Gertie Shaw was born in December 1920, at home in Little Turner Street in the East End of London. Her brother was Harry Karnac, whose general bookstore in Gloucester Road, London, set up after the Second World War, gradually became the pre-eminent British bookstore for psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic literature, and led to the foundation of Harry Karnac Books, the publishing house through which, as Brett Kahr wrote in his obituary of Harry, "Harry Karnac’s contribution as an educator of psychoanalytical students and as a disseminator of psychological culture remains unparalleled".
He was a close friend of Donald Winnicott, and later became a friend of the Planned Environment Therapy Trust Archive and Study Centre, for which he recorded interviews in 2003 and 2005, and to which he gave a number of books and publications related to Donald Winnicott and other leading psychoanalysts. He was a remarkable man from a remarkable family.
In 2015 we got an insight into that family in a recording of Mrs. Shaw by her son Simon, an excerpt from which - featuring her memories of the Battle of Cable Street - was shared on the PETT website (see and listen here).
Mrs. Shaw died on September 28th of this year (2018). Her son Simon Shaw, and daughter Marilyn John, recorded and wrote down her memories and comments, which have been lodged in the Archive (acc. 2018.034), along with the photograph above. Her following memories are shared with permission.
Memories – by Gertie Shaw (as recorded and transcribed by Simon Shaw)
Recorded 27th June 2014
I was born on 26th December 1920 at home in 33 Little Turner Street. I went to school, really a nursery when I was three years old. It was called Christian Street School. I went to proper school from nine in the morning until lunchtime. We used to go home at lunchtime.
School meals were only given to children who were really poverty stricken. In the afternoon they used to turn the tables upside down and slotted canvasses onto the legs to make little hammocks for the little children those between three and five.
Some children did the 11 plus, but we went to Fairclough Street it was a school for ball but the really clever children – it was a London County Council school.
We learnt reading and writing and a bit of history. We were frightened of the teachers, we had respect for them and we were in awe of them. Very few teachers lived in the area; they lived in areas we had never heard of outside London in the suburbs. All the teachers were women; I do not remember any male teachers.
There was always was a threat of the cane hanging over us. I remember once the teacher was screaming at us and her false teeth came and all of the children obviously laughed. For some reason she cottoned onto me and she came over and pushed my sleeve up and started whacking me on the arm. I went home with a bright red arm that I did not show to anybody and for some reason my sister Ann noticed it and she said what’s that, and she came up to school and tore the teacher off a strip and the teacher never hit anybody again.
I left school at 13. Unless they had a scholarship no one stayed on at school. My brother Harry went to Raynes, my mother managed to keep him at school until he was 16.
My mother managed to get me an apprenticeship with a hairdresser but I didn't like it, so I worked at a big store for a few years.
The apprenticeship took all my mothers savings, but it was really a rip off. Looking back at school it taught me to read and write but not much else. They did not make school more than a chore, but we never got any homework.
After school in the evening my brother and me played football or cricket in the street. The playgrounds were not in our area, our parents forbid us to go there and we were frightened. We were always set upon, there was a divide their side [non-Jewish] was St George’s, their side was nearer the docks.
My mother owned a clothing shop when we were very young. I did not have a father. Most women did shop work or worked in the clothing trade.
There was a tension in the area that came to a head in the 1930s. I think people got on with their lives; they had to work and feed their kids. Harry was very prominent in the Communist Party and he made us aware.
I remember on the day war broke out my mother go rid of all of Harry’s books. I think she was worried that the police would come around and think we were subversives.
I remember in 1936 we all went to Cable Street it was very crowded and noisy. There were a lot of police on horseback, which was an unusual sight. The Fascists were not able to get through because of the police, but mainly due to the barricades put up by the people, like mattresses and all sorts of rubbish. I think we were proud that we had stopped them from marching.
War followed quickly and we were worried about what would happen to the men who were called up.
There was a lot of bombing in the east end, but about a year into the war we went to live in Edgware. In the east end when we lived there we went to a billiard hall overnight to avoid the bombing, and a few times we went to Tottenham Court Road station to feel safe.
During the war schools still operated, but the day was shorter to allow them to get to the shelters. Ann and John were given a little house in the country but she only went there at the weekend.
I worked in the fire service, you had to join something. I did the general duties, mainly being on the phone to take emergency calls. We did a whole day and night on and a day and night off. We got very little pay for this, but we did get board and lodgings. I think women working like this was the dawn of emancipation.
We were sent to the suburbs when I was pregnant. I forget where, it was safer; there were no bombs in that area.
Judy and Marilyn left school and went into a trade. Judy went to Pitmans and learnt book keeping and short hand and some French.
Marilyn wanted to be a dressmaker and went to work in a factory. Magazines used to give away patterns and she designed the patterns, but she did not like it and left. She then went to work in the Post Office and was there for fifteen years, she did well and was very good at it.
Judy got married at nineteen and had Daniel soon afterwards.
Recorded January 1st, 2016
..[fades in].. doing the washing in Hessel Street, I remember when I was a teenager I never used to work on Saturday, the shop was never open, I don't know why. Even the big stores in the west end used to close on Saturday at 1pm. It was my job to do the washing for the whole family. I used to go down to the cellar and did all this bloody washing for the whole family – why didn't I object; I must have been there for hours. I was a real soft touch.
We used to dry it by hanging it up, we had no yard. Mice and rats inhabited it – I used to make aunty come down with me, as I was afraid.
We used to have a bath thing to do the washing in, a fire heated the water – I used to have schlapp it to the tap. It was a miserable time. I was washing for six – John was a baby, Ann and Yudi, Ann, mum and me.
The shop was only open in the morning on Sundays, but there were many people about they all went to church – there were some non-Jews living there. There were churches all over the place; the one in Commercial Road is still there.
I remember one Easter, which was our Passover we used to have a very busy time in the shop. John was a baby, so they stopped me off school for three weeks to help out. It was the one time I revolted, I said – I did not want to look after the baby he was smelly. I don't think I won. There was no school inspector, no one noticed – my schooling was so weak. The only time I enjoyed it was when I was leaving as I started to knowing. I can’t remember if I left school at thirteen or fourteen.
We used to come home in the lunch break, a lot of the ‘poor children’ (that's what we called them) stayed at school. My mum cooked a three course meal twice a day, aunty had to have a cooked meal in the evening – she would not eat a warmed up meal as she was a bloody nuisance.
Mum spent all day cooking in the most primitive conditions in the basement with the mice and rats. I am talking about the 1930s it was still very primitive.
Harry came home as well; he went to the same school, Christian Street – the girls on one side the boys on the other. It wasn't a happy childhood but we managed to survive. At least my mother did not put us in an orphanage as a lot of people said she should do as we had no father and there were two babies, Harry was only year older than me.
I think my mother went and looked at the Jewish orphanage, but she came back crying – she cried easily, like Ann. She had a lot to cry about, she had a sick husband [now talking about Ann her sister], he was a nice man, and he took in his mother in law. He had a shop selling curtains and linen, he did not make a living it was all hand to mouth. When he was well enough he went on a tram from the Commercial Road, I think it was the number 65 to Stratford to get stock for his shop.
The other morning I was thinking we used to play cricket in the street in the summer and football in the winter. Winters were bloody cold, we only had an open fire, and in the winter we burnt wood and if we could afford it coal.
When the shop closed we played in the street – whoever saw a car? Cars were not popular until after the war. God knows why Yudi was taking car lessons – we could never afford a car.
My mother would not let us cross the Commercial Road until we were ten or eleven; there were big trams on the Commercial Road.
It was strange we hardly had any money, when it came to rent time it was horrendous. But we were never short of food and we always had shoes to wear, because I remember kids coming to school with no shoes and you know we were always reasonably warm in the winter. I don't know how she managed that, she would not take anything she wasn't entitled to - she did not get the widows pension after the war; ‘its not mine, I should not be taking it’. They had a terrible time persuading her.
In the summer time I remember other children coming to school without shoes – the teachers were not very sympathetic people. Nearly every other person was out of work. It was hard times – hard times.
Jobs were hard for the teachers as well – they needed a job. We used to have Empire Day, one of the bigger girls used to dress up as Britannia. I cannot remember celebrating Christmas. We sang; long live our noble queen – no king. We celebrated fighting the Zulus – yonks ago.
There used to be an Irish sweep stake once a year, my mother had a part share with someone in the market and she won – her ticket was either ten shillings or a pound. She won a thousand pounds – an absolute fortune. Ann and Yudi rented a flat in Hackney and furnished it – a nice little flat on the ground floor. They, Ann and Yudi went there at the weekend – like going to the country. I don't know what I got, probably a bar of chocolate.
When they moved out, Ann got onto the landlord in Hessel Street and they built on another room. The flat in Hackney was empty during the week.
Yudi died the same week I got married, I think it was 1945 – no I got married before the end of the war – 1942.
Yudi died in his thirties. He had his own war fighting for breath. What Ann did during the war is a tough question; she shared a shop in the posh of the west end, opposite St James’s Park. Her friend made the dresses and Ann sold them.
Harry was in Canada for a long time during the war, I think he enjoyed Canada, he was single. I have no idea why he was in the Canadian Air Force.
If you were that sort of person a lot of money could be made during the war, because Ann hooked up with Jack, you have heard about him, this foreign person. Him and his brother went into the business of making handbags and Ann was head cook and bottle washer.
We found Jack when the war broke out, for some reason I lost my job and Bert wasn't called up, he was working in the workshop and Jack was an electrician in the workshop.
Bert brought him home and he took a shine to Ann. From then onwards they were a happy couple, to everyone’s disgust because he was a bastard. He never admitted where he came from – him and his brother were an evil pair. They did not care how they hurt people, I don't mean physically but mentally. He did not even treat her nicely.
He lived in a block of single roomed flats in the west end. But him and his brother were evil people lets not talk about them – he was horrible, him and Ann broke up, I never asked why. She liked him because he took her to posh places, expensive food, and clothes, places to live in the west end. He was a west bloke. He said he could speak French and Italian.
I went to the Young Communist League place in the square – the YC had a room. We went there in the evenings for lectures, we were taught to love Stalin and Lenin – in fact we were being brain washed weren’t we.
I went out collecting for Spain along the Commercial Road, I cannot remember how we collected it was a long time ago.
Recorded January 24th 2016
.. [fades in] …how many did they kill? Six million – terrible. So many children. My uncle with little children - four or five little ones. Ann went to Germany and Ukraine after the war and she came back and she was distraught. They lived in an agricultural part, but they were not farmers. My uncle lived with my grandmother but Ann could never find them, she went everywhere – she just could not find them. She went to all of the offices – the Red Cross – she was away for about three weeks.
The uncle was very young, the children were young, he was called David.
On Bert’s side, there were two sets of twins.
Ann went to look for them as soon as the war ended; they were putting out notices for those who were looking.
Recorded April 10th 2016
Harry and me both had measles we were about four or five years old and eggs came into the shop in great big crates and she made up a bed in the back of the shop. When I say a shop it was really just hole in the wall. She had no one to rely on, Ann was thirteen and she was at work. The shop sold eggs and cheese, no fridges; she just relied on the weather. She used to earn thrupence a week and she worked bloody hard.
There used to be a market in Hessel Street, it was underneath you and you had to go down a steep slope. In the market Yudi’s family sold household goods like curtains. The market was open everyday apart from Saturday. On Saturday people went to Victoria Park if the weather was nice or the library or park in Cable Street. Or in the winter we went to the pictures for three pence and that was the top seat, no it was six pence. There were three picture palaces, because the Troxy opened when I was a teenager, it was lush, beautiful – there were long queues waiting to get in when it opened. We probably went to see Astaire and Rogers.
There were two Jewish theatres one on the Commercial Road and one in Whitechapel. We used to get a lot of actors from America. We went to see Paul Robeson in the Albert Hall, I took mum she thoroughly enjoyed herself, and he had such a powerful voice. They demolished him – he had a sad end. He sang Ol’ Man River when we saw him. He was very popular, he had a powerful voice and left wing tendencies.
We got the 65 tram from the Commercial Road to Victoria Park. There used to be only a conductor.
At Gardiners Corner there was a big store selling mainly clothes. It was on the corner of Commercial Road and Whitechapel it was huge, at least it seemed huge to me at the time.
It was a very colourful place to live.
Blooms sold very nice sandwiches. They were always hot - salt beef on white bread, you used to eat the fat - very healthy! I think they were a hit during the war.
My mother was overprotective of us; she wouldn't let us cross the Commercial Road until we were teenagers. She was not keen on us going into the areas where there were ‘yocks’.
If Hitler had had his way he would have gone through all of us, because there were a lot of ‘frome’ ones. There was one very popular family selling wines and spirits on the Commercial Road on the corner of Cannon Street.
I cannot remember where I got married.
Nancy [Bert’s sister] used to live on Brick Lane. She was the second oldest of the girls, there was Nancy, Golda and Rosie.
April 10th 2016
The woman in the picture is the secretary of the Communist Party. She was a very clever woman, her name was Cissy Miller. She married Jack, I can’t remember his second name, and she became a suburban housewife. I met her once on the train coming up from Edgware and she never stopped talking, she was a very competent woman. Jack was also in the C.P.
They were not all poor people; the common dress in those days was all trousers and a jacket with a stiff collar and a waistcoat.
Phil Piratin the Member of Parliament was Ann’s neighbour; there were a lot of mutterings against him as he was the only communist M.P.
Nothing exciting ever happened in the east end, every now and then two neighbours would have a fight.
My mother did not let us go down Cable Street, she said; ‘you’re going to get killed’. In the C.P. we had a room where we had meetings and at the weekend dances.
I don't remember much about the day [the Battle of Cable Street, November 1936], we had to be careful about the horses treading on us. It was very warm.
My mother was not happy about us being in the C.P. Harry used to be in a book club, he had a book case full of Communist literature and she got rid of it when war was declared. I have never seen Harry so angry. He was furious. I think she sold his books.
She couldn't read. It’s our fault she couldn't read, but we didn't have the time and by the time she finished in the evening she was too tired. She was very keen to learn.
When we moved to Edgware she seemed to find her way about very quickly and she travelled on the underground by herself which was a formidable thing to do.
She travelled every shobas to Hessel Street to get a chicken. Then Bert had a little car and took her every week, Wednesday or Thursday. She had to be there to see them take all of the feathers off and take all the innards out to see it wasn't a sick chicken. She was very fussy about that sort of thing.
We used to sell household linens.