Robert Wells, The Boy On The Bicycle
Rob Wells cycles down Brick Lane in 1984
Rob Wells cycles down Brick Lane in 2014
When Robert Wells – or Rob as he is widely known – moved with his family at nine years old from Tomlinson Close at the north end of Brick Lane to Nathaniel Close at the south end of the Lane, he was always cycling back and forth from his new house in Spitalfields on his BMX to visit his old friends in Bethnal Green. One day unawares, Rob cycled into the frame, as Phil Maxwell pressed the button and the shutter fell while Rob crossed the junction of Brick Lane and Princelet St – recording the moment for ever. Yet Rob did not know he had been photographed and Phil soon forgot the picture among the thousands he took of Brick Lane at that time.
Thirty years later, Rob got a call from a friend to say that he was pictured on the cover of Phil Maxwell’s book Brick Lane. “It was just a wow, I was happy!” Rob admitted to me, recalling his surprise when he first saw the photograph recently, “At first, I didn’t believe it – but when I looked at the picture, I began to remember the clothes I was wearing.”
I met Rob when he introduced himself to me.“I’m the boy on the bicycle!” he said proudly. It was an astonishing encounter because at once I recognised Rob from his picture and I saw that he still possessed the same brightness of spirit today which Phil captured in the photograph thirty years ago. Realising this was an opportunity too good to miss, I asked Rob if he would be willing to collaborate with Phil Maxwell to reshoot the photograph and that is what we did at ten o’clock on Saturday morning.
Brick Lane is a one way street and Saturday is the quietest morning, so I watched out for cars while Rob cycled up and down a couple of times, passing Phil standing on the corner of Princelet St. Thus we accomplished our task and you can compare the changes wrought by thirty years in the pair of photographs above. Once the business of the day was concluded, we sought refreshment and Rob revealed more of the background to the picture to us.
“I wish I still had that bike. All my friends had bikes and we were always exchanging parts, so if someone got new wheels then someone else got the hand-me-downs. You’d go round to a friend’s house and they’d have all these spare parts lying around in the garden, and they were like little mechanics. My bike was a mish-mash of bits and pieces, it was probably a hand-me-down from my brother or friends. I used to go everywhere on it. I didn’t tell my mum, but I cycled all the way to King’s Cross to look at trains. Society has changed, children can’t do that anymore.
One day, I went home to go to the toilet and left my bike outside. My mum said it was dinner time and I forgot about it, but half an hour later it was gone. Someone had nicked it – this must have been shortly after the picture was taken.
When I was six or seven there was quite a bit of racial tension here. At the Bethnal Green end of Brick Lane, white kids were in the majority and they picked on the Asian kids but, when I moved to the other end, I got picked on by Asian kids – so I experienced both sides of the situation. In those days, if there was any piece of green, you played football on it and I ended up playing for the BYF – Bengali Youth Football. They said, ‘You can’t play for us, you’re white,’ but I said, ‘I want to play football, does it matter whether I come from Bangladesh or not?’ And that’s what I did.
My mum had three kids with my dad – who was a champion boxer in Bethnal Green – but she left him because he knocked us about. One day he kidnapped us after school, and the police had to come and take us back. For a while, he worked in the amusement arcade next to McDonald’s in Bethnal Green and I used to visit him there. A lot of people I knew in my crowd when I was young got involved in hard drugs and ended up in prison or on the streets, but I turned out all right. I’m a self-employed builder and I only work when I please. I am my own boss and I have two daughters, Eliza and Darcy.
We moved to Stepney when I was thirteen and I live in Epping now, but my family have been around this area a long time. I was born in the Royal London Hospital in 1975 and Brick Lane was my home. I used to go down to the market when I was five. I went to St Matthias School in Bacon St and walked there every day down Brick Lane, and ran to get home by three o’clock to watch Thomas the Tank Engine. I do miss that Brick Lane, but you’ll never get it back. I had a happy childhood there. I love this area and it’ll always be in my heart.”
Rob may not live on Brick Lane any more but, thanks to Phil Maxwell, he will always be there as the boy on the bicycle because, on that day he cycled unwittingly into the photograph thirty years ago, he cycled into eternity.
“I wish I still had that bike”
“I love this area and it’ll always be in my heart”