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Last Days At Hiller Brothers

October 25, 2016
by the gentle author

For years, I longed to visit Hiller Brothers, the last barrow workshop in the East End, at 64 Squirries St, Bethnal Green, but – until yesterday – I had to content myself with peering through a tiny glass panel in the metal shutter each time I passed to wonder at the piles of old wooden barrows within.

The last of the Hiller Brothers, Bob, left here in 1991 when the workshop was let to tenants who carried on the work of repairing and maintaining barrows. Then, earlier this year, Bob Hiller died and now the building has been sold for demolition and redevelopment. Within a matter of weeks the workshop must be cleared out, which means that I was able to pay a visit at last to view the barrows for sale.

Hiller Brothers began manufacturing and hiring barrows in the eighteen-sixties at 67 James St on the other side of Bethnal Green, moving to these premises in 1942 which they bought from Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists who opened it as their East End office in 1933.

The history of Hiller Brothers is all there to be read in the addresses carved onto the side of the barrows in elegant italic letters. From outside on the street, all that is visible is a non-descript rendered house with a battered door and two squat windows, and a tall metal shutter screening off the adjoining yard. Once you go inside and step down into the workshop, you realise it is a nineteenth century building. From the workshop, a side door leads into the cobbled yard which was once a cowshed, now piled high with dozens of costermongers’ barrows and beyond lies a pile of hundreds of steel-rimmed handmade wooden wheels, each with lettering incised into them.

It is an overwhelming vision, the graveyard of lost barrows in last days of the last barrow-maker in the East End.

Hiller Brothers as it once was

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28 Responses leave one →
  1. October 25, 2016

    I have followed your gently authored blog for some years now, and have recommended it enthusiastically to my friends. This one almost brought me to tears, oddly enough, with the deep pride of the business of carts and wheels, making things possible.

  2. Nancy permalink
    October 25, 2016

    GA, sometimes I wonder at your being able to withstand so many goodbyes.

    I hope that at least all that stuff will find a home and not just be thrown out.

  3. Susan H permalink
    October 25, 2016

    This makes me want to cry.

  4. Roger Tiller permalink
    October 25, 2016

    Oh well end of another era, but we can’t keep holding on to the past, time moves on hopefully for the better.
    God bless Hillers R.I.P.
    R Hiller

  5. Libby permalink
    October 25, 2016

    Beautiful photographs!

  6. Eddie Johnson permalink
    October 25, 2016

    What a sad sight, most of my life those barrows have been familiar and now they are finished, makes one realise how short a life is, they are like the bones of some long forgotten massacre, we all have to come to terms with modernity but sometimes I hate it…age I suppose.

  7. Ros permalink
    October 25, 2016

    Wonderful desolate images of this graveyard of wheels and barrows, like Paul Nash paintings. Wish I could buy a barrow – but where could I put it?

  8. October 25, 2016

    Onward and upward…….Surely these magnificent and stalwart wheels would make an incredible installation, somewhere in the “neighborhood”? A wall-full of these, soaring up into the sky — it would be show-stopper. The inscriptions on the wheels came as a surprise to me, and added greatly to the sense of exploration; squinting to read each one. Thanks for these wonderful photos as ever — Your blog is a magical mystery tour of lost wonders….and vital, lively ones, too!
    Most appreciated.

  9. @rupertbu permalink
    October 25, 2016

    In late-1970′s I worked for Littlewoods, then with a branch in Chapel Market, Islington, with the market of barrows literally on our doorstep.

    I got on well with the stall-holders and early on Sunday mornings would have a bacon butty in the cafe across the market.

    One day I tracked a shop-lifter around the store, awaiting his departure so I could apprehend him, he exited the store and made through a gap between two barrows – I was not so lucky as the stall-holders made the gap disappear with me caught in the clench of two barrows!

    Rueful smiles, yet never the twain…………..

  10. Philip Marriage permalink
    October 25, 2016

    Like stepping through a time portal . . .

  11. October 25, 2016

    Are they still selling the barrows and wheels? I would love something. Is there a contact phone number or email or are they all gone now?

  12. Celia permalink
    October 25, 2016

    I’m not sure why I found your photos so moving but hope the remains of the wagons and barrows find a home where they are loved. I have an 1890′s governess car gathering dust in a farm shed and know I should find it a home but the happy memories of a pony with too much character that pulled it and the laughing toddlers who shared his enjoyment make it hard to part with it.

  13. MD Smith permalink
    October 25, 2016

    OH! I hope these are loaded on a truck and sent up to Beamish in Durham!!!

  14. the gentle author permalink*
    October 25, 2016

    If you want to purchase any of these you need to pay a visit and ask

  15. October 25, 2016

    Thanks. I’ll do that. If you see someone wheeling an old barrow wheel along the road, that’ll be me!

  16. JeanM permalink
    October 25, 2016

    I always enjoy reading your stories particularly this one. Sadly another piece of
    old England is about to disappear. I hope the remaining barrows and equipment
    go to somebody who will appreciate them.

  17. October 25, 2016

    What strangely moving pictures. They could do worse than pile up some of these wheels in the nave of Tate Britain.

  18. October 25, 2016

    Sad to see the passing of yet another old profession…BUT surely all this must be of some interest to a museum? It would be a tragedy if it all got thrown away. Museum of london??

  19. October 25, 2016

    Thank heavens you are always recording these testaments to London history with marvellous photos. Surely some of the artists you have promoted on your blog would love to go in and paint these scenes too??

  20. Tony Wright permalink
    October 25, 2016

    I would love to own one of these old barrows, is it possible to buy them?

  21. Ian Silverton permalink
    October 25, 2016

    Great Pictures GA,bought back my childhood,we often went in their on a Sunday mourning too see old Tom the rag man, who would give us some Goldfish from a rusty old pickled jar, for exchange for some old clobber we had had that was no longer able to wear!!!! RAGS. we thought as kids it was a fair exchange. They lived until the following few weeks, then back for some more. Not very PC now but back then who cared.

  22. Baden permalink
    October 26, 2016

    Purchased from Oswald Mosley…wonder if he misheard when he was told Mr Hiller was interested….

  23. October 27, 2016

    its a pity one of the big boys such as Covent Garden or Camden Market don’t buy them up en- masse . Even in the main thoroughfare of Westfield Stratford City. They could be let out as individual units and would pay for themselves in no time at all. Just a thought?

  24. Christine Maiocco permalink
    October 30, 2016

    I’m re-reading Dickens’s “Martin Chuzzlewit” and came across this passage from Ch. 9 – Town and Todgers’s which reminded me so much of this post about the barrows: “There were more trucks near Todgers’s than you would suppose a whole city could ever need; not active trucks, but a vagabond race, for ever lounging in the narrow lanes before their masters’ doors and stopping up the pass; so that when a stray hackney-coach or lumbering waggon came that way, they were the cause of such an uproar as enlivened the whole neighbourhood, and made the very bells in the next church-tower vibrate again.” Thanks, Gentle Author, for so many enlightening and enjoyable posts!

  25. October 31, 2016

    Beautiful and emotional photos. So many of the old customs and businesses continue to slip away into history. Thank you, GA, for properly memorializing them.

  26. November 17, 2016

    Thanks for a wonderful post.

    I’ve been trying to find out more about the original Hillers. Searching through Census records (from 1861) and Post Office London Directories (from the 1860s onwards), here’s what I found:

    In 1881, there was a William G. Hiller, wheelwright, in Globe Road. He appears to have been the son of a William Hiller, cabinet maker.

    In the 1882 London business directory, there was a William Hiller, barrow maker, in Ely Place, Digby Street.

    In 1891, William G. Hiller was living with his family at 67 James Street. His son Alfred J. was also a wheelwright.

    In 1901, William G. was still there, and his younger son Albert P. was now a wheelwright too, at the same address. Albert’s brother, Alfred J., appears to have moved out, to raise his own family at an address in Argyle Road.

    So, from the all the records I’ve seen, it seems that the Hiller Brothers were Albert and Alfred.

    If anyone reading this has anything to add to the above information, please let me know.

  27. Vince permalink
    February 16, 2017

    It fills me with great sadness to hear that my old boss, Bob Hiller, has passed away. I had a couple of stints working for Bob between c1978 and 1985 and he was a character the likes of which probably won’t be seen again.

    He inherited half the business from his dad and bought out his aunt’s half to become the sole owner. Apparently it was a dodgy affair. When the aunt’s solicitors came to value the place at Squirries St Bob filled it with burnt wrecks and broken barrows to lower the value, the valuers seemingly unaware that there were hundreds of stalls rented out on the streets.

    Sometime in the 70s he also bought out J Jones of Exmouth Market, Islington when Charlie Jones passed away. Along with the business Bob got Charlie’s brother Ted into the bargain. Ted was a long serving and very loyal employee of Bob’s until he passed away (sometime around 82 if I recall correctly).

    Bob never liked to waste a penny and lived like a hermit in Walthamstow with his partner Ann who came from the family (Priestley I think) which owned the bakers in Bethnal Green Rd opposite Barnet Grove. I remember him telling us that he had just saved a packet by buying material to make his own curtains rather than buying ready-mades and that they then had enough material left over for Ann to make a dress for herself. Then, as sincerely as you could imagine, he said it was fine as long as she didn’t stand by the window!

    He also owned a house at Mersea Island in Essex and would sometimes boast that his Sunday dinner hadn’t cost a penny as he and Ann had picked seaweed (kelp) and mushrooms for free along the beach.

    Another time he lost his keys only to come into work about three weeks later to tell us that he was pulling the jumper he was wearing that day from the back of the sofa when his keys popped out at the same time!

    He never owned a TV or comb in the time that I knew him and I don’t know if he had any kids. I’d be surprised if he did as often said that he was investing a lot of money in a certain rubber company to make sure he didn’t have any.

    But that said, Bob was a generous employer. Every winter he bought us new overcoats for working outdoors which were very expensive and paid us cash bonuses. I remember him hiring a car for Ted when he was taking a week off as Ted usually drove one of the firm’s small trucks. He even helped one of his other workers buy their first house.

    Sincerely, RIP Bob.

    Vince

  28. Ell permalink
    March 4, 2017

    Great article

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