Poplar, East London, 1940. Two sisters push a pram crammed with small children and hastily rescued bundles of clothing through the bombed and battered streets of East London. Trekkers they were known as, convoys of exhausted, filthy refugees stumbling through the streets in search of safety.
It’s an iconic photograph that has been used countless times to accompany stories about the Blitz in wartime. There is a compelling magnetism about this image that somehow seems to sum up the essence of the so-called ‘Blitz spirit’. And yet, this photo is not all that it seems. The true story behind it, tells a darker tale of betrayal, crushed dreams and female endeavour, revealing who the true heroines of wartime London were. The middle baby in the pram is now an 83-year-old woman. Mary Ashmore is a petite cockney with a smile which lights up her entire face. She has tea and cream cakes carefully laid out on a tray in her immaculate flat (is there any other kind with East End women of that generation?) in Canning Town when I went to listen to her story one blustery March morning.
‘I was born in 1937 and lived with my mum, also called Mary and my dad Thomas in Hanbury Buildings on Poplar High Street.
Mary’s childhood home in Poplar, East London.
I was one of nine. There was Tom, Alice, Iris, John, Dennis, Clare, Molly and Maureen. Myself, Molly and Maureen were the youngest three and by the time the Blitz broke out in September 1940, my older siblings were scattered far and wide doing their bit for the war effort. I adored my mum and I honestly don’t think I ever left her side when I was young. She was a good, strong Irish woman who worked as a cook in Poplar. I was three when our buildings took a direct hit during the Blitz. We’d been sheltering in a school next to the buildings. I don’t really remember much about that time, just a sense of fear as my mum bundled Molly, Maureen, and me into the pram, along with what she could salvage from our flat.
Mum is the lady on the far right of the picture, the woman in the middle is her sister, my auntie Annie and the man on the left is my father Thomas, who worked as an ARP warden for Poplar. I have no idea how we got there, but from Poplar we found ourselves in a little slice of heaven, in the tiny ancient village of Nuneham Courtenay five miles southeast of Oxford. Mum’s other sister, Auntie Alice lived there. She was there as that’s where her husband was stationed in the RAF, sadly he had already died in service, and so she urged Mum to join her. To a young girl it was paradise. After the sooty streets of Poplar, I revelled in the green fields and orchards groaning with apple trees. I’d never seen so much fruit or drunk so much fresh milk. We hardly felt the rationing. I befriended the local farmer and earned pocket money running errands for him. He used to sing a curious song: ‘There are fair’ens, black’ens and ginger ones, I can’t tell one from the other.’
The tranquil and idyllic parkland around Nuneham Park where Mary enjoyed a taste of freedom.
I know some East Enders had a bad experience when they were evacuated, but not us. The villagers were so kind and welcomed us with open arms. I loved the gentle rhythm of country life. Mum got a job as a cook for Lord Harcourt at Nuneham Park, a mansion that had been requisitioned by the RAF. She also cooked at the local pub, where she got to know the local American GIs stationed nearby. They used to give me tins of spaghetti, which I’d never seen before and chocolate. They were so friendly and nice. It was the happiest time of my life, but it wasn’t to last. When the bombs stopped dropping, Dad insisted we were to come home. He had stayed behind in Poplar as he worked as an ARP warden, so I suppose he wanted his skivvy home.
In the photo above, he looks like a strong, brave protector, helping women to safety, but in reality he was a hard, mean and spiteful man, who worked my mum to her death. I remember her discussing this move with auntie Alice. “If I go back to the smoke, it’ll kill me,” she said. Tragically, her words turned out to be true. She was already suffering with kidney failure so the peace of the countryside was the best place for her, but Dad wanted her home and so that was that. His word was law.
Mum got a job cooking at a school and we got rehoused in a flat on the Isle of Dogs. She grafted so that we didn’t want for anything. As kids we were always immaculately turned out and always had food in our bellies. The flat was always spotless and my father’s tea on the table when he came home. And this on top of her other job! Us kids were her life though and her greatest source of joy and pride.
Mum died three years after the war ended in 1948, when I was 11 and my heart broke. Kidney failure was the verdict, but I’ve no doubt that had we been allowed to stay in the countryside, she’d have lived longer. Without her, I was bereft. My two aunties both wanted us to come and live with them, but Dad wouldn’t hear of it. He wouldn’t even let me go to the funeral, so I bunked off school and followed the hearse from a distance. No one was stopping me saying goodbye to my mum.
Overnight, my childhood ended. I had to take over the care of my two younger sisters. Before school I had to do the shopping, prepare the breakfast, take my sisters to school, before getting myself to school and then scrub steps, peel the veg, light the boiler and prepare tea when I got home. Mondays, washday, I scrubbed the sheets and clothes, put them through the mangle and hung them on the line. I was 11 and not very strong, so this took some time. Dad came home once, took them off the line and stamped on them. “They’re dirty, wash them again,” he ordered.
The women in my building knew what was going on and took me under their wing to try and protect me, but Dad made life very hard. Unsurprisingly, I was regularly twenty minutes late for school. Despite this my teacher, Mr Wood, saw something in me and encouraged me to take the 11 plus entry exam for a grammar school in Woolwich. I passed and was offered a place, but straight away Dad said no as he couldn’t afford the uniform. To my amazement and gratitude my teacher paid for it. It was the start of the rest of my life and I was determined to make Mum proud. I loved learning and really felt like I was on my way.
I’d been there one year when Dad pulled me out. I still find this difficult to talk about because in a way, he stole my future. I guess he wanted his skivvy at home, and so that’s where I stayed. I did try running away once, to Epping Forest, but I got scared and came home at nightfall. The rest of the time was a blur of cooking and cleaning. I made a shrine to my mum in the front room, and I would polish her photo and talk to it everyday.
Dad had more shocks in store. He got himself a new woman called Lou. She tried to put away Mum’s photo and I went mad. There was a tussle and I fled in tears. This time, there was no going home so I went to the police. “He’s already been in,” they told me. “He says you’re not to bother going home.” From there, they arranged for me to stay at a Salvation Army Home. I was a scared 14-year-old who missed her mum. I was at the home for two years and was treated with kindness. The head lady called me in one day and said: “Your dad’s written, he’s moving in with Lou. Why don’t you write him a nice card?” ‘Swallowing my pride I wrote him and Lou a card. He sent it back in an envelope ripped into tiny pieces.’
Here Mary pauses, shaking her head and letting out a long shaky breath before continuing her story.
‘As I grew older, I got a job, met a docker by the name of George and had my own family. I often reflected on why my dad appeared to hate me. He was a complex man and his anger had its roots in jealousy. Everyone loved my mum, she was so big hearted and would share what little food we had with the neighbours. “Why should we have something, when they have nothing?” she used to tell me. She had a strong sense of duty to other women. I still remember her standing by the stove in clouds of steam singing Irish songs. I was like her shadow and I wanted to be just like her. I think I reminded Dad of her.
When he died, I didn’t mourn him. Instead, I look back on my life and choose to remember and emulate the kindness of my mum. Us kids were at the heart of everything she did. She was the most terrific cook. Her roasts and suet puddings were to die for. Then there was the stew pot that went on Monday and was still going by the Friday! Mum cooked with love. She did everything with love in fact.
Seventy-one years on from her death, I hope I’m leaving behind the same legacy of love with my seven kids. Mum taught me to stay strong, work hard and devote your life to your kids and that’s what I’ve done. I’m a grafter too, just like her. I had three jobs at one point. Charring in the city by night, working in a paint factory by day and an extra job at a fish shop on the Isle of Dogs.
One day, I’m pushing my kids out in the pram, when I bumped into my old teacher Mr Wood. “Well that was a waste of time wasn’t it, Mary,” he remarked. He didn’t mean to be unkind; I think he was just disappointed. But I refused to get morose, no good looking back on what might have been, you’ve just got to get on with it. And all in all, despite not fulfilling my educational potential, I hope I’ve fulfilled my potential as a mother. I always say this, but when it comes to your kids, you get back what you put in. They are my greatest joy. They all live nearby and come in regularly to visit and when they’re busy, I have books for company.
So there you are. I’m still here, aged 82, a survivor and a strong matriarch like my mum. You want to hear a funny thing? After Dad threw me out of home I lost my photo of Mum. Then a few years back my son calls. “Go and pick up a copy of the paper, Mum,” he tells me. It was one of the posh ones I don’t read, but he insisted, telling me I might see a familiar face, so I bought a copy. Blow me if there isn’t a photo of Mum and auntie Alice pushing the pram with us kids in, away from blitzed Poplar. Apparently it’s quite a famous image. I rang the paper and they sent me a copy, which I framed and put on my wall and now it sits pride of place alongside photos of my children and grandchildren, just as it should be.
Back then, women put up with so much, not just physical but emotional abuse too, as I suppose they still do today. So many women suffered in silence, but trust me when I tell you, they were never victims.’
‘Abused but never a victim.’ Courageous mum-of-nine Mary pushing her children out of the bombed heartland of East London in search of safety and a better life. (Mary is holding the baby to the right of the picture) A heroine in every sense of the word.