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Betty Levy of Petticoat Lane

April 29, 2013
by the gentle author


If you walked through the Petticoat Lane Market in the nineteen-twenties, you would frequently have seen Betty Levy with all her sisters playing hopscotch or skipping games in the street. You could easily have distinguished Betty because she was the baby with the mop of curls, and everyone knew Betty’s mother Hannah – famous as the best fish fryer in the Lane.

But maybe you do not remember, because maybe it is just too long ago for you? Yet that is certainly not the case for Betty herself. At ninety-two years of age, she remembers her childhood as if it were yesterday and given any opportunity she delights to break into the same songs she sang then, accompanied by the ingenious lyrics she composed herself.

Betty left Petticoat Lane in 1954 but occasionally when speaking of the Lane, she says “And I’m still here,” and you realise it is a statement which transcends immediate reality, because while Petticoat Lane has changed almost beyond recognition, Betty still carries a world and a society and an ethos that incarnate the Petticoat Lane she knew, the place she will always count as home.

“I was born here, in Rosetta Place off Frying Pan Alley and my mother Hannah before me. My grandparents, Mark and Phoebe Harris, lived in Rosetta Place too and if we went in their flat, they always gave us something to eat.

My family have been here for generations, I always understood they were of Dutch descent. My father, Isaac, worked in Smithfield Market, he sold sweets to the porters and we never starved, so he must have made a living. They called him ‘Kosher’ and he sold the sweets from a basket round his neck. He got them from a small warehouse in Commercial St run by Mr Sam. If we were well behaved, he gave us one.

I went to the Jews Free School in Frying Pan Alley, it was a good school with good teachers and they treated us well. My grandmother sometimes gave me a plate of roast potatoes and told me to go and give them to the children in the park, and she left fried fish on the window sill for people to take. Nobody starved in the East End.

When I left school at fourteen, I went to work making dresses in Middlesex St, we were taught how to do it at school and I moved from one factory to another to better myself. I made all my family’s clothes, my children and grandchildren, and their bride’s dresses. If you spend your life doing something, you get a talent for it – I got to be as good as anyone at it. And  I miss it now, I wouldn’t mind doing it again, part-time.

I was only seven years married when my husband Danny died aged thirty-nine, I think he had a heart attack. I met him at a dance at the Hammersmith Palais. We met dancing, we were both good dancers, not fabulous but pretty good. We were married at the Beaumont St Synagogue and we lived with my family at first. Then we found a house in Milward St, Whitechapel, round the back of the London Hospital. Although I was one of a large family, I only had two children – a boy and a girl, Irene and Stephen. After Danny died, my family offered to support me, but I wanted to be independent. If you’ve got to do it, you do it. I worked making dresses and I kept us, because I didn’t want anyone else to bring up my children.

I love the East End, there’s something in the East End that’s nowhere else. It is my home.”

Four of Betty’s sisters in Rosetta Place c. 1925

“We played among the doorsteps, for hours and hours
We never had gardens, so we couldn’t grow flowers.

Some kids they never had shoes, ’cause their dads were on the booze
But, we all lived together the Christians, the Jews

And the Jewish Free School was in dear old Frying Pan Alley.

Now there is not any doorsteps, they’ve knocked them all down,
They built a tower block where we played around.

The kids don’t play now like we used to,
On everybody’s doorsteps, in the East End of town.”

Betty’s new lyrics to the melody of  ‘On Mother Kelly’s Doorstep’

The Levy Sisters. Sally, Phoebe, Lily, Carrie, Jennie,  Becky and Betty (in front).

The Mitchell Family, neighbours in Rosetta Place. Betty Mitchell standing with Betty Clasper and little RayRay in front and Anita Mitchell, Barnie Mitchell,  Siddy  Segal and little Jo in line along the wall.

Some of the Levy grandchildren on the steps of St. Botolph’s Church Bishopsgate c. 1945. Alan, Diana, Bobby, Roy, Richard, Sallyann and little David.

Betty’s grandparents, Mark & Phoebe Harris, Spitalfields, c. 1920

Betty’s mother, Hannah Levy, daughter of Mark & Phoebe Harris, and famous as the best fish fryer in Petticoat Lane.

Betty’s father, Isaac in his ARP uniform.

Hannah Levy and friends in Frying Pan Alley around 1940.

Betty as a Land Army Girl in WWII, based at Sawbridgeworth in Hertfordshire.

Three Bettys (Levy, Cohen and Hyams) and three American airman at Westcliff-on-Sea c. 1945

At the centre (in a headscarf) is Betty with family and friends at the Coronation 0f Queen Elizabeth II. They slept out in Picadilly to be sure of getting a prime position.

Betty sings at her ninetieth birthday party, October 2010 at Beaumont St Synagogue.

Betty dances with her daughter Irene at the party.

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You may also like to read these other stories of Petticoat Lane

The Wax Sellers of Wentworth St

Henry Jones, Dairyman

Pamela Freedmam, The Princess Alice

The Dioramas of Petticoat Lane

Laurie Allen of Petticoat Lane

Fred the Chestnut Seller

Rochelle Cole, Poulterer

Saeed Malik, Shoeseller

25 Responses leave one →
  1. Jeannette permalink
    April 29, 2013

    what lovely lively people, what a full life, wonderful lyrics. betty’s land girl hat has got to be one of the best hats i’ve ever seen.

  2. April 29, 2013

    Great story. I hope ypu’ll bring us up to date with the later part of her life one day.

  3. April 29, 2013

    A lovely read about a fascinating and strong woman.

  4. Irene Manners permalink
    April 29, 2013

    Thank you so much for these memories. Hope people enjoy them.

  5. Ian permalink
    April 29, 2013

    Another wonderful story. Although Frying Pan Alley has changed beyond all recognition, it’s great that the name has been retained. Thanks to Betty for sharing her history.

  6. Charlotte Manners permalink
    April 29, 2013

    Lovely to see the story of my Nanna’s childhood, very touching.

  7. April 29, 2013

    As always, such an interesting post! Betty sounds like a remarkable woman.

    I LOVE a street named Frying Pan Alley!

  8. Roy Graham (Isaacs) permalink
    April 29, 2013

    This has brought a tear to my eye, nice to know that auntie Bessie is still able to hold her own.
    I know that families drift apart over the years but the memories still linger.
    A big thank you for this post.
    Please take a moment to remember absent Family and Friends.. Shalom

  9. Michele Robson permalink
    April 29, 2013

    Betty story brings the past to life, what a great pioneer she has been, a remarkable woman then and now in her twilight years, her song is beautiful testament to her community, lovely heart and strength of character. Betty’s story is inspiring to any woman, especially to those mum’s & there are so many of us bringing up children on our own – thank you Betty.

  10. Lucie Cuthbertson-Twiggs permalink
    April 29, 2013

    Amazing to read about my Great Auntie’s childhood!

  11. Brian Balkin permalink
    April 29, 2013

    A lovely story, well told. Such a strong woman, with some fantastic stories to tell. I want some of that fried fish!

  12. Adam Gillard permalink
    April 30, 2013

    A lovely article about my wonderful Nana! Just to say that the house in Whitechapel was on Milward Street (not Millwall). I know the spelling because my dad still has his old cricket bat with the street name written on it in our shed! Always brings a smile to my face to hear Nana sing her songs, thank you! 🙂

  13. April 30, 2013

    Fabulous post, great job. Thanks.

  14. April 30, 2013

    My brilliant aunt Bessie – the baby of the Levy sisters – has always been an absolute joy to listen to her stories & songs – thanks so much for sharing her tales – beautifully recounted – Jo

  15. Susan permalink
    May 1, 2013

    So lovely to be reminded of my childhood. Thanks to Auntie Bessie I was the best dressed 3 year old in Petticoat Lane. Everything matched, hair ribbons included.

  16. Ruth permalink
    May 2, 2013

    Thank you Auntie Bessie for letting everyone share your memories, it is always a joy to hear your stories and of course your fantastic songs.

  17. :Diana permalink
    May 2, 2013

    So wonderful to read the story of my incredible aunt a truly remarkable lady. She made my childhood come alive with such wonderful memories of my fantastic grandparents. Her songs were so much a part of my growing up with six aunts who were all so alike but yet so different. Auntie Bessie made all my clothes from my first dress right up to my wedding dress.

  18. May 2, 2013

    It’s impossible to hold back the tears of delight, reading about wonderful auntie Bessie and the old East End, hearing her sing again and seeing all those memorable family photographs. So many memories just come flooding back. Thank you.

  19. Keith Winter permalink
    May 3, 2013

    Lovely to share these memories with my dad (Joe) of his cousin and the East End as it was. I was too young to have a clear memory of Betty/Bessie but can remember my great aunt Hannah gave me a gift of a set of yellow plastic cups and saucers when I was around 4! In my work for the Corporation of London I now have colleagues working at Smithfield Market and do visit there quite often, so there’s a still a family connection and I also visit Spitalfields Market although that is sadly no longer in Spitalfields (Leyton now). Best regards to the wider family.

  20. June permalink
    May 9, 2013

    What a lovely lady, what a lovely set of memories. Well done Betty, keep on singing.

  21. lynne moss permalink
    May 19, 2013

    Thrilled to find my mother’s cousin Bessie is still alive and sharing her memories of the old East End. What a wonderful character. Keep singing and dancing Bessie!

  22. Oksana Parry permalink
    June 18, 2013

    Fascinating life story! What a wonderful woman! I very much enjoyed looking through Betty’s family pictures.

  23. November 27, 2013

    Do you remember the Cohen’s Smoke Salmon family of Petticoat lane?

  24. December 5, 2013

    I wonder if Anita Mitchell is a relative of mine. My grandmother’s sister, Annie Levy, married a Mitchell (the Malcolm Mitchell Trio were also members of the family) and they lived in the East End.

  25. David Exley permalink
    May 31, 2014

    I can repair the damaged photos on here for a donation to my cancer charity….check out my No More Cracks ! Facebook page David

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