The barrows of Spitalfields
When I saw the wooden carts and barrows in Mark Jackson & Huw Davies’ pictures of the Spitalfields Fruit & Vegetable Market, I realised that some of these old-style barrows have been sitting around in Sclater St for the past couple of years, used in the Sunday market and quietly rotting for the rest of the week. My eye was drawn to the wooden wheels, every spoke individually chamfered, an attention to detail that recalls those magnificent gipsy caravans of a century ago. There are still plenty of these barrows in use around London, from Portobello, Berwick St, Seven Dials, Leather Lane, Chapel Market to Roman Rd, though now they are relics of another age.
I asked Paul Gardner whose family have been trading as market sundriesman from the same building in Commercial St since 1870, if he could tell me anything about these carts. He recalled there was a company called Hiller Brothers that manufactured barrows in Bethnal Green and a wheelwright who repaired them in a workshop under the Bishopsgate Arches. And he had some phone numbers, which he called to seek further information but both numbers were discontinued.
You find these barrows and carts in museums and sometimes in gardens with Lobelia and Geraniums trailing out of them but I prefer to see them in use, though without wheelwrights to mend them their days are numbered as the makeshift repairs to the wheels of the Sclater St examples testify. These wheels are a smaller version of cartwheels that were once standard when all street transport was horsedrawn, sustaining the attendant wheelwrights’ and cartwrights’ trades.
That afternoon, I was walking through the empty Leather Lane Market where I came upon a couple of these barrows. Trading had ceased for the day, so I was able to squat down and take a closer look. I discovered incised lettering in an elegant italic hand that ran along all sides of the barrow and in some cases around the wheels too. The name and location of the market “Leather Lane, Holborn” plus the manufacturer and the status “On Hire.” To my surprise I came across the name “Hiller Bros” and an address in Bethnal Green, “64 Squirries St,” just as Paul Gardner told me.
I photographed a fine market porter’s hand cart in the Bethnal Green Rd Market, loaded with fruit and vegetables for sale. Paul Gardner remembered that all the local greengrocers had these to wheel down to the Spitalfields Market and collect their fresh stock daily. Years ago, he traded a trolley from his shop with an old man from the market in exchange for a huge handbarrow with heavy iron wheels that now sits in his back garden. Examining my photo of the hand barrow in Bethnal Green, I saw it was also incised with the name “Hiller Bros” and when I did a google search I even got a phone number though, to my disappointment, it no longer functioned.
So I decided to take a walk up to Squirries St, but first I took a detour to Hoxton where a friend lives in the former Lambert timber warehouse in Hoxton St and here I was able to photograph the cart which has been disassembled but stored safely under a lean-to in the yard. This one is remarkable for remaining in its premises and for its beautiful signwriting – and again I saw the incised italic script that is the standard means of identification for these carts. The script resembles the handwriting of a century ago and I wonder if once someone simply wrote in chalk along the side of each barrow and someone else followed along to carve it out. Returning to Sclater St and squatting down to read the inscriptions on these carts, I learnt one was a stray from London Fields, eternally “On Hire” from Leach Bros.
Arriving at 64 Squirries St, just off the Bethnal Green Rd, I found an unremarkable locked-up building without any signeage beyond its street number. It was padlocked from the outside, so there was no point in knocking and I could not discern any sign of recent activity. Like some frustrated detective, I was deliberating my next move when I noticed there was a small glass panel (no bigger than a postcard) in the tall steel shutter closing off the yard and I peeked through the dirty pane to discover the picture you can see at the end of this feature. I wiped the glass on the outside with my handkerchief and took a hazy photograph, filtered by grime, of broken carts in the abandoned workshop that was once the centre of a thriving trade. Please do not tell anyone about this glass panel in the steel shutter, because no-one wants lines forming on Squirries St to ogle the charnel house of carts and barrows.
Let us not collect all these carts and put them on display. It can be our secret. As long as they are around we can be gratified to see them disregarded on the street, demonstrating stubborn longevity. Injecting a little arcane poetry into any unremarkable cityscape, they are vestiges of when the world was driven by horse power.
Now I have made my discovery, I will take a closer look at each specimen I find and read the inscription to discover who constructed it and for which market – as a mark of respect to those craftsmen who were so skillful in making elegant functional things with their bare hands, still in use today when they are long gone.