Today, I publish my portrait of market traders, Irene & Ivan Kingsley, as a tribute to Irene Kingsley who lived her whole life around Petticoat Lane and died earlier this month.
Irene Kingsley, Herbert House, Spitalfields 1957
Although it may not be apparent to the casual visitor, Middlesex St is the boundary between the Borough of Tower Hamlets and the City of London. It is a distinction of great significance to residents of this particular neighbourhood, because – as Irene Kingsley, who lived there her whole life, put it to me with succinct humour - “When you are in the gutter, you are in Tower Hamlets but when you are on the pavement, you are in the City.”
“I live in the City now, but I spent most of my life in Tower Hamlets.” she added as a qualification, just in case I should take her quip in the wrong spirit. Although Irene had ascended to the lofty heights of a flat in Petticoat Tower on the City side of Middlesex St, she was not bragging that she had gone up in the world, but rather admitting that her heart remained back on the other side of the street where she started out. And when I went to visit her and her husband Ivan, I understood the difference at once, as I climbing the steps from the shabby Petticoat Lane Market into the well-tended courtyard garden of Petticoat Tower, quite a contrast to comparable developments in Tower Hamlets.
In the hallway of their flat on the seventeen floor more plants flourished, these were tended by the Kingsleys. I had only a moment to contemplate them before Ivan appeared to hustle me through the modest yet comfortable flat to the living room where Irene was waiting. Then, as I entered, my eyes were drawn by the yawning chasm of the view over the City from their window. “Everyone goes straight for the view!” Irene declared, exchanging a knowing smile with Ivan. “We used to be able to see the Tower of London, until they built that,” she said, indicating a blue glass block. “And we could see the Monument, before the Gherkin went up,” said Ivan, pointing in the other direction. With such an astonishing prospect, I could understand how anyone might get a little proprietorial.
“We’ve seen a lot of changes in Petticoat Lane.” Irene admitted to me as we sat down, exchanging another a glance with Ivan which was the cue for him to serve tea and biscuits. I knew this was the beginning of her story.
“I was born in Brune House in Toynbee St. My father was a bus conductor and my mother was a seamstress.” she explained, “My grandfather was a cobbler in Artillery Passage and my grandmother had a tea stall in Leyden St, she had seven daughters and they all worked with her, and as time went on all the daughters had their own stalls and they were passed down to grandchildren. I left school at fifteen to work in the office of a clothing factory in Golding St, near Cable St. Until I was fifteen, I lived at Brune House, then I to moved to Herbert House nearby to live with my aunt, she had a daughter of her own and she took me in because I lost my mother. She treated me just like a mother, she took over as my mother.
In 1956 I went to Los Angeles. I took the Queen Mary to New York and then I went by plane from New York to Los Angeles. I worked in the office of an insurance company and I loved it there but I was very homesick, so after a year I came back to pick up the pieces. I had various office jobs and I enjoyed travelling with girlfriends but I never settled down. When I turned fifty, I decided to go into the market selling baby clothes and that’s where I met my husband…”
At this point Ivan and Irene exchanged big smiles, because this was the part where it became a shared narrative.
“We both started out as casual traders,” continued Irene, still looking at Ivan and saying “casual traders,” as if it were a term of endearment, “You had to put your name down on the list and wait around until there were available pitches and it just happened that while we were waiting we used to go to a cafe together. Then the old lady at the stall next to us, she had a granddaughter and we were both invited to the Bell for a celebration and we haven’t look back since!
This was the moment when Ivan took over.“I am not an East End boy,” he announced, “though until I was seven I lived on Underwood St in Spitalfields and from there we moved to Ford Sq in Whitechapel, until in 1940 when we moved to Stoke Newington which in those days was upmarket. I ran a furniture factory in Newington Green until 1976, when I took a job as milkman and from there I went to work for Conway Trading in Toynbee St. They sold socks and underwear for men, and I learnt about that trade, so when they went bankrupt I put what I had learnt into practice, I used to go up North to the sock makers, buy stock and sell it to the retailers. I even applied for the lease to the Conway Trading shop, but for some reason the council refused me and the place is still empty, thirty-five years later.”
By now, I realised where this was going, because – like Irene – the climax of Ivan’s story was becoming a market trader.
“So I decided to start trading in the market.” he said, speaking like a true zealot, “Sundays was brilliant and when I started, even in the week, it was good. It was a wonderful experience because you met so many different kinds of people, all sorts, and, because you were all working in the gutter together, you got to know each other. We were all friends since we were all in the same position. At one point, the council wanted to stop casual traders for nine months, so we went on strike and marched to Bethnal Green Town Hall and demonstrated there. They realised the market could fold and they couldn’t take away the livelihood from seventy people, so from then on we got licences to trade. It was an education, and it was a hard life too, but while you are working you enjoy it.”
Irene and Ivan had stalls side by side and then they combined stalls, unifying their presence in the market, just as their lives became intertwined in marriage. “I retired from the market three and a half years ago when my husband was seventy-five and I was seventy-two, so we feel we’ve done enough.” explained Irene, clasping her hands in satisfaction. Yet both acknowledged that trading in the Petticoat Lane Market was a highlight of their existence, a source of livelihood, a social education and a romantic adventure too, which all goes to prove that sometimes the gutter can be a better place to be than the pavement.
Irene & Ivan Kingsley in their flat in Petticoat Tower.
Irene at Canon Barnett School, 1947 – she is the sixth from the left in the back row.
Ivan (centre) as a young man on Hythe Beach with his family.
Irene (left) at Riccione Beach in 1970 with her friends Phyllis Gee, Stella Spanjar and Celina Martin.
Ivan returns to Conway Trading on Toynbee St where he worked in the seventies. Ivan tried to lease it from the council forty years ago but they refused and it has been empty ever since.
Irene & Ivan walking through Petticoat Lane Market, in the shadow of Petticoat Tower.
Looking towards the City from Irene & Ivan’s flat in Petticoat Tower.
Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman
I shall be introducing Horace Warner’s Spitalfields Nippers, reading some of the biographies of the children in the photographs and giving away free Nippers posters at Waterstones Piccadilly this Wednesday 19th November at 7pm. Admission is free to this event but tickets must be reserved firstname.lastname@example.org
Jerry Donovan or ‘Dick Whittington & His Cat’
Jerry Donovan (Jeremiah Donovan) was born in 1895 in the City of London. His parents Daniel – a news vendor – and Katherine Donovan lived at 14 Little Pearl St. By 1901, the family were resident at Elizabeth Buildings, Boleyn Rd. In 1919, Jerry married Susan Nichols and they had one son, Bertrude John Donovan, born in 1920.
Charlie Potter was born in Haggerston to John – a leather cutter in the boot trade – and Esther Potter. He was baptised on 13th June 1890 at St Peter’s, Hoxton Sq. In 1911, they were living at 13 Socrates Place, New Inn Yard, Shoreditch and he was working as a mould maker. Charlie married Martha Elms at St John’s, Hoxton, on 3rd August 1913. They had two children, Martha, born in 1914 and, Charles, born in 1916. In World War One, Charlie served in the Royal Field Artillery Regiment, number 132308. He died on 19th October 1954 at the Royal Free Hospital. By then, he and Martha were living 46 De Beauvoir Rd, Haggerston, and he left four hundred and seventy pounds to his widow.
Come along to Waterstones Piccadilly on Wednesday to collect a free Spitalfields Nippers poster, as seen here in the window of Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen
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I am going to end this week with an account of my relationship with my grandmother, Bella Lloyd. I cannot think of any other story that better sums up my feelings about the world in which I live. She was seventy-two when I was born and I had her in my life for a brief eleven years.
Born in 1880 in Brick Lane, my grandmother was the illiterate daughter of a market porter who worked in Spitalfields Market. The survivor of an abusive first marriage, her second was a love match with a man who sadly was an alcoholic. Yet it was love nevertheless, though he died leaving her a widow at the age of fifty-two.
Bella & Linda, 1962
You could have cut the smoke with a blunt knife leaving a slash which lasted minutes. It wafted upwards white and grey, like a tired hurricane circling slowly in a yellow plume, to rest edgily under the glow of the spotlight. The stage, like the floor, was covered with linoleum. At some time it had worn a pattern in shades of green, but now its edges were eroded and its surface pockmarked by cigarette burns and the scuff of heels. I sat on the bar and waited, the out-of-tune piano had been playing for some time when I saw her rise. She was, through the smoke, an unexpected dash of colour and movement, gliding towards the stage with a grace which belied her size. In a single movement she removed her false teeth, burying them deep into the pockets of her pinafore, and nodded to the pianist.
She must have been eighty at the time. Her age, like much about her, was wedged into the folklore of the area. Even to me, at six years old, she looked faintly ridiculous – a worn woman, with a mass of silver hair elaborately arranged into a hairnet – until she sang. Her voice, a shadow of a once-powerful instrument, caressed softly the notes of a blues number. With her eyes closed, I knew that she was transporting herself back to the time when she had truly earned her beer with her voice. Yet even now, cigarettes came to rest like an array of twinkling stage lights as the customers listened. They were not an audience from whom you would expect such – workers at lunchtime, men sitting over their hard-earned pints. Once she finished and had responded to the cries of “Come on Bella, give us another” for as long as she was able, we would go home.
Using me as her walking stick, our uneven procession ended at the bottom of a mountain. Two flights of urine-sodden concrete steps which always smelt of yesterday’s overcooked cabbage. “Go up,” she would say breathlessly, handing me the key to her flat, “Put the kettle on, there’s a love.” Finally, when the steam had been gushing for many minutes, she shuffled in, wheezing and gasping to settle down for her cup of tea and her snooze. Our lunchtime adventures in the Sebright Arms were our secret. Mother had enough reservations about Nan’s ability to handle a child without finding out that I spent my school holidays polishing glasses and emptying ashtrays in a pub.
Once Nan had settled into her armchair and the snoring had begun, I was free to roam. The flat had two bedrooms, one where my uncle Ted slept, the other hers. It was to this perfumed boudoir that I would retire until the time was ripe to waken her. What she had been in her youth, I would never know but the baubles and bangles attested to her flamboyance, and the faded old photos from the turn of the century to her time on the music hall boards. Smiling, huge in girth and dressed to the nines, she and her sister, Charlotte, looked down on the room. They had worked the boards, mostly at the London Pavilion in Shoreditch, until Charlotte’s marriage. She told me little of those days, the grinding poverty can hardly have been a pleasant memory.
One day when I was five, I had developed a toothache. Sitting at her old gate-leg table, my reading of the newspaper out loud was punctuated by a series of dribbles onto the type. I could sense her frustration as my pronunciation degenerated into nonsense. She could not read and I was her lifeline to the world.
“What’s up?” she asked none too pleasantly.
“It’s me tooth Nan, it’s all swollen.”
“Show me.” Bending over, she yanked my head with attached neck, nearer her eyes.
“Open your mouth,” she said, peering and poking at the afflicted tooth which throbbed beneath her finger. “Soon fix that.” Muttering, she opened the wood-panelled cupboard which housed just about everything from alka-seltzer to a shoe horn, and – with reverence – extracted an old bottle. It was one of a type I had seen on display at the local chemist as a container from a bygone age, small, squat and brown, with a plug-in glass stopper. The label, presumably once white, was aged to an amber colour, enhanced by runnels of past pourings over its surface. It was empty, she was annoyed. The dull sucking sound of her tongue against the roof of her toothless mouth indicated deep thought. Finally a wide grin erupted as she winked down at me. “Don’t worry. Soon pep it up.”
‘Pepping it up’ involved mixing a small amount of gin with the solidified goo at the bottom of the vial. I stood in the kitchen on the beer crate which doubled as my stool as she repeatedly immersed the bottle into hot water, working at the mixture with a thin handled spoon, her fat arms flapping like bellows with the effort.
“That’s it, good as new. Suck on this, push it over the tooth what hurts.” The sodden wad of cotton wool felt cold, then strangely warm, against my gum.
“Go in the front room and sit down, it’ll soon be better.”
The warmth from the pad electrified my mouth, coasted down my arms, through my abdomen, and into my legs. I sat on the floor, a molten mass of colours, and tried to focus on my jigsaw puzzle. The rain on the grimy window became a kaleidoscope of dancing rainbows, whilst a voice pierced the glow.
“Good stuff that, don’t know why there was all that fuss about it – never did me no harm. How’s the tooth?”
I looked up, she was drinking a cup of Guinness. I managed a nod before the world of light took me away. I remember going into her bedroom, whilst she slept, and playing with a string of pearls as I had a hundred times before. Only they were not the same, each orb had both a huge halo around it and a new clarity as if etched from ice. I held the strand up to the window, where it became a waterfall which flowed through my fingers and down onto the bed where I finally slept.
Next day, I pulled a chair over to the cupboard and found the bottle. The letters were faded to a pale grey, ‘Tincture of laudanum.’ It only was much later when I read ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ that I understood exactly what I had been given.
Summer was the best, we could get out of the flat. Rather than me for support, she would use an old pushchair – my shoulders could only carry her so far. When it was warm, we would make it to the first bench in London Fields and sit. There was a children’s play area which I was never allowed near. The local dogs viewed the sandpit as their very own territory and the sand itself had long changed from golden yellow to sludgy brown. I was never distressed at not flying through the air on a swing or pitching off the roundabout. If I sat and waited, I knew that – eventually – she would talk, not the ramblings of an old woman, but a kind of directed storytelling. She wanted to teach me, share with me her version of life. The slats of the wooden seat irritated my bum, but I never moved. In those days, she was substantial. Sitting back and squinting at the trees, she resembled a floral East End Buddha. We would look up at the patterns of the clouds, sometimes in silence, sometimes commenting on their resemblance to people we knew or those she had known.
It was here that I learned that her own mother, my great-grandmother, had fallen asleep in a drunken stupor upon Nan’s first children, twins, and smothered them to death. The mark of the blade with which Nan had tried to cut her own throat in grief was still, even now, evident. Here that she told me of the death and destruction of two World Wars, of the Blitz, of humour, and of love.
“This bomb went off, and we was all in this Anderson shelter. It had brick either end and corrugated iron over it. Well, we was trapped – the door blocked off by this pile of rubble. I heard old Bill Joyce outside ask if there’s anyone alive? ‘Course I bleedin am, and the rest of us too.’ He was a bright one, Bill. He picks a small hole in the brick and asks me to try and climb through. Head first I goes, the hole was just big enough for me arms and shoulders, ’cause being big I got stuck, so three of them pulls me and all the rest of the bricks out. I had them bruises for weeks.”
The veracity of her stories was always borne out by others, yet she lied. True, they had pulled her through the brickwork but, at her suggestion, because a gas leak in the vicinity threatened to blow them all to kingdom come, and there had been a baby in the shelter – and children to her were the source of light in the world.
More than simply relating her version of the past, she tried to indoctrinate me with her version of life and how it should be lived. “You mustn’t be like your mum, afraid of your own shadow. Always trying to do the right thing. There’s no such thing, you can’t live by a set of rules – it just happens to you. Like the pub, what harm does it do? You earn a few bob, get all the crisps you want, but she wouldn’t see it like that.”
“But she loves you, Nan.”
“I know, but she don’t understand. How could she, she hasn’t lived my life. You can’t always be respectable, sometimes you have to fight, break the law even.”
She had been in gaol twice, once in each of the World Wars. Born into the slums of London in 1880, or thereabouts, authority held little mystique for her. It was only in place, she knew, to protect the privileged from those such as herself. Had she not earned the nickname of ‘Bella the basher,’ my mother could have forgiven her digression, after all she had been playing Robin Hood. When she told the tale her eyes would glaze over and she was once more that woman of thirty-seven with eight children, all of whom were cold.
“It was a bitter November, that one of 1917. We’d burnt everything you could, some had even started on their furniture. I was coming down Brick Lane when I sees him, a young chap driving a coal cart all loaded up. He stops outside a pub and starts to unload. ‘Its all right for them as has,’ I thought. Then it came to me, I should nick the cart. He was a bit too quick or me a bit too slow, ’cause he caught me untying the reins from the lamppost. ‘Listen’ I says, ‘I don’t want no trouble but I’m taking it, there’s them as needs it more.’ He didn’t like that and tries to grab the reins, silly sod, so I lays him out flat, broke his nose. I’d never driven a horse and cart before, lucky the horse knew how to go in a straight line, cause I didn’t.”
By the time the authorities had caught her, most of the coal had disappeared and she had entered folk legend. I often wondered if the pile of coal which she insisted on keeping in her bath was more than a memento mori. As much as anything, I assumed that she kept it to annoy my mother who, try as she might, could not persuade Nan on the joys of having a bath. After her death, we found a neatly-wrapped pile of gold sovereigns beneath the coal – her own personal bank, ready for any emergency.
Our secret life together ended abruptly during the Easter break when I was nine. One of the men from the factory in which Mum worked sometimes came to the Sebright for lunch. She overheard him recounting the tale of an old woman who sang with a kid in tow. I was happily kicking my heels against the bar to one of Nan’s upbeat numbers when Mum arrived. Suddenly, I was grabbed and whisked out into the alleyway. Her eyes, a hazel version of Nan’s green, were manic as she shook me repeatedly, “How long has this been going on tell me? Tell me!”
Subconsciously, I heard the singing stop way before Nan appeared, “Leave her alone, she’s only a child.”
They faced one another. “If she’s only a child, what’s she doing here, you stupid old woman?”
“Listen love, she’s got to learn.”
“Learn what? About your bloody pride, an old wreck who still thinks she’s something?”
I heard the groan of disapproval from the audience assembled inside the doorway.
“Christ, you give my arse a toothache. I may be an old wreck but at least I was something once. More than I can say for some,” Nan spat out with venom.
“Have it your way. But she’s not ending up as a bar floozy or worse. Come on.”
I spent the rest of the afternoon filling in dockets at Mum’s firm, hoping that the storm was over. It wasn’t. My mother’s antipathy to pubs and alcohol came from the fact that my grandfather, her father, had been an alcoholic. The fights and tears, which she had experienced as home life between her parents were imprinted heavily onto her mind and no child of hers was going to be exposed at such an early age.
I never saw Nan sing again. I missed that. My school holidays in future were spent at home with my other grandmother, who had a whole set of other problems. Just before I went to Secondary School, I was allowed to spend one final afternoon with her. My mother had insisted that I wear my new school uniform.
Bejewelled and powdered, she lay propped on pillows, as it transpired just a whisper away from death. “What you wearing that for?”
“Mum said I should, said you’d like to see it.”
“It’s Spitalfields uniform?”
“Grammar School. Maybe your mother was right to take you away from me?”
I helped her on with the oxygen mask whilst she fumbled in her handbag for a crumpled note. “Here,” she said, “take this, for being clever.”
We sat in silence as she gulped air into what remained of her lungs.
The great pools of her green eyes wrinkled with amusement, “What are you going to do with it, Learning?”
I wanted to escape the smelly stairwells, the house with an outside toilet, no heating, no hot water. Lose an accent as thick as treacle. I wanted to be out there in what was, to me, the real world – full of other smells, other experiences.
“Don’t you shrug at me. I know what you’re thinking.”
“You want to run away – will run away, but you’ll come back one day.”
“I won’t. Why should I?”
“Because we’re real.”
“Other people are real.”
“Not in the same way. I’ve met them – afraid, anaemic scallywags. Not like you, you’ve got fight.”
“That’s why I want to get away, don’t you see?”
“I don’t want for you what me and your mother had. No, I don’t mean that. You’ll learn lots from books, you must, but there’s a bit of you that will always be here, even when you don’t know it. It’ll sneak up on you one day.”
“Nan, I love you all, but this life, it’s too narrow.”
“Just ’cause you’ll see more people, don’t mean you’ll see more.”
“We all has the same experiences, love – with or without money, with or without learning. We’re all born, live and die. If you’re lucky, someone might love you and you them. If not, it’s all the same.”
“So, if it’s all the same – Why should I want to be here?”
She coughed painfully, holding her chest, trying to contain the agony. Finally, gasping, she lay back with the mask all askew and I turned off the air, “Got any gin, Nan?”
Her smile was as broad as ever, “Thanks love, make sure you pep it up right now.”
I did, melding the syrup lovingly as I had been taught, and we sat sharing one last afternoon of colours and crystal light courtesy of that squat brown bottle. It was a bright and beautiful late spring day, the tree outside her bedroom window glowed hard with new greenery. Her once-powerful frame was shrunken into the bed, white on white, the only colour was a slash of red for her lips, and – as always – her eyes, which in that final laudanum haze challenged even the leaves for their splendour.
The sun had long left the room when I stood to take my leave. She lay more deeply now, almost buried, a wizened shadowed reflection of a life hard-lived. It was the last time I would kiss her still soft cheek and smell the oris root face powder warmed by her flesh. “Bye Nan.”
“Bye love, look after yourself.”
As I turned to close the door she was already asleep, her breathing uneven and shallow, enlivened by a gentle snoring. It was in the soft grey light of that early evening I said goodbye to my best friend.
In the many years since that conversation, I have often been less kind to myself than she would have liked, often not been the granddaughter she would have me be. Yet, even when I had removed myself from that past, moved – as I saw it – onto another plane, the shape of a passing cloud or a sudden rush of colour would take me back to her. Like an intimate friend, the memory would warm and remind me of her words of that long-ago afternoon. Much of what she said had been laced with fear for my survival in a world alien to her, yet the kernel of the nut had been sound. The native did return. In the end, she had been right both about reality – and my heart.
Bella and her daughter (Linda’s mother), also known as Bella, 1932
Bella Lloyd with her son-in-law, Harry Wilkinson, Linda’s father
Linda Wilkinson, portrait by Lucinda Douglas-Menzies
Linda will be talking about her books at The Write Idea Festival today, Sunday November 16th, at 4 pm at the Whitechapel Idea Store.
On the evening of Tuesday November 25th, she will be speaking about her family and growing up in Columbia Rd as part of Where Do You Think You Live?
Copies of Watercress But No Sandwiches: 300 Years of the Columbia Rd Area & Columbia Rd – a Strange Kind of Paradise can be both purchased online direct from the author at www.lindawilkinson.org
In her sixth of seven stories Linda Wilkinson traces a fragmentary history of gay life in the East End
Diamond Lil, Queen of Columbia Rd
One imagines, given the proximity of the docks, it would prove an easy task to tell the history of gay life in the East End, that stories aplenty would pepper the archives from newspapers of the past. But it is not the case. As in many other places over the centuries, divergence from the norm was criminalised here and therefore buried.
Yet I persisted, and I uncovered not only the stories I sought but also a hotbed of political activism of which this borough should be deservedly proud. First indications that sexual activities were rife came in 1690 with the foundation of the Society for the Reformation of Manners in the East End.
For fifty years, the Society sought out brothels and secret clubs called ‘Molly Houses’ where gay, bisexual and transgender men met. Many were jailed or put into the stocks as a consequence of discovery. In 1728, the house of Jonathan Muff – alias ‘Miss Muff’ – in Black Lyon Yd, near Whitechapel Church, was searched and nine male ‘Ladies,’ including the ‘Man of the House,’ were arrested.
Moving into the twentieth century, after World War One, the phenomenon of ‘drag’ became an established part of East End life. It is commonly assumed that cross-dressing originated in Elizabethan times when men took on female roles in the theatre and, of course, pantomime and music hall traditions include transvestites both male and female. But it is to the all-male concert party troupes of World War One that we can look to for the origins of drag as we know it.
During the War, the performers cross-dressed as a matter of necessity but the continuation of these groups during the more-liberal nineteen-twenties and thirties saw them composed almost exclusively of gay men.
I was born in the nineteen-fifties when drag acts in the pubs of East London were taken for granted. In fact, during the war, our own Columbia Rd ‘Diamond Lil. had kept everyone’s spirits up and her signature tune, “I want a boy,” was known by all.
Yet Diamond Lil was safe in the bubble of the East End. The West End was a more dangerous territory into which she seldom wandered. In the nineteen-fifties, Daniel Farson, who owned a famous pub called the Waterman’s Arms, said, “When I moved into Limehouse [in the 1950’s] the East End was a No-Man’s-Land for the rest of the capital, yet gay East Enders lived in a world of their own.”
Tolerance was not something East Enders were known for but, if you were part of the tribe, the tribe looked after you. It was far from Nirvana for gay men, yet even for Ronnie Kray, before his violence made him a person to fear, his queerness gave no cause for alarm.
Not being of the tribe and landing in Bethnal Green could be problematic. In the nineteen-seventies, when the Gay Liberation Movement was emerging, Bethnal Rouge Commune was established at 248 Bethnal Green Rd. These men were part of the Radical Feminists who grew out of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality in support of lesbians whom they felt were being subjugated. Dressed in glorious and outrageous drag, they were at first looked upon with some suspicion until, as I was told recently by one of the former members, “The publican of the nearby Marquis of Cornwallis discovered some of us could play the piano, it was all right after that.”
In more recent years, the political lobbying group Stonewall was founded by a group of East Enders sitting around Ian McKellen’s dinner table in Wapping and the renaissance of East London has brought a new wave gay culture – Glyn and Amy of Sink the Pink call themselves accidental activists. Their party nights at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club grew from their own desire to have a good time. Bored with the sterile nature of the gay scene that they encountered in the West End they sat down and drew up a list of what would make a good night out for them. They discovered there was a need and appetite for the kind of events they arrange, which often attract more than a thousand in a night.
As Glyn said to me, “These aren’t just a thousand people coming for a look – these are people who feel that they exist on the edge of society, who really want to push boundaries and find that they can do that with us. We find that freedom of expression is being scrutinised and parodied. Being gay has been marketed and, if you are not a cuddly gay, you are not acceptable.”
The scale of their popularity has even seen them become the subject of a PhD thesis at Cambridge University entitled, “We Are Family: Ritual Structure & Pop Music’s Role in the Creation of an Egalitarian Community at Sink The Pink,” written by Jacob Mallinson Bird (AKA Dinah Lux). It garnered a first.
Splinters one of the all-male concert party troupes that evolved from World War One
The Deuragor was famed, as were many pubs, for their drag acts. The poster on the wall advertises Gaye Travers, who was famous in the East End
The Bloolips were a subversive political force that came out of the East End
Sink the Pink at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, 2013 – in the centre of this picture is Glynnfamous
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In her fifth story, Linda Wilkinson tells of a plan to create a garden in honour of Thomas Fairchild
Nineteenth century plate bought in Spitalfields
We almost certainly have the Huguenot immigrants of the seventeenth century to thank for the presence of Columbia Rd Flower Market. Their love of floriculture is legendary but what is perhaps not so well known is that wealthy Huguenot families built summer houses and hot houses upon the land that is now Columbia Rd. In 1795, market gardeners occupied 28% of Bethnal Green agricultural land. By 1800, many of these had developed into large gardens divided up like allotments, each with its own summer house, “where weavers and citizens grew flowers and vegetables and dined on Sundays.”
Eye witness reports are sparse from the period but an article from October 11th, 1827 in the London Standard Newspaper stated that “About three o’clock [in the morning] the South of Hackney Road was visited by one of the most destructive tempests witnessed in the vicinity of the metropolis for many years.” The wind was so fierce that it laid waste to the entire range of garden and orchard grounds on Crabtree Row (Columbia Rd). Hot houses were blown into fragments, chimney and window pots rained down, pigeon traps on the roofs were blown into the adjacent brick field, “and an old stable attached to the Birdcage Public House was thrown down with a frightful crash.”
It is difficult to imagine hot houses and orchards anywhere near the Birdcage Pub these days or, indeed, the pub standing in splendid isolation. The Gentle Author has previously told the story of Thomas Fairchild who had gardens in nearby Hoxton where he made history in 1717 when he took pollen from a Carnation and inserted it into a Sweet William, thereby producing a new variety that became known as ‘Fairchild’s Mule.’ It was the first reported instance of manual plant hybridisation.
Resisted in Fairchild’s era, when it was seen as interfering with creation, it took another century for his technique to be widely adopted. Yet he is also remembered for writing The London Gardener, the first guide book for gardening in the capital.
Fairchild’s local church was St Leonard’s, Shoreditch, and on his death in 1729 he was buried in what is currently Hackney Rd Recreation Ground, originally laid out in 1625. During Fairchild’s time, this was part of the church graveyard and in the nineteenth century was occupied by almshouses. These were converted from an engine and watch house in 1825, and were eventually demolished in 1904. Although there is a sparse monument to Fairchild in the grounds, he is actually interred as he directed, “In some corner of the furthest church yard belonging to the parish of St Leonard’s Shoreditch, where poore people are usually buried.”
Today it is a melancholy place, situated next to the splendid Grade II listed Ye Olde Axe public house, which presents “exotic dancers.” In 1892, the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, laid it out as a public space and latterly it housed a tennis court, ping-pong table and, more recently, art installations.
There are now plans afoot to rejuvenate the Ground, spearheaded by a group comprising the MPGA, Friends of Hackney Rd Recreational Grounds and Worshipful Company of Gardeners whose representative and former Master, Rex Thornborough, lives locally. Supported by the London Borough of Hackney and St Leonard’s Church, one of the ideas is to turn the ground into an education-based garden about Thomas Fairchild and the history of horticulture in the local area.
As Rex explained to me when we visited the Ground recently , the funding is not yet fully secured but the role of the MPGA and the Gardeners’ Company in this endeavour is to sprinkle the magic dust to make it happen. So let us hope they succeed, because too much of our history is lost to the bulldozer at the moment and it would be a sad travesty if this important man and his bones were consigned to oblivion.
Thomas Fairchild’s memorial in the Hackney Rd Recreation Ground
Thomas Fairchild, Gardener of Hoxton
An East Ender prepares for a Floral Competition around 1900
Rex Thornborough in his full regalia as Master of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners
Rex finds the last strawberry of summer in Hackney Rd Recreation Ground
Thomas Fairchild’s memorial in Hackney Rd Recreation Ground
Contact Metropolitan Public Gardens Association for more information on their Thomas Fairchild project
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