Real Life: My 'sister' was my Mum: Jack Nicholson grew up believing his mother was his sister. Derek Jameson recalls his own experience in the Thirties, when he was a child in the East End
Sunday 06 March 1994
Ma Wren was the original old lady who lived in a shoe. She was the daughter of a country postmaster and came to London to help the poor, raising 70 waifs and strays, the rejects of the flotsam and jetsam that inhabited the East End in the Twenties and Thirties. To survive, she told us, one should beg, borrow or steal - but not necessarily in that order.
I always say it's a great benefit to be born without parents or religion.
Most of us had no idea where we came from, many of us were just found on her doorstep. The big girls really grew up as surrogate mothers, they looked after the little 'uns: they wiped our noses, and if we had a cut or a bruise they would spit on it to make it better. Generally it was like a huge, happy family. I was very happy, it was a delightful time.
I was born in 1929. In 1936 one of the big girls - Elsie by name - gave birth to a baby girl, Jean. In a matter of months I realised that Jean was being regarded by others in the house as my sister. I was being put in charge of looking after her in her pram. So, by making me look after my baby sister, I discovered that my sister's mother, Elsie, must also be my mother.
It came home to me on one particular day. There was a huge punch-up in our home. People were fighting on the ground, knives were flashed. There'd been a huge explosion of feeling because one of the girls had pinched another girl's stockings. My mother was in a fight with one of her 'sisters'. She got very upset, weeping and crying. As she ran out of the house she grabbed hold of me and took me with her to the local park. It was obvious from her crying and bemoaning her lot that she was looking to me for support and encouragement. She was treating me as her child, asking me to sympathise and support her.
It pretty much rolled over me at the time, I didn't think 'Thank God, I've got a mother.' In fact, I felt closer to some of those nearer my own age. The role model, the key figure in our early years, was Ma Wren. She ruled us with a big wooden stick, and if we got out of line we got a crack across the shins. She was far more important to me than any of the other girls in the house, even my mother.
My mother was in her late twenties then. But the discovery did change our relationship. Early on, if my mother saw me in the street she tended to cross the road. But after I'd discovered, she started to lean on me and depend. I had to look after her as well as my baby sister. I looked like her too, although I only realised that later on.
At the age of nine, a man on the other side of Europe intervened, namely Adolf Hitler. The Second World War broke out, and I was evacuated with some other kiddies to Bishop's Stortford in Hertfordshire. My mother stayed put in Hackney. I didn't come back to London till I was 14, and by then she was married.
I lived with her for a year or so, and then went into lodgings. She never formally brought me up, and I never called her 'Mother' until I was well into my thirties. To me she was always my big sister Elsie. I was never able to relate to her as a mother, and when she died two years ago, at the age of 80, she still hadn't told me who my
She was full of guilt and remorse. She didn't like to talk about who he was - she didn't want me to know. Whenever I pressed her she changed the subject or came up with some duff answers. My feeling is, from my observations, and from what I've heard, that my sister Jean and I had the same father. I think my mother must have had a relationship with a married man, or with someone who was unable to marry her, that went on for years and years.
She'd imply that her relationship with my father had been a passing fancy, a one- night stand with a salesman from Gloucestershire. Then, when I'd ask her again maybe a year later, it'd be a gentleman from Devon - she'd say she'd got the county wrong. She was probably trying to protect me.
In the Thirties having an illegitimate child carried a very big stigma. You were regarded as the product of the devil: the misbegotten. All the girls in Ma Wren's were having babies all over the place - it was a real wild place. It was a very violent situation that I grew up in - none of your prissy middle-class nonsense. I've seen people threaten to cut each other's throats for a cigarette.
We had to beg to eat - if you got eight ha'pennies you had enough to buy a loaf of bread. That's how I grew up - terrible poverty. We were life's rejects. None of the normal rules applied - mothers, fathers and all that. We were fighting to survive - a life or death struggle.
My mother did all kinds of jobs. She gave Ma Wren pounds 3 a week for my keep. She worked in a laundry, she worked in a shop, she worked a pencil factory and used to come home covered in carbon. My mother was a great character. When I did This Is Your Life, they asked her to go to the studio. But she said 'No, we don't go out at night.'
She eventually married a returning soldier at the end of the war and lived happily ever after. I still look after my stepfather. It all ended happily.
So, that's how it is if you grow up to discover your sister is your mother - you never, ever relate to her as a mother, she remains to the very end your big sister.
That's what happened to me and I'm sure that's what happened to Jack Nicholson.
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