Hannah Billig - Angel of Cable Street
To her neighbours and patients she was the Angel of Cable Street. But the life of Hannah Billig was an extraordinary story that took her from Russia to Calcutta and Israel – while keeping a lifetime’s dedication to the people of the East End.
The story started one October day in 1901 when Barnet and Millie Billig, Jewish refugees from persecution in Russia, had a child at their adopted home, 41 Hanbury Street. The Billigs were poor but, like so many who settled in the Jewish community around Brick Lane, immediately set to bettering themselves.
Jewish Maternity Hospital
Barnet worked all hours as a newsagent and then hand-making cigarettes and cigars, while Millie slaved over the cooking, cleaning and washing for her husband and six children.
And the kids had to work hard too. There was no playing in the streets like the other children of the neighbourhood, Hannah and her siblings were encouraged to sit and diligently study in their library-like front room.
The Billig parents got their reward when four of the youngsters became doctors – an especial achievement for Hannah in the 1920s when women were expected to marry and keep house. But her ambitions didn’t end with qualifying as a doctor, Hannah wanted to put something back into the community that had raised her. Her chance came with a job at the Jewish Maternity Hospital in Whitechapel’s Underwood Street.
Billig’s Watney Street practice
Hannah’s big step came with setting up her own practice in Watney Street. She still lived with her parents in Burdett Road and, by word of mouth, she soon had a flood of patients from all over Wapping and Stepney. With no NHS you had to pay for your treatment in those days. Many poor simply didn’t bother to see the doctor – but Hannah would never turn the sick away, following her father by working endless hours. And like her father too, Hannah would encourage the children she saw, telling them to bring along their books so she could read aloud to them.
Blitz hits Wapping & George Cross
As war drew on even the Blitz couldn’t stop Hannah and her work, as she darted around, tending the sick, even as the bombs were dropping around her. On 13 March 1941 she was helping the injured at a blast in Orient Wharf, Wapping. Suddenly there was an explosion and Hannah was blown down the shelter steps. Picking herself up and shaking off the dust she bandaged up her sore ankle and set about pulling others out of the rubble.
After four hours toil she finally took a break – to discover her own ankle was broken. For her bravery Billig won the George Medal, the civilian’s equivalent of the Victoria Cross – the Angel of Cable Street had been born.
In 1942 the Angel spread her wings, signing up for the Indian Army Medical Corps as a Captain and tending the sick and wounded soldiers in Assam, as they retreated from the terrible battles in the jungles of Burma. Malaria and typhus were two of the new diseases Hannah had to contend with and there was worse to come. In 1944 a grain shortage forced thousands of starving peasants into Calcutta in desperate search of food.
Her tireless work with the hundreds of thousands of sick and starving mothers and babies earned Captain Billig, GC another honour – the MBE in the 1945 New Year’s Honours List. True to form the down to earth Hannah asked them to post the gong to her – she was too busy to collect it!
Billig back in Cable Street
Back in Cable Street the good work continued until she decided to retire, in 1964, to Israel.
Parties and dinners were held all over the East End in her honour, testament to the deep impression she had made on her home. Hannah with a new life awaiting her took a sad leave of the people she called “the salt of the earth”, and headed for a well-earned rest.
It didn’t last long though. The restless Hannah soon started working again in the Arab villages and Jewish settlements around her new home in Caesarea and for 20 more years worked tirelessly for her new patients and friends.
In 1987, aged 86, the Angel died peacefully, having made almost as much of a mark in her new home as back in Cable Street.
The words on her grave in Hadera Cemetery sum up her life: In loving memory of Hannah, who devoted her life to healing the sick in England and in Israel.
If you would like to know more, read “Hannah Billig, the Angel of Cable Street”, price £3 inc p+p. Send cheques payable to Rosemary Taylor to R Taylor, 5 Pusey House, Saracen St, E14 6HG. An exhibition of Hannah’s life and work is currently running at the Ragged School Museum, 46 Copperfield Road, E3.