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All Change At Maggs Brothers

November 26, 2015
by the gentle author

Tomorrow, Maggs Brothers will be closing the door after seventy-eight years in Berkeley Sq prior to opening new premises nearby, but I managed to cross the threshold in time to explore this astonishing five-storey Georgian mansion stacked with rare books and manuscripts.

The green carpet is as springy beneath your feet as moss in the deep forest, compounding the wonder of this house of arcane marvels and delights of a literary nature presented in palatial rooms furnished with fine marble fireplaces and elaborately-decorated plaster ceilings. Beneath the garden, a vast basement is filled with bookshelves of further treasures. Once the residence of George Canning, Britain’s shortest-serving Prime Minister, these premises also enjoy a reputation as London’s most-haunted house.

A long line of photographs ascends the stairs, commencing with Uriah Maggs who founded the family business in 1853 at the foot and culminating with Maggs of recent years at the head. Former generations bought and sold the Codex Sinaiticus, two Gutenberg Bibles, a copy of Canterbury Tales, the first book printed by Caxton in England, and – notoriously – Napoleon Bonaparte’s penis.

Although Maggs is one of the oldest established firms of book dealers in existence, the current incumbent, Edward Maggs, bears his legacy with an appealing levity. ‘It came as a surprise to me to be a bookseller,’ he admitted in the seclusion of the basement tearoom. ‘I was going to be Reggae star but that didn’t work out and I had nothing else to do. So I came here in 1979, when I was twenty-one years old, and I sabotaged the accounts department and then the packing department, before I was apprenticed to a wonderfully curmudgeonly old bookseller by the name of Bill Dent, and I realised what a good job it was.’

‘We have twenty-one years left on the lease, but rather than stay and let it dwindle, we’ve sold it so we can buy a permanent home,’ he explained, ‘The heartbreaking thing is leaving the accretion of details that will have no meaning to anyone else.’ And he indicated an old catch upon a cupboard. ‘I’ve been looking at that for thirty-five years,’ he confessed in tender sentiment.

‘I always say my role is like being a Mahoot sat upon an elephant that knows exactly where it wants to go,’ continued Edward, a man who cherishes his metaphors, ‘But now we are changing direction, it is like the Sultan’s Elephant, a simulacrum controlled by a group of people who need to work both independently and in unison.’

Edward’s son, Ben Maggs, sat across the table listening to his father as he sipped his tea and nibbled a biscuit thoughtfully. ‘Perhaps it was lack of ambition, but I never expected to do anything else – it was a fact of life that I would be a bookseller,’ he declared with a singular level-headedness in contrast to his father’s thwarted Reggae ambitions. ‘I knew I would be a bookseller and I became one.’

Ben Maggs, the youngest bookseller in a line that began with Uriah Maggs in 1853

The line of Maggs ascends the staircase

Stairs ascending to the haunted room

Below stairs

Editions of Cook’s Travels

In the basement tea room

In the stables at the rear

MAGGS BROTHERS new shop opens 46 Curzon St, Mayfair, W1J 7UH tomorrow

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The Antiquarian Bookshops of Old London

Annie Macpherson & The Gutter Children

November 25, 2015
by Sarah Wise

Introducing her talk at the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green tomorrow night, Contributing Writer Sarah Wise (author of The Blackest Streets) considers the work of one of the East End’s less-known Victorian philanthropists, Annie Macpherson. Click here to book a ticket.

Spitalfields Nipper by Horace Warner

In 1866, London’s fourth and final major cholera epidemic arrived, killing five and a half thousand Londoners. Out of that public health disaster emerged three hugely influential East London charitable bodies – the Salvation Army, Dr Barnardo’s, and the less-renowned Annie Macpherson Home of Industry. Miss Macpherson was an evangelical Scottish Presbyterian who set up a large-scale programme of shipping London’s orphans and street children across the Atlantic for new lives in Canada.

Born in 1833, Miss Macpherson arrived in London in 1862 and joined a loose-knit group of wealthy evangelicals involved in assisting the destitute. In February 1869, she rented a warehouse at 60 Commercial St in Spitalfields which had formerly been put to use as a cholera ‘hospital’ by the Sisters of Mercy, the Church of England sisterhood. She called her refuge for children ‘The Bee Hive’ (later also referring to it as ‘The Home of Industry’). The building is still there, on the southern corner of Commercial St and Flower & Dean St.

Miss Macpherson found herself on the edge of one of the most deprived pockets of the East End – she estimated that four people each week starved to death in the surrounding streets and official figures confirm her estimate. In 1869, 154,000 Londoners were reliant on parish ‘welfare’ relief (out of a population of 3.9 million), but many thousands never came forward for help. Estimates of London children living rough are as high as 30,000, and one such individual, Maggie Fritz, aged twelve, arrived at The Bee Hive one night close to midnight. She was brought in by a girl even younger who could not bear to see homeless Maggie sleeping night after night on a doorstep. The final straw had been witnessing other homeless girls kicking Maggie so they could take the doorstep to sleep on. Maggie was freezing, wet and hungry, with a filthy tear-stained face and matted hair. Miss Macpherson took her in and trained her to become a housemaid.

Elsewhere in her notes, Miss Macpherson refers to a boy she took in named Hugh, whose widowed mother had three other children, another on the way, an aged mother and a learning disabled eighteen-year-old-sister, all to provide for from her pitiful wages as a cigar-maker.

Another lad, named ‘Punch’, about ten, was discovered one night by Miss Macpherson, asleep in a barrel at Billingsgate Market alongside his dog, Little Dosser. Punch made a living of sorts by doing acrobatic tricks and ventriloquism in East End gin palaces.

Annie Macpherson’s approach to charity was to offer food, shelter and some kind of industrial or domestic training to children – initially boys, but later also girls, wives and mothers. Among the skills for which she offered training at The Bee Hive were tailoring and shoe-mending for the boys, and sewing and domestic service for girls and women. On Sundays, after the children had a breakfast of bread and treacle and a mug of coffee, Miss Macpherson would lead them up Commercial St and under the Wheler St arch to the animal and bird fair at Club Row, where they played the harmonium and sang rousing hymns. Over the next thirty years, Macpherson and her Bee Hive boys and girls became a noted feature of this part of the Bethnal Green Rd.

For Annie Macpherson, Satan was no mere figure of speech – in her eyes, the Devil literally haunted slum areas, and the exploitation and human misery that she witnessed were His work. These were districts, she wrote ‘where Satan reigns openly, in which ‘the subtle deceiver’ would continually put obstacles in her way — which was the way of the Lord. Spitalfields, Whitechapel and Bethnal Green were, in Annie’s words, ‘the Enemy’s territory.’

Years of personal observation of the malfunctioning labour market and the appalling housing shortage prompted her to write ‘God is watching the grasping capitalists and the oppressors of the poor, the grinding taskmasters who cannot wring another farthing out of the toilers.’ Yet, in her view, politics was not the arena in which social evil should be fought. Instead, evangelical revivalists regarded such mass poverty as the forerunner to the Apocalypse. As Scripture foretold, the world had to be in ruins before the Messiah returns to establish His kingdom. These things were divinely ordained and, though the alleviation of human suffering was a Christian’s purpose, it was only divine power that could right all wrongs and mete out appropriate punishments.

Miss Macpherson was a believer in the controversial practice of emigrationism — transporting of poor British children to far-flung imperial colonies for re-settlement. Such schemes were tried earlier in the century but abandoned, largely because of worries about potential labour shortages in Britain, but also because of the risks of abuse and neglect for unsupervised youngsters sent halfway around the globe. However, the cholera crisis of 1866, together with a run of bad harvests, bitter winters and a recession saw the government change its mind. A number of charitable bodies were permitted to send both workhouse and street children abroad to work — unpaid — as either farm labourers or domestic servants. By the time of her death in 1904, Annie Macpherson had exported over 12,000 London children to Canada.

By 1874, worrying reports began to appear in the Canadian press about English street children who had run away or been dismissed by their employers, and who were to be found living rough, engaged in petty crime or even in jail.

The government sent over an inspector in 1875. He was horrified by the lack of follow-up inspection on the part of Miss Macpherson and other emigrating agencies. Without questioning Miss Macpherson’s integrity, the inspector criticised her scheme, among others, for its naïve trust in human nature, placing children with scarcely-vetted Canadian families. The children’s lives, he wrote, were ‘hard and lonely… the little emigrants have been set afloat, and too many of them left to paddle their own canoes.’

Artist and illustrator George Cruikshank was another, early, critic of child emigration. In his pamphlet, ‘Our Gutter Children’, he declared the  ‘transportation of innocent…children a disgrace to the Christian world.’ His illustration showed small infants being shovelled up out of the London gutter and into a cart, for export, ‘like so much guano, or like so many cattle for a foreign market.’

Annie Macpherson accepted the criticisms and made all the improvements suggested. But attacks on child emigration started from another source – the various left-wing or ‘progressive’ voices that grew louder from the eighteen-eighties onwards. Why should poverty be a reason for a child to be exiled from its country of birth? Why should a child do ‘slave’ work for no pay except their board and lodging? One anarchist collective, based in Boundary St, Shoreditch, printed a pamphlet entitled ‘Are We Overpopulated?’, which called for the forced emigration of the idle rich only, since they – rather than the poor – were a parasitical drain on the resources of Britain.

In the late eighteen-eighties, Miss Macpherson moved The Bee Hive north to the corner of Club Row and Bethnal Green Rd, on the edge of the Old Nichol slum. By now, she was attracting over five hundred people to her regular Gospel evenings — astonishing in an area in which many parish churches struggled to match such attendance levels. Yet, upon her death, Annie Macpherson’s work was taken over by Dr Barnardo’s charity and her name simply slipped into history.

Annie Macpherson (1833-1904)

Annie Macpherson’s first Home of Industry at 60 C0mmercial St

Annie Macpherson’s second Home of Industry at 29 Bethnal Green Rd

George Cruickshank published ‘Our Gutter Children’ in 1869 (Click image to enlarge)

Spitalfields Nipper by Horace Warner

Sarah Wise’s lecture ‘A Disgrace to the Christian World?’ is at the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green on Thursday 26th November at 7pm. Click here to book a ticket.

You may also like to read another story by Sarah Wise

The Ancient Arches of Bishopsgate Goodsyard

The Lonely Streets Of Old London

November 24, 2015
by the gentle author

Lost in Old London – Rose Alley, Southwark, c. 1910

When I first came to live in London, I had few friends, no job and little money, but I managed to rent a basement room in Portobello. For a year, I wandered the city on foot, exploring London without any bus fare. I think I never felt so alone as when I drifted aimlessly in the freezing fog in Hyde Park in 1983. As I walked, I used to puzzle how I could ever find my life in London. Then I went back and sat in my tiny room for countless hours and struggled to write, without success.

Today, I am often haunted by the spectre of my pitiful former self as I travel around London and, while examining the thousands of glass slides created by the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society for educational lectures at the Bishopsgate Institute a century ago, I am struck by the lone figures isolated in the cityscape. The photographers may have included these solitary people to give a sense of human scale – but my response to these pictures is emotional, I cannot resist seeing them as a catalogue of the loneliness of old London.

Alone outside Shepherd’s Bush Empire, c. 1920

Alone at the Chelsea Hospital, c. 1910

Alone at the Natural History Museum, c. 1890

Alone at the Tower of London, c. 1910

Alone at Leg of Mutton Pond, Hampstead, c. 1910

Alone in the Great Hall at Chelsea Hospital, c. 1920

Alone outside St Lawrence Jewry, 1908

Alone in Bunhill Fields, c. 1910

Alone in Hyde Park, c. 1910

Alone at the Guildhall,  c. 1910

Alone at Brooke House, Hackney, 1920

Alone on Hampstead Heath, c. 1910

Alone in Thames St, 1920

Alone at the Orangery, Kensington Palace, c. 1910

Alone in the Deans Yard at Westminster Abbey, c. 1910

Alone at Hampton Court, c. 1910

Alone at the Houses of Parliament with the statue of Richard I, c. 1910

Alone in the tiltyard at Eltham Palace, c. 1910

Alone in Cloth Fair, c. 1910

Alone at Marble Arch, c. 19o0

Alone at Southwark Cathedral, c. 1910

Alone outside Carpenters’ Hall, c. 1920

Alone outside Jackson Provisions’ shop, Clothfair, c. 1910

Alone outside Blewcoat School, Caxton St, c. 1910

Alone on the Victoria Embankment, c. 1910

Alone outside All Saints Chelsea, c. 1910

Alone at the Albert Hall, c. 1910

Glass slides courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

Take a look at

The Lantern Slides of Old London

The Nights of Old London

The Signs of Old London

The Markets of Old London

The Pubs of Old London

The Doors of Old London

The Gentle Author’s Cries Of London

November 23, 2015
by the gentle author


It has been five years in the making but – thanks to the generous support of the readers of Spitalfields Life - I am almost ready to publish the first full-colour illustrated history of the CRIES OF LONDON, just in time for Christmas.

This ambitious book sets out to reclaim an entire cultural tradition which I believe is an essential part of the identity of London as a city founded upon its markets. In the capital, those who had no means of income could always sell wares in the street and, by turning their presence into performance through song, they won the hearts of generations and came to embody the spirit of London itself.

Designed by David Pearson, recently acclaimed as Britain’s most-influential book designer, CRIES OF LONDON is a handsome cloth-bound green hardback with a gilded cover containing hundreds of beautiful illustrations of London street traders spanning four centuries, together with stories of the artists and the hawkers, and an extended introduction by yours truly.

I am celebrating with a LAUNCH at Waterstones Piccadilly on 3rd December, a CONCERT at Shoreditch Church on 4th December, a PEDLARS CONFERENCE on 5th December and ILLUSTRATED LECTURES on 10th & 11th December at Bishopsgate Institute – you will find all the information and booking details below. I look forward to welcoming you to these events, where I shall be signing books and giving away prints of CRIES OF LONDON to all comers.


Peepshow in Piccadilly, 1804

I am proud to be launching CRIES OF LONDON at WATERSTONES PICCADILLY on THURSDAY 3rd DECEMBER from 6:30pm with cakes, cocktails, live music, dancing & a host of famous authors. There is no need to book, please come along to join the party!


Hair Brooms outside Shoreditch Church, 1804

I am delighted to be introducing a concert of CRIES OF LONDON by Orlando Gibbons & others, performed by Fretwork & Red Byrd, presented by Spitalfields Music on FRIDAY 4th DECEMBER at ST LEONARD’S CHURCH, SHOREDITCH. Click here to book for the concert & pre-concert talk.


Cats & Dogs’ Meat in Bishopsgate, 1804

I am thrilled to be hosting a PEDLARS CONFERENCE  on SATURDAY 5th DECEMBER at 2pm and giving ILLUSTRATED LECTURES on THURSDAY 10th & FRIDAY 11th DECEMBER at 7:30pm at BISHOPSGATE INSTITUTE. Please click here to book.





You may like to explore these sets of Cries of London


John Player’s Cries of London

More John Player’s Cries of London

Faulkner’s Street Cries

Samuel Pepys’ Cries of London

More Samuel Pepys’ Cries of London

Kendrew’s Cries of London

London Characters

Geoffrey Fletcher’s Pavement Pounders

William Craig Marshall’s Itinerant Traders

London Melodies

Henry Mayhew’s Street Traders

H.W.Petherick’s London Characters

John Thomson’s Street Life in London

Aunt Busy Bee’s New London Cries

William Nicholson’s London Types

John Leighton’s London Cries

Francis Wheatley’s Cries of London

John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana of 1817

John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana II

John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana III

Thomas Rowlandson’s Lower Orders

More of Thomas Rowlandson’s Lower Orders

Victorian Tradesmen Scraps

Cries of London Scraps

New Cries of London 1803

Cries of London Snap Cards

Julius M Price’s London Types

So Long, Rodney Archer

November 22, 2015
by the gentle author

It is with a heavy heart that I announce the death of Rodney Archer – one of Spitalfields best-loved residents – yesterday morning at St Bartholomew’s Hospital where he was admitted on Friday

Rodney Archer, the Aesthete of Fournier St

When I first met him, Rodney Archer kindly took me to lunch at E.Pellicci, but – before we set out – I went round to his eighteenth century house in Fournier St to take this portrait of him in front of his cherished fireplace that once belonged to Oscar Wilde.

One day in 1970, Rodney was visiting an old friend who lived in Tite St next to Wilde’s house and saw the builders were doing renovations, so he seized the opportunity to walk through the door of the house that had once been the great writer’s dwelling. The fireplace had been torn out of the wall in Wilde’s living room as part of a modernisation of the property and the workmen were about to carry it away, so Rodney offered to buy it on the spot.

For ten pounds he acquired a literary relic of the highest order, the fine pilastered fireplace with tall overmantle that you see above, and which become a shrine to Wilde in Rodney’s first floor living room in Fournier St. You can see Spy’s famous caricature of Wilde up on the chimneypiece, but the gem of Rodney’s Wilde collection was a copy of Lord Alfred Douglas’ poems with pencil annotations by Douglas himself. Encountering these artifacts in this environment – that already possess such a potent poetry of their own, amplified by their proximity to each other – was especially enchanting.

Rodney allowed the patina of ages to remain in his house, enhanced by his sensational collection of pictures, carpets, furniture, books, china and god-knows-what, accumulated over all the years he lived in it, which transformed the house into three-dimensional map of his vigorous mind, crammed with images, stories and all manner of cultural enthusiasms. In Rodney’s house, anyone would feel at home the minute they walked in the door because the result of all these accretions was that everything arrived in its natural place, yet nothing felt arranged. It was a relaxing place, with reflected light everywhere, and although there was so much to look at and so many stories to learn, it was peaceful and benign, like Rodney himself. Rodney’s style can never be replicated by anyone else, unless you became Rodney and you could live through those years again.

Rodney made his home in London’s most magical street in 1980. It came about after his mother fell down a well at The Roundhouse and broke her hip while visiting a performance of “The Homosexual (or The Difficulty of Sexpressing Yourself)” by Copi in which Rodney was starring. It was the culmination of Rodney’s distinguished career of just eight years as an actor, that included playing the Player Queen in Hamlet at the Bristol Old Vic in a production with Richard Pasco in the title role and featuring Patrick Stewart as Horatio.

After she broke her hip, Rodney’s mother told him that her doctor insisted she live with her son, much to Rodney’s surprise. Gamely, Rodney agreed, on the condition they find somewhere large enough to live their own lives with some degree of independence, and rang up his friends Riccardo and Eric who lived in Fournier St, asking them to keep their eyes open for any house that went on sale. Within three months, a house came up. It was the only one they looked at and Rodney lived there happily ever after.

Thirty years ago, Spitalfields was not the desirable location it is today, “My mother thought I was joking when I told her where I wanted live,” declared Rodney to me, raising his eyebrows, “Now it would nice if there were more people living here who were not millionaires. I visit people in houses today where there are ghosts of people I used to know and the new people don’t know who they were, it’s sad.”

Rodney’s roots were in East London, he was born in Gidea Park, but once his father (a flying officer in the RAF) was killed in action over Malta in 1943, his mother took Rodney and his sister away to Toronto when they were tiny children and brought them up there on her own. Rodney came back to London in 1962 with the rich Canadian accent (which sounded almost Scottish to me) that he retained his whole life, in spite of the actor’s voice training he received at LAMDA which imparted such a mellifluous tone to his speech. After his brief years treading the boards, Rodney became a teacher of drama at the City Lit and ran the Operating Theatre Company, staging his own play “The Harlot’s Curse” (co-authored with Powell Jones) in the Princelet St Synagogue with great success.

“When I retired, I decided to do whatever I wanted to do,“ announced Rodney with a twinkly smile, at that point in his life story. “Now I am having a wonderful third act. Writing about that time, my mother, the cats and me…” he said, introducing the long-awaited trilogy of autobiographical fiction that he was working on, in which the first volume would cover his first eight years in Spitalfields concluding with the death of his mother in 1988, the second volume would conclude with the death of  his friend Dennis Severs in 1999 and the third with the death of Eric Elstob. (Elstob was a banker who loved architecture and left a fortune for the refurbishment of Christ Church, Spitalfields.) “There is something about the nature of Spitalfields, that fact becomes fiction – as you become involved with the lives of people here, it gets you telling stories,” explained Rodney, expressing a sentiment that is close to my own heart too.

Then it was time for lunch and, as we walked hungrily up Brick Lane that day towards Bethnal Green in the Spring sunshine, the postman saluted Rodney and, on cue, the owner of the eel and pie shop leaned out of the doorway to give him a cheery wave too, then, as if to mark the occasion as auspicious, we saw the first shiny new train run along the recently-completed East London Line, gliding across the newly-constructed bridge, glinting in the sunlight as it passed over our heads and sliding away across Allen Gardens towards Whitechapel. “This is the elegant world of Rodney Archer,” I thought.

Turning the corner into Bethnal Green Rd, I asked Rodney about the origin of his passion for Wilde and when he revealed he once played Algernon in “The Importance of Being Earnest” at school, his intense grey-blue eyes shone with excitement. It made perfect sense, because I felt as if I was meeting a senior version of Algernon who retained all the wit, charm and sagacity of his earlier years, now having “a wonderful third act” in an apocryphal lost manuscript by Oscar Wilde, recently discovered amongst all the glorious clutter in a beautiful old house in Fournier St, Spitalfields.

Rodney in his study

Rodney and his cat Fitzroy (portrait by Chris Kelly)

Rodney played Edward II for the Save Norton Folgate Campaign

Rodney sings ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ at Pellicci’s Christmas Party (portrait by Colin O’Brien)

Rodney - “I come to Pelliccis every Wednesday and Saturday. On Wednesday I am the gay mascot for the Repton Boxers and on Saturday we bet on the horses.” (portrait by Colin O’Brien)

You might also like to read these other stories about Rodney Archer

A Walk With Rodney Archer

Rodney Archer’s Scraps

The Seven Ages of Rodney Archer

At 31 Fournier St