Yesterday, I went over to Petticoat Lane to offer my commiserations to Peter Baldacci on the last day of trading for his family on Petticoat Lane after eighty-five years. He told me that, as tenants of the Corporation of the City of London, he and his son Matthew are both reduced to leases of six months’ tenure and the threat of 100% rent increases which makes it impossible for them to continue.
They will be greatly missed – both by the office workers who bought freshly-made sandwiches from MB’s Sandwich Bar in Harrow Place each day and by long-term members of the local community who cherished MB’s Cafe in Middlesex St as a popular meeting place for hot meals at affordable prices.
Matthew Baldacci, June 2014 – “This is what I do and this is what I will be doing”
Since 1830, Petticoat Lane has been known as Middlesex St and yet it is still widely referred to by its earlier name. Such is the enigma of this ancient thoroughfare and market that is recognised more by what it was than what it is. Yet the enduring life of Petticoat Lane is still there to be found, if you look close enough.
Behind a curious concrete staircase that leads nowhere on Middlesex St, I sought out MB’s Cafe with faded old photographs upon the walls of the former Baldacci’s Cafe. M B stood for Matthew Baldacci who ran this cafe and another of the same name round the corner in Harrow Place with his father Peter. Together they were the second and third generations in this family business, begun here by Matthew’s grandfather Umberto.
The original cafes and the street in the photographs where Umberto lived and worked have long gone, lost beneath a brutalist concrete development – the one with the staircase leading nowhere. Yet in spite of this architectural transformation, the Baldacci family and their cafe remained as one of the last family businesses to carry the story of the Lane.
Reflecting the nature of this border territory where the City of London meets the East End, the two Baldacci cafes were oriented to serve customers from both directions. MB’s in Harrow Place was where Matthew greeted the City workers by name as they picked up their sandwiches and rolls daily, while MB’s in Middlesex St was where you found the stalwarts of Petticoat Lane tucking in to their cooked lunches. It was at the latter establishment, hidden discreetly under the stairs, that I met with Peter a year ago and he told me the Baldacci family history.
“It all started with my father Umberto Baldacci, he came over from Italy at fourteen years old and worked in a cafe. He lived in the buildings in Stoney Lane and he opened up his first cafe there in 1932 and they did quite well because he got a second one in the late forties on Petticoat Lane. The one in Stoney Lane was more cooked meals while the one in Petticoat Lane was sandwiches and rolls.
My father was born in 1905 and worked until the end, when he died at seventy-three in 1979. My mother Maria, she worked in the kitchen all day long from early morning and then she cooked his dinner afterwards, that’s how things were in those days – a man expected everything. She worked until three years before she died. When you look back, it wasn’t easy for an Italian woman but I don’t think she’d have wanted anything else. She had come over from Italy at an early age and lived in Kings Cross. I don’t know how they met. My father never went back, he made his home here. I can’t even understand Italian. It’s my one regret that I never learnt Italian.
They built a nice business and he was very happy. The Jewish people made him welcome and it really helped a lot. In school holidays, I used to come and work from the age of thirteen in 1962, maybe earlier, and when I was sixteen I started full time. I started washing up and filing rolls. I loved it. The East End was a very different place then and Petticoat Lane was alive with all different kinds of traders. It was fantastic.
I get up around four-thirty each morning and get down here by five-thirty, I like to be open by six. Then I close by four and I’m home by four-thirty. I can cook, I do everything, if anyone can’t come in I cover for them. I’ve worked in this cafe for twenty-nine years, but I’ve been full time for fifty-three years in total. We’ve got one customer Benny, he’s been coming for seventy years. He lives in Petticoat Tower and comes in each morning for his breakfast. My son Matthew joined me twenty-five years ago and we changed the name to ‘MB’s’.”
At the conclusion of Peter’s tale, Matthew Baldacci arrived fresh from completing the busy lunch service round the corner in Harrow Place. “I started working Sundays when I was fourteen, it was expected but I didn’t not want to do it. I started full time at sixteen, twenty-five years ago.” he revealed, meeting his father’s eyes with a protective smile, “My dad does the book work and I do the running of it. We’re very close.”
Matthew told me there was a sense of change in the air around Petticoat Lane and he hoped that it was only a matter of time before the escalating life of Spitalfields and the City would spill over into this backwater bringing increased trade.
At that time, after all the transformations that the Baldcaccis had seen through three generations, Matthew remained ebullient for the future. “This is what I do and this is what I will be doing,” he assured me confidently, “I have two sons and it’s a probability that one of them will go into it.”
Yet after eighty-five years of service by the Baldacci family, running cafes on Petticoat Lane, it is now a matter of widespread regret that the story ends here and we shall never see Matthew’s prediction come to pass.
Umberto Baldacci’s Cafe in Stoney Lane
The letter from the City of London beginning Baldacci’s tenancy that ended this week
Peter outside MB’s Cafe in Harrow Place
MB’s Cafe under the stairs on Middlesex St
Peter & Matthew Baldacci
Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven
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Danish Illustrator Ebbe Sadolin (1900-82) visited London in the years following the War to capture the character of the capital, just recovering from the Blitz, in a series of lyrical drawings executed in elegant spidery lines. Remarkably, he included as many images of the East End as the West End and I publish a selection of favourites here from the forties.
George & Dragon, Shoreditch
St Katherine’s Way, Wapping
The Prospect of Whitby, Wapping
Tower Green, Tower of London
The Olde Cheshire Cheese, Fleet St
Rough Sleeper, Shoreditch
Nightingale Lane, Wapping
Tower of London
St Pancras Station
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Bride of Denmark, Queen Anne’s Gate
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The Duke of Wellington, 1939 – courtesy of The National Brewery Centre, Burton on Trent
Just round the corner from The Gun that shut forever last week is The Duke of Wellington, which is currently under threat of closure and may also vanish from our streets shortly if the campaign to save it is not successful. Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien, my frequent companion in visiting public houses, came along with me when I paid a lunchtime call recently.
I have always admired The Duke of Wellington swaggering on the corner of Brune and Toynbee St, flaunting its eccentrically-pitched roof and tall chimney stack in the style of a Tudor cottage like a swanky hat and complementing the terrace of shops opposite, each with a dwelling or workshop above and resembling a long tithe barn.
Colin & I were happy to leave the clamour of the street and enter the peace of the barroom, where a highly concentrated game of darts was in progress. Nick Harris, who has run the pub with licensee Vinny Mulhern in recent years, greeted us and explained that eighty per cent of the customers were darts players. “We’ve got so many teams, there are matches every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday,” he admitted to me, “I first came here as a member of a team to play in a match.”
There has been a pub on this site since at least the eighteen-fifties yet, as with many others across the East End, London and the Nation, its days may now be numbered. Recent law permits alteration in use of pubs without the necessity of planning permission, generating an unprecedented number of closures, as pubs that are economically-viable and valued community meeting places are snapped up by predatory developers, eager to shut them down and convert the buildings to other uses that will deliver a quick profit.
Vinny Mulhern’s problem is Mendoza Limited who bought the freehold of his pub for fifteen million pounds. As owners, they have the right to prescribe the list of suppliers that he, as tenant, can buy from. As a consequence, Vinny has to pay £265 a barrel where he paid £130 previously. Meanwhile, he has discovered Mendoza Limited have acquired a string of twenty-seven pubs for ‘conversion,’ employing questionable tactics to further their purpose.
“They’re saying we’ve been buying from unapproved suppliers and they’ve sent in a stocktaker,” Nick revealed. For months now, I learned, Vinny has had his weekly rent returned the day after he has paid it. “I think they are getting ready to send the bailiffs in to change our locks for not paying the rent,” Nick confessed to me, turning emotional, “They don’t care – they don’t realise how much it offends good honest people who are just trying to make a living.”
Before Christmas, Mendoza Limited put in a planning application to gut the pub, demolish part of the building and pack in as many pokey flats as possible, building upon the pub garden and adjoining land. You only have until the end of this week to object.
Vinny Mulhern, Publican
Nick Harris & Vinny Mulhern
Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien
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In this new selection from Philip Mernick‘s fine collection of cartes de visite by nineteenth century East End photographers, gathered over the past twenty years, we publish portraits of women arranged chronologically to show the evolving styles of dress and changing roles of female existence.
c. 1910 Theatrical performer by William Whiffin
c. 1940 Driver
Photographs reproduced courtesy of Philip Mernick
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In 1946, a demobbed soldier walked into The Gun in Brushfield St and ordered a pint. Admitting that he had no money, he asked if he could leave his medals as security and come back the next day to pay for his beer. But he never returned and all this time his medals have been kept safely at The Gun, mounted in a frame on the wall, awaiting the day when he might walk through the door again.
Alas, the waiting is over and now it is too late for the soldier to return – because the pub closed forever on Friday and, if he were to come back, he would find The Gun’s doors locked, prior to demolition as part of the impending redevelopment of the handsome London Fruit & Wool Exchange.
The military theme of this anecdote is especially pertinent, since it appears likely that The Gun originated as a tavern serving the soldiers of the Artillery Ground in the sixteenth century, and the story of the pub and the tale of the medals both ended last week.
Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien & I joined the regulars for a lively yet poignant celebration on Friday night, drinking the bar dry in commemorating the passing of a beloved Spitalfields institution. No-one could deny The Gun went off with a bang.
“We are the last Jewish publicans in the East End,” Karen Pollack, who ran The Gun with her son Marc, informed me proudly, “yet I had never been in a pub until I married David, Marc’s father, in 1978.” Karen explained that David Pollack’s grandparents took over The Bell in 1938, when it was one of eight pubs on Petticoat Lane, and in 1978, David’s father George Pollack also acquired the lease of The Gun, which was run by David & Karen from 1981 onwards.
“David grew up above The Bell and he always wanted to keep his own pub,” Karen recalled fondly, “It was fantastic, everyone knew everyone. We opened at six in the morning and got all the porters from the market in here, and the directors of the Truman Brewery used to dine upstairs in the Bombardier Restaurant – there was no other place to eat in Spitalfields at that time.”
“People still come back and ask me for brandy and milk sometimes,” she confided, “that’s what people from the market drank.”
On Friday night, the beautiful 1928 interior of The Gun with its original glass ceiling, oak panelling, Delft tiles, prints of the Cries of London and views of Spitalfields by Geoffrey Fletcher, was crowded with old friends enjoying the intimate community atmosphere for one last time, many sharing affectionate memories of publican, David Pollack, who died just a few years ago. “We’ve had some good times here,” Karen confessed to me in quiet understatement, casting her eyes around at the happy crowd.
“I was always known as David Pollack’s son, I came into the pub in 2008 and it was second nature to me,” Marc revealed later, which led me me to ask him what this fourth generation East End publican planned to do with the rest of his life. “I’m going to open another pub and call it The Gun,” he assured me without hesitation. And I have no doubt Marc will take the medals with him because – you never know – that errant soldier might still come back for them one day.
Fourth generation East End publican Marc Pollack, pictured here with his staff, stands on the left
David Pollack, publican, Michael Aitken of Truman’s Brewery & George Pollack, publican in 1984
Karen Pollack shows customers the old photographs
Karen Pollack and bar staff
Emma, Marc and Karen Pollack
Medals awaiting the return of their owner
The Gun in 1950
Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien
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