Chris Kelly’s Cable St Gardeners
In September 2003, photographer Chris Kelly was invited to the open day of Cable Street Community Gardens and the result was a year-long project which culminated in an exhibition and a book. Fifty-two plot holders took part, aged from seven to eighty and originating from a dozen different countries, yet all unified by a love of gardening and the need for a haven where they could cultivate flowers, grow vegetables, chat to neighbours or enjoy solitude. Today, it is my delight to publish a selection of Chris Kelly’s beautiful portraits of the Cable St Gardeners. “Some of the old faces are no longer there,” Chris told me,“but the gardens thrive, new people have joined and it is still a magical place.”
Bill Wren – I was born in Wapping and I moved to Shadwell nine years ago. I’ve had the plot for about fifteen years. We never had a garden when I was young. The nearest I came to gardening was picking hops in Kent. Later I had a friend in Burgess Hill and I used to grow things in her garden. That’s where the greenhouse came from, I put it on the roof of the car and brought it up from Sussex. I’ve built a shed here and a pond. There are plenty of frogs and newts, and I’ve planted a bank next to the road. It’s a wildlife haven now.
Jane Sill - I was born in Liverpool. My grandfather had an allotment in County Durham and my father was a very good gardener. I helped with weeding and cultivated sunflowers. I was living in Cable Street in the late seventies in a top floor flat with no balcony. One day I went to a community festival and Friends of the Earth were offering plots here. I was given one in 1980 and I knew straight away how important it was to establish ourselves as an organisation. We’ve had a two year waiting list since 1981. At one time I was working in a Job Centre and people used to come in and put their names down for a plot.
Mohammed Rahmat Ali Pathni – I have always been a gardener. I started on my father’s land in Bangladesh and when I came to live in Birmingham in 1978 I had a garden behind the back yard. I have lived in Wapping since 1983 and started gardening in Cable Street ten years ago. I’m enjoying myself and it helps my frozen shoulder. I taught my children to garden and my wife often works here too. Many gardeners provide food for other people and I regularly give vegetables to friends. I also write poetry which is printed in the Eurobangla News Weekly, and I am a member of a writers’ group.
Alison Cochran – I moved to Shadwell five years ago because of the allotments and I live just across the road. I noticed them when I was living in Bethnal Green. I was born in Salisbury on a hill fort. I was keen on gardening when I was a child but when I came here I hadn’t gardened for years. I knew I wanted lots of flowers, but now I also grow salad vegetables and leeks, tomatoes, carrots and radishes. The soil is wonderful, everything seems to thrive here. I’ve used Victorian bricks for the paths because I wanted my plot to be in keeping with nearby housing.
Monir Uddin – I’ve lived in the borough for twenty years and I’ve gardened here for eight or nine years. The plot was completely wild at first. I had to uproot everything and it took about two years to get the soil right. I used to grow about sixty different plants and vegetables, including huge pumpkins. I love experimenting with plants and growing them for their medicinal properties. I’m a photographer and I also wanted to produce plants to photograph. I’ve done many different types of work including weddings and portraits. I was involved in the Bollywood film industry, I’ve photographed celebrities and at one time I had a restaurant.
Agatha Athanaze – I’ve been gardening here for twelve years. I was born in Dominica and came to Tower Hamlets in 1961. I’ve done different jobs. I’ve been a machinist and a cleaner. I live in Wapping now. I had a garden in Dominica so I did have some experience. The vegetables came first – I grow cabbages, onions, spring onions, runner beans, carrots, tomatoes, rhubarb and kidney beans. I like flowers too. I’ve ordered roses from Holland and from Spalding. I just like to come here and grow things. There are two benches but I haven’t time to sit down.
John Kelly – I was born in Cork City and I wasn’t a gardener. I came to this country in 1943 to work in the construction industry and started gardening as a hobby and to feed the family. I’ve had the plot here for seventeen years. I didn’t know much but I picked it up as I went along. I’ve always grown vegetables, never flowers. I can’t spend too much time here because I have to look after my wife and I have health problems too. I hate the sight of weeds but I don’t throw them out. I leave them on the ground to let them rot and they form green manure.
Manda Helal - I’m from Hertfordshire and I’ve lived in Tower Hamlets for twenty-six years. I’ve always been keen on gardening. We had a big garden when I was a child and I was given a section of my own. I’ve had my plot here for three years. My flat in Whitechapel is small and dark, so it’s wonderful to come here. The wheels are a frame for pumpkins. Squashes and pumpkins are so versatile. I grow artichokes and rocket, garlic, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, spinach and climbing purple beans. I’ve taught pottery in the borough for years and more recently I became a compost educator for the Women’s Environmental Network.
John Stokes – I’ve been gardening at Cable Street since I retired six years ago. I asked one of the nuns in the convent across the road and she said the allotments were for local people. I had no experience but I was brought up on a farm and I found I had an instinct for gardening. I came over from Ireland fifty years ago. I worked for London Transport for thirty-six years and missed only nine days. Now I’m at the gardens almost every day in summer and twice a week in winter. I grow vegetables for myself and my cousin and an aunt.
Anna Gaudion – I was born in Guernsey. I’ve lived in Stepney for the last ten years and I work as a midwife in Peckham. I was brought up in the country and I love being outside, hearing birds and growing things. I like allotments too, even just seeing them from trains. I’ve had this plot for three years now. My shed is made from a packing case used to take an object abroad from the British Museum where I was a curator. I enjoy cultivating flowers so I planted a nature garden. I share my plot with Claire who grows vegetables. Mine is the higgledy-piggledy part.
Andy Pickin - I grew up in Finchley and we moved to Shadwell twenty years ago. We spent eight years in Huntingdon when the firm moved there but most of us came back to London. I wanted an allotment because I’d always had great fun sharing one with my dad. I’ve had the plot for fourteen years. I grew vegetables because money was tight and the first year’s crop was fantastic. Our thirteen children all liked coming here when they were young. The older ones grow their own vegetables now. My wife likes the gardens too, she knows I sometimes come here to get away from the telly or the kids arguing.
Robin & Maria Albert - Robin was in catering before becoming a gardener eight years ago. He was born in Mile End and he’s lived in London all his life. I was born in London too and brought up in Margate. My family is always trying to persuade us to move out to Kent but we like living in Bethnal Green. We grow flowers at home but we wanted somewhere separate for vegetables. The fact that everything is organic is part of the appeal. Producing your own pure food is very satisfying. We have some flowers too and a pond that attracts frogs. I can’t do so much now but I still find gardening very therapeutic.
Ray Newton - I’ve always grown things. I share this plot with Agatha. We grow about a dozen different types of vegetables. It’s all organic. We don’t use pesticides. I retired last year from teaching business studies at Tower Hamlets College. Before that I worked in industry and at one time I was manager of a betting shop. I studied for O and A levels at evening classes and then took a degree course. I became a teacher and taught for twenty-five years. My other interests are local history and football. I’m the secretary of the History of Wapping Trust and a lifelong Millwall supporter.
Will Daly - I was a founder member of the gardens. I was in a nearby pub when Jane came in with another Irish chap and they persuaded me to have a plot. I’ve been in the borough for twenty-seven years. I was born in Ireland and I made a living salmon fishing on a tributary of the Shannon. I came to this country in 1951 and did building work. One of my brothers came over too but he missed the river and went home after a while. I still go back to Ireland but only for weddings and funerals. I can’t do very much gardening now but I love the peace of it.
Raymond Hussey – This is my second year. I live in one of the flats nearby. I’m growing vegetables and learning as I go along. What I’m most proud of is the brussels. And my runner beans were unbelievable. I don’t know whether it’s the soil or me talking to them. Weeds are a problem. Sometimes I’d like to use gallons of weedkiller but we’re not allowed. So I come in and have a chat. I call them everything but weeds. I was born on one of the estates off Brick Lane. I’ve done lots of things including acting. In my last job I was a dustman but I got trapped by the lorry. I still can’t do heavy work so the plot’s a bit of a mess but it’s my little world and I love it.
Robin, Yvonne and Katie Guess - We live at the other end of Cable Street. There’s a small courtyard garden but Yvonne and I were used to growing fruit and vegetables before we lived in London. We love soft fruit, we had a huge crop last year. We grow several vegetables and Yvonne has planted a mixed flower and herb bed. Our daughter Katie likes planting and picking but not weeding. We’re both from the south-east. I’ve been in the East End since 1968 and I worked on the Isle of Dogs as a quality control chemist. Now I’m with the Music Alliance in Oxford Street dealing with composer copyright.
Carl Vella – I came to Tower Hamlets from Malta in 1950 and worked for the NHS, mostly as a fitter and stoker. I’m retired and since I took over the plot four years ago I like to come here every day. I grow mostly vegetables – potatoes and cabbages. I’m on my own now so I give a lot of produce away to an elderly neighbour. I live in the flats nearby and there’s no garden. Coming here stops me getting fed up. I take my dog for a walk, go to the bookie’s and come here. I’d like to bring Pedro more often but he won’t stay in one place.
Sister Elizabeth O’Connor - Our Order has been part of the local community since 1859 and I came to the convent in 1949. After the houses here were demolished the site became a dumping ground until Friends of the Earth initiated the gardens project. When I retired from teaching in 1991, I started gardening here. All the sisters appreciate home grown vegetables and having fresh flowers for the chapel. As a child in County Clare I enjoyed helping my father in our kitchen garden. Apart from the practical use, the gardens are a great place for breaking down barriers and it’s especially good that women can feel safe here on their own.
Graham Kenlin – I was born in Bermuda. My father was a navy chef and had a land-based job working for an admiral. We came back to England when I was four and I grew up in Hackney. I’ve lived in Wapping for thirty-eight years and I’ve had a plot here for about fifteen years. My family have always had allotments. It’s very relaxing but I’m a lazy gardener. I’m an archaeologist and I work abroad sometimes so the plot gets neglected. I’ve had the odd good year but normally I do just enough to stay credible. I like growing large weeds, anything that’s interesting.
Sheila McQuaid - I came across the gardens at an open day. It was such an oasis of green and calm that I put my name down on the spot. Gardening is in the family. My parents were horticulturalists and I grew plants as a child but I’ve only become really interested in the last ten years. We decided on fruit because it’s expensive, especially if you want organic, and it doesn’t need constant attention. I was born and brought up in Cornwall and I’ve lived in Tower Hamlets for twenty-five years. I’m a housing adviser for Camden Council and I work for Stitches in Time on community textile projects.
Anna Girvan and John Griemsman – We’ve had the plot for about ten years. We’re in a 10th floor flat in Limehouse and we wanted somewhere to spend time outside and to grow vegetables. I’m from Belfast and I’ve lived in Limehouse for twenty-five years. John is from Wisconsin and he’s been here for almost thirty years. I work as a librarian in the West End and John is a special needs assistant. I’m more pleased by the flowers in the end than the vegetables. My favourite is a dahlia that Annemarie gave me. It’s a beautiful purple pink and it flowers for such a long time.
Mary Laurencin – I’ve been gardening here for about ten years. A cousin asked me to help then passed the plot on to me. I’d never gardened before but I was suffering from depression and sometimes it was the only place I felt comfortable. I learned to garden mainly by watching television. I’m from St Lucia and I’ve lived in Tower Hamlets for forty years. I came to England in 1962 and at one time I did four jobs every day – I worked in a cafe, had a job at Sainsbury’s, I was a machinist and I did some cleaning. I grow vegetables here. I love flowers but you can’t eat flowers.
Conrad, Donald and James Korek – I garden here with my wife Catherine and our two younger sons, Donald, ten, and James, six. Our eldest boy isn’t interested now. We’ve lived in the borough for fourteen years and started gardening at Cable Street about a year after we arrived. We have a flat nearby and we like to spend time outdoors. I was born in North London and Catherine was brought up on a farm in Scotland, so she has more experience of growing food. James likes weeding and he supports Arsenal. Donald is a West Ham supporter and he’s good at picking up stones and chatting to the other gardeners.
Annemarie Cooper - I’m a supply teacher and I write poetry. I’ve had a plot since 1986. I didn’t know anything about gardening but I love nature and being close to the earth. My dad was a very good vegetable gardener. He and my grandfather shared a plot and they were always arguing about it. I’ve lived in Tower Hamlets for twenty years. When I started here I thought I wanted to grow flowers then I got into vegetables. I love growing sweet peas and big flashy dahlias. Really I like anything that deigns to grow. I enjoy growing tomatoes and digging up potatoes.
Emir Hasham - I’m on the waiting list and until I have a plot I’ll be working on the communal area. My work is computer based graphics and special effects for television and what I like about gardening is the real honest labour and getting my hands dirty. It will be great to grow my own fruit and vegetables My parents used to garden and I helped as a child. I was born in Sheffield. My mum is a Yorkshire lass and my dad is mainly Asian. I’ve lived in Tower Hamlets for twelve years now. I haven’t a garden at home and there’s only so much you can grow on a balcony.
Anwara Begum - I was born in Bangladesh. My father was a businessman and had some land. My seven sisters and I helped mother with the farming. We never had to buy food from the market and we sold bamboo and bananas. When I was sixteen I came to live in Tower Hamlets and ten years ago I started gardening at Cable Street. The four children helped when they were younger but now they are busy with other things. They have to study and help with the housework. I’m studying too – IT, Childcare, Maths and English. And I’m taking Bengali GCSE as well as doing voluntary work in a nursery school.
Joseph Micallef - I first came to the borough from Malta in 1955 and settled here permanently in 1961. I’ve had the plot for ten years. I didn’t know anything about gardening but my father had a farm in Malta so I knew something about agriculture. The vegetables came first and my wife likes the flowers, but I just enjoy seeing things grow and passing the time here. A lot of the produce is given away. You do tend to get too much at once. People look at the plot and think I’m an expert but I’m not, I just plant things and they grow.
Photographs copyright © Chris Kelly
To learn more about Cable Street Community Gardens or buy copies of the Cable St Gardeners book, contact Jane Sill (email@example.com) or visit www.cablestreetcommunitygardens.co.uk
You may also like to take a look at Chris Kelly’s Columbia School Portraits 1996