As the temperatures plunge this week, there will be no denying that winter has its grip upon London – which offers the ideal premise to look back at winters long ago in the capital, as witnessed by George Cruikshank in the LONDON ALMANAC published between 1835 & 1838 (Click on any of these images to enlarge)
Penny for the guy!
St Cecilia’s Day
Lord Mayor’s Show
Ice skating on the Serpentine
Frost Fair on the Thames
January – New Year’s bills arrive
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Recently, I enjoyed a light lunch at the Victory Services Club in Marble Arch with Milly Rich and you can read our chat below. I hope Milly will not consider me indiscreet if I reveal that she is in her ninety-ninth year, yet is blessed with the vital nature and lucidity of thought of one many decades her junior.
“You know, being nearly a hundred is a lot of years to account for…”
Portrait of Milly Rich by Patricia Niven
The Gentle Author – Are you from the East End?
Milly Rich – I am from the last place I have lived! But I was born at 19 Commercial Rd on October 23rd 1917, which of course was during the First World War and my mother, Leah, told me that the air raid warnings were sounding at the time. People were terrified of air raids but my she had a basement under her shop in Commercial Rd where she took shelter.
My mother made corsets and she taught me to make them too. Corsets were a vital part of a lady’s outfit in those days because – of course – smart clothes needed a good foundation and a good foundation was a nice heavily-boned corset with a strong steel bust in the front. Everybody had remarkably good posture, not slumped – like you see today – over a hand-held computer.
The Gentle Author - Your mother was proprietor of the shop?
Milly Rich – I have a picture of her standing outside the shop with her two assistants when she was not yet twenty. She was very creative, very artistic – and she got her first job in an embroidery factory in Hanbury St. Then she opened a shop at 87 Brick Lane and – many years later – it transpired that the young man I married was the son of the owner of the embroidery factory where my mother had once been a designer. So the world is full of concentric circles!
The Gentle Author – Tell me about your father.
Milly Rich – My father, Morris Levrant, was an ‘émigré of the Empire of Russia’ and I know that because he went to America first and patented an airtight valve for bicycle tyres when he was thirty. He was very clever. My mother said he spoke nine languages and he was an inventor. He was born in Siedlce in Poland where my daughter has traced our family back to 1733.
He left a wife and three children in New York when he came to London and my mother’s father was not very happy about that. Apparently, my grandfather put him through hoops to prove that he was properly divorced. I do not know how he got the divorce but he obviously did because otherwise they would not have allowed the marriage. My parents were married in Princelet St Synagogue and I was born in 1917, so I suppose they were married in 1916.
The Gentle Author – Do you have brothers and sisters?
Milly Rich - I had one brother, Mossy. He is dead now, he died at seventy-five years old. I suppose it speaks volumes for the kind of life we led that he had rickets, which is caused by malnutrition. He was very good with his hands and became a jeweller and worked in Black Lion Yard and Hatton Garden.
When the Jews were promised a homeland in the Balfour Declaration, my father decided he would settle in what was then Palestine. Of course, he was an inventor, and he was agog to go and be an inventor there – he was a clever chap. So in 1921 we set sail.
The Gentle Author - You shut the shop in Commercial Rd?
Milly Rich - Yes, we got rid of it and went off to Palestine but a war broke out there and, in the first month, my father was killed and he was buried there. He was only forty when he died and left three children in New York. We found them not very long ago. The two sisters were still alive, they were ten and eleven years older than me. We went and stayed with them, and they were lovely. They turned out to be artists and designers too
When my father died, my mother was expecting my brother, so she could not come back from Palestine at once but she did not speak the language and, of course, my father had all the money – she was stuck in Jaffa. Fortunately my uncle – my mother’s sister’s husband – came to the rescue and got us back to England. By that time, I was three, I remember. And we were stuck in Boulogne because I had a watery eye – they thought it was catching – an eye disease, maybe trachoma but it was just a trapped eyelash.
On our return, we stayed with my uncle in Whitechapel. He had a jewellery shop opposite the Whitechapel Gallery, it was museum as well in those days. I remember they had a septic mouse in a case on the stairs and an illuminated panorama of Medieval London on the landing. It was lovely, I used to stand and stare at it for hours.
We stayed there until my uncle found the shop at 192 Bethnal Green Rd. It was flanked on one side by the Liberal Party headquarters, Sir Percy Harris was the MP, and on the other side by a newsagent. They were not Jewish, but everybody was on excellent terms and there was no anti-Semitism where we were.
We lived above the shop and we had tenants as well, who had to come through the shop. Originally, it been a house and garden but it had been transformed into one great long space. My mother had a curtain put up to screen people walking through because they had to cross our parlour, which my mother also used as a fitting room for the corsets.
Women used to come in and treat her as an agony aunt. Like a hairdresser or a dressmaker, she was a recipient of confidences. All the locals would tell my mother their troubles which invariably were to do with their husbands. They used to speak Yiddish so that I should not hear but, knowing they were speaking so I could not understand, I soon picked up Yiddish. I never let on that I could and, of course, I would tell the stories to my friends at school which was a source of much merriment.
There was a window in the parlour so my mother could see if anyone came into the shop. My brother used to climb up to look through it at the women trying on the corsets and, of course, a good time was had by all!
The Gentle Author – What took you out of Bethnal Green?
Milly Rich – I won a scholarship to Central Foundation School in Spital Sq. It was a fee-paying school at the time and there used to be quite a division between the scholarship girls and the fee-paying pupils. I was a great reader and I have always loved words and I had a good vocabulary. The other children did not like it. “Oh you’ve swallowed a dictionary,” that was a great insult. I did not care, did I? From there, I won another scholarship but I could not make up my mind whether to go to the London School of Economics, because I wanted to be a journalist, or St Martin’s School of Art.
In the event, I decided I would not train to be a journalist because I was not going to learn shorthand – I was not going to take down anybody else’s words. So I took the place at St Martin’s instead and hated it. We used to sign in and go off to the local Lyons teashop and sit there for hours, making patterns on the tablecloth with the salt cellar. Eventually, my mother could not afford for me to stay there any longer because I only got ten shillings a week and I did not like it anyway – I do not like any form of regimentation.
I got a job inscribing certificates because I was quite good at lettering and I did that for a couple of months. It was trees in Israel. They kept planting forests and I used to write ‘five trees planted in the name of so-and-so on the occasion of his this-and-that.’
I did not do it for long, I got a job in a drawing office instead. I told them I could do it, even though I had never held a drawing pen in my life. They said, “Well, here’s one – take it home and bring it back tomorrow, completed.” I went into an art shop and asked, “How do you do this?” They showed me a drawing pen and how you filled it and how you used it, so I went home and I did the drawing and I took it back the next day and I got the job. The drawing office was quite fun actually, I enjoyed it there. It was right at the top of Crown House, which is still there on the corner of Drury Lane and Aldwych. We used to feed the pigeons and there was a Sainsbury’s around the corner which delivered lunch in a box. You got a sandwich and some orange juice and a piece of cake for sixpence.
You know – being nearly a hundred is a lot of years to account for.
The Gentle Author – Tell me about Moss, your husband.
Milly Rich – We met at a play-reading group. He was a writer, and I always liked plays and acting and so on. We met there and he would walk me home.
The Gentle Author - Where did he come from?
Milly Rich – His father had the embroidery factory in Hanbury St, where my mother had once worked doing the patterns although we did not realise that at the time. It was only when our parents were introduced that they realised that they all knew each other already. Small world. People were so ready to help each other, I do not know if people are still like that in the East End, but they were once. I remember the blackshirts marching down Bethnal Green Rd and shouting “The Jews, the Jews, we’ve got to get rid of the Jews!” Whenever they passed our shop and my brother used to be outside yelling.
The Gentle Author - Did you feel threatened?
Milly Rich - I do not think I was aware of it, but I became aware because Moss used to take me to the political meetings and the Unity Theatre. When there was the Battle of Cable St, we went there. I remember leaning on the lamppost outside Gardiner’s Corner and we were all yelling, “They shall not pass, they shall not pass.”
The Gentle Author – That was eighty years ago.
Milly Rich – Then war was declared and we all thought the first air raid would obliterate London. Everybody was terrified and I had known Moss four years, so he said “We’d better get married right away, while we can,” and he got a special licence. I did not want any fuss and I told my mother, “I’m not having any ‘do’” because getting married, especially in Jewish families, was a great occasion you know. I said, “I’m not having any family there.” It was the custom then – I do not know what people do now– for the woman to take the man’s name but I did not like that, so I said, “If I have got to take your name, you have got to take my name.” His name was Rich and my name was Levrant so we became Levrant Rich, which sounds quite good.
The Gentle Author- Was that unusual in those days?
Milly Rich – Goodness knows! Moss was very easy about it, he said he did not care. My mother said she would kill herself if we did not get married in the synagogue, but I said “I’m not having anyone there , I don’t want a fuss,” so she agreed she would not tell anyone. But when Moss and I arrived at the synagogue, standing outside wreathed in smiles was my fat Aunty Milly and her husband. I said, “I’m not going to do it!” and we turned tail and ran away, so we did not get married that day.
We came back the next day and got married when nobody was there. We got no photographs, nothing. It was just the two of us, and Moss had to go back to work because he was in the timber importing business, doing the advertising, and everybody thought the work was absolutely vital. So he went back to work and I went shopping in Petticoat Lane for a couple of cups and saucers and a saucepan.
Moss had found us an attic room at 4 Mecklenburgh Sq and we went back there. It was one pound a week which was a lot of money for rent. There was an oven on the landing which four other tenants used and we each took a turn to put a shilling in the meter. Sometimes, I would come back early and find the landlady on her knees fiddling the meter!
When the air raid siren went, we dashed down to the shelter which was just opposite. One night we got a direct hit. The thing shuddered but it did not go off and we were marshalled out by wardens. I remember walking up Gray’s Inn Rd with fires blazing on either side right up to Euston Station. There were aeroplanes droning overhead and the church opposite the station was on fire. We were ushered into the station and we spent the rest of the night there, before returning to Mecklenburgh Sq.
Although our rent was one pound a week, Moss earned four pounds and I earned two pounds and a bit, so we only had just over six pounds as our total income. After our pound rent was paid and Moss had ten cigarettes delivered each day, I used to be able to send stuff to the laundry. They would come and collect and deliver it, all freshly ironed, and a sheet was tuppence to launder. Can you imagine? Shirts and everything. I never did any washing myself. As well as Mrs Pointy the landlady, there was a caretaker who kept our two rooms clean for two shillings a week, which was very nice. Mrs Pointy used to feed her cat cods’ heads and the smell – I can still smell it – was absolutely indescribable.
The Gentle Author - Nowadays in London, many people spend half their wages on rent.
Milly Rich - I was just thinking about the nature of progress. When I was young, it was usual for a woman to stay at home and the man would bring home the money – his wage could support the wife and the family. Now two wages are not enough, do you call that progress?
Transcript by Rachel Blaylock
Milly, aged one and a half in 1919
Milly, aged five in 1922
Milly, aged twenty in 1939
Moss in 1939
Milly & Moss’ Marriage Certificate, 1939
Milly’s London Transport card, 1939
Milly & Moss in the forties
Milly & Moss in the eighties – Milly & Moss were married for seventy-two years
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Julian Woodford outlines the tale of James Hadfield, mysterious would-be assassin of George III, revealing how his pistol found its way into the hands of Joseph Merceron, East End gangster & corrupt magistrate, known as The Boss of Bethnal Green – and where it is today.
Next Wednesday 30th November at 7pm at The Society Club in Cheshire St, Julian will be telling the story of Joseph Merceron’s reign of crime, controlling Bethnal Green & Spitalfields for half a century from his base in Brick Lane. CLICK HERE TO BOOK A TICKET
Click to enlarge this print, reproduced courtesy of V&A Museum
When I talk about how Joseph Merceron ruled the East End for half a century, I am often asked ‘How did he get away with it?’ It is a question I could not answer until I discovered that he owned a gun which almost changed English history.
In 1795, Merceron used his position of influence in Bethnal Green to become a magistrate. Just weeks afterwards, King George III’s carriage windows were shattered by an angry mob as he travelled to open Parliament and Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger launched a ‘reign of terror’ with laws forbidding public assembly or publication of ‘seditious writings.’ Secretly, the Home Office also set up an extensive spy network in the East End administered by the local magistrates and their clerks.
During the early seventeen-nineties, in the wake of the French Revolution, radical societies sprang up across London – especially in the East End. Their members agitated for universal suffrage or, in more extreme, cases a revolution of their own. Over the next few years, Pitt’s ‘Gagging Acts’ were applied with increasing severity and the Home Office spies busied themselves in infiltrating radical societies. Democratic activists and mutineering sailors were rounded up and incarcerated without trial at Coldbath Fields Prison in Clerkenwell.
The ritual abuse they suffered at the hands of the Prison Governor, Thomas Aris, was ignored or even encouraged by Merceron and his fellow magistrates. But when the prisoners’ plight was raised in Parliament by the radical MP Sir Francis Burdett, it became the subject of a national scandal that rocked the Pitt government and damaged the credibility of the Middlesex magistrates.
Then, in the spring of 1800, came an act of terror that appeared to justify Pitt’s harsh conservatism. James Hadfield was a British soldier who had suffered horrendous head wounds in the Napoleonic Wars, and been captured and tortured by the French. Released in a prisoner exchange but traumatised to the point of insanity and unfit for further service, Hadfield was simply turned onto the London streets. Here he encountered an itinerant preacher named Bannister Truelock, who persuaded Hadfield he could trigger the Second Coming of Christ – he just needed to shoot the King and die in the attempt.
On 15th May 1800, Hadfield bought an old flintlock pistol from a pawnbroker and made his way to Drury Lane Theatre, where George III was due to attend a Royal Command Performance. As the King took a bow from the Royal Box, Hadfield pulled out his pistol and fired, narrowly missing his Majesty. Despite a lengthy investigation and an apparemt attempt by the government to rig the jury, Hadfield was acquitted of murder on the grounds of insanity, setting an important legal precedent. Instead of being executed, he was committed to the Bethlehem hospital in Moorfields where he spent the next forty-one years writing poems to his pet squirrels.
You might wonder what the connection is to The Boss of Bethnal Green? In 2006, when I started researching my book, I traced Joseph Merceron’s descendants and met his great-great-great grandson Daniel, who showed me an ancient tin box full of Merceron’s papers. This was enough to make my journey worthwhile, but I was dumbstruck when Daniel walked back into the room brandishing an old flintlock pistol and casually announced that – according to family lore – it had once belonged to The Boss and was used in an assassination attempt on George III at Drury Lane in 1800.
That was all Daniel knew and, although I remembered James Hadfield’s story, I could not think how Joseph Merceron could possibly have been involved. Just an hour’s research on the internet uncovered the answer. The transcript of Hadfield’s trial revealed the key prosecution witness was Major Wright, a solicitor of Wellclose Sq and clerk to the Tower Hamlets magistrates. He was a significant figure in Merceron’s circle and closely linked to the Home Office spy network. At Drury Lane, the Major had been sitting within arm’s reach of Hadfield and collared him with his weapon after the event. Among the trial papers are letters from Home Office spies claiming that Hadfield and Truelock were members of the London Corresponding Society which had infiltrated army regiments, including Hadfield’s 15th Light Dragoons.
Remarkably, Major Wright was allowed to keep the pistol as a souvenir. Yet his will lists a print of the assassination attempt among his effects not the gun, which had given to his master – Joseph Merceron. Based on the evidence, I believe Major Wright was secretly tailing James Hadfield on behalf of the Home Office, but it did not suit the government to blow his cover at Hadfield’s trial.
This anecdote offers the explanation for the astonishing longevity of Joseph Merceron’s career as the Godfather of Regency London. Despite being responsible for appalling corruption on a vast scale, he was the devil-the-government-knew, manning the front line in the East End for William Pitt’s ‘war on sedition.’ Merceron owned and licensed many of the pubs where the radical societies met. Merceron’s clerks were actively involved in running spies and, despite repeated attempts to prosecute him during his first three decades in power, the government repeatedly refused to do so and it was only in 1818 – well after the end of the Napoleonic Wars – that he was finally brought to trial and jailed briefly.
James Hadfield’s pistol – the gun that nearly changed history
Follow @JosephMerceron on twitter
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This is Sydney Edward Tothill pictured in 1920, proprietor of the Coffee Stall that still operates, open for business five days a week at the corner of Calvert Avenue and Shoreditch High St, where this photo survives, screwed to the counter of the East End landmark that carries his name. “Ev’rybody knows Syd’s. Git a bus dahn Shoreditch Church and you can’t miss it. Sticks aht like a sixpence in a sweep’s ear,” reported the Evening Telegraph in 1959.
This is a story that began in the trenches of World War I when Syd was gassed. On his return to civilian life in 1919, Syd used his invalidity pension to pay £117 for the construction of a top quality mahogany tea stall with fine etched glass and gleaming brass fittings. And the rest is history, because it was of such sturdy manufacture that it remains in service over ninety years later.
Jane Tothill, Syd’s granddaughter who upholds the proud family tradition today, told me that Syd’s Coffee Stall was the first to have mains electricity, when in 1922 it was hooked up to the adjoining lamppost. Even though the lamppost in question has been supplanted by a modern replacement, it still stands beside the stall to provide the power supply. Similarly, as the century progressed, mains water replaced the old churn that once stood at the rear of the stall and mains gas replaced the brazier of coals. In the nineteen sixties, when Calvert Avenue was resurfaced, Syd’s stall could not be moved on account of his mains connections and so kerbstones were placed around it instead. As a consequence, if you look underneath the stall today, the cobbles are still there.
Throughout the nineteenth century, there was a widespread culture of Coffee Stalls in London, but, in spite of the name – which was considered a classy description for a barrow serving refreshments – they mostly sold tea and cocoa, and in Syd’s case “Bovex”, the “poor man’s Bovril.” The most popular snack was Saveloy, a sausage supplied by Wilsons’ the German butchers in Hoxton, as promoted by the widespread exhortation to “A Sav and a Slice at Syd’s.” Even Prince Edward stopped by for a cup of tea from Syd’s while on his frequent nocturnal escapades in the East End.
With his wife May, Syd ran an empire of seven coffee stalls and two cafes in Rivington St and Worship St. The apogee of this early period of the history of Syd’s Coffee Stall arrived when it featured in a silent film Ebb Tide, shot in 1931, starring the glamorous Chili Bouchier and praised for its realistic portrayal of life in East London. The stall was transported to Elstree for the filming, the only time it has ever moved from its site. While Chili acted up a storm in the foreground, as a fallen woman in tormented emotion upon the floor, you can just see Syd discharging his cameo as the proprietor of an East End Coffee Stall with impressive authenticity, in the background of the still photograph below.
In spite of Syd’s success, Jane revealed that her grandfather was “a bit of a drinker and gambler” who gambled away both his cafes and all his stalls, except the one at the corner of Calvert Avenue. When Syd junior, Jane’s father was born, finances were rocky, and he recalled moving from a big house in Palmer’s Green to a room over a laundry, the very next week. May carried Syd junior while she was serving at the stall and it was pre-ordained that he would continue the family business, which he joined in 1935.
In World War II, Syd’s Coffee Stall served the ambulance and fire services during the London blitz. Syd and May never closed, they simply ran to take shelter in the vaults of Barclays Bank next door whenever the air raid sounded. When a flying bomb detonated in Calvert Avenue, Syd’s stall might have been destroyed, if a couple of buses had not been parked beside it, fortuitously sheltering the stall from the explosion. In the blast, poor May was injured by shrapnel and Syd suffered a mental breakdown, leaving their young daughter Peggy struggling to keep the stall open.
The resultant crisis at Syd’s Coffee Stall was of such magnitude that the Mayor of Shoreditch and other leading dignitaries appealed to the War Office to have Syd junior brought home from a secret mission he was undertaking for the RAF in the Middle East, in order to run the stall for the ARP wardens. It was a remarkable moment that revealed the essential nature of the service provided by Syd’s Coffee Stall to the war effort on the home front in East London, and I can only admire the Mayor’s clear-sighted sense of priority in using his authority to demand the return of Syd from a secret mission because he was required to serve tea in Shoreditch. As he wrote to May in January 1945, “I do sincerely hope that you are recovering from your injuries and that your son will remain with you for a long time.”
Syd junior was determined to show he was more responsible than his father and, after the war, he bravely expanded the business into catering weddings and events along with this wife Iris, adopting the name “Hillary Caterers” as a patriotic tribute to Sir Edmund Hillary who scaled Everest at the time of the coronation of Elizabeth II. No doubt you will agree that as a caterer for a weddings, “Hillary Caterers” sounds preferable to “Syd’s Coffee Stall.” In fact, Syd junior’s ambition led him to become the youngest ever president of the Hotel & Caterer’s Federation and the only caterer ever to cater on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, topping it off by becoming a Freeman of the City of London.
Jane Tothill began working at the stall in 1987 with her brothers Stephen and Edward, and the redoubtable Clarrie who came for a week “to see if she liked it” and stayed thirty -two years. Jane manages the stall today with the loyal assistance of Francis, who has been serving behind the counter these last twenty years. Nowadays the challenges are parking restrictions that make it problematic for customers to stop, hit and run drivers who frequently cause damage which requires costly repair to the mahogany structure and graffiti artists whose tags have to be constantly erased from the venerable stall. Yet after ninety years and three generations of Tothills, during which Syd’s Coffee Stall has survived against the odds to serve the working people of Shoreditch without interruption, it has become a symbol of the enduring human spirit of the populace here.
Syd’s Coffee Stall is a piece of our social history that does not draw attention to itself, yet deserves to be celebrated. Syd senior might not have survived the trenches in 1919, or he might have gambled away this stall as he did the others, or the bomb might have fallen differently in 1944. Any number of permutations of fate could have led to Syd’s Coffee Stall not being here today. Yet by a miracle of fortune, and thanks to the hard work of the Tothill family we can enjoy London’s oldest Coffee Stall here in our neighbourhood. We must cherish it now, because the story of Syd’s Coffee Stall teaches us that there is a point at which serving a humble cup of tea transcends catering and approaches heroism.
May Tothill, Syd’s wife, behind the counter in the nineteen thirties
Jane Tothill, Syd and May’s granddaughter, behind the counter today
Syd junior and his mother May, behind the counter in the nineteen fifties
A still from the silent film “Ebb Tide” starring Chili Bouchier with Syd in a cameo as himself
In 1937 with electricity hooked up to the lamppost
Portraits of Jane Tothill © Sarah Ainslie
“I was born in Balmoral Castle and I grew up in Windsor Castle …” Tony Jack told me proudly without bragging, “… they were both pubs in Canning Town.” It was a suitably auspicious beginning for an East End hero who was barely out of his teens before he joined the RAF and sent this picture home inscribed, “To Mother, Myself in a rear cockpit of a Harvard with the sun in my eyes. Love Tony.” Yet destiny had greater things in store for Tony, he was appointed to secret government work in Princes Risborough, where his sharp young eyes qualified him as an expert in photographic interpretation of aerial surveys, snooping on Jerry. If Tony spotted activity behind enemy lines, the information was relayed to our spies in the field who went to make a reconnaissance.
From there, young Tony was transferred to work in the Cabinet War Rooms deep beneath Whitehall where he barely saw daylight for weeks on end, taking solace in rooms lit with ultraviolet to induce the sensation of sunlight. Tony was involved in developing photographs of the blitz and making maps, but at the culmination of hostilities he was brought the document that ended the war, to photograph it and make fifty copies. With his outstanding eye for detail, Tony noticed that the date had been altered in ink from 7th May to 8th May 1945, and, with the innocent audacity of youth, Tony tentatively asked Winston Churchill if he would prefer this aberration photographically removed. “The Americans wanted the war to end on one date and the Russians wanted it to end on another,” growled the great man to the impertinent young whippersnapper in triumph, “But I got my way, May 8th!” And thus the correction duly remained in place upon the historic document.
When Tony told me these stories, as we sat drinking tea in a cafe in Spitalfields, I did wonder how he could possibly follow these astounding life experiences when the war ended, but the answer was simple. Tony got a job as a chaffeur driving a Rolls Royce for the Truman Brewery in Brick Lane.
“There were seven of us and we were nicknamed the Black Crows on account of our black uniforms. We used to kick off the day by picking up the directors from railway stations and driving them to the brewery. During the day we used to drive them to and fro visiting pubs and there also was a certain private aspect, which we kept quiet about, taking their wives shopping. Most of the other chauffeurs had once driven delivery trucks for the brewery. They couldn’t tell you the names of the streets but they knew where all the pubs were, that’s how they navigated around London!”
“You couldn’t wish to work in a better environment than a brewery,” admitted Tony in rhapsodic tones, as he opened a worn plastic bag to show us his cherished cap badge and buttons that he keeps to this day. Then, caught in the emotion of the moment and experiencing a great flood of memories, Tony launched into a spontaneous eulogy about the brewery, which gained an elegaic lustre in the description.
He told me the name of the head brewer was Gun Boat Smith. He told me the brewery had two black London taxis for visiting pubs incognito, registration numbers HYL55353 & 4. He told me there were two chefs in the canteen, one named Harry was a woodcarver who carved fancy work for churches and the other was a glass engraver who could put a painting into a glass and copy it onto the surface. He told me that John Henry Buxton asked “What regiment were you in?” and when Tony revealed he was in the RAF, declared, “Well, never mind!” He told me that a man called Cyclops was responsible for the “finings” which filtered the beer, as well as repairing the bottling girls’ clogs and distributing pints of beer to the delivery men in the mornings. He told me that the phone number of John Henry Buxton’s country home was Ware 2, a source of endless amusement when you asked the operator to connect you. He told me that the brewery staff manned the roof with buckets of water when the great Bishopsgate Goods Yard fire of 1964 sent burning cinders drifting into the sky. He told me that the brewery had its own customs officer because beer was taxed as it was brewed in those days. He told me that there was always a cooper on call night and day to make repairs, in case a barrel of beer split in a pub. He told me that the dray horses sometimes got out at night and wandered around which terrified him because they were magnificent creatures. He told me that there was priest who worked in the electrical shop who would marry employees. He told me that there was a man who was solely responsible for all the uniform badges and buttons, who was TGWU representative and also the Mayor of Bethnal Green. He told me that there was a rifle range below Brick Lane which still exists today and the cleaners refused to go there alone because there were so many rats. He told me that the shire horses were all sent to a retirement home in Long Melford. He told me that the brewery organised Sports Days and Beanos on alternating Summers. He told me that the Sports Days were held at Higham Park, Chingford, where they brought in circus acts to entertain the children. He told me that the Beanos were at Margate. He told me that they hired two trains from Liverpool St to get them there, and a paddle steamer to take them on a trip over to Folkestone and back for a sit down dinner at Dreamland. He told me that there was always plenty of beer on the train coming back. He told me that they were wonderful days out. He told me that Truman’s were unique in the sense that they were self-sufficient, you had no need to go outside.
One day, Tony was candidly given advance notice by the chairman, while driving him the Rolls Royce, that the brewery was being sold to Grand Metropolitan and chauffeurs would no longer be required. So Tony switched to working as a security guard for many years. “I know every inch of the brewery,” he assured me authoritatively. Then in 1969, Tony became a cab driver which he continued to do until 2007. “I retired just before I was eighty. I was happy because I was driving around and it was all I wanted to do in life,” he confided to me with a lightness of tone, revealing endearing modesty and impressive stamina.
All the astonishing details of Tony Jack’s vibrant description of life at the brewery were whirling in my mind as we crossed Commercial St and walked down Brushfield St together in the Autumn sunlight, before shaking hands in Bishopsgate. And then he hopped on a bus to Clerkenwell, where he lives, quite the most sprightly octogenarian I have met. It must be something in the beer.
A studio portrait of Tony from the nineteen twenties.
As a young man Tony acquired the nickname “Thumbs up!”
Tony is in the centre with his head down, working on a photographic interpretation of aerial surveys of enemy territory, as part of secret government programme in Princes Risborough during World War II.
The tax disc of the Rolls Royce that Tony drove for the Truman Brewery in the nineteen fifties.
The eagle on the left was Tony’s cap badge, the THB his lapel badge, along with two sizes of buttons, all from his chauffeur’s uniform. The eagle on the right was a truck driver’s cap badge and the key fob was from an ad campaign, “Ben Truman has more hops!” They are all laid upon a letter dated 29th June 1889, analysing the chemical constituents of the beer, that Tony salvaged from a skip when Truman’s were throwing out their archive. It concludes, “I do not think the beer is at all more laxative than any Burton beer would be in this weather.”
John Henry Buxton invited the members of the Brewery Angling Club to clear the weed out of the river at his estate at Wareside, Hertfordshire, in return for letting them fish in it.
Tony’s membership card for the Truman Brewery Sports Club dated 1st March 1959.
Tony photographed his daughter Janet on the roof after a Christmas party in the nineteen fifties.
Tony’s last day as cab driver in 2007, he drove Janet up to the West End for a shopping trip.
New portrait copyright © Jeremy Freedman