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‘She loved the East End’: Tribute to singing seamstress Henrietta Keeper who has died aged 93

PUBLISHED: 09:16 24 February 2020 | UPDATED: 09:18 24 February 2020

Henrietta Keeper has died at the age of 93. Picture: Keeper family

Henrietta Keeper has died at the age of 93. Picture: Keeper family

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A singing seamstress who had a lifelong love of the East End has died at the age of 93.

Henrietta appeared in four books including Kate Thompson's The Stepney Doorstep Society about the women who 'ruled the East End' in war and peacetime. Picture: Keeper familyHenrietta appeared in four books including Kate Thompson's The Stepney Doorstep Society about the women who 'ruled the East End' in war and peacetime. Picture: Keeper family

Henrietta Keeper was born in Bethnal Green on January 6, 1927, to Henrietta, a seamstress, and Bill Agombar, who worked on the London Underground.

The eldest of five children, Henrietta - nicknamed Minksy by a childhood neighbour - inherited a love of singing from her father who would tour pubs, performing for punters until his cap was filled with enough money to buy a joint of meat for Sunday dinner.

When she was old enough, Henrietta joined Bill and until the day she died continued to sing a song they belted out together, "I had a little back room to let, the rent was half a crown, a smart young lodger took the room, in the name of Brown".

Her daughter, Lesley Keeper, said: "She loved singing. She sang all her life. She had a very strong voice. She could break glass!"

Henrietta belts out a tune to win a competiton at the Well and Bucket in Bethnal Green Road in 1966. Picture: Keeper familyHenrietta belts out a tune to win a competiton at the Well and Bucket in Bethnal Green Road in 1966. Picture: Keeper family

For 30 years Henrietta sang as part of Tate & Lyle's Diamond Tea Concert Party, touring hospitals to cheer up patients. And she rehearsed with 1960s British pop band The Migil Five whose hits included Mockin' Bird Hill.

Her voice also rang out on stage when heavily pregnant with daughter Linda at the Poplar Civic. In 1966 she was a competition winner at the Well and Bucket pub in Bethnal Green Road.

Favourite songs were Julie Rogers's The Wedding, Ave Maria and Patsy Cline's Crazy Dreams.

She also sang on LBC radio as "Joan from Tower Hamlets", a first name she initially adopted to avoid posher sounding Henrietta when job hunting at a cockney firm.

Henrietta wasa a regular at E Pellicci where she would entertain customers after her favourite fried egg and chips. Picture: Keeper familyHenrietta wasa a regular at E Pellicci where she would entertain customers after her favourite fried egg and chips. Picture: Keeper family

During the Second World War, Henrietta would sing in a bid to boost morale among neighbours taking shelter during bombing raids over the East End.

It was in 1943 that she narrowly escaped death, fleeing an air raid over Bethnal Green.

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When her friend, Doris Warrington, grabbed her and said they should seek shelter at the Underground station, Henrietta refused, not wanting to leave her parents.

Henrietta won a poetry competition with this entry in 1979. Picture: Keeper familyHenrietta won a poetry competition with this entry in 1979. Picture: Keeper family

Doris was one of 170 people to die in the ensuing crush, the UK's biggest loss of civilian life during the 1939-45 conflict now remembered as the Bethnal Green Tube disaster.

"She saw all the dead bodies carried up. My grandfather put his hands over her eyes. It was terrible," Lesley said.

A seamstress like her mum, Henrietta spent the war sewing soldiers' uniforms, but balked at popping love notes offering the men affection in the pockets of the garments she sewed, unlike some of her young, single colleagues.

That's because she only had eyes for Joseph, a coalman whose first attempt to take her to the pictures ended in failure because Henrietta didn't have nice clothes to wear.

Undeterred, the next time he visited, Joseph gave her a bag filled with a new suit and blouse. And to keep her parents happy, gave them free bags of coal. The couple married in 1947.

They then moved to Vallence Road, sharing a neighbourhood with the Kray twins, Ronnie and Reggie - one of whom offered her a machinist job, which she refused.

In later years, Henrietta was a regular at the café, E Pellicci, in Bethnal Green Road where she would enjoy fried egg and chips before breaking into song. A week before she died, Henrietta sang at the eatery, winning praise from TV celebrity Gemma Collins, who was paying a visit.

"Mum was kind to everybody," Lesley said. "She loved the East End. The people she met, the places. She loved it especially if she could sing. She had a full life. She enjoyed life."

Henrietta died of complications following a blood transfusion. She is survived by daughters Lesley, Linda and Lorraine as well as seven grandchildren, 11 great grandchildren and two great, great grandchildren.

Her funeral procession will leave Colin Winter House, Stepney, at 12.30pm on Tuesday, February 25 before stopping opposite The Carpenters Arms and E Pellicci en route to City of London Cemetery and Crematorium where a service is due to begin at 2.30pm.

Flowers are welcome as well as donations to XX Place Health Centre where Henrietta enjoyed a natter.

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