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Jacqueline Billings Of Wellclose Square

October 27, 2022
by the gentle author

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Jacqueline Billings

It was my delight to take the train down to Farnborough to meet Jacqueline Billings. She is one of the few people left to recall the fabled beauty of Wellclose Sq in Wapping which was demolished in the last century as part of ‘slum clearance.’

‘I can’t remember anything because I am so old and very little has registered,’ she declared to me, shaking her head in feigned disappointment, before regaling me with the tales of her formative years in Wellclose Sq which you can read below.

In the East End, Jacqueline discovered two prevailing passions which remain with her to this day. She began her career as a teacher in Poplar in her twenties and, seventy years later, still tutors children at home. She remembers visiting the Whitechapel Bell Foundry over half a century ago and has been an enthusiastic handbell ringer for more than forty years, still practising several nights a week.

With high cheek bones, classical features and with her long white hair pulled back, Jacqueline possesses a commanding yet magnanimous spirit. She is well spoken, with precise diction and elegant consonants, and it was my privilege to listen as she told me her story in her own words.

“I was born in 1926 which makes me ninety-two years old. I was born in Ilford and my father, George Thompson, was an analytical chemist and worked for the Gas Light & Coke Company. My mother Elise was French, from Saint Omer in Normandy, she was a hairdresser and people came round to our house to get their hair done. She was coming over to England one day and he had been to France, and they met on the ferry.

My grandfather lived at 7 Campbell Rd in Bow and was a ship’s carpenter in the London Docks. At some point, they asked for a halfpenny an hour wage increase and it was refused. After nine months of stalemate, the company closed and he was out of a job. We used to visit my grandparents in Bow, they had a tiny front room, a backroom and scullery with a tin bath.

The Gas Light & Coke Company had a gas substation in a house in Wellclose Sq in Wapping and we moved there in 1937, when I was ten years old. The first floor rooms were kept locked and my father had to check instruments through a glass panel in the wall. In the kitchen, during the war, there was a disc on the wall and it had a pen attached which we had to fill with ink. It drew a line that recorded the gas pressure. Sometimes the gas pipes were hit by bombs and the line dropped – there was no gas at all.

It was a lovely house with sixty-seven stairs from the bottom to the very top. The bathroom was at the top of the house but at some point somebody had built a lavatory in the yard. It was not very large but it was fascinating because it was castellated. You had to climb thirteen steps from the kitchen to get outside and then walk down this little yard to reach the castle at the bottom. Looking out from the front of the house into Wellclose Square, you could see the church and St Paul’s School and trees. It was very peaceful and I am sorry it has gone.

When we came to the East End from Ilford, it seemed a dirty and noisy place. In those days, it was mainly a Jewish quarter. Old ladies would be sitting outside their front doors after they had whitened the step, which they did every day. I can remember a lot of live chickens being sold.

At school, the East End children thought we spoke funny. We did not know how else to speak. We spoke as we had been brought up. I was never more than an average pupil and I do not remember having school friends. I was only there about a year before I was evacuated although, towards the end of the war, I came back every weekend. St Paul’s School was closed because all the children were evacuated and it never reopened in my time there. Consequently, the square was empty and always very quiet.

I had a brother George and a sister, Andrée. Our bedroom was at the top of the house and my sister did something frightening. The window opened onto a sloping roof, where there there was a gully and parapet. Lo and behold, if she did not get out of the window – which we had done several times – and stood in the gully. She walked along the top of the parapet and she survived. I was something I was never temped to do.

It was always frightening to me because my sister and I, we had to go down North East Passage to get to Cable St and then walk along Cable St. I do not know why it was frightening but I was always frightened in Cable St. People spoke about the blackshirts but not in any detail. We felt there might always be somebody there ready to jump out at us and in fact my sister was attacked one night. In the other direction, we would go down Cable St and walk up Leman St to Aldgate East underground station. On my way back down Leman St, even when I was twenty, I used to go into the Police Station and ask, ‘Please could a policeman accompany me back to the house.’

Sometimes we could hear ships sounding in the docks. Wellclose Square was very big and there was the Highway beyond and the docks were over a wall on the other side of the Highway. It was not traffic we heard, it was the sound of the ships. We never visited the docks. We were well insulated inside our house, I do not think we opened the windows very much. Certainly not at the front. We were never cold, we had gas lights and gas fires. You could go in the front door, walk down the passage and switch on the gaslight, which we thought was very advanced. You had to handle the gas mantle very carefully when you replaced it. I do not know when we got electricity.

We used to swim in the Thames by Tower Bridge. You could go down the steps and when the tide was out there was a gravelly beach. Lots of people went. We were always on our own but we did not come to any harm.

My father was only forty-eight when he died. He was still young but he had been ill all his life. He had a damaged kidney from a fall in the school gymnasium. It atrophied and finally he had it removed. He was born in 1900, so he was too young to serve in the First World War. During the Second World War, he was issued with a gun and he had to be able to shoot at a packet of cigarettes at twenty metres.

I remember hearing the sirens one Sunday morning and I said to my sister, ‘You know that means we’re at war.’ George, Andrée and I were evacuated to Egham in Surrey for four years, next door to where aircraft were being built. It was quite a dangerous spot. Once I looked up and I could see a dogfight overhead. My brother was sent to Virginia Water, and me and my sister were sent to Thorpe Lea. Our school was in a large house in Englefield Green. The lady who took us in was the widow of a Methodist minister and life was very quiet. There was no radio and we were not even allowed to knit on a Sunday. It was a strict life but we survived it.

We came back whenever we could and I remember being in London when the doodlebugs came over. We would come back to London on the Friday night and leave again on Saturday afternoon. There was not a lot of bomb damage around Wellclose Square. Although the eighteenth century houses were jerry built, when bombs came down, the houses blew out and lurched back again. The only shelter we had was a wine cellar underneath the pavement with an iron door. It was the best we could do, but we did not feel vulnerable.

Gradually, people drifted back to London. When I returned to live in Wellclose Sq, I was approaching eighteen and I went off again to college to train as a teacher in Southampton. My brother and my sister moved to Bethnal Green. He had cerebral palsy, so walking was difficult for him but he got around and he became a proofreader for a newspaper.

Once I became a teacher, I taught back in the East End in Poplar. In those days, we had classes of at least thirty and they spoke cockney. I had a pile of comics and I would make the children go to the cloakroom and wash their hands before I handed out the comics, because they were precious. We had to store them and bring them out again and again as a special treat for the children. We wanted to teach respect for the written word.

I enjoyed teaching so much that I have not stopped. I shall be teaching this afternoon. The pupils come to my home in Camberley, they are all Bangladeshi and Pakistani children. The parents are keen for them to do well and so many of them want to be doctors. I was pleased to leave the East End because I like all the green here in Surrey.”

Stable Yard, Wellclose Sq (London & Middlesex Archaeological Society, Bishopsgate Institute)

The Old Court House, Wellclose Sq (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)

The former Danish Embassy, c.1930. (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)

At the corner of Stable Yard, Wellclose Sq. (London & Middlesex Archaeological Society, Bishopsgate Institute)

Geoffrey Fletcher’s drawing of Wellclose Sq, 1968.

Wellclose Sq looking east from the steps of No.5 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)

Wellclose Sq, south side, 1961. (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)

Old Court House, view to first floor landing showing the fine Barbon staircase, 1911 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)


Watch House, Wellclose Sq, 1935. (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)

You may also like to read about

The Lost Squares of Stepney

In the Debtors Cell

David Mason at Wiltons Music Hall

6 Responses leave one →
  1. October 27, 2022

    Jacqueline Billings belongs to the generation that experienced the war when they were teenagers. My father was born in the same year and I know his memories of that time very well. He has now passed away at home at the age of 94.

    I have great respect for people of that age. And I can understand very well that Jacqueline once moved to the green garden of Surrey. (I have a secret vision: I would like to do exactly the same…)

    Love & Peace

  2. Jean M permalink
    October 27, 2022

    What an interesting lady, somebody you could sit and listen to for hours. Also how sad about Wellclose Square, another London gem lost forever.

  3. Mark permalink
    October 27, 2022

    What a lovely person with an interesting story.
    The bastards who sanctioned the destruction of this glorious square needed sorting out. Mind you, it would’ve been gentrified and untouchable for the working class.

  4. Cherub permalink
    October 27, 2022

    I know the article says it was demolished as part of slum clearance, but had the properties been renovated it looks like it could have been a lovely area. I don’t understand why things have to be ripped down all the time, is it purely for financial reasons?

  5. Marcia Howard permalink
    October 28, 2022

    Thank you so much Gentle Author. You treat us to truly fascinating stories and insights into others’ lives.

  6. Josephine Bickle permalink
    November 11, 2023

    My father, born in 1898 lived in Wellclose Square. He was Joseph George Clayton and designed the war memorial of st George in the East church. His first wife was called Winifred and continued living there long after he left. I would be interested in hearing from anyone who might have more memories of that era.

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