Micky Davies – the little man with the heart of a giant

Michael (Mickey) Victor Davies (sometimes mentioned as Davis) was born in Stepney in East London on the 22nd April, 1910. Sadly as a result of some sort of spinal defect, he only grew to the height of 4 feet 6 inches tall and became affectionately known as “Mickey the Midget”. Despite his small statue Mickey became an optician and a well-known figure in WW2 East-London and even the Deputy Mayor of Stepney (the old Metropolitan borough that later became absorbed into what we now call Tower Hamlets). 

Michael married Doris and lived in a large flat on the first floor of 103 Commercial Street, part of the London Fruit & Wool Exchange opposite Christ Church in Spitalfields. It’s said that there was always a faint smell of fruit and vegetables in the flat.

On Saturday 7th September, 1940, at 4 p.m. 300 German bombers and 600 escorting fighters arrived over London. The Luftwaffe was heading for the Royal Victoria Docks and the Surrey Docks that were situated on the prominent U-shaped bend of the Thames round the Isle of Dogs. Four hours later, 250 German bombers arrived and using the fires below as a marker, dropped 330 tons of high-explosives and 440 incendiary canisters. The docks were the principal target, but many bombs unavoidably fell on the residential areas around them resulting in 448 Londoners being killed and another 1,600 were seriously injured during the air-raids that day. 

Between September 1940 and May 1941, the Luftwaffe made 127 large-scale night raids. Of these, 71 were targeted on London. On 13th September, 1940, Mickey’s business was destroyed by a bomb. The government and the local councils had not provided enough deep public shelters. Stepney Borough Council decided to use the Spitalfields Fruit & Wool Exchange in Brushfield Street. Built in 1929, as well as having a grand wood-panelled auction room seating 900, it had a maze of basement tunnels that could be used as an underground shelter.

During the  Blitz, Mickey and Doris, went to this shelter. Although designed for 2,500 people, over 5,000 crammed into the shelter and the heat from all those people made even a short period of time down there almost unbearable. A steady stream of semi-conscious or unconscious people was passed towards the doorway. It was a chaotic situation that couldn’t really continue indefinitely and so Mickey Davies inspired his fellow shelterers to create their own order.

Mickey, who at three feet  three inches tall was known as ‘”the Midget,” was an East End optician that found himself throwing his energies into organising and improving shelter life in what was one of the East End’s biggest air raid shelters at the Spitalfields Fruit & Wool Exchange in Brushfield St. While the local authority, Stepney Borough Council, was concerned by the 2,500 people crammed into the shelter each night, with its lack of sanitation, risking disease and infection, and lack of facilities for food, lighting and heating, it was left to Mickey set up first aid and medical units, and raise money to equip a dispensary. He even persuaded stretcher bearers and others to come in on their off duty times to minister to the sick and injured. As a popular activist and orator, he  became indispensable to the people, pushing the authorities into action.

Long before medical posts became the official practice, well-to-do friends of Mickey provided his Spitalfields public shelter with drugs and equipment. A GP friend made two-hour journeys each day to the East End to spend his nights among the poor. Eight years before the NHS was set up, Mickey’s shelter in 1940 had a free medical service already up-and-running. He even devised a card index system of everyone who used the shelter, and introduced hygiene practices and protection against disease. He persuaded Marks & Spencer to donate money for a canteen and used the profits to provide free milk for children.

Perhaps shamed by the actions of Mickey Davies and many other people like him elsewhere, the government instructed local authorities across the country to appoint official Shelter Marshals to control air raid shelters and to ensure that conditions were improved. On the face of it, this instruction made Mickey redundant but the local Shelter Committee were having none of this and unanimously elected Davies as their Chief Shelter Marshal. To his credit, the Civil Defence Controller of Stepney, a Mr Eric Adams, acquiesced to the Shelter Committee’s wishes and confirmed Mickey in his ‘new’ official position, which importantly for Davies, without the income from his now destroyed business, was a salaried position.

If one shelter wasn’t a big enough task, Mickey also had responsibility for the shelter in the crypt of Christ Church, just across the road. In effect the lives of thousands of civilians were dependent on him.

His joined up thinking for social and health care in 1940 was a fore-runner of the post-war Welfare State that emerged in 1948 (for another far-sighted forerunner of the NHS see Dr Alfred Salter – The man who created an NHS before the NHS was created. Because of all this he was a man known affectionately among East Enders as “the midget with the heart of a giant.

There is evidence that members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) were involved in organising people in air-raid shelters. Euan Wallace, a Conservative Party cabinet minister, wrote: “There is little doubt that the Daily Worker and the Communist Party are taking the opportunity of creating trouble.”  It was said that “Mickey’s form of common sense community socialism” was seen by some as “Communism”. When told that there were “Communists” amongst the Shelter Committee, he replied that “There may be bigamists amongst them for all I care!

Mickey Davies in Stepney (1941) 

When the American politician, Wendell Wilkie visited London during the Blitz, he was taken to “Mickey’s Shelter as a showplace of British democracy.” In fact his shelter was visited by everyone from American ex-Presidents to Clementine Churchill and they even signed his visitors’ book!

Michael Davies, a member of the Labour Party, and a friend of Clement Attlee, was elected to Stepney Borough Council in 1949 and rose to be Deputy Mayor before he died in April 1954, during surgery for colon cancer. 

Sadly despite surviving one way or other until the modern day, Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, overruled Tower Hamlets Council’s two-time rejection of the development plan of the building under which the shelter sat. Like so many other cases of working class history, despite a campaign by people such as television historian and local resident, Dan Cruickshank, and the Spitalfields Community Group, the site was recently redeveloped with just the facade of the old building kept.

It just goes to show that you can do great things no matter your size or origins. It’s terribly sad and fitting that the little man who saved so many people the government of the day forgot about is now all but forgotten himself. If anyone deserves a blue plaque in London then surely it is he.

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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