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The Publican & The Historian

November 12, 2016
by Dan Cruickshank

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.

You may also like to take a look at

Dan Cruickshank’s Photographs of Spitalfields

Dan Cruickshank’s Tales of Norton Folgate

Dan Cruickshank in Norton Folgate

12 Responses leave one →
  1. November 12, 2016

    Ooh, can’t wait to read that.
    And you, for me (and no doubt many others) are one of Spitalfields’ reliable characters – I see you quite often when I’m there. And Gilbert & George. Long live community and Norton Folgate and the other bits and bobs of pleasant, people-sized architecture scattered around the East End.
    I’m very glad you’re such a successful campaigner.

  2. David Ruderman permalink
    November 12, 2016

    Such great stories and photos of this area. I am looking for any information regarding my great grandparents and/or photos of their newsagents at 71 Hanbury Street.

    We would be most grateful if anyone can help.

    Further west up Hanbury Street at number 71 was a bookshop and newsagent run by an anarchist couple,the Rudermans , both born around 1865-6 in the Russian Empire (at Haradok, now in Belarus). Baruch Ruderman, known sometimes as Barnett Ruderman in British newspaper reports and censuses, had been a student at the Yeshiva (Talmudic school) at Volozhin, in what was then Lithuania and is now Belarus. It was the most prestigious Yeshiva within the Russian Empire. After some of his fellow students introduced him to secular studies and to Russian and German books, he had “severe clashes with his fanatically religious parents he broke with Judaism. He arrived in London at the end of winter 1882 ( other sources say 1884) and two years later moved to socialism. He was a pioneer of the Jewish workers movement in London and one of the founders of the Arbeter Fraint Club. Ruderman branched out from bookselling to publishing in the following years, being the first to publish radical books in Yiddish in England. Among these were several additions of the writings of the anarchist poet David Edelstadt (1892, 1900 and then 1911) as well as works by Gorky, many of these publications appearing under the imprint of Rudermans Folḳs Bibliyoṭheḳ.

  3. stephanie permalink
    November 12, 2016

    So depressing – London is a commercial wasteland and residential follies – scraped dry of human and civic life and space. Architects and developers are the agents of death of communities and the government – paymaster. Outside the M25 the wasteland looks different without those shiny towers and roaring infrastructure wasteland it is. Look what our privileges have bought us – May and Trump and Loach land where it is acceptable to go to a food bank.

  4. stephanie permalink
    November 12, 2016

    Reader, if you are interested in Dan’s book, please also take at look at Eddie Johnson’s Tales From the Two Puddings pub in Stratford which resuscitates over 50 years a colourful array of east end souls told from a kind and most fair perspective.

  5. November 12, 2016

    Like Sandra I too believe in the power of friendship as a poet have written a poem called ‘Gold
    Dust Friends’ reflecting this (copies available). It is a love which is powerful and can be a life saver. Sandra and Dan will know what I mean. Dan I have always been a fan, can we have some more from you sometime to please your e-friends. John

  6. November 12, 2016

    The ascension of the bland is a sad fact of Corporate London. But from what I have read about Sandra and what I have watched and read from Dan, they stand as human ballast against the insipid homogenisation of Spitalfields. I do hope that the Gentle Author and his friends can save Norton Folgate,

    And if they cannot and this historic environment is sucked into the black hole of London no more then at least they tried. Their shared memories a testament to the past.

  7. Shawdian permalink
    November 12, 2016

    I WOULD LIKE TO THANK THE “GENTLE AUTHOR” FOR ALL THE DIFFERENT SUBJECT’S THE AUTHOR WORKS HARD (a labour of love) TO BRING TO OUR
    VERY HONOURED EMAIL BOXES THROUGHOUT THE WORLD EACH & EVERY
    MORNING JUST AFTER 6.15am, AS THE AUTHOR COME RAIN OR SHINE PLANS
    YET ANOTHER FULL PACKED DAY, TRAILING THE STREETS OF THE AUTHORS
    BELOVED LONDON TO FIND YET MORE TREASURES TO SHARE WITH DEVOTED
    GENTLE AUTHOR READERS WHOM HAVE BEEN WITH THIS SPECIAL AUTHOR
    FROM DAY ONE.

    I HAVE LEARNT MORE ABOUT THE CITY OF LONDON & IT’S PEOPLE – REAL LONDON PEOPLE, THROUGH THE HARD WORK of THE GENTLE AUTHOR, THAN BY ANYTHING
    ELSE AND “I AM VERY GRATEFUL”. IN WHAT OTHER WAY COULD WE LEARN SO
    MUCH ABOUT LONDON “ALL FOR FREE” THAN “THE GENTLE AUTHOR”, WE DO NOT
    EVEN NEED TO TRAWL THE INTERNET, EVERYTHING JUST CONVENIENTLY FALLS
    INTO OUR EMAIL BOX IN THAT VERY ORDERED WAY INCLUDING FABULOUS PHOTOGRAPHY & NUMEROUS TEXT. THANK YOU, YOU SPECIAL GENTLE AUTHOR.

  8. November 12, 2016

    Friendship is one of the thing which can help us through these difficult times when the world is going crazy, making false choices and seemingly dragging us back to times of nationalism, war and hate. Valerie

  9. david donoghue permalink
    November 12, 2016

    A superb book. Best ever history of the area, coupled with special insight into its character and the characters that have enlivened it.

  10. November 12, 2016

    Seems to be a fine Book!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  11. Jude permalink
    November 12, 2016

    Xmas is a good excuse to treat myself! Sounds a great book, i adore Dan Cruikshank and all his television programmes and his books an added bonus. Thank you gentle author…

  12. dar permalink
    November 13, 2016

    Re:’Big Jean& Esso Blue’ a search of ‘kerosene for health’ yielded this:
    KEROSENE – a Universal Healer
    by Walter Last
    Turpentine and petroleum distillates similar to kerosene have been used medicinally since ancient times and are still being used as folk remedies up to the present. They were used in ancient Babylon to treat stomach problems, inflammations and ulcers. The process of distilling crude oil/petroleum into hydrocarbon fractions was first described in the ninth century in Persia.
    The use of these petroleum products is most widespread in poorer countries, including Russia, Eastern Europe and Africa. .. The most common applications are for infections and infectious diseases, autoimmune diseases, cancer, arthritis and rheumatic diseases in general.
    Even the Rockefellers supposedly started their fortune by selling kerosene as a cancer cure before they found that chemotherapy was more lucrative…
    http://www.health-science-spirit.com/kero.htm
    as well:
    Turpentine and kerosene have been used as natural remedies for a variety of health problems for generations! Perhaps your great-grandmother used turpentine for a yearly “cleansing” for your grandpa when he was a boy. Maybe your great aunt used it for her rheumatism or to cure a nagging cough. While the thought of using paint brush cleaner sounds harsh and foolish, turpentine could be classified as an herbal remedy…
    http://www.earthclinic.com/remedies/turpentine-kerosene.html
    as well,
    a mate from Plymouth, recalled how a girlfriend would only eat the seeds of an apple. Here’s why: http://www.cancerproducts.com/VITAMIN-B17-REMOVES-CANCER.html
    So it seems it’s not just animals that have an innate knowledge of the cure for what ails them…cheers

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