Skip to content

Mickey Davis at the Fruit & Wool Exchange

March 6, 2012
by Mike Brooke

On the day Tower Hamlets Council meet to discuss the redevelopment proposals for the London Fruit & Wool Exchange in Spitalfields, it is my pleasure to publish this memoir by Mike Brooke recalling his uncle Mickey Davis – affectionately known as “Mickey the Midget” – who became a popular hero when he took the initiative to organise the shelter in the basement of the Exchange where as many ten thousand people took refuge nightly, escaping the London Blitz.

Mickey Davis & his wife Doris in the shelter beneath the Fruit & Wool Exchange, 1941

The last time I saw Mickey Davis I was as tall as him – and I was only seven or eight, back then in the Spitalfields of the early nineteen fifties. He came to my school, Robert Montefiore Primary in Deal St, as guest of honour for our annual prize giving. I recognised him in the corridor as we left the assembly hall afterwards, standing against the wall watching us return to our classrooms. I was the proudest kid on the block – because the guest of honour was my Uncle Mickey.

He was, I recall, Deputy Mayor of Stepney (the old Metropolitan borough that later became absorbed into what we now call Tower Hamlets), a very short man, a midget through an accident at birth or defect, I’m not sure exactly. But Mickey was a giant of a man to the community he served in those post-war years and a “people’s hero” of the London Blitz of 1940, several years before I was even born, as I discovered as a journalist working in the East End more than half-a-century later.

I must have been about eight when I roller-skated through the streets of Spitalfields one afternoon and found myself in Fournier St and decided to pop in to see aunt Doris and husband Mickey who lived in a large flat on the first floor of 103 Commercial St, part of the London Fruit & Wool Exchange opposite Spitalfields Church (now known as Christ Church). The kitchen overlooked the indoor wholesale trading area and there was always a faint smell of fruit and veg in the background, while the front room overlooked Commercial St, roughly level with the overhead wires of the 647 and 665 trolleybuses. It seemed quite a posh apartment to an eight-year-old.

But I didn’t go inside that afternoon. My grandmother, aunt Doris and my late father Henry’s mother, answered the door and told me immediately that uncle Mickey was dead. It was an abrupt manner to an eight-year-old, but I knew she was upset. I left and skated straight home to Granby St, along Brick Lane, rushing to tell my mother. She had not heard about Mickey yet, but knew he had been in hospital. We did not have a phone in the house in those days.

Doris and my mother Connie had been great friends during the War and worked together. It was through Doris that my mother and father met when he came home on leave from the Royal Navy in 1943. He visited his sister at work and took a fancy to Connie. They married while he was on leave and he was recalled back to Plymouth to rejoin his ship on their wedding night, so my mother once told me.

My mother immediately put a coat on and went over to see Doris that day in 1954 when I told her about the death of Uncle Mickey. It was not until decades later that I learned the full story of Mickey Davis – and how he organised a shelter committee during the early days of the Blitz at the Spitalfields Fruit & Wool Exchange – when the BBC contacted my family in the nineteen eighties, researching a possible documentary, though I do not think the programme was ever made. It was another two decades before I did my own research for an article about Mickey Davis for a commemorative supplement in the East London Advertiser, where I was Features Editor, marking the seventieth anniversary of the start of the Blitz in September 2010,.

Mickey, who at three feet  three inches tall was known as ‘”the Midget,” was an East End optician who threw his energies into organising and improving shelter life, I wrote. He had emerged as the unofficial leader who pushed for improvements to health and safety in one of the East End’s biggest air raid shelters at the Spitalfields Fruit & Wool Exchange in Brushfield St. While the local authority, Stepney Borough Council, was concerned by the 2,500 people crammed into the shelter each night, with its lack of sanitation, risking disease and infection, and lack of facilities for food, lighting and heating, it was left to Mickey set up first aid and medical units, and raise money to equip a dispensary. He even persuaded stretcher bearers and others to come in on their off duty times to minister to the sick and injured. As a popular activist and orator, he  became indispensable to the people, pushing the authorities into action.

Long before medical posts became the official practice, well-to-do friends of Mickey provided his Spitalfields public shelter with drugs and equipment. A GP friend made two-hour journeys each day to the East End to spend his nights among the poor. Eight years before the NHS was set up, Mickey’s shelter in 1940 had a free medical service already up-and-running. He even devised a card index system of everyone who used the shelter, and introduced hygiene practices and protection against disease. He persuaded Marks & Spencer to donate money for a canteen and used the profits to provide free milk for children. When the wartime Government eventually appointed official shelter marshals, Mickey was replaced – but the first action of the Spitalfields Shelter Committee undertook was to vote him to be Shelter Marshal, responsible for 2,500 people.

His thinking in 1940 was a fore-runner of the post-war Welfare State that emerged in 1948. He was a man known affectionately among East Enders as “the midget with the heart of a giant.”That was the Mickey Davis, who I am proud to have called “uncle.”

Mickey Davis, popularly known as “Mickey the Midget,” who became a hero of the London Blitz – photo by Bert Hardy

Mickey (in the foreground) convenes a planning meeting in the basement of the Fruit & Wool Exchange in 1941 – photo by Bert Hardy

Musical entertainment for people sleeping in “Mickey’s Shelter” in the Fruit & Wool Exchange.

The space of “Mickey’s Shelter” unchanged today.

Graffiti remaining from the days of the shelter in the basement of the Fruit & Wool Exchange.

The Fruit & Wool Exchange today.

The Auction room at the Fruit & Wool Exchange in the nineteen thirties.

Bert Hardy photographs © Getty Images

Photo of Auction Room courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

You may also like to read about

At the Fruit & Wool Exchange

Glenys Bristow in Spitalfields

The Return of Pamela Freedman

21 Responses leave one →
  1. Grenville Mills permalink*
    March 6, 2012

    Great images and a heritage that every member of Tower Hamlets Council needs to understand and defend against destruction – saving the facade isn’t enough. If our councillors truly represent the will of the people of Spitalfields they will preserve The Fruit and Wool Exchange for future generations of East Londoners.

  2. March 6, 2012

    It could be so much more than another block of officers hidden behind a cosmetic ‘heritage’ facade. LBTH will say yes to it because they want the business rates, but a more creative reusing of the building that might engage with local communities and tourists alike would be better for the area, for the borough and for London as a unique place.

  3. joan permalink
    March 6, 2012

    The story of Mickey Davis is inspirational. There seems to be a vogue these days for splitting children in primary schools into houses (I’m guessing the influence of Harry Potter). These tend to be named after local achievers. So here in Stratford they are named after the Quakers who resided in these parts – the Frys and the Gurneys; the young war hero Jack Cornwell and the champion of antiseptics Joseph Lister. It would be nice to think that in some Stepney schools there is a Mickey Davis house.

    Among the papers I inherited when my granddad died was a preprinted form sent to him by Mile End hospital in 1936 informing him that his wife had died and he needed to come and sort out funeral arrangements. We forget what life was like before phones.

    Many thanks to Mike Brooke for this story.

    Best wishes,


  4. Chris F permalink
    March 6, 2012

    I probably asked this last time you posted an article about Mickey, but does anyone know where Mickey is buried? Is he commemorated anywhere? If not, then he should be. We’ve raised lesser mortals onto loftier pedestals.

  5. March 6, 2012

    Thank you Gentle Author for bringing us Mike Brooke’s memoir of his uncle, Mickey Davis, and with those photographs too. Wonderful.

    Mickey, may your giant contribution be recognised and your kind and community-hearted spirit be there tonight….

  6. Annie permalink
    March 9, 2012

    Sounds like the building has been saved – good news!

  7. jeannette permalink
    June 28, 2012

    totally missed this one, thx so much.

  8. Michael permalink
    August 9, 2012

    Hello Mike.

    Mickey was my grandfather. I never had the honour of meeting him; I wish I had.

    The BBC documentary to which Mike referred was never made, nor was the film that was was to have Bob Hoskins play my grandfather (not sure how that would have worked), and nor was a blue plaque ever placed outside 103 Commercial Street. For years there’s been talk about finding some way to honour a man whose life was devoted to helping others, but we’ve never been quite able to get there. Perhaps it’s time to renew our efforts. I love the idea of a Mickey Davis house in a school somewhere.

    In the meantime, I think tonight I’ll simply raise a glass to my grandfather.

    Sleep well, Mickey.


  9. November 18, 2012

    it is really amazing how some things are unchanged for years

  10. kate Saunders permalink
    March 1, 2014

    A message for Michael (Mickey’s grandson). Hi Michael I am Mickeys niece (eldest daughter of Mickey’s brother Alf). You must be my second cousin. I knew my uncle had two daughters Patricia and Simone. I would love to get in touch. you can reach me by email

  11. kate Saunders permalink
    March 1, 2014

    Hi Chris,

    My uncle is buried in the jewish cemetery at Rainham.

  12. April 28, 2014

    Ref Mike Brooke’s article March 6th 2012 (sorry just spotted it) in Spitalfields Life.
    My mother was a great friend of Doris Davis as Patricia and I attended Italia Conti In Archer St Soho in the 50’s. Patricia and I appeared together in the play “Where the rainbow ends” in 1955.
    A lovely family whose hospitality and generosity will never be forgotten. My love to you both Patricia and Simone
    Diana xx

  13. Patricia permalink
    May 2, 2014

    Hi Diana. How are you ? I would love to hear from you.
    It’s been a while. I have good memories of those days.
    Love Patricia

  14. June 23, 2014

    Hi Patricia. Thrilled to hear from you, it has been a very long while. You can contact me on the following email address I am married and living in Lyminge near Folkestone Kent. Please do contact me.
    Lots of love Diana ( now Barrie ) xxx

  15. Diana Berry permalink
    July 24, 2014

    Dear Patricia, Look on Italia Conti website (History Page ) to see us. Please contact me on Love Diana xxx ps or phone me as I have now moved to Milton Keynes 01908 665527

  16. Verity Gloria Levy-Maher permalink
    March 10, 2015

    Patricia Davies is my oldest friend, we met age 2 1/2. Many good times spent at 103 with the family and Boober Brookner. Have tried for years to find Patricia or Simone. If either of you receive this message, please getting touch with me at Fascinated to read about Mickey Davies and his work in East London. While visiting my brother last year, I watched a documentary on tv that featured him and subsequently bought the dvd of the program.

  17. October 30, 2015

    From my readings Mickey was a communist & during the war it was comrades that helped those bombed-out & generally organised for people suffering privation, as the councils & government had no desire. What a smashing bloke!
    Working-class history is seldom preserved & celebrated.

  18. April 27, 2016

    I just recently “ran” into the story of Mickey Davis. I was so impressed I decided to do more research. I was shocked to find there is no Wikipedia entry on the man. This needs to be rectified! I also think his story would make a great movie.

    I kind of wonder what Mickey would have done had he been born in the Victorian Age and been around when Spitalfield was being terrorized by Jack the Ripper. He probably would have organized a Community Watch and citizen police force to protect the women of the area. Jack would have been forced to move to the West Side.

  19. Adrian Jones permalink
    November 13, 2016

    Have just read Mike Brooke’s fine piece and the lovely comments. I was moved to google Mickey Davis by a review in The Spectator (12/11/16) of Dan Cruikshank’s new book on Spitalfields in which Mickey Davis is mentioned for his wartime and postwar community work.

    Thank you for the article and comments. They have added an unexpected pleasure to my day. I have no connection to Spitalfields that I’m aware of. My father came from Bermondsey and, although I’ve been to London several times I’m not sure that I’ve ever been to Spitalfields. I wish the area and its residents well.

    Adrian Jones
    Brisbane, Queensland

  20. January 31, 2017

    I am touched by all the kind comments from readers (including Australia) since writing my memoirs of my uncle Mickey Davis back in March, 2012. Mickey was truly a man of the people and part of the heritage of London’s East End. I am proud to be his nephew. Sadly, Mickey’s wartime shelter has not been saved for posterity, though it could and should have been. It would have made a unique heritage centre for Londoners as testimony to what life was like for wartime civilians in that fraught chapter of British history during the Blitz when we stood alone.
    I am indebted to the Gentle Author for this wonderful website, bringing our community together. I notice friends and family of Mickey Davis have been in touch since the article went online almost five years ago. I am a journalist with the East London Advertiser – should anyone want to contact me, my email is Best wishes to everyone.

  21. November 25, 2017

    I wash catching up with BBC2s Blitz programme, and as soon as I saw Spitalfields mentioned felt sure I’d be able to find out more on your log. And here it is! Thanks so much – as a Kent countrywoman I am finding this insight into East End life utterly fascinating.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS