The story of Nanny Nell of Pimlico
Ellen Cooke ('Nanny Nell') lived on the Tachbrook estate in Pimlico, SW1, and celebrated her 100th birthday not long before this interview. Still full of energy and joie de vivre, Nell reminisced about the many happy years she spent in the area where she and her husband Harry brought up their two daughters, Hettie and Joanie.
Peabody took over Tachbook in 1972 but Nanny Nell remembers the estate way before that.
Ellen Cooke (Nanny Nell), above, with her telegram from The Queen
Born in 1911, she moved onto Tachbrook soon after it was built by the Westminster Housing Trust in the early 1930s. Previously, she and her husband Harry lived for a short while in a little two-roomed flat in Pulford Street, which was demolished to make way for the estate.
The houses on Pulford Street (pictured below) were dilapidated and it was not always the nicest place to be.
"People sometimes slept on the doorsteps in the summer because of all the bugs in those houses," she says. Though, there were never bugs in Nanny Nell’s home – she is very clear about that.
Nell remembers a lot about the local area in those days. "There were a lot of shops. I can remember Mr Clement’s general store, which sold sweets." And she remembers that there used to be a church where the Queen Mother’s fountain is and a Palmolive factory nearby too.
She also observes: "A river ran along there. A big hydraulic company used to pump water out of that river. It used to power the lifts at Buckingham Palace – all their lifts ran off that hydraulic company. It also supplied power for all the big local shops, including Parnells and the Army and Navy."
"But, they’ve all gone now," she adds.
Houses being demolished on Pulford Street, SW1
Nell was delighted to move onto the newly built Tachbrook estate when the opportunity came. "I was in heaven when I moved," she said.
She initially lived in Founders House and for six weeks she and her husband Harry, with their baby daughter Hettie, shared the whole building with the caretaker, Mr Moore and his family, as the building work was completed. "I could hear the drilling and doors banging all the time" she said.
While they had water from a standpipe at first, they didn’t have electricity but she was very happy and, as neighbours moved in, Nell remembers the growing sense of community very well. "There used to be a community hall where Walston House is. It was very nice; there was dancing every Saturday night, a 'Sixpenny hop'."
Nell remembers the coach station too – where the nursery is now – and used to watch the coaches being cleaned from her home in Founders. She can also recollect a place downstairs where men used to go and mend their boots. "Every man had to repair their own shoes in those days, put tips and heels on. It isn’t like it is now."
Mr Moore the caretaker stayed on the estate for many years. "He was lovely," she reminisces. "He blew a whistle on the football pitch at noon on a Sunday and the kids went home. They came back at half past three until he closed up at 6.30pm. If anyone was rude, he’d give them a clip 'round the ear. He was an efficient caretaker and wore a peaked hat."
Nell also clearly recollects various visits from the Royal Family over the years, including a visit from Queen Elizabeth, mother of our present Queen, in 1949 to open Malcolmson House.
Emily Murray was the first estate manager on Tachbrook and worked there between 1932 and 1951. Miss Murray used to come and collect the rent.
"She did everything. She was hard-working, but firm,” Nanny says. "She would inspect the properties to check the windows were kept clean and inspect the beds too."
Nell also remembers the woman who replaced her, Miss Wright: "She was a proper lady, just lovely, and she always wore a hat. She shared a flat with another lady, Miss Zedborough, who worked on the estate. They lived together on Regency Street, opposite the Royal Oak."
Though Tachbrook escaped serious damage during the Second World War ("There were good air raid shelters around here"), Nell, Harry et al were forced to move from Founders when their windows were blown out by a bomb. They moved to Kent House on the estate where they lived happily for many years.
By now, Nell was working for the War Office as a paper keeper but she was soon promoted to a supervisor. She also became manager of the older people’s club on Tachbrook. This meant her days were very busy as she looked after her family, her job and her community. In particular, she became adept at organising events and trips for the older people on the estate ("I was good at fundraising", she explains, with a twinkle).
Nell moved from Kent House to another block on the estate in 1951, where she has remained ever since. "Ooh, it was so comfortable. There was central heating in the kitchen and hot towel rails."
Peabody took over the estate in 1972. Nell remembers that well, including some initial trepidation from the residents. "We were private flats then," she notes "and people were worried about what would happen when Peabody became the landlord." But things carried on as they were and thankfully little changed except a nice new porter called Mr Ali joined.
She is thoughtful, suddenly. "Of course the whole world is different now,” she says “so much has changed".
Nell celebrates her birthday with other Tachbrook residents
Today Nell remains a popular personality on Tachbrook. She received 210 cards to mark her 100th birthday and attended three parties to celebrate the big day: one at the local pub, the Barley Mow; one at the local church; and the local tenants association held a party for her too [pictured above].
Still lively and an avid fan of singer Daniel O’Donnell and violinist Andre Rieu, Nell looks back on her years on Tachbrook with a great deal of affection.
"I’ve had a good and happy life on this estate. A lovely life," she says. "I’ve enjoyed being here – living and working with the children and grown-ups. I used to help others but I can’t help no one now because I can hardly walk.
"Still, I’ve met a lot of good people and seen many lovely things. Seen the millennium come in. All those people walking down Grosvenor Road until six o'clock in the morning. Fantastic views. All very happy memories."
And she adds, cheerfully: "Really, I would like another 100 years here."
Sadly, Ellen Cooke passed away on 15 February 2012