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A Walk With Suresh Singh

May 22, 2019
by the gentle author

We are very proud to be the publishers of A MODEST LIVING, Memoirs of a Cockney Sikh, London’s first Sikh biography, telling the story of one family in Spitalfields over seventy years. In celebration of the book, author Suresh Singh will be in conversation Stefan Dickers at the National Portrait Gallery on Friday 7th June at 7pm. (Click here for tickets)

In the meantime, Suresh and I enjoyed a ramble round Spitalfields recently and he showed me some of the places that hold most meaning for him.

“I love Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East. It was the library I used to go to every Friday when I was at primary school. You could sit and read. It was just lovely. Upstairs was the art and music library. They had big oversize books of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, the Impressionists, Matisse, Degas and Le Corbusier’s book about Chandigarh.

It was amazing to have this in Brick Lane, at the end of my street. You were given freedom to look at the books and could borrow twelve books and five records at a time. The librarian in the music library would order whatever you requested. Even if you asked for ‘Yes’ album, he would get it by next week. My dad had a record player and I learnt to be really careful with a record because when you returned it they would meticulously check it.

The library was a whole world. It taught me to read quietly. It exposed me to books that I might never have found. My mum and dad could not read or write. We had no books at home. I liked the art section because the books had pictures and I learnt that pictures told stories as well as words. The librarians always helped me and I could spend hours there. It was a sanctuary from the mayhem outside, a kind of university of the ghetto.”

“Christ Church School, Brick Lane, was my primary school. I loved it when I came back after a long visit to India at six years old. I have frightening memories of it too, as the place I had to go to after the freedom I had experienced in our village. My mum used to walk me here every day and I would walk home for dinner at Princelet St and come back again. School dinners were so bland but my mum gave me dal and roti.

The water fountain used to work and we could drink from it. I remember it as so high, my friends had to give me a lift up so I could drink from it. You pressed the button and it worked. There were little fish that lived in there.

Later on, Eric Elstob – a friend whom I worked for in the renovation of his house in Fournier St – was treasurer of the school and he restored the railings, which was lovely. A couple of years ago, they were repainting them blue and I asked them to paint a bit of my bike with the same colour to remind me of the great memories I have of this school. We used to have great jumble sales at Christmas. You could climb through the school and out through the back, past the gardens of the houses in Fournier St and Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Christ Church into Itchy Park, and out into Commercial St and Spitalfields Market. I loved it because it was a backstreet school.”

“I have fond memories of the rectory at 2 Fournier St when Eddie Stride was Rector. It is one of the few Hawksmoor houses. I helped Eddie wash the steps with Vim when the tramps pissed all over them. There used to be queues outside and Irene Stride made sandwiches for them.

It was a place where Eddie made me feel very welcome. I rang the bell or knocked on the door, and he would always open it to me. The door was never closed. I could always go in and play in the garden. Later on, there were big power meetings at the rectory when Eddie became the chairman of the Festival of Light. So you would meet people like Malcolm Muggeridge, Mary Whitehouse, Cliff Richard and Lord Longford coming and going. It was always an open house.

I was brought up as a Sikh but there were no gurdwaras in Spitalfields, and my dad said ‘You need some moral purpose,’ so he send us to Sunday school and that was how I became friends with Eddie Stride. He was a great friend to our family. He helped me get grants for further education from the Sir John Cass Foundation which led me to study architecture. I loved that time and these steps mean a lot to me. It is amazing how Vim can clean Portland stone. ”

“I always knew the Hanbury Hall as 22a Hanbury St. In those days, Christ Church was closed because it was unsafe and this was used for services instead. There was a youth club at the top of the building on Thursdays and Fridays and we had our Sunday school in the hall.

Because it was built as a Huguenot chapel, everyone used to say that this hall is older than the church and sometimes that used to scare me late at night. There were these big wooden doors that closed with a hasp and I always feared someone might come down the winding stone staircase. Later, when I was doing carpentry work, Eddie gave me the task of housing the remains of the smallpox victims that they found when they were cleaning out the crypt.

When I started a group, we were allowed to rehearse in the vestry at the back. This place was a playground for me but also a church where services were held until the eighties. Then I helped move the furniture from here back to Christ Church. I remember we put the communion table on casters and I had to clear out all the copies of Lord Longford’s pornography report which were being stored in the church.

This hall was a treasure because it had a lovely atmosphere but also a haunted atmosphere too. It was the main meeting point for all of us in Spitalfields at that time.”

“Once, the Truman Brewery in Brick Lane was a dark scary corridor for me. It was my route from my home in Princelet St to my secondary school, Daneford in Bethnal Green. At that time, it used to smell of hops and it was dark and dirty. I got beaten up by a bunch of fascist skinheads at the corner of the brewery where it meets Buxton St. I still try to avoid this route but like a magnet it draws me through. I used to run through or cycle because to go round the other way was much longer and sometimes more scary- you would have to cut past Shoreditch Station and round the back to Cheshire St.

So this was the quickest route but it was like going through a factory. The brewery was always there in my childhood. The smell and the noise were twenty-four hours, and it was always dark beneath the brewery walls. The brewery was a landmark and I remember smoke coming out of that chimney. It was a place that you had no choice but to pass through. At the other end of the brewery was where the skinheads hung out but at this end was the Bengali area where I felt safer. Every day I hoped I would not get my head kicked in as I went to school.

As a kid, I found these long brewery walls interminable. I walked and walked and thought, ‘Will I ever get through to the end?’ It still scares me in a way.”

“I used to pass Franta Belsky’s sculpture in Bethnal Green every day when I walked along the little passageway to Daneford Secondary School. Today, I am wearing the tank top my mum knitted when I was eleven and I remember wearing it to a non-school uniform day all those years ago.

I always used to see this sculpture out of the side of my eye. My friends would say, ‘You go on Singhey, I dare you to touch her breasts and come back down again.’ But slowly I began to appreciate the beauty of it and began looking at books of Henry Moore and David Smith. It was a lovely thing to see before you went to school every day. It comforted me to see a woman and her baby because I thought, ‘That’s how my mum cares for me.’ It gave me a sense of security. I thought, ‘How amazing that we have a piece of sculpture outside our school.’ It made me feel proud because of the sculpture. My dad used to take me to Hyde Park where there were Henry Moores next to the Serpentine. I thought, ‘We’re on a par with the West End here in Bethnal Green.’

I slowly started loving it. I loved her plait and it reminded me of when I had a topknot. I appreciated it in different types of light and I still love it today.”

Suresh Singh & Jagir Kaur at 38 Princelet St last summer (Photograph by Patricia Niven)

You may also like to read about

Suresh Singh’s Tank Top

A Modest Living

At 38 Princelet St

A Hard-Working Life

Joginder Singh’s Boy

How to Make A Chapati

A Cockney Sikh

The first Punjabi Punk

A Sikh at Christ Church

Three Punjabi Recipes

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Click here to order a signed copy of A MODEST LIVING for £20

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Underneath Smithfield Market

May 21, 2019
by the gentle author

A train runs beneath Smithfield Market

As one of those who fought to save Smithfield General Market from demolition five years ago, I was delighted have the opportunity last week of exploring the infinite dark recesses of this vast structure which extends deep underground. This was the first time I have been inside Horace Jones’ market building of 1868 and it was a heart-stopping experience to enter his soaring iron cathedral and walk beneath the vast dome at last.

If events had turned out differently in 2014, this magnificence would all have been destroyed with only the facade remaining upon the front of a steel office block. So it was gratifying to visit now as a guest of the Museum of London who are taking it over as their new home, adopting a policy of ‘light touch’ in their treatment of the old building.

In announcing the outcome of the Public Enquiry into the Smithfield Market proposals, the Secretary of State criticised the City of London for deliberately allowing Horace Jones’ beautiful market to fall into decay and disrepair. Readers will be pleased to learn the City of London is now paying for extensive and expensive repairs which are underway.

When I arrived, the traders’ pavilions that had accumulated to fill the market floor were being dismantled to reveal the open space for the first time since the nineteenth century – this majestic hall will be where all visitors enter the new museum. The only major architectural decision taken here regards the location of the staircase leading down to the subterranean galleries below. After some discussion of a central spiral staircase under the dome, permanently restricting the possibility of displays, a decision has been taken to cut a straight staircase along the north side of the building leaving the ground floor clear for exhibitions.

The great drama lies beneath. Here is an enormous black underground cavern, wider than the market above, with a vaulted roof of brick, grimy from steam trains. This was constructed as a railway station where trains from the London docks once brought meat which arrived from across the world. Deliveries were unloaded onto carts that drove up the ramp to the market above.

As you pause to contemplate the wonder of it, a diabolic rumble fills the darkness. It is a train coming! You stand in the darkness as a Thameslink train full of commuters rattles past, coming from Blackfriars on its way to Farringdon. The passengers sit preoccupied in their lit carriages, unaware of the watcher observing them from the darkness. One day, these commuters will peer out from their windows and discover they can see directly into the galleries of the Museum of London and, one day, visitors to the museum will be able to observe trains passing from a window in the gallery.

Beyond this empty hangar, lies another deep space with brick arches soaring overhead and dripping vaults receding into the velvet blackness of history. The moisture that permeates the structure evidences the presence of the River Fleet flowing below. You stand beneath London, between the underground trains and the subterranean river. You are at the heart of the city. It is dark. It is a space of infinite mutability. It is a place with soul, where the past lingers. It is a natural home for a museum of London.

This concrete dome was constructed post-war to replace the original destroyed in the Blitz

The rare ‘phoenix columns’ that support the roof are hollow, used in preference to cast iron, to minimise the weight of the structure which sits over a tube line

First floor pavilions added to the building as traders offices are currently being removed

A spiral staircase leads to an office that no longer exists

Hanging fireplaces attest to former first floor offices

Cast iron racks once supported rails for displaying meat

The agglomeration of traders pavilions on the ground floor was known as ‘the village’

Abandoned grinding wheel for sharpening knives

Ancient dripping brickwork indicates the vicinity of the River Fleet flowing beneath

Thameslink rails stored under the market

You may also like to read about

At The Smithfield Market Public Enquiry

Smithfield Market is Saved

Kois Miah At Robin Hood Gardens

May 20, 2019
by the gentle author

Local resident and photographer Kois Miah visited families during the final years of Robin Hood Gardens and took these portraits, capturing the dignity of their existence in an estate condemned by many as a brutalist eyesore. “Whatever they think, there’s a huge sense of community here,” Kois admitted to me.

An exhibition of Kois Miah’s pictures entitled LIVED BRUTALISM opens next  Thursday 22nd May and runs until 8th June at Four Corners Gallery, 121 Roman Rd, E2 0QN

Moyna Miah and his grandchildren, 9th April 2015

Del and Gaby, 13th September 2014

Samir Uddin and his children, 13th September 2015

Evening Rain, West Building, 1st September 2015

Taurus Miah, 9th April 2015

East Building, 24th June 2015

Summer fun day, 19th August 2014

Pat, 13th September 2015

Adrienne Sargent, 15th August 2016

Poplar High St, 31st March 2015

Jim, Caretaker, 23rd July 2014

West face of east building, 28th May 2016

Joanne, 28th May 2016

Mr & Mrs Hoque, 13th September 2015

On the balcony of the east building, 15th November 2015

Photographs copyright © Kois Miah

You may also like to read about

At Robin Hood Gardens

Return to Robin Hood Gardens

Decanted From Robin Hood Gardens

Impending Disaster At 3 Club Row

May 19, 2019
by the gentle author

A pair of weavers’ houses at 3-5 Club Row dating from 1764/66

Ever since Boris Johnson used his executive power as Mayor of London to permit British Land to demolish more than 80% of the fabric of their Norton Folgate development site which sits entirely in a Conservation Area in Spitalfields, there has been an unruly climate of laissez-faire in the East End for the destruction of historic buildings.

Just last month, we saw the destruction of local landmark, Tadmans, a distinguished Regency corner building which had stood on the corner of Jubilee St in Whitechapel for two centuries. The fact that it was neither listed nor in a Conservation Area allowed a Planning Officer simply to grant permission for demolition without even the necessity of consulting councillors.

This week, an application was submitted to demolish this seventeen-sixties weavers’ house, one of a pair at 3-5 Club Row in the Redchurch St Conservation Area. The significance of this unique surviving pair of houses is outlined by Peter Guillery, Senior Historian at the Survey of London, in his definitive book The Small House in Eighteenth Century London. “In few, if any, other London districts would the provision of new housing have been so clearly and directly associated with the needs of a single industry,” he writes. They were “a local solution to a local problem,” built specifically for journeymen silk weavers of Bethnal Green – not the wealthy silk merchants of Spitalfields. These were the first buildings in Britain constructed specifically to fulfil the requirements of both living and working.

In January 2017, the Huguenots of Spitalfields responded to Tower Hamlets Council’s request for suggestions of buildings that merit Local Listing, by submitting applications for this pair in Club Row and nine other surviving weavers’ houses in the vicinity. Twenty-eight months later, no response was forthcoming until this week, when an enquiry was made regarding the threat of demolition of 3 Club Row, drawing this reply from the Planning Department.

“The application was considered along with a number a number of other nominations, however, a decision was made to not locally list these buildings as they were all located within Conservation Areas.  This is because buildings in Conservation Areas already benefit from a degree of protection under the planning system, including a protection against demolition without permission. We have therefore decided to focus the designation on buildings that currently don’t have any protection or recognition in the planning process… It does not appear that your colleague was notified of this decision, and I am very sorry for this oversight.”

Yet Conservation Area status did not protect the buildings in Norton Folgate and the Planning Department’s focus on buildings that “currently don’t have any protection or recognition in the planning process” did not extend to Tadman’s in Whitechapel.

So now we are faced with the threat of the demolition of a rare survival of an eighteenth century weavers’ house in Shoreditch. The jaw-droppingly appalling Philistinism of the developer is such that they claim destroying this old building – which they have let it slip into decay – and replacing it with generic new spreadsheet architecture will be an improvement to the Conservation Area.

“Regards the demolition of the building, the assessment shows that No’s 3-5 do not make a positive contribution to the area’s special character … The proposed replacement scheme will be of a suitably high quality that will enhance the Redchurch St Conservation Area.” This is an extract from the developer’s Heritage Statement, the only part of their eighty page application in which they mention the historic building.

We need your help if we are to save this building. Below you will find instructions for how you can object effectively to stop the impending disaster at 3 Club Row.

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Note the drawing of the developer’s Porsche in this rendering of the replacement

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HOW TO OBJECT EFFECTIVELY

Use your own words and add your own personal reasons for opposing the development. Any letters which simply duplicate the same wording will count only as one objection.

1. Quote the application reference: PA/19/00932/A1

2. Give your full name and postal address. You do not need to be a resident of Tower Hamlets or of the United Kingdom to register a comment but unless you give your postal address your objection will be discounted.

3. Be sure to state clearly that you are OBJECTING to the demolition of 3 Club Row.

4. The building is exceptionally rare and significant and should be listed.

5. It is an historic building in a Conservation Area and part of the historic and architectural interest of the area.

6. The replacement scheme is not worthy a replacement.

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WHERE TO SEND YOUR OBJECTION

You can register and object by clicking here if you have a UK postcode

or

you can write an email to

planningandbuilding@towerhamlets.gov.uk

or

you can send a letter to

Town Planning, Town Hall, Mulberry Place, 5 Clove Crescent, London, E14 2BG

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3-5 Club Row, 1953

These houses were built between 1764 and 1766, specifically for the journeymen silk weavers of Bethnal Green and the related trades of silk throwsters, winders and dyers.

These are single depth, one-room-plan houses with a rear window, so light could permeate from front and back. The wide top-floor windows, built into the main body of the house rather than into the attics, were for maximum light, essential for colour-matching fine silk threads. The brick frontages allowed the construction of the staircases while the rear walls were often of wood.

They were constructed as multi-occupant, single-room, workshop-homes, with one family per floor and silk weaving at the top. A journeyman family could only afford one room and work dominated their lives, so no space was provided for much else, with the size of looms dictating the size of the rooms.

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You may also like to read about

What Happened To Tadmans

Save Our East End Heritage

Bethnal Green Mulberry Lecture

May 18, 2019
by the gentle author

This week designer Jill Wilson installed her wonderful model of the Bethnal Green Mulberry in the window of Townhouse, Fournier St, for the Chelsea Flower Show Festival Fringe, promoting our campaign to stop developers digging up the oldest tree in the East End. We believe the Bethnal Green Mulberry is over four hundred years old – planted by Bishop Bonner, a Tudor Bishop of London, in the sixteenth century.

Next Wednesday 22nd May at 6:30pm, I shall be giving a lecture at Townhouse telling the story of the Bethnal Green Mulberry, its culture, history and the battle to save it. (Click here for free tickets)

I am delighted to report that our solicitor has confirmed we have grounds to call a Judicial Review at the High Court, challenging Tower Hamlets Council’s decision last September to give their consent to Crest Nicholson’s overblown housing scheme for the former London Chest Hospital next to Victoria Park, which involves digging up the Bethnal Green Mulberry.

This decision was taken in spite of the Tree Protection Order, the Mulberry’s designation as a Veteran Tree and the additional protection extended to such trees in the government’s revised planning policy guidelines last July.

We are very grateful to all of you who contributed £6,118 that we have raised so far for our legal fund to save the Bethnal Green Mulberry. At this moment, we need to find another £1,077 to pay a barrister who will take the case to the High Court and we ask your help to raise this sum.

CLICK TO CONTRIBUTE TO OUR FUND TO SAVE THE BETHNAL GREEN MULBERRY

Jill Wilson installs her magnificent creation

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

Graphic by Paul Bommer

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Click here to read my feature in The Daily Telegraph about the scandal of the Bethnal Green Mulberry

Click here to read my feature in The Evening Standard about the scandal of the Bethnal Green Mulberry

Read more about the Bethnal Green Mulberry

Hope for The Bethnal Green Mulberry

The Fate of the Bethnal Green Mulberry

How Old is the Bethnal Green Mulberry?

Here We Go Round The Bethnal Green Mulberry

A Plea For The Bethnal Green Mulberry

The Bethnal Green Mulberry

A Letter to Crest Nicholson

A Reply From Crest Nicholson

The Reckoning With Crest Nicholson