At Arthur’s Cafe
This is Arthur Woodham of the celebrated “Arthur’s Cafe” – in the Kingsland Rd since 1935. At eighty-four years old, Arthur is still running around his magnificent shining cafe, taking orders and serving customers with sprightly efficiency. Possessing the grace, good manners and handsome features of a young Trevor Howard, he is a charismatic figure, venerated in Dalston and throughout the East End – so imagine my excitement to see Arthur waiting in the doorway of his cafe in anticipation of my arrival.
My heart skipped a beat and I ran across the road to shake his hand. Then, taking advantage of the lull between the late breakfast trade and the early lunch trade, we sat down at the window table to enjoy the sunlight, and I found myself close up to his neatly styled grey locks and immaculately shaven jowls, while Arthur fixed his liquid grey eyes upon mine and commenced his story.
“I was born in Bethnal Green, and in 1935 we moved over to the Kingsland Rd and opened the cafe. My father was Arthur too and his cafe used to be further down the road, opposite the Geffrye Museum. If you was trying to buy a cafe, you tried to buy one with accommodation above, so if things got quiet you could rent the space, but I’ve always lived up there all this time.
Once I left school at fourteen, I worked with him behind the counter and I helped out before that too. I was the eldest son and you had no choice – you had to go into it whether you liked it or not. In those days, my father used to make his own ice cream and sarsaparilla, and my grandmother helped out in the kitchen with the washing up. At first, when the war came, I didn’t want to go into the shop but I have no regrets. I was about fifteen when war broke out, and I worked in the cafe all through the war. They dropped a bomb on the shelter across the road at the Geffrye Museum and my father kept open all night to make everyone a cup of tea. I’ll always remember one man was very bad, he lost thirteen in his family.
When I was a boy, it was either coffee shops with wooden floors or cafes that were more like sandwich bars, but after the war cafes starting doing hot dinners, roast beef, steak pie, lamb chops. I run my cafe the old fashioned way, we don’t do frozen stuff, it’s all fresh. I get up around twelve thirty/one o’clock, but people won’t believe you if you tell them that. I cook my own ham and cut all my chips by hand. My grandson gets in at five fifteen and we open at seven, serving breakfast until eleven thirty. No toast after eleven thirty and no chips before twelve. At eleven thirty we clean up and put serviettes and glasses on the tables, and I go upstairs and put on a clean coat. We have a different class of people for lunch. This is a working class cafe, we serve plain English food, we don’t serve pasta like some do.We’ve got a good mixed clientele, a nice class of people, white people and black people.
I like it, this is my life. You’ve got to like it to keep in it. I meet people. I speak to people. In the cafe, if you like it, you make a lot of friends. I’ve been serving people for over fifty years, people I grew up with. I opened up here when I was twenty-one in 1948, my father gave me a hand for a while and then he closed down the old cafe. I’ve been here ever since, four hundred and ninety-five Kingsland Rd. It’s been a cafe as long as I can remember and I’m eighty-five this year.It was me and my father and now it’s me and my grandson – since he was a boy, he’s worked for me – that’s three generations. I’ll go on as long as I can, I’m eighty-five on Christmas Day. The Pelliccis, they’re friends of mine – I’m the oldest cafe in the Kingsland Rd and they’re the oldest cafe in Bethnal Green.”
By now it was eleven thirty, no more toast would be served, and it became imperative that Arthur go upstairs at once to change his coat in the time-honoured fashion, whilst serviettes and glasses were swiftly laid upon the tables, as the tempo of the day’s proceedings went up a notch in anticipation of luncheon. Yet this flurry of activity allowed me the opportunity of a snatching a few words with Arthur’s grandson James, who in spite of his youthful demeanour revealed he had been there twenty years. “Since I was twelve, I worked here in my school holidays,” he confessed with a shy smile of pride,”And then my grandfather asked me to work with him, and I did.”
“My grandfather is an actor, and this is the stage where he performs best,” James continued, as if to introduce Arthur who appeared on cue from upstairs, now changed into an identical but perfectly clean white coat and seemingly revived with a new energy. “Do you think you will still be here at eighty-five?” I whispered to James across the table. “If I’ve got my grandfather’s energy, I’ll still be here!” he replied with an emotional smile as Arthur breezed past, making sure that everything was in order before assuming his heroic position at the head of the steel counter – as he has done each day since 1948 – tea towel over one shoulder, ready for whatever the lunch service would bring.
You can watch a film about Arthur here.
“I remember those custard tarts my dad was holding, they were threepence each” - Arthur at at twenty-one years old when he opened his own cafe in 1948 with the assistance of Arthur, his father. Inset shows, the third generation Arthur and his son James who works at Arthur’s Cafe today.
Arthur and his grandson James who has worked with him for the past twenty years.
Arthur arranges serviettes in readiness for the lunchtime rush.
James rustles up a mean sandwich.
“My grandfather is an actor and this is his stage where he performs best.”
Arthur’s wife Eileen lends a hand.
The lull between late breakfast and early lunch while Arthur goes upstairs to change into a fresh coat.
Arthur with his old friend Terry Dunfred.
You may like to read about Maria Pellicci, the Meatball Queen of Bethnal Green.