Philip Pittack, Rag Merchant
You may recall my stories following the progress of Crescent Trading, Spitalfields’ last cloth warehouse, and today it is my pleasure to introduce the tale of Philip Pittack who runs the business in partnership with Martin White – together constituting the most celebrated comedy double-act in London textiles.
“Even though my parents didn’t have a lot, they always made sure we were properly turned out”
There are very few who can say – as Philip Pittack can – that they are a third generation rag merchant. In fact, Philip’s grandfather Mendell was a weaver in Poland before he came to this country, which means the family involvement with textiles might go back even further through preceding generations.
Although the work of a rag merchant may seem arcane now, it was the praecursor of recycling. Today, with characteristic panache, Philip has found an ingenious way to embody the past and present of his profession. He has carved a cosy niche for himself – working with Martin White, a cloth merchant of equal pedigree, at Crescent Trading – selling high quality remnants, ends of runs and surplus fabric, to fashion students, young designers and film and theatre costumiers.
Few can match Philip encyclopaedic knowledge of cloth, its qualities and manufacture, yet he is generous with his inheritance – delighting in passing on his textile wisdom, acquired over generations, to young people starting in the industry.
“My grandfather Mendell came over from Poland more than a hundred years ago, before the First World War. ‘Ptack’ means ‘little bird’ in Polish but, when he arrived at the Port of London as an immigrant, it got written incorrectly down as Pittack, and that was what it became. He lived in Stamford Hill and had a warehouse at 102/104 Mare St. He went around the textile factories in the East End, collecting the waste which got shredded up and made back into cloth, but he was a lazy bugger who liked whisky and women. My grandmother, she was a tough nut, she worked at the Cally selling rags. It was a free-for-all, and she barged her way in and always made sure she got a good pitch.
My father David, he went to school in Mile End and went into the family business as a kid. He learnt the rag business with his brother Joe. They were tough guys brought up the hard way. When Mosley and his cronies came around, they were in the front row – you didn’t argue with them. They moved into buying surplus rolls of cloth as well as rags and opened a shop too. He did that until he died in February 1977, aged sixty-six. He smoked Churchman’s No 1 like a chimney. He was big fellow with hands like bunches of bananas but he wasted away to a twig.
I used to have a Saturday job, when I was ten years old, to get my pocket money, at a shop selling electrical goods and records, Bardens. I went out with the guys installing televisions and fridges. Eventually, they offered me a job at fourteen years old and were training me to be TV engineer. But, one day, my dad bought a large pile of remnants which took three days to sort and he said, ‘You’re not going to work tomorrow, you’re going to come and help me schlep!’ I lost my job at Bardens and that’s how I started as a rag merchant at fourteen and a half.
After three days of carrying sacks of rags, my father said to me, ‘This is what you are going to do, and you are also a rag sorter.” And that’s what I did, night and bloody day. And if I did anything wrong, my grandfather would come up and thump me on the head. You had either wools, cottons or rayons in those days. There were over a hundred grades of rags, both in quality and material, and I could tell you hundreds of names of different grades of rags but they wouldn’t mean anything to you.
Then eventually, when I was eighteen, my father said, ‘Here’s a hundred pounds, go out and buy rags, and if you don’t buy any and I don’t sell any, then you don’t earn anything.’ There were hundreds of clothing factories in the East End in those days and you had to go cold-calling to buy the textile waste. There used to be twenty other chaps doing the same thing, so it was very competitive. You climbed under the sewing tables and filled up sacks, then weighed them on a hand-held butchers’ scale with a hook on one end. If they were looking, they got the correct weigh. But the art of the exercise was balancing the sack on your toe while you were weighing it and you could get several pounds off like that. My father taught me how to do it. You’d say, ‘Do you want the correct weight or the correct price?’ and if they said, ‘The correct price,’ then you cut down the weight. They’d have to have paid the dustman to take it away, if we didn’t, but they got greedy.
Over several years, I built up my own round and went round in the truck. But then, my uncle got caught stealing off my dad. By that time, we had a shop in Barnet, so my father turned round – he’d had enough of my uncle thieving – and he said, ‘Give him the shop.’ We had to give up that side of the business. After my father got sick, and I got married and became a parent, he took a back seat. It was very hard work, packing up three or four tons of rags into sacks. Each sack weighed between fifty and one hundred and fifty pounds, and I used to carry them on my back. I can’t believe I used to do it now!
We carried with the business until I walked away. I’d had enough of my brother, I found he was doing things behind my back with the money. I signed away all the merchandise and suppliers to him in June 1978. I had nothing, they cut off my gas and electricity, and I had my kids at private school. I borrowed five hundred pounds from my sister-in-law to do a little deal. It was the first deal I did on my own. I bought all this cloth for a gentleman who operated twenty-four hours a day out of Great Titchfield St, but when I got there I discovered he already had a warehouse full of the same stuff and I was stuck with a rented van containing five hundred pounds worth of it.
I was almost crying as I was sitting in the truck, waiting for the light to change, until this guy who I knew through business walked up and said, ‘Why don’t you sell it to me?’ I opened up the truck to show him and he said, ‘We’ll buy that.’ But he had a reputation for not paying, so I said, ‘I’ve got to have the money now. As long as you can give me the five hundred pounds, I can come have the rest tomorrow.’ I went and paid back my sister-in-law, and the next day I came back and he gave me the rest. It all came out in the wash! I made four hundred pounds on the deal, and I was jumping up and down on the pavement. Then I went off, and paid the gas and electricity bills and everything else.
I built up my own round with my own people and, eventually, I went to Prouts and bought my own truck. I knew which one I wanted and ex-wife loaned me the money. I went out and filled it up with diesel and it was only me – I’d arrived as a rag merchant.”
At a family wedding, 1946. Philip is three years old. On the left is Barnet Smulevich, Philip’s grandfather. Mendell Pittack, Philip’s other grandfather stands on the right. Philip’a parents, Tilley & David stand behind him and his elder brother Stanley and their cousin, Rosalind Ferguson.
Philip holds his mother’s hand at Cailley St Clapton, shortly after the war, surrounded by other family members.
Riding Muffin the Mule on the beach at Cliftonville, aged six in 1949
Philip with his parents, David and Tilley
Bar mitvah, 1956
David Pittack sorting rags at his warehouse in Mare St in the sixties
Skylarking after hours at the Copper Grill in Wigmore St in the sixties
Philip on bongos, enjoying high jinks with pals in Mallorca
In a silver mohair suit, at a Waste Trades Dinner at the Connaught Rooms in Great Queen St
Posing with a pal’s Mustang at Great Fosters country house hotel
passport photo, seventies
In the eighties
Martin White & Philip Pittack, Winter 2010
Crescent Trading, Quaker Court/Pindoria Mews, Quaker St, E1 6SN. Open Sunday-Friday.
You may like to read my earlier stories about Crescent Trading