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Manhole Covers Of Spitalfields

July 25, 2017
by the gentle author

Ever since I wrote about sculptor Keith Bowler’s Roundels, describing how he set new manhole covers into the pavements of Spitalfields with motifs to commemorate all the people, cultures and trades that have passed through, I have been noticing the old ones that inspired him in the first place. This one from the eighteen eighties in Fournier St is undoubtably the most fancy specimen in the neighbourhood with its dynamic sunburst and catherine wheel spiral. So much wit and grace applied to the design of  a modest coalhole cover, it redefines the notion of utilitarian design. In Bath, Bristol, Brighton and Edinburgh, I have seen whole streets where each house has a different design of coalhole cover, like mismatched buttons on a long overcoat, but in Spitalfields they are sparser and you have to look further to find them.

There is a second example of this Clark, Hunt & Co sunburst, that I like so much, in Redchurch St, just a hundred yards from the former showrooms at 159/60 Shoreditch High St of this company who called themselves the Middlesex Iron Works – founded in 1838, proud contractors to the H.M. War Office, the Admiralty and London County Council. And like many local ironworks, gone long ago, but outlived by their sturdy cast iron products. Alfred Solomons of 195 Caledonian Rd is another name I found here in Spitalfields on a couple of manhole covers, with some rather fetching, almost orientalist, nineteenth century flourishes. I discovered that the Jewish Chronicle reported the birth of a son to Alfred’s wife Celia on 18th December 1894 at the Caledonian Rd address, so these plates commemorate them personally now.

Meanwhile Hayward Brothers of 187 & 189 Union St, Borough, are the most ubiquitous of the named manufacturers with their handsome iron artefacts in the pavements of our neighbourhood. They were founded by William &  Edward Hayward, glaziers who had been trading since 1783 when they bought Robert Henley’s ironmongery business in 1838. As glaziers they brought a whole new progressive mentality to the humble production of coalhole covers, patenting the addition of prisms that admitted light to the cellar below. You can see one of their “semi-prismatic pavement lights” illustrated below, in Calvert Avenue. Such was the success of this company that by 1921 they opened a factory in Enfield, and even invented the “crete-o-lux” concrete system which was used to repave Regent St, but they ceased trading in the nineteen seventies when smokeless zones were introduced in London and coal fires ceased. Regrettably, Spitalfields cannot boast a coalhole by the most celebrated nineteenth century manufacturer, by virtue of their name, A.Smellie of Westminster. The nearest example is in Elizabeth St, Victoria, where I shall have to make a pilgrimage to see it.

Unfailingly, my fascination with the city is deepened by the discovery of new details like these, harbouring human stories waiting to be uncovered by the curious. Even neglected and trodden beneath a million feet, by virtue of being in the street, these ingenious covers remind us of their long dead makers’ names more effectively than any tombstone in a churchyard. There was rain blowing in the wind yesterday but when the sun came out afterwards, the beautiful old iron covers shone brightly like medals – for those who had the eyes to see them – emblazoned upon the streets of Spitalfields.

In Old Broad St.

In Fournier St, a nineteenth century coalhole cover by Alfred Solomons, 195 Caledonian Rd – I am reliable informed there are similar covers in Doughty St and around Bloomsbury.

A more minimal variant on the same design by Alfred Solomons.

Hayward Brothers’ “Patent Self-Locking Semi-Prismatic Pavement Light” in Calvert Avenue.

A more recent example of Hayward Brothers’ self -locking plate.

In Gunthorpe St, this drain cover commemorates Stepney Borough Council created in 1900 and abolished in 1965.

At the Rectory in Fournier St, this early plate by Hayward Brothers of 187 & 189 Union St, Borough, which is also to be found in Lower Richmond Rd.

Another by Haywood Brothers in Spitalfields – although unlabelled, it follows the design of the plate above.

Bullseye in Chance St

In Commercial St, at the junction with Elder St, is this worn plate is made by Griffith of Farringdon Rd, Clerkenwell

In Middlesex St. LCC – London County Council was abolished in 1965. Can it be only co-incidental that this old manhole cover in Petticoat Lane Market, in the former Jewish quarter, has a star of David at the centre?

Harry T. Harmer, Artist

July 24, 2017
by the gentle author

Today I present another extract from my new book EAST END VERNACULAR, Artists who painted London’s East End streets in the 20th century to be published by Spitalfields Life Books in October. Click here to preorder your copy

St Botolph’s Without Aldgate, 1963

The facts of the life of Harry T. Harmer (1927-2013) are scarce yet his distinctive paintings speak eloquently of his personal vision. Born in Kennington, Harry was afflicted with epilepsy and married his wife Ruby when they were both in their adolescence. Ruby offered Harry emotional support in the face of a father who did not recognise his disorder and the couple enjoyed a marriage that lasted through eight decades.

Disqualified from military service, Harry worked in the parks department and, possessing a strong sense of justice, he fought for the rights of fellow workers through many years as a union representative. In the mid-fifties, Harry discovered an ability to draw and paint, travelling around Kennington and north of the river to the East End, making sketches of places that embodied the living city he knew intimately.

Harry had his first exhibition in 1963 and continued to paint and show his works for the rest of his life. Although sometimes described as a naive artist, it is obvious that the sensibility behind Harry’s painting is far from unsophisticated. His compelling pictures are concerned with more than straightforward representation of places, offering instead emotional landscapes of the lives of working people rendered in his own individual style.

Ruby keeps Harry’s treasured copy of the drawings of L. S. Lowry in two volumes as a token of his major artistic influence. Yet Harry forged a visual language of his own, placing his curious bird-like figures strategically within a delicately painted streetscape that appears on the point of dissolving.

For most of their married life, Harry and Ruby Harmer occupied a council flat in a dignified Victorian terrace in Kennington, where Ruby lives today tending to an appealingly unkempt garden and a posse of neighbourhood cats. In the back room overlooking the garden where Harry did his paintings, his small formica topped work table still stands by the window where now a box of his ashes sits beside a bunch of fresh flowers that Ruby changes each week. The popularity of Harry’s works means that Ruby is the devoted custodian of just a few of her husband’s paintings, and a suitcase of his pencil sketches, press cuttings and exhibition catalogues.

Wellclose Sq, 1962

St Katharine’s Way, 1962

Cable St, 1962

Harry T. Harmer, 2009

Paintings copyright © Ruby Harmer

Published courtesy of Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives

Take a look at some of the other artists featured in East End Vernacular

John Allin, Artist

Pearl Binder, Artist

Roland Collins, Artist

Anthony Eyton, Artist

Doreen Fletcher, Artist

Barnett Freedman, Artist

Elwin Hawthorn, Artist

Rose Henriques, Artist

Dan Jones,  Artist

Leon Kossoff, Artist

Jock McFadyen, Artist

Cyril Mann, Artist

Ronald Morgan, Artist

Grace Oscroft, Artist

Peri Parkes, Artist

Henry Silk, Artist

Albert Turpin, Artist

Raju Vaidyanathan, Photographer

July 23, 2017
by the gentle author

Back of Cheshire St, 1986

“I used to climb up on the railway bridge and take photos,” explained photographer Raju Vaidyanathan when he showed me this picture which he has seen for the first time only recently even though he took it thirty years ago. A prolific taker of photos around Spitalfields, Raju possesses over forty thousand negatives of people and personalities in the neighbourhood which, after all this time, he is now beginning to print. So I went down to the Idea Store in Watney Market where Raju works to learn more about his remarkable photography.

“I was born in Brick Lane above the shop that is now called ‘This Shop Rocks,’ and I still live on the Lane. My father, Vaithy came to this country in 1949, he was brought over as one of the very first chefs to introduce Indian cooking and our family lineage is all chefs. They brought him over to be chef at the Indian embassy and the day he arrived he discovered they had already arranged a room for him and that room was on Brick Lane, and he lived there until he died.

In 1983, I managed to get hold of an old camera that someone gave me and I started taking photos. As a kid I was very poor and I knew that I was not going to be able to afford take photos, but someone said to me, ‘Instead of taking colour photos, why don’t you take black and white?’ I went to the Montefiore Centre in Hanbury St and the tutor said he would teach me how to process black and white film. So that is what I did, I am a local kid and I just started taking photos of what was happening around me, the people, the football team, the youth club – anything in Brick Lane, where I knew all the people.

Photography is my passion but I also like local history and learning about people’s lives. Sometime in the late eighties, I realised I was not just taking photographs for myself but making a visual diary of my area. I have been taking photos ever since and I always have a camera with me. I am a history collector, I have got all the Asian political leaflets and posters over the years. In the Asian community everyone knows me as the history guy and photographer

Until four years ago, I had been working until nine or ten o’clock every night and seven days a week but then they restructured my hours and insisted I had to work here full time at the Idea Store. Before, I was only working here part-time and working as a youth worker the rest of the time. Suddenly, I had time off in the evenings.

People started saying, ‘You’ve got to do something with all these photos.’ So I thought, ‘Let me see if I can start sorting out my negatives.’ I started finding lots put away in boxes and I took a course learning how to print. For the last two years, I go in once a week and print my photos and see what I have got. I bought a negative scanner and I started scanning the first two boxes of negatives. I have never seen these photos because I never had the money to print them. I just used to take the photos and process the film. So far, I have scanned about eight thousand negatives and maybe next year, once I have sorted these out, I will start scanning all the others.”

Junk on Brick Lane, 1985

Outside Ali Brothers’ grocery shop, Fashion St 1986. His daughter saw the photo and was so happy that his picture was taken at that time.

Modern Saree Centre 1985. It moved around a lot in Brick Lane before closing three years ago.

BYM ‘B’ football team at Chicksand Estate football pitch known as the ‘Ghat’ locally, 1986

108 Brick Lane, 1985. Unable to decide whether to be a café or video store, it is now a pizza shop.

‘Joi Bangla Krew’ around the Pedley Street arches. The BBC recently honoured Haroun Shamsher  from Joi (third from left) and Sam Zaman from ‘State of Bengal (far left) with a music plaque on Brick Lane

Myrdle Street, 1984. Washing was hung between flats until the late nineties.

Chacha at Seven Stars pub 1985. Chacha was a Bangladeshi spiv and a good friend of my father. Seven Stars was the local for the Asian community until it closed down in 2000.

Teacher Sarah Larcombe and local youths (Zia with the two fingers) on top of the old Shoreditch Goods Station, which was the most amazing playground

Halal Meat Man on Brick Lane, 1986

Filming of ‘Revolution’ in Fournier St, 1986. The man tapping for cash was killed by some boys a few months later.

Mayor Paul Beaseley and Rajah Miah (later Councillor) open the Mela on Hanbury Street, 1985

The Queen Mother arrives at the reopening of the Whitechapel Gallery, 1986

Raju Vaidyanathan on Brick Lane, 1984

Photographs copyright © Raju Vaidyanathan

You may also like to take a look at

Phil Maxwell’s Brick Lane

Sarah Ainslie’s Brick Lane

Colin O’Brien’s Brick Lane

Marketa Luskacova’s Brick Lane

Homer Sykes’ Spitalfields

Grace Oscroft, Artist

July 22, 2017
by the gentle author

Today I present another extract from my new book EAST END VERNACULAR, Artists who painted London’s East End streets in the 20th century to be published by Spitalfields Life Books in October. Click here to preorder your copy

Bryant & May Factory, Bow

The Oscroft family ran a cycle shop opposite the church in Bow and lived nearby. As the only daughter, Grace Oscroft (1903-72) was expected to keep house for her parents and three brothers upon leaving school at fourteen.

Two of Grace’s brothers were considered to have artistic talent and when, in her early twenties, she accompanied her younger brother John to classes at Bow & Bromley Institute, tutor John Cooper recognised her natural ability.

In later years, John Oscroft recalled that his sister Grace always had an inclination to draw but worked on pictures infrequently. Fellow artist Cecil Osborne offered a simple explanation for this, recalling that Grace would only ever “bring along a painting from time to time” and complained that her domestic duties granted her little opportunity for creative work.

As a consequence, Grace’s street scenes were of locations around Bow and she specialised in rooftop pictures that she could paint from the bedroom windows of the family home. In those days, Bow was heavily industrialised and John recalled that ‘the only blade of grass being in the churchyard.” Grace painted the factories and foundries that surrounded her. The most notable of these was the huge red brick Bryant & May factory that dominated Bow and it is impossible that Grace was unaware of the matchgirls’ 1888 strike which challenged the exploitative working conditions and suffering they endured from working with phosphorus

Although John did not show any pictures, remarkably Grace had five paintings in the East London Art Club exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1928 and, to further this success, her picture Garden in Bow was hung at the Tate Gallery the following year. The Evening Standard ran an article featuring Grace entitled, ‘East End Shopgirl Artists’ and the Westminster Gazette reported “Miss Oscroft, who in every day life sells bicycle parts, was surprised when she heard that Sir Joseph Duveen had bought her painting for £5 5s.” – although John denied Grace ever served in the cycle shop in Bow.

“It was my first original effort and I am greatly pleased. Mr Cooper had advised me to try something on my own,” declared Grace with understated pride. Subsequently, she contributed paintings to the East London Group shows at the Lefevere Galleries in 1930, 1931 and 1932. As evidence of Grace’s self-assurance and articulacy as an artist, Walter Steggles remembered her earning “sixpence a week pocket money by lecturing on pictures”

In 1935, the Oscrofts took over another cycle business in New Southgate. Grace lived independently there above the shop and although the family’s house in Bow was destroyed in the blitz, fortunately no-one was at home at the time.

After her brothers married and left home, Grace committed to caring for her mother who suffered with rheumatism. After the death of her mother, she took a variety of employment to support herself, as housekeeper to a doctor, despatch clerk at the Co-operative store in Edmonton and then in a glove factory. Grace remained single throughout her life, confessing in 1954, “I only ever had one sweetheart, but he was taken from me,” referring to Elwin Hawthorne who married Lilian Leahy.

She died in St Joseph’s Hospice, Hackney in 1972 and her death certificate recorded her occupation as ‘warehouse clerk (retired),’ yet the authority and accomplishment of Grace Oscroft’s few works testify to a significant artistic talent that might have discovered fuller expression in different circumstances.

Grace Oscroft (bottom left), 1929

St Clement’s Hospital, Bow

Old Houses, Bow

The same view today

Paintings copyright © Estate of Grace Oscroft

With grateful thanks to David Buckman for the use of his research

Take a look at some of the other artists featured in East End Vernacular

John Allin, Artist

Pearl Binder, Artist

Roland Collins, Artist

Anthony Eyton, Artist

Doreen Fletcher, Artist

Barnett Freedman, Artist

Elwin Hawthorn, Artist

Rose Henriques, Artist

Dan Jones,  Artist

Leon Kossoff, Artist

Jock McFadyen, Artist

Cyril Mann, Artist

Ronald Morgan, Artist

Peri Parkes, Artist

Henry Silk, Artist

Albert Turpin, Artist

Charles Skilton’s London Life, 1950

July 21, 2017
by the gentle author

Now that the summer visitors are here and thronging in the capital’s streets and transport systems, I thought I would send you this fine set of postcards published by Charles Skilton, including my special favourites the escapologist and the pavement artist.

Looking at these monochrome images of the threadbare postwar years, you might easily imagine the photographs were earlier – but Margaret Rutherford in ‘Ring Round the Moon’ at The Globe in Shaftesbury Ave in number nine dates them to 1950. Celebrated in his day as publisher of the Billy Bunter stories, Charles Skilton won posthumous notoriety for his underground pornographic publishing empire, Luxor Press.

You may also like to take a look at

Postcards from Petticoat Lane

William Nicholson’s London Types

London Characters

Julius Mendes Price’s London Types