There was no ceremony, no fanfare, just a sigh of anxiety as Elsie Norrington looked into her child’s deep-brown eyes. She already had four kids she couldn’t adequately feed or clothe; a fifth would just add to her burden. It was all work for her: she put in fourteen hours each day at the match factory, then came home and managed to eke out dinner for her brood from whatever she had scrounged, or whatever they had stolen or picked up from the filthy streets. Sometimes there were potatoes with some cabbage in a soup or a stew of rabbit trapped by Jack, but those were rare meals. More common was yesterday’s old stew topped up with split peas or yellow lentils and accompanied by some stale bread the kids had scavenged, but all would leave the table with empty bellies.
It was a meagre existence for all the Norringtons, with Bernie contributing the least after his habit down the Dog and Duck Public House. He drank most days and some nights and came home with a bubbling anger inside that all the children recognised. One night this anger boiled over, and Bernie attacked Elsie in the parlour in front of the children. Elsie was knocked to the floor and Bernie began kicking her. The children screamed, the girls burying their heads under the pillows and attempting to shut out the noise and the fear.
Alfie began to cry in his crib, as if he picked up on the anxiety from his siblings. This moment formed one of his earliest memories – or maybe the story was recounted so many times that it became a memory.
Winter came around too quickly for Alfie. His hand-me-down clothes were so worn that the wind whipped through them, chilling him to the bone. If he had to leave the house, he discovered he could minimise the cold by wearing as many layers of clothing as possible, but it was still insufficient. Alfie decided that during the winter when he was grown up, he would live in a warm country, not a cold one, and that thought kept him going.
Alfie was growing fast. He was quick-witted and not shy in coming forward. He’d already learned a number of tricks from his brothers in stealing food from the market stalls in Brick Lane, but it was a cagey game. If caught, you’d earn a clip around the ear from the Old Bill at best, a month or two in Borstal at worst.
Bernie was a lazy man who preferred drinking to working, but on the odd occasion would knock off some food from the docks and bring it home for dinner. They would have a slap-up meal – “fit for a king”, as Bernie would say. Once he stole a chicken that Elsie had to pluck. She kept the gizzards for mince, boiled the chicken and kept the bones for stock. The family enjoyed a hearty meal of boiled chicken accompanied by stolen potatoes courtesy of young Alfie, who hung around the markets in Brick Lane and willingly pocketed any spuds that rolled or fell to the floor. His technique was to kick them away from the stall where they had fallen and keep his eye on them until it was safe to make his move. Under the awnings of shops behind the market was his favourite haunt, and he mastered the art of the quick pick-up. If the stallholder saw Alfie with one of his lovely King Edward potatoes, he would call the Peelers in a second. It forever amused young Alfie, the thought of getting collared by the Peelers for nicking spuds!
Much had changed in the Norrington household since the turn of the century. The girls had blossomed into beautiful young women and enjoyed the distant affections of many a lad. Both had creamy complexions with dark eyes, dark hair and an ample bosom. Even their ragged, filthy clothes accompanied by their bare and dirty feet did not detract from their beauty, nor from their potential suitors.
Fred and Jack had developed into young men, though Fred seemed to have inherited his father’s habits: he was lazy, drank to excess and contributed little to the household budget. Alfie was now at Copperfield Road Ragged School. Amongst the poorest and most dishevelled of Mile End and surrounds, Alfie stood out as almost the worst example. His clothes were hand-me-downs from his brothers; they were patched and worn when Jack and Fred wore them, and now they were patched, worn and ill-fitting on Alfie. But this did not seem to concern him. He looked forward to school for a variety of reasons.
Alfie was a bright boy in a dull school. No one was expected to shine academically; in fact, being able to read and write at the conclusion of a boy’s education, at fourteen years of age, was considered a scholarly success. Study and boxing were what Alfie enjoyed at school, along with two meals every day. Like his brother Jack, Alfie loved to box. They shared the same teacher, Mr Grimes, who was impressed with Alfie’s determination and style. He was most fascinated by the manner in which Alfie controlled his emotions when in the ring – both his anger and his pain when he was hurt. Alfie’s opponent never knew when he had been hurt, which was a significant advantage, as no matter what his opponent threw at him, Alfie seemed to shrug it off, then come back even harder.
“Alfie, you are a good little boxer with a good technique and a big heart,” Mr Grimes told him. “Boxing will help you on the streets if you get in trouble, but I would like to introduce you to a couple of non-boxing techniques. There are two very vulnerable areas that we don’t address in boxing. The first is the balls, and a good kick in the balls will certainly hurt and quite considerably slow down any opponent. The second is a really hard punch to the throat, which will disable your opponent as they struggle to breathe. A combination of these two will ensure a victory over any opponent. Practise this whenever you can and be prepared to use it along with your boxing skills.”
After school, Alfie would wander through the Brick Lane markets, which were still busy with people milling around and buying food Alfie could only dream of. It was here that his most lucrative work was undertaken. Alfie had become an accomplished pickpocket, with the eye of a hawk and the touch of a butterfly. He had learned his trade from an old neighbour, Ernie Hill, who passed away the previous winter with pneumonia at the ripe old age of sixty-three. Ernie was a master of the “lift”, and imparted this knowledge onto Alfie, who took to it like a duck takes to water.
Alfie watched the gentlemen who wore top hats, as he felt they were wealthier than those in flat caps. Fish, meat, even vegetables were purchased as wallets appeared, money changed hands and the wallets returned to the false security of jacket pockets. The coins Alfie also followed; often they were easier to steal as they were dropped into pockets on the outside of coats and jackets for easy retrieval. Their owners rarely felt the lift – unlike stealing a wallet, which was hazardous for the thief, who needed to put his hand inside the target’s clothing, significantly increasing the chance of being caught.
Alfie picked his mark: an elderly gent, who had dropped both silver and copper coins into his left jacket pocket after buying something from the butcher. He seemed to be distracted as he looked around, then began arguing with the butcher himself. Alfie moved swiftly across the cobbled street, slowing down as his left hand slid gently into the left front pocket of the gent’s tunic. Alfie moved his small hand around inside the pocket, attempting to grasp all the coins, when the victim rumbled him.
“Oh no you don’t, you fuckin’ urchin,” said the man, grabbing Alfie’s hand and holding on tight. “I’ll make sure you do your bloody time at the workhouse, where you’ll learn some fuckin’ manners. Peelers got a thief here! A little poxy, smelly thief, scum of the earth!”
The police blew their whistles and Alfie could see the crowd parting to let the Old Bill nick him. He kicked his victim violently in the shins, then, with all the strength he could muster, punched him on the chin with his stronger arm. The victim shrieked in pain and let go of Alfie’s hand, allowing Alfie to run for it – which he did at great speed, weaving in and out of the marketgoers, then ducking down an alley, over a wall that he had to scramble up, and into a small shed at the rear of some tenements. He tried to listen through his heavy breath, but there were no footsteps. He heard whistle-blowing coppers in the distance, but after some time, that stopped.
Only when it was dark did Alfie dare to move. He did this with every caution, like a fox sniffing out its perpetrators. He felt comfortable enough to check his booty. Two farthings, a silver sixpence and three buttons. He asked himself, was it worth it? He decided to keep the farthings, give the silver sixpence to his mum, telling her he found it up the market on the cobbles, and chuck the silly buttons.
Alfie made the decision there and then that his days as a pickpocket were over.
Elsie looked suspiciously at Alfie when he gave her the silver sixpence. It wasn’t the first that he had “found” over the past few months.
“Thank you, Alfie. You seem to be having a run on finding money on the streets,” she said. “I ’ope you ain’t lifting this money from some poor unsuspecting gentlemen’s pocket, for if you are, I will ’ave your guts for garters, young man, and turn you in to the Old Bill meself!”
Alfie smiled nervously. He respected his mum and was a little fearful of her – what she said, she did.
“No, Mum, I found it down Brick Lane, just like I said. Wot’s for dinner? I’m starvin’,” he said, changing the subject.
“Tonight’s dinner is a mix of freshly picked potatoes, boiled then placed gently into last night’s soup,” said Rose, mimicking a posh accent.
“To be served with very crisp bread that was rescued from the bin at the back of Pearson’s bakery,” Lily took over. “A fine choice and perfect with the soup.”
Both girls giggled. They were always laughing, often at jokes between themselves. Alfie loved them both very much.
“Now, wash your hands, young Alfie, and by the time you get back, tea will be ready,” said Elsie.
When Alfie returned, the hot soup and bread were on the table. The girls began tucking in. Alfie thought the grey, dirty-looking soup looked decidedly unappetising and emanated a musky smell. He began to force it down, as there were no other choices. It tasted as bad as it looked, but the stale bread softened when dipped in the soup, and that improved matters slightly.
Just then, Bernie rolled in the door. The angry look on his face and the wobble in his step gave away his drunkenness. The atmosphere changed instantly. Everyone was now tense, anxiety and fear permeating the little room.
“So, what’s for dinner, wife?” he slurred, as he tried to focus on those in the room.
Life in Mile End certainly didn’t improve with Bernie’s parenting efforts. He hung over the table, stinking of alcohol and swaying menacingly, anger filling his eyes. He could explode when in this sort of mood, as he had demonstrated many times in the past. None of the children looked up at him, and Elsie knew better than to start a row when Bernie was in this particular state.
Bernie was at boiling point and just about to explode into a violent rage when Jack walked through the door. “Evenin’, all,” he said. “I bought a little sumfing for tomorrow’s tea.” And he produced a pig’s trotter from his left jacket pocket.
The children cheered, then cheered even louder when, magician-like, Jack produced another trotter from his right pocket. They would eat well the next few nights. Pig’s trotters were Alfie’s favourite.
“You’ve got a face like a bastard on Father’s Day, Bernie. What’s got up your nose?” said Jack, facing his father, to the amusement of Alfie and the twins.
Bernie was scared of Jack. A few years back, Jack had taught him a lesson for hitting Elsie in front of all the family. While Bernie was still a violent man, he was subservient to his eldest son, who had recently rented his own flat in nearby Poplar, but regularly popped into Cromwell Street to see his family.
Today’s visit had an additional purpose: he was now ready to give Alfie boxing lessons three times a week, something Alfie was keen to do. He and Jack organised to start them on the following Monday in Poplar, which was about three miles away; Alfie intended to run both ways to help with his fitness. Jack’s main objective was to keep his little brother out of bother, as he knew Alfie was working as a pickpocket after school, and boxing three times a week might take his mind off it.
Sleeping arrangements were difficult at best, with the twins wishing for some privacy and Alfie sleeping on some old blankets next to his siblings’ bed. Fred was spending most nights at Jack’s gaff, so the twins had the bed to themselves, which was proper considering their age and the onset of womanhood. Alfie didn’t mind sleeping on the floor, but it pissed him off when one of the twins needed to get up to pee in the night; often, in their sleepy state, they forgot Alfie was there and trod on him.
It was because of this that Alfie decided he would have his own bed and his own bedroom when he grew up.