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So Long, Baldacci’s Of Petticoat Lane

February 28, 2015
by the gentle author

Yesterday, I went over to Petticoat Lane to offer my commiserations to Peter Baldacci on the last day of trading for his family on Petticoat Lane after eighty-five years. He told me that, as tenants of the Corporation of the City of London, he and his son Matthew are both reduced to leases of six months’ tenure and the threat of 100% rent increases which makes it impossible for them to continue.

They will be greatly missed – both by the office workers who bought freshly-made sandwiches from MB’s Sandwich Bar in Harrow Place each day and by long-term members of the local community who cherished MB’s Cafe in Middlesex St as a popular meeting place for hot meals at affordable prices.

Matthew Baldacci, June 2014 – “This is what I do and this is what I will be doing”

Since 1830, Petticoat Lane has been known as Middlesex St and yet it is still widely referred to by its earlier name. Such is the enigma of this ancient thoroughfare and market that is recognised more by what it was than what it is. Yet the enduring life of Petticoat Lane is still there to be found, if you look close enough.

Behind a curious concrete staircase that leads nowhere on Middlesex St, I sought out MB’s Cafe with faded old photographs upon the walls of the former Baldacci’s Cafe. M B stood for Matthew Baldacci who ran this cafe and another of the same name round the corner in Harrow Place with his father Peter. Together they were the second and third generations in this family business, begun here by Matthew’s grandfather Umberto.

The original cafes and the street in the photographs where Umberto lived and worked have long gone, lost beneath a brutalist concrete development – the one with the staircase leading nowhere. Yet in spite of this architectural transformation, the Baldacci family and their cafe remained as one of the last family businesses to carry the story of the Lane.

Reflecting the nature of this border territory where the City of London meets the East End, the two Baldacci cafes were oriented to serve customers from both directions. MB’s in Harrow Place was where Matthew greeted the City workers by name as they picked up their sandwiches and rolls daily, while MB’s in Middlesex St was where you found the stalwarts of Petticoat Lane tucking in to their cooked lunches. It was at the latter establishment, hidden discreetly under the stairs, that I met with Peter a year ago and he told me the Baldacci family history.

“It all started with my father Umberto Baldacci, he came over from Italy at fourteen years old and worked in a cafe. He lived in the buildings in Stoney Lane and he opened up his first cafe there in 1932 and they did quite well because he got a second one in the late forties on Petticoat Lane. The one in Stoney Lane was more cooked meals while the one in Petticoat Lane was sandwiches and rolls.

My father was born in 1905 and worked until the end, when he died at seventy-three in 1979. My mother Maria, she worked in the kitchen all day long from early morning and then she cooked his dinner afterwards, that’s how things were in those days – a man expected everything. She worked until three years before she died. When you look back, it wasn’t easy for an Italian woman but I don’t think she’d have wanted anything else. She had come over from Italy at an early age and lived in Kings Cross. I don’t know how they met. My father never went back, he made his home here. I can’t even understand Italian. It’s my one regret that I never learnt Italian.

They built a nice business and he was very happy. The Jewish people made him welcome and it really helped a lot. In school holidays, I used to come and work from the age of thirteen in 1962, maybe earlier, and when I was sixteen I started full time. I started washing up and filing rolls. I loved it. The East End was a very different place then and Petticoat Lane was alive with all different kinds of traders.  It was fantastic.

I get up around four-thirty each morning and get down here by five-thirty, I like to be open by six. Then I close by four and I’m home by four-thirty. I can cook, I do everything, if anyone can’t come in I cover for them. I’ve worked in this cafe for twenty-nine years, but I’ve been full time for fifty-three years in total. We’ve got one customer Benny, he’s been coming for seventy years. He lives in Petticoat Tower and comes in each morning for his breakfast. My son Matthew joined me twenty-five years ago and we changed the name to ‘MB’s’.”

At the conclusion of Peter’s tale, Matthew Baldacci arrived fresh from completing the busy lunch service round the corner in Harrow Place.I started working Sundays when I was fourteen, it was expected but I didn’t not want to do it. I started full time at sixteen, twenty-five years ago.” he revealed, meeting his father’s eyes with a protective smile, “My dad does the book work and I do the running of it. We’re very close.”

Matthew told me there was a sense of change in the air around Petticoat Lane and he hoped that it was only a matter of time before the escalating life of Spitalfields and the City would spill over into this backwater bringing increased trade.

At that time, after all the transformations that the Baldcaccis had seen through three generations, Matthew remained ebullient for the future. “This is what I do and this is what I will be doing,” he assured me confidently, “I have two sons and it’s a probability that one of them will go into it.”

Yet after eighty-five years of service by the Baldacci family, running cafes on Petticoat Lane, it is now a matter of widespread regret that the story ends here and we shall never see Matthew’s prediction come to pass.

Peter Baldacci

Umberto Baldacci

Umberto Baldacci’s Cafe in Stoney Lane

The letter from the City of London beginning Baldacci’s tenancy that ended this week

Peter outside MB’s Cafe in Harrow Place

MB’s Cafe under the stairs on Middlesex St

Matthew Baldacci

Peter & Matthew Baldacci

Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven

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30 Responses leave one →
  1. ROBERT GREEN permalink
    February 28, 2015

    This is sad news, I walked right past there today, I had no idea that such a long and distinguished tradition was about to end, yet another example of the way small businesses are coming under attack from ruthless landlords, and that in no way excludes local authorities from criticism, Tower Hamlets Council have recently been running a (propaganda campaign) sorry I mean promotional campaign designed to >revive< ? ? street markets, this week I received a letter from them informing me that they are putting UP my trading charges in Sclater Street market ! ! = REVIVAL ? ? I can only wonder what they would do if they came clean and were honest enough to admit they are hoping to kill me off, best of luck to all at Baldacci's, hope you can find some way of turning a negative into a positive.

  2. February 28, 2015

    Another bit of sad news. The planning authorities seem determined to strip London of the essential character that makes it a great city. How does replacing an original with a facsimile improve things?

  3. Maureen permalink
    February 28, 2015

    This is not good news and totally unfair ….what is the Mayor of London doing about this ?

  4. February 28, 2015

    I am stunned. I remember reading your previous Baldacci post, last year, and thoroughly enjoyed the fact that a tiny piece of the past was embedded into the veins of E1. Ironically, I read an article about the Neal Street Restaurant, this week, when Carluccio and Conran could do nothing about the defacing and greedy developers who wished to swallow up the beauty of the past, for their own gain.

    Giles Coren (someone who I had held respect for) wrote an article in Time Out last year, titled: “They are determined to keep London Shitty”. They being you, I and countless others (Dan Cruickshank too, presumably).

    Of course, there’s nothing sh*tty about – “reduced to leases of six months’ tenure and the threat of 100% rent increases” though.

  5. Elizabeth P permalink
    February 28, 2015

    Wish the Baldaccis all the best and that this unnecessary event will lead to greater achievements!

  6. Rachel Jowitt permalink
    February 28, 2015

    So sad to see yet another historic establishment disappear, to be replaced by Starbucks or some such. Those of us who live or work in Tower Hamlets or the City need to support these independent establishments more to prevent them all going under.

  7. Vicky permalink
    February 28, 2015

    This is dreadful news. It’s a very popular cafe with a varied clientele who will be sad these premises are closing, but what concerns me most is that there are elderly people who live close by who use this cafe regularly, some even daily. They depend it it for their meals and to meet with friends and now they’ve lost their lifeline. One person is very disabled but he can just about get himself to the cafe where he is always welcomed. The closure of both MBs is devastating for them. Appalling behaviour by the City of London Corporation.

  8. February 28, 2015

    More sad news, I think putting up the rents is one way of getting properties emptied for redevelopment. When all the places that make the area so good to live and be in have been closed and killed off, what will be left? Valerie

  9. February 28, 2015

    good luck for the future both of you

  10. February 28, 2015

    Is this the way everything should go nowadays? Doubling the rent — what do these people think they are? They have no conscience at all.

    And it’s true: In former times everything was better …

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  11. Peter Holford permalink
    February 28, 2015

    This is as good as any argument against unfettered free-market capitalism. Yet again it shows that it only delivers to holders of capital and has no concern for what the majority of people want. Over the last thirty years the stake-holders have been reduced to this money-grabbing, greedy few. Another popular institution gone and another move towards a sterile environment with no textured nuances. Unless the system changes this won’t be the last of the cherished places of East London to be trashed.

  12. andrew plume permalink
    February 28, 2015

    it’s all part of ‘the clean up and gentrification (sic) planning policies that seem to be constantly affecting all areas adjoining ‘the square mile’, granted some of these buildings are aged and incredibly dated even though this one is probably post 1945 – every building in the area will end up looking like the shops/restaurants adjoining the Market area, which could be basically anywhere in London

    too much is happening and I see nothing of benefit, unless you’re a Landlord/property company that is

    sad stuff but at least this blog continues to fly the flag against wholesale change

    good luck to them both and all who have worked for them

    andrew

  13. Alan Hawley permalink
    February 28, 2015

    This is very bad for the local community. MB’s was the centre of community life for Middlesex Street life, particularly once the community centre became part of the City of London bureaucracy rather than a real community centre for the estate. In addition, it its clients combined a unique mix of local residents, builders and bankers – suits and yellow jackets in the same queue.

    The local community needs to know more about the Corporation of London policy of six month leases. The aim must surely be to drive out these small businesses. How could anyone continue to invest in their business (let alone start a new business) on a six month lease?

  14. February 28, 2015

    100% rent increase, what are they thinking? Plague, fire and war may have damaged London, but never succeeded in destroying the city. I fear greed finally will.

  15. Barbara permalink
    February 28, 2015

    Where is it all going to end ? I could weep . Thank you G A for keeping us informed .

  16. Adriana permalink
    February 28, 2015

    How sad… But hey!.. The big corporate chains will thrive… Last night I cycled through Borough: I wanted to cry! More old buildings demolished, the real spirit of the area wiped out… As in the East End…

  17. Pat permalink
    February 28, 2015

    Oh dear! I have had so many good breakfasts at Peter Baldacci’s and it has always been a great place with great people. I wish only the best for Peter and his family and co-workers.

  18. February 28, 2015

    my vote will go to the party that introduces rent capping.

  19. February 28, 2015

    As Barbara says, it makes you weep … Good luck to the Baldaccis, whatever happens!

  20. February 28, 2015

    Yet one more sad tale of the absolute greed that seems to be consuming our ancient neighbourhood removing all trace of the long line of constant human occupation,
    i will miss this establishment occasionally dropping in whilst walking from Aldgate to Spitalfields via Petticoat Lane.

  21. Marianne isaacs permalink
    February 28, 2015

    hello, I am so thrilled to see this story . I would love very much to get in touch with Baldacchi family as I would love to enquire if if possible to get some copies of photos which must be of Harrow Alley which U.S. What Harrow place was before the war . This where my great grandfather was born . Later his family moved into The Artisan buildings in Stoney lane . We Now live in Melbourne Australia where young Reuben emigrated to.

  22. Pauline Taylor permalink
    February 28, 2015

    I agree with all the comments which say how desperately sad news like this is, and how it makes us weep. I feel so sorry for this family who are having their successful business taken away from them in the name of the great god greed, but I hope that they will manage to pick up the pieces and to start again. Unfortunately it isn’t just the East End where this sort of thing is going on, it is a widespread national sickness from which those who are already rich get richer and richer.

    Pauline.

  23. Sara Waterson permalink
    February 28, 2015

    Petticoat Lane, Soho, Tin Pan Alley, Borough – all over London its quirky corners and individual businesses are being destroyed, so a few people can get rich. Soon nobody but bankers and foreigners will be able to afford to live in the city. I’m glad I lived there when it was still rich in unexplored corners redolent of history, and family enterprises such as this one, the hub of their communities; I weep for what it is becoming.

    Londoners do not want this wholesale destruction, nor the ‘cleansing’ and homogenisation of their environment. What is to be done?

  24. Adele permalink
    February 28, 2015

    Saddened to hear this. I agree with Vicky above, I know from personal experience that this is a beloved meeting place for elderly neighbors. What is happening to London? If you get rid of much more of its character (first The Gun, now this) Spitalfields will just be a memory.

  25. Robert G. Redford permalink
    February 28, 2015

    What a very sad week for the City of my birth. First the Gun and now this. Who wil end up living in London? Only those with very deep pockets I suspect. Shame that all the character and more important Characters are fast disappearing especially places offering more than the Corporate non tax paying organisations like Starbucks and the like. When will people start to rebel against the things that they don’t want which are increasingly being forced upon them. What is the Mayor of London for ??

  26. Gary Arber permalink
    February 28, 2015

    This is just one more example of how the capitalists are stamping on the small trader, they have the power and the money, they control the country by making the rules and if somehow the small man got past them all he ends up facing Boris.
    Why am I thinking of Orwell’s “Animal Farm”?
    Gary

  27. david green permalink
    February 28, 2015

    Good luck to the Baldacci’s for the future. The London I grew up in has been ruined by the greed of the very people the Mayor of London represents.
    I notice a mention of Time Out. Are they still supporting the IRA these days?

  28. March 1, 2015

    I discovered Baldicci’s only recently, and enjoyed a plate of filling, tasty, healthy grub for the same price as a packet of posh franchise sandwiches. I hope the family opens up somewhere else. Do let us know.

  29. Kiah Teves permalink
    March 1, 2015

    As a frequent visitor to London for 35 years I have noticed more and more of the city’s important history, along with its people, being replaced by big corporations with no real history, no personality and no interest in humankind besides emptying the pockets of those who have to come in. And I say have to because when one is busy, going from here to there and needs a refreshment or meal, all one can find is the big chains. It makes me sick.
    London has changed so much in the short 35 years I have visited. I am very sad to hear this and wish them the best. I hope they can pick up and put together something meaningful and successful, although we all know full well it will not be the same.

  30. Matt permalink
    March 9, 2015

    I used to eat here regularly through the 1990′s and Matt and Peter were great hosts who made the best breakfast around. It’s a shame that they are getting crushed by the big wheels of corporate London but I’m sure they will find new customers to treat with their fantastic food and friendly service.

    All the best guys and thanks for the best full English that money can buy.

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