WW1 At Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen
Paul Gardner with the portrait of his Great Uncle Claud Gardner
At Spitalfields’ oldest family business, Gardners Market Sundriesmen - in Commercial St since 1870 and now into the fourth generation – the past is never far away. Paul Gardner, the current incumbent, keeps a large old family bible under the counter, with a detailed list of all the comings and goings of the Gardners in Spitalfields over the past hundred and forty years written in the front, so that he may consult it whenever the need arises. “In my grandfather’s generation, there were thirteen in the family but only eight made it to adulthood,” he admitted to me.
The centenary of the outbreak of World War One proposes just such a moment of reflection by Paul, contemplating the lives of his grandfather Bertie (John) Gardner and Great Uncle (William) Claud Gardner whose fates were decided by the conflict in tragically divergent ways.
The story is often told of Bertie Gardner, the Scale Maker, who was enlisted in 1914 but called back off the train to Calais because his profession was deemed essential to the War effort. It was a stroke of good fortune that saved his life and brought him back to pass his years checking the scales in the Spitalfields Market weekly and selling bags from the shop in Commercial St, until he died from a heart attack in 1958 upstairs in the flat above the family business.
Yet his brother Claud never joined the business and was granted no reprieve. He was sent to the front where he died in 1917 and Paul keeps a copy of The Daily Sketch, with the news of Claud’s death, in the shop to this day. It was sent to the family in Commercial St by the newspaper rolled up in a tube and, if you ask, Paul will remove the tattered paper of a century ago from its cardboard tube and point out to you that the picture is not of Claud but a random portrait serving as a generic illustration. If deliberate and not a mistake, this was a strangely callous act by the newspaper – it seemed to me – since, although the readers might be unaware, it must have been a grave disappointment for his family, serving only to compound their loss.
“Bertie was born over the shop in Commercial St in 1893,” Paul told me, picking up the story of his grandfather who died when he was just two years old, “He joined up for the Merchant Navy in 1911 as a Pantry Boy and was discharged on May 20th 1914, so he came out prior to the war. It was my Nan who told me how he was called up again, but was called back off the train because he was one of the last Scale Makers in London and, obviously, being so close to the Spitalfields Market it was a very important job.” And Paul took this opportunity to retrieve the ledgers from the eighteen-nineties, so that we could enjoy poring through the columns of elegant script and recognise familiar addresses of customers all over the East End.
“I was only small when Bertie died and he just had one son, Roy my dad, so I only know him from what people say.” Paul continued, “Joan Rose told me that although she was a child, he always treated her like an adult when she came to buy bags for her grandfather’s greengrocers in Calvert Avenue. My Nan told me Bertie was a stickler for punctuality and, if he went upstairs to the flat for his dinner and if it wasn’t ready, he’d throw a wobbly – that was from his time in the Merchant Navy. He was very tidy and organised, and my Nan used to clean the shop every day.”
“Bertie went into the business with his elder brother Jimmy, they took over from their father and were B & J Gardner, but then Jimmy had a heart attack and it became B. J Gardner. When they started out they were Scale Makers, but then they diversified into sales tickets and paper bags, even pairs of bellows and carpet beaters – I’ve still got one somewhere. They used to paste the paper bags in the shop in those days. The apprentices slept down below in the basement and the family lived up above. They went round in a pony and trap to all the grocers to service the scales regularly, and sometimes, he took my Nan and all the family to Bournemouth in it. They kept the pony and trap in Fleur de Lis St and the pony was called Pat. We had the carriage lamp for years afterwards, I remember it in my time.”
“He had a working life and he was a hard-working sort of person, ” Paul concluded, lapsing into silence.
If Bertie had not been a Scale Maker, he might not have been spared combat in 1914 and history would have been different – and Paul Gardner might not be behind the counter at Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen today. Yet Bertie was fortunate enough to live and accumulate stories and be remembered by his descendants, unlike his elder brother, Claud, whose life was cut short and whose death was recorded in a newspaper, illustrated by a photograph of someone else. Thus is the curious manner in which the modest lives of Scale Makers and Bag Sellers in Spitalfields are intertwined with the great events of history.
Announcement of Claud Gardner’s death in the Daily Sketch – the paper did not have a photo and substituted a random soldier portrait in his place
Claud Gardner’s name is upon the memorial in Christ Church Spitalfields, formerly in St Stephen’s
Bertie Gardner & Evelyn Hayball
Bertie Gardner’s Certificate of discharge from the Merchant Navy
Bertie Gardner in uniform
Bertie with Paul’s father Roy
Outside the shop in Commercial St
The Gardners’ family bible, with more that four generations of Scale Makers and Bag Sellers
Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen, 149 Commercial St, E1 6BJ (6:30am – 2:30pm weekdays)
You may like to read my other stories about Paul Gardner