Greengrocers & Hardware In Aldersgate
Aldersgate takes its name from one of the ancient gateways to the City of London that formerly divided the street into “within” and “without.” Here Shakespeare once owned property and, in later days, John Wesley had a religious experience which led to the founding of Methodism.
Yet Aldersgate does not declare its history readily, dominated now by the Barbican and Golden Lane Estates. Although Crescent House still harbours a string of independent shops which tell their own modest story of the family businesses that have lined this street for centuries – as Contributing Photographer Patricia Niven & I found out when we went calling recently.
John Horwood, Greengrocer
“My dad Harry, his old shop used to be opposite Barbican Underground station,” explained John, “He got moved out in 1964, when they were building the Barbican, and he opened up here in Crescent House in 1965 – but William, my grandfather, he had a shop before that in Goswell Rd.”
John was standing amidst a fine array of high-quality fruit and vegetables that testify to the three generations of experience which lie behind him and also to his nightly visits to Covent Garden Market, topping up the stock daily to keep everything fresh. Mystified why people visit the supermarkets that surround him to buy inferior produce at higher prices, John is proud that he has kept faith in the trade he grew up in. It is a matter of honour for him. Consequently, John has loyal customers who once visited his father’s shop and still buy their vegetables from John regularly today, including several retired nurses from St Bart’s Hospital who live locally – one of whom, Nancy, is ninety-six.
“Five nights a week, I get up at quarter past one and and I am at the market by quarter to two, then I get back here around five thirty and. after preparation, I am ready to open at eight,” he admitted to me proudly, “In the past, this shop had five or six people in it but now there’s just me.”
John’s greengrocer’s shop is one of the most appealing I have visited, not for the overtly demonstrative nature of his displays but because everything is chosen and arranged with such care and attention. “I attempt to find the best and I have a big range of fruit,” he assured me with twinkly eyes and quiet enthusiasm, ” I have artichokes and chicory at present, which are very popular with the Italian travel agents across the road.”
These days, John supplements his business by selling a splendid variety of plants alongside clay flowerpots, watering cans and compost, fulfilling the demand from residents of surrounding flats who cultivate window boxes and pot plants upon their sills. So, if you are in Aldersgate, I urge you to seek out John Horwood, a dignified professional and the last of the gentleman grocers in this corner of London.
Marc, Peter, Betty, Paul & Simon Benscher, three generations in hardware
If you were of the Do-It -Yourself frame of mind and you walked into City Hardware in Aldersgate, then you might have an experience of religious intensity – comparable with that of John Wesley three centuries ago – in response to the mind-boggling range of ironmongery that may be obtained here, supplied by the Benscher family.
Simon Benscher who runs the company with his brother Paul told me they have four hundred corporate clients, and his son Marc fitted all the locks at the Olympics – which is mighty impressive for a business started by their parents Peter & Betty in 1965, selling china, glass and fancy goods from a single shop in the same parade. Originally, Peter & Betty were publicans in Poplar who were sick of getting up at four in the morning and wanted a quieter life.
“Simon joined the business from school but I worked in retail in the West End for fifteen years before I started working for the family,” explained Paul, who spends his days behind the counter while his brother Simon handles the paperwork. “He’s office based, I’m counter based,” admitted Paul, outlining the demarcation of responsibility and acting careworn in an exaggerated fashion when his brother appeared waving an invoice. “We’re just a classic Jewish matriarchal family,” Simon announced, by means of explanation, as Paul telephoned his wife, Sonia, who speaks five languages, for an impromptu translation on behalf of a customer with no English. “I do enjoy serving the public,” Simon assured me, “I’ve served everyone from Princess Anne down.”
The two enterprising brothers took over premises close to their parents’ shop and never looked back. And fifty years after they set up their own shop, Peter & Betty are still involved in the family business.“They turn up twice a week and tell us what we’re doing wrong!” confided Simon affectionately.
Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven
You may also like to take a look at