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Phyllis Archer, First Lady of Fournier St

February 4, 2020
by the gentle author

It is my pleasure to publish these extracts from the memoir of Phyllis Grant Archer (1911-88), recounting the years she lived with her son Rodney in Fournier St.

Edited and annotated by her daughter Elayne Archer, Phyllis’ memoir CROSSING TROUBLED WATERS recounts her experiences as a war widow emigrating from London to Toronto with her two young children in 1944, before returning to spend her final years in Spitalfields thirty-six years later.

Phyllis Archer with Rodney & Elayne in Paris, 1962

In early 1980, my mother Phyllis and brother Rodney bought a very old house in the heart of the old immigrant East End. The area was then very rundown, only just beginning its resurgence to the fancy, trendy and historic neighbourhood of today. The house was 31 Fournier St, between Commercial St and Brick Lane. My mother loved all the history. She also loved the sound of the bells ringing from Christ Church and the Imam calling the faithful to prayer from the mosque.

Above all, my mother loved the house. It had four floors and a basement. It was built in 1726 and had been used for many years as a small clothing factory and then, for several years before she and my brother moved in, as the office of a minicab company. At first, my mother lived in the house alone for six months while my brother sold his house in North London. She lived without an indoor toilet or running water, not much in the way of electricity, beyond an occasional light bulb hanging from the ceiling. My mother described this time thus –

“I had many visitors. There were two social workers who lived in flats in the bowels of the church and people sent by Irving Tarn, the estate agent whose father had bought up half the houses in the area. He was very nice to me. he called me ‘the first lady of Fournier St’ because I was the first woman owner in the street.

Dennis Severs, a Californian who had a fantastic old house on Folgate St, came almost every day to get water in for me, using an old teakettle he’d bought in the market. It cost 25p and it leaked but Dennis had it soldered and it was ideal. For his kindness, Rodney gave him the picture of himself holding the sceptre and orb which is now a prized exhibit in Dennis’ Victorian parlour.”

At 31 Fournier St, my mother lived on the top two floors and my brother in the bottom three. She maintained that the exercise of the stairs was good for her. The attic had been the workplace of the Huguenot weavers and my mother imagined a canary’s cage hanging by the window to warn when the air was too thick with lint. The windows of her kitchen overlooking the walled garden were of eighteenth-century glass which distorted the view slightly. Of course, the house was a building site for the first two years but my mother loved it, except for the evenings when the rain poured in and she and my brother had to empty buckets of water into the kitchen sink until they could afford to repair the roof.

Every day my mother wandered the neighbourhood. She loved to browse the markets and usually returned with a plate, cup or bowl – often with cracks or chips – the older the better. Most of all, my mother loved to go to the Market Cafe at 5 Fournier St run by Clyde Armstrong and his sister Phyllis. There she would eat a hearty meal of meat, roast potatoes, yorkshire pudding, brussel sprouts and always a pudding – trifle, jam roly-poly or crumble with custard. She regaled the other customers – taxi drivers, market porters, old timers and new arrivals – with tales of London the thirties and her work at the Daily Mail. ‘Lord Rothermere made a pass at me in the lift!’ and ‘My boss, a lesbian, once did the same.’ In the afternoon, my mother often sat in the walled garden or in the front room on the second floor with one of my brother’s cats on her lap.

She entertained many friends visiting from Toronto, taking them to the Olde Cheshire Cheese where she ate hearty meals, regaling her friends with stories of the pub’s famous patrons as if they were personal friends. ‘Dr Johnson was a regular customer, he would take home oysters for his cat,’ my mother informed me as she gobbled her bread and butter pudding. She could sometimes be a little over the top.

‘Was I impossible, kids?’ she asked my brother and me once after such a performance. Rodney replied, ‘You were a little impossible, Mother, but you were also quite wonderful.’

During her years in Fournier St, my mother suffered a series of falls, resulting in broken hips, wrists and thighs. My mother’s eye sight was also an issue and she was always concerned about losing sight in her ‘good eye.’ Yet my mother remained upbeat and went out walking every day with a cane. My brother accompanied her to the doctor for her eyes, her liver and her broken bones, describing these visits thus –

“It was hard to see my mother as vulnerable because she had always seemed so strong to me throughout my life. Finally I saw Phyllis’ fear of mortality. I am sure many go through this reversal of the parent-child relationship. When I was teaching a class of students in their twenties and thirties, I found myself looking for a young woman with bright red hair, hazel eyes and a dazzling complexion – the woman my mother had been before motherhood, before war, before widowhood, before life treated her so horribly.

She was often stoic and brave but could be sad and complain, ‘O Rodney, you have no idea what I have been through. I wanted to be a writer too but I had to work so hard to bring you and your sister up, I never found time to develop my abilities.’

Other times, my mother would talk about how well things had worked out. How fortunate she was to have two loving if difficult – she thought – children, and then be spending her last years in a wonderful neighbourhood.”

I visited my mother in London for the last time in November 1988. I hardly recognised her when I walked into the ward and I think she understood this and waved at me. I asked ‘How are you doing, Mother?’ She replied, ‘Oh well, I suppose I could be worse.’

One day, when my brother accompanied me, she grabbed both our arms. ‘I’m going now, kids,’ she said. “Martin has my latest will. My memoir is under the bed and you know where my rings are.’ She looked at Rodney and said ‘We’ve been a good couple, haven’t we?’ And then to me she said, ‘You’ve been a wonderful daughter, Elayne.’

My mother’s ashes were scattered in the garden of 31 Fournier St, and my brother and I placed a plaque on the wall there in her memory.

The walled garden at 31 Fournier St

Phyllis with Elayne & Rodney as children

31 Fournier St

Phyllis in Toronto, 1947

31 Fournier St

Phyllis in Spitalfields, spring 1988

Elayne (photo by Nancy Siesel)

Rodney in Fournier St

You may also like to read about

Rodney Archer, Aesthete

Rodney Archer’s Christmas

The Seven Ages of Rodney Archer

Rodney Archer’s Scraps

10 Responses leave one →
  1. February 4, 2020

    As they used to say in Lancashire, Rodney is the spit of his mother. In other words, he resembles her greatly.

  2. Eric Forward permalink
    February 4, 2020

    It is lovely that Phyllis loved the history of the place, and that she has also become part of that history too.

  3. February 4, 2020

    What a loving tribute, warts and all. And how blessed to have been able to live the life she wanted right to the end, clear-headed. I think that being perched above Spitalfields in an old house, free to come and go, would be a sound way to live out your days.

  4. February 4, 2020

    I was fortunate enough to visit the house of Phyllis Archer when I went to an exhibition organised by Rodney not that long before he died. Thanks to Elayne and TGA for preserving her mother’s memory. Phyllis was certainly the first Lady of Fournier St and her son Rodney was a kind and majestic host.

  5. paul loften permalink
    February 4, 2020

    Phyllis’s wonderful story as told by Elayne began in 1980 when they bought the house. It must have been in a pretty bad state as there was no inside toilet. My own perspective of Spitalfields began in the late 1950s when I used to visit my ailing grandmother who lived in a small house in Raven Row behind the London Hospital. It also had no inside toilet and whenever I went to use the toilet in the tiny concrete back yard I was told not to sit down as a friendly rat may pop out from between my legs.

  6. February 4, 2020

    Thanks for the whole story of Rodney and his mother moving to Fournier Street. I know only too well the days of outside toilets etc. but they were pretty tough to move to the house in such a state. I have visited Rodney’s garden several times now and when I go again in June will think of his mother’s ashes scattered there. Thank you for this story.

  7. M D West permalink
    February 4, 2020

    How much did houses in Fournier Street sell for in 1980? (Had they declined over the 60s/70s?….and how much now?)

  8. Jason Dowler permalink
    February 4, 2020

    So wonderful to read this and to see these splendid photographs all of which bring back so many fond and enduring memories of having Phyllis and Rodney as friends and neighbours when I lived just a couple of doors away at 37 Fournier Street with the late John Gaze. We lived at 37 from 1984 (after spending a year restoring the house. I left in 1988 and John sold the house a few years later.

  9. Umi permalink
    February 5, 2020

    Thank you for another fantastic story. So this lady was the first female homeowner in Spitalfields … what an amazing achievement in those days. Will definitely take a look at 31 Fournier St when next in the area. Kindest regards, Spitalfields lover, Ümi.

  10. February 9, 2020

    An interesting family story

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