East End Memories


When I was a child, parts of my area of the East End were like a magical land. Streets such as Brick Lane and Wentworth Street were veritable Aladdin’s Caves. In those days, these streets were inhabited mostly by Jews and were lined with what seemed to be an endless number of food shops each filled with the most succulent delicacies. My mouth waters at the thought! I remember at the corner of Bethnal Green Road and Brick Lane there was once a wonderful bakery, where bagels were baked on the premises. I can still recall the most wonderful aroma that filled the air. Whenever we went down the lane, as going to Brick Lane, Petticoat Lane or Club Row was collectively called, we always made a visit to this bakery. Sadly, although the building is still there and with its original layout maintained, it no longer functions as a bakery. The building, which was originally constructed by The Huguenots who were weavers, is of architectural interest due to the extremely large windows on the upper floors. Their presence allowed the weavers to extend their workday by taking full advantage of natural light for an increased time.

I have a soft spot for this shop since I tasted my first bagel there. It was a freshly baked sesame seed succulent bagel with a crisp dark brown outer crust. On those Sunday mornings, I always enjoyed walking up the Bethnal Green Road to this shop since as we drew close to it my nostrils became teased and tantalised by the perfume of the baking breads. The shop was always filled with customers – the sign of a good shop. I was amazed how everyone seemed to be served in order despite there being no number system in place. The shop was very noisy thanks not to the clientele, but rather from the demands of the sales staff who was forever calling out orders to the baker out back and from their colourful greetings to the customers.

Naturally, my mother was well known to everyone that worked in the shop and always received a hearty greeting especially from the manageress whenever she came to the shop. I too was greeted with great warmth. My father generally waited outside so that he could enjoy a smoke. Once my presence was noticed by the manageress, she would stop her sale immediately and raise her hands to the air while commenting on how much the little man has grown! Her remark was always punctuated with a loud oy! Naturally, the other customers turned to look at me and those that knew me smiled and agreed. It was not unheard of for the manageress to yell for her husband, the baker, to leave what he was doing and to come out immediately from the bake house to see me and give his view on my current stature. Her husband, amidst grumbles and complaints about being dragged away from his work, nonetheless obeyed her command and made his way from outback. Grumbling he may have been, but once he saw my mother and I, his complaints ceased and he broke into a wide smile and agreed with his wife on the state of my health. I would beam at them both and I have to confess that I was never embarrassed by their attention!

I really liked this couple and enjoyed their kindness to us. I loved the way they talked and how they looked. They were both short and plump and had large double chins that shook whenever they laughed, which was often. It was obvious that this jolly couple enjoyed their food, as did my mother and I! My father was not a good eater and was picky about what he would and would not eat. I never could understand such behaviour since I ate practically everything placed before me. The baker and his wife always stopped to talk and laugh with my mother and did so until they realised that their customers had been waiting patiently to be served and that they needed to get back to their business.

Everyone that worked in the shop was dressed in spotless starched wrap-around white coats that were held in place by a white cloth belt tied at the back. This, often with a long white apron, was the custom for people in the food business in those days. The manageress was distinguished from her associates by the wearing of an old-fashioned cameo broach pinned to one of her lapels. She always wore a lace blouse under her coat that seemed to have mounds of ruffles that cascaded down over her ample bosom. Although she could not be described as beautiful, even I at my young age could see that she was in fact a handsome woman with a huge personality and who, despite her height, was not to be messed with and who was certainly nobody’s fool!

My mother was a highly opinionated person and believed that this shop produced the best bagels in the area and so never thought to purchase any from any other baker despite their shop being closer to where we lived. In those days, bagels were smaller than those of today and there was less variety. In fact, I cannot remember any other type than sesame seed. If I were lucky during our visit, one of the helpers from outback would come into the shop carrying a large tray of freshly baked bagels high above his head. As he wound his way through the shop, he left a trail of intoxicating perfume in his wake. There was never a dry mouth in the shop! He proceeded to the huge basket, which was kept outside the shop close to the door and tipped them in it. The added bagels bounced and danced in the basket until coming to rest. I wonder what the Department of Health would think of this custom today! Passing potential shoppers, most certainly overcome by the smell of freshly baked bread now swooped on the basket and grabbed the number of bagels that they quickly decided that they wanted and transferred into a brown paper bag from the batch hanging from a nail above the basket. Again, I wonder what the Department of Health would think of this method of choosing your bagels! These customers now joined the queue in the shop to pay. In those days, folks were trusted to be honest.

The shop did not only sell bagels, but a variety of delicious breads and cakes. My favourite bread was challah, the twisty loaf, as I used to call it. This was bought on Friday in preparation for Shabbos, the Sabbath. When it came for my mother to pay for her purchases, the manageress always gave me an additional little cake. I was given this prize simply for being such a good boy! I was always very grateful and thanked her profusely for the delicious present. This would cause her to tell everyone within earshot that I was such a little gentleman and how his mother must be so proud of him! I would smile and perhaps turn a light shade of red and lower my eyes. The manageress often told my mother that it was a pity that her girls were grown, as she would have loved to have me as a son-in-law! At this, she would sigh and smile at me again. People were great matchmakers in those days. I was always sure to wave to her from the doorway as we left the shop.

Once we got outside, my mother would suggest that I save the treasured cake for later. Naturally, such a suggestion was not on! I wanted to gobble it up there and then, but after some discussion, I realised that it might be wise to consider my options. Experience had taught me that there were going to be other delicious delicacies coming my way once we made our way down the lane. And experience had also taught me that it would be best if such delicacies were eaten before my cake. And so, my precious cake was passed to my mother who wrapped it carefully in a piece of greaseproof paper and placed it safely in her shopping bag. I have to smile now, as I would always tell her to be careful not to crush my cake and I would be certain to check throughout our visit down the lane to ensure that it had not been spoiled in any way. After all this was a treasure to be thought about and savoured before finally being eaten and enjoyed.

There were numerous shops down the lane that I found fascinating. There were many butchers’ shops where the windows were filled with wondrous cuts of meats and a huge variety of sausages and other morsels to tempt the taste buds. A deep blue Star of David together with writing beneath appeared prominently on each shop window. This informed patrons that only products prepared in strict compliance with the dietary laws of Judaism and under the strict auspices of a Rabbi were for sale. Again my mother had a favourite shop where she bought meat and chicken. My mother was practically raised by an old Jewish couple as a child and young woman. Although she was not Jewish, she learned how to keep a kosher home, most of which she maintained throughout her adult life and which was especially apparent when it came to food and its cooking.

However, it was the shops known as delicatessens that were the real gems in the crown of the shops of the area. Although I was unaware of the name for these shops, I knew them well. These were wondrous emporia where herrings and long ribbons of onions sat soaking in brine suitably peppered with an assortment of berries and herbs. The tantalising delicacies were stored in squat little wooden barrels where they fermented in this intoxicating broth while waiting for sale. These shops were laden with bottles and packets of a huge variety of products that gave off the most delicious and tempting perfumes that caused my head to reel. If I found the sight and smell of these shops to be appealing, the taste of the fish and others delicacies found here defied description and would send this taster into a state of joy. My mother only made an occasional purchase in these shops since we had a wonderful deli close to where we lived and she was loyal to the proprietress.

Our pie ‘n’ mash shop was on Cambridge Heath Road just a few yards from the junction known as the Mile End Gate. Just across the road from our shop once stood my favourite delicatessen ever! I remember that my mother would send me across the road on a Sunday afternoon to this shop where I went to obtain our treat. I loved going to this shop as I liked to see Mrs. or rather Madame Schvitz. But more of her and our treat a little later.

Vallance Road is a less than remarkable road that joins the Bethnal Green and Whitechapel Roads. Today, the state of the street clearly demonstrates that it has seen better days. The condition of the houses on either side of the road is poor since most have been left to decay. In spite of its present state of decline, the junction of Vallance and Bethnal Green Roads holds a special place in my heart. This small insignificant crossroad is the site of one of those meetings that seems to have taken place purely by chance, and yet upon reflection, it appears difficult to believe that it was not somehow planned since, through it, remarkable changes occurred in the lives of a number of people who might otherwise not have met.

Top: Junction of Vallance and Bethnal Green Roads; Bottom: Junction of Vallance and Whitechapel Roads

My mother had to leave school when she was eleven years old. To be honest, she had barely attended school at all before then. My poor mother was either in hospital, thanks to the brutality of her stepfather or away from home at a Children’s Home. My mother was sent to Herne Bay at a Home for abused children and spent two years in care. It seemed that she was suffering with severe malnutrition and needed to be fattened up. Much of the remaining time when she might have attended school was missed since she was required to take care of the endless number of half-siblings whenever her mother produced yet another child. And so with little education and an inability to read or write properly, my mother entered the workforce at a very young age.

Towards the end of her life, my mother spent a few days in the University Hospital at Chapel Hill in North Carolina. Here, she was observed by an endless parade of medical students and residents. My mother proved to be an interesting patient since they noticed that she lacked patellae – kneecaps. The students and young doctors had never seen anyone lacking this bone before. The patella is first formed as cartilage, which becomes ossified once the subject ages. Since my mother lacked any marketable skills as a child, little opportunity for work was open to her. As a result, she was forced to do what she did at home and so was sent out as an eleven year old child to scrub floors. My mother used to joke that at one time or another she had scrubbed the floors of just about every house on both sides of the street of the Hackney Road! Apparently, she knocked on each door in turn with the hope that the lady of the house had some work for her.

Whenever I heard this story as a child, I became very upset. I imagined my mother as a small pale and fragile little girl dressed in tattered rags. I am still not convinced that my imagination was too far off the mark. In my mind, I saw this poor pathetic child standing before an enormous door where she stood shivering from the cold and clutching a small bucket and brush in her frozen hand while she waiting for the door to open. My mother said that for scrubbing the kitchen floor, the hall, the upstairs landing and the stairs she received a few coppers. She was never given anything to kneel on and obviously did not know to bring anything with her. Naturally her parents gave this matter no thought. As a result, over the years she wore away her fragile kneecaps and so entered adult life without any and so became of interest to physicians-in-training!

My mother worked constantly as a young child. Once she came home, all of her earnings were taken and she was told to look after her siblings. My mother said that she cannot recall ever being given any of her earnings to spend on herself. She said that she never dared to retain any since her stepfather always searched her to see that she had kept any from him. In today’s age of Social and Child Services, it is difficult to believe that anyone could be so mistreated. After all, she was not born into Victorian times. Sadly, she was not alone in receiving such treatment.

However, as the proverb states, it’s an ill wind that blows no good. And this is nowhere more true than on a certain cold and wintry day in Bethnal Green when my mother helped an old couple cross the street.

Vallance Road is a busy street. Many vehicle drivers use it as a shortcut between Bethnal Green and Whitechapel. During my mother’s childhood, traffic lights were not as common as they are today and many smaller street junctions lacked them. Apparently, at that time, there were no ‘lights, or none that worked, at the junction of Vallance and Bethnal Green Roads. My mother said that while she was walking along Bethnal Green Road, she could see an old couple in the distance waiting to cross over Vallance Road. Unfortunately, no sufficient break occurred in the traffic flow for them to cross and my mother said that she could see the couple put a foot onto the road and then quickly bring it back to the pavement just as a car or lorry roared past. My mother said that she felt very sorry for the old couple since it was obvious that they were going to get hurt without being more careful. With this in mind, she hurried up to the crossroads to help them to safety.

Once my mother got to the road junction, although thin and frail, she quickly stepped in between the couple and asked if she might help them cross the road. She said that it became evident to her that both the old man and the old lady had poor eyesight since they both wore spectacles with extremely thick glass. Apparently, she took hold of an arm of the old man and lady and told them that she would see them safely across the road. She said that they waited quietly with her and when at last a suitable break in the traffic flow arrived, she led them across the street and to the safety of the other side. My mother said that the couple thanked her profusely for her help and then asked her name and various other questions about herself. To cut a long story short, after the initial chat, the old man asked my mother to come and work at their house. Since my mother had found little work that day, she naturally feared going home where she knew she would suffer the wrath of her stepfather for the lack of compensation, she was overjoyed to be offered work.

Apparently, the couple lived on a side road off Brick Lane in a small house. It seemed that all of their children were now grown and married and lived far from their parents. Now the couple lived alone. Although their children came to visit and tried to see that their parents were comfortable, they were now aged and needed someone to come in daily to tend to their immediate needs. My mother said that she was given a strong cup of tea once she came into the house. What surprised her was that the tea was served in a glass. My mother had never seen this before. Being waited on was a new experience for my mother and being given a cup of tea was a special treat since she was only ever been given water to drink in her own home. She also said that she must have looked ill as the old lady insisted that she also eat something.

It would seem that my mother did not actually do any cleaning or tidying up that day, but rather sat at the kitchen table and talked to the old couple. She said that they all got along like a house on fire and it was agreed that she should return daily to help in the home and to take the couple shopping. My mother said that she left overjoyed as she had been promised a decent wage for the proposed work in a pleasant atmosphere and in a warm house. As my mother left the house, the old lady pressed a silver sixpence into her hand so as to avoid any unpleasantness once she arrived home.

My mother always spoke kindly of Bubba and Zayde, as she soon took to calling the old couple. They were Russian Orthodox Jews and very religious. She said that they had left Russia before the Revolution and journeyed across Europe and settled in England along with several small children. Zayde had been a cabinetmaker by trade and had worked for many years in a small factory on Gibraltar Walk in Bethnal Green. He always prayed several times each day, but not before donning the necessary accoutrements. Each Saturday, he went to Shul several times and also attended on the High Holy Days. The couple kept Shabbos each week. Bubba always lit candles on Friday nights and Zayde broke bread and sipped wine before they ate their Shabbose meal. It was thanks to Bubba that my mother began to learn how to keep a kosher home. She also learned to speak Yiddish, as the couple were far more comfortable speaking it as they found English to be difficult.

The old couple were very kind to my mother and not only fed her and taught her how to cook and maintain a real home, they also bought her clothes. My mother had never had any new clothes since the death of her own grandfather. Most of the clothes that her grandfather had bought for her were taken away from her immediately and either sold or pawned for beer money by her stepfather.

My mother wore only old ragged clothes that were given to her at a Mission or Church Hall and never knew the joy of being given a pretty dress or a new pair of shoes. She said that what she dreamt of owning most of all was a warm winter coat. However, she had to content herself with being raggedly dressed and perpetually cold. My mother used to tell the story of a coat that her teacher had given and the trouble that it caused. She said that once, she arrived at school dressed only in a thin and ragged dress. Apparently the day was especially cold and not one when a child or an adult should be out without a suitable topcoat. Unfortunately for my mother, she did not own a coat, only an old shawl, which had been dragged off her by her stepfather to cover the new baby that had just arrived. As a result, she arrived at school in a frozen state with fingers blue from the cold. Her teacher, a kindly woman felt sorry for my mother’s general plight and allowed her to clear away the luncheon things from the teacher’s lounge each day and told her to eat any food that was left over in the serving bowls. My mother was never given any dinner money for school lunch and so before being given this right ate nothing while at school. Her teacher was appalled to see my mother being sent to school without suitable dress on such a cold and blustery day and immediately found an old coat for her to wear and keep.

The next day, which was another cold and windy day, my mother arrived at school, but without the coat. Her teacher asked her why she was not wearing the coat. My mother was embarrassed to tell her the truth, but eventually told her that her stepfather had taken it from her and given it to one of his daughters and threw her old shawl back at her. At lunchtime, the teacher accompanied my mother to her home whereupon she informed her stepfather that unless he gave back the coat to my mother, she would inform the police. She also said that he was not to harm or chastise my mother about the matter or else she would see that charges were brought against him. My mother was given her coat, which she treasured and wore until it finally fell to pieces.

My mother said that the old couple bought her several dresses, which she was to wear at work and when they all went out together. The couple were horrified when my mother said that she would have to leave the dresses at their home and change into them upon arrival each day. She explained that unless she did this, her stepfather would take them from her and either pawn them and use the money to buy beer or else he would give them to one of his daughters. The couple was horrified, but agreed to my mother’s request.

The couple had several grown children and many grandchildren who came frequently to visit. She said that everyone treated her well and was very happy that their parents had found someone that they liked to help them. It seemed that the couple could be difficult at times, although my mother always insisted that neither Bubba nor Zayde was ever difficult with her.

My mother loved working for the old couple. She said that she would accompany them on walks to the various little public parks and gardens in Bethnal Green and, during summer months, she would accompany them for a day out in Victoria Park. She said that they loved to feed the ducks and to wander through the gardens. Apparently, when they were still in Russia, they had a small garden and the old man grew vegetables and his wife, flowers.

Although the couple had reached an old age when my mother first met them, they lived for a number of years under her care. Slowly, the old man became unable to tend to himself and my mother soon had to wash and dress him. One day, apparently, he was not too weak to get up and remained in bed. Before his children could arrive, Zayde passed away peacefully with Bubba and my mother at his side. My mother went to the Synagogue to tell the Rabbi the sad news. The old man was buried the next day and my mother stayed in the house with the old lady while the family sat Shiva.

Once the mourning period was over, the family decided that it would be best if Bubba went to live with her eldest daughter and family in their home somewhere outside London. My mother was offered employment by one of the couple’s sons who owned a public house, much to the disgust of his parents, on Tower Bridge Road, just across the bridge in South London. Since my mother had a horror of public houses and of drunken men, in particular, she declined the offer.

On the day when Bubba was to leave for her daughter’s home, my mother said that she and the old lady sat together on her bed. She said that they were both so sad. They sat and hugged each other while weeping bitterly for each knew that they were never going to see each other again. My mother always got upset whenever she told me this story. I can honestly say that she never forgot Bubba and Zayde and always mentioned them whenever she crossed the junction of Vallance and Bethnal Green Roads.

Now that I live abroad, whenever I visit London, I generally take some time to visit the East End. Although I am not one to dwell on past events or to regret or yearn for yesterday, I do like to wander through the various markets and to walk along certain streets that were of importance to me in my childhood. I also like to go to the Hackney Empire. I am always hopeful that this beautiful theatre will survive the many upheavals that it constantly suffers and will once more present great productions that will set the theatrical world on its ear. I do feel a certain sadness each time I see that the once proud building of Wickham’s is still being left to decay and that suitable no use has been found for it. I am also saddened that the once majestic Whitechapel Road has been allowed to decline into its current grubby state. Whenever I do visit the East End, I always seem to find myself wandering along Bethnal Green Road. I walk up to Brick Lane with the aim of looking once more at the old Huguenot factory and remember the jolly double chinned baker and his wife and their kindness to me. However, in spite of myself, I am perhaps most affected by the past whenever I come to the junction of Vallance and Bethnal Green Roads. Without meaning to, I find myself lingering at that junction for longer than necessary while seemingly waiting for the traffic lights to change. As I wait, my mind wanders and I remember once again my mother’s story of her meeting, quite by chance, Bubba and Zayde and I cannot but think how fortunate it was that they met all those years ago and did so perhaps not really by chance. Eventually, I notice that the traffic lights have now turned red and that the endless stream of cars and lorries, much to the annoyance of the drivers, has ground to a halt. Being brought back to the present with a start, I quickly cross the street, and with a sigh, I continue on about my business.

Aaron Lebedeff - Rumania Rumania

Klezmer Constervatory Band - Rumania Rumania

The Corner of Bethnal Green Road and Brick Lane - the erstwhile Huguenot factory-cum-baker's shop


Your site is proving to be more and more interesting every time I open a new story. I have now read about Bubba & Zayde and your mother of course. Times were hard in the East End at the beginning of the last century, but I know there were families that made it even harder for their children. I was so sad to see what a life your mother was forced to live. Children were forced to work at a very young age. My mother was probably lucky that she had her first job at the age of 13. It was at a printer’s that produced bank notes for various countries.

It was interesting to read about the crossroads where your mother first met Bubba & Zayde. Of course I know it so well. If you continue along Bethnal Green Road from Vallence Road (where the Kray brothers grew up, I believe) and cross over to the other side, you arrive at Squirries Street. I grew up on Norah Street, which is now demolished. This street was sandwiched between Squirries Street and Pollards Row, which lead to the corner where the Red Church is, which incidentally is no longer a church, but has been converted into flats.

I also know Wentworth Street very well. My first job was with the P & O Shipping Company. Their offices were in Beaufort House, which was just around the corner from Wentworth Street. I remember the wonderful view that we had from the office window of one of the platforms of Aldgate East Underground Station. I spent many lunch hours walking through Wentworth Street and looking at the things for sale on the stalls and in the shops selling Jewish delicacies. Today, I am afraid that you won’t get any salt beef sandwiches or bagels there anymore. Mind you, the area is still filled with stalls with interesting things to buy. I am happy to see that the tradition of selling material for clothes is being continued with many shops specializing exotic fabrics for saris. Despite the lack of pickled herrings and succulent breads, my nostrils noted the tempting scents wafting through the air of many ingredients used in the making of curries.


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Copyrightę 2010 - : Charles S. P. Jenkins