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David Mason, Wilton’s Music Hall

August 17, 2018
by the gentle author

When I arrived to meet David Mason in the bar at Wilton’s Music Hall, the only person sitting there was a man who looked so at home I imagined he must be the caretaker, not David. In fact, this was David, who grew up in the flat above Wilton’s when his father was caretaker in the nineteen fifties and – more than half a century after he moved out – he still feels comfortable in the old place.

Although it was known as the Old Mahogany Bar when David’s family moved into four rooms up above in 1951, the building was not a music hall then but a Methodist chapel. “My father knew it had been a music hall,” David explained to me, “The story we were told was that Wilton’s was thought to be a place of debauchery, and one day three Methodists walking past were so shocked they bought tickets and kneeled down in front of the stage and prayed that it would one day be a place of worship – and, lo and behold, eighty years later the Methodists got it!”

Even in this incarnation, the old music hall was a place of wonder for a small child, granted free run of the building. “When I was eight, my father had to spend ten nights away in hospital. He said, ‘You’re the man of the house.’ and I had to go round with a torch in the dark checking all the locks at night. It was scary, I thought every single noise was someone creeping up on me,” David recalled affectionately, as we walked through the atmospheric empty theatre yesterday.

In 1951 when David was three, his younger brother and sister, John and Jean, were born unexpectedly as twins and the family could no longer live in two rooms in the Peabody Buildings in John Fisher St. His father, Harry, was offered number three Grace’s Alley by Mr Willis the minister in return for care-taking duties, stoking and lighting the boiler, laying out tables and chairs for prayer meeting and some occasional do it yourself, which included knocking up the little wooden cross for the altar. “My parents were married here in the Old Mahogany Bar,” David told me, gesturing around the empty bar where we sat, ”He worked for the Port of London Authority as a docker in St Katherine’s Dock and his nan’s  family were sugar bakers, they came from Ship Alley in Wellclose Sq – and my mother’s family came from Backchurch Lane.”

David went to St Paul’s opposite the music hall, a Church of England school presided over by Father Joe Williamson known as ‘Holy Joe.’ “He could walk into a fight in Cable St and kneel down and pray and they would stop brawling,” David assured me. The difference between the Methodism at the chapel and the Church of England practices at school was a source of bewilderment to David at an early age. “I was deeply confused, they covered their cross sometimes but we never did, and ours didn’t have a Jesus on it while theirs did. I asked one of the Methodist sisters why our cross did not have Jesus and she said, ‘We believe Jesus rose from the cross,’ but I think the real reason was that my dad made the cross and he couldn’t carve.”

In those days, the London Docks were still active and Wapping was scattered with bombsites where, as a child, David was free to wander. He remembers ships chandlers and mapmakers in the surrounding streets that were inhabited by a closely-knit community including significant numbers of Greek, Maltese and Turkish people. Before the slum clearance programme, Wellclose Sq and Swedenborg Sq stood lined with shambolic old houses and connected by a warren of alleys, in which was Roy’s sweet shop that David remembers as the last place he spent a farthing.

“My dad said that before the war they used to have a book appreciation club and I remember going with him to a Jewish-owned record shop in Aldgate where he reminisced about the record appreciation society. They had a Boys’ Brigade, Scouts, Magic Lantern Shows and there were Methodist Union meetings where ministers from other religions came to explain their beliefs. When we moved in, there was a still a youth club and there were always old ladies sitting knitting and chatting, but during the fifties they had fewer and fewer prayer meetings and my dad had to open up less and less, until it died.”

“In 1959, we were given fourteen days notice to leave by the Methodists and nobody was willing to help.” David confessed to me, “My dad wasn’t a bible bashing type, he wasn’t overtly religious even, but he went to church all his life and he carried the soldier’s prayer in the pocket of his battledress jacket. So I think it hurt him after all this time to feel we were being thrown out. The upshoot was we ended up in three rooms belonging to the Port of London Authority near the Woolwich Ferry and that was the end of our contact with this place.”

At fourteen years old, David came back to get his eyes tested at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel and took a stroll alone down to Wapping to see what was going on at his former home, now owned by the GLC. “I rang the bell that said ‘Ring for caretaker’ but no-one answered so I turned to walk away and a gruff voice called, ‘Who are you? What do you want?’ I explained that I used to live there and I knew how many steps there were up to the flat, and he let me in, saying, ‘You really did live here, didn’t you?’” Since David left, the building had become a warehouse for rags, guarded by fierce dogs that were described to him by a friend as “all-stations.”

Returning to witness the re-opening of Wilton’s Music Hall and visit the space he once knew intimately has been an equivocal experience for David, as he confided to me, ” The first time I came back there was a lot of strings being pulled in my heart. I never thought I’d stand in the Old Mahogany Bar in the Methodist chapel and have a glass of wine to drink!” .

“I have only got happy memories here, we laughed all the time – but when I lived here there didn’t seem to be as much love for the place as there is now,” he concluded, “When I come back now it isn’t like the place I grew up in, it’s a foreign country. It wasn’t the best of places then, yet it did have something – you could call it soul.”

Wilton’s Music Hall was known as the Old Mahogany Bar when David grew up here in the fifties.

Davis’s parents, Anne & Harry Mason, were married in the Old Mahogany Bar at Wilton’s.

St Paul’s School Wellclose Sq where David went to school.

St Paul’s School viewed from the living room window at Wilton’s.

The infants class at St Paul’s photographed on the lawn outside Wilton’s – Miss Webb and Father Joe Williamson (known as Holy Joe) officiate. David sits in the front row directly to the right of the sign.

David’s mother and younger brother John on the roof of Wilton’s where they grew tomatoes and flowers.

David with his mother and the twins in the living room at Wilton’s.

David with his nan and the twins. “Her name was Elizer Wiegle and she was of German extraction, and used to attend the Lutheran Church in Alie St.”

David sits on the big staircase at Wilton’s.

Methodist activities at Wilton’s in the fifties.

David recalls reading the theatre’s foundation stone by torchlight with his father as a child.

John Claridge’s portrait of the caretaker at Wilton’s, 1964, after the theatre became a rag store.

Caretaker portrait copyright © John Claridge

Charles Booth’s Spitalfields

August 16, 2018
by the gentle author

In the recently published East London volume of Charles Booth’s notebooks of research for his Survey into Life & Labour of the People of London (1886-1903), I came upon an account of a visit to Spitalfields in spring 1898. when he walked through many of the streets and locations of  the Spitalfields Nippers around the same time Horace Warner took his photographs. So I thought I would select descriptions from Booth’s notebooks and place Warner’s pictures alongside, comparing their views of the same subject. Click here to order a copy of The Streets Of London: The Booth Notebooks, East for £12

March 18th Friday 1898 – Walk with Sergeant French

Walked round a district bounded to the North by Quaker St, on the East by Brick Lane and on the West by Commercial St, being part of the parish of Christ Church, Spitalfields.

Back of big house, Quaker St

Starting at the Police Station in Commercial St, East past St Stephen’s Church into Quaker St. Rough, Irish.Brothels on the south side of the street past the Court called New Square. Also a Salvation Army ‘Lighthouse’ which encourages the disreputable to come this way. The railway has now absorbed all the houses on the North side as far as opposite Pool Square. Wheler St also Rough Irish, does not look bad, shops underneath.

Courts South of Quaker St – Pope’s Head Court, lately done up and repaired, and a new class in them since the repairs, poor not rough. One or two old houses remaining with long weavers’ windows in the higher storeys.

New Square, Rough, one one storey house, dogs chained in back garden…

Pool Sq

Pool Square, three storeyed houses, rough women about, Irish. One house with a wooden top storey, windows broken. This is the last of an Irish colony, the Jews begin to predominate when Grey Eagle St is reached. These courts belong to small owners who generally themselves occupy one of the houses in the courts themselves.

Isaac Levy

Grey Eagle St Jews on East side, poor. Gentiles, rough on West side, mixture of criminal men in street. Looks very poor, even the Jewish side but children booted, fairly clean, well clothed and well fed. Truman’s Brewery to the East side. To Corbet’s Court, storeyed rough Irish, brothels on either side of North end.

Washing Day

Children booted but with some very bad boots, by no means respectable….

Pearl St

Great Pearl St Common lodging houses with double beds – thieves and prostitutes.

South into Little Pearl St and Vine Court, old houses with long small-paned weavers windows to top storeys, some boarded up in the middle. On the West side, lives T Grainger ‘Barrows to Let’

Parsley Season in Crown Court

Crown Court, two strong men packing up sacks of parsley…

Carriage Folk of Crown Court – Tommy Nail & Willie Dellow

The Great Pearl St District remains as black as it was ten years ago, common lodging houses for men, women and doubles which are little better than brothels. Thieves, bullies and prostitutes are their inhabitants. A thoroughly vicious quarter – the presence of the Cambridge Music Hall in Commercial St makes it a focussing point for prostitutes

Detail of Charles Booth’s Descriptive Map of London Poverty 1889

Clennell’s London Melodies

August 15, 2018
by the gentle author

Of all the dozens of woodcuts of CRIES OF LONDON I have come across, this anonymously-published set is my favourite – so I am very grateful to historian Dr Ruth Richardson who identified them for me as the work of Thomas Bewick’s apprentice Luke Clennell.

I will be speaking about the Cries of London and showing favourite pictures on Tuesday 21st August at the meeting of London Historians at Sir Christopher Hatton in Leather Lane, EC1. The theme of the evening is London Retail and includes Tina Baxter on Leadenhall Market, Jane Young on Co-operative Stores, Dave Whittaker on Gamages, Andrea Tanner on Fortnum & Mason and Diane Burstein on St James’s – Locke & Co, Lobb and Floris. Click here to book a ticket

Self-portrait by Luke Clennell (1781–1840)

The hawkers in Luke Clennell’s woodcuts look filthy, with bad skin and teeth, dressed in ragged clothes, either skinny as cadavers or fat as thieves, and with hands as scrawny as rats’ claws.You can almost smell their bad breath and sweaty unwashed bodies, pushing themselves up against you in the crowd to make a hard sell.

Luke Clennell was apprenticed as an engraver to Thomas Bewick and then moved to London in 1804 as a young man, seeking a career as a painter and winning a major commission in 1816 from the Earl of Bridgewater to do portraits of more than four hundred guests at dinner in the Guildhall. The impossibility of getting all these subjects to sit for him drove Clennell to a nervous breakdown and he was committed to Salisbury Asylum. Although he recovered sufficiently to continue his career, he was afflicted with mental illness for the rest of his life and died in Newcastle Asylum in 1840.

The distinctive quality of Clennell’s Cries, first published as ‘London Melodies & Cries of the Seasons’ in 1812, stands out among the hundreds of anonymous woodcuts published in chapbooks in the early nineteenth century by virtue of their lively texture and unapologetic, unsentimental portraiture.

Clennell’s hawkers are never going to be framed on the parlour wall and they do not give a toss. They own their defiant uncouth spirit. They are a rough bunch with ready fists that you would not wish to encounter in a narrow byway on a dark night. Yet they are survivors who know the lore of the streets, how to scratch a living out of little more than resourcefulness, and how to turn a shilling as easily as a groat.

With unrivalled spirit, savage humour, profane vocabulary and a rapacious appetite, Luke Clennell’s woodcuts are the most street-wise of all the Cries. He gloried in the grotesque features and unrestrained personalities of hawkers, while also permitting them an unbridled humanity that we can only regard with esteem. They call to me across the centuries, crying, “Sweet and Pretty Beau-Pots – One a-Penny” and “Buy my Live Scate.”

It is wonderful to learn the name of this artist who captured the vigorous life of these loud characters with such art. For a contemporary eye these are portraits that sit naturally alongside the work of Ronald Searle and Quentin Blake. Luke Clennell gloried in the grotesque features and unrestrained personalities of street people, while also permitting them a humanity which we can recognise and respect. Now at long last, I can publish them with the artist’s name beside them.

Rabbit, Rabbit – Nice fat Rabbit

All Round & Sound, Full Weight, Threepence a Pound, my Ripe Kentish Cherries.

Buy my Fresh Herrings, Fresh Herrings, O! Three a Groat, Herrings, O!

Buy a Nice Wax Doll – Rosy and Fresh.

The King’s Speech, The King’s Speech to both Houses of Parliament.

Here’s all a Blowing, Alive and Growing – Choice Shrubs and Plants, Alive and Growing.

Hot Spice Gingerbread, Hot – Come buy my Spice Gingerbread, Smoaking Hot – Hot Spice Gingerbread, All Hot.

Any Earthen Ware, Plates, Dishes, or Jugs, today – any Clothes to Exchange, Madam?

Hot Mutton Dumplings – Nice Dumplings, All Hot.

Buy a Hat Box, Cap Box, or Bonnet Box.

Buy my Baskets, a Work, Fruit, or a Bread Basket.

Chickens, a Nice Fat Chicken – Chicken, or a Young Fowl.

Sweet and Pretty Beau-Pots, One a-Penny – Chickweed and Groundsel for your Birds.

Buy my Wooden Ware – a Bowl, Dish, Spoon or Platter.

Six Bunches a-Penny, Sweet Lavender – Six Bunches a-Penny, Sweet Blooming Lavender.

Here’s One a-Penny – Here’s Two a-Penny, Hot Cross Buns.

Lilies of the Valley, Sweet Lilies of the Valley.

Cats Meat, Dogs Meat – Any Cat’s or Dog’s Meat Today?

Buy my Live Scate, Live Scate – Buy my Dainty Fresh Salmon.

Mackerel, O!  Four for shilling, Mackerel, O!

Hastings Green and Young Hastings. Here’s Young Peas, Tenpence a Peck,  Marrow-fat Peas.

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

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Receipts From London’s Oldest Ironmongers

August 14, 2018
by the gentle author

As any accountant will tell you – you must always keep your receipts. It was a dictum adopted religiously by the staff at London oldest ironmongers R. M. Presland & Sons in the Hackney Rd from 1797-2013, where this cache of receipts from the eighteen-eighties and nineties was discovered. All these years later, they may no longer be of interest to the tax man, but they serve to illustrate the utilitarian beauty of nineteenth-century typographic design and tell us a lot about the diverse interrelated  trades which once filled this particular corner of the East End.


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Tony Hall, Photographer

August 13, 2018
by the gentle author

Bonner St, Bethnal Green

Tony Hall (1936-2008) would not have described himself as a photographer – his life’s work was that of a graphic designer, political cartoonist and illustrator. Yet, on the basis of the legacy of around a thousand photographs that he took, he was unquestionably a photographer, blessed with a natural empathy for his subjects and possessing a bold aesthetic sensibility too.

Tony’s wife Libby Hall, known as a collector of dog photography, revisited her husband’s photographs before giving them to the Bishopsgate Institute where they are held in the archive permanently. “It was an extraordinary experience because there were many that I had never seen before and I wanted to ask him about them.” Libby confessed to me, “I noticed Tony reflected in the glass of J.Barker, the butcher’s shop, and then to my surprise I saw myself standing next to him.”

“I was often with him but, from the mid-sixties to the early seventies, he worked shifts and wandered around taking photographs on weekday afternoons,” she reflected, “He loved roaming in the East End and photographing it.”

Born in Ealing, Tony Hall studied painting at the Royal College of Art under Ruskin Spear. But although he quickly acquired a reputation as a talented portrait painter, he chose to reject the medium, deciding that he did not want to create pictures which could only be afforded by the wealthy, turning his abilities instead towards graphic works that could be mass-produced for a wider audience.

Originally from New York, Libby met Tony when she went to work at a printers in Cowcross St, Clerkenwell, where he was employed as a graphic artist. “The boss was member of the Communist Party yet he resented it when we tried to start a union and he was always running out of money to pay our wages, giving us ‘subs’ bit by bit.” she recalled with fond indignation, “I was supposed to manage the office and type things, but the place was such a mess that the typewriter was on top of a filing cabinet and they expected me to type standing up. There were twelve of us working there and we did mail order catalogues. Tony and the others used to compete to see who could get the most appalling designs into the catalogues.”

“Then Tony went to work for the Evening News as a newspaper artist on Fleet St and I joined the Morning Star as a press photographer.” Libby continued,” I remember he refused to draw a graphic of a black man as a mugger and, when the High Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan came to London, Tony draw a little ice cream badge onto his uniform on the photograph and it was published!” After the Evening News, Tony worked at The Sun until the move to Wapping, using this opportunity of short shifts to develop his career as a graphic artist by drawing weekly cartoons for the Labour Herald.

This was the moment when Tony also had the time to pursue his photography, recording an affectionate chronicle of the daily life of the East End where he lived from 1960 until the end of his life – first in Barbauld Rd, Stoke Newington, then in Nevill Rd above a butchers shop, before making a home with Libby in 1967 at Ickburgh Rd, Clapton. “It is the England I first loved …” Libby confided, surveying Tony’s pictures that record his tender personal vision for perpetuity,”… the smell of tobacco, wet tweed and coal fires.”

“He’d say to me sometimes, ‘I must do something with those photographs,’” Libby told me, which makes it a special delight to publish Tony Hall’s pictures

Click this picture to enlarge and see the reflection of Tony & Libby Hall in the window of J. Barker.

Children with their bonfire for Guy Fawkes

In the Hackney Rd

“I love the way these women are looking at Tony in this picture, they’re looking at him with such trust – it’s the way he’s made them feel. He would have been in his early thirties then.”

On the Regent’s Canal near Grove Rd

On Globe Rd

In Old Montague St

In Old Montague St

In Club Row Market

On the Roman Rd

In Ridley Rd Market

In Ridley Rd Market

In Artillery Lane, Spitalfields

Tony & Libby Hall in Cheshire St

Photographs copyright © Libby Hall

Images Courtesy of the Tony Hall Archive at the Bishopsgate Institute

Libby Hall & I would be delighted if any readers can assist in identifying the locations and subjects of Tony Hall’s photographs.

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