In the midst of life I woke to find myself living in an old house beside Brick Lane in the East End of London. This is for people who care about the East End and are concerned about the future of its built environment.
Since before records began, Swan Upping has taken place on the River Thames in the third week of July – chosen as the ideal moment to make a census of the swans, while the cob (as the male swan is known) is moulting and flightless, and before the cygnets of Spring take flight at the end of Summer. This ancient custom stems from a world when the ownership and husbandry of swans was a matter of consequence, and they were prized as roasting birds for special occasions.
Rights to the swans were granted as privileges by the sovereign and the annual Swan Upping was the opportunity to mark the bills of cygnets with a pattern of lines that indicated their provenance. It is a rare practice from medieval times that has survived into the modern era and I have always been keen to see it for myself – as a vision of an earlier world when the inter-relationship of man and beast was central to society and the handling of our fellow creatures was a important skill. So it was my good fortune to join the Swan Uppers of the Worshipful Company of Vintners’ for a day on the river from Cookham to Marlow, just one leg of their seventy-nine mile course from Sunbury to Abingdon over five days. The Vintners Company were granted their charter in 1363 and a document of 1509 records the payment of four shillings to James the under-swanherd “for upping the Master’s swans” at the time of the “great frost” - which means the Vintners have been Swan Upping for at least five hundred years.
Swan Upping would have once been a familiar sight in London itself, but the embankment of the Thames makes it an unsympathetic place for breeding swans these days and so the Swan Uppers have moved upriver. Apart from the Crown, today only the Dyers’ and Vintners’ Companies retain the ownership of swans on the Thames and each year they both send a team of Swan Uppers to join Her Majesty’s Swan Keeper for a week in pursuit of their quarry.
It was a heart-stopping moment when I saw the Swan Uppers for the first time, coming round the bend in the river, pulling swiftly upon their oars and with coloured flags flying, as their wooden skiffs slid across the surface of the water toward me. Attended by a flotilla of vessels and with a great backdrop of willow framing the dark water surrounding them, it was as if they had materialized from a dream. Yet as soon as I shook hands with the Swan Uppers at The Ferry in Cookham, I discovered they were men of this world, hardy, practical and experienced on the water. All but one made their living by working on the Thames as captains of pleasure boats and barges – and the one exception was a trader at the Billingsgate Fish Market.
There were seven in each of the teams, consisting of six rowers spread over two boats, and a Swan Marker. Some had begun on the water at seven or eight years old as coxswain, most had distinguished careers as competitive rowers as high as Olympic level, and all had won their Doggett’s coat and badge, earning the right to call themselves Watermen. But I would call them Rivermen, and they were the first of this proud breed that I had met, with weathered skin and eager brightly-coloured eyes, men who had spent their lives on the Thames and were experts in the culture and the nature of the river.
They were a tight knit crew – almost a family – with two pairs of brothers and a pair of cousins among them, but they welcomed me to their lunch table where, in between hungry mouthfuls, Bobby Prentice, the foreman of the uppers, told me tales of his attempts to row the Atlantic Ocean, which succeeded on the third try. “I felt I had to go back and do it,” he confessed to me, shaking his head in determination, “But, the third time, I couldn’t even tell my wife until I was on my way.” Bobby’s brother Paul told me he was apprenticed to his father, as a lighterman on the Thames at fifteen, and Roger Spencer revealed that after a night’s trading at Billingsgate, there was nothing he liked so much as to snatch an hour’s rowing on the river before going home for an hour’s nap. After such admissions, I realised that rowing up the river to count swans was a modest recreation for these noble gentlemen.
There is a certain strategy that is adopted when swans with cygnets are spotted by the uppers. The pattern of the “swan voyage” is well established, of rowing until the cry of “Aaall up!” is given by the first to spot a family of swans, instructing the crews to lift their oars and halt the boats. They move in to surround the swans and then, with expert swiftness, the birds are caught and their feet are tethered. Where once the bills were marked, now the cygnets are ringed. Then they are weighed and their health is checked, and any that need treatment are removed to a swan sanctuary. Today, the purpose of the operation is conservation, to ensure well being of the birds and keep close eye upon their numbers – which have been increasing on the Thames since the lead fishing weights that were lethal to swans were banned, rising from just seven pairs between London and Henley in 1985 to twenty-eight pairs upon this stretch today.
Swan Upping is a popular spectator sport as, all along the route, local people turn out to line the banks. In these river communities of the upper Thames, it has been witnessed for generations, marking the climax of Summer when children are allowed out of school in their last week before the holidays to watch the annual ritual.
Travelling up river from Cookham, between banks heavy with deep green foliage and fields of tall golden corn, it was a sublime way to pass a Summer’s afternoon. Yet before long, we passed through the lock to arrive in Marlow where the Mayor welcomed us by distributing tickets that we could redeem for pints of beer at the Two Brewers. It was timely gesture because – as you can imagine – after a day’s rowing up the Thames, the Swan Uppers had a mighty thirst.
Martin Spencer, Swan Marker
Foreman of the Uppers, Bobby Prentice
The Swan Uppers of the Worshipful Company of Vintners, 2011
Over recent months, I have been up and down the tower of Bow Church many times to observe the progress of repairs but perhaps the most memorable moment was when gilder Richard Harris applied the gold leaf to the cross on the top as the finishing touch. Richard is a veteran gilder who is responsible for the lustre on the pinnacles of Tower Bridge and spent an entire summer gilding all the decorative bosses on Blackfriars Bridge. Once Richard had applied the leaf and burnished it in place with his old toothbrush, the golden cross on top of Bow Church was visible all the way along the Bow Rd and will shine out over the East End for many decades to come.
The repair of the seven hundred year old tower has been supervised by a committed band of volunteers who raised the funding, hired the contractors and oversaw the project from beginning to end. First built in the fourteenth century on a piece of land granted by Edward II in the middle of the King’s Highway, St Mary At Bow was constructed to permit access to a place of worship when St Dunstan’s Stepney was unreachable due to deep mud in the winter months.
Over all this time, the tower has suffered its share of mishaps, including lightning damage in 1829 and a bomb in 1941. The rebuilding after the lightning strike sought to emphasise the medieval architecture of the church by adding battlements, yet when C.R. Ashbee of the Guild of Handicrafts repaired the fabric in 1900 he took a more enlightened approach. Using traditional materials and employing skilled craftsmen, his philosophy was to repair the church so that new work might be easily distinguishable from old. Thus the history of the building is readable to the critical observer.
This approach was that favoured by William Morris and is adopted by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings today. Consequently, if you look at the tower of Bow Church you can clearly distinguish the old weathered blocks of Kentish Ragstone from the newly-installed pieces with their crisp corners that in generations to come will wear to resemble the earlier ones.
Much of the top half of the tower was rebuilt after the war in brick, with a wooden pergola in a Renaissance style upon the top to house the clock. In time, this pergola had become rotten and the clock faces of painted plywood needed replacing. New timber was spliced in to replace the rotten fabric, a new copper roof was installed to weatherproof the tower and four new steel clock faces were manufactured and enamelled to stand the test of time.
Much of this painstaking work was undertaken through the winter months, high up on scaffolding exposed to the wind and weather, but now the repair to the tower is complete and an ancient East End landmark is revealed afresh.
The cross prior to gilding
Looking towards the City in the spring
Looking east along the church roof
Weathered stone tracery on the east window
Preparation for a new lintel
Pieces of Kentish Ragstone cut to shape for the new lintel
The new lintel in place
A new stone is postioned
A new stone is slid into place
New corner stones in place on the tower
View into the church from the east window
Repairs to the wooden pergola, replaced rotten timber
Newly installed lightning conductor
Installing a new copper roof on the tower
A new clockface of enamelled steel arrives
New clockfaces installed with freshly gilded numerals
Tower under repair
The repaired tower is revealed
Celebratory cake by Erin Hiscock in honour of the completion of repairs
The Duke of Wellington, 1939 – courtesy of The National Brewery Centre, Burton on Trent
I have long admired The Duke of Wellington swaggering on the corner of Brune and Toynbee St, flaunting its eccentrically-pitched roof and tall chimney stack in the style of a Tudor cottage like a swanky hat. It was always a pleasure to leave the clamour of the street and enter the peace of the barroom, where a highly concentrated game of darts was in progress.
Nick Harris, who ran the pub with licensee Vinny Mulhern in recent years, greeted me and explained that eighty per cent of the customers were darts players. “We’ve got so many teams, there are matches every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday,” he admitted to me, “I first came here as a member of a team to play in a match.”
There has been a pub on this site since at least the eighteen-fifties yet it closed forever last week, joining the sorry ranks of almost half the pubs across the East End which have closed since 2000. Recent law permits alteration in use of pubs without the necessity of planning permission, generating an unprecedented number of closures, as pubs that are economically viable and valued community meeting places are snapped up by predatory developers, eager to shut them down and convert the buildings to other uses that will deliver a quick profit.
Already, the lettering has been removed from the fascia, the inn sign has been taken down and the hoardings have gone up. Problems began for The Duke of Wellington when property developers Mendoza Limited bought the freehold for fifteen million pounds a few years ago. As owners, they had the right to prescribe the list of suppliers that Vinny, the tenant landlord, could buy from. As a consequence, he had to pay £265 a barrel where he paid £130 previously. Meanwhile, Vinny discovered Mendoza Limited had acquired a string of twenty-seven pubs for ‘conversion,’ employing questionable tactics to further their purpose.
“They’re saying we’ve been buying from unapproved suppliers and they’ve sent in a stocktaker,” Nick revealed. I learned Vinny had his weekly rent returned the day after he paid it. “I think they are getting ready to send the bailiffs in to change our locks for not paying the rent,” Nick confessed to me, turning emotional, “They don’t care – they don’t realise how much it offends good honest people who are just trying to make a living.”
Despite a long campaign to save the pub, Vinny has now gone and Mendoza’s planning application has been approved upon appeal, granting permission to gut the building, demolish part of it and pack in as many pokey hotel rooms as possible, building upon the garden and adjoining land.
Contributing Writer Delwar Hussain recalls the story of his mother’s sewing machine
Arful Nessa with her sewing machine table
Rather than the sound of Bow bells, I was born to the whirring of sewing machines in my ear. Throughout most of my childhood, my mother did piecework while my father worked in a sweatshop opposite the beigel shop on Brick Lane, stitching together leather jackets for Mark & Spencer. The factory closed down long ago.
Initially my mother’s industrial-grade Brother sewing machine was in the kitchen, in between the sink and the pine wood table. But it took up too much space there and was also considered dangerous, once ambulatory children started populating the house. It was decided that it would be moved to one of the attic rooms on the top floor of our home, following the custom of the Huguenot silk weavers of the past. There the machine lived and there my mother would be found hunched over it, during all hours of the day and often late into the night. She says it was most hard on her back and shoulders, which would ache from the work.
“The men used to work in the factories. I preferred to do it at home because it was less work compared to what they did. They had to work harder,” she explains, “I began before the children were born. I wasn’t doing much at home, so I thought I should try it and earn a little money. Other women were working as machinists then and an old neighbour who had lived on Parfett St taught me how to operate the machine. I couldn’t do pockets, but I did pleats, belts and hems on skirts for women who worked in offices. I took in work for a factory on Cannon St Rd that made suits and another on New Rd that made blouses.”
For a while my mother sewed the lining into jackets and winter coats, working for a short Sikh man who had a clothes shop on Fournier St. He had quick steps and a bunch of heavy keys dangling from the belt on his trousers. The man still owes her money, she recalls. He would give her wages in arrears, promising to pay, but it never materialised. Following him, she worked for another man, who also did not pay. “Where would you go looking for them today?” my mother asks, “Everyone we used to know around here has left. So much has changed.”
I remember the almost-sweet smell of the machine oil, the thick needles, bundles of colourful nylon yarn, piles and piles of skirts in all shades and sizes, the metal bobbin cases and the sound of the sewing machine. When the foot peddle was down, the vibration could be felt throughout the house. Strangely, this provided a sense of comfort – the knowledge that my mother was upstairs and everything in the world was as it should be.
When I was around twenty, my brothers and sisters and I colluded with each other to get rid of the sewing machine. It had lain dormant in the attic room ever since my mother gave up taking in piecework some years previously. The work had slowly become more irregular and less financially rewarding. “When I first started, I was able to earn around seventy-five pence per skirt, then towards the end, when there were many more women working, it dropped to around ten pence per coat.” These were also the days when much of the manufacturing in East London was being shipped out to parts of the world where there was cheaper labour, including Bangladesh and Turkey.
With my mother’s working paraphernalia left as it was, the space resembled Rodinsky’s room – he was the mythical recluse who once lived a few doors down from us in the attic of 19 Princelet St and who had disappeared one day, leaving everything intact. I had an idea to turn our attic into a study, installing my PC which my mother had bought for me from the money she had saved from sewing. With a separate monitor, keyboard and large hard drive, it was almost as big as her Brother sewing machine.
She had always been a hoarder, so we knew that getting rid of it was going to be a delicate and difficult matter. We had given her prior warnings, but these had fallen on deaf ears. Then one night, when she had gone to bed, my siblings and I crept upstairs and, with a lot of effort, detached the head of the sewing machine from the table. Huffing and puffing, we carried it down three flights of stairs and delicately dumped it at the end of our street. We did the same with the table base.
Of course, she discovered the machine was missing the next day and was incredibly upset. She had “spent one hundred and forty pounds on it,” she said. “It still worked,” she said, “why had we not told her, she could have given it to someone at least, instead of it being thrown away” and “what had she done to deserve children who were so wasteful.” After that, I forgot all about the Brother sewing machine that once lived in our attic.
Once when I returned from a trip to Dhaka, researching a book about the people of that city and interviewing garment workers about their lives and fears, I was speaking with my mother when the subject of her earlier life as a machinist came up. And then she announced her revelation.
My mother and our Somali neighbour had managed to rescue the sewing machine from where my brothers, sisters and I had thought we had discarded the thing. The two women had somehow managed to shuffle the table base along, scraping hard along the pavement. But instead of bringing it back to the house, they took it to the neighbour’s, where it was to stay in the garden until they decided what to do with it. The machine head on the other hand was far too heavy for them to carry and they abandoned it.
This disclosure had to be investigated. My mother and I immediately knocked on our neighbour’s door, and asked if it was still there. The neighbour led us to the garden where, hidden behind wooden boarding and tendrils of ivy, we found the sewing machine my mother had spent so many years working on.
Considering it had endured years outdoors, it looked like it was still in relatively good health. Bits of it, such as the bobbin winder and the spool base were slightly rusty, but the address of the showroom on Cambridge Heath Rd where my mother bought it was clearly labelled and the motor looked in working condition.
She is still upset with my brothers and sisters and me for throwing it away. This confused me. “Why would you want to hold onto something that is a source of oppression?” I asked, high-mindedly. “The machine helped to feed and educate my family,” she answered quietly.
My mother then reminded me that my aunt, her sister, also had a Brother sewing machine and made skirts for many years from her kitchen in Bethnal Green. We went to speak to her. She no longer works as a seamstress and has resorted to keeping her dismembered machine on the veranda of her ground floor flat. The table now stores pots and pans, baskets containing seeds and drying leaves. The head was in the bottom drawer of a metal cabinet next to it, wrapped up in a Sainsbury’s shopping bag. My aunt still has some of the cloth which she would make into skirts and she showed me the pleats on a piece of salmon-coloured material.
“Most of the women in this block worked for different factories and one of them taught me how to do it. I worked for a Turkish man on Mare St for around seven years. I would get started around 7am after the morning prayer at 6am. I can’t remember where the skirts were being sold, but they were for well known shops in the West End. In one day, I could work on fifty or sixty pieces. Some days I made around a hundred. I received around forty or fifty pence per piece and could earn around three hundred pounds per week. But it was all irregular, nothing was fixed. My children would help by cutting the loops off when they got home after school. There is no work anymore, but I kept the machine in case I needed to fix things. It still works.”
While I took notes, sitting on the chair she would sit on whilst working, I could hear dregs of conversation between the two sisters, comparing the quality of oranges in Bethnal Green market to Asda and Iceland, as well as recalling what happened to other women whom they both knew that had worked as seamstresses. This industry, now gone, is a piece of the thread that joins the past with the present in the East End and, in turn, unites the people who have come to make this part of London their home.
Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I were thrilled to go down to Soho on Friday to rendezvous in Great Windmill St with the celebrated Cheddar Gorgeous, who had just arrived from Manchester to convene a multifarious gathering of drag artists that she was leading in a protest against Donald Trump.
Despite the festive atmosphere, the purpose of the day was a serious one and, when the drag artists posed for their portraits, many assumed their most pugnacious expressions. Yet all broke into the sweetest smiles when I congratulated them on their outfits, before I enquired what they might say to Mr Trump if they were to meet him.
At one o’clock, in three-inch heels and with a face painted like Grimaldi, Cheddar Gorgeous led her forces in triumph out of Soho and into Shaftesbury Avenue beneath a dazzling sunlit sky. Demonstrating a sense of leadership worthy of Henry V, she advanced to Piccadilly Circus as a great cheer arose from her excited throng of followers and passers-by applauded in delight. They encountered more joyous clamour from the direction of Regent St as the main march arrived to meet them, filling the circus with a euphoric cacophony, and the two columns became one as Cheddar Gorgeous led the entire retinue off down the Haymarket towards Westminster.
I stood in Piccadilly Circus and watched the parade pass for the next hour. I found it an emotional experience to witness the crowds from every walk of life who had come together to assert their belief in a decent society. Despite the grim circumstances, it was one of the most hopeful displays of humanity I have witnessed and I shall not forget it in a long time.
Cheddar Gorgeous - “This is a country where we celebrate diversity and our community is offended by your policies that punish and discriminate against it”
Liquorice Black - “Just get back on the plane and take Melania with you”
Anna Phylactic – “Why do you put so much hate in the world?”
Verry Cherry - “Sort out your own country’s problems before you come over here criticising us”
Marcia - “You would like to see us divided so your fascist policies can succeed but we have not forgotten Hitler”
Grace Anatomy - “Crawl back under a rock!”
Adam All - “Piss off, mate!”
Jack The Lad - “Fascist presidents aren’t welcome”
Liam Asplen – “Stop inciting hatred, you small-penised misogynist”
Beyonce Holes - “F**k off home!”
Glamrou La Denim – “You stole my bronzer!”
Mena Business – “You’re a pathetic old tyrant and you deserve to go to hell”
Will Jackson - “It’s my twenty-third birthday, so I’d prefer it of you’d not upstage me on my special day”
There is an exceptional hush upon the East End, with with the heat and the football conspiring to empty the streets of locals and tourists alike. The clouds hang heavy and the atmosphere is quiet, and my cat Mr Pussy divides his time between dozing on the bed and dozing under a bush. The pace of the city is stilled and Mr Pussy finds the climate conducive to resting.
Mr Pussy observes me with doleful eyes as I go about my daily tasks, too gracious to be overtly critical, yet he hopes that I might one day learn to appreciate the virtue of sitting peacefully for extended periods of time without other occupation, as he does. To this end, Mr Pussy waits patiently until a suitable opportunity when I am settled at my work before he approaches me. Arriving silently like a ghost, Mr Pussy reaches out a soft paw to stroke my forearm gently while I am writing, as a discreet gesture of companionship, drawing my attention without interrupting my activity.
Settling at my side and savouring the tranquillity of the hour, a purr of contentment emanates from him. And if my concentration should wander from my page, searching for a word or casting around to seek the direction of my thought, then I chance upon his hypnotic golden eyes, meeting my gaze with their fathomless depth and opalescent gleam. He has my attention. He has an infinite capacity for staring. He knows I am a novice and he is an expert at it. He knows I cannot resist succumbing to his superior mesmeric powers. He has me spellbound and I share his stillness. The house is empty and we are alone. We look at each other eye to eye, without blinking, to see who flinches first.
Almost imperceptibly, Mr Pussy begins to lower his lids and I do the same. I follow along, as his supplicant. Our eyelids move in sync and we are nodding off to sleep, it seems. I might enter the feline realm, if I did not open my lids again momentarily – only to discover that his eyes are open too. It is a moment of mutual recognition. Mr Pussy was testing the quality of my will, exploring my susceptibility to mental control. Mr Pussy observes me. Mr Pussy is implacable, yet he wants me to follow his example. Mr Pussy knows how to be. Mr Pussy keeps himself. Mr Pussy seeks to be calm. Mr Pussy is always present in the moment. Mr Pussy is sufficient.
Equally, Mr Pussy is curious of me and the intriguing nature of my existence that revolves around things other than eating and sleeping. I am the object of his scrutiny, Mr Pussy is studying me. Mr Pussy is an anthropologist, living among those who are subject of his fascination. Mr Pussy’s research methods are unconventional, he thinks he may gain knowledge by osmosis if he sleeps close to me or he may imbibe understanding by lapping up my bathwater.
Not always an entirely conscientious student, Mr Pussy likes to contemplate his findings at length. Mr Pussy likes to sleep on it, and he is a grand master in the art of somnolence. Mr Pussy knows how to behave in these dog days.
Anyone that has a cat will recognise the truth of this memoir of a favourite cat by The Gentle Author.
“I was always disparaging of those who dote over their pets, as if this apparent sentimentality were an indicator of some character flaw. That changed when I bought a cat, just a couple of weeks after the death of my father. “
THE LIFE & TIMES OF MR PUSSY is a literary hymn to the intimate relationship between humans and animals, filled with sentiment without becoming sentimental.
Kate Griffin author of the celebrated Kitty Peck novels, who works at the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, introduces this year’s annual working party held at Eastbury Manor in Barking
Lime-washing the lintels
Every year in high summer, the Society For The Protection of Ancient Buidings leaves its Georgian home in Spital Sq for one week to put its expertise into practice at a building in need and enlists a horde of volunteers to help for its annual working party. This week they are at Eastbury Manor in Barking, which is currently a hive of conservation activity where around a hundred enthusiasts are working on a variety of projects under the watchful eye of expert craftspeople.
Since it was established by William Morris in 1877, the Society has acquired more than a hundred and forty years of knowledge and experience in the care of old buildings. Director Matthew Slocombe told me, “In the past, we have visited a variety of locations including the cradle of the industrial revolution in Derbyshire, an ancient barn in Sussex and a medieval church at Greatham in Hampshire, so this year we are delighted to be working near to home on a building close to our heart and history.” The Society was a key player in the campaign to save Eastbury Manor from demolition in 1918, which made the invitation exactly a hundred years later irresistible.
The working party offers a rare opportunity to gain direct experience of traditional building skills in a collaborative environment and volunteers range from architectural professionals to those with a keen amateur interest, including participants as young as fourteen. This year’s activities include repairing the brickwork of the garden wall, lime-washing and renewing broken panes in the leaded lights. Carefully supervised, this work will help maintain the fabric for another century.
Yet a hundred years ago, the outlook for Eastbury Manor was quite different. It had declined from a grand Tudor mansion to a ramshackle farm and, by the middle of the nineteenth century, it was semi-derelict.
From its very beginning, the Society took a particular interest in East London, through connections with the East End Preservation Society set up by Arts & Crafts designer C.R. Ashbee. In 1894, while campaigning to save Trinity Green Almshouses in Whitechapel, he established the Survey of London to record the capital’s historic buildings and Eastbury Manor became the subject of an early monograph published by Ashbee’s Guild & School of Handicraft in 1917.
When World War I began, the Society was actively considering a better future for Eastbury Manor but the international conflict brought new threats. The war resulted in shortages of domestic materials, including timber, and by 1917 there was concern that the building’s panelling might be stripped out. In a stroke of bad luck, a lightning destroyed one of the impressive Tudor chimney stacks too. Further damage was caused when the army commandeered the house as a convalescent home. Yet, although this nearly proved to be the manor’s final undoing, it ultimately helped deliver its salvation.
Meanwhile, public recognition of Eastbury Manor’s importance was growing and the press called it ‘the Hampton Court of East London’ in 1917, even if the army had no qualms knocking it about. It was at liberty to do so, but fortunately an insider was present to look out for the house. That ‘insider’ was Society member Norman Wilkinson. In the army, he was a lowly lance corporal but in civilian life he was far more noteworthy – well-connected and a leading stage designer. His costumes for Twelfth Night at the Savoy Theatre in 1912 can be found today at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Wilkinson appreciated the building’s beauty and significance, and he made it his business to encourage his commanding officer to ensure it was treated properly by supplying his own copy of the Survey of London’s monograph. His foresight bought time and allowed for a long-term solution to be found. After fundraising by Society and others to raise the £1500 required for purchase, a deal was struck with the owner and the house was passed to the National Trust.
Sadly, this did not include much of the surrounding land or the large barn and farmstead – all of which were lost to a housing estate in the twenties – but it was still a remarkable outcome. In 1918, the National Trust was still in its formative years and had only acquired a few properties. Taking on Eastbury Manor was a bold move that reflected its national importance and the deal proved to be the beginning of a long partnership between the National Trust, SPAB and Eastbury Manor. The Society put forward William Weir, one of its leading architects, to manage the repair for the National Trust, completed in 1920.
The Society had been in communication with Barking Council about the manor since WWI but it was not until the mid-thirties that they were prepared to take the bold step of securing a hundred year lease from the National Trust. In 1935, it was described as the “Real Civic Centre of Barking” when Barking Council secured the lease on Eastbury Manor. This allowed Eastbury Manor a community function for the first time and it was opened with an exhibition of the English Arts & Crafts.
Ever since, this wonderful house has been an important focus for the people of Barking and this summer, exactly a century after it was saved, SPAB is delighted to play a continuing role in its story.
Learning bricklaying skills
Repairing the Tudor garden wall
Hugh Conway Morris, Limeburner
William Weir, architect of the repair of Eastbury Manor
Nestled beside the Lea Bridge in Clapton is this attractive old schoolhouse built of Kentish ragstone in the eighteen-forties by Arthur Ashpitel and gifted in perpetuity by his family for the education of the children of Hackney. Yet his splendid Grade II listed building, which was conceived in a spirit of philanthropy and constructed with good quality materials as an act of belief in the necessity of education, has fallen into neglect in recent years.
Next week, the old schoolhouse reaches a nadir in its fortunes when – in contravention of the wishes of the Ashpitel family – it goes up for auction to the highest bidder. In disregard of the benefactors, the building was first sold off in the twenties and its fortunes have spiralled ever since. So I write today in the hope that someone with vision and resources will read this and be inspired to rescue the forlorn old schoolhouse and cherish it as it deserves.
Battered wooden hoardings surround the site at present and you step through to be confronted by the imposing front wall which gives the impression of a chapel for learning, with its steep pitched roof, trefoil window and ogee arch. The entrance leads directly into the schoolroom which extends the length and height of the building with an attractive open roof of wooden beams and a large fireplace at the far end. Beyond lies modest accommodation for the teacher, extending over two floors liked by a single staircase. The dereliction of these spaces is pitiful when so many people need homes.
Arthur Ashpitel was born in Hackney in 1807, the son of architect William Hurst Ashpitel who as Surveyor to the Parish of St John played a significant role in the development of Hackney in the nineteenth century. Arthur was educated at Dr. Burnet’s School, which is now Sutton House, before training as an architect under his father. In 1845, he built the church of St Barnabas at Homerton and his career was notable for distinguished architecture in the creation of public buildings with a social purpose. Arthur was buried in 1869 in the family tomb in the churchyard of St John-at-Hackney Churchyard.
The old schoolhouse was once part of the everyday lives of the boatmen and bargees who made up the floating population of the River Lea – known to the Victorians as ‘watergipsies’ – providing free education for children with transient lives. A bell hung on the side of the building facing the River Lea to summon the pupils to their classes.
In recent years, Clapton Arts Trust has been in negotiation with Vision Homes, who own the old schoolhouse and developed the adjoining site, resulting in a commitment by the developer to lease the building to the Trust for use as a River Heritage & Arts Centre. The Heritage Lottery Fund supported a feasibility study, but this spring just as the Trust was poised to submit a full bid to the Fund for restoration – and despite a petition of over a thousand local people – Vision Homes obtained planning permission to redevelop the old schoolhouse into two flats and then put it up for auction.
There are public viewings today between 2:45 – 3:15 pm and on Tuesday 17th July 12:30 – 1pm
David standing outside 103 Commercial St in the mid-sixties
Growing up in the large flat above the Spitalfields Market at 103 Commercial St, with school and the family business nearby, David had run of the neighbourhood and he found it offered an ideal playground. One day in the sixties, David leaned out of the window and made his mark by spraying painting onto a flower in the terracotta frieze upon the front of the nineteenth century market building. Astonishingly, the white-painted flower is still clearly discernible in Commercial St half a century later, indicating the centre of David’s childhood world.
No wonder then that David chose to keep returning to his home territory, working in the Spitalfields Fruit & Vegetable Market until it closed in 1991. These days, he is amazed at the changes since he lived and worked here but – as long as the white-painted flower remains on Commercial St – for David, Spitalfields remains the location of his personal childhood landscape.
“Albert, my grandfather, ran fruit & vegetable shops down in Belvedere, and he used to come up to Spitalfields Market with his horse and cart to buy produce. So my father ‘Bert and his brother Reg decided to start a business in a little warehouse in Tenterground. Upstairs, there were prostitutes and men in bowler hats would come over from the City and look around, circumspect, before going upstairs.
They traded as R A Prescott, which was the initials of the two brothers, Reginald & Albert, but also my grandfather’s initials – which meant they could say they had been going over a hundred years already. They started in Spitalfields in 1952 but, when I was born in 1954, my father took the flat over the market at 103 Commercial St opposite the Ten Bells. Mickey Davis, who ran the shelter at the Fruit & Wool Exchange during the war lived in the flat below, but he had died in 1953 so we just knew his wife and two daughters.
I went to St Joseph’s School in Gun St and I loved it because all my friends lived nearby, in Gun St and Flower & Dean St, and I went to the youth club at Toynbee Hall. I used to walk through the market and everyone knew me – and since my sister, Sylvia, was six years older, they always teased – asking, ‘Where’s your sister?’
We never locked the doors except when we went to bed at night. One day, we came home and found a woman asleep in the living room and my dad sent her on her way. I used to climb up out from our flat and take my dog for a walk across the roof of the market, until the market police shouted at me and put up barbed wire to stop me doing it. Our mums and dads didn’t know what we were up to half the time. We made castles inside the stacks of empty wooden boxes that had been returned to the market.
I remember there was was a guy with a large bump on his head who used to shout and chase us. It would start on Brick Lane and end up in Whitechapel. There was another guy with a tap on his head and one who was shell-shocked. These poor guys, it was only later we realised that they had mental problems.We threw tomatoes, and we put potatoes on wires and spun them fast to let them fly.
In 1966, me and my pal Alan Crockett were in ‘The London Nobody Knows.’ They said, ‘Do you want to be in a film? We want you to run down the street and pile into a fight.’
My dad died of lung cancer when I was fifteen in 1969, but my mum was able to stay on in the flat. He got ill in April and died in August in St Joseph’s Hospice in Mare St. I left school and went to work with my uncle. By then, Prescotts had moved over to 38 Spital Sq. They weren’t part of the market, they supplied catering companies with peeled potatoes and they bought a machine to shell peas and were the first to offer them already podded. I worked with my elder brother Michael too, he set up on his own at 57 Brushfield St, but then he moved to Barnhurst in Kent and bought a three bedroom house. I became a van boy at Telfers, I used to leave home at half past two in the morning to get to Greenwich where they had a yard, by three to start work.
In 1972, we left the flat in Spitalfields and moved to a house in Kingston, and I worked for Hawker Siddley – they trained me as an engineer. But I missed the market so much, I had to come back. I got a job with Chiswick Fruits in the Fruit & Wool Exchange and then I went back to Prescotts. I was working at the Spitalfields Market in 1991 when they moved out to Leyton, but it was’t the same there and, by 2000, I’d had enough of the market. In those days, you could walk out of one job and straight into another. I must have had thirty to forty jobs.“
R A Prescott of 38 Spital Sq
David as a baby at 103 Commercial St in 1955
David at five years old at his brother Michael’s wedding in Poplar in 1959
David with his mum, Kathleen, playing with the dog in the yard at the back of the market flat
David’s sister Sylvia, who went to St Victoire’s Grammar School in Victoria Park
David is centre right in the front row at St Joseph’s School, Gun St
In 1966, David and his pal Alan Crockett were in ‘The London Nobody Knows.’ This shot shows Alan (leading) and David (behind) running down Lolesworth St.
Christmas at 103 Commercial St in 1967
David’s mother Kathleen and his father ‘Bert on holiday in 1968
David stands on the far right at his sister Sylvia’s wedding at St Anne’s, Underwood Rd, in 1964
David leaned out of his window and sprayed paint onto this flower in 1964
Looking south across the Spitalfields Market
Spitalfields Market empty at the weekend
Spital Sq after the demolition of Central Foundation School
The Flower Market at Spitalfields Market
From the roof of Spitlafields Flower Market looking towards Folgate St
Clearing out on the last day of the Spitalfields Fruit & Vegetable Market in 1991
David stands in the Spitalfields Market today beneath the window that was once his childhood bedroom
A beano from Stepney in the twenties (courtesy Irene Sheath)
We have reached that time of year when clamminess prevails in the city and East Enders turn restless, yearning for a trip to the sea or at the very least an excursion to glimpse some green fields. In the last century, pubs, workplaces and clubs organised annual summer beanos, which gave everyone the opportunity to pile into a coach and enjoy a day out, usually with liberal opportunity for refreshment and sing-songs on the way home.
Ladies’ beano from The Globe in Hartley St, Bethnal Green, in the fifties. Chris Dixon, who submitted the picture, recognises his grandmother, Flo Beazley, furthest left in the front row beside her next door neighbour Flo Wheeler, who had a fruit and vegetable stall on Green St. (courtesy Chris Dixon)
Another beano from the fifties – eighth from the left is Jim Tyrrell (1908-1991) who worked at Stepney Power Station in Limehouse and drank at the Rainbow on the Highway in Ratcliff.
Mid-twentieth century beano from the archive of Britton’s Coaches in Cable St. (courtesy Martin Harris)
Beano from the Rhodeswell Stores, Rhodeswell Rd, Limehouse in the mid-twenties.
Taken on the way to Southend, this is a ladies’ beano from The Beehive in the Roman Rd during the fifties or sixties in a coach from Empress Coaches. The only men in the photo are the driver and the accordionist. Joan Lord (née Collins) who submitted the photo is the daughter of the publicans of The Beehive. (Courtesy Joan Lord)
Terrie Conway Driver, who submitted this picture of a beano from The Duke of Gloucester, Seabright St, Bethnal Green, points out that her grandfather is seventh from the left in the back row. (Courtesy Terrie Conway Driver)
Taken on the way to Southend, this is a men’s beano from The Beehive in the Roman Rd in the fifties or sixties in a coach from Empress Coaches. (Courtesy Joan Lord)
Beano in the twenties from the Victory Public House in Ben Jonson Rd, on the corner with Carr St. Note the charabanc – the name derives from the French char à bancs (“carriage with wooden benches”) and they were originally horse-drawn.
A crowd gathers before a beano from The Queens’ Head in Chicksand St in the early fifties. John Charlton who submitted the photograph pointed out his grandfather George standing in the flat cap holding a bottle of beer on the right with John’s father Bill on the left of him, while John stands directly in front of the man in the straw hat. (Courtesy John Charlton)
Beano for Stepney Borough Council workers in the mid-twentieth century. (Courtesy Susan Armstrong)
Martin Harris, who submitted this picture, indicated that the driver, standing second from the left, is Teddy Britton, his second cousin. (Courtesy Martin Harris)
In the Panama hat is Ted Marks who owned the fish place at the side of the Martin Frobisher School, and is seen here taking his staff out on their annual beano.
George, the father of Colin Watson who submitted this photo, is among those who went on this beano from the Taylor Walker brewery in Limehouse. (Courtesy Colin Watson)
Pub beano setting out for Margate or Southend. (Courtesy John McCarthy)
Men’s beano from c. 1960 (courtesy Cathy Cocline)
Late sixties or early seventies ladies’ beano organised by the Locksley Estate Tenants Association in Limehouse, leaving from outside The Prince Alfred in Locksley St.
The father of John McCarthy, who submitted this photo, is on the far right squatting down with a beer in his hand, in this beano photo taken in the early sixties, which may be from his local, The Shakespeare in Bethnal Green Rd. Equally, it could be a works’ outing, as he was a dustman working for Bethnal Green Council. Typically, the men are wearing button holes and an accordionist accompanies them. Accordionists earned a fortune every summer weekend, playing at beanos. (courtesy John McCarthy)
John Sheehan, who submitted this picture, remembers it was taken on a beano to Clacton in the sixties. From left to right, you can seee John Driscoll who lived in Grosvenor Buildings, Dan Daley of Constant House, outsider Johnny Gamm from Hackney, alongside his cousin, John Sheehan from Constant House and Bill Britton from Holmsdale House. (Courtesy John Sheehan)
Photographs reproduced courtesy of Tower Hamlet Community Housing’s Collection