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Cecile Moss Of Old Montague St

January 20, 2023
by the gentle author

Cecile aged four

Although Cecile Moss lived in Old Montague St for fourteen years, this is the only photograph taken of her in Spitalfields, and it was taken for a precise purpose. A photographer came round to take it in 1955, the year Cecile arrived from Jamaica aged four years old, and the picture was sent back to her family in the Caribbean as evidence that she was attending a proper Catholic school with a smart uniform and therefore all was well in London. Yet in contrast to the image of middle class respectability which Cecile’s mother strove to maintain, the family lived together in one room in a tenement and the reason there are no other photographs is because they had no money for a camera.

Almost no trace survives today of the Old Montague St that Cecile knew – a busy thoroughfare crowded with diverse life, filled with slum dwellings, punctuated by a bomb site and a sugar factory, and lined with small shops and cafes. There, long-established Jewish traders sat alongside dodgy coffees bars in which Maltese, Somalis, Caribbeans and others congregated to do illicit business. In fact, Old Montague St offered a rich and stimulating playground to a young child filled with wonder and curiosity, as Cecile was.

The presence of black people proved a challenge to many East Enders at that time. “Sometimes, they knotted their handkerchiefs when they saw me,” recalled Cecile with mixed emotion, “and they’d say, ‘If you see a black person that’s good luck.'” Fortunately, Cecile’s mother’s professional status as a teacher proved to be an unexpected boost to Cecile in this new society and later Cecile became a teacher herself, an occupation that she pursues today from her home in New Cross Gate where she lives with her children and grandchildren. “Since the new overground train, I’ve spent a lot more time in the East End and I still have a lot of friends there.” she admitted to me when I visited her, “As you grow older, you tend to want to go back to your home.”

“We came to England from Jamaica in 1955, me, my sister Clorine and my mother, Marlene Moss, to Old Montague St in Spitalfields. She left my father and came over to live with her sister, Daisy. I was four years old and I didn’t know I was coming to England, I was traumatised. But I remember what I was wearing, I wore a double-breasted coat with a velvet Peter Pan collar and lace-up shoes. My mother was a teacher in Jamaica and she didn’t want us to look like refugees arriving in England. The voyage lasted ten days and we were met by my uncle at Southampton. It was very confined on the boat so that when I got off, I kept on running around.

We lived in a building where the Spitalfields health centre is today. We were 9b, above a shop where two elderly Jewish sisters lived. My mother cried for days because we had to share one toilet with three other floors, so it was really quite disgusting. I was told that I had come to get a doll. But it was an ugly chalky-skinned blond doll, and I was so angry and upset that I threw it away and smashed it, which made my aunt think I was a very ungrateful little girl. My mother,my sister and I all lived in one room. My sister was eleven and she remained silent, whereas my mum and I just cried a lot. I missed my family in Jamaica.

Because we were Catholics, we went to St Anne’s Catholic church and mother got talking to the priest. He told her she could teach in St Gregory, a Secondary Modern in Wood Close, doing supply work. When she started at the school she was shocked. One of the pupils was absent from the register and they said, ‘He’s gone down for GBH.’ My mother came back and asked my aunt, ‘What is this GBH?’ She said she was going introduce Shakespeare to the school but they said,’We don’t want you bringing any of your kind of rubbish here!’

I went to St Patrick’s school around the back of St Anne’s and my sister, because she had already passed the eleven-plus, went to Our Lady’s convent in Stamford Hill. Yet I only lasted two weeks at St Patrick’s because the kids hit me and pushed me over. I can’t remember if they called me racist names, but I know I was terribly unhappy. My mother took me away and sent me to Stamford Hill too. I was five years old, and she put me on the 653 bus and told the conductor where to let me off. The people on the bus would look after me and I never missed my stop. I felt safe. So we lived in the East End but we went to school in North London. That was unusual but, because my mother was a teacher, we were middle class, even though we lived in Old Montague St which was a slum. Old Montague St had quite a reputation for drugs. There were dark tenements with dark passages with dark dealings.

When my mum got a permanent job at St Agnes’ school in Bow, she took me away from Our Lady’s at seven years old. So I never went back to school in Spitalfields but I used to play out on the street a lot. Most of the children I played with were second generation Irish with names like Touhy, O’Shea, Latimer and Daley – that’s who I grew up with. There was an older Irish boy who looked out for me, he said I was part of the gang. He told us we mustn’t speak to the people on Brick Lane because they were Jewish. He was looked after by his grandmother. She was a character. Every Saturday night, she went to the pub on the corner of Chicksand St and filled a jug with port or whatever and stumbled back singing, ‘Daisy, Daisy give me your answer do.’ And my mother cried and said, ‘Look what we have come down to.’ One day, the old lady, she tied a skipping rope across the street to stop the traffic so that we could play. When the police came along, she said, ‘ The children have got nowhere to play.’ And we were all shocked, but later they opened a playground on the corner of Old Montague St and Vallance Rd.

I loved going to Petticoat Lane. Every Friday, my aunt would go and get a chicken – you could choose one and they would kill it for you. There were street entertainers, an organ grinder and man who lay on a bed of hot coals. Walking up  Wentworth St, there were all Jewish shops with barrels of pickles and olives outside. I was fascinated but my mother said, ‘That’s not our food.’ A lot of the stallholders were quite friendly to me and my mother because they thought we were the next wave of immigrants. There was a cafe I walked past with my mum, it was full of black-skinned men but I couldn’t understand what they were saying even though they were like us. They were Somalis. The men outside, they’d give me sixpence and put me on their knee. They liked to see me because they were away from their own children. I think we were some of the first West Indians here, there were no other black kids.

I spent a lot of time in the fleapit cinema on Brick Lane on Saturdays. But by the time I turned seven, my mum stopped me playing out. She forbade me, so my wanderings around Spitalfields stopped and I don’t mix with the kids on the street anymore. Instead I became more friendly with the kids I was at school with in Bow.

My aunt Daisy went back to Jamaica and my sister returned when she was eighteen. So it was just me and my mum in the end. We shared a bedroom and we had a sitting room, with the kitchen in the hallway. I was very embarrassed about where I lived and I didn’t bring friends home because it was a slum. All this time, my mother was not divorced, she was still married and it really held her back. She even had to ask a friend to his name down for her to be able to buy a television.

There was a hardware shop and other shops run by Jewish people, where they got on well with my mother. There was a bit of snobbishness because she was a teacher. It used to cushion me too, I was Mrs Moss’ daughter. When she complained, they used to say to her, ‘Never mind, we had it, now it’s your turn.’ Referring the racial prejudice, they meant it was something you put up with, then it would pass. And by the time I left Spitalfields, it was the Bengalis coming in, so it was quite profound what they said – it was a rite of passage at that time.

When I was eighteen, we moved out. Looking back on it, I’ve got to say it was a happy time. I knew when I’d forgotten Jamaica and made my transition to England. I played a lot on the stairs and I pretended to have a ‘post office’ there. One day my mother was there too, washing some clothes on the landing and she corrected my speech. ‘It’s not ‘spag-ETTEE,” she said, ‘It’s ‘spaghetti” And, I realised then, that was because I’d left Jamaica behind and I spoke Cockney.

Today I often teach immigrants, children for whom English is their second language, and I can say to them, ‘I know what you are going through.'”

Old Montague St 1965 by Geoffrey Fletcher

Cecile Moss

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11 Responses leave one →
  1. Saba permalink
    January 20, 2023

    Oh, Ms. Cecile Moss, I could hear enchanting Jamaican voices as I read this article, an inspiring article about two feisty women, you and your mom. You look so lively and lovely in the photograph! I wish you all happiness.

  2. Greg T permalink
    January 20, 2023

    Thank you

  3. Peter Hiller permalink
    January 20, 2023

    Very interesting social history story thank you so much. C.ecile’s journey from beautiful Jamaica to a grimy East End life should be read to children today. Might, just might place avarice in perspective…?

  4. Keith Hagan permalink
    January 20, 2023

    What a great story, full of warmth, humour and insight. Cecile paints a very vivid picture of life in the area at that time. I look forward to the Gentle Author’s blog every day, and today’s is amongst the most engaging for a while. Thank you for this lovely story!

  5. aubrey permalink
    January 20, 2023

    I well remember Old Montague St in the early 50’s. My mother’s parents lived there. I can’t remember the number of the house but they lived in appalling conditions in a few rooms within the house: a rat infested **’@ hole. I think that had about 6 children: my aunts and uncles; now all dead. My grandmother spoke only Yiddish whilst my grandfather coped with broken English and worked as a carpenter in brick lane. I was told he ran away from Tsarist Russia.

  6. Mark permalink
    January 20, 2023

    Uplifting story from Cecile.
    Loving the juxtaposition between block of flats and slums. Now the flats are the slums.
    Great painting and sketches from Geoffrey Fletcher to acompany a fine story.

  7. January 20, 2023

    Cecile’s wonderful story is a very touching one. Thank you for letting me share it with you!

    Love & Peace

  8. Debra. E. Sewell permalink
    January 20, 2023

    I loved her story. They were proud of whom they were, where they came from and WORKED towards a future. Mom had a vision of future for herself and kids and DID NOT LOOK FOR SOME BROKE DOWN MAN to get her new life. A proud teacher and responsible mum.

    I liked she found her place, a good career and now helping others get their futures too. I loved when she said she spoke Cockney, even though the Jamaican language is very musical and happy.

    Thank you for her story and photos

  9. Cherub permalink
    January 20, 2023

    What a touching story, but I was very sad at the part about being bullied at school. I don’t like to think it was about race or colour, but know it could have been. Sadly my late mother in law was an Eastender with a bad attitude and she was very racist about people she saw as outsiders – even me as I’m Scottish!

  10. John Parham permalink
    January 22, 2023

    It was so good to see this. I was glad to meet Cecile, though sadly it was at a funeral in East London back at the end of March last year. We had quite a long chat about mutual friends in the old East End. Such a beautiful lady. Sending her all good wishes from Whitechapel!

  11. Marcia Howard permalink
    February 19, 2023

    Thank goodness this story had a happy ending. I never considered I had a privileged upbringing, but my childhood seems idyllic compared to the early years of this brave lady. My late husband and I had a holiday to Jamaica in 1987. We loved the country. Irie!

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