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Marie Iles, Machinist

July 23, 2024
by the gentle author

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

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Apart from memorable excursions outside London as an evacuee, Marie Iles lived her entire life within a quarter mile of Stepney and it suited her very well. Those wartime experiences taught her the meaning and importance of home, yet living close to Stepney City Farm she still enjoyed a reminder of the rural world she grew to love as a child.

A natural storyteller, Marie laid out the tale of her formative years for me with confidence and eloquent precision. Blessed with independent thought from an early age, Marie quickly learnt to stand up for herself and to appreciate the moral quality of people’s actions, whilst she was suffering enforced exile from her beloved Stepney amidst the tumultuous events of a world war.

It was the meeting with her husband Fred Iles that provided the sympathetic resolution of Marie’s dislocated early years and resulted in an enduring relationship which sustained them both for over sixty-five years.

“I was born on 9th August 1930 in Fair St, Stepney, while we were living upstairs in two rooms in my nan’s house, and when I was four or five we moved to Garden St. But I usually lived with my nan – whom everyone knew as Aunt Kit – because I loved her so much.  I had a happy childhood playing in the streets, games like Hopscotch and Knocking Down Ginger. We was always running around and the police would pick us up and take us to Arbor Sq Police Station and give us bread and jam.

One day, I came indoors and my mum and dad had the wireless going and there was a quiet atmosphere, which was very unusual in our house, and I heard the voice of a man saying, ‘And England is at war with Germany.’ So I says to my mum, ‘Are we at war?’ and she says, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Are the Germans coming?’ and she said, ‘Yes, but not to Garden St.’

The siren went when I was out shopping with my nan in the old street at the side of St Dunstan’s church and, all of a sudden, there was bombs dropping and aeroplanes. My nan said, ‘You run home to your mum quick,’ but I wouldn’t leave her. So she said, ‘Run!’ and I ran on the spot to show I was running. Eventually, we got home to Garden St and my mum, who had a phobia that  she might be taken ill or die with dirty feet, was saying, ‘Get a bowl of water, I’ve got to wash my feet.’ When the bombing eased up, my nan said, “I’ll take the two girls home where there is an Anderson shelter,’ and, as we came out, it was a terrifying sight – where there had been houses, there was just piles of bricks and rubble, and there was a horrible smell of smoke and, that night, the sky was red with the light of the fires.

We stayed at my nan’s a few weeks after that, until one day I was at my mother’s and she said, ‘You’re going on a holiday, you, Kitty and Johnny.’ We was excited! My mum pinned a label onto each of us with our name and address on it, and filled a carrier bag for each of us with our belongings. We went to school and there was a couple of coaches waiting, and my nan said, ‘Write to us and always say your prayers every night,’ and she put three sixpences in my hand. I thought, ‘I’ve got money and I’m going on holiday,’ and I was pleased. We all got on the coach together, me and Kitty and Johnny. Then, as we were going, I dropped my three sixpences in the excitement and it felt like the end of the world – not because of the money, but because my nan had given them to me.

We arrived at what I later found out was Denham. We was dropped at the corner of the street, and ladies came over and picked who they fancied. Johnny went with a Mrs Burrell, a lovely little country lady with red cheeks. Kitty and me, we went with Mrs Rook. She had a nice house, that was what we would call ‘posh,’ and she had a grown up son and daughter, Ken and Joyce, and her husband Mr Rook. Yet I hated it, I was so homesick and cried every night for a fortnight but my sister loved it. I asked her, ‘Why don’t you get homesick?’ She said, ‘Because you are here. Wherever you are, I am alright.’ I was her elder sister.

One morning, Mrs Rook said, ‘Why don’t you put on your coats and go out for a walk?’ And the first person we met was Mr Goddard, my headmaster from school in Stepney. He took hold of my hand and asked, ‘Have you got a nice place to stay?’ I said, ‘Yes, but I hate it I miss my home.’ So he said, ‘Look Marie, do you want me to tell your mother what you said and have her worrying about you?’ And I said, ‘ No, don’t tell her,’ and, after that, I was alright and I had a happy time. And that was when I first noticed flowers and the trees opening up. Once there was snow, and Mrs Rook sent me to Denham village for an errand, and I saw these flowers peeking up through the snow – crocuses – and I thought it was a little miracle, that flowers grew in the snow.

Then it seemed the bombing stopped and they took us back to London, and we was there for a while until they sent us off again. They put us on a train at Paddington and we stopped overnight at an army barracks and slept on the floor, and me and Kitty cuddled up under a blanket. Other kids were crying but I wasn’t homesick. In the morning, the soldiers gave us breakfast of ham and hard-boiled eggs and tea and bread and jam. We travelled on and we came to this little village near Rugby called ‘Crick.’ A Mrs Watts picked us out and she lived in Cromwell Cottage, a nice house, and she gave us three meals a day but this lady had no compassion whatsoever. She took us because she didn’t want to do war work. She turned us out at seven-thirty to go to school, and she used to go to the pictures in Rugby twice each week and we had to wait outside in the bitter cold until she came home.

When the summer comes and you’re playing outside, it doesn’t seem so bad. But, one day, we’d had our dinner and were going back to school, and I knew she had a basket of apples in the larder, so I decided to pinch one. We each took bites of the apple, sharing it between the two of us on the way to school. When we got in that evening, she says to me, ‘You thieving Cockney! You come from the slums of London and you don’t appreciate a good home.’ Now I was always a bit of a rebel – I think it was because of growing up with so many brothers – so I thought, ‘I won’t stand for this.’ So I said to Kitty, ‘We’re not going to stay here with this wicked lady.’

Down at the bottom of the hill, lived an old lady and her husband – they must have been seventy. I went there and knocked on the door and asked, ‘Could you take two evacuees?’ She said, ‘Who are they?’ I said, ‘It’s my sister and me.’ She said, ‘Alright, take the old pram and go and get all your things.’ So we went back to Mrs Watts. I said, ‘I’m leaving, I’m going somewhere else to live.’ And her husband, Jack Watts – he was one of the kindest men I ever met – he said, ‘Marie, stop and think what you are doing.’ But I never did, and that night we went down to the old lady and the old man. Talk about ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’! She never cooked, she just gave us a bit of toast sometimes. Then she decided to visit her son and daughter for a holiday, and left us alone there with the old man, her husband. He used to go into the woods all day and cut willow branches and make clothes pegs. Meanwhile, Micky – my little brother – came down because my mother was having another baby up in London. We never had a thing to eat, so we used to go to people’s allotments and pull up raw vegetables and eat them, carrots and even turnips.

There was this plum tree in the garden with this big green plum hanging on it, and before she went the old lady said, ‘I expect to see that big green plum still hanging there when I return.’ But as time went on it got riper and riper, and the day before she was due to return I couldn’t stand it no more. I picked the plum and we all had bites of it – me, Kitty and Micky. Unfortunately, when he knew the owner was due to come home, Micky wet the bed. I took the sheet off and tried to wash it myself but I left it on the line and, when she came home, she asked, ‘What’s this sheet doing on the line?’ And Micky said, ‘I wet the bed,’ and she beat him unmercifully and he hung onto my legs crying, ‘Marie, Marie.’

Once again, rebellion came to the fore, and I said to my brother and sister, ‘Come on, I’m going to walk back to London.’ It was only eighty miles. So, with what money we had, we bought some pears and we were walking up the road and we came to this little bridge and I thought, ‘I can’t walk all that way with these kids, they’re too little.’ I always had a little bag with me and I looked inside and found a stamped addressed envelope that my nan had sent me. It was a Monday, the first day of the school holidays, and I sat down and wrote my tale of woe to my nan, and I posted it and said, ‘Let’s go back.’ And, as the week went on, we seemed to forget about things.

On Friday morning, it was pouring with rain and we got up and came downstairs, and she’d cooked us a big bowl of porridge. She says to me, ‘You’ve written to your granny. You’ve got a letter, your brother’s coming down to pick you up and take you home.‘ I don’t think I ever felt as happy in all my life as I did that morning. Next morning was Saturday. We all got up, didn’t wash, and got all our things together and sat on the grass verge outside the cottage. Jimmy wasn’t on the first bus that came or the second and, by one o’ clock, I was beginning to think, ‘He’s not coming.’ We waited there all this time, and the old woman and old man never called us in to give us a drink or anything.

The four o’ clock bus came and, all of a sudden, I looked up and there was Jimmy coming down the hill. He had a navy blue suit and a red shirt and his tie was blowing in the wind. I said, ‘We’re ready! We’re ready!’ He said, ‘I’ve got to let the lady know that I’m taking you.’ So he went inside and she said, ‘I’ve had a terrible time with those children.’ And he brought us back to London, and back to my dad and my mum who was in hospital having a  new baby, Paul. So I went round to stay with my nan ’til my mum came home and I was beside myself with joy.

Garden St had got bombed and my mum and dad moved to Albert Gardens but my mum never liked it because it was number thirteen, so they moved again to an eight bedroom house – because by then I had seven brothers and one sister – at forty-six Stepney Green. Jimmy went into the army and got wounded in Normandy, Bobby went to Scotland in the army, Johnny was sent to Germany and Micky was sent to Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. Then we got the rockets – the doodlebugs –  and that was almost as terrifying as the bombs. You’d hear the engine of a plane and then it stopped and you’d sit there in deathly silence and suddenly there’d be a big explosion. I know it’s a wicked thing to say but you’d think, ‘Thank God it’s not us.’

Then gradually, everyone came back home again to live in Stepney Green and, after everything settled down, I went to work in the rag trade as a machinist. And when I was nineteen, I met my lovely Fred. I was coming home from Victoria Park with my friend Betty and, as we walked past The Fountain pub in the Mile End Rd, there was a coach outside. My friend said, ‘Would you like a ride in a coach?’ And, all of a sudden, Fred appeared in the door of the pub with a pint of beer in his hand and called out to the driver, ‘These two girls are looking for a ride.’ I had never been in a pub but Fred said to me, ‘Hang on, wait ’til I’ve finished this pint and I’ll walk along with you.’ So I said to my friend, ‘Who does he think he is? We don’t know him.’ We carried on walking and I heard footsteps running behind us and I knew it was Freddie and his mate. He came alongside me and said, ‘I’ve got a camera. Would you like me to come round and take your photo?’ And my friend said, ‘Take no notice of him, he’s just making it up. He hasn’t got a camera.’ Freddie said, ‘Do you mind? I’m not speaking to you. I’m speaking to her.’

And when I turned and looked at him, I fell in love with him. They say there’s no such thing as love at first sight but there is. I arranged to meet him the next night on the corner but, when I arrived, he wasn’t there – I didn’t realise he was on the other side of the road, waiting to see if I’d turn up. So I went back home and my mum was looking out the window, and she saw what happened and she said to him, ‘You’re late, young man!’ And we courted for four years because we couldn’t get anywhere to live and then we got married at St Dunstan’s, Stepney, on 1st August 1953. We got two rooms at the top of a block of flats, Dunstan House, Stepney Green. The toilet was on the landing and the sink too, but we thought it was our little paradise.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t have children, our only regret in life. But my sister Kitty, and her son Alan and his wife Susan, they’ve always shared everything with us, and looked after us through thick and thin. And every year, we go to stay with Kitty and we have a really lovely old traditional Christmas. There’s nothing we like better than to go down memory lane together, it helps to keep us all close.”

Marie & Fred in their kitchen in Rectory Sq, Stepney.

Marie, Johnny and Kitty at Denham with Mrs Rook – “I loved the country life, especially when it was conker season and there were ripe apples. If my family had been there, I’d never have left.”

Marie’s sister Kitty, hop-picking with her grandfather after the war.

Marie hits a hole in one.

Marie & Fred’s wedding, 1st August 1953

On honeymoon in Ramsgate August 1953

Marie & Fred go Flamenco.

Kitty with her children, Marie and her mother in the fifties.

Marie and her dog Rufus when they lived in the prefab in Ashfield St.

Marie & Fred at a family wedding in the eighties.

Marie & Fred enjoy an adventure on the river.

The three evacuees grown-up – Johnny, Marie and Kitty.

Fred & Marie celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary on 1st August 2013

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Fred Iles, Meter Fixer

Linda Carney, Machinist

Javed Iqbal, TV Repair Man

July 22, 2024
by the gentle author


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

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If you are looking for TV repair in the East End, I recommend you visit Master Tech in Heneage St off Brick Lane – where, not only will the job be done expertly and at a fair price, but most importantly you will have the opportunity to meet Javed Iqbal, one of Spitalfields’ most engaging raconteurs.

Although I do not even possess a TV, I was happy to spend my Saturday morning in Javed’s shop beside his workbench and surrounded by TV spare parts, as he topped up my tea cup from his thermos flask, while I perched  listening to his extraordinary monologues, covering so many areas of existence with appealing levity. There is an indomitable good humour that underscores Javed’s conversation. A buoyancy which I found especially heroic when he revealed the years of overt antipathy and threats of physical violence he has withstood – just to create a modest life for himself.

One huge window gives onto Heneage St, and Javed sits upon a tall stool, level with his work bench at the centre of his shop, while the wall behind him is lined with shelves stacked with televisions waiting his attention. Upon the bench sits a large flat screen monitor with the back removed and – while exploring this labyrinth of wires and components –  Javed is in his element, talking as he works.

“I came to Brick Lane from Pakistan with my father in 1960, and I went to Christ Church School across the road. On the first day, I went into the playground and I had my arm broken. I was the first Asian boy at the school.

I was seven. I came with my five year old brother Tasleem. We came in February and it was very cold indeed. It was strange, because I had never seen snow before and there was deep snow. We travelled BOAC. It was a beautiful experience. Forget the wonder of an aeroplane, I had never been in a car.

My father came in 1958. First he went to Liverpool and then came here and ran the Star Cafe on the corner, 66 Brick Lane. Once he was established, he came to fetch us. My father was very rich man thanks to the restaurant business, but he gambled it all away playing poker with Gregory Peck. He had the talent as a gambler and in those days there were few Asians, so it was a novelty for them to have one at the table.

The first house I lived in was 22 Princelet St where my father had a basement. Jews were the only people that would rents rooms to us. In those days, Irish, Jews, Blacks and Asians were known as ‘dogs.’ When I was a little boy, the Seven Stars across the road was dominated by the Kray Brothers. Every Friday night, somebody would go out from there round all the businesses in Brick Lane and whatever you did, you had to pay.

I was allowed to watch television from four until five thirty and then my step-mother would down sticks, she had the temper of a gorilla. After school, I went to help in my father’s cafe. The Pakistanis were all coming here to Brick Lane. It was a mixed area then, the gateway for everybody basically.

When I started at the Robert Montefiore  Secondary School in Deal St, it was a different headache. The pupils were divided between Christians and Jews, with two lunch sittings, kosher and non-kosher. One week the Jews ate first and the next week the Christians ate first. There was no halal in this country then, but Muslims can eat kosher so I ate with the Jews. I had one friend, Janel Singh, we were the only two Asians in the school, a Pakistani and an Indian. People looked at us in a different way.

On the first day, we were told to take our clothes off  and they thought we must have TB because we were both so skinny. When we went to school, the white people used to hit us. The Turkish people were scared as well, so we got together. When we went to school, we had to go four or five of us together to be safe. The headmaster was Rhodes Boyson who became education minister for Margaret Thatcher, and he said, ‘What happens outside the school is not my responsibility.’

When I left school, I worked as a porter at the Royal London Hospital and I was learning TV repair after hours with a man from Mauritius who had a shop in the Roman Rd. One night, I was beaten up there by skinheads – it was sixteen to one. They beat me unconscious and, after I came round and stopped a taxi to take me to the hospital, the driver refused when he saw all the blood. He said he didn’t want to get blood on the inside of his taxi. I had a broken jaw. Later, I joined an anti-racist march here in Brick Lane after the death of Blair Peach and I was beaten up again. This time, by the police with truncheons.

Thanks to a Jewish doctor, Dr Wootliff, a good friend of my father’s, I got the biggest break of my life. He wrote me a reference and I got a job at Alba TV manufacturers in Tabernacle St. I was fitting radiograms together and I got a penny, ha’penny for each one. I thought,’Bloody Hell! This is a production line.’ Most of my friends were white and they had already broken into skilled trades. I really wanted to be a TV repair man.

I went to an interview in Dagenham. They said, ‘Forget about the job, this area is not good for black people. Just leave now before somebody puts a knife in you.’ I got a job in Canning Town for Multibroadcast where I found it bloody hard. There were many customers when they answered the door and saw you, they wouldn’t let you in the house. It was the worst place I could imagine working. The people were all dockers and they didn’t like my face. I’d park my car and when I’d return there’d be shit on it. After six months, I quit.

In the late seventies, I was working for a TV repair company called Derwent in Streatham. There was this great guy called George, an English guy. If you brought in a broken TV and put it on the bench, he’d say, ‘Put the kettle on!’ and light a fag. Before the kettle boiled and he’d smoked the fag, the TV would be repaired. He inspired me. TV repairs were in big demand. One day I went to repair a TV and the customer’s brother was there who was also TV repairman, he worked for Visionhire.  He asked me how much I earned a week, and when I told him £16, he offered me £50 a week to join his company.

I opened up my own shop here in Heneage St, Spitalfields in 1976. It used to be a sweets and paraffin shop belonging to a Mr Lewis, and I came here as a child with my father to buy sweets. It took me a year to clear out the rubbish and fix it up. I am the only Pakistani here surrounded by Bengalis. I said to them, ‘Fair enough, the country is divided but it’s nothing to do with me!’ If God don’t give me, then the Devil will give me, and I will serve the mixed community. I started with ten shillings and I have worked here for thirty-eight years. And I am grateful to the Bengalis because I am still working and it is all through word of mouth.

I believe no country gives you anything, it’s what you can give and make that counts. I bought a house out of working in this shop. If you look back at the past, all the immigrants that made money started their own businesses. Even Marks & Spencer started here in Spitalfields in Old Montague St.

I have struggled quite a bit but with Allah’s help I have got through. I am not an Asian anymore, I am more British than the bloody British.”

‘People looked at us in a different way’

‘In those days, Irish, Jews, Blacks and Asians were known as ‘dogs”

‘If God don’t give me, then the Devil will give me …’

‘With Allah’s help, I have got through …’

Master Tech, 1 Heneage St, Spitalfields, E1 5LJ 

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Leo Epstein, Cloth Dealer

Manny Silverman, Tailor

July 21, 2024
by the gentle author


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

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Manny Silverman, aged nine in 1941

Manny Silverman has a lucky ticket. It is a bus ticket numbered 9999, punched with a single hole to indicate the destination as Brick Lane and it dates from Manny’s childhood, growing up in Bacon St in the nineteen forties. Until this day, Manny keeps the ticket as a talisman, and, “I’ve been very lucky,” Manny assured me several times while he was telling me his story. Yet while it is apparent that Manny has enjoyed good fortune in his life, it soon became clear there were other forces than simply good luck at work in shaping Manny’s destiny.

Diminutive of build with delicate hands, weary eyes, and a gracious deferential style, Manny wears his history lightly. Fastidiously groomed and neatly dressed, he picked me up from the station at East Finchley in his two seater open-topped Mercedes. At home, Manny produced photocopies of his birth certificate, his indenture papers as an apprentice, his medal for performing King John, his letter offering a directorship of Moss Bros and – of course – his lucky bus ticket. Speaking of the ups and downs of his life, Manny was neither apologetic nor swanky, instead his tone was that of wonder at how it has all turned out.

“I was born in Mother Levy’s Nursing Home in Whitechapel in January 1932. My parents had only come from Lithuania a few months before, so I arrived just in time. My father Abraham was a tailor and my mother was Altke, known as Ettie, and I had a younger sister, Lilli. At first, we lived in Myrdle St, and then we moved to Bacon St where I spent my childhood. We shared two rooms, the four of us, and in the winter the pipes froze and when the spring came they burst. We had no running water and the toilet was in the yard. Each week, we used to go the Hare St (now Cheshire St) public baths and pay one penny to have a wash.

When I saw those baths, years later from first class carriage of a train coming into Liverpool St Station, I thought, ‘You’ve been lucky somewhere along the line.’ If you are the child of first generation immigrants, the first thing they want you to have is a trade that you can carry, because if you can sew or cut hair then you always have the opportunity to make money at your finger tips. And I thought, ‘Here I am, after all this time, still doing the same thing, even if they don’t ask me to sew a suit anymore.’

I only spoke Yiddish when I went to school in Wood Close at the age of four, and my schooling was limited because I was evacuated several times during the war. At twelve, I overcame the shyness that is still with me, braved the blackout, and made my way along to join the Cambridge & Bethnal Green Boys Club in Chance St. My first experience was seeing Maxie Lea and I made lifelong relationships there, not necessarily friends, but when we meet up it is as if time has stood stood still. I was never athletic but really good at drama and when we entered the London Federation of Boys’ Clubs contest, all the members came along to support us. At seventeen, I won a medal for playing King John and I’ve still got the script. I also got a good crit for my performance as Cassius, I always played heavies.

After I left school in 1946, at the age of fourteen, I was overseen by the Jewish Board of Guardians. My father had been ill for a while and they were helpful to me when he died. Harry Moss, Chairman and Managing Director of Moss Bros, was one of the patrons of the Boys Club. (They started as Moses Brothers but decided that ‘Moss Bros’ sounded better than ‘Moses Bros.’) He said to me, ‘Look, you can join us in our workshop in Covent Garden.’ In those days, Moss Bros still did bespoke tailoring and they had six cutters.

At twenty-one, I got itchy feet and left on good terms, on the understanding I could come back. And then, when Monty Moss who produced our plays at the Boys’ Club got engaged, I dropped in to wish him congratulations and he said, ‘You’re not working?’ He took me into Harry Moss’ office, and I told them I didn’t want to be a tailor anymore, so Harry said, ‘Start work as a porter in the secondhand department.’ The business had begun in the 1850s with Old Moses, who bought unredeemed pledges of suits and sold them in Kings Cross and Covent Garden, wheeling a barrow between both places. In the secondhand hand department, I recorded what I thought the suits were worth alongside what they had been bought for and in no time, Harry Moss said, ‘Will you do a bit of buying for me?’ I saw a lot of opportunities for the company that no-one else could see.

In the following years, I was made production director, deputy managing director, chief executive, and unemployed – replaced by a member of the Moss family. After forty years with the company, I found myself in my mid-fifties, out of work with a young family and a large mortgage. Some friends of mine asked me to join them and in 1987 we bought Norman Hartnell, the Royal Couturier, which was in administration, with a view to relaunch it. We made worldwide news and employed Marc Bohan from Dior as designer on the principle that if he brought 10% of his clientele with him, we would have a success. But we ran out of cash and that was the end of that. Since 1985, I have been working as an expert witness in the fields of criminal negligence and insurance claims. I say to people, ‘I will never tell you what you want to hear, but – whatever I advise you to do – I will always explain.’ This is how I operate.

I left the East End when I moved to East Finchley in 1969. I always admired the scarlet geraniums outside this house and when it came on the market I was lucky enough to be able to buy it. I try to go back to the East End, with my son who is in his forties, once a year. He says, ‘Dad, I already know where you went to school.’ But I do like to go back, I’m an unashamed romantic, when it comes to the past. It’s not just to look at where I came from, it’s part of who I am. You can’t not be what you are, and I was a cockney.”

Manny Silverman’s lucky bus ticket to Brick Lane.

Manny at his Bar Mitzvah in 1945.

Manny learns tailoring at fourteen years old.

Manny won a medal for playing the lead in Shakespeare’s “King John” at seventeen.

Manny in the swinging sixties.

Manny was Chief Executive of Moss Bros from 1980 to 1987.

Manny bought Royal Couturier Norman Hartnell in 1987

Manny (Emmanuel) Silverman

Read my other Cambridge & Bethnal Green Boys Club Stories

Maxie Lea MBE, Football Referee

The Return of Aubrey Silkoff

Ron Goldstein of Boreham St

At the Cambridge & Bethnal Green Boys Club 86th Annual Reunion

Aubrey  Goldsmith of Shoreditch

At The Two Puddings

July 20, 2024
by the gentle author


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

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Shirley & Eddie Johnson on their first day behind the bar in 1962

Through four decades, from 1962 until 2000, Eddie Johnson was landlord of the celebrated Two Puddings in Stratford, becoming London’s longest serving licensee in the process and witnessing a transformation in the East End. When Eddie took it on, the Two Puddings was the most notorious pub in the area, known locally as the Butcher’s Shop on account of the amount of blood spilt. Yet he established the Puddings as a prime destination, opening Britain’s first disco and presenting a distinguished roll call of musicians including The Who – though the pub never quite shook off its violent notoriety.

“I’ve had a lot of blows,” Eddie confided to me with a crooked grin, his eyes glinting enigmatically. Even at eighty, Eddie retained a powerful and charismatic demeanour – very tall, still limber and tanned with thick white hair. Of the old East End yet confident to carry himself in any company, Eddie admitted to me he was the first from his side of town to make it into Peter Langan’s Brasserie  in Stratton St, mixing with a very different clientele from that in Stratford Broadway. It was indicative of the possibility of class mobility at the time, and there were plenty from the West End who were persuaded to take the trip east and experience the vibrant culture on offer at the Puddings.

“I came from the Old Ford Rd and I suppose you’d refer to it as a slum by today’s standards, but I never thought that because I had a happy childhood, even if we had an outside toilet and went to the bath house each week. The public library was heaven to me, all polished wood and brass, and I got a great love of schoolboys’ adventure stories which made me wish I could go to public school though, of course, I’d have hated it if I did. After I got married and had a son and then another, I had a number of dead end jobs. When I came out of the army, I became involved with a rough crowd. I worked with my brother Kenny organising dances. I was a bit of a hooligan and I got stabbed in a dance hall. But then I found a job as a Tally-clerk in the docks and became involved with the Blue Union – the skilled workers and stevedores. I was the Tally-clerk on Jack Dash’s strike committee. I loved it down there and, though I didn’t make a lot of money, I didn’t care because I loved the freedom. We could more or less do what we wanted.

The licensee of the Two Puddings got in trouble with the police, so Kenny and I bought the lease because we were frightened of losing the dance hall. Since my brother couldn’t hold the licence owing to an earlier court case, I had to take it. Now I didn’t fancy managing a pub and I had been to the Old Bailey for GBH, so I had to be upfront with the police in Stratford but they were horrible. They said,‘We’ve seen you driving around in a flash car,’ and I said, ‘I’l tell you where you can stick your licence!’ But this butcher, Eddie Downes, a huge fat man with a completely bald head who looked like a cartoon butcher, he told me not to worry.  He had a reputation as a grass and he was always boasting about his connections to the police. ‘You’ll still get your meat from me?’ he asked, and three months later we were granted a licence.

We moved into the Puddings and after the opening night, I said, ‘I can’t stand this,’ and then I stayed forty years. I used to come downstairs on a Friday night and look around hoping there weren’t going to be any fights and I’d get all tensed up, but after a few light ales I’d be happy as a sandboy. The place would be packed and we’d be serving beer in wet glasses – it was fairly clean and people didn’t mind. We sold four hundred dozen light ales in a week, nowadays a pub is lucky to sell two dozen. We worked six nights a week plus a fortnight holiday a year and, on Wednesdays, my wife and I used to go up to the West End for a night out – but after forty years, it was tough.

At the end of the sixties, they knocked down a lot of buildings and did a redevelopment in Stratford. We lost all our local trade and the immigrants that came to live there didn’t have a culture of drinking, but we still had our music crowd. It was ear-splitting music really and we were the first pub to have UV. We called the club the Devil’s Kitchen and got a licence till two in the morning, and it was ever so popular. People came from far and wide.”

At the end of the last century, changes in the law required breweries to sell off many of their pubs and the Two Puddings changed hands, resulting in a controversy over discounts offered to publicans and a court case that saw Eddie Johnson thrown out of his job.

He retired to Suffolk and organised his stories into an eloquent memoir. It was the outcome of lifetime’s fascination with literature that began with a passion for schoolboy adventures and led Eddie to read the great novelists during his hours of employment in the London Docks. His first story was printed in The Tally-Clerk at that time, but he realised his ambition to become a writer with the publication of “Tales from the Two Puddings,” and I recommend it to you.

Eddie aged nine, 1941.

Eddie when he worked in the docks.

Early Saturday morning and preparing to open. Eddie behind the bar and George the potman to his right.

Old George the potman.

Shirley Johnson with Rose Doughty, the famous wise-cracking barmaid.

Eddie’s sister Doreen (second left) and friends heading upstairs to the Devil’s Kitchen, above the Puddings (photograph by Alf Shead)

Eddie and his brother Kenny with their beloved Uncle John in the Puddings.

Saturday night in the Puddings.

Joe and Sue, Eddie’s father-in-law and mother-in-law, enjoying a Saturday night in the Puddings.

Eddie Johnson

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At Highgate Cemetery

July 19, 2024
by the gentle author


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

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If you seek to lose yourself in London and escape the scorching summer heat, Highgate Cemetery is the ideal destination. You step through the gothic-inspired gatehouse and take the winding path up the hill among the trees, with gracious architectural monuments, tombs and statues on either side. Foliage and shadow enclose the cemetery, shielding it from the city.

At the top of the hill you arrive at a grand entrance with exotically carved stone pillars and iron gates, hung with dense growth of ivy and creepers. You encounter deep shadows at the portal and, unavoidably, confront your own mortality. As you ascend the shady path alone towards the light, lined with doors, it is as if you are entering the ancient metropolis of a lost civilisation. But the residents have not fled, they are all still here under the permanent lockdown of death.

You wonder what you will find at the other end of this passageway. Yet you emerge again into the light to discover a narrow street of doorways leading to the left and the right, open to the sky and lined with flowers. As you pace around, you recognise that each one is subtly distinct from the others, with names to enable the holy postman. Within minutes, you discover this street is circular. You have arrived at the heart of the necropolis and you can walk for eternity around this street. You can change direction, but you can only travel in a circle.

Thank goodness there are stairs that permit you to escape and return to the world of the living, where you can stand and impassively observe this curious architectural feature at the heart of the cemetery. If you seek the soul of London, you will find it here in the rotunda at Highgate Cemetery.

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Highgate Cemetery, Swain’s Lane, London N6 6PJ

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Taverns Of Long Forgotten London

July 18, 2024
by the gentle author

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

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Leafing through the fat volumes of Walter Thornbury’s London Old & New is the least energetic form of pub crawl I know and yet I found I was intoxicated merely by studying these tottering old taverns, lurching at strange angles like inebriated old men sat by the wayside. Published in the eighteen-seventies, these publications looked back to London and its rural outskirts in the early nineteenth century, evoking a city encircled by coaching inns where pigs roamed loose in Edgware Rd and shepherds drove sheep to market down Highgate Hill.

White Hart Tavern, Bishopsgate

Bell Tavern, Edmonton

Jack Straw’s Castle, Hampstead

Spaniards’ Hotel, Highgate

Old Crown Inn, Highgate

Gate House Tavern, Highgate

The Brill Tavern, Somers Town

The Castle Tavern, Kentish Town

Old Mother Red Cap Tavern, Camden

Queen’s Head & Artichoke, Edgware Rd

Bell Inn, Kilburn

Halfway House, Kensington

Black Lion Tavern,  Chelsea

World’s End Tavern, Chelsea

Gun Tavern, Pimlico

Rose & Crown, Kensington

Tattersall’s, Knightsbridge

Three Cranes Tavern, Upper Thames St, City of London

The Old Queen’s Head, Islington

Old Red Lion, Upon the banks of the Fleet – prior to demolition

Saracen’s Head, Snow Hill – prior to demolition

Old Tabard Tavern, Southwark – prior to demolition

 

White Hart Tavern, Borough

Inns of the Borough

 

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

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Long Forgotten London

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and  more pubs

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The Gentle Author’s Dead Pubs Crawl

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David Garrick In The East End

July 17, 2024
by the gentle author

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

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“Have mercy, Heaven” – David Garrick as Richard III

This modest Staffordshire figure of c.1840 upon my dresser illustrates a pivotal moment in British theatre, when David Garrick made his debut aged twenty-four as Richard III at Goodman’s Fields Theatre, off Leman St, in Aldgate on Monday 19th October 1741. Based upon William Hogarth’s painting, it shows Garrick in the momentous scene on the night before the battle of Bosworth Field when those Richard has killed appear to him in a dream foretelling his death and defeat next day.

The equivocal nature of the image fascinates me, simultaneously incarnating the startling ascendancy of David Garrick, a new force in the British theatre who was to end up enshrined in Westminster Abbey, and the sudden descent of Richard III, a spent force in British monarchy who ended up buried in a car park in Leicester. You can interpret the gesture of Garrick’s right hand as attention seeking, inviting you to “Look at my acting” or, equally, it can be Richard’s defensive move, snatching at the air with fingers stretched out in horror. It is, perhaps, both at once. Yet my interest is in Garrick and how he became an overnight sensation, introducing a more naturalistic acting style to the London stage and leading the Shakespearean revival in the eighteenth century. And it all started here in the East End, just a mile south of Shakespeare’s first theatre up the road in Shoreditch.

Garrick’s family were Huguenots. His grandparents fled to London in 1685 and David was born in 1717 as the third of five children while his father Captain Garrick was travelling the country with a recruiting party. Suitably enough, at the age of eleven, David played the part of Kite in George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer. Then, in 1737, since there was no money to pay for university, David and his literary classmate Samuel Johnson left their school in Lichfield to walk to London and seek their fortunes. But the sudden death of Captain Garrick within a month delivered an unexpected legacy that permitted David to set up a wine business in the Strand with his brother Peter.

In that same year, the Licensing Act closed all the playhouses in London except Drury Lane and Covent Garden, yet the management of the unlicenced Goodman’s Fields Theatre managed to get a dispensation to present concerts. Far enough east to avoid the eye of the Lord Chamberlain, they bent the rules with posters declaring concerts – even if the performances they advertised were actually plays. Thus Richard III is advertised as a “A concert of vocal and instrumental music” at “the late theatre in Goodman’s Fields.” David Garrick’s name as the leading actor is not given, he is merely referred to as “A GENTLEMAN (Who never appeared on any stage)” – a common practice at this theatre.

Next day, the London Post & General Advertiser reported that Garrick’s “Reception was most extraordinary and the greatest that was ever known upon such an occasion.” And he wrote to his brother Peter immediately, quitting the wine business,“Last night, I play’d Richard ye Third, to ye Surprize of Every Body & as I shall make near £300 p Annum by It & as it is really what I doat upon I am resolv’d to pursue it.”

Garrick continued playing Richard throughout his career, essaying the role as many as ninety times, and this account written years later for The Gentlemen’s Magazine may give us some notion of his performance. “His soliloquy in the tent scene discovered the inward man. Everything he described was almost reality, the spectator thought he heard the hum of either army from camp to camp. When he started from his dream, he was a spectacle of horror. He called out in a manly tone, ‘Give me another horse.’ He paused, and, with a countenance of dismay, advanced, crying out in a tone of distress, ‘Bind up my wounds,’ and then falling on his knees, said in a most piteous voice, ‘Have mercy, Heaven.’ In all this, the audience saw the exact imitation of nature.”

By 27th November 1741, Garrick’s performance had turned into a phenomenon which all of London had to see, as The London Daily Post described, “Last night there was a great number of Persons of Quality and Distinction at the Theatre in Goodman’s Fields to see the Play of Richard the Third who express’d the highest Satisfaction at the whole Performance, several hundred Persons were obliged to return for want of room, the house being full soon after Five o’Clock.”

Yet the success that Garrick brought to the Goodman’s Fields drew attention to the unlicensed theatre – forcing its closure within six months by the authorities, encouraged by the managements of Drury Lane and Covent Garden who were losing custom to their East End rival. Meanwhile, Garrick considered his options and, after a triumphant summer season in Dublin, he walked onto the stage of Drury Lane as an actor for the first time on October 5th 1742 and he had found his spiritual home.

The myth of Garrick as the gentleman who stepped onto the stage, drawn magnetically by his powerful talent and declared a genius of theatre upon his first appearance, concealed a more complicated truth. In fact, Garrick had taken his first professional speaking role on the stage that summer in Ipswich, appearing under the name Lyddall. His own play, Lethe or Aesop in the Shades, had been produced at Drury Lane the year before. And, having played Harlequin in an amateur performance in the room above St John’s Gate in Clerkenwell, he took over at Goodman’s Fields Theatre one night when the actor performing the role became sick. So Richard III was far from Garrick’s first time in front of an audience, although it was the moment he chose to declare his talent, and it is likely that he made significant preparation.

Whenever I look at my Staffordshire figure of Garrick, whether he appears to be waving joyfully or reaching out in despair at the universe is an unfailing indicator of my state of mind. Ironically, Garrick’s monument in Westminster Abbey follows a similar design with a tent rising to a central apex, surrounding an effigy of the great actor making his final curtain call, yet here the proud gesture is entirely unambiguous, he’s saying “Look at me!”

William Hogarth’s painting of David Garrick as Richard III, 1745.

The playbill for David Garrick’s debut at Goodman’s Fields Theatre.

The Goodman’s Fields Theatre, Ayliffe St.

William Hogarth’s painting of The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay, performed as the closing production at Goodman’s Fields Theatre on May 27th 1742.

David Garrick’s monument in Westminster Abbey is to be seen on the top right of this glass slide.

Watercolour of Goodman’s Fields Theatre copyright © Victoria & Albert Museum

Glass slide of Garrick’s monument copyright © Bishopsgate Institute

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