Skip to content

So Long, Des & Lorraine’s Junk Shop

March 27, 2017
by the gentle author

Yesterday, Des & Lorraine closed the door on their legendary junk shop in Bacon St after more than thirty-five years of trading. Rent increases forced the move and in future you can find them at Unit 14, Cromwell Industrial Estate, Staffa Rd, Leyton, E10 7QZ. Call Des on 07553 345852 for opening times to discover the cheapest and most interesting collection of junk in London.

Portrait of Des by Simon Mooney

Des & Lorraine’s junk shop in Bacon St was sandwiched between a secondhand catering equipment dealer and a tattoo parlour, so you might not even have noticed the discreet entrance if you did not know it. You could easily be unaware of the wonders that were contained behind this unassuming frontage.

Des led me through the low-ceilinged narrow passage lined with old wardrobes into the shop itself. At first, as you entered this shadowy antechamber, you realised the ceiling was higher and hung with things which gave the feeling of being in a deep forest with heavy branches overhead. Then you found yourself in an old stable with a cobbled floor, a corrugated iron roof and spaces opening up on all sides, each crowded with furniture accumulated in the gloom, giving way to indeterminate darkness.

This is where Des & Lorraine dealt in junk for over thirty-five years. Without windows, the chill was tangible, and I understood why Lorraine was commonly seen wrapped in a hat and scarf, and whenever possible sat in the car outside during the winter months. They are busy people by nature and custom, fugutive figures constantly coming and going, collecting and delivering. Consequently, it took me several days to get an opportunity to speak to Des yet even then he was hovering, as customers came and went throughout our conversation.

I was impressed that Des describes himself as dealing injunk’ because, while antique dealers may consider themselves superior within the hierarchy of professionals, for the inquisitive customer ‘junk’ possesses the greater interest. With antiques there is an implication of higher monetary value but with junk it is all about the intrinsic poetry of the items. So to my mind, it is to his credit that Des is unapologetically a junk dealer.

Wherever I looked in Des & Lorraine’s magnificent junk shop in Bacon St, the detail was overwhelming – with a panoply of old stuff hung above, creating the impression of an eccentric galaxy of objects in a frozen moment. Des certainly likes to collect, especially old toys and other curios that looked good hanging overhead. The airplanes and vehicles created the sense of motion in Des’ cosmos while the other items, like the signs and musical instruments, the gas mask and the giant potato peeler imparted a surreal quality to his strange universe. Gazing up into this thicket was like looking into a dream, yet Des appeared to be a down-to-earth fellow.

“Certain things I like to keep. Most of this stuff here is from childhood. A lot of people ask to buy these things but they are not for sale. It’s all stuff that’s become collectible. It’s stuff I bought, except the horse which belonged to my kids and they left it out in the rain.” he explained to me, as he surveyed his marvellous collection with proprietorial satisfaction.

Seized by an idea, “Let me show you one of the strangest things I ever found,” Des said and, visibly excited, began burrowing through a stack of old boxes. Pulling out an old holdall, he produced a slim booklet and held it open to show me a photograph of a mermaid. I scrutinised his mild features for any hint of irony that might reveal he was pulling my leg, but his brown-eyed gaze was without concealment. I was baffled. “You’re kidding me?” I said, but he shook his head. “Where did you get it?” I asked. “I found it in the course of my work,he explained dispassionately, “This was while ago, but it cost me quite a lot of money at the time.” I was disarmed. Des continued, “It has a spine running the length of its body and some scientists from Cambridge University verified it by carbon dating as over two hundred years old.”

As the conversation spun into the unknown territory, towards a weird place familiar only to Des, I asked, “Where is it?” Pre-occupied with sorting rusty old spanners, he indicated a dusty corner casually,“I used to have it set up there but now it’s at home,” he said, “I’ll send you picture from my phone this evening.”

Willingly consenting to the notion of a mermaid photographed by a mobile phone, I gave Des my number and said goodbye. The picture you see below arrived that evening, Des’ mummified mermaid in a glass tank sitting upon his dining table. I shall leave you to draw your own conclusion upon its authenticity as a mermaid, but from this picture I do believe it is an authentic specimen from a nineteenth century display, a cabinet of curiosities or a freak show, and that itself is good enough for me.

Des & Lorraine were always happy to allow customers to rummage in their shop, as long as they asked first. It was the last outpost of the mysterious kingdom of junk.

Des’ mermaid

Lorraine with Viscountess Boudica (photograph by Colin O’Brien)

Des & Lorraine, Unit 14, Cromwell Industrial Estate, Staffa Rd, Leyton, E10 7QZ Telephone 07553 345852

You may like to read these other Bacon St stories

Charlie Burns, King of Bacon St

Carol Burns, Dogsbody

Steve Dobkin, Bacon St Salvage

Alan Shipp, Hyacinth Grower

March 26, 2017
by the gentle author

Expect widespread outbreaks of hyacinth mania across Cambridgeshire today as Alan Shipp stages the annual public opening of his incomparable hyacinth nursery at Waterbeach from 11am until 5pm

‘I could not imagine what my life would have been like without hyacinths’

On a blustery day last week, I took the train up to Waterbeach outside Cambridge to visit Alan Shipp, Hyacinth Grower who cultivates two hundred and forty-three different varieties of this favourite flower, which are all in full bloom now. I stood in the rain, inhaling the fragrance of the gentle breeze wafting over Alan’s field of hyacinths, flourishing in the rich soil of the silted water-meadows of the River Cam.

Alan Shipp is Britain’s only Hyacinth Grower and is also the Custodian of the National Collection of Hyacinths. He has the world’s largest collection of varieties and knows more about this intriguing plant than anyone else alive. Each year at the end of March, Alan opens his hyacinth nursery to the public at peak flowering time, drawing international press attention to the tiny village of Waterbeach for this celebrated event in the horticultural calendar, which sometimes attracts over a thousand enthusiasts – travelling from far and wide to gawp at this incomparable hyacinth spectacle.

The lines of multicoloured hyacinths stretch to horizon. They seem to sing against the black soil. The rain makes them shine and then the sun makes them glow, luminous with light beneath a dark East Anglian sky. Alan Shipp & I stood alone together in the field contemplating the hyacinths in silent pleasure – until the storm broke, when we took shelter in Alan’s greenhouse where he told me the astonishing story of his life in hyacinths, as the rain hammered on the glass and the wind rattled the panes around us.

“In the eighteen-eighties my grandfather, Thomas Shipp, won a pony and whip in a raffle. To put it to some use, he managed to borrow a harness and cart, and went round door to door selling vegetables. Then he bought a piece of ground and started growing his own, and that is this piece of ground. That was how it all started, growing fruit and vegetables.

Eventually when my father, Kenneth Ship, got involved, he started wholesaling the produce we grew ourselves. In the fifties, we started selling imported fruit too which we used to bring up from Spitalfields Market on Monday and Wednesday each week.

At the entrance to the Floral Market on Lamb St in Spitalfields was the Floral Cafe and I can still remember the bacon sarnies. It was a whole slice of fried gammon between two pieces of bread. We used to try and get there at four-thirty or five – it was a wonderful atmosphere. The owner was a chap called Leonard Swindley. I said to him once, ‘I’ve seen the porters just walk behind the counter, make themselves a jug of tea and disappear. You can’t carry on like that, you’re being robbed!’ He replied, ‘Can you think of a happier way of losing money?’ I left the argument defeated.

We stopped selling produce after one of our salesmen left and set up on his own in opposition. We had been growing acres and acres ourselves but the method of vegetable production changed out of all recognition. We would have a little plot of a couple of hundred square metres of leeks that we would plant by hand but today, two miles away, there is a field of one hundred and forty-five acres of leeks. To get a reasonable living, we needed a larger farm but I know of no land that has come up for rent in Waterbeach in the last thirty years.

So in 1985, I decided I could best increase the output per acre by becoming a hyacinth grower. It was just sheer chance. There was a clearance sale at a bulb nursery at the the other side of Cambridge, including hyacinth bulbs. So I bought one hundred, twenty each of five different varieties, and planted them because I had always been a very keen gardener. After the leaves died down, I dug them up and moved them elsewhere but there was one that I missed. It had rolled under a shrub. When I found it next summer, it had put its roots down but the rest of the bulb had been eaten away where it was exposed and, upon this surface, small bulbs had formed. The slugs had actually illustrated for me the method of propagating hyacinths.

I thought, ‘I wouldn’t mind doing this,’ so I got a planting stock from Taylors Bulbs of Holbeach. Their general manager gave me advice, he said, ‘Alan, don’t grow many varieties.’ I didn’t really heed his advice because I now have two hundred and forty-three. And that’s how I got started!

I discovered there was a National Collection of Hyacinths at Barnard Castle and I got in touch to say that, as I was the only hyacinth grower in the country, I was willing to propagate for them free of charge. They brought me two bulbs each of fifty varieties that I propagated and which became the nucleus of my collection. I seemed to come up against a wall, regarding getting more varieties, after one hundred and eight varieties. Then I got a letter from a lady in Lithuania who had a collection of hyacinths that she had assembled from all over the former Soviet Union – things I’ve never heard of, things that we thought were extinct! She’d got the names but knew nothing but about them so I sent her my research and we exchanged bulbs.

I thought I had missed double-flowered yellow hyacinths by one hundred years but low-and-behold she had got two – one with a name and one unidentified. The one with the name was in catalogues from 1897 and the other I grew as ‘unidentified double-yellow hyacinth.’ Then in 2013, by sheer chance, a friend of mine came across an illustration of it by Mary Delany in the British Library. That was the world’s first double-yellow hyacinth, introduced in 1770! When it was introduced, it was £800 a bulb yet Mary Delany had painted it, so I wondered how she got access. But it was reported she had contact with Court and it was George III’s bulb that she illustrated at the time he was at Kew Palace in Kew Gardens. So that was a breakthrough.

I am on the Royal Horticultural Society’s Bulb Committee. It was the ‘Daffodil & Tulip Committee’ but, in 2012, the remit embraced all bulbs and we had an intake of other specialists. One of them was Alan Street from Avon Bulbs who regularly wins a gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show. ‘Alan,’ he said, ‘I’ve got an unusual hyacinth, it’s red and white. I can tell you’ve heard of it by the look on your face.’ It was Gloria Mundi.

Hyacinth Mania was a hundred years after Tulip Mania. It was started by the Scottish Horticulturalist Peter Voorhelm who found a white double hyacinth with a rosy coloured centre in 1708. Previously, all double hyacinths had been discarded as inferior because they are deformed by extra petals in the middle, but he so liked this one that he propagated it and called it Konig Van Groot-Brettanje in honour of William of Orange – and that started Hyacinth Mania for white doubles with coloured centres.

Gloria Mundi was a lost variety of white double with a coloured centre in the catalogues in 1767. Alan Street had a friend in Switzerland called Ingrid Dingwell and Ingrid had a gardening friend who was a lorry driver called Theo, who took a load of humanitarian aid to Romania during the Ceaucescu era to remote village with a population of three hundred and seventy-odd souls. Theo’s friend fell in love with a local girl and married her, and Theo was given hospitality by the bride’s father at the wedding. To show his gratitude, Theo gave the bride’s father a pocket watch and the old man asked Theo to help himself to any plant growing in the garden, including bulbs of a hyacinth called Gloria Mundi. Theo gave them to Ingrid who sent them to Alan Street who grew them for fifteen years, oblivious of what he had. The year after I identified them, Alan took a pot to the RHS and they were given an award, two hundred and fifty years after the variety had been lost.

I cannot say that what I do is much of a business, it is more a hobby that gives a little bit of income and the selling of the bulbs has financed the conservation scheme. Without my work, the National Collection of Hyacinths would have just disappeared. I have saved well over a hundred varieties of hyacinths from extinction. At seventy-eight years old, the next problem I have is who is going to carry it on after me? I am looking for someone.

I love hyacinths. There is their fragrance, there is their beauty. There is no other flower that can give you this range of colours at the end of March. If someone gave me a paint chart, I could match every colour on it with hyacinths. I would have a job to get black but I could get pretty close to it.

They are so fascinating. They are all evolved from just the one wild species growing from eight hundred to a thousand metres in the hills at the border of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. It is believed that the Romans may have brought them to Europe because there is a sub-species which grows on the Mediterranean coast of France. How did hyacinths get from the Levant to there, unless they were taken as bulbs by the Romans and gone feral?

The first recorded introduction of hyacinths to Europe was by the Flemish Botanist Carolus Clusius who was appointed Prefect of the imperial gardens in Vienna in 1573 by Ferdinand II. Ferdinand’s ambassador to Turkey was Osier Usbek and he brought back tulips, crocuses, cyclamen and hyacinths to the palace gardens – all the bulbs from the Levant. Unfortunately, Ferdinand died that year but Clusius got a job at the botanic garden in Leyden and took the bulbs with him. That was the start of the Dutch bulb industry.

Clusius may have introduced hyacinths to Britain when he visited in 1590 and John Gerard records growing them in his garden in London in 1597. Hyacinths would undoubtably have been included among the ‘florists’ flowers,’ along with tulips, carnations, auriculas and roses, grown competitively in the East End during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the Victorian era, florists’ competitions were rampant up and down the country, and hyacinths always featured.

Hyacinths have formed my life. They have got me onto the RHS Bulb Committee, brought me lots of friends and won me worldwide recognition – probably got me into the Rotary Club too. To be honest, I could not imagine what my life would have been like without hyacinths. How did I ever live without them?”

Alan Shipp, National Hyacinth Collection, Waterbeach, Cambridge, CB25 9NB. Telephone 01223 571064

You may also like to read about

The Auriculas of Spitalfields

In the Cherry Orchards of Kent

Dennis & Christine Reeve, Walnut Farmers

Thomas Fairchild, Gardener of Hoxton

Matchbox Models By Lesney & Co

March 25, 2017
by the gentle author

It is my pleasure to publish the Matchbox 1966 Collector’s Guide & International Catalogue by Lesney Products & Co Ltd of Hackney Wick (courtesy of Libby Hall). The company was founded by Leslie & Rodney Smith in 1947 , closed in 1982 and the Lesney factory was demolished in 2010.

It all began in 1953, with a miniature diecast model of the Coronation Coach with its team of eight horses. In Coronation year, over a million were sold and this tremendous success was followed by the introduction of the first miniature vehicle models packed in matchboxes. And so the famous Matchbox Series was born.

More than five hundred million Matchbox models have been made since the series was first introduced during 1953, and today over two million Matchbox models are made every week. The life of a new model begins at a design meeting attended by Lesney senior executives. The suitability of a particular vehicle as a Matchbox model is discussed and the manufacturer of the full-sized car is approached for photographs, drawings and other information. Enthusiastic support is received from manufacturers throughout the world and many top secret, exciting new cars are on the Matchbox drawings boards long before they are launched to the world markets.

1.  Once the details of the full-size vehicle have been obtained, many hours of careful work are required in the main drawing office in Hackney.

2. In the pattern shop, highly specialised craftsmen carve large wooden models which form the basic shape from which the miniature will eventually be diecast in millions.

3.  Over a hundred skilled toolmakers are employed making the moulds for Matchbox models from the finest grade of chrome-vinadium steel.

4. There are more than one hundred and fifty automatic diecasting machines at Hackney and all have been designed, built and installed by Lesney engineers.

5. The spray shop uses nearly two thousand gallons of lead-free paint every week, and over two and a half million parts can be stove-enamelled every day.

6. Final assembly takes place over twenty lines, and sometimes several different models and their components come down each line at the same time.

7. Ingenious packing machines pick up the flat boxes, shape them and seal the model at the rate of more than one hundred and twenty items per minute.

8. Ultra-modern, automatic handling and automatic conveyor systems speed the finished models to the transit stores where electronic selection equipment routes each package.

From the highly individual, skilled worker or the enthusiast who produces hand-made samples of new ideas, to the multi-million mass assembly of the finished models by hundreds of workers, this is the remarkable story of Matchbox models. Over three thousand six hundred people play their part in a great team with the highest score in the world – over a hundred million models made and sold per year. Enthusiasts of all ages throughout the world collect and enjoy Matchbox models today and it is a true but amazing fact that if all the models from a year’s work in the Lesney factories were placed nose to tail they would stretch from London to Mexico City – a distance of over six thousand miles!

You may also like to take a look at these other magnificent catalogues

Crowden & Keeves Hardware

Nicholls & Clarke’s Hardware

Allen & Hanburys’ Surgical Appliances

An Old Whitechapel Bell

March 24, 2017
by the gentle author

Today I present the first in a series of Whitechapel Bells, in which I tell the stories of celebrated specimens that originated here in the East End at the world’s oldest and most famous Bell Foundry

‘Robert Mot made me’

This is one of the oldest Whitechapel Bells still in use, cast by Robert Mott in 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada and also the year William Shakespeare arrived in London. Yet, even though Robert Mott is remembered as the founder of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 1570, he did not begin the industry of founding in this location since bells are recorded as having been cast in Whitechapel as early as 1420.

Adorned with the sparse text of ‘Robertus Mot me fecit,’ this bell declares its birth date of 1588 in delicate gothic numerals and indicates its origin through use of the symbol of three bells upon a disc – at the sign of the three bells – a maker’s mark which is still in use for bells made in Whitechapel to this day.

I climbed the tower of St Clement Danes in the Strand to photograph this bell for you this week and discovered it shares a common ancestry with its fellows in the belfry which were also cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, but by Mears & Stainbank in 1958 – nearly four centuries later. Close examination reveals they also carry the symbol of the three bells.

With a diameter of two feet and a weight of just over two hundredweight, Robert Mott’s bell is relatively modest in scale yet a dignified specimen nonetheless with its broken canons (the hoops that used to be attached to all bells to attach them to a beam) emphasising the exotic vulnerability of its age – as if it were a rare metal flower plucked roughly from a mythological tree, long extinct.

Today, the old Whitechapel bell rings the Angelus and may be heard by passersby in the Strand at 7:55am, 11:55am and 17:55pm. Its earlier function as the clock bell may be the reason the old bell has survived, since the other bells were removed by Rector William Pennington-Bickford during World War II for safe keeping at the base of the tower.

St Clement Danes was established in 886 when Alfred the Great expelled the Danes from the City of London and they settled along the Strand. Escaping the Great Fire, the church was in a decayed state and considerably rebuilt by Christopher Wren in the sixteen-eighties, with a spire added by James Gibbs on top of the old bell tower in 1719. During the eighteenth century, St Clement’s acquired a literary congregation including local residents Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith and David Garrick but, by the nineteenth century, fashionable society had moved to the churches of the West End.

Septimus Pennington, Rector from 1889, set out to minister to the flower girls and street traders of Clare Market and Drury Lane, work continued by his successor and son-in-law, Rector William Pennington-Bickford in the early twentieth century. Unfortunately, Pennington-Bickford’s worst expectations were realised when St Clement’s was hit by more than twenty fire bombs on the night of 12th May 1941, reducing the church to a shell.

Fearful that looters might steal the fire-damaged bells and melt them down, Pennington-Bickford had them bricked up in the Rector’s parlour and died from grief three months later, only to be followed by his wife who threw herself from a window shortly after. Yet through all this, Robert Mot’s bell was safe, hanging up in the bell tower. Postwar, St Clement’s was rebuilt again to Wren’s designs and the damaged bells recovered from the Rector’s parlour, recast in Whitechapel and rehung in the tower in 1958. Today, it is the church of the Royal Air Force.

When I asked Alan Taylor, Bell Ringer at St Clement’s, his opinion of the sound of the old Whitechapel bell, he wrinkled up his nose in disapproval. ‘Bell founding was a bit hit-or-miss in those days,’ he informed me, shaking his head.

As the Sanctus Bell, Robert Mot’s bell was originally used to summon the congregation to prayer, but I imagine it could also have been rung at the time of the Spanish Armada. Ancient bells connect us to all those who heard them through the centuries and, given the date of 1588, this is one that William Shakespeare could have heard echoing down the street, when he walked the Strand as a newcomer to London, come to seek his destiny.

Cast in 1588 by Robert Mot, Founder of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry

Whitechapel bell cast in 1958 by Mears & Stainbank

Panel in the bell ringing chamber

Old church board, now in the crypt, indicating this was once the church for Clare Market & Drury Lane

Nineteenth century photograph of Clare Market (Courtesy Bishopsgate Institute)

Nineteenth century photograph of Drury Lane (Courtesy Bishopsgate Institute)

St Clement Danes – Robert Mott’s bell is in the belfry above the clock

You may also like to read about

A Petition to Save the Bell Foundry

Save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry

So Long, Whitechapel Bell Foundry



A Hoxton Childhood & The Years After

March 23, 2017
by the gentle author

Click here to pre-order a copy for £20


It gives me great pleasure to announce that I shall be publishing A HOXTON CHILDHOOD & THE YEARS AFTER by A.S. Jasper (1905-1970) this spring and I am delighted to be collaborating with Labour & Wait to celebrate publication day on Tuesday 25th April.

A.S. Jasper’s tender memoir of growing up in the East End before the First World War was immediately acclaimed as a classic when it was described by the Observer in 1969 as ‘Zola without the trimmings.’ In this definitive new hardback edition, it is accompanied by the first publication of the sequel detailing the author’s struggles and eventual triumph in the Shoreditch cabinet-making trade, THE YEARS AFTER. Additionally, I have undertaken an extended interview with Terry Jasper, the author’s son, which is included as an Afterword, discussing his father’s life and writing.

The book is designed by David Pearson, and we have reproduced James Boswell‘s drawings for A HOXTON CHILDHOOD from the original artwork and commissioned new illustrations for THE YEARS AFTER from Joe McLaren.

I have always been fascinated by A. S. Jasper’s account of the life of old Hoxton, of which so little remains today, and the sequel traces the author’s path beyond the East End to a new home in the suburbs – a journey which so many undertook.

The party for publication day of  A HOXTON CHILDHOOD & THE YEARS AFTER will be held on Tuesday 25th April 7pm at the Labour and Wait Workroom, 29-32 The Oval, Off Hackney Rd, E2 9DT in the shadow of the magnificent gasometers. There will be refreshments, live music and readings. Click here to book a ticket (Please note booking opens at 10am on 23rd March)



A.S. Jasper, 1930



Illustration by Joe McLaren for THE YEARS AFTER



The Gentle Author is delighted to collaborate with Labour and Wait to present a SPITALFIELDS LIFE BOOKSHOP for ten days at the WORKROOM, 29-32 The Oval, Off Hackney Rd, Bethnal Green, E2 9DT, in the shadow of the magnificent gasometers. This will be a rare chance to take a look at all Spitalfields Life Books titles in one place and have a peek behind the scenes at Labour and Wait too.

(Wednesday 26th April – Saturday, May 6th, 11am-6pm. Closed Sunday 30th April)