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Riverside Mansions marks its first 80 years—1928 to 2008

PUBLISHED: 22:35 15 August 2008 | UPDATED: 13:32 05 October 2010

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A TYPICAL August summer day in 1928 sees the Mansions' declared open. Riverside Mansions takes London's deprived, run-down East End into a new age as the MP Harry Gosling cuts the ribbon. The new, five-storey block is the first workers' dwellings in the East End to have a bath and running hot water in each flat, with communal laundry rooms, a purpose-built doctor's surgery and even lifts. Stepney borough council uses the showpiece development to rehouse dockers and their families from early slum clearance

ABOVE: Riverside Mansions then and now, 1928 and 2008

BELOW: Former resident Pauline Cordell, who engraved the time capsule, reading a copy of Riverside Times, while (bottom) Mark Causton (Capt Cook), John Martin (Brunel), Terry Anderson (Hanging Judge) and five-year-old Alex Martin (chimney sweep) get ready to bury the capsule

Mike Brooke

A TYPICAL August summer day in 1928 sees the Mansions’ declared open with a special ceremonial scissors to cut the ribbon.

Riverside Mansions takes London’s deprived, run-down East End into a new age as the MP Harry Gosling cuts the ribbon. You can still see those scissors at the Museum of Docklands today.

The new, five-storey block is the first workers’ dwellings in the East End to have a bath and running hot water in each flat, with communal laundry rooms, a purpose-built doctor’s surgery and even lifts.

Stepney borough council uses the showpiece development to rehouse dockers and their families from early slum clearance schemes.

But Riverside Mansions goes into decline as public housing retreates in the 1980s with lack of investment.

It is sold off on the property market in the 1980s in the heated London politics of the day, barely half-a-century after the showpiece ribbon cutting.

The old docker tenant families are moved out as renovations begin.

Prospective home buyers camp outside for days with makeshift tents and sleeping bags when the flats are put on the market. They survive the cold nights on sandwiches and flasks of tea, while The Ship pub does a spirited’ trade in brandy.

Once again, Riverside Mansions becomes the place to live, next to the Thames.

OLD AND NEW COMMUNITIES COME TOGETHER

Its reopening in 1985 sees a new community of leaseholders rather than tenants, middle-class professionals rather than dockers.

But the two communities’ join up to mark the 80th anniversary of the 1928 ribbon-cutting with a garden fete earlier this month, when former tenants return to meet the new kids on the block.

It includes stalls and kids’ face painting, of course. But there’s a serious side, with the burial of a time capsule they hope future generations of Riverside residents might dig up—perhaps in 20 years when it celebrates its centenary.

Those organising the extravaganza on August 2 dress as historic characters with connections to Wapping.

One is Judge Jeffreys, infamous hanging judge’ who sent 200 to the gallows after the abortive Monmouth rebellion, whose connection with Wapping was being spotted at the Town of Ramsgate tavern on the waterfront waiting for high tide to flee the country in 1688 after the downfall of the Stuart kings. He ended up on the gallows himself at the Tower of London.

Another character is the Victorian master engineer Isembard Kingdom Brunel who opened the world’s first tunnel river crossing at Wapping in 1843, now part of the London Underground.

A third is Captain James Cook, 18th century explorer who married a girl from Wapping, Elizabeth Batts, whose father ran the Bell alehouse at Execution Dock close to where Riverside Mansions is today.

The residents even produce their own newspaper for the occasion, Riverside Times, lovingly put together by John Martin on his laptop with stories by neighbours past and present.

“Mike Brooke is running our story in the East London Advertiser,” he tells his readers with excitement. “He is also supplying a photographer for the now and then’ photo.”

ALBERT LIBERATES PARIS—AND ITS WOMEN!

John even lifts a story from the Advertiser published in September, 2004, about Albert Nicholson’s wartime exploits liberating Paris—and its women—in 1944.

Albert, retired docker now approaching 90 and living in Spain, grew up in Riverside Mansions in the Thirties.

At 21, He is called up for war service and is in an RAF commando unit sent with the 1944 D-Day invasion of the Continent.

But months of boredom while training before D-Day makes him go AWOL and he legs it’ from camp to visit his parents back in Riverside Mansions.

Life on the run, however, doesn’t last long. RAF police spot him coming out of the Troxy cinema in the Commercial-road.

He ends up in the glasshouse’ for 45 days after his court marshal, before being shipped out to join the D-Day Landings, a day late, then on to liberate Paris—and its women!

Nick writes home to his mum in Riverside Mansions asking her to make up a parcel “of all the nice things a young woman would like.”

The parcel arrives the next week and he gives it to a girl who takes his fancy.

“She could not stop thanking me,” Nick recalls with a roguish smile.

The young, dashing officer admits he is a ladies’ man in and out of his RAF uniform who breaks hearts up and down the Champs Elysees.

The Casanova soldier is soon demobbed and returns to East London. He meets Mary and follows family tradition by settling down and becoming a London docker, like his dad.

SURVIVING THE BLITZ

Riverside Mansions has survived the war years and the bombings—but only just.

The block stands precariously just 300 yards from the London Docks, the Luftwaffe’s first target that first afternoon in 1940 when the air raids begin.

One former tenant, another retired docker, George MacFarlane, sees the first bombs fall.

“I was 14 when the Blitz started, when I working on the wharf unloading barges,” he recalls.

“I remember Black Saturday.’ I finished overtime at 12 noon and was at home in Riverside Mansions, overlooking Shadwell Basin, when the first wave of German bombers came over.

“They dropped a stick of bombs into the dock basin. A ship had just locked in, the Gothenburg. The bombs all missed the ship, but did breach the dock wall.

“That evening, all the warehouses were alight. One had brown sugar that gave off some heat. The quay copped it.”

George’s memories are among several included in John Martin’s Riverside Times for the reunion of alumni’ dockers and their families.

Ellen Kemp grew up in Riverside Mansions in the Depression of the Thirties, one of eight children who were rehoused from a squalid, overcrowded alley at the back of the Commercial-road called James Place.

She wrote a personal history before she died in 1998:

“James Place was a row of little houses down steep stone steps, with a high wall just 3ft in front and a gully permanently filled with dirty green water. We lived in a twilight world where no sun could reach.

“I wonder now how we kids survived, because most of the tots got their enjoyment paddling in the filthy water.

“Friday night after our hair wash we were given a sheet of newspaper and a nit comb to get the fleas out of our hair and were proud if we got the biggest fleas. The place was overrun in bugs.

“Then the day came when we moved to Riverside Mansions. The bugs in our furniture came with us!”

NEW HOME—BUT TRAGEDY FOLLOWS

But life in the new Riverside Mansions still brings its horrors for Ellen’s family.

Tragedy strikes when her older brother Jimmy, who worked on the barges, is drowned in an accident on his 17th birthday.

“The police came to tell us Jimmy’s body had been recovered from the Thames,” she recalled.

“In no time our home was full of people to view Jimmy in his coffin. They were drinking, singing and dancing for the wake—and there was Jimmy lying in the coffin! Mum spent the time sitting on Jimmy’s bed crying.

“We kids were next door with Granny Lawler when our dad stumbled in the door drunk, ignored Granny Lawler’s protests and carried me in to see Jimmy.

“I was terrified and screamed and kicked in absolute hysterics until someone took me back to Granny Lawler. I still see that face in the coffin.

“The next morning we did feel grand when a hearse pulled up outside Riverside Mansions drawn by plumed horses. Never had we kids ever looked so smart.

“The other kids looked at us with envy as we climbed into the coach.

“It was days later before I condescended to play with any of them!”

But life—and death—continues at Riverside Mansions in the 1930s.

“There was that awful night when the warehouses in Wapping Lane caught fire,” Ellen remembered.

“We were all turned out of our beds and stood in the grounds in case the fire spread to the flats.

“The blaze was massive and could be seen for miles. The grounds were lit up and you could feel the heat.

“The explosions from the goods in the warehouses were better than Guy Fawkes Night.

“The tragedy was that four firemen from Shadwell fire station were killed when the warehouse wall collapsed on them.”

A KID’S MEMORIES IN THE DEPRESSION

Ellen was only two when her older sister Gwen, who was five, took her off to St Patrick’s elementary school each day.

“Gwen was responsible for me and I sat in the same desk with her and was given crayons and paper to scribble on.

“We all got free dinner tickets. Nitty Nora regularly visited the school to check our hair for lice. I think we were her best customers!”

Life really was a struggle to put even meagre amounts of food on the table once a week.

“Mum went up Watney Street market on Saturday night when all the leftover meat was auctioned off cheaply,” she continued.

“Every day Mum would buy one big cottage loaf which had to last to the next day. It was Harry’s job at tea time to cut off one thick slice for each of us, then we were promptly sent out to play with bread in hand.

“Stan, the third eldest brother, got a job at 14 and my biggest memory of him was Friday nights when he got paid. He would give most of it to Mum.

“He earned just five shillings (25p) and kept one shilling himself.

“The younger ones like us would take it in turns to run to Maggie Delaney’s shop in Garnet-street to get him a penny slice of Tottenham cake. You got a big slice for a penny (12 to a shilling) and whoever got the cake for him would get a piece of it.

“One of the tricks George, another brother, played was taking us up to Stepney railway station and we had to stand by the horses’ trough and start crying when we saw a policeman, while he kept watch across the road.

“We were always taken to the police station, with our tears and wailing, having to convince the policeman we were lost—and were always given buns!

“Then George would saunter in making out he was angry that we run away from him—so he was also given a bun, calm’ him.

“We did this so often we now realise the police must have known. But in our innocence we thought we had them fooled.”

STREETWISE KIDS OBLIVIOUS TO DANGER

Life in Riverside Mansions improves a little for the families in the post-war years.

But the kids are as daring and as tough as they ever were in this tight-knit waterfront community, like the Leek family whose kids risk life and limb going out to play each day.

“I remember the danger we got up to as children down on the Thames shore, swimming from New Crane Stairs,” recalls Lydia Leek growing up in the 1940s.

“We also got the ropes at the warehouse at the back of the Mansions that were hanging from the pullies by the loopholes.

“The gang would pull one of us up to the top of the highest floor, 40ft up, by running along the ground with one end of the rope, while the child on the rope would shoot up to the top of the building before being lowered down again.

“We played kicking in’ with our football opposite Harry Stewart’s shop on the dock wall at weekends. There would be too many horse and carts going to the docks and warehouses to do that in the week.

“We jumped on the back of the carts for a free ride up Garnet-street, careful to watch out for the whip from the horse driver.”

It is 1947, two years after the war ends, when the old air-raid shelters at Riverside Mansions are finally demolished—but not without causing a nuisance for Lydia’s mum.

“My mum had brought my youngest brother Tony home as a baby from the hospital,” she continues.

“I remember her being annoyed at the noise as the shelters were being pulled down.

“But little Tony managed to sleep through it all.”

But Sunday lunch with the family in those austere post-war days is what sticks out most in her memory.

“How we all fitted into Nan and granddad’s at 30 Riverside for Sunday lunch I will never know,” she still wonders. “There were 12 adults and 11 children.

“After the ice-cream the real adventures would begin for us kids.

“We always promised we wouldn’t leave the boundary of Milk-yard and Monza-street. This was never complied with—just agreed to.

“Our favourite jaunts included walking down the spiral staircase in the Rotherhithe Tunnel or ambling around Tower Bridge pretending to be friends of the Artful Dodger and Oliver Twist.”

CHRISTMAS EVE—BEST DAY OF ALL

Younger brother Tony, now 61, remembers most the preparations for Christmas at Riverside Mansions, when Lydia would take him “on an outing to buy the sweets” at a shop in Burdett-road in Limehouse—all the chocolate and toffees to be consumed over the holiday.

“Christmas Eve was the best day of all,” he recalls. “Dockers were going home drunk, women were passing with shopping from the markets, some with Christmas trees, uncles calling in on their way to Shadwell, Stepney and Limehouse.

“The day would start with Dad leaving to buy fruit.

“I would go with him to watering holes across the East End.

“The brown paper bags with the fruit would often end up soggy and ripped if it was wet.

“I remember the bags once broke on the last leg home, the hill in Milk-yard, and half the fruit ending up rolling down the road with me having to retrieve it.

“One year Dad came home with a 28lb turkey—how he got that up his jumper I will never know!

“As I grew older I went to Midnight Mass with my mother, sister and brother-in-law, while Dad finished his day in the Jolly Sailor.”

The kids on the block organise their own sports activities.

“Football was never the same again at Riverside Mansions after Dennis Gales took that penalty,” Tony remembers. “Dennis was the same size at 12 as he was at 20—large!

“His runs at the goal could be compared to the Flying Scotsman, as bodies would fall like nine pins.

“I can’t remember the name, but whoever tackled Dennis one day in full flight must have been a guest player from another planet!

“In the penalty that followed, Dennis lined up the ball, ran and blasted it with all his might.

“It was a goal all right. But the ball went straight through Mrs McCarthy’s front room window!”

That is the last kick the kids ever take in the courtyard as the final whistle blows on football at Riverside Mansions.

“We were banished to the park or the old hospital tennis courts after that,” Tony recalls sadly, half-a-century on.

“We were banished and had to find any space we could to put a few coats down and make goalposts,’ but never again in Riverside Mansions.”

John Martin has been busy with recollections like Tony’s for his Riverside Times, but is hungry for more.

He wants anyone who’s ever lived or grown up in Riverside Mansions to write down anything they remember and email it to him. Just click

Riverside Times

He's probably planning the 100th anniversary, when curious residents in 2028 might just dig up that time capsule he buried back in the summer of 2008.

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