‘Growing up, I knew I was different to other kids,’ says 85-year-old Doreen Jacks of her childhood in Canning Town. ‘I was born in 1933 and had a very happy life. My mum Hannah, who went by the nickname Dolly, was a full-time mum, who cared for me and my younger brother Billy. My dad William, nicknamed Bill, was a stevedore down the docks, which were less than a mile from our home, which consisted of two rooms on Hilda Road. Mum was of mixed race descent, her mum was Irish and her father was mixed race. Dad was also mixed race, his father was from Antigua and his mother was white and from Limehouse. I always regarded myself as black.’
Hannah ‘Dolly’ and Bill Jacks on their wedding day in Canning Town in 1931.
During the 1940s, and long before the arrival of the Windrush generation, Canning Town had a vibrant and diverse neighbourhood, which was nicknamed ‘Draught Board Alley’ on account of the many white women who took up with black sailors. Hundreds of humble terraced, two up, two down homes, built in the last century to accommodate dockworkers and their families sat hugger-mugger to the Royal Docks, so close, in fact, you could read the names of the ships.
Canning Town was a close-knit community, which existed cheek by jowl with poverty and deprivation. ‘I played out all day in the streets,’ recalls Doreen, ‘all the kids did. We’d swing ropes round gas lamps, tie string between two neighbouring door knockers and then knock both at the same time. We were typical mischievous East End kids. My dad would come home from the docks and turn a big rope for all us kids to skip over. He loved kids my dad, he was a real family man, very handsome too.’
With hardly any traffic and close-knit communities, streets were safe playing grounds for the neighbourhood kids.
When Doreen was 6, war broke out and her happy family life imploded. ‘My dad was killed in the Atlantic in 1941. He was working for the merchant Navy transporting foodstuffs back to the UK when the boat he was in was torpedoed by a German U-Boat. My father along with the rest of the crew drowned. Mum never broke down in public, but she must have been devastated. She loved my father very much, as he did her. There wasn’t much time for my mother to grieve though as the East End was under fire in the Blitz. She had two children to keep alive. Canning Town, due to its proximity to the docks was being pounded night after night. ‘I think it was around this time that my mum developed a very tough outer shell. She loved us and wouldn’t let anyone touch a hair on our head, but she wasn’t one for cuddles or any of that. In fact, if it wasn’t for us kids, I don’t think she’d have even bothered to take us to our neighbours Anderson shelter. She’d have taken her chances above ground.’
Dolly, Doreen and her brother Billy along with the rest of Canning Town experienced the worst aerial bombardment in the country. The dockside community was pulverised and disemboweled. Whole streets were wiped off the map by landmine bombs and unexploded bombs triggered emergency street evacuations. It was a frenzy of activity as rescue workers dug furiously at the debris. The stench was unholy. Burnt flesh, and something darker, dust and debris which had lain undisturbed for 100 years, sucked from the 19th century fabric of terraced homes and spewed into the atmosphere. The streets were filled with convoys of exhausted, filthy refugees stumbling through the streets like zombies, the contents of their homes piled onto coster barrows and perambulators.
‘Mum refused to leave our home or have us evacuated,’ recalls Doreen. ‘ We’d already been evacuated once without much success. Mum had discovered the lady we were billeted with was secretly keeping the shilling she’d been sending me every month, so she wasn’t keen to repeat the experience and after losing her husband, she wanted to keep her kids right by her side where she could look after them. So we stayed down in our neighbours Anderson as it was regarded as the safest place.’
But in Canning Town, nowhere was truly safe with the Luftwaffe arriving every single evening without fail. Doreen’s teenage cousin was one of an estimated 600 people killed in South Hallsville School in Agate Street which had been transformed into a rest centre. At the outbreak of the Blitz, the shelterers were waiting for transport away from Canning Town and were repeatedly told coaches were on their way. By the third night of waiting, a bomb scored a direct hit, dropping through the reinforced concrete roof and into the basement, burying whole families alive. Babies as young as five days old were killed. After 12 days of digging for bodies, the authorities finally ordered that the crater be sprinkled with quicklime and concreted over, entombing generations of families forever. Bungling officials were believed to have wrongly sent the coaches to Camden Town, instead of Canning Town. No one will ever know the truth, as in the case of the disaster at Bethnal Green Underground, the government ordered it be hushed up in the name of ‘morale’.
The rest centre which became a tomb
Doreen’s face hardens at the mention of the tragedy which claimed her cousin’s life and you can only wonder how this must have affected her mother’s morale. When the Blitz finally ended eight months later in May 1941, she may have lost her husband and the end of her street lay in ruins, but Dolly Jacks was still standing. And after all she had endured, she wasn’t one to stray from a fight.
‘After the Blitz, I remember a fight broke out between my brother and another kid in the street and he called him “a black bastard”. When news of this reached my mum, she marched straight out into the street and had a show down with the mother of the kid. “My kids aren’t bastards. They have a father who died for this country,” she yelled. “Which is more than your lousy husband did, so you can all shut up, sitting pretty by the fireside.” That shut them up,’ says Doreen. ‘It also taught me an important lesson, to stand up for myself and not allow anyone to put me down.’
Doreen was also on the receiving end of racial abuse. ‘I remember a girl a school saying this to me: “God made little niggers, he made them in the night. He must’ve been in a hurry, because he forgot to paint them white.” I punched her and she fell right back over her desk. She didn’t bother me after that.’
With the Blitz over, Dolly got herself a job as a ticket inspector at Liverpool Street Station, a job previously only open to men, and after factory work, thoroughly enjoyed it. When the Doodlebug rockets started dropping in the last year of war, she finally relented and had Doreen and Billy evacuated to Norfolk, where they were stationed close by to a camp filled with black American GIs. At that time, black and white American troops were strictly segregated and Doreen says they were astonished to see mixed race children from the East End playing with white kids. ‘They loved me and Billy,’ Doreen laughs, ‘and always stop to chat to us and give us half a crown and their daily rations. We visited them a lot!’
While stationed in England during WW2, black American troops were segregated from white GIs. Despite mistreatment at the hands of their own Army, their courtesy and dignity was often commented on.
When war finished, Dolly met another man, a Barbadian and remarried after finding herself pregnant. ‘My little step-brother Jimmy was a three month baby,’ she jokes. ‘Mum married in the October 1946 and had Jimmy in January 1947. ‘She remained close to my dad’s people though and it’s credit to them that they accepted Jimmy as one of the family, even though he wasn’t their blood.’
After the war, life moved on in Canning Town, but Dolly never really got over the premature death of her handsome sailor husband. ‘She missed him, she missed the old life, and her job at Liverpool Street Station.’ But like all good resourceful East End women, Doll adapted, and by keeping her wits about her managed to earn an extra income by becoming a bookies runner. ‘She was a hustler,’ laughs Doreen. ‘She used to hide the bets under my baby brother in the pram.’
Sadly Dolly Jacks is long gone but the memory of her burns bright in her 85-year-old daughter’s mind. ‘She was a beautiful, tough matriarch – a born survivor.’
Canning Town local Doreen.