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In the Cellar of the Bishopsgate Institute

April 21, 2011
by the gentle author

This is Stefan Dickers, the inspirational archivist at the Bishopsgate Institute who possesses such a charismatic sense of levity that he could join the “Carry On” team in any of their capers and be entirely at home. Although he is an authoritative scholar, Stefan recognises that to be serious, you do not have to be grave, and through his indefatigable nature belies the myth that librarians do not possess a sense of humour. Naturally magnanimous, he actively encourages people to come and consult the rich collection that he tends at the Bishopsgate, and it is always an adventure whenever I pay him a call – because I never know what new treasure he will produce for me to publish for your delight, here in the pages of Spitalfields Life.

So what is Stefan doing sitting in the cellar of the Bishopsgate Institute? Is this where the staff go for a quiet smoke?  Or a peaceful nap in the afternoon? Or is he, in the manner of that other famous librarian, Jorge Luis Borges, pondering thoughts of transient mortality engendered by his life among the dusty tomes?

In fact, Stefan comes here to contemplate the ancient floor which once belonged to the stable that stood upon this ground long before the Bishopsgate was built in 1895. “Now I have thirty oyster shells on my desk and I live in constant fear of horse urine!” he admitted with self-satirising irony, referring to the outcome of the recent renovations that have revealed the bizarre legacy of the oyster shop and livery stables which previously occupied this site. “I say ‘shop,’” he told me, “because you can only have that many oyster shells in a shop.” rolling his eyes in illustration of the endless quantities of shells brought upstairs by the builders who discovered them down below. A common find in London, where oysters were once plentiful and the cheapest of foods.

But more pertinent to Stefan is the question of the horse urine because, as he explained to me in disappointment, “If a horse urinates onto the floor you will have to take all the soil out because otherwise you will never get rid of the damp.” This room with the stable floor was to have been the strongroom for his prized treasures, but since the porous surface renders this usage impossible and the historic floor cannot be removed, the floor itself must be the sole the treasure in the cellar – a modest relic of Bishopsgate’s past identity, as the point of departure and arrival for Ermine St, the main road North out of London, lined with coaching inns and stables, until Liverpool St Station was built and the railway took over.

The Bishopsgate Institute was created in 1891 through the enlightened foresight of Reverend William Rogers, a priest with secular tendencies, who diverted the vast funds piled up  by St Botolphe’s church over centuries to pay for new schools for the poor, public toilets, baths, wash houses, drinking fountains, soup kitchens and even a hospital. From the start, access for all was the founding principle for the cultural institute, with a free lending and reference library, and a large hall where concerts and lectures on subjects of popular appeal were given. And thanks to the prudent radicalism of Rogers, the Bishopsgate remains autonomous today, independent of government or local authority funding, and free to pursue the same agenda of noble egalitarianism.

With a characteristic lightness of touch and the generosity of a favourite uncle, Stefan gave me a few pictures to show you that illustrate the nature of these early lectures at the Bishopsgate Institute. I like to think that if Stefan Dickers, the archivist with a sense of humour, were to meet the ghost of Rev William Rogers, the priest with secular tendencies, standing upon the old cellar floor, he might discover they had a lot in common.

The site of the Bishopsgate Institute in 1838 from Tallis’ London Street View – the nineteenth century forerunner of Google Street View. The entrance to the stable is central, with the oyster shop to the left.

The Bishopsgate Institute in 1895, the year it opened. Note James Ince & Sons, umbrella makers next door – operating today from Vyner St.

The Bishopsgate Institute today.

Rear view of the former oyster bar and livery stables that previously occupied the site. In the photo at the top of the story, Stefan Dickers is sitting upon the brick floor of one of these stables, in the cellar of the Bishopsgate Institute.

Fred Enock, expert in insect intelligence.

Cillford Collinson in the South Seas.

Escott North in the Golden West.

Photographs © copyright Bishopsgate Institute

You may like to take a look at some of these favourites from the Bishopsgate collection

A Room to Let in Old Aldgate

The Ghosts of Old London

JohnThomson’s Street Life in London

C. A Matthew, Photographer

A Farewell to Spitalfields

Mark Jackson & Huw Davies, Photographers

3 Responses leave one →
  1. melbournegirl permalink
    April 21, 2011

    Who knew horse urine could be so troublesome! This wonderful article, combined with those lovely houses on Trinity Green – it’s enough to make a girl hop on a flight to London!

  2. Chris F permalink
    April 22, 2011

    I don’t know what the ceiling height is in that cellar, but it might be feasable to instal a suspended floor above the existing one. The drains could still be accessible. I’ve seen it done in other buildings. Just a thought.

  3. September 5, 2013

    Inspiring. Thank you. I have linked to you via our post..

    I am a grave person but I too have humour. eh?

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