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The Manhole Covers of Spitalfields

September 1, 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?

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Wellwynder permalink
    September 1, 2011

    Is it the dormant librarian in me that feels the need for a classification scheme for holes in the ground? Is a hole that a man can’t fit into really a manhole? Wikipedia says “Manholes are usually outfitted with … steps … to allow easy descent”, but confuses things by giving a definition (and photos) that takes in pretty much any form of access hole or inspection hole. Your lovely covers seem to cover holes ranging from ones big enough to climb through (like the LCC one) to ones only big enough to pour coal into. Blimey, I can be pedantic sometimes…

  2. lesley manousos permalink
    September 2, 2011

    Thank you for bringing my attention to something that I see daily but never really look at. Looking at the pictures of these lovely manhole covers (or inspection/access covers) I realize that I recognize the designs of many of them, but had never really “seen” them before. Some of the designs are really lovely and focusing on them as you have makes them into works of art rather than just functional covers.

  3. September 8, 2011

    I love this post! I’ve been intending to photograph manhole covers for years but not got round to it. It occurred to me that since they tended to be made quite locally (at least the ones I see were) that it would be interesting to compare manhole covers of different towns or areas of cities and large towns.
    The styles of the covers shown here are wonderful in their variety. The variety of designs of such utilitarian objects in the historic fabric of our streets contribute to enrich our everyday environment.

  4. Granny P permalink
    December 30, 2012

    I have been taking pictures of everyday things for years but have never done anything with them. I thought I was just eccentric. You have inspired me to gather them together and at least label them in case any one is ever interested in them in the future. We are surrounded by beauty that is taken for granted and old skills that could be forgotten.
    This really is the most fantastic website. Thank you.

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