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Long time contributor Eric Pemberton has bought to my attention a new book that tells the remarkable story of the Queen Victoria Seamen’s Rest in East India Dock Road in Poplar. The book entitled ‘Saving Jack’ tells the story of the first 175 years of the Queen Victoria Seamen’s Rest (QVSR) and is written by David Hurrell and Alexander Campbell.
Seamen’s missions were institutions that were organised in the 19th Century to cope with the large number of seaman arriving in the London Docks. They were often part of the outreach work of various Churches who tried to provide support to sailors all around the world.
Whilst almost all the Missions founded for Seamen in London have disappeared , one institution still survives and retains its original function after more than a century. This is the Queen Victoria Seamen’s Rest (QVSR) which started life as the Wesleyan Seamen’s Mission of the Methodist Church in 1843.
The Methodists had also supported the work of the British and Foreign Sailors Society, however in 1890s they decided they needed to expand their services and build their own mission the Queen Victoria Seamans Rest in Jeremiah Street in Poplar.
As well as providing accommodation it also provided educational and recreational facilities. Remarkably it still provides accommodation and other facilities for seamen, other forces personnel and homeless people in need.
Eric sent a few of his postcards that feature the Queen Victoria Seamen’s Rest (QVSR) some time ago and feature some of the many facilities available to the residents.
If you would like to find out more about this little known part of Docklands history, you can buy a copy of ‘Saving Jack’ which has been published in a limited edition of 1,750.
To purchase a copy for only £9.99, you can get directly from the mission or visit their website here for further details
The address is
Queen Victoria Seaman’s Rest
121-131 East India Dock Road
London E14 6DF
Robin Hood Gardens completed 1972 designed by Alison and Peter Smithson – Photo The Victoria and Albert Museum
The demolition of Robin Hood Gardens has been the subject of much recent debate in the architectural world, the housing estate in Poplar is considered an internationally significant example of Brutalist architecture. However the building was refused protection by being listing, and will be replaced by a £300m redevelopment of affordable and private housing.
Robin Hood Gardens completed 1972 designed by Alison and Peter Smithson – Photo The Victoria and Albert Museum
Robin Hood Gardens was designed by British architects Alison and Peter Smithson and completed in 1972, it was based on twenty years of research by the Smithson’s into social housing and intended to be a new model of urban organisation.
Whether the building ever achieved these lofty ideals is unlikely but the building has been a familiar landmark in Poplar for 50 years. When the demolition is complete, little will remain of the building. However, part of the building will be making a trip to Venice to take part in the La Biennale di Venezia for the International Architecture Exhibition. In the Pavilion of Applied Arts, the V&A will present Robin Hood Gardens: A Ruin In Reverse, centred around fragments of Robin Hood Gardens. Concrete fragments from the housing estate will be on display. Altogether the V&A salvaged a three-storey section of each façade and the original interior fittings of two flats.
Robin Hood Gardens completed 1972 designed by Alison and Peter Smithson – Photo The Victoria and Albert Museum
In Venice, three storeys of the façade will be reassembled on a scaffold designed by ARUP, who engineered the original building The structure will allow visitors to stand on an original section of a ‘street in the sky’, the elevated access deck.
There will also be a new work by Korean artist Do Ho Suh who recorded some of the building and flats before they were torn down. Through archival photographs and specially recorded interviews, the exhibition looks at the vision and fate of Robin Hood Gardens.
Ironically in 1976, the Smithson’s contributed to the Venice Biennale where they displayed a billboard-size photograph of Robin Hood Gardens with the slogan ‘A building under assembly is a ruin in reverse’.
Interiors circa 1970 by Peter Smithson-courtesy of the Smithson family collection.
In many ways, Robin Hood Gardens illustrates how many of the social housing projects from the 1960s and 1970s came to a sad end. They often had good intentions to foster community spirit but the designs were often impractical and buildings were often not maintained by local authorities. With many of these post war housing projects being now demolished or redeveloped, the question of what kind of social housing should be built is still a matter of some debate.
Recently I was contacted by Sharlene Jones-Martin from Brisbane in Australia regarding her great grandfather Ernest Edward Loades who was born in Poplar in 1890 and spent much of his early years there.
When Ernest was eighty in the early 1970s, he wrote about his eventful life which started from humble beginnings in Poplar before he worked in service to some members of the aristocracy before leaving the UK for the sake of his health to live in Australia. Sharlene, very kindly sent me a copy of his memories and I was fascinated by his story and will produce a few excerpts over the next few weeks.
Crisp Street 1900s
The late 1890s was a time of overcrowding and considerable hardship in the East End and Ernest memories are not one’s of an idyllic childhood. The following account tells of his time at school which provides evidence of how the school system was still very Victorian in outlook which relied rather too much on corporal punishment to instil discipline. I have used some pictures from the period to give some idea of the type of environment that Ernest was bought up in.
By the time I was ready for school the family had grown to five, but the two elder brothers had not neglected my preschool training, so much so that the day I went to school at North Street, Poplar, the old maid who was the head teacher took me, and three other victims to our classroom. She introduced us to the teacher as “four more new brats”.
Young as I was I didn’t quite like being called a brat, but I did not know how soon I was going to score a point in retaliation. Whilst the headmistress was still there, the teacher started to ask questions -“Do you know how to count? Do you know your A.B.C.? “My answer caused such a look of surprise I can still see it. I said” Yes, and backwards too, can you?” and started off – Z.Y.X. etc.
Owing to the fact that the family continued to grow, we frequently had to move to larger houses, causing changes to schools, but in spite of this, the whole family were all fairly smart as regards general education.
Although some members of the family would have benefited by going to higher sources of education, the economics of the family prevented this. As soon as we were able to leave school and earn a few shillings to add to the family income we all did. But this did not deter my eldest brother from continuing his education by attending night school. When he finally obtained a regular job, with the Post Office as telegraph messenger, he continued to go to classes organised by the P.O. After years of study and passing step by step to higher positions he reached the top of the tree, first class sorter in the Registered Mail Office in the General Post Office in London.
My own schooling was a little disjointed, but I always managed to get good marks. Living in the days when education was mostly injected by the cane, in the hands of some of the greatest sadists that ever lived, this was something of an achievement.
Of course there were some men that even today I still remember with high regard, notably the teacher at the Manual Training Centre. Here was a man absolutely dedicated to his work who would go out of his way to help a backward lad or one who showed extra ability.
Poplar High Street 1890
One school head master had been dealt a severe blow when his only son, a brilliant scholar died of consumption. After the boy’s death, he took his spite out on the boys at the school. He would wield the cane for anything he could devise a reason.
I wonder to this day how any boy attending that school could still have faith in religion, when after morning prayers- a shortened form of C of E morning prayers – when the Head was the loudest in the prayers, intoned in the most pious manner, could, if the lad reading the “lesson of the day” – a full chapter of the Bible- made the slightest mistake, tell him to wait, then take him outside and lay the stick on hard and heavy. It got so bad that boys had to be conscripted to read the lesson.
But even he was not as bad as another head of a school in one of the poorest districts in London that we lived in for a short while. This teacher was the brute of all brutes. All the children attending this school came from really poor homes and were poorly clad and suffering from malnutrition, but that was nothing to this sadistic swine.
He would come down to the playgrounds and at the blast of his whistle would make all the scholars run round the grounds. Some of the kids were weak for want of food and could not run at the speed that he considered right, so he used to lash them with his stick driving them like cattle. The hovels where some of the children lived were dirty and lousy, and also a state of malnutrition has been has been proved as a good place for breeding lice.
Somebody complained to this sadist that their children were bringing home lice that could only come from the school. This was something he was really going to enjoy. He went from class to class inspecting the heads and clothes of the pupils. I can only write about what happened in my class but, for a classic in sadism I have never heard its equal.
He made us all take our coats off and he made a thorough search to see if we were clean or not. Those that showed any sign of a louse were sent out to clean themselves. So far so good. Nobody could complain about that. But about an hour later he came into the classroom well equipped with canes and punishment book and ordered all boys that he had previously sent out, to line up in front of the class.
Now this sadist had his own special way of administering punishment. He would measure the exact distance he stood away from his victim and balancing himself on his toes he would with one stroke bring down the cane. He was dealing out eight strokes each to these children and his eyes were shining with glee.
The children in the desks were all crying and so was the poor teacher. One lad whose only clothes were a pair of oversized trousers tied up with a piece of rope and an old overcoat, no shirt and only the remains of a pair of boots, whose name I cannot remember but should have received a medal, faced the brute, held out his hand and never flinched as this apology of a man tried his hardest to make him break.
The look of contempt on his victim’s face- he so enjoyed making his victims scream with pain. After this lad had received his ration of really severe strokes he held out his hand again. His persecutor looked at him in surprise then said, ” Do you want some more?” Without turning his eyes away the boy said. “If you think I deserve any more, carry on” and it was not the lads eyes that dropped.
I always think that that lad was the bravest person I have ever known. Here he was at the mercy of an unprincipled brute and although suffering agony he proved that even he, the sadist, could not break his spirit.
On another occasion he thrashed a sick lad till he fainted. The next day the father came to the school yanked the sadistic swine away from his desk grabbed the cane and gave him the thrashing of his life. The poor father was arrested and because he was too poor to pay the fine he was sent to jail for six weeks.
The people in the neighbourhood all threw in their shillings, tanners or any other coin they could afford to keep the man’s family. In addition any food or clothing or any other help they could give was given. This gesture alone should have been enough for the authorities to take action against this man but nothing was done and although I escaped real brutal treatment from this man, I was a very pleased lad when we moved away from this neighbourhood and back to civilisation.
Many thanks to Sharlene Jones-Martin from Brisbane in Australia for sharing the memories of her great grandfather.
The glass DLR Bridge at Poplar station may seem an unusual location for an art exhibition but in many ways it represents a unique connection between Poplar and Canary Wharf. The artwork was created by the SPLASH Arts (South Poplar and Limehouse Action for Secure Housing) Team led by David Bratby who worked with over 350 adults and children across the local Community in Poplar, Tower Hamlets College, Crossrail and Canary Wharf to develop the new art installation.
Artists Karine Gullino, Laura Napier and Anita Ellis facilitated sessions whilst Wylfried Tondelier brought all the pieces together to create the final exhibition which highlights the Docklands strong maritime heritage. The East India Company were based in Blackwall and established a chapel on Poplar High Street 360 years ago.
The historical trade routes created by the company connected many parts of the world and much of the artwork reflect the ships, cargoes and the people. One of the remarkable aspects of this part of docklands is that it has developed connections with all parts of the world for centuries which led to a global outlook and attracted people from all around the world.
One of the aims of the project is to connect the four communities of Poplar High Street, Tower Hamlets College, Canary Wharf and Crossrail. In many ways the creation of Aspen Way roadway cut off Poplar from the Docks area which it had always been associated with. The creation of the DLR reconnected the transport links between Poplar and the West India Docks and the Glass Bridge footbridge provided the ability to walk across from Poplar to Canary Wharf.
The exhibition is part of wider project to develop connections between local communities and the Canary Wharf estate. The exhibition is an interesting attempt to look at the past to create connections in the present and the future and will be in place until 2016.
John Minton by John Minton c.1953
(National Portrait Gallery, London )
Whilst researching Wapping in the war recently I was side tracked by coming across the paintings of John Minton. Unlike most of the Second World War paintings, Minton showed the effects of the bombing in a quite a strange way with usually one individual in a bombed out landscape.
Wapping by John Minton
1941 IWM (Imperial War Museums)
He produced a number of pictures of Wapping, Poplar and other parts of Dockland. His ghostly figures seem to inhabit the strange wastelands of destruction and he tends to look down on the destroyed buildings from an aerial view.
Blitzed City with Self Portrait
by John Minton 1941 IWM (Imperial War Museums)
Minton was well known in the 1940s and early 50s as a painter, illustrator, stage designer and teacher.
Desolation, Poplar, 1941
by John Minton 1941 IWM (Imperial War Museums)
He studied art at St John’s Wood School of Art from 1935 to 1938 and was greatly influenced by his fellow student Michael Ayrton. Minton and Ayrton, designed the costumes and scenery for John Gielgud’s acclaimed 1942 production of Macbeth. In the following year, Minton began teaching illustration at the Camberwell College of Arts, and from 1946 to 1948 he was in charge of drawing and illustration at the Central School of Art and Design.
Looking Down on a Bombed Building by the Thames, Poplar
by John Minton 1941 IWM (Imperial War Museums)
As well as his teaching, he produced a considerable body of work which included paintings, illustrations for Elizabeth David’s Mediterranean Food, he also designed posters and wallpapers.
A Town Destroyed, Poplar
by John Minton 1941 IWM (Imperial War Museums)
His drab and dark British painting were often in contrast to his bright and colourful paintings of scenes in the West Indies, Spain and Morocco.
Rotherhithe from Wapping
by John Minton 1946 (Southampton City Art Gallery)
Although there were some notable exceptions in his Docklands paintings with colourful paintings of Rotherhithe and Greenwich.
The Thames from Greenwich, London
John Minton 1955 (Leeds Museums and Galleries)
Unfortunately Minton’s success in the 1940s was not repeated in the 1950s and during that period he suffered psychological problems, had issues with alcohol abuse, and in 1957 he committed suicide.
Orchard Place – 1924 (Photo W Whiffin)
For the last few weeks I have featured the memories of Lorraine Harrington about life in the 1930s on the Island. Her memories bought home the realisation that the thirties were hard for many people with economic decline, unemployment and the prospect of war.
Last week, another set of memories were bought to my attention which clearly illustrate some of these problems.
The memories have been published in a blog dedicated to the life of Lucy Matilda Taylor and called ‘ Down the Wall – An East End Childhood between the Wars by Samantha French’.
Samantha French is Lucy’s daughter and did something most of us wish we had done but often never get around to, she decided to write about her mother’s life. Samantha had moved to Australia around 40 years ago, however on one of her visits home 20 years later decided to collect the memories of her mother. For many evenings they would sit down, have a couple of drinks and Samantha would turn on the tape recorder and Lucy would chat away.
Samantha French with Mum (Lucy) and Doreen hopping at Yalding in Kent in later years.
Eventually Samantha produced a hard copy of her mother’s memories and gave them to Lucy’s other children and to Lucy herself.
Bow Creek – AG Linney 1933 (Photo Museum of London)
Regular readers will know that I have written many articles about Orchard Place and Bow Creek and especially about the small community that lived there up to the 1930s. The Bow Creek community were a mystery even to people who lived in nearby Poplar.
Very little was written about the community, therefore the memories of Lucy are fascinating on many levels. Although the community shared many of the problems and pastimes of other East End folk, there were aspects of the community that were unique.
Bow Creek – AG Linney 1934 (Photo Museum of London)
For example they often made a living from the river either by collecting some of flotsam and jetsam or fishing. A number of the community who no doubt had for years watched the boats going by, succumbed to the lure of the sea and joined the Merchant Navy.
Bow Creek Flood Damage 1928
The community may have benefitted from the river at times, but it was also a source of destruction. High tides often flooded the small houses and the Great Thames Flood of 1928 caused considerable damage which the community never really recovered from.
If you would like to read Lucy’s memories, you will find a link to the site here.
Many thanks to a member of the family , Michael Bennett who developed the blog and provided further information.
In the final part of Lorraine’s memories, she is faced with the realities of the war with Germany. Like many other children it was decided she should be evacuated to escape the worst of the bombing. Most children were sent to a host family, however unusually Lorraine with her brothers were sent to a stately home called Buscot Park where many of her brother’s school were evacuated. When it was decided to split up the children and put them into private homes, Lorraine’s parents bought the family back home, little realising the horrors of the Blitz were just about to be unleashed.
About this time, everything started to change. The effects of war with Germany were starting to be felt and children from all the schools in the London area were evacuated to different parts of the country. We never went away as my parents did not see the need and they did not want to be without us, so kept us at home.
The war had not affected us seriously yet. We carried our gas masks with us all the time and the windows had brown paper strips stuck on them to stop the glass from flying about in case of a blast. Blackout curtains were compulsory and everyone’s windows had to be well covered so that not a chink of light could be seen. Air raid wardens walked the streets, checking that not a glimmer was showing anywhere.
Rationing had started and families had sons coming home on leave in the uniform of the services they joined. Some looked very smart and older girls would be seen walking proudly beside them.
With the schools closed and children evacuated, there were not many children left to play with. Mum decided she would try to give us a few lessons. Some of the other children who had stayed behind like us were invited to join in. This was fine for my young brothers, but was not good for me. Mum did her best, but I was learning algebra, geometry and French, and poor Mum had no knowledge of these subjects. Gradually my desire and thirst for knowledge began to fade, and with them went my confidence.
My parents must have realised it was not good for children to live this way, so it was decided we had to be evacuated. Mum wrote to Mrs Freeborn, the headmistress of the Cubitt Town Infants School which my three brothers’ attended, asking if we could be evacuated to Buscot Park where the school had been moved to. There was no way that Mum and Dad would allow us to be split up and so she asked for all four children to be together. This meant I was with infants .I asked Mum in later years where my school had been evacuated to, but this was something she could not remember.
But now, through the internet I have found out where my school was evacuated to and it was Chippen Camden in Gloucestershire.
Buscot Park Gardens
There were three or four teachers at Buscot Park. Mr Wood was one of them. I remember him very well, and I can see his face as clearly as though I had seen him yesterday. There was a big lake and it was part of Buscot Park , Lord Farringdon’s Estate. I can recall quite vividly one of the days when we were all swimming in the lake. I swam under the murky water and deliberately grabbed Mr Wood’s leg for a joke. I thought I would scare him and make him think it was some monster fish. A monster fish in an English lake? I ask you! But don’t forget, this was a child with a lively imagination.
Mr Wood was a nice teacher and took it in good fun. Looking back now, I think it was really quite a cheeky thing to do to a teacher and I was lucky not to be told off, but the teachers were very nice to us and we liked them very much.
Buscot Park Gatehouse
During this time I missed my parents. It was a very sad and hard time for me. My brothers slept at the gatehouse with the other boys, a large building at the entrance to the estate. The girls had their rooms at the top of the big house, with two girls to a room. The big house was Lord Farringdon’s stately home, standing in acres of land. There were beautiful laid-out gardens, a swimming pool and tennis courts. We were told there was also a small theatre with seating for seventy, but none of us ever saw inside of it, so I do not know if it really existed.
Buscot Park Theatre
The top floor where the girls slept had been the servants’ quarters, but most of those servants had been conscripted and were busy doing war work or were in the armed forces. The stables had been converted into a dining room and the walls were painted with frescoes. We sat at long trestle tables all joined together to have our meals and I think there were about thirty-five children living there.
Just outside the stables there was a huge tree, it must have been an oak. Thick branches extended from it. Some of the children would sit on the lowest branch and sing songs while we waited for the dining room to open. Even though I missed my parents I can recall some very happy times at Buscot. I used to sit on a branch of the oak tree and sing of a morning and watch for my brothers coming from the gatehouse with the other boys. I used to check them over to see they had washed and were tidy. Nearly every time one of them had a hole in his sock. Darning socks was a never-ending chore.
One day, as I was picking primroses in the woods, a group of children came running, shouting out to me, “Come quickly, your brothers Harry and Donald are drowning.” I was frantic with worry and ran to the lake as fast as I could. There they were, my dear brothers, out in the middle of the lake in a boat that was leaking. I loved them very much and the idea of them drowning was too much for me. I thought of my poor parents, of how they would feel if they were told their sons had drowned. In my imagination they were already dead. I was in a dreadful state by the time I reached the lake. Out of breath, I stood and shouted at them as best I could. They were both laughing at me, provoking me by standing up in the boat and making it rock. It seemed an age had passed before they managed to get the boat back to the edge of the lake. Looking back now, I realise that it was not as serious as I had thought, but I suppose it gave the other children a bit of excitement and something to talk about. I was a very conscientious sister and would sit up in bed until late at night darning my brothers’ socks. Mr Wood came once to tell me that I must turn the lights out, but he let me keep them on a little longer when he saw what I was doing.
Mum and Dad were upset when they heard about me darning socks, especially because I had not told them my brothers needed new ones. Times were hard, and I did not want to worry them. I felt responsible for my brothers’ welfare, as Mum and Dad were not around to look after them. My duty as a sister was to see they were all right, and I took this very seriously. My brother, Harry, was ten then. Donald was nearly nine and Derek was six. I was thirteen. We had another scare and this one could have easily ended in real tragedy. One day, one of the little girls climbed outside the window of her bedroom on the top floor and walked out onto the parapet. She would have been about four years of age. A teacher, Mrs Alchurch, tried to coax her back in. She also tried to keep the rest of us calm while she leaned out of the window and tried to talk the child into coming back inside. She had warned us to be very quiet and not make a sound. Mrs Alchurch managed to get the girl to turn round and walk back along the parapet. The teacher then grabbed her and pulled her into the room. The parapet was very narrow and that child was lucky not to have fallen.
The girls in the bedroom next to ours used to put notes onto a Dinkie clip, which was used to curl hair, and tie them to a long piece of string and throw it out of the window along the parapet. We grabbed the clip as it landed near our window. We wrote a note, attached it to the clip and sent it back. It was all very secretive and exciting; even though there was nothing special happening to us that was worth writing about. Sometimes we would go into Farringdon to see a film, accompanied by a couple of teachers. It was so good to walk along the quiet country road all in line. Often I called at the post office to collect parcels from my parents. They contained Mum’s fairy cakes, sweets and pocket money. They were too big to carry all the way into Farringdon, so I would hide them in a roadside bush and collect them on my way back. My teacher congratulated me on my initiative, which made me feel very proud.
Water lilies on the lake and a waterfall were a joy to see. Buscot was a wonderful place for a child to live. There was a big nursery where a gardener grew the seeds he nursed into plants. These would be planted around the grounds in cultivated beds. I remember asking if I could buy one of the beautiful pansies which were growing in the nursery; they were the biggest pansies I had ever seen. I wanted to surprise Mum by presenting it to her as a gift, but when I was told it would cost two shillings and sixpence, I had to forget about it. Half a crown was too much money. Mr Buck was Lord Farringdon’s secretary. We saw him strolling around the grounds. He seemed a nice man and always said hello to us.
On special days we had bread and jam for tea. This was a real treat. I made the little blob of jam on my tea plate last and last. At jam tea we were allowed to have as much bread and margarine as we could eat. I made the most of it, leaving the table with the feeling of having had plenty of food, which was unusual during rationing. When I felt very hungry my Mum’s fairy cakes were very welcome. I divided them equally to share with my brothers, but once I ate some before they knew the parcel had arrived. I never told them about this. I was too ashamed. What a horrible sister I was to do that. To think I stole from my little brothers. Guilt enveloped me and I knew I would never do such a thing again. I realise now that hunger could have been the only reason for my behaviour. When the next parcel came I gave my share to my brothers, then I felt better.
When Mum and Dad came to visit Buscot on a Sunday, they would take us out and we would have a lovely time. It was just as it used to be. We were all together again as a family. My brothers and I needed that comfort. Lots of the parents arrived by coach. They would go to the local pub while the children waited outside for them. My parents came by themselves on a bus. Sometimes my uncle and aunt would be with them. I loved those times and remember the Anchor Inn where my parents took us for tea. It was owned by two brothers, their names were Eric and Douglas Cutts. It was a lovely country inn. Everything about it was special for me. Their homemade blackberry jam consisted mostly of whole berries. I have tried to make jam like it over the years but have never been successful. I ask myself now whether it really was that good, or was that just the way a hungry child remembers it? I can still taste and see that jam as I write and I am convinced it was special. We would go to Buscot village and Lechlade to buy sweets and post our letters. Looking back, I think we were allowed to go on our own after tea and before going to bed. I recall the evenings were always fine when we went out. It must have been summer time when we were evacuated. Once there was a dreadful commotion and the story went around that someone had put chewing gum in the service lift. The story went like this: A princess was dining with Lord Farringdon at the time. The butler had lifted a tray from the service lift which had glasses on it. Chewing gum was found stuck to the bottom of the tray. As the butler lifted the tray the gum made him need to pull hard, causing all the glasses to fall to the ground. Many were broken. The story could have been made up to stop children putting chewing gum in places where it shouldn’t be. I never found out, but I did wonder. At the time I was very concerned, thinking one of my brothers could have done it. My imagination, as usual, ran riot and I was very worried. I thought about poor Mum and Dad having to pay for the broken glasses. I knew they would be very expensive because they belonged to a lord. Oh dear!
At bedtime, we would go quietly up the stairs all together, with a teacher in charge. As we went up those stairs we saw rooms leading off the landing. They looked so beautiful and luxurious, I imagined the many guests who must have visited Buscot and been entertained in them. For a child from the East End, it was quite something to see the beautiful peacocks and peahens strutting around the estate. I loved the look of them but hated the screeching sound they made. They were like a fantasy from one of my books. The book I loved most of all had black-and-white drawings in the style I know now to be William Morris. All my books were lost when our house was bombed. That was very sad for me. I have searched hoping to find one of these books. Sadly, I had no such luck. I can still feel the book’s lovely thin paper. The pages felt like silk.
One day, my parents heard that all the children were going to be put into private homes in the nearby villages as a private girls school was going to be moved in. This upset my parents very much as they were socialists and considered this to be a slight on children from the working class area of the Isle of Dogs. I have recently learned a private girls school from Kent was moved in and there are photos of girls on bikes and playing tennis. None of these opportunities were available to us kids from the East End which says a lot.
The possibility that the four of us would be separated would not suit my parents and so they took us back home to London. We had not been home for long when the Blitz began in September 1940. It was a nightmare. There was the smell of burning everywhere. Water was pouring out from the mains, flooding the roads. Chemical factories were exploding. People walked about in a daze not knowing what to do. We listened to the constant drone of the German bombers as they blackened the skies, flying low, relentlessly dropping their heavy bombs over London. Their target was the docks. With the docks all ablaze and the sky glowing bright red it was easy for the planes to return the next night and follow the curve of the river. Inside the curve was the Isle of Dogs, all lit up, an easy target for the bombers. It was an awful feeling, knowing there were men up in the sky, intent on killing us. I imagined the faces of the pilots, their goggles, the leather uniforms they wore, and I was frightened. We all felt so tired during the day, having been woken up so many times in the night. We knew that whenever the sirens sounded, we had to get to the shelter quickly. To leave your lovely warm bed and go downstairs out into the cold night air and into the Anderson air raid shelter was no joke.
German Bomber above the Isle Of Dogs
Dad had dug our shelter down into the ground. These shelters were sometimes referred to as ‘dug outs’. It was at the bottom of the garden, covered with earth to camouflage it. Sometimes we were down there all night before the all-clear sounded. There were nights when we were forced to make the trip to the shelter three times. Just as we had settled down to sleep in the shelter, the all-clear would sound. We would trail back upstairs to bed. Then, just as we were getting off to sleep, warm and cosy, the siren would sound again. Down we would all go, back to the shelter in the garden.
I remember my mother asking once when we were down in the shelter, “Where is Donald?” Donald, who was always a heavy sleeper, had not followed us. That was very worrying and Dad had to go back and fetch him. A bomb could have dropped and they both could have been killed. We were among the lucky ones. Dad had painted the inside of our shelter with whitewash. Being a decorator he always made everything nice for us in the house and now the shelter was our house too. He did his best to make us comfortable. The whitewash made the place much brighter. When the candles were lit, it was nice and bright. I know a lot of shelters were very dark inside and were quite frightening to be in. It is surprising that we could even speak of being cosy and comfortable. Being together was the most important thing in the world at that time and the shelter offered a sense of security. That was until a bomb dropped so near us that we felt as though we had all been thrown up into the air, spun around and then put down again, shelter and all.
There was a night when we could hear heavy footsteps walking over the top of us. Dad was not with us. Mum and I were awake and frightened in case it was a German who had managed to get out after his plane had been knocked down. We sat there terrified until the footsteps died away. The next day we saw big footprints in the earth on top of the shelter. Someone said it could have been a scrounger. These were people who went searching in houses that had been bombed, taking the belongings that were left there.
At that time Dad was doing war work over the water. This meant he was across the river, on the other side of the Thames. When the sirens sounded, the tunnel was closed and Dad and many others were unable to get home. Mum used to be worried and because I was the eldest she shared her worries with me. We made sure my brothers were never troubled by our fears. They were little and had to be protected as much as possible. She would read to us from a novel Sorrell and Son by Warwick Deeping. It was a sad story, but a lovely one. I looked forward to Mum reading a piece each night but my brothers soon fell asleep. I was the only one listening to Mum after a little while. She also used to knit socks for my brothers in the candlelight and some nights we would all play guessing games until we were tired and fell asleep, exhausted.
My parents didn’t wait too long to move out of the East End once they realised how determined the Germans were to destroy London, the Docks being their main target. We had all been under the illusion that the German planes would never be able to get through the barrage balloons that flew high in the sky over the city. Now we realised how wrong we had been. On one particular night, we went to see my father’s parents to ask them to move away with us. They said they couldn’t leave the rest of the family. That night on our way home the siren sounded earlier than usual. The streets were suddenly deserted. An air raid warden directed us into a public shelter under an electricity showroom in Poplar. It was already full with beds on the floor and people standing. We had no room to move. We were squashed together all night, standing in the same place. Suddenly there was an enormous crash. We could hear the sound of plaster falling. People started to rush to the exit but were turned back and told to keep calm. We waited for another loud bang, but it never came. All we could hear was a rumbling sound, which seemed to be all around us.
Early in the morning, after the all-clear had sounded, we walked to the bus stop to catch our bus home to the Island. We waited and waited. Mum began to get very cross because we were waiting such a long time and no bus had arrived. It was decided that we had better start walking. We were all tired and worn out from standing up for eight hours without sleep. As we walked through the familiar areas we realised the extent of the devastation that had taken place while we were down in the shelter. Houses were still burning; people were standing in groups, crying. Whole streets were gone. It was unbelievable. No one could imagine a bomb flattening a whole street of houses. This night was the start of the use of land mines. We walked through the devastation, passing the shells of houses that had stood tall the night before, wondering what we would find when we reached Stebondale Street. Would Gran and Uncle Bill be there? Would Aunt Con, Uncle Chris and their baby Terry be all right?
East End War Damage
We wanted to get home and find the answers, but our legs were tired and it took ages to reach home that day. We were lucky. Our house had been bombed, but was not completely demolished and all our family were alive, but it was still a nightmare. The smell of burning was everywhere. Water was pouring out from the mains, flooding the roads. Chemical factories were still exploding. People were walking about in a daze, not knowing what to do. We saw people with blackened faces, crying because they had lost everything. The London Fire Service was working so hard, but they were worn out, having worked all night fighting blazes in the docks. These pictures remain so vividly in my memory.
Our cat, Ginger, had managed to survive the night. He came up to us, purring and wrapping himself around our feet. I picked him up and cried, burying my head in his fur. I cried for Ginger, for myself and for everyone. The worry of the bombers returning suddenly during the daytime was very frightening. This was always in my mind when people were standing around chatting. Didn’t they realise that the planes could come again? Why were they outside in the street where they could be hit by planes swooping down to machine-gun them? What were they thinking of? I thought then that adults should show more sense. That night we slept in my Aunt Con’s shelter. It was dark and claustrophobic. I stood outside with the grownups, watching the planes flying low in great numbers. You could see them so clearly as the whole sky and docks were lit up. It was like Guy Fawkes Night, with the noise of the bombs dropping and chemical factories exploding.
East End War Damage
A few days later Dad made the decision that we had to leave in order to be safe. My mother’s two sisters, May and Con, with their children and my maternal Grandmother came with us and the husbands left Dad to take care of us all, saying they would join us in a few days’ time. My father’s parents having refused to come with us and stayed, as many Londoners did, living through the whole of the bombing of London. They lived through the V-1 and V-2 flying bombs, sleeping every night in the nearest underground tube station till the war in Europe ended. Such bravery is written about in many books. It was a time of great fortitude and courage. A time when no one could think of tomorrow. We left with nothing. We were refugees from London. It was planned that we would all live at Buscot and we caught a train, intending to go there. It was late at night when the train stopped at Reading. We were all so tired and worn out that it was decided we should stay the night there.
My Aunt May and my parents had friends who lived there. They made up beds on the floor, gave us food and made us very welcome. I will never forget that night. It was like another world and yet we were only forty miles from London. It was quiet and peaceful, almost unbelievable. There was not a sign of a war going on. No sirens sounded and we were able to sleep right through the night until the morning. It was on that night that I made myself a promise. I would in future always appreciate my bed and my sleep. Many years have passed and I still appreciate my sleep and a comfortable bed, for I can never forget the tiredness we suffered and the torture of not being allowed to have a full night’s rest.
The next day the grownups decided that we would not go on to Buscot after all, but look for a house so that all the family could live together until each had found suitable accommodation. They found a large house. Mum had to take the top floor, as we were all older children. Every drop of water had to be brought up from three floors down. There were times when we had only coal dust to make a fire in the room. All our family had to sleep in one room and eat, cook and wash in the other. The toilet was downstairs in the garden. Dad was away working at Rochester and came home at weekends when he could.
Life was never the same again for me. My schooling had been so disrupted that when I was sent to E.P. Collier Grammar School in Reading I could not concentrate or remember anything. I did not know which was North, South, East or West. I did not know which was my right or my left, and the most ordinary simple things I had learned when in primary school had gone. All I could do was simple maths and this I did well. Children were unkind, as children will be, and again I suffered name-calling. This time it was “Evacuee”. I was nearly fourteen when I started at the Reading school. I was put into a class lower than where I was at my school in Millwall. “Oh! You are an evacuee?” This was said as if I had something wrong with me. Children would call after me too. It all became too much and I begged my mother to let me leave school. I think she must have realised that I was no longer the keen, industrious student I had been and finally she went to the school and asked if they would release me. I was supposed to stay until I was sixteen, but by then I was fifteen and they allowed me to go.
Even though I was not happy at school I was certainly not ready to go out into the wide world to work. I had been playing cowboys and Indians with my brothers and still felt like a child. I know I felt very uncomfortable in my shoes that had Cuban heels, flesh-coloured stockings instead of black wool tights and curled hair. No more white ankle socks; no more school uniform. I had to grow up suddenly. Children adapt easily so they say, and I was one who did.
Soon I was into fashion, make-up, and curling my long thick chestnut hair into the latest styles, a skill that I developed a flair for. I was now grown up, and I had no idea it had happened. I had always thought I would feel different, with the world suddenly opening up, giving me the chance to do all the things I wanted to do and be all the things I wanted to be. But it was not like that at all. So the years passed by and the war ended. Reading became the place where my parents settled for the rest of their lives. Mum lived there until 2001, when she passed away aged 95. Even at 90, she still looked good and liked to present herself well. Every morning she made-up and put on her earrings. She cooked every day for herself and was still fussy about hygiene. Dad died nine years before Mum, and she missed him an awful lot.
Many years ago we returned to Buscot Park. The gardens and lake looked unkempt. The stately home was no longer stately. Everything seemed to be so much smaller than I remembered it to be. It was all very disappointing. The wonder it once held had gone and I was sad.
However, memories stay and I can still visualise the wild primroses growing in the woods. I can hear and see the peacocks, and the bluebells are still tall and blue. The lake is as it was and the gardens with the water lilies in the pond are still beautiful. The enormous oak tree we used to swing on while waiting to be called for breakfast is still there. So I will not be sad for what no longer exists but I will close my eyes and reawaken the many scenes that made me happy as a child.
Since my visit, I am happy to write that Buscot Park has been restored. The gardens are well kept and it belongs to the National Trust. it is open to the public and well worth visiting.
Lorraine at nineteen was a Lucy Clayton Trained Model and modelled in many of London’s top fashion houses. In 1949, she married a Doctor of Medicine who later became a Consultant Psychiatrist. and had a daughter and two sons, and is now a grandmother to nine grandchildren.
In 1979 she left England and with her second husband and moved to New Zealand and opened a number of beauty salons and her own Beauty Therapy Training College.
Lorraine also began to write her own regular page on beauty in The NZ Headway Magazine. In 1987 she and her husband retired and moved to Australia where she developed her creative skills becoming an artist, ceramicist, sculptor, poet and a published author.
Other related posts
Regular readers will know that I am always looking out for those unusual stories of local people in history and the life of Anna (or Hannah) Trapnell is certainly unusual.
Anna Trapnell was born in Poplar in the 1630s, the only child of William Trapnell who was a shipwright.
It is worth noting at this time that Poplar was a small hamlet which had a number of ship workers resident who worked in the shipyards at Blackwall. The East India Company based their operations in Blackwall when they bought a shipyard in 1614.
Little is known about Anna’s mother except that she bought up Anna to be able to be literate and to believe in God.
Anna later said that “When a child, the Lord awed my spirit, and so for the least trespass, my heart was smitten.”
Anna believed that her relationship with God was a personal one, and around the time of her mother’s death in 1645 , she began to experience visions of a religious nature.
Her father had died sometime before, so Anna went to live with her aunt and visited a number of congregations especially around St Dunstan’s in Stepney. In her pursuit for religious salvation she underwent fasting that led to trances and visions. Although Anna’s religious experiences were extreme even for the time, they were no means unusual.
However it is the next stage of her life that made her name and for a short time she became a ‘famous celebrity’.
After a serious illness in 1647, Anna’s visions became more like prophecies of future events. The visions were published in a series of pamphlets which gave testament of Anna’s ability to see the future. She said she forsaw the New Model Army’s entry into London, in 1650 she saw Cromwell’s defeat of the Scots at Dunbar, In 1652 Anna predicted victory over the Dutch, in 1653 Cromwell’s dissolution of the Barebones Parliament and being declared Protector .
Whilst attending a trial at Whitehall, she went into a trance and was taken to a local inn where she lay on the bed with eyes shut and began to recite verses over the next twelve days not eating and drinking only a small sip of beer. One of the visions she related was that God would punish Cromwell for his corruptions.
Anna may have thought she had divine guidance in heaven but she was making some dangerous enemies on earth.
England after the Civil war was in political and religious turmoil, Anna’s attack on Cromwell would have normally resulted in her death. Her insistence that she was God’s prophet led various religious institutions to accuse her of blasphemy or witchcraft.
After her Whitehall visions, she decided to go to Cornwall and spread the word of God but was arrested and charged with witchcraft, madness, whoredom, vagrancy, and seditious intent.
However by quoting freely from the bible and insisting that she was a free single woman who had a right to pray, publish, and travel according to common law and God’s word, she remarkably managed to escape being convicted and possible death but was taken to Plymouth to be sent back to London and was taken to Bridewell Prison . Anna now was at the height of her fame and rather than make her a martyr, the government decided to release her.
In a time of great religious and political intolerance, Anna through a combination of religious zeal and a belief in her own rights had taken on the establishment and survived. It is important to recognise it was her skill to present her argument in a sensible and reasonable manner that prevented her being considered mad and being burnt as a witch.
For the next couple of years , she travels around and publishes her trances until she mysteriously drops out of the public arena. No-one knows what happened next or when she died, but in recent years the interest in the incredible exploits of the young girl from Poplar has steadily grown.
A few weeks ago, Aspen Way just behind Canary Wharf was thronged with spectators watching the Tour de France flash by, today there was not the large crowds but a British Tour de France winner with Sir Bradley Wiggins contesting the Prudential RideLondon-Surrey Classic .
The Prudential RideLondon-Surrey Classic is the final event of the Mayor of London’s festival of cycling.
Other top cyclists in the field are 2012 World Champion Philippe Gilbert, Laurens ten Dam and Steven Kruijswijk, 19th and 15th respectively in this year’s Tour de France, plus five medallists from the Commonwealth Games – Luke Davidson, Tom Scully (both gold), Shane Archbold (gold and bronze), Scott Thwaites and Aaron Gate (both bronze).
After a rainy thundery morning, the sun shone as the cyclists made their way from the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford down to Aspen Way before going into Central London and then into the Surrey Countryside.
The finish will be in the Mall between 5.30 and 6pm.
In a previous post, writer David Mitchell told of some of his memories of Poplar High Street, a main feature of the High Street was the Queen’s Theatre.
The Queen’s Theatre origins lay in the Queen’s Arms public house that was on the site in 1863, by 1867 a hall was built on the back. The theatre was then called the Oriental, this theatre was then demolished in 1873 and a new theatre called the New Albion built.
By the late 19th century new health and safety regulations by the council were introduced that led to a number of changes to the theatre that reopened in 1905 as the Queen’s Theatre of Varieties. It soon gained a reputation as a place to see the up and coming stars, Gracie Fields made her London debut in the theatre.
It also become a favourite of many Islanders who starved of entertainment on the Island made the journey up the ‘Queens’.
Later on in the day came the crunch and the big question. Would we be allowed to go to Poplar High Street in the evening – or not? It was very much a matter of the mood our mothers were in. In a bad mood – no! But in a good mood – Yes, but don’t come back late! And so in the evenings, if we were given permission, our gang of boys and girls – average age then, about 8-9 years I would say – gathered together in the street and marched round to the High Street.
First port of call was the fish n’ chip shop – what a Godsend that shop was for the poor people of the East End. You could buy a handsome piece of fried fish for 2d and a generous portion of chips for a penny. It was quite a treat to have that occasionally for tea, but only when our Dad was working; however, fish was not for us kids – we had to be happy with the chips. But sometimes we were generously given a taster by the adults which was delicious and much looked forward to.
Here I must explain that back in those days it was not possible to reserve seats at theatres as one can today. Therefore, it you wanted a good seat it was necessary to arrive early and form a queue. And these queues, of course, are what attracted the street entertainers to the High Street on Saturday nights.
But first things first, and so into the fish n’chip shop we all trooped. It was a tall counter and we could just about get our noses high enough if we stood on our toes so that we could be seen. “Pennorf o’ chips Guvnor, please” we would all cry in unison and we watched hungrily while ’the Guv’ shovelled the lovely golden chips into the large sheet of newspaper in which, in those days, they were served. The “Guv” folded over the newspaper and then handed the packets to us. One by one, we took the newspaper packages, then the vinegar and the salt cellar and sploshed both all over the chips. The object was to wet the chips and newspaper with enough vinegar so that when we wrapped them up again we could poke a hole through the newspaper with our finger and then we could extract the lovely chips one by one. How very sad we all were when we came to the last chip!
© John Earl 1958
Meanwhile, we would then make our exit from the fish n’ chip shop and seated ourselves on the pavement directly opposite the Queens and the queues. As the High Street was a very narrow street we had a grandstand view of all that was going on. All the external lights of the Queens were switched on and, as if to contribute even more towards the excitement and atmosphere, all the shops had their lights full on too – it was so bright that it was almost like daylight! It really was a magic atmosphere – there was a buzz in the air and a feeling of expectancy whilst we waited for the street entertainers to arrive. And as the queues began to lengthen so the entertainers eventually did indeed arrive.
We kids were a noisy little lot and we started by cheering their arrival and then each act as he/she performed. Neither were we shy of booing if we thought the act was poor. We were becoming little connoisseurs and critics of street entertainment! Some of these acts were very good indeed – in fact they should have been performing inside the theatre – not outside. Meanwhile the roasted peanuts vendor went round, the roasted chestnuts man remained stationary however, and the lady with a large basket over her arm laden with apples and oranges crying out and selling their wares – all of this thus adding to the old London atmosphere as they cried out to encourage people to buy.
Then the street artists began to perform and some of the singers were very good indeed. Our favourites were old MUTTON-EYE – an old chap who came every Saturday dressed in a well worn black suit which had seen much better days – and he always wore a bowler hat. Under his arm he carried a small collapsible organ which he quickly assembled and then sang old music hall songs which made everyone laugh. At the end, round he went with his bowler hat and was grateful to receive what ever he was given by the crowd and then made way for the next entertainer. Next was an act the name of which now escapes me but they were two chaps dressed as Egyptians who did a sand dance. They too were funny and amused everyone. It was very nice how each artist completed his/her act and then quickly and unselfishly made way for the next artist whilst going round to collect a few pennies, or maybe more, if they were exceptionally good. But most people threw only a penny in – times were hard!
Occasionally the night was interrupted by a drunk being thrown out of The Ship – the pub Teddy Baldock bought for his parents after winning the World Bantamweight Boxing Championship in the late 1920s and which was also in the High Street. Either the drunk would be of the more sentimental type and would start singing NELLIE DEAN or DANNY BOY at the top of his voice – or – he was maybe a more aggressive type who wanted to fight the world! We kids would watch and it all contributed towards the wonderful atmosphere of Saturday nights in Poplar High Street.
© John Earl 1958
Eventually the doors of the theatre would open and the queues would begin to slowly vanish inside. The street entertainers would then leave followed by the peanut lady, the apples and oranges lady, and the roasted chestnut man. Then they turned most of the theatre’s lights off and that was the signal for us kids to go home. So we too vanished into the gloom of the night and it was quite remarkable when Poplar High Street changed from the brightly lit up street full of excitement and electric atmosphere it had been and was now just an ordinary street with just a few people passing by. But that hour or more which had passed was a golden period of time which, as far as I am aware, does not today exist anywhere in London or in the whole wide world come to that.
The Coat of Arms above the door© John Earl 1958
That was a part of East London that has vanished into the annals of history. We will never see the like of it again. The Queens was affected by the advent of TV and like so many provincial theatres, far too many in my humble opinion, closed it’s doors in the 1950s never to open again. But what great stars had appeared there in days gone by: Charlie Chaplin, Gracie Fields, Marie Lloyd, Kate Carney and so many others. Three times I witnessed the house being brought down. A truly dramatic experience. Once by an artiste named VAN LUIN who dressed as a Dutchman with clogs and his act was yodelling and then he did imitations. His ended his performance with an imitation of Winston Churchill doing his famous speech that spurred us on so much in the war: WE SHALL FIGHT ON THE BEACHES, WE SHALL FIGHT IN THE STREETS – WE SHALL NEVER SURRENDER – was immaculate, dramatic, and very life-like – in fact it was better than old Winnie himself ! Well the whole theatre went crazy and I thought the old place would collapse. Then a West Indian singer, whose name I cannot now recall, who sang BEGIN THE BEGUINE in a way we had never heard before also brought the house down – a match between him and Julio Iglesias who had a big hit with the same melody in recent years would have been interesting.
Kate Carney ‘Coster Comedienne’
Finally I had the pleasure to see our old, dear, KATE CARNEY, an old music hall star of many years ago. It was 1946 and I was in the Army by then. My mother and father invited me to join them in a visit to The Queens. I asked who is on ? My mother replied – IT IS KATE CARNEY HERSELF ! I had heard of Kate for she was a legend in the East End, but I had never seen her perform We sat in the Stalls and the bar window stretched all along so the audience could see who was there. My mother nudged my arm and said THAT’S KATE ! And there in the bar I saw an old lady, surrounded by Cockney pearlies with great plumed hats – the ladies that is ! They clearly showed that they absolutely adored her. She stood out because she had bright orange hair – and she must have been in her eighties! I must say it looked rather peculiar. Well, we watched the other ‘turns’ one after the other and then it was time for Kate. She entered the stage and immediately the terrific cheering and stamping of feet began and she acknowledged this display of adoration with an exaggerated wave of her brightly coloured handkerchief – just like a queen. And then she began her first song but at her old age her old powerful voice had gone and could only croak – it was obvious that she was quite unable to sing as she once did. But never mind – the audience loved her as she croaked her way through her most famous old songs. But my word ! – the way that dear lady controlled that audience had to be seen to be believed. She had them all, every one of them, and me too !, in the palm of her hand – some of our present day entertainers could have learned a great deal from those old Music Hall entertainers. She came to the end of her repertoire but the crowd would not let her go – again and again she went off stage only to return because of the clamour of the audience. But of course, it had to come to an end and dear old Kate saved her best to the last when she sang her old favourite ARE WE TO PART LIKE THIS BILL ? And the crowd went wild.
Today, I am very sad to say that you will not find even a small plaque to show where the old theatre used to be – I believe an office block/warehouse was built on the site. I think the powers that be in The Tower Hamlets perhaps do not know, or worse, do not care how important The Queens was to us East Enders – it was part of our history. The Queens has gone now and is only remembered by people like me. As a schoolboy I, quite illegally, worked at The Queens during the war – I told fibs to the owner Morrie Abrahams and said I was 15 but I was still a schoolboy and only 13 ! – my job was as spotlight boy shining the spotlights on all the pretty girls – in later years I was lucky enough to marry one of them! As a boy I received 15/- (75p) per week for 6 nights and 2 shows per night. I also had a paper round and stood outside Green & Siley Weir Shipyard in Blackwall Way, for which I received 3d per night, plus I peeled potatoes for the British Restaurant in the western part of Poplar High Street and received a free cooked lunch in return. So, I was a busy little schoolboy – but quite a wealthy one! Well, how else could I pay black market prices for my sweets and chocolate? But what wouldn’t I give to be able to experience just one more magic Saturday night in Poplar High Street. I am not sure if my written words here do justice to those wonderful nights – they were terrific and I am so glad that I lived in that period and to see the wonders of the Music Hall
Each evening, except Sundays, I collected my newspapers from Poplar Railway Station, sold a few copies here and there, and waited for the crowds of dock workers to pour out at 5 pm and then all my newspapers were gone in about 5 minutes ! That was a crazy five minutes. Then it was home for a quick cuppa and off to the theatre to set up my spotlamp. I usually came home at about 10.30 pm and my mother prepared something to eat for me.
Outside of Queen’s Theatre (taken from the film Pool of London 1951)