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Remembering Rose Strowman

October 25, 2022
by the gentle author

Join me on an atmospheric autumn walk through the streets of Spitalfields. Click here to book for THE GENTLE AUTHOR’S TOUR OF SPITALFIELDS


Rose Strowman with her husband and two of her three sons on a day trip to Cliftonville in the sixties


ANDY STROWMAN is hosting a poetry reading with fellow East End writers at House of Annetta, 25 Princelet St at 3pm on Sunday 30th October. Writers include Shamim Azad, Paul Collins, Jeffrey Kleinman, Roger Mills, Farah Naz, Milton Rahman, Ian Saville and Jamie Strowman.

The event is entitled THE MIND KEEPS THE SCORE, Remembering our past, honouring our future in stories and poems.

All are welcome, admission is free and no booking is required.


Paul Collins sent me this heroic memoir of the life of his mother, Rose Strowman.

Amid growing concern for mental health, the life of my mother Rose proves a salutary case study. Born disabled into a low-income Jewish refugee family in Whitechapel, she remained unwashed and slept in the daytime for a year when her marriage ended and her beloved mother died. She spent time in three mental hospitals, yet regained her ebullience and made beautiful hats for modest prices that matched or even surpassed in quality those worn by the rich.

After her sister Rachel was divorced, Rose invited her to live with us and, although we all shared a cramped home that lacked a bathroom and indoor toilet, my mother brought up three children successfully.

Despite abuse and harassment at school, Andy, the youngest, wrote the poetry book Story of a Stepney Boy, then became a botanist,  social worker, gardener and maths tutor. As her middle son, I swapped my uninterested father’s surname for Collins and trained as a reporter on the East London Advertiser, before pursuing journalism for national newspapers including the Daily Mirror. Then I worked as a media campaigner, fighting poverty including the hardship suffered by Bangladeshi workers making clothes for British stores. Meanwhile, the eldest son, my brother Howard, climbed from hairdressing to prominence as a multimillionaire businessman.

Rose’s strong character always shone through against persistent adversity. Emotional challenges began early when other schoolgirls teased her for the birth handicap of a foot turned inward. Then she lost two brothers, Dave and Barney, to early deaths from heart troubles.

Rose missed her friendly neighbours in Whitechapel after the forced move to Bow when the London Hospital sold her rented Milward St home to create parking space for Post Office vans. After her sons had gone their separate ways, Rose fell out with her sister Rachel and was treated at St Clement’s Hospital for a nervous breakdown.

As the nurses led her away, I had to remain strong for Mum. It was the only time I saw my brother Howard cry. On leaving St Clement’s, he found Mum a nursing home. But moments into visiting, I realised the mistake. The place had a pervasive smell of urine and residents begged me to help them escape. Soon Rose disappeared and slept two nights on Hampstead Heath before being consigned to a hospital bed for her own safety.

After discharge, she went to live at a flat beside Kew Gardens that Howard bought for her near his own home. But the unfamiliarity and isolation triggered a relapse that saw her vanish and wander alone for hours, requiring a return to in-patient care.

My uncle Jack and I searched all night, fearing to find her body in the Thames until she came back at dawn. As he drove us to the hospital, I cuddled her in the back seat, aware the longstanding illness she could not overcome had denied me hugs in childhood.

As further psychiatric hospital admissions followed, all three of us brothers dreaded that the cheerful mother we once knew might never re-emerge. But the turning point came after I secured a coveted place for Rose at the acclaimed Jewish home for elderly people, Nightingale House, which now also boasts a nursery that enables old and young to socialise together.

This Clapham establishment, with frequent outings for residents and craft  activities, rekindled the Stepney warmth she had missed so much. Mum adored the staff and neighbours and they all loved her.
She needed to be needed and, being among the youngest residents, would go shopping for the housebound. She liked to laugh a lot and saw humour in things that others might not. Once, a neighbour at Nightingale House had diarrhoea and Rose constipation. Each received pills meant for the other. Mum was moved in more ways than one but she saw the mix-up as a big joke.

Rose smoked throughout life to calm her mood swings and developed a rare ear cancer. Yet even with cancer and after contracting pneumonia Rose’s courage never faded. I took her flowers in hospital and next day a nurse summoned me. “Your mum is a real character,” she beamed. “Guess what she’s done now?”

“You’d better tell me,” I replied.

“Remember the bouquet you brought, that we put in a vase of water?”

“Er, yes,” I faltered.

“And the nil-by-mouth sign behind her bed?”

“It’s still there.”

“Well, she took the flowers out of the vase and drank the water.”

Rose had a simple explanation. “Oy, was I thirsty!”

Mum outlived her consultant’s prognosis and returned from hospital to Nightingale House. Residents and staff there celebrated her seventy-fourth birthday weeks before she died.

Rose’s spirit lives on in the lives of Howard, Andy and me, her three sons.


Rose and her husband Sam at the time of their marriage, 1944

Rose’s youngest son Andy in Milward St, Whitechapel


Jamie Strowman wrote this poem in memory of his grandmother




the taste would hit our mouths like a cloudburst

of spring rain     though it was always December     

down there in the sweet shop     the corridor lit

by a single light     on the way     I would feel

the coins warming my hand      to the promise shared    

because     I was an adult as much as you were a child  

yet     both of us     were filled with that playground

rush our fingers     like foxes     rummaging through

the open packet     throats catching the cool     clear     

‘and so’     in a breath     yet now     what sticks

most of all     is the image of the polar bear     delicately     

poised     on a Glacier Mint     fragile     but still strong


Rose Strowman in her sixties     

You may also like to read about

Andy Strowman, Poet of Stepney

From Andy Strowman’s Album

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Winnie permalink
    October 25, 2022

    What a beautiful post. Thank you.

  2. paul loften permalink
    October 25, 2022

    I wasn’t sure of the precise location of Milward Street. Paul mentioned that Rose’s home was sold off by the London Hospital in the 60’s to make space for vans. It suddenly twigged that they were virtual neighbours to my Grandmother who lived a lifetime in Raven Row which was then one of the narrow cobbled streets also behind the London Hospital. The houses were so cramped with a tiny concrete back yard with an outside toilet. When I would go there to visit her and go outside to use the toilet , I was warned by my uncle ,who looked after her there in her old age , to watch out for the friendly rat that occasionally popped its head out of the toilet . Fortunately I can’t recall ever having the pleasure to meet it.
    The London Hospital sold off a large area to the Post Office in Raven Row which I remember was turned into a Post Office Van depot. Rose was fortunate to have moved away to Bow as the area became a nightmare of noise and exhaust fumes for the street. There was a large grey steel gate that was constantly in use . My uncle was constantly writing letters to the council complaining about the noise and traffic in the street which came in directly from Whitechapel Road . The banging of the gate at night was also causing a nuisance My Grandmother eventually also had to move away as life was becoming unbearable there.

  3. Ros permalink
    October 25, 2022

    This is a beautiful post and I salute from the bottom of my heart the spirit that all of you showed to protect and defend your family amidst such hardship and adversity. The care and the humour shine through. I’m sad you missed out on help that was around at the time for vulnerable children and families. I hope to be at the event on Sunday that Andy is hosting.

  4. Hilda Kean permalink
    October 25, 2022

    An honest but clearly difficult account , What an interesting piece of writing, the sort of which I would never be able to convey personally about my own mother (or father). I am glad her spirit lives on with you and your brothers.

  5. October 25, 2022

    A fine post!

    Love & Peace

  6. Andy permalink
    October 25, 2022

    Thank you everyone.
    I can only say I appreciate all who wrote and the Gentle Suthor for being unique. The only one to give this chance to say this piece.

  7. Marcia Howard permalink
    October 28, 2022

    What a truly moving story, and best wishes to you Andy Strowman and your family

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