She may be no Spring chicken but that does not stop the indefatigable Viscountess Boudica of Bethnal Green from dressing up as an Easter chick!
As is her custom at each of the festivals which mark our passage through the year, she has embraced the spirit of the occasion wholeheartedly – festooning her tiny flat with seasonal decor and contriving a special outfit for herself that suits the tenor of the day. “Easter’s about renewal – birth, life and death – the end of one thing and the beginning of another,” she assured me when I arrived, getting right to the heart of it at once with characteristic forthrightness.
I feel like a child visiting a beloved grandmother or favourite aunt whenever I call round to see Viscountess Boudica because, although I never know what treats lie in store, I am never disappointed. Even as I walk in the door, I know that days of preparation have preceded my visit. Naturally for Easter there were a great many fluffy creatures in evidence, ducks and rabbits recalling her rural childhood. “When my uncle had his farm, I used to put the little chicks in my pocket and carry them round with me,” she confided with a nostalgic grin, as she led me over to admire the wonder of her Easter garden where yellow creatures of varying sizes were gathering upon a small mat of greengrocer’s grass, around a tree hung with glass eggs, as if in expectation of a sacred ritual.
I cast my eyes around at the plethora of Easter cards, testifying to the popularity of the Viscountess, and her Easter bunting and Easter fairy lights that adorned the walls. There could be no question that the festival was anything other than Easter in this place. “As a child, I used to get a twig and spray it with paint and hang eggs from it,” she explained, recalling the modest origin of the current extravaganza and adding, “I hope this will inspire others to decorate their homes.”
“Cadbury’s Dairy Milk is my favourite,” she confessed to me, chuckling in excited anticipation and patting her waistline warily, “I probably will eat a lot of chocolate on Easter Monday – once I start eating chocolate, I can’t stop.” And then, just like that beloved grandmother or favourite aunt, Viscountess Boudica kindly slipped a chocolate egg into my hands as I said my farewell, and I carried it off under my arm back to Spitalfields as a proud trophy of the day.
Viscountess Boudica writes her Easter cards
“yellow creatures of varying sizes were gathering upon a small mat of greengrocer’s grass, around a tree hung with glass eggs, as if in expectation of a sacred ritual”
Viscountess Boudica turns Weather Girl to present the forecast for the Easter Bank Holiday - “I predict a dull start with a few patches of sunshine and some isolated showers. In the West Country, it will be nice all day with temperatures between sixty and eighty degrees Farenheit. There will be a small breeze on the coast and sea temperature of around fifty-nine degrees Farenheit.”
Easter blessings to you from Viscountess Boudica!
Viscountess Boudica and her fluffy friends
Be sure to follow Viscountess Boudica’s blog There’s More To Life Than Heaven & Earth
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Read my original profile of Mark Petty, Trendsetter
and take a look at Mark Petty’s Multicoloured Coats
Brick Lane at the corner of Bacon St
Liam O’Farrell delights in painting East End markets in all their shambolic minutiae, often returning to the same subject many times to explore the mutable nature of their architecture and communities.
“I moved to London in 1988 from Portsmouth and at first I spent all my time around the West End, in Leicester Sq and Ed’s Diner in Soho, but after six months it stopped giving anything to me,” he admitted, “My sister worked in the rag trade in the East End and she took me to an old pub and showed me around the streets here, and eventually I moved to Hackney and it felt just like home.”
Living here for more than twenty years brought Liam an intimate knowledge of the streets and kindled his desire to devote himself to drawing and painting fulltime. Yet this realisation also led to his departure. “I realised that if I wanted to do more paintings of London, I needed to not live here anymore, so I reduced my overheads by moving to Somerset in 2011,” he explained. “Now I come back to the East End every couple of weeks and I like to draw in short bursts – especially with the cold and the bloody rain – I make drawings for reference and work them up into paintings in my studio.”
In Liam’s pictures, people and architecture are inextricable and, in spite of their apparent realism, these are images constructed from memory – a synthesis of Liam’s perception of a place and its inhabitants, rather than any literal representation. In his affectionate vision, Liam celebrates the intricate details of the markets and the people that make this place distinctive.
Sclater St Market
Corner of Brick Lane ands Bethnal Green Rd
Great Eastern St
Round Chapel, Hackney
St Andrew Undershaft, St Mary Axe
The Cockpit, City of London
Royal Courts of Justice
St Paul’s Choir School, City of London
St Paul’s Cathedral
Liam O’Farrell at work in Fournier St
Images copyright © Liam O’Farrell
It is Good Friday and time for another Hot Cross Bun to go in the basket at the Widow’s Son in Devons Rd, Bow, as part of the East End’s most-celebrated Easter tradition. Festivities reach their climax at 3pm, so be sure to get there in plenty of time!
Baked by Mr Bunn’s Bakery in Chadwell Heath
On Good Friday, what could be more appropriate to the equivocal nature of the day than an event which involves both celebration of Hot Cross Buns and the remembrance of the departed in a single custom – such is the ceremony of the Widow’s Buns at Bow.
A net of Hot Cross Buns hangs above the bar at The Widow’s Son in Bromley by Bow, and each year a sailor comes to add another bun to the collection. And this year I was there to witness it for myself, though – before you make any assumption based on your knowledge of my passion for buns - I must clarify that no Hot Cross Buns are eaten in the ceremony, they are purely for symbolic purposes. Left to dry out and gather dust and hang in the net for eternity, London’s oldest buns exist as metaphors to represent the passing years and talismans to bring good luck but, more than this, they tell a story.
The Widow’s Son was built in 1848 upon the former site of an old widow’s cottage, so the tale goes. When her only son left to be a sailor, she promised to bake him a Hot Cross Bun and keep it for his return. But although he drowned at sea, the widow refused to give up hope, preserving the bun upon his return and making a fresh one each year to add to the collection. This annual tradition has been continued in the pub as a remembrance of the widow and her son, and of the bond between all those on land and sea, with sailors of the Royal Navy coming to place the bun in the net every year.
Behind this custom lies the belief that Hot Cross Buns baked on Good Friday will never decay, reflected in the tradition of nailing a Hot Cross Bun to the wall so that the cross may bring good luck to the household – though what appeals to me about the story of the widow is the notion of baking as an act of faith, incarnating a mother’s hope that her son lives. I interpret the widow’s persistence in making the bun each year as a beautiful gesture, not of self-deception but of longing for wish-fulfilment, manifesting her love for her son. So I especially like the clever image upon the inn sign outside the Widow’s Son, illustrating an apocryphal scene in the story when the son returns from the sea many years later to discover a huge net of buns hanging behind the door, demonstrating that his mother always expected him back.
When I arrived at the Widow’s Son, I had the good fortune to meet Frederick Beckett who first came here for the ceremony in 1958 when his brother Alan placed the Hot Cross Bun in the net, and he had the treasured photo in his hand to show me. Frederick moved out from Bow to Dagenham fifteen years ago, but he still comes back each year to visit the Widow’s Son, one of many in this community and further afield who delight to converge here on Good Friday for old times’ sake. Already, there was a tangible sense of anticipation, with spirits uplifted by the sunshine and the flags hung outside, ready to celebrate St George next day.
The landlady proudly showed me the handsome fresh 2011 Hot Cross Bun, baked by Mr Bunn of Mr Bunn’s Bakery in Chadwell Heath who always makes the special bun each year -” fabulous buns!”declared Kathy, almost succumbing to a swoon, as he she held up her newest sweetest darling that would shortly join its fellows in the net over the bar. There were many more ancient buns, she explained, until a fire destroyed most of them fifteen years ago, and those burnt ones in the net today are merely those few which were salvaged by the firemen from the wreckage of the pub. Remarkably, having opened their hearts to the emotional poetry of Hot Cross Buns, at the Widow’s Son they even cherish those cinders which the rest of the world would consign to a bin.
The effect of the beer and the unseasonal warm temperatures upon a pub full of sailors and thirsty locals rapidly induced a pervasive atmosphere of collective euphoria, heightened by a soundtrack of pounding rock, and, in the thick of it, I was delighted to meet my old pal Lenny Hamilton, the jewel thief. “I’m not here for the buns, I’m here for the bums!” he confided to me with a sip of his Corvoisier and lemonade, making a lewd gesture and breaking in to a wide grin of salacious enjoyment as various Bow belles, in off-the-shoulder dresses, with flowing locks and wearing festive corsages, came over enthusiastically to shower this legendary rascal with kisses.
I stood beside Lenny as three o’ clock approached, enjoying the high-spirited gathering as the sailors came together in front of the bar. The landlord handed over the Hot Cross Bun to widespread applause and the sailors lifted up their smallest recruit. Then, with a mighty cheer from the crowd and multiple camera flashes, the recruit placed the bun in the net. Once this heroic task was accomplished, and the landlady had removed the tinfoil covers from the dishes of food laid out upon the billiard table, all the elements were in place for a knees-up to last the rest of the day. As they like to say in Bromley by Bow, it was “Another year, another Good Friday, another bun.”
Peter Gracey, Nick Edelshain and Roddy Urquhart raise a pint to the Widow’s Buns.
Tony Scott and Debbie Willis of HMS President with Frederick Beckett holding the photograph of his brother placing the bun in the net in 1958.
Alan Beckett places the bun on Good Friday, 4th April 1958.
The Widow’s Son is the local for my pal Lenny Hamilton, the jewel thief.
A Widow’s Son of Bromley by Bow
by Harold AdsheadA widow had an only son, The sea was his concern, His parting wish an Easter Bun Be kept for his return. But when it came to Eastertide No sailor came her way To claim the bun she set aside Against the happy day. They say the ship was lost at sea, The son came home no more But still with humble piety The widow kept her store. So year by year a humble bun Was charm against despair, A loving task that once began Became her livelong care. The Widow’s Son is now an inn That stands upon the site And signifies its origin Each year by Easter rite The buns hang up for all to see, A blackened mass above, A truly strange epitome Of patient mother love.
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On the eve of the Easter Holiday, it fills me with great delight to announce that the old terrace in Whitechapel, comprising the last fragment of the nineteenth century Pavilion Theatre complex, has been saved from demolition – thanks to a campaign that began in these pages and was taken up by the members of the East End Preservation Society and the readers of Spitalfields Life.
In response to the numbers of objections received, Tower Hamlets Council have withdrawn their application for demolition in order to explore new options, which means that although the future for this terrace remains undecided it has been rescued from destruction – and below I outline its historic and cultural significance.
3-13 Vallance Rd
In January, when I was writing about the artist Morris Goldstein who lived at 13 Vallance Rd, I was reminded of the distinctive quality of this unusual Victorian terrace in Whitechapel. Despite all the changes since World War II, these old shops have survived and the exoticism of their architecture with its strange mixture of styles fascinates me – as it does many others for whom the terrace is also a landmark in this corner of the East End, where so few old buildings remain to tell the story of what once was here.
In fact, I realised these tatty shopfronts and ornate facades have always spoken to me, but it was only then that I discovered the nature of the story they were telling. The florid decoration was no whim upon the part of the architect but reflected their association and direct proximity to the adjoining Pavilion Theatre which opened here early in the nineteenth century, at first presenting nautical dramas to an audience from the docks and later becoming a Yiddish theatre to serve the Jewish population in Whitechapel.
Commanding the southern extremity of Vallance Rd, this terrace is almost the last fragment to remind us of the history of one of the East End’s most ancient thoroughfares, linking Bethnal Green and Whitechapel. Built in 1855, the vast and forbidding Whitechapel Union Workhouse once stood a few hundred yards north. In common with most of the nineteenth century buildings in this corner of what was known as Mile End New Town, it has long gone – swept away during the decades following the last war, leaving the streetscape fragmented today. Old Montague St, leading west to Commercial St and formerly the heart of the Jewish commerce in the East End, was entirely demolished.
Even Whitechapel Rd, which retains good sweeps of historic buildings – many of which are now under restoration as part of a Heritage Lottery Fund project – suffered major post-war casualties, including a fine eighteenth century terrace west of the London Hospital that was demolished in the seventies. Yet there was one building of great importance of which the loss went seemingly unnoticed -The Pavilion Theatre, a favourite resort for East Enders for nearly one hundred and fifty years before it was demolished in 1961.
The New Royal Pavilion Theatre opened in 1827 at the corner of Whitechapel Rd and Baker’s Row (now Vallance Rd) with a production of The Genii of the Thames, initiating its famous nautical-themed productions, pitched at the the maritime community. In 1856, the theatre burnt down and its replacement opened in 1858, boasting a capacity of three-thousand-seven-hundred, which was a thousand more than Covent Garden and included the largest pit in London theatre, where two thousand people could be comfortably accommodated.
‘The Great National Theatre of the Metropolis’ – as it was announced – boasted a wide repertoire including Shakespeare, opera (it became the East London Opera House in 1860) and, of course, pantomime. It gained a reputation for the unpretentious nature of its patrons, with one critic remarking “there is a no foolish pride amongst Pavilion audiences, or, as far as we could see, any of those stupid social distinctions which divide the sympathies of other auditoriums.”
In 1874, the Pavilion was reconstructed to the designs of Jethro T. Robinson, a notable theatre architect who designed two other East End theatres. both of which are now lost – the Grecian Theatre in Shoreditch and the Albion in Poplar, that was oriental in style. It was this rebuilding of the Pavilion which included the construction of a new terrace on Baker’s Row with interwoven Moorish arches evoking the Alhambra. The theatrical design of these buildings, with decorated parapets, panels and window surrounds, and the integration of side entrances to the theatre suggest the authorship or influence of J. T. Robinson himself.
In its later years, the Pavilion became one of the leading theatres in London, offering Yiddish drama, but as tastes changed and the Jewish people began to leave, the audience declined until it closed for good in 1934. In ‘East End Entertainment’ (1954) A. E. Wilson recalls a final visit to the old theatre before it closed.
“Once during the Yiddish period I visited the theatre. What I saw was all shabbiness, gloom and decay. The half-empty theatre was cold and dreary. The gold had faded and the velvet had moulted. Dust and grime were everywhere. And behind the scenes it was desolation indeed. The dirty stage seemed as vast as the desert and as lonely. I realised that there was no future for the Pavilion, that nothing could restore its fortunes, that its day was over.”
The decline of the Pavilion had been slow and painful. After the theatre closed in the thirties, it was simply left to decay after plans to transform it into a ‘super cinema’ failed to materialise. Bomb damage in the war and a fire meant that when a team from the London County Council’s Historic Buildings Division went to record the building in 1961, they found only a shell of monumental grandeur. After the theatre was finally demolished in 1961, the northern end of the terrace was also demolished leaving just number 13 (the former Weavers Arms Pub) and the battered row that has survived to this day.
Until last week, when Tower Hamlet Council withdrew their application for demolition after the huge number of objections from members of the East End Preservation Society and readers of Spitalfields Life, this last fragment of the Pavilion Theatre complex – numbers 3-11 Vallance Rd was under threat of imminent demolition. Responding positively to public opinion, the Council is now considering a more sympathetic proposal incorporating this much-loved terrace. The new proposal has been rendered by local conservation practice Jonathan Freegard Architects, commissioned by the Spitalfields Trust, and it retains the buildings as part of a mixed-use scheme delivering housing, retail and office space.
In the spirit of high theatrical farce, the Council’s consultant wrote of these buildings in Vallance Rd in the 2013 Heritage Report, accompanying the former application for demolition, that ‘… [they] do not contribute to the character or appearance of the Conservation Area,’ directly contradicting the Council’s earlier Conservation Area Appraisal of the area in 2009 which outlined the following priority for action – “Encourage sympathetic redevelopment of gap sites west of Vallance Rd and secure restoration of 3-11 Vallance Rd.”
Thus it gives me great pleasure to report to you that in the true classical tradition of comedy, justice and sanity have prevailed and this particular drama is one that promises a happy ending.
5 & 7 Vallance Rd, showing decorative window surrounds and parapet (Alex Pink)
9 & 11 Vallance Rd. With its decorative central panel, number 9 leads through to a courtyard where the theatre’s carpentry workshop once stood (Alex Pink)
3 Vallance Rd with original shopfront (Alex Pink)
Looking north over Vallance Rd (left) and Hemming St (right), 1957 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)
Whitechapel Union Workhouse in Vallance Rd, at junction with Fulbourne St, 1913 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)
Whitechapel Union Workhouse, Vallance Rd 1913 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)
Corner of Vallance Rd and Hereford St, 1965 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)
Bricklayers Arms, Vallance Rd and Sale St, 1938 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)
Old Montague St and Black Lion Yard, 1961 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)
Old Montague St and Kings Arms Court, 1961 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)
Old Montague St looking east with Pauline House under construction, 1962 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)
The first Royal Pavilion Theatre in Whitechapel, 1856 (East London Theatre Archive)
Playbill 1867, nautical drama was a speciality at the Pavilion (East London Theatre Archive)
Playbill 1854 (East London Theatre Archive)
Playbill 1835 – note reference to gallery entrance in Baker’s Row (Vallance Rd) (East London Theatre Archive)
Playbill 1856 (East London Theatre Archive)
Playbill 1833 (East London Theatre Archive)
Playbill 1851 (East London Theatre Archive)
The Great National Theatre of the Metropolis’ – the rebuilt Pavilion, 1858
Plan of the Pavilion in eighteen-seventies showing how the houses in Baker’s Row (Vallance Rd) are integrated into the theatre
The Pavilion as a Yiddish theatre in the thirties
Pavilion Theatre facade on Whitechapel Rd, 1961 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)
Auditorium of Pavilion Theatre, 1961 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)
Pit and stage at Pavilion Theatre, 1961 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)
Fly tower of Pavilion Theatre, 1961 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)
Back wall of the Pavilion Theatre, 1961 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)
17-29 Vallance Rd, showing the large scene doors entrance and gallery entrance beyond, all integrated into the terrace, 1961 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)
Sketch of the elevation of the Oriental Theatre, Poplar High St, by Jethro T. Robinson, 1873 – note usage of the arch-within-an-arch motif as seen in the Vallance Rd terrace
First sketch by Tim Whittaker, Director of the Spitalfields Trust, proposing courtyard housing behind the terrace which reflects the local vernacular of Whitechapel
Proposal by Jonathan Freegard Architects for restoration of the terrace with a new yard at rear
South-westerly view of proposal by Jonathan Freegard Architects
Rear view of proposal by Jonathan Freegard Architects
New photographs of Vallance Rd Terrace © Alex Pink
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The six volumes of Walter Thornbury’s London Old & New, filled with richly detailed engravings, prove irresistible to me for compelling visions of a city I barely recognise. Published in the eighteen-seventies, they evoke a London that had passed away at the beginning of the century and contrast this with the recent wonders of the Victorian age which prefigure the city we know today.
Entrance to the Clerkenwell tunnel
Hackney, looking towards the church in 1840
Columbia Market, Bethnal Green
Crown & Sceptre Inn, Greenwich
Kensington High St in 1860
Primrose Hill in 1780
The Tower subway under the Thames
Red Cow Inn, Hammersmith
Chelsea Bun House in 1810
River Fleet at St Pancras in 1825
Rotunda in Blackfriars Rd, 1820
Somers Town Dust Heaps in 1836
The Old Cock Tavern, Westminster
Seven Sisters in 1830
Magnetic Clock at Greenwich
Great Equatorial Telescope in the Dome at Greenwich
Searle’s Boatyard at Bankside, 1830
Bridgefoot, Southwark in 1810
Sights of old Hackney 1. Br0ok House 1765 2. Barber’s Barn 1750 3. Shore Place 1736
Izaak Walton’s River Lea 1. Ferry House 2. Tottenham Church from the Lea 3. Tumbling Weir 4. Fishing Cottage 5. Tottenham Lock
Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute
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