In the sixties and seventies when these pictures were taken, every street corner that was not occupied by a pub was home to a shop offering groceries and general supplies to the residents of the immediate vicinity. The owners of these small shops took on mythic status as all-seeing custodians of local information, offering a counterpoint to the pub as a community meeting place for the exchange of everybody’s business. Shopkeepers were party to the smallest vacillations in the domestic economy of their customers and it was essential for children to curry their good favour if the regular chore of going to fetch a packet of butter or a tin of custard, or any other domestic essential, might be ameliorated by the possibility of reward in the form of sweets, whether there was any change left over or not.
Yet, even in the time these photographs were taken, the small shops were in decline and Tony Hall knew he was capturing the end of a culture, erased by the rise of the chain-stores and the supermarkets. To the aficionado of small shops there are some prize examples here – of businesses that survived beyond their time, receptacles of a certain modest history of shopkeepers. It was a noble history of those who created lives for themselves by working long hours serving the needs of their customers. It was a familiar history of shopkeepers who made a living but not a fortune. Above all, it was a proud history of those who delighted in shopkeeping.
Photographs copyright © Libby Hall
Images courtesy of the Tony Hall Collection at the Bishopsgate Institute
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Near the top of Brick Lane, where it peters out into Bethnal Green, stands a lone house of mystery – accompanied by the gnarled stump of an old plane tree. Entirely at odds with the bland redevelopment that surrounds it, this edifice is unapologetic in its utilitarian idiosyncrasy and, when the windows glow at dusk on a rainy night, it possesses a magical allure which fascinates me. This is Paul Kirby’s foam shop.
For years, Paul Kirby has held out bravely against the “regeneration” that razed every other building in sight, and has emerged triumphant as the proud custodian of the last weaver’s house in the neighbourhood – built in the eighteenth century and incorporating a ship’s window into the frontage. “There’s been quite a lot of pressure to knock it down, but I took the council to court and won the case!” declared Paul in jubilant satisfaction, clasping his hands as he rocked back and forth in his easy chair.
You walk right in off the street into Paul’s workshop which occupies the entire ground floor of 74 Swanfield St, and is crammed with foam of every colour and description. On the left of this foam-lover’s paradise is the well-worn cutting board and, on the right, the tethered rolls of foam wait eager to spring into spongy life, while the space between is stacked with foam cushions – including a cherished Charles & Diana wedding souvenir foam cushion which, in astonishing testimony to Paul’s foam shop, has kept its bounce far longer than the ill-fated marriage ever did. And at the centre of all this foam sits Paul in his pork pie hat, a proud Englishman at home in his castle.
“I wouldn’t ever leave the East End now,” confided Paul, whose origins are in Mauritius, “I’ve got used to living in the bustling of Bethnal Green with all the cosmopolitans here. They looked down on foreigners when I first came to London in 1953 and it was hard to get a job or a room. Those were the darkest days, but I had some Jewish friends round here. It was a nice place to live, I loved it. It was elegant. I got a room in Code St off Brick Lane for fifty pence a week, from there I bought a lorry and started my own transport business.
Paul was conscripted into the British Army at eighteen years old from his home in Mauritius in 1950. When his mother died unexpectedly while he was in the forces, Paul was adopted by his commanding officer, who subsequently became Brigadier Kirby, and he returned to live in Britain with his new stepfather.
“I stayed with them in Hastings but it was difficult to get a job there, so he wrote me a letter which I took to a company in London and I got a job right away. Then he retired to St Austell in Cornwall and bought a Tudor house, where I used to visit at weekends. Although I was the only black man in St Austell, I had a lovely time. How people treated me there – it was unbelievable! When I got on the bus, they wouldn’t take money off me. They said, ‘Soldiers don’t pay!’
When I first came from Mauritius I was very fascinated by English furniture, especially Chesterfields, and I thought, ‘I’d like to make one of those.’ I’ve always been interested in furniture, so I studied upholstery. Since 1958 until now, I have been involved with upholstery, mostly lounge suites and I’ve made many Chesterfields.
In the sixties, I worked for the owner of this place. They manufactured reproduction furniture and I was their driver. There were scraps of fabric left over and they gave them to me. I asked the two machinists to make up cushion covers which I filled with scrap foam from the floor. And I took them down the market in Brick Lane on a Sunday and sold them for fifty pence each. And I made £20 each weekend and we shared it between us, which was pretty good when you realise that wages were only £8 a week.
I bought a two up/two down house in Bethnal Green, with no bathroom and an outside toilet, for £300. Then, in 1968, the furniture business moved to bigger premises so the boss asked me to run the shop for £8 a week. To start with, I sold secondhand furniture, wardrobes and things, and I just opened on Sunday because that was the only day people were walking about.
In the nineteen-seventies, we had a lot of problems with the National Front. Every weekend, there’d be marches and so on. I used to open up my house for the police to use the toilet because there’d be six bus loads of them waiting outside in case of trouble. I was in the middle of it because I was selling Union Jack cushions and some people asked me to stop selling them as it was a symbol adopted by the National Front, but I am an ex-army man and proud to be a citizen of the United Kingdom. It was not a nice time.
Around 1976, I started repairing furniture, recovering old three piece suites and reselling them, then in 1988 I took the place over and moved in and stayed ever since – but now I can’t compete with the big furniture warehouses, so I just do a bit of repair and sell foam, cushions and suchlike to local people. I have another home but I often stay here when I am working late, and most of my neighbours know me by my first name.”
Actively employed at eighty-three, Paul Kirby is now among the few who remember when Bethnal Green and Shoreditch were full of cabinet and furniture makers. And Paul has such a relaxed nature that his foam shop is an attractive place to linger to enjoy the peace and quiet, as if the very fabric of the building has now absorbed his personality – or as if the vast amount of foam insulates against the outer world, absorbing discord.
The recipient of kindness, Paul greets everyone who comes through the threshold with an equal generosity of spirit. You can be guaranteed of a welcome and a smile, as long as you have not come to knock down this venerable weaver’s house in the name of “regeneration” – because, after half a century, Paul and his building are one.
The mysterious allure of Paul Kirby’s foam shop at dusk
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Seduced by promises of an early spring, I decided to return to Bow Cemetery to see if the bulbs were showing yet. Already I have some snowdrops, hellebores and a few primroses in flower in my Spitalfields garden, but at Bow I was welcomed by thousands of crocuses of every colour and variety spangling the graveyard with their gleaming flowers. Beaten and bowed, grey-faced and sneezing, coughing and shivering, the harsh winter has taken it out of me, but seeing these sprouting bulbs in such profusion restored my hope that benign weather will come before too long.
Some of my earliest crayon drawings are of snowdrops, and the annual miracle of bulbs erupting out of the barren earth never ceases to touch my heart – an emotionalism amplified in a cemetery to see life spring abundant and graceful in the landscape of death. The numberless dead of East London – the poor buried for the most part in unmarked communal graves – are coming back to us as perfect tiny flowers of white, purple and yellow, and the sober background of grey tombs and stones serves to emphasis the curious delicate life of these vibrant blooms, glowing in the sunshine.
Here within the shelter of the old walls, the bulbs are further ahead than elsewhere the East End and I arrived at Bow Cemetery just as the snowdrops were coming to an end, the crocuses were in full flower and the daffodils were beginning. Thus a sequence of flowers is set in motion, with bulbs continuing through until April when the bluebells will come leading us through to the acceleration of summer growth, blanketing the cemetery in lush foliage again.
As before, I found myself alone in the vast cemetery save a few Magpies, Crows and some errant squirrels, chasing each other around. Walking further into the woodland, I found yellow winter aconites gleaming bright against the grey tombstones and, crouching down, I discovered wild Violets in flower too. Beneath an intense blue sky, to the chorus of birdsong echoing among the trees, spring was making a showing.
Stepping into a clearing, I came upon a Red Admiral butterfly basking upon a broken tombstone, as if to draw my attention to the text upon it, “Sadly Missed,” commenting upon this precious day of sunshine. Butterflies are rare in the city in any season, but to see a Red Admiral, which is a sight of high summer, in February is extraordinary. My first assumption was that I was witnessing the single day in the tenuous life of this vulnerable creature, but in fact the hardy Red Admiral is one of the last to be seen before the onset of frost and can emerge from months of hibernation to enjoy single days of sunlight. Such is the solemn poetry of a lone butterfly in winter.
The spring bulbs are awakening from their winter sleep.
Daffodils will be in flower next week.
A single Red Admiral butterfly, out of season in mid-February - “sadly missed”
Find out more at Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park
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This is 45 Hanbury St in 1919, an address which hardly exists anymore – today these premises serve as the back end of a chocolate shop, one of more than six such establishments in Spitalfields. Yet a century ago it was home to the family business of JH Fisher, making and repairing umbrellas and parasols. In this photograph, taken on 19th November 1919, we see Juda Hersz Fiszer and his wife Malka standing outside their shop. They came to London from Warsaw at the beginning of the twentieth century and, although the family anglicised their name to ‘Fisher,’ Juda and his wife kept their Polish nationality.
Juda Fiszer was a skilled umbrella-maker and established his umbrella business in Spitalfields in 1907. During the First World War, the family moved to the more desirable area of Hackney and set up home at 123 Victoria Park Rd. Their son Morris Fisher continued the family business but, by the thirties, the Hanbury St shop was taken over by a tailor and Morris had a stall in the Whitechapel Rd, selling rather than manufacturing umbrellas.
Spitalfields has good reason to be seen as the place of origin of the umbrella-making industry in this country on account of the local availability of silk and whalebones from the London Docks at the end of the eighteenth century when these popular accessories first became readily available. James Ince & Sons is the longest established company of umbrella manufacturers in Britain and Richard Ince, the current incumbent, can trace origin of his business back to White’s Row in 1815, though he believes it was in existence before that. Today Inces’ Umbrellas trade from Vyner St but they were in Spitalfields for over two hundred and fifty years before moving to Hackney in the eighties.
The last remnant of this former industry in Spitalfields was E Olive Ltd, an umbrella shop and manufacturer at 10 Hanbury St which closed in the late eighties yet, such is the cyclical nature of history, the recent revival in quality British-made umbrellas has the occasioned the arrival of newcomer London Undercover which has traded successfully from 20 Hanbury St since 2013 – selling umbrellas less than fifty yards from JH Fisher a century ago.
45 Hanbury St today
E Olive Ltd, Umbrella Manufacturers, 10 Hanbury St, 1985 (Photograph by Philip Marriage)
E. Olive Ltd Umbrella Manufacturers, 10 Hanbury St, 1985 (Photograph by Philip Marriage)
Read my stories about umbrellas
Some readers may be puzzled by the ghost sign which has recently been uncovered next to the Blind Beggar in Whitechapel, advertising the weekly car boot sale that ceased functioning more than twenty years ago when the land at the rear of the tube station – known as Whitechapel Waste – was redeveloped. Fortunately, Contributing Photographer Phil Maxwell lived in Pauline House overlooking Whitechapel for thirty years and documented the life of this lost market and its thriving community during the eighties.
View looking west from the top of Durward St School
View looking east across Whitechapel from Phil Maxwell’s flat in Pauline House, Hanbury St
Photographs copyright © Phil Maxwell
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