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“I was born in Bethnal Green in 1951 and was brought up in Bow in a big East End Family.
Dad was in the merchant Navy during the war. After the war, he bought a horse and worked clearing scrap from the bombsites.
On Sundays he used the horse and cart to sell shrimps and winkles around the local streets. He did quite well – East Enders always loved having shellfish for their Sunday tea.
Mum had a job in a factory making army uniforms. She was a fast worker and earned good money, but after the war she had my brother and then me, so she gave up doing paid work.
My nan owned a pie and mash shop, and then a fruit and vegetable shop. My granddad was a tug skipper on the Thames, and my great-uncle Tom was a minder for the owner of a Chinese gambling den in Limehouse, the home of London’s original Chinatown.
When I was born, more than fifty years ago, East London was a very different place from the one we see today. We all knew our neighbours and the children played outside until it was dark, with the adults keeping an eye on us. We called them ‘Mr’ or ‘Mrs’ “Auntie’ or ‘Uncle’, whether we were related or not. (…)
My East End childhood was full of freedoms that would be seen as shocking today. It was only a few years after the war and London in the 1950’s was still covered with bomb sites.
We children had no memory of the death and sadness caused by the Blitz. All we could see were the wild spaces left by the bombs and we loved to use them as playgrounds. There were the bombed buildings to climb around in and old bits of wood to make bonfires. We swarmed all over them, acting out stories we’d seen at the Saturday morning pictures. We were brave cowboys, fighter pilots or spacemen, and the baddies always got killed. (…)
I am very proud of my cockney background and have many memories of my East End childhood. I wanted to record the stories about that way of life before they were forgotten, and that was why I began writing my books about cockney history. Many families have roots in east London or in similar close-knit communities, and I wanted to preserve their stories too. (…)
I spoke to East Enders of all ages to find out what they thought about these changes and to listen to their stories. In those stories there is so much more than tales of being poor and living in slums. There is a lot of sadness, there is courage too. There are also laughter and good humour, warmth and strength, and happy memories about what it was like to live in a close community.
I hope these tales will show that riches can come in many forms.”