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At Three Colts Lane

August 20, 2010
by the gentle author

Situated midway between Spitalfields and Bethnal Green lies Three Colts Lane. Although many years have passed since there were colts here, today there are many other attractions to make this a compelling destination, especially if you are having problems with your car – because Three Colts Lane is where all the motor repair garages are to be found, gathered together in dozens and snuggled up close together in ramshackle order. Who can say how many repair shops there are in Three Colts Lane, since they inhabit the railway arches in the manner of interconnected troglodyte dwellings carved into a mountain, meaning no-one can ever tell where one garage begins and another ends.

Three Colts Lane is where the lines from the East and the North converge as they approach Liverpool St Station, providing a deep warren of vaulted spaces, extended by shambolic tin shacks and bordered with scruffy yards fenced off with corrugated iron. Here in this forgotten niche, while more fences and signs are added, few have ever been removed, creating a dense visual patchwork to fascinate the eye. Yet even before I arrived in Three Colts Lane, the commingled scents of engine oil and spray paint were drawing me closer with their intoxicating fragrance, because, although I have no car, I love to come here to explore this distinct corner of the East End that is a world of its own.

Each body shop presents a cavernous entrance, from which the sounds of banging and clanging and shouting emanate, every one attended by the employees, distinguished by their boiler suits and oily hands, happily enjoying cigarettes in the sun. Yet standing in the daylight and peering into the gloom, it is impossible to discern the relative size and shape of these garages that all appear to recede infinitely into the darkness beneath the railway arches. An investigation was necessary, and so I invited Sarah Ainslie, Spitalfields Life contributing photographer, to join me in my quest to explore this mysterious parallel universe that goes by the name of Three Colts Lane. And many delights awaited us, because at each garage we were welcomed by the mechanics, eager to have their pictures taken and show us the manifold splendours of their manor.

There is a cheerful spirit of anarchy that presides in Three Colts Lane, incarnated by the senior mechanic with his upper body under a taxicab, who, when we asked gingerly if we might take pictures of the extravagantly vaulted narrow old repair shop deep beneath the arches, declared,“It’s not my garage. Do as you please! Make yourself at home!”  To outsiders, these dark grimy spaces might appear alien, but to those who work here it is a zone where everyone knows everyone else, and where you can spend your working life in a society with its own codes, hierarchy and respect – only encountering the outside world through the motorists and cabbies that arrive needing repairs. My father was a mechanic, and I recognise the liberation of filth, how being dirty in your work sets you apart from others’ expectations. The layers of grime and dirt here – in an environment comprised almost exclusively of small businesses where no-one wears a white collar – speak eloquently of a place that is a law unto itself.

Starting at the Eastern end of Three Colts Lane, the first person we met was Lofty, proprietor of the A1 Car Centre, who proved to be a gracious ambassador for the territory. “Some garages, they just want to take the money,” Lofty declared in wonder, his chestnut-brown eyes glinting with righteous ire at the injustice – like a sheriff denouncing outlaws – before he pledged his own personal doctrine of decency, “But I believe it’s how you treat the customers that’s the most important thing, that’s why we are still here after twenty-five years.” And proof that Lofty is as good as his word was evident recently when seven hundred customers signed a petition saving the garage from developers who threatened to build student housing on the site.

We crossed the road to shake hands with Nicky at the Coborn Garage, admiring the fresh and gaudy patriotic colour scheme of red, white and blue, and his decorative signwriting that would not be out-of-place on a gipsy caravan. Under the railway bridge and down the road, we encountered Erdal and his nephew at Repairs R Us, where we marvelled at the monster engine from a Volvo truck that Erdal rebuilt and today keeps as a trophy by the entrance of his tiny arch.  Further down, we met Ahmed, a native of Cyprus who grew up above the synagogue in Heneage St and has run his garage here for twenty-eight years. At the corner, across from Bethnal Green Station, we were greeted by Ian & Trevor, two softly spoken brothers who have been here twenty years repairing taxis in a former a scrap yard, still retaining its old weighbridge. We all squinted together at the drain pipe head dated 1870 with the initials of the Great Eastern Railway upon it, declaring the history of the site in gothic capitals, before Ian extracted a promise from me to come back once I had discovered the origin of the name Three Colts Lane.

Apart from calendar girls adorning the walls, the only women we glimpsed were those who restricted themselves to answering the telephone – barely visible in tiny cabins of domestic comfort, sheltering their femininity against the barbaric male chaos of the machine shops. But then, strolling down a back lane and passing one of the governors in a heated altercation with a quivering cabbie who had innocently scraped his Daimler, thereby providing the catalyst for an arresting display of bullish masculinity, we encountered Ilfet. With a triumphant mixture of self-assurance and sharp humour, Ilfet has won the respect of her male colleagues in the body shop, wielding a spanner as well as the next man. A bold pioneer in her field and stirling example to others, I was proud to shake the hand of Ilfet, the only – or rather – the first female mechanic in Three Colts Lane.

Growing bolder, we ventured deeper to discover the paint shops and frames where taxis were hoisted up for major surgery. We left daylight behind us to explore the furthest recesses of the dripping vaults, lined with corrugated iron, where a fluorescent glow pervaded the scene of lurid-coloured motors crouching in the gloom. We had arrived at the heart of Three Colts Lane, vibrating to the diabolic roar of the high speed trains passing overhead, whisking passengers in and out of London, oblivious to the hidden world beneath the tracks.

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

12 Responses leave one →
  1. teapot permalink
    August 28, 2010

    Fantastic stuff. Hooray for Ilfet! – what an awesome lady. And it’s so great that 700 people signed the petition to save the garage. I shall be very interested to see if you find the origin of the name of Three Colts Lane – sounds like an inn-related name; perhaps there might have been a Three Colts Inn on it at some point, there are several inns by that name across the country.

  2. Roy Dent permalink
    September 27, 2010

    I’d say that teapot’s suggestion was spot on. I found a transcript of a trial involving a putative ancestor of mine here

    http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t17990220-60&div=t17990220-60&terms=Cavill#highlight

    or if you prefer

    http://tinyurl.com/326bkj4

    The date was January 1799 and the report shows an hostelry of that name in that location. Although some building work had already begun around the area there were obviously, from internal evidence, fields surrounding what was still partially a country lane. I expect colts were still grazing nearby. Today you may find some grazing on the present day Weavers’ Fields, just to the north and west of Three Colts Lane.

  3. March 26, 2011

    Fantastic blog. I was exploring Three Colts Lane just the other day. Your combination of photography and text works so well.

    I am looking forward to reading you other posts.

    Joe

  4. Mike Holloway permalink
    February 21, 2012

    From birth,1942 until around 1950 i lived in the flats in Corfield st which joins Three Colts Lane,Growing up in the area was an experience to remember,all those garages and workshops were there then mainly servicing black cabs for the City & West End trade and also garaging lorries overnight (including my dads works van.) As young lads we would go onto the flat roofs of the flats to enjoy the biggest steam railway trainset at Bethnal Green Junction one could imagine. My paternal grandmother was Charlotte Holloway ( nee Eldridge ) the same Eldridges as was mentioned by Len Goodman last year on tv,s “Who Do You Think You Are”.
    As my father ran his shop in Bethnal Green Road until his demise in 1976,i still visited the area right up until about a year ago,my my how we have changed.The area is still a vibrant borough with so much going on,long may it continue.

  5. George Lloyd permalink
    October 1, 2012

    Remember it well from my “Whitechapel Days”and in particular the number of “Black Cabs”always parked up,little knowing that I would eventually do my accounting for the Licensed London Cab trade.

  6. Robin Stichbury permalink
    October 28, 2012

    Some of my distant ancestors lived in No1 Three Colts Lane. It arguably became the first “Chippy” in the country – another one in Mile End also claims the title. However the shop was demolished in the slum clearance scheme around 1962 together with most of the area. The shop was lost in a bet with a Mr Feignbaum or similar name. My ancestor was so distraught that he cut his throat. I am desperately seeking photographs or sketches of the row of buildings from No1 to 15 or to talk with anyone who remembers the scene. I took a series of photographs in October 2005 and lodged a copy of them with the local library but things have changed since then even. The Lord Hood pub on the opposite corner with Brady Street has recently been demolished or converted and appears from the train to now be a block of flats. At least three other pubs were in the short stretch of Three Colts Lane from Brady St to the rail arch. Formerly Three Colts Lane was called Lamb Street but I guess it was changed because of another Lamb Street to the west and there must have been some confusion. I will have to do a re-take of my pictures to show how things are now. Pre-1962 pictures will be most welcomed. I have compiled quite a history of that little area.

  7. Dave holt permalink
    November 20, 2013

    Can anyone tell me if the grey mare public house is still standing in three colts lane or whatever happened to it

  8. Ruth permalink
    September 25, 2014

    Did you ever discovere the origin of the name Three Colts Lane

  9. Robin Stichbury permalink
    November 4, 2014

    It was originallnear LIverpool Street StationThere is a wonderful picture of Nos 1-15 THree COlts taken from the corner of Brady St opposite No.1 called Lamb Street or Lane but was changed, maybe to avoid confusion with another nearby Lamb Street, both names sound very rural or farm like, may have been a track for shifting animals. I took pictures of a series of the locality about four or five years ago and lodged a CD OF THEM AT THE LOCAL LIBRARY, A RICH SOURCE OF INFORMATION. A DISTANT RELATIVE OF MINE ONCE OWNED THE FISH SHOP AT NUMBER ONE THREE cOLTS AND LOST IT IN A BET TO mR fEINGENBAUM WHOSE FAMILY STILL OWNED IT IN A PICTURE TAKEN IN 1955 BEFORE MOST OF THE STREET WAS DEMOLISHED DURING THE 60′S SLUM CLEARANCE. nO ANIMALS KEPT IN wEAVERS fIELDS NOW, IT IS JUST A PARKa GOOD PICTURE CAN BE OBTAINED FROM A lONDON GOVERNMENT REPOSITORY WITH AN ADDRESS STARTING “COLLAGE*****GOV.UK i AM TRYING TO FIND IT AGAIN, FEEL FREE TO CONTACT ME FOR FURTHER INFO. ROBIN STICHBURY <RUMPTIOUSFIGURE ONE@GMAIL.UKa.k.a. rufus smith.

  10. anita thomas permalink
    January 20, 2015

    Hi loved this article. My Grandparents lived here they rented a house from the railway, it was adjacent to the bridge and shook like mad every time a train went over and of course it was steam trains then. Next door was the blacksmith Mr Reynolds who would give eye to my mum still a baby in her pram while nan had to pop out. On the corner stood the guy who would take any bets as it was illegal then and when the copper would appear would ask my nan was alright come in till he had gone. Sadly all that gas gone now. Thanks for the memory. X

  11. Lesley Pearce permalink
    April 26, 2016

    Have really loved reading this blog and the comments. I discovered it quite by chance while I was researching areas of Bethnall Green where my father used to live. Before he died (nearly 30 years ago) he wrote down some memories for me – and at long long last I’m getting round to writing them up and researching some of the references. It’s fascinating – and time-consuming!! He describes the arches as his playground (he was born in 1921) and writes of lighting fires there and getting chased away by the police. He lived in Finnis Street, Waterloo Building. The family (he had ten siblings) moved up to North London when the bombing got bad during the war. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who also has information on Finnis Street, Wilmot Street etcetc.

  12. December 18, 2016

    Hi Lesley Pearce, I run a site on which I’m attempting to gather together as much history and memories of the Waterlow Estate (the collective name of wilmot, corfield, ainsley and finnis streets) as possible. If you’re willing to share your father’s memories of the area I’d love to include them ? .. you can get in touch with me via the website (wilmotst.com).

    Thank you

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