From the life of Eileen Wade
By Naomi Duffree
There is a strong resilient spirit running through the East End. Where does it originate from and in this era when the phrase, “They don’t make ’em like that any more” is often heard, do we have a need to worry that this East End mentality is wavering? I had the privilege of talking to Eileen Wade whose family have lived in the East End for a few generations. Wavering? No, I feel it is as strong as ever.
When Eileen agreed to meet me at London Bridge her first words after a cheery hello were, “I didn’t realise how busy this area was. We East Enders don’t normally come south of the River.” Eileen spoke to me about her parents and grandmother; their upbringing being an influence on how Eileen sees the world now. Society has changed a great deal but the family love and bonds run deep and are something that Eileen passed on to her two boys as they grew up in an ever-changing world.
One of the first photos that I saw of Eileen’s mother, also called Eileen (Jones), was taken in 1940. I commented that she resembled Queen Elizabeth and Eileen laughed. Apparently she was mistaken for her fairly often, even having a Nigerian man staring at her while she was on the tube one day. “As if the Queen would have been sat on the tube!” her mother replied. Her mother was a republican so I imagine she wasn’t best pleased. In the photograph she is walking along Barking High Road. Behind them is the civic hall where she and her friends would go dancing. Along from this is the library which she lived behind – and a hundred yards from that was her school and church; the music hall and the market just across the road. “How small my Mum’s world was.”
All this changed when war broke out. Canning Town was targeted in the blitz.
It started on the 8th September 1940 and the following day her Nan’s house in Malmesbury Terrace was hit. Eileen, with her positive outlook on life, reckons it was probably one of the best things that happened to her Mum in the sense of building her future. When the family came back to London they could choose where they lived as there were so many empty houses. They chose East Ham, which her Grandad hated. It was ‘quite posh’, having had a Conservative MP before the war, and it was inhabited mainly by shop and office workers. Her Grandad called it “kippers and curtains”.
“Later on in life my aunt got the chance to buy her house as she was a sitting tenant… When she died my mum and aunts got the legacy. So, getting bombed, since no one got hurt, was good for them. Otherwise they would have been rehoused in Canning Town.”
Her mum, Eileen Jones, had been born in 1924 and passed her 11+ to St Angela’s but she didn’t take up her place as her family could not afford to send her there. Her mum had never had much foresight in her children’s careers according to her daughter. After Eileen Jones left school she got a job making tea in a factory. Eileen sighs, “She could have done so much more.”
Eileen Jones’s grandmother had been widowed at an early age and left with three young children to care for. Having no help in those days she decided on the spur of the moment to take the children to the local orphanage at St Anthony’s church, Forest Gate. She explained her situation to the gate keeper and he remarked that he would take the boys but why didn’t she keep the young girl, Catherine (who later became Eileen Jones’s mother), for company? She returned home with her daughter. A few years later she remarried, had another daughter, and was able to have her sons back living with her.
After the boys had been home a while, Danny, lying about his age, joined the army but was killed in the First World War. John never forgave his mum for keeping his sister and for sending them away. He became a jack-the-lad type, with many different women friends, who never settled into a family life. Even when he visited home, Catherine would have to go out since he carried the resentment with him.
One can only assume that this trauma in her and her sibling’s lives had an effect on them throughout. Maybe it gave them strength and a degree of stubbornness, but also maybe a defensive mechanism when it came to expressing their love for their family. Catherine was a kind woman by all accounts, but she was only ever known as Nanny Jones to Eileen (Wade). “She wasn’t a cuddly Nan… My other Nan was different. She would come around and get sweets out of her bag. I can’t imagine Nanny Jones – and there’s the difference, my other nanny was Nanny Laura; last name, first name.” Perhaps having seen her brothers disappear to the orphanage she was protecting herself against becoming too close to others.
Catherine remained in Canning Town until the blitz. On her mantelpiece were two vases which contained family papers such as birth certificates and insurance documents as well as her jewellery. When her house was bombed in 1940 and everything was on fire it was these vases that were top priority. “There were flaming books flying through the air, something that remained emblazoned on Mum’s mind.” The family had to run for it. Interestingly, though, she hadn’t let her children be evacuated in the first place; they were the only children left in the street… “She was strong minded about it. ‘If we go, we all go together.’” … Her stubbornness was also evident in not letting her children be vaccinated… “She was very strong willed.”
After the bombing the family had to be rehoused. “They had lived in a ‘jerry-built’ house that had been put up quickly due to the docks being developed.” Her Nan and Grandad lived there with six children – and another family upstairs. When they were evacuated they went to Devon to live in a semi-detached red-brick house. It was a complete contrast.
After she married in 1946, Eileen Youles, as she then became known, worked an array of jobs while fitting them around her children, Eileen and her brother; firstly at a laundry and then a factory, just along from their house. She was adamant that she wouldn’t work afternoons so that she would be home at the end of the school day. She got a morning position fitting handles on tins at the factory. To challenge herself she used to see how many she could do and try and find faster ways to fit them. She knew she was destined for better things. After a friend got a job with the London Electricity Board (LEB) she followed on as a clerical worker – and her books always balanced. That was when she came south of the River to work.
Eileen’s dad joined the Navy, worked in the docks and then as a clerk for the shipping federation, signing people on and giving them railway warrants. He was quite bright but left school early. He would often regale people with stories of his time in the navy. Eileen wishes she had listened more carefully now as he was involved with the North Atlantic runs to Russia. He received a medal from the Russian government following a newspaper advertisement from them asking sailors to come forward if they had been involved. “He got a letter of thanks along with his medal for taking supplies to Russia. When you see the films of it now with the ice and water…” Eileen stops, chilled at the thought. Water and Eileen didn’t mix for a while, a result of a childhood experience. “What I can’t understand is Dad wanting to go into the submarines. He didn’t pass the test… But submarines? The thought of being in the water…”
Eileen was telling me of her childhood family holidays when I discovered her fear of water. She had been staying at a B&B in Southend for a week’s holiday, aged five. “I was sat on the breakwater and Mum was looking after my brother further up the beach. I must have tried to see if I could touch the bottom with my foot, but slipped on the sea weed…” The next thing her mum saw was a man coming out of the water carrying someone with the same bathing costume as Eileen. Her mum took a moment to realise it was actually her daughter. “And I remember still that feeling of being under the water… I never learnt to swim at school.”
When Eileen herself became a mother, she was determined to learn to swim in case she ever had to save her son. She took herself to adult swimming lessons, which she admits she enjoyed, although, “The smell of the water made me so nervous.” Taking no chances she used floats and armbands, despite there being a choice… “And if the float had a chip in it I wouldn’t have that one.” She learnt to swim, progressing to back stroke and to her Bronze Survival Award. “But I used to have to count to three before we set off. I would always have a couple of threes at least before I kicked off!’
Eileen’s determination shone through even as a young girl. Before she met her husband, Eileen had ventured off to Italy and Majorca with friends. Her father was not happy about her travelling to Italy as he’d been there during the war and “knew what the Italians were like.” He refused to sign Eileen’s passport. She was 19, so her mum had to do it. He was not happy. As for Eileen – she never even got her “bum pinched”, so she was very disappointed.
Putting this determination to good use, Eileen began attending Adult Education classes. Her first class was at Beckton, where she began learning computer skills. She had promised her boys she would attend, but once on the bus she was terrified. However, not wanting to let them down, she never looked back. Not only has she taken up swimming, computer skills, the guitar and walking football, but she is now learning bowls. I asked her what her mum would have thought of her partaking in all these clubs?
“Mum would be thrilled. She was happy with her children and grandchildren, but it’s not enough for me.” The more she does, the more she wants to do. “I’ll go once and if I don’t like it I won’t be back.” She believes in trying. “I think my mum taught me that. I also have my Nan’s spirit in me somewhere. I’ve never been that girly girl – so I want to have something more interesting to talk about than what tomatoes I like.”
Her boys have always played an important part in her life and when she gave up work, having moved to Plaistow with the boys to look after, she was quite lonely. Without the toddler groups and socialising that is now encouraged, Eileen missed the people at work. “There was no choice in keeping your job open and no maternity leave.” One thing that hasn’t changed down the years though is the wide gap between expectation and reality when it comes to motherhood. Eileen had many ideas of what she would do when she gave up work, but in reality, her baby didn’t sleep day or night and some days she barely had time to run a comb through her hair. “Mum said I was the same when it came to sleeping, so she called it revenge.”
The community in Plaistow has changed, though, and according to Eileen not all for the better. She blames the rental market. The houses are occupied for six months at a time and no one gets a chance to know who lives there. Following a burglary in their road the police appealed for the neighbours to look out for each other. Eileen admits this is difficult in today’s society. “Everyone’s nice but if they are only there for six months; people can’t get to know you. You just don’t know your neighbours anymore. That’s what we miss from the old days.”
Of course in her mum’s childhood many would have been playing out on the streets, all together. They’d be skipping or, if someone had a piano, they’d push it out and have a sing-song. There was a definite community and family spirit which didn’t always go down well with Eileen’s mum as a child, especially when it came to church… “She always had to take the younger ones – it used to drive her mad – I think that’s why she had a small family. My Nanny Jones made the children go to church three times on a Sunday… and Mum swore it was to get them out of the house not because she wanted them to be holy!”
As her grandad’s family were from Wales and her grandma’s from Ireland she reckons this is why they became Catholics. Her mother, however, became disappointed with the church after having been told by the priest, regarding problems in her marriage, that she just had to get on with it. God would sort it. His attitude had been, “You will never be given a bigger burden than you can carry.” This wasn’t enough for her mum. Eileen herself became disillusioned, but has since returned to it again, finding comfort in being at the convent and church where her mother used to go.
Eileen’s mum passed away about six years ago having made her home in Dagenham. They had been living in a three-bedroomed council flat but her dad had always wanted a garden, so they put in a transfer and got a three-bedroomed house, which they got the chance to buy. Many hadn’t settled out of the East End as they were used to the communal aspect of the tenement blocks, so felt lonely and isolated. Not so Eileen’s parents. “My mum and dad had a car so they could get out and about.” Then when mum’s elder sister died they were left some money and had an extension built. “She then used to joke that she’d gone from no toilets to two toilets!” Eileen laughs, her eyes lit up, not for the first time, as she remembers her mum. The East End humorous spirit continues to live on.
As our conversation drew to a close we began to walk back to London Bridge station through the ‘trendy’ Borough Market, which would have amazed the late Eileen Jones. As Eileen soaked up the atmosphere she remarked, “I think I might come here more often.” …and I believe she will. Eileen will try anything once – and if she likes it she doesn’t give up.