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Colin O’Brien’s Playground Portraits

September 2, 2014
by the gentle author

In the midst of spending last week preparing the book of Horace Warner’s Spitalfields Nippers for publication in the autumn, I asked Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien if he would like to visit Weavers’ Adventure Playground with me before before summer’s end and create a series of portraits of ‘Bethnal Green Nippers’ in collaboration with the children. We were delighted to discover that our project coincided with the playground’s fortieth anniversary celebrations and join Sunday’s exuberant birthday party for this beloved institution which has brought joy to generations in this corner of the East End.

Alfie Davis

Brogan Ferron

Leo Hassan

Mason Pearce

Mickel Warner Mahood

Mya Warner Mahood

Arthur Ferron

Ishaac Bendjenahl

Michael Brown

Tilly Latham

Adam Warner Mahood

Lottie Ferron

Aaron McPherson

Mikki Gilbert

Patrick Doherty

Brogan Ferron

Mya Warner Mahood

Mason Pearce

Mikki Gilbert

Mason Pearce

Arthur Ferron

Paige Housham

Aaron McPherson

Arthur & Lottie Ferron

Brogan Ferron

Victor William, Playleader in charge at Weavers’ Adventure Playground

Victor and pals

Playleaders experience the ice bucket challenge at the adventure playground’s fortieth birthday party

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

Weavers’ Adventure Playground, Viaduct St, Bethnal Green, E2 0BH

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So Long, George Cossington the Steeplejack

September 1, 2014
by the gentle author

George Cossington died last week at the age of eighty-one and and today I publish my interview with him, as a tribute to one of the last of London’s heroic steeplejacks to work without a safety harness.

This is George Cossington in the top left of this picture, photographed in the pursuit of his trade as a steeplejack & steel erector, perched at the very top of a one hundred and fifty foot jib during the construction of Paternoster Square, next to St Paul’s Cathedral in 1958.

Seeing this vertiginous image, you will no doubt be relieved to know that George survived to tell the tales of his daring aerial adventures, still fit and full of swagger at eighty-one. ” In my day, you weren’t called a steel erector, you were called a spider man. I used to run up a sixty rung ladder in less than a minute and come down in less than twenty seconds – you just put your hands and feet on the sides and slid down! ” he bragged, with a modest smile that confirmed it was the truth.

George’s father was a steeplejack who once climbed Big Ben to fix the hands on the clock face and worked as chargehand on the construction on the Bank of England. So in 1947, when George left school at fourteen, there was no question about his future career, “All my friends were going into the Merchant Navy but when I came home with the form, my dad said, ‘No. You’re going into my trade so you get a pension.’” In fact, three out of the five boys in George’s family became steeplejacks, a significant measure of George’s father’s confidence in his own profession.

“My father, uncle and my brothers, we all loved it! There was none of this Health & Safety shit then, you learnt to be careful. What started coming in was the safety harness, a big belt with a hook on it attached to a rope – we hardly used them. There was no such thing as a crash helmet. Me and my brothers, we used to watch each other to check we put the bolts in correctly. It was all done properly, even without today’s safeguards.

I was apprenticed to Freddie Waite of Stratford. I started off as a tea boy. You learn as the months by, and then someone else becomes the tea boy and you learn how to adjust swivel bolts, rigging up steel beams, and how to sling a beam for the crane to lift. It takes well over a year before you start going off the ground. You had to learn rigging, slinging, welding, acetylene burning, and rope splicing. It takes five years to become a steeplejack. We used to walk the purlins that were four inches wide, you can’t do that today. Before scaffolding, we used wooden poles held together with wire bands, like they still do in the Far East. You had to know how to tie the wire bands securely, because it wasn’t an easy job going up to forty feet.

I enjoyed it, but I didn’t enjoy it when it was wet or cold. The crane used to take us in a bucket and put us on top of the steel work. In the Winter you could freeze. If it was a frosty night, we had a big fire in an oil drum and wrapped the chain around the fire to get the frost out of it, because if you didn’t it could snap like a carrot – a fifteen ton chain.

The day I fell, I was cutting some steelwork at Beckton Gas Works and it pissed down with rain, so they called us down. When I went back up again later, I cut one end of a beam without realising I had already cut the other end. I was seventeen years old. I was very lucky – my dad couldn’t believe it – a corrugated iron roof broke my fall. I had a few bruises, and a scar to this day. They called an ambulance but I was standing up by the time it came. I think I was only off work for a week, but I knew a couple of fellows that fell to their deaths.

My dad was still working up high until he was sixty-six. When he was the family foreman, he looked the business in a bowler hat. He taught me splicing and slinging, and he knew every sort of knot there was. He wouldn’t do anything you couldn’t do. He could throw a three-quarter inch bolt forty feet up for me to catch from a beam. Our last job together was on John Lewis in Oxford St. We were a hundred feet up in the air and he walked along beams as if they were on the ground.

I’ve never had a problem with heights. I’ve stood on the spider plate at the very top of a crane, three hundred and fifty feet up without a rope. I did it just for a laugh, but if my dad had seen me he’d have shot me…”

George retired at forty-five when he was required to wear a helmet on site, because he belonged to an earlier world that put more trust in human skill than safety procedures. When he spoke of pegging his own ladder to scale a factory chimney, I recognised a continuum with those that once climbed the spires of cathedrals, trusting their lives in the application of a skill which now exists only in the strictly controlled conditions of sport. Thankfully, with the advent of modern cranes and cherry pickers, men are no longer required to risk their lives in this way, but it only serves to increase my respect for the unacknowledged heroism of George Cossington, his brothers, his father, uncle and all of those in this city who fearlessly undertook these death-defying challenges as part of their daily routine. When you meet a steeplejack at the fine age of eighty-one, his very existence confirms his skill and proficiency in his former profession.

Because Freddie Waite bought a camera in 1958 to record the construction of Paternoster House, we have the privilege to see these rare images today, photographed by those working on the site. And while Paternoster House may already be history – demolished for a subsequent development – in the meantime there are enough monumental structures still standing that George worked on, like Shell House, the Chiswick Flyover, the Edmonton Incinerator towers and the chimney at the Bryant & May Factory, to remind us of his heroic thirty year career as a steeplejack & steel erector.

George (on the left) with the team, Kenny the master electrician, Ron the crane driver, then two slewmen and the foreman standing at the end, with Freddie (the master steeplejack that George was apprenticed to) standing at the back.

George is to be seen at top of the lower jib in the centre of the picture, between the steel structure and St Paul’s

George & Freddie at the end of the jib, as viewed from the boom.

George Cossington

The Cossington boys, George (back left) pictured with his brothers Brian, Sid and Bob (front row, left to right) and Joey (back right) outside the family home in Rochester Avenue, Upton Park, E13. George, Brian and Joey all became steeplejacks like their father, while Sid and Bob became master bricklayers.

Portrait copyright © Jeremy Freedman

At The Whitechapel Mission

August 31, 2014
by the gentle author

At dawn on Easter Tuesday, while most of the world was still sleeping, Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien & I paid a visit to the Whitechapel Mission which has been caring for the homeless and needy since 1876. The original building, constructed as the “Working Lads Institute” in 1885, still stands next to Whitechapel Underground Station, but these days the Mission operates from a seventies brick and concrete edifice east of the Royal London Hospital.

Whitechapel Rd was desolate at that hour but inside the Mission we encountered a warm community and were touched by the generous welcome we received there. Many of these people had been out on the street all night, yet they immediately included us within the particular camaraderie which exists among those who share comparable experiences of life and attend the day centre here regularly. Between six and eleven each morning, the door is open. Breakfast is served, showers are available, clothes are distributed, there is the opportunity to make phone calls and collect mail, and to seek the necessary advice which could lead to life off the street.

Our guide was Tony Miller, Director of the Mission, who has lived, worked and brought up his family in this building for the last thirty-five years. Charismatic and remarkably fresh-faced for one who opens up his door to the capital’s homeless every day of the year, he explained that if the temperature drops below freezing they offer a refuge for those sleeping rough. In the winter before last, Tony had around one hundred and fifty people sleeping upon every available inch of floor space and, while the other staff were off-duty, he sat watch through the long hours of the night. As a consequence, he contracted a rare and virulent strain of Tuberculosis from which he has only just recovered.

Yet Tony’s passion for the Whitechapel Mission remains undimmed by this grim interlude. “I lost five stone and I still want to make a difference! They started this Mission in 1876 because they were angry that, in their day, there were people without homes and here we are today in 2014 and the problem is still with us,” he declared, filling with emotion, before distinguishing for me some of the strains of humanity who stream through his door daily. There are those who were once living in care – many have mental health problems and around a third grew up in orphanages. There are those who are have no skills and cannot support themselves. There are the angry ones who feel let down and maybe lost their homes – these, Tony says, are the easiest to help. Around a sixth are ex-servicemen without education or skills, and around a third are mentally ill. “The ones that get me the most are those young people who leave the care system without education or prospects and end up on the street within twelve months,” he confided. Last year, the Mission supported one hundred and thirty-four people off the street and into flats, and two hundred people into hostel accommodation.

“Most people want reconnection, but they can live on the streets for twenty years after a row,” Tony assured me, “So, if we can ring up mum and they can say ‘sorry,’ then we’ll happily sub them for a bus ticket home if it means one less person on the street.” As we walked through the cafeteria, diners came up to welcome and engage us in multiple extended conversations, telling their stories and trusting Colin O’Brien to take their pictures.

“These people have validated my life – giving me a purpose and a job, and that makes me guilty because, from other people’s suffering, I live, Tony revealed in regret, “It’s a disgrace that this place is still here and it’s still needed, it should have been closed down years ago.”

Tony Miller, resident Director of the Whitechapel Mission for the past thirty-five years

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

Click here to learn more about The Whitechapel Mission

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On The Buses With Colin O’Brien

August 30, 2014
by the gentle author

The restored prototype RT1 of 1939 in Piccadilly Circus

A magical time warp appeared to manifest itself in London, when Saturday shoppers were surprised by buses of past eras – many more than sixty years old – arriving unexpectedly, as if conjured from the ether, to whisk them away to the West End. In fact, it was a celebration of seventy-five years of the classic RT London bus organised by the London Bus Museum, in which fifty vintage vehicles returned to service for one day, offering free rides to all.

The buses gathered at the Ash Grove Depot next to London Fields before departure, so Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien & I put on our anoraks and joined the happy throng of enthusiasts, mesmerised by the return of these beautiful historic buses, polished to perfection for this special day.

Unquestionably, the star attraction was the original prototype of the RT1 which first entered service on route 22 between Putney Common and Homerton on 9th August 1939, just weeks before the outbreak of World War II. The RT1 marked the culmination of a programme to design the ultimate London bus, featuring the latest in construction and engineering for passenger and crew comfort. Now fully restored to its former magnificence, it led the fleet from the depot out into the London streets yesterday.

Colin & I hopped aboard and made our way upstairs, and we discovered that we were upon a trip into memory. The checkerboard velvet upholstery, the wind-down windows, wooden floors, the cream paintwork, the “Push Once” bell and the “Do Not Spit” sign were all powerfully evocative of another time. But before we could contemplate further, the bus departed with that once-familar ding-ding of the bell and we enjoyed a smooth ride with just the occasionally rocky patch, whenever the bus lurched round corners, swinging around like one of those stage coaches of old.

Our great delight from the top deck was to observe the expressions of wonder and joy appear upon the faces of vaguely-bored Londoners at bus stops, astonished at the unexpected arrival of these glossy chariots from another age, skinnier and with rounder corners that our contemporary buses, and embellished with colourful advertisements from the past.

At Piccadilly Circus, we hopped off again and positioned ourselves strategically upon a traffic island so that Colin might photograph the old buses as they came through, standing out with decorative flourish like swans upon the river. We waited for hours, searching the distant traffic expectantly to capture the trophy shots you see below.

In spite of all the changes, these charismatic buses still looked entirely at home upon the streets. Held in great affection by Londoners, they are interwoven with the identity of the city itself and their descendants still ply the same routes every hour of the day and night – but we were overjoyed to see the return of the much-loved ancestors, reminding us of our collective past and reclaiming their old routes for a day.

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

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Peter Sargent, Butcher

August 29, 2014
by the gentle author

Peter Sargent

In 1983, when Peter Sargent took on his shop, there were seven other butchers in Bethnal Green but now his is the only one left. Two years ago it looked like Peter’s might go the way of the rest, until he took the initiative of placing a discreet sign on the opposite side of the zebra crossing outside his shop. Directed at those on their way to the supermarket, it said, “Have a look in butcher’s opposite before you go in Tesco.”

This cheeky intervention raised the ire of the supermarket chain, won Peter a feature in the local paper and drew everyone’s attention to the plain truth that you get better quality meat at a better price at an independent butcher than at a supermarket.“Tesco threatened legal action,” admitted Peter, his eyes gleaming in defiance, “They came over while I was unloading my van to tell me they were serious, but I told them where to go.” Shortly afterwards, it was revealed that Tesco had been selling horsemeat and Peter left a bale of hay outside his shop. “I invited customers to drop it off if they were going across the road,” he revealed to me with a grin of triumph.

This unlikely incident proved to be a turning point for Peter’s business which has been in the ascendancy ever since. “There’s not many of my old East End customers left anymore and I was close to calling it a day,” he confided to me, “but I’ve found that the young people who are moving in, they want to buy their meat from a proper butcher’s shop.”

In celebration of this change of fortune in the local butchery trade, Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien & I paid a visit behind the counter recently to bring you this report, and we each came away with sawdust on our boots and the gift of a packet of the freshly-made sausages for which Peter’s shop is renowned.

“I started as a Saturday boy in Walthamstow, when I was sixteen, in 1970,” Peter told me, “and then it became a full-time job when I left school at eighteen.” Over the next ten years, Peter worked in each of half a dozen shops belonging to the same owner, including the one in Bethnal Green, until they all shut and he lost his job. Speaking with the bank that his ex-employer was in debt to, Peter agreed to take on the shop and, when they asked if he had a down payment, Peter’s wife Jackie produced ten pounds from her handbag.

Since then, Peter has been working twelve hours a day, six days a week, at his shop in Bethnal Green – arriving around eight each morning after a daily visit to Smithfield to collect supplies. “I love it and I hate it, I can’t leave it alone,” he confessed to me, placing a hand on his chest to indicate the depth of emotion, “it’s very exciting in a Saturday when all the customers arrive, but it can be depressing when nobody comes.”

Peter is supported by fellow butcher Vic Evenett and the pair make an amiable double-act behind the counter, ensuring that an atmosphere of good-humoured anarchy prevails. “I started as a ‘humper’ at Smithfield in 1964 for six years, then I had my own shop in Bow for twenty-three years, then one in Walthamstow Market, Caledonian Rd and Roman Rd, but none of them did very very well because I had to pay too much rent,” Vic informed me, “I came here twenty years ago to help Peter out for a few days and I stayed on.”

In a recent refit, an old advert was discovered pasted onto the wall and Peter had the new tiles placed around it so that customers may see the illustration of his shop when it was a tripe dresser in 1920. Yet Peter will tell you proudly that his shop actually dates from 1860 and he became visibly excited when I began talking about the centuries-old tradition of butchery in Whitechapel. And then he and Vic began exchanging significant glances as I explained how Dick Turpin is sometimes said to have been an apprentice butcher locally.

Thankfully, East Enders old and new took notice of Peter’s sign, “Have a look in butcher’s opposite before you go in Tesco,” and  he and Vic – the last butchers in Bethnal Green – will be able to continue to make an honest living without the necessity of turning highwaymen.

Peter’s sign outside Tesco, July 2012

Excited customers on Saturday morning

Vic Evenett & Peter Sargent

Peter & Vic sold more than five hundred game birds last Christmas

The Butcher’s Shop, 374 Bethnal Green Rd, E2

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

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