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Alie Touw’s Life In Britain

April 22, 2019
by the gentle author

In the final of three stories published over the holiday, Alie Touw speaks of her life in Britain

Centenarian Alie Touw has lived in this country for over half a century and made Spitalfields her home in recent decades. Yet if circumstances had been different, or if Alie had followed her father’s advice, she never would have left Holland at all – as she confessed to me. ”Please don’t go to England,’ my father said, ‘The people there, they look down on small countries.'”

The story of the Dutch in London is rarely told but just a few minutes walk east from Alie’s home is a street once known as ‘Dutch Tenterground,’ with reference to the community of diamond cutters and cigar makers who came here from the Netherlands in the sixteenth century. And just a hundred yards west from Alie’s home, a Dutch Church has stood in Austin Friars in the City of London since 1550. Today Alie is one of the longest serving of its congregation. It was this church that brought Alie to her current home, when Alie’s husband became caretaker there in the eighties

Such is Alie’s moral stature and seniority within the Dutch community in London, whenever a new ambassador is appointed from the Netherlands, I am told it is an accepted protocol that they invite Alie to dinner at the embassy.

At one hundred years old, Alie remains in robust spirits and reassures me when  – in order to arrange a photographer to take her portrait – I enquire of her future plans. ‘Don’t worry,’ she jokes, ‘I am not going to die.’ Mystified by her longevity, Alie is regretful that she has outlived all her siblings, her husband and her eldest son.

Yet she is fascinated and engaged with the lives of the young women who visit as carers, permitting her to live independently. Most are immigrants who are overqualified but accept menial work as a necessary sacrifice towards building a new life in Britain. Alie appreciates their fortitude because theirs is a struggle that she understands keenly.

“I came over from Holland with my husband and two sons in 1956.

My brother-in-law had a factor in Arnhem, manufacturing car radiators, which was destroyed in the war. Opposite was a school where the English were treating their wounded, so he went across to talk with the officers who were staying there. ‘What are you missing?’ he asked, ‘Do you need anything?’ They replied, ‘We would love to have a bath,’ so he said, ‘You can come over to my house and have a bath.’ He made friends with the English officers and they said, ‘Why don’t you start again in England?’ He left in 1947. He took some of his employees and started up his business again in the Midlands and he did very well.

When he came back to visit us after a couple of years, he said, ‘You’re still struggling.’ If you lose everything, it takes so long to recover. If you have children, they always come first. I could sleep on the floor but I wanted a bed for my child. I had lost my sewing machine which I used to make all the clothes for my family. He said, ‘Why don’t you come to England as well?’ He talked us into it.

My husband was a chocolatier and came to London to look for a job and, eventually,  he found one at a factory in Finsbury Park. In Holland, there was no chocolate and he had been working in a bakery. We were still struggling in 1956, so we left for England with our two little boys. My younger son had been born in July 1945.

England had suffered as well, but they had more than we had. We shared a house with the manager of the chocolate factory and his wife, they lived downstairs and we lived upstairs. While we were there my sons went to the local school. I said, ‘If you make a friend, you can always bring him home.’ My younger son brought home a black boy who was his friend. The wife of the factory manager saw him come into the house. I thought it was normal, I never taught my children that you could not do that – all are welcome. He was a nice boy and I went to meet his mother who lived alone, supporting herself with her sewing machine.

A couple of days later, I had a knock at my door and the manager’s wife said, ‘Your son brought a black boy here.’ I said, ‘Yeah, so what?’ I did not see anything wrong in it. She said, ‘You cannot do that, it brings the whole neighbourhood down.’ Some time later, my husband said, ‘I have to leave.’ He got the sack from the chocolate factory and had to find another job.

He found a job in Winchester and we bought a house because there was nowhere available to rent. The factory belonged to an English woman whose husband was Dutch but after a couple of years they had a row and she said, ‘Out you go, and all the Dutch go too!’ My husband was out of a job again until he found one making chocolate in a big hotel at Marylebone, but then he had to stay in lodgings. I had a third baby by then and he came home on Friday night and left again on Sunday.

My brother-in-law said, ‘This is no good, I am going to look for a shop so you can all be together,’  and he found one with a three bedroom council flat above for us in Redditch, near Birmingham. It was a confectionery shop and we sold sweets, bread and cakes. It was in a run of ten shops and we spent twenty years working there from eight until six, Monday until Saturday. We worked so hard and we did survive, but then my husband had enough of it.

We heard that they were looking for a caretaker for the Dutch Church in the City of London. So my husband said, ‘I’m going to pack in, we’re going to sell this shop.’

We had several bakers working for us and about fifteen reps coming to the shop from different factories, and we had to buy stock and pay for it every month. We always needed the bank to help us out. We did well but the shop did not. Sainsburys opened and some of the other ten shops lost everything. I asked my husband, ‘Tell me exactly what you owe,’ and I sold the shop. I was not going to go and live in London if we still owed money to people in Redditch. We had to pay our debts off and then we could leave – and that was what we did.”

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

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In Dutch Tenterground

16 Responses leave one →
  1. April 22, 2019

    Another wonderful part of her story. I still remember those awful signs on hotels and other places with ‘No blacks, no Irish….’ So awful. Valerie

  2. Robert Palmer-Wilson permalink
    April 22, 2019

    A fantastic,engaging story. My best wishes to Alie, and thank you for the insight “Spitalfieldslife”

  3. April 22, 2019

    But I want to know what happened when they got to London! About the Dutch church!

  4. John Barrett permalink
    April 22, 2019

    The dutch people stood by us in times of conflict, they were occupied in war, many fought with us as the free dutch army. Yes The dutch are our flower people and always will be. Poet John, Poetry Soc, Shirehampton Bristol.

  5. Barbara Elsmore permalink
    April 22, 2019

    A very fascinating and often heart rending account that I feel privileged to have read. Looking after one of the essentials for so many – the establishment and running of a home and all that this entails – still shine through in the care obviously given to Alie’s collection of houseplants in one of her photos.
    Did Alie’s husband work for Bendicks in Winchester I wonder? A small local firm originally now internationally known. I was at school in Winchester probably around the same time as Alie’s youngest son.
    Barbara Elsmore

  6. Margret Strohbach permalink
    April 22, 2019

    I’d very much like to read more out of Alie Tour’s life, it is sooo interesting! Let her carry on with her story! I am really admiring her.

  7. April 22, 2019

    Thank you Alie for sharing your remarkable story with the GA and with us all.
    A story which is full of courage, humility, endeavour and the strength of the human spirit.
    You look amazing for a Centenarian!

  8. Jill Wilson permalink
    April 22, 2019

    Interesting to hear how her story moved on, and she obviously had a very strong marriage partnership.

    The incident with the black boy was a shocking example of the horrible colour prejudice which was around then. Hopefully that wouldn’t happen today.

  9. David Tarrant permalink
    April 22, 2019

    A fascinating glimpse into the life of a remarkable lady. I’ve assimilated two gems from this series:
    TGA’s observation that when Alie goes shopping, folk on the streets little realise there’s a time traveller in their midst and; Alie’s belief that good housekeeping is the basis of civilisation.
    Words of wisdom indeed.

  10. April 22, 2019

    A hundred years is a long life. If your memory stays with you for that long you can say that you are lucky because there will be so many. On the other hand some of them may not be good memories. but they are the memories that make you what you are, good or bad.
    In a way the bad memories can be like grist to the mill . They strengthen your character. Going through hard times and coming out on top gives your life purpose. Alie has been through hard times and come out on top. I have also been through hard times .
    I tried to give this bit of information to my children. Young people should not crumble at the first sign of failure or depression. The clouds are only there for a while.

  11. Marcia Howard permalink
    April 22, 2019

    What a life story this lady has lived – and survived to tell the tale. I’m old enough to remember Windrush, and was shocked when locals could be so verbally cruel to who after all were guests in our country. I was only a child, but think this was the trigger for me to fight for injustice all my life.

  12. gkbowood permalink
    April 22, 2019

    I agree with Annie G.- We want to know the rest of her story!!

  13. Anders Bellis permalink
    April 23, 2019

    Dear Gentle Author,

    Alie Touw’s life story is one of the most overwhelmingly fascinating and gripping stories ever published on Spitalfields Life. And, I daresay, one of the most important. To get an eye witness account of the horrors of the Dutch occupied by Nazi Germany during WWII is not only heart-rending, but also a very important, historical document. We can read sterile history books about this and that army winning or losing this and that battle, or whatever, but the true horror of what happened comes through only when people who lived through it all tell us their stories.

    I am also immensely impressed by the incredible resilience showed by Alie Touw, who managed to forge a life for herself and her family in the United Kingdom, moving there relatively late in life, adding the burden of learning and adapting to a foreign culture after having lived through WWII in the country of her origin. Few are those who could have accomplished this as brilliantly as she obviously did.

    You did this as a series in three parts. Let me tell you, I was waiting with great impatience and much anticipation for part 2 and 3 after having read part 1. I was not disappointed.

    Even for Spitalfields Life, this was extraordinary.

    And that says more than you may even realise yourself.

    Thank you. And my very warmest thanks to and my sincere admiration for Alie Touw.

  14. janet green permalink
    April 23, 2019

    An amazing story about an amazing woman. Thank you so much for telling it.

  15. Delia Folkard permalink
    April 28, 2019

    I am also hoping there is a part four of this amazing documentary. It has the makings for a film and I’m already wondering who would be best to play Ali! Please thank her for telling us her story, I hope she didn’t find it too painful.

  16. Yvonne Cheyney permalink
    May 1, 2019

    A wonderful story. MORE please. Bless Ali for all those she helped during the War in Holland and took such risks. A movie or tv doc would be great.

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