A Maori Queen in Bethnal Green
This article was written by The Gentle Author and appeared in Spitalfields Life. She has kindly agreed for us to reproduce it on damesnet.
“My mother was the Queen of Rarotonga, so I am a princess,” revealed Myra Love, with a gentle grin. Yet her ancestry on her father’s side was equally impressive; she was a Maori of the Te Ati Awa tribe of Petone, and her ancestors included two eighteenth century Scotsmen from Selkirk – an explorer and a whaler – who married Maori princesses. “I always say my legs are Scottish,” Myra added, claiming the European part of her family with pride.
Although Myra’s residence was a one-bedroom flat in Bethnal Green – as far away as is possible from her ancestral land – she carried the weight of responsibility to her people. “I never learnt Maori because my grandmother said ‘English is the language of power, and you have to be fluent in English and get the land back’ – and we have. We formed corporations and we’re able to reclaim it today because the leases are coming up after a hundred years. There’s loads of land that we gave away for beads and blankets, and we’re getting it back,” Myra told me, swelling with magnificence, adding, “Most of Wellington belongs to us now, and we got the railway station back last month.”
In that moment, I was afforded a glimpse of the woman born to be Queen of Rarotonga, whose abiding concern was the stewardship of the land on behalf of her people. In another age, Myra might have led her tribe in battle, but in her time she fought at the High Court instead. “We are a warlike people!” Myra informed me proudly. She knew that the success of her endeavour would define her legacy when she was long gone.
“When I was a child, there was a feeling that we were second-class citizens.” continued Myra. “If I was put down for being a Maori, my grandmother would say ‘Remember they’re walking on our land,’ and she owned quite a lot of land. My father was going to change how land was owned in our part of the country but he went to war and got killed instead. He was a leader of men. I was only five when he left. He went to Sandhurst and was the first Maori to command a battalion in World War II, but Maori leaders always fight alongside their men, and he was shot.
“I was the youngest of three siblings so I didn’t count for very much until they died, and then I became very important because now I own a lot of land. I’m getting some of the land in New Zealand and some in Rarotonga. Other siblings are fighting me for it and I am defending it in the High Court. I’m partitioning it out because I don’t want it for myself and I don’t want them to sell it, and I intend to stay as healthy as possible because they all want me to die.”
Stepping into Myra’s warm flat, painted in primary colours and crowded with paintings, plants, photographs, legal books, jewellery and musical equipment, contributing photographer Patricia Niven and I entered the court of a woman of culture. She balanced her serious intent with an emotional generosity, which made it an honour to sit beside her as she opened her photo album. Myra became the author of her own destiny when she made the break at 21 and ran away to find a new life in the wider world.
“Once my grandmother died, the family disintegrated and I was moved out of the family house, so I decided to leave. Every Christmas we met together, but when she was gone there was a fight for the land, so because my family were all angry, I chose to go to America and become a jazz singer.
I sold a piece of my land to my uncle for £300 and bought a P&O ticket to San Francisco. You think everywhere’s going to be like New Zealand, so it was a bit of a shock when I got off the boat, because I was bit of a hokey girl. But it was exciting and, going through the Golden Gate Bridge, I thought, ‘My dreams are coming true.’ And some girls on the boat told me they knew Oscar Peterson, and they took me to the Black Hawk Club and there he was. But I thought, ‘I’m going to New York,’ so I got on a train. It was 1958 and I had £100 left. In New York, I stayed on Bleecker St, just around the corner from Marlon Brando.
“It was such a joy to visit places you’d only read about in books. At school I learnt Wordsworth’s Composed Upon Westminster Bridge and when I came to London I had to go there at dawn. By then, I had only about £25 left, but money went a long way in those days.”
Myra told me it takes thirty years to learn to be a jazz singer, but she also filled those years with getting married, having three children and getting an Open University degree. “I got divorced because he wouldn’t let me go on singing,” she confided, “When we broke up, I did a teacher training course and my first job was in the East End. I’ve always worked in underprivileged areas, and I’ve sent more kids to university than I’ve had hot dinners. I’ve always believed that knowledge is power and that’s what I’ve tried to teach these kids.”
Myra discovered a sense of camaraderie here which drew her to adopt Bethnal Green as her home from home. So it was that, Myra Love, the heroic Maori princess – devoted to fighting for the rights of her tribe – became a popular figure in the East End, renowned for singing jazz at the Palm Tree. “I get my kicks from meetings with old East Enders,” she confessed enthusiastically, “They’re a tough breed. These people are just like me – they’re Maoris!”