The Mothers' and my family

Photo:My mother Ruth Sylvester and her parents, Eva and David, c.1935

My mother Ruth Sylvester and her parents, Eva and David, c.1935

© Claudia Jessop

A personal reflection
By Claudia Jessop

On 10 August 1933 Ruth Sylvester was born at the Mothers' Hospital in Lower Clapton Road. A look through the birth register of that year gives a fascinating insight into the make-up of the community that the hospital served, as well as a picture of general social trends at the time affecting the age of mothers, religion, occupation of fathers and even the popularity of certain names. The jobs of babies’ fathers were listed (but not those of the mothers, unless they were unmarried). Why did I choose the year 1933 for which to analyse the register? For the simple reason that Ruth is my mother, and she was one of the babies born at the Mothers’ that year.

In many ways my mother's background typified the local community at that time. Her parents, Eva and David Sylvester, were Jewish, and had both grown up in East London. Eva (née Levinson) had come to Stepney from Russia as a six-year-old in 1914. She had been born in Yaroslavl, an important city 155 miles north-east of Moscow, located at the point where the Volga and Kotorosl rivers meet, which is now a major centre of industry and a world heritage site. My mother’s father, David, had also arrived in London as a child, but had been born in Newcastle, to Polish parents, in 1904. He grew up in Gainsborough Road, Hackney Wick, and probably lived there until his marriage in 1929.

Like many thousands of Eastern European Jewish men at that time, both of my maternal grandparents’ fathers were tailors. My grandmother Eva’s father had previously been in the Imperial Russian Army, which had meant the family had travelled around Russia living in different towns, and he had been employed making caps for the soldiers.

Yiddish, the lingua franca and the cultural life-blood of the Jewish East End, was spoken in both my grandparents’ families (one of my grandfather's maternal aunts was Fanny Waxman, the celebrated Yiddish actress and co-founder of the Jewish National Theatre).

After leaving school aged 14 in 1922, my grandmother Eva went to work at the Houndsditch Warehouse as a sales assistant in a basement shoe department. The couple met in 1924 when one of Eva’s friends became friends with one of my grandfather’s brothers; they were 16 and 21 respectively. Apparently my grandfather was convinced on first meeting my grandmother that she was the woman he would marry, but it was another five years before the wedding took place, in 1929. Their wedding photograph was taken by the famous East End photographer Boris Bennett.

Early in their courtship, Eva’s father surreptitiously followed my grandfather home, to check that he came from the respectable background befitting a potential suitor for his daughter. Some of their courtship took place while my grandfather helped my grandmother to polish the large brass samovar her mother had shipped with the family from Russia, which today stands in my mother’s dining room.

Later the same year, the newly-weds moved to Osbaldeston Road in Stoke Newington, and from there to nearby Kyverdale Road, where they were living in a rented flat at the time of the birth of my mother. Another branch of my grandfather’s family had been living in King Edward’s Road, South Hackney for some time. My grandfather’s job is listed as ‘travelling salesman’ in the birth register; he was working in the wholesale clock and watch business at this time.

My grandmother was 25 years old when she gave birth to my mother. Like many local Jewish women who were not devoutly religious, she would have chosen The Mothers' as the local hospital with the best reputation for maternity care. (In later years, Jewish women who were more religious tended to choose the specifically Jewish Bearsted Hospital in Lordship Road, Stoke Newington, but this did not open until 1948.) At this time the hospital still maintained wards specifically for Jewish mothers, as distinct from wards dedicated to non-Jewish and unmarried mothers respectively. My grandmother probably referred to it, as most people did at the time, as THE SALVATION ARMY’S MOTHERS’ HOME rather than HOSPITAL. My mother had always told me and my sisters that she was born in the SALVATION ARMY HOSPITAL. I had lived in Hackney for some time before I worked out that the words LEADING TO THE MOTHERS’ SQUARE AND MAITLAND HOUSE denoted the site of the hospital, as there is no plaque memorialising it as such.

I became fascinated by the ‘ghost’ of this unique hospital, whose former nurses’ accommodation and associated administrative buildings still stand on Lower Clapton Road. This hospital had played such an important role in the lives of so many Hackney families, including my own. I welcomed the chance to conduct research into its history as part of this project, and the more I learned, the more intrigued I became.

My grandmother’s recollections of her experience as a patient at the Mothers’, as passed down through my mother, were not especially positive. The summer of 1933 was a scorcher, with temperatures reaching 91 degrees in the shade. Because her fingers had swollen in the heat, my grandmother could not wear her wedding ring, and remembered being afraid that she would be assumed to be unmarried. Whether this anxiety was fuelled by a sense that there was a difference in the way the unmarried patients were treated, rather than the simple fact that unmarried motherhood bore such a huge stigma at the time that she would have been horrified not to be recognised as the respectable wife she was, we have no way of knowing. She also had unpleasant memories of being tied to her bed during labour; this probably meant having her ankles suspended from stirrups, a practice then common if not standard – although far from obsolete: recent studies have shown it is still used far more often, particularly in London hospitals, than NHS guidelines recommend. The outcome was a much loved baby girl, my mother, who was given the name Ruth, and the Hebrew name, registered at a synagogue by her maternal grandfather, of Riva Ruchel (Rebecca Rachel).

For my young grandparents and their new baby daughter, as for very many Jewish people at that time, Hackney was a stopping-off point; although my grandfather had spent many of his early years living in Hackney, my grandmother spent only four or so years here. The classic trajectory, followed by a generation of London Jews with almost text-book precision, originated in the tenements of the ‘real’ East End – Stepney and Whitechapel – moved through slightly more affluent Hackney, which represented a rung higher on the ladder of social mobility, and culminated in the leafy new suburbs of north-west London. Of course, a large Jewish community remained and remains in Hackney in the post-war period,(and there were Jews in Hackney as early as the seventeenth century), but a constant flow of Jews left to move out of the urban environment. The 1930s was the decade of the new suburb – these green, pleasant areas represented an escape from the overcrowding, noise and insanitary conditions that went hand-in-hand with the severe poverty that was a very recent memory for East End Jews – as well as from anti-Semitism, when Mosley’s Blackshirts were marching through the older-established working-class Jewish communities with a terrifying sense of purpose (indeed Hackney Baths, a stone’s throw from the Mothers’, was the headquarters of the local branch of the British Union of Fascists, until the Council forced them out, and Ridley Road Market was the site of regular battles between Fascists and Jewish traders).My grandfather, a gentle and not at all violent man (although he was a passionate spectator of boxing matches) had himself been involved in fighting with Mosleyites, and had injured one of his hands. Thirties semi-detached and detached houses, like the one in Cricklewood which my grandparents moved into eight months after my mother was born, represented the realisation of the dream of the ‘Englishman’s home’, while still allowing for commuting into the centre of the capital. As so often happens, the birth of a child was probably the final impetus to leave the city, as must have been the fact that my grandfather’s parents had already moved to Cricklewood (in a single street there, four houses were eventually occupied by members of the family).

On Eva’s side, however, the older generation remained in the heart of the East End. My mother continued to visit her maternal grandmother at her home in Grove Dwellings, Adelina Grove, Stepney, until 1970, when she finally moved to spend the last couple of years of her life with her only surviving daughter (tragically, both my grandmother and her next youngest sister died in middle-age); she had been widowed in 1960. The journey took an hour-and-a-half from Cricklewood (by bus to Golders’ Green Station, Northern Line to Bank, and then District Line to Whitechapel). When my mother was working in the West End as a young woman, she would sometimes take two buses from Oxford Street to pay a visit. In the 1960s, by which time she was a mother of young children and living in Notting Hill, she would take the tube from Ladbroke Grove – and once a week, her grandmother and aunt would visit her at home, for which occasions the house received a particularly thorough cleaning, the best china appeared, and bridge rolls with cream cheese and salmon and kichels (traditional Ashkenazi biscuits made with egg) were served. So the contact was always maintained, though these long journeys on public transport constituted in many ways a journey from one world to another (the ‘small planet’ of Emmanuel Litvinoff’s recollections). By the time my great-grandmother, known as Babushka, moved out of Grove Dwellings, she had lived there for 56 years, including during both world wars.  The only exception was a brief period of evacuation during the second war, when my great-grandparents accompanied my grandmother, mother, great-aunt and my mother's newborn cousin to Lingfield in Surrey. Their flat - 42 Grove Dwellings - had been bombed, and on returning they were rehoused in no. 27 in the same block.  Their landlords in Lingfield were called Mr and Mrs Head, which my great-grandfather promptly Yiddishised to "Mr and Mrs Kop". Their stay began badly when my great-grandfather was mocked for his strong Russian accent and was taunted by local children who called him - ironically given the fact that he was a Jew - a German spy.  All this was forgotten when he rescued a child who had fallen into a local pond, and became very popular with the community as a result.

My grandmother was not in Hackney for long, but even in this she was typical of the population at the time. Hackney has always played host to people passing through as well as to long-standing communities with waves of people, who were born far away but who put down roots and live out the remainders of their lives here in Hackney, or perhaps move on to somewhere else. Time and again Hackney has featured as a significant point in the developing social histories of families and communities, the junction between their past struggles and their future aspirations. My grandparents were typical of the era in another sense, in that like a great many couples in that time of huge political and economic uncertainty, they decided to limit their family to a single child.

By summer 2003, I had been living in Hackney for almost a decade. I myself am part of a recognisable social trend, as one of the people who took advantage of relatively low property prices to settle here in the early 1990s, driven out of the West London neighbourhood where I’d grown up by soaring costs (as well as by the change in atmosphere wrought by the influx of bankers and business people and the flight of artists and bohemians). That August, London was prostrate under another blazing summer. Heavily pregnant with my own second child, I walked past the site of the former Mothers’ Hospital and looked at its sandy walls glowing in the heat, and at the shadows of its railings extending onto the dusty pavement of Lower Clapton Road. I thought of my grandmother entering its grand portico exactly 70 years earlier. My own fingers were swollen, the birth of my own daughter imminent.

Seventy years and one week after my mother was born at the Mothers’, I gave birth to my daughter at the Homerton Hospital, half a mile away – the hospital on the site of the old Eastern Fever Hospital, where all the maternity services were moved from the Mothers’ on its closure in 1986. Like my grandmother’s birth experience, mine was somewhat traumatic (not helped by the fact that the hospital was overcrowded – August is notoriously its busiest month – and was unable to provide me with a labour room, pain relief or bedding; I delivered my daughter in a waiting suite). But like hers, the experience ended with the joyous appearance of a beautiful baby girl.

By looking at the microfilm of the birth register, held at the Hackney Archive, I was able to tell my mother exactly which house in Kyverdale Road had been her first home, and we made an emotional journey to look at it. Two close friends of mine have lived in Kyverdale Road, and I had walked past my grandparents’ former home many times without knowing that it was. I had attended a post-natal group a few doors away when my son was born in 1999. Knowing about the connection, I had imagined, as I got off the bus and crossed Stoke Newington Common, carrying my baby son in his sling, that my grandmother must have wheeled my mother around it in her pram.

Now, whenever I walk past the remains of the Mothers’, this institution about which I now know so much more, I am conscious of the strange contingencies by which life can sometimes bring us round full circle, so that we tread amongst the traces and imprints of previous generations. I am now a woman of Hackney, as my grandmother fleetingly was, and it is something I am proud of. Unlike my grandparents, I don’t intend to leave.

This page was added by Lisa Rigg on 19/03/2010.
Comments about this page

Thank you Claudia, it was tearful, but great to read of my roots. The closeness to your Mother Ruth was obviously confirmed. Your grandmother Eva was my godmother, and would have been 'mother to me, had my mum died, as she was vey ill after my birth in Veraluim 'cos the hospital was evacuted when I was born in 1940. Ruth would have suffered as they had been 'sisters'. As you know, we are very close. Thank you, and may your poetry and prose, bring lots of nuchus tous all. xxxxx

By Elaine Weisbaum (née Bogin) Maternal Levinson
On 17/09/2010

I am looking for information about my grandparents Malka and Solomon Pogorelski who lived in Obaldeston Road, probably until about 1950. Solomon Pogorelski came over to England from Russia/Poland in 1905. I look forward to hearing from you.

By Jo Lamb
On 12/01/2011

A wonderful recollection of Hackney past which made a fascinating read for me. My grandparents on my mother's side were Bavarian immigrants and lived in Hackney and Stoke Newington, as did my mother until 1939. I will now find out if she was born in the Mothers' home. Thank you for sharing these valuable family memories.

By June Drake
On 21/01/2011

My grandmother was a cook at the Bearsted Hospital in the 1940s and 50s and catered for local bar mitzvah.

By B Williamson
On 21/01/2011

I arrived to start my nurse training at Hackney Hospital in September 1960. Before long I met a Jewish man whom I went out with for all of my [happy] time there. His mother, Millicent Smollen, Previously married to a French Polisher named Sabner, came over to England in 1904 aged about 4 years old. I knew her mother who could remember the White Russians riding through her village.

By Julia Harris
On 21/03/2011

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