Fire At Crescent Trading
Philip Pittack & Martin White, cloth merchants – “We’re destroyed here!”
“A lifetime’s work has gone up in smoke” declared Philip Pittack, standing in the ruin of the Quaker St premises where he operated Spitalfields’ last cloth warehouse with his partner Martin White, until the recent conflagration. Just two years ago, Philip & Martin were forced to move their business, Crescent Trading, from the old stable across the road and they set themselves up again in their new premises with all their cherished fabrics neatly arranged in metal racks stretching up to the ceiling. Celebrated equally for their ceaseless repartee and their extraordinary bargains, this new calamity is a cruel blow for these two popular gentlemen who, between them, possess over one hundred and twenty years of experience in the trade.
When I received Philip’s emotional phone message, I went round next morning to discover the warehouse flooded and a hole in the roof at the rear where the fire started. Just the night before, Philip recalled – savouring the tender memory – he and Martin had been celebrating at the Mansion House in the City of London, where designs by a student they sponsored were the centrepiece of an evening promoting British wool. Yet next morning, Philip woke to news of a different sort.
“I got a call at 7:45 from the manager of City Electrical next door to say there had been a fire. ‘You’d better get down here,’ he said.” Philip told me, taking a seat in his office in spite of the pool of water covering the floor,“Obviously, I was in shock but I got dressed, jumped in the car and flew down here. Coming along Grey Eagle St, I saw the back door hanging off and smoke billowing out and I felt sick. The manager of City Electrical said, ‘You’ve had a big, big, fire.’ and I said, ‘I don’t want to go in,’ but he guided me through the entrance that had been cut in the door by the firemen and I fell to my knees. I couldn’t speak for an hour, I was so shocked. He gave me a glass of water but I couldn’t drink it I was shaking so much. Then Martin arrived and we just sat and looked at the devastation.”
Even in such circumstances, Philip & Martin managed to retain their dignity and their dapper appearances – Philip in a fine Guernsey sweater, and Martin swathed in a silk scarf and with his monocle swinging. “It took four of us all day to get the water out and we ruined our ordinary shoes, so Martin went over to Blackmans in Cheshire St but they had sold out of Wellingtons and he came back in these designer boots.” continued Philip, with Martin leaning on the doorpost modelling the fancy footwear in question, “Fortunately, by the time I got there the delivery of Wellington boots had arrived.”
An electric fire appears to be the cause of the fire which, mercifully, was restricted to the corner of the warehouse, although heat caused the roof to buckle and smoke filled the whole building, permeating the precious rolls of fine suitings and silks. “We’ve had customers coming in and they’ve gone out crying, saying, ‘What are we going to do now?’” Philip confessed to me, wringing his hands in contemplation of the question. This is the beauty of Crescent Trading. There is a joyous rapport that exists between Philip & Martin and the fashion students and young designers who come to discover fabrics and be inspired, delighting in the knowledge and experience on offer that is always dispensed with wit and levity. It is a human exchange that is cultural as much as it is commercial, and it makes all parties happy.
Facing such a disaster at this point in their careers, many would expect Philip & Martin to retire. Yet I am delighted to report that their spirit is stronger than this. Both worked a lifetime as cloth merchants and come from families that have been in the trade for generations. As soon as it can achieved, they plan to repair the building, clean out the premises and restock. As the last cloth warehouse in Spitalfields, a place that for centuries was filled with cloth warehouses, we need them to carry the living history of the textile industry here.
“We’ve been knocked down, but we will get up again and we’ll be back,” Martin assured me.
Martin White “I could easily get depressed but I’m not a miserable person.”
Philip Pittack - “I was in a terrible state for three days.”
Philip & Martin in happier times.
If you would like to buy any of Crescent Trading’s stock of fabric call 0207 377 5067
You may like to read my earlier stories about Crescent Trading