The Earl of Petticoat Lane, by Andrew Miller

The barrow boy who travelled far in ladies' underwear

By Matthew J. Reisz
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:37

The story of his maternal grandparents, writes Andrew Miller, is of "three little worlds that have now all but vanished". Henry and Miriam Freedman were born into East End Jewish families in the first decade of the last century - families haunted by ancestral lives in Russian Poland and Galicia. Henry soon mastered classic market scams, such as selling "remedies" by slandering all the local GPs ("Dr Jones? He was a vet until the animals complained"). But only when he set up an underwear factory did he truly begin the ascent from poverty which led to "unlikely cameos" in another dying milieu, "the last encore of British high society".

Miriam's mother Leah had grown up in Kalisz, Poland, caused a scandal by breaking an engagement and was dispatched to London to marry a cousin - who turned out to be already married. When Henry came wooing her daughter, there was no clear evidence she was Jewish, so she was forced to return to obtain the documentation. This proved a traumatic trip, not least because her sister Tauba was determined two of their children should get married, and ended in a morose impasse, "broken up by interludes of Yiddish vituperation. During the sulking, they peeled potatoes. Tauba made soup from water, onions and fish heads."

Entrepreneurial Henry was determined to leave the East End behind. Miller draws on preserved mementos of his changing life to construct this rich and absorbing narrative. He also includes many entertaining glimpses of how lingerie reflected wider social trends, as when "Lurid peaches, champagnes, corals and cyclamens muscled out virginal whites and funereal blacks".

By 1941, Henry was a successful businessman but still "a former (but only just) barrow boy with few gentile and no genteel acquaintances". A chance meeting with a gent called Walter Sherman led to friendship and introduced him into a surprisingly welcoming world of gentlemen's clubs, livery societies, Masonic lodges and charitable fundraisers.

Energetic Henry soon proved indispensable, as when he used his contacts at the zoo to obtain an elephant for a garden party. And so he began to dream, and to scheme, that he might become Lord Mayor, even be presented to the Queen... Such dreams may now seem faintly ludicrous, but Miller has a sharp eye for revealing detail and writes with just the right note of amused sympathy to make his grandparents' journey "from ghetto to gentility" seem touching and even quietly heroic.

Matthew J Reisz is editor of the 'Jewish Quarterly'

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