Bethnal Green in the Golden Days, for George Freeman

From the life of George Freeman

By Sam Dodd

When I was first born, in 1948, we lived in North London: a two-bed flat in Wenlock Barn, Hoxton. Then the rest of my siblings came along and a bigger flat came up in Bethnal Green. That’s where I consider my childhood home to be, as I made all my friends there. The place in Bethnal was up by the canal off Cambridge Heath Road. The East End back then… It was an old-fashioned way of living. Everyone knew each other, and I know everyone says this, but you really could leave your door open. The local newsagents was a Jewish lady called Mrs Devene: you could knock any time up to 10 o’clock at night and she’d pass the bread out through the letterbox in a paper bag. She wouldn’t open the door as she was terrified of night-time goings on. I went to school in Islington, on Brewery Road, and I walked there, all the way from Bethnal Green. Sometimes a friend would come past on a bicycle and you’d jump on for a backie. Or if the teacher was coming along in his car, he’d stop and pick you up. They wouldn’t be allowed to do that these days, of course.

Things at home were tight. I was the eldest and not working an awful lot, and dad left home when we were young. My mother was very strict, and very anti-authority. She’d ask for a rent rebate sometimes – I suppose these days it’d be called Housing Benefit – and get a letter from the council wanting to know all sorts of details. She didn’t like the prying, couldn’t bear officialdom, so she’d struggle along, barely making ends meet. I didn’t even get free school dinners till towards the end of my education, cos she didn’t like people knowing her business. When I joined the army, even though it meant getting paid work and keeping myself out of trouble, when they came and knocked on the door to see where I lived and speak to the new lad’s mother, make sure she knew what was happening and where I was going, she wasn’t very happy about it at all. And I did used to like getting in trouble! I was young, that’s what you do when you’re young. So my mother used to answer the door to a lotta policemen as well, cops bringing me home and what-have-you. Happened quite a few times.

It was difficult in them days. Bethnal Green is gentrified now. Back in my time it was a very destitute area, the poverty was extreme. I remember one occasion very well. Mother couldn’t get to work as she’d been ill. We used to call it National Assistance in those days, the Social Security. They came round one day to interview her – like they did back then, to see how ill or poor you really were. Know what I mean? And they said to her, ooh that’s a nice carpet you’ve got there ain’t it? Why don’t you roll it up and sell it? How about getting a few bob for that TV too? They’d tell you to sell everything you owned before they’d give you a penny. They took your dignity away. I’d try and say to her that it was part and parcel of their job, that the government can’t give you help unless they know your circumstances. But she wouldn’t have any of it. She was a proud and private woman, my mother, a fighter. And she had three of us to raise on her own – well, four, but one died as a baby. So I know it was difficult for her, and she did her very best. She worked hard out there; first in a clothing factory sorting out all the rags; then in a flock company; then she did some office cleaning. My mother would go without before she saw any of us kids go hungry. Sometimes she’d even leave sixpence in the confectioners for us, so we could buy some penny chews, eight blackjacks for a penny, aniseed balls, flying saucers, all those olden day sweets – she’d drop it in on her way past to work. But she didn’t often have that to spare. If she only had half a crown in her pocket, and there was nothing to eat, she would go and buy a couple of cans of soup and tell you she’d eaten while she was out that day. She hadn’t, of course. But she was like that. She was a wonderful woman.

Winters could be severe. I did all sorts of odd jobs to help us get by. I’d collect coal from the train track sidings, back when trains were steam, so we’d have something for the fire. Really we weren’t allowed to be on the tracks, but the railway managers knew why we had to be, so they’d turn a blind eye. I’d go down the wood factories too, take the offcuts, the bits they didn’t need – and they’d go on the fire as well. No radiators back then! And sometimes I’d help the milkman for half a crown. Doesn’t sound like much, but that could go a long way if you knew where to spend it. I’d collect waste paper for a small fee too, and old beer bottles, as you could take those to an off licence and get 2 or 3 pence per bottle. There used to be a brewing factory with crates of empties outside – it was naughty but we’d steal them for the cashback from offies! We’d sometimes go scrumping too, nicking apples from people’s gardens – terrible really, but we needed the money. You could get a couple of bob for a bag of apples. When the bin-men went on strike we knew a place you could go dumping, so a mate of mine who had a van would drive around offering a collection service for a couple of bob, and off we’d go. Cos the smell was awful, they were a public health emergency them strikes, and they went on for a long time. And sometimes I could help out at the Metropolitan Cattle Market, the cattle pens where they’d send the animals before Smithfield Meat Market, up near Brecknock Road in North London.

Bethnal Green Road! E. Pellicci, that cafe is still there – the Well & Bucket pub, also still there but some fancy hipster joint now – one of the oldest pubs in the East End, that is; The Green Gate pub, where Peters & Lee used to perform. Those were the days! There was a Jewish restaurant on the corner of Bethnal Green Road and Brick Lane. Good restaurant, great food. And the Salmon & Ball pub, by Bethnal Green tube station – Bobby Moore the footballer owned that pub for a while. He called it Tipples. It’s still standing. It’s nice that some of the places from my younger days are still there. And at Easter the local vicar from St James-the-Less Church – also still there, just behind the London Chest Hospital – would give out easter eggs to the kids he knew needed them, even if we didn’t go to his church. A very kind man. He knew what was going on; the grinding poverty, the crime.

Growing up in the East End we knew a lotta villains. I wasn’t one myself, but I had contact with them. The proper gangsters, you know. It was the Krays Days. I remember walking into The Frying Pan on Brick Lane one time with a friend. We ordered our drinks and the barman says, leave your wallet, that’s all paid up. He tipped his head towards the corner, and sat there nodding at us were the Krays. All of a sudden, the doors flew open, two great big gorillas came in, dragging local man Jacky between them. He’d got behind on his payments, of course. I remember it to this day. They said to him, why ain’t you paid? He replied, terrified, that his mum had been unwell, so he hadn’t been able to go to work. They told him, you should have said something, we might have been able to help you out. But cos you’ve chosen this way, it’ll cost you an extra ten bob a week, and you’re gonna get a slap. Then they told the gorillas to take him outside. We saw him a few days later, and by God, they’d given him a slap alright. They’d beat him up really bad. Jacky was what you called a pullover hand. He’d take the panels from the wood factories on his wheelbarrow, to be stained and polished at the next warehouse along. Everyone knew him. And as I say, they really did give him a hiding. It wasn’t fair, really, cos he was a good bloke – it was always Jacky that’d say “there’s plenty of offcuts today for yer fires lads, go and help yourselves!” That said, with the Krays, if your mother was unwell or your dad couldn’t go to work, and your family was struggling, they’d send round a bunch of flowers or some food. So they did have a good side. I think they made an example of Jacky. What they were saying was, tell the truth and be honest with us. Cos if you don’t, this is what happens. I knew Lenny McLean too, only really to say hello to, not personally. He was also known as The Guv’nor. Very big in the illegal boxing and betting world. Bareknuckle boxer, extremely powerful and feared. Those matches were grim, very violent. I couldn’t afford to go to ‘em, unless the chap on the door would let me in for free, which wasn’t often. Anyway, I didn’t get involved with any of the gangster types really, though I knew them and their families. You had to watch your step, so I kept my head down. My mum knew some of their wives, I think they were friends of sorts, and she used to talk a lot about attending a place nicknamed the Red Church, on Bethnal Green Road. That church was where Reggie Kray married Frances, in 1965 – the East End wedding of the year, of course!

I was a reservist in the Army, eventually, after years of being a bit of a layabout. I didn’t have steady work till that point in my life, and was 26 years old when I joined. Being a reservist was mainly ceremonial; you’d go out to fetes and other community events in your uniform, look the part. There’d usually be a display of armoured cars for kids to jump on, and a recruitment stall of course. It wasn’t my cup of tea, to be honest, all that pomp. I only joined cos I didn’t really have any direction in my youth. In those days, though, you could get a job on a Monday, and if you didn’t like it, walk out and be reemployed again by the Wednesday – not like it is now. Much harder these days. They didn’t wanna know about where you went to school or how many degrees you had! Just where you’d worked before; what was your actual experience. In other words, could you do the job? People say we’re better off these days… I don’t agree. I think it’s worse. When you lose your job now, you can’t just go and get another one. And some people, they’re waiting six weeks for their money now, they can’t pay rent. Shocking. In my day, you could go down the DSS, tell them you’d lost your job through no fault of your own and that you’re signed on but low on food, and they’d help you out with a little something to tide you over. Not now. They’re cutthroat now.

After the army I was a revenue inspector for a major utility company. Some of the people we’d have to deal with were rough. Mainly the travellers – gyppos, as we used to call them back then. They’d fiddle the fuel meters; you’d be sent round to sort it; they’d pick a fight. That’s why the wages were so good. We were hard though, us revenue inspectors. There was one bloke called Titus, he was a massive guy. Another one, Polish fella, he could pick two people up, one in each hand – he was that strong. We’d all meet up on Gallows Corner on a Monday morning and be given our list of addresses to visit that week. You couldn’t go straight in and start causing problems of course, you had to be diplomatic. I remember one time in particular, quite amusing it was. I had a call one evening asking if I could go to this fast food place; they’d been trying for months to get in but couldn’t find the meter. So I went along, and said to the bloke behind the counter, I’m from the fuel board, need to read the meter. He didn’t know where it was, said they didn’t have one. Then the other fella suggested it might be in the flat round the back. So I went through, then up an iron staircase. The door was open. Went in, meter was behind the door. Took a reading, made a note as to where it was, and went to leave. Then I heard: “Hello, can I help you?” It was a lady, at the top of the stairs in her negligee. Left absolutely nothing to the imagination! I said yes, I’m from the fuel board, had to read the meter but I’ve done that now, so I’ll be on my way. Then I thought she said, oh, you’re on business, then? So I said yes, that’s right. She said to me, well, come on then… I thought she wanted to show me another meter, after all I thought her flat must have its own that was separate to the shops, so I followed her up the stairs… and then I clocked on. Pretty quickly. What she had actually said was, you want business, then? Well, I was out of there like a shot! I never did tell my wife about that. There are some things you just don’t tell your wife. So, anyway. I used to go home with bruises sometimes. You’d get duffed up alright at times. And the wife didn’t like that, it worried her. Mind you, some chaps used to lose their hands, putting cards through letterboxes. And it paid well enough to pay off the mortgage. So I guess I had it easy, really. But that pay packet at the end of the week was always well deserved.

She was called Marie, my wife. I met her after the army. Did hospitality for the pop and rock groups, booking them hotels, restaurants, bars, all that stuff – earned a small fortune, she did! Marie knew all the bands – the Rolling Stones, even! She worked up the Astoria Theatre in Finsbury Park. Years later it became the Rainbow Theatre, now it’s an evangelical church. I met her cos I was driving the taxis at the time and had to do a delivery there. I can remember it like it was yesterday. We got talking, then just like that I told her, I’m coming round yours for dinner on Sunday. She said oh yeah? Well it’ll probably be beans on toast. I said oh, I don’t mind. And that was that. The love of my life, Marie was. She changed my whole outlook. I was doing nothing, had nowhere permanent to live, didn’t see the point in working hard just for myself. But then she came along, and my whole life changed. Anyway, it was strict back then, she’d have to be in by 10.30pm at the very latest, no good turning up to drop her off at 10.40pm, her old man would be stood there on the doorstep looking stormy. I tried to drop her off in my cab, walked her to the entrance of the flats – but he wasn’t having any of that! “You’ll bring her to the door, you will! I don’t care! Right to the door!” So I had to bring her all the way to the front door, up the stairwell. It was all about manners in them days, and it taught me how to have respect. One night in the kitchen I mentioned proposing to Marie, and without missing a beat her mother said oh yes, we knew you wanted to get engaged. I thought well, you knew before I did then! I got on well with Marie’s parents. We didn’t have a church wedding, just a simple civil ceremony. We were married for over thirty years. And then she got multiple sclerosis, aged 50. In the end the muscles in her throat went. It got her, there was nothing we could do about it, and it broke my heart. Marie was my soulmate. If I hadn’t met Marie, I’d have ended up in prison. Certainly wouldn’t be here to tell this tale.

I did a stint as a black cab driver for a while, too. Did the Knowledge. The exam was intense, at a place down in Whitechapel. Had a few celebrities in my cab! Barbara Windsor, Lord Boothby, Ted Rogers who used to present a programme called 3-2-1 with Dusty Bin, quite a few. I didn’t really get many problematic customers, occasionally a drunk. We used to have these things called Green Huts, they were like pit stops for cabbies. They’d only serve us, not the general public, so they were our havens. Sometimes in the middle of a very busy road; and dotted all around London. One day I was told a story over a bacon sarnie and a cuppa. This cabbie, he’d stopped and picked up three people, one of them very drunk. The driver was asked to drop the other two off on the way, and told hey, don’t worry about him, he’ll wake up with a nudge. Just take him here – and gave an address a few miles away from the last drop. So the cabbie does as he’s told. Gets to the last drop, goes round the back to nudge the drunk – and it’s a stuffed dummy. All that effort, just to avoid paying the fare! Anyway, I did cabby work for a few years. Then the company I worked for stated that you had to retire at 65. At the time, they said it was mandatory, so you had to, didn’t have a choice. So I said OK, and I retired. That was that. I was at retirement age anyway.

So now I’m enjoying my twilight years. My next door neighbour but one, Susan, she’s a lovely lady. Always offers to collect a loaf of bread or my prescription for me. She’s from the old school of manners and community, Susan, and that’s how she brought up her two daughters. I wasn’t very well recently, and there was a knock on my door. It was one her daughters, asking if I needed her to make me a cup of tea. I just thought to myself, how lovely is that? That’s community for you. Occasionally we all go for a meal, in July we’re off to see an Abba tribute gig, and sometimes she looks after my chickens for me – I’ve got two! That’s what we are missing these days. People who care for each other in the community, people who care for their neighbours.

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