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The Manhole Covers of Spitalfields

January 5, 2011
by the gentle author

Ever since I wrote about sculptor Keith Bowler’s Roundels, describing how he set new manhole covers into the pavements of Spitalfields with motifs to commemorate all the people, cultures and trades that have passed through, I have been noticing the old ones that inspired him in the first place. This one from the eighteen eighties in Fournier St is undoubtably the most snazzy in the neighbourhood with its dynamic sunburst and catherine wheel spiral. So much wit and grace applied to the design of  a modest coalhole cover, it redefines the notion of utilitarian design. In Bath, Bristol, Brighton and Edinburgh, I have seen whole streets where each house has a different design of coalhole cover, like mismatched buttons on a long overcoat, but in Spitalfields they are sparser and you have to look further to find them.

There is a second example of this Clark, Hunt & Co sunburst, that I like so much, in Redchurch St, just a hundred yards from the former showrooms at 159/60 Shoreditch High St of this company who called themselves the Middlesex Iron Works – founded in 1838, proud contractors to the H.M. War Office, the Admiralty and London County Council. And like many local ironworks, gone long ago, but outlived by their sturdy cast iron products. Alfred Solomons of 195 Caledonian Rd is another name I found here in Spitalfields on a couple of manhole covers, with some rather fetching, almost orientalist, nineteenth century flourishes. I discovered that the Jewish Chronicle reported the birth of a son to Alfred’s wife Celia on 18th December 1894 at the Caledonian Rd address, so these plates commemorate them personally now.

Meanwhile Hayward Brothers of 187 & 189 Union St, Borough, are the most ubiquitous of the named manufacturers with their handsome iron artefacts in the pavements of our neighbourhood. They were founded by William &  Edward Hayward, glaziers who had been trading since 1783 when they bought Robert Henley’s ironmongery business in 1838. As glaziers they brought a whole new progressive mentality to the humble production of coalhole covers, patenting the addition of prisms that admitted light to the cellar below. You can see one of their “semi-prismatic pavement lights” illustrated below, in Calvert Avenue. Such was the success of this company that by 1921 they opened a factory in Enfield, and even invented the “crete-o-lux” concrete system which was used to repave Regent St, but they ceased trading in the nineteen seventies when smokeless zones were introduced in London and coal fires ceased. Regrettably, Spitalfields cannot boast a coalhole by the most celebrated nineteenth century manufacturer, by virtue of their name, A.Smellie of Westminster. The nearest example is in Elizabeth St, Victoria, where I shall have to make a pilgrimage to see it.

Unfailingly, my fascination with the city is deepened by the discovery of new details like these, harbouring human stories waiting to be uncovered by the curious. Even neglected and trodden beneath a million feet, by virtue of being in the street, these ingenious covers remind us of their long dead makers’ names more effectively than any tombstone in a churchyard. There was rain blowing in the wind yesterday but when the sun came out afterwards, the beautiful old iron covers shone brightly like medals – for those who had the eyes to see them – emblazoned upon the streets of Spitalfields.

In Old Broad St.

In Fournier St, a nineteenth century coalhole cover by Alfred Solomons, 195 Caledonian Rd – I am reliable informed there are similar covers in Doughty St and around Bloomsbury.

A more minimal variant on the same design by Alfred Solomons.

Hayward Brothers’ “Patent Self-Locking Semi-Prismatic Pavement Light” in Calvert Avenue.

A more recent example of Hayward Brothers’ self -locking plate.

In Gunthorpe St, this drain cover commemorates Stepney Borough Council created in 1900 and abolished in 1965.

At the Rectory in Fournier St, this early plate by Hayward Brothers of 187 & 189 Union St, Borough, which is also to be found in Lower Richmond Rd.

Another by Haywood Brothers in Spitalfields – although unlabelled, it follows the design of the plate above.

Bullseye in Chance St

In Commercial St, at the junction with Elder St, is this worn plate is made by Griffith of Farringdon Rd, Clerkenwell

In Middlesex St. LCC – London County Council was abolished in 1965. Can it be only co-incidental that this old manhole cover in Petticoat Lane Market, in the former Jewish quarter, has a star of David at the centre?


20 Responses leave one →
  1. melbournegirl permalink
    January 5, 2011

    Gentle author, your ability to see the details that, layer upon layer, comprise the life of the city is amazing.

  2. Hminkfox permalink
    January 5, 2011

    Fabulous! These patterns are so familiar and it’s great to see them collected in one place. I used to like to play marbles on the Hayward Brothers type covers particularly. I think they must be all over more northern parts of London too as I didn’t live your way til I was over that marble stage :-) I’ll look next time I am that way. I have to say I absolutely love your blog. It’s so up my street – almost literally as I lived on Curtain Road for some years.

  3. January 5, 2011

    Funny thing I noticed at the weekend on manhole covers on Clapham Road – they have a fax number on them. Wondered who would need it.

  4. January 5, 2011

    I just wanted to say I have been following your blog for approx a week…it’s a gem…soo informative and interesting.

    This post took me right back to my childhood. I was born in Bethnal Green and lived for the formative first 7 years of my like in Hackney, just by the beautiful Victoria Park.
    The Victorian town house we lived in had a coal shoot & bunker and a manhole cover exactly like the dimensional star one shown….I spent many summer evenings at the bottom of the
    stoop playing marbles along the grooved lines, and inventing allsorts of rules and points systems. These marble games on the manhole covers were much more involved then your normal game of marbles over the drain grilles…
    Thank you for sharing.
    LOVE PEACE enJOY
    Julie
    x

  5. January 5, 2011

    Gentle Author – you are an inspiration to us more lax bloggers, with your energy, enthusiasm and attention to detail. This collection of manhole covers is a treat.
    Best wishes for 2011 :)

  6. Thomas permalink
    January 5, 2011

    I have seen so many of these exact designs adorning the streets of South Kensington whilst I lived there last year, never would I have expected to also see them in Spitalfields!
    But, now I think about it more, I should, although both are very different parts of London, most of the buildings share the same era.

  7. January 5, 2011

    Weirdly, I was on my way back to the office after a lunchtime walk in Regent’s Park on Tuesday and noticed the different manhole covers on the pavements leading out of the park. I was admiring the patterns and thought they would make a good photo, and your post turns up in my inbox – we must have been thinking about them at the same time! Really lovely captures. Keep up the good work, Gentle Author!

  8. melbournegirl permalink
    January 8, 2011

    I was reading the newspaper this morning and came across this article. Future history?
    http://www.circularprojects.com/project

  9. lynn swidenbank permalink
    January 8, 2011

    Have just discovered your blog. Wonderful. Though I live by the sea now I worked in Whitechapel in the 1970s and still miss London life. Thought I was alone in being fascinated by the variety of manhole covers!!! Once tried to do rubbings (like brass rubbings ) using heel ball (wax like substance that shoemakers used to rub around the heels of newly heeled shoes). Worked on an Adventure Playground with Dan Jones in Brighton in 1966. Lost touch but delighted to read about him on your blog and will look forward to his book of childrens rhymes. Thank you so much.

  10. Mark Solomons permalink
    February 3, 2011

    My grandfather’s name was Alfred Solomons and he lived in Stepney…coincidentally. Thought I’d mention it as I came across this while looking him up.

  11. Andrew b permalink
    May 29, 2011

    There is a drum and bass artist called Stanton Warriors, I’d always wndered about the name until I chanced upon a man hole cover in Kensington with the same description. now I see them all over the city. I like to think the band chose the name because they are ‘deep and underground’!
    Keep up the great work gentle author. I’ve been following your east London vignettes since you handed me a flyer at broadway Market in 2009, my dad follows from Australia now.

  12. January 18, 2012

    Being a manhole artist, I am delighted
    with all the photos of covers.
    Coal Shute covers are especially fascinating
    because they represent a bygone era.
    Thanks for sharing.
    “Grate wishes!”
    Bobbi Mastrangelo

  13. February 28, 2012

    Looking for old manhole cover of Metesco electricity london. Who know’s were to find one?

    see: http://www.flickr.com/photos/36844288@N00/5359379913/

  14. September 20, 2014

    Great! I love to see manhole cover artwork. There are still many companies which make fantastic manhole covers art. Specially in Japan manhole covers all over the streets are designed in such a way that these not only add more color to the pavement but also have a great appealing art work on them.

  15. October 4, 2014

    Hi.

    Love your pictures. Used to go to this area occasionally when I lived in London in 90s.

    Have a look at our facebook page “Gridding”.

    It can get a bit silly and go off at daft tangents, but basically it is pictures of manhole covers and grids.

    Cheers

    Richard

  16. Laura Jacobs permalink
    January 3, 2015

    There are coal hole covers or opercula by Solomons in Thornhill Square N1 near Caledonian Road

  17. June 2, 2016

    Is there a group called “Gridding” who take an interest in manhole covers?
    If so I would like to join.
    “My “Grate Works of Art” are light weight sculpture relief works which
    represent streetscapes featuring manhole covers, water covers, grates or drains.
    Say hello on my website blog.

  18. September 28, 2016

    Thank you for these photos. I’m fascinated by manhole covers and you’ve fed me a feast tonight.

  19. David permalink
    March 11, 2017

    The coal plate you identify as Griffiths is actually by Hyatt. They have adopted the Griffith’s Railway Foundry of Reading’s patent for self locking and also their design.

  20. Shawdian permalink
    June 2, 2017

    You never cease to amaze. Manhole covers and I thought I was the only one who looks at these. Notice how like so much that is new today, how plain the later aditions are in comparison to the older more patterned styles.

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