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