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At London’s Oldest Ironmongers

May 18, 2013
by the gentle author

The frontage at 493-495 Hackney Rd is unchanged to this day.

The factory at the rear of the shop remains just as in this engraving.

London’s oldest ironmongers opened for business in 1797 as Presland & Sons, became W.H. Clark Ltd in the eighteen-nineties and still trades from the same location, over two hundred years later, as Daniel Lewis & Son Ltd – The One Stop Metal Shop. Operating at first from a wooden shack built around 1760, they constructed their own purpose-built shop and factory at the beginning of the nineteenth century, which suited their needs so perfectly that – in an astonishing and rare survival – it stands almost unaltered today.

This is architecture of such a utilitarian elegance and lack of ostentation that it does not draw attention to itself. I had no idea there was a complete Georgian shopfront in the Hackney Rd until David Lewis, the proprietor, pointed it out to me and I compared it to the illustration above. Remarkably, even the decorative coloured-glass lozenge above the door is there today exactly as in the engraving.

When contributing photographer Simon Mooney & I went along to explore, we were amazed to discover a unique complex of buildings that carries two centuries of history of industry in the East End, with many original items of nineteenth century hardware still in stock.

“We were here before the canal, the railway and the docks,” David Lewis informed us proudly,“When the Prince Regent banned horses from being stabled in the city, this area became the centre of the carriage and coach-building industry.” An ironmonger with a lyrical tendency, David will remind you that Cambridge Heath Rd was once a heath, that Bishop Bonnar once built his mansion on this land before the Reformation and that an oval duckpond once existed where the Oval industrial estate stands today behind his premises – all in introduction to the wonders of his personal domain which has been here longer than anything else around.

You enter from the street into the double-height shop, glazed with floor-to-ceiling windows and lined to the roof with meticulously-labelled wooden pigeon-holes, built-in as part of the original architecture. A winding stair leads you into the private offices and you discover beautiful bow-fronted rooms, distinguishing the rear of the terrace that extends two storeys above, offering ample staff quarters.  On one side, is an eccentric, suspended office extension built in 1927 and constructed with panelling and paint supplied by the Great Western Railway, who were customers. This eyrie serves as David’s private den, where he sits smoking at a vast nineteenth century desk surrounded by his collection of custom number plates, all spelling Lewis in different configurations of numbers and letters.

A ramp down from the shop leads to the rear, past cellars lined with pigeon-holes constructed of the flexo-metal plywood that was the source of the company’s wealth for decades. At the back, is a long factory building with three forges for manufacturing ironwork where you can feel the presence of many people in the richness of patina created by all the those who worked here through the last two centuries. Occasionally, David paused and, in delight, pulled out boxes full of brass fixtures and iron bolts necessary for nineteenth century carriage building. Upstairs, he showed us an arcane machine for attaching metal rims to wagon wheels, essential when the streets of London went from dirt to cobbles in the nineteenth century.

To the left of the factory, stands a long cobbled shed where the carriages came in for repair, and beneath a slab flows a stream and there are stones of the Roman road that ran through here. In the layers of gloss paint and the accumulation of old things, in the signs and the ancient graffiti, in the all the original fixtures and fittings, these wonderful buildings speak eloquently of their industrial past. Yet for David they contain his family history too.

“My dad was Lewis Daniel John Lewis, he was known as Lewis Lewis and his father was also known as Lewis Lewis. It went back to my great-great-great-great- grandfather and my father wanted me to be Lewis Lewis too but my mum wasn’t having it, so I am David Richard Lewis. I first came here with my dad as a nipper, when I was four or five years old, on Saturday mornings while he did the books. I played with all the nuts and bolts, and I was curious to see what was in all the boxes. And I used to run up and down the ramp, I was fascinated by it. I’ve learnt that it’s there because the Hackney Rd follows a natural ridge and there were once mushroom fields on either side at a lower level.

My dad started at W.H.Clark in 1948 as a young boy of fifteen, he had already studied book-keeping and he was taken on as an office junior. At eight years old, it was discovered he was diabetic when he was found lying on the pavement here in Hackney Rd, where my grandparents had a grocer and dairy. He always had to have insulin injections after that. He was tall, six foot one, and a little skinny because he didn’t have much of an appetite – except for chocolate biscuits which he shouldn’t have had, but he enjoyed them with a cup of tea.

He learnt the trade and he worked his way up to office manager. Then, in 1970, one of the partners retired and the other suffered a tragedy and turned to drink and became unsteady. So my grandfather bought the business for my father in 1971 and he took over the directorship of the company. He already knew how to run the business and he set out to build the company up with new customers – he got St Paul’s Cathedral as a customer and we still supply them.

Our biggest selling product was flexo-metal plywood, we had the exclusive distribution contract and we supplied it to the coach-building industry across the entire South-East of England for the construction of buses, coaches, lorries and trucks. They used to pull up outside with vehicles that had no body, no cab – just the engine and a chassis with the driver sitting on a tin bucket. They bought flexo-metal plywood to build the body and we could supply them with a windscreen, lights, chains for tailboards, everything – all the components. Any time I see a van in a fifties or sixties film, it is one of ours. At that time, we employed eighteen people.

I joined in 1992. I went to college and did business studies and I wanted to prove to my dad that I could do it on my own. I became a trademark lawyer, working for the Trademarks Consortium in Pall Mall that protected the trademarking for brands like Cadburys, Bass, Tesco and Schweppes. I’ve always been fascinated by labels because of looking at all the different trademarks on the boxes of screws here and I collect custom number plates.

When the business that supplied flexo-metal plywood went to the wall, my father employed Peter Sandrock who used to run it. He was approached by many global companies because he was a genius mathematician who could do figures in his head, but he wanted to work for my dad because they always got on well and would help each other. He worked for my dad for ten years until 1992 and that’s when I came in, just after I got married.

I started as an office junior like my dad but I found it boring because I had already done other things. So I said, ‘Can I go down and serve behind the counter?’ but he said, ‘You haven’t got the build to carry steel.’ I surprised him by developing muscles and soon I could do it with ease – I’ve got broad shoulders now when I didn’t use to have.

When I was made a director, all the carriage-building trade was moving up north, so I refocused the company towards aluminium and steel supply to metal fabricators, architects and sculptors. But in recent years, due to installation of cctv cameras and the council issuing £130 fines to our customers while picking up orders, our trade has dropped by fifty per cent. We have two to three hundred customers a day and I reckon the council have earned £63,000 a year in fines out of them and so, in a few months, after two centuries of business in this location, we are going to move from here .

It was in 2002, I changed the name of the company from W.H.Clark Ltd, who had been a Mayor of Hackney in the nineteenth century, to Daniel Lewis & Son Ltd, in memory of my father. I am the son.”

Nineteenth century storage filled with nineteenth century carriage fittings in the factory.

The enamel sign that was taken down from the frontage in 2002.

This is the cobbled workshop where the carriages were wheeled in for repair.

The ceiling in the storeroom is lined with timber painted with nineteenth century sign-writing.

Carriage bolts are still in stock.

The wooden pigeon-holes stretch to the ceiling in the double-height shop and are contemporary with the building.

Daniel Lewis & Son Ltd has collets in stock – pins used for attaching cartwheels to the shaft.

David in the factory building.

Bert left to in 1962 Good By

Machine for applying metal rims to cartwheels in the factory.

A threading machine in the factory.

This brick was laid by “Ole Bill” 1927 RIP

View towards the bonded warehouse of the Chandlers & Wiltshire Brewery – burnt out in World War II, it is London’s last bombsite and a memorial to the Blitz in the East End.

A display of Nettlefolds screws wired to a board in a gilt-crested frame that was displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

The glass over the entrance is part of the original design of the building, dating from the early nineteenth century

Packaging for hinged metal indicator lights, still in stock.

Keep this door shut.

The crackle on the office wall is authentic, achieved by age, not a paint effect.

The name of W.H.Clark impressed upon a carriage shaft manufactured in the forge.

Before 1920, no road vehicle was permitted to travel at more than 20mph and had a plate attached to this effect – Daniel Lewis & Son Ltd has them in stock today.

The Ascot water heater in David’s office is fully-functional.

The shop with the ramp going down towards the factory at the back.

The steps from the shop going up to the office.

David Lewis at his desk in the rear office lined with panelling and paint supplied by the Great Western Railway.

Photographs copyright © Simon Mooney

The One Stop Metal Shop, Daniel Lewis & Son Ltd, 493-495 Hackney Rd, E2 9ED

You may like to read about these other East End hardware shops

At General Woodwork Supplies

At M&G Ironmongery & Hardware

At KTS, The Corner

At Embassy Electrical Supplies

17 Responses leave one →
  1. sprite permalink
    May 18, 2013

    a-MAZE-ing!

    I bought a strong iron chain once, from that shop in the early 80s to chain my bicycle to the railings of the London Hospital, strong enough to pull lorries; the bike got stolen all the same! It took a long time to be served as they were not used to see girls (customers arriving after me were served first) and I felt I had stepped into a world of men. As Hackney road has been changing over the last decades, I’ve often glanced at the shop, marvelling that it was still there and glad of it.
    So very sad it is now coming to an end… and never having realized how far back in history it went. Now to hear about the flowers, fields and duckponds that once made up our landscape is truly amazing!
    Thanks for that post.

  2. Vicky permalink
    May 18, 2013

    Yet another business hounded out by the council.

    What a glorious building, made so much richer by its original furnishings, machinery and parts. A living museum and modern business all in one. How sad it’s to be split apart. Thank you for telling us about David Lewis, his family and those who went before him.

    Of course the next question will be ‘What will Hackney Council allow to happen to this building’? This will be interesting!

  3. Peter Holford permalink
    May 18, 2013

    And what will become of this fantastic piece of social history when the business relocates? There are similar places in Birmingham that English Heritage were only too willing to conserve and open to the public. There have been too many instances of fine country houses being stripped of their furnishings before being ‘saved’. This is no different – it needs to be preserved intact while ensuring that David gets the market price for it.

  4. May 18, 2013

    Enjoyed this. I am now a fan.

  5. Barbara permalink
    May 18, 2013

    Another one of the East Ends hidden treasures captured by G.A before it disappears. I wonder what will happen to that amazing building ? Surely all that history can’t be converted into flats? Brilliant post, thanks once again.

  6. Elaine Napier permalink
    May 18, 2013

    Oh, what a shame that it has to go for a reason as stupid as parking fines. The Council should give them a free car parking space and make it a historic site in the borough. I love these old ironmongery shops. We’re fortunate to have one in the town where I live – still has two working cast iron stoves which heat the shop in winter, and sells single screws in twists of paper. Has everything from brackets to cake decorating stuff. Such places are really fascinating treasure houses as well as being able to find everything you need, as well as things you never knew you did.

  7. Gary permalink
    May 18, 2013

    What a fantastic place, all of that history. What a disgrace that it is being driven away by stupid parking (aka moneymaking) policies by the council.
    At least it will survive in another location, unlike mine which will have to go.
    Gary

  8. Heather Dyer permalink
    May 18, 2013

    I cannot believe that this ironmongers with such a rich history is being forced to close because of the parking problems.

    Surely something can be done by negotiation with the council (Hackney I think). It cannot be advantageous for this business to be forced to close for a reason which I think could be surmounted.

    How about another campaign along the lines of the pub which the Geffrye Museum wished to demolish. You were successful in getting that decision reversed.

    This is such a historic site with a flourishing business still functioning – for them to move IS A SCANDAL.

    Furthermore, I go cold thinking that all of this history could be lost if developers take it over.
    If the business is intent on moving – how about turning this into a museum celebrating the history of Hackney Road etc.

    And the last remaining bomb site – that should definitely be preserved as a site of historic significance.

    Heather Dyer

  9. 'liza Hardy permalink
    May 18, 2013

    How sad. This is somewhere that should be supported and preserved as a working (and viable) museum instead of being forced to move. The Council responsible for the fines should be totally ashamed of itself. I thought the idea was to ENCOURAGE business both in London and in the UK not to banish it.

  10. Pollyanna permalink
    May 18, 2013

    A wonderful read. What will happen to the building when David Lewis leaves? Next time I am in London, it will be a destination location for me. Absolutely.

  11. julie permalink
    May 18, 2013

    A wonderful post, it has everything. Really outstanding research,writing and pictures.

  12. Paula PM permalink
    May 18, 2013

    So sad.

  13. Jane B permalink
    May 18, 2013

    SO WHAT DO YOU / ‘WE’ THINK NEEDS TO BE DONE
    TO SAVE AND/OR HONOUR THIS 200-YEAR OLD BUSINESS?…

    it’s stock, it’s ‘social capital’, it’s history, it’s legacy, it’s future viability, it’s rightful successor

    – 20-mph Speed-Limit campaign [for the Greater Spitalfields area]
    “we now know where to get some very distinctive ‘campaign registration badges’ that the car and carriage drivers of our day can elect to display in solidarity – to indicate that even when ‘motorised’ they still recognise the benefits of a 20-mph limit to pedestrians, cyclists, residents and shopkeepers too!”

    – more trade parking on and around Hackney Road [and more support for 'main road businesses' generally]
    “whether our ironmonger of old and of choice would want to stay if ‘we’ sorted out i) parking with LBH…”

    – a website for the ‘nuts and bolts’ aspect of the business
    “moving some of any pre-orderable business online, by perhaps helping to design an online Etsy-esque shop lined with wall-to-ceiling e-pigeonholes”

    – a Carriage-boot Sale (stock clearance)
    “to keep a whole truck load of history, in bits, in the area of it’s ‘glory days’ or at least in the hands of those who sense it’s value. Out-moded it may be but not out of fashion or out of place, not in E1 or N1, not with all it’s potential to be re-imagined and evolved”

    – registration of “Assets of Community Value” (under the Localism Act 2011)
    “councils ‘everywhere’, across the city and land, are encouraging people to help them and therefore themselves by adding everything from village halls to car parks to the official Community Assets register.”

    – a Geffrye Museum-led skills-training workshop (…for their sins! — ‘living history’…however much we might not like the expression or it’s expression in this context!) “…somewhere where the Geffrye could develop a whole new reputation and ‘income stream’ by establishing a site for artisan workshops and ‘apprenticeship space’ …After all this is the craftsmanship that the Geffrye rightly sets out with immense pride, and authority, on the museum floor, and yet does so without really educating people… in terms of what really made ‘the trades that made’…”

    – a Geffrye-friendly project listing all the local [non-domestic] interiors of note
    “from Pellici’s of Bethnal Green Road to Lewis’ of Hackney Road…this is where and how the Museum could be spending their money and in the process properly making amends, not least with their founding forebears if not their own contemporary curatorial consciences”

    More thoughts below, not least for any one who wants to get thinking and doing — and might just have a few more thoughts of their own to share :-)

    “Before 1920, no road vehicle was permitted to travel at more than 20mph and had a plate attached to this effect – Daniel Lewis & Son Ltd has them in stock today.”

    …which means that 100 years on, if as a community of residents and businesses stretching ever wider across the Hackney and City borders we ever wanted to try and extend L.B. Islington’s pioneering legislation of a 20mph speed limit to at least all the back streets of ‘the greater Spitalfields’ (thereby challenging between now and 2020, LBTH’s preference for ’30mph mostly’) we now know where to get some very distinctive ‘campaign registration badges’ that the car and carriage drivers of our day can elect to display in solidarity – to indicate that even when ‘motorised’ they still recognise the benefits of a 20-mph limit to pedestrians, cyclists, residents and shopkeepers too!

    OK so those early twentieth-century regulation plates may not be ‘tea-towel quality’ and Adam-Dant-drawn, or old enough to have ever been ‘horse-drawn’ or anything other than the work of an artist unknown, but they can still give us a sense of place and purpose, belonging and ‘better times’ (yet to come and/or soon to return!) – so won’t we be wise to make use of them :-) In fact by salvaging this aspect of the Son’s stock we show that we know, at least to some extent, the value of what has gone before, willingly following in its footsteps and wheel ruts in order to bring history into the present, to it’s enrichment if not its rescue :-) I’d actually want to believe, and assert, that we honour both Mr Dant and Mr Lewis Jnr and Senior by putting the best of the past to good use, in whatever shape or form it exists, be that tangible or intangible, limited edition or once abundantly mass-produced.

    But of course in this case our source is sadly only going to be around for another “few months”. News that invites the most urgent question of whether our ironmonger of old and of choice would want to stay if ‘we’ were able to sort out (at David Lewis’ request!) … i) parking with LBH – perhaps by way of a couple of 20-minute loading bays somewhere nearby even if not on Hackney Road (we could even use the ‘regulation 20′ badges for this campaigning effort too!) ii) a pick-up point ‘annex’ with dispatch counter (and roof!) – away from the main site on a nearby back-street iii) moving some of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of any pre-orderable business online, by perhaps helping to design an online, trade-focussed Etsy-esque shop lined with wall-to-ceiling e-pigeonholes (any or all of which may of course have been discussed in-house, in private, already, but I’d like to find out)

    I’d certainly be very interested to know what business is expected to be moving into 493 Hackney Road and if it’s not going to be a business…

    Is this site – with it’s early 19th century fixtures and examples of bespoke early and mid 20th-century additions – worth listing, not so much with English Heritage but, in keeping with the whole spirit of Spitalfields and it’s ‘Life’, as an “Asset of Community Value” (under the Localism Act 2011)
    http://www.theplacestation.org.uk/what

    Oh yes locals all, here and hereabouts… Part 5 Chapter 3 of the Localism Act – ‘The Assets of Community Value (England) Regulations 2012. This was something that I was going to bring up in conversation when we had a certain ‘local’ to save, even though the Marquis of Lansdowne (the pub rather than person!) wouldn’t have actually sat that comfortably within the Localism legislation, in quite the same way that other hostelries do and have. The fact is however that councils ‘everywhere’, across the city and land, are encouraging people to help them and therefore themselves by adding everything from village halls to car parks to the official Community Assets register.

    Alternatively, maybe we could now suggest to our old friends (and new ones!) at the Geffrye Museum that as well as there being a Geffrye-friendly project to be done, listing all the local interiors of note – from Pellici’s of Bethnal Green Road to Lewis’ of Hackney Road – 493-95 Hackney Road is actually where and how the Museum could be spending their money and in the process properly making amends, not least with their founding forebears if not their own curatorial consciences :-)

    Small businesses aside – them having stepped aside rather than been pushed – I would want to suggest that the Lewis & Son site would seem to be ‘ideal’ in so many ways (not least location, condition and history) as an off-site and very much in situ ‘living education space’. This being somewhere where the Geffrye could ‘live lightly’ in a pre-existing albeit sensitively renovated and evolved space and develop a whole new reputation and ‘income stream’ (a highly positive one) by establishing a site for artisan workshops and ‘apprenticeship space’ and becoming known for and indeed expert in passing on the trade and craft skills ‘of place’, of both the historical near East End and the present-day. After all this is the craftsmanship that the Geffrye rightly sets out with immense pride, and authority, on the museum floor, and yet does so without really educating people… in terms of what really made ‘the trades that made’, and in fact still does all the while they still do, and do so just around the corner from the Geffrye in all those many corners of the East End from Homerton to Whitechapel, Shoreditch to Stepney.

    Materials, tools, apprenticeships, mastercraftsmen, Guilded labour and standards long set by trades themselves without the need for government intervention. There really is so much for the Public to understand not just as ‘themes’ but as actions that build into a community-centred reality, one that has in fact been built over the last 600-800 years, and over the last 200 years on this one site. Isn’t it therefore about time that Museums passed on their knowledge and expertise in this way, ensuring on a wider societal level it’s practical application, continued relevance, and enduring appreciation – just as The Globe (Bankside) manages to do with it’s workshop-studios hand-making costumes according to 17th century traditions, very successfully not least commercially and in terms of the currency that is industry/peer regard as well as ‘popular support’.

    There would be no domestic interiors for any of us to view and aspire to at the Geffrye or indeed anywhere else without these non-domestic spaces and interiors that in fact were so much part of and interwoven within the residential quarters of Restoration, Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian East London.

    As the missing piece in their story, the Geffrye, as owners, might even be open/decent enough to offer the Hackney Road site as the ‘shared workspace’ of the East End Trades Guild…with visiting guild members enlivening and enriching the workshops’ education programme.

    Meanwhile, if support was forthcoming from some other ‘Lifers’ around these here Fields, I’d be up for organising — prior to any relocation of London’s oldest Ironmongers, and with the proprietor’s permission – a ‘Carriage-boot Sale’, to try and help shift some of David Lewis’ more mature stock. Out-moded it may be but not out of fashion or out of place, not in E1 or N1, not with all it’s potential to be re-imagined and evolved – knowing that if a chess set can be made from supplies available over the counter at Clerkenwell Screws then there is surely much we as a creative and entrepreneurial community can do with the things that David Lewis is not going to be taking with him! A Carriage-boot Sale to keep a whole truck load of history, in bits, in the area of it’s ‘glory days’ or at least in the hands of those who sense it’s value.

    L.B.Islington’s 20-mph Ruling
    http://www.islington.gov.uk/services/parking-roads/street_improvements/Pages/20mph_limit.aspx

    L.B Tower Hamlets speed limit policy
    http://www.towerhamlets.gov.uk/lgsl/551-600/571_speed_limits.aspx

    GO20 Campaign in Tower Hamlets (led by GLA member John Biggs)
    http://www.london.gov.uk/media/assembly-member-press-releases/labour-party/2012/11/news-from-john-biggs-call-to-tower-hamlets-residents-to-identify-dangerous-junctions-and-streets

    What is an ‘Asset of Community Value’
    http://www.theplacestation.org.uk/what

    Central Government info on Localism Act
    http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/SN06366
    http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2012/2421/contents/made

    Organisation aiding the registration of Community Assets
    http://www.theplacestation.org.uk

  14. William permalink
    May 19, 2013

    just what is wrong with the bloody council! what idiots!

  15. Greg Tingey permalink
    May 19, 2013

    A SLIGHTLY more recent shop is Wakefields in Lea Bridge Road, Leyton/Walthamstow … been going since ’43 … I use them – there aren’t too many shpos like these around, are there?

  16. Sasha Devas permalink
    May 29, 2013

    What a fabulous shop. I’m so glad my hall is lined with rope hooks that will remind me of the building after it closes. Shame on you Hackney for losing such a gem.

  17. Jane Owen permalink
    July 28, 2013

    I trained as an engineer in the 80s and am so sad to see the basis of the country’s wealth disappear under the onslaught of people who think money is more important than value. We are screwed unless we sort this

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