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
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.”
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.
“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