Audrey Kneller sent me this evocative memoir of her years in Spitalfields which is it is my pleasure to publish for the first time here today. In this first of two extracts, Audrey describes her life in Elder St.
Audrey on trip to Epping Forest, aged twelve in 1952
Elder St was not a pretty place in spite of its name. No buds burst forth each spring to awaken our spirits and no birds sang merrily to remind us of the wonders of nature. Instead soot lay unmolested in every crevice of the ancient brickwork, while the clanking and hissing of steam trains shunting reminded us of the presence of the large London terminus. Poverty was a mantle we refused to wear, but it lurked menacingly on every street corner.
Early in 1953, my Auntie Sophie happened to bump into Millie Berman, an old school friend of my mother’s. This chance meeting was to bring great changes. Millie lived with her daughter on the upper floors of a rented House in Elder St and was looking for someone to take over the tenancy as she was intending to move. Clearly this was an opportunity not be missed.
Shortly after the Coronation in June 1953, we left the comfort of our temporary home in Edgware and moved into the four-storey terraced house at 20 Elder St, Norton Folgate, E1. Our first impressions were far from favourable. The tallness of the houses and total absence of trees or even a blade of grass was very forbidding. However we gradually settled and discovered the bizarre fascinations of an urban existence.
At the back, towards Bishopsgate, there was a large bomb site where I joined some boys playing cowboys and indians, and had a lovely time amid the dirt and rubble. My mother, being a genteel person, was quite horrified when I returned home looking the worse for wear. Thereafter I played more civilised games with my sister and the other refined Children of the neighbourhood inside the safe confines of the street. The bomb site, however, came into its own on Guy Fawkes Night when the sky was lit up with the flames of a huge bonfire and accompanying fireworks, watched by us from a third floor bedroom window.
Our part of Elder St was an ideal playground, not only because it sheltered us from traffic but also because of the numbers of children living in the surrounding houses and tenements, so we were seldom short of playmates. In those days, the threat of the motor car was almost non-existent, leaving us to play unrestricted and unhampered, a freedom children cannot enjoy today.
In fact, I cannot remember ever, in the early days of our life in Elder St, seeing a car impinge on our games of higher and higher, piggy in the middle and others too numerous to mention. We played in the road outside our door and no-one ever prevented us from chalking out our squares on the pavement for hopscotch. The black-painted iron bars above the basement in front of the some of the houses could easily be squeezed behind, if a side bar was missing, in order to retrieve a lost ball. These hump-shaped grills were nicknamed “airies,” and a cry would often go up, “It’s gone down the airy!” It was up to the smallest and bravest of us to crawl down into the tiny space below, and once down there you had an awful feeling of being trapped in a cage until you emerged triumphant with the lost ball.
I remember long summer evenings spent playing in the street and the man who came along on his three-wheeler, peddling ices. “Yum Yum” was the brand name and yum yum his ice lollies were, delicious and creamy. A good selling point was that every so often one of the lolly sticks would have the name “YUM YUM” printed on it and whoever had such a stick could have another lolly free on presenting it to the ice cream man. Once this fact became known, some of us sat in the gutter scratching the words “YUM YUM” on our spare sticks. But the ice cream man was not fooled and, some time later, when he came round again after an unexpectedly long interval, the name of the product had been changed to “WHIM”. The lollies were the same but somehow the gilt had gone from the gingerbread.
I recall with affection the Josephs family. Simon Josephs was my age and lived with his parents, two maiden aunts and an elderly grandmother around the corner in Fleur-de-Lis St. Their house was much smaller than ours and poorly built but they were a happy family. They even had a television set, which we did not have, and we lost no opportunity when invited to view. We also spent happy hours playing with Simon and his games, especially my favourite one of Monopoly.
Next door to the Josephs lived an elderly spinster and her bachelor brother who was disabled, having been afflicted with shell shock in the First World War, and I remember sitting with them one Yom Kippur evening waiting for the fast to end. One by one, the tiny houses and the dark overcrowded tenements in Fleur-de-Lis St became empty and boarded up awaiting demolition. The Josephs, we heard later, were re-housed in a new flat on the Ocean Estate in Mile End.
Number 16 Elder St was a tall narrow house accommodating two families, one Jewish and the one Gentile. My sister Yvonne and I would sometimes sit on the steps of the house playing gobs or five stones with the daughters of the respective families. Avril Levy from the Jewish family had a famous auntie, Adele Leigh a renowned opera singer, who would often call round, leaving her sporty two-seater Sunbeam Rapier outside the house.
In Blossom St lived a family that to me epitomised poverty both materially and spiritually. The children were neglected and ran around with bare feet and bare bottoms. I was very shocked because they were so different from us yet lived almost on our doorstep. One day, Christine, a little girl who lived at 16 Elder St, decided that we should venture into the house in Blossom St. We peered inside what seemed to be a dark hole with no semblance of what I considered to be the trappings of a home. Dirt and decay lay all around and I caught a glimpse of a man lying asleep on an old armchair which, instead of cushions, was covered with sacks filled with horse hair. Overcome by feelings of horror, disbelief and the foul stench that pervaded the building, we stepped backwards into the street, and quickly walked back to the welcome ‘civilisation’ of Elder St, never to set foot again in Blossom St.
As to the past history of our house, we were led to believe that it was built in the early eighteen-hundreds. I cannot support the validity of this but the house certainly contained some unusual features.
Looking through the windows at the back, high walls surrounded the yard which was no more than ten feet in depth, just enough space for a coal storage area and a washing line to be strung across. Our convenient position near Liverpool St Station could also be a disadvantage, if the wind was blowing in the wrong direction our clean laundry would be showered with a fine layer of soot.
Ours was the only house in Elder St – and for all we knew anywhere else in Norton Folgate – to have a bathroom. The fittings were brass and, instead of having a normal plughole, there was a tall brass post affair which had to be lifted up to let the water run away. Hot water came from an ancient geyser on the wall above the bath but woe betides anyone who fell foul of the delicate lighting-up procedure. I did once and was greeted with a loud bang. The secret was to run the water first and then ignite the gas. Henceforth, unless my mother or sister were there to do the honours, I felt it safer to spend my bath times in an old zinc tub in front of the fireplace in the living room.
Nevertheless, it was handy to have a bathroom, especially as a connecting door led into the back bedroom thereby giving us a bathroom en suite! The toilet was situated next to the bathroom on the first floor landing. To have an inside toilet was again untypical of the area, most toilets being situated outside in the backyard, as I found at our cousin’s house in Buxton St.
A house of this size required regular maintenance and my mother employed a spare-time handyman to keep the interior in a good state of repair. He came and went for six years, painting, papering, plumbing and fixing, and no sooner had he finished on the top floor than it was time to start again at the bottom, rather like the Forth Bridge.
An interesting feature of the house was a long speaking tube with a whistle at one end, extending from the top floor right down to the basement. Presumably a device once used by servants, this was a source of amusement. Another source of great amusement to us, as well as to other children in our street, was the wall panelling. We succeeded in convincing them that one on the first floor landing slid back to reveal a secret passageway, such as the ones used by Cavaliers to escape the Roundheads during the Civil War.
One day, my sister told some children playing in the street that there was something strange in our basement and they immediately came to investigate. Meanwhile, I had dressed up a tailor’s dummy in an old red frock and hid behind it. As the children descended the basement stairs, I slowly moved the dummy forward, calling out in an eerie voice. The inquisitive children scattered in haste, believing me to be a headless ghost!
Not long after we moved into Elder St, we discovered the presence of unwelcome lodgers lurking behind the skirting boards. After mousetraps failed to catch them, we acquired the services of a cat. One day, one of our cousins from Buxton St called round with a tabby who had the perfect markings of a tiger, so the name stuck. Tiger was a wonderfully docile pet but he lived up this name in keeping the rodent community at bay.
One day I found him sitting on the landing and tried to pick him to carry him downstairs but he would not budge. I could not understand it until my mother pointed out that he was standing guard over a small hole in the skirting board. We left him there all that day and eventually he returned to us of his own accord, presumably having accomplished his mission.
As to the other houses in Elder St, I am sure that none of us children had any idea of their historic value. As far as I could see, we were surrounded by decaying walls and we had to make the best of the situation until circumstances improved.
Although we may have been devoid of pastoral pleasures in Spitalfields, life was far from dull. We were living on the fringes of a great nucleus of Jewish enterprise and culture – consisting of delicatessens, bakeries, butcher shops and kosher restaurants, intermingled with other Jewish-owned businesses in the garment, jewellery and shoe trades, bookshops, a Yiddish theatre and numerous synagogues – stretching from Brick Lane southward to Houndsditch and eastward as far as Bow. This was our heritage, we had returned to the roots set down by our grandparents and thousands of other immigrants fifty years earlier.
A second instalment of Audrey Kneller’s memoir follows tomorrow
Audrey’s tenth birthday tea in 1954
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Neville Turner of Elder St
This post first appeared on Spitalfields Life | In The Midst Of Life I Woke To, please read the originial post: here