Charlotte Spicer very nearly lost her sisters in the disaster; they were pulled out of the crush and were treated in hospital for several weeks. Her husband lost two siblings in the disaster. This wide ranging interview gives us a good sense of the context of the disaster from the perspective of someone who was a teenager (13) at the time.
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Charlotte (aka Lottie) Spicer
Date of Interview:
Length of interview:
1hour 32 minutes
Any other info:
Charlotte Ellen Spicer, DOB 11th December 1929. Father worked on railway and was killed on the railway when he was hit by an open carriage door when she was 12 years old. Charlotte was in danger of being taken into care with her sisters but her mother worked as a cleaner and then as a railway guard at Stratford Market to support them. Charlotte had to look after her younger sisters (aged eight and nine) – wash, dress and take them to school.
Charlotte lived in 40 Portman Place, Globe Road, Bethnal Green. Her grandmother worked in a London hospital as a cleaner and they used to go to see her after school. Charlotte’s mother had to be at work at 5am, so Charlotte would dress her sisters, clear the kitchen and sometimes wash the step before she came home. She had two brothers, Billy worked at a wood yard in Globe Road and George was a builder. Her eldest sister Edie worked on telephones.
She went to Portman Place School, evacuated for a while, then came back and went to Morpeth Street School. Charlotte describes school; started at three and slept on camp beds in the afternoon. They had bottles of milk and undernourished children were given spoonfuls of malt. When older she had her own desk and books were kept inside the desk; she stood up when the teacher came in and tables were recited every morning, then they would go to assembly. Different teachers would come to your classroom. They had drawings on the wall; hot lunches were available and older children could go home for lunch if they wanted to.
When war broke out she came home to find her mum crying. She was evacuated by train to Elmsett. She went to a school hall and was billeted with a doctor, then an 80 year old lady, Mrs Dodd in a big bungalow. The teachers came with the children and stayed with them. When her mother visited she was shocked that such an elderly lady was looking after three children and they came home.
Charlotte did her 11 plus exam when she was in Elmsett and she passed, which is why she went to Morpeth Street School when she returned. Ballerinas came to the school and she did classes. She was one of two picked to train at the ballet school in St Johns Wood and they danced at Sadler’s Wells in Swan Lake. At 14 many of her friends left school and her mother needed her to work. The headmaster objected and she had to see the school board. They asked why she wanted to leave. She explained she had no father and that she had a job arranged as a dressmaker. They agreed to give her a leaving certificate. She then worked at Rodney Dresses in Liverpool Street.
Charlotte went to ballet class every evening weekdays and Saturday afternoons. She could have joined Sadler’s Wells ballet company at 18. She was engaged at 16 and at 18 they were talking about getting married so she started to give ballet up; they were married at 20. She explains that the ballet lessons were free while she was at school. When she earned money she gave her mother the pay packet, and her mother gave her some money for fares and lunch for work.
Her younger sister Gladys also did singing and dancing lessons and she was one of Ken Dodd’s diddy men [famous comedian]. She remembers her getting a standing ovation for singing a sad song. Gladys cot crushed in the disaster and had lung damage.
A police officer got her out and her mother took her to London Chest Hospital every week for treatment for chest problems. She had a heart bypass and was always ill. She died at 60. Her other sister, Ada was in disaster and suffered from nerves for the rest of her life. She would never go in a lift, or an underground train. She is still alive (82) but won’t speak to anyone about it.
Charlotte describes the underground shelter; a long staircase of concrete steps down to the tube platform area. Through a door there was a little stage on the right. They sold hot pies and had a piano, and singers at night. People would have their own bed. She didn’t sleep there; there were beds under the railway arches that were closer. They had an Anderson shelter in their garden but her mother felt safer in the arches, and it was dry and less cramped. Anderson shelters were damp, particularly in the winter time.
Charlotte explains that you would go to nearest shelter when there was an air raid. Windows were blacked out. ARP men would visit shelters and let people know about who had been bombed. She used to play outside a Jewish cemetery in Bancroft Road. A friend, Dennis said he could shelter with him in a local house. Her mother preferred her to go home so she refused, but Dennis went with her to go to the arches. When they got back Dennis’s house had been bombed and four people got killed.
She describes how neighbours would help each other clear debris and get people out. She describes how Stan [her husband] got a child out of the rubble but the child died by the time he got him to hospital.
When the war ended everyone was dancing in the park by Bethnal Green library. There was singing and dancing in the early hours of morning, the whole community celebrated.
Charlotte describes the Bethnal Green disaster. Her oldest sister took her two sisters and a baby to the Museum picture palace. They went to the tube shelter as it was close. The younger sisters, Ada (around 10) and Gladys (7) got pushed away from her. Her oldest sister had John, the baby and was warned not to go down the steps by someone she knew. She told him her younger sisters had gone down already, and he replied that he would go and get them after taking her and the baby to his mother’s brick shelter. He went back and discovered the crush, and then went to the shelter where Charlotte and her mum were to let them know. He returned to the tube shelter to see bodies laid out and started to panic. A policeman told him to check hospitals and he found Glad and Ada in the London Hospital; there were treated for around three weeks and convalesced in a country hospital.
She says her sisters didn’t really talk about it. Ada said she didn’t get sent to hospital, perhaps because she blocked it out to cope. Glady’s had a friend, Eileen Bass, who was killed.
Charlotte says the Bass family were close friends. Eileen was the youngest of the Bass family. She was always with her sister and were very close; went to school together. Charlotte says people didn’t discuss it much because it would upset them, it would make you very emotional. So you would keep it in your mind, inwardly.
Charlotte’s husband, Stan, lost a brother and sister, Tony and Joanie Spicer. These were Derek Spicer’s brother and sister [Derek is present at the interview; he was the youngest in the family]. Stan went with his uncle Tom (who was staying with them as he had been bombed out and lost his wife and son in the bombing). The found them in St James the Less. Stan was around 16 at the time and said Joanie looked like she was lying there asleep. Tony was evacuated to a farm in Suffolk with Stan, but they had both had come back. They are still in touch with the farmer’s family in Suffolk.
Charlotte says some compensation was given to families of those that died. She was married and had christenings in St Johns Church. She says she goes to the memorial services, and talks a little more about getting married and ending her ballet classes.
Charlotte says why the memorial is important; it helps people stop and think and remember what a terrible thing war is.
Charlotte remembers her mother and how hard she worked for them all. She discusses her work as a dress maker. Her sister’s granddaughter lost her life in the Hillsborough disaster.