Skip to content

Sophie Spielman, Victorious Campaigner

August 16, 2019
by the gentle author

Sophie Spielman led the residents’ campaign to save Treves & Lister Houses in Whitechapel

Portrait of Sophie Spielman by Sarah Ainslie

I had the pleasure of visiting ninety-five-year-old Sophie Spielman at her immaculate flat in Treves House, an elegant modernist block at the Whitechapel end of Vallance Rd, designed by Ralph Smorczewski and built by Stillman & Eastwick Field in 1956.

As the most senior resident in the building, where she has lived longer than anyone else, and at such a venerable age, you might expect Sophie to be taking it easy. Yet she has reluctantly found herself the focus of recent national media attention as the spokeswoman and figurehead for the residents of Treves House and the neighbouring Lister House, who were confronted with the prospect of losing their homes as part of Tower Hamlets Council’s plans to demolish and redevelop the properties. Thanks to the residents campaign led by Sophie, this week the council abandoned their redevelopment plans and the estate is saved.

Blessed with natural dignity and possessing a innate sense of decorum, Sophie is an heroic figure who faced these recent troubles with fortitude, viewing her situation from the perspective of one who has lived a full life and experienced a great deal. In particular, I was fascinated by the pleasing irony that Sophie who was born into an Iranian Jewish family, resident in India, should find herself at home in Whitechapel for the last half century, living among Jewish and Asian neighbours.

Sophie clasped her hands and gave me a world-weary smile, casting her mind back over the long journey which led her to the domestic happiness she found in Whitechapel, before confessing her disappointment that anyone could be so petty as to challenge her right to live out her days in her home of fifty-seven years.

“I was born in Bombay but my parents were Iranians. My grandmother was called Rachel and my mother was Leah, they were born in Iran. When my grandfather died, my mother was still very small and so my grandmother brought her to Bombay. Those children that were married stayed in Iran but those that were young came with her to Bombay, where there was a Jewish community known as the Sassoons who were from Iraq. They came to Bombay and they were like the Rothschilds of the East, so there was help there. We stayed there and I went to a Jewish school that was founded by the Sassoons.

When I was older, I worked in the Bombay Telephone Company for about twelve years. I joined as a shorthand typist, but I preferred to work with my hands because that is what I like to do. So I went into the Inspection Department checking all the different parts that go into a telephone.

At that time, India was under British rule and I had very good English. Although I had an English and a Jewish education, I felt closest to the English. My brother went to Canada for a while. When he came back, he said, ‘I’m going to England, do you want to come?’ So I said, ‘Oh I’d love to!’ That was my dream to come to England.

When I came here in 1957, I was first in Stamford Hill but, when I met my husband Nathan Spielman and got married, he already had this flat in Whitechapel. He was moved here in 1959 from Anthony St which was demolished and the residents were all given new flats. He worked in the railways, as a ticket collector at Liverpool St Station. He told me had been involved in the anti-fascist movement and was at the Battle of Cable St in 1936. He passed away in 1982 when my daughter Gloria was nineteen. I only had one child, my one and only – but she has five children!

I worked in Nortons, the suitcase factory, as a secretary in the office. I worked there until I got married and Gloria was born. At first, I took her to nursery and, when she was bit older and went to school, I worked part-time in Hatton Garden, in an office where they received and sold jewellery.

When I first moved into Treves House in 1962, it was all new and modern and I thought it was very nice. Now it is different, the council has neglected it for years, but I do not want to move from here. We had very good neighbours. Most of the original residents have died or moved away, apart from me. There is one tenant still living in the flat that was his grandparents, who were the very first to move in. I have Nora, an Irishwoman next door who is a very good neighbour. She always comes and visits me and asks, ‘Are you alright?’ I still walk down to Whitechapel every day, I have done it since I moved in. It is the only place I know now.

Sophie in Bombay in 1950

Sophie as a young woman

Nathan & Sophie Spielman

Sophie with her daughter Gloria

Treves House, designed by Ralph Smorkczewski and built by Stillman & Eastwick Field in 1956

Treves House seen from the garden

12 Responses leave one →
  1. Alice Williams permalink
    August 16, 2019

    These two stories weave a pattern of such richness and kindness, the stories of tenant and architect so intertwined to provide the recovery of human values after WWII and the return to honorable and peaceful living that everyone wanted. Thank you Gentle Author for combining these two stories. I remember reading about Sophie more than a year ago and thought her effort was valiant but her cause was hopeless. Now I see that she and her team won…the council was persuaded to preserve the history of this place.
    … I suspect your influence grows daily.

  2. stephanie Janet pemberton permalink
    August 16, 2019

    Reason to still keep hopeful about human nature. Really wish the Major would recognise and reward individuals like Sophie and the Spitalfields Life team for principled civic duty. This is our architectural, historical, national/international cultural heritage without which places like the Bishopsgate Institute would not exist and we all would be ignorant of what has been and what is lost. Steph

  3. Jill Wilson permalink
    August 16, 2019

    Go Sophie! a great victory….

  4. Laura Williamson permalink
    August 16, 2019

    Congratulations Sophie and your fellow campaigners on this inspiring victory. I fervently hope that the local authority will now spend the money they should on maintaining your homes, for you and future generations.

  5. August 16, 2019

    Bravo, Sophie. A beautiful woman, inside and out.

  6. Caroline Bottomley permalink
    August 16, 2019

    Bravo, excellent story and really well done, that’s a great achievement

  7. August 16, 2019

    I could not think of anything more appropriate as a celebration, then to publish this interview with a beautiful woman who is the most senoir resident of Treves House and has fought for her right to live there. Thank you GA !

  8. Adele permalink
    August 16, 2019

    Sophie is an inspiration to all. Well done Sophie and neighbors for not giving up!

  9. August 16, 2019

    I enjoyed reading about Sophie and her life. I’m so glad everyone was victorious in their battle to save the two buildings that are their homes. There is seldom any good news on the news sites. Shouldn’t the BBC feature at least a good news story once at week; I thought that was somewhat their duty to the public.
    Thank you again for your very interesting stories. I enjoy your blog daily.

  10. August 17, 2019

    Such a wonderful victory for Sophie and her neighbours.

    Sophie’s story also brings out the often hidden histories of London’s diverse people. Her life combines the ordinary with the rich and the interesting. She would make a great interviewee on the radio. I would love to hear her on Desert Island Discs or BBC Radio London.

  11. Mary-Ann Tait permalink
    August 18, 2019

    This gives me hope. It shows that “normal” people protesting against large institutions CAN win and create change from the roots up.

  12. Rachel Matthews permalink
    August 18, 2019

    An important victory against a background of property development all over London. A reminder that bricks and mortar are more than an investment. People live in these homes, have neighbours and connections from all walks of life. The glossy marketing adverts and hoardings never tell these stories.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS