Jewish East End Celebration Society
P.O. Box 57317, London E1 3WG
enquiries@jeecs.org.uk

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

  • Adam Zahn

    Can you help in uncovering information aboiut Adam Zahn, who lived in Bethnal Green in the early 1900s and owned a bakery? Read More
  • New book brings the 1930s and 1940s East End to life

      The lively Jewish East End community of the 1930s and 1940s is brought to life in a new book edited and translated by Yiddish scholar, musician and JEECS stalwart Vivi Lachs, with translations of stories and sketches by Katie Brown, A. M. Kaizer, and I. A. Lisky. Read More
  • East End-born author provides a sharp look at 18th century anti-Semitism with a modern resonance

    The saga of England’s so-called Jew Law of 1753, made law and then repealed within six months, is a little known episode in Anglo-Jewish history that nonetheless has considerable resonance today. It has now been brought into sharp focus in the latest book by East End born and bred Yoel Sheridan, (whom East End contemporaries may remember as Julius Shrensky, Read More
  • JEECS News Update: Jan 2022

    Holocaust Memorial Day Walk: January 30. Covid has ruled out the normal events in the East End this year. However I shall be doing my annual walk, The Jewish East End – World War 2 and the Holocaust, on Sunday January 30. This is a free event, but needs to be booked through my email, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  We will meet at Aldgate Read More
  • Isaac Rosenberg: a great war poet for the 21st Century

    Born in Bristol but brought up in the East End, the multi-talented Isaac Rosenberg has been unduly neglected. Two of his biographers, Jean Liddiard and Jean Moorcroft Wilson, wrote articles for The Cable, the JEECS magazine, in 2006 and 2008 respectively aiming to redress the balance. Both are fascinating reads, and are now here on our website to mark the anniversary Read More
  • The Whitechapel of Isaac Rosenberg

    We have a fascinating guided walk on Sunday November 21 commemorating the great East End war poet and artist Isaac Rosenberg. The date is the closest Sunday to the anniversary of his birth in 1890. Read More
  • Banners commemorate Petticoat Lane’s past, present and future

    The revitalisation of Petticoat Lane, London’s oldest Sunday street market still in operation, continues apace with the unveiling next week of the community banners, commemorating many aspects of market life, along Wentworth Street and into Middlesex Street. Read More
  • Petticoat Lane captured on camera

    Petticoat Lane, on the edge of the East End, is London’s oldest existing Sunday street market. Over many decades, it played an important part in the life of Jewish London. Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

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