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Bishopsgate Portraits

March 21, 2014
by the gentle author

Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien took these portraits at this week’s launch of Bishopsgate Voices, the new oral history CD featuring people from Spitalfields & Bishopsgate, produced by the Bishopsgate Institute.

Alan Griver, Printer & Boxing Coach – “I can remember walking out at lunchtime and seeing a film being shot in Fournier St. It was about the American Revolution and it was supposed to be a Boston street, Boston at that time. All their old buildings had gone, so they couldn’t shoot it in Boston and they looked at Fournier St which looked exactly like one of the roads in Boston. I watched the redcoats marching up and down.”

Alan Griver was born in 1938 on Underwood St. His parents were originally from the Ukraine, his father arriving in London at five years old. Alan’s father worked in the timber trade and later owned a sweet shop on Well St, Hackney. Alan was evacuated to Luton in World War II but returned to attend Holcroft Rd School. He trained to be a Boxer and went on to teach boxing and start his own gymnasium.

Mavis Bullwinkle, Secretary at Royal London Hospital – “You can’t imagine it now, but every fish had a different taste. When you buy fish now, it’s all got the same taste because it’s all been frozen. But you used to get your plaice that used to be as big as that on your plate and it would cost hardly anything.”

Mavis Bullwinkle was born at the London Hospital on 18th May 1932. Her father was a Clerk and her mother worked in the office of a clothing company before leaving to become a Housewife. She attended the Sir John Cass School before being evacuated to Aylesbury and returning to London when she was thirteen. Mavis was Christ Church Sunday school teacher for thirty years and worked as a Short-Term Typist before moving to the London Hospital, where she worked for forty years.

Sid Joseph, Bus Driver & Postman – ‘We used to have a paper man, selling papers, and when I went down there he knew my name. He said… “Tell Mum and Dad that Hitler’s invaded Russia.” I didn’t know what Russia was! I goes, “Is there a place called Russia?” Me mum said, “Yes. Why?” I said, “Hitler’s invaded ‘em”.  I’m not gonna repeat what my mother said.”

Sidney Joseph was born in Windsor House, Wenlock St in 1931. His mother was a Housewife and his father worked as a Porter in Spitalfields Market. The family later moved to Brunswick Buildings, Goulston St and he attended the Jewish Free School. During the war, Sid was first evacuated to Bishops Stortford and then to Padstow. Upon his return to London he attended Christ Church School, leaving at age fourteen to work as a Hatmaker. He completed his two year long National Service, starting at age eighteen, stationed in Dusseldorf. Leaving the army in 1951, Sid came back to the East End, where he worked as a Van Driver delivering smoked salmon, then as a Bus Driver and finally as a Driver for the Post Office.

Lesley Keeper, Machinist & Barmaid “In the middle of our street, we had a great big square [bomb] debris which led to the next street and all the kids used to play on there and that was our playground. And I always remember Mrs Dexter who lived opposite, she had two daughters Patsy & Jean, and she used to call with arms folded out the top window, ‘Pat! Jean! Go and play nicely on the debris.'”

Lesley Keeper was born on 15th November 1947 at Mile End Hospital. Her father was  a Coalman and her mother was a Machinist. Her first job at age fifteen was at the office of the clothes-making company, Ellis & Goldstein. Lesley later worked at a Chemist in Houndsditch and as a Clerk at Bethnal Green Hospital, before marrying at age eighteen and having two kids before she was twenty.

Norah Pam, Clerical Officer & PA to Director of Redbridge Health Authority – “From the top of the building you could see the red glow in the sky, you could see the planes coming over and the German planes had a completely different sound from ours. You could hear them, you know, chug-chug-chug as they came along – and you’d hear the bombs.”

Norah Pam was born on 31st May 1925 near the Tower of London. She lived at Howard Buildings in Deal St and attended All Saints School. In 1932, she contracted scarlet fever and diphtheria and spent a total of twelve weeks in the isolation ward at the hospital in Homerton. She later attended Sir John Cass School and worked at Ferguson Radio after leaving school. She met her husband, a navy man, in 1948. They married in 1950 and had two children.

Henrietta Keeper, Ballad Singer & Sample Machinist – “My husband died fourteen years ago of emphysema from smoking and he ate a lot of hydrolized fat. So when he died, I threw away the biscuits and I bought a book on Nutrition and studied it, and now I’ve got strong. I only eat wholemeal bread – white bread’s a killer. I am keeping well, to stay alive for the sake of my children because I love them. I don’t want to go the same way my husband did.”

Henrietta Keeper was born and lived her whole life in Bethnal Green, apart from when she evacuated to Little Saxham, near Bury St Edmunds, at the beginning of World War II. Henrietta worked as a Sample Machinist and joined the Tate & Lyle Concert party for thirty years. Today she may still be heard singing each Friday afternoon at E. Pellicci in Bethnal Green.

Reg Denny, Policeman – “You take Commercial St, not too far from here… you’d walk past the wholesale market and most of the time you’d get the sort of sweet smell of the fruit and then the not-so-good smell at the end of the day when you had the stale cabbage and the rotten beetroot and whatnot.”

Reg Denny was born in 1942 in Clapham. His father was in the fruit & vegetable trade, and his mother worked in a sweet shop in Clerkenwell. He moved to the East End in 1961 to join the police, working at the Commercial Rd Station and living in a police hostel nearby.

Emily Shepherd, Waitress, Clerk & Machinist “And we had the radio on and then Neville Chamberlain came on and I remember him saying, ‘We are at war with Germany.’  I didn’t know what war was all about much but I knew it was gonna be bad, you know.”

Emily Shepherd was born in 1927 in Bethnal Green. Her father was a Horse and Cart Man and her mother was a Cleaner. Emily worked as a Waitress, Clerk & Machinist in a clothing factory and she has never lived outside the East End.

Keith Martin, Bank Officer ‘Christmas Eve was the day and it was probably highly illegal – even in those days – but the people on the first floor who did all the back office work used to get a barrel for Christmas and they had this keg of beer up there, and people would go and help themselves to it from time to time.’

Keith Martin was born in 1953 in Forest Gate Hospital and brought up on Newcomen Rd, Leytonstone. He lived at home until his marriage at age twenty-six, when he moved to Dagenham. His first job was at a department store in Leytonstone but he later worked for Midland Bank in the City and Canary Wharf.

Joyce Ward, Teacher & Foreign Office Civil Servant – “My oldest aunt was working as a domestic in a large house somewhere or another. She had quite a good job and she always looked extremely smart. One Christmas, she got the chauffeur of her house to drive her to our house. Now can you imagine, the whole street of people poured into the road to see this – it was probably a Rolls Royce or something in front of our house…”

Joyce Ward was born in 1926 at 13 Columbia Rd, her father was a Tailor and her mother a Housewife. She went to school on Virginia Rd and Rusher St, was evacuated to Bishops Stortford, but later returned and attended Clapton County Secondary School. Joyce read Maths at University College and worked in a semi-secret post for the Foreign Office where she met her husband.

Hannah Jacobson, Civil Servant  “I lived with my grandmother… but across the road… my other grandmother lived, my paternal grandmother, she had so many children that I was more over there than with my grandmother because I used to play with them.”

Hannah Jacobson was born in the Maternity Hospital, Hackney in 1927. Her father was a Fishmonger, working all over London and later owning his own shop. Due to her father moving around for work, she attended twenty-five different schools as a child. Between the ages of five and twelve she lived at 22 Eric St, Mile End, where – during the Blitz – a landmine hit her house and her neighbours were killed.

Joy Harris, Dressmaker – “I was fifteen and he was seventeen. And then we got engaged when I was seventeen-and-a-half and got married at nineteen. I was an average age but Larry was probably a bit older to get married. He was twenty-two.”

Joy Harris was born in Barking in 1946. Her father was a Greengrocer who owned two shops and her mother worked in a factory. After leaving school, she had an apprenticeship as a Dressmaker and worked in Fashion St. Later in life, she worked in a hospital for the mentally ill and became an Occupational Therapist.

Larry Harris, Teleclerk in London Docks – “I think we had the last horse and cart that used to come in… The reference for his number plate was HC1, horse and cart one… Very fond memories of it.”

Larry Harris was born in 1943 at home in Dagenham. His father worked as an Electrician and his mother was a Cleaner and then worked at a sweets factory in Clerkenwell. Larry left school at fifteen to work for Arbuck Smith in the City and later for the Port of London Authority in 1959. He worked there for twenty years before joining Tate & Lyle in Silvertown for a further thirty years.

Sandra Scotting, Copyright Executive – “I’d come home from school sometimes and I’d find a crab or a lobster on the floor because my uncle used to work at the fish market. And he’d come home after his shift, put a load of things in the sink… and sometimes they’d get out… There they’d be crawling along the hallway!”

Sandra Scotting was born in Bethnal Green in 1947. Her mother was a Dressmaker and her father a Tailor. The family lived in Crown House on Bonner Rd, moving to Gore Rd in Hackney when Sandra was eleven. She attended Central Foundation Grammar School and trained as a Doctor, working at the Queen Elizabeth Children’s Hospital when she was newly qualified.

Jeff Borsack, Antiques Dealer “I had to go to the poor board with my grandmother so that they could give me a uniform to go to the school. That was the dire straits we were in. And I always remember overhearing a lady say to the other gentlemen on the panel… “Children like this shouldn’t go to grammar school.” And I think that actually gave me quite a steely resolve in my life, that I was going to show this woman that children like me could benefit from it.”

Jeff Borsack was born on City Rd in 1937. After his parents died in the Blitz, Jeff went to live with his grandmother until he was evacuated to Berkhamstead. Upon his return to London, he attended Central Foundation Grammar School and studied Hebrew in the evenings, before taking Accountancy and Law at university. He became an Antiques Dealer with an office in Stamford Hill and has worked in markets throughout London.

Linda Simmons, Charities Administrator – “There’s one [rhyme] I remember – I can’t remember the beginning of it – but it ended “Betty Grable is a star. S. T. A. R.” Well, the thing was, we still used to say “Betty Grable is a star” but none of us had ever seen Betty Grable because she was a wartime pin-up, you know.”

Linda Simmons was born in 1949 to a Docker father and a Machinist mother. She spent her childhood in Bethnal Green and for the first three years of her life she lived with her grandparents on Chiltern St, later moving to a council flat in Teesdale St. Linda attended Christ’s Hospital School in Sussex for two years, retuning to the East End to attend John Howard Girls’ Grammar School. She later went on to Oxford University to read English and met her husband, before returning to London to work in publishing until leaving work to raise two children. Later, she returned to work for the Citizens’ Advice Bureau in 1981 and volunteered for the Terrence Higgins Trust, then joined for the Central London Action on Street Health, supporting sex workers, drug users and homeless people.

Copies of the CD cost £5 and are available to purchase at the Bishopsgate Library or may be ordered direct from

Portraits copyright © Colin O’Brien

You may also like to look at

Colin O’Brien’s Gina’s Restaurant Portraits

Colin O’Brien’s Pellicci Portraits

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Melvyn Brooks permalink
    March 21, 2014

    What terrific stories-all of those interviewed seem so happy and content. You even managed to get them in the same pose with hands-on-knees. Thanks

    Melvyn Karkur, Israel

  2. tanya permalink
    March 21, 2014

    what a happy and fascinating post today. Great life stories and the power of the portraits is stunning.

  3. Janice L-W permalink
    March 21, 2014

    I worked with Reg Denny many times in the City of London Information Centre, he’s a lovely man!

  4. March 21, 2014

    Moving stories and portraits from the wartime generation … they all have my deep respect.

    (Would love to purchase the CD — how many portraits are there to find?)

    Love & Peace

  5. March 21, 2014

    Wonderful portraits of so many different lives. Valerie

  6. David Davies permalink
    March 21, 2014

    Mum is still alive at 84 and still very active living in Norfolk, not far from where she was evacuated in the war, Docking. She lived her early life in the Peabody Buildings in Whitecross Street and during the war was bombed out three times. I have a copy of the claim for loss and what it amounted to (£90 I think) and what her mum received in compensation – about £25! She and her two sisters vividly remember the bombing, and at times having to take shelter in Smithfield, in the The Central Cold Storage Depot.

    Mum and her two sisters (both deceased) have written their stories independently of each other, about the war years and how each saw their own situation. Mum went on to raise 5 children, study for her nursing examinations and ended up as a specialist theatre nurse at the Burns Unit in Billericay, Essex.

    Mum was born in 1930 in real poverty, but she and her siblings managed to conquer their tough upbringing and I’m sure we don’t make ’em like that any more.

    Great stories and it’s good to read about ordinary peoples lives – I’m sure they see themselves as nothing but ordinary but really they are all heroes to my mind.

  7. Lyn Harris permalink
    March 21, 2014

    Would Alan Griver possibly be a relative of a Ken Griver? Ken is an old friend with whom I’ve lost touch.

  8. Barbara permalink
    March 21, 2014

    Such happy smiling faces on interesting people. As kids, we used to play on bomb sites when visiting grandparents, I think in Mile End. That is where they lived anyway.

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