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East End Scrap Dealers

February 5, 2011
by the gentle author

In my innocence, I set out through the East End in search of the crowded scrapyards of my imagination, filled with curious treasures barely contained by old corrugated iron fences, only to discover that there is no such thing as general scrap anymore – the industry has become specialised. Yet this recognition merely served to enrich my investigation, proposing multiple tantalising avenues of enquiry, even though Spitalfields Life contributing photographer Sarah Ainslie and I chose to concentrate upon furniture reclamation and scrap metal.

Nearest to Spitalfields, we had the good fortune to meet the gleefully ebullient Darren Hahn, and his mascot Ponjee the cat, at Forest Reclamation occupying three railway arches in Valance Rd – a veritable kingdom of its own populated by more steel cookers, fire extinguishers, lockers, toilets, sinks, carpet tiles, coffee machines and lamps than you could ever require to furnish any office or industrial kitchen, all crammed together in the half-light as if in some vast subterranean necropolis. Here the Christmas decorations are up all year round and St George’s flag always flies in declaration of Darren’s indomitable spirit. “I like the job, but I’m not saying I like too much of the customers,” Darren confided to me in a quiet moment, “You say £100 and they say £30. They ask your best price and you say £80, then they offer £50!”

In spite of the ceaseless trials of his profession, Darren maintains an enviable humour, exemplified by his bizarre collection of signs that announce the location as simultaneously, “The Devil’s Highway,” “World Travel Centre,” “International Drug Regulatory Affairs,” and “Dalton’s Farm.” And the giddy irony of these conflicting signs served to enforce the vertiginous sense of surrealism that such places engender, where all the jigsaw pieces which fit together to create the familiar world lie around in jumbled piles.

Around the corner at Burdett Metals, also crammed under a picturesque arch, we encountered a very different endeavour. Scrap was being broken down into its constituent metals and the atmosphere was more that of the boneyard, in contrast to the necropolis we had come from. But even here, I spied a wall hung with inn signs that the employees had hung up for their amusement and, as you will see from Sarah’s picture, a venerable scrapyard truck is suspended upon a top shelf for no other purpose than as an eye-catching piece of pop sculpture. These observations were interrupted when two wary men arrived with discreet shopping trolleys, and it was only when they began to produce metal items from their bags that I realised they were “totters” – those who walk the streets seeking odd pieces of scrap metal and bringing it here to earn a few pounds for each load.

Over at Bow Metals, we found a similar industrial operation fenced off like a high-security prison, but there was nothing even to photograph because the turn-over of scrap to raw materials is immediate. A fierce dog with no name encouraged us to move on to Mile End where we were grateful for the genial welcome of Reed at 2nd Time Around. Let me admit, this was the undisputed highlight of our trip because Reed is a dealer of seventy years old with a feeling for his trade and is proprietor of an establishment that has soul. In a crumbling old carriage house with a leaky roof, Reed has created a cathedral of junky furniture with a cosy den at the far end adorned with photographs and curios where he keeps himself warm and communes with Ginger his cat. “If I was to pack this up, I’d be finished,” he admitted to me with a placid smile,“But I am still alive here because I am still lifting and carrying.”

A visit to Great Eastern Waste in London Fields rounded off our modest survey nicely, because there we encountered Andy with his beloved dogs Molly and Kelly, three playmates frolicking together in the midst of the yard where, as elsewhere, wily totters came to deliver their finds scavenged in the city and left excitedly clutching single banknotes. All the proud scrap dealers had endeared themselves to me with their unsentimental independence of spirit and reliably droll attitudes, derived from witnessing the frayed ends of existence where businesses get closed down and houses get cleared out every day.

This final stop afforded an intriguing realisation too – that, in this exclusively male business, reclamation dealers liked to build themselves dens and keep cats, while scrap merchants inhabit bare yards and keep big energetic dogs. I leave you to draw your own interpretations of this particular distinction, but I can confirm that in the East End the days of the old-school scrapyard are gone and the age of industrialised recycling is upon us.

Darren flies the flag for England at Forest Reclamation - “you can furnish an office here for £500″

A totter arrives at Burdett Scrap Metal in Bethnal Green.

Bow Metals.

Reed, proprietor of 2nd Time Around in Mile End.

Reed in the den at 2nd Time Around

Ginger at 2nd Time Around - “She costs me a fortune in cat food but she fights off the other strays.”

Reed - “If I was to pack it in, I’d be finished – but I am still alive because I am still lifting and carrying”

Molly, Kelly and Andy at Great Eastern Waste in London Fields.

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

5 Responses leave one →
  1. February 5, 2011

    I love the pets — perhaps strays, reclaimed like the scrap: the “junkyard dog” posed playfully with a ball in his mouth and Ginger the cat, who looks very much like my own orange boy, especially taking up as much space as possible across the chair.

  2. jeannette permalink
    February 5, 2011

    our mutual friend/noddy boffin/the golden dustman — dickens’ last novel and an amazing vision of modernity and the city and the life of things discarded, not yet surpassed.
    thanks so much.

  3. February 5, 2011

    ……”the frayed edges of existence”…….
    such beautiful writing
    thank you

  4. jim permalink
    October 4, 2014

    why was there no horse and cart totters up untill 1960 they were about were i lived at north london i used to go with the totters it was great i was a bout 13 years old the yard was called knapps yard at bingfield street islington london n1 he had ten horses and carts whice he hired out

  5. jim permalink
    October 4, 2014

    bring back the horse and carts that would sort out a lot

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