Among 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 ‘" 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 £8,000 in the Derby in 1920. It brought you luck to touch or even be near him.

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

This beautifully evocative reminiscence first appeared on the splendid Jewish East End of London Facebook page and is reproduced by kind permission of the author, Dr Abby J Waterman. Woman in a White Coat, her memoir of growing up in the East End and then, against many odds, pursuing a highly successful career as dentist, doctor, enterpreneur and mother, was short-listed for the Tony Lothian Biography Prize and the Wasafiri Memoir Prize. It is available in paperback from Amazon, price £9.99, or as a Kindle e-book price £2.99. 

 

Latest news

  • I remember, I remember

    Among 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. Read More
  • A unique view of East End life in pictures

    European Day of Jewish Culture on Sunday October 6 sees a fascinating exhibition at Sandys Row Synagogue, Spitalfields, of unique photographs of the Jewish East End from the 1970s that have never been seen before. Read More
  • An East End family through three generations

    East End life will be explored in what should be a fascinating evening at Finchley Church End Library on Monday November 25, when author Ruth Badley will be in conversation with Kate Thompson talking about her  book Where are the Grown-ups?,  a tragic and uplifting story about a Jewish family in Stepney. There will be a 45mins discussion followed by Read More
  • An Evening with Esther Rinkoff

    Esther Rinkoff from the East End’s celebrated Rinkoff Bakery is at Finchley Church End Library on Monday November 18 in conversation with Pam Fox examining the business’s fascinating history. There will be free pastries for early arrivals, while stocks last. Read More
  • Hoping for a connection

    Back in 2013 our magazine The Cable published a fascinating article by Ivan Koop Kuper about his maternal family's East End origins in Whitechapel. Read More
  • In search of a better life

    IVAN KOOP KUPER takes a personal journey through his mother’s East End from his home in Houston, Texas.    The average American’s only exposure to London’s East End, if any, is typically through the BBC television series EastEnders, syndicated to the US to be shown by PBS. This long-running British soap opera depicts the offbeat characters who live in the fictional neighbourhood Read More
  • Minnie Lansbury: one of the most remarkable women to emerge from the East End

    A gleaming green and gold clock on the side of Electric House in Bow Road forms a fine tribute to Minnie Lansbury, one of the most remarkable women to emerge from the East End, whose life and achievements are the subject of a recent book from Five Leaves Publications. It was a life cut tragically short at the age of Read More
  • Stepney Synagogue book

    People have been asking us about the top picture on our Facebook page (JEECS Facebook). It is the East London Synagogue in Rectory Square, Stepney Green, long closed and now turned into flats, some of which retain features of the synagogue.. The picture (see above) dates from August 1948 The synagogue’s fascinating history has been told by Marc Michaels in Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

For the old Jeecs site, visit www.jeecs.org.uk/archive