East End Celebrities

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Tommy Flowers Header
The young German sat in the communication hut in Athens at the end of October 1941, and took out a complicated machine of wheels and cogs. Plugging in his coding machine, he began to transmit a message of around 4000 characters to a secret Army location in Vienna. Annoyingly, after a few minutes, he received an uncoded message back from the recipient asking for retransmission as his message had not been received correctly. He shook his head in frustration and with a degree of irritation began to transmit the entire message again forgetting, in doing so, to alter the key settings for the machine. It was the break the staff at the code breaking HQ at Bletchley Park in the UK had been waiting for. The details that needed to be broken were fed into Colossus, the huge electronic computer, designed and built by Tommy Flowers – one of the East End’s – and the world’s unsung heroes.

Tommy Flowers was born a few days before Christmas on 22nd December 1905 at 160, Abbott Road, Poplar. He was always a practical child – indeed, when told about the imminent arrival of a baby sister, he declared a preference for a box of Meccano!

Tommy Flowers

Tommy Flowers

His father was a bricklayer by trade, but young Tommy decided to pursue a career in Mechanical Engineering. He began a four year apprenticeship at Woolwich Arsenal, and subsequently enrolled in evening classes at the University of London where he obtained a degree in Electrical Engineering.

In 1926, Tommy Flowers joined the telecommunication branch of the General Post Office – the GPO – and he took up a post at their Dollis Hill Research Station in 1930. He was still just 25 years old.

The outbreak of the Second World War shocked the nation and in February 1941, Flowers’ Director, W Gordon Radley approached the studious young engineer, explaining that he had been contacted by Alan Turing, from the Government’s code-breaking Station X at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire. He explained that he had received a request for Flowers to build a decoder for the Bombe Machines that Turing had developed to help break the German’s Enigma Codes.

Looking at the problems Bletchley Park were having with their existing machine, Flowers proposed an electronic system – a massive machine using 1800 vacuum tubes (commonly referred to as valves) which took up a huge amount of space. Flowers christened his creation ‘Colossus’.

Previous versions had used only 150 valves, and some at Bletchley Park were sceptical about the use of valve technology at all. Famously, Flowers used much of his own funds to purchase his requirements for the new machine. It was reported that when he first told the military top brass it would take a year to build, they laughed at him and said ‘the war will be well and truly over by then – it’s not worth the effort’…

Alan-Turing

Alan-Turing

Colossus MK 1 proved that Flowers knew his craft. Whilst valves were prone to being notoriously temperamental and were constantly breaking down, Tommy Flowers recognised from his work as a GPO Engineer that things usually went wrong when machines were being continuously switched on and off. As a result, Colossus was left switched on in what Flowers described as a ‘stable environment’, and the problems that had plagued previous machines were averted.

By now, the Germans had begun to develop an updated and even more difficult coding machine, Lorenz, which pushed Colossus to its limits.

Undaunted, Flowers began work on a Mark 2 Colossus which came into service on 1st June 1944 and immediately provided vital information of Hitler’s thoughts prior to the D-Day landings that were planned for a few days later.

Tommy Flowers contribution to shortening WWII cannot be overstated. After the war, the government granted him £1000 (the payment of which did not even cover Flowers’ personal investment in purchasing the equipment he needed to build Colossus.) It is a testament to the character of the man that he shared the amount with his co-workers, keeping just £350 for himself – a decent sum for 1945 but a tiny amount for the man credited with building the first modern computer.

Perhaps ironically, Tommy Flowers applied for a bank loan to build another machine just like his prototypes, but was turned down as the bank refused to believe such a machine could be constructed. Adherence to the Official Secrets Act meant he could not tell the bank that he had already built several…

Colossus-Computer

The Colossus Computer

After years of being unable to discuss his work with the world, restrictions were finally lifted in the 1970’s and his story was able to be told. He was awarded an MBE and a Doctorate from Newcastle University. Many still consider this ‘too little, too late’.

Tommy Flowers eventually died of heart failure on 28th October 1998, leaving a wife, Eileen and two sons.

Barbara Windsor Header
The young blonde actress looked about her bemusedly. The cold damp field didn’t look very Hollywood to her – even the mud had been painted green to look like grass and she was starting to sink slowly into it.

Although it was a bitterly cold February morning, all her co-actors were wearing nothing but bikinis and swimsuits and were being addressed by the director, Gerald Thomas, on the set of ‘Carry on Camping’.

Barbara Windsor in Carry on Camping

Barbara Windsor in Carry on Camping

‘Right love, we’ll attach some fishing line and a hook to your bra, and Bert, the props man will pull it off’

So with only Kenneth Williams and Hattie Jacques (and essential film crew) in front of her, a 32 year old Barbara Windsor created one of the most memorable comedy vignettes to have appeared in British film history.

Born Barbara Ann Deeks in August 1937 – in the London Hospital, in Whitechapel Road to parents John and Rose Deeks, Barbara’s family had both East End and Irish connections. Barbara’s paternal great-grandmother had fled from the terrible Irish potato famine and had settled in the East End, eventually finding employment as one of the infamous match girls.

Barbara Windsor was an only child, and her mother made no bones of the fact that she had been hoping for a boy. When John Deeks left to fight in the war, Barbara was evacuated to Blackpool.

Barbara was taken in by Florence and Ernest North, and Florence soon spotted some potential in young Barbara, writing a letter to Rose Deeks asking to be allowed to send her to Norbreck Dancing School with her own daughter Mary.

Once there, Barbara took to singing and dancing like a duck to water, and upon returning to London, her mother paid for elocution lessons and enrolled her in the Aida Foster Acting School in Golders Green. She made her stage debut at 13 and aged just 15 made her West End debut in the chorus of the musical ‘Love from Judy’, a role she continued for two years.

In 1954, aged 17, Barbara Windsor made her film debut in ‘The Belles of St Trinians’, before continuing her stage career with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in Stratford East, performing in ‘Fings Ain’t Wot They Use To Be’ and Littlewood’s film, ‘Sparrers Can’t Sing’.

It is probably for her career in the immensely successful ‘Carry On’ series of films that Barbara Windsor became a star. She recalls in her autobiography ‘All of Me – My Extraordinary Life‘ that she had an argument with co-star Kenneth Williams in her first film, where he accused her of fluffing her lines. In a scene which required him to wear a beard, she drew herself to her full four feet ten and a half inches and shouted out “Don’t you yell at me with Fenella Fielding’s minge hair stuck round your chops, I won’t stand for it”.

Kenneth Williams was said to have clapped his hands together and grinned, saying ‘Haaaah – isn’t she wonderful?’ They became lifelong friends.

Barbara Windsor went on to make nine Carry On films, although she is so memorable many people think she actually appeared in a lot more.

Barbara Windsor with Ronnie Knight and Reggie Kray

Barbara Windsor with Ronnie Knight and Reggie Kray

Barbara’s off stage life was complicated as that on screen, with a string of affairs, a total of five abortions (three before she was 21) and three marriages. She lost her virginity at 18 to a ‘flash Arab’. Her affair with her Carry On co-star Sid James has been well documented and she was also romantically linked to Bee Gee Maurice Gibb.

Her first marriage was to small time crook Ronnie Knight, and through him, she became associated with the Krays, initially going out with the twins older brother Charlie (who she described as looking ‘a bit like Steve McQueen’), before sleeping with Reggie Kray. She later married Stephen Hollings, an actor, in 1986 before their divorce in 1995, and is now married to former actor Scott Mitchell.

Barbara Windsor cemented her East End credentials when in 1994, she appeared as Peggy Mitchell in the long running BBC soap opera ‘Eastenders’, admitting when she joined the soap that she had been a ‘scared little lady’.

Barbara Windsor as Peggy Mitchell

Barbara Windsor as Peggy Mitchell

She continued to play a major part in the show, winning the British Soap Award for Best Actress honour in 1999 until a tearful farewell on the 10th September 2010 (although she did make a small comeback for one episode in 2013).

Her awards didn’t finish there however, as she was made an MBE in the 2000 New Years Honours List.

In 2012, Barbara Windsor became patron of the Amy Winehouse Foundation.

Matt Munro
It is often said that you don’t miss something until it is gone. Those words apply so much to one of the East End’s greatest vocal performers – Matt Monro.

Born Terry Edward Parsons in Shoreditch on the first of December 1930, Matt was the youngest of five children. Tragedy hit the family in 1931 when Matt’s father, Fred, died from Tuberculosis. The strain of bringing up five children on her own proved too much for his mother Alice, who had a nervous breakdown and was admitted to a sanatorium just two years later.

The young Terry was taken into a foster home, but unsurprisingly, behaved badly. His mother eventually returned to care for him herself, but he continued to create problems for her. He moved from school to school and had his childhood further disrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War, where he became one of millions of children evacuated from the capital.
Matt Monro

Finally, aged 18, he began a term of National Service, serving as a mechanic with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers before becoming a tank driving instructor, and was posted overseas, to Hong Kong.

Gifted with a beautiful singing voice, he started to enter a number of talent contests on the radio in Hong Kong, and won several. He eventually became so successful that the talent show organisers banned him from taking part – but as a result, he was given his own radio show ‘Terry Parsons Sings’.

Upon his return to Britain in 1953, the young Terry tried to repeat his success overseas, but fame eluded him. Instead, he married his girlfriend Iris Jordan (who was pregnant with his son Mitchell) and took a series of driving jobs, initially as a lorry driver and then as a bus driver on the No 27 route from Highgate to Teddington.

Matt Munro

Matt Munro with Winifred Atwell and Alma Cogan

Terry eventually got his break in 1956 when he got a position as the featured vocalist with the BBC Show Band. He made a demo record which was heard by the hugely popular pianist Winifred Atwell, who effectively took him under her wing. Persuading her record label, Decca, to give him an audition, they took him on, and Winifred encouraged him to change his name.  Her father was Monro Atwell, and Matt came from a journalist friend of hers.

Matt Monro was born.

Beatles producer, George Martin asked Matt to perform on a Peter Sellers record (under the much less glamorous name of Fred Flange!) in the style of Frank Sinatra, and realised his potential. George Martin knew he was on to a winner and quickly signed him for the Parlaphone Record label.

Hit followed golden hit with favourites such as Portrait of My Love, Softly as I Leave You, and the James Bond Theme, From Russia with Love.

In 1966, Matt switched labels again, this time to Capitol Records, but his singles (with the notable exception of another film theme, Born Free) were not as successful.

He spent some time in the States, touring the cabaret circuit, before returning to Britain and working at the best nightclubs around – clubs like ‘The Talk of the Town’, and he became a regular on TV shows.

Unfortunately, the public were largely unaware of another, darker side to Matt Monro – he was a heavy social drinker and smoker. His GP noticed that his liver had become swollen and wrote in his own notes that at a conservative estimate, Matt Monro was drinking around half a bottle of whisky a day.  Whilst this seemed to have no effect on his public performances, it began to have a detrimental effect on his health and in 1976 he was admitted into the Priory for rehabilitation. This had little success and it wasn’t until another clinic, Galsworthy House, took on the case that they finally got Matt to give up the bottle.

However, by then the damage had been done – and in 1984 he was diagnosed with liver cancer. A transplant was ruled out when it was discovered that the cancer was too widespread, and Matt Monro said goodbye to the world on February 7th 1985 aged just 54.