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Paul Gardner Goes To Downing St

December 3, 2016
by the gentle author

Today is East End Independents’ Day celebrating the small businesses and shops of East London

“I just hope something might happen”

Paul Gardner, the fourth generation paper bag seller of Spitalfields’ oldest family business Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen and founder of the East End Trades Guild, went to 10 Downing St yesterday to meet Margot James, the Minister for Small Businesses.

After Gardners’ Market Sundriesman was honoured by being selected as one of Britain’s top One Hundred Small Businesses, Paul joined fellow proprietors from across the country in Whitehall on Thursday. This event was in advance of Small Business Saturday, which is celebrating independent shops across the nation today.

I met Paul afterwards while he was still flush with excitement and pride from his moment in the political spotlight. “They were taking so many pictures of me when I was standing in the street in Whitehall that other people were coming up to have their photos taken beside me,” Paul admitted with a grin, “Because I had a suit on they thought I must be important in government – someone said, ‘Is he a Lord or something?’ I said, ‘Not yet!’”

“I set up a stall inside Downing St with all my paper bags and memorabilia. There were about twenty-five stalls but most of the other businesses did not have anything to show because they worked in IT or marketing and were quite new. They did not have my history. There were none like me, who have had a small family business that has gone on for four generations through thick and thin.

Margot James, Minister for Small Businesses, gave a speech about how important we were for the economy and then she went around the stalls to visit us all. I told her what a struggle it is for small businesses and I gave her a paper bag with a letter to Theresa May in it, concerning our problems with business rates in London.

The rateable value of my shop was £18,000 but it is going up to £40,000 in March. It means not much of a future for my business. I have not got much to look forward to if I have to pay £500 a week business rates before my rent, which is already fairly unbearable. When I tell people what I have to pay they are flabbergasted. Most people who run a small business are just keeping their heads above water, but if they have another £300 a week to find that will be the end.

People come to East End for the little independent shops – they do not come here for High St brands – but the little independent businesses are suffering. The landscape will change considerably in Brick Lane and the surrounding areas because the prices of goods in the shops will have to go up so much that they will become unworkable and people will buy on the internet instead. The rents are so completely mad. There have been 300% increases. Even some of the big people are moving out. Barbour quit the Spitalfields Market recently.

‘They are looking in it,’ Margot James said to me. Whether they are or not I do not know but she seemed concerned. It is very hard to know whether they will do anything. I did the best I could to ask her because I am in fear whether my business will be here much longer and whether there will be many small businesses left in the East End. It will not be workable for most of us any more.

Primarily, I was there to celebrate my business and Margot liked all the artefacts because there are no other paper bag shops. So she was pleased to meet me and I did manage to speak to her a lot. I got to the point fairly quickly and she was quite forthcoming.

I was very pleased and honoured that I was invited. It was a defining moment in my life, going to 10 Downing St. I think my mum will be very proud of me. It was one of those days that will stick out for the rest of my life and I just hope something might happen.”


Dear Theresa May,

Last Monday, you stated “I will always be one of the strongest advocates for the role businesses play in creating jobs, generating wealth and supporting a strong economy and society.” Today you celebrate the vast contribution that small businesses have given to this role, yet government policy simultaneously threatens to extinguish it by implementing an excessively high rates revaluation to small businesses in London, the bedrock of a “strong economy and society.” Gardners’ Bags, and businesses like it will not  be able to carry the burden of this policy. Be sure to celebrate our founding member Paul Gardner today, because his business will be destroyed next year if urgent action is not taken.

London is home to over 800,000 small and medium sized enterprises and micro businesses, that make up 99.8% of London’s private sector, representing nearly fifty per cent of all employment in the capital, and (excluding the financial and insurance sector) accounting for approximately £430 billion of business turn-over. The East End Trades Guild  is a leading innovator in the organisation and representation of this booming constituency. Our members have helped make the East End the creative and social hub of London, and a pull for millions of international visitors and locals. Serving 520,000 people per month with a total turnover of £77 million, we still manage to know many of our customers by name.

Businesses across London face a rates increase of over 100%, this simply cannot be sustained. The Federation of Small Businesses’ recent survey of micro and small businesses in the capital, found that nearly two thirds (63%) will miss out on business rate exemption. Displacing them to other regions will not only intensify the environmental damage that already shortens the lives of our children, it will cut off sustainable growth, not just for London but for the country. It is the particular diversity of enterprises within London that is essential to healthy local economies – the backbone of a strong national economy.

We back calls from the Federation of Small Businesses to increase relief threshold in the capital, and support the All Party Parliamentary Group for London in their plea to revise the transitional relief proposals, to give small businesses a realistic chance of planning for the rates increases caused by a seven year gap since the last revaluation.

The East End Trades Guild was formed to take action on the common interests of its small business members from a position of strength. The story of Spitalfields oldest family enterprise – Gardners’ Bags, in the globally popular blog Spitalfields Life was the catalyst for the establishment of our Guild. We are proud that our founder – Paul Gardner has been selected as one of the Small Business 100, and  is receiving highly deserved recognition at number 10 Downing Street today.

While you celebrate Paul Gardner and all the small businesses that give so much to our country today, we ask that you help us to help you “build a stronger, fairer Britain together” and pursue urgent action on business rates for London and be the “government that is not afraid to act to ensure the benefits of economic growth are shared by all.”

Yours sincerely

The East End Trades Guild

Waving to the assembled crowd

Paul took a case of paper bag samples to Downing St

Paul in his usual attire as the ‘Paper Bag Baron of Spitalfields’

Photographers Hannah Lane, Sarah Ainslie & The Gentle Author

Gardners Market Sundriesmen, 149 Commercial St, Spitalfields, E1

Follow Paul Gardner on twitter @gardnersbags

You may like to read my other stories about Paul Gardner & Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen

At Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen

Paul Gardner, Paper Bag Baron

Roy Gardner’s Sales Tickets

Paul Gardner’s Collection

Joan Rose at Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen

James Brown at Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen

Vigil at Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen

Christmas at Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen

So Long, Whitechapel Bell Foundry

December 2, 2016
by the gentle author

It is with deep regret that I announce the closure of Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the world’s most famous bell foundry and Britain’s oldest manufacturing company. Below you can read my interview with Alan Hughes, the last in a line of bell founders stretching back to 1420, who will retire next year at sixty-eight years old when the foundry closes in May 2017 and the building is sold – meanwhile, negotiations for the future ownership of the business are underway.

Arthur Hughes, Master Bellfounder from 1904

Albert Hughes, Master Bellfounder from 1916

William Hughes, Master Bellfounder from 1945

Portrait of Alan Hughes, Master Bellfounder from 1972 by Sarah Ainslie

“We have made this decision with a heavy heart, but in response to the changing realities of running a business of this kind. The Bell Foundry in Whitechapel has changed hands many times, but it has always been a family business. My own family has owned the foundry since 1904, but other families have run the firm through its history, which stretches back to 1570. The business has been at its present site over two hundred and fifty years. So it is probably about time it moved once again. We hope that this move will provide an opportunity for the business to move forward in a new direction.” Alan & Kathryn Hughes

If I confide that my favourite sound in all the world is that of bells pealing, you will understand why the Whitechapel Bell Foundry became such a source of fascination to me over all these years. Every time I walked past the ancient foundry walls (the oldest manufacturing company in the land – founded in 1570), I wondered about the alchemical mystery of bellfounding taking place inside. One day as I passed, walking down from Spitalfields to the Thames, the steel doors at the rear were open and, peeking in from the harsh sunlight outside, I was afforded a tantalising glimpse of huge bells glinting in the gloom of the engineering shop.

So you can imagine my excitement when I received the invitation to meet the current master bellfounder in an unbroken line of master bellfounders that stretches back to 1420. Stepping inside, out of the rain in Whitechapel Rd, I found myself in the foundry reception lined with old photographs and compelling artifacts, like the wooden template (displayed over the entrance as if it were the jaws of a whale) that was used when Big Ben was manufactured here. Among all the black and white photos, my eye was drawn by some recent colour pictures of a royal visit, with Her Majesty in a vivid shade of plum and Prince Philip looking uncharacteristically animated. I was thinking that the bell foundry must work a powerful magic upon its visitors, when a figure emerged from the office and I turned to shake the hand of Alan Hughes, the master bellfounder. Alan’s great-grandfather Arthur Hughes bought the business in 1884, which makes Alan a fourth generation bellfounder.

A sense of awe filled me as I shook hands with this unassuming man in a natty blue suit but I composed myself as best I could, while he led me through a modest office where two people worked behind neat desks and one of those fake cats dozed eternally in front of the stove, to arrive in the boardroom where a long table with a red cloth upon it occupied the centre of a modest but elegantly proportioned Georgian dining room. We drew up chairs and commenced our conversation as the Whitechapel drizzle turned to dusk outside.

Alan’s fine manners and levity kept me guessing whether everything he said might actually be a proposal, as if he was simply trying out thoughts to see how I would react. I took this as an indication of courtly assurance. Alan wears his role with the greatest of ease, as only someone born into the fourth generation of an arcane profession could do, and I wondered if the royal visit might have been an occasion for mutual recognition between those born into long-standing family businesses.

Up above, I could hear music. It was Alan’s daughter and her friend, both music students, practising the piano and the trumpet. The prevailing atmosphere was that of a work place yet it was domestic too. When Alan’s predecessors set up the business on this site, before the industrial revolution, they attached the factory to the house so they could walk from the dining room into the foundry at their convenience. The feeling today is akin to that of the quiet living quarters of an old college or liturgical institution.

Alan has worked here over fifty years and, describing the changes he has seen, he glanced over my shoulder to the window several times, as if each time he glanced upon a different memory of the Whitechapel Road. The East End was a busy place in the nineteen fifties, as Alan first recalled it, not only because of the docks but because of all the factories and the manufacturing that happened here. “Whichever way it was blowing, you got this lovely smell of beer on the wind – from Trumans or Watneys or Charringtons or Courage or Whitbread…” Alan told me, explaining the locations of the breweries at each point of the compass. In the nineteen seventies and eighties, when the docks and factories closed, Alan found the place desolate, he peered from the window and there was no-one in the street. “And then things started getting trendy. Instead of closing they started opening – and now, suddenly, it’s ok to be in Whitechapel!” said Alan, clasping his hands thoughtfully on the table and looking around the room with a philosophical grin, “But this place hasn’t changed at all. I always find it vaguely amusing.”

Tentatively, I asked Alan what it meant to him, being part of this long line of bellfounders. Alan searched his mind and then said, “I don’t think about it very often. I would like to meet some of those people, Thomas Mears (master bellfounder from 1787) who would know the place today and Thomas Lester (master bellfounder from 1738) who had this part built. It would be nice to have a conversation with him. He would recognise most of it.” Then the gentle reverie was gone and Alan returned to the present moment, adding, “It’s a business,” in phlegmatic summation.

“Our business runs counter to the national economy,” he continued, “If the economy goes down and unemployment rises, we start to get busy. Last year was our busiest in thirty years, an increase of 27% on the previous year. Similarly, the nineteen twenties were very busy.” I was mystified by this equation, but Alan has a plausible theory.

“Bell projects take a long time, so churches commit to new bells when the economy is strong and then there is no turning back. We are just commencing work on a new peal of bells for St Albans after forty-three years of negotiation. That’s an example of the time scale we are working on – at least ten years between order and delivery is normal. My great-grandfather visited the church in Langley in the eighteen nineties and told them the bells needed rehanging in a new frame. They patched them. My grandfather said the same thing in the nineteen twenties. They patched them. My father told them again in the nineteen fifties and I quoted for the job in the nineteen seventies. We completed the order in 1998.”

Alan broke into a huge smile of wonderment at the nature of his world and it made me realise how important the continuity between the generations must be, so I asked him if there was pressure exerted between father and son to keep the foundry going.

“My great-grandfather never expected the business would outlive him. He had three sons and the sale of the business was arranged, but my grandfather refused to sign the contract, so the other brothers left and he took over. My grandfather ensured his sons had good jobs and even my father wasn’t convinced the business could succeed, so he studied foundry technology for four years at every foundry in the south – thinking he could work for them – but every single one of those has now closed.” Then Alan looked out the window again, gazing forward into time. “As a master bellfounder, you never retire. We go on until we die. My grandfather, my father and my uncle all died of a heart attack at eighty.”

The implications of Alan’s conclusion are startling for him personally, even though he has many years to go before eighty. “You’re a very eloquent man,” I said in sober recognition, “No, I’m not!” he retorted cheekily. “You have such interesting things to say,” I replied lamely, “No, I don’t!” he persisted gamely, obstinately raising his eyebrows. Nevertheless, Alan’s life as a bellfounder is remarkable to me and maybe to you too. Seeing his life in comparison to his predecessors, Alan embraces the patterns that prescribe his existence, for better or worse, and his personal mindset is the result of particular circumstances, the outcome of four generations of bellfounding. Alan has my greatest respect for his immodest devotion to bells.

Photographs copyright © John Claridge

A Walk To View The Gasometers

December 1, 2016
by the gentle author

When we get such bright winter days it becomes an imperative to take a walk and enjoy the benefit of the sunlight, especially now we have arrived at the season of the year when a clear sky becomes a precious commodity. So I decided to walk up to Bethnal Green and admire the majestic pair of gasometers, planted regally side by side like a king and queen surveying the Regent’s Canal from aloft.

Ever since I learnt that these nineteenth century gasometers had been granted a ‘certificate of immunity against listing’ by Historic England, which guarantees they will never receive any legal protection from destruction, it has been in my mind to undertake a walk to view them properly in advance of the day when they may be gone.

My path took me up the Queensbridge Rd, past the thick old brick walls bordering Haggerston Park that were once part of the Shoreditch Gas Works which formerly occupied this site, constructed by the Imperial Gas Light & Coke Company in 1823. The Bethnal Green gasometers were constructed to contain the gas that was produced here, fired by coal delivered by canal.

In the Queensbridge Rd, I came upon The Acorn which has recently closed and is now scheduled for redevelopment unless the current bid for ‘asset of community value’ status can save it. This traditional East End pub which opened before 1869 must once have served the workers from the Imperial Gas Light & Coke Company across the road.

Approaching along the canal towpath, George Trewby’s gasometer of 1888-9 dominates the skyline, more than twice the height of its more intricate senior companion designed by Joseph Clarke in 1866. Crossing Cat & Mutton Bridge, which is named after the nearby pub founded in 1732, I walked down Wharf Place and into Darwen Place determining to make as close a circuit of the gasometers as the streets would permit me.

Flanked by new housing on either side of Darwen Place, the gasometers make a spectacularly theatrical backdrop to a street that would otherwise lack drama. Dignified like standing stones yet soaring like cathedrals, these intricate structures insist you raise your eyes heavenward, framing the sky as if it were an epic painting contrived for our edification.

Each storey of Joseph Clarke’s structure has columns ascending from Doric to Corinthian, indicating the influence of classical antiquity and revealing the architect’s chosen precedent as the Coliseum, which – if you think about it – bears a striking resemblance to a gasometer.

As I walked through the surrounding streets, circumnavigating the gasometers, I realised that the unapproachable nature of these citadels contributes to their magic. You keep walking and they always remain in the distance, always just out of reach yet looming overhead and dwarfing their surroundings.

At the south-easterly corner of my circular ramble I arrived at Grove Passage, an old field track cutting through the grid of the streets and by-passing a crumbling brick tower worthy of Piranesi. This is London’s last undeveloped bomb site, thanks to its location islanded on all sides by other properties.

From here I walked through The Oval, which is a light industrial state these days but takes its name from the ancient duckpond at its centre – now filled in and crowded with tightly-packed irregularly-parked vehicles. In spite of the utilitarian nature of this landscape, the relationship between the past is clear in this place and this imparts a strange charisma to the location, an atmosphere enhanced by the other-wordly gasometers.

Now that I have walked their entire perimeter, I can confirm that the gasometers are most advantageously regarded from mid-way along the tow path between Mare St and Broadway Market. From here, the silhouette of George Trewby’s soaring structure may be be viewed against the sun and also as a reflection into the canal, thus doubling the dramatic effect of these intriguing sky cages that capture space and inspire exhilaration in the beholder.

We can only hope that whoever develops this site recognises the virtue in retaining these magnificent towers and integrating them into their scheme, adding value and distinction to their architecture, and drama and delight to the landscape.

Opened before 1869, The Acorn in the Queensbridge Rd has recently closed although applicants for Asset of Community ValueStatus hope to save it.

The view from Darwen Place

Decorative ironwork and classical columns ascending from Doric to Corinthian like the Coliseum

The view from Marian Place

The view from Emma St

Grove Passage leading from Emma St to Mare St, with London’s last bombsite on the right

The view from the Oval

Offices of Empress Coaches in Corbridge Crescent

The view from Corbridge St

The view from Regent’s Canal towpath

George Trewby’s gasometer of 1888 viewed from Cat of Mutton bridge over Regent’s Canal

You may also like to read

The Gasometers of Bethnal Green

At Empress Coaches

Adam Dant’s Coffee House Map

November 30, 2016
by the gentle author

Click on the map to enlarge and read the stories of the Coffee Houses

These days, London is riddled with Coffee Shops but, at the start, there was just the Jamaica Coffee House, which was opened in 1652 by Pasqua Rosee in St Michael’s Alley in the City of London. More than three hundred and fifty years later, it is still open and so I met Adam Dant there  to learn about his new map – which you see above – drawn in the shape of a coffee pot.

“I’ve always wanted to do a map of the Coffee Houses, because it marks a moment when intellectual activity had a parity with mercantile activity. They called them the penny universities,” he explained, eagerly quaffing a glass of Italian red wine in the mid-afternoon. “And it wasn’t just coffee they sold but alcohol too,” he added, fleshing out the historical background as he sipped his glass, “so you could get drunk in one corner and sober up with coffee in another.”

The first Coffee Houses became popular meeting places, facilitating introductions between those of similar interests, fostering deals, trading, and business enterprises. Lloyds of London began as a Coffee House, opened by Edward Lloyd in Lombard St around 1688, where the customers were sailors, merchants and shipowners who brokered insurance among themselves, leading to the creation of the insurance market.

“People complain about the proliferation of Coffee Houses today,” admitted Adam Dant with a sigh, before emptying his glass, “But there were thirty here in these streets behind the Royal Exchange, until a fire that started in a peruke shop burnt them all down. The only reason we know where they all were is because somebody was commissioned to draw a map of them, assessing the damage.”

Executed in ink of an elegant coffee hue and bordered with Coffee House tokens, Adam Dant’s beautiful map gives you the stories and the locations of nineteen different Coffee Houses in the City. Fulfilled with such devoted attention to detail, Adam’s cartography of caffeine led me to assume this must be a labour of love for one who is addicted to coffee, yet – to my surprise – I discovered this was not the case.”I drink expresso at Allpress in Redchurch St,” Adam confessed to me, “but the best coffee is at Present, the gentlemen’s clothiers, in Shoreditch High St. I like to drink three cups before dinner and one after, but, fortunately, I am not a creature of habit and I could easily go three months without drinking coffee.”

Adam Dant at the Jamaica Coffee House in St Michael’s Alley

Map copyright © Adam Dant

Adam Dant’s Maps are available to buy from TAG FINE ARTS

You may like to take a look at some of Adam Dant’s other maps

Map of Hoxton Square

Hackney Treasure Map

Map of the History of Shoreditch

Map of Shoreditch in the Year 3000

Map of Shoreditch as New York

Map of Shoreditch as the Globe

Map of Shoreditch in Dreams

Map of the History of Clerkenwell

Map of the Journey to the Heart of the East End

Map of the History of Rotherhithe

Map of Industrious Shoreditch

The Alphabet Of Lost Pubs Q-R

November 29, 2016
by the gentle author

Royalty & railways are the two dominant themes in this fifth installment of my series of The Alphabet of Lost Pubs. This time-travelling pub crawl is presented in collaboration with Heritage Assets who work in partnership with The National Brewery Heritage Trust, publishing these historic photographs of the myriad pubs of the East End from Charrington’s archive for the first time.

The Queen Adelaide, 483 Hackney Rd, Bethnal Green, E2 (Opened before 1834, renamed ‘The Hop Picker’ in 1983, renamed ‘Tantrums’ in 1992, renamed ‘Images’ in 1993, then renamed ‘Max’s Bistro’ and this year re-opened as ‘The Queen Adelaide’)

The Queen Adelaide, 54 Ivy St, Hoxton, N1 (Opened before 1891, closed in the sixties and now ‘Ivy St Family Centre’)

The Queen Elizabeth, 9 Graham Rd, Dalston, E8 (Opened before 1864, closed in 2005, converted to a church in 2007 and now residential)

The Queen Victoria, 179 St Leonards Street, Bow, E3 (Opened before 1851, closed in 2001 and now residential)

The Queen Victoria, 78 How’s St, Hoxton, E2 (Opened before 1871 and now demolished)

The Queen’s Arms, 250 Roman Rd, Bethnal Green, E2 (Opened before 1861 but now demolished)

The Queen’s Head, 5 Westham Lane, Stratford, E15 (Opened before 1872 and open today)

The Railway Tavern, 576 Commercial Rd, Limehouse, E1 (Opened before 1877 and open today)

The Railway Tavern, 131 Angel Lane, Stratford, E15 (Opened before 1848 and open today)

The Railway Tavern, 272 Victoria Dock Rd, Canning Town, E16 (Opened before 1891, closed due to bomb damage in World War II and demolished in the sixties)

The Railway Tavern, 2 St Judes St, Dalston, N16 (Opened before 1881 and open today)

The Railway Tavern, 131 Globe Rd, Bethnal Green, E2 (Opened before 1869, closed in 2014 and now being converted to flats)

The Railway Tavern, 30 Grove Rd, Bow, E3 (Opened before 1864, closed in 2000 and now flats)

The Railway Tavern, 339 Mare St, Hackney, E8 (Originally established as ‘Eight Bells’ in 1665, renamed and rebuilt in 1880, rebuilt again in 1955, closed in 2009 and converted to a betting shop, now a phone shop)

The Railway Tavern, 59 Kingsland High St, Hackney E8 (Opened before 1856, rebuilt 1939/40, closed in 2015 and now a restaurant)

The Railway Tavern, 393 Old Ford Rd, Bow, E3 (Opened before 1871, closed in 2001 and now flats)

The Railway Tavern, 186 Plaistow Rd, Plaistow, E15 (Opened before 1878, closed in 2009 and now a supermarket)

The Railway Tavern, 116 West India Dock Rd, Poplar (Opened before 1841, known as ‘Charlie Brown’s’ from 1897 and demolished in 1989 for Limehouse Link Rd)

The Red Lion, 17 Bevis Marks, City of London, EC3 (Opened before 1826, rebuilt in 1965 and renamed ‘The White Horse in 2008)

The Rising Sun, Burdett Rd, Mile End, E1 (Opened before 1869 and now demolished)

The Rose & Crown, 83 Bunhill Row, St Lukes, EC1 (Opened as ‘Excelsior Music Hall ‘in 1869, destroyed by enemy action in 1942)

The Royal Sovereign, 64 Northwold Rd, Clapton, E5 (Opened before 1825 and open today)

The Royal Duchess, 551 Commercial Rd, E1 (Opened before 1882, rebuilt and reopened in 1963, closed in 2015)

The Royal Oak, 57 St Stephens Road, Bow, E3 (Opened before 1848 and recently demolished for a bus turning circle)

The Royal Standard, 126 High Rd, Loughton  (Opened 1862 and converted to nightclub in 1999)

The Royal Standard, Well St, Wellclose Sq, E1 (Opened before 1781, closed in 1922 and now demolished)

The Rydon Arms, 225 New North Rd, Hoxton, N1 (Opened before 1851, closed in 1998 and now residential)

Photographs courtesy Heritage Assets/The National Brewery Heritage Trust

You may also like to take a look at

The Alphabet of Lost Pubs A-C

The Alphabet of Lost Pubs D-G

The Alphabet of Lost Pubs H-L

The Alphabet of Lost Pubs M-P

The Pubs of Old London

At the Pub with John Claridge

At the Pub with Tony Hall

Alex Pink’s East End Pubs, Then & Now

Anthony Cairns’ East End Pubs