Monday, 21 March 2016

Lilliput, The Blitz and Mickey the Midget

Mickey Davies aka Mickey the Midget and a family friend (Author's collection)

Regular readers will remember that this article first appeared in March 2016 and was one of those stories that immediately caught people's imaginations. Therefore, last week I was delighted to receive feedback and a subsequent e-mail from Mickey's daughter, Simone Davies, in which she pointed out one or two inaccuracies which had crept into my original story and also kindly gave some more insights to her late father's life.

The main error was in the spelling of Mickey's surname - I had used three main sources for the article - two pieces by the journalist Ritchie Calder and a further article that appeared in Optical Connections magazine. Two out of the three spelled his name 'Davis' whilst the original Ritchie Calder chapter from his book 'Carry on London!' had what turned out to be the correct spelling of 'Davies.' Unfortunately, I took the majority view and decided upon the wrong version but am happy to correct the spelling. The other main problem was the identity of the lady in the above photo, which again in two out of the three source pieces, identified her as being Mickey's wife, whilst in 'Carry on London!' she was not identified in any way. Simone pointed out that the lady in question was a family friend who just happened to be in the shelter when Calder was visiting. Apparently, at some point she was wrongly identified as being Mickey's wife and the story gained legs. Once again, I'm happy to put the record straight. The other inaccuracy that I perpetuated was the question of Mickey's height - the story of him being only 3 feet 6 inches tall is another urban myth that has been repeated over the years, when in fact he was a foot taller than this, so as with the other issues, I've set the record straight below.

With Simone's permission, I'm happy to repeat her email below - it clearly (and rightly) shows the pride in her Dad's achievements and offers some fascinating insights into what sort of man he was:

"Anyway, the lady in the picture was a family friend who happened to be in the shelter at the time when the journalist did the story - when and how she got mistaken for my mother I don't know. Also, my father was about four feet four, not three foot four, which is another error that has followed the story for years. I do have my parents wedding photos but most photos, i.e. the Boys' Club etc., and other bits have been given to my nephew who is now the keeper of all the family photos/papers/history etc.

I was very young when my father died but have loads of really nice and also some funny stories told by my mother to me and my sister of my father, the shelter and both of my parents parts in the war (she was in the Local Control, so sending out Ambulances and Rescue Teams to local bombings.) Also the Boys' Club (which wasn't basic but as you can imagine with anything organised by my father, well equipped and very nice.) His political and social work following the war. His Optician 'Shop' was relocated to his study at our home. He was a very much loved and respected man. His shelter visited by people from American ex-Presidents to Clementine Churchill (all signed his visitors' book) and counted amongst his friends following the war were people from Peter Rowntree to the leader of the Labour Party.

By the way, my father was only 43, not 46 when he died.

I hope these give you a tiny bit more insight into my father's life."

The original article, duly corrected and updated, is repeated below. I'm hoping to receive some more stories about Mickey and his life from Simone and if so, I will make a further update so as to share this information.

One of the many pleasures of my job (if you can call it a job) is that friends and acquaintences often become part of an extended detective network, alerting me to finds they have made that are of interest to my Second World War hobby that has now become a substantial part of my living. Such a find came to light recently, when a friend presented me with a delightful little book called Lilliput Goes to War, an anthology of articles, photographs and drawings that appeared in the pocket magazine Lilliput during the wartime years of 1939-45.

I have to confess to previously being only vaguely aware of Lilliput, as it had gone out of print in August 1960, before I was two years of age!

For those completely unaware, Lilliput was one of the many magazines and pictorials published in the pre television and internet age, when the printed media, along with radio and cinema, were the only forms of mass media available to the public. Lilliput was founded in 1937 by the photo journalist Stefan Lorant as a small format, pocket sized monthly journal of the arts, humour, photography and short stories. Apart from Lorant's own work, it was soon able to attract contributors of the calibre of Ernest Hemingway, Osbert Sitwell, HE Bates, John Pudney, Arthur Koestler, Robert Graves and Walter Trier, who illustrated many of the early covers. The magazine soon gained a reputation for it's lively articles, illustrations and photographic jokes, which often took the form of juxtaposed or double photographs with humourous captions. It was also known for occasionally publishing what were for the time, quite daring photographs of female nudes.

In some ways, Lilliput became a victim of it's own success, for by early 1939, the print runs had become so substantial that paying for them presented a serious cash flow problem for Lorant and he was simply unable to afford to continue printing the magazine. Fortunately, Sir Edward Hulton, publisher of another of the great pictorial magazines, Picture Post, stepped in and purchased Lilliput, which was able to continue publication with the existing editorial staff.

It was whilst thumbing through this charming anthology of wartime journalism that I happened across an article by the journalist Ritchie Calder about a wartime character called Mickey the Midget. This sparked something in my memory as I remembered reading about Mickey in another work by Calder, a 1941 book called Carry on London! which carried a longer piece about Mickey and his work in organising a shelter in London's Spitalfields Market.

Entrance to the now-demolished Fruit and Wool Exchange (Hackney Gazette)

Mickey Davies, for that was his real name, was a 29 year old optician, whose shop was reputedly located somewhere close to Spitalfields, in what we now know as the Borough of Tower Hamlets but which in 1940, formed part of the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney. Strangely perhaps, there are no records in local trade directories as to where this business was actually located but according to Mickey himself, it was destroyed by a German bomb on 13th September 1940. Mickey was only 4 feet 6 inches tall and with a mis-shapen back, hence his somewhat politically incorrect nickname but the destruction of his shop enabled him to devote time to helping those in the Spitalfields Shelter. In addition to his optician business, Mickey was also a local social activist and indeed was later to become a Stepney borough councillor and briefly, Deputy Mayor before his death in the 1950s. His activism was very much geared towards helping people in his local community and in wartime, ensuring that their shelter facilities were safe, sanitary and the equal of anything for those provided to the wealthier citizens of London in the West End.

The shelter in question was located beneath the London Fruit and Wool Exchange in Brushfield Street, now sadly demolished and comprised a cavernous basement, which was capable of holding some 2,500 people in relative safety, although in practice, over twice that number frequently crammed into the space. 

To begin with, conditions were appalling, with almost non-existent sanitation, no proper bedding (people initially slept upon bags of rubbish) and minimal lighting. The floors soon became awash with urine, faeces and other filth. Mickey Davies was appalled by what he found and by the apparent lack of interest, or at best, will from the authorities to get things better organised. Davies was highly intelligent and more importantly, a superb organiser and he quickly became invaluable to the shelterers and a thorn in the side of the local authority in his efforts to improve the conditions for those using the shelter.

Firstly, he set about improving the sanitary conditions in the shelter as well as providing education about hygiene and establishing disease prevention practices in the shelter. He then began to get shelter users themselves to provide First Aid and Medical supplies by organising collections to purchase what was needed. Trained in First Aid himself, he then persuaded local Stretcher Parties to give up their off duty time to tend to the sick and injured in the shelter. He also built up a card index system recording the medical history of each person using the shelter and created what he called a "Passport to Health" amongst the shelterers. Using his many contacts in the profession, he also procured the services of a GP to visit the shelter every night. Proper steel bunk beds were also installed, which ensured that shelterers could get a decent night's sleep.

Lilliput Goes to War (author's image)

He also negotiated with a local Marks & Spencer branch to donate food in order to run a canteen in the basement, the proceeds of which were used to provide free milk for the children using the shelter. Under Mickey's stewardship, the Spitalfields Shelter was transformed and became a coherent community in it's own right, with his medical innovations pre-dating the introduction of the NHS by some eight years.

According to Calder, Mickey's form of common sense community socialism was seen by some, including some of the 'casual' (i.e. non regular) shelterers themselves as "Communism" and these concerns were raised to Calder, himself a sometime user of the shelter. When told that there were "Communists" amongst the Shelter Committee, he replied that "There may be bigamists amongst them for all I care!"

Calder's point being that the accusations of "Communism" were not only absurd but also irrelevant. Provided the shelter was being run correctly and was an improvement on what went before, which it certainly was, then any such accusations could rightly be seen as being largely based on petty jealousies touted by some in local government who should have known better. To be fair, others in government and local government never really regarded Communism as being a realistic menace at this time and saw these innovations by local people as being healthy manifestations of a community spirit.

Perhaps shamed by the actions of Mickey Davies and many other people like him elsewhere, the government instructed local authorities across the country to appoint official Shelter Marshals to control air raid shelters and to ensure that conditions were improved. On the face of it, this instruction made Mickey redundant but the Shelter Committee were having none of this and unanimously elected Davies as their Chief Shelter Marshal. To his eternal credit, the Civil Defence Controller of Stepney, a Mr Eric Adams, acquiesed to the Shelter Committee's wishes and confirmed Mickey in his 'new' official position, which importantly for Davies, without the income from his now destroyed business, was a salaried position.

Under Mickey's direction, a second canteen was established in the shelter, with all profits being re-invested in improving facilities such as the installation of a better lighting system. The shelter became largely self-policing, with shelterers becoming responsible for keeping their own parts of the shelter clean and tidy and for ensuring correct standards of behaviour amongst the shelter community.

Not for nothing did Ritchie Calder describe Mickey Davies as being "Three feet six inches (sic) of reckless unconcern and tireless energy."

After the war, Davies continued to live in the area and was elected as a councillor of Stepney Borough Council in 1949. In 1956, he was elected Deputy Mayor but sadly died later that same year, at the very young age of 43 before he was able to take up the post of Mayor, which would normally have become his the following year.

Lilliput magazine continued, latterly under the editorship of Jack Hargreaves, later of TV's "Out of Town" and "How" fame, until August 1960, when it was purchased and amalgamated into Men Only magazine, before that particular publication became better known for it's soft porn content.


Published Sources:

Carry on London! - Ritchie Calder, English Universities Press, 1941
Lilliput Goes to War - editor Kaye Webb, Hutchinson, 1985