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The Riflemen Of Bow

April 17, 2019
by the gentle author

Once upon a time when the veterans of the Tower Hamlets & Stepney Rifles met for monthly reunions in the Drill Hall in Mile End, more than a hundred Riflemen would attend. In 2007 when the Drill Hall was demolished and the reunion was transferred to the Bow Bells pub, only sixteen Riflemen remained. Consequently, it was a poignant occasion when Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I visited last week’s reunion to discover a gathering of just a handful of stalwarts in their eighties, but we were delighted to take the portraits of these dignified old soldiers and inspired to hear their stories.

Eric Wadey

“I grew up in Lever St just off the City Rd in Finsbury and went to Old St School. At fifteen I went to work for a tie firm in Cheapside, carrying materials. I used to walk there from Old St, in those days you could walk it in a straight line across the bombsites. Golden Lane and where the Barbican is now were all levelled off. All that was left was St Giles Cripplegate, where Cromwell got married, and I used to play football in the graveyard because all the stones had been flatted by the bombs.

We lived in Guinness Buildings then and were bombed out during the war, while we were there a bomb hit the building. I was six years without a father because he was away, so my mother was the only parent and I had to do my bit looking after my siblings. I walked to King’s Cross along the railway tracks picking up coal that had fallen off the trains because we had nothing to burn. I was refused entry onto a bus because I was black with the dust, but I had a sack of coal with me that I had collected and I wasn’t going to let it go.”

George Neal

“I was born Bethnal Green and was a market porter in Spitalfields all my working life. I started as an empty boy in the old market in 1953, working for W & H Bailey. I’ve been coming to these reunions for about thirty years, I served in the Rifle Brigade in Malaya. I was eighteen years old, doing my National Service. It was the first time I had been out of the East End. We flew from Stansted and it took us four days to get to Singapore. After I was demobbed, I went straight back into the Spitalfields Market and stayed there until it moved in 1992. I went back to have a look around recently and where I worked for twenty years is now a fashion boutique.”

Nobby Clarke

“My father was killed in 1944, leaving only me and my mother until she remarried in Coronation year. I was not a very good boy at school, but when I left in 1955 I became a telegram boy in the City of London working in Threadneedle St. At eighteen, I joined the Post Office in Whitechapel but after a year it was getting a bit tedious, so then I joined the mail train running from Euston to Carlisle, sorting letters as we travelled up the north-west side of the country. We used to drop mailbags out of one door and pick up more bags from the other, catching them in a net on the other side.

At twenty years old, I felt I had had enough so I joined the army as a volunteer. I was in Cyprus for four years when the troubles started in 1963, then I taught at Sandhurst Officers Training College for three years and I was discharged in 1969, but I did three years reserve and did not leave until 1972. I was at a bit off a loss then but, as I had done a lot of driving in the army, I worked as driver driving articulated lorries from the Tate & Lyle sugar factory in East Ham to the Docks, also to the sweet factory and the Guinness brewery in Park Royal. I met my wife while working for the British School of Motoring in Charing Cross Rd, then I started driving buses from the Bow bus garage.”

Ray Francis

“I’m from Ruislip, West London, but I come over to this meeting once a month with my wife to see the other guys. We’re gradually disappearing. We take the mickey out of one another and talk about old times when we were in the jungle in Malaya, when the Communists were trying to disrupt the rubber plantations. It brings it back to when you were eighteen and up to your neck in stinking swamp. Whether you were quite well-to-do or whether you came from the East End, we all came together doing National Service. We became as one and learnt to look after each other like brothers, that’s why we still have these reunions. Ask any soldier his number and he will peal it off straightaway: 2336534

I left school on a Friday and started work on a Monday, drawing in an engineering office. After I was demobbed I went back there until I was made redundant and for the past twenty-five years, I have been an ambulance man, a frontline paramedic. I was comfortable in uniform, I knew what to expect and I was used to seeing injuries.”

Trevor & Hazel Tallon with the photograph of their father Arthur Tallon (1932-2019) who died since the last reunion

Trevor – There was no work in the thirties, so when our grandad came out of the army, he moved the family from Alton in Hampshire to Tooting where he got a job as a postman, that was the start the family needed. So from the age of five, our dad grew up as a Londoner.

Hazel – His first job at fourteen was working as a telegraph boy delivering telegraphs in the Houses of Parliament. He was very proud of it.

Trevor – He worked for the Post Office his whole life – the only thing that interrupted that was his National Service – and he ended up a postal executive.

Hazel – He had been coming to these reunions for twenty-three years.

Trevor – We joined the reunion for trip in a minibus to Calais where their regiment was stationed. He was a proud Rifleman.

Hazel – For the last six years of his life, he struggled with walking so I used to come and pick him up every month from the reunion, that’s how I met the other Riflemen and their wives.

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

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12 Responses leave one →
  1. April 17, 2019

    Thank you for these wonderful memoirs. It’s so important that they met up regularly otherwise it’s all forgotten and their incredible experiences just disappear like dust in the wind. There was an old chap, George, who lived down the road from me and he was in the Rifle Brigade during the war and he would chat to me about his his foot slogging . Every one of them had to be high level marksmen. My own father served six years during the war . He came from a humble Spitalfields background. He was an infantrymen and then a Signalman at SHAEF and ended up sending the signal from Lunenberg Heath to Reuters News agency that Germany had surrendered and the war was at an end. He never went to reunions . His two passions in life were his work and playing chess. He was in possession of the most incredible stories that you could imagine as a front line witness to the collapse of the Third Reich but sadly they died with him . My sister and I are now the only ones that know some of them . Human memory is short if you don’t take the trouble to preserve the memories nobody will know anything.

  2. Barbara Hague permalink
    April 17, 2019

    Life was very different for youngsters growing up in those days.
    I remember playing on bomb sites – don’t tell Mother!
    They all look as if they look on the bright side and have a lot of fun talking over their escapades.

  3. April 17, 2019

    Lovely portraits and fascinating personal histories.

  4. Helen Breen permalink
    April 17, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, wonderful pics and short bios of those great veterans of the Tower Hamlets & Stepney Rifles. Their shared experiences certainly made them form a strong bond. I liked what Ray said:

    “Whether you were quite well-to-do or whether you came from the East End, we all came together doing National Service. We became as one and learnt to look after each other like brothers, that’s why we still have these reunions. Ask any soldier his number and he will peal it off straightaway: 2336534”

    May these fellows continue to enjoy their reunions for many years to come…

  5. Eric Forward permalink
    April 17, 2019

    Another exceptional story, bringing awareness to me of others that made a contribution that deserves to be remembered, appreciated and given thanks to. Gentle Author, you continue to live up to your promise.

  6. Jill Wilson permalink
    April 17, 2019

    Great portraits – and pen portraits!

  7. Pauline Taylor permalink
    April 17, 2019

    This brought back memories. I had a friend who served in Malaya as a national serviceman, he somehow managed to contract yellow fever and was not expected to survive so his parents, who had hardly left their village before, were flown out to be with him. Thankfully he defied the odds and did recover albeit with serious kidney damage, the jungles of Malaya were a terrifying place to be sent I believe so it is great to see these men still looking so happy and enjoying life, long may they continue to do so.

  8. Dudley Diaper permalink
    April 17, 2019

    Lovely article. My late uncle George Matthew Seaman Saunders grew up in Deal Street, Stepney and served in the Rifle Brigade in the Eighth Army in WW2.

  9. Jimmy huddart permalink
    April 18, 2019

    I remember you George and john holt you were good market men we were a band of brothers,it nice to see the rifle men still meet up to talk about old times my brother was in the royal green jackets ta he would Talk about the rifles I hope you get some new members to the keep reunions going

    Regards Jimmy Huddart

  10. Jimmy huddart permalink
    April 18, 2019

    Best regards. I am in Spitalfields Life website. There is pictures of Jimmy Pollock & Me

  11. Susan permalink
    April 18, 2019

    I just love these stories – and this blog. I don’t know of any other blog – especially here in North America – that captures so vividly the experience of growing up and/or living in a working class neighbourhood.

  12. Pam Traves permalink
    April 20, 2019

    Amazing Stories from this Great Men!! Bless Them!!

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