Queenhithe is a natural inlet of the Thames in the City of London, it means ‘Queen’s harbour’ and is named after Queen Matilda who granted a charter for the use of the dock at the beginning of the twelfth century. This is just one of two thousand years of historical events illustrated in a new twenty metre mosaic recently installed upon the river wall at Queenhithe.
Commissioned by the City of London and paid for by 4C Hotel Group, who are constructing a new hotel on the waterfront, it was designed by Tessa Hunkin and executed by South Bank Mosaics – and I recommend you take a stroll down through the City to the river, and study the intricate and lively detail of this epic work for yourself.
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Have you ever wondered what is in the dark space beneath the rotunda?
I remember the first time I visited the Barbican, it was to see the newly-opened Museum of London and, as I walked up from St Paul’s Cathedral, I was astonished by the towering brick rotunda that confronted me. Only by passing across a bridge over the road could you enter this secret enclave, and within I found a hidden garden spiralling down to a large closed door, just as implacable as the blank walls upon the exterior.
Recently I discovered the use of this vast construction is as a mausoleum to store the fourteen thousand human remains in the Museum’s collection, sequestered there in their dark castle in the midst of the roundabout for eternity. Thus it was the fulfilment of more than thirty years of curiosity this week, when I walked over to London Wall and paid a visit to the interior of the rotunda.
My hosts were Rebecca Redfern & Jelena Beklavac, two Bioarchaeologists who are Curators of Human Osteology at the Museum and my particular interest was the more than ten thousand ex-residents of Spitalfields who now rest in the rotunda. “We look after them,” Rebecca reassured me. “We make sure that anyone who wants to see them is a bona fide researcher,” Jelena, explained as we sipped tea and nibbled chocolate biscuits in the subterranean office of the Department of Human Osteology, prior to visiting the rotunda.
Spitalfields was the largest cemetery ever excavated in an urban centre, I learnt, and is thus of enormous scholarly and human significance. All the skeletons were recorded spatially and chronologically when they were removed over three and a half years, at the time of the redevelopment of the Spitalfields Market, to create a database of unrivalled scale – permitting the study of human remains from the eleventh century, when the Priory of St Mary Spital was founded, until the Reformation, when the Priory was closed. As well as residents of the Priory, mass burials were found from times of crisis, such as the Famine, when parish churchyards could not cope.
“It’s incredible, they tell us so much about Medieval London – everyday life, the arrival of new diseases, pollution, diet and immigration,” Rebecca revealed, as if she were conveying direct testimony. “It’s a snapshot of people through time,” she added fondly.
I was struck by the use of the word ‘people’ by Rebecca and the phrase ‘such lovely people’ by Jelena, in describing their charges, yet it became apparent that this work brings an intimate appreciation of the lives of the long-dead. “We see the things they suffered and what’s remarkable is that they survived,” Jelena admitted, “People were super-tough and a lot more tolerant to pain.” Rebecca told me of a child afflicted with congenital syphilis who had survived until the age of eleven, evidencing the quality of care provided by the infirmary of St Mary Spital. Equally, there were those with severe, life-threatening head wounds who had recovered, and others with compound fractures and permanent injuries who carried on their lives in spite of their condition. “There must have been quite a lot of interesting looking people walking around in those days,” Jelena suggested, tactfully.
“If you didn’t do what you needed to do, to get food, heat and shelter, you would die,” Rebecca added, “We’ve lost that resilience. Children in Medieval London were riddled with tuberculosis except most recovered.” The outcome of the catastrophies that came upon the City was the genetic transformation of Londoners and, even today, those who are descended from Black Death survivors possess a greater resistance to AIDS and certain cancers. Medieval Londoners were more resistant to infection than their present day counterparts. “People lived in vile conditions but they became hardy and, if you survived to the age of five, you were pretty robust,” Jelena informed me, “Whereas the contemporary culture of cleanliness has disconnected us from our environment.”
Once I had grasped a notion of what is to be learnt from the people in the rotunda, it was time to pay them a visit. So Rebecca, Jelena and I left our teacups behind to trace a path through the Piranesian labyrinth of concrete tunnels beneath the Museum to reach the mausoleum. As the fluorescent tubes flickered into life, all was still within the rotunda and an expanse of steel shelving was revealed, extending into the distance and stacked neatly with cardboard boxes, each containing the mortal remains of a Londoner. “They’re Spitalfields,” indicated my hosts, gesturing in one direction, before turning and pointing out other aisles of shelves, “That’s the Black Death and they’re Romans.” Outside the traffic rumbled and as we passed fire-doors which gave onto the street, I could hear the rush of trucks close by. The identical cardboard boxes were a literal reminder that we are all equal in death.
Extraordinarily, the rotunda was not built to house the dead but simply as a structure to fill the roundabout, yet I am reliably informed the stable low temperature which prevails is ideal for the storage of bones. Inside, it was a curiously unfinished edifice – with raw concrete and a platform from a crane used in the construction still visible and, elsewhere, the builders had left their graffiti. This was a mysterious incidental space for which no plans survive, but that has found its ideal purpose. Entirely lacking in the gothic chills of a cemetery, the rotunda was peaceful and I had no sense of the silent hordes surrounding us, although I am told contract workers sometimes get nervous when they learn what is stored there.
It is the exterior world which which becomes the enigma when you are inside the rotunda, a world composed of distant traffic noise, curiously transmuted snatches of conversation upon the Barbican broadwalk above and the sound of kitchen equipment in the restaurant overhead. But you may be assured that I sensed no discontent among the thousands of supplanted former-residents of Spitalfields, resting there in peace yet with life whirling all around them.
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It is my pleasure to publish this selection of pictures by the celebrated Whitechapel Wedding Photographer, Boris Bennett (1900-1985), whose work is now collected into a handsome monograph entitled Vintage Glamour in London’s East End published by Hoxton Minipress. There is a compelling poignancy to these pictures, recording the most important events in the lives of their subjects. Brimming with emotion, many were putting a troubled Eastern European past behind them as they turned their faces to the camera – and Boris’ emotive photographs capture the significant moment when his subjects ‘arrived.’
Boris Bennett, 1985
“My father, Boris Bennett, was the doyen of Jewish wedding photographers and became a legend in his own lifetime. Over the course of his working life, he took 150,000 wedding photographs and it was cited in the Jewish East End that, ‘if you haven’t got a Boris wedding picture, you aren’t married.’ Even today, it is hard to find a London Jewish home where a ‘Boris’ wedding photo is not on display. Indeed, his popularity extended beyond the East End – prior to the end of World War II, Boris opened studio premises in the West End, at first on Oxford St with further studios in Bond St, Marble Arch, Leicester Sq and the Strand.” – Michael Bennett
Polly Cohen & Julius Henry Goldwater were married on 26th December, 1929 at West Ham District Synagogue, Earlhamgrove, Forest Gate. The couple settled in Cambridge and Julius, originally from Edgbaston, Birmingham, ran ladies and menswear shops. They had two children, Clive & Marlene.
Dora Sweetman & Isaac Feierstein were married on 15th June, 1930 at Fieldgate St Great Synagogue, Stepney. Isaac, born in Warsaw, was a master tailor with a workshop in Stoke Newington and Dora was a tailoress.
Elsie Pliskin & Victor Pliskin were first cousins aged nine and six at the wedding of their cousin Minnie Pliskin, a milliner, and Barnett Cooklin, a cabinetmaker, on 11th December, 1932 at Jubilee St Great Synagogue. Victor’s winged collar was specially made by the outfitters, Mays in Whitechapel Road, next door to the Blind Beggar pub. Victor later married Irene Plisken on 11th August, 1946 in the Dunstan Rd Synagogue, Golders Green with the reception at the Regal Ballrooms, Finchley Rd. Victor was a machinist at a London tailor but was evacuated to Luton during World War II. Later he set up his own ladies’ tailoring business called ‘Renvic Modes’ and Irene became a hairdresser like her father Reuben Plisken.
Dora Ackerman was a bridesmaid at the wedding of Aida Margolis & Hyman Lever in October 1931. Dora, a friend of Aida, was married in 1933 to Nathan Misner and had a daughter in 1936 and a son a year later. Both Dora and Nathan worked in the jewellery trade. During World War II, Nathan served in the Far East and Dora died prematurely in 1944, aged only thirty-six.
Fanny Borona (also known as Felice Flatto) was a shop assistant who married Morris Winter, a tailor’s cutter, on 1st May 1932 at the Great Synagogue, Dukes Place, in the City of London. Fanny died aged eighty-eight on 27th January, 1996 in Hove, after an unspecified accident.
Eva Specter & Sanuel Goodstein were married on 30th March 1933 at Jubilee St Great Synagogue. The reception was held at La Boheme Ballrooms in Mile End Rd and was catered by M. Stern and Sons of Dalston with music provided by Leavey’s Oxford Orchestra. The bride’s parents were born and married in Russia and arrived in London in the early nineteen-hundreds, where Eva was born in Poplar in 1908. David’s parents were also born and married in Poland and arrived at the beginning of the century. Samuel was born in Mile End in 1906, he was an electrician by trade and Eva was a dressmaker, making all the dresses in the photograph herself. On the left of the bride is Gertrude Goodstein, Samuel’s sister, and to her left is Dinky, Eva’s cousin. To the right of Samuel is Rebecca Specter, Eva’s sister, and standing in front is Rene Specter, Eva’s niece.
Fay Kaufman & Sidney Croup were married on 17th March, 1935 at Philpot St Synagogue, Whitechapel. Sidney, whose parents came from Lithuania, was a self-employed tailor like his brother Morris and Fay did the button-holes for suits made by her husband. The couple lived in Stepney and in 1960 moved to Ilford. The page boy was Sidney’s nephew, Roy Segal, while the bridesmaid is believed to be a cousin of Fay’s.
Esther Davidson & Kurt Keyem were married on 22nd June, 1939 at the Beth Hamedrash Synagogue, Stamford Hill. Kurt, born in 1914, was director of a chemical company, his father Jacob was an upholsterer and Esther, born in 1906, was a tailor’s manageress. Esther had a brother, Alec Davidson,who married Eva Yanovitch in 1943, and four sisters Annie, Yetta, Bella and Dolly. The wedding hats were made by Bella, a milliner, and the dresses by Bella’s mother Betsy.
Annie & Isaac Abraham Severin were photographed c. 1931. Isaac was a furrier and both were born in Poland in 1884. Isaac died in 1953 and Annie two years later. They are both are buried in Edmonton Cemetery.
Monty Hubbersgilt was photographed at his Bar Mitzvah in April 1938 with his sister Sylvia and his parents, Alec & Rachel. At the time, the family lived at Wellington Ave, Stamford Hill and Monty attended Tottenham Grammar School. The Hubbersgilts came to London in 1901 from Vitebsk in Lithuania. Alec was brought over nine years later by his aunt. His family of eleven children (eight boys and three girls) lived in Brick Lane above his workshop and all the boys were trained as cabinet makers. Alec was educated at the Jewish Free School but left at fourteen to work with his father. He married Rachel on 17th June 1924 at Philpot St Synagogue. By the time of Monty’s Bar Mitzvah, Alec owned his own factory in Stamford Hill, employing around fifty people, specialising in the manufacture of cocktail cabinets and dining room furniture. Monty’s mother Rachel had also come to London from Vitebsk in the early nineteen-hundreds with her family (ten girls and one boy) and lived in Customs House, Docklands. Not wanting to stay at home, she trained to be a shorthand typist.
Sir John Edward Cohen, known as Jack Cohen, was born in 1898 in Whitechapel, the son of a Polish tailor. In 1917, he joined the Royal Flying Corps, serving as a canvas maker. In 1919, using thirty pounds of his demobilisation gratuity, he set himself up as a market trader in Hackney selling surplus NAAFI food. With his fast turnover and low prices, Jack earned himself the nickname ‘Jack the Slasher’. He soon owned a number of stalls and started a wholesale business. In 1924, the same year Jack married Cissie Fox, he created the Tesco brand name from the initials of a tea supplier, T. E. Stockwell, and the first two letters of his surname. The first Tesco store opened in 1931 and, over the next eight years, the company grew rapidly, opening more than a hundred small stores mainly in the London area. In 1935, Jack visited the United States but his dream of setting up American-style supermarkets was halted by World War II. In 1948, the first self-service store opened in St Albans and, over the next twenty years, Tesco expanded quickly across the country, mainly by the acquisition of smaller grocery chains. In 1969, Jack was knighted and retired from the business in 1973, by which time Tesco operated nearly nine hundred supermarkets. Jack & Cissie had two daughters, Shirley & Irene. Jack died in 1979.
Janet Brooke documented the changing East End streetscape through the eighties and nineties in an ambitious series of large screenprints, which are now exhibited at the Orso Major Gallery in Lower Marsh, Waterloo, until 29th November.
“I moved to the East End in the mid-seventies – at first squatting in Whitechapel, but eventually graduating to Bow. I came to take up a job teaching printmaking at East Ham Technical College and I was already a printmaker, yet unsure of my subject matter until I began recording what was on my doorstep. I started with a series of prints of local corner shops and pubs, all now gone of course. I took in anything and everything to do with the urban environment, I was attracted to the rich mixture of history, decay and the everyday familiarity of what I saw.” - Janet Brooke
“About 1985, Hessel St in Whitechapel was full of these brightly-painted Bangladeshi shops which had replaced the previous Jewish ones and were about to be replaced themselves by anonymous development. This one actually managed to survive as a shop – in the nineties, it changed to Hessel Food Store and then with a different frontage it became Chandpur Frozen Food Store.”
Parking Restrictions Apply – “I happened across this abandoned car near London Fields in about 1996. Full of the detritus of life, I felt it reflected some of the angst, tedium and humour that are part of modern urban living.”
“In 1986, this whole street off Brick Lane was boarded up shops yet with such a wealth of history – not just the signs of the closed shops but the remains of the ones that went before. Next to this, at number 20, there was J. W. Agass, then at number 18, J. Mandel, and a bit further along at 14, S. Levy, Drapers & Outfitters”
Joyce’s Hair Stylist, Fieldgate St, Whitechapel, 1983 – 10% Off 1st Visit
Clark’s Chemist – “In 1990, Broadway Market, was one of the most desolate streets in the area with most of the shops boarded up. I made a whole series of prints of this street as it seemed to sum up the times. I liked it best when it was in its period of transition, the first years of ‘Hidden Art,’ when artists and designers were given empty shops for a couple of weekends to make into a gallery.”
“In 1996, this faded sign on the wall on that rather anonymous bit of the Bow Rd near the tube station next to Wellington Way, complete with mildewed bench and can of Tennants Super summed up urban loneliness for me. The wall is still the same with that mysterious faded sign spelling out ‘L REMEMB’ and the benches are there, though now metal ones have replaced the old wooden ones.”
Billy’s Snack Bar – “Just off Hackney Rd, the corner of Pritchards Rd and Emma Street, Billy’s Snack Bar is a colourful beacon. This was 1985 and the café remained looking exactly the same for many years. Now it’s changed its look somewhat but, amazingly, Billy’s is still there.”
“A very early print – probably 1982 – looking through the window of a café in Roman Rd. It was in one of the blocks of shops at the end nearest Grove Rd, on the north side of the road. There are several bits of imagery that place this in its particular time - the space invaders machine for one and the reflection of the number eight routemaster in the window.”
“An early print from 1980, the pub on the corner of Burdett Rd and Hamlets Way, close to where I lived in Ropery St, long since turned into flats. Even then, you couldn’t tell what it was called from the worn-out sign. It was actually The Crystal Tavern and inside it was full of mirrors, faded red velvet and an ancient barmaid with back-combed hair.”
“In 1990, Ridley Rd Market at packing up time when the bustle of the day had finished”
“I’ve always been fascinated by gas works, those intricate bits of Victorian industrial architecture embedded in the heart of urban living. This is in Bethnal Green by the canal, viewed from the entrance in Marian Place, off Pritchards Rd, in 1995. The gasometers are still there but not the house, I actually met someone once who said their uncle lived in it – the watchman I suppose. What a brilliant view!”
Images copyright © Janet Brooke
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