Aaron Biber, London’s Oldest Barber
Aaron Biber has been cutting hair for seventy-eight years and he still uses the same blue steel scissors that his father gave him when he began at twelve years old, which he sharpens himself. At ninety years old, Aaron works six days a week at his tiny salon in Tottenham, waking each morning at four, driving the five minute journey from his home in Chingford and opening up the salon from six until midday.
After all this time, Aaron cannot retire because he knows nothing else. “Three doctors have told me, I would be dead within two months if I stopped,” he admitted with a helpless smile,“I can’t stop at home because my wife passed away after seventy years of marriage.”
For more than forty years, Aaron’s business was a going concern in Tottenham until one morning last summer, shortly after his wife died, when he arrived for work to discover a crowd of two hundred, including eighty interviewers outside his barber’s shop. The rioters had destroyed Aaron’s salon and he found himself at the centre of an international media storm. “I was on TV all over the world, Canada, Vietnam, Australia, Germany, Japan …” he recalled in bemusement, “And the Archbishop of Canterbury, Boris Johnson and Prince Charles, they all came to see me.”
But today, although his salon has been restored thanks to donations from an internet campaign, Aaron’s customers – many of whom had been coming for decades from all over London – have disappeared. On Monday this week, Aaron had one customer and on Tuesday also only one customer. No wonder he was delighted when I walked through the door at the end of the morning yesterday, on a day that had been a total blank, to interrupt his melancholic discourse with his pal Richard. “I’ve been cutting his hair since he was a baby,” declared Aaron to me, by way of introduction, with an affectionately dismissive flick of the wrist in the direction of his friend. A gesture reciprocated by Richard with a nod of confirmation and a loyal smile.
“They took everything, even my kettle and my chairs!” explained Aaron casting his eyes around at his memories of the destruction, “Luckily, I always carry my scissors with me, so they were safe at home.” Lesser men would be defeated what happened, but Aaron’s experience of life has granted him a sense of proportion which permits a degree of equanimity.
Aaron’s mother and father both came as refugees to the East End from Poland in the eighteen nineties. “My mother grew up on the farm, and the Russians used to ride through the village on horseback and knock people to the ground as they passed,” Aaron informed me, “My father killed a copper who assaulted him and he ran to England to escape.”
“When I was around ten years old, my mother moved out from Myrdle St where we lived because my dad wouldn’t give her a penny. She took all the children – nine sons and four daughters – to Coke St off Commercial Rd near the Bell Foundry. We went to the Jewish Board of Guardians to get an iron token for the soup kitchen, and we got bread and pilchards and kosher margarine. We used to go round the streets searching for money and once we found half a crown, we bought two salt beef sandwiches and had one shilling and eightpence left.
We had to work because we were starving. When I was ten, I went across the road to work for Mr Cohen making beigels for sixpence and then I weighed out sugar for his wife in the shop next door for tuppence, so I had eightpence. I used to wash down the horses, Ginger & Tubby, for Barney Dan, he had a cart and went round delivering stuff. He took me down to Covent Garden. I can tell you all about Covent Garden because I met my wife there, her father Alex Simmons, he designed all the sets for the theatres. I took a room in Tavistock St on the first floor, full of lads cutting hair. Later, I had a place in Hanbury St opposite the market in Spitalfields and I cut all the porters’ hair.
I cut hair for the police for fifty years, they wanted to make me a policeman at seventeen but my father said, ‘No, you don’t!’ I cut the hair for the flying squad for twenty-five years. Everyone wanted me because I cut hair properly. We used to have the police lined up outside the shop, there was a shortage of barbers.
We had all nationalities down in Cable St, Italians, Spanish, Maltese, Ghanese. I picked up all the languages. I can still speak Ghanese. We had the High Commissioner of Ghana come for a hair cut. Everyone got on and we all used to help each other out. I remember the Battle of Cable St, I was by the Royal Mint and the dockers came out of the dock to stop Mosley. I went to one of his rallies in Victoria Park to have a look but my mother warned me, she said, ‘They’ll kill you.’
During the war I was guarding Tower Bridge when Winston Churchill came along and said to me, ‘Shoot any parachutists you see coming down.’ I said, ‘What if they are ours?’ They showed me where they expected me to sleep and I said, ‘Forget it, I’m going home to my mother.’
I could have gone on the Queen Mary to America, cutting hair. There was this bloke in the docks, he said, ‘I’ll fix you up get you a job there, all you have got to do is give me a hundred pounds later.’ Most of the barbers from the East End went to America. My brother Ben opened a salon in Times Sq, but I couldn’t go because I was my mother’s blue-eyed boy, her favourite. She said, ‘No, not with them German submarines you’re not going.’ I never had any children. My mother told me, ‘It’s too much trouble.’”
If you want to have an unforgettable haircut by London’s oldest barber, and hear more stories, and experience Aaron’s barber shop wisdom, and get your locks trimmed with the seventy-eight year old blue steel scissors given to Aaron when he was twelve, head up to Tottenham. No appointment is necessary. Aaron Biber is sitting in the tiny salon waiting for you to walk through the door.
I appeal to my readers to show the spirit that has always characterised the East End, we’ve all got to pull together to keep Aaron cutting.
“Everyone wanted me because I cut hair properly.”
Aaron cuts hair in Cable St in 194o.
“The Archbishop of Canterbury, Boris Johnson and Prince Charles, they all came to see me.”
Aaron outside his salon in St Anne’s Rd in the nineteen fifties.
“I cut the hair for the flying squad for twenty-five years.”
The blue steel scissors given to Aaron by his father seventy-eight years ago when Aaron was twelve years old, wrapped in a nineteen forties linen towel.
“I can still speak Ghanese.”
Aaron’s pal Richard - “I’ve been cutting his hair since he was a baby.”
Aaron’s brother Ben (left) outside his salon in Times Sq, New York.
Aaron’s salon in Tottenham.
“Three doctors have told me, I would be dead within two months if I stopped.”
Visit Aaron Biber’s Gentlemen’s Hairdressing, 22 Scotland Green, Tottenham, N17 9TT
Watch a film by Mareka Carter of Aaron Biber talking by clicking here
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