Waterlow Estate History

Documenting the history of the Waterlow Estate in Bethnal Green, East London. Comprising Wilmot, Corfield, Ainsley and Finnis Street the Waterlow Estate was built by the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company starting in 1869.

Category: mystery

The legend of Charlie Cooper

Many who live in London’s East End will have had the experience of black cab drivers regaling them with stories of growing up in the area, usually followed by an explanation that they moved out to Essex long ago.

Living on Wilmot Street is no different, many drivers know the street due to its proximity to the black cab repair businesses on Three Colts Lane or will know due to it featuring in a gotcha question in The Knowledge (apparently as you’re not able to take a right turn out onto Bethnal Green Road, or so I’ve been told). A more uncommon story that I had heard from at least three taxi drivers over the years was of a guy who lived on Wilmot Street in the sixties who won the pools and paid his neighbours rent with the winnings.

There is something about this story that has held my attention over the years. I had tried many times to find a record or a name but with no luck. So much so that I started to assume he was an urban legend.

Many years passed, with many an idle evening spent chasing links on the internet trying to find even a scrap of information without any luck. This all changed last year when I started posting on Facebook and found the Waterlow Estate group. I asked members of the group and immediately everyone agreed that he did indeed exist and that he had paid his neighbours rent. Although it seemed everyone had their own slightly different take on the story.

The story opened up for me when I finally discovered his real name – Charlie Cooper. With this I was able to find newspaper articles, a photograph and tease out more facts from other members of the Facebook group.

I’m so pleased to be able to get this story down in ‘print’ and leave a small marker or memorial to one man’s kindness and the community as it remembered him.

Many people helped me sketch out the story, but it was John King who fleshed out much of the detail for me. Much of this post is formed from an interview with him. Here is the story as it has been told to me. John starts:

“Charlie did live in Wilmot St, in an airey (semi-basement) flat. I was born at 144 Wilmot street and Charlie’s flat was about 4 or 5 blocks down from there, so his place would have been numbered around the 200 mark, I can´t be more explicit.

John Mossell added that “his family all lived on Wilmot I think in the blocks on the eastern side near Ainsley”

John King and others told me that Charlie worked for the LEB (London Electricity Board) on Cambridge Heath Road. This is backed up by an article from The New York Times in 1964 which states:

“Charlie Cooper made $29 a week as a clerk at the London Elec­tricity Board and lived accord­ingly. At 46, he was still a bachelor, residing with his mother in an old basement apartment without a bath.”

Many have corroborated this although a few have also said Charlie was a watchmaker. Glenn Unstead told me:

“Charlie used to mend watches for additional income. After the win, he returned to work on the following Monday morning to hand in his notice along with a brown paper bag full of unrepaired watches and an apology that he wouldn’t be repairing them.”

I also found a brief mention of Charlie in a 1964 issue of Life Magazine . A pools win seems to have sapped him of any urge to work: “I’ve had a happy working life but there’s no point in doing any more is there?” – he had just won a $630,000 soccer pool. He sipped a little champagne to celebrate (although “a mild beer is more my drink”) and settled down to a life of leisure”

John King continues:

“I delivered newspapers for a shop called Allens in Three Colts Lane, this was in part of the estate that covered Wilmot Street, Finis Street, Corfield Street, Ainsley Street and a part facing onto Three colts Lane. Charlie would come into the shop on his way to work each day. As I recall he bought a paper and tobacco. I am not sure if he continued to work after his win, it was such big news.”

Of the win itself The Times stated that:

“one night, last month, a stranger called, asking for “Mr. Charles Cooper.” Charlie greeted him suspiciously, and like many people in Bethnal Green, prepared an alibi: “I’ll pay first thing next week. But this man represented Littlewood’s Pools Ltd., and Cooper had won £225,135 ($630.375,20), tax ‐ free, for scoring a winning number of points in 3 weekly soccer pool. Charlie at once quit his job, promised £60,000 to relatives and began talking about Bent­ley automobiles and vacations.”

Embed from Getty Images

John continues:

“Obviously it caused a great deal of excitement over the whole estate, when the news broke. I remember seeing Alan Whicker filming a programme about Charlie, in Wilmot Street, sometime afterwards.

I can tell you most definitely that Charlie paid the rent for every tenant on the estate, remember there were over 400 dwellings in Corfield St, over 300 in Wilmot St, probably 200 in Finis St, plus those on Ainsley and Three Colts Lane. I know that everybody had their rent paid because by that time I lived on Corfield St and my nan lived on Wilmot and it was big news when he paid the rents. There was a rumour that he gave his milkman(who I remember was a grumpy chap) a tip and the milkman told him to put a nought on the end of it and Charlie put him on his bike with nothing. Remembering that milkman, I can quite believe the story.”

This fact is backed up press coverage of the time, (although strangely I’ve only been able to find reports of Charlie’s win in US newspapers). The Dixon Evening Telegraph states: “Monday, April 13,1964 – Charlie Cooper, the $28-a-week clerk who won $650,000 in a soccer pool, has picked up a big check for his neighbors in the Bethnal Green section of London’s East End. Hundreds of people who live on Wilmot Street will be told when they show up at town hall today to pay their week’s rent: “Don’t bother. Charlie Cooper has paid it for you.” Charlie sent a check for $4,200 to the Town Council, then ducked away to the country.”

From what I heard at the time I think the win turned his life upside down he was inundated with begging letters. It struck me that he was a round block in a round hole, prior to the win and probably quite happy with his lot. Probably a case of not knowing what you have got until you haven’t got it.

I remember that there was a shop at the top of Wilmot St, where it met Bethnal Green Rd, called Phillips and Scoones which had been knocked down a while after Charlie´s win and they built some private flats above the new shops and Charlie moved into one of those.

I remember that while he was still living in Wilmot St, he bought a most beautiful Rover 3 litre Coupe, it really was a terrific car but it was rarely used.”

The Rover is also mentioned the Life article and has been further corroborated by Paul Field who added:

“Charlie bought a new Rover even though he couldn’t drive, my dad used to drive him. It sat in the garage for years in pristine condition. I was offered it at a tender age when he passed but it was of no interest to me then. I think it went to a collector/museum.”

John continues:

“I don’t know what happened regarding his love life but when I look back on those times, although it was a fantastic amount of money that he won, I feel a little sorry for the man. I think Eastenders at that time were not equipped to deal with such a massive upheaval in their lives. Most people were happy living in the communities in which they lived, most had their extended family close by, There wasn’t too much keeping up with the Jones´s and peoples lives were more of an open book. Kids played out together, people left their doors open. The conditions on the estate on which we lived were more than ok, they certainly weren’t slums, so life wasn’t so bad. I bet there were many times that Charlie wished he never won that money. Maybe a few quid would have been better for him. Just my opinion of course but he certainly did not seek a mansion in the country, preferring to stay amongst his own.”

I found two articles from The  New York Times from year that Charlie won the pools, both back up John’s point that Charlies win was bittersweet. One of the NY Times story states:

“By the following weekend. though, Cooper’s delirium had subsided. Drinking champagne and posing for newspaper pho­tographers made him uncomfortable. He began to suspect that women would. angle for his money—he had already received 100 letters proposing marriage and reporters had reunited him with “May,” a girl he had dated 30 years ago. ”If it’d been £2,000 or £20,000 he said, “I could have been happy. But this is too much for a man like me. Much too much. I must be the unhappi­est man in Britain.”

It’s sad to end on Charlie’s statement that he must ‘be the most unhappiest man in Britain’. But there it is. After years of searching I’m able to put a name to the legend and hopefully some facts about the story.

I’m indebted to John King, John Mossell, Glenn Unstead, Paul Field, and everyone from Facebook who helped fill in the gaps for me. If you have anything to add please get in touch in the comments below and I’ll update this story as the legend evolves.

New York Times Articles can be found here, and here. Along with the article from Life Magazine here.

More press coverage in The Reno Gazette Journal.

Wilmot Street in 1938

I recently found this photograph of A.R.P. (Air Raid Protection) parading along Wilmot Street in 1938. There’s an interesting brick structure on the west side of the road, it seems to be about 6 feet tall. I’ve no idea what it is and it’s no longer present on the street. If anyone can shed any light on this I’d appreciate the help !

UPDATE: I’ve had some suggestions that this was might have been a communal air raid shelter. Interestingly it seems that a high explosive bomb fell very near this spot on Wilmot Street at some time between October 1940 and June 1941 (link). This bomb could be related to this event referenced by the ARP WW2 Twitter project:

There is also mention of an air raid shelter near Wilmot Street in this book about the Kray Twins (Reggie Kray’s East End Stories: The lost memoirs of the gangland legend).

The structure does look similar to this communal shelter:

If you can help solve this mystery then please leave a comment !

Here’s a photograph from today from roughly the same area (although a little further north).