My neighbour, Sam Dias, a retired black cab driver who has lived on my estate for 45 years, has just celebrated his 79th birthday.
He is an affable bloke who is full of great stories. He’s also Aldgate born and bred and, apart from a very brief stint residing in Stoke Newington in the early 1970s, he has always lived within spitting distance of Middlesex Street.
Given the fact that I’m a bit of a history geek, I’m really chuffed to have been able to enlist Sam’s help in putting together this week’s column, where we consider Sam’s lived experience of growing up in Aldgate.
Sam’s flat is located almost at the very top of Petticoat Tower, on the Middlesex Street Estate. I envy him the amazing panoramic vista of London’s East End seen from his living room window. Sam sees no reason for such envy.
“I hate heights,” he laughs. From our high vantage point Sam points out the nearby Herbert House, his childhood home.
Sam is part of the Sephardic Jewish community, which has been present in Aldgate since the 17th century.
Judaism is clearly a very important part of Sam’s identity, although he describes himself as “a very liberal Jew” who has never been inclined to adopt an overly dogmatic interpretation of halakha (Jewish religious law).
Elaborating, Sam recounts how as a boy he always made a point of passing by Old Castle Street Synagogue just as dusk fell on Friday evening.
The janitors of the synagogue were unable to light the candles inside, as to do so would break the strict rules about refraining from work during Shabbat.
And so, these ‘frummers’ (pious, observant Jews) would stand on the pavement outside the synagogue every Friday evening waiting for some helpful gentile to pass by and offer to do this task for them in exchange for thruppence.
Never one to miss an opportunity for some easy cash, 13-year-old Sam made it his business to ensure that he would always be the person to pass by the synagogue at this lucrative moment.
He became the regular candle lighter and then dashed off to the Brady Boys Club in Whitechapel where he used the money to buy a cold drink and a cake.
Chuckling, Sam explained how the synagogue janitors paid him for this task week in, week out, completely oblivious to the fact that young Sam was himself a Jewish boy.
They doubtless might have had some issues with his entrepreneurial acumen had they known this.
Old Castle Street is familiar to me as it is just yards from my home. The synagogue Sam mentions, however, is not. That’s because it is long gone.
Sam has witnessed first hand an incredible demographic change in Aldgate that has occurred during his lifetime.
The sizeable Jewish population has gradually gentrified, moved out and all but disappeared to be replaced by the Bengali immigrants who started settling in the area in the 1970s and 1980s.
Today, Sam says that he is hard pressed to name any more than a handful of Jewish people still resident in Aldgate. Things were very different when Sam was a kid, with Aldgate being substantially defined by the two distinct communities who lived there, side by side. From Middlesex Street to Commercial Street the area was almost exclusively Jewish, and it was a place where Yiddish could still regularly be heard spoken on the street. Then, from Commercial Street to Brick Lane the Irish dominated.
The two communities tended to get along reasonably well, according to Sam. Amongst his parents’ generation, there was the shared, collective memory of the Jews and the Irish standing together in solidarity to prevent the hateful attempts of Oswald Mosley’s fascists to march through the East End in the 1930s.
Petticoat Lane Market
As a boy, Sam also worked on Petticoat Lane Market, where his father ran a stall for many years. Sam’s job was to transport his dad’s goods in a huge barrow from a nearby warehouse in Stoney Lane to the market stall.
It was a tough enough job for an 11 year old, but Sam says he was always a big lad for his age and was fit for the work.
It’s hard to conceive just how crowded Petticoat Lane would be on a Sunday morning in the 1950s. I’ve seen wonderful old photographs showing this, but Sam actually experienced this first hand.
Thousands of people crammed on to every available bit of pavement and road and you would be carried along with the tide of the crowd whether you wanted to or not. Sam’s dad enlisted the help of one of his mates, a tough ex-boxer, to escort young Sam and the barrow safely through the throngs of humanity milling about.
The man went ahead, assertively clearing space for the boy and barrow following behind. Sam received five shillings a week from his dad for his efforts, a not-inconsiderable sum for a youngster at the time.
Reflecting back, Sam laments that Petticoat Lane Market has lost much of its sparkle in more recent times.
“They all sell the same stuff nowadays. The market has no character anymore,” he sighs. As Sam got a little older, he’d incorporate a few tipples at The Bell into his Sunday work schedule.
This pub doesn’t bother opening at weekends anymore, but in the 1950s when Sophie and Lionel Pollock were the landlords The Bell would be so busy on market day that they would have eight staff working flat out behind the bar.
Sam also clearly recollects the Old Stoney Lane Buildings, which once occupied the exact footprint of the present-day Middlesex Street Estate where Sam and I both now live. These Victorian flats were pretty state-of- the-art when originally built by the Commissioners of City Sewers in the 1880s.
However, they were eventually pulled down in the 1960s, by which time the lack of lifts and the fact that multiple tenants needed to share a bathroom and toilet meant they were no longer fit for purpose.
Nevertheless, Sam recalls the Old Stoney Lane Buildings, or the ‘Artizan Dwellings’ as they were officially known, being a popular place to live. He corrects me immediately when I refer to them as slums. “Oh no, these were very well maintained by the City of London Corporation,” clarifies Sam.
His sister lived there, and he remembers going to visit her once and being accosted by a suspicious neighbour who didn’t recognise him and wanted to know what business Sam had being in the block.
“It was very, very tight knit,” remembers Sam with a smile.
I love a bit of social history when it’s well told. This is something Sam clearly excels at. He’s spent his whole life in Aldgate and has been witness to an area that has changed almost beyond all recognition.
There are always, however, some constants in the universe. Whilst his days working on Petticoat Lane Market are now long behind him, The Bell remains Sam’s local and he is still to be found there on most weekday evenings enjoying a few jars.
Ian McPherson is a City of London Guide who lives on the Middlesex Street Estate.
Cover image by George Grantham Bain Collection.