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Jack Sheppard, Highwayman

January 18, 2020
by the gentle author

On the morning of 4th September 1724, an inconsequential thief named Jack Sheppard was to be hung at Tyburn for stealing three rolls of cloth, two silver spoons and a silk handkerchief. But instead of the routine execution of another worthless felon, London awoke to the astonishing news that he had escaped from the death cell at Newgate.

With the revelation that this was the third prison break in months by the handsome boyish twenty-two year old Jack Sheppard, he flamed like a comet into the stratosphere of criminality – embodying the role of the charismatic desperado to such superlative effect that his colourful reputation for youthful defiance gleams in the popular imagination two centuries later.

In the Spring, he broke out through the roof of St Giles Roundhouse, tossing tiles at his guards. In the Summer, with his attractive companion Elizabeth Lyon, he climbed through a barred window twenty-five feet above the ground to escape from New Bridewell Prison, Clerkenwell. And now he had absconded from Newgate too, using a metal file smuggled in by Elizabeth and fleeing in one of her dresses as disguise. Sheppard was a popular sensation, and everyone was fascinated by the inexplicable mystery of his unique talent for escapology.

Spitalfields’ most notorious son, Jack Sheppard, was born in Whites Row on 4th March 1702 and christened the very next day at St Dunstan’s in Stepney, just in case his infant soul fled this earth as quickly as it arrived. Unexceptionally for his circumstances and his time, death surrounded him – named for an elder brother that died before his birth, he lost his father and his sister in infancy. When his mother could not feed him, she gave him to the workhouse in Bishopsgate at the age of six, from where he was indentured to a cane chair maker, until he died too. Eventually at fifteen years old, he was apprenticed to a carpenter in Covent Garden, following his father’s trade, but at age twenty he met Elizabeth Lyon, his partner in crime, at the Black Lion in Drury Lane, a public house frequented by criminals and the infamous Jonathan Wild, known as the “Thief-taker General.”

On 10th September 1724, Sheppard was rearrested after his break-out from Newgate and returned there to a high security cell in the Stone Castle, where he was handcuffed and fettered, then padlocked in shackles and chained down in a chamber that was barred and locked. Yet with apparent superhuman ability – inspiring the notion that the devil himself came to Sheppard’s assistance – he escaped again a month later and enjoyed a very public fortnight of liberty In London, eluding the authorities in disguise as a dandy and carousing flamboyantly with Elizabeth Lyon, until arrested by Jonathan Wild,  buying everyone drinks at midnight at a tavern in Clare Market, Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Back in Newgate – now the most celebrated criminal in history – hundreds daily paid four shillings to visit Sheppard in his cell, where he enjoyed a drinking match with Figg the prizefighter and Sir Henry Thornhill painted his execution portrait.

Two hundred thousand people turned out for Jack Sheppard’s hanging on 16th November, just two months since he came to prominence, and copies of his autobiography ghostwritten by Daniel Defoe were sold. Four years later, John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera,” with the character of Macheath modelled upon Sheppard and Peachum based upon his nemesis Jonathan Wild, premiered with spectacular success. Biographical pamphlets and dramas proliferated, with Henry Ainsworth’s bestseller of 1839 “Jack Sheppard” – for which George Cruikshank drew these pictures – outselling “Oliver Twist.” Taking my cue from William Makepeace Thackeray, who wrote that, “George Cruikshank really created the tale and Mr Ainsworth, as it were, merely put words to it,” I have published these masterly  illustrations here as the quintessential visual account of the life of Spitalfields’ greatest rogue.

And what was the secret of his multiple prison breaks?

There was no supernatural intervention. Sheppard had outstanding talent as a carpenter and builder, inherited from his father and grandfather who were both carpenters before him and developed during the six years of his apprenticeship. With great physical strength and a natural mastery of building materials, he possessed an intimate understanding of the means of construction of every type of lock, bar, window, floor, ceiling and wall – and, in addition to this, twenty-two year old Jack Sheppard had a burning appetite to wrestle whatever joy he could from his time of splendour in the Summer of 1724.

Mrs Sheppard refuses the adoption of her little son Jack


Jack Sheppard exhibits a vindinctive character.

Jack Sheppard committing the robbery in Willesden church.

Jack Sheppard gets drunk and orders his mother off.

Jack Sheppard’s escape from the cage at Willesden.

Mrs Sheppard expostulates with her son.

Jack Sheppard and Blueskin in Mr Wood’s bedroom.

Jack Sheppard in company with Elizabeth Lyon escapes from Clerkenwell Prison.

The audacity of Jack Sheppard.

Jack Sheppard visits his mother in Bedlam.

Jack Sheppard escaping from the condemned cell in Newgate.

The first escape.

Jack Sheppard tricking Shortbolt, the gaoler.

The second escape.


Jonathan Wild seizing Jack Sheppard at his mother’s grave in Willesden.

Jack Sheppard sits for his execution portrait in oils by Sir James Thornhill  – accompanied by  Figg the prizefighter (to Jack’s right), John Gay, the playwright (to Jacks’s left), while William Hogarth sketches him on the right.

Jack Sheppard’s irons knocked off in the stone hall in Newgate.

Jack Sheppard  of Spitalfields (Mezzotint after the Newgate portrait by Sir James Thornhill, 1724) – “Yes sir, I am The Sheppard, and all the gaolers in the town are my flocks, and I cannot stir into the country but they are at my heels baaing after me…”

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Joy Harris, Dressmaker

January 17, 2020
by the gentle author

Joy with her engagement ring, at seventeen.

Almost sixty years after she was apprenticed as a dressmaker in Spitalfields, Joy Harris returned to visit the streets where she began her career and found them much changed. The sweatshops and factories have new uses today and the textile industry itself has gone but, as we walked around in search of her long-lost haunts, Joy told me her story – and it all came back to life.

“Dressmaking was all I was interested in, and I wanted to be a court dressmaker. My mother made her own clothes and she made mine too. She was from Stepney and she had done an apprenticeship as a dressmaker in the East End. I think I was born with it and I can’t ever remember not being able to sew, even at twelve or thirteen I made clothes for other people.

In 1961, at fifteen years old, I was offered an apprenticeship at Christian Dior in Paris but my mum and dad couldn’t afford to send me there. So Eastex in Brick Lane was the next best option – very disappointing that was!  I left school in July and went straight to Eastex where I earned a pittance, it only covered my fare. Eastex were a middle range clothing company and I worked on the third floor at the corner of Brick Lane and Wentworth St. I started off making shoulder pads by the hundred and then you did darts and gradually we were taught to make a whole garment. Zips were measured and everything had to be in the right place. We used to sing, “Daisy, Daisy, Give me your answer do!” all day at work. It was boring. We spent all day making darts and then we’d take it up to show what we’d done, and we’d be sent back to do it all over again.

My friend Sandra already worked in Fashion St and we travelled up together to Aldgate East on the train from Barking each day. In Wentworth St, there was an underground butcher where there’d always be these men up against the grilles whistling at us, in our miniskirts at fifteen. They’d get locked up now. My mother let me keep my money for the first three weeks, and the first week I bought her a watch and, on the second week, I bought these black patent leather Italian slingbacks in Commercial St. I love shoes and I can remember everybody looking at my slingbacks. Of a Friday, we’d go down Petticoat Lane where there was a table that sold forty-fives and I bought my first Beatles record there and everybody asked me, “Who’s the Beatles?” I was a teenager and everybody I knew bought records, I had loads because they were really cheap.

I’ve known Larry since I was fourteen. We met at the youth club where I was friends with this guy called John. I’d seen Larry and I thought he looked nice and he had a scooter. John and Larry went on an Outward Bound trip for a month, and I was quite taken aback when John turned up with Larry. We got engaged after I finished my apprenticeship at seventeen, and John became the best man at our wedding.

And then I went to work in Fashion St which was a very stupid thing to do. But it was where my friend Sandra worked and they were paid three times as much at Lestelle Modes as I got at Eastex. It was a sweatshop they used to make very cheap clothes for C&A and market stalls. It ended my ambition to become a court dressmaker but all I wanted to do was get married and have children. Yet I didn’t make any money at first because I’d been trained to make clothes properly whilst at this place they were running them up quickly. The other girls made fifty dresses a day yet I only made ten because I was trying to make them as I was taught at Eastex. It took me ages to get the hang of throwing them together! It was a big problem and I used to go home crying with frustration, because I’d given up my apprenticeship to do this and I thought I’d be making more. But after a few weeks, I managed to do it.

It was a horrible place, a filthy dirty shed in a back yard with eight or ten machinists, and a tea table at the end of the line. The whole workshop was thick with fluff and people used to smoke there. We didn’t have overalls we just wore our old clothes. Yet it was a fun time in my life. They were wonderful people that owned it, Les and his sister Estelle – and Estelle and her husband Jack managed it. It was a relaxed place. We had a record player and took in our own records and played them while we worked. We played “Hit the Road Jack!” on Fridays when Jack left early and ran out the door afterwards, once he’d gone. We curled our hair with cotton reels, permed it in our lunch break and washed it out in the afternoon tea break, ready for the evening. We spent most of our money down the Lane. The motto there was, “If it don’t fit, cut it off!” – if you had spare fabric left over anywhere on the dress.

I stayed there two years, and then me and my friend left and went to a place in Chadwell Heath, until I had my first baby at twenty-one. Then I machined at home for a company from Hackney. It was bloody hard work, but he was a very good baby. Returning to work, I went to a really posh place and my dressmaking training was essential there. It was evening wear and it was all beaded, made of satin and chiffon, and my skills came back because it all had to be done properly.”

In spite of her sojourn in a sweatshop in Fashion St, Joy discovered the fulfilment of her talent as a dressmaker. “I’ve done it all my life!” she informed me proudly, “I made four thousand costumes for a dance contest once, and me and my friend we work self-employed making bridal gowns and bridesmaid’s dresses. Last year, I made twelve Disney costumes for my daughter’s twenty-first birthday party and it took me six months.”

Walking up Fashion St together past the newly renovated Eastern Bazaar that Joy remembers as crowded sweatshops and scruffy fabric warehouses, we met young women outside a fashion school. Joy’s contemporary counterparts, they explained they were at training to be stylists and while Joy was delighted to see that life goes on here, they were even more excited to meet Joy and learn of the clothing manufacturing that was once in Fashion St more than half a century ago, before they born.

Joy aged four in a dress made by her mother, taken in Dagenham where Joy was born – “My parents moved from Stepney in 1939, both were from the East End.”

Joy (right) and her best friend Sandra (left), 1961. – “We were always together. We used to see each other every Wednesday night, even after we were married.”

Joy and Larry up a mountain near Gelligaer, Glamorganshire, in 1963, when Joy was seventeen.

Joy and her husband Larry re-enact the phone call made from this box outside Christ Church Spitalfields in 1963 when Joy rang her sister to learn of the birth of her nephew.

Joy meets Carina Arab, Gulia Felicani and Julie Adler, students at fashion school in Fashion St, on her first return visit since she worked there in a sweatshop in 1963.

Joy at the corner of Brick Lane and Wentworth St where she did her apprenticeship as a dressmaker in 1961, working  for Eastex on the third floor. The building is now offices of the Sky network.

Joy Harris, Dressmaker

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The Relentless Rise Of Facadism

January 16, 2020
by the gentle author

I am giving an illustrated lecture, telling the stories behind THE CREEPING PLAGUE OF GHASTLY FACADISM for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings on Thursday 30th January in St Botolph’s Hall, Bishopsgate, EC2. Click here for tickets

Piccadilly Circus

Since I wrote my book last year, there has been no respite from the relentless rise of facadism and barely a week passes without another case coming to light.

Just yesterday, I walked through Piccadilly Circus and discovered that the vast illuminated signs are now merely a facade for a massive construction site which is the size of a city block. I was startled to walk around the back into Denman St to ascertain the extent of the redevelopment and discover a forlorn fragment of an eighteenth century house with its doorframe still intact in the midst of the destruction, a poignant remnant of a lost world. Consulting the planning application revealed that an agglomeration of buildings which has evolved over centuries is being replaced by a single development, involving the removal and reconstruction of facades.

At the end of last year, a reader suggested I should visit Chelsea where two unfortunate outbreaks of facadism have taken place near the Kings Rd. In Tryon St, the Queen’s Head, a traditional London pub built in 1840 has been reduced to the front wall and the King’s Rd Odeon has similarly been destroyed. Originally named the Gaumont Palace, it was designed by cinema architect William Edward Trent and opened in 1934.

Eighteenth century fragment in Denman St, Piccadilly

Recently revealed opposite the new Elizabeth Line station in Oxford St

The Queens Head was built in Tryon St, Chelsea, in 1840

The Kings Rd Odeon is being facaded

Originally named the Gaumont Palace, it was designed by cinema architect William Edward Trent and opened in 1934 – only the central section of the fascia survives.

The cinema auditorium when it opened

The demolition of the cinema auditorium


“As if I were being poked repeatedly in the eye with a blunt stick, I cannot avoid becoming increasingly aware of a painfully cynical trend in London architecture which threatens to turn the city into the backlot of an abandoned movie studio.”

The Gentle Author presents a humorous analysis of facadism – the unfortunate practice of destroying an old building apart from the front wall and constructing a new building behind it – revealing why it is happening and what it means.

As this bizarre architectural fad has spread across the capital, The Gentle Author has photographed the most notorious examples, collecting an astonishing gallery of images guaranteed to inspire both laughter and horror in equal measure.

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Stuart Goodman in Broadway Market

January 15, 2020
by the gentle author

John Sims

Take a walk through Broadway Market in March 1982 with Photographer Stuart Goodman, when it was quite a different place to the fashionable destination of today.

A former Fleet St Photographer & Picture Editor, Stuart sent me these pictures. “They were first shown in 1983 at an exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall, organised by the Greater London Council,” he explained, “which was ironic really because the GLC had a massive 1000-property compulsory purchase scheme to construct a nightmare version of the Westway through East London, that included the market.”

“I first found Broadway Market by mistake in 1976 and fell in love with the place, the cobbles, the people and the Cat & Mutton pub. By 1977, I was a partner in Hot Shots, a short-lived screen printing extravaganza, and I lived in an exceptionally squalid flat above and below the shop at number 52. I met both my wives there too, though – thankfully – not at the same time.

Although I lived in Broadway Market for a few years, I only photographed it once, wandering around for a couple of hours. Now I live in Norwich but I still have connections with the place, my sister-in-law was the ladybird book lady, running a stall opposite where I once lived, and my brother sells vinyl in the upmarket bit up the road.

I miss the place, not the squalor, the outside loo, the cold – but the people, the community and, somehow, the optimism. In those days, there was not a gastro pub in sight and no-one had ever heard of a buffalo burger. ”

Photographs copyright © Stuart Goodman

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So Long, Peter Sargent

January 14, 2020
by the gentle author

I am saddened to report the death of my friend Peter Sargent at the age of sixty-five after suffered a heart attack on Saturday. He became a local hero by standing up for small traders against supermarkets and was a popular and charismatic member of the community in Bethnal Green where he ran his shop for thirty-seven years.

Peter Sargent

In 1983, when Peter Sargent took on his shop, there were seven other butchers in Bethnal Green but in recent years his was the only one left. A few years ago, it looked like Peter’s might go the way of the rest, until he took the initiative of placing a discreet sign on the opposite side of the zebra crossing outside his shop. Directed at those on their way to the supermarket, it said, “Have a look in butcher’s opposite before you go in Tesco.”

This cheeky intervention raised the ire of the supermarket chain, won Peter a feature in the local paper and drew everyone’s attention to the plain truth that you get better quality meat at a better price at an independent butcher than at a supermarket.“Tesco threatened legal action,” admitted Peter, his eyes gleaming in defiance, “They came over while I was unloading my van to tell me they were serious, but I told them where to go.” Shortly afterwards, it was revealed that Tesco had been selling horsemeat and Peter left a bale of hay outside his shop. “I invited customers to drop it off if they were going across the road,” he revealed to me with a grin of triumph.

This unlikely incident proved to be a turning point for Peter’s business which has been in the ascendancy ever since. “There’s not many of my old East End customers left anymore and I was close to calling it a day,” he confided to me, “but I’ve found that the young people who are moving in, they want to buy their meat from a proper butcher’s shop.”

In celebration of this change of fortune in the local butchery trade, photographer Colin O’Brien & I paid a visit behind the counter to create this report, and we each came away with sawdust on our boots and the gift of a packet of the freshly-made sausages for which Peter’s shop is renowned.

“I started as a Saturday boy in Walthamstow, when I was sixteen, in 1970,” Peter told me, “and then it became a full-time job when I left school at eighteen.” Over the next ten years, Peter worked in each of half a dozen shops belonging to the same owner, including the one in Bethnal Green, until they all shut and he lost his job. Speaking with the bank that his ex-employer was in debt to, Peter agreed to take on the shop and, when they asked if he had a down payment, Peter’s wife Jackie produced ten pounds from her handbag.

Since then, Peter worked twelve hours a day, six days a week, at his shop in Bethnal Green – arriving around eight each morning after a daily visit to Smithfield to collect supplies. “I love it and I hate it, I can’t leave it alone,” he confessed to me, placing a hand on his chest to indicate the depth of emotion, “it’s very exciting in a Saturday when all the customers arrive, but it can be depressing when nobody comes.”

Peter was supported by fellow butcher Vic Evenett and the pair made an amiable double-act behind the counter, ensuring that an atmosphere of good-humoured anarchy prevails. “I started as a ‘humper’ at Smithfield in 1964 for six years, then I had my own shop in Bow for twenty-three years, then one in Walthamstow Market, Caledonian Rd and Roman Rd, but none of them did very very well because I had to pay too much rent,” Vic informed me, “I came here twenty years ago to help Peter out for a few days and I stayed on.”

In a recent refit, an old advert was discovered pasted onto the wall and Peter had the new tiles placed around it so that customers may see the illustration of his shop when it was a tripe dresser in 1920. Yet Peter would tell you proudly that his shop actually dates from 1860 and he became visibly excited when I began talking about the centuries-old tradition of butchery in Whitechapel. And then he and Vic began exchanging significant glances as I explained how Dick Turpin is sometimes said to have been an apprentice butcher locally.

Thankfully, East Enders old and new took notice of Peter’s sign, “Have a look in butcher’s opposite before you go in Tesco,” and  he and Vic – the last butchers in Bethnal Green – continued to make an honest living without the necessity of turning highwaymen.

Peter’s sign outside Tesco

Excited customers on Saturday morning

Vic Evenett & Peter Sargent

Peter & Vic sold more than five hundred game birds last Christmas

Photographs copyright © Estate of Colin O’Brien

Peter Barber In The East End

January 13, 2020
by the gentle author

Taking advantage of the fleeting sunlight on Sunday morning, I set out to visit some of the exemplary examples of social housing designed by architect Peter Barber in the East End. Peter is giving this year’s East End Preservation Society CR Ashbee Lecture on 23rd January. His buildings complement the existing urban landscape and are fascinating for being entirely modern yet drawing upon historic forms of housing in the capital.

Beveridge Mews, off Hannibal Rd, Stepney.

Beveridge Mews, off Hannibal Rd, Stepney

Beveridge Mews, off Hannibal Rd, Stepney

McGrath Rd, Stratford

McGrath Rd, Stratford

McGrath Rd, Stratford

Donnybrook Quarter, corner of Parnell Rd and Old Ford Rd. The project was commissioned by Circle 33 Housing Trust in 2003

Donnybrook Quarter, corner of Parnell Rd and Old Ford Rd

Donnybrook Quarter, corner of Parnell Rd and Old Ford Rd

Donnybrook Quarter, corner of Parnell Rd and Old Ford Rd

Donnybrook Quarter, corner of Parnell Rd and Old Ford Rd

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A Walk Through Dickens London

January 12, 2020
by the gentle author

An occluded Saturday in January when sunlight barely glimmered offered the ideal opportunity for a ramble through Charles Dickens’ London. Employing a set of cigarette cards from 1927 which Libby Hall kindly gave me for Christmas as my guide, I set out on a circular walk from Spitalfields through the City to Holborn, returning along Bankside, to photograph those locations which remain today.

Dean’s Court, EC4

Staple Inn, WC1

2 South Square, Gray’s Inn, WC1

48 Doughty St, WC1

57-58 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, WC2

13-14 Portsmouth St, WC2

Water Gate, Essex St, WC2

London Bridge Steps, Montague Close, SE1

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