Five years ago, I began to write daily in these pages without any expectation of where it might lead or what the outcome might be, and now the business of seeking a story and getting photographs and putting it all together has become my way of life. I consider myself privileged to pursue an occupation that offers such a constantly renewing source of interest, avoiding any possibility of boredom and providing an ongoing education upon the subject of human life.
Regular readers will be familiar with my recurring preoccupations and ongoing enthusiasms yet, as I go about my primary task of seeking subjects for interview in the East End, I never know what I shall discover. Even after five years, I do not always know what story I am going to write next but I have learnt to trust in the knowledge that, although I rarely have any stories planned beyond a few days ahead, material will always appear – and, as this anniversary confirms, it does.
It is my hope that no-one can predict what they will discover each day in these posts and the spontaneous, ever-shifting circumstances which lead to the creation of these stories mean that commonly I do not decide what I am going to write until the night before. My aim is to publish each new story at one minute past midnight but, as night-birds will have noticed, it often happens much later because I am still writing for a few hours beyond the appointed time. The rule is – I cannot go to sleep until I have finished my story, which concentrates the mind wonderfully.
Increasingly, readers write to send pictures, submit suggestions and offer introductions. Many leads arrive this way, providing the opportunity to do interviews, take pictures and write stories that might not otherwise be possible. A year ago, I did not know about the tube photographs of Bob Mazzer or Horace Warner’s portraits of the Spitalfields Nippers of of 1901, so it fills me with excited anticipation to wonder what else may arrive in future.
A highlight of this year was the launch of the East End Preservation Society last November as a means to bring together all those who care about the East End at this time of crisis, when too many old buildings are being needlessly destroyed. The overruling of the unanimous vote by Tower Hamlets Council to save the Spitalfields Fruit & Wool Exchange by Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, and the demolition of the Queen Elizabeth Children’s Hospital without any significant public consultation, are two recent events that underlined the necessity of collective action. Encouragingly, the saving of the attractive nineteenth century terrace in Valance Rd, which is the last surviving fragment of the Pavilion Theatre complex, was a heartening early victory for the Society as it faces up to challenge the overblown and soulless developments proposed for Norton Folgate and the Bishopsgate Goodsyard.
It never occurred to me that publishing on the internet might lead to publishing printed books but I am very proud that in the last year, alongside the daily posts, four books have appeared under the Spitalfields Life Books imprint – Travellers’ Children in London Fields by Colin O’Brien, The Gentle Author’s London Album, Brick Lane by Phil Maxwell and Underground by Bob Mazzer. These titles were made possible by the generous investment of the readers of Spitalfields Life.
This November, I look forward to publishing the complete Spitalfields Nippers by Horace Warner from 1901 – including the twenty photographs he gave to the Bedford Institute in 1911 alongside more than a hundred portraits from his personal albums in the possession of his grandson, which have never been seen before outside the immediate family. We are currently undertaking research to discover what became of each of the children in Horace Warner’s pictures and this will be revealed in the book.
As long term readers will know, my ambition is to publish ten thousand stories here in these pages which, at the rate of one a day, will take twenty-seven years and four months. It was an undertaking I adopted when I realised both my parents died at the same age and that I had ten thousand days left until I reached that age myself. In the five years since I began, I have produced more than eighteen hundred stories, leaving me twenty-two years and four months to meet my goal. As a writer, this task was the best means I could devise to ensure I made the most of my time.
Thus the path has been laid down and now I plan to continue along it. These first five years have more than exceeded my expectations, brought me a great deal of joy and introduced me to such a multitude of inspiring people. Yet, as I go forward, I am aware that more possibilities become available all the time, so I hope you will stay with me, because I can guarantee it will be an eventful journey we shall have together.
For the next week, I shall be publishing favourite stories from the past year and resuming with new stories on Monday 1st September.
You may like to read my earlier Annual Reports
Like an old book jammed into a crowded bookcase, the London Library sits wedged in the corner of St James’ Sq. Years ago, I had the privilege of a subsidised membership for a spell, and I loved to come here and browse the labyrinth of shelves containing over a million volumes. Thus it was a sentimental pilgrimage to return this week for a visit, deliver copies of my own books for their collection, and take a tour around the newly-refurbished premises.
Before I joined the London Library, I had been defeated by the catalogues of the great libraries, with their obscure numerical systems and form-filling requirements just so that you might return to consult the books you wanted now, on another day. At the London Library, there is none of this soul-destroying rigmarole and you are free to explore the collection by wandering among the miles of bookshelves, engendering unexpected discoveries and facilitating the pursuit of whims that would be impossible in libraries where the stack is closed to readers.
Once you walk through the narrow entrance, the building widens out with staircases leading off in different directions. On the first floor at the front is the magnificent nineteenth-century reading room with leather armchairs arranged around the fire. I cannot have been the first writer to shame myself by coming here in the winter months to escape a cold house and take advantage of the central heating, but then fallen into a doze instead of reading.
Beyond the reading room, lies the stack of books that is the true wonder of this library. Towering shelves rise through three or four storeys with gantries of translucent glass and metal grilles which permit access for readers. Wandering in pursuit of a particular volume, you may come to yourself in the midst of this structure and be overcome with vertigo, gazing down through the floors below or peering up at the stack above.
It is a physical experience that has its intellectual counterpart when you take a volume from the shelf and open it – standing there in the depths of the building – and begin to realise how many books there are that you will not ever read, even if you spent the rest of yours days in there. You recognise the limitless depth of the intellectual literary universe. This is one of those places of which it may truly be said that you can go in and never come out again in this life. How fortunate then that the London Library permits its readers to borrow a generous number of books and keep them for months on end, as long as no-one else wants them.
When I first came to the London Library, I was quite early in my quest for the subjects that would engage my working life as writer and, in many ways, this was a fruitful place to search and tap the reserves of past literary endeavour. I found it inspiring, after first discovering classic pieces of writing through their paperback reprints, to encounter those same works in their early editions upon the shelves here and it brought those writers closer to see their books as they saw them. In my mind, I equated the darkness of the stacks with a mine where I searched, delving into the collective imagination. Isolated from daylight, to me it was a timeless netherworld where the spirits of past authors lingered, waiting to be sought out.
At the beginning of my life as a writer, I used to read far more than I wrote but – as the years passed – the balance has shifted and now I am so busy producing my stories every day that I hardly have any time left to read anymore. With this thought in mind, I left the London Library and did not envy the bookworms. I walked out through the crowded streets of Piccadilly, alive with the drama of human existence in the afternoon sunlight, and I realised that the city is my library of infinite curiosity now and everyone I meet is a book – even if, in my modest interviews, I commonly only get as far as the first chapter.
The reading room
Librarians of 1935
Archive photographs courtesy of London Library
The London Library , 14 St James’s Sq, SW1Y 4LG
John Lloyd, Watch Repairer
When you step into The Little Yellow Watch Shop in the Clerkenwell Rd, you discover yourself among an eager line of customers clutching their precious timepieces patiently and awaiting the moment they can hand them into the safe hands of John Lloyd, the watch repairer who has worked in Clerkenwell longer than any other. With his long snowy white locks, John looks like a magus, as if by merely peering down critically over his long nose at a broken watch and snapping his fingers, he could conjure it back into life.
While John works his charm, his wife Annie Lloyd fulfils the role of magician’s assistant with consummate grace, taking down all the necessary information from the owner and keeping everything moving with superlative efficiency. Together they preside over a hundred watches a week arriving for repair, and thereby maintain the tradition of clock-making and repair that has occupied Clerkenwell for centuries.
John has worked in the Clerkenwell Rd since 1956 and remembers when every shop between St John St and Goswell Rd was a watch repair or watch materials supply shop. Today, although his business is now one of just a tiny handful remaining in Clerkenwell, it is apparent that there is a healthy demand for his services to sustain him for as long as he pleases.
“I’m from Shepherd’s Bush originally and my stepfather had a watch repair stall in Romford Market,” John admitted to me, “I was only eleven when I started to work with him, but I quickly took to it.”
“I first came to Clerkenwell in the nineteen-forties, when I did a three year course in Instrument Making at the Northampton Polytechnic, now known as the City University. Then I joined A. Shoot & Sons in Whitechapel at seventeen years old, was conscripted for National Service at eighteen and returned to my job again in 1956. Shoot & Sons supplied watch materials from a tall thin building at 85 Whitechapel High St next to the Whitechapel Gallery, but in that year we moved to Whitworth Buildings in Clerkenwell and then to the corner of St John St & Clerkenwell Rd in 1959. At Shoot & Sons, I used to go to the manager Leslie Lawson at weekends and we stripped down antique watches together – not many people these days know the inside workings of a watch.”
In 1992, when Shoot & Sons Ltd closed after more than thirty years on the corner, John moved to the kiosk fifty yards away at 60 Clerkwenwell Rd which was even smaller than the current Little Watch Shop. He opened it in partnership with his colleague Barry Benjamin but, when Barry became ill after just three years, John continued the business alone until his wife Annie came in one day a week and then later joined him full time. What was once a miniscule kiosk has expanded into a tiny shop where John presides happily from behind the counter, surrounded by photos of old Clerkenwell and his step-father’s sign from Romford market where John started out in the nineteen-forties.
“People ask me when I ‘m going to retire,” John confided to me gleefully, “but I’m already past retirement age – I’m having too much fun here.”
John Lloyd – Clerkenwell’s longest-serving member of the watch business
John’s mother and stepfather in Brighton, 1954
At Shoot & Sons Ltd
Maurice Shoot, John’s boss from the early fifties until his retirement in 1989
Phil, John and Barry at Shoots
Shoot & Sons Ltd on the corner of St John St & Clerkenwell Rd in the eighties
The interior of the shop at Shoot & Sons Ltd
60 Clerkenwell Rd in 1900, note the watch and clock shops
Clerkenwell Rd in the sixties
Barry Benjamin outside the original Little Yellow Shop
Signs uncovered in the expansion of the Little Yellow Shop
John & Annie Lloyd
New photographs © Colin O’Brien
The Little Yellow Shop, watch service centre, 60 Clerkenwell Rd, EC1
You may like to read these other Clerkenwell stories
In his History of the Cries of London, Ancient & Modern of 1884, Charles Hindley reused many woodblocks from earlier publications and these below date from much earlier in the century. Each one no larger than a thumbnail, this tiny series is remarkable for the sense of urgency conveyed as many of the sellers strive to sell their wares, and also for the incidental details – such as the cat in the potato seller print, the watchman’s rattle, the fins on the eels’ heads, the dog that wants a mutton pie and the child holding out a plate in hope of a muffin.
Come take a Peep, Boys, take a Peep! Girls, I’ve the Wonder of the World!
Water Cresses! Fine Spring Water Cresses! Three bunches a Penny, young Water Cresses!
Buy fine Kidney Potatoes! New Potatoes! Fine Kidney Potatoes! Potatoes, O!
Buy Images! Good and cheap! Images, very good – very cheap!
Fine China Oranges, sweet as sugar! The are very fine, and cheap, too, today
Kettles to mend! Any Pots to Mend?
Eels, fine Silver Eels! Dutch Eels! They are all alive – Silver Eels!
Buy my young chickens! Buy ‘em alive, O! Buy of the Fowlman, and have ‘em alive, O!
Toy Lambs to sell! Toy Lambs to sell!
Past twelve o’clock and a misty morning! Past twelve o’clock and mind I give you warning!
Golden Pippins of the right sort, boys! Golden Pippins of the right sort, girls!
Buy ‘em by the stick, or buy ‘em by the pound, Cherries ripe, all round and sound!
Oysters, fresh and alive, three a penny, O! When they are all sold I shan’t have any, O!
Muffins O! Crumpets! Muffins, today! Crumpets! Muffins! Fresh today!
Mutton Pies! Mutton Pies! Mutton Pies! Come feast your eyes with my Mutton Pies!
Door Mat! Door Mat! Buy a Door Mat! Rope Mat! Rope Mat! Buy a Rope Mat!
Clothes Props! Clothes Props! I say, very good Clothes Props, all long and strong, today!
Any Knives or Scissors to Grind today? Big Knives or little Knives, or Scissors to Grind, O!
Ripe Strawberries! A groat a pottle, today. Only a groat a pottle, is what I say!
Have pity, have pity upon the poor little birds, who only make music and cannot sing words!
You may like to take a look at the text I have written about the Cries of London upon the British Library’s DISCOVERING LITERATURE website
Peruse these other sets of the Cries of London I have collected
Arnold Toynbee was the Economic Historian who coined the phrase “Industrial Revolution” to describe the transformation that came upon this country in the first half of the nineteenth century as a result of technological advance. As early as the eighteen-seventies, he recognised that the free market system disadvantaged the poor, and he came to Whitechapel from Oxford to encourage the creation of trade unions and public libraries, as a means to give practical expression to his social beliefs.
When Toynbee died from exhaustion at the age of thirty in 1883, his friend Samuel Barnett, working in partnership with his wife Henrietta Barnett, established an experimental university settlement in the East End founded upon these ideals and they named it Toynbee Hall. Opening on Christmas Eve 1884, it attempted to recreate a collegiate environment where the educated intellects of Oxford & Cambridge might live and work among the poor. Already, Samuel had been vicar of St Jude’s in Whitechapel since 1873, while his wife Henrietta had worked with Octavia Hill on social housing projects and counted John Ruskin as a personal mentor.
Residents were encouraged to place citizenship above self-interest and dedicate themselves to relationships that overcame class barriers. Barnett believed that educational and social projects undertaken by the students encouraged a social conscience among future generations of political leaders. It was an ethos that became manifest when Clement Attlee who had been secretary at Toynbee Hall became Prime Minister in 1945. Thus the entire project of the Welfare State and attendant modern notions of Social Welfare in Britain can be traced back to their origin in the work begun in Commercial St – which explains why more recent Prime Ministers such as Tony Blair came to launch his campaign to end child poverty at Toynbee Hall in 1999 and David Cameron chose to announce his Welfare Reforms here in 2011.
True to his belief in the social value of culture, Samuel Barnett founded the Whitechapel Gallery round the corner, that opened its doors in 1901, and Henrietta Barnett created Hampstead Garden Suburb in 1907, as the embodiment of her notion of humane housing for Londoners.
Despite damage by wartime bombing and the accretion of more recent buildings, the core structure of Samuel & Henrietta Barnett’s Toynbee Hall remains today. Built in the nineteenth-century Elizabethan style by Elijah Hoole, with gables, tall chimneystacks, mullioned windows and diamond-paned casements, and embellished with magnificent old fig trees, the dignified collegiate atmosphere prevails. At the heart of it are the oak-panelled Lecture Hall and the Dining Room (now the CR Ashbee Hall) with its original low table, conceived as a means to encourag those sitting around it into a more relaxed inter-relationship.
CR Ashbee, who later founded the Art Workers Guild in Bow, came here after graduating from Cambridge in 1886 and applied the principles of John Ruskin directly, by setting to work with his students to redecorate the dining room in the Arts & Crafts style. His tree of life design in relief upon the gilded plaster rondels became the symbol of Toynbee Hall. These medallions once punctuated murals painted by his students and early photos show his famous table surrounded by Morris’ Sussex chairs. Tantalisingly, murals in both of these major rooms have been painted out and, apart from the table, none of the original furnishings survive. Yet this sturdy old table, scratched and worn, evokes the presence of those who have gathered round it and the passionate discourse that has passed across it for over a century.
To visit Toynbee Hall is to be reminded of the origin of the notion of a modern compassionate society, the importance of universal education, and the duty of government to temper the excesses of the free market for the public benefit – and to recognise that these are ideas still worth striving for today.
Samuel Barnett with graduates of Oxford & Cambridge at Toynbee Hall c.1903-5
The Lecture Hall, c. 1900
Painting a mural in the Lecture Hall in the nineteen-thirties
In the Lecture Hall today
Crests of Oxford and Cambridge colleges line the walls of the CR Ashbee Hall today
Busts of former luminaries – this one is John Profumo
The famous low table in sections designed by CR Ashbee as part of the room, to encourage a more relaxed relationship among those who sat around it
Rondels by CR Ashbee depicting the tree of life that became Toynbee Hall’s symbol – although a paint scheme based upon the original colours was introduced in the eighties, these walls were once painted with murals under the supervision of CR Ashbee
Sketch of the CR Ashbee Hall showing original furnishings including Sussex chairs by William Morris
Students’ common room
A scientific experiment
Elevation on Wentworth St
Original facade onto Commercial St
Bomb damage to the Commercial St facade
The clock tower of 1893
Bomb damage seen from the internal courtyard
The view from Commercial St once the bomb damage was cleared away
The view from Commercial St today
You may like to read about Toynbee Hall resident