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Beattie Orwell, Centenarian

October 5, 2021
by the gentle author

Portrait of Beattie Orwell by Phil Maxwell

It was my delight to accompany Contributing Photographer Phil Maxwell to visit one hundred and four year old Beattie Orwell and sit beside her in her cosy flat while she talked to me of her century of existence in this particular corner of the East End.

A magnanimous woman who delights in the modest joys of life, Beattie is nevertheless a political animal who is proud to be one of the last living veterans of the Battle of Cable St – a formative experience that inspired her with a fiercely egalitarian sense of justice and led to her becoming a councillor in later life, acutely conscious of the rights of the most vulnerable in society.

In spite of her physical frailty, Beattie’s moral courage grants her an astonishing monumental presence as a human being. To speak with Beattie is to encounter another, kinder world.

“I am Jewish and both my parents were East Enders, born here. My father’s parents came over from Russia. On my mother’s side, her parents were born here but her grandfather was born in Holland. So I am a bit of a mixture!

My father Israel worked as a porter at the Spitalfields Market and my mother Julia was a cigar maker at Godfrey & Phillips in Commercial St. I grew up in Brunswick Buildings in Goulston St, until I got bombed out. It was horrible, we had a little scullery, too small to swing a cat. My mother had one bedroom and, the three children, we slept in a put-you-up. I had two sisters Rebecca & Esther. Rebecca was the eldest, she very clever at dressmaking. When she was fifteen, she could make a dress. We needed her because my father died when he was forty-four, he had three strokes and died in Vallance Rd Hospital. I was only thirteen. He used to take me everywhere, he was marvellous. He took to me to the West End to visit my aunt, she was an old lady with a parrot and lived on Bewick St. We used to have a laugh with the parrot.

We moved to City Corporation flats in Stoney Lane and I went to Gravel Lane School. It was lovely school, they taught us housewifery. We had a little flat in the school and we used to clean it out, then go shopping in Petticoat Lane to buy ingredients to make a dinner, imagining we were married. The boys used to do woodwork and learnt to make stools and things like that. I loved that school. When I was twelve it closed and I went to the Jewish Free School in Bell Lane. It  was very strict and religious. When the teacher wanted us to be quiet, she’d say, ‘I’m waiting!’ It was good, I enjoyed my school life.

I left when I was fourteen and I went to work right away, dressmaking in Alie St. I used to lay out material. I do not know why but I must have heavy fingers, I could not manage the silk. It used to fall out of my hands. I only lasted a week before I left, I could not stand it. Then I went to work with my sister at Lottereys in Whitechapel opposite the Rivoli Picture Palace, they used to make uniforms for solders. I went into tailoring, men’s trousers, putting the buttons on with a machine. We worked long hours and it was hard work. By the time I got married I was earning two pounds and ten shillings a week. I never earned big money. I worked all the way through the war. I gave all the money to my mother and she gave me a shilling back. I used to walk up to the West End. It was threepence on the trolley bus.

I was nineteen in 1936. I was there with all the crowds at the Battle of Cable St. I am Jewish and I knew we must fight the fascists. They were anti-semitic, so I felt I had to do it. I was not frightened because there were so many people there. If I was on my own I might have been frightened, but I never saw so many people. You could not imagine. Dockers, Scottish and Irish people were there. It was a marvellous atmosphere. I was standing on the corner of Leman St outside a shop called ‘Critts’ and everyone was shouting ‘ They shall not pass!’ I was with my friend and we stood there a long time, hours. So from there we walked down to Cable St where we saw the lorry turned over. I never saw the big fighting that happened in Aldgate because I was not down there, but I saw them fighting in Cable St near this turned over lorry. From there, we walked down to Royal Mint St, where the blackshirts were. They were standing in a line waiting for Oswald Mosley to come. So I said to my friend, ‘We’d better get away from here.’

We went back through Cable St to the place where we started. From there, the news came through ‘They’re not passing.’ We all marched past the place where Fascists had their headquarters  – they threw flour over us, shouting – to Victoria Park where we had a big meeting with thousands of people. I had never seen anything like it in my life and I used to go to all the meetings. I never went dancing. My mother used to say, ‘I don’t know where I got you from!’ because I was only interested in politics. I am the only one like this in the whole family. I still know everything that is going on.

I used to go to Communist Party socials in Swedenborg Sq, off Cable St, and – being young – I used to enjoy it. Then I joined the Labour Party, the Labour League of Youth it was called. We used to go on rambles. It was lovely. We went to Southend once. I always used to march to Hyde Park on May Day and carry one of the ropes of our banner. I met my husband John in Victoria Park when I was with the Young Communists League, although I was not a member. They had a Sports Day and my husband was running for St Mary Atte Bowe because he was a Catholic. I met him and we went to a Labour Party dance. We got married in 1939.

We managed to get a flat in the same building as my mother, at the top of the stairs. They were private flats and I remember standing outside with a banner saying, ‘Don’t pay no rent!’ because the owners would not do the flats up. They did not look after us, it was horrible thing for us to have to do but it worked. I laugh now when I think about it. I was always brave. I am brave now.

We got bombed out of those flats while my husband was in the army. I had a baby so they sent me to Oxford where my husband was based with the York & Lancasters. We had a six-roomed house for a pound a week. My mother and sister came with me and they looked after my baby while I went to work in munitions. I was a postwoman too and I used to get up at four in the morning and walk over Magdalen Bridge.

I came back to the East End to try to get a flat here and I got caught in one of the air raids, but I knew this was where I had to live. My mother used to get under the stairs in Wentworth St when there was a raid and put a baby’s pot on her head. The war was terrible.

They sent my husband to Ikley Moor and it was too cold for him, so we came back for good. I managed to get two horrible little side rooms in Stoney Lane, sharing a kitchen between four and a toilet between two. I had no fridge, just a wooden box with chicken wire on the front. I used to go the Lane and buy two-pennorth of ice and put the butter in there. I had to buy food fresh everyday. There was a black market trade in fruit. These flats had been built for the police but the police would not have them, so they let them out to other people. All the flats were named after royalty, we were in Queens Buildings. I watched them building new flats in Cambridge Heath Rd but, before I could get one of them, I was offered a lot of horrible flats. Yet when I got there we were overcrowded, until we got a three bedroom flat at last, because I had two girls and a boy. I lived sixty-seven years there.

My husband never earned much money so I had to carry on working. He had twenty-two shillings a week pension from the army. He did all kinds of things and then got a job in the Orient Tea Warehouse. In 1966, when he was going to be Mayor of Bethnal Green and they would not give him time off, he went up to the Hackney Town Hall and got a job in the Town Clerk’s Office. He was always good at writing, he had lovely hand writing.

I became a councillor and I loved it. Our council was the best council, they were best to the old people. We used to go and visit all the old people’s homes. I never told them I was coming because I used to try and catch them out. We checked the quality of food and how clean it was. I organised dinners in York Hall for all the old people and trips to Eastbourne, but it has all been done away with – they do nothing now.

I was a councillor for ten years from 1972 until 1982. I had to fight to get the seat but I always loved old people, my husband was the same. He was known as the ‘Singing Mayor’ because he used to sing in all the old people’s homes. From when I was forty-two, I used to go round old people’s homes on Friday nights and I still do it. We have dinners together, turkey, roast potatoes and sausages, with trifle for afters.”

Beattie Orwell

Photographs copyright © Phil Maxwell

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17 Responses leave one →
  1. October 5, 2021

    What an generous life Beattie has lived. Such an inspiring story to read in 2021. Another heartening story from Spitalfields Life at a time when we need it most. I do miss not being able to gravel to London during the time of Covid. It inspires me every time I’m there and look forward to international travel starting up again.

  2. Yvonne (Buffman) Cheyney permalink
    October 5, 2021

    A truly wonderful lady. A supporter of the downtrodden. A person who stands up for her beliefs and showed that at the Battle for Cable Street. 3 cheers for Beattie. Hip Hip Hoorah. Yvonne Cheyney, Upland, California

  3. October 5, 2021

    Great lady! What fab stories, we need more like her!

  4. October 5, 2021

    What an amazing lady Beattie is and despite some hardship in her life, she still has a lovely twinkle in her eyes.
    A real East Ender who has given so much back to her local community …..and she still ‘goes round old people’s homes’ aged 104! Bravo Beattie, thank you for sharing your story.

  5. October 5, 2021

    What a fascinating and lovely lady.

  6. October 5, 2021

    This wonderful lady has every right to be proud. We must never forget the power and impact of what was achieved at Cable Street.

  7. Gerry King permalink
    October 5, 2021

    Fabulous! Cheered me up this morning.

  8. paul loften permalink
    October 5, 2021

    Thank you ,Phil Maxwell and most of all Beattie ,so much for this story . Where else could we get a living history directly from a participant ? The Battle of Cable Street 1936 ! and this wonderful woman is here today telling us all about it.

  9. Mark. permalink
    October 5, 2021

    Great name, great woman.
    If only we had people like Beattie to take on today’s Fascists we wouldn’t be in the mess we have sleepwalked into now!
    Live long and prosper, Beattie.
    And thankyou.

  10. Kelly Holman permalink
    October 5, 2021

    Wishing you well Beattie. Thank you for sharing your amazing story.

  11. Adele Lester permalink
    October 5, 2021

    Happy Birthday to Beattie! A true EastEnder.

  12. Laura Vaughan permalink
    October 5, 2021

    Readers of this wonderful interview might be interested in a recording of several people, including Beattie Orwell, who were at the Battle of Cable Street.

    This is via the Memory Map of the Jewish East End, created at UCL with the writer Rachel Lichtenstein, whose archive of recordings underpinned the site’s creation.

    https://jewisheastendmemorymap.org/?feature_type=point&id=40

  13. Cherub permalink
    October 5, 2021

    A terrific story of a life well spent in a generous and kind way. We need more people like Beattie in this day and age. I would never have thought she was 104, what a fabulous and feisty lady. Thank you for sharing your story!

  14. Sue permalink
    October 5, 2021

    What a woman!

  15. October 6, 2021

    What an amazing lady! Such a life so well lived. I wish I knew her!

  16. October 6, 2021

    There were many like her in the East End. My Mum, my grandma, and my Auntie Rae were like her.Rosie Bocher too. Betty Gillard another
    They had to be. What else could they do?
    As Jack Dash’s dad said, “You have to fight for everything. The employers won’t give it to you on a plate.”

    Long live the memory of these tough East End people. Made of iron.

  17. October 6, 2021

    What a tough old bird. I bow to you Beattie! Sending the very best of birthday wishes too.

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