The Publican & The Historian
In this extract from his newly-published book SPITALFIELDS, The History of a Nation in a Handful of Streets, Dan Cruickshank reflects on his friendship with Sandra Esqulant, landlady of the Golden Heart, and the changes they have seen in the neighbourhood over the last forty years
Portrait of Sandra Esqulant & Dan Cruickshank by Sarah Ainslie
I moved into my house in Spitalfields in 1977, the same year that Sandra and Dennis Esqulant took over the Golden Heart, and we soon became friends. Sadly Dennis died in 2009, but Sandra continues to run the Golden Heart with tremendous energy and enthusiasm. She is naturally generous, with a genuine belief in the beneficial power of friendship, and we sometimes sit in the heart of the Golden Heart, talking of Spitalfields past and present, of the living and the dead, of things that have been, that are and that might be.
We talk, for example, of the strange array of characters who occupied the area before the great watershed of 1991 when the ancient fruit, vegetable and flower retail market closed. While it was going strong the market transformed night into day, with pubs – granted special licences – and cafés thriving in the small hours, serving drinks and vast dinners to lorry drivers and market workers while wholesalers and shop owners arrived to buy their daily stocks. The Golden Heart was then a market pub and, like most market-related establishments, attracted not just local workers and visitors to the area but also society’s outsiders, who were drawn to the nocturnal life of Spitalfields and the sense of liberty that pervades all great markets. I remember the prostitutes who eased the lives of the hard-driving hauliers transporting fruit from Spain, flowers from the Netherlands or vegetables from the north. They gathered on the corners of streets leading to the market – at Fournier St next to Christ Church, along Commercial St – chatting to the lorry drivers with good humour, occasionally asking me, as I made my way home in the early hours of the morning, if I ‘wanted business, darlin.’ And I remember the piles of debris created by the market on a daily basis: the heaps of timber pallets, the abandoned crates of fruit and vegetables that seemed, to my inexpert eye, without blemish. I collected and burnt the pallets, which kept me warm as I repaired my house in Elder Street, and I ate the fruit and vegetables and took pleasure from bunches of discarded flowers. And I was not the only one.
The market helped to support a truly remarkable community of men and women. Once they would have been called ‘tramps’ (but most of them tramped nowhere) or ‘down and outs’ – certainly more accurate – or derelicts. I have no idea what they should be called – but I know their like no longer exists. Many were ragged, grimy, aged, eccentric, fiercely individual and independent – people who must have seen and suffered things beyond the comprehension or imagination of most. They gathered on corners at night, warming themselves in the early-morning light with huge fires, kindled from pallets, papers and any other available combustible debris. I remember they particularly favoured the corner of Brushfield St and what had been Steward St, in the heart of the market area, where they lingered against a backdrop of long-decayed or derelict late-eighteenth-century houses, like animations from the drawings of Hogarth. Such vivid images of outcast London were spellbinding and brought the mean streets of the past to life with an intensity and authenticity that it is now hard to imagine and impossible to see in the new, brittle, commercial and consumer-orientated Spitalfields, with its array of chain stores and ersatz ‘Victorian-style’ lamps and bollards. Much of the fabric and paraphernalia of life in the area is now fake, many of its historic houses ruthlessly ‘made-over’ and modernised. But – forty or so years ago – things were very different.
As far as I can remember Spitalfields’ destitute street characters never begged for money. Possibly they were too proud, or perhaps they just took the basics they needed – food and wood from the street, companionship from each other. Sandra too remembers many of these transient characters. Some would occasionally sneak into the pub for refuge, to watch television – she recalls the BBC’s current affairs programme Panorama was a favourite – and she of course would end up buying drinks for these penniless people. Sandra confirms that they never begged for money, but she recalls they would occasionally borrow £5 and then scrupulously pay it back, usually from the proceeds of erecting stalls in Petticoat Lane market. Some would offer to help out at the pub in lieu of repayment, collecting glasses and ashtrays, but unused to the niceties of civilised life they would as often as not cast the ash upon the floor and create more chaos than order.
There was ‘Big Jean’ who was – Sandra insists – given to drinking Esso Blue (something that seems hardly possible given that more than a few mouthfuls of this deadly paraffin would kill most people, or, at least, turn them blind). ‘Big Jean’ must have been made of heroic stuff. She was regularly purged by the Catholic nuns in the mid-nineteenth-century shelter in Crispin St, a place that has seen many desperate cases through the years, and would just as regularly return to her inebriated and unpredictable ways. Then there was ‘Cat Woman’, a mesmerising prostitute, and Elaine, who ran the all-night food van outside Christ Church and who was famed for her massive bacon and egg rolls known as – no one can now say why – ‘cowboys’.
And Sandra remembers – as do I – the lost peoples of East End life. We recall, for example, the families of Irish tinkers who arrived in due season to sell Christmas trees in the market. They would gather in large and extended family groups in the Golden Heart – women in one bar and men in the other – and drink through the long hours of the night and early morning, enjoying the pub’s liberal market licence. We also cast our minds back to the last days of Spitalfields’ Jewish community that as recently as the thirties had occupied nearly all the streets and courts around Wentworth St and Old Montague St. By the late seventies almost all of them had gone, leaving the odd bakery or hardware shop in Brick Lane, a delicatessen in Petticoat Lane and Bloom’s Restaurant in Aldgate. Just two of Spitalfields’ once numerous synagogues – those in Fournier St and in Sandys Row – remained open. Now only the Sandys Row synagogue continues in operation as a living reminder of a once vibrant community.
Sandra and I also consider the future, and try to imagine a neighbourhood that may soon be as remote from the Spitalfields of today as contemporary Spitalfields is from the East London of the Huguenot weavers. Spitalfields has always been a place of change, but in recent years the changes have been so great and rapid that it seems little of the old locality will be left: just a handful of early-Georgian buildings clustered around Christ Church and the junction of Folgate St and Elder St, and memories that are fast fading. Even as I write a block of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and twentieth-century buildings between Blossom St and the section of Ermine St named Norton Folgate is threatened with demolition. If this happens yet one more portion of Spitalfields will have gone, and a rich mix of buildings – small-scale and on a site on which Londoners have lived and worked for at least two thousand years – will have given way to corporate-style schemes, incorporating open-plan commercial space and rising as high as thirteen storeys behind some pathetic fragments of retained brick façades.
My book – among other things – celebrates lost and disappearing worlds.
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