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.
I took the train over to Chigwell to visit Doris Halsall – still vital and independent in her ninety-ninth year – who recounted for me the story of her circuitous journey through the twentieth century and away from the East End. Blessed with keen intelligence and an adventurous nature, Doris embraced the possibilities for advancement that came her way – especially riding a motor bicycle – with enthusiasm and fearless determination, boldly constructing a life for herself that transcended her modest beginnings.
“I was born in 3 Venner Rd in Bow in 1920. My mother, Rosina & father, Alfred White lived in the downstairs with my sister, Rose and I. But later, when my mother’s sister died leaving a little boy of ten days old, Jack, my father said ‘Let us adopt him,’ even though my mother had eight or nine sisters.
Mrs Blewdon, who owned the house, lived upstairs and she came down every morning with her bucket and jug to empty them in the outside toilet and fill them again in the scullery. She stayed the whole day in her room and, each evening, she left us a note on the stairs, ‘I’m in for the night, Mrs White, Good Night.’ I always laughed because I used to love that little note on the stairs.
My father was in the army in the 1914-18 War and I’ve got a certificate to say that in 1916 he was unfit for service. There was no reason given but my mother always insisted that he was gassed and he was ill because of it, although his death certificate said ‘tuberculosis.’ When he came out of the army he did all sorts of jobs. I remember one day he was hoping it would snow, so he could go and do some snow shovelling. Eventually he joined the GPO and he would always bring newspapers to show me the events of the day. He died when I was ten years old in 1930. We were all there at the very last when he was dying. We didn’t think it was terrible, we just accepted it. In the family, there were others that died of tuberculosis.
My mother worked at home and we all helped her. I could cover you an umbrella now! She used to go up to the City and came back with the cloth and the umbrella frames, and we would fit the covers, the three of us – my mother, my sister & I – preventing, tying-in and tipping. Then next day, my mother would take the bundle back on the tram. It was hard for her schlepping up to the City everyday. I still have one of her tram tickets which I use as a bookmark. Later on, she used to knit angora berets and I sewed them up. She was always afraid we’d go into the workhouse, Bromley by Bow Workhouse was nearby.
After my father died, we were no more or less poor than we were when he was alive. My mother had a ten shillings a week pension, five shillings for my sister and three shillings for me – nothing for my cousin. We never saw ourselves as poor. We just accepted life. I was quite a happy child but my sister wasn’t, she was always unhappy and I don’t know why – I think it’s the way you are born. So I was never unhappy, but our circumstances were dreadfully poor. The coalman came round to our road but we couldn’t afford to have a sack of coal, it was half a crown for a hundredweight.
In Burdett Rd nearby, there was a little row of shops including a sweet shop with these different kinds of sweets in sections. All I ever wanted was to buy a quarter of pear drops for tuppence and I thought, ‘When I grow up, I’ll buy them.’ There were fruit stalls with oranges that came in fine crates made of wood which the stallholders would just throw down and the council would come and collect them, but we could go along and pick up the wood and take it home and put it on the fire. So why did you need to buy a hundredweight of coal for half a crown?
My sister & I played all the time in the street with my brother-come-cousin sat in the pushchair outside the house. We had all our friends on the street, our neighbour Mrs Franklin had nine children, and there was always entertainment on the street. The barrel organ would come along with these men dressed as women. We didn’t know anything abut transvestites, but they sang and danced and someone turned the barrel organ. The milk cart came along with a big churn and we would take a jug out. We’d buy jam at the little corner shop. We took a cup along and they’d weigh the cup and then they’d fill it with two penny worth of jam from a big jar.
When I was about twelve, I remember walking up to a shop in the City next to the Aldgate Pump to buy a postcard of Leonardo Da Vinci that I had learnt about from a very good art teacher at my school. The question was, ‘How to get tuppence?’ so there was no question of taking the tram or bus, I walked there. I can’t remember if I ever went to the West End but my mother used to take us to Southend for the day by train. I remember looking over the bridge from Bromley by Bow station at the workhouse. All the women used to sit along the wall in their blue and white dresses and, on the other side, sat all the men in their blue and white shirts, separated.
I remember Mosley’s blackshirts when they came down as far as Canal Bridge and I remember going down to see them. I was sixteen and I didn’t think too much about it. They were marching and they’d strayed over as far as Canal Rd. They’d been pushed back and after the Battle of Cable St and they were milling about trying to find a way home.
Opposite Stepney Green station, there was a Methodist Mission and there was this couple, Mr & Mrs Mackie and they took a group of girls under their wing. They took us on holiday for a week and we paid them ten shillings. They were very good to us. They ran a competition for ‘Recitation’ but I called it ‘Elocution.’ I went to a school where they always impressed on us that, if you come from the East End, it doesn’t mean you have to speak like someone from the East End. My cousins made fun of me because I spoke differently, mimicking me, but I didn’t care. I won the District and then the All-London Competition and I got invited stay to tea. That was a real treat. I still have my medal. My recitation began ‘No strong drink for this champion..’ and I had to sign the Temperance pledge. Conveniently, my memory is clouded about when I broke that.
I went to a very good school and I won a Junior County Scholarship with a grant of twelve pounds a year and, when I was fourteen, another grant of twenty-one pounds a year. It was very sad really. Most of the parents wanted their children to leave school and go to work. You were brought up to go and work when you were fourteen. My sister had left at fourteen and was already working and my mother wanted me to leave, but when I did she had to give me money for fares to London and for lunches so she wasn’t much better off.
I wanted to go into the Civil Service which most of my friends were doing but you couldn’t take the exam until you were eighteen. I worked in an office and went to night school, after I left school at sixteen, and finished my education that way. This lady in the office, who seemed ever so much older than me, said ‘Don’t stay here.’ Fortunately, I passed the Civil Service exam and went to work at the Ministry of Agriculture office in Leonard St in Shoreditch and it was all very nice until the War came along.
I was evacuated up to Lytham St Anne’s. We were put into seaside boarding houses and every morning we could smell our rations going past our doors! It was all girls, eight or nine of us, and Mrs Brooks did us well. We had a great time. We borrowed each other’s clothes and went out to the Tower Ballrooms. It was lovely. I was promoted in the Ministry of Agriculture and sent to Bournemouth. We were importing agricultural machinery from America and my job was to look after the shipments as they came in.
My mother stayed in the East End of London all through the war, even though she had a bomb drop next door and had to move out for a while, but she went to work in munitions and became quite well off. She had the Anderson shelter in the garden and she wasn’t a worrier. Yet all the bomb debris in the East End was horrible and cousin of mine was killed in her house with her two little children.
During the war, I wanted to go into the forces but I was considered too useful so I wasn’t allowed to be released from my job. I tried to get into the airforce, in the Meteorological section. I was attracted to the challenge but I wasn’t allowed to do this. Then an offer came along to be a Despatch Rider for the Home Office. My friend Claire & I signed up for that right away, and we went to Hendon Police for week and learnt to ride a motorbike. It was great.
At that time, we were quite sure there was going to be an invasion. In preparation for this, we had to drive around to Police Stations and hand in ‘despatches’ but we never knew what they were – probably a blank sheet. It was just practice and quite soon we knew exactly how to get to the various police stations.
Claire & I often got caught up in the American convoys with all the GIs sitting out on the tailboards while we were on our bikes. They would shout ‘Gee, they’re dames!’ and they wouldn’t let us overtake them – so we had a high time, until they turned left. I had various boyfriends. All the girls in the office had boyfriends or fiances and ever so many of them were killed. I had some boyfriends that weren’t English who went off and I never knew what happened to them.
When the invasion was expected, I was brought back from Bournemouth to London and I went back to live with my mother and she made a great fuss of me. My mother had married again, to Jim Mason, a crane driver in Ilford and they had moved out to Seven Kings. He was a nice man and I liked him ever so much. My mother was glad to leave the East End.
I was married in 1947. I met my husband, Harold Halsall at holiday camp on the East Coast. I had a travelling job then for the Ministry of Agriculture and I visited regional offices examining the accounts. Leaving London by train, I remember once I realised I had left some papers at the office, so I left my case on the platform and went back to the office and, when I returned, it was still there.
After we married we bought a house and lived in Ilford and had two little girls, Pauline & Julia. Rationing continued after the war but there were ways and means of getting hold of what you needed. When I was travelling I visited all the farming towns, so I had eggs and bacon and cheese and milk – and I stayed in hotels, there was no rationing in hotels. It was lovely. I was very fortunate. I have had such a great time. I don’t miss the East End because I wanted to have something better. It was hard, a tough existence and this was a much nicer life.”
Doris in the forties
Doris & her friend Claire, Despatch Riders in 1944
Doris’ mother Rosina and father Alfred, and his sister Emily, photographed at Southend in 1919
Doris with her mother, Rosina, in the twenties
Doris’ family in 1940 – Doris, her sister Rose and their mother Rosina in front.
Doris at the Ministry of Agriculture, Baker St Office, 21st May 1940
This is the earliest photograph of Ted Vanner, taken when when he was twenty-six years old in 1909, cradling one of his cherished creations with barely-concealed pride. Born in 1883 in Deptford as the second of seven children, Ted began his working life as a blacksmith and apparently gained no formal training as an engineer yet became a legendary innovator in model boat design. An early member of Victoria Model Steamboat Club, founded in 1904, Ted remained prominent in the club for more than sixty years until his death in 1955 when his wife Daisy continued to race his boats in her nineties until her death in 1973.
In later life, Ted Vanner recalled that he, along with other Victoria Model Steamboat Club members, took part in the first ever Model Engineer Regatta at Wembley in 1908. They all met at the Club Boat House in Victoria Park at 5:30am where Mr Blaney was busy cooking eggs and bacon over an oil stove for breakfast, and set out for Wembley in a horsedrawn van carrying boats and owners, ‘stopping at a few hurdles on the way.’
Working with the most rudimentary tools, it was his skill working with sheet metal and tinplate that set Ted Vanner apart from other competitors. According to Boat Club President Norman Phelps, Ted started with a ‘buck’ made from orange boxes and plasterer’s laths, which he would ‘plate’ with sections of cocoa tins. In order to create a joint that could be soldered, each plate overlapped the previous one, starting from the stern and working forward. This was Ted’s method to create elegantly stream-lined hulls that enabled him to produce model boats which were faster than his rivals. The refined shapes were achieved by ‘stroking’ the tin over a flat iron before the plates were soldered together with a large iron, heated either in the living room fire or on a gas ring.
In spite of these primitive construction techniques, Ted became an ambitious innovator. The early boats he built were steam driven tugs, such as he would have seen in the London Docks, but he quickly graduated to speed boats with sophisticated multi-cylinder engines. Ted acquired a reputation, competing at regattas all around the country, carrying his boats on the train and representing Victoria Model Steamboat Club in Paris in 1927, winning first prize with Bon-Ami, second prize with Leda III and third prize with Ledaette.
Today, Victoria Model Steamboat Club is one of only a small handful of surviving model boat clubs but you may still see their vessels on the Victoria Park Boating Lake each Sunday in Summer. Many of the boats in the collection are now over a century old and, if you are lucky, you may even get to see one of Ted Vanner’s creations in action. Seven of his elegant craft remain in working order, carrying his reputation into the future. An inspirational creator, making so much out of so little with such astonishing ingenuity, Ted Vanner is an unsung hero and legend in the civilised world of model boat clubs.
Victoria Model Steamboat Club, 1909
Outside the Club House in Victoria Park
Boats inside the Club House
Ted releases Danube III
Ted is second from left
Ted releases Leda III
Ted stands on the right in this photo in Paris in 1927
Ted is fourth from the right in this line up at St Albans
On the Round Pond Kensington, 1954
Ted wins a trophy for Victoria Park Steamboat Club at Forest Gate Regatta, May 10th 1954
Presenting the prizes at the Victoria Park Model Steamboat Regatta, 1955
At this Model Boat club dinner, Ted & Daisy Vanner sit in the middle of the back row
Daisy Vanner in the fifties
Daisy and Ted on the left
In her nineties, Daisy Vanner continued to compete in regattas with Ted’s boats after his death
Leda III and All Alone, two of seven of Ted’s boats still in working order today
With thanks to Tim Westcott for supplying the photographs accompanying this feature
I have been scurrying all over London to photograph examples of facadism suggested by readers for inclusion in my forthcoming book. I call these expeditions ‘facade safaris’ and, as you can see from my collection of trophies below, I shot some prime specimens.
THE CREEPING PLAGUE OF GHASTLY FACADISM combines a gallery of the most notorious facades and a humorous analysis of facadism - the unfortunate practice of destroying everything apart from the front wall and constructing a new building behind it – revealing why this is happening and what it means.
I am still seeking a couple more investors for my book, so if you would like to help please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can also support the book by preordering and you will receive a signed copy when it is published in October.
Please suggest more London facades I should include.
Corner of Berwick St & Broadwick St, Soho
Whenever you see an old facade with a new structure behind it, this tells you that a building of distinction once stood there that could not simply be demolished and the compromise which arose was to keep the front wall. None of these facaded buildings should have been destroyed, but it happens because the economic forces driving redevelopment are greater than the legislation to protect what exists already. The recent rise in façadism is a barometer of how far the power balance has shifted away from conservation towards redevelopment. The result has been the loss of too many important and attractive old buildings that once enhanced our city and their replacement with generic monoliths.
No-one believes the original building still exists because the front wall still stands. There are a few examples where an attempt has been made to hide the join but, in my experience, this is a fiction that developers do not strive to maintain. Mostly, retaining the facade is an unwelcome condition of planning permission when their preference would have been complete demolition. Abnegating responsibility, the developers either complain that they were forced to keep the front wall or occasionally boast that they retained the period features, while the local community grieves that a beloved building and landmark has been destroyed. Nobody really wins and the uneasy physical form of the buildings manifests the tensions which arise in such compromises.
The front wall alone can never be a sufficient replacement for the loss of a building. Even the assumption that it could be raises questionable notions about how we experience the urban landscape. Cynically, it implies we perceive the world as mere surface and it does not matter if what is behind changes, as long as the superficial appearance is preserved. Yet a facade becomes a mask when it conceals a building’s change of use – from a philanthropic institution into luxury flats or from a public building into a corporate headquarters – distracting our attention from the reality of the transformation.
Unsurprisingly, architects dislike the requirement of incorporating an existing facade into a new building, which may have been conceived in the hope of fulfilling their own design without such compromise. Yet too often financial subservience overrides self-respect in these cases. No wonder the treatment of the facade is often perfunctory and the resentment is visible. These circumstances explain the strange discontinuities in this hybrid architecture where sometimes a gap is inserted between the facade and the building, and the architectural styles of the facade and the new building are often at odds with each other. It is disappointing when architects pay so little attention to the architectural whole and the rest of us have to live with these grotesque monsters that confront us only with what we have lost.
This curious phenomena first came to my attention when I was shown a facaded nineteenth century office building near Smithfield in the nineties. Only the exterior shell had been retained. The developer had increased capacity by replacing high-ceilinged Victorian offices with low-ceilinged modern workspaces. Consequently, the new interior structure did not coincide with the exterior walls, which meant that floors bisected windows.
At the time, it was merely an isolated curiosity. I observed this early indication of a world out of joint with the innocence of an unwitting protagonist in a science fiction drama who ignores the first sign of a warp in reality that will grow to engulf the universe.
Union Hall, Union Street, Borough, opened as Surrey Magistrates Court in 1782, facaded for offices in 2005
Queen Elizabeth Children’s Hospital in Hackney, established 1867, closed in 1996 and facaded for luxury flats in 2014
Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society in Upper Tooting Rd built in 1923
Archway Rd, Highgate
Staycity Aparthotel, Blackheath Rd, Deptford
UCL student housing in Caledonian Rd, winner of the Carbuncle Cup 2013
Replica of the facade of Gaumont Cinema 1914 built in 2018 in Pitfield St, Hoxton
Sainsbury’s, Townmead Rd, Fulham
The Westminster Arms, Praed St, Paddington, since 1869, facaded in 1989 by the Metropole Hotel.
Over the years, Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I have visited many railway arches documenting the life of these charismatic spaces where people have sought the liberty of earning a living indepently and enriching the city in the process.
At Arnold Rd in Bow, we dropped in on a parade of a dozen arches where garages offering all aspects of motor repair have thrived over recent decades, supplying a reliable and conscientious service to local people.
In common with other railway arches across London and the entire country, we found these small businesses are subject to escalating rent increases which mean they are struggling to make a living and which threaten to destroy their livelihoods entirely.
Yet in spite of this crisis, we received a generous welcome from this mutually-supportive community of twenty-five to thirty mechanics who work together across their different garages, sharing skills and helping each other out as necessary.
Mostafa Uddin – “We do mechanics and some body work, small jobs. I have been working here for ten years, learning from my dad. I began by doing stuff with him and now I am running it. My dad set up the business thirteen years ago. He had another garage before this one in Bancroft Rd, but he had to leave that one because the rent was high. Now this rent is sky-high as well, our last recent increase was nearly double. With the amount of rent we have to pay, it is not worth us working for the small income we can make. If the business continues like this, we cannot carry on.”
Abdul Faizey at Best Motors – Abdul’s father was a mechanic in Afghanistan and he has had his garage since 2005
Opal Meah, proprietor at S Motors
“I do car mechanics and electrics. I have been in business since I left school, over twenty-five years now, and I have been in this arch for about eight years. Every year the rent goes up and now they are increasing it more. I had a partner before and the lease was in his name but when it was changed over to me, they put it up again. I am not making any money. One month you are lucky and you make enough to pay the bills but other months are very hard. I don’t know what I am going to do, I don’t know anything else but car mechanics. I want to stay here, but if I cannot afford the rent how am I going to stay? Before it was good but now it is so tight.”
Mohammed Chowdhury at S Motors -
“It’s really close knit here – like a big family – and everyone looks after everyone else if anyone gets stuck. Everyone has their own speciality and their own trades, so we can always ask everyone else to help us out. Yesterday, I was not too sure how to remove a panel from a Volkswagen golf but the bodyshop next door gave me a hand and I had the job done in a matter of minutes. Round here, it is beautiful because you can rely on each other, if anyone needs help or a push for a car. It is brilliant.
Quite a few new businesses have established themselves here in small arches and then grown substantially and looked for bigger premises and are doing really well. Some of these arches have been renovated and everybody has enough business to keep themselves afloat and cover their wages. It is a great starting point.
Some customers are drive-throughs, other are local. Word of mouth and friends and family have built our business. No-one who works here lives too far off from here.
If someone has background knowledge and they are looking to get into it and pick up some skills, there are opportunities here for young people to learn, develop themselves and climb up the ladder.
Rents are increased here without any reasoning and the landlords want to move this place upmarket, trying to get in other kinds of businesses. But if they are constantly bumping the rent up, how are people supposed to survive? Everyone’s struggling to survive here now, to be honest.”
Faisal Siddiqi at Ali Auto Repairs
Shajhan at Jonota Motors
Arif Giulam at Reliance Motors
Tommy, Misa Sheink, Sayed Uddin, Arif Giulam and Naiem at Reliance Motors
In sharp contrast to Horace Warner’s Spitalfields Nippers, this selection from Philip Mernick‘s collection of cartes de visite by nineteenth century East End photographers, gathered over the past twenty years, shows the offspring of the bourgeois professional classes. No doubt the doting parents delighted in these portraits of their little darlings trussed up like turkeys in their fancy outfits, but there is not a single smile among them.
Charles Spurgeon the Younger, son of the Evangelist Charles Haddon Spurgeon, took over the South St Baptist Chapel in Greenwich in the eighteen-eighties and commissioned an unknown photographer to make lantern slides of the street traders of Greenwich that he could use in his preaching. We shall never know exactly how Spurgeon showed these pictures, taken between 1884 and 1887, but – perhaps inadvertently – he was responsible for the creation of one of the earliest series of documentary portraits of Londoners.
Champion Pie Man - W.Thompson, Pie Maker of fifty years, outside his shop in the alley behind Greenwich Church
Hokey-Pokey Boy - August Bank Holiday, Stockwell St, Greenwich
Knife Grinder - posed cutting out a kettle bottom from a tin sheet
Toy Seller - King William St outside Royal Naval College, Greenwich
Ginger Cakes Seller - King St, near Greenwich Park
Since Aldgate Pump is currently shrouded for renovation, I thought it was time to recount the notorious tale of this celebrated East End landmark
See these people come and go at the junction of Fenchurch St and Leadenhall St in the City of London in 1927. Observe the boy idling in the flat cap. They all seem unaware they are in the presence of the notorious “Pump of Death” – that switched to mains supply fifty years earlier in 1876, when the water began to taste strange and was found to contain liquid human remains which had seeped into the underground stream from cemeteries.
Several hundred people died in the resultant Aldgate Pump Epidemic as a result of drinking polluted water – though this was obviously a distant memory by the nineteen twenties when Whittard’s tea merchants used to “always get the kettles filled at the Aldgate Pump so that only the purest water was used for tea tasting.”
Yet before it transferred to a supply from the New River Company of Islington, the spring water of the Aldgate Pump was appreciated by many for its abundant health-giving mineral salts, until – in an unexpectedly horrific development – it was discovered that the calcium in the water had leached from human bones.
This bizarre phenomenon quickly entered popular lore, so that a bouncing cheque was referred to as “a draught upon Aldgate Pump,” and in rhyming slang “Aldgate Pump” meant to be annoyed – “to get the hump.” The terrible revelation confirmed widespread morbid prejudice about the East End, of which Aldgate Pump was a landmark defining the beginning of the territory. The “Pump of Death” became emblematic of the perceived degradation of life in East London and it was once declared with superlative partiality that “East of Aldgate Pump, people cared for nothing but drink, vice and crime.”
Today this sturdy late-eighteenth century stone pump stands sentinel as the battered reminder of a former world, no longer functional, and lost amongst the traffic and recent developments of the modern City. No-one notices it anymore and its fearsome history is almost forgotten, despite the impressive provenance of this dignified ancient landmark, where all mileages East of London are calculated. Even in the old photographs you can trace how the venerable pump became marginalised, cut down and ultimately ignored.
Aldgate Well was first mentioned in the thirteenth century – in the reign of King John – and referred to by sixteenth century historian, John Stowe, who described the execution of the Bailiff of Romford on the gibbet “near the well within Aldgate.” In “The Uncommercial Traveller,” Charles Dickens wrote, “My day’s business beckoned me to the East End of London, I had turned my face to that part of the compass… and had got past Aldgate Pump.” And before the “Pump of Death” incident, Music Hall composer Edgar Bateman nicknamed “The Shakespeare of Aldgate Pump,” wrote a comic song in celebration of Aldgate Pump – including the lyric line “I never shall forget the gal I met near Aldgate Pump…”
The pump was first installed upon the well head in the sixteenth century, and subsequently replaced in the eighteenth century by the gracefully tapered and rusticated Portland stone obelisk that stands today with a nineteenth century gabled capping. The most remarkable detail to survive to our day is the elegant brass spout in the form of a wolf’s head – still snarling ferociously in a vain attempt to maintain its “Pump of Death” reputation – put there to signify the last of these creatures to be shot outside the City of London.
In the photo from 1927, you can see two metal drinking cups that have gone now, leaving just the stubs where the chains attaching them were fixed. Tantalisingly, the brass button that controls the water outlet is still there, yet, although it is irresistible to press it, the water ceased flowing in the last century. A drain remains beneath the spout where the stone is weathered from the action of water over centuries and there is an elegant wrought iron pump handle – enough details to convince me that the water might return one day.
Looking towards Aldgate.
The water head, reputed to be an image of the last wolf shot in London.
The pump was closed in 1876 and the outlet switched to mains water supply.
Visitors to London Zoo this week have enjoyed the additional attraction of watching Tessa Hunkin and her crew from Hackney Mosaic Project installing two joyous masterpieces of mosaic on either side of the main entrance
On the left, a pair of Humboldt Penguins dip and dive to create a pleasantly dynamic composition while, on the right, five mischievous Squirrel Monkeys perch on branches, poised to leap.
‘I especially like the Squirrel Monkeys at the zoo,’ Tessa confided to me, ‘because they love mobile phones and enjoy taking them off visitors and dropping them from the tops of trees.’
Robson Cezar, Ken Edwards & Tess Hunkin (from left to right)
Red phone boxes are a cherished feature of my personal landscape because, in my childhood, we never had a telephone at home and, when I first made a phone call at the age of fifteen, it was from a box. In fact, for the major part of my life, all my calls were made from boxes – thus telephone calls and phone boxes were synonymous for me. I grew up with the understanding that you went out to make a phone call just as you went out to post a letter.
Yet the culture of mobile phones is now so pervasive I was shocked to discover I had hardly noticed as the red telephone boxes have vanished from our streets and those few that remain stand redundant and unused. So I set out with my camera to photograph the last of them, lest they should disappear without anybody noticing. It was a curious and lonely pilgrimage because, whereas they were once on every street, they have now almost all gone and I had to walk miles to find enough specimens to photograph.
Reluctantly, I must reveal that on my pitiful quest in search of phone boxes, I never saw anyone use one though I did witnessed the absurd spectacle of callers standing beside boxes to make calls on their mobiles several times. The door has fallen off the one in Spitalfields, which is perhaps for the best as it has been co-opted into service as a public toilet while the actual public toilet nearby is now a vintage boutique.
Although I must confess I have not used one myself for years, I still appreciate phone boxes as fond locations of emotional memory where I once experienced joy and grief at life-changing news delivered down the line. But like the horse troughs that accompany them on Clerkenwell Green and outside Christ Church, Spitalfields, phone boxes are now vestiges of a time that has passed forever. I imagine children must ask their mothers what these quaint red boxes are for.
The last phone boxes still stand proud in their red livery but like sad clowns they are weeping inside. Along with pumps, milestones, mounting blocks and porters’ rests these redundant pieces of street furniture serve now merely as arcane reminders of a lost age – except that era was the greater part of my life. This is the inescapable melancholy of phone boxes.
Redundant in Whitechapel
Ignored in Whitechapel
Abandoned in Whitechapel
Rejected in Bow
Abused in Spitalfields
Irrelevant in Bethnal Green
Shunned in Bethnal Green
Empty outside York Hall
Desolate in Hackney Rd
Pointless in St John’s Sq
Irrelevant on Clerkenwell Green
Invisible in Smithfield
Forgotten outside St Bartholomew’s Hospital
In service outside St Paul’s as a quaint location for tourist shots
Today we remember Leon Kossoff (1926-2019) who died on Thursday 4th July aged ninety-two. He was one of the few artists from the East End to win an international reputation.
Presiding over Spitalfields for three hundred years, Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Christ Church in Commercial Street is the East End’s most enduring landmark and it has caught the imagination of many artists. Yet perhaps Leon Kossoff captured its awe-inspiring scale more effectively than anyone else in a recurrent series of paintings and drawings executed over the past half century.
Born just half a mile up the road in Shoreditch, Leon grew up on the Boundary Estate where his family ran a bakery. At the age of nine, a trip to the National Gallery inspired him with a love of painting which was to become the consuming passion of a lifetime. When his school was evacuated to Norfolk in 1939, Leon had the good fortune to stay with the Bishop family in Kings Lynn who encouraged his interest in art, which led him to make his first paintings and, on his return to London in 1943, he enrolled for art classes at Toynbee Hall.
Even before he ever drew it, Christ Church was a landmark on Leon’s landscape, both culturally and literally. Built with the proceeds of a coal tax in the early eighteenth century, Christ Church was constructed as an emblem of power to impress the Huguenot immigrants of Spitalfields and encourage their conversion to Anglicanism. Its overbearing scale makes the onlooker feel small, yet equally it offers the converse experience to those leaving the church, to whom, elevated upon the steps of the portico, the world appears spread out below. For the child of first generation immigrants, such as Leon, the building was a constant reminder of his place in the continuum of successive waves of immigration which have come to define the East End.
Leon first drew Christ Church in the fifties when he was living in Bethnal Green and the building was derelict, returning to the subject again in the seventies when it was under threat of demolition. But it was not until the eighties, when he had moved from the East End to Willesden, that he undertook drawings which became the basis for his series of paintings of this monumental subject beginning in 1987.
His densely wrought paintings embody both the complex emotionalism of Leon’s personal response to everything that Christ Church represents and the struggle of the onlooker to contain such titanic architecture.
“In the dusty sunlight of this August day, when this part of London still looks and feels like the London of William Blake’s Jerusalem, I find myself involved again in making drawings, and the idea of a painting begins to emerge. The urgency that drives me to work is not only to do with the pressures of the accumulation of memories and the unique quality of the subject on this particular day but also with the awareness that time is short, that soon the mass of this building will be dwarfed by more looming office blocks and overshadowed, the character of the building will be lost forever, for it is by its monumental flight into unimpeded space that we remember this building.” Leon Kossoff, March 1989
After serving in the Second World War, Leon studied commercial art at St Martin’s and then painting at the Royal College of Art. Despite winning international acclaim for his work in recent decades, Leon Kossoff remained a modest, reclusive figure and he returned to Arnold Circus and the Boundary Estate in his final years undertaking a series of affectionate, intimate drawings of the urban landscape of his childhood.