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Milly Abrahams, Dressmaker

March 3, 2022
by the gentle author

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Milly Abrahams (nee Markovitch)

At the outbreak of war, it is salutary to recognise the close connections between the East End and Ukraine. Many thousands of the refugees who fled here, escaping pogroms against Jewish people in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, came from this region. Here is just one of those stories.

Photographer Martin Usborne & I took the trip to Wembley to visit Milly Abrahams, whose late brother Joseph Markovitch was the subject of Martin’s book I’ve Lived In East London for Eighty-Six & A Half Years. Milly left the East End more than seventy years ago but, hale and hearty at a hundred years old, her childhood remains vivid to her today.

“I was born in a tenement house in Gosset St, Bethnal Green, but my mother got very ill and we were taken to Mother Levy’s Maternity Home in Underwood Rd, and we stayed there a little while – so my mother told me. In those days parents never told you much. If you asked questions, they’d say in Yiddish ‘What do you want to know for?’

I asked my mother, ‘How did you come over here?’ Somebody brought her over from Krakow and left her here and she went into service – that’s what she said. Krakow was Austria when she was born, but now it’s Poland. Neither of my parents knew what age they were when they came over. My mother had nobody here, though my father came over with his sisters and a brother who died, so I knew all the aunts. My father came from Kyiv, which was Russia then and now it’s Ukraine. He tried to trace my mother’s side of the family because she said something about them going to America, yet he never found anything. So she had nobody.

They met here when she was in service and he lived next door with his sisters. They liked chicken soup but they had to water it down to make it go round. My parents got married with nothing. My father was a sick man who was always ill, he was a presser in the tailoring trade. He had trouble with his hands and I remember my mother putting cream on for him and bandaging them up. So he never really worked, but the Jewish community in the East End were very good. We were never a burden on the State, because we had all these Jewish charities – the Jewish Board of Guardians, the Jewish Soup Kitchen and all that. I went to the Jewish Free School in Bell Lane where I got free uniform, meals and seaside holidays. We used to stay in these big houses by the sea and they brought kosher food from London

Where I lived, we had the Catholics, the Protestants and the Jewish but we were all together. Nobody had any money. The non-Jewish people were very good, they used to sit outside in the street and drink tea with us. We were so happy, we didn’t know anything else. Nowadays people expect to have bathrooms ensuite and three toilets, we had a toilet in the yard. Among Jewish people, if you lived next door and you had a little bit more, you would knock on your neighbour’s door on Friday or Saturday and give them some money, yet nobody would know about it. It was kept quiet.

My father wasn’t religious at all, he was a Communist more-or-less. When we used to smell the neighbours’ bacon and want to run upstair to have some, my mother would tell us we couldn’t have bacon. When the Yiddish Theatre in Whitechapel staged benefits, we used to go along. My parents only spoke Yiddish or broken English and, even now, sometimes I mix up my words. We saw plays with well-known actors entirely in Yiddish but we all understood it.

My mother had four children and she lost one – two girls, Leah and me, two boys, Morrie and Joey, Joseph. Leah was the eldest and I was second, then Morrie and Joey, he was the last. I have to say, my mother did the right thing with Joey. He couldn’t speak clearly, but we understood him because we were used to it. They called them ‘backward’ in those days. My mother sent him to a special school and that’s where he learnt to read and write, but people used to say, ‘Why are you sending him there? It’s the madhouse!’

From Gosset St, we moved to Sonning Buildings on the Boundary Estate where we had more room and it was much better. In Gosset St, we slept in one room, my mum and dad and the four of us children. In bed, two of us slept one way and two the other. On Fridays, we used to get out the bath and all have a wash. My father used to help my mother, bathing us with the same water – that’s how it was then.

After I left school at fourteen, I worked as a machinist in a factory in Fournier St making ladieswear. The manager was a nice young bloke but it was hard work. If you talked, they said, ‘Stop talking and get on with your work.’

I belonged to the Brady Club in Hanbury St. We were kept separate and the boys’ club was round the corner somewhere, yet they used to come on their bikes to meet us and take us home on the crossbar. We only got together on Sunday nights when they had dancing.

I met my husband, David, after the war and we married when I was twenty-seven. He was a gunner and he had been in the army for six years, fighting. He was wounded, he went deaf from the gunfire and he got dysentery, but he never had a penny in compensation or a war pension, just a basic state pension.

David was a tailor in ladies tailoring, he didn’t want to be one but in those days you did what your parents told you. So when I got married, I helped my husband as a machinist because his family had a factory. At first, we lived with my mother-in-law in Old Montague St because we couldn’t afford a place of our own.

At last, when my son Alan was three, we moved here to Wembley. I missed the East End but I got used to it here, all these houses were brand new and inhabited by newly-weds from wealthy Jewish families – although we weren’t in that category. They all started having babies, and I had my second son Anthony and my daughter Shelley. The grandparents used to come to visit and bring expensive toys and, as the gardens were open, the children ran into each others’ gardens, saying ‘This is was what my grandma and pa brought me!’ My kids weren’t jealous, they just used to say, ‘Bubba and Nanny are poor.’

Joey never left home, he lived with my mother in Sonning Buildings and they used to come here to visit at weekends. He was lovely little kid, he was the only one of us that wasn’t ginger, he was blond. He never had a proper job, only odd jobs. It was very difficult, but my mother never put him in an institution like a lot of people did in those days. He was always unwell, with chest problems, yet he was always chatty speaking to everyone. He was very interested in Politics and always talking about Money and the Country. Joey and me used to go to the cinema in Hoxton together to see Dick Powell and Ingrid Bergman films. We saw Gone With The Wind and came out crying.”

Milly is on the left  and her sister Leah on the right of this family group from the twenties

Milly is in the centre, Leah on the right and Maurice on the left of this family group

Joseph is in the centre, Milly on the left, Leah at the top and Maurice on the right

Milly as a young woman

Milly and her husband David Abrahams, as photographed by Boris of Whitechapel

Milly Abrahams, Dressmaker

Portraits copyright © Martin Usborne

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So Long, Joseph Markovitch

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Judith Page permalink
    March 3, 2022

    My lovely Auntie – the last remaining relative of my parents generation. So glad her parents came to London all those years ago.

  2. Anke permalink
    March 3, 2022

    Thank you for the wonderful read about lovely Milly.
    I would love to hear more about her… what happened to her brother Joey, how did she eventually become a dressmaker, what became of her children
    Milly seems a beautiful woman, inside and outside, and I would love to get to know her better.
    Is there any chance there will be a „Milly, the Dressmaker, Part 2?“

    Thank you very much and take care,

  3. Cherub permalink
    March 3, 2022

    Millie and her husband look like movie stars on their wedding day, she is gorgeous, her hair, gown and flowers just beautiful.

    I have been thinking about Ukraine constantly this past week, my late uncle was born in Lviv but brought up outside Warsaw in Poland so he considered himself Polish. He was displaced as a teenager in WW2 and joined the Polish army in Scotland with his cousin.

    Everything is so sad at the moment.

  4. March 3, 2022

    Thank you, GA. I am sure many other readers will comment about this wonderful story, but I wanted to salute you for including these amazing photos. I am always so moved to see old photos (no matter who/what/where/when) that have survived against all odds. Clearly these have been jammed into drawers, pockets, and suitcases…….and yet they abide. Time almost seems to be chomping away at the edges of some — but the stalwart people remain. These faces! What a
    beautiful, remarkable archive of family images.

    Thanks for shining a light.
    Stay safe, all.

  5. Adele Lester permalink
    March 3, 2022

    Her family, and those like her, were the backbone of the East End. Wonderful post.

  6. Angela permalink
    March 3, 2022

    This is like a compilation of my family’s history & I have the exact same pose of a Boris photograph of my late parents

  7. Akkers permalink
    March 3, 2022

    Well done on another great article. Milly seems like a lovely woman and has a smile that lights up the room.
    I agree with Anku above that you should do a follow up article with Milly.
    I loved the photos in this piece and also thought like Cherub that Milly and her husband looked like film stars on their wedding day as did my own parents in their wedding photos.
    Milly and her generation, my relatives included, certainly are what the East end is about.
    Once again well done Gentle Author.

  8. Ian SILVERTON permalink
    March 6, 2022

    Anybody remember the Abrahams Family,who lived in Gosset Street Bethnal Green, next door too the Westminster Arms Pub at 163 Gosset Street? Namely, Alan, Hendry, Charlie ,Vic? Let me know please. thanks GA.

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