Tag Archives: Childhood

FRIDAY NIGHTS IN PETTICOAT LANE

My sister and me, evacuated to Ely 1939

I loved Friday nights. My middle sister Hannah and I would sit in the kitchen sparkling clean, as my mother placed a scarf over her head, lit the four candles and intoned the Sabbath blessing. She always lit the candles in the brass candlesticks first. They were the ones she’d bought with her own money long before she got married. The silver ones were a present from my father’s wealthier parents and not nearly as precious.

Except in the depths of winter, when the Sabbath came in too early for there to be time between the end of school and the beginning of the Sabbath, my mother would take Hannah and me up the road to Goulston Street baths. She would buy just one second class ticket and bathe my sister and me together. We would then wait on the polished wooden bench in the corridor outside, while she called for more hot water and had her bath. The attendants bustled past in their immaculate white overalls, holding their badge of office – the big brass key that controlled the flow of water into the big porcelain baths. It was only in the First Class baths that you had your own taps and could control your own bath water.

My mother didn’t wash our hair in the bath. She was sure that walking the couple of hundred yards home to our tenement in Wentworth Dwellings would result in a cold or worse. She’d wash our hair over the sink when we got home, heating kettles of water on the stove.

When my father got home from synagogue he would lift the embroidered cloth covering the ‘challah’, say the ‘brochas’ for wine and bread and pass around the ‘kiddush’ cup for a sip each and a piece of the poppy sprinkled bread. Supper was always cold fried fish, potato salad and home-made ‘chrane’ – a fiery mixture of grated beetroot and horseradish. We tried to make it last as long as possible. Nothing like grating horseradish root to make your eyes stream.

After supper, we all had something to say as we sat around the table. We sisters had to take turns. When I thought no-one was looking, I would pick some warm wax drips from the candles and roll them in my fingers under the tablecloth. If she caught me, my older sister, Rebecca. would smack my hand and hiss ‘They’re the Shabbas candles. Mustn’t touch.’

The only bad thing about Friday night is that I had to go to bed in the dark – it was forbidden to carry out any work on the Sabbath – switching on a light was considered work. I would pray not to have to go to the loo in the dark. The long clanking chain made me think of ghosts hauling their shackles behind them and I’d scuttle there and back as fast as I could.

Hannah went to bed early too. She would offer to tell me a story. It was always a ghost story, that nearly frightened the life out of me. Then she would say that her name was Cynthia Levy and that she had trapped my sister, who I loved dearly, in the light bulb. Unless I id everything she ordered me to do, she would whip Hannah until she bled. It meant me doing things like switching the light on and off – though it was forbidden– and crawling under my bed amongst all the dust bunnies. I’d finally be allowed to creep under my parana – Hannah now saved from the light bulb.

In spite of ‘Cynthia Levy’ I still miss those magical Friday nights.

Read more stories like this in my memoir Woman in a White Coat on Kindle at £2.99 or as a paperback on Amazon at £9.99

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THE KINDNESS OF A STRANGER

Don’t know whether they had solutions like this in the 1940s

Nowadays having lice is almost a badge of honour. I realised this when my very upper crust neighbour rang the bell to tell me that her daughter Fiona had lice, and that I should check my four for the nasty little things. She sounded quite proud of the fact. So different from when I was a child. Then if you had lice, it meant that you were poor, came from a dirty home and probably your mother didn’t love you. Same parasites – different time and different attitude.

It was Sophie who noticed the navy blue suited figure crossing the playground.

‘It’s Nitty Nora,’ she hissed, loudly enough for the whole class to hear.

The Health Visitor called at our school on a regular basis, checking for lice and scabies. Our form mistress, Miss Evans, came to our classroom at the end of Latin.

‘Make your way to the First Aid room, girls, and line up in alphabetical order. Behave yourselves now. You don’t want to make me ashamed of you.’

I was last but one – Waterman came before Zaperstein.

‘Hold out your hands,’ the Health Visitor directed. ‘I’m pleased to see at least one girl has got nice clean nails,’ she said, as she inspected my hands for the tell-tale burrows of scabies.

She went on to look through my hair, especially in the warm places behind my ears, and then dismissed me.

Miss Evans stopped me as I queued to leave at the end of the afternoon and handed me a small brown envelope. You used to be able to steam those envelopes open and be forewarned about any wrongdoing on your part, but the teachers now sealed the envelopes with a strip of sellotape.

I held my breath as my mother opened it.

Dear Mrs Waterman

This is to inform you that your daughter Abigail Waterman has been found to be infested with lice. You are required to take her to Finsbury Square Cleansing station at 8am tomorrow morning. She will be unable to attend school until she is certified free of lice and nits. 

My mother was furious.

‘You insisted on washing your hair yourself and now look at the state of you – lice indeed. You’ve disgraced me and disgraced our family. They’ll think I’m a bad mother.’

She insisted on washing my hair twice that evening and there was certainly no supper that day.

I went on my own to the Cleansing Station, sitting as far as possible from anyone else on the bus lest they see lice crawling through my hair. I stood at the top of the stairs leading down to a mahogany door with a porthole in it filled with pebbled glass. The brass handrail gleamed in the winter sunlight as did the fittings on the door.

Instead of the ogre I was expecting, a jolly plump red-faced woman opened the door wide, a beaming smile on her face.

‘Come on in, my dear. I don’t bite.’

She washed my hair twice with anti-lice shampoo that smelled strongly of carbolic and combed it with a toothcomb. Towelling it almost dry, she sat me down in front of the fire with a sweet cup of tea and a biscuit.

‘Don’t be upset, sweetheart,’ she said. ‘I get plenty of clean girls through my hands. Anyone can catch the horrid little things. I’m afraid you can’t go back to school today, my love. You need to come back tomorrow and if there are no lice or nits left, I’ll give you a note saying that you are free of them.’

I felt like kissing her, but I was too shy.

No-one at school seemed to know or care why I had been away for a day and I never had lice again as a child. It wasn’t until I had four louse-ridden children that I caught head lice again – but that’s another story.

I thank all those lovely people who read and commented on stories like this in my memoir ‘Woman in White Coat’.

Buy Woman in a White Coat on Kindle at £2.99 or as a paperback on Amazon at £9.99

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MY RUSSIAN GRANDMA

My grandma in clothes my mother made for her

My two older sisters and I adored our maternal grandmother. She lived with us in our cold water tenement in Wentworth Dwellings in Petticoat Lane until she died in 1937, when I was five and my sisters 11 and 17. We were broken-hearted. It took years before it stopped hurting.

There were six of us – my parents, my bubba, my two sisters and me. The flat had three rooms – a bedroom, living room and kitchen, together with a small balcony which had a coal bunker and outside toilet. My parents shared the bedroom, my sisters, my grandmother and I slept in the ‘living room’, while the tiny kitchen was where we sat around a small oilcloth-covered table, talked, read, cooked and washed at the china butler sink. There was only a cold tap, so water for washing or, when we were little for the zinc bath, was heated in a kettle on the black iron stove cum fireplace. My sisters shared a pull-out sofa while I slept with my grandmother in the large mahogany double bed that had been my parents’ until they changed to the more modern twin beds. The living room was freezing in the winter – fern-like Jack Frost etched on the windowpanes – so it was lovely curling up against my grandmother’s warm back.

The outside loo had a long heavy iron chain with a wooden pull. The noise terrified me if I had to have a pee in the night. I don’t remember how old I was when it became my task to tear my dad’s newspaper into neat squares after he’d read it cover-to-cover. He’d then force through a nail, and thread some string through to hang the bundle by. There was no question of wasting money on bought toilet paper, but even when my sisters left home, and we were a bit better off, my dad preferred his newspaper to the bought stuff my mother and I used.

My bubba was a tall commanding woman, with dark hair piled on top of her head. It would have been a sheitel – the wig orthodox married women wear over their shaved head. I never saw her without it. Her left eye was badly scarred. It had been pierrced by a shard of glass when the Cossacks came riding through her village, pillaging and looting.

My mother and grandmother came from Mogilev in Belarus. My maternal grandfather died when my mother was only 2 years old, so my grandmother scraped a living turning her tiny cottage into a lodging house. The lodgers slept on a circular shelf around the pot-bellied stove in the centre of the room and ate at the table my grandfather had made my bubba as a wedding present. My father’s parents had died long before I was born.

I’m not sure whether my grandmother could speak Russian – she always spoke Yiddish to us and we replied in English. My mother could read and write Russian, so she kept the accounts required by the authorities. They emigrated to England in about 1903 and lived on the pittance my grandmother earned selling beigels on the corner of Wentworth Street and Goulston Street. My mother was apprenticed aged eleven to a dressmaker, earning 3d a week. Once she had learned enough to be useful, her employer stopped using her as a cheap servant and paid her a small wage. However, my grandmother refused to give up her pitch until my parents got married in 1918 and moved to Old Kent Road.

My bubba always did more than her fair share of the housework. She had a stroke while cleaning the stone steps leading down to the next landing. She was dead on arrival at the London Hospital. The neighbours blamed my mother.

‘Fancy letting her clean the stairs at her age, and her half-blind,’ they said.

But there was no stopping my grandmother doing anything she’d decided on.

Woman in a White Coat paperback

Lots more stories like this  in my memoir ‘‘Woman in White Coat’. Buy it on Kindle at £2.99 or as a paperback on Amazon at £9.99

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1944 AND WW2 IS DRAGGING ON

 

Hither Green Scarlet Fever Hospital 1897-1997

Hitler was still sending nightly bombing sorties against London so we slept in our designated shelter, the converted basement of a factory in Middlesex Street. The authorities had installed black metal bunk beds, as well as lockers and chemical toilets against one wall. I would gather up my most precious possessions – my pressed flower book from the Holy Land, my best cardigan and the placemats I was embroidering – and stuff them into a pillowcase, together with my homework and a torch, so I could read under the blankets after the main lights were turned off.

We children expected to get one or more childhood fevers. I caught measles, chicken pox, rubella and whooping cough in turn. That was about par for the course. I was left with a cough for years and a few little pock marks on my face, but I was lucky – there was a significant mortality associated with these infections. Some children were left blind or deaf from measles and every school had children wearing leg braces to support limbs damaged by polio. The only immunisation/ vaccination we had was against smallpox.

The last infectious disease I caught was Scarlet Fever and I loved having it.

As I trailed after my mother to the shelter, I was feeling worse and worse. My head ached and my throat was sore. By next morning my chest was covered in a vivid red rash.

I don’t remember at which stage I saw a doctor, but I was soon wrapped in a soft red blanket and packed off in an ambulance to Hither Green Isolation Hospital – Scarlet Fever is very infectious. It was so exciting. I’d never been in an ambulance before. I loved it when they turned on the bell when they couldn’t get through traffic.

At the hospital, the examining doctor congratulated me. He said I had the classical Strawberry Tongue of Scarlet Fever and bemoaned the fact there were no medical students to admire it. The nurses took my clothes away to be fumigated and I was admitted to a ward full of crying toddlers and babies.

Antibiotics weren’t yet available so I just had to wait for the disease to take its course. After a couple of days, I felt fine. Fortunately, there was one girl of my age, Ellie. There were separate one storey buildings for each infectious disease, set in quite extensive grounds. Ellie and I could wander at will. The wards were called by different letters and each had a tree planted nearby whose name began with that letter. Being in Q ward, I met quinces for the first time.

It was lovely having a friend of my own age and wonderful not having to sleep in a crowded shelter, nor having to use the smelly chemical toilets. But while I was in hospital, Hitler started to send over Doodlebugs, unmanned explosive planes which didn’t have to wait for the cover of darkness to avoid anti-aircraft fire and could be sent over day or night.

I think I was in hospital about 2 weeks. The good thing was that when I was discharged home, there was now no point in sleeping in the shelter that I hated. I could sleep in my own bed, curled up in my lovely feather ‘parana’ – bed bugs and all!!

Hither Green Scarlet Fever Hospital was opened 1897 and after being used for a number of different medical specialities, it was closed in 1997. It was designed by Edwin Thomas Hall, who also designed the Liberty Stores in Regent Street. The hospital has been demolished and the site is now a housing complex, Meridian South.

I thank all those lovely people who read and commented on stories like this in my memoir ‘Woman in a White Coat’.

Lots more stories in my memoir ‘‘Woman in White Coat’. Buy it on Kindle at £2.99 or as a paperback on Amazon at £9.99

http://bit.ly/Woman_in_a_White_Coat

BELIEVE IT OR NOT I MANAGED TO TURN 88 TODAY

I look pretty serious in this photo of me from 1934. Perhaps I was pondering the future of mankind or how to save endangered elephants and bears!!

The amazing part of it is that I have survived being in London in WW2 in the Blitz, and when Doodlebugs and V2 rockets were falling, a near-fatal heart attack, breast cancer, several broken bones, a slew of quite serious medical conditions. Perhaps it was having the same loving husband for the last 63 years and four fantastic children!!

I look back to a time when we could play cricket in Wentworth Street after the market closed. We’d scour the fruiterers’ refuse for a clean orange box that would provide both a wicket and the bat, hoping we wouldn’t miss a nasty smelling surprise of a rotten green orange in a corner that our rushed inspection had missed. Cars were few and far between even in Commercial Street, and none ventured down Petticoat Lane – except to deliver goods before the Sunday market opened. The everyday demountable food stalls arrived on barrows. The sound as they trundled along first thing in the morning accompanied the smell of bread baking from Kossoff’s bakery.

None of us had our own phones – an emergency sent someone running to the phone box outside Aldgate East station. You phoned your current boyfriend there too – getting an hour’s worth for a couple of pence. Now you can hardly walk along the pavement without bumping into someone too busy on their mobile.

Of course, they weren’t all good old days. My dad was out of work in the Great Depression. Not sure how we scraped by. And without our fantastic NHS and immunisation us children all got measles, or mumps, or chicken pox, or diphtheria or any combination of them (more later).

We’ve so much to be grateful for that just wasn’t available when I was a child.

Lots more stories in my memoir ‘‘Woman in White Coat’. Buy it on Kindle at £2.99 or as a paperback on Amazon at £9.99

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MORE MEMORIES OF PETTICOAT LANE

 

My third floor window faced onto Wentworth Street. It was then above a hardware shop

Amongst my most powerful memories of living in Petticoat Lane are the smells. I make my own bread and when I smell baking I’m taken back to our cold water tenement in Wentworth Dwellings. From 1943 we lived on the third floor with my bedroom facing on to Wentworth Street and Kossoff’s bakery. The smell when I woke first thing in the morning was delicious – it made me ravenous. Then there were the aromas of pickled cucumbers and pickled herrings from the barrels outside Marks, the delicatessen. I don’t like pickled – or schmaltz or chopped herrings – but I love the pickled onions that came with them. In a sandwich of rye bread still warm from the baker they are heaven.

My bedroom was above the hardware shop with its odours of carbolic acid and paraffin. I was often sent down to buy a packet of flypapers – sticky yellow curls of stiff paper that you hang up and wait for flies to attach themselves. When it is completely covered with dead and dying flies you hang up another – but there were always more around in those pre-fridge days. Bed bugs were a constant problem. We tried Flit sprays and pouring white spirit over the bed springs, but neither did much good. The springs were attached to the headboards by tightly curled wires in which bed bugs made their home. My mother would regularly pour boiling water over them but there were always more. When the war ended in 1945, we were visited by council workers with DDT sprays that did the trick – at least for a time. We didn’t know then that DDT was dangerous – for humans as well as for bedbugs.

Earlier, my family had lived in a smaller Wentworth Dwellings flat, this time facing onto Goulston Street. On our side of the road were the chicken stalls with crates of live chickens clucking underneath. On the other side, by Brunswick Dwellings, were the fish stalls. The fish was always fresh that day – collected from Billingsgate Market as soon as it was light – but the fish heads and bits and pieces chucked away under the stalls made that side of the road really smelly. I can still conjure up that whiff of ammonia and hated walking on that side of the street. The discarded offal from the chicken stalls added their own aroma to the mix.

And then there were all the street cries. When my husband wants to tease me, he’ll call out ‘Ripe tomatoes, shilling a pound,’ reminding me of my East End past. I’d rather he’d have chosen ‘Sweet strawberries. Melt in your mouth.’

On Sundays, Petticoat Lane was quite different – much more crowded and spreading to all the surrounding streets. Now the hucksters were calling out their crockery and linen wares instead of fruit and vegetables. Completely different smells – now of leather and fabric.

If you were lucky, you might hear Prince Monolulu crying ‘I gotta horse!!’, the long ostrich feathers in his headdress and his chieftain’s fly whisk waving in the breeze. They said he’d won what was then the vast sum of £8000 in the Derby in 1920. It brought you luck to touch or even be near him.

Lots more stories like this in my memoir ‘‘Woman in White Coat’. Buy it on Kindle at £2.99 or as a paperback on Amazon at £9.99

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY BABE

The boys in dressing-up clothes

When your younger son is 57 today and his elder brother is 59 you realise you really are old!!

‘Babe and me thought it was a good idea’ is our family saying for when someone – not pointing at someone recently or presently in power today – does something unexpected and stupid.

When our elder son, Simon, was in nappies we had those terry towelling napkins you had to soak and wash daily. By the time Bernard was born, disposable applies were available and the make we used was called ‘Golden Babe.’ Unlike the rest of our family, Bernard had white-gold hair and his nickname was soon ‘Golden Babe’ or ‘Babe’ for short.

Simon was three and Bernard was 6 months old when we moved them out of the box room and into a junior bed and larger cot in the spare bedroom. To our horror, the first morning the boys were in their new bedroom, Simon scribbled all over one newly painted wall.

‘Why did you do that?’ We asked. He looked over at Babe, who had just learned to sit up alone, and certainly hadn’t yet learned to speak. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘Babe and me thought it was a good idea.’

We couldn’t be cross. It was such a great saying!!

The following year we opened our educational toy shop, John Dobbie , in Wimbledon Village and amongst our stock we sold fancy dress clothes. They both loved dressing up.

Read more of my memoir in ‘Woman in a White Coat’  on Kindle at £2.99 or as a paperback on Amazon at £9.99

http://bit.ly/Woman_in_a_White_Coat

THE BLITZ WW2 AND RE-EVACUATION 1940-1942

Dawlish 1941

When my dad brought my middle sister and me back from an unhappy billet in Ely, Christmas 1939, I vowed I would never be evacuated again, but on September 7th 1940 the Blitz began. We tried taking shelter on the platform of Aldgate East Underground station, where we slept in rows tightly packed like sardines. I hated it there. I often walked in my sleep and, although I knew that the electric current was turned off at night, I was terrified that I might walk to the edge of the platform and fall onto the lines. Finally, we were allocated spaces in the basement of a factory in Middlesex Street and started to sleep there every night.

Soon, posters appeared saying that children still in London should be sent to the country. I told my parents I wouldn’t go. After the miserable time I’d had in Ely, I absolutely didn’t want to be evacuated again but a distant cousin was working at one of the hostels for Jewish children opened by Habonim in South Devon – one each in Dawlish, Teignmouth and Exmouth. There was room for me in the Dawlish hostel and I stayed there for two years, finally coming back to London in the summer of 1942.

I loved it there. I was the youngest and smallest and for the first time I was not just a third unwelcome daughter but was cossetted and made a big fuss of. And there were lots of children to play with. I don’t remember ever being homesick even though I only saw my parents a couple of times in the two years I was there – it was a long way from London and the fare was expensive. I wasn’t exactly alienated from my family but certainly there was now an emotional as well as a geographical distance.

I was entered for the Junior County Scholarship when I was 10 and awarded a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital. I’d read lots of books about boarding schools and couldn’t wait to go there, but my father wrote to the school asking if I would be able to take Jewish holydays off. Needless to say, the reply was that no special arrangements could be made for Jewish children and my Orthodox parents wouldn’t allow me to go there.

I was heartbroken and now I hated the hostel and begged my father to take me home. My scholarship didn’t guarantee me a free place at the local grammar school, Central Foundation School for Girls, but the headmistress allowed me to go there free of charge provided I won a Junior County Scholarship the following spring. It was a fee-paying school at the time, and my parents wouldn’t have been able to afford to pay fees. Fortunately, with a bit of taking in, my middle sister’s uniform fitted me, so my parents were spared that expense.

I won a Junior County scholarship in 1943 and spent seven happy years at CFS, including the last two as the only girl at our brother school – Cowper Street Boys School – but that’s another story!!

Read about this and other episodes in my memoir ‘Woman in a White Coat.’

Buy Woman in a White Coat on Kindle at £2.99 or as a paperback on Amazon at £9.99

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WHITECHAPEL PUBLIC LIBRARY -1892-2005

 

The old Whitechapel Library

For me Whitechapel Library was a godsend. The only books our family owned were six Sidurim (Daily Prayer Books) and six Haggadahs (Prayer Books for the first two nights of Pesach – Passover). – one each for my grandmother, my parents, my two older sisters and me. No reading books. Those we borrowed from the library.

I could already read when I was enrolled at Jews Free Infant School aged 3, but I couldn’t join the children’s section of Whitechapel Library until I was five. From then on, I went to the library every Friday afternoon before Shabbat began. Hard to believe in our apparently more dangerous age, but I went there on my own as soon as I was old enough to join, walking from our tenement in Wentworth Dwellings, crossing the busy Commercial Street, walking up Old Montague Street and cutting through what I think is now Angel Alley to the Library.

My mother would tell me to find a big man to take me across Commercial Street and to hold his hand tight. These days parents would fear that the ‘big man’ was a paedophile or worse.

I could borrow six books a week from the Children’s section and later, when I was old enough, from the Adult Library, so for me most of the titles in ‘1000 Books You Must Read before You Die’ are familiar, even if I’ve only skimmed them – though most I’d have read cover to cover. As an Orthodox Jewish girl there was little else I could do on Saturdays after getting back from Shul and having lunch.

There was a plaque at the bottom of the staircase to J Passmore Edwards in recognition of the philanthropist’s substantial contribution to its construction under the aegis of Canon Samuel Barnett and his wife Henrietta. It was only looking at the photograph that I saw the inscription on the building ‘The Passmore Edwards Library’ but I never heard anyone call it that.

The only thing I hated about the library was walking past the cases of stuffed animals and birds if I needed to look up something in the Reference Library upstairs. I can still picture the glaring eyes and sharp teeth of the foxes and visualise the poor little song birds tied to twigs.

I’m sure the new Ideas Store further up Whitechapel Road that replaced it after it was closed as a library in 2005 does a great job, but it’s nothing like the glorious old Whitechapel Library of my memories.

And I thank all those lovely people who read and commented on my memoir ‘Woman in White Coat’.

Buy Woman in a White Coat on Kindle at £2.99 or as a paperback on Amazon at £9.99

http://bit.ly/Woman_in_a_White_Coat

 

On having a cat again

A lovely black kitten

I’d love to have a cat now we’re getting on for 90 and don’t go abroad anymore. We don’t enjoy long airplane flights and schlepping our all-too-heavy baggage around, but we live on the 9th floor with a balcony and I couldn’t face a repeat of my experience with Rupert when I was a child and lived on the third floor with a balcony in Wentworth Dwellings in Petticoat Lane.

Rupert was a gorgeous black kitten who was as curious as are all baby animals. I was in tears remembering as I wrote about it in my memoir ‘Woman in a White Coat’.

Excerpt from Chapter2

It was wonderful coming home from school to be greeted by Rupert who would wind himself round and round my ankles, delighted to see me again. Continue reading On having a cat again