Heather Pot­ter ex­pe­ri­enced the slum lives of her East End fam­ily as part of a TV ex­per­i­ment and dis­cov­ered a po­lit­i­cal con­nec­tion. By Gail Dixon

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A TV so­cial his­tory ex­per­i­ment led Heather Pot­ter to ex­plore her tree

unger was the big­gest shock to the sys­tem ac­cord­ing to Heather Pot­ter, who took part in a tele­vi­sion ex­per­i­ment last year to recre­ate the lives of her Vic­to­rian slum ancestors. Heather was al­ready a keen fam­ily his­to­rian and while brows­ing on Find­my­past she no­ticed a call-out for fam­i­lies to take part in a so­cial his­tory pro­ject. “I couldn’t re­sist so I got in touch with the pro­duc­tion com­pany and soon my hus­band Gra­ham, my daugh­ter Al­li­son and two grand­chil­dren, Olivia aged 12 and Heather aged ten, were signed too.” The pro­gramme, The Vic­to­rian Slum, was broad­cast on BBC Two in 2016.

“I could never have imag­ined the poverty my ancestors en­dured be­fore go­ing into the slum my­self. We based our­selves on my pa­ter­nal fam­ily, the Wind­sors, and were thrown in at the deep end from the word go. We were in very ba­sic ac­com­mo­da­tion, pen­ni­less and in need of work. Be­ing in­stantly plunged into debt was shock­ing and it was in­trigu­ing to see how quickly our pri­mal sur­vival in­stincts took over.

“We lived off bread and marg for the first few days and I grew tired and faint. It was im­pos­si­ble to think straight. The re­spon­si­bil­ity of pro­vid­ing for the chil­dren weighed heav­ily on us.”

Her re­mark­able three-week stay in the Vic­to­rian slum in­spired Heather to dis­cover more about her Lon­don ancestors. “I felt an­gry that they suf­fered such hard­ship. It was tragic that peo­ple lived in such con­di­tions.”

Heather’s par­ents Wal­ter and Phyl­lis Wind­sor were born in Beth­nal Green in Lon­don. Her pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther James was born in 1883 in Beth­nal Green, to James Wind­sor and his wife An­nie El­iz­a­beth Hills. At one time they lived at Quinns Build­ings, one of the most no­to­ri­ous East End slums.

Vic­to­rian Beth­nal Green was a place of ex­treme poverty with many fam­i­lies liv­ing in over-crowded, squalid hous­ing with very poor san­i­ta­tion. James and An­nie had eight chil­dren who had very lit­tle ed­u­ca­tion. Their son, James, taught him­self to read in the lo­cal li­brary, as so many young peo­ple did at that time.

James se­nior worked as a dock­yard labourer and An­nie as a match­box maker: “It was an aw­ful task to do for 12 hours a day. We were stuck in dis­mal, cold sur­round­ings and had to make 1,000 match­boxes a day us­ing very poor tools and glue that wouldn’t stick.”

Ini­tially, Gra­ham worked in a bell fac­tory do­ing hard, phys­i­cal work, as James Wind­sor se­nior would have done. “Gra­ham suf­fered an in­jury while at work and lost his job. He found it im­pos­si­ble to find em­ploy­ment af­ter that be­cause he had to walk with a stick. No one would take him on. The girls and I started mak­ing ar­ti­fi­cial flow­ers to sell on the streets and Gra­ham helped with this. He felt ashamed and emo­tional that he couldn’t pro­vide for his fam­ily. It was hard for him as a man.”

Fam­ily tragedy

James Wind­sor se­nior died of stom­ach can­cer in 1901 when he was only 43. This left An­nie with four small chil­dren and two teenagers to sup­port. The fam­ily had al­ready suf­fered the tragic loss of two chil­dren – Sophia, aged 21 months, and Wil­liam, aged seven months – who died of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis in March, 1888. “It was up­set­ting to dis­cover that they were buried in pau­pers’ graves. Most fam­i­lies at the time saved a penny a week for fu­neral costs, but the Wind­sors were so poor that they couldn’t af­ford that.”

Stand­ing by the pau­pers’ graves would have been James Wind­sor ju­nior, Heather’s grand­fa­ther, and his brother, Wal­ter Wind­sor. “They were just boys at the time. Peo­ple were proud and it must have been a shame­ful and heart-break­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Lit­tle had changed in Beth­nal Green by the time Heather’s fa­ther was born in

We were in very ba­sic ac­com­mo­da­tion, pen­ni­less and in need of work

1922. “Dad told me that he felt fright­ened when he went to visit his grand­mother, An­nie. Crime was still rife in the area and the san­i­ta­tion hadn’t im­proved. He said that the smells were in­de­scrib­able.

“You can see why James and Wal­ter Wind­sor be­came fight­ers against in­jus­tice. James was a staunch com­mu­nist and gave speeches against cap­i­tal­ism at Speak­ers’ Cor­ner. At Christ­mas, my dad was made to sa­lute to a pic­ture of Lenin.

“I met James when I was very young. He was strong, opin­ion­ated and a very strict fa­ther. He never held a job down for long be­cause he was so po­lit­i­cal. He be­came black­listed and was of­ten un­em­ployed, but he wouldn’t let his wife find a job be­cause he was op­posed to women work­ing.

“I be­lieve my great un­cle, Wal­ter, was a much more gen­tle per­son. James was the one who went out and shouted about so­cial in­jus­tice. Wal­ter was more of a peo­ple’s per­son.”

In the 1911 cen­sus, James was 28 and worked as a tim­ber sales­man. He mar­ried Louisa An­nie Col­lier in Beth­nal Green in 1916 and they had three chil­dren, in­clud­ing Heather’s fa­ther. Wal­ter worked as a fur­ni­ture porter and in 1915 mar­ried An­nie Bloom, a Jew­ish im­mi­grant who had fled the pogroms in Rus­sia.

Wal­ter was al­ready climb­ing the lad­der in pol­i­tics. He served as a lo­cal coun­cil­lor in Beth­nal Green and be­came sec­re­tary for the town coun­cil.

Po­lit­i­cal ca­reers

“Cle­ment At­tlee, who would later be­come prime min­ster, stayed at Toyn­bee Hall, Tower Ham­lets. This was a col­lege for aca­demics who could live in and lec­ture on the pro­viso that once a week they worked with the poor of the East End. “I be­lieve it’s here that Atlee met the Wind­sor broth­ers. They be­came great friends and used to have meet­ings at James’ house. It’s as­ton­ish­ing to think of them be­ing close to such a lead­ing light in pol­i­tics.

Wartime chal­lenged the broth­ers’ ide­olo­gies and both James and Wal­ter be­came con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tors. “I was told in child­hood that my grand­fa­ther, James, was a con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tor and that he had been im­pris­oned for three months. The only doc­u­ment I could find was in Tower Ham­lets Ar­chive and this stated that James had three ap­peal tri­bunals. On two, he was given ex­tended stay from im­pris­on­ment be­cause he was work­ing in a fac­tory and help­ing the war ef­fort. He lost his last ap­peal, but I can’t find any ev­i­dence of im­pris­on­ment.

“Wal­ter was called up in 1917, but he dis­obeyed an or­der and was sum­moned be­fore a court mar­tial. He was given a sen­tence of two years’ hard labour in Worm­wood Scrubs. Af­ter he had served four months, the army re­quested that con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tors work on the land so Wal­ter was sent to a farm near Ne­warkon-Trent un­til his re­lease.”

How does Heather feel about the broth­ers’ stance, when so many men were vol­un­teer­ing or be­ing con­scripted to face the hor­rors of war? “I don’t mind them be­ing con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tors. They had their be­liefs and all they wanted was to cam­paign ar­dently for the poor. My son was in the army and Wal­ter’s son, also called Wal­ter, be­came an army doc­tor and served his en­tire ca­reer in the Forces.”

In the 1920s, James re­mained en­trenched in com­mu­nism, whereas Wal­ter was to fol­low a far dif­fer­ent course, to West­min­ster. He be­came a can­di­date for Beth­nal Green in the 1922 gen­eral elec­tion and cam­paigned hard to be­come its first Labour MP. His

James was the one who went out and shouted about so­cial in­jus­tice

per­sonal man­i­festo was en­ti­tled “a brighter and hap­pier Eng­land”.

He cam­paigned for peace, bet­ter hous­ing for the poor, im­proved care for moth­ers and ba­bies, ed­u­ca­tion, un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fit and the pro­tec­tion of ser­vice­men’s pen­sions so that vet­er­ans were not sub­ject to the Poor Law. He also pro­posed an end to the ‘ in­di­rect tax­a­tion’ of tea and food sta­ples. One of his most touch­ing mantras was “Labour stands for an un­taxed break­fast ta­ble”.

Beth­nal Green was a mar­ginal seat be­tween Labour and the Lib­er­als at that time. “It’s ironic that Wal­ter’s huge pop­u­lar­ity in Beth­nal Green is said to have lost him the seat in 1922. Many peo­ple wrote ‘We love you Wally Wind­sor’ on their vot­ing slips and thus their votes were dis­al­lowed be­cause the slip had been de­faced.” An­other gen­eral elec­tion fol­lowed in 1923 and Wal­ter won the day, be­com­ing the first Labour MP for Beth­nal Green. He rep­re­sented the con­stituency un­til 1929 and would take his seat in par­lia­ment in the midst of po­lit­i­cal giants of the day such as Lloyd George and Churchill. “On polling day in 1923, Wal­ter’s brother James took peo­ple from their homes to the polling sta­tions on his horse and cart, en­cour­ag­ing them to com­plete the vot­ing slips cor­rectly. His chil­dren wore rosettes and knocked on doors to can­vas votes.” The grandeur of West­min­ster held no ap­peal for Wal­ter. On the State Open­ing of Par­lia­ment in 1924, he marched along­side Cle­ment At­tlee and other Labour politi­cians on a demon­stra­tion high­light­ing the plight of the un­em­ployed.

The rights of work­ers, the un­em­ployed, wid­owed peo­ple and dis­ad­van­taged fam­i­lies were al­ways his first pri­or­ity. “I found some of his speeches on the in­ter­net and they still res­onate with pas­sion and emo­tion”.

Wal­ter lost his seat in 1929 and took a break from par­lia­ment, re­turn­ing as the Labour MP for Hull Cen­tral in 1935. James re­mained a staunch com­mu­nist and lived out his life in Lon­don’s East End, es­pous­ing his hard-line po­lit­i­cal views. “I know lit­tle of his life af­ter the Sec­ond World War be­cause my dad lost con­tact with his fa­ther shortly af­ter mov­ing to Der­byshire with Mum. James passed away in 1955 of a heart at­tack.

Af­ter a long and ded­i­cated ca­reer, Wal­ter died on June 29, 1945 in a ho­tel in Hull while at­tend­ing a con­fer­ence. He had been cam­paign­ing hard in the run up to the Gen­eral Elec­tion. Less than a month later, his friend and col­league Cle­ment At­tlee would win a land­slide vic­tory for Labour and es­tab­lish the gov­ern­ment that founded the NHS.

The two broth­ers were such dif­fer­ent men and Heather is in awe of both of them. “I love them for who they are and I love that I am re­lated to them. They never for­got about where they came from.

“I couldn’t have had a closer ex­pe­ri­ence of their lives than by tak­ing part in The

Vic­to­rian Slum. For all the hard­ship, there were def­i­nite pos­i­tives. We all pulled through as a fam­ily and if one per­son was hav­ing a bad day, oth­ers would buoy them up. It re­ally showed the strength of our fam­ily spirit.

“Cam­paign­ers and so­cial re­form­ers like Wal­ter helped to lift peo­ple out of life in the slums. I think he was beau­ti­ful man.”

Wal­ter Wind­sor’s elec­tion pledges in­cluded an “un­taxed break­fast ta­ble”

Heather’s great un­cle, Wal­ter Wind­sor, stood for Labour in the 1922 gen­eral elec­tion

Heather Pot­ter’s TV ex­pe­ri­ence fanned her in­ter­est in her fam­ily his­tory

Heather’s great un­cle, Wal­ter Wind­sor MP


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