Sold aged six, how city's Queenie built a fortune from illegal gambling gig
- Credit: LK Wilde
The story of a Norwich woman sold to a travelling fair before turning to a life of crime has been laid bare by her descendants more than a century later.
Later dubbed Queenie of Norwich, a baby girl named Ellen as born at the turn of the 20th century to a penniless family.
The youngest of nine siblings born into poverty, Queenie’s beginnings gave little indication of the high-paced lifestyle she would enjoy in years to come.
The family lived in the now demolished Norwich Yards.
Her life changed when, aged just six years old, Queenie was sold to a travelling fair.
Queenie’s life from then on – and her adventures to come – have been revealed by her great-granddaughter Laura Wilde, who was written a book on her tearaway relative.
The 39-year-old said: “The book starts with Queenie living in the Norwich Yards which were a really tough place to live.
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“She lived in Queen Caroline’s Yard – which is in the Oak Street area of the city we know now.
“Queenie’s mother gave her a really hard time. She used to tell me her mother would say: ‘I hope you go to sleep and never wake up. It was an awful upbringing."
Queenie’s mother was a silk maker and her father a shoe maker – but everyone in the family had to work.
Aged six a deal was done which meant that Queenie was torn from her siblings.
Laura added: “Queenie was the youngest so was the only one that was not able to bring in a wage by working. I think that’s why she was sold.
“Initially she didn’t know that she had been sold or that a deal had been done. She was just told by her mum to wait on the corner of the street and that she lived in and to wait for a woman called Julia.
"When Julia arrived they went to the Cattle Market where Julia and her husband were visiting with a travelling fair.
“She was taken on and from there travelled the country.”
She left Norfolk in 1906 and worked in the fair’s shooting gallery.
But as a teenager Queenie was called back to Norwich.
The owner of the fair – who had taken Queenie on as his own child – had died, and the First World War was breaking out.
Despite the vile way her mother had treated her, Queenie returned to care for her parent who had fallen ill and given birth to another child, her brother Fred.
Laura said: “It would have been really difficult for her to return home to Norwich. She always said the fair was one of the happiest times in her life.
“She was treated well despite the work being hard, so she would not have wanted to return to her life in Norwich where she had been treated so badly.”
In the years to come Queenie tried to support her family by working in munitions factory during the war but often lost the roles for being “a bit of a clown”.
Her mother died and Queenie sent her brother – who suffered with sever asthma – to live in Wales.
It was in 1922 that her life took another turn, when she met illegal gambling kingpin Barney Read.
He hired Queenie as a runner and she would speed around the city on her bike collecting debts.
Laura said: “She was a great debt collector. I think people were scared of her to be honest.
“It was off-course betting, which was illegal until 1960. It was carried out in the shadows of people’s front rooms.
“But it was an open secret - most of the city were placing bets.”
The enterprise took a nail-biting turn when the pair’s bookies joint was raided by the police but quick-footed Queenie escaped by the skin of her teeth.
And it was a headline in the Evening News that gave Queenie her name.
Laura said: “The local paper had a headline that said ‘Police raid on betting shop but Queen bee escapes.’
“She was never caught and she continued to run the bookies.
“Using the illegal money from the bookies, she and Barney moved into property the property game.”
The pair bought droves of flats around the city which are still lived in to this day.
Queenie moved into her own flat in Southwell Road, and lived there up until she was moved into a care home and died in 1999.
Laura, who goes by LK Wilde as an author, said: “I used to visit her when I was a little girl and I loved listening to her stories.
“I’ve always wanted to turn her life into a book, any time a family member mentions Queenie, someone says ‘it would make a great book’ and hopefully it has.”
The book ‘Queenie of Norwich’ will be available from Amazon and IngramSpark from February 1 2022.
The many names of Queenie:
Queenie was born named Ellen – but Laura’s grandmother always listed her surname is Welstrop.
In the year’s to come Laura discovered that this was in fact the name of the pair who ran the fair – instead of the family she had been born in to.
Laura said: “During my research I found that Julia and Henry Westrop were the people that had purchased her.
“I also found a census where they had listed Queenie as their daughter under the name of Nellie Westrop.”
After being dubbed a Queen Bee – and later Queenie – she also took on one more name.
Laura said: “Queenie was unable to have children because she had a heart shaped womb, and this was always a great source of heartbreak for her.”
Of Queenie’s nine siblings one was a sister, Florie, who died in 1932.
Queenie adopted Florie’s daughter Barbara – who is Laura’s grandmother.
The book ends with Queenie stating: “I’ve had many names in my life, but ‘mum’ is my favourite.”