It wasn’t the ideal time to be moving into a new flat with your first child, but when is? Bombs were falling on Bethnal Green as a young Julia Richards and husband David moved into their new home on the William Sutton Estate on Roman Road. The new flat wasn’t a palace but it was a lot better than they had been used to. The estate had been completed in May 1909 and celebrates its centenary this year.
The couple had been squeezed into a tiny flat in Temple Dwellings on the Old Bethnal Green Road. There were no bathrooms there of course. Bathtime meant heading out into the concrete yard and fetching the tin tub down from the line. In winter that was pretty miserable. Summer, if anything was worse. ‘The smell from the rubbish was terrible; we had to keep all the windows shut,’ remembers Julia (known universally as ‘Ann’). ‘The Sutton flats weren’t all that good either – but they were cheap, and you had a bath inside. There was a long queue to get them.’
The facilities might seem eccentric by modern standards: the ‘bathroom’ comprised a tub shoehorned into the kitchen, and the living room fire served also to heat the oven. But the family were struggling to live on the couple of quid a week pulled in by David’s job driving a horse and cart. The rents on the Sutton Estate (11 shillings for a two-bedder, 7s and 6d for a one-bed and 5s for a bedsit) helped a lot. But if the flats were nothing special, the entry requirements were brutally strict.
‘You had to have children to get a flat here. I was expecting my first child in 1937 and we were on the list, but I lost it and so we were turned down,’ remembers Ann. The couple finally added to their family in 1941 with Patricia, and Eileen came along two years later. As was the custom with expectant mothers, Ann was evacuated to Northampton until the baby was born, and then, bizarrely, brought back to live in Bethnal Green, with bombs falling around her. The estate was never hit, though the enemy was never far away. Too close for some of the dads on the estate in fact. “On the other side of Roman Road there was an Italian prisoner of war camp. The men used to go off every day for demolition work, but when they were back in the camp you used to hear them singing – beautiful songs, lovely voices. They were good looking men too, and the dads from the estate used to patrol around to stop their daughters going over there!’
Ann has lived in Bethnal Green her whole life. Born in Commercial Road in 1913, she lost her father in the First World War and her mother in the 1920s. After being billeted with a succession of aunts during her teenage years, she married David at 21, ‘the best decision I ever made,’ she laughs.
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Michael Jones, originally from Oldham and still with a broad Lancashire accent, is a relative newcomer, only moving to the estate in 1992. An artist, he was drawn by the artistic community that started to grow around Bethnal Green in the eighties and nineties. And moving from Chelsea, he found the Sutton Estate a much more affordable place to live. From his attic flat he has views west to the City and east to the new City at Canary Wharf, and he likes it so much he has no plans to move away.
Michael pulls out an impressive leather-bound rent book and ledger from 1950. The names each have a neat tick against them to say ‘rent paid’. Edwards, Rayment, Peake, Vallance, White, Smith – the surnames are a solid mix of Anglo-Saxon, Irish and Jewish. They don’t use the ledger now of course, but those names would today be mixed with names from the Indian sub-continent, from Africa, and from all over the world. “The estate has changed a lot, and it’s now a really good mix of indigenous East Enders and Bengalis … the new East Enders really. And it’s always been like that in the East End hasn’t it – Huguenots, Jews, Irish, we all become East Enders eventually!” The great thing for Michael is the way the community here is working together, with a sewing group in the estate’s Old Workshop just one of the ways people are meeting and sharing time, skills and memories.
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Shahida Khanom’s family moved to the estate from Birmingham when she was just three years old. A quarter of a century on, she wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. ‘There’s a lovely community spirit here – I just feel very safe. We go out to the countryside sometimes and I hate it … it’s too quiet,’ she laughs. ‘I love the activity and the noise round here. And my two sons go to school at Globe, just across the road.’ The same school that Ann Richards’s daughters, Eileen and Patricia, trotted across the road to 60 years ago. The names and faces may change, but some things on the estate stay constant.