Professor Dick Hobbs, Criminologist
Professor Dick Hobbs on Blossom St where he once dealt in sanitary ware
Niclar House, the labyrinthine warehouse complex occupying the block between Norton Folgate and Blossom St, is boarded up and awaiting an uncertain future of corporate redevelopment. Yet until recently this space was occupied by Nichols & Clarke, an empire of ironmongery and sanitaryware that contained a hidden warren of semi-criminal subcultures. Dick Hobbs came here as a young man employed to lift toilets, yet he became so fascinated by the creative intricacy of the illicit activities which he encountered that it inspired him to become an ethnographer and criminologist.
“My concern is primarily with deviance as an everyday feature of life, an activity that is integral to urban existence, and which I believe justifies academic attention in its own right, without being hampered by any conceits regarding helping the police with their enquiries,” he writes – with appealing irony – in the introduction to his latest work Lush Life, Constructing Organised Crime in the UK.
Making a sentimental pilgrimage to Spitalfields last week on his way to an important meeting in Whitehall, Professor Hobbs took me on a stroll over to Blossom St in search of a lost world and we were lucky enough to step inside the empty building. The cavernous basements of Nicholls & Clarke that fan out beneath Spitalfields, in which the workers once hunted rats at two shillings a tail, offered a natural metaphor for the nefarious culture that is the Professor’s special field of expertise and interest. ”All ethnographers should bring their biographies to the research table,” he told me.
“It all started at Nicholls & Clarke in Blossom St. My dad got a job here at fourteen years old and worked for forty-seven years as a clerk and warehouseman. He went away for five years to the war, but he wanted to go back afterwards and stayed until he was sixty-three.
When I belatedly became an academic, I based much of the data for my PhD on life and larceny at Nicholls & Clarke. I worked in the warehouse as a young man in the seventies, I’d be doing all sorts of things, carrying toilets, sinks and cast iron baths around. At the time I worked there, the place was full of war heroes from El Alamein, Arnheim and the Atlantic Crossings. Some of these men were quite damaged but they were the enterprise of the firm until the eighties. They were sophisticated and dynamic in the way they did business. It was a wonderful place where I learnt about ducking and diving, and life in general, from a workforce consisting of rough sleepers, bankrupt furriers, degenerate gamblers, fighters, ex-war heroes, and a few ordinary people.
After I left school, I worked as an office boy in Great Eastern St. That was awful, I couldn’t stand office work, so I worked as a dustman and street sweeper. I did all sorts of things, but whenever I needed work I could always ask my father to call up one of the Directors at Nicholls & Clarke, Cyril Wakeman – father of Rick Wakeman – and get me work at twenty pounds a week, cash in hand, to pick up toilets. Cyril liked to talk about Rick’s success, his latest hit and how much the latest tour in America made and which page three girl he was dating. And at the end, he’d always ask how I was doing but I wasn’t dating page three girls, I was lifting toilets.
Working there, it had the biggest influence upon me. I was fascinated by how these ordinary people found a little niche for themselves. They were paid almost nothing but they found a way to make it work for their benefit and win a little self-esteem. They had customers. Plumbers would come round and they would go off into corners doing deals on damaged or old stock.
As a kid, I really enjoyed myself and I loved it there – the characters were amazing. There was Bob a gambler who worked in Blossom St but used to slip out through the shop in Norton Folgate to place bets. Everyone else wore dirty overalls, but he wore a pristine white coat and he looked like a dentist. He put his head down and walked purposefully out through the shop. Once a posh woman who wanted to buy some paint asked, ‘Do you work here?’ and without missing a step he said, ‘Not if I can help it.’ It was a magic moment.
There were elderly Jewish men who had been left behind when everyone else moved out to Forest Hill or wherever. One was Yossul, a furrier who had fallen upon hard times and whenever a manager came along he’d slip into a dark corner, whispering, ‘The Cossacks are coming!’ There was a young man in the office who was unusually ugly and acquired the nickname ‘The young Burt Lancaster,’ which became shortened to ‘Burt Lancaster’ that became shortened to ‘Burt’ and eventually he answered to it. Then there was Charlie Nails who spent all his days in the nail room. Nails were bought by weight and there was always spillage so the firm sent round a scrap metal dealer to collect it once a month. But Charlie sold the boxes of nails direct to the scrap metal dealer who resold them back through the front of the building again. It was sharp. A guy who had nothing found a way to make a life for himself.
While at Nicholls & Clarke, I started to go to night school and I picked up two O levels and an A level. Then I went to teacher training college and qualified as a teacher and worked in Newham for three to four years, before I got a place at the London School of Economics to study Sociology where I was taught by David Downs who had written about East End kids and that’s where I came across the work of Charles Dickens and Henry Mayhew writing about nineteenth century London and Raphael Samuel’s ‘East End Underworld, the life of Arthur Harding,’ which outlined the world of East End criminality that was familiar to my dad. I showed it to him and he was able to correct some of it, such was his level of scholarship. I could talk to him about a scholarly work.
What was once labelled as delinquency is now seen as making a good deal. The world has caught up with the East End and we are all Arthur Daleys now. The East End was always based upon entrepreneurship albeit within a framework of trading connections and communality, but now we’re all traders and encouraged to be entrepreneurs, except there’s little to temper the competitive edge.”
Lucinda Rogers‘ drawing of the Nicholls & Clarke warehouse in Blossom St.
Niclar House, the frontage of Nicholls & Clarke in Norton Folgate.
Professor Dick Hobbs in the former sanitary department of Nicholls & Clarke
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