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Peter Riley, Kitchen Porter & Cleaner

May 22, 2024
by the gentle author

Tickets are available for The Gentle Author’s Tour of Spitalfields on Saturday 25th May


Peter Riley


I was surprised and delighted when Peter Riley joined my tour last Saturday. He was passing Christ Church and grew curious when he heard me talking about Spitalfields as a place of sanctuary and refuge, so he walked over to listen and tagged along.

After the tour Peter apologised that he had not booked a ticket, explaining that he was homeless and had been sleeping under bridges and in parks locally for the past three months. He asked if he could tell me his story and if I would publish it.

It was evident from his manner that Peter was a gentle soul of decent character who deserved better. It was also obvious that he was a vulnerable individual and I could not imagine how he had endured these recent months of cold damp weather, sleeping outdoors and often walking all night.

So I took Peter for lunch in Brick Lane yesterday, and learned of his courage and resilience despite his fractured life. It was disappointing but unsurprising to discover that Peter had been let down by those authorities and institutions whose responsibility it is to help him.

Reliable and hardworking, Peter has a lot to offer. I publish his story today in the hope that one of my local readers might be able to assist him in finding a job and somewhere to live. (Please email if you can help).

‘I was born in Burnley, Lancashire, with two brothers and two sisters. My mother worked as a nurse at hospital in Manchester. When I was seven years old, my dad moved to London and we lived in Casson House off Brick Lane. In Burnley, he ran a restaurant but in London he stayed at home and looked after us kids.

In 1980, my dad took me, my mum, and my sister to a village in Bangladesh. We lived in a house surrounded by trees and I liked it there, I felt safe. Yet when we were there, my dad got married to another woman. My mum did not like this, she was upset and wanted to come back to England. My uncle bought her a ticket to return and I was left behind. My dad kept me there in Bangladesh for another sixteen years.

I stayed with my step mum who already had one son. I wanted to attend the local school and study. Instead I was used. She put me to herd the sheep, grow vegetables, run errands to the town and clean the house. If she said something that I did not understand, she beat me up. She thought she had the right to do this. She told me if I did not listen to her she would not let me into the house and I would get no food. She wanted me to work for her all day instead of getting an education. She enslaved me. My passport was taken. I had nothing, not even clothes of my own. It was a hard life.

A Bengali man who was visiting from Nottingham, and who knew my mum, heard about me, how I was struggling. He told me, ‘Don’t worry, I’m going to help you and you are going to go back to England.’ He went to see my mum in Manchester and told her my story. She was very worried but he said he would bring me back. The immigration authorities wanted a DNA test, so my mum gave a sample in Manchester and I went to the immigration centre in Dhaka and gave blood. Two months later, I got a new passport and some people bought me a ticket home.

When I returned to England in 1997, I was twenty-two. My dad was living in Manchester Rd on the Isle of Dogs. I could no longer write or speak English. It was a hard to get a job, but I got one in an Indian restaurant in Guildford. I worked two shifts each day as a kitchen porter, washing up and chopping vegetables. The lunchtime shift was from ten until two and nighttime from five until half past eleven. They wanted me working there all day for twelve or thirteen hours at £2 an hour. I can cook – curried rice and biryani – many things. But they did not want to teach me to be a chef or second chef, they only wanted me to do portering. For a six day week, they paid me £80 though they did not want to give the money. It was hard. I would prefer a council cleaning job where I can earn the right pay for the hours. I have done restaurant work and cleaning, and I am prepared to try anything. I have skills.

My step mum came to live with my dad on the Isle of Dogs and she said, ‘I don’t like him to come here.’ So my dad told me, ‘I don’t have a choice, son. I am old and I going to die soon. Look after yourself.’ I rented a room in Bow Rd for £50 a week and I joined the Tower Hamlets housing register and for fourteen years I was on the housing list. After that, they struck my name off the list. I don’t know why. I went to their office in Chrisp St Market to ask and they told me I was cancelled. It was a long time waiting and now my dad has passed away.

Since February, I have been sleeping under a bridge in Wapping. Crisis sent me to a night shelter in Hackney but I was scared to stay there because the single beds were too close together, three or four in a very small room. I went to Isle of Dogs Law Centre and asked. I said, ‘I don’t know what to do, I need your help. I’m homeless, I don’t know how I’m going to find a place to stay.’ They made an application for me and told me to take it to the council and say, ‘I’m homeless.’

The council housing officer asked me, ‘What’s happening?’ I said ‘I’ve been in Tower Hamlets quite a long time but I have got no address.’ She said, ‘You’ve got no priority. If you’re ill or you’ve got family, it would be different.’

I want to have a life like other people have, a social life. I want a normal life where I can work, have a home and be safe. I want to look after myself and other people. I want peace and quiet. But I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s very hard.’

Peter Riley outside Casson House off Brick Lane where he grew up

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15 Responses leave one →
  1. Wendy permalink
    May 22, 2024

    Wishing for the best for this gentleman- after so many difficulties he deserves safety, home and security and of course happiness. Thank you for telling us his story

  2. Andy permalink
    May 22, 2024

    I want to say in many way I have great empathy for this man .
    At one time I too was a kitchen porter and my wage was three shillings and sixpence a hour .
    I was doing twelve hour shifts for a well known company in the West End .
    I spent two days looking for work and asking employers then finally got that job .
    I was seventeen and had not eaten for two days .

    I nearly walked away from the job because a black woman was on her knees gripping the boss’s leg saying again ,”Please master give me my job .”

    I felt it was out of the slave trade .
    The going rate then was about 15 shillings a hour .

    When you are desperate you take anything .

    This man has not deserved such a life . The Council need to show more care for there are many out there like him . I do not blame him for not liking that shelter . It don’t feel safe to me .

    When I worked in Bethnal Green Gardens there was an Irishman there who had once become homeless . He ended up at Tower House in Fieldgate st . He told me ,”Even in there a Catholic was arguing with a Protestant !.”

    All true. Please publish .

  3. May 22, 2024

    Thank you for your kindness in raising awareness of Peter Riley’s story. I’m sorry to hear he’s gone through so much in his life.

    Reading his story has totally put into perspective the email I received this morning about a pitch for work I didn’t win. Peter’s resilience and strength despite so much hardship is a real example.

    I’m sorry I’m not able to offer any practical assistance but Spitalfields Life is read by so many people, I hope someone local is able to help.

  4. May 22, 2024

    Thank you so much for publishing this article. I hope someone can help Pete.

  5. Richard Armiger permalink
    May 22, 2024

    a gentle man
    a gentle author

    I’ve had so much good luck and good fortune in my life,
    but the kindest people who all helped, all were wise and full of empathy.

    I don’t know how so many ‘rumps and their ilk develop none, zero empathy.

    Success to you both.

  6. Margaret Shea permalink
    May 22, 2024

    Try the Bethnal Green Mission 305 Cambridge Heath Rd E2. They do lots to help the homeless including a safe clean place to sleep overnight. Advice with employment, housing and benefits.

    Please go along or contact them at 0207 729 4286. I wish you a better future and many blessings👍🏻

  7. Cherub permalink
    May 22, 2024

    Thank you so much for giving Peter a voice. He deserves better and I hope he will find safe housing soon. God bless him.

  8. May 22, 2024

    This morning I am thinking of all the ways Spitalfields Life makes an impact.
    GA, your readers are enriched and informed, your surroundings are chronicled and preserved,
    your own personal expression has a voice, you provide optimism every day. And you’re an
    advocate, for this fine gent.

    Sending positive vibes from the Hudson River Valley.
    Onward and upward, everyone.

  9. Saba permalink
    May 22, 2024

    I live in the U.S. and searched for a job for several years late in my life. I did come up with something unexpected and during the search family members helped me, otherwise I would have been evicted. I’m retired now on a very small pension and am okay, but I remember the nagging fear always present.

    My heart going out won’t rent a flat, but I send that nevertheless. And love.

  10. Marcia Howard permalink
    May 22, 2024

    I trust that life improves for Peter after people reading this article. He deserves a bit of luck for once, so fingers crossed that someone can help

  11. Susan permalink
    May 23, 2024

    I worked as a community worker/advocate in Vancouver, Canada from 1997-2014. Unfortunately, his story is very common in Western countries including Canada, the U.S. and the UK. Single people without health issues (in fact, many of them DO have physical or mental health issues, but they are unidentified) are left out to dry. There is very little concrete help for them, esp. in terms of housing, which is a nightmare these days – although income support can turn into a major problem as well. Hence why so many of our countries have loads of people sleeping on the streets.

    Occasionally, I would come upon a single person from a very middle class background who had fallen on hard times and they were horrified at how little support there was and how the system hectored them to pull themselves up by their boot straps. (This was particularly evident in the U.S., where one of the states named their welfare ministry “The Office of Self Sufficiency”. )

    Peter’s experience with employment is also not atypical. I saw many people who were ripped off or underpaid by their employers, who often ran sketchy operations.

    I do hope you’re able to find someone to help Peter….

  12. Hilary permalink
    May 23, 2024

    I wish Peter only good things.

    Please GA, do update us with further news of Peter.

  13. Kasey Grier permalink
    May 23, 2024

    Please let your readers know if you set up some kind of fund for this gentle man. The whole world has let him down….yet he perseveres. I would be happy to contribute to a fund to give him a “jump start” toward shelter, comfort and safety. It also strikes me that he has not been able to be a strong advocate for himself. He’s no squeaky wheel, so he needs some advocates for him in London.

  14. Kirsty permalink
    May 23, 2024

    I’ve sent this post to my (London-based) employer’s HR department asking if there is any cleaning work going. How utterly devastating it is to read what Peter has gone through, I cannot imagine what it is like to live it. I will continue to ask around in the hope he gets some long overdue good luck.

  15. Andy permalink
    May 24, 2024

    I wish Peter the best of everything .

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