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Vivian Betts of Bishopsgate

October 9, 2012
by the gentle author

Vivian & Toto outside The Primrose

You will not meet many who can boast the distinction of being brought up on the teeming thoroughfare of Bishopsgate but Vivian Betts is one who enjoyed that rare privilege, growing up above The Primrose on the corner of Primrose St where her parents were publicans from 1955 until 1974. Yet it was a different Bishopsgate from that of the present day with its soaring glass towers housing financial industries. In her childhood, Vivian knew a street lined with pubs and individual shops where the lamplighter came each night to light the gas lamps.

Living in a pub on the boundary of the City of London, Vivian discovered herself at a hub of human of activity. “I had the best of both worlds,” Vivian confessed to me, when she came up to Spitalfields on a rare visit yesterday, “I had the choice of City life or East End life, I could go either way. I had complete freedom and I was never in any danger. My father said to me if I ever had any trouble to go to a policeman. But all my friends wanted to come over to my place, because I lived in a pub!”

Vivian knew Bishopsgate before the Broadgate development swallowed up the entire block between Liverpool St and Primrose St. And as we walked together past the uniform architecture, she affectionately ticked off the order of the pubs that once stood there – The Kings Arms, The Raven and then The Primrose – with all the different premises in between. When we reached the windswept corner of Primrose St beneath the vast Broadgate Tower, Vivian gestured to the empty space where The Primrose once stood, now swallowed by road widening, and told me that she remembered the dray horses delivering the beer in barrels on carts from the Truman Brewery in Brick Lane.

In this landscape of concrete, glass and steel, configured as the environment of aggressive corporate endeavour, it was surreal yet heartening to hear Vivian speak and be reminded that human life once existed there on a modest domestic scale. Demolished finally in 1987, The Primrose had existed in Bishopsgate at least since 1839.

“My brother Michael was born in 1942, while Bill my father was away in the war, and Violet my mother got a job as a barmaid, and when he came back she said, ‘This is how I want to spend my life.’ Their first pub was The Alfred’s Head in Gold St, Stepney, in about 1946, and she told me she was washing the floor there in the morning and I was born in the afternoon. We left when I was three and all I remember of Stepney was walking over a bomb site to look at all the caterpillars.

In 1955, we moved into The Primrose at 229 Bishopsgate, directly opposite the Spitalfields market – you could look out of the window on the first floor and see the market. My first memory of Bishopsgate was lying in bed and listening to the piano player in the pub below. We had three pianos, one in the public bar, one in the first floor function room and one in our front room. On Sunday lunchtimes at The Primrose, it was so busy you could hardly see through the barroom for all the hats and smoke.

I used to go to Canon Barnet School in Commercial St and, from the age of seven, my dad would see me across Bishopsgate and I’d walk through the Spitalfields Market on my way to school where the traders would give me an apple and a banana – they all knew me because they used to come drinking in the pub. It was a completely Jewish school and, because no-one else lived in Bishopsgate, all my friends were over in Spitalfields, mostly in the Flower & Dean Buildings, so I spent a lot of time over there. And I used to come to Brick Lane to go the matinees at the cinema every Saturday. Itchy Park was our playground – in those days, the church was shut but we used to peek through the window and see hundreds of pigeons inside.

My dad opened one of the first carveries in a pub, where you could get fresh ham or turkey cut and made up into sandwiches and, in the upstairs room, my mum did sit-down lunches for three shillings – it was like school dinners, steak & kidney pudding and sausage & mash. She walked every day with her trolley to Dewhurst’s the butchers opposite Liverpool St, she got all her fruit and vegetables fresh from the Spitalfields Market, and she used to go to Petticoat Lane each week to buy fresh fish.

Every evening at 5pm, we had all the banks come in to play darts. On Mondays, it was the ladies of The Primrose darts team and on Wednesdays it was the men’s darts league. And, once each year, we organised the Presentation Dance at the York Hall. Every evening in the upstairs function room, we had the different Freemason’s lodges. Whenever I came out of my living room, I could always see them but I had to look away because it was part of my life that I wasn’t supposed to see. After I left school, I went to work for the Royal London Mutual Insurance Co. in Finsbury Sq – five minutes walk away – as a punchcard operator and, whenever it was anyone’s birthday, I’d say ‘Come on back to my mum’s pub and she’ll make us all sandwiches.’

Then in 1973, Truman’s wrote to my dad and gave him a year’s notice, they were turning the pub over to managers in April 1974, so we had to leave. But I had already booked my wedding for July at St Botolph’s in Bishopsgate, and I came back for that. Eighteen months later, in 1976, my mum and dad asked me and my husband to go into running a pub with them. It was The Alexandra Hotel in Southend, known as the “Top Alex” because there were two and ours was at the top of the hill.

Three months after we moved in, my dad died of cancer – so they gave it to my mum on a year’s widow’s lease but they said that if me and my husband proved we could run it, we could keep it. And we stayed until 1985. Then we had a murder and an attempted murder in which a man got stabbed, and my husband said, ‘It’s about time we moved.’ And that’s when we moved to our current pub, The Windmill at Hoo, near Rochester, twenty-eight years ago. We had a brass bell hanging behind the counter at The Primrose that came off a train in Liverpool St Station which we used to call time and we’ve taken it with us – all these years – but though we don’t call time any more, we still use it to ring in the New Year.

I’ve only ever had two Christmases not in a pub in my life, when you’re born to it you don’t know anything else.”

Vivian told me that she often gets customers from the East End in The Windmill and they always recognise her by her voice. “They say, ‘We know where you come from!'” she confided to me proudly.

The Primrose, 229 Bishopsgate, as Vivian knew it.

Toto sits on the heater in the panelled barroom at The Primrose.

Vivian at Canon Barnet School in Commercial St.

Bill and Vi Betts

“My first Freemason’s Lodge night when I was twelve or thirteen in 1965. My brother Michael with his wife Valerie on the right.”

Vivian stands outside The Primrose in this picture, looking east across Bishopsgate towards Spital Sq with Spitalfields market in the distance.

Vivian was awarded this certificate while a student at Sir John Cass School, Houndsditch.

Vivian on the railway bridge, looking west towards Finsbury Sq.

Vivian outside the door which served as the door to the pub and her own front door.

Vivian’s friends skylarking in Bishopsgate – “They always wanted to come over to my place because I lived above a pub!”

“When I was eight, we went abroad on holiday for the first time to Italy, we bought the tickets at the travel agents across the road and, after that, twelve or fourteen couples would come with us – my parents’ friends – and I was always the youngest there.”

Vivian prints out a policy at the Royal London Mutual Insurance Co. in Finsbury Sq.

“And what do you do?” – Vivian meets Prince Charles on a visit to Lloyd Register of Shipping in Fenchurch St.

“Harry the greengrocer and Tom the horse, they used to get their fruit & vegetables in the Spitalfields Market. My husband Dennis worked for this man when he was about twelve years of age, driving around the Isle of Dogs. He loved horses, and we’ve got a piece of land with our pub now and we’ve kept horses since 1980.”

Bill & Vi Betts in later years.

Vivian Betts at St Botolph’s Bishopsgate where she married her husband Dennis Campbell in 1974.

The Primrose in a former incarnation, photographed in 1912.

Bishopsgate with The Primrose halfway down on the right, photographed in 1912 by Charles Goss.

Bishopsgate today.

Archive photographs courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

You might also like to take a look at these other Bishopsgate Stories

The Romance of Old Bishopsgate

Charles Goss’ Photographs of Bishopsgate

Tallis’ Street Views of Bishopsgate, 1838

19 Responses leave one →
  1. Libby Hall permalink
    October 9, 2012

    Oh such a wonderful article and photographs! Such longings it (and yesterday’s about the Night) stir up. Longings for long ago. All that warm vibrate would around Bishopsgate ripped away.

    How shocked I was a couple of months ago when I crossed Bishopsgate and properly understood for the first time what inhuman things had been done to that landscape. But how marvellous it is to have that world remembered in Spitalfields Life. How important that is.

    And oh that first photograph of Vivian and Toto with the wind blowing in their hair!!

  2. Terry permalink
    October 9, 2012

    The Primrose was opposite to where I worked for 25 years,great story and a few memories brought back. I knew Harry the greengrocer very well (although I always knew him as ‘Tubby’ !).
    The school I attended was half Jewish and the Jewish pupils were sent to Canon Barnett School every day to have their lunch.
    Hope you’ve enjoyed your life at The Windmill and thanks for the great pics.

  3. October 9, 2012

    I went to Sir John Cass’s Foundation School in Houndsdith and in my class was the daughter of the publican of The Kings Arms in Bishopsgate. This would have been around the same time as Vivian.
    This brought back many happy memories. Thank you once again, Gentle Author.

  4. October 9, 2012

    I know the Top Alex in Southend very well. Dr Feelgood played some early gigs there. I must have crossed paths with Viv at some point in there – what an amazing story

  5. Steve permalink
    October 9, 2012

    As a teenager,I drank in the mentioned King’s Arms and Black Raven in the mid-70’s…Along with Dirty Dick’s and The Bluecoat Boy,it was possible to do a pub crawl in a very short distance……….

  6. October 10, 2012

    oh, toto, we really aren’t in kansas any more.

  7. October 10, 2012

    One other thing, my wife’s grand parents made a similar relocation. Curtis shoefitters in the late 19th century was located at the north end of Brick Lane (north of Bethnal Green Rd) . The family relocated to Alexander Street in Southend – Curtis Shoefitters was just a few doors down from the Top Alex. Viv is sure to know the shop

  8. DeborahS permalink
    October 12, 2012

    I was interested to see the mention of ‘the travel agents across the road’. I reckon this was probably the travel agents set up by my uncle Aubrey Morris, Riviera Holidays. My mum worked with him from the outset and later my dad worked there too. Mum pretty much ran the office, and knew lots of the customers well. As a child I spent lots of days during the school holidays there, sitting on the telephonist’s lap ‘helping’ plug in the connections, ‘helping’ in the post room, and generally. Aubrey Morris was a veteran of the Battle of Cable Street (his father had a bakery in Cable Street and that was where the family lived), and was interviewed on the Today programme about it a few years back. He died aged just short of 90 a couple of years ago.

  9. jeff permalink
    October 14, 2012

    havent finished it yet but its great reading and intresting i like looking at old buildings and the way of life in those days. its well documented and the photos of viv are great some people never keep photos of there past so will carry on reading. jeff

  10. Jill and John permalink
    October 15, 2012

    Really interesting to see the old pictures of how it used to be it loooks better in the old days
    We liked the pictures of Viv, we know her from the Windmill Pub which is very nice, where there is always a welcome good food and good beer

  11. Sandra and Ralph permalink
    October 21, 2012

    Enjoyed looking at this site with Ralph and two sons. Brought back memories of watching the children playing on the roof while I was having my lunch. Look forward to reading more. Thank you. Hope to see you soon. Sandra

  12. May 24, 2013

    Hi Vivian
    I found your website whilst browsing and it’s so interesting because I used The Primrose as my local from 1969 until it closed and remember your mum and dad so well. I remember Bill was a keen Leyton Orient supporter and Vi used to enjoy a glass of gin sitting on her regular stool. What good days they were with the market lads popping in at lunchtime and the bookie’s runner. I remember the live bands at week-ends and the great atmosphere. When Warren and Sharron took it over it was never the same again. It’s all a bit different around there now but I know which I prefer, but maybe i’m just a silly old sod !
    With best wishes
    Jerry Panter

  13. Julia Wright permalink
    January 26, 2014

    Great article …………..

    I knowViv and have done so since she was about 15 (I am 2 years older) I know the family , I am Godmother to her nephew Tim , had some good Holidays with the family and through the friendship workied in the Primrose a couple of times a week in the evenings for extra money ………….. Great social times in the Primrose , some great characters Another world Great experience Very Happy memories .
    Viv and Istill keep in touch and have met for Lunch just recently we always talk of the happy times at the Primrose and the fun we had.

  14. Penny Gibson permalink
    October 17, 2015

    my Dad’s cousin ran the Alfred’s Head pub on Gold Street, Stepney during the war and through to the 50’s – it contradicts your story a little. I have the rent book for the pub held in the name of my cousin from 1943 through to the 1950’s listing every rental payment through all those years. Could you have meant a different pub or are we linked somehow? the proprietor was Caroline Amelia Jordan.
    be interested to hear from you

  15. John MacMillan permalink
    November 6, 2015

    Wonderful to read the history – you, your family and Broadgate. I think I had a drink in the Primrose pub in the eighties just before it was demolished? My father was working with the construction company leading the Broadgate development at the time and I remember waiting to meet him in a pub on Bishopsgate Road (on the way to Shoreditch) with my sister. I was about 15/16 at the time. I remember the landlord saying that this will be the last time people will be able to drink there as it was getting demolished. funny what you remember….

  16. Vivian Campbell permalink
    December 2, 2015

    Hi Penny Just got some information about The Alfred Head Gold St. My brother is 12 years older then me and he said that he was about 8/9 when he went to the pub. He thinks the year was 49/50 and I was born in 1954 and we left the Alfred’s in 1957. I would love any more details you may have about the pub and I would love a photo but sadly have never been able to find one. I have one picture of me as a little girl in the back yard with my mum. When my dad moved out of the pub they pulled it down.

  17. Ken Rickard permalink
    May 24, 2016

    Hi Vivian,
    I just found your articles on the Primrose , Bishopsgate which brings back great memories for me. You may not remember but I played drums in a Group called The Kinsmen and we had, thanks to your Mum and Dad and probably with your encouragement, a regular gig in the Corner of the Saloon Bar at the Primrose on Weekends in the 1960’s and it was always one of our favourite gigs. We mostly came from Romford and used to come to and from there in a beaten up old Commer Van . I always remember how great your family and the locals were to us and even though we would have been just a bit under age, they would sneak us a few drinks to encourage us. I now live in the Gold Coast, near Brisbane in Australia and just happened to see your great stories about Spitalfields when I was looking up the old Primrose which Never should have been domolished.
    Thanks for the memories !
    Ken Rickard

  18. Rupert Bumfrey permalink
    January 5, 2019

    Always good to follow links, reminding me of how much history is encapsulated within this blog. Today Charlie Chaplin stretches across the centuries to Vivian!

  19. Dr Michael Charles Pope permalink
    October 31, 2019

    Dear Gentle Author,

    I am Dr Mike Pope Editor of the “Mecca News” which is the journal of the Metcalfe Society, a one- named family history organisation and registered charity concerned with research into the Metcalfe name.

    I am currently engaged in research on a book for the membership of the society and have been gathering information on William and Alfred Medcalf who held the licence of the Primrose from 1839 to 1895.

    I came across your excellent article on Vivian Betts and wonder if I might have permission to use some of the photographs and textual information in the piece.

    I must also commend you for your admirable contibution to the history of London which is highly interesting to me, as although born and brought up a North Yorkshireman, my family name goes back to Bethnal Green, City Road, Walworth, Newington, and eventually Hanwell and Ickenham.


    Dr Mike Pope Editor The Metcalfe Society

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