Brick Lane Market 4
Let me admit, if I was to choose one person who incarnates the spirit of Brick Lane Market for me, it would be Tom – Tom the Sailor, as he is widely known – who you will find almost every day of the week with his faithful dog Matty, stalling out on the pavement with a few bits and pieces for sale. A distinguished gentleman of soulful character, yet with indefatigable humour and spirit, Thomas Frederick Hewson Finch has been around as long as anyone can remember, although few are aware of his origins or the extraordinary story of how he came to be here.
“In 1941, when the Germans were at war with England, that’s when I came along. My father wasn’t married to my mother. As far as I know, I was born in Goole in Yorkshire, but I don’t know for sure – no-one knows because it was 1941. I don’t think anybody cared about me, I was just a problem. I say my mother died when I was born but I don’t know, and I don’t want to know because I’ve had my life now, and I was slung in a home then which was natural. All I can remember is me lying on a floor and watching a rocking horse.
That home was St John’s in Ipswich, it’s not there any more. You went from baby to cots and then you went to beds, in other words you went through the stages. It was a big place. Loads of people like me needed somewhere to go. Why this place was picked was because there was Yanks all around. Although it may not be true, what I say is that my father was American. My mother went out with other people. She was part gypsy and she had to take care of herself, and naturally she would go with the Yanks who gave her cigarettes and stockings. Why would a woman want to go with Englishmen that were poor and had nothing?
When you sit there as an orphan and see other people being given presents, how do you imagine I felt? One child had an electric train set and I nicked it and buried it, but I when I went back to get it a year later it was rusty and no good. Why take somebody’s train set? It was how I thought. It was wrong, I know this now. I hid above a toilet for three days when they were looking for me, after they thought I had run away. As I got older, they slung me out because I was too unruly, and they put me in a stronger home. It was in East Grinstead, and the one who run it he was – now he would be locked up in prison – he was very hard. He used to love hitting me. He used the birch, he kept it in vinegar. He put you over a bench for six of the best. It was always me.
They sent me to a training ship for orphans on the River Medway – the Arethusa – where I reached Chief Petty Officer Boy. We slept in hammocks and you had to climb the one hundred and seventy foot masts everyday and slide down the lanyards. It was sailing ship from Harwich. From there, when you passed out you went to the Ganges in Suffolk where everyone went to go into the Royal Navy. They were training me in Morse code and typing, and I went on HMS Paladin. But I went deaf, on account of the cold weather in Iceland when I was drilling ice off a boat. I was invalided out with a pension of six shillings and ninepence a week which I sold for two hundred and fifty pounds, and with the money I bought a motorbike – a superflash.
I started working with woodworkers, Hollar Bros in Hull where I met my wife. I went in a cafe in Dagger Lane and the chap was doing no good and he asked me if I wanted the cafe for fifteen pounds a month, so I thought, “I’ll have that.” It turned out to be one hell of a place. All the bikers came down and it was packed out with motorcyclists from Brighton and all over England. I was open twenty-four hours and it was so busy you couldn’t park in the street. From there I ended up with seven nightclubs, and ten other cafes with casinos above them. I had dogs on the door, and I had one dressed as a fisherman because they knew me and I went to sea with them.
After that, I was twenty years on the run. I gave up everything when I left, me and my family, we just walked out. All the others ended up in the nick but they couldn’t catch me and I came down here to East End to get away. In other words, I was a bit of a villain. I’ve had a few premises round here, on Great Eastern St, Boundary St and two shops on Brick Lane, and in Cheshire St. I never paid for any of them. I used to have a partner, me and Terry – they called us “Tom & Jerry,” cat and mouse. Our first shop on the Hackney Rd, we sold the shop window just to get going. We used to sell nicked fireplaces, Victorian ranges and marble, you could get that stuff easy when there was no cameras. We sold them at giveaway prices, even the police came to buy from us. The shop was given to me by a Jew that was going to America, I was sitting in the Princess one day and he came in and threw the keys on the counter and said, “Take it, it’s yours!”
A camera crew came round once and asked me to show them how to sell a fireplace. We had one marked at fifteen pounds, so they filmed me and I asked “Thirty pounds” and they gave me the cash. Each time I asked more until it was seventy-five pounds. And when they said, “Can we have our money back ?” I said, “It’s your fireplace!” You can do anything in a market. Me and Terry closed up and went to the stripper pub on the corner. That’s how you sell a fireplace.
All my family are well off, they all made it. My little boy Andrew, he’s my son, he was always with me. He’s grown up now too, but I just carry on in my own stupid way. Why does a man do it? I can only do what I’ve always done, I know it better than anything. I’ve done it all my life. Old Tom’s still an orphan, it’s the way I was brought up.”
Larger than life yet of this life, Tom the Sailor is the most charismatic rogue you will meet, with his nautical tattoos, weatherbeaten features, white mutton chop whiskers and an endless supply of yarns to regale. He delights in ruses and fables. With the wisdom and modesty of one who has lived many lives, Tom recognises that the truth of experience is rarely simple, always ambiguous. And if, like me, you are of a similar cast of mind, then there is almost no better way to pass time and learn about the East End than hanging on Old Tom’s ear.