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Alan Dein, East End Shopfronts 1988

June 28, 2010
by the gentle author

“In my twenties, I’d been doing a number of oral history recordings, working for the Museum of the Jewish East End which was very active recording stories of the life of Jewish people who had settled here.” explained Alan Dein, broadcaster and oral historian, as we sat together in the yard of the Toynbee Hall while he outlined the background to his fascinating collection of more than a hundred photographs of East End shopfronts.

“My photographs of the derelict shopfronts record the last moments of the Jewish community in the area – the bustling world of the inter-war years had been moved into the suburbs, and the community that stayed behind was less identifiable. In the nineteen eighties they were just hanging on, some premises had been empty for more than five years. Like a mouthful of broken teeth, a boxer’s mouth that had been thumped, with holes where teeth once were.”

Feeding both his passions, for taking photographs and for collecting, Alan took these pictures in 1988 while walking around the streets of the East End at a time when dereliction ruled. Although his family originate from the Jewish East End and his Uncle Lou was a waiter at Blooms, Alan was born elsewhere and first came here to study “I became a student at the City of London Polytechnic in Old Castle St and spent a lot of time hanging out here – though the heart of the area for me at that time was the student common room and bar.”

“Later, in 1988, I moved back here to live in a co-operative housing scheme in Whitehorse Rd in Stepney and then I had time to walk around in this landscape that evoked the fragmentary stories I had heard of my grandparents’ lives in the East End. My family thought I was mad to move back because when they left the East End they put it behind them, and it didn’t reflect their aspirations for me. The eighties were a terrible time for removing everything, comparable to what the Victorians had done a century earlier. So I photographed the shopfronts because this landscape was not going to last and then I put the pictures in a box.”

“It was important they were in colour. A lot of memories of the East End were in black and white reflecting the political oppositions of Left and Right, and hard work and poverty, but I have always loved peeling paint, paint that has been weathered and worn seafront textures. This was just at the last moment before these buildings were going to be redeveloped. In the eighties my grandmother died, and the story I heard from her generation was of the ‘monkey parade’, when once people walked up and down the Mile End Road to admire the gleaming shopfronts and goods on display.”

In many of these photographs, there is a visible contradiction between the implicit ambition to present a confident facade and the narrative of disappointment which time and humanity have written upon these once proud frontages. This is the source of the emotionalism in these images, seeing faded optimism still manifest in the choice of confident colours and sprightly signwriting, becoming a palimpsest overwritten by the elements, human neglect and graffiti. In spite of the flatness of these impermeable surfaces, in each case we know a story has been enclosed that is now shut off from us for ever.

Alan no longer lives in the East End, though today he returns to record oral histories. Beyond their obvious importance as an architectural and a social record, Alan’s library of photographs of shopfronts are also a map of his exploration of his own cultural history – their cumulative heartbreak exposing an unlocated grief that is easily overlooked in the wider story of the movement from East End slums to better housing in the suburbs.

Yet Alan sees hope in these tantalising pictures too, in particular the photo at the top, of Lipmans Kosher Poultry Dealer, in which the unknown painter ran out of paint while erasing the name of the business, leaving the word “Lip” visible. “A little bit of lip!” as Alan Dein terms it brightly, emblematic of the undying resilience of people throughout the turbulence of social change.

Goulston St

In Whitechapel

Redchurch St

Cheshire St

Hessel St

Quaker St

Toynbee St

In E2

Great Eastern St

Hessel St

Relocated to Edgware…

Brick Lane

Wilkes St

Whitechapel High St

Photographs copyright © Alan Dein

13 Responses leave one →
  1. Mary Hough permalink
    October 17, 2010

    Loved your photos very nostalgic,I used to live in the East End many years ago. I wonder if you can help me to identify a photo of a shop I took in 2002 in Princelet Street, which on a recent visit I could no longer find. It was a pawnbrokers, proprieter James Castle, with iron railings half way up the window, and what appears to be a blue plaque above it. If it has had a makeover it must have been pretty radical as I can’t find a building that looks remotely like it. Does it ring any bells with you? I would be grateful for any suggestions.

  2. November 24, 2010

    About this i can say that Between the cup and the lip a morsel may slip.

  3. Leon Gelkoff permalink
    November 6, 2011

    It’s lovely looking at the pictures. As you probably have guessed from my name, I’m related to the gentleman standing in front of GELKOFF’S, he’s my Dad. He died in 2007, nothing spectacular here. But one of the first pictures in this group is of WALTERS outfitters. That was owned by a good friend of ours, in fact Wally’s wife and my Mum have been friends since about 1921, my Mum died in April 2011, aged 99, and Sylvie is still alive and will be 99 this coming March.
    Thanks again for all the pictures.

    Leon Gelkoff

  4. Sheila butt permalink
    February 14, 2012

    I used to go into Leons shop almost every day on the corner of Grey Eagle St I think he was
    a polish or Russian jew a nice man every time I went in he was always leaning on the counter
    reading a newspaper, I remember that shop as if it were yesterday looking at it now brings back so much nostalga wonderful.

  5. Chrissie permalink
    May 2, 2012

    Hi Alan, I’ve really enjoyed looking through your shopfront photos.

    I also always pay attention to old style shopfronts. I like to see when newer shopfront have been removed or shops sold and the older front is still underneath and has been preserved.

    There’s a shop where I used to live in Barking, that was on a corner of rows of houses, with no other shops around. It’s always been boarded up as long as I’ve seen it and it has no signs but in my mind’s eye, it looks as though it may once have been a bakers and I like to imagine it in it’s former glory.

    I was particularly interested in the shopfront photos as I was hoping to find something I’ve never seen before. Someone in my family history was a pharmacist/druggist at 258 Mile End Road in the 1890s and on my investigations through the area, it’s not there and appears as though the building was demolished – but I’ve absolutely no idea when. The local history archive has no photos of that area either so I guess I will never know what it looked like – although I haven’t given up trying!

  6. May 4, 2012

    How can one not delight is these images. I didn’t know the East End, but I know from my London rellies that it held such life, such stories & these shopfronts seem to speak to us of the people they held long ago. It’s very important not to lose our history. Thank you for making this available to those of us far from London. I write from New Zealand.

  7. Maurice Zeegen permalink
    May 6, 2012

    Wonderful! I am desperately seeking photographs of the Zeegen Brothers’ cigar factory which was located in Chicksand Street, off Brick Lane. The factory ceased trading in the 1920s, I believe, but the derelict (?) building was to be seen for some years thereafter, bearing the title ‘Zeegen Brothers’ on the wall.

  8. Bernice Huelin permalink
    May 16, 2012

    Lovely photos. So thrilled to see my Great Uncle Laurie’s shop here ( Louis Simpson) . The conversations that this site has prompted with my parents have been a delight. Having been in the East End today I know how few reminders of this once vibrant community are left.

  9. June 7, 2012

    FAO Chrissie, re your hunt for 258 Mile End Road. A number of the locations photographed by Alan in 1988 were on Mile End Road, and as research for our current exhibition of this collection of Alan’s photos, we at Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives ploughed through the many boxes and press cuttings relating to Mile End Road that are held at the library. If 258 was once situated near on the corner with White Horse Lane, as Google Maps suggests, it is likely it would have become part of the Ocean Estate which was built in the early 1950s after this part of Stepney was badly bombed during WW2. You should be able to identify at what point the shop closed (or changed ownership) by looking through the Kelly’s trades directories for each year, and you should also be able to identify the exact location of 258 Mile End Road on our collection of historic maps. All of these sources can be consulted at the Local History Library & Archives on Bancroft Road, E1.

  10. Eunice Shillings permalink
    July 19, 2012

    How wonderful to see these photographs. I grew up in the East End of London and these photographs have brought back some fantastic memories. With the aid of these pictures I have been able to pass on valuable history to my children and hopefully my grandchildren.
    It was wonderful to see the photograph of my uncle’s shop .( Louis Simpson Kosher Butcher)

  11. angela donaldson permalink
    January 21, 2014

    Lived a couple of doors down from leons shop’ sometimes used to climb over back wall to pinch a bottle of lemonade. Left the street when I was 10 . Went back years later and confessed to leon. He told me off!

  12. Y Silver permalink
    October 10, 2014

    My grandparents, Lewis and Dora Silver(man) had a grocery shop on Amhurst road, Hackney.

    Does anyone have a photo of that shop? Thanks.

  13. August 2, 2015

    Gentle Author: I look forward to these missives every day.
    And I heard Sheila Butt’s memories of her East End on this website;
    http://www.ideastore.co.uk/local-history-online-oral-history-after-youve-gone
    Made me cry.

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