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Hester Mallin, Artist

June 25, 2024
by the gentle author

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Langdale St leading to Cannon St Rd

Like the princess in the tower, when I met her in the last year of her life at ninety-one years old, Hester Mallin was confined to her flat on the top floor of a tall block off the Roman Rd in Bow, where I had the privilege of visiting and hearing her story. From this lofty height, Hester contemplated the expanse of her time in the East End. Born to parents who escaped Russia early in the last century, Hester spent the greater part of her life in Stepney, where she grew up in the close Jewish community that once inhabited the narrow streets surrounding Hessel St.

Of independent mind and down-to-earth nature, Hester took control of her destiny at thirteen and plotted her own path through life ever after. When the Stepney streets where her parents’ sought their existence emptied as residents left to seek better housing in the suburbs and demolition followed, Hester could not bear to see this landscape – which had such intense personal meaning – being erased. So she began to photograph it.

Decades later, when her photographs were all that remained, Hester transformed these images, coloured by memory, into the haunting, austere paintings you see here. Of deceptive simplicity, these finely wrought watercolours of subtly-toned hues were emotionally charged images for Hester. Even if the streets and buildings are gone and even if Hester could never go back to her childhood territory, she had these paintings. She kept them safely beside her bed to cherish as the only record of the place which contains her parents’ lives, their community and their world, which have now all gone completely.

In later years, Hester discovered a talent as a gardener, celebrated for her flair at high-rise gardening, exemplified by her thirty-five foot balcony garden on the twenty-third floor in Bow, where the great and the good of the horticultural world came to pay homage to Hester’s achievements. Feature coverage and television appearances brought Hester international fame and demands for lectures, including a trip to the Falkland Isles to inspire the troops with horticultural aspirations.

Yet in spite of her remarkable life and resources of creativity, Hester modestly considered herself a ‘typical East Ender’ – as she confided to me.

“I never got married and had children. In my experience, marriage for the working class girl was horrible. If she was unlucky, she met a man who she thought was nice, she would marry and he would change and become a wife beater. It was not for me. I saw so much of it. I thought ‘I’d rather stay single than get beaten up every time my husband gets drunk, Jewish or not.’ It never appealed to me. I never wanted to be married. Other people wanted to marry me but I never wanted to be married.

My father, Maurice Smolensky, came in his early twenties  from Lomza which is part of Poland now and I think my mother came from Russia too, but I am not quite sure. Her name was Rachel Salzburg – what was she doing with a German sounding name like that?

It was very sad, she was sent on her own at fourteen years old. Can you imagine? A very beautiful young girl, illiterate, speaking no English and knowing nothing. There must have been a reason why they chucked her out to England. She was in terrible danger. She stood staring in bewilderment and grief. This was the time of the white slave trade when young girls were packed off to South America to be prostituted, yet she was luckyecause there was a gang of Jewish men looking out at the port in London. If they saw any young girl travelling alone, they would ask ‘Have you been sent?’ They would look after these girls and this is what happened to Rachel, my mother. They took her to the Jewish shelter in Aldgate and from there she spent a bewildering youth, working as a servant when she could get work. She was always pure. Poor girl. She was beautiful, with blonde teutonic looks.

Apparently, her family came to the East End years later and she was in touch with them but only loosely. There must have been some big family goings-on, but I know not. They were bombed out of their house in Sutton St, off Commercial Rd, and disappeared, they did not take her. There must have been a falling-out.

My father was a journeyman baker, who learnt his trade in Russia where, apparently, his father owned a mill. He worked in all the local bakeries around Hessel St, Christian St, Fairclough St – all those adjacent streets in Stepney where there were lots of little Jewish baker’s shops. He worked in the basements.

My parents were put together by a Jewish matchmaker, that was how they met.

At Raynes Foundation School, when I drew, my teacher used to say I was copying it from somewhere – but where would I copy it from? I remember we were all asked to draw a biblical scene. So I drew a picture of Moses leading his people out into the desert in chalk, with all these figures disappearing into the distance led by Moses with a long stick. I remember it clearly, the teacher stormed over to my desk and said, ‘Where did you get this from?’ Of course, I was flummoxed, I did not know what she was talking about so I could not answer. ‘No answer!’ she said, ‘You didn’t draw this.’ I was a shy child, I was absolutely silenced and defeated. That was my introduction to Art.

I grew up in Langdale St Mansions, a block of two hundred flats of the slum variety and almost entirely occupied by Jewish people. It was horrible but my mother was exceptionally clean, she was fighting dirt all the time. I had a brother, Harry, he died a few years ago. He turned Left and became Communist, and that wrecked everything. He was lured into it by shameful people.

My mother was a brave, brave woman. She went along to the Battle of Cable St to see what was going on. She was an amazing lady. When she came back, I asked ‘What was it like?’ but she would not answer me. It was obviously horrible. Even though she was illiterate, my mother knew what was happening in the world. Jewish people felt under threat.

I left school at thirteen and a half just as the war began. Nobody bothered about me because they were doing their own thing. I found any old job – odds and ends of work in an office for six months. Then I started as an Air Raid Precautions messenger girl but that was not good enough for me – it was not dangerous enough – so I decided I wanted to be warden. I persisted and I became Britain’s youngest Air Raid Warden. I chose to do it because I wanted to do my bit and it was interesting because there was always action – Stepney was bombed and bombed and bombed. People got used to the sight of this little girl in warden’s uniform. I was not frightened, I was excited.

Some of the elderly Jewish men who were too old for the armed services would come with me and we would stroll through the streets with bombs falling all around us. Our job was shutting doors. Street doors would pop open every time a bomb fell and we would put out a hand and shut it, and on the way back we would shut the same door again. There was a lot of looting going on.

Towards the end of the war, I was moved into doing office work for Stepney Borough Council on the corner of Philpot St and Commercial Rd. It brought some money into the house and relieved my poor dad. He worked like a slave and died of overwork at seventy-one. He worked all night.

I taught myself photography, I am a self-taught woman – an autodidact polymath. During the war, I realised the houses were all going, so I started to photograph them. I thought, ‘Why aren’t more people doing this?’ I photographed architecture and out of my photographs came my paintings. The houses were being pulled down and I wanted to make a permanent record. So I took a lot of photographs and later on I thought, ‘That would make a good subject for painting.’ It was one of those things, I just started painting because it attracted me. I never went out in the street and did paintings, some are from photographs and some are from memory. I never exhibited my work.

I worked at the council until I was sixty when I retired because I wanted to concentrate on gardening and painting. I always wanted a garden when I was a child growing up in that slum flat on the fourth floor of hideous Langdale Mansions. I do not know how I knew, but I just knew I wanted plants. I never learnt about plants, it was instinctive for me. I used to buy seeds and little plantlets.

In 1980, I moved into this tower block and there was an opportunity to create a thirty-five foot long balcony garden. I looked for plants that were low maintenance, wind resistant, needed little watering and did not grow too big. I had to teach myself and learn by experiment. I did many exhibitions of my gardening including one at Selfridges. I did the whole thing myself.

I am always asked the same question, ‘Why do you speak so nicely?’ I do not know why I speak as I do. I listen to myself and I think ‘Where did you get that phrase from?’ I am self-educated, I have read a lot but anyone can do that. I am not a feminist, feminists have many faults and can be as vicious as anyone else.

I have always lived in Stepney, not by choice – it was just one of those things. I always lived in slum flats until this one. I am a typical lifelong East Ender of the old kind, I have never lived anywhere else.”

Entrance to Langdale St

Cannon Street Rd

Burslem St Shops (Demolished 1975)

Rear of Morgan Houses, Hessel St

Hessel St

Hessel St leading to Commercial Rd

Wicker St Flats

“The idea of making a garden on the topmost twenty-third floor of a council tower block in East London might be compared with a brave, but astonishingly foolhardy attempt to make a garden in a crow’s nest of an old fashioned sailing ship” – Hester Mallin, 1980

Hester Mallin & Joe Brown in 1988

Hester’s father Maurice Smolensky stands centre in this photograph taken early in the last century

Paintings copyright © Estate of Hester Mallin

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5 Responses leave one →
  1. Andy permalink
    June 25, 2024

    I like this story because of its grit and truth and not because of its happiness.
    I feel sad she never had a better life and I think she deserved it don’t you ?
    May her soul rest in peace .

  2. June 25, 2024

    Thank you for sharing the story of Hester Mallin and her evocative architectural watercolours. What a life her family had and what an incredible garden she created!

  3. aubrey permalink
    June 25, 2024

    A life well told. beautiful paintings.

  4. Marie permalink
    June 25, 2024

    What a tough life for Hester’s parents, and for Hester too. I knew Hessel Street well and had my first ever job there washing hair at Estelle’s salon. A Saturday job paying one pound a day and a few tips.

    It made me angry to think the teacher couldn’t appreciate Hester’s instinctive gift for drawing. Obviously in the wrong job! I’m so glad she was able to get the space to create her beautiful garden.

  5. Phil Cunningham permalink
    June 28, 2024

    Lovely paintings. I remember Hester working with my mate Bernard Thomas in the information centre, Bethnal Green. He was a founding member of THARG. Hectic days.

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