The Return of Jimmy Nash
Jimmy Nash, back behind the counter for one last time
As Daniel Lewis & Son, London’s oldest ironmongers, prepares to move at the end of this month from the location in the Hackney Rd where they began in 1797, many are saddened to bid farewell to such a long-established and well-loved East End landmark. For Jimmy Nash who started there in 1942 at the age of fourteen and stayed his entire working life, becoming foreman and manager, this week was his last chance to put on his old green coat and make a sentimental pilgrimage back to the place he was employed for more than sixty-six years.
I found Jimmy already sitting in his customary position in the back office, chatting with proprietor David Lewis, just like old times. Jimmy commands a special affection from David – who had driven him up that morning from Loughton – since Jimmy was here before David’s father, Daniel Lewis, began as an office junior in 1947. Jimmy knew the company as W.H.Clark Ltd then, named after a former mayor of Bethnal Green. Yet in 2001, after his father’s death, David renamed it Daniel Lewis & Son in honour of his father and, today, Daniel Lewis’ cardigan still hangs upon a wire coathanger in the office as if he might also return, like Jimmy, for a last look around the old place.
We entered the shop and looked down the ramp towards the factory, where Jimmy first walked in at fourteen years old, more than seventy years ago. Jimmy remembered Bert Hill who gave him his job, “A very stern man, he had crafty ways – if you were taking a break, he’d walk past and check if the tea was cold and say, ‘You’ve been sitting here ten minutes.’”Jimmy remembered Joe Hallam who ran the factory and that Joe’s father had lost a leg in the First World War. Jimmy remembered how one night, during the Second World War while fire-watching here in the office, Joe’s father snapped his aluminium leg on the ramp and Jimmy helpfully riveted it back together. Upstairs in the flats, where Jimmy never went when he worked here, Jimmy remembered the two old boys who were bombed out from The Pickle Jar opposite and lived there on a peppercorn rent for the rest of their lives, and how a stash of live cartridges was discovered in the roof afterwards. Jimmy remembered the asbestos Nissen huts upon the Oval, where the industrial estate is now, that were occupied after the war by East Enders who had lost their homes. Returning to the shop, Jimmy remembered that they used to sell coster barrows for twenty pounds. In the timber shed, where he first worked, Jimmy remembered where the horses were once tethered and he found the wear on the cobbles and the manger hooks on the wall. On the shelves, Jimmy found boxes of coach bolts that were still in stock and which he remembered had been there since before he began working there. Jimmy found counter-sunk coach bolts that he and Joe Hallam had made in the forge and, although it has gone, he remembered where it was, and Jimmy remembered the Ajax threading machine too and it was still in the same place. Even though it had been tucked away in a corner, Jimmy remembered the scales from when chain was sold by weight. Jimmy remembered how they used to sit by a pot-bellied stove in the factory to eat their sandwiches in winter. Jimmy remembered how everyone had a tea can and he carried them across the road to the Italian cafe to fill them at tuppence a can. Jimmy remembered how he drilled a hole in Tony Masseys’s tea can, so it poured down his front when he drank from it. Jimmy remembered how Ernie from the coach works came with a cart barrow and they would load it up, and then tie a string to the wheel so he would walk in a circle. Jimmy remembered how a lad used to come with his bike and leave it in the shop, and so they hung it from the ceiling and he thought someone had nicked it. “We was kids so we was always up to something,” Jimmy remembered. Jimmy remembered how they all went to eat horse steaks in a cafe in the Cambridge Heath Rd, after the war, and when they complained that the horse meat was tough, were told it was not horse but donkey. Jimmy remembered how David Lewis’ father Daniel used to work at home on the books until four in the morning and come into work at seven after only three hours sleep. Jimmy remembered that Daniel was diabetic and sometimes he would froth out, and Jimmy came in the morning and found him lying there and said, “You haven’t had your injection.” Jimmy remembered that Daniel’s life was saved once by a dog licking him awake, after he passed out. Jimmy remembered when Daniel flew under Tower Bridge in a plane with the Mad Major. Jimmy remembered what a gentleman Stan Buckmaster, who started the SAS, was while he worked at the shop. Jimmy remembered when George Raft stayed at the Pickle House across the road while hiding from the Mafia. Jimmy remembered how they used to start sweeping at either end of the premises on a Friday and meet in the middle to wonder at the pile of dust that blew in from the Hackney Rd each week. Jimmy remembered that he started at two pounds five shillings a week.
Comfortable in his green coat, Jimmy was completely at home in the shop, and in the office, and in the factory. “Looking at all the old things brought back memories of fifty years ago, there were a lot of good times.” he concluded to me as we shook hands,“Everybody put a lot into it, we were all lads together, and it bred a contentment.”
In a few weeks’ time, after more than two centuries in this location, London’s oldest ironmongers will be gone from the Hackney Rd and, although he will have no reason to come back again to the place where he spent so many years, Jimmy will carry away the memories with him.
Jimmy Nash & David Lewis.
Jimmy at nineteen years old in 1947.
David Lewis pulls out some old stock.
This unopened pack of nails has been in stock more than one hundred and fifty years. It is addressed to the original proprietors Presland & Sons.
Jimmy takes his own record of the stockrooms.
Jimmy and David chat in the timber shed where Jimmy started work in 1942.
The timber shed c.1900.
The timber shed today.
The last wooden feloes and spokes for making cartwheels left in stock.
Jimmy calls his wife Gwen to let her know how he is getting on.
Jimmy is at home in the office where he worked his whole career.
Daniel Lewis’ cardigan still hangs in the back office.
Jimmy photographs the level of custom in the busy shop.
Jimmy with the portrait of his first employer Bert Hill -”A very stern man.”
Jimmy test drives Daniel Lewis & Sons’ new delivery vehicle for nuts and screws, a fifties scooter-truck.
Jimmy is second from right in this staff portrait from 1947.
On a map of 1810, before the canal and the railway were built, ‘Howard Place’ indicates the premises of Daniel Lewis & Sons.
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