In shattered post-war Britain, they were a symbol of hope for a brighter future. The famous Stepney Triplets became icons of the baby boom years. Baby Margaret, Barry and Stephen were born into the impoverished East End in 1951. After six long years of war, their births were celebrated by a nation desperate for good news.
His Majesty, King George V1 awarded their mother, Amy Oakes, a 39-year-old former railway worker from Stepney, the King’s Bounty, a cheque for three pounds, a pound for each child. Amy’s black and white picture, clutching an armful of babies, was blazed across every front page and Carnation condensed milk, a household staple in the 1950s, even sent her a years’ supply of milk.
But nearly 70 years on from their birth, in a story worthy of a Call the Midwife plotline, the famous cockney triplets reveal the secret sadness that blighted their mother’s life. With the yellowing newspaper cuttings dating back to the 1950s spread out before them, the trio shares their fascinating slice of social history.
‘Mum was a typical East End woman from Wapping, the second of eight children. Poor, no stranger to hard work and down to earth,’ reveals Margaret, a youthful looking 68-year-old from Gillingham in Kent. ‘At the age of 23, in 1935, she married her sweetheart John Slater and gave birth to a son called Brian.’
But four years later, war tore Amy’s young family apart. Eager to do his bit, John joined the Queen’s Royal Regiment and toddler Brian was evacuated to the countryside. Alone and working long hours on the railways, replacing the men called up to fight, it must have been a bitter blow to Amy when she received the dreaded Red Cross telegram informing her of John’s death in Belgium.
John’s death confirmed in black and white.
John was one of many thousands of young soldiers from the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) killed after the German Army broke through a weak point in the Maginot Line. Amy struggled on, a young widow and single-mum in the heartland of Blitzed Britain, until 1943 when she met and fell in love with fellow railway worker Alfred Oakes. ‘Alfred was a bachelor who had grown up in a large family in Hackney,’ says Margaret. ‘His mother had died when he was 5 and his father was an abusive alcoholic. He was however a wonderfully warm soul. What a blessing that must have been to meet a man prepared to take on another man’s child. He even drove up to North Wales to claim Brian back from the family he had been billeted with, who wanted to adopt him. From then on he raised Brian as his own.’
Warm-hearted Alfred Oakes loved Amy’s 8-year-old son Brian from her marriage to John and raised him as his own. Amy, 35, got a second chance at love.
Amy and Alfred married in July 1946, and with Amy 35, and Alfred 41, must have consigned themselves to just one child. What a shock it must have been therefore in 1950 to discover Amy was pregnant with not one child, but three! Visits came from a midwife weaving her way through the smoky bomb-shattered streets on a large bicycle. Amy and Alfred did their best to prepare themselves to going from a family of three, to a family of six.
‘Mum was only a little lady, just 5ft 2inches,’ recalls Margaret, ‘so had to wear a girdle to support her stomach and was in a wheelchair towards the due date.’ At the time of the triplets’ birth at the East End Maternity Home, the NHS was in its infancy as well. Bold new social changes designed to sweep away the squalor of the past were afoot, but these plans were a long way from being realised and the East End of 1951, was a place of poverty, chest-rattling fogs, bombsites, rationing, hunger and disease. Freezing winters, snowdrifts, floods, coal shortages and endless power cuts made life one long bitterly cold slog for beleaguered Brits. For millions of new mums like Amy, having to find food to stretch to many mouths was actually tougher after the war as rationing tightened up. And so Margaret, Barry, and Stephen were born into a bleak, grey postwar world.
The newborn triplets in their cots at the East End Maternity Home in 1951. Margaret came first, born on the 4th March 1951 followed by Barry and Stephen on the 6th March 1951.
Despite this, rarely were three children so loved. ‘Mum was so proud of us triplets,’ recalls Stephen. ‘Hours after the birth she was up and knitting us all baby clothes in bed.’
Radiant Amy Oakes, up and knitting the day after giving birth to triplets.
‘She used to dress us all as smart as she could and push us out in a big coach pram, but no one was allowed to breathe on us,’ he laughed. The triplets’ birth stirred up huge national interest. In the absence of IVF, multiple births were a rare occurrence and the sight of Amy pushing three tiny babies down the street had housewives running from their homes to take a look. As well as being awarded the King’s Bounty, and free milk, the mayor of Stepney came to take a look and their photographs were splashed on the front pages.
Amy’s daily life was one of drudgery and bone-numbing hard work. With no fridges and freezers, women had to go out shopping every day to buy food fresh. With three constantly dirty sets of terry nappies there was no washing machine to throw them into.
‘Mum soaked all the napkins as they were known in a bucket, then into the copper, before scrubbing them in a dolly tub, then through the mangle before pinning them out to dry in the yard,’ says Margaret. ‘In the East End, Monday was wash day, but in our house it was every day.’
The back yard at Cephas Street was a flapping forest of linen and when she ran out of room, the neighbours pinned them up in their yards.
As the triplets grew up, money was extremely tight. Alfred’s wages as a bus driver now had to spread to many mouths, but by juggling his wages and using good old-fashioned thrift, Amy managed to keep four hungry bellies full. The war had been horrible, but it had made Amy resourceful. She never bought anything that she could make herself, and all her free time was spent sewing and knitting baby clothes. Amy’s hands were in perpetual motion and she could jig a baby on one hip, whilst stirring a pot or unravelling knitting with the other.
‘Every morning we had filling porridge. Mum’s stews with a suet crust were amazing and she insisted on doing a roast every Sunday. Presents or treats were non-existent. Every Christmas we used to get second-hand clothes and hand-painted toys. It was a mark of pride to Mum that we were well turned out,’ says Margaret. ‘When we started at Morpeth Street School and were old enough to walk by ourselves, she would stand at the door and wave goodbye until we were out of sight. I don’t think we ever left the house without Mum seeing us off.’
The triplets never left their home at 65 Cephas Street in Stepney without their mother there to wave them goodbye.
The Oakes triplets’ humble beginnings chime with the childhoods of many other East Enders who, despite having nothing, claim with pride ‘we had everything of true value’. ‘It was a glorious childhood,’ recalls Stephen. ‘We always had playmates out in the streets and would play on the bombsites, using our imagination in the absence of toys. Great crowds of us out there playing tin can copper, knock down ginger and hop scotch, until all the mums called you in for tea. Because we were parented by not one woman, but the whole street, we always felt cared for, safe and loved.
‘Discipline was strong back then too. Cross the line and be saucy to a neighbour and you’d get a clip round the ear. There were always two turban clad women in their aprons, fags glued to their bottom lips, out on the street, keeping a watchful eye on us!’
At the end of their turning was a Charrington Brewery and every time they took their workers out on a beano, the triplets, along with half the neighbour kids would wait for sweets and pennies to be thrown out the window. These small moments stand out as a beacon of pleasure. Back then, neighbours shared each other joys, and Cephas Street rolled out the VE Day bunting for the Queen’s Coronation in 1953 and built huge bonfires up the street for bonfire night.
By the 1960s, package holidays might have been opening up to travel curious Brits, but not so in the Oakes household where a week in a chalet on the Isle of Sheppey was all the family budget could stretch to. ‘I still remember Dad sitting in a deck chair, trousers rolled up, braces on, knotted hankie on his head,’ laughs Margaret.
The triplets lived just streets away from another multiple-birth phenomena, albeit it one with more notoriety. ‘The Kray twins lived not far from us in Vallance Road, and Dad knew their dad Charlie,’ says Stephen. ‘Everyone knew them, but no one dared speak out against them.’
After school the triplets got their first jobs, working down the markets of Brick Lane selling birdseed, before going their separate ways to carve out their identities. Their humble beginnings served them well. Aged 15, Barry joined the Army and in 1974 became Commando Forces light middle weight boxing champion before going onto join the London Fire Brigade where he rose to the rank of Assistant Divisional Commander. Stephen met Penny Hall and they married at 20 and at 21 paid the £10 ticket to Australia where Stephen went on to become an accomplished carpenter. Margaret stayed close to her Mum, moving out from the family home in 1978 but staying in Stepney, where she worked in the Royal London Hospital and married fellow East Ender Peter.
At a time when Amy should have been taking a well-earned rest and enjoying her expanding family, tragedy struck. ‘Mum’s first son Brian was killed in a lorry crash in Lyon, France at the age of 34,’ recalls Margaret. He left behind six children aged between 2 and 11. She was inconsolable.’
Brian serving with the RAF during National Service. His life was cut tragically short.
The family’s tragedy continued when, ten years after his father’s death, Brian’s son Martin was killed aged 15 after falling from a tree picking conkers for other children. One can only imagine how Amy must have felt at her first husband, son and grandson all dying young and in such heart-wrenching circumstances. Amy had her beloved triplets as consolation, but perhaps the repeated tragedy took its toll as the same year as her grandson’s death, she was diagnosed with cancer.
Amy died in August 1985 aged 73. The triplets father, Alfred, known to all as Pops, lived to the ripe old age of 96, even living long enough to celebrate the triplets 50th birthday.
Amy’s story charts the history of the 20th century. This humble, unassuming woman never embraced the limelight, but her remarkable legacy lives on in her happy family. ‘All the family is still very close, getting on famously with plans up and running for a big 70th birthday party,’ says Natalie China, one of Amy’s twelve grandchildren. ‘There is something about the East End that resonates still with me and we enjoy the close bonds we have with family, friends and neighbours. I feel my Nan and Granddad Pops are a huge part of our heritage in setting this tone. She had such a sad life with huge losses, but yet the only photos I have is of her smiling and enjoying life.’
‘Mum’s whole life was devoted to raising us triplets,’ concludes Margaret. ‘She had her hands full constantly, but she was utterly selfless and surrounded us with such love. I still think of her, standing on the doorstep waving us off.’
Amy is from a generation which perhaps we won’t ever see again, a mother whose pride in her children came before all else. In the absence of a welfare state, this mighty matriarch used all her resilience, resourcefulness and love to raise her armful of babies.
The triplets at their last get-together (left to right, Stephen, Barry and Margaret) Though scattered far and wide, they remain a tight-knit unit.