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A Walk With Suresh Singh

June 19, 2024
by the gentle author

Tickets are available for my walking tour this Saturday!

Click here to book your ticket for THE GENTLE AUTHOR’S TOUR OF SPITALFIELDS


I am very proud to be the publisher of A MODEST LIVING, Memoirs of a Cockney Sikh, London’s first Sikh biography, telling the story of one family in Spitalfields over seventy years. Suresh and I enjoyed a ramble round Spitalfields one day and he showed me some of the places that hold most meaning for him.

“I love Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East. It was the library I used to go to every Friday when I was at primary school. You could sit and read. It was just lovely. Upstairs was the art and music library. They had big oversize books of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, the Impressionists, Matisse, Degas and Le Corbusier’s book about Chandigarh.

It was amazing to have this in Brick Lane, at the end of my street. You were given freedom to look at the books and could borrow twelve books and five records at a time. The librarian in the music library would order whatever you requested. Even if you asked for ‘Yes’ album, he would get it by next week. My dad had a record player and I learnt to be really careful with a record because when you returned it they would meticulously check it.

The library was a whole world. It taught me to read quietly. It exposed me to books that I might never have found. My mum and dad could not read or write. We had no books at home. I liked the art section because the books had pictures and I learnt that pictures told stories as well as words. The librarians always helped me and I could spend hours there. It was a sanctuary from the mayhem outside, a kind of university of the ghetto.”

“Christ Church School, Brick Lane, was my primary school. I loved it when I came back after a long visit to India at six years old. I have frightening memories of it too, as the place I had to go to after the freedom I had experienced in our village. My mum used to walk me here every day and I would walk home for dinner at Princelet St and come back again. School dinners were so bland but my mum gave me dal and roti.

The water fountain used to work and we could drink from it. I remember it as so high, my friends had to give me a lift up so I could drink from it. You pressed the button and it worked. There were little fish that lived in there.

Later on, Eric Elstob – a friend whom I worked for in the renovation of his house in Fournier St – was treasurer of the school and he restored the railings, which was lovely. A couple of years ago, they were repainting them blue and I asked them to paint a bit of my bike with the same colour to remind me of the great memories I have of this school. We used to have great jumble sales at Christmas. You could climb through the school and out through the back, past the gardens of the houses in Fournier St and Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Christ Church into Itchy Park, and out into Commercial St and Spitalfields Market. I loved it because it was a backstreet school.”

“I have fond memories of the rectory at 2 Fournier St when Eddie Stride was Rector. It is one of the few Hawksmoor houses. I helped Eddie wash the steps with Vim when the tramps pissed all over them. There used to be queues outside and Irene Stride made sandwiches for them.

It was a place where Eddie made me feel very welcome. I rang the bell or knocked on the door, and he would always open it to me. The door was never closed. I could always go in and play in the garden. Later on, there were big power meetings at the rectory when Eddie became the chairman of the Festival of Light. So you would meet people like Malcolm Muggeridge, Mary Whitehouse, Cliff Richard and Lord Longford coming and going. It was always an open house.

I was brought up as a Sikh but there were no gurdwaras in Spitalfields, and my dad said ‘You need some moral purpose,’ so he send us to Sunday school and that was how I became friends with Eddie Stride. He was a great friend to our family. He helped me get grants for further education from the Sir John Cass Foundation which led me to study architecture. I loved that time and these steps mean a lot to me. It is amazing how Vim can clean Portland stone. ”

“I always knew the Hanbury Hall as 22a Hanbury St. In those days, Christ Church was closed because it was unsafe and this was used for services instead. There was a youth club at the top of the building on Thursdays and Fridays and we had our Sunday school in the hall.

Because it was built as a Huguenot chapel, everyone used to say that this hall is older than the church and sometimes that used to scare me late at night. There were these big wooden doors that closed with a hasp and I always feared someone might come down the winding stone staircase. Later, when I was doing carpentry work, Eddie gave me the task of housing the remains of the smallpox victims that they found when they were cleaning out the crypt.

When I started a group, we were allowed to rehearse in the vestry at the back. This place was a playground for me but also a church where services were held until the eighties. Then I helped move the furniture from here back to Christ Church. I remember we put the communion table on casters and I had to clear out all the copies of Lord Longford’s pornography report which were being stored in the church.

This hall was a treasure because it had a lovely atmosphere but also a haunted atmosphere too. It was the main meeting point for all of us in Spitalfields at that time.”

“Once, the Truman Brewery in Brick Lane was a dark scary corridor for me. It was my route from my home in Princelet St to my secondary school, Daneford in Bethnal Green. At that time, it used to smell of hops and it was dark and dirty. I got beaten up by a bunch of fascist skinheads at the corner of the brewery where it meets Buxton St. I still try to avoid this route but like a magnet it draws me through. I used to run through or cycle because to go round the other way was much longer and sometimes more scary- you would have to cut past Shoreditch Station and round the back to Cheshire St.

So this was the quickest route but it was like going through a factory. The brewery was always there in my childhood. The smell and the noise were twenty-four hours, and it was always dark beneath the brewery walls. The brewery was a landmark and I remember smoke coming out of that chimney. It was a place that you had no choice but to pass through. At the other end of the brewery was where the skinheads hung out but at this end was the Bengali area where I felt safer. Every day I hoped I would not get my head kicked in as I went to school.

As a kid, I found these long brewery walls interminable. I walked and walked and thought, ‘Will I ever get through to the end?’ It still scares me in a way.”

“I used to pass Franta Belsky’s sculpture in Bethnal Green every day when I walked along the little passageway to Daneford Secondary School. Today, I am wearing the tank top my mum knitted when I was eleven and I remember wearing it to a non-school uniform day all those years ago.

I always used to see this sculpture out of the side of my eye. My friends would say, ‘You go on Singhey, I dare you to touch her breasts and come back down again.’ But slowly I began to appreciate the beauty of it and began looking at books of Henry Moore and David Smith. It was a lovely thing to see before you went to school every day. It comforted me to see a woman and her baby because I thought, ‘That’s how my mum cares for me.’ It gave me a sense of security. I thought, ‘How amazing that we have a piece of sculpture outside our school.’ It made me feel proud because of the sculpture. My dad used to take me to Hyde Park where there were Henry Moores next to the Serpentine. I thought, ‘We’re on a par with the West End here in Bethnal Green.’

I slowly started loving it. I loved her plait and it reminded me of when I had a topknot. I appreciated it in different types of light and I still love it today.”

Suresh Singh & Jagir Kaur at 38 Princelet St (Photograph by Patricia Niven)

You may also like to read about

Suresh Singh’s Tank Top

A Modest Living

At 38 Princelet St

A Hard-Working Life

Joginder Singh’s Boy

How to Make A Chapati

A Cockney Sikh

The first Punjabi Punk

A Sikh at Christ Church

Three Punjabi Recipes


Click here to order a copy of A MODEST LIVING for £20

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Pauline permalink
    June 19, 2024

    Thank you for your memories Suresh. They made me smile. Like you my local library was a refuge and an education for me. Weren’t we lucky!

  2. Joan permalink
    June 19, 2024

    I also received a grant from the Sir John Cass foundation (these days the Portal Trust) back in 1982. In my case it was arranged by local Stepney councillor John Brannigan, who my family knew as he was a parishioner at the same Catholic Church as us. My father died suddenly aged 56 when I was in my second year at university. The sums just did not add up for me to continue, even though I had the standard full grant. The money awarded to me by the foundation meant that I was able to continue my studies and come home from Manchester to Stepney for regular visits with my grieving family. They were a life saver.

  3. Karen Rennie permalink
    June 19, 2024

    Thankyou Suresh, those are wonderful memories. The importance of Whitechapel library resonates with so many generations that have grown up in the area. My own dad was one of these back in the 1920s. His mum was also illiterate, but understood the importance of education.
    You look very fine with your smart bicycle too.

  4. Louise Felder permalink
    June 19, 2024

    What a beautifully written piece, which evokes my memories of the East End too. Working in Brick Lane in the 1980s and spending many lunch hours walking round the back streets of the area, including visiting the old synagogue in Princelet Street. Your memories recall the street life, scenes and smells of the East End then.

  5. Marcia Howard permalink
    June 19, 2024

    A wonderful and inspiring glimpse into Suresh’s life. Love the ‘ensemble’ he’s wearing too. He sounds a real character.

  6. Katrina BURTON permalink
    June 19, 2024

    Lovely post, thank you.

  7. Debra. E. Sewell permalink
    June 19, 2024

    This was a marvelous article. I could picture him as a little boy walking the streets to/from school. and his BEAUTIFUL little boy face when he entered the library that stole his heart and opened the doors to his future.

    Thank you!

    when I can I’m going to order his book.


  8. Adele permalink
    June 19, 2024

    Beautifully written Suresh. My love of books grew thanks to the Whitechapel Library. It has always been a haven for immigrants. My grandfather, who didn’t read or write English, would go to the library to read the Polish and Yiddish newspapers. That was back in pre WWI times.

  9. June 19, 2024

    Suresh’s love of his locality comes across so well. Interesting historical detail about Christ Church, plus a big shout out for libraries.

    An uplifting read.

  10. Cherub permalink
    June 20, 2024

    I also loved my local public library as a child. It was upstairs and shared the building with an NHS clinic downstairs. Everything was oak, the wood paneling and the bookcases. I couldn’t wait to turn 12 because that was when you got access to the adult part of the library (I had a reading age beyond my years).
    When I returned home to live after 20 years in London I rejoined, but was really disappointed to find the council had replaced all the beautiful oak bookcases with flat pack style white ones.
    It then moved to the outskirts of town when they built a new high school there and is now luxury flats. Progress as they say.

    People in Britain take things for granted when they are provided free of charge, here in Switzerland you have to pay an annual fee to join a local library, in my area they are run by a charity.

  11. Amita permalink
    June 26, 2024

    How lovely to see the Franta Belsky sculpture. There was a similar one in the grounds of Rosa Bassett School in South London where I was a pupil in the 1970s. and yes, by the same artist.

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