Cockney Roots: From Fern Street Settlement to the Freedom of the City of London
How Margaret Barnsdall-Stone went from working in an East End cake factory to mixing with Royalty, and the Cockney culture that helped her on her way
Margaret Barnsdall-Stone, 65, was born into a typical post-war East End family, living with her grandparents, parents and two older sisters in Malam Gardens, Poplar.
With countless aunts, uncles and cousins scattered around the East End, there was rarely a quiet moment in the Barnsdall household, occupying one of the 29 attached cottages built by the Commercial Gas Company for its workers in 1935-6.
‘After the war, everyone had to share houses,’ Barnsdall-Stone recalls: ‘there were always people there and we were always having parties. It meant I was really close with my family, I still come to the East End to see my cousins about once a month.’
Though she now lives in Dagenham, Barnsdall-Stone doesn’t subscribe to the traditional definition that a Cockney is someone born within the sound of St Mary-le-Bow’s bells, and she still takes pride in her Cockney identity.
‘Cockneys are the salt of the earth,’ she says: ‘and I really do believe that. In the old days when I was living with my extended family, everyone looked out for each other and helped their neighbours: our door was always open.’
Moving to Bow at the age of seven, it was while living on Whitehorn Street that Barnsdall-stone made most of her childhood memories.
With a soft spot for pie and mash that only a true East Ender can understand, Barnsdall-Stone often comes back to G Kelly’s on the Roman for a taste of her favourite childhood meal, which she never eats without a good dousing of liquor.
Barnsdall-Stone attended Devons Road Primary School in Bow which is now named Clara Grant Primary School. She remembers receiving Clara Grant’s Farthing Bundles, a memory that is seared into the hearts of generations of working-class East End children in the twentieth century.
Grant, the head teacher at Devons Road, dedicated her life to tackling child poverty and set up Fern Street Settlement, a community action organisation for East London’s working class.
One of Grant’s most famous initiatives was a weekly ceremony where children were given a bundle of gifts in exchange for a farthing, the smallest coin in circulation at the time.
‘I will never forget the Fern Street Settlement,’ says Barnsdall-Stone: ‘It was such a treat getting that little bundle and rushing home to find the items inside. I remember a particular time around Christmas I got a handbag and one of those sugar mice with the string for a tail,’ she beams.
‘The ladies in Fern Street settlement were so lovely, they had a library where you could loan books and my mum would attend their sales and come home with clothes and housewares that had been donated.’
Inheriting her parents’ East End industrious spirit, during her school days Barnsdall-Stone worked at the Far Famed cake company in a factory on Morris Road, Poplar, which has since been turned into a block of flats.
‘Far Famed made the cakes they sold at Woolworth’s,’ says Barnsdall-Stone: ‘I used to go to Woolworth’s on Chrisp Street and buy one of the Grannie’s fruit cake slices. I thought they were quite nice until I saw how they were made!’ she laughs.
Rather than following in her mother’s footsteps and working at the Aerated Bread Company (ABC) on Chrisp Street, as a teenager Barnsdall-Stone joined St. John’s Ambulance, completing her training in Stepney Synagogue.
She went on to become the Volunteer Centre Manager and First Aid Trainer with the British Red Cross, teaching first aid and even attending Royal events at the Guildhall.
While at the Red Cross Barnsdall-Stone was awarded the Freedom of the City of London. One of the City of London’s ancient traditions, the Freedom is believed to have begun in 1237 and originally enabled recipients to carry out their trade. Today, it recognises individuals’ contributions to life in the capital.
‘A lot of people hear the Cockney accent and assume that we’re ignorant or uneducated,’ says Barnsdall-Stone: ‘I know I could’ve done better if I’d gone to university and all the rest of it but I’ve done a lot in my life, and when I tell people I’ve got the Freedom of the City they’re always surprised.
‘I belong to a Ward Club in the city and I think they quite like it when I go to the events because I liven things up a bit!’ she laughs: ‘I’ve mixed with all sorts of so-called hierarchies but I’ve never turned around and said I’m not a Cockney.’
What Barnsdall-stone has learnt from life is not to take anyone at face value, which she says goes both ways with those pretending to be Cockneys: ‘I can’t stand those Mockneys, it drives me nuts!’
And though she’s not sure if Cockney’s are a dying breed, Barnsdall-Stone is certain that we could learn something from the old East End.
‘I think back to my nan who gave birth to nine children in a tenement in Wapping, but she had real pride in her house and everyone would look out for each other. That was the main thing about the East End,’ she says.
‘It’s really important to remember your family and where you’ve come from because that’s what makes a community and we need that so much at the moment.’
If you enjoyed reading this article, you might like the first piece in this series about Leanne Black from G Kelly’s pie and mash.
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One thought on “Cockney Roots: From Fern Street Settlement to the Freedom of the City of London”
I am a Cockney and don’t sound much different now to how I did as a kid. I am very much ‘an East End Boy’ at heart despite hitting 80 next year. Neither am I stupid or ignorant. Thanks to my mother, I got a good education with a D.Sc.(LONON) and an M.D. degree. I have been fortunate enough to have traveled the world and to have held professorships in a number of countries during my working career. My parents used to run a ‘Pie ‘n’ Mash’ ship in Stepney and I still love a good pie ‘n’ mash (but without the liquor – I never developed a taste for it). I visit the East End whenever I come to England and remember the old days, but (happily or sadly) time moves on and things change, but there will always be people born within the sounds of Bow Bells.