Shirley of Rotherhithe

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Shirley Rose Mills was born during the war, one of ten siblings living in a two-bedroom flat in Swan Lane Estate’s Rye House, writes Michael Holland…

Today, we are sitting at her niece’s home in Sandwich House, just 50 yards away from Shirley’s first home.

The estate was built in 1907 to rehouse those displaced by the construction of the Rotherhithe tunnel.

Sadly, Shirley’s dad died in the war and her mum was left to bring up all the children: Six girls and four boys. No easy task with Hitler’s Luftwaffe trying to demolish Rotherhithe and its people on a regular basis.

And there was no escape to the country with evacuation as Mrs Mills would not see her children split up into different towns, villages and households. “She was always baking and making stews for us,” remembers Shirley. “And when the air raids come we would all run down the shelters which were just there,” she points towards the square that now doubles as a car park for residents, but was once her playground in peace time and where families could hang out their washing.

As the older ones grew up they moved out into other flats on the estate or very close by: “My brothers and sisters all ended up living locally, and me, my brother and me Mum moved to Beech House in Canon Beck Road about 60 year ago, where I still live now.”

Shirley, second from right (front)

Shirley went to St Mary’s School, that once stood in Lower Road, and enjoyed it there. “I liked going to school just as much as I liked playing out with me mates”, she says with a smile. Shirley stayed at St Mary’s until she was fifteen.

Playing out with friends also meant going to the youth club that was based in Albion Street School. “Lots of us used to go there as they had a lot of things that we could do.”

As a young woman Shirley would go swimming in Southwark Park lido and ice-skating in Streatham (“I used to be good at skating,” she recalls now).

And it was as a teenager that the young Shirley Mills came in to her own, the time when rock ’n’ roll came to town in the shape of Cliff Richard (“He was lovely, wasn’t he?”) and our very own local singing sensation Tommy Steele (“I loved Tommy Steele”). Shirley’s eyes light up and sparkle as her mind wanders back: “A few of us went to see Cliff at the Trocadero, up the Elephant. He was on with Wee Willie Harris, who used to work in Peek, Frean’s.”

Thinking of other singing stars from Shirley’s Golden Years she said, “Max Bygraves used to live over there,’ waving her thumb towards Winchelsea House as if living amongst famous stars was the most natural thing to do.

Like many Bermondsey families the Millses would go down hopping every year, the few weeks picking hops in Kent would often take the place of a proper holiday, although Shirley does remember days out at Southend, Margate and other seaside resorts favoured by Londoners. In later years, Shirley would fly to Spain and enjoy proper holidays where you did not have to pick hops to pay your way.

As Shirley got older her options changed but her horizons stayed very much the same. The first pub she used regularly was the Adam and Eve: ‘That was a good pub then,’ she says with a nostalgic look in her eyes. Then a list of other local pubs tripped off Shirley’s tongue: ‘The Nelson, the Albion, the Neptune…’ All well-known Rotherhithe pubs that are no longer open as pubs.

Shirley’s employment was pretty much kept local as well because she was living with and looking after her mum. Office cleaning jobs were always handy for those that had to be on hand to help out at home. Shirley and her sisters would all meet up in the early hours to get to their cleaning done before the office workers turned up for work at 9 o’clock. And there was also work for the Mills sisters in the lard factory near Albion Street.

These days, Shirley spends her time with the friends and family who still live in her little patch of Rotherhithe, where she stops and chats with just about everyone she passes, even the children who all know her. It’s the place where she believes you will find the best people in the world.


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