The Quest for Queenie – The Voice of the Island

A few months ago, I posed a question in one of the Isle of Dogs groups on Facebook. “Can anyone name a famous person who was born on the Isle of Dogs?” A lot of people answered, naming people I’d barely heard of, who once had bit-parts in The Bill, or who went on to play in the reserves for one football team or another, or famous people who had come to live on the Island (which didn’t count as an answer), but nobody who I would really call famous. The closest I got was Ted Johns, but I suspect few people outside of Islanders and those interested in East London community politics are familiar with the name.

Then, out of the blue, a hint of a genuine famous Islander, in the British Film Institute film about Queenie Watts, Portrait of Queenie available on the DVD Shadows of Progress: Documentary films in post-war Britain 1951-1977. It’s a great film, a real period piece, and full of scenes filmed in Poplar and on the Island.

ScreenShot001

Close to the start of the film Queenie is standing in what looks like Poplar, when she says:

I was born here, we all were.

Queenie Watts

Queenie Watts

But that wasn’t the hint, I just took that “here” to be a reference to Poplar or to the East End in general. It was later in the film, when her husband William James (“Slim”) Watts is standing just off Poplar High St, looking south towards the West India Docks. He says:

Queenie used to live down there in Millwall. She used to come up every weekend.

downthere

“Queenie used to live down there in Milwall…..”. Still from Portrait of Queenie.

I’d never before heard anyone say that Queenie Watts came from the Island. There’s no way anyone on the Island would keep that kind of information to themselves. There would have been plenty of people remembering ‘Our Queenie’ going to the same school, or drinking in the same pubs, or going hopping ‘down Kent’ at the same time as her family.

So, although I decided to investigate further, this fact – that I’d never heard an Islander say Queenie was also an Islander – I was not expecting it to turn into much. Perhaps Queenie and her family just lived briefly on the Island? Perhaps her parents lived there, but she did not? In any event, I certainly didn’t expect to discover that she was born there.

Queenie Watts walking over Chrisp St Market.

Queenie Watts walking over Chrisp St Market.

The investigation started off with a blank. My usual source of all information about life, the universe and everything – Google Search – revealed nothing about her surname or maiden name, and nothing substantial about her early years (apart from her date of birth, reported as 21st July 1926).

I thought ancestry.co.uk might reveal something, but my experience of using it to build my own family tree had taught me that common names – like Watts – are a pain to research. You end up finding so many records that you spend 99% of your time wading through irrelevant information, each time worried that you might miss what you were looking for. 

And then there was her first name Queenie. That’s not an official name that I would ever find on birth or wedding certificates. It’s a nickname that was frequently used in the (not too distant) East End past. Also, she had taken Slim’s surname when they married and her maiden name was a mystery to me too (Google was also keeping schtum about it).

However, some facts were known.  Queenie and Slim were the famous owners of two E14 pubs in the early 1960s: the Iron Bridge Tavern on East India Dock Rd, and the Rose and Crown in Pennyfields.

ScreenShot002

Still from Portrait of Queenie.

I also knew that Slim owned a scrapyard (it featured in the BFI film, with W. J. Watts painted on the above the entrance).

ScreenShot003

Still from Portrait of Queenie

Surely they would have used their official names on official records for their businesses? That was it! The 1964 electoral register for 447 East India Dock Rd (the address of the Iron Bridge Tavern) listed two names: W.J. Watts and Mary Watts. So…..Queenie’s real name was Mary. Not so surprising, Queenie was a common nickname for women called Mary. (Queenie, Mary, get it?)

ScreenShot005

Still from Portrait of Queenie

I reckon I had plenty of information by now to search for their marriage records, but – strangely – I couldn’t find an obvious match. The closest I found was a wedding between a James W (not William James) Watts and Mary Spenton in Oxford in 1941. And the date of birth of Mary Spenton was given elsewhere as 21st July 1923, and not 21st July 1926.

marriage

Marriage Registration – Slim & Queenie

Some serious differences. But, the similarities were too close for me to ignore, and I dug deeper. Eventually, I came across a family tree that included husband and wife, William J Watts and Mary Spenton.

I contacted the creator of the tree and asked if (s)he knew if the Mary Spenton in his tree was the famous Queenie Watts. The reply:

Yes I am aware of this, Queenie was my aunt, I just put her real name on the tree. If you don’t mind me asking, how are you related or how do you know about her? She was married to my dad’s older brother, Slim.

I was over the moon! I had uncovered Queenie’s birth names, and the interesting information that she had either (a) understated her true age by 3 years later in life by saying she was born in 1926, or (b) described herself 3 years older for the purposes of the marriage (to disguise the fact she was only 15 at the time). Either is credible, but I think the wedding ruse is more likely. The fact that they married in Oxford, well away from familiar Poplar faces, also gives the romantic impression that they may have eloped to get married.

Now, I had so much key information (including a correct date of birth), that finding the rest was easy.

Her parents, Victor Horace Spenton and Mary Ann Yule, were married in Christ Church on 18th July 1909. That’s on the Isle of Dogs – as if you didn’t know – opposite the flats where I used to live. I was also a choir boy at the church, but unlike Queenie, I couldn’t sing, and my ‘career’ ended half way through my first service when it all got too much for me and I fainted.

Mary was the youngest of five children, and here’s the exciting bit (for me, at least): when Queenie was born, they were living at 26 Strattondale St. I had found my famous Islander!

As an added bonus, I could provide my helpful family-tree creator with some new information from an Island perspective.

Back to that BFI film that started me off on this. It starts with a gloomy blues song sung by Queenie, with the text:

It’s raining on the Isle of Dogs,
with its weather vanes of steel and iron jaws of welcome,
it’s a granite lover suspended under a constant smokey sky,
a furnace is its heartbeat and diesel is in its blood.
Loving it won’t get you very far,
but it will keep you alive,
held in its iron caress,
until you let go of course,
or it let’s go of you.

She knew her Island history alright.

The song can be found on YouTube here:

I especially like this image of Queenie walking on Schooner St (previously Ship St) with Galleon House under construction in the background. Nearer are the backs of the shops that used to be along Manchester Rd here, before they were demolished to make way for George Green’s School.

ship st (2) 14878167677

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40 Responses to The Quest for Queenie – The Voice of the Island

  1. Peter Wright says:

    Nice one…well put !

  2. Kit Forest says:

    I was also born and brought up here. I was born in bow hospital and lived in a prefab in mellish street. I found this very interesting and find it sad that so much of the island history has been torn down and ‘yuppified’.
    Kit forest

  3. John Spenton says:

    Queenie was my dad’s aunt.

    John Spenton, (Aged 66!).

    • Robert Dougans says:

      Dear John-in which case you and I are related. Queenie was my mother’s aunt – I am the grandson of one of Queenie’s elder sisters.

      • John Spenton says:

        Correction!

        Queenie was my dad’s COUSIN. Queenie’s dad, (Vic), was my grandad’s (William Niker Spenton’s) elder brother. Elsie and Clara were sisters, it seems. Sorry for the missinformation.

    • Tezza boultz says:

      Visited poplar today
      Tried to see where queenies pub was the iron bridge tavern
      I used to watch her with arthur mullard as a kid in the seventies
      Would love to know more about her and slim
      And see more footage
      Ie stars and garters beryls lot this is you life

  4. Queenie used to sing in my dads pubs, the Crown and Cushion ,Farnfield St Poplar, and The Newcastle Arms. Glengarnock Avenue Cubitt Town . Good story.

    Betty Dunn. ( Jones. )

  5. Anne-Marie says:

    My granddad was also slims brother, as is the person you mentioned in the article. There were 14 children I think, so I would be curious to find out who he is. I only really knew a couple of granddads brothers

    • lemons says:

      Hello Anne-Marie, as mentioned in the article, some of the information I uncovered was via search on ancestry.co.uk (“family tree that included husband and wife, William J Watts and Mary Spenton”). If you have an ancestry.co.uk subscription, you can search for the tree (and all its members) yourself.

  6. Marion Butcher says:

    My Dad was Tom Martin and my uncle was Fred Wright, I came from Havannah Street and was born in 1954 would be interested to hear anyone with connections?

  7. John Spenton says:

    Queenie’s father, Vic, (aged 15), was living at 2, Brig Street, (off of Manchester Road), in 1901. He was my grandad’s brother. Eight people were living in that house! How big was it?

    John Spenton.

  8. paul walls says:

    vic spenton was my geat uncle and we were very close, loked german sheppards and was a great man,

  9. Shirl says:

    ‘Auntie Queenie’, as I called her growing up, was my mum’s first cousin. Mum’s maiden name was Yule, and Queenie’s mum, (also called Mary as was customary), must have been my nanna’s sister in law, although I had always thought they were sisters, as they were so close.
    Mum and Queenie grew up in the same house in Strattondale street ~ the Spentons upstairs, and the Yules downstairs, as families rarely had the luxury of a whole house, so they were usually divided. With the exception of Ted Johns… funny you should mention him, as I was born in 1957 and grew up in Glengall Grove, and he lived a few doors away, and owned the whole house. OWNED… a very highly thought of notion!
    Mum was evacuated with Queenie during the war to OXFORD, so therein lies your link, as many of the Spentons settled there, and I remember going to stay with them in Oxford from time to time.
    My mum used to tell me her aunt Mary used to lift Queenie high up in the air as a child and tell her ‘you’re going to be the queen of the world’, and that was where the nickname came from. Interesting!
    I remember Queenie was so glamorous, and gave me my first pair of false eyelashes aged 12! ALL the East End celebrities went to her pub (including the Krays!!).
    Not sure if you know, as I can’t find any info online, but the BBC did an episode of This Is Your Life for Queenie… a very high accolade at the time.
    BTW… my claim to Island fame is I was the Island Queen in 1972, lol, aged 15. So another ‘Queenie’ in the family 😉
    Great blog, takes me back……….

    • Great information, that. Thanks.

    • Tezza boultz says:

      I remember queenis on tv with arthur mullard
      Went today to poplar to see where her pub used to ge
      Would love to lnow more about her and slim
      And to see more footage
      Ie beryls lot stars and garters etc
      Fasinating

    • Jonny Trunk says:

      Hello Shirl, wonder if you can help me. I’m trying to track down living relatives of Queenie. She was an super jazz singer. Can you get in touch with me?

      • Shirl says:

        Hi there, I’m afraid I’m not in touch with any of them, for years now.
        I moved away from London a long time ago, and lost contact with my childhood family.
        Seems like few reli’s popping up on here, so probably your best bet to keep an eye, or maybe her facebook page I mentioned?
        Good luck.

  10. Shirl says:

    I don’t have a facebook account, but for anyone who’s interested, there is a Queenie Watts appreciation here: https://www.facebook.com/Queenie-Watts-223155047742775/timeline/
    Love the photo of her with her bulldog… I remember it was the ugliest, slobbery thing, but she loved and adored that dog, (as she and Slim were not blessed with children)… and it’s name was Beauty!

  11. John Spenton says:

    Shirl – Intriguing! Victor Horace Spenton and Mary Anne Yule were married in 1909. What was your connection to Victor? Victor would have been 23 when married, I understood that Mary, (Queenie), was their daughter.

  12. Shirl says:

    I can’t remember Queenie’s dad, but she also had a brother called Victor I think. (I’m sure it was ‘uncle Vicky’, in Oxford). So long ago! Both named after their parents, which makes record hunting a bit confusing! My connection is a bit complicated, please see my post above.
    I grew up thinking Queenie’s mum Mary was my maternal grandmothers sister, but she must have been her sister-in-law, therefore my maternal grandfathers sister, as surname was Yule (nan’s maiden surname was Clements). So Queenie’s dad Victor would have been my great Uncle I suppose?

  13. Shirl says:

    …just realised, I think I have confused Ted Johns with someone else who owned a house in Glengall Grove :-/ Sorry folks. Unless he moved to Skeggs House flats after the old houses opposite were pulled down, in about 1968? Doubt it, so my memory must be foggy!

  14. Pauline Dougans says:

    My Mum was Vic and Queenies’ sister. Mary and Vic Spenton marked in Greenwich had Lil Dot, Queenie, Jean, Iris Winnie and Vic ( not correct order). All still very close even Jean’s family in America.

    • Thanks for commenting, Pauline. It’s good to hear from family members (and not even saying what a balls-up I made of the story 🙂 ).

      • pauline dougans says:

        It was all so long ago, you forget half of what happened, and who was who

        Regards Pauline

        Sent from my Windows Phone ________________________________

  15. Ernie Yule says:

    We also came from Poplar,my Dad was a cousin to Queenie his name was ErnieYule. I was born in Poplar hospital 1938 and during my teens spent Mary happy hours at the Iron Bridge Tavern with my parents my dad and my mum who was also Mary. I like my dad am also called Ernie.

    • Pauline Dougans says:

      Hi there, we are obviously distantly related, the only Yule I know now is Jimmy married to Pauline. I have recently been reunited with Aunt Queens sisters family living in America which was very nice. Lots of the family still live here in Oxford.

  16. Tezza boultz says:

    Love queenie goid actress

  17. Hello Mick, I had a request about Queenie, and have pinned them down to the Iron Bridhe Tavern between 1959 and 1964 but struggling on dates for elsewhere – http://pubshistory.com/LondonPubs/Bromley/IronBridgeTavern.shtml ; I’ll add some commentary to the page later. Kevan

    • According to electoral registers, Queenie and Jim were still registered at 447 East India Dock Rd in 1965, but perhaps they’d not yet got round to registering a new address?
      Registered at Queenie’s other pub, the Rose & Crown, 17 Pennyfields were:
      1958 Robert & Eileen Slatter
      1959 Margaret & Thomas Sweeney
      1960 Margaret & Thomas Sweeney
      1961 Margaret & Thomas Sweeney
      1964 John & Shirley Boyce
      1965 John & Shirley Boyce

  18. pat duke says:

    Jim and Queenie were my aunt and uncle – Jim was my dad’s brother. They did live in Oban House then (with the bulldog) as did a lot of uncle Jim’s family, including us, my nan, several other brothers and two sisters. They went from there to the Iron Bridge Tavern. As I recall, Auntie Queenie was ‘discovered’ when Daniel Farsons included the Iron Bridge Tavern in his programme Time Gentlemen Please.

  19. Rosemary says:

    What a joy it has been reading the messages from and about Queenie’s family and ties to the isle of dogs. Queenie was a great London actress and singer. They really don’t make them like that anymore.

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