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At Kelmscott House

August 22, 2017
by the gentle author

I have walked past William Morris’ former house on the river bank in Hammersmith many times and always wondered what it was like inside but, since it is now a private dwelling, I never expected to visit. However, the residents kindly open their doors to members of the William Morris Society once ever two years and thus, a couple of weeks ago, I was permitted to join the tour.

William Morris was forty-three years old when he came to live here. It was to be his last house in a succession that began with his childhood home in Walthamstow and included the Red House in Bexleyheath, designed for him and Jane as their marital home by Philip Webb, and the sixteenth century Kelmscott Manor by the Thames in Lechlade. The rural idyll which William Morris hoped for at Kelmscott Manor had been sullied by overbearing presence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti whose obsession with Jane Morris had led him take up permanent residence.

“If you could be content to live no nearer London than that, I cannot help thinking we should do very well there and certainly the open river and the garden at the back are a great advantage,” William wrote tactfully to Jane in February 1877. “If the matter lay with me only, I should setting about taking the house, for already I have become conscious of the difficulty of getting anything decent. As to such localities as Knightsbridge or Kensington Sq, they are quite beyond our means.”

Built in the seventeen-eighties, the house was known as The Retreat and had once been the home of Sir Francis Ronalds, inventor of the electric telegraph, who had filled the long garden, which stretched all the way back to King St then, with buried cables as part of his experiments. When William Morris came here and renamed it Kelmscott House, it had been the home of the novelist George MacDonald for a decade. However – somewhat ominously for Morris – they chose to leave since MacDonald believed that the proximity to the polluted river was responsible for his family’s ill-health. In those days, the riverfront at Hammersmith was heavily industrialised with factories and wharfs.

I realised that, in my imagination, I felt I had already visited Kelmscott House. Long ago, when I read Morris’ novel News From Nowhere, I was seduced by his vision of a homespun Utopia that had turned its back on industrialism. In my memory, as if in the moonlight of a dream, I joined the characters as they departed Kelmscott House and undertook the journey up the Thames from Hammersmith to Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, travelling a hundred years into the future.

In reality, it was one of the brightest days of our rather disappointing summer when I paid my visit to Kelmscott House. Comparable to the experience of visiting a location from a dream, there were compelling details which evoked that faraway world, even if time and change had wiped away almost all of the evidence of Morris’ occupation of the house. “Let us hope that we shall all grow younger there,” he wrote to Jane in October 1878, just before they moved in.

Walking through the narrow passage beside The Dove, you discover the wide expanse of the Thames on the left and Kelmscott House rising up on your right, presenting an implacable frontage to the river. You enter through the area stairs on the left of the house, leading down to the kitchen, and immediately you notice a wall of original trellis wallpaper, designed by Morris with birds drawn by Philip Webb. If no-one told you, you would assume it was a recent reprint since these papers remain in production today. The low-ceilinged basement rooms are now the headquarters of the William Morris Society, where you may admire his Albion Press before climbing stairs again into the former coach house. This long narrow room was employed by Morris as a workshop for knotting carpets, also lectures and meetings of the Hammersmith Socialist League were held here. During his final years at Kelmscott, Morris became increasingly involved with politics and the Socialist cause.

The garden no longer stretches to King St, just as far as M4, yet it is impressively generous for a London garden, with well-kept herbaceous borders and wide lawn. Most fascinating to me, though, was the strawberry patch – since William Morris’ Strawberry Thief is one of his most celebrated textile designs, inspired by his experiences at Kelmscott Manor where the thrushes raided his soft fruit.

Approaching the house from the rear, it present quite a different aspect than from the front, with assymetric projections and a bowed turret. The high-ceilinged dining room at the back was especially offensive to Morris with its Adam detailing and Venetian window. This seems a curious prejudice to the modern sensibility. Perhaps our equivalent might be those eighties post-modern buildings which have not aged well. Fortunately, Morris suspended a vast sixteenth century Islamic carpet across one wall and part of the ceiling, drawing the eye from the Georgian elements which he found so hideous.

Emory Walker photographed the interiors, capturing Morris’ personal sense of interior design, employing lush textiles and extravagant antiques, mixed with furniture painted by Philip Webb and fine oriental ceramics. Architecturally, the most impressive space is the first floor drawing room which spans the width of the house, created by George MacDonald by knocking two bedrooms into one. In this south-facing room, the views over Chiswick Reach are breathtaking. Morris lined it with a rich, bluish tapestry of birds in foliage that he designed for this location. A huge settle painted with sunflowers by Philip Webb once sat beside the fireplace, lined with blue and white tiles manufactured by Morris & Co and still in situ.

In 1881, seeing children from the nearby slum known as Little Wapping swinging on his garden gate, he recognised, “It was my good luck only of being born respectable and rich, that has put me on this side of the window among delightful books and lovely works of art, and not on the other side, in the empty street, the drink-steeped liquor shops, the foul and degraded lodgings.”

Overlooking the garden at the back was Jane Morris’ room, somewhat detached from the rest of the house, granting her the independence she required as she withdrew from her marriage during the years at Hammersmith. The two front rooms on the ground floor, overlooking the river, comprised William Morris’ workroom and bedroom. It was in the workroom to the left of the front door that he supervised the creation of the Kelmscott Press, publishing fifty-two titles in five years. In his bedroom to the right, he installed a loom to undertake tapestry through the long hours of the night when he could not sleep. Here he died from tuberculosis on 3rd October 1896, aged just sixty-two, nursed by Emory Walker as his breath failed him. His last words were, “I want to get mumbo jumbo out of the world.”

I walked back along King St to the tube, past the Lyric Sq Market where William Morris once spoke. I thought about him taking the District Line back and forth to visit East London for public speaking – and I decided I should trace his footsteps in the East End next.

Basement stairs with original Morris ‘Trellis’ wallpaper

William Morris’ design for ‘Trellis’ wallpaper with birds drawn by Philip Webb

William Morris’ Albion Press

Hammersmith Socialist League gathering on the back lawn at Kelmscott House, 1885

William Morris’ workroom from which he ran the Kelmscott Press, with stairs leading up to the coach house where Hammersmith Socialist League meetings were held (Photograph by Emery Walker)

Strawberry patch in the garden at Kelmscott

William Morris’ ‘Strawberry Thief’ design

Sixteenth century Islamic carpet displayed by Morris in the dining room at Kelmscott (Photograph by Emery Walker)

‘William Morris’ rose blooms at Kelmscott

The drawing room at Kelmscott (Photograph by Emery Walker)

Tapestry designed for the drawing room at Kelmscott

The drawing room at Kelmscott (Photograph by Emery Walker)

William Morris spoke here – Lyric Sq Market, Hammersmith

Archive photographs courtesy William Morris Society

The lower floor and coach house of Kelmscott House are open on Thursday and Saturday afternoons. Visit the William Morris Society website for further details

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Ed Gray, Artist

August 21, 2017
by the gentle author

This is  Ed Gray sitting in his studio in Mile End, beside the canal and next to the Ragged School Museum, where I visited him last week. I found him in a large empty room with windows overlooking Mile End stadium and just three sketches on the wall for a street scene in the City of London which is his current work in progress.

Ed’s visceral paintings capture the tumultuous street life of the capital superlatively, teeming with diverse characters and delighting in the multiple dramas of daily existence. Despite his mild manners, his is an epic, near-apocalyptic vision that glories in the endless struggle of humanity within the urban stew. Yet the overriding impression is not cynical but rather a life-affirming raucous celebration of the indefatigable vitality of Londoners.

“I paint people and I make art about scenes of daily life. But I do not see this kind of picture represented very much in the contemporary art world. In their view, this work is not cool, happening or sensational. Yet I find so much stimulus when I go out onto the street drawing. I could make dozens of paintings about any single location. London is such a mixture of different places, there are different energies in every place, so I do not want to stay in one place, I keep moving on.

I have been painting a lot for the last twenty years, doing figurative scenes, and I work hard to have exhibitions and find an audience for my paintings, and provoke conversations about the city. It feels like an underground thing. My shows are popular and I am lucky because my paintings sell, so that keeps me going.  It seems a shame that more artists do not go out and paint the people of the city.

It is a challenge because the city changes so quickly. If I am working on a painting for three months in my studio and then I go back out into the city, it is different place. The place I painted has changed and the people have changed too. Sometimes buildings I painted are not there anymore, even in a short space of time. It is an incredible challenge and hard to know where to begin.

I studied at art college in Wimbledon and then Cardiff, where I used to go down to the docks. It was before they regenerated them. I painted the docks and the buildings – landscapes without people. Then I got interested in the fish market in Cardiff and I painted the people there. On my mother’s side, my grandfather was a fish merchant in Grimsby so I had an interest in those scenes. It took off from there and I became more and more interested in painting people, which I had always done as a kid but I had not found the confidence to paint people the way that I wanted. It took that experience to put me on that path.

I left college in 1995 and moved back to London, and I had a studio in a squat in the Elephant & Castle. I was trying to paint big oil paintings seven foot across, but I had no money so I could not afford to do it. I lasted a few years doing odd jobs and trying to keep that going. Eventually I thought, ‘I can’t do this!’ so I took a full time job working as a security guard at the Natural History Museum. I thought I would go into some kind of educational work, I had been working in a youth club in Battersea and I knew I had something I could pass on to the kids. I liked making art with them.

So, during my two years at the Natural History Museum, I would paint in the evenings just for myself. And I read all the books I was supposed to read at art college and secured my knowledge. Then I did my PGCE in art education at Exeter University and for a year I was teaching in Cornwall. When I came back to London, I realised I could teach and paint. So I taught part time at a school in Peckham for four years while painting the rest of the time. I had studio on the Old Kent Rd in a building which is no longer there. Over time, I accumulated a lot of paintings in the flat that I was sharing with friends and they said, ‘You need to do something with these pictures.’

By then, I had found a way that I wanted to work, which was based in going to a location, making direct observations with my sketch book for however many days it takes until I have soaked up the scene, before going back to my bedroom and making a paintings over a period of weeks. These were much smaller than the work I am doing now but it was keeping me going, it was an outlet for all the things I wanted to say about the city. In the nineties, there was a negativity about the city and city life, but I had just come back from Cornwall and I thought it was the most exciting place, with so much to paint.

I had all these paintings but I had no experience of galleries, so we took a car load of work around and the only place that would give me an exhibition was a little pop-up space in Brixton. I had my first solo show there in 2001 with ten paintings in it. It was amazing, loads of people came the private view and some could not even get into the building! It was real eye-opener to me that my painting was communicating something. All kinds of people came in from the street in Brixton, there was not a single demographic that came to see that show. It was a really exciting thing.

I applied for a residency in Bermuda and I got it, so I took a sabbatical from my teaching job. I had some money because I had sold a couple of paintings from my show. I had a studio in Bermuda and I had three exhibitions out there. It was the first time I was able to think entirely about making art and not having to pay my rent. It was an incredible time and I can hardly believe it happened. Afterwards, I travelled from Panama to Mexico City, making paintings and drawings. I was learning about making work on the hoof.

When I came back to London, I went back to the school and, after another year, I had another exhibition. A gallery in Camberwell gave me a show in 2003. I did ten paintings and they all sold, so I left my teaching job and concentrated on painting. Acme offered me a studio in Mile End next to the canal in 2006. I have always lived south of the river, first in Bermondsey and now Rotherhithe, so I am very familiar with those scenes and I have painted some of them. But separating where I live and really work is really important to me, coming across the river. The amount of life and lives you encounter here is more diverse in the East End. There is so much I could paint.

My picture of the Whitechapel Rd felt like a beginning for me of the paintings I could make about Whitechapel. I have so many scenes in mind. I wanted to start in the Whitechapel Rd because it is this long ancient road that comes out of the City of London. I used to cycle or walk that way to work and come through the market. I love markets, people are drawn to them and the characters are fantastic for painting. The history and the politics, the combination of the hospital and the market, and so many people from different lands that have come to work in London – for all of theses things, it is a meeting point.”

‘Lucky Tiger,’ Whitechapel Road, 2008 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

“I often walk through Whitechapel Market on my way to the studio. From a cafe, I watched the men set up the cardboard boxes and I took out my pencil and I began to draw. There is no ‘Lucky Tiger’ in this painting because there is no luck here, no punter will win. The child senses this and she can see past the man’s arm which is covering the switch he is about to make.”

‘Adoration in the East,’ Mile End Tube, 2014 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

‘Adoration at the Lion’s Den,’ Milwall Football Club, 2014 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

‘Adoration at the Emirates,’ Arsenal Football Club, 2014 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

‘Adoration of Thomas A Becket,’ Old Kent Rd, 2016 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

Liverpool St Station, 2007 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

Liverpool St Station, 2007 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

St Mary Axe, 2012 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

“I have always painted the Gherkin when I can, I use it to navigate around the City while I am drawing. This painting is about the banking crisis that began in 2008. I sat by the Aviva building in windswept St Mary Axe and drew the faces of the brokers and bankers, the secretaries and the construction workers.”

‘Skittles,’ Blackfriars Bridge 2008 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

“For a few wintry mornings, I stood on Blackfriars Bridge in 2008 making sketches of the waves of flowing commuters. An icy wind whipped up the Thames, blowing through me. A boy crept unwillingly to school dragging a figure through the soot on the bridge and leaving his mark in defiance of the journey he had to make. He dropped a ‘Skittles’ wrapper and it occured to me that these Londoners are like skittles bracing themselves against the next blast that could topple them.”

Mile End Beginning, 2008 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

“This pair of Mile End paintings are about my working day and how inspiration arrives for me, they are both views from my studio window. ‘Beginning’ is about arriving at work for the day in the summer, I’m optimistic and full of ideas after walking from home in Rotherhithe through the streets of London.”

Mile End End, 2008 (Clickon  this painting to enlarge)

“I began ‘Mile End End’ as the nights became darker and the autumn set in. When I turned out the studio light at night, the glowing  green of the Mile End sports stadium seemed so intense that I had to paint it. I wore a head torch while I worked to capture the intensity of the light and I studied the movements of the night time characters – the addicts, the sportsmen, the fishermen and the lovers.”

Night on Mare St, Pig’s Ear Beer Festival 2010 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

“At the Ocean Leisure Centre in Hackney, the faithful gathered for the annual Pig’s Ear Beer Festival, with beer and cider from every corner of the British Isles to be sampled. The painting is a celebration of this country.”

Billingsgate Porters 2005 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

‘Rock of Eye,’ Threadneedleman Tailor, Walworth Rd 2014 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

“I have had the pleasure of knowing George Dyer ever since I asked him to make my wedding suit several years ago. A Jamaican by birth with some Cuban added to the mix, young George flew to England aged five to be reunited with his family who had emigrated earlier. George is the go-to man for sharp tailoring in addition to philosophical discussions about our place in the cosmos, all of which he offers from a small shop in the Walworth Rd.”

York Hall Boxers 2011 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

“I spent an evening sketching in the crowd at York Hall thanks to the late great Dean Powell, manager and fight manager for the legendary Frank Warren. Dean is seated at the top of the ring. It was a successful night for him. I filled three sketchbooks, hypnotised by the rhythm of the dancing boxers and jabbing my pencil at the paper with the violence of their blows.”

‘Adoration of the Cockney Rebels,’ Bermondsey Carnival 2016 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

Ed Gray at his studio in Mile End

Paintings copyright © Ed Gray

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

Mary Burd, Clinical Psychologist

August 20, 2017
by the gentle author

‘You cannot overestimate sitting down quietly with someone and listening to what they have to say’


Mary Burd worked as  Clinical Psychologist at the Jubilee St Practice in Stepney between 1979 and 2009, beginning as a mental health trainee and eventually becoming Head of Mental Health Services in Tower Hamlets. Over this time, she saw great changes both in the nature of the East End and in the health service itself. In thirty years of work, Mary grew deeply engaged with the lives of those that she served and, when I interviewed her recently, she spoke to me with deep affection for the people and the place.

“When I was twenty and first came to London in the sixties, a friend of mine said to me on a spare evening, ‘Why don’t you come to the East End? I work in a youth club there.’ That visit to Dame Colet House was my very first time working in Tower Hamlets, I helped out in the youth club and I can remember it was pretty tough. I had to guard the cash box from Les whose main interest was to raid it.

Ultimately, it was chance that brought me to work in the East End. In my early thirties, I decided that I needed to change career – I had been working in publishing – so I went and did a psychology degree at Brunel University and then studied Clinical Psychology at the University of East London. It was a three year course with placements and I was based at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel. In my final year I could chose, and I always wanted to work in General Practice, so I went to the Jubilee St Practice in 1977 which was operating in portacabins then.

I remember sitting around the table with the group of GPs. A rather elderly gentleman asked me, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘I’ve come because I would like to provide psychological help within practices, rather for everybody to have to go to the Outpatients Department.’ And he said, ‘I think you’d be better off working in John Lewis.’

In spite of this, I had an amazing time and I did a lot of work with Health Visitors, helping them with babies and toddlers who had behavioural problems. Often, they couldn’t sleep or didn’t eat properly. I used to accompany the Health Visitors and help them think about what was going on. I got a research grant to look at the application of psychology in Primary Care, but it was really just an excuse to stay on at the Jubilee St Practice. At the end of that, the Director of Nursing said, ‘We really like the work you have done with Health Visitors and we are creating a psychology post for someone to do that sort of work.’ So that was how I started off.

I had a job that I loved working in General Practice in the East End. In those days, there was very little mental health provision and I was lucky enough to go into a practice which was forward thinking. It comprised three doctor’s practices that had come together and, when one of those GPs died, his relationship with his patients was so strong they all joined his funeral cortege.

When I first came to the East End, there were only a few practices that had more than one doctor and a few helpers. There were a lot of elderly doctors operating out of converted shops. I remember going to a practice to talk about the service and the only examination couch was in the kitchen, and it was propped up on old medical journals. There was so much dust you could write your name in it and there were files scattered about the place without any proper confidentiality. It was completely archaic and that was in the early eighties, not so very long ago. Because healthcare was so prized by people in the East End, who had never been used to decent medical services, I think they put up with things that people in other areas of London might not have done.

Jubilee St Practice became my home in the East End. I was always ambitious and I used every attempt to get funding for my work, and I taught on the East London Vocational Training Scheme, training GPs. I found that GPs who came onto the East London Scheme tended to stay in Tower Hamlets, so I got to know them all. It meant that, when they came to practice, they were receptive to the things I was doing and it gave me easy access into the world of General Practice.

As the doctors practicing in High St shops retired, the Family Practitioner Council invested in new practices. The new GPs coming in were of a high calibre and they wanted to practice in decent surroundings to give the best possible care. They were keen on the idea of a multi-disciplinary team, so they worked with nurses and Heath Visitors. By the time, I left every practice in Tower Hamlets had onsite psychological support.

In the early days, I set up a referral service. So a GP could come to me and say, ‘I’ve Mrs X and she’s terribly depressed at the moment, do you think you could see her?’ I would not work with a practice unless they would give a minimum of an hour a month to discuss the patients. There was a tremendous sense of partnership. We worked so closely and it was a fantastic time.

I was very often asked to write housing letters but in all my time I only wrote two, because I knew there was absolutely no point. Instead, I can remember writing the the local authority saying, ‘What is the point of me providing a service to a young woman with four children living on the fourteenth floor of a tower block?’ By then, many families were moving out but there were still many extended families. I remember asking a young mother, ‘How often do you see your ma?’ and she said, ‘Oh not very often, only three times a week.’ I think living cheek by jowl brought pressures. The positive was stronger than the negative but, even so, some people were oppressed, not the young children but the mothers. Their own mothers used to go round and do the washing for them, and there was a real dependency.

I was in Jubilee St during the big influx of Sylheti people and we had a big problem in that General Practices did not refer people with mental health problems from that community. In the eighties, we were the very first to set up a Bangladeshi counselling service and we trained somebody who spoke the language to run it, and then we did the same for the Somali community. There is a difficulty because some people think that a service by their own community is not as good as one provided by white healthcare professionals. We used the insights of the Bangladeshi and Somali counsellors  to help us to work with those populations.

Patients would sometimes talk to me about ‘those Paki bastards’ and I would always point out that this language was not acceptable. In my time, I saw a lot of people from the Bangladeshi community. I can remember one woman whose husband was a complete nightmare but culturally there was no way she could leave him. It was very hard to work with her because it was absolutely clear where her distress was coming from – it was from her relationship with her husband – but she could not alter that in any way. I could only offer her a place to talk about it and a place to consider other things that she might be able to do to improve her life, so that she understood she was not totally alone with her problem.

I did a lot of teaching of young doctors and medical students and I think – wherever in the world you are – you cannot overestimate sitting down quietly with someone and listening to what they have to say. Doctors who are always trained to do things find that very difficult to understand.

I joined the Jubilee St Practice in 1979 and I retired in 2009. I also worked in St Stephen’s Rd, Bow, in an all women practice which was unique in the East End at the time, when most doctors were older men. The working atmosphere at the practice was collegiate and they were very interested in the emotional life of their patients, which I think was unusual then. They looked after their staff very well.

I also worked in Wapping, where the GP had a bed with a pink quilt. I thought, ‘What’s this doing in the General Practice?’ In fact, it was where the GP slept when he was on call at night. He had his own bedroom at work. I observed the changing nature of the Wapping population. When the City people started to move in, they had much higher expectations and demanded to be seen when they needed to be seen.

There are a lot more children now with mental problems than when I started. There are multiple reasons. Not all children are in families where they get the nurturing that they need. Diet has a bit to do with it too. We could talk about air pollution. A lid used to be kept on by quite severe discipline. In general, children are much more disturbed now than twenty years ago. Families are much more disconnected with less extended families.

Over thirty years in the East End, I saw a major improvement in health services. District nursing and health visiting was of a very high quality in Tower Hamlets. The great thing about the East End was that it attracted people who are creative and want to improve health care. Every healthcare professional who has worked in Tower Hamlets and moved on still talks about working in the East End because there was a tremendous sense of collaboration and the patients were inspiring – because life was not easy for them.

I had a fantastic career, I was so lucky. Every year, the Bengali services had a Disability Awareness Day at Swanlea School in Whitechapel. The Bengali Disability Council set it up and they presented me a wonderful plaque for my services to the Bengali people of Tower Hamlets. That was the most moving occasion I have ever experienced. I got the MBE for services to healthcare in East London too, but the other award meant more to me because it meant I had been accepted by the community.”

Mary with former colleagues at the Jubilee St Practice

Mary Burd, Clinical Psychologist

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

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Hop Picking With Colin O’Brien

August 19, 2017
by the gentle author

A year ago I lost my friend, the late & great photographer Colin O’Brien, and I celebrate his memory with this account of our hop picking excursion to Lamberhurst with Company Drinks in 2015

Flossie Reed & Vi Charlton

Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien & I joined two coachloads of East Enders on a trip to Kent for a spot of hopping at Little Scotney Farm, courtesy of Company Drinks. As you can imagine, it was not the first time in the hop gardens for many of the participants which cast a certain emotionalism upon the day – Flossie Reed first visited in 1927 and Vi Charlton in 1930, as babes in their mothers’ arms.

Hop harvest in Kent takes a month and we were blessed with a warm day for our visit in the midst of the picking season. The pickers set to work enthusiastically pulling the flowers from the bines and tossing them into a long bin set on the grass, just up the hill from the hop gardens and in the shadow of the oasthouses looming overhead.

The pungent bittersweet smell of the hop flowers proved a powerful catalyst for memories of hop picking years ago. Vi Charlton recalled her childhood joy at encountering  the fresh green of the rural world after the dirty sooty atmosphere of Wapping in the thirties. “I had an aunt who was a champion picker,” she admitted to me,“Nobody liked her because she showed everyone else up.”

“It was a matriarchal society,” Vi confirmed with a philosophical shrug,” but the men would come down at the weekend and drink away the money the women had earned in the week.”

“We were greedy pickers,” continued Flossie Reed widening her eyes with enthusiasm, “We had to borrow money from a money-lender to come down and we had nothing left at the end once we’d paid for our food, but it was a lovely holiday.”

“I first came here when I was ten and now I’m eighty-four,” declared Ronald Prendergast without pausing from his picking,“it was a way of life. There were eleven of us in my family and we came down every year from West Ham. We were very poor in those days and by coming here we earned a little money to buy things for Christmas.”

As we sat along either side of the bin at our work, tractors rattled up and down the lane all day delivering the bines from the gardens to the barn at the top of the hill. There they were hooked onto chains that carried them through a machine which stripped off the flowers. Then a conveyor belt whisked the hops up to where it was stored in sacks prior to being spread out to dry in the oasthouses. Thus a dozen people were able to achieve a harvest once undertaken by armies of pickers.

I climbed up into the loft where Graham Watkins was shovelling hops through a chute in the floor to the room below, where it was parcelled up into bales ready for sale. Graham showed me the conical oasthouses in which hops is dried for six hours at a stretch night and day, and as he opened the doors I was hit by a wave of humid air emanating from within.

Little Scotney is one of the last of a handful of farms in Kent still growing and processing hops in the traditional way, yet numbers stencilled on the wall testify to the growing output of the farm through the decades and the rapidly-increasing demand in this century, thanks to the revival in brewing led by microbreweries.

In the afternoon, Evin O’Riordan founder of Kernel Brewery in Bermondsey arrived to collect the hops we had picked that would find their way into a green hop ale before the end of the day. “It’s an opportunity to express something of a place and a moment in time,” he confided to me with succinct eloquence.

Ronald Prendergast - “I’d sooner pick hops than sit in front of a computer”

Delivering the bines from the garden

Hooking up the bines

The bines move along a conveyor

The bines heading into the machine that strips the flowers

Sorting the hops

Hops drying in the oasthouse

Inside the oasthouse roof

Recording the number of pockets (bales) of hops produced each year

Graham Watkins

Baling up the hops

Bales of hops ready for sale

Evin O’Riordan of Kernel Brewery in Bermondsey

Little Scotney Farm

The hopping party (click photograph to enlarge)

Photographs copyright © Estate of Colin O’Brien

Movements, Deals & Drinks is a project by international artist group Myvillages, founded in 2003 by Kathrin Böhm, Wapke Feenstra & Antje Schiffers. The project was commissioned by Create and is registered as a Community Interest Company with the name Company Drinks. Company Drinks is supported by the Borough of Barking & Dagenham.

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In Tenterground

August 18, 2017
by the gentle author

Norman Jacobs sent me this unpublished memoir written by his father Isaac (known as ‘Ikey’) Jacobs, entitled Fleish or no Fleish? Below I publish extracts from his extraordinarily detailed manuscript, comprising a tender personal testimony of a Spitalfields childhood in the years following World War I.

Ikey Jacobs in 1959

My Tenterground consisted of six streets in the form of a ladder, the two uprights being Shepherd St and Tenter St, and going across like four rungs. Starting at the Commercial St end were Butler St, Freeman St, Palmer St and Tilley St – and this complex was encapsulated by White’s Row, Bell Lane, Wentworth St and finally Commercial St.

Our family lived in Palmer St which had about ten houses each side. They were terraced with three floors, ground, first and top. Each floor had two rooms, the front room overlooking the street and the back room overlooking the yard. By today’s standard the rooms were small. The WC and water tap were in the yard, and there was no inside toilet or running water.

The house we lived in contained three families. On the ground floor was a tailor who used his two rooms as a workshop. He was a foreigner, or – to us – a Pullock.  All foreign Jews were called Pullocks by English Jews, no matter which part of Europe they came from. It was a corruption of Pollack. Should my mother be having a few words with a Pullock, she would tell them to go back to Russia – Geography not being her strong point. Incidentally, if we had words with an English family they would tell us to go back to Palestine. So it evened itself out. Our family, with roots of settled residence in England traceable back to the seventeen-nineties, spoke no Hebrew or Yiddish worth mentioning, and I’m ashamed to say paid but only lip service to Jewish holidays.

Jack Lipschitz was the tailor’s name. He threatened me with dire consequences for mispronouncing his name – his surname of course. He had a sewing machine in his front room where his wife and daughter, Hetty, worked and a sewing machine and long bench for ironing in the back. He did all the ironing whilst his brother, Lippy – also part of the menage – worked the back room machine. In the summer, Jack did all the pressing in the yard where there was a brick fire for the irons. How these four people lived and slept there too, I don’t know.

Up one flight of stairs to a small landing saw the door to Solly Norton’s rooms, which he shared with his wife, Polly, and son, Ascher, who was about my age. They had the first gramophone I ever saw, the type with the big horn. I would often go down and play with Ascher to hear it. The Nortons kept a fruit stall in the Lane.

Up another flight, along another very small landing, the door to our front room faced you. We moved to Palmer St from Litchfield Rd in Bow where we had lived in my Aunt Betsy’s house. She was one of my mother’s elder sisters, so I assume my parents must have rented a room or two off her.

I came into the world as the second child on December 21st 1915, my sister Julia having joined the human race on on April 30th 1914. The move to Palmer St must have taken place in late 1916 or early 1917. Once there, the family increased at a steady pace – Davy 1917, Woolfy 1919, Abie 1921, Joe 1923 and Manny 1924. We were named  alternatively, one on Dad’s side of the family and one on Mum’s, Julia being the name of Dad’s mum and Isaac the name of Mum’s dad.

Rebecca & John Jacobs

My father was by trade a French polisher. When there wasn’t much in that line – which was often enough – he would turn his hand to other things. He was a very good lino-layer and, as he knew quite a few furniture shops along the Whitechapel and Mile End roads, he would get the occasional job doing that. From time to time, he would act as a waiter at the Netherlands Club in Bell Lane (note the connection with the Dutch Tenterground). He did this with a tall elderly man called Phillip, and I would often boast to my friends that my father was Head Waiter at the Bell Lane Club, which is what we called it.

My mother worked as a Cigar Maker, when she was single, in a firm she referred to as Toff Levy. Like many other cigar and cigarette firms of that time, it was situated in Aldgate. It was all handwork and girls were cheap labour. Working in the same firm was a certain Sarah Jacobs, and a friendship sprang up between her and Mum. This friendship sealed my destiny for – although as yet I was unborn – Fate had decreed that I was to be a Jacobs.

My mother was christened Rebecca (but known ever after as Becky), and she was the eighth child of Isaac and Clara Levy, born in the heart of the Lane at 214 Wentworth Dwellings on November 22nd 1888, just a few months after Jack the Ripper was supposed to have written the cryptic message “The Juwes are the men who will not be blamed for nothing” on one of its walls. My Nan, who had produced this heavenly babe, was herself a midwife. But alas for poor Isaac Levy, whose forename I proudly bear, he died at the turn of the century in company with Queen Victoria. My mother had told me that she left Castle St School at thirteen years of age, which seems to coincide with the death of her Dad, who had been a lifelong cripple and had to wear, as my mother put it, a high boot.

My dad, John, first saw the light of day on March 7th 1892 at 23 Bell Lane as the first child to bless the union of David and Julia Jacobs. His arrival was followed in quick succession by that of a brother Woolf and sister Sarah, the eventual link between John and Becky when she too worked for Toff Levy.

Upon our arrival in Palmer St, a stone’s throw as the crow flies from both Wentworth Dwellings and Bell Lane, we were a family of four, but we steadily increased to nine. Living on the top floor with this ever-expanding family had its problems – getting the pushchair up and down stairs, the occasional tumble down the stairs by one of the little ones, carrying up all the water and then the disposal of the dirty water again. Sharing one WC between three families didn’t help either.

On entering our front room, on the far right wall was a small coal-fired range, grate and oven. To its right, in a sort of recess, was a bed which was occupied by Mum and Dad, and generally the latest arrival. To the left of the fireplace, was a dresser which held the plates, cups and saucers and jam jars. Cups had a high mortality rate amongst us kids, so stone jam jars were pressed into service. Most of the cups were handleless. Some of the plates were of the willow pattern design and Mum would often tell us the story they depicted – “Two little boys going to Dover” etc.

We slept in the back room. We never had pyjamas, I don’t think we’d ever heard of them. So going to bed was quite a simple procedure – jersey, trousers, boots and socks off and into bed in our shirts. I can’t remember Julie’s night attire, she slept with the younger ones. We older boys slept like sardines, heads top and bottom, with all our legs meeting in the middle.

Ikey Jacob’s Map of Dutch Tenterground

On reflection, I suppose we were a very poor family. Dad did not seem to have regular work and the burden of feeding our ever increasing family fell heavily on the shoulders of mother. In the main, we lived on fillers like bread, potatoes and rice, but it wasn’t all doom and gloom. When Dad was working we did have good meals, but memory tells me there may have been more lean times than fat ones.

Bread and marge was the usual diet for breakfast and tea. Rice boiled with shredded cabbage or currants was served for dinner many a day. Potatoes, with a knob of marge, or as chips did service another day. Fried ox heart or sausages sometimes accompanied the potatoes. Fried herrings and sprats were issued when they were plentiful and cheap. There were times we would have a tomato herring and a couple of slices of bread, William Bruce was the name on the tin of these delicacies, still a favourite of mine today.

It was a common practice in our house to buy stale bread. One of us would be sent to Funnel’s with a pillow case and sixpence to make the purchase. Early morning was the best time to go as many other families did the same thing. We were not always lucky but when we were the lady would put four or five loaves in the pillow case, various shapes and sizes, for our tanner. When we got them home mum would sort out the fresher, or shall I say the least stale, for eating, and the remainder would then be soaked down for a bread pudding. Delicious.

We would also buy cakes that way too from Ostwind’s in the Lane. Six penn’orth of stale pastries was our order to the shop assistant and she would fill a paper bag up with them, probably glad to get rid of them. When in funds, large cakes were also bought on the stale system and I would often be sent to Silver’s, high class baker in Middlesex St, to purchase a sixpenny stale bola, a large posh-looking cake.

Itchy Park was the only park in the area. Not very large, it contained the usual gravestones, seats, trees and a few swings. As boys we were not always welcomed by our elders, who would probably be trying to have a kip. I used to like picking the caterpillars, little yellow ones, off the trees and putting them in matchboxes. Someone had told me they would eventually grow into butterflies but, after watching them carefully for a few days and finding nothing had happened, I would discard them – box and all.

The park was contained by a small wall from which sprouted high railings. Along this wall, sat the homeless and down and outs. It was said the park got its name from these people rubbing their backs against the railings because they were lousy. A drinking fountain, was set in between the railings with a big, heavy metal cup secured by a heavier chain. It was operated by pressing a large metal button, and the water emerging from a round hole below it.

In front of this stood a horse trough, much needed then as most of the traffic serving Spitalfields Market was horse drawn. The Fruit & Vegetable Market was very busy, especially in the morning when Commercial St would be choked with its moving and parked traffic. All the produce would be laid out on sacks, in baskets or in boxes, and one of the sights of the market was to see porters carrying numerous round baskets of produce on their heads. For me, this was the best time of day to go looking for specks – these were bad oranges or apples thrown into a box. Selecting those with half or more salvageable, I would take them home where the bad parts were cut away and the remainder eaten.

Ikey Jacobs in 1938

There were times when Dad would have to pay the Relieving Officer a visit. I don’t know how the system worked, but if you could prove you were in need he would allocate certain items of foodstuffs, and, I suppose, a few bob. After all, the rent had to be paid. His establishment was popularly called the bun house. When Dad returned we all gathered round to inspect the contents of the pillow case as he placed them on the table. The favourite was always the jar of Hartley’s strawberry jam. Being a stone jar, when emptied, and that didn’t take long, it served as another cup. The least popular item was the cheese, suffice to say we called it ‘sweaty feet.’

Our main provider in the winter months was the soup kitchen in Butler St. It opened two or three nights a week and issued bread, marge, saveloys, sardines and of course soup. The size of the applicant’s family decided how many portions they were entitled to – the portions ran from one to four. When you first applied they issued you with a kettle, we called it a can. It had a number stamped on the side depicting how many portions you were to get. Ours had four.

When it opened for business we would all line up outside along Butler St. Once inside, six crash barriers had to be negotiated in a single line till the door leading to the serving area was reached. There would be two men doing the serving, both dressed in white and wearing tall chef’s hats. The first one would give me four loaves, always brick loaves, two packets of Van den Burgh’s Toma margarine and two tins of sardines. If I preferred saveloys to soup, he would give me eight of those. I was always told to get the soup, because we had saveloys once and they were 80% bread.

Having dealt with the grocery department, I moved along to the soup-giver. He was a great favourite of mine, known by our family as ‘the fat cook,’ a stout, domineering man with a fine beard. As I gave him the can, he would look me in the eyes and ask, “Fleish or no Fleish?” If you did not want any meat you’d say “No Fleish.” Although, as a rule, the meat was 50% fat, I was always instructed to get some. So I would look up into his eyes and reply in a loud voice “Fleish.” He would glare at me and go off to a large boiler to get it.

There was a long table with form seating down each side, set out between the boilers and the servers, where anybody, Jew or Gentile, could go in and sit down to a bowl of soup and a thick slice of bread. They did three different varieties of soup – rice, pea and barley alternatively, one variety per night. People who did not want the soup at all, but just the groceries, were given a metal disc with the portion number stamped on it. Funny, not wanting soup in a soup kitchen.

Every Passover, before they closed for the summer, we would be given four portions of groceries for the holiday. Four packets of tea and of coffee, (I loved the smell of that coffee, its aroma came right through the red packet with Hawkins printed on it) Toma marge and many other foodstuffs. But not matzos – these were obtainable from the synagogue. Dad would come back from Duke’s Place Shul with about six packets of these crunchy squares. The ones we disliked most were Latimer’s because they were hard, but generally he would bring Abrahams & Abrahams, a trifle better. But beggars can’t be choosers and I suppose we were beggars, now I come to think of it.

Eventually the time came when we were told we were to leave the Tenterground. It was going to be pulled down. All I felt was despair. I knew no other place or way of life. Those dirty streets and slum houses were part of me. Long after we left, I would dream I was back there only to wake up to the reality that the Tenterground had gone for ever. Well, not quite for ever, there is still a little boy who haunts those long vanished streets –  Ikey Jacobs.

A page of Ikey Jacobs’ manuscript

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