The Quest for Queenie Watts – The Voice of the Isle of Dogs

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, due to 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.

Update: 3rd Aug. 2019. Family member, James Yule, shared a photo with me of a 1935 Coronation street party in which Queenie was featured. I suddenly realised that I knew the photo – it was from an Island History Trust calendar and I’d never read its text. If I had, I would have known right away that Queenie was from the Island, and there would have been no need for this blog article. Wouldn’t have been as interesting for me, though. Here is that photo, including the text from the IHT calendar. But….which little girl is Queenie?

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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66 Responses to The Quest for Queenie Watts – The Voice of the Isle of Dogs

  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.

    • James Yule says:

      Hello Shirl,

      My Sister has found a “Jubilee ‘ photo in 1935. Of Strattondale street outside house of Mrs Spenton ( assume Yule’s too?). It states Queenie is in it among others too numerous to mention here .

      I was hoping I could post the photo on this site and the list of names ? For others to comment and add further detail?

      Would that be possible ? mick lemmerman?

      Loads of names. Mentions 3 Yule Brothers. ( possibly one of them my Grandfather?).

      James Yule. ( son of Jimmy Yule and grandson of William (bull Yule)

      We also lived in Glengall road for a few years. Prior to moving off the island in 1971?

      • James, it’d be great to include the photo – I’ll update the blog with it (would also like to post here in the comments, but I’m not sure if that’s possible). You can mail me at watermans.arms@gmail.com. Thank you!

      • I am going to update the post with the photo…..

      • Shirl says:

        Hi James,
        My mum was born in 1924, so wonder if she could be in it!
        My mum’s dad was John Yule, known as Jack, and my mum was known as Lylie.

      • James says:

        Hello Shirl,

        My Dad. Jim Yule

        Said. Yes your mum Lylie is in the picture ( the picture has now been added to this blog,
        She is the little girl t far right of photo at front.
        My Dad and Nan. Used to live in the same house as them in Glengall Grove/ road?

        James

      • Shirley says:

        Hi James… YES! That’s my mum 😊 Recognise her as a child from old photos, and quite a few of those names.
        Mrs Chalk was my maternal granddad’s sister. 😡 Poor Doris. Your family will know what I mean.
        Both my parents are long passed away now. Mum would have loved all this. Isn’t it a small world, that my mum and grandparents lived in the same HOUSE as your dad and nan!!!
        Seems like another world eh?

  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.

    • James Yule says:

      Hello Uncle Ernie,
      Trust you are well? Nice to see this discussion, about our family, Showed my Mum and Dad ( Jim and Pauline Yule, recently ( they are not part of the internet I’m afraid). Hope Mark, Peter and Lisa are well?

      Jamie ( James Yule)

      • Ernie yule says:

        Hi James what a lovely surprise to hear from you. Your dad told me how well you are doing. We are all well I was 80 last year and to celebrate Peter Lisa And me did a parachute jump, A fantastic experience. It would be great if we could meet up one day. I live in Chichester, Kind regards Ernie

      • Ernie Yule says:

        Hi James what a wonderful surprise. I talked with your dad a while ago and he told me how well you and your wife are doing, we are all well and last year Lisa was 50 and I was 80 so Pete arranged for the three of us to do a parrachute jump, an amazing experience.It such a long time ago when we last met. It would be great to meet up again,what do you think. Kind regards Ernie.

    • James’s Yule says:

      Hello Uncle Ernie,

      Great news to hear you received notification of My post, Parachute Jump….Wow that sounds an amazing thing for all three of you to do.Happy 80th

      I visited Mum and Dad today and was showing them some replies on this post and just saw your reply, I feel all of us meeting up again would be a great idea, Let me know some dates from mid May onwards that work well for all of you and I can try to get us all down to a place near you for a lunch and a catch up.
      Will be easier if you dropped me an email. Thank you

      James

      jamesyule@btconnect.com

  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.

  20. Tezza says:

    What happened to slim. After queenies death

  21. Richard Debenham says:

    I regularly spoke to Queenie and Slim when they had the Rose & Crown in Pennyfields
    Me and my mates would drink in there twice a week while we were only sixteen and they used to say as long as you are quiet and well behaved you can have a drink.
    Slim had two very big Alsatian dogs who would stand on their hind legs and look at you as though saying you had better behave.

    Slim appeared as a very quiet gentleman but would strike up a conversation if you also made an effort. Queenie was a lovely lady who I remember from the film
    Sparrows can’t sing with Barbara Windsor.
    Regards
    Rich

  22. William Willson says:

    One of the great characters of my youth. I remember her in the pub in Pennyfields, think it is a Chinese restaurant now, and singing on some television shows.

  23. Sorry to report that my brother-in-law, Sid Wenborne, is being buried on 5th. November. He was one of Queenie’s cousins.

  24. Linda Dunn (nee Yule) says:

    Yesterday I met with my eldest brother Ernie Yule and my oldest cousin Jimmy Yule and his son James Yule. My Dad was Ernest Yule who was one of 5 boys born and raised on ‘The Island’. Queenie Watts was my Dad’s cousin and, as Queenie’s Mother was Mary Ann Yule, I think she was a sister of my Grandfather. Dad worked as a Docker in the East India Dock and I have happy memories of meeting him from work and going into the Iron Bridge Tavern. Queenie was a lovely lady and I have fond memories from that time.I’ve loved reading all the memories in the postings.

    • Pauline Dougans says:

      Hi Linda, I think we must be distant relatives, my Mum Win was Queenies sister.
      I know Jimmy and Pauline but haven’t seen them for years, they are more friendly with my sister Joyce.

      • James Yule says:

        Hello Pauline,
        Trust you are well?
        Nice to see your your comments on this forum, (this one and earlier) that mentioned my parents Jim and Pauline also, Unfortunately they are not part of the World Wide Web generation . But I contacted my dad ( Jimmy Yule) last night and he is here now to send a message out to you .

        Hello Pauline, hope you are keeping well? Like we are at the moment. I have spoken to your sister Joyce once or twice but not in recent years I’m afraid to say . How is your son? Is he still in the Maisons? I am retired from that now is it got too much for me as at age 84 Pity I am unable to get my head round this internet as I’m sure it would make contact much easier for me. But you can always contact me via my Son. James. jamesyule@btconnect.com.

        Love and best wishes. jimmy and Pauline xx

      • Pauline Dougans says:

        Lovely to hear from you Jimmy. Robert is still in the Masons but not so active as he used to be.
        We live in Greenwich now, we moved to be near the 2 grandchildren. I will keep on touch via your son and who knows perhaps we could all meet up one day xxx

      • James Yule says:

        Hello Pauline,

        (James here Jimmy’s Son). Thank you for your prompt reply. Wow Greenwich that’s a coincidence, that’s where I live and where my Dad was today visiting me for the earlier message and to see my 6 year old grandson too, They ( Grandchildren certainly keep us all busy😀)

        Please try to email and we can exchange further information, and hopefully meet up soon

        Kind regards and best wishes to you and your family
        jamesyule@btconnect.com
        James x

  25. lindadunnyule says:

    Hello Distant Relative Pauline! I expect James will see your comment and mention it to his Mum & Dad, Jim & Pauline.

  26. John Spenton says:

    I’m trying to identify the four Spentons in the photo. Could anybody assist?

    • James Yule says:

      Sorry John.

      My Dad (84) Jimmy Yule. Is only able to identify 1 person in the photo, I was hoping we could confirm which ones were Yule’s. But unfortunately a bit too old a photograph for his memory. Hope someone else can help?

  27. Ron says:

    Hi. You might be interested to know that there was a big 3 page article on Queenie which appeared in TV Times, the issue dated 8 September 1973. A photo of her when she was five was included in the feature. Written by Daniel Farson, this is the text of the article –

    “Does it ever hurt?” I asked her, “when they call you things like ‘poor old cow’?” Queenie Watts laughed. “It’s all fun, isn’t it?”
    They call her names like that in Romany Jones, which returns this week, and it is just coincidence—or “sheer luck” as she puts it —that Queenie happens to be a gipsy herself. “My name was Spenton. There’s only one Spenton in the phone book — my brother.” “The nickname ‘Queenie’? Could that be ‘Queen of the gipsies’?”
    “Yes, I was so dark my grandmother called me that. There were six of us, five sisters and one brother, and my father used to say ‘she’s the queen of the lot’.”
    Queenie can repeat this as a matter of fact, without a twinge of vanity. Her life has been too hard for that.
    She may be a gipsy, but she is essentially and proudly from the East End of London— a gipsy cockney, if there is such a thing. She was bom in Cubitt Town, Millwall. Her father was a “hoofer” in music hall and her mother was a concert pianist until the ripe old age of 16, when she married. Then she joined her husband on the halls as a singer—in between children.
    There are three faces to Queenie Watts. Viewers know her best as a character actress, though her parts have been so varied she can’t always be placed instantly. Apart from Lily Briggs in Romany Jones, she has played Lonely’s aunt in Callan, an abortionist in BBC TV’s A Pin to see the Peepshow, and even a male compere “a sort of a Max Miller” in The Goodies. The number of her television appearances is formidable: Dixon of Dock Green, Dad’s Army, Country Matters, Up Pompeii, Steptoe and Son … the list seems endless. She has also made nine films and several plays, including five at the Royal Court Theatre, London, which is famous for its controversial productions. It was here that she played her favourite part: the mother in Saved, by Edward Bond, which enraged audiences when a baby was stoned to death. She started the play as an old lady in baggy stockings, slowly becoming more attractive after meeting a man and trying to impress him. “That was a lovely part, dear.”
    This is the familiar face — Queenie Watts, actress. But she commands another faithful following as a jazz singer. With training from her mother and inspiration from one of her sisters’ Billie Holiday records. Queenie started singing when she was 14. When she went to dances, near Oxford where she was evacuated, the other girls would go up to the band and ask: “Can Queenie sing with you?” Soon the band were asking for her. She has recorded an L.P. Queen High, and sang the introduction to the TV series Hole in the Wall, in which she played yet another cockney harridan.
    Like all jazz artistes, Queenie loves to sing —show her a piano and she’s off. This passion was largely responsible for her third public face — publican, with her husband. She met “Slim” Watts when she was at school.
    “He worked on the railways, sat on the high seat of a horse and cart as he passed by and looked over the wall. He waved to me and I blew kisses back. It was really romantic.”
    When they married they lived at the other end of the street from a pub called The Ironbridge, in Canning Town. “It was just the right size for a jazz group. I said to Slim: ‘I’d love to buy that pub’.” Slim knew he was lost —Queenie can wheedle anything out of him— so he saved and saved until he was able to put down a deposit. They moved in as tenants in 1958 and Queenie fulfilled her ambition without delay—an eight-piece jazzband of her own.
    It was here that I first knew her, when I moved into the East End myself and made my home by the river. Sunday lunchtime became a ritual at The Ironbridge, which would be crowded to the doors as Queenie belted out the old standards. Queenie and Slim were my first friends in the East End and when I was mad enough to decide to take over a pub of my own, The Waterman’s Arms on the Isle of Dogs, they apprenticed me as a barman beforehand- to learn the trade. I hate to think what this did to their profits. On the opening night of The Waterman’s it was Queenie who seized the microphone and brought the place to life.
    She appeared on television for the first time in one of my programmes—Time Gentlemen Please!, which led to Stars and Garters and started a boom in pub entertainment. Later I became “adviser to the director” on the film of Joan Littlewood’s Sparrows Can’t Sing.
    My job was really to find locations and characters, preferably “nuts”, and it was in this film, which ended with a glorious brawl in a studio reproduction of The Ironbridge, that Queenie played herself and started her career as an actress.
    Finally I devised a musical show called Nights at the Comedy, and Queenie descended a Hollywood-style staircase, wearing a tiara and looking like a million pounds—whatever that is these days. Anyway, she looked as unlike “a poor old cow” as you can imagine. This was the first West End show that Jimmy Tarbuck appeared in, and at one point in the evening they sang together.
    Since those days I have left the East End, but this is something Queenie will never do. “I couldn’t,” she said. “I moved away to Horn­church for two years and I found I was talking to the walls. It was a beautiful place, orchards and so on. But my God, I was so lonely! I hated it!”
    When Queenie wishes to emphasise a phrase she does so with a resonance that Dame Edith Evans would be proud of. Yet she admits she still has a lingering cockney daydream of a little place in the country, a farm or somewhere to breed dogs. But she would have to return to the East End every weekend. “This district is like a blood-transfusion. I have to get back— it’s life. When I’m away I feel I am dying. I suppose it’s the people really, they’re so warm. When I’m ill there are 80 knocks on the door from people asking if there’s anything they can do.”
    Queenie and Slim have left The Ironbridge and moved to the pub they always yearned for —The Rose and Crown in Pennyfields, once the heart of London’s Chinatown.
    “But how do you reconcile these three faces?” I asked. “How do you find the rime?”
    “I don’t,” she said. “Slim looks after the pub.” Queenie, however, returns there when she finishes work and regards it as home. At weekends she can be found on stage with a piano and drums, entertaining the regulars and others who travel miles to hear her.
    Queenie’s greatest regret? “Having no children. I really love kids.” Her greatest happiness? The fact that she has done so well in her work without having been to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art or any dramatic school. “I’m rather pleased with myself,” she says, again without a trace of conceit. “It is so rewarding to work with really big names that I’ve been in awe of, and find them such lovely people.”
    It would be immodest if she was not pleased with herself, for she has achieved an astonishing reputation as an actress in the last 10 years. That does not mean she is satisfied—Queenie is full of ambitions. “I’d love to make an L.P. of Billie Holiday songs with a really great orchestra. I’d like to play Mother Courage on the stage. I want to star in a musical — I auditioned five times for the part of Judy Dench’s mother in Cabaret but they said I wasn’t famous enough. I’d like to play Marie Lloyd my way, far cheekier than most people do. A real East End bawdy.”
    “Are you an East End bawdy?” “Absolutely” she drew out the word with a delightful chuckle. Her laughter is not so much tinkling champagne as smooth Guinness, or perhaps that delicious mixture of the two—Black Velvet.
    “Absolutely,” she repeated. “I’m a very bawdy lady indeed.”

  28. Seth Belson says:

    My father was the optician E. Godfrey at 6 East India Dock Rd, just a few doors away from the Great Eastern pub. He had been born in Bow but the family left the East End after their House was bombed during the Blitz. Dad loved the East End and was a well known character in poplar and lime House during the 50s 60s 70s and 80s until he retired. He was the go-to optician for the docks, and lots of his record cards had the names of ships on them instead of addresses, where sailors had come in to replace glasses lost or broken at sea. Sometimes the cards have a “ sailing time” written on them to indicate when the glasses had to be made by. Dad offered a same-day service before its time, with his technician Les Rowland calling twice a day to deliver made up spectacles.
    Dad’s contemporaries in the Poplar were GPs whose names are still legendary amongst older residents: Drs Mark Godfrey, David Moss, and Philip Steinberg are still remembered fondly.

    The Opticians was moved by Dad across the road to 320 Burdett Road in 1976, where it is still proudly owned and run by my brother, nephew and me.

    If anyone has any pictures of the old Opticians at 6 E India Dock Road, we’d love to see them.

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