1943 Lilian Bowes-Lyon

bowes-lThe woman who moved into number 141, Bow Road, a year or so ago has become a centre of much local speculation. Some say she is a first cousin of the Queen; others say she is a poet and a writer; some say she is all those things. What’s more, behind cupped hands it is whispered that, despite being an aristocrat, she might even  be a socialist! What people know for sure is that during the recent Blitz she assisted East Enders in that most filthy of all London  bomb shelters, the Tilbury ‘Hell-Hole’ in Aldgate and that she can still be seen regularly  in the streets of Stepney doing all sorts of war work in her smart Women’s Voluntary Service uniform.

She isn’t the only one of her class to tread the pavements of what she calls ‘dock-back-street-canal-and-sewer-land’ – but to actually come and live in Bow!  The woman is named Lillian Bowes Lyon, and all sorts of stories about her abound; her housekeeper told someone that the Queen herself  arrived in a chauffeured car one day and dropped in for a cup of tea! Yet the very next day Lilian was back on the streets talking to dockers and dustmen.  Lilian doesn’t have any children or a husband but the housekeeper is far too restrained to say what she might know about Lilian’s love life. What was the name of the much younger South African adventurer that Lilian had been so besotted with before the War: Laurens van der Post?

Despite her heavy, self-elected workload, Lilian seems such a frail thing. Something that the housekeeper does let slip is that Lilian suffers terribly from a diabetic condition and possible amputations are mentioned.  Some say the poor woman won’t make old bones. After she’s gone, the housekeeper wonders, who will remember and tell the story of Lilian’s life?


In a second hand bookshop in Charing Cross Road, Roger came across a copy of one of Lilian’s poetry books. Its title, Evening in Stepney, has caused him to wonder what connection this high–born lady could have with East London! He has undertaken research into her remarkable life and her friends, including a prominent gay writer, and her lovers, one of them a Jewish doctor, whom she met through her work in the Tilbury Shelter. He hopes to publish an account of her life in East London shortly.

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