Rochelle Cole, poulterer
It never crossed my mind that being a poulterer might be a glamorous profession until I met Rochelle Cole at Liverpool St Chickens in Leyden St. When Rochelle bounced into her shop from the rain outside (wearing wellingtons and a flat cap at a jaunty angle), she appeared through the chain link curtain to greet me with a confident smile. Taking me in with a single glance of her huge eyes, as she pulled the cap from her head allowing her dark flowing locks to fall in a cascade around her shoulders, I was completely mesmerised. Rochelle has presence, she is the top bird at Liverpool St Chickens and a fourth generation poulterer too.
I was grateful for the excuse to walk over and explore the web of little streets where the Petticoat Lane Market happens on Sunday. This is the hidden, more utilitarian side of Spitalfields where I commonly go to admire the African shops with their colourful displays of Batik fabrics, when I am taking a shortcut down towards London Bridge. My instinct is that these streets are among the oldest parts of Spitalfields but they do not declare their history readily in the way that the silk merchants’ houses do on the other side of the market.
I was fascinated to learn that it was Rochelle’s great-grandmother Janie Cohen who established the poulterer’s around 1890. An exceptional undertaking for a woman at that time, an exceptional undertaking for any woman that had six children at any time. On her death in 1920, the business passed to her two sons Isaac and Sydney who adopted the name Cole. They passed it to Rochelle’s father Joe Cole and, after Joe died, Rochelle took sole responsibility two years ago. Coles have always bought their bags from Gardners, the paper bag sellers in Spitalfields and Paul Gardner remembers Joe Cole paying with banknotes stained in chicken blood with feathers attached.
As a child, Rochelle often came to the shop with her dad Joe, “My memory of coming to the East End is sleeping all the way in the car and when we arrived I’d wake to ‘cock-a-doodle-do!’ The shop was like a farm, you’d be surrounded by chickens and it stank to high heaven! When I was a little girl, I used to come in and stroke a chicken and then my dad would pick it up and slaughter it in front of me. Once I was eight or nine, he’d say ‘You go and get one’ and then I held the chicken for him to kill it. In our house we only ate chicken, it was – eat chicken or starve. After that I went vegetarian for seven years.” Considering Rochelle’s emotional disclosure, I began to wonder how it was she had come to embrace her profession in the way she has now.
In the 1890s, Cohens was one of many kosher butchers among a plethora of Jewish food stores in the heart of the East End ghetto. Those original customers bought the hard chicken (Cohen’s/Cole’s speciality) to make chicken soup. As the Jewish people moved out, Muslims arrived to buy halal chicken, often taking the chickens alive to bless them at home. Today, Rochelle has many African customers who prefer the hard chickens she sells that are the basis of their cuisine. Rochelle told me the African clientele love chickens’ feet, “‘Can we have extra feet for the children?’ they ask.” she said. It is curious how this humblest of chicken, the boiler, bred primarily to lay eggs, has been adopted by different cultures in the same location through different times. A trick of fate that has ensured the survival of Coles’ poulterers when all the other Jewish food stores that once defined these particular streets have long gone.
“They couldn’t wait to leave,” said Rochelle, commenting on the exodus of people who wanted to escape the poverty and struggle that the place characterised for them. Indeed, Rochelle’s mother never wanted to come from the family home in North London to visit and, two years after Joe’s death, she consented to the sale of the original premises (at the junction of Cobb St and Leyden St) fifty yards down the road from the current shop. This was the catalyst for Rochelle’s change of heart. “I said, ‘You cannot close this business.’ I was the only one who was passionate. I couldn’t let the family business die. We had customers who been coming for forty or fifty years. My father had a horrible time when the animal rights protestors came on the scene. We had death threats! It contributed to his early death at sixty-one.” And so, like the loving daughter that she is, Rochelle started up the business again in these new premises driven by her mission to keep alive her family’s enterprise for another generation. Rochelle recognised that if her great-grandmother, Janie, could it in 1890 with six children, she could do it now.
“It was a big struggle to get the new shop up and running”, Rochelle declared, getting emotional again describing an experience her great-grandmother would recognise. Only this time Rochelle’s emotion was triumphant because all the loyal customers followed her to her shiny yellow shop where she sells fresh chicken six days a week (closed Saturdays and Yom Kippur). Now Rochelle is positively glowing with pride at the thriving poulterer’s business that she runs with her husband Trevor, and her only regret is that she has no old photos to tell the story – just the painting you see below. But after our conversation, I had the feeling that I had encountered in Rochelle the living spirit of Janie, that bold woman who started out on her own in 1890.
Photographs by Sarah Ainslie