Barnet and Millie Billig were a young Orthodox Jewish couple who had escaped the Pogroms which occurred in Russia and other parts of Europe at the turn of the late 19th century and having fled to England, settled above a newsagent’s in Hanbury Street in London’s East End. Not long after their arrival the first of the couple’s children, Esther was born. There followed Levi, Hannah, David, Miriam and Rebecca. Two further children died at a very young age.
Barnet worked extremely hard to provide for his young family; initially as a Newsagent and later as a cigarette and a cigar maker. Barnet was keen that his children study hard and it was evident at an early age that the children were gifted. Barnet bought many books for his family and in no time the living room resembled a library. The Billig children were not allowed to play out in the street with the other children of the area but instead they were encouraged to read. Barnet’s insistence that the children diligently adhered to their books and studies paid off. Four of the children became doctors - Hannah, David, Miriam and Rebecca.
Hannah was born on 4 October 1901. In 1912 at the age of 11 she won a scholarship at Myrdle Road Central School. Her hard work at the school brought her a scholarship to London University. Following graduation she went on to the Royal Free Hospital where she qualified as a doctor in 1925. This type of profession for a woman was still very much scoffed at in the 1920s as it was thought to be a waste of time for a woman to put in a great deal of work only to give it up only to get married and have children. However Hannah was offered a position at the Jewish Maternity Hospital in Underwood Street.
After two years at the hospital, Hannah thought it was time to strike out on her own and she opened a small surgery at Watney Street in Shadwell, where her caring nature made her extremely popular with her patients. It must be remembered that there was no National Health Service in the 1920s and 1930s and therefore patients had to pay for treatment and medicines. Hannah treated everyone who came to her whether they could pay or not. She would often be seen riding around Wapping and Shadwell on her bicycle late into the evening to go and see housebound patients. Often she would pick up a prescription herself and ride back to the patient’s house with it.
She moved to a bigger surgery at 198 Cable Street in Shadwell in 1935 and about this time her rounds were also made easier by the purchase of a Morris Cowley. Hannah’s popularity increased as the years passed, particularly with children, who she would often take for a ride in her car when picking up prescriptions. In addition to her long surgery hours, which started early in the morning and finished often at 10 o’clock in the evening, she was on call as a Police Doctor.
As war broke out in 1939 Hannah became busier and busier. She was in charge of all the air-raid shelters in Wapping. Her bravery was unsurpassed as she would go out to tend her patients as the bombs were dropping.
Hannah was called out to tend to the injured at a blast at Orient Wharf in Wapping on 13 March 1941. As she was working another blast blew her off the steps of the shelter. As she tried to get up she realised that one of her ankles was badly injured. Unperturbed she bandaged it and carried on tending to the injured. She carried on for four hours until all of the injured were taken hospital. One further bomb only landed twenty yards from her. It was only later that it was discovered that the ankle was broken. For her bravery at Orient Wharf, Hannah was awarded the George Medal by King George VI. She was a local heroine and it was now the people of Wapping and Shadwell gave her the title of “The Angel of Cable Street.”
In 1942 Hannah joined the Indian Army Medical Corps with the rank of Captain. She spent much of the early part of her time in Assam treating the wounded and sick soldiers who had retreated following the Japanese Army’s advances in Burma. As well as wounds there were diseases such as Malaria and Typhoid to be dealt with. She didn’t only devote her time to the Army, but also to the local victims of the war and the multitude of refugees fleeing the conflict. One respite for Hannah was that she was able to meet up with brother David and sister Rebecca who were also both with the RAMC in India.
One of the tragedies caused by the war in this part of the world was a rice crop failure in 1944. The local farmers would sell their rice crops without keeping any back for themselves. The failure meant that the government had no reserve stock and the people starved. Hannah and her medical colleagues worked tirelessly with the many illnesses that the starvation brought
Hannah was awarded the MBE in the 1945 honours list. She wrote to the Palace explaining that she was too busy to come along and collect the award and asked that they post it to her.
Hannah returned to her practice in Cable Street in 1946. Times were still hard with rationing still in force. However the birth of the National Health Service in 1948 did bring some relief to the long-suffering poor of the country.
Hannah harboured no secret of her desire to retire to her spiritual home, Israel. Brother David had retired there and having bought a plot of land in Caesarea, Hannah retired there herself in 1964. This followed a farewell party for Hannah at the Bernhard Baron Settlement on 24 March 1964 and the presentation of a cheque to spend in her new country.
Once settled in Israel Hannah became restless and started work at the clinic at Baka-el-Garbiya near her home; treating Arabs and Jews alike. She worked on for another twenty years before ill health caught up with her. Hannah died peacefully in a retirement home on 11 July 1987. She is buried in Hadera Cemetery.
Hannah Billig, The Angel of Cable Street, Rosemary Taylor - Privately Published 1996
British Medical Journal - Volume 295
Hackney Gazette - numerous issues
East London Advertiser - numerous issues