Alfie Norrington was born into poverty in London’s East End in the
first minute of the twentieth century. His life was a battle. From the
Brick Lane markets where young Alfie pilfered and pickpocketed, to the
trenches of Flanders, Alfie fought every step of the way.
Almost killed by a trench bomb he battled to recover and while in a
military hospital Alfie made a promise that dramatically change’s his
life. A true East End hero, Alfie begins his journey away from poverty
armed with a robust moral compass and an open heart.
Becoming Alfie is the first in the Alfie Norrington series.
It follows the life of a man who positively influenced thousands of
people. The world needs more individuals like Alfie Norrington, that
give much more than they take.
The Little Rascal
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
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
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
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
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
“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!”
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
“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
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
“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
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.
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.
Neil Patterson was born 15 miles East of London near the River
Thames. As a child he played on the tidal mudflats which, since Roman
Times, had been a depository for man’s detritus . Neil was fascinated by
the many items that he found whilst mudlarking, old coins, bottles and
buttons. He found pieces of clay pipes that Londoners used to smoke
Tobacco, which was introduced to Britain in the 16 century. The
fragments of clay pipes fired Neil’s enthusiasm for History.
Late into his teens Neil began to keep a diary and has carried this
practice throughout his adult life. He has also written many short
stories and poetry but not until he stopped working, in his late
fifties, has Neil found time to dedicate to his writing.
Neil’s Uncle lived in Australia and from early childhood he dreamt
of living down under, he says he was born in England with an Australian
heart. He followed his heart migrating to Australia 40 years ago. Neil
now works full time as a writer and lives in Murrays Beach with his wife
Jann and their border Collie, Harry the dog.