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Harry The Pencil’s Lunchtime Sketchbook

April 19, 2019
by the gentle author

When I was visiting Harry The Pencil – also known as Harry Harrison – in Mile End yesterday, he showed me this modest little sketchbook that he filled ten years ago when he was working in Great Sutton St, Clerkenwell, undertaking a single half hour drawing each lunch hour  – most are nearby his office but you will spot a few further afield in Soho, Kings Cross, Hatton Garden & Spitalfields.

Drawings copyright © Harry Harrison

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Hot Cross Buns At St Bartholomew The Great

April 18, 2019
by the gentle author

Tomorrow at 11:30am sees the Ceremony of the Widow’s Sixpence in Smithfield

Distribution of buns to widows in the churchyard of St Bartholomew the Great

St Bartholomew the Great is one of my favourite churches in the City, a rare survivor of the Great Fire, it boasts the best Norman interior in London. Composed of ancient rough-hewn stonework, riven with deep shadow where feint daylight barely illuminates the accumulated dust of ages, this is one of those rare atmospheric places where you can still get a sense of the medieval world glimmering. Founded by Rahere in 1123, the current structure is the last vestige of an Augustinian Priory upon the edge of Smithfield, where once  martyrs were burnt at the stake as public entertainment and the notorious St Bartholomew Fair was celebrated each summer from 1133 until 1855.

In such a location, the Good Friday tradition of the distribution of charity in the churchyard to poor widows of the parish sits naturally. Once known as the ‘Widow’s Sixpence,’ this custom was institutionalised by Joshua Butterworth in 1887, who created a trust in his name with an investment of twenty-one pounds and ten shillings. The declaration of the trust states its purpose thus – “On Good Friday in each year to distribute in the churchyard of St. Bartholomew the Great the sum of 6d. to twenty-one poor widows, and to expend the remainder of such dividends in buns to be given to children attending such distribution, and he desired that the Charity intended to be thereby created should be called ‘the Butterworth Charity.’”

Those of us who gathered in the churchyard at St Bartholomew the Great on Good Friday were blessed with sunlight. Yet we could not resist a twinge of envy for the clerics in their heavy cassocks and warm velvet capes as they processed from the church in a formal column, with priests at the head attended by vergers bearing wicker baskets of freshly buttered Hot Cross Buns, and a full choir bringing up the rear.

In the nineteen twenties, the sum distributed to each recipient was increased to two shillings and sixpence, and later to four shillings. Resplendent in his scarlet robes, Rev Martin Dudley, Rector of St Bartholomew the Great climbed upon the table tomb at the centre of the churchyard traditionally used for that purpose and enacted the motions of this arcane ceremony – enquiring of the assembly if there were a poor widow of the parish in need of twenty shillings. To his surprise, a senior female raised her hand. “That’s never happened before!” he declared to the easy amusement of the crowd.

I detected a certain haste to get to the heart of the proceedings – the distribution of the Hot Cross Buns. Rev Dudley directed the vergers to start with choir who exercised admirable self-control in only taking one each. Then, as soon as the choir had been fed, the vergers set out around the boundaries of the yard where senior females with healthy appetites reached forward eagerly to take their allotted Hot Cross Buns in hand. The tense anticipation gave way to good humour as everyone delighted in the strangeness of the ritual which rendered ordinary buns exotic. Reaching the end of the line at the furthest extent of the churchyard, the priests wasted no time in satisfying their own appetites and, for a few minutes, silence prevailed as the entire assembly munched their buns.

Then Rev Martin returned to his central position upon the table tomb. “And now, because there is no such thing as free buns,” he announced, “we’re going to sing a hymn.” Yet we were more than happy to oblige, standing replete with buns on Good Friday and enjoying the April sunlight.

The Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great, a century ago.

John Betjeman once lived in this house overlooking the churchyard.

The ceremony of the Widow’s Sixpence in the nineteen twenties.

“God’s blessing upon the frosts and cold!”

A crowd gathers for the ceremony a hundred years ago.

Hungry widows line up for buns.

The churchyard in the nineteenth century.

Rev Martin Dudley BD MSc MTh PhD FSA FRHistS AKC is the 25th Rector since the Reformation.

Testing the buns.

The clerics ensure no buns go to waste.

Hymns in the cold – “There is a green hill far away without a city wall…”

The Norman interior of St Bartholomew the Great at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Gatehouse prior to bombing in World War I and reconstruction.

Archive images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

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The Riflemen Of Bow

April 17, 2019
by the gentle author

Once upon a time when the veterans of the Tower Hamlets & Stepney Rifles met for monthly reunions in the Drill Hall in Mile End, more than a hundred Riflemen would attend. In 2007 when the Drill Hall was demolished and the reunion was transferred to the Bow Bells pub, only sixteen Riflemen remained. Consequently, it was a poignant occasion when Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I visited last week’s reunion to discover a gathering of just a handful of stalwarts in their eighties, but we were delighted to take the portraits of these dignified old soldiers and inspired to hear their stories.

Eric Wadey

“I grew up in Lever St just off the City Rd in Finsbury and went to Old St School. At fifteen I went to work for a tie firm in Cheapside, carrying materials. I used to walk there from Old St, in those days you could walk it in a straight line across the bombsites. Golden Lane and where the Barbican is now were all levelled off. All that was left was St Giles Cripplegate, where Cromwell got married, and I used to play football in the graveyard because all the stones had been flatted by the bombs.

We lived in Guinness Buildings then and were bombed out during the war, while we were there a bomb hit the building. I was six years without a father because he was away, so my mother was the only parent and I had to do my bit looking after my siblings. I walked to King’s Cross along the railway tracks picking up coal that had fallen off the trains because we had nothing to burn. I was refused entry onto a bus because I was black with the dust, but I had a sack of coal with me that I had collected and I wasn’t going to let it go.”

George Neal

“I was born Bethnal Green and was a market porter in Spitalfields all my working life. I started as an empty boy in the old market in 1953, working for W & H Bailey. I’ve been coming to these reunions for about thirty years, I served in the Rifle Brigade in Malaya. I was eighteen years old, doing my National Service. It was the first time I had been out of the East End. We flew from Stansted and it took us four days to get to Singapore. After I was demobbed, I went straight back into the Spitalfields Market and stayed there until it moved in 1992. I went back to have a look around recently and where I worked for twenty years is now a fashion boutique.”

Nobby Clarke

“My father was killed in 1944, leaving only me and my mother until she remarried in Coronation year. I was not a very good boy at school, but when I left in 1955 I became a telegram boy in the City of London working in Threadneedle St. At eighteen, I joined the Post Office in Whitechapel but after a year it was getting a bit tedious, so then I joined the mail train running from Euston to Carlisle, sorting letters as we travelled up the north-west side of the country. We used to drop mailbags out of one door and pick up more bags from the other, catching them in a net on the other side.

At twenty years old, I felt I had had enough so I joined the army as a volunteer. I was in Cyprus for four years when the troubles started in 1963, then I taught at Sandhurst Officers Training College for three years and I was discharged in 1969, but I did three years reserve and did not leave until 1972. I was at a bit off a loss then but, as I had done a lot of driving in the army, I worked as driver driving articulated lorries from the Tate & Lyle sugar factory in East Ham to the Docks, also to the sweet factory and the Guinness brewery in Park Royal. I met my wife while working for the British School of Motoring in Charing Cross Rd, then I started driving buses from the Bow bus garage.”

Ray Francis

“I’m from Ruislip, West London, but I come over to this meeting once a month with my wife to see the other guys. We’re gradually disappearing. We take the mickey out of one another and talk about old times when we were in the jungle in Malaya, when the Communists were trying to disrupt the rubber plantations. It brings it back to when you were eighteen and up to your neck in stinking swamp. Whether you were quite well-to-do or whether you came from the East End, we all came together doing National Service. We became as one and learnt to look after each other like brothers, that’s why we still have these reunions. Ask any soldier his number and he will peal it off straightaway: 2336534

I left school on a Friday and started work on a Monday, drawing in an engineering office. After I was demobbed I went back there until I was made redundant and for the past twenty-five years, I have been an ambulance man, a frontline paramedic. I was comfortable in uniform, I knew what to expect and I was used to seeing injuries.”

Trevor & Hazel Tallon with the photograph of their father Arthur Tallon (1932-2019) who died since the last reunion

Trevor - There was no work in the thirties, so when our grandad came out of the army, he moved the family from Alton in Hampshire to Tooting where he got a job as a postman, that was the start the family needed. So from the age of five, our dad grew up as a Londoner.

Hazel – His first job at fourteen was working as a telegraph boy delivering telegraphs in the Houses of Parliament. He was very proud of it.

Trevor - He worked for the Post Office his whole life – the only thing that interrupted that was his National Service – and he ended up a postal executive.

Hazel - He had been coming to these reunions for twenty-three years.

Trevor - We joined the reunion for trip in a minibus to Calais where their regiment was stationed. He was a proud Rifleman.

Hazel – For the last six years of his life, he struggled with walking so I used to come and pick him up every month from the reunion, that’s how I met the other Riflemen and their wives.

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

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The Mysterious Stone Heads At Greenwich

April 16, 2019
by Rosie Dastgir

Novelist Rosie Dastgir ruminates upon the significance of the old stone heads at Greenwich

In the Undercroft of Queen Anne’s Court at Sir Christopher Wren’s Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich lies a collection of stone heads from the early eighteenth century. Depicting Neptune, Galatea, and other denizens of the deep, they were intended for display upon the south elevation of the Painted Hall, but a decision by the architects to use brick instead of stone meant they were abandoned. For three centuries they have languished out of sight and remain hidden, tucked away in the shadow of the newly restored Painted Hall.

Last summer, I descended into the undercroft to visit the stone heads, in the company of artist Camilla Wilson who had been commissioned to paint them for an exhibition at the Old Royal Naval College. I found myself mesmerized and, gazing at their expressively wrought stone faces, wondering what their story might be.  Lapidary worry is etched in their features and they are a little battered: a broken nose here, a chipped veil there, their quiet ruination a reminder of our ultimate return to dust. There is a quality of the old heads that is redolent of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: anguish, bewilderment, a waiting for something that may never come to pass.  They exude mystery yet appear to say something, a communication from a primordial time.

‘Omissions are not accidents’, wrote poet Marianne Moore, and I wanted to rescue the stone heads from the obscurity of their interment. I dug around for anything I could find about the carver who had sculpted them, Robert Jones of Stepney, and discovered little. He worked on Greenwich Hospital for Retired Seamen from the beginning of its construction until his death in 1722. He was paid for carving around fifty heads and was probably also responsible the ornate carvings on the Trinity Green Almshouses in Stepney.  I found a ghostly facsimile of his will in the National Archives at Kew but its few more ragged details shone no light upon the carvers’ forgotten work.

The enigma of the heads exists in the patchy narrative of their origin and abandonment, and I sought a suitable idiom to capture their story. Sifting through a stack of eighteenth century chap books in the British Library, I became smitten by the rough hewn quality of these vibrant yarns and gossipy playlets embellished with simple woodcut prints. Cheaply made booklets that were sold on the street, they were published widely in England in the seventeenth and eighteen centuries. At the peak of their popularity, they sold in thousands, passed from hand to hand, and featured a trove of subjects from fairytales and folklore, to politics, crime and magic tricks. They offered a vital medium for the dissemination of popular culture and entertainment, a digest of unreliable history for the common people of England. Like social media, they were textual exchanges occupying the fragile space between truth and fiction, cheaply made and easily disseminated.

My version of an eighteenth century chap book, The Heads’ Lament, conjures an imaginary WhatsApp conversation among the old stone heads at a moment when our nation teeters on the cusp of instability. We have been here many times before – of course – yet it is worth noting the historical parallel with our own times in the early seventeen-hundreds, around the time the heads were carved. Sir James Thornhill had been commissioned to paint the Great Hall at the Royal Naval College to commemorate the tumultuous political moment when the United Kingdom was taking shape. Denizens of the deep, the old carved heads bear witness to the gyre of history, keeping watch over our islands’ waters and the people who cross them. Sidelined for centuries, they yearn to be seen.

Drawings © Rachel & Yasmin Gapper

Photos of the heads © Camilla Wilson

Chapbook photography © Sarah Ainslie

ABOUT THE HEADS, an exhibition at the Heritage Gallery, Queen Anne Court, Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich runs from Thursday, 18th April to 24th May with a private view this Wednesday, 17th April, 6-8 pm

Rosie’s chapbook will be on sale at the exhibition

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Tony Bock At Watney Market

April 15, 2019
by the gentle author

Tony Bock took these pictures of Watney Market while working as a photographer on the East London Advertiser between 1973 and 1978. Within living memory, there had been a thriving street market in Watney St, yet by the late seventies it was blighted by redevelopment and Tony recorded the last stalwarts trading amidst the ruins.

In the nineteenth century, Watney Market had been one of London’s largest markets, rivalling Petticoat Lane. By the turn of the century, there were two hundred stalls and one hundred shops, including an early branch of J.Sainsbury. Tony’s poignant photographs offer a timely reminder of the life of the market before the concrete precinct.

Born in Paddington yet brought up in Canada, Tony Bock came back to London after being thrown out of photography school and lived in the East End where his mother’s family originated, before returning to embark on a thirty-year career as a photojournalist at The Toronto Star. Recalling his sojourn in the East End and contemplating his candid portraits of the traders, Tony described the Watney Market he knew.

“I photographed the shopkeepers and market traders in Watney St in the final year, before the last of it was torn down. Joe the Grocer is shown sitting in his shop, which can be seen in a later photograph, being demolished.

In the late seventies, when Lyn – my wife to be – and I, were living in Wapping, Watney Market was our closest street market, just one stop away on the old East London Line. It was already clear that ‘the end was nigh,’ but there were still some stallholders hanging on. My memory is that there were maybe dozen old-timers, but I don’t think I ever counted.

The north end of Watney St had been demolished in the late sixties when a large redevelopment was promised. Yet, not only did it take longer to build than the Olympic Park in Stratford, but a massive tin fence had been erected around the site which cut off access to Commercial Rd. So foot and road traffic was down, as only those living nearby came to the market any more. The neighbourhood had always been closely tied to the river until 1969 when the shutting of the London Docks signalled the change that was coming.

The remaining buildings in Watney St were badly neglected and it was clear they had no future. Most of the flats above the shops were abandoned and there were derelict lots in the terrace which had been there since the blitz. The market stalls were mostly on the north side of what was then a half-abandoned railway viaduct. This was the old London & Blackwall Railway that would be reborn ten years later as the Docklands Light Railway and prompt the redevelopment we see today.

So the traders were trapped. The new shopping precinct had been under construction for years. But where could they go in the meantime? The new precinct would take several more years before it was ready and business on what was left of the street was fading.

Walking through Watney St last year, apart from a few stalls in the precinct, I could see little evidence there was once a great market there. In the seventies, there were a couple of pubs, The Old House At Home and The Lord Nelson, in the midst of the market. Today there are still a few old shops left on the Cable St end of Watney St, but the only remnant I could spot of the market I knew was the sign from The Old House At Home rendered onto the wall of an Asian grocer.

I remember one day Lyn came home, upset about a cat living on the market that had its whiskers cut off. I went straight back to Watney St and found the beautiful tortoiseshell cat hiding under a parked car. When I called her, she came to me without any hesitation and made herself right at home in our flat. Of course, she was pregnant, giving us five lovely kittens and we kept one of them, taking him to Toronto with us.”

Eileen Armstrong, trader in fruit and vegetables

Joe the Grocer

Gladys McGee, poet and member of the Basement Writers’ group, who wrote eloquently of her life in Wapping and Shadwell. Gladys was living around the corner from the market in Cable St at this time.

Joe the Grocer under demolition.

Frames from a contact sheet showing the new shopping precinct.

Photographs copyright © Tony Bock

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