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The Oldest Tree in Bethnal Green

August 27, 2015
by the gentle author

(Celebrating the sixth anniversary of Spitalfields Life with a week of favourite posts from the last twelve months, before recommencing with new stories on 31st August)

Thanks to an invitation from one of the readers, I had the opportunity of making the acquaintance of the oldest tree in the East End, a dignified tottering specimen known as the Bethnal Green Mulberry. Imported from Persia by James I in the sixteenth century, it is more than five hundred years old and once served to feed the silkworms cultivated by local weavers.

The Mulberry originally grew in the grounds of Bishop Bonner’s Palace that stood on this site and an inkwell in the museum of the Royal London Hospital, made in 1915 from a bough, has a brass plate engraved with the sardonic yarn that the Bishop sat beneath it to enjoy shelter in the cool of the evening while deciding which heretics to execute.

My visit was a poignant occasion since the Mulberry stands today in the grounds of the London Chest Hospital which opened in 1855 and closed forever last April prior to being put up for sale by the National Health Service in advance of redevelopment. My only previous visit to the Hospital was as a patient struggling with pneumonia, when I was grateful to come here for treatment and feel reassured by its gracious architecture surrounded by trees. Of palatial design, the London Chest Hospital is a magnificent Victorian philanthropic institution where the successful campaign to rid the East End of tuberculosis in the last century was masterminded.

It was a sombre spectacle to see workmen carrying out desks and stripping the Hospital of its furniture, and when a security guard informed me that building had been sold for twenty-five million and would be demolished since “it’s not listed,” I was shocked at the potential loss of this beloved structure and the threat to the historic tree too. Yet as far as I am aware, no formal decision has been made about the future of the Hospital’s fabric and, thankfully, the Mulberry is subject to a Tree Preservation Order.

Gainly supported by struts that have become absorbed into the fibre of the tree over the years, it was heartening to see this ancient organism coming into leaf once more and renewing itself again after five centuries. The Bethnal Green Mulberry has seen palaces and hospitals come and go, but it continues to bear fruit every summer regardless.

The Mulberry narrowly escaped destruction in World War II and charring from a bomb is still visible

The London Chest Hospital opened in 1855 and closed forever this spring

Ancient Mulberry in Victoria Park which may be a contemporary of the Bethnal Green Mulberry

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Tim Hunkin, Inventor Extraordinaire

August 26, 2015
by the gentle author

(Celebrating the sixth anniversary of Spitalfields Life with a week of favourite posts from the last twelve months, before recommencing with new stories on 31st August)

Tim Hunkin

I know I cannot be the only one who still has a cardboard file of copies of Tim Hunkin’s genius cartoon strip, ’The Rudiments of Wisdom,’ clipped weekly from the Observer and cherished through all these years. So I hope you will appreciate my excitement when Tim invited me over to Bloomsbury  to photograph the arrival of his automata and slot machines, prior to the opening of Novelty Automation, his personal amusement arcade.

I can now reveal that there were a few anxious moments as Tim’s nuclear reactor lurched violently while being manhandled from the van. But you will be relieved to learn that all the machines fitted through the door and are safely installed inside his tiny premises in Princeton St off Red Lion Sq, where – for a small fee – Londoners will be able to practice money-laundering, witness a total eclipse, lose weight, get frisked, get divorced, get chiropody and – of course – operate a nuclear reactor.

I went back to admire Tim’s machines, illuminated and humming with life in their new home, which gave me the opportunity to have a chat with the engineer while he tinkered with the works, making his final adjustments and ironing out a few last minute snags. “I started making things as a child and the cartoons were a distraction at university when I couldn’t have a workshop,” he revealed modestly, his hands deep inside a machine, “I started drawing for a student magazine and that led me to the Observer.”

Leaning in close with a puzzled frown, Tim tilted his gold spectacles upon his brow and narrowed his eyes in thought, peering into the forest of cogs and levers. I hope he will forgive me if I admit could not ignore the startling resemblance at that moment, in his posture and countenance, to Heath Robinson’s illustrations for Norman Hunter’s Professor Branestawm stories.

“It’s much easier to make a living by drawing than by making things, and it’s harder to make things that work,” he confessed, turning to catch my eye, “I often say, I spent the first half of my life making things badly.”

“I just like being in my workshop, I get itchy feet sitting at a desk. But if my body gives out before my mind, I plan to write a huge book about Electricity,” he continued, growing excited as the thought struck him.

I plan to hang on as long as I can,” he reassured me, returning his concentration to the machine.

“The ingredient you need when you make things is to know it’s worthwhile,” Tim said, half to himself, “There needs to be a point to it – sometimes I leave my workshop and go down to the arcade in Southwold and I see people laughing at my machines there. You can’t imagine how addictive that is for me.” Casting my eyes around the room at Tim’s array of ingenious and playful machines, each conceived with a sharp edge of satirical humour, I could easily imagine it. “I’m quite a loner, so it’s my connection to the world and it gives me great pleasure,” he confided without taking his gaze from the work in hand.

“People underestimate slot machines,” he informed me, almost defensively, “Once they have paid, they pay attention, read the instructions and concentrate because they have invested and they want to get their money’s worth. So you’ve really captured your audience.”

“In the eighties, I had a brush with the Art world, but I prefer the notion that, rather than buy your work, people buy an experience,” he concluded, adding “and you don’t have to be sophisticated to enjoy it.”

All this time, Tim had been fiddling with an hydraulic system which caused the eyes to shoot out of a bust of Sigmund Freud but – at that moment – was failing to pull them back in again afterwards. Constructed of old timber, the device comprised an automated bedroom with dream figures popping up from inside the wardrobe and outside the window.

“The machines are the stars not me,” Tim declared when I exclaimed in wonder to see the mechanism spring into life, “I’m looking forward to when I can get back to my workshop.” I left him there playing with the dream machine and I rather envied him.

Tim Hunkin and his team deliver their Nuclear Reactor in Bloomsbury

Tim Hunkin and the Dream Machine

NOVELTY AUTOMATION at 1a Princeton St, Bloomsbury, WC1R 4 AX. Wednesdays 11am – 6pm, Thursdays 11am – 7pm, Fridays 11am – 6pm & Saturdays 11am – 6pm

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One Last Drink At The Gun

August 25, 2015
by the gentle author

(Celebrating the sixth anniversary of Spitalfields Life with a week of favourite posts from the last twelve months, before recommencing with new stories on 31st August)

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 were 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 in February and, if he were to come back, he would find The Gun shrouded in scaffolding, prior to demolition as part of the redevelopment of the 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 this year.

Back in February, Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien & I joined the regulars for a lively yet poignant celebration on the last 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 the last 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 took 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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London’s Ancient Topography

August 24, 2015
by the gentle author

(Celebrating the sixth anniversary of Spitalfields Life with a week of favourite posts from the last twelve months, before recommencing with new stories on 31st August)

Bethelem Hospital with London Wall in Foreground – Drawn June 1812

Two centuries ago, John Thomas Smith set out to record the last vestiges of ancient London that survived from before the Great Fire of 1666 but which were vanishing in his lifetime. You can click on any of these images to enlarge them and study the tender human detail that Smith recorded in these splendid etchings he made from his own drawings. My passion for John Thomas Smith’s work was first ignited by his portraits of raffish street sellers published as Vagabondiana and I was delighted to spot several of those familiar characters included here in these vivid streets scenes of London long ago.

Bethel Hospital seen from London Wall – Drawn August 1844

Old House in Sweedon’s Passage, Grub St – Drawn July 1791, Taken Down March 1805

Old House in Sweedon’s Passage, Grub St – Drawn July 1791, Taken Down March 1805

London Wall in Churchyard of St Giles’ Cripplegate –  Drawn 1793, Taken Down 1803

Houses on the Corner of Chancery Lane & Fleet St – Drawn August 1789, Taken Down May 1799

Houses in Leadenhall St – Drawn July 1796

Duke St, West Smithfield – Drawn July 1807, Taken Down October 1809

Corner of Hosier Lane, West Smithfield – Drawn April 1795

Houses on the South Side of London Wall – Drawn March 1808

Houses on West Side of Little Moorfields – Drawn May 1810

Magnificent Mansion in Hart St, Crutched Friars – Drawn May 1792, Taken Down 1801

Walls of the Convent of St Clare, Minories – Drawn April 1797

Watch Tower Discovered Near Ludgate Hill – Drawn June 1792

An Arch of London Bridge in the Great Frost – Drawn February 5th 1814

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

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Portraits Of Holland Estate Residents

August 23, 2015
by the gentle author

(Celebrating the sixth anniversary of Spitalfields Life with a week of favourite posts from the last twelve months, before recommencing with new stories on 31st August)

After social housing association East End Homes submitted a pre-planning application for demolition of Holland Estate next to Petticoat Lane, prior to consulting with the people who live there, a member of the staff of East End Homes told residents their homes were “unfit for human habitation. Although Tower Hamlets Council voted unanimously in solidarity with the residents’ wish for refurbishment not demolition, and their campaign has also won of the support of Member of Parliament Rushanara Ali and Mayor John Biggs, East East Homes show no sign of relenting with their plans.

Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I spent an afternoon visiting flats on the Holland Estate to take these portraits and assess the accommodation for ourselves. We were touched by the strong sense of community we encountered and the generous welcome we received. We found the gracious brick structures are built of better quality materials than most modern developments and are humanely conceived, offering hospitable living spaces which are cherished and well-maintained by the occupants.

Ali Sahed Goyas &  Jahnara Choudhury have lived on the Holland Estate for twenty-five years

Alex Rhys-Taylor & Natasha Polyviou, residents for thirteen years, with their son Odysseus

Pascha Singh has lived on the Holland Estate for more than thirty years

Mahjdiyat, Shammi, Manveen & Arshan Ahmed at home

Yolanda De Los Buies has lived on the Holland Estate for seventeen years

Saleha Khanam with her son Shamsur Rahman and his wife Rushna Begum and their children Yaseen and Hamza – Four generations of this family have lived on the Holland Estate

Azar Ali has lived on the Holland Estate for thirty-one years

Nessa Aifun cares for her husband Rustum at home

Saleh Ahmed & Rusnobun  Bibi and their grandchildren Aakifah & Ismael

Kabir Ahmed & Nasrin Rob with their children Aakifah & Ismael

Murtata Choudhury has lived on the Holland Estate for fifty years

Shikiko Aoyama Sanderson & Jarrod Sanderson have lived on the Estate for six years

Samirun Chowdhury  with Saima Chowdhury and Taher Uddin outside Samirun & Saima’s home

Enrico Bonadio has lived on the Holland Estate for three years

Rob Ali, Ali Sayed Goyas, Asab Miah, Murtata Choudhury, Saleh Ahmed with Aakifah Ahmed & Mohammed Ismael Ali

Photographs copyright @ Sarah Ainslie

You can follow the Residents Against Demolition campaign on



Twitter  @bbcresidents

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