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Dioramas of Spitalfields at The Bell

March 13, 2012
by the gentle author

As soon as Glyn Roberts, landlord of The Bell in Petticoat Lane, wrote to say he had discovered some neglected old models of Spitalfields in the cellar, I hurried over to take a look. Once upon a time, these beautiful dioramas enjoyed pride of place in the barroom but when Glyn bought the pub three years ago they had been consigned to oblivion.

Although hefty and dusty and in need of a little repair, nevertheless these models are skilfully made and full of intriguing detail, and deserve to be seen. And Glyn wishes to give them to a new home,  yet he cannot find a museum or public collection that will accept them, so he asked me to pass the word around in case anyone knows of somewhere that can take the Spitalfields dioramas.

I am always curious to learn more of this corner of Spitalfields closest to the City that gives up its history less readily than some other parts, but where the market dates from the twelfth century – much older than that on the northern side of the parish which was not granted its charter until the seventeenth century. The Bell, topped off by a grotesque brick relief of a bell with a human face and newly adorned with panels of six thousand bottle tops made by Robson Cezar, King of the Bottletops, has always fascinated me. Once the only pub in Petticoat Lane, it can be dated back to 1842 and may be much earlier since a Black Bell Alley stood upon this site in the eighteenth century.

In the cellar of The Bell, Glyn dragged the dioramas out for me to examine, one by one, starting with the largest. There are four models – three square boxes and one long box, depicting Petticoat Lane Market and The Bell around a hundred years ago. In the market diorama, stalls line up along Middlesex St selling books and rolls of cloth and provisions, while a priest and a policemen lecture a group of children outside the pub. In total, more than thirty individually modelled and painted clay figures are strategically arranged to convey the human drama of the market. By contrast, the square boxes are less panoramic in ambition, one portrays the barroom of The Bell, one the cellar of The Bell and another shows a drayman with his wagon outside the Truman Brewery in Brick Lane, with a steam train crossing the railway bridge in the background.

A discreet plate on each diorama reveals the maker as Howard Kerslake’s model studio of Southend, a professional model maker’s pedigree that explains the sophisticated false perspectives and clever details such as the elaborate lamp outside The Bell – and the stuffed fish, the jar of pickled onions and the lettered mirror in the barroom – and the easy accomplishment of ambitious subjects such as the drayman’s cart with two horses in Brick Lane.

So here they are, four Spitalfields dioramas for your delight! Who can give them a home?

Click this picture to enlarge the diorama of Petticoat Lane

At the Truman Brewery Brick Lane, looking north.

The barroom of The Bell

The cellar of The Bell.

Glyn Roberts, landlord of The Bell.

The Bell in the 1930s.

You may like to read these other Petticoat Lane stories

Postcards from Petticoat Lane

Dennis Anthony’s Photographs of Petticoat Lane

Laurie Allen of Petticoat Lane

Irene & Ivan Kingsley, Market Traders of Petticoat Lane

Henry Jones, Jones Dairy

and see Robson Cezar’s bottle top pictures on the exterior of The Bell.

Robson Cezar, King of the Bottletops.

30 Responses leave one →
  1. March 13, 2012

    Oh! I do hope a new home is offered: somewhere public we can all visit. I love all those intimate detail of real people living their very different lives. Please let us know if and when it finds somewhere permanent to live.

  2. March 13, 2012

    They are marvellous. You would think takers would be queuing up for them. I do hope they find a public setting. They were made to be seen!

  3. Lynn Jackson permalink
    March 13, 2012

    Have you tried the Toy museum in Bethnal Green, they would look great there and could be seen.

  4. Tina West permalink
    March 13, 2012

    These are wonderful – I can’t understand why they can’t be on show in the pub – they’d make a very interesting talking point.

  5. Tara Bradford permalink
    March 13, 2012

    What a fantastic find! Thanks for sharing these images here.

  6. March 13, 2012

    Yes, I had also wondered whether Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood might be interested. Or, even The Bishopsgate Institute (though I imagine you’ve already thought of them)

  7. March 13, 2012

    Obviously it would be nice if they could go on display in the area, but perhaps the best permanent home for them would be the Museum of London.

  8. March 13, 2012

    Amazing! How about the Museum of London? Or somewhere within Spitalfields Market?

  9. March 13, 2012

    Love the attention to detail, even the funnel in the cellar for recycling the slops into the mild ale!

    If the reforged Truman’s beer company finds a site for their planned new brewery in the East End in the next few years, I bet they’d eventually love to have something like this on show at the reception desk.

  10. JerryW permalink
    March 13, 2012

    Golly, they are beautifully done, aren’t they?
    And how wonderful that even in those far-off days, the pub needed a busty blonde behind the bar..

  11. March 13, 2012

    These are wonderful. They remind me a bit of the dioramas they used to have in the Victoria & Albert museum, when I was a kid (more years ago than I care to remember!) I agree to Toy Museum might be good, but wouldn’t they be better in the Museum of London?

  12. March 13, 2012

    Wow…they’re wonderful…something for the Museum of London?

  13. Terry M permalink*
    March 13, 2012

    What an amazing find, I cannot believe that there are no takers for this.
    It’s a slice of life better than a photograph.
    I hope it is kept for posterity preferably by the Bishopsgate Institute
    or the Museum of London.
    Ohh and if only the Pie & Mash shop was still there………..

  14. March 13, 2012

    I remember when they used to be set behind glass, set into the walls of the cellar bar. We were amazed to find them down there and the care that had been taken in getting them right (that diorama view down Brick Lane is spot on.) Truman seemed to be one of the prouder London brewers. The Museum Of London has so much stuff in storage (and so little display space even in the reworked building) that I fear they wouldn’t go on public view if donated. The TH local History Library or perhaps The Ragged School Museum would seem far better places, where they might be more valued – but not the awful Spitalfields Market as a touch of Cockney colour please!

  15. TeaDrinkingGeek permalink
    March 13, 2012

    A really lovely find!

    Beautiful!

  16. Judy permalink*
    March 13, 2012

    Dear Gentle Author,

    Your articles never cease to delight!

    My grandmother used to stand in one of the London markets selling nylon stockings (can’t remember which one – it was in the 60s) and my dad was a market trader in the North of England, so these artifacts are of special delight to me!!

    I hope you will find a really good home for them!

    Thanks so much!

    Judy

  17. Stefan Dickers permalink
    March 13, 2012

    Hi all,

    Just to let you know, the diorama has been viewed, fallen in love with and will be coming to live at Bishopsgate Institute. We have a Conservation Assistant/Doll’s House enthusiast who will be sprucing it up and doing repairs where needed. It will then be on show in the Main Library of the Institute where everyone can come and see it during Library opening hours. We will even try and get the electric lighting in the pub dioramas up and working!

    They are just wonderful!

    Stefan
    Bishopsgate Institute

  18. Vicky permalink
    March 13, 2012

    Hurrah for the Bishopsgate Institute!

  19. March 13, 2012

    Hooray for Stefan, the Conservation Assistant/Doll’s House enthusiast and working lights!

  20. Ros permalink
    March 13, 2012

    What a happy ending to this story. And what more effective broker than Spitalfields Life?

  21. Betsy Rubin permalink
    March 14, 2012

    I would love to down a bottle of Drink Me and shrink so small that I could visit this tiny world. Once Bishopsgate Institute has spruced it up, maybe I will!

  22. PPMarra permalink
    March 14, 2012

    HOORAY hooray for Bishopsgate Institute! These dioramas are fabulous! So glad they have a permanent home. I am ecstatic.

  23. Judy permalink
    March 14, 2012

    Just came back in to see what had transpired – Overjoyed that the Bishopsgate Inst. has adopted them and will make every effort to visit there next time I am in the UK!!!!

  24. March 14, 2012

    By chance, we held the History in the Pub event upstairs at the Bell last night and were able to view one of the dioramas. By a staggering coincidence, one of our speakers turned out to be the great, great grandson of the publican who ran the Bell around the time depicted in the dioramas. It was one of those spooky confluences of people and places.

  25. CHC permalink
    March 15, 2012

    Wonderful “end” to this story!!! So happy, always, to visit this site and see the spirit of community Spitalfields Life has created — no matter how far from the East End we live. As always, my thanks to The Gentle Author!

  26. Simon Rooks permalink
    March 16, 2012

    …and re Matt Brown’s comment, I am that great, great great grandson! Ellen Gerken, a widow whose family were also in the trade I believe married John Bremer – also of a local pub-running family and they ran the Bell for about 30 years from 1840. I’ve more research to do, but I believe other pubs I might be connected with include The White Horse in Middlesex St/Petticoat Lane, The Cherry Tree in Back Church Lane and The King’s Arms in Fieldgate St.

    Amazing coincident to be invited to speak at the London Historians event there and to see one of these fascinating dioramas.

    er, Cheers all.

  27. March 17, 2012

    Great news! Thanks, Bishopsgate Institute!

  28. Chris Mills permalink
    March 17, 2012

    To: The Bishopsgate Institute: customers, guvner or which? I am not sure.

  29. TokyoDon permalink
    March 21, 2012

    Nice one, Stefan – and nice one, GA!

  30. Penny Wolswinkel permalink
    July 11, 2012

    This was not the only pub in Petticoat Lane – my ancestor James Dubock (1804-1846)Licensed Victualler of the “Coach & Horses” 129 Petticoat Lane. Which he took over c 1833 on his death his wife remained until her death in 1854 when her brother in law continued, George Johnston.
    Records date to the ‘Coach & Horses’ being there from 1772
    Wish I had a diorama of that !

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