sister was eleven.

Yvonne was selected to start the following September at the sister school, Robert Montefiore Secondary Modern in Valance Rd, Whitechapel, which although not a grammar school had a very good reputation. Under the fatherly guidance of headmaster, Mr Nurse, the school turned out first class citizens, well equipped to deal with the pressures of modern living.

Between 1953 and 1956, Yvonne & I walked to school down Fleur-de-Lis St, passing Commercial St Police Station on the left and the little grocery shop on the right, run by a kindly old lady who was always willing to sell us a couple of eggs or four ounces of butter if we ran short. We turned right into Commercial St, dominated by the vastness of the Godfrey Phillips Tobacco Company building, past the local tuck shop and a greengrocers run by two elderly ladies. One was a widow and the other had become a confirmed spinster after her fiancé was killed in the First World War. They told us they were almost killed during the Second World War when an oil bomb fell behind the shop. Luckily, they escaped through the front and lived to tell of their hair-raising experience.

Then we crossed over into Hanbury St and walked down towards Deal St. To a child, the road seemed wide and the walk long, punctuated by intriguing sights, sounds and smells. There was always a great deal of activity inside the workshops to the left and I remember wood shavings on the ground, and hearing the electric saw and smelling the sawdust as I passed. I always kept to the left-hand side of Hanbury St, never deviating from the route.

I noticed several half-ruined houses with no roofs, merely slats of wood where the ceilings had been, allowing the sky to peep through. Were they bombed, I wondered? I assumed this explained why there were so many ruined buildings. A common sight, particularly in Aldgate and Whitechapel, was where the whole side of a building was missing and you could see one bare wall, several storeys high, with fireplaces where the floors had been. I walked with a sense of horror and bewilderment. The war had only recently given way to an austere peace, and the reminders of the damage to life, limb and property moved me deeply.

The sight of my school at the junction of Deal St and Hanbury St told me I was safe. One day, my mother came to have a chat with my teacher and they decided that I was like Schubert with his “Unfinished Symphony.” Although my work was good, I was rather slow and took a long time to finish. Yet they decided that the patience of the recipient was rewarded.

Every night I prayed that I would pass my “11 Plus,” so that I could go the revered grammar school in Spital Sq, the Central Foundation School for Girls. On the day of the exam, I was recovering from flu and had a coughing spell during the maths test. I was off sick when the results came through but I was told that I was eligible for a governors’ place at Spital Sq, subject to passing the entrance examination. I ran home with my head held high and told my family.

Later I realised that governors’ places were for those who had not passed but were termed as “Grammar Marginals,” so we could be given another chance. A couple of weeks later I entered the portals of Spital Sq to sit the examination but found some of the questions above my head, especially the arithmetical ones. Also the interview with the headmistress did not go well. She was not impressed with my replies to questions concerning a future career. So I was not surprised to learn that it was not my destiny to go there, but then another door opened.

A few of us who had not managed to get into Spital Sq were offered governors’ places for a Jewish grammar school in Stoke Newington, subject to an entrance examination, and the idea rather appealed to me. It was the Avigdor School, a privately-run school supported by the London County Council. The examination was incredibly easy, consisting of elementary questions about the Old Testament and, shortly afterwards, I and my fellows were awarded places.

Mr Nurse, my sister’s headmaster, was very disappointed at my decision to go to Avigdor School. He made no secret of this when he met me later at Yvonne’s prize-giving, as he had put my name on the waiting list ahead of hundreds of others to go to Robert Montefiore Secondary Modern. My mother tried to persuade me to change my mind but I was excited at the thought of striking out on my own.

On my first day at the new school, I was asked by the girl sitting next to me, “Are you “frum“?” This is a Yiddish term to describe someone who is religiously observant. In all innocence I answered, “Yes.” In fact, I was more in thought than deed, but Shula was frum and came from an Orthodox family. She immediately became my best friend. Her parents were émigrés prior to the war, her mother from Germany and her father from Hungary.

Shula was part of the generation of British Jewry whose parents had escaped Nazi persecution to form a new community in North London. I learned that Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill was thickly populated by Orthodox Jews of German and Polish origin.

Those of German origin were yekkes while the Poles were the chasidim (pious ones), who dressed in the sombre garb of their forefathers.The women were not allowed to reveal any part of their anatomy except hands, face and ankles, so they wore long sleeves and thick stockings. Married women had their hair cut short and wore sheitels (wigs). By contrast, the yekkes were less strict in their dress, the men dispensed with payos (sidelocks) and the women did wear sheitels but drew the line at sleeveless clothing.

Shula’s family did not view themselves as yekkes or chasidim and,  although strictly Orthodox, her mother did not wear a sheitel. Another girl in my class, Caroline Rosenthal, a bouncy girl with curly black hair and rosy cheeks whose family were Orthodox also immediately became my friend. Caroline was exactly a year younger than me but, because she was very bright, she had been moved up a year.

She invited me to stay with her for the week of Pesach or Passover, and it was then that I became acquainted with the way of life of Orthodox Jews. It had a profound effect on me. Until this point, my Jewish education had been sketchy but I was now at a school with a curriculum of Jewish subjects which completely changed my way of thinking.

Over the next four years I became transformed, partly due to the visits to the homes of my religious friends and partly due to my teachings at school. Prayer played a large part in my life and I was able to recite prayers in Hebrew off by heart. Becoming religious was not an easy transition and was not entirely welcomed at home where I found myself alone in my beliefs.

Yet I was happier than I had been for a long time, with reservations. I had achieved almost the impossible in my education but grown detached from my family who, by comparison with my new friends, seemed heathen to me. Although my mother kept a kosher home, I introduced stricter dietary laws. The separation of milk and meat utensils was approved of by my mother but greeted with dismay by my sister. My mother was hard pressed to please us both.

Years later, I realised my decision to go to Avigdor School in the face of my mother’s opposition was in some ways unwise. Although I learned about Judaism, which proved an asset in later life, I had no qualifications and the events which caused me to leave were unfortunate. The London County Council tried to close the school down because of “low standards.” But, years later, I learned from the Jewish Chronicle that the governors had not approved of the interest shown by the teachers in secular subjects and felt the school should confine itself to activities of a religious nature. In 1959, following an article which appeared in the Jewish Chronicle headed “Avigdor School Has Failed,” we heard that the school would close.

For the last year, we had only five pupils in our class. Ultimately, Shula was accepted by our sister school, the Hasmonean Grammar School for Girls in Hendon, while Caroline and l left to go to another grammar school in North London. It was sad that the Avigdor School which was the experiment and brainchild of Rabbi Dr Solomon Schonfeld, Principal of the Jewish Secondary Schools Movement, had failed. He was a hero who saved countless people from the Holocaust, risking his life to do so.

My education in Stoke Newington isolated me to an extent from Elder St. I grew away from it, looking forward to each school day when I could ride on the bus northwards to cleaner, fresher air.

Although none of my family were Orthodox, my maternal grandfather, Nathan, was very observant. After his passing, as there were no men to lead the way, observances slipped though my mother and her sisters upheld our faith. When High Holydays arrived, we dressed up in our best clothes and attended Morning Service. After lunch, Auntie Sophie’s front room was the usual place for the family to congregate. Friends, neighbours and children all gathered in their finery for a mootel (chinwag).

At Rosh Hashanah we would wish everyone Happy New Year over a drink of Auntie Sophie’s homemade morello cherry wine and a slice of cake. She lived all her days in and around Spitalfields, devoting herself entirely to her children and their families.

Towards the latter part of 1958, my mother received a Notice to Quit under the 1957 Rent Act. The landlord’s agent had observed the improvements she had made and, realising that she was receiving rent from the two flats upstairs, he reported back to the landlord who immediately gave instructions for her rent to be doubled.

My mother was offered the house for £2,000, which was a fair price at the time, but she could not buy it because of its poor state and the prohibitive cost of the repairs. She sought the help of her nephew who was a chartered surveyor. In those days, single women could not take out mortgages but with his help as a guarantor, they found a property.

We moved out of Elder St in April 1959 to a more comfortable two-storey terrace in Stoke Newington. Although it was as yet still untouched by bulldozer or developer, we knew the writing was on the wall for Elder St because our landlord had plans for number 20 that included demolition.

Playing in Toynbee St in 1952. Audrey is in the front on the left, aged seven and a half, and her sister Yvonne is at the back on the right. Brune House is behind and you can just see the bottom of a big sign advertising Charringtons.

You may also like to read the first extract of Audrey Kneller’s memoir

Audrey Kneller of Elder St

Audrey Kneller Of Elder St

August 4, 2020
by the gentle author

Audrey Kneller sent me this evocative memoir of her years in Spitalfields which is it is my pleasure to publish for the first time here today. In this first of two extracts, Audrey describes her life in Elder St.

Audrey on trip to Epping Forest, aged twelve in 1957

Elder St was not a pretty place in spite of its name. No buds burst forth each spring to awaken our spirits and no birds sang merrily to remind us of the wonders of nature. Instead soot lay unmolested in every crevice of the ancient brickwork, while the clanking and hissing of steam trains shunting reminded us of the presence of the large London terminus. Poverty was a mantle we refused to wear, but it lurked menacingly on every street corner.

Early in 1953, my Auntie Sophie happened to bump into Millie Berman, an old school friend of my mother’s. This chance meeting was to bring great changes. Millie lived with her daughter on the upper floors of a rented house in Elder St and was looking for someone to take over the tenancy as she was intending to move. Clearly this was an opportunity not be missed.

Shortly after the Coronation in June 1953, we left the comfort of our temporary home in Edgware and moved into the four-storey terraced house at 20 Elder St, Norton Folgate, E1. Our first impressions were far from favourable. The tallness of the houses and total absence of trees or even a blade of grass was very forbidding. However we gradually settled and discovered the bizarre fascinations of an urban existence.

At the back, towards Bishopsgate, there was a large bomb site where I joined some boys playing cowboys and indians, and had a lovely time amid the dirt and rubble. My mother, being a genteel person, was quite horrified when I returned home looking the worse for wear. Thereafter I played more civilised games with my sister and the other refined children of the neighbourhood inside the safe confines of the street. The bomb site, however, came into its own on Guy Fawkes Night when the sky was lit up with the flames of a huge bonfire and accompanying fireworks, watched by us from a third floor bedroom window.

Our part of Elder St was an ideal playground, not only because it sheltered us from traffic but also because of the numbers of children living in the surrounding houses and tenements, so we were seldom short of playmates. In those days, the threat of the motor car was almost non-existent, leaving us to play unrestricted and unhampered, a freedom children cannot enjoy today.

In fact, I cannot remember ever, in the early days of our life in Elder St, seeing a car impinge on our games of higher and higher, piggy in the middle and others too numerous to mention. We played in the road outside our door and no-one ever prevented us from chalking out our squares on the pavement for hopscotch. The black-painted iron bars above the basement in front of the some of the houses could easily be squeezed behind, if a side bar was missing, in order to retrieve a lost ball. These hump-shaped grills were nicknamed “airies,” and a cry would often go up, “It’s gone down the airy!” It was up to the smallest and bravest of us to crawl down into the tiny space below, and once down there you had an awful feeling of being trapped in a cage until you emerged triumphant with the lost ball.

I remember long summer evenings spent playing in the street and the man who came along on his three-wheeler, peddling ices. “Yum Yum” was the brand name and yum yum his ice lollies were, delicious and creamy. A good selling point was that every so often one of the lolly sticks would have the name “YUM YUM” printed on it and whoever had such a stick could have another lolly free on presenting it to the ice cream man. Once this fact became known, some of us sat in the gutter scratching the words “YUM YUM” on our spare sticks. But the ice cream man was not fooled and, some time later, when he came round again after an unexpectedly long interval, the name of the product had been changed to “WHIM”. The lollies were the same but somehow the gilt had gone from the gingerbread.

I recall with affection the Josephs family. Simon Josephs was my age and lived with his parents, two maiden aunts and an elderly grandmother around the corner in Fleur-de-Lis St. Their house was much smaller than ours and poorly built but they were a happy family. They even had a television set, which we did not have, and we lost no opportunity when invited to view. We also spent happy hours playing with Simon and his games, especially my favourite one of Monopoly.

Next door to the Josephs lived an elderly spinster and her bachelor brother who was disabled, having been afflicted with shell shock in the First World War, and I remember sitting with them one Yom Kippur evening waiting for the fast to end. One by one, the tiny houses and the dark overcrowded tenements in Fleur-de-Lis St became empty and boarded up awaiting demolition. The Josephs, we heard later, were re-housed in a new flat on the Ocean Estate in Mile End.

Number 26 Elder St was a tall narrow house accommodating two families, one Jewish and the one Gentile. My sister Yvonne and I would sometimes sit on the steps of the house playing gobs or five stones with the daughters of the respective families. Avril Levy from the Jewish family had a famous auntie, Adele Leigh a renowned opera singer, who would often call round, leaving her sporty two-seater Sunbeam Rapier outside the house.

In Blossom St lived a family that to me epitomised poverty both materially and spiritually. The children were neglected and ran around with bare feet and bare bottoms. I was very shocked because they were so different from us yet lived almost on our doorstep. One day, Christine, a little girl who lived at 16 Elder St, decided that we should venture into the house in Blossom St. We peered inside what seemed to be a dark hole with no semblance of what I considered to be the trappings of a home. Dirt and decay lay all around and I caught a glimpse of a man lying asleep on an old armchair which, instead of cushions, was covered with sacks filled with horse hair. Overcome by feelings of horror, disbelief and the foul stench that pervaded the building, we stepped backwards into the street, and quickly walked back to the welcome ‘civilisation’ of Elder St, never to set foot again in Blossom St.

As to the past history of our house, we were led to believe that it was built in the early eighteen-hundreds. I cannot support the validity of this but the house certainly contained some unusual features.

Looking through the windows at the back, high walls surrounded the yard which was no more than ten feet in depth, just enough space for a coal storage area and a washing line to be strung across. Our convenient position near Liverpool St Station could also be a disadvantage, if the wind was blowing in the wrong direction our clean laundry would be showered with a fine layer of soot.

Ours was the only house in Elder St – and for all we knew anywhere else in Norton Folgate – to have a bathroom. The fittings were brass and, instead of having a normal plughole, there was a tall brass post affair which had to be lifted up to let the water run away. Hot water came from an ancient geyser on the wall above the bath but woe betides anyone who fell foul of the delicate lighting-up procedure. I did once and was greeted with a loud bang. The secret was to run the water first and then ignite the gas. Henceforth, unless my mother or sister were there to do the honours, I felt it safer to spend my bath times in an old zinc tub in front of the fireplace in the living room.

Nevertheless, it was handy to have a bathroom, especially as a connecting door led into the back bedroom thereby giving us a bathroom en suite! The toilet was situated next to the bathroom on the first floor landing. To have an inside toilet was again untypical of the area, most toilets being situated outside in the backyard, as I found at our cousin’s house in Buxton St.

A house of this size required regular maintenance and my mother employed a spare-time handyman to keep the interior in a good state of repair. He came and went for six years, painting, papering, plumbing and fixing, and no sooner had he finished on the top floor than it was time to start again at the bottom, rather like the Forth Bridge.

An interesting feature of the house was a long speaking tube with a whistle at one end, extending from the top floor right down to the basement. Presumably a device once used by servants, this was a source of amusement. Another source of great amusement to us, as well as to other children in our street, was the wall panelling. We succeeded in convincing them that one on the first floor landing slid back to reveal a secret passageway, such as the ones used by Cavaliers to escape the Roundheads during the Civil War.

One day, my sister told some children playing in the street that there was something strange in our basement and they immediately came to investigate. Meanwhile, I had dressed up a tailor’s dummy in an old red frock and hid behind it. As the children descended the basement stairs, I slowly moved the dummy forward, calling out in an eerie voice. The inquisitive children scattered in haste, believing me to be a headless ghost!

Not long after we moved into Elder St, we discovered the presence of unwelcome lodgers lurking behind the skirting boards. After mousetraps failed to catch them, we acquired the services of a cat. One day, one of our cousins from Buxton St called round with a tabby who had the perfect markings of a tiger, so the name stuck. Tiger was a wonderfully docile pet but he lived up this name in keeping the rodent community at bay.

One day I found him sitting on the landing and tried to pick him to carry him downstairs but he would not budge. I could not understand it until my mother pointed out that he was standing guard over a small hole in the skirting board. We left him there all that day and eventually he returned to us of his own accord, presumably having accomplished his mission.

As to the other houses in Elder St, I am sure that none of us children had any idea of their historic value. As far as I could see, we were surrounded by decaying walls and we had to make the best of the situation until circumstances improved.

Although we may have been devoid of pastoral pleasures in Spitalfields, life was far from dull. We were living on the fringes of a great nucleus of Jewish enterprise and culture – consisting of delicatessens, bakeries, butcher shops and kosher restaurants, intermingled with other Jewish-owned businesses in the garment, jewellery and shoe trades, bookshops, a Yiddish theatre and numerous synagogues – stretching from Brick Lane southward to Houndsditch and eastward as far as Bow. This was our heritage, we had returned to the roots set down by our grandparents and thousands of other immigrants fifty years earlier.

A second instalment of Audrey Kneller’s memoir follows tomorrow

Audrey’s tenth birthday tea in 1955

You may also like to read about

Neville Turner of Elder St 

Dragan Novakovic’s Club Row

August 3, 2020
by the gentle author

In this second selection of East End market photography by Dragan Novaković from the late seventies, we include rare pictures of the ancient Club Row animal and bird market which closed in 1983 when street trading in live animals became outlawed

Photographs copyright © Dragan Novaković

You also might like to take a look

Dragan Novaković’s Brick Lane

Kaye Webb & Ronald Searle at Club Row