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Wickhams’ Lopsided Department Store

November 25, 2009
by the gentle author

Observe how the gap-toothed smile of this building undermines the pompous ambition of its classical design. Without this gaping flaw, it would be just another example of debased classicism but, thanks to the hole in the middle, it transcends its own thwarted architectural ambitions, by default, to become a work of unintentional genius.

Built in 1927, but closed now for many years, Wickhams Department Store in the Mile End Rd was meant to be the “Harrods of East London”. The hubris of its developers in the early years of the twentieth century was such that they simply assumed the small shopkeepers in this terrace would all fall into line and agree to move out, so the masterplan to build the new department store could proceed. But they met their match in the Spiegelhalters at 81 Mile End Rd, the shop you see sandwiched in the middle. The first Mr Spiegelhalter had set up his jewellery business in Whitechapel in 1828 when he emigrated from Germany, and his descendants moved to 81 Mile End Rd in 1880, where the business was run by three Spiegelhalter brother who had been born on the premises. These brothers refused all the developers’ inducements to sell.

I wish I could have been a fly on the wall of the office of those developers because there must have been words – before they came to the painful compromise decision to go ahead and build around the Spiegelhalters. Maybe they comforted themselves with the belief that eventually the gap could be closed and their ambitions fully realised at some later date? If so, it was a short-lived consolation because the position of the Spiegelhalters’ property was such that the central tower of Wickhams Department Store had to be contructed off-centre with seven window bays on the left and nine on the right, rather than nine on either side. This must have been the final crushing humiliation for the developers – how the Spiegelhalter brothers must have laughed.

The presence of the word “halter” within the name Spiegelhalter cannot have escaped the notice of bystanders, “Spiegel-halter by name, halter by nature!” they surely observed. Those stubborn Spiegelhalters had the last laugh too, because the lopsided department store which opened in 1927, closed in the nineteen sixties, while the Spiegelhalters waited until 1988 to sell out, over a century after they opened. I think they made their point.

As part of a new plan to develop this huge empty building as offices, a recent planning application contains the following text,“the attractiveness and uniformity of 69-89 Mile End Rd is only marred by 81 Mile End Rd which is inferior in terms of appearance, detailing and architecture.” These people obviously have no sense of humour. They propose to demolish 81 and replace it with a glass atrium to provide access to the offices. Where are the Spiegelhalters now we need them?

As self-evident testimony to the story of its own construction, the current building stands simultaneously as a towering monument both to the relentless ambition that needs to be forever modernising, and also to the contrary stick-in-the-mud instinct that sees no point in any change. Willpower turned back on itself created this unique edifice. The paradoxical architecture of Wickhams Department Store inadvertently achieves what many architects dream of – because in its very form and structure, it expresses something profound about the contradictory nature of what it means to be human.

20 Responses leave one →
  1. November 25, 2009

    I missed this one first time around. But this is truly an inspired post in all the senses of the word.

  2. November 26, 2009

    Wow nice building. I like this one! :)

  3. Charles Jenkins permalink
    March 30, 2011

    This is a remarkable building. I wish Tower Hamlets would recognise the wonderful buildings and monuments in Whitechapel and Stepney as well as in Bethnal Green and DO SOMETHING to see that they do not rot away. Surely something could be done with this wonderful building.

  4. Steve permalink
    August 21, 2011

    Superb! Many thanks for the info. I’ve walked past this building many times, and wondered about it’s rather strange architecture. For a while I wondered if the “missing bit” was a result of bomb damage, but then realised that the ornate decoration along the top of the wall actually goes round the corner of the “missing bit”, so much have been originally constructed like that.

    I had even tried reading the rust marks for the sign so I could search online for an answer, but was unable to make out the name (of course it’s obvious now!). My sanity was saved thanks to an Android application called History Pin, which shows old photos of your current location, and it came trumps with the name of the building. A quick google later, and here I am!

    All my questions answered.

    Many thanks.

  5. Katie Jeffryes permalink
    August 31, 2011

    i have found a gold and diamond ring in amongst my nans belongings, and still in its original Spiegelhalter box.
    Are there any connections still going to the jewellers as this seems like a real interesting piece of history i could have,

    thanks

    Katie

  6. Jean Marks permalink
    January 16, 2012

    On leaving school my first job was in the basement at Wickhams working in the small office which was in fact a partitioned off area. You could buy things on credit at Wickhams and the ‘tally man would come round every week to collect the money.’ It was my job to make sure that payments were recorded into ledgers and that the money was collected on time. When the lady who had been there longer than me was off sick I spent the fortnight putting everything in alphabetical and numerical order. When she returned the manager and other staff were able to go into the office and check the work for themselves. This made life for the tally man so much easier. However my supervisor was not amused and she told me in no uncertain terms that I had no right to touch anything in her office and that it would take her weeks to put it back as it was. Needless to say i was offered a 5s. a week rise bringing my wages up to £5 and 5shilling per week. The staff canteen was on the top floor and the food was smashing. I used to sit out on the roof of Wickhams eating my lunch. There also had a tenning court on the roof.

    Thanks for the memory. Jean

  7. Ed Oliver permalink
    January 19, 2012

    The Spiegelhalter family still runs a jewellery shop in Penzance (64 Causeway Head, TR18 2SR)

  8. David Williams permalink
    July 18, 2012

    One has to wonder whether the fact of having what was effectively a split store severely affected the economic success of the retail enterprise – presumably people would not have been freely able to wander about the whole Wickhams store without going outside. That would put it into the position of neighbouring department stores as on Oxford Street.

    The building is an interesting monument to the folly of our times but I am rather for demolition of the whole and for someone to do a good line in architectural salvage – the basis for a splendid country pile somewhere perhaps. Come friendly bombs and fall on this, it isn’t built for commercial bliss.

  9. Jeannette DaCosta permalink
    July 20, 2012

    My first job was in the hair dressing saloon in Wickhams it belonged to Jack and Renee
    Harris, Jack used to do his clients hair with a cig in his mouth, I used to love Saturday at closing time when we had to escort the clients through the store to the back entrance, and eat the sweets on the way back that were on display happy days.

  10. Simon Mower permalink
    March 16, 2013

    I worked here in the late 70′s, and at Spiegelhalters in Loughton for about 5 years. The story goes that Mr Spiegelhalter was made an offer of “covering the floor with sovereigns” to move out. The response was “only if they are stood on edge”. This was told to me by Raymond, the grandson, now sadly gone but not forgotten. The shop at gants hill shut because of the putting up of railings and parking restriction that decimated the shopping in that area.

  11. armier permalink
    November 28, 2013

    Another wonderful piece. Thank you.

    Three-quarters of the way thru this, and noting that the building appears to have laid dormant for five decades, I fully expected to find that the Borough’s Historical Dept might have recognised and embraced the uniqueness of that gappy quirk.

    Jeesh, some people have no sense of history.

  12. Elizabeth cornwell permalink
    December 23, 2013

    How wonderful,a testament to bloody mindedness in the face of overreaching development!I hope it lasts forever!

  13. Diane Watson permalink
    February 10, 2014

    It was lovely to read the comments of Jean Marks. My mum, Angelina (Lena) Hunter worked at Wickhams when she left school in 1916 (ish). She too worked in the offices but was transferred later to the hat department. She worked with a girl called Lydia. She often talked of the Young Mr Barker whose father, I believe, owned or managed the store. I would love to hear some more of your memories.

  14. Luc permalink
    November 17, 2014

    It might be of interest to those reading that this building has now been renovated and the interior turned into very modern loft open plan office space as part of East London’s Tech City. At present tenants include The Escalator, Barclays Accelerator and Microsoft Ventures programmes; all helping Tech start-ups grow. Great to see such an incredible building renovated and begin a new chapter. For those who want to see how the interior now looks, visit http://theescalator.com

  15. Neil permalink
    January 7, 2015

    My Grandmother and Great Grandmother both bought their wedding rings at Spiegelhalters (we still have one of the ring boxes) before and after Wickhams department store was built around it, a tale my Gran recounted with a smile. I think such resilience and survival, in the face of big business development and the Blitz make Spiegelhalters a true symbol of the east end and it should be saved for the future of the area.

  16. Helen permalink
    January 10, 2015

    Private Eye is following the case of the dilapidation of No.81, and in the most recent issue (No 1383 9-23 Jan 2015) it says an online petition is being launched to ‘put pressure on the council to impose a repairs notice on the owner of No81 or compulsorily purchase what is left of the building’.

  17. andrew sawdon permalink
    January 22, 2015

    interestingly the wickham building does not consist of two separated halves as it appears to be. The two halves are joined across the back behind the spiegelhalter shop. Leo spiegelhalter i think had agreed to sell his garden to allow this to be done, and according to the family used the proceeds to install a new shop shopfront,

    By the way there is a doppelganger for spiegelhalters in the fieldgate street great synagogue which despite the word great in its name is very small now in a kind of alcove within londons probably largest mosque; it has probably had it last service now, but in its time was probably the only synagogue coexisting in the yard of a mosque, and i supposet that if times were happier we would here more about it

  18. Angie Hanlon permalink
    October 24, 2016

    Loved reading this and all the comments…the Wickham’s are my ancestors on the maternal side. My nan was a Wickham and moved away from the East End and settled in Sussex. Been trying to find out more information so thank you! I hope to visit the site some time!

  19. Pat Butt permalink
    January 19, 2017

    I have just found and read the Wickhams piece and Jean Mark’s reply. My dad was a tally man for Wickhams. Sometimes on. Saturday I would go out for the day with him, very often his regulars would “knock” paying him their 2bob, but give me a tanner for sweets! What a mixed bunch they were…… but it was how meant families furnished their slum clearance new flats.
    Wickhams also had a sports ground where we would go to play tennis and watch cricket!
    All in the 60′s.
    Pat

  20. Alan Taylor permalink
    June 21, 2017

    Fabulous story behind this oddity of a building. I very much enjoyed reading the replies, more of this stuff please.

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