The Best Thing Since Fried Bread, for Ellen Shrimpton

From the life of Ellen Shrimpton

By Sam Dodd

I met with Ellen with the intention of talking to her about her grandmother, Vesta Fay. I’d heard tales about the old-time East End wartime music hall performer, a woman who dressed as a man and smoked on stage, entertained the locals and gave the bombed-out homeless something to smile about. But as we were talking, I learned so much about Ellen’s own life, through her thoughtful commentary and close-watching of others. Ellen does not mince her words; she does not suffer fools, and she states – categorically and passionately – what she believes in. She is everything you could wish for in a community leader, a mentor, and a human. She would make a great politician – which is probably why she has never been one. She has a huge smile, an addictive sense of humour, a cheeky glint in her eye, and boundless compassion for other living creatures. I left her house, which she’d welcomed me into so warmly despite not knowing much about me at all, feeling speechless.

So, here is what my quest for a story turned into. This is Ellen. Her own words, in snapshots.

Childhood and Family

“She had reached that period in her life when the soft candlelight was distinctly flattering…”

Can you believe that? They wrote that. That’s what they used to say if you got wrinkles. That only candles could make ya look good. I found that story – the story of Vesta’s – in a book my neighbour lent me. Kind fella. I never knew anything about her till then.

My mum died when she was thirty. Already had four kids. Lost one, too. I was only small when she went, but I remember things about her. One time, we were in Canning Town station – that was on the other side of the road then. We were going to see Vesta; her mum. My mum must have been ill then, cos I remember her saying to me, “Put your hands on my head darling, I’m very hot.” My hands were cold; it was nearly winter. She died in the November. Septicaemia. An abortion. She’d had so many kids. People were pig-ignorant years ago; you couldn’t abort back then. She was so desperate that she went to a back-street woman. Afterwards, Vesta went round there; near enough killed her. Terrible times to live in really, I think, back then. For women.

I remember little bits of my nan, Vesta. Not a lot. When she moved from Canning Town she went over Hackney way. She died of a heart attack, three years after my mum left us. Anyone would, if they lost their daughter that way.

Vesta’s husband was on the stage with her, one of them funny fellas with the big feet. Clown feet. Comedian and actor. He was up in Yorkshire doing a play one day, where Vesta was from. She was 19, him 22, from Poplar. Her dad – my great-granddad – didn’t agree with it, cos he was on the stage. Not a good enough living for his daughter, he said. Still, she came back to Poplar with him – ever the rebel. They lived with his mum until they got married. The eldest son was born some time afterwards, which proved that he was a decent bloke, as it wasn’t a shotgun. Then they were on the stage, the two of them. For years. My mum and her sister went with them, when they performed, listed as artistes – but they were five and one year old each! They couldn’t have done it otherwise.

She was funny as anything, was Vesta. Bit of a con artist, actually. She went to Edie, my sister, and said she wanted to give her the piano for her wedding. That she couldn’t afford anything else. But only provided she could come round and play sometimes. Edie felt bad, but agreed.

Vesta gave her the piano. And the payment book.

She’d bought it on the weekly, and Edie had to pay the payment book each week! What a wedding present. What a con artist. Oh, she was a good ’un.

There’s an ’istory in my family of women having shotgun weddings. My parents did, cousin’s parents did, the list goes on. Course, back then, they’d chuck the women out wouldn’t they. What a terrible thing to do to a young girl. That’s when they need your help, isn’t it? When they’re young and scared, and pregnant? When we moved in here, oh it was awkward. Bob’s parents were still living downstairs. So you couldn’t make any noise, if you catch my drift. I was married a long time before getting pregnant. Not by choice!

So I’ve got all these marriage certs, death certs, photos, clippings, everything – of my family tree. My Mary, lovely Mary, she did all of this for me. She goes to different meetings, joins all these clubs, does the whole family tree internet thing. Dedicates herself to it. She could make a business out of it, really. Such a lot of work. My whole family history, centuries of it, and all in one book.

Evacuation

My dad was left with four girls, so he was a bit strict. Especially with the smoking. Everyone smoked when they were fourteen, but we had to do it behind his back. When you were at a party back then, you handed your fags around; it was the normal thing to do. Sharing. “Anyone want a fag?” We had a party at ours one time, and he got to Edie. He put a fag behind his back and turned around for her to take it. “Go on, take it, do it behind my back like you always do.” So he’d known all along. Yeah he was strict. But he was lovely. You can understand it, with that grief.

My sisters went to the Gracie Fields Home in the January after my mum died. I wasn’t old enough to go. They were there for years, till they came back and we had that party. We never had that close sisterly connection, the one you make when you’re kids. I was three when they left and fourteen when they came back. Lost eleven years.

I was evacuated not long after they left. Newport, Wales. Place called Mapham Palace. I lived in the chauffeur’s cottage and helped the maid, doing the washing. The owners were living in India – must have been, cos they knew the Raj and had a tiger carpet. Still had the head and claws. Horrible people. That must have been what they did when they were there. Shot wild animals.

Creatures

I’ve been vegan since 1986. I’d see lorries going past and know they had cows in ’em. Off to the slaughterhouse. A fella I know once said “Cor blimey Ellen, you’ll never believe what I saw in the abattoir today.” He’d been to visit for some reason. I told him, “No, and I don’t want to know.”

He told me anyway, and I haven’t eaten any of it since. None of it. I’ve always said if they tell me, “You’ll die if you don’t have a steak tomorrow,” I’ll say, “Well ta-ta then, I’m off.”

We go to a show sometimes in Woolwich — it used to be in Brick Lane. Music hall thing. We sit with the same couple each time. The old fella will have the veggie option whenever he can. We chatted about it for ages one night. Great way to bond – talking about how to save a couple more animals, just by thinking about what you eat.

Got my cat, Charlie, from Celia Hammond. Cat rescuer. Used to be a model, years ago. Would go out 3am each night to Waterloo, pick up all the strays, get them neutered, and release them. She’s given her whole life up for cats. The vet was holding Charlie when I went. I started stroking him. She told me, “He’s not one of the lucky ones, doesn’t sell himself well. No one really wants him.” I took him straight away. He had to have an operation first, was on a drip for three weeks. I used to go in there and talk to him so that he trusted my voice when he came home.

I like to feed squirrels. They come running up to me, and just sit there and stare. I ask them not to come nearer – cos I don’t want them to trust humans. I’ve found the right bit of the tree, the broken fence bit, to push the nuts through for ’em. There’s another tree over the other side of the park with a big dent in the trunk. I leave them there as well. Then I watch them eating, breaking the shells. I read somewhere you can now get squirrel on the menu. Just another excuse to destroy. Cos it’s fashionable. Worst animal ever? Humans.

I used to go to this place for a couple drinks, maybe food. Loved it. Local place, well known back in the day. One day they were selling veal on the menu. I said that’s my lot, I’m done. Baby cows? Not coming in here any longer. Haven’t been since. And I won’t preach and not practise. Vegan, till the day I kick the bucket.

Community & Neighbours

West Ham FC. I love ’em. They’re moving the grounds to Stratford. I refuse to go there. It’s against my beliefs and a bleeding cheat. All that money they make off normal working-class fans. Friend of mine went over to there, to see where his new season ticket seat would be. We have good seats right now. Been with them for years. He asked for the same seat in the new grounds: £200 a month!

It’s not about the fans no more. It’s a sin. Poorer people, locals who have loved West Ham all their lives; they won’t get a seat. So I told him I won’t give ’em my money. They can go sod themselves. But I do hope they make a go of it, the team. I said to myself, maybe I’m living in the past. But back then, they used to have two jobs; their wages weren’t what they are now. Harry Redknapp used to teach my son football, at his school. They all used to work in schools. It was a lot more personal. All this money comes in, they’ve all got agents, and the kids don’t see ’em no more. Crying shame.

We had the travellers here once, round these parts. One of the Herberts got to hear about it. Herberts were the men in the community who looked after ya. Kept an eye out. So he went down to them. Told ’em, “You’re moving on tonight, aren’t ya.” It weren’t a question. They didn’t respond. He repeated it. No reaction. He went, “Listen to me. You’re moving on tonight. Else you won’t be here tomorrow.” And they went. That’s what they was like, the Herberts. Mind you, the travellers were no trouble. We had the Greenway, as they call it now. Used to be the sewer banks back then, but now the Greenway. They’d arrange to meet the other gang up there. Sort it out. Have a fight, then probably buy each other a drink down the local. That’s how we used to do it in the East End. Not stabbing, killing, and all that what you have now. They’re all a load of cowards in my eyes. Sort it out without being tooled up. It’s horrible. We’re losing our community.

My son Peter, he’s a road sweeper in Redbridge. This Christmas he got six bottles of wine, seven boxes of chocolates. From people in the community. Cos he’s such a hard worker. And when he was on ’oliday they kept phoning up the office asking where he’d gone! We’re not wine drinkers, so we took it all up to the charity he works for – he does a lot of charity work. People with dementia. They liked the old time music halls. They need the money to get to them though. So they have raffles. One woman, most terrible dementia. Doesn’t remember a thing, used to be terrified all the time. But she knew the words to every single song the first time they took her. Turned out she used to be a music hall artist. Just like Vesta Fay. So now they put the music on instead of doping her. Soothes her, and it’s no harm. They do some good work there, they do. They’re beautiful people. It brings the community together, that sort of thing. You know?

Back To The Present

I’m not a religious person. I think all trouble begins with religion. The things people do in the name of it. Had to go to church three times on a Sunday as a kid. Once in the morning, Sunday school in the afternoon, and back in the evening. Sung the hymns, did what you were asked. As I got older, I started asking if there really was a God. Looked around me, and saw the pain. It’s worse now than it’s ever been, I think, and you just wonder… well, what is he doing up there then? Prove it.

So, anyway. I’ve been and ordered me funeral. All paid up. Said to the girl, “I don’t want a church service, I want a comedian. No hymns, no songs – I want laughter throughout.” So she booked it. My son done the same. That’s just who we are.

I don’t even want flowers. Gonna ask people to donate that cash to my sanctuaries instead. The flowers only die, and who wants more death during a death?

Vesta died on 18th January 1938. There was a write up on her in the local weekly theatrical newspaper. They called her “of the older school”. That’s what they used to call us oldies, back in them days. Pillar of the community, she was.

Just like the woman telling her story.

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