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A Dead Man In Clerkenwell

October 20, 2017
by the gentle author

This is the face of the dead man in Clerkenwell. He does not look perturbed by the change in the weather. Once Winters wore him out, but now he rests beneath the streets of the modern city he will never see, oblivious both to the weather and the wonders of our age, entirely oblivious to everything in fact.

Let me admit, although some might consider it poor company, I consider death to be my friend – because without mortality our time upon this earth would be worthless. So I do not fear death, but rather I hope I shall have enough life first. My fear is that death might come too soon or unexpectedly in some pernicious form. In this respect, I envy my father who always took a nap on the sofa each Sunday after gardening and one day at the age of seventy nine – when he had completed trimming the privet hedge – he never woke up again.

It was many years ago that I first made the acquaintance of the dead man in Clerkenwell, when I had an office in the Close where I used to go each day and write. I was fascinated to discover a twelfth century crypt in the heart of London, the oldest remnant of the medieval priory of the Knights of St John that once stood in Clerkenwell until it was destroyed by Henry VIII, and it was this memento mori, a sixteenth century stone figure of an emaciated corpse, which embodied the spirit of the place for me.

Thanks to Pamela Willis,  curator at the Museum of the Order of St John, I went back to look up my old friend after all these years. She lent me her key and, leaving the bright November sunshine behind me, I let myself into the crypt, switching on the lights and walking to the furthest underground recess of the building where the dead man was waiting. I walked up to the tomb where he lay and cast my eyes upon him, recumbent with his shroud gathered across his groin to protect a modesty that was no longer required. He did not remonstrate with me for letting twenty years go by. He did not even look surprised. He did not appear to recognise me at all. Yet he looked different than before, because I had changed, and it was the transformative events of the intervening years that had awakened my curiosity to return.

There is a veracity in this sculpture which I could not recognise upon my previous visit, when – in my innocence – I had never seen a dead person. Standing over the figure this time, as if at a bedside, I observed the distended limbs, the sunken eyes and the tilt of the head that are distinctive to the dead. When my mother lost her mental and then her physical faculties too, I continued to feed her until she could no longer even swallow liquid, becoming as emaciated as the stone figure before me. It was at dusk on the 31st December that I came into her room and discovered her inanimate, recognising that through some inexplicable prescience the life had gone from her at the ending of the year. I understood the literal meaning of “remains,” because everything distinctive of the living person had departed to leave mere skin and bone. And I know now that the sculptor who made this effigy had seen that too, because his observation of the dead is apparent in his work, even if the bizarre number of ribs in his figure bears no relation to human anatomy.

There is a polished area on the brow, upon which I instinctively placed my hand, where my predecessors over the past five centuries had worn it smooth. This gesture, which you make as if to check his temperature, is an unconscious blessing in recognition of the commonality we share with the dead who have gone before us and whose ranks we shall all join eventually. The paradox of this sculpture is that because it is a man-made artifact it has emotional presence, whereas the actual dead have only absence. It is the tender details – the hair carefully pulled back behind the ears, and the protective arms with their workmanlike repairs – that endear me to this soulful relic.

Time has not been kind to this figure, which originally lay upon the elaborate tomb of Sir William Weston inside the old church of St James Clerkenwell, until the edifice was demolished and the current church was built in the eighteenth century, when the effigy was resigned to this crypt like an old pram slung in the cellar. Today a modern facade reveals no hint of what lies below ground. Sir William Weston, the last Prior, died in April 1540 on the day that Henry VIII issued the instruction to dissolve the Order, and the nature of his death was unrecorded. Thus, my friend the dead man is loss incarnate – the damaged relic of the tomb of the last Prior of the monastery destroyed five hundred years ago – yet he still has his human dignity and he speaks to me.

Walking back from Clerkenwell, through the teeming city to Spitalfields on this bright afternoon in autumn, I recognised a similar instinct as I did after my mother’s death. I cooked myself a meal because I craved the familiar task and the event of the day renewed my desire to live more life.

Visit the Museum of the Order of St John, 26 St John’s Lane, Clerkenwell, EC1M 4DA

Nicholas Culpeper, Herbalist & Surgeon

October 19, 2017
by the gentle author

Celebrating the birthday this week of Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), it is my pleasure to publish this portrait of the famous herbalist of Spitalfields by Patricia Cleveland-Peck, gardener and writer.

Of all Spitalfields’ past residents, one name stands out above others – Nicholas Culpeper, born on October 18th 1616, a herbalist and medical practitioner operating from Red Lion St (now Commercial St) who devoted his life to healing, and especially to healing the poor.

While apprenticed to the apothecary Francis Drake of Bishopsgate, Nicholas accompanied Thomas Johnson (later editor of the 1633 edition of Gerard’s Herball) on plant hunting excursions. He loved herbs since boyhood and became expert at their identification, essential in those days when almost all ailments were treated with plants. Herbals served as handbooks for doctors in which each plant was named  together with its ‘virtues’ or uses. Nicholas’ skill in this subject, coupled with the fact that he was very caring, meant that the people of Spitalfields flocked to him - sometimes as many as forty a morning – and they commonly received treatment for little or no payment.

This was not popular among Nicholas Culpeper’s qualified medical colleagues who were infuriated by his view that, “no man deserved to starve to pay an insulting, insolent physician.” He also believed in “English herbs for English bodies,” and went out gathering his own herbs from the countryside for free which did not endear him to the apothecaries who often insisted on expensive imported exotic plants for their ‘cures’.

In those days, there were strict divisions between what university-educated physicians, apothecaries and barber-surgeons (who drew teeth and let blood) were allowed to do. Physicians were expensive, so for most sick people the first port of call would be their own herb garden or still room, the second the ‘wise woman’ down the road, the third a visit to the apothecary –  after which, for many, there was no other option but to let the illness run its course.

In 1649, Nicholas inflamed the establishment by producing an English translation of their latin ‘bible’ the Pharmacopoeia Londinensis which included all the recipes for their medicines. Published as A Physical Directory, it not only revealed the secret ingredients but gave instructions on how to administer them – one of his most important contributions, as it provided the first effective self-help book to which people could turn.

Even more galling for the medical fraternity was the fact Nicholas had never completed his apprenticeship, and chose Spitalfields to set up a semi-legal practice because it was outside the City of London and thus not governed by the rules of the College of Physicians. Spitalfields in those days was quite different from today, beyond the site of huge priory of St Mary Spital stretched the farmland of Spital Field. The priory had been dissolved under Henry VIII although parts of the precincts were still inhabited, and it was an area which attracted outsiders like Nicholas who, as well as treating his patients, was  something of a political radical. In his pamphlets, he railed against the king, priests and lawyers as well as physicians. Consequently he was no stranger to controversy and at one point was even accused of witchcraft – just one of the many troubles which accumulated to beset him during his life.

The first of these even occurred thirteen days before his life began, for it was then that his father died leaving his mother without support. She and the new-born Nicholas were obliged to return to the protection of her father, William Attersole, vicar  of the little village of Isfield in Sussex. Attersole was not happy about this arrangement but, although he did not welcome the child, he did see it as his religious duty to provide instruction for him as he grew. Young Nicholas learned the scriptures and the classics, he studied mathematics and, under his grandfather’s guidance, began to take an interest in astrology which later featured in his own works. He even stole a book on anatomy out of the library (where he was only supposed to read the bible) and read it in a barn.

Importantly, he also spent a lot of time with his mother who we know owned a copy of Gerard’s Herball. She was responsible for the health of the household and, from his later works, we can glean the fact that he soon became familiar with all the local Sussex ‘simples’ or wild herbs. We know only little of this period of his life, but it is thought that he went to school in Lewes before – at the age of sixteen – setting off for Cambridge ostensibly to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps by studying theology. Once there, he began to attended lectures on anatomy and, perhaps frustrated that he couldn’t change to medicine, he spent most of his time smoking, drinking and socialising in taverns.

Yet the reason for his dropping out is a sad one. Young though he was, before leaving Sussex, Nicholas had fallen in love with Judith Rivers, a local heiress. She reciprocated his love and thus, knowing her family would never consent to the relationship, they planned to elope. They were to meet near Lewes and marry secretly, but on the way Judith’s coach was struck by lightning and she was killed. Nicholas was devastated and spent months sunk in melancholy. There was no question of his returning to Cambridge to study medicine or anything else. Eventually he chose to come to London and become an apothecary. Socially, this was a step down but he enjoyed his time at Bishopsgate and became very proficient.

Nicholas was twenty-four when he found love again. Called to treat a Mr Field for gouty arthritis, his eyes fell upon the fifteen-year-old daughter of the house, Alice. By a stroke of good fortune, she too was an heiress and it was her considerable dowry which enabled Nicholas to build a house in Red Lion St, Spitalfields from which he conducted his practice.

When the Civil War broke out two years later, the anti-royalist Nicholas signed up with Cromwell. Once his profession was discovered however, the recruiting offer commented, “We do not need you at the battlefield…come along as the field surgeon since most of the barbers and physicians are royal asses and we have use for someone to look after our injured.” Later, during the battle of Reading, Nicholas himself was wounded.

On his return to Spitalfields, he devoted himself to study and writing, and produced a number of books including a Directory for Midwives. Nicholas recognised that this was an unusual topic for a male herbalist, writing in the dedication, “If you (the matron) by your experiences find anything not according to the truth ( for I am a man and therefore subject to failings) first judge charitably of me…” Having grown up so close to his mother, Nicholas had a deep respect of women but this book may also have been inspired by some painful experiences in his own family for, although Alice bore him seven children, only one daughter lived to adulthood.

In 1652, Nicholas published his master work The English Physician also known as Culpeper’s Herbal which became the standard work for three hundred years and is still in print. It was sold cheaply and made its way to America where it had a lasting impact too. By 1665, ten years after his death, Nicholas’ name  was so well-known that the Lord Mayor of London chose to use it alongside that of Sir Walter Raleigh in a pamphlet about avoiding infection from the Great Plague.

Nicholas Culpeper deserves to be remembered. He was always on the side of the underdog, he opposed the ‘closed shop’ of earlier physicians and he promoted sensible self-help. He also tried to offer reasonable  explanations for what he wrote - “Neither Gerard nor Parkinson or any that ever wrote in a like manner ever gave one wise reason for what they wrote and so did nothing else but train up young novices in Physic in the School of Tradition, and teach them just as a parrot is taught… But in mine you see a reason for everything that is written.”

He died in 1654, aged only thirty-eight, of tuberculosis and is believed to be buried beneath Liverpool St Station.

Title page of the 1790 edition of Culpeper’s English Physician & Complete Herbal, published by C.Stalker, 4 Stationer’s Court, Ludgate St.

Plates from the edition published by Richard Evans, 8 White’s Row, Spitalfields, August 12th, 1814

“Culpeper’s house, of which there are woodcuts extant, it is of wood, and is situated the corner of Red Lion Court and Red Lion Street, Spitalfields. It is now and has long been a public house, known by the sign of the Red Lion, but at the time it was inhabited by the sage herbalist, it was independent of other buildings. While in the occupation of Culpeper, who died in 1654, this house stood in Red Lion Field and was as a dispensary of medicines (perhaps the first) of very considerable celebrity.” The European Magazine and London Review, January 1812. Red Lion St and Red Lion Court as shown on John Horwood’s map (1794-99) before Commercial St was cut through in the nineteenth century.

Nicholas Culpeper and his house

Paul Bommer’s delft tile commemorating Nicholas Culpeper

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Ivor Weiss, Artist

October 18, 2017
by the gentle author

You only have until this Saturday 21st October to catch this rare retrospective at the Weiss Gallery

The Onlooker, 1968

I went down to Jermyn St in St James’ yesterday to meet Mark Weiss of the Weiss Gallery to hear about his father, the painter Ivor Weiss (1919-1986) who was born in Stepney. The gallery is filled with a vibrant display of large bold paintings that possess a soulfulness and tender humanity. They embody the cultural memory of the Jewish East End, speaking eloquently of a long life and a significant talent.

“My father was one of four children. His parents were both Romanian Jews who came over to London at the end of the nineteenth century. We don’t know the exact dates, we have very little documentation of family history. My father’s father came from quite a well-to-do family in Bucharest. He was one of four or five children and his wife, whose maiden name was Wiseman, came from a very large family of twelve or thirteen. We don’t know when they got married but we do know they lived, as many immigrant Jews did at that time, in Stepney in the East End around Cable St. So my father was born a Cockney in Stepney in 1919.

His father was a Master Furrier and clearly was quite successful, although he was only naturalised in 1929. By that time, he had clearly made some money and was living in 33 Elgin Crescent, Westbourne Grove. My grandfather was a gambler and my father used to say that his mother was in tears at the end of the week because all the money his father had earned had been spent, betting on dogs and horses.

My father enlisted when war broke out in 1939 when he was only twenty years old. As a nice Jewish boy from the East End, he expected to be put into a force that suited him but instead he was enrolled in a Glaswegian regiment which he hated. He ended up in the Royal Corps of Signals and was posted to the North African campaign, ending up in Malta. There his artistic talents were first recognised and he attended an art school, winning a couple of prizes. When he was demobilised he went to Heatherley School of Art in Baker St and then St Martin’s in the Charing Cross Rd, where he met my mother Joan, who was also an art student and a painter. They married very quickly after that in 1949.

My father’s brother was a pilot in the RAF and had been seconded during the war to teach American pilots how to fly fighter planes and he married a Jewish lady in Montgomery, Alabama. There was still rationing after the war in this country and he invited my father over to Alabama to live. So my parents went to start a new life there and opened an art school called the Weiss Gallery. It was not easy for them because they were committed to their school being desegregated. They hated the situation, but they had spent all their money getting out there. I and my brother were born in America and, by 1955, they had saved enough money to return.

My father had an offer to be a stand-in art teacher at Lancing College for six months and then he got a job in a secondary modern in Brightlingsea, Essex, where my sister was born. To supplement his income, he used to teach evening classes. By chance, he was asked by a local lady if he could sell a painting for her, so my father brokered the sale of the picture to a local antique dealer and earned more money than he could make in a month. My parents drifted into art dealing from our home in Brightlingsea and, within a few years, made enough money to buy a big house in Colchester. My father had an intuitive eye, and he had studied Art History and technique, so he was well placed to become an art dealer, and my mother used to do the restoration. They made quite a formidable team and the business grew rapidly.

Yet he still had aspirations for his art and there came a watershed when Mr Weston, of the wealthy family who owned Fortnum & Mason, invited my father to paint for him and his friends in the south of France, but my father said, ‘No, I don’t want to leave my family.’ It was a fork in the road. If he had done that, he might have developed more of a career as a commercial painter. Having made that choice, painting remained a private exercise. He was never that prolific, and painting remained a personal and emotional thing for him. It was difficult, it was not something that came easy – the creation of pictures.

For the rest of his life, he and my mother concentrated on art dealing with him painting privately. But after a series of minor heart attacks, he had triple heart by-pass surgery and it proved the catalyst for him paint Judaic subjects. They are some of his most powerful works, drawing on the traditions he grew up with in the East End among Hassidic Jews.

My father died of a heart attack in 1986, at the time I opened up my gallery in London which we would have run together. His paintings remained hanging in the houses of members of the family and in storage with my mother until she died aged ninety-two this January. So we thought it was a wonderful opportunity to show his work here in the gallery to commemorate his life and my mother’s life. These are quite emotional paintings for us as a family.

I regret that I never asked my father questions about the East End and he never discussed it. Sorting out my mother’s affairs, I could not even find a marriage certificate, and I realised they had never talked about their wedding and I had never asked, and how sad that is. As children, we never questioned our parents about their past. They grew up through the horrors of the Second World War and, the generation before, they endured the First World War. My grandfather served with great distinction, but had a horrendous time and had nightmares about it for the rest of his life. He did not want to talk about it.

My father was remarkable man and one of the things that strikes me, when I think about him, is that he never made enemies – which is a rare thing in this life. He was multi-talented, he taught pottery, he could make enamel jewellery, he could make furniture, all sorts of things.

The Discussion, 1968

Four Drinkers, 1968

Seated cCouple, fifties

The Anchor Inn, Brightlingsea

The Park Bench, 1967

Woman in Pub, 1981

Boredom, 1964

The Waiting Room, 1964

The Last Supper, 1972

The Elders, 1972

Seated Rabbi, 1972

Approaching Storm, 1966

Wivenhoe Creek, 1966

Ivor & Joan Weiss

In the studio in the fifties

Ivor Weiss painting in the eighties

Ivor Weiss (1919-86), Self Portrait mid-eighties

Paintings copyright © Estate of Ivor Weiss

Portrait of an Artist: Ivor Weiss (1919 – 1986) is at Weiss Gallery until this Saturday 21st October with a special Saturday opening 11-5pm

Hope In The Housing Crisis

October 17, 2017
by the gentle author

Recognising that housing is the burning question of our generation in the capital, I am very pleased to announce the East End Preservation Society‘s C.R. ASHBEE MEMORIAL LECTURE for 2017: HOPE IN THE HOUSING CRISIS - Three creative and humane initiatives dedicated to delivering homes for Londoners.

Oliver Wainwright, Architecture Critic of The Guardian, introduces speakers from three inspirational projects each pursuing different innovative solutions to the Housing Crisis, which could be replicated in the East End and across London.

The lecture takes place on Monday 13th November at 7:30pm in Shoreditch Church.

CLICK HERE TO BOOK YOUR FREE TICKET.

Dan Cruickshank, Will Palin & The Gentle Author founded the East End Preservation Society in 2013 to cherish the built environment of the East End and encourage a notion of development that serves local communities. Below you can read about the Older Women’s Cohousing Community (OWCH), Naked House and the Rural Urban Synthesis Society (RUSS).

This twenty-five apartment building, two minutes from Barnet High St, was completed just before Christmas 2016. It is home to twenty-six members of the Older Women’s Cohousing Community (OWCH) and is mixed tenure, two thirds leasehold and one third social rental. It is the only senior cohousing community in this country so far. The cohousing model is a way of living as part of an intentional group, where everyone knows each other and is signed up to a common set of core values. In OWCH’s case, these include co-operating and sharing responsiblity, care and support for each other, countering ageist stereotypes and being part of the wider community. OWCH members, aged from fifty-one to eighty-eight, manage the building themselves and use its communal facilities extensively. They had a role in its design, working with Pollard Thomas Edwards, a very user-friendly firm of architects. It won the National Housing Design Award for 2017 and the European Collaborative Housing Award.  - Maria Brenton

Naked House is a not-for-profit housing developer. We build genuinely affordable homes for people on modest incomes who are being priced out of London. Established by four young Londoners in 2013, who were uninspired by increasingly high-spec and expensive shared ownership flats, we strip back design to the bare essentials. A Naked House is a flat or a house that is complete in a minimalist sense. It is habitable and comes with electricity, heating, and a basic bathroom. However, the homes come with few finishes, fittings or partitions. This makes the homes cheaper to buy and allows people to create their own home over time. We have funding from the Mayor of London to build our first twenty-two homes in Enfield on unused garage sites. – Rachel Bagenal

The Rural Urban Synthesis Society (RUSS) is a members-led Community Land Trust in South London, founded in 2009 with the aim of creating sustainable community-led neighbourhoods and truly affordable self-build homes. We have over six hundred members and our mission is to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, increase food security, encourage bio-diversity and provide affordable housing. RUSS aims to establish a model development process for creating homes which will remain genuinely affordable for future generations and which can be replicated across the country. We are seeking to regenerate empty sites across London into sustainable communities with affordable housing and improved environments for people and nature alike. For our first project, we are developing thirty-three homes amongst shared open space at Church Grove in Ladywell, Lewisham. The project, which is planned to start construction in January 2018, offers self-build opportunities for local people. – Kareem Dayes


Dan Cruickshank’s Inugural Address for The East End Preservation Society 2013

“It should now be possible to protect our historic buildings, to maintain and improve our conservation areas, to represent and reinforce traditional communities and to create and sustain well-balanced new communities – ones that build on the rich and inclusive cultural tradition of East London.

But it seems that all these worthy expectations will not be realised without drastic, radical action. East London has reached a critical time in its long and rewarding history. Massive new developments such as the one proposed for Bishopsgate Goodsyard (which includes a series of towers from twenty-eight to five-five storeys in height) threaten to overwhelm adjoining conservation areas and infrastructure, cast shadow over communities and cause irreparable damage to established areas which have a strong character.

There is no strong evidence that developers are actually acting on opinions expressed through the consultation process – and the feeling is that the welfare of many is to be sacrificed for profits for a few.

The sound and handsome nineteen-twenties London Fruit & Wool Exchange in Spitalfields is to be largely demolished for a scheme which includes no housing, and which entails the destruction of the popular local pub, The Gun, and the eradication of the important late seventeenth-century street, Dorset St. The site could hardly be more sensitive, located in a conservation area, and opposite Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Christ Church, one of most moving historic buildings in London.

After much debate and local opposition, the scheme was originally rejected by Tower Hamlets Council – a victory for community action and local democracy – but the Mayor of London intervened and, after acting as judge and jury, overturned the local authority’s decision and granted development consent. An alternative scheme – drawn up by local groups and which kept the important existing buildings and street pattern, which built on the history of the site – which proposed some housing and which would have created local employment – was dismissed out of hand.

This story represents a collapse of local democracy, and a cynical disregard of local people and opinion. So much for democracy when it comes to the protection and enhancement of East London! So much for the opinions of local communities! So much for history!

To me, it is obvious that an East End Preservation Society is needed a) to gather and represent local opinion b) to help East London people stand together c) to give them a voice and make that voice count (to ensure it is not only heard but also that it is acted upon) and d) to reveal and promote an urban vision which is not governed by short-term and personal profit, but which evokes and embraces more worthy and more communal aims – and which enshrines the spirit and character of East London.

Our opinions – the opinions of ordinary Londoners – matter, and must not be cast aside by corporations or corporate politicians. United we stand, divided we fall.

If we become a coherent pressure group, national and local politicians and planners will be obliged to listen to us. We have much to lose but – if we stick together – much to gain.”

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Albert Turpin’s Bethnal Green

October 16, 2017
by the gentle author

Below you can read an extract from the memoirs of Albert Turpin (1900-64), Artist, Anti-Fascist, Window Cleaner, & Mayor of Bethnal Green, written between 1945 and 1947 and published now for the first time.

Entitled THE EAST END, My Birthright, it will be launched on Wednesday 18th October from 6pm at the Nunnery Gallery at Bow where a retrospective of Albert Turpin’s paintings is currently on show. There will be readings by Michael Cashman and all are welcome.

Albert Turpin, Artist, Anti-Fascist, Window Cleaner & Mayor of Bethnal Green

Bethnal Green is accepted all over the world as a typical home of the Cockney who, by his outstanding characteristics, has made himself a well-known figure in story and song. To anyone who has only known Bethnal Green in our times, the name seems very fancy, but for most it has been ordinary working class houses with parts degenerating into the most dilapidated, stinking slum. Alley and narrow street form themselves into a maze that can trap a stranger for long periods. In fact there was, until recently, a patch of these alleys in the Roman Rd area which was called by the locals ‘the bunk’ because it provided an avenue of escape from the police.

Anyway, there were times when Bethnal Green was actually green, the green coming from the fact that the hamlet had the usual village green around which the lads of the village lolled on Sundays. You can see them lolling still, outside the Salmon & Ball.

Less than two hundred years ago, we are told, the district was almost entirely rural and the farmlands were so fertile that they could yield two crops a year. The change from an agricultural parish into an overcrowded slum began when a large number of Huguenots, fleeing from the religious persecution in France, introduced the art of silk weaving into Spitalfields and the south-west portion of Bethnal Green.

Even now, after slum clearance schemes and Hitler’s bombs, there can still be seen the long-windowed, low-ceilinged cottages that housed the weavers, and in many places are the mulberry trees that were planted for the purposes of silk weaving. By the way, it is not uncommon to find in out of the way back gardens, grape vines – very old, but still bearing much fruit.

The origin of the name is not quite clear, although one thing is certain, and that is that it has not always been Bethnal Green. It has at different times been Blithehale, Blythenhale, Bleten Hall and Bednal Green.

It was at Bethnall House that Samuel Pepys brought his famous Diary for safe keeping whilst the Great Fire of London was raging.

By 1740, the population had grown to 15,000, among these being a certain John Turpin. I know, for his name is clearly set down in the Parish Minute Book under the date 1720, the ink being faded but the handwriting with the old quill pen superb.

The most picturesque story connected with this old community is that of Henry de Montfort, son of Simon de Montfort who was slain in the Battle of Evesham in 1265. Henry, it is said, was left for dead in the field of battle and blind through his wounds, was found by a Baron’s daughter who smuggled him away, nursed him and finally tokeep him from his enemies took the livelihood of begging and settled in Old Bethnal Green. The Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green has, through the years since, been the subject of song and story and has been officially recognised by using the Blind Beggar and his daughter Bessie as the Borough emblem.

Coming from Shoreditch, the main thoroughfare, Bethnal Green Rd, runs through the heart of the district. At the very entrance to the Borough there are markets held on Sunday mornings, and people come from all parts of London because of the distinctive flavour of these parts. There is the piece of ground where, for a hundred years, dogs of every sort and price are sold. A little further along are birds, singing birds, for the cockney was a most ardent fancier. He still is, but I can remember when every barber’s shop had a long row of canaries and finches – dozens of them – around the shop, and in the summer they would be hung up outside the shop.

In those early days, on a Sunday morning, one would always see dozens of workmen with their pets in their little cages, taking them to the Victoria Park. There the cages were hung on railings and left for hours at a time, the idea being, I suppose, that the free birds singing in the nearby trees and bushes would prompt the caged bird to sing.

At these markets, all kinds of livestock were sold – rabbits, fowls, ducks and even goats, for the Bethnal Greener was an ardent backyard farmer, while hundreds of gardens held pigeon lofts. At the Bethnal Green Men’s Institute every year many prizes for livestock breeding are still won against people who come from all over England.

Then there is another of these distinctive markets known as the Flower Market which is held in Columbia Road where, down the entire length of the street and on both sides are stalls from which are sold bulbs, flowers, bushes – in fact everything connected with the garden. The fact that this market has been going strong for half a century to my knowledge, will prove the East Ender to be quite a character, for people who have to live all their lives in a jumble of mean, huddled apologies for houses and who try to brighten the gloomy atmosphere with flowers, are obviously fighters.

The Bethnal Greener has always liked to do his shopping in the open street, and in this case almost the whole of one side of Bethnal Green Rd is an open market. Stalls are set side by side in the gutter, and although the market constitutes a danger to traffic, and is a nuisance to the authorities, it still goes on merrily. More than once attempts have been made to do away with Sunday markets and the street market, always without success.

It was in Bethnal Green that an unusual experiment was made to this end, by the Baroness Burdett Coutts, a wealthy and public spirited lady who, at a cost of £200,000, cleared a large tract of slums and had erected modern dwellings and a very fine building to be used as a market. This building had the appearance of a Gothic cathedral. The scheme never took on and was gradually surrounded and finally engulfed by the numerous small woodworking workshops that invaded the district from Shoreditch, and so the cockney trader still gaily shouts his wares from the gutter in Bethnal Green Rd.

In the Victorian days, there must have been a pub on each corner of every street. Many of these are still there but many have been turned into workshops and in more than one case, into boys clubs and social welfare headquarters.

Another feature that linked old Bethnal Green with our times were the many byways and courts that still, when I was a child, clung to their old fashioned cottage front gardens. In many places, building had been such that small group of cottages were built around and hemmed in until they formed a square hidden away from the rest of the Borough. Some of these old landmarks have gone, but for all their tumble-down condition, they always held an appeal for me. In summer, the bright flowers bloomed against the background of white-washed walls, wooden picket fences ran between the gardens, and it was a very poor cottage that did not have a couple of trilling birds hanging over the doorway.

The cockney’s clothing was as full of character as himself. I have seen him, when a boy, on Sunday in moleskin or corduroy trousers almost white in colour, a heavy belt around his middle  a heavy waist coat and a jacket that came down well over his hips with plenty of pockets and that most colourful touch, the neckerchief or choker. Collar and tie or bows were never thought of. Because of laziness? Oh no, he wore clothes with an air and took as much time selecting his choker as the old cowboy of Texas did. There was shop in Bethnal Green Rd, until Hitler removed it, that sold nothing but these squares of soft coloured silk and they cost more than a dozen stiff collars and ties. Of course, the cockney never wore anything but a cap and I can only think of the old time cockney as always wearing his cap at the back of his head and over one ear.

Yes, he was a colourful soul with rigid principles and as independent as the nomad arab or the Western cowhand. But, like all these types, he is dying out – so many parts of the East End have changed. Where many of the coffee shops, of the ‘good pull up for the carmen’ fame were, are now Italian cafes with fake marble topped tables instead of the wooden high backed seats. Even the cockney of the coster barrow is being superseded by the cheap jack and our market places, which were once the homes of merry banter and good fellowship, are gradually coming under the influence of outsiders.

That was the Bethnal Green of the past and, as some of the inhabitants have changed, so has the district itself. As I write, plans have been announced for the ceremonial opening of the first Bethnal Green Tube Station which is reported as being the underground station of the future. It has three escalators and is lit throughout with fluorescent lighting. The air is changed four times an hour through bronze grills on the platforms by an improved ventilation system.

What a change in a short life time. When we were kids we used, on a summer’s afternoon, to sit on the curb outside the Salmon & Ball to wait for the horse trams and horse buses to pass with the conductors on top, when we would get on the platform to ride until the conductor came down. I shall think of those times, I know, whenever I use the Tube, for the new station is situated underneath the Fish & Globe, as the locals called the Salmon & Ball.

Salmon & Ball, c. 1955

Columbia Market

Paintings copyright © Estate of Albert Turpin

The East End – My Birthright is a memoir of Turpin’s remarkable life. It includes first-hand descriptions of political events in the East End – fights with the Blackshirts, arrests, meetings in Victoria Park, as well as the Battle of Cable St. His descriptions of the Blitz and the destruction of his beloved East End are a rare insight into the lives of ordinary people confronted by unimaginable horrors. The book is illustrated by Turpin’s paintings and drawings as well as cuttings, posters and photographs from his family’s collection.

Albert Turpin lived all his life in Bethnal Green. In the Great War, he served in the Marines and witnessed the massacre of Armenians in Turkey and the Russian Revolution. In the thirties, he became a Socialist, a Labour councillor and prominent anti-Fascist. Indeed, he was accused of being behind the disturbances at the Battle of Cable St, when a march by Mosley’s Blackshirts through the East End was fiercely resisted. In the Second World War he volunteered as a firefighter and saw action throughout the Blitz.

Turpin was an accomplished artist, involved with the East London Group of artists in the twenties and thirties. He sketched and painted throughout his life, after the war depicting the reconstruction of Bethnal Green. In 1946, he became Mayor of Bethnal Green.

Click to buy a copy of THE EAST END, MY BIRTHRIGHT direct from the publisher Francis Boutle.

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Albert Turpin, Artist, Window Cleaner & Mayor of Bethnal Green