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From the West End to Westminster

I have donated this button in memory of my wonderful aunt, Beryl Balchin (1933-2017).

Beryl trained as a seamstress. She supported her family with her sewing skills, and she rose to the very top of her profession.

My family lived in the West End in London. It sounds glamorous, but we were living in a slum area. The housing conditions in those days would be hard to imagine in this day and age. My family (like many others) lived in a cramped and crowded tenement block. Families had to share kitchen areas on the landings, and many families shared the same outside toilets. The TV drama Call the Midwife gives some idea of the lives of families like ours at that time.

 My aunt Beryl lived in a ‘tied house’ as her husband Arthur worked for the Water Board.   She was later rehoused in a smart new home. The house had a bathroom and all mod cons! Every Saturday I got onto the bus and went to auntie Beryl’s. Beryl would give me a bath and wash my hair.

Oh, the luxury of bathing in hot water!


We take these things for granted now, but it was such a wonderful treat for me.  Beryl would give me a bath, and then she would wash and dry and brush my hair. She did this for years, all through my teenage years, and I will never forget her kindness and care for me.

Beryl was an outstanding seamstress with a special talent for embroidery. In the 1990s Beryl was commissioned to make some new curtains for Number 11 Downing St. But she had to sign the Official Secrets Act before she could begin the work!

Beryl had another claim to fame. Not many people will know this, but just inside the door of Westminster Hall (Houses of Parliament) is a very special loo. It is reserved for the use of one very special person. Can you guess who it is? It is for the exclusive use of HM The Queen during state openings of parliament. Those state openings can be long drawn-out affairs, and the Queen (just like the rest of us) may sometimes need to ‘spend a penny.’ Beryl embroidered the loo seat cover with the royal crest of arms for this very special ‘convenience.’

The button I have donated was from one of Beryl’s smart suits. As a seamstress she also made all her own clothes. Beryl was always smart, and always elegant.

She brought up her own two children on her own.

And her skill with the needle enabled her to see them both through university.

Beryl died in Eastbourne at the grand age of 84.

Jenny Ellis

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Beryl's button has another distinction. It was the first one to be placed on the Button Tree!

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