Together We Are Stronger
Click to enlarge Martin Usborne’s photograph
These are the founder members of The East End Trades Guild who gathered at Christ Church, Spitalfields, on Monday night to summon their new organisation into being and speak collectively on behalf of all independent and proprietor-run businesses in the East End.
The church was full and the sense of anticipation immense as trumpets sounded in a fanfare from the gallery, resounding throughout Nicholas Hawksmoor’s masterpiece of English baroque, to announce the arrival of this bold endeavour.
Nevio Pellicci, the East End’s most celebrated host, his dark eyes shining with eagerness and looking flash in a three-piece suit, stepped up to the microphone to welcome everyone by revealing that among the many things the small traders had in common, they could be proud of the fact that none were registered in Luxembourg. He was greeted by a cheer worthy of a rock star.
Then came a slide show of the members’ portraits – the work of the Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographers - projected onto a big screen and accompanied by a ukulele orchestra courtesy of the Duke of Uke. As the sequence accumulated, spontaneous cheers and applause broke out among the audience when favourites came up, with the loudest cheer reserved for Paul Gardner of Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen. The cumulative effect of so many pictures was quite overwhelming, to observe the infinite variety of small businesses in the East End. And in the premiere of Sebastian Sharples’ eloquent film “We are the Beating Heart of the East End” that followed, we saw members in their work places speaking of their hopes for the Guild.
As the opening speaker of the evening, Paul Gardner brought the house down by suggesting to the assembly,“I’m sure most of you are here just for the novelty of seeing me in a suit!” The Founder of the Guild, Paul had been shaking hands with guests as they arrived and now he recounted the history of his family business in Spitalfields commencing with his great-grandfather James, a Scalemaker, in 1870.
Two years ago, an unrealistic rent demand threatened to put Paul out of business yet the public outcry after my story about this – which caused the landlord to reconsider – became the catalyst for the formation of the Guild. Paul spoke candidly of his own sense of vulnerability as a sole trader and of the struggles experienced by his devoted customers who are all small businesses. In speaking of the Guild, Paul described the elation he felt after attending the first meetings this year and many in the audience nodded their heads in recognition, acknowledging the camaraderie which the Guild has already fostered among the traders.
Next, Henry Jones of Jones Brothers’ Dairy and Shanaz Khan of Chaat Bangladeshi Tea House shared the platform. Born above the shop, Henry Jones told how his great grandfather and namesake drove the cattle from Aberystwyth in 1877 to start the dairy in Middlesex St. Surviving two World Wars and the bombings in the City of London, Henry had to reinvent Jones Bros as a wholesale supplier when supermarkets and chainstores took away his domestic business, and he spoke of the need for independents to share information and to speak with the authority of a collective voice.
Shanaz Khan had a slightly different story to tell. Like Henry, she grew up above the family business which in her case was an Indian restaurant. Yet, although she only came to the East End ten years ago, she was equally enthusiastic about the opportunity she has found here, and spoke of her commitment to use local suppliers and employ local people. When Shanaz opened up Chaat away from the curry houses of Brick Lane, it seemed a pioneering move, but the fashionability of Redchurch St in recent years – bringing in luxury brands – has led to a punishing rent increase which is, in effect, a penalty for her hard work and success.
Drawing from these personal experiences, it fell to Shanaz to outline the intentions of the Guild – developing campaigns, giving voice to small businesses, creating a network for the members to share information and trade, offering advice, and building the local economy. Her passionate speech was the heartfelt climax of proceedings, and then it was time for Martin Usborne to climb up his step ladder and take the formal group photo that signified the founding of the Guild.
Afterwards, we quaffed Truman’s Beer accompanied by food from Leila’s Cafe, and cakes by Violet Cakes and Morena Bakery, and beigels from Brick Lane Beigel Bakery, and there was euphoria in the air. As I walked through the excited throng where many traders were meeting each other for the first time, I could hear snatches of conversation. There was a lively discussion of the issues that need to be addressed, especially rents and council tax, but I also heard them saying, “I could supply you with that,” and “If you need those I’ve got them in stock.” There was a collective dynamic at work in the room as the traders followed their instincts, discovering ways they could help each other and – in that moment – I realised the Guild existed and had its own life.
Event photographs © Simon Mooney
Group photograph © Martin Usborne
Archive photograph courtesy Bishopsgate Institute