Marcia believes that Clapton Beauty Parlour, opened by her parents in 1930, is London’s oldest family-run salon and I have no reason to doubt her. For me, it was the perfect excuse to take another trip to the hairdresser and the ideal opportunity to learn more of Hackney’s hidden hairdressing heritage. And Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie came along to capture Clapton’s celebrated coiffeuses.
“Both my grandparents’ families lived in Chatsworth Rd, my mother’s family lived in 104 and my father’s family lived at 83. He had his eye on my mother for a year until he got his opportunity to speak to her when the Prince of Wales visited Hackney. The route took him along Chatsworth Rd, so my father positioned himself behind my mother in the crowd and tapped her on the shoulder and asked to take her to the cinema. My aunt went as a chaperone, that’s what good class people did that in those days. My mother was maybe sixteen or seventeen and they started a courtship, and got married when mother was twenty-one in 1930. She was five months older than my father so, when they took the lease on this salon, it had to be in her name. She was already twenty-one but he was still twenty and they opened at Easter to catch the business.
My father’s family were all barbers. They lived above the shop at 83 Chatsworth Rd and the younger four brothers were all taught barbering by the eldest. Originally, the family came over from Russia where they were lumberjacks – none of them were barbers, it started here with the eldest brother. My father began when he left school at twelve and had to go out to work, he was a natural hairdresser. I recall him saying that hairdressing is a young man’s trade, because physically you cannot stand all day after the age of forty or fifty and because it’s the youngsters who dictate fashion.
When they opened this salon, it was ladies’ hairdressing. It was men’s barbering in Chatsworth Rd but when they opened this shop it was ladies only. He switched because he was a very futuristic man and he saw the future was in ladies’ hairdressing. After my parents opened up the salon, they were very often short of money and they would go to my grandmother in Chatsworth Rd who gave them money to keep them going. She would pawn her rings and reclaim them later. They used to worked until midnight. My mother made sandwiches for the girls who were working all day until 10:00 or 11:00pm. I remember them telling me that customers queued up outside from 6.30 or 7:00am to have their hair done before work.
My father was the hairdresser and my mother was very good at beauty and make up. Father took in fancy goods like gloves, handbags and they sold a lot of jewellery. He bought it and she sold it. Father sent her to Revlon and Max Factor to learn to do make up, so she knew all about that, and we sold all Max Factor and Revlon products here and also Leichner theatrical make up.
They lived above the salon at first and used Hackney Baths to wash. In 1936, when they had enough money, they bought a house in Upper Clapton. Father was a very advanced man. He learnt to drive and they were the first amongst their friends to have a fridge and a freezer and a mangle for wringing the washing. I loved using the mangle!
In the thirties, Vidal Sassoon was working in Whitechapel where he did his apprenticeship and then had his salon. He was only seventeen but in those days, you left school earlier – you were a man at fifteen or sixteen. His life was disrupted by the war when his salon was bombed out. The Sassoon family knew my parents and he came to see my father and asked, ‘I’ve got a few customers and I don’t want to lose them, can I work in your salon?’ My father replied, ‘Yes you can, here are the keys.’ Our salon was closed during the war because my father was in the fire service and he was injured and, after he recovered, he was stationed in Victoria Park on the anti-aircaft guns in the Home Guard. So he said to Vidal, ‘Here are the keys. Keep the salon clean. Use any products. Make sure you lock up.’
I first came here in 1974. I was never going into hairdressing. I went to Woodberry Down school in the year it opened and, when we had a careers evening, the headmistress said to my father ‘Well now Mr Manning, we’ve got to discuss Marcia’s future.’ She saw me as a model pupil. Although I had failed the scholarship exam, it was my luck that Woodberry Down opened that year so I became a model pupil and got six O levels and three A levels. Yet my father told her that I would be going into the family business. Well, that was all I needed to hear and I gritted my teeth against it. I went on to become a linguist and I studied at Holborn College of Languages but – low and behold – here I am today.
I’ve never done hairdressing but I’ve been running the place. The fact that I never learnt hairdressing has held me back, so I took myself off to Weller to do some short courses, even though you can’t just ‘do hairdressing,’ it’s a four-to-five year apprenticeship. I did colouring and that gave me a certain respect here among the staff. Before that, it was like running a plumbing business without being a plumber yourself, you can’t do it. Here, I’ve been a secretary with languages trying to keep these girls in order. My brother gave me a pat on the back and said, ‘Mum and dad would be really proud of you.’ I’ve managed to bring the salon into its eighty-fifth year.
About thirty years ago, there was a big thing about sunbeds, so I decided to go the Hair & Beauty Show at Olympia where they were displaying them. I had some empty rooms upstairs and I got a loan from the bank, and – my goodness it took off – I repaid the loan very quickly. You had to wait for an appointment, it was that busy, and I think this is also what my father found when he started, it took off.
We have one customer who is a hundred years old, Mrs Goodman. She is so alert, she comes on Wednesdays and we have lovely chats about the early days. She remembers my father and he has been dead for forty-two years. She must have been coming here for between fifty to sixty years. I have many customers who remember my father doing their hair for their weddings.
From the age of three or four, I was put on the counter and told that I had an important job, to watch. As far as I can remember, I’ve always been here. I love being here because this is where Mother and Father are, I feel the closeness. I just feel a bond with this place – this is my home.”
Once Marcia had told her story and given me a tour of the premises, from the former basement kitchen to the water tank in the roof, it was time for a word with Dawn Hammond, Marcia’s protégé and proud successor.
“It was my Saturday day job and I am the owner now. I took over seven years ago but Marcia still comes in two days a week and helps out. I lived just across the road when I was fifteen or sixteen and I saw there was a Saturday girl wanted. My mum used to do our neighbours’ hair and her own hair at home, she wanted to be a hairdresser but became a machinist. It was convenient for me, I didn’t have to fork out for bus fares and then Marcia took me on as an apprentice. I wanted to be an architect, but I haven’t got the brains for that. In architecture, you have to draw lines but in hair you have to draw angles, 180 and 360 degrees. If you hold the hair up, you just get a short back and side but, if you do an inverted bob. It’s all to do with angles.
Customers are different today. They see these models in the papers with black hair one week and blonde the next, they might be wigs. They say, ‘I want my hair like this’ – they have got black hair and they want it blonde, it ain’t gonna happen! When customers come in we turn into psychologists and, once we get to know them, they tell us their problems. I’ve got a customer who used to live near Victoria Park and now she has moved to Hove, but she still comes back to get her hair done. I ask her about her children and she asks about mine. With customers that we have been doing for years, we have a strong bond.”
Marcia enjoys a blow dry
The shrine to Clapton Beauty Parlour’s history
Marcia in the seventies
Marcia stands on the left and her mother sits in the centre at the salon in the eighties
Customers and coiffeuses in Clapton
Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie
Transcript by Simon Scott
Book your appointment at CLAPTON BEAUTY PARLOUR, 21 Lower Clapton Rd, Hackney, E5 0NS
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In Brick Lane these days, almost everyone carries a camera to capture the street life, whether traders, buskers, street art or hipsters parading fancy outfits. At every corner in Spitalfields, people are snapping. Casual shutterbugs and professional photoshoots abound in a phantasmagoric frenzy of photographic activity.
It all began with photographer John Thomson in 1876 with his monthly magazine Street Life in London, publishing his pictures accompanied by pen portraits by Adolphe Smith as an early attempt to use photojournalism to record the lives of common people. I like to contemplate the set of Thomson’s lucid pictures preserved in the Bishopsgate Institute – both as an antidote to the surfeit of contemporary imagery, and to grant me a perspective on how the street life of London and its photographic manifestation has changed in the intervening years.
For centuries, this subject had been the preserve of popular prints of the Cries of London and, in his photography, Thomson adopted compositions and content that had become familiar archetypes in this tradition – like the chairmender, the sweep and the strawberry seller. Yet although Thomson composed his photographs to create picturesque images, in many cases the subjects themselves take possession of the pictures through the quality of their human presence, aided by Adolphe Smith’s astute texts underlining the harsh social reality of their existence.
When I look at these pictures, I am always startled by the power of the gaze of those who look straight at the lens and connect with us directly, while there is a plangent sadness to those with eyes cast down in subservience, holding an internal focus and lost in time. The instant can be one of frozen enactment, like the billboard men above, demonstrating what they do for the camera, but more interesting to me are the equivocal moments, like the dealer in fancy ware, the porters at Covent Garden and the strawberry seller, where there is human exposure. There is an unresolved tension in these pictures and, even as the camera records a moment of hiatus, we know it is an interruption before a drama resumes – the lost life of more than one hundred and thirty years ago.
The paradoxical achievement of these early street photographs is they convey a sense that the city eludes the camera, because either we are witnessing a tableau that has been composed or there is simply too much activity to be crammed into the frame. As a consequence it is sometimes the “wild” elements beyond the control of the photographer which render these pictures so fascinating – the restless children and disinterested bystanders, among others.
I long to go beyond the bounds of these photographs, both in time and space. And reading Adolphe Smith’s pen portraits, I want to know all these people, because in their photographs they appear monumental in their dignified stillness - as if their phlegmatic attitudes manifest a strength of character and stoicism in the face of a life of hard work.
Street Doctor - “vendors of pills, potions and quack nostrums are not quite so numerous as they were in former days. The increasing number of free hospitals where the poor may consult qualified physicians have tended to sweep this class of street-folks from the thoroughfares of London.”
An Old Clothes Shop, St Giles - “As a rule, secondhand clothes shops are far from distinguished in their cleanliness, and are often the fruitful medium for the propagation of fever, smallpox &c.”
Caney the Clown - ”thousands remember how he delighted them with his string of sausages at the yearly pantomime, but Caney has cut his last caper since his exertions to please at Stepney Fair caused the bursting of a varicose vein in his leg and, although his careworn face fails to reflect his natural joviality, the mending of chairs brings him constant employment.”
Dealer in Fancy Ware (termed swag selling) – “it’s not so much the imitation jewels the women are after, it’s the class of jewels that make the imitation lady.”
William Hampton of the London Nomades - “Why what do I want with education? Any chaps of my acquaintance that knows how to write and count proper ain’t much to be trusted into the bargain.”
The Temperance Sweep - “to his newly acquired sobriety, monetary prosperity soon ensued and he is well known throughout the neighbourhood, where he advocates the cause of total abstinence..”
The Water Cart - “my mate, in the same employ, and me, pay a half-a-crown each for one room, washing and cooking. It costs me about twelve shillings a week for my living and the rest I must save, I have laid aside eight pounds this past twelve months.”
Survivors of Street Floods in Lambeth - “As for myself, I have never felt right since that awful night when, with my little girl, I sat above the water on my bed until the tide went down.”
The Independent Bootblack - “the independent bootblack must always carry his box on his shoulders and only put it down when he has secured a customer.”
Itinerant Photographer on Clapham Common - “Many have been tradesmen or owned studios in town but after misfortunes in business or reckless dissipations are reduced to their present more humble avocation.”
Public Disinfectors - “They receive sixpence an hour for disinfecting houses and removing contaminated clothing and furniture, and these are such busy times that they often work twelve hours a day.”
Flying Dustmen - “they obtained their cognomen from their habit of flying from from one district to another. When in danger of collison with an inspector of nuisances, they adroitly change the scene of their labours.”
Cheap Fish of St Giles - ” Little Mic-Mac Gosling, as the boy with the pitcher is familiarly called by all his extended circle of friends and acquaintances, is seventeen years old, though he only reaches to the height of three feet ten inches. His bare feet are not necessarily symptoms of poverty, for as a sailor during a long voyage to South Africa he learnt to dispense with boots while on deck.”
Strawberries, All Ripe! All Ripe! - “Strawberries ain’t like marbles that stand chuckin’ about. They won’t hardly bear to be looked at. When I’ve got to my last dozen baskets, they must be worked off for wot they will fetch. They gets soft and only wants mixin’ with sugar to make jam.”
The Wall-Workers (A system of cheap advertising whereby a wall is covered with an array of placards that are hung up in the morning and taken in at night) - Business, sir! Don’t talk to us of business! It’s going clean away from us.”
Cast-Iron Billy - “forty-three years on the road and more, and but for my rheumatics, I feel almost as hale and hearty as any man could wish .”
Labourers at Covent Garden Market - “it is in the early morning that they congregate in this spot, and they are soon scattered to all parts of the metropolis, laden with plants of every description.”
The London Boardmen - “If they walk on the pavement, the police indignantly throw them off into the gutter, where they become entangled in the wheels of carriages, and where cabs and omnibuses are ruthlessly driven against them.”
Workers on the Silent Highway - “their former prestige has disappeared, the silent highway they navigate is no longer the main thoroughfare of London life and commerce, the smooth pavements of the streets have successfully competed with the placid current of the Thames.”
Old Furniture Seller in Holborn – “As a rule, second-hand furniture men take a hard and uncharitable view of humanity. They are accustomed to the scenes of misery, and the drunkenness and vice, that has led up to the seizure of the furniture that becomes their stock.”
Mush-Fakers and Ginger-Beer Makers. - “the real mush-fakers are men who not only sell but mend umbrellas. By taking the good bits from one old “mushroom” and adding it to another, he is able to make, out of two broken and torn umbrellas, a tolerably stout and serviceable gingham.”
Italian Street Musicans -”there is an element of romance about the swarthy Italian youth to which the English poor cannot aspire.”
A Convicts’ Home - “it is to be regretted that the accompanying photograph does not include one of the released prisoners, but the publication of their portraits might have interfered with their chances of getting employment.”
The Street Locksmith - “there are several devoted to this business along the Whitechapel Rd, and each possesses a sufficient number of keys to open almost every lock in London.”
The Seller of Shellfish – “me and my missus are here at this corner with the barrow in all weathers, ‘specially the missus, as I takes odd jobs beating carpets, cleaning windows, and working round the public houses with my goods. So the old gal has most of the weather to herself.”
The ”Crawlers” - “old women reduced by vice and poverty to that degree of wretchedness which destroys even the energy to beg.”
Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute
Read the story of Hookey Alf of Whitechapel from Thomson’s Street Life in London
In 1835, George Cruikshank drew these illustrations of the notable seasons and festivals of the year in London for The Comic Almanack published by Charles Tilt of Fleet St and produced from 1835 – 53. Distinguished literary contributors included William Makepeace Thackeray and Henry Mayhew, but I especially enjoy George Cruikshank’s drawings for their detailed observation of the teeming street life of the capital. (Click on any of these images to enlarge)
JANUARY - Everybody freezes
FEBRUARY - Valentine’s Day
MARCH - March winds
APRIL - April showers
MAY - Sweeps on May Day
JUNE - At the Royal Academy
JULY - At Vauxhall Gardens
AUGUST - Oyster day
SEPTEMBER - Bartholomew Fair
OCTOBER - Return to Town
NOVEMBER - Penny for the Guy
DECEMBER - Christmas
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The Sick Rose by William Blake
Last year, Islington Council rejected an application for an eleven storey development in City Rd that would overshadow Bunhill Fields, the seventeenth century Dissenters’ burial ground that is the last resting place of William Blake, Daniel Defoe, John Bunyan and 120,000 other Londoners. The burial ground is a Grade I Registered Park & Garden of Special Historic Interest, and has seventy-five listed tombs within its boundary.
Subsequently, the Mayor of London called in the application to determine it himself at a hearing which takes place at City Hall this Monday 8th February. Disappointingly, Boris Johnson has decided all cases in favour of the developer over the past eight years, which makes next week’s outcome look predetermined. Read more about this case here
Novelist Sarah Winman & Photographer Patricia Niven visited Bunhill Fields to create this feature
As I walk through the familiar black metal gates, the moss on the headstones looks vivid green in the dull, wet gloom of February light. The sodden earth, fragrant and rich, is punctuated by thick clusters of daffodil stems – that precious moment when spring meets at the boundary of winter, the moment when we sigh, knowing the worst has passed, the short days have passed, and we, like nature, head towards the light.
I have always come to Bunhill Fields, since my early days of living in the City of London. But about three years ago I made a pact to come here every day for a year – my antidote to my father’s rampaging illness and those days spent on hospital wards – my need to understand the cyclical nature of life. And walking through these black iron gates, the markers of lives and stories past on either side, I breathe in the constancy and honesty of nature.
Over that year, I watched this small space adapt and change with the seasons. I went sometimes simply to listen out for the delicate drilling of a woodpecker. I watched the fig tree, once energised by encroaching spring and gloriously laden in the sweetness of summer, wilt heavily as autumn whispered across its branches, as its leaves drooped like shoulders, before falling to a frosty floor. I noted the multiple textures of light – the late evening buttery light of a summer day, the metallic light of a frost-covered morning, when my misted breath led me over to the graves of Daniel Defoe, John Bunyan, and to the uniquely cherished grave of William Blake, where trinkets and offerings and earrings and flowers lay beside, in front of, and on top – all in tribute and memory to a poet, artist and visionary, a man who continues to touch lives, and never more so than in this great City of ours.
“To see the world in a grain of sand/And heaven in a wild flower/Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/And eternity in an hour – This is what sums up Blake for me,” says Tom the Gardener, as he joins me on a bench for a quiet chat.
Tom has worked in Bunhill Fields for the last ten years, and he talks about the environment with passion, pride and wit – qualities all the best Irish storytellers share.
“You know this is supposed to be the most haunted graveyard in London. I haven’t seen anything yet, but I know people who have. Lots of women with big hats suddenly emerging,” he says, wryly smiling. “I love this place. I love the peace and tranquillity and because I am surrounded by history. I know it’s a graveyard but it’s all about people and their stories. All these histories add to what little knowledge we have.
The graves here are very simple, as you can see. Nonconformists are buried here so the stones are not really elaborate. These men and women were free thinkers, radical thinkers, seeking liberty away from church and government. Look over there,” says Tom, “the grave of Thomas Bayes. Statisticians from all over the world come to the grave to honour the man’s theories of probability.
Bunhill – Bonehill – This place is also known as God’s Acre because of the amount of preachers buried here. Lots of Americans make a pilgrimage here – Wesleyans, Baptists, Methodists. They all try and convert me!”
We wander through the stones. We pass thick layers of moss blanketing tombs like table cloths, and fox dens dug deep by the sides, their entrances curtained by hanging roots and an occasional spider’s web.
“I find lots of clay pipes in the dirt the foxes excavate, oysters too: the poor man’s food. I haven’t found anything Anglo Saxon yet. One day,” he says, with a glint in his eye.
“One of my favourite graves is over here – the grave of Thomas Miller – it has carved cherubs and skulls, and the face of the cherub really stands out” And as we approach, I can see that it does – the face peers through the dingy gloom like the serene face of a child, and I wonder if a moment like this has enhanced imagination and brought the realm of improbable into the realm of the real.
“The skulls too have an eerie feel,” continues Tom. “Skulls in the early eighteenth century were the symbol of mortality. This is another favourite,” he says, and leads me over to a grey slate stone – that of the departed Wheatlys from Ave Maria Lane – a carved tale featuring a globe, a cross, an anchor, and the words ashes to ashes, dust to dust. “People lived with death all the time then, early death, children’s deaths, they walked hand in hand with it. There was an acceptance of it. Not like today. We’re so scared of it,” he says, and his voice trails off into the fading light.
And we sit silently once again, as the City stills. There is no hush of breeze to stir the bare branches of the old plane trees, so self-consciously naked. And I look over the lawn as tufts of newly-seeded grass take hold, and the crocuses erupt in shuddering yellows and mauves: new life amidst this gentle setting of earthly departure, and I feel all is well. And all is just so.
A squirrel poses by a puddle before taking a drink. The sound of a faint siren draws us back to the present. Tom leans over towards me.
“Apparently Churchill came here during the war. A bomb had dropped just over there and the trees were on fire and he was fighting the flames with his hat…”
The stories continue.
Tom the Gardener.
Upon the wall in Tom’s hut.
The fox den under a tomb.
Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven
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This church is so big that I can hardly see it. Omnipresent and looming over my existence – as I go about my daily business in the surrounding streets – Nicholas Hawksmoor’s towering masterpiece of English baroque, Christ Church, Spitalfields, has become so deeply integrated into my perception that I do not see it anymore. Yet I can never forget it either, because it continually interposes upon my conscious by surprise, appearing on the skyline in places where I am not expecting it.
Equally, I can never get accustomed to the size of it, and it never ceases to startle me when I turn the corner from Bishopsgate into Brushfield St and spy it there across Commercial St – always bigger than I expect, bigger than I remember it. The church’s gargantuan scale makes it appear it closer than it is and – even though my mind’s eye diminishes it – the reality of it always surpasses my expectation.
In this sense, Nicholas Hawksmoor’s masterpiece still fulfils its original function superlatively, which was to be an monumental marker pointing heavenwards and inducing awe among all those who dwell in its shadow. Constructed between 1714 and 1729 – by Act of Parliament – as one of an intended fifty new churches to serve London’s new communities, at a time when the population of Spitalfields was dominated by Huguenot immigrants, Christ Church’s superhuman scale embodied a majestic flourish of power.
Three centuries later this effect is undiminished, though now the nature of its presence is less bombastic and more elusive. Sometimes, especially at night, I look up at the great cliff face of it stretching up into the dark sky and I feel like an ant, but when I walk out from the portico and the vista of Brushfield St opens to me ahead, I experience a moment of elevation as if the world were a spectacle for my sole disposal. Mostly though, it is through the punctuations in my consciousness that I know it, like the finger of God poking into a painting in an illuminated manuscript. According to my own mood and the meteorological conditions, it conjures different meanings – whether berating me, instructing me, reminding me, teasing me or beckoning me – although the precise nature of the signal remains ever ambiguous, beyond the imperative to lift up my eyes to the sky.
Taking a stroll around the territory, I set out to photograph Christ Church from different places and record its ubiquitous nature in Spitalfields. Upon my circular walk, which I undertook clockwise, travelling south then west then north then east and south again, my path traced each of the contrasted social environments that exist within the bounds of this small parish. In turn, these locations proposed different relationships with my subject which I photographed through the window of a sushi bar, from an orange grove and rising from the ruins of a demolition site.
Once upon a time the spire of Christ Church had no competition – existing as the sole pinnacle – yet although it rises now to face its much taller neighbours in the City, it holds its own as undaunted and heroic as David facing Goliath. So this is how I choose to interpret this extraordinary building which is so big that I cannot see it anymore, as the manifestation of an indomitable spirit. A sentinel to inspire me in my own equivocal day-to-day existence.
From Bangla Town Cash & Carry
From the former Bangla City Continental Supermarket, Brick Lane
From the Seven Stars
From an orange grove in Flower & Dean St
From Petticoat Lane in the City of London
From Thrawl St
From Bell Lane
From Bishops Sq
From Itsu Sushi, Broadgate
From Shoreditch High St
From Quaker St
From the Truman Brewery
From Corbet Place
From Hanbury St
From Fournier St
From the ruins of the Fruit & Wool Exchange
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