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Beattie Orwell, Centenarian

Portrait of Beattie Orwell by Phil Maxwell

On an especially cold day recently, it was my delight to accompany Contributing Photographer Phil Maxwell to visit centenarian Beattie Orwell and sit beside her in her cosy flat while she talked to me of her century of existence in this particular corner of the East End.

A magnanimous woman who delights in the modest joys of life, Beattie is nevertheless a political animal who is proud to be one of the last living veterans of the Battle of Cable St – a formative experience that inspired her with a fiercely egalitarian sense of justice and led to her becoming a councillor in later life, acutely conscious of the rights of the most vulnerable in society.

In spite of her physical frailty at one hundred years old, Beattie’s moral courage grants her an astonishing monumental presence as a human being. To speak with Beattie is to encounter another, kinder world.

“I am Jewish and both my parents were East Enders, born here. My father’s parents came over from Russia. On my mother’s side, her parents were born here but her grandfather was born in Holland. So I am a bit of a mixture!

We moved to City Corporation flats in Stoney Lane and I went to Gravel Lane School. It was lovely school, they taught us housewifery. We had a little flat in the school and we used to clean it out, then go shopping in Petticoat Lane to buy ingredients to make a dinner, imagining we were married. The boys used to do woodwork and learnt to make stools and things like that. I loved that school. When I was twelve it closed and I went to the Jewish Free School in Bell Lane. It  was very strict and religious. When the teacher wanted us to be quiet, she’d say, ‘I’m waiting!’ It was good, I enjoyed my school life.

I left when I was fourteen and I went to work right away, dressmaking in Alie St. I used to lay out material. I do not know why but I must have heavy fingers, I could not manage the silk. It used to fall out of my hands. I only lasted a week before I left, I could not stand it. Then I went to work with my sister at Lottereys in Whitechapel opposite the Rivoli Picture Palace, they used to make uniforms for solders. I went into tailoring, men’s trousers, putting the buttons on with a machine. We worked long hours and it was hard work. By the time I got married I was earning two pounds and ten shillings a week. I never earned big money. I worked all the way through the war. I gave all the money to my mother and she gave me a shilling back. I used to walk up to the West End. It was threepence on the trolley bus.

I was nineteen in 1936. I was there with all the crowds at the Battle of Cable St. I am Jewish and I knew we must fight the fascists. They were anti-semitic, so I felt I had to do it. I was not frightened because there were so many people there. If I was on my own I might have been frightened, but I never saw so many people. You could not imagine. Dockers, Scottish and Irish people were there. It was a marvellous atmosphere. I was standing on the corner of Leman St outside a shop called ‘Critts’ and everyone was shouting ‘ They shall not pass!’ I was with my friend and we stood there a long time, hours. So from there we walked down to Cable St where we saw the lorry turned over. I never saw the big fighting that happened in Aldgate because I was not down there, but I saw them fighting in Cable St near this turned over lorry. From there, we walked down to Royal Mint St, where the blackshirts were. They were standing in a line waiting for Oswald Mosley to come. So I said to my friend, ‘We’d better get away from here.’

We went back through Cable St to the place where we started. From there, the news came through ‘They’re not passing.’ We all marched past the place where Fascists had their headquarters  - they threw flour over us, shouting – to Victoria Park where we had a big meeting with thousands of people. I had never seen anything like it in my life and I used to go to all the meetings. I never went dancing. My mother used to say, ‘I don’t know where I got you from!’ because I was only interested in politics. I am the only one like this in the whole family. I still know everything that is going on.

I used to go to Communist Party socials in Swedenborg Sq, off Cable St, and – being young – I used to enjoy it. Then I joined the Labour Party, the Labour League of Youth it was called. We used to go on rambles. It was lovely. We went to Southend once. I always used to march to Hyde Park on May Day and carry one of the ropes of our banner. I met my husband John in Victoria Park when I was with the Young Communists League, although I was not a member. They had a Sports Day and my husband was running for St Mary Atte Bowe because he was a Catholic. I met him and we went to a Labour Party dance. We got married in 1939.

We managed to get a flat in the same building as my mother, at the top of the stairs. They were private flats and I remember standing outside with a banner saying, ‘Don’t pay no rent!’ because the owners would not do the flats up. They did not look after us, it was horrible thing for us to have to do but it worked. I laugh now when I think about it. I was always brave. I am brave now.

We got bombed out of those flats while my husband was in the army. I had a baby so they sent me to Oxford where my husband was based with the York & Lancasters. We had a six-roomed house for a pound a week. My mother and sister came with me and they looked after my baby while I went to work in munitions. I was a postwoman too and I used to get up at four in the morning and walk over Magdalen Bridge.

I came back to the East End to try to get a flat here and I got caught in one of the air raids, but I knew this was where I had to live. My mother used to get under the stairs in Wentworth St when there was a raid and put a baby’s pot on her head. The war was terrible.

They sent my husband to Ikley Moor and it was too cold for him, so we came back for good. I managed to get two horrible little side rooms in Stoney Lane, sharing a kitchen between four and a toilet between two. I had no fridge, just a wooden box with chicken wire on the front. I used to go the Lane and buy two-pennorth of ice and put the butter in there. I had to buy food fresh everyday. There was a black market trade in fruit. These flats had been built for the police but the police would not have them, so they let them out to other people. All the flats were named after royalty, we were in Queens Buildings. I watched them building new flats in Cambridge Heath Rd but, before I could get one of them, I was offered a lot of horrible flats. Yet when I got there we were overcrowded, until we got a three bedroom flat at last, because I had two girls and a boy. I lived sixty-seven years there.

My husband never earned much money so I had to carry on working. He had twenty-two shillings a week pension from the army. He did all kinds of things and then got a job in the Orient Tea Warehouse. In 1966, when he was going to be Mayor of Bethnal Green and they would not give him time off, he went up to the Hackney Town Hall and got a job in the Town Clerk’s Office. He was always good at writing, he had lovely hand writing.

I became a councillor and I loved it. Our council was the best council, they were best to the old people. We used to go and visit all the old people’s homes. I never told them I was coming because I used to try and catch them out. We checked the quality of food and how clean it was. I organised dinners in York Hall for all the old people and trips to Eastbourne, but it has all been done away with – they do nothing now.

I was a councillor for ten years from 1972 until 1982. I had to fight to get the seat but I always loved old people, my husband was the same. He was known as the ‘Singing Mayor’ because he used to sing in all the old people’s homes. From when I was forty-two, I used to go round old people’s homes on Friday nights and I still do it. We have dinners together, turkey, roast potatoes and sausages, with trifle for afters.”

Beattie Orwell is featured in Phil Maxwell & Hazuan Hashim’s forthcoming film PENSIONERS UNITED. Watch the trailer and you can support this inspirational endeavour by clicking here

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Photographs copyright © Phil Maxwell

See more of Phil Maxwell’s work here

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Phil Maxwell on Wentworth St



This post first appeared on Spitalfields Life | In The Midst Of Life I Woke To, please read the originial post: here

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Beattie Orwell, Centenarian

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