Eileen MacKenney was born in the slums of Rotherhithe in 1931, into the little cobbled lanes and the tight rows of terraced houses. Life was hard and squalid, but people did their best to live as well as they could. When she was four, Eileen’s family of six children and a mother with TB and a father who worked on the railway, all moved to Cyril Street in Camberwell. They had to share their three-bedroomed house with another family and the place was so cramped you could lean out the window and shake hands with your neighbour. The houses had outside toilets and child mortality was high, but Eileen managed to survive the overcrowding and the damp and the diseases. Eileen’s mother worked in a factory in Bermondsey, sewing pinafores, before she got ill. And her father was based at the rail depot near the Bricklayers Arms on the bottom of the Old Kent Road. Eileen attended John Ruskin Street Primary School in Camberwell from the age of five until the war broke out and she was evacuated to Hertfordshire. During the summers, like many London families, Eileen went hopping with the rest of the family to places like Canterbury and Faversham and Sittingbourne down in Kent, and this was always a welcome break from the fleas and the rats of London.
Eileen’s house was blown up by an oil bomb during the war and the family was moved to another house down the road in Camberwell Gate. After the war, Eileen used to hang round the Elephant and Castle with the other teenagers, frequenting the coffee bars and soda shops. She went to work in a sausage factory In Stanford Street, Bermondsey, but got sacked for helping herself to the merchandise. Her brothers worked for a time making Victorian fireplaces on the Walworth Road and Eileen got another job in a pickled onion factory in Camberwell and, after that, smelling bottle tops in a brewery. She also worked making sandwiches at Waterloo Station, until she got the bullet for belting a rude customer. Her next job was as a rag-picker under the arch at Camberwell Gate, but that didn’t last long either, because she threw a pot of tea all over the foreman. Eileen’s brother Jimmy worked on a fruit-‘n-veg stall with Charlie Richardson in Camberwell Green and later with his brother Ronnie on Gordon Street in Peckham. Westmoreland Road Market was the place you could buy and sell dodgy gear, there was a pie-‘n-mash shop at one end, next to Leatherdales bakery, where Eileen would meet up with her mates.
Eileen joined the Land Army in 1947, when she was sixteen. But she got kicked out a year later and got a job as an usherette in a picture-house in the Elephant and Castle. The temptation of petty crime was too much for her, and she drifted into shoplifting with Shirley Pitts up the West End. They took their spoils to Deacon Street, where they had a regular buyer, but Eileen eventually got caught and did a stint on remand in Holloway Prison. When she was released, Eileen got a job in the Black-and-White Milk Bar in Tottenham Court Road, but she was soon back in trouble and sent away to borstal in Aylesbury, where she remained until she was twenty-one. When she finally got out of borstal, Eileen met and married Harry “Big H” MacKenney and they moved to number 16 Camberwell Gate. But Camberwell was being demolished to make way for new developments, so Harry, Eileen and their two children moved to a maisonette in New Cross in 1955. The block of maisonettes was called Hayden House and everything was white to begin with, until Harry used a car spraying machine to paint the walls red, gold and silver. While they were there, Eileen worked in a pub called the Montague Arms in Kender Street, where she met many of London’s gangland villains during the late 50s and early 60s.
Harry and Eileen eventually split up and Eileen moved out to 49 Crutchley Road in Downham, near Catford in 1971. Eileen lived in Crutchley Road all through the 70s and 80s, when she and her family were being persecuted and harassed by London’s police forces because of their efforts to clear Big H’s name, who had been wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. Harry was pardoned in 2003 and Eileen moved to Birmingham, where she lives today with her granddaughter Shelley and her great-granddaughter Alyssia.