Richard Lee, Bicycle Spares Seller
Celebrating the seventh anniversary of Spitalfields Life with a week of favourite posts from the past year
You need to be at Sclater St Market at dawn when the sunlight arrives horizontally from the east, and traders greet you and bid you good morning like one of their own. At six o’clock, I was awaiting the arrival of Richard Lee whose grandfather Henry William Lee started trading bicycles in this market in the eighteen-eighties, initiating a tradition continued through two world wars by his son Henry George Lee, and culminating in Richard Lee who was there every Sunday for over sixty years. Yet the time had come for Richard’s departure from Sclater St and I was there to record his final Sunday, after one hundred and thirty years of his family trading in bicycles and bicycle parts in the market.
In this time, three generations of Lees saw the street change beyond all recognition and that morning Richard parked his van at the foot of a tower block, built upon a former bomb site where nineteenth century terraces once stood. In fact, as he set to work with stoic good humour, unpacking his battered van and assembling the stall – in recognition of his responsibility as custodian of the history of the market – Richard passed me some black and white photographs, showing the heaving market crowds of yesteryear enfolded by rows of small shops and proud Victorian pubs. Most remarkably, Richard’s father and grandfather are visible to the left of one of the pictures beside a stall hung with tyres and inner tubes which looks just as it does today.
Richard had been down there each Sunday since he was five years old and began working in the stall at thirteen. Over seventy and of robust stature, he could still assemble his stall by slotting metal poles together with limber ease, informing me with satisfaction that this particular incarnation was manufactured to his specification fifty years ago at the cost of fifty pounds. ‘We used to wheel a barrow from Islington and my father pushed a bicycle and carried another over his shoulder,’ he admitted, recalling the arduous labour of former times.
Once the stalls were in place yet before the stock was unpacked, Richard Green and Clive Brown, stallholders at the western end of the market, convened with Richard over a cup of tea made from water boiled on a primus stove and Richard broke the news that he had sold his house in Essex and cancelled the debit for his weekly market licence. Only if the exchange of contracts upon his house did not go ahead would he return for another week. ‘My kids have flown and I can’t afford to keep a four bedroom house,’ he confessed in sober realism, ‘You can’t live on a pension anymore.’ Richard’s solution was to return to the north of England – whence his grandfather came to London in the nineteenth century – and buy a small house, leaving him enough money to live out his days.
Yet, before this could happen, another day’s trading awaited. Richard’s assistant ‘Steady Eddie’ arrived to hang up the tyres and inner tubes that are the long-recognised symbol and sign of the Lees’ stall, thereby completing the four hour process of setting up.
Through the passage of the day, Richard stood at the front while Eddie sat at the rear undertaking repairs and their dialogue consisted of ‘Eddie, got a left-handed pedal?’ and ‘Richard, got a new inner tube?’ Recycled inner tubes repaired by Richard were priced at only one-pound-fifty compared to five pounds for a new one, yet customers could not resist offering just a pound. And when Richard fitted that left-handed pedal, the customer offered him five pounds, refused the ten pound charge asked for both the replacement pedal and the service. ‘I’ll take it off again!’ threatened Richard rolling his eyes, ‘I can’t do it for £5,’ – before he let it go for five pounds. ‘You see why I’m leaving,’ he confided to me in a whisper, catching my eye in weary resignation. ‘I like it when they offer you more than you ask,’ he added with a grin, summoning his humour again, ‘that doesn’t happen very often.’
‘When I was a kid down the waste, there’d be a rag and bone man who left stuff behind and, when he’d gone, I used to sell it,’ Richard continued, warming at the tender reminiscence. He cast his eyes to the left of his stall where he had spread out boxes of his grown-up children’s unwanted toys, cleared out in anticipation of his house sale, yet drawing a lot of interest in the market. ‘It’s a lot of old junk,’ he confessed apologetically, ‘it’s all stuff I’d throw away, but there’s more money in it than the proper stuff.’
The weather was kind for Richard’s last day of trading and a spell of unbroken sunshine brought out large crowds onto Brick Lane and into Sclater St but, by three o’clock as he started to pack up, dark clouds were gathering over Spitalfields. I asked Eddie what he would do without Richard. ‘I’m not a lazy man, I’m going to volunteer at a charity shop,’ he explained, ‘It’s Monday to Friday and there’s no lifting. I came to this country in 1978 but after thirty-five years working for British Rail, my back is gone.’
Old friends and regular customers came to pay their respects to Richard as the descending sun reached the western end of Sclater St. All appeared as usual, everyone packing up as they do each week at that time, yet Richard was packing up for ever. Unknown to all but a few that afternoon, something remarkable was passing into history.
Robert Green helped Richard carry his boxes to the van and told me he would wait until he was ready to go. Leaving them to their task, I paid my respects to Richard, shook hands and handed him the bottle of champagne I had secreted in my bag. But as I turned to go, he called me back. Richard brought out a spanner which had belonged to his grandfather, was used by his father and served Richard too. In use in this place all this time. After more than a century, it had become bent into a subtle curve that fitted the hand. Richard held up his cherished talisman to show me, glowing with pride and delight.
To my mind, the meaning of Sclater St as a place will always be bound up with the human qualities of Richard Lee and his fellow market stalwarts. Whatever architectural changes arrive in this contested site, I shall never be able to walk through Sclater St without thinking of Richard and the hardworking endeavours of his colleagues and their forebears, week after week, in all weathers and through centuries.
Henry George Lee (as a boy) is to be seen on the extreme left of this photo and his father Henry William (with hat and moustache) is the fifth from the left in this picture taken in the twenties
Unpacking the van at 6am
Tossing a tyre
‘Steady Eddie’ arrives to lend a helping hand
“I first came down here when I was five and I was thirteen when I started working on the stall.”
Clive Brown, stallholder opposite Richard Lee, shows off a case of vintage Leica cameras
Patricia & Robert Green, stallholders next to Richard Lee
Clive serenades the market, mid-afternoon
Richard with Gary Aspey, wheel truer
Packing up at 5pm
Packing the van at 6pm
Richard shows off his grandfather’s spanner ‘King Dick’- in use in this market by three generations over more than a century
Henry Wiliam Lee started trading in the market in the eighteen-eighties
Henry George Lee shows the proper way to fold a bicycle tyre in the Daily Mirror, 1979 (Click image to enlarge)
Richard Lee meets Edward Heath in the seventies
Richard Lee’s account of his family history
Richard Lee with Robert Green, old friend and long-term holder of the next pitch in Sclater St, celebrating the culmination of 130 years of the Lee family trading in the market
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