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A Dead Man In Clerkenwell

October 29, 2020
by the gentle author

Aa Halloween approaches, it suits my mood to contemplate the dead man in the crypt in Clerkenwell

This is the face of the dead man in Clerkenwell. He does not look perturbed by the change in the weather. Once winters wore him out, but now he rests beneath the streets of the modern city he will never see, oblivious both to the weather and the wonders of our age, entirely oblivious to everything in fact.

Let me admit, although some might consider it poor company, I consider death to be my friend – because without mortality our time upon this earth would be worthless. So I do not fear death, but rather I hope I shall have enough life first. My fear is that death might come too soon or unexpectedly in some pernicious form. In this respect, I envy my father who always took a nap on the sofa each Sunday after gardening and one day at the age of seventy nine – when he had completed trimming the privet hedge – he never woke up again.

It was many years ago that I first made the acquaintance of the dead man in Clerkenwell, when I had an office in the Close where I used to go each day and write. I was fascinated to discover a twelfth century crypt in the heart of London, the oldest remnant of the medieval priory of the Knights of St John that once stood in Clerkenwell until it was destroyed by Henry VIII, and it was this memento mori, a sixteenth century stone figure of an emaciated corpse, which embodied the spirit of the place for me.

Thanks to Pamela Willis,  curator at the Museum of the Order of St John, I went back to look up my old friend after all these years. She lent me her key and, leaving the bright October sunshine behind me, I let myself into the crypt, switching on the lights and walking to the furthest underground recess of the building where the dead man was waiting. I walked up to the tomb where he lay and cast my eyes upon him, recumbent with his shroud gathered across his groin to protect a modesty that was no longer required. He did not remonstrate with me for letting twenty years go by. He did not even look surprised. He did not appear to recognise me at all. Yet he looked different than before, because I had changed, and it was the transformative events of the intervening years that had awakened my curiosity to return.

There is a veracity in this sculpture which I could not recognise upon my previous visit, when – in my innocence – I had never seen a dead person. Standing over the figure this time, as if at a bedside, I observed the distended limbs, the sunken eyes and the tilt of the head that are distinctive to the dead. When my mother lost her mental and then her physical faculties too, I continued to feed her until she could no longer even swallow liquid, becoming as emaciated as the stone figure before me. It was at dusk on the 31st December that I came into her room and discovered her inanimate, recognising that through some inexplicable prescience the life had gone from her at the ending of the year. I understood the literal meaning of “remains,” because everything distinctive of the living person had departed to leave mere skin and bone. And I know now that the sculptor who made this effigy had seen that too, because his observation of the dead is apparent in his work, even if the bizarre number of ribs in his figure bears no relation to human anatomy.

There is a polished area on the brow, upon which I instinctively placed my hand, where my predecessors over the past five centuries had worn it smooth. This gesture, which you make as if to check his temperature, is an unconscious blessing in recognition of the commonality we share with the dead who have gone before us and whose ranks we shall all join eventually. The paradox of this sculpture is that because it is a man-made artifact it has emotional presence, whereas the actual dead have only absence. It is the tender details – the hair carefully pulled back behind the ears, and the protective arms with their workmanlike repairs – that endear me to this soulful relic.

Time has not been kind to this figure, which originally lay upon the elaborate tomb of Sir William Weston inside the old church of St James Clerkenwell, until the edifice was demolished and the current church was built in the eighteenth century, when the effigy was resigned to this crypt like an old pram slung in the cellar. Today a modern facade reveals no hint of what lies below ground. Sir William Weston, the last Prior, died in April 1540 on the day that Henry VIII issued the instruction to dissolve the Order, and the nature of his death was unrecorded. Thus, my friend the dead man is loss incarnate – the damaged relic of the tomb of the last Prior of the monastery destroyed five hundred years ago – yet he still has his human dignity and he speaks to me.

Walking back from Clerkenwell, through the City to Spitalfields on this bright afternoon in late October, I recognised a similar instinct as I did after my mother’s death. I cooked myself a meal because I craved the familiar task and the event of the day renewed my desire to live more life.

The Museum of the Order of St John, St John’s Gate, Clerkenwell, EC1M 4DA

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Danny Levy At Whitechapel Bell Foundry

October 28, 2020
by the gentle author

The Bell Foundry Public Inquiry resumes at 10am today for the final day, including summing-up, with live-tweeting at @savethewbf.


Continuing in the long tradition of artists at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, here are Danny Levy’s drawings from the eighties.

“In 1986, after graduating from the Royal College of Art, I was teaching at Falmouth School of Art and continuing with my own work. At the time, I was particularly interested in industrial scenes. So I knocked on the door of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry to ask if I could come in and draw. Very kindly, they gave me free range to wander around and make drawings. I was in there for a week and the feeling of history and the atmosphere was exciting and intense.”

Danny Levy

The Arc Welder

The Grinding Wheel

The Welder

Tuning the Bell

Tuning the Bell

Three men on a bench grinder

Drawings copyright © Danny Levy

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Happy Birthday, Dan Jones!

October 27, 2020
by the gentle author

Today we celebrate the eightieth birthday of our hero, Dan Jones.

Click to enlarge Dan Jones’ painting of Brick Lane 1978

In Dan Jones’ exuberant and playful painting, Brick Lane is a stage upon which an epic political drama is enacted. From this vantage point at the corner of the Truman Brewery, we see an Anti-Racist demonstration advancing up Brick Lane, while a bunch of skinheads stand at the junction with Hanbury St outside the fortuitously named “Skin Corner.” Meanwhile, a policeman stops a black boy on the opposite corner in front of a partially visible sign reading as “Sus,” in reference to the “Sus” law that permitted police to stop and search anyone on suspicion, a law repealed in 1981. And in the foreground of all this action, life goes on – two senior Bengali men embrace, as Dan and his family arrive to join the march, while bystanders of different creeds and colours chat together.

Dan Jones’ mother was the artist Pearl Binder, who came to live in Whitechapel in the nineteen twenties, and since 1967, Dan has lived down in Cable St where he brought up his family in an old terraced house next to the Crown & Dolphin. A prolific painter, Dan has creating many panoramic works – often of political scenes, such as you see here, as well as smaller pictures produced to illustrate two books of Nursery Rhymes, “Inky, Pinky, Ponky” and “Mother Goose comes to Cable St,” both published in the eighties. In recent years, he has undertaken a series of large playground murals portraying school children and the infinite variety of their games and rhymes.

Employed at first in youth work in the Cable St area, and subsequently involved in social work with immigrant families, Dan has been a popular figure in the East End for many years, and his canvases are crammed with affectionate portraits of hundreds of the people that he has come to know through his work and political campaigning. Today Dan works for Amnesty International, and continues to paint and to pursue his lifelong passion for collecting rhymes.

There is a highly personal vision of the East End manifest in Dan Jones’ paintings, which captivate me with the quality of their intricate detail and tender observation. When Dan showed me his work, he pointed out the names of all the people portrayed and told me the story behind every picture. Like the Pipe & Drum Band in Wapping painted by Dan in 1974 – to give but one example – which had been going since the eighteen eighties using the same sheet music. Their performances were a living fossil of the music of those days, until a row closed them down in 1980. “They were good – good flute players and renowned as boxers,” Dan informed me respectfully.

The End of Club Row, 1983. Club Row was closed after the government banned animal markets

Last Supper at St Botolph’s, Aldgate. Rev Malcolm Johnson preaches to the homeless at Easter 1982.

Pipe and Drum Band in Tent St, Wapping, 1974.

The Poplar Rates Rebellion of 1921

Parade on the the sixtieth anniversary of the Battle of Cable St, 1996

Live poultry sold in Hessel St.

Fishing at Shadwell Basin.

Tubby Isaacs in Goulston St, Petticoat Lane.

Palaseum Cinema in Commercial Rd

A Teddy Bear rampages outside the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.

Funeral of a pig in Cable St, Dan Jones and his family come out of their house to watch.

Christ Church School, Brick Lane

Liverpool St Station

Watney Market

Paintings copyright © Dan Jones

Click here to order a copy of EAST END VERNACULAR for £25

Pearl Binder At Whitechapel Bell Foundry

October 26, 2020
by the gentle author

The Bell Foundry Public Inquiry resumes with open submissions at 10am tomorrow (27th October), with live-tweeting at @savethewbf. If you feel there are important things that have not been said, email to register to speak.


Artist & Writer Pearl Binder (1904-1990) came from Salford in the twenties to live in a hayloft in Whitechapel while studying at Central School of Art. Subsequently, she published ODD JOBS in 1935, a series of illustrated pen portraits including this account of a visit to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which was introduced to me by her son Dan Jones.

‘Casting bells is a similar process to making puddings and just as tricky’

In more primitive times, owing to the difficulty of transport, bells had to be cast right outside the church for which they were intended. The bell-founders, like gipsy tinkers, travelling with their tools from one place of worship to the next. As roads and vehicles improved, however, it was found more practical to cast the bells in a static foundry.

The present Whitechapel Bell Foundry dates from 1570 and was built on the site of the old Artichoke Inn. During the last three centuries, carillons of every size have been cast here for churches and cathedrals all over the world – also orchestral bells, fire bells, ship’s bells, cattle bells, hand bells, and even muffin bells. The famous Bow Bells came from here and in 1858 Big Ben was cast in the middle foundry.

During the Great War the foundry ceased to cast church bells and made gun cradles instead.

Today, like any other commodity, bells have to be turned out at cut price to keep pace with modern competitive methods. Nevertheless, the standard of work Mears & Stainbank is still very high.

The head moulder, who has been with the firm over forty years, came to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry as a boy of fourteen to be apprenticed to the head moulder of those days, who himself in the eighteen-seventies had started work in a colliery at the age of eight, beginning every morning at six, with a score of other children, under the supervision of a foreman armed with a whip.

Within living memory one outstanding craftsman has emerged from the crowd of workers employed at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. A moulder developed extraordinary skill in designing metal founts for the lettering and ornamental devices for the bells, cutting and casting the letters himself in the foundry. These founts are still in use today, long after his death.

A common labourer, Tom Kimber, taught himself in his spare time to draw armorial bearings with exquisite precision. By rights such a man should have been attached to the College of Heraldry. However, he died as he lived, humbly hauling dirt by day for his weekly thirty shillings and copying inscriptions from the bells in the evenings.

For many years, after his ordinary day’s work, he copied the blazon on every bell sent to the foundry for repair, puzzling out for himself the Latin inscriptions. In this way he compiled in several big albums an invaluable record of centuries of ecclesiastical heraldry. Here are a few inscriptions.

This is from a tenor bell twice recast:


This is from from an Essex village church:


This is from Berkshire in 1869:


This is from from Peasenhall Suffolk in 1722:


And this from a Norfolk village:


It is good to recall that John Bunyan was a bell ringer.



You enter the Whitechapel Bell Foundry through a sunny courtyard. On a window sill a green plant is thriving in an old bell mould.

The first room is the tuning department. Etiquette ordains a bell shall be cast well on the large side to allow the scraping involved in the process of tuning to be carried out without stinting metal, otherwise the tone would be sharp. The diameter and thickness of the bell determine the tone, a twenty-ton bell having as much as one ton removed in the course of tuning.

A workman guides the knife edge which scrapes the sides of the dish bell (the trade name for orchestra bells) on a revolving platform. With a loud grinding noise, metal chips fly off, glittering like tinsel.

With a hammer encased in felt and several hundred tuning forks, the senior tuner painstakingly tests the pitch of the completed bell before it is passed as perfect.

Once a bell is perfectly tuned, it cannot get out of tune. What does happen is the sides of the bell get flattened by the constant impact of the clapper, and the clapper must be changed around so it hits another spot.

The next room is dimly lit. Here old bells affected by climate are sent to have their corrosion chipped off. Woodwork is painted with lead paint, ironwork with red oxide, and holes are drilled in certain defective clappers and filled with rubber to bring out the note. Here also the strickles (wooden shapes) and the disused moulds of all the old bells are stored.

On the waist of each mould an inscription and the destination of the bell are engraved. When the bell is cast the letters will appear in relief. That monster strickle attached to the high ceiling belongs to Big Ben.

This notice is pinned to the board:

Leading out of this room is the dusty, whitewashed foundry where the biggest castings are made. Those heavy oak beams supporting the ceiling came from Queen Victoria’s Great Exhibition in Hyde park, now mouldering peacefully in Crystal Palace.

In the opposite corner to the big furnace is the drying kiln, carefully watched so that no damp may remain in the moulds.

Purposeful litter crowds this foundry: heaps of coal for the big furnace, heaps of coke for the pot-holes as the small furnaces are called, sanguine bricks, clay burned yellow by repeated firings, empty baskets, piled trestles, sieves of all sizes, spades, casings, and the inevitable earthenware teapot.

Big Ben, which took shape in this room, was actually cast in a clay mould, but for over sixty years now metal casts – perforated to allow the gases to escape – have been in use here. Yet the ancient process of ‘beating’ – softening the clay by continually hand beating with a metal rod – still survives.

Casting bells is a similar process to making puddings and just as tricky. You may use exactly the same ingredients in exactly the same manner as last time, yet the result is by no means calculable. The metal used in casting bells is composed of one part of tin to four parts of copper, a greater proportion of copper rendering the bell softer, a greater proportion of tin making it more brittle.

A carillon of eight bells can ring 5040 different changes. One ringer to one bell is the rule, although there is on record one phenomenal bellringer who could actually ring two different bells at the same time.

At the end of the last workshops glows a row of crucibles used for all except the largest castings.

A secret flight of worn stone steps leads down below to a chain of mouldering windowless cellars where the pot-holes are stored. From the construction and disposition of these cellars, their site on the notorious highway to Colchester in what used to be a notorious neighbourhood of crimping dens, and from the fact that Dick Turpin frequented the old Red Lion Inn, less than a stone’s throw away, it seems reasonably certain that they were once used as a coiner’s den.

The casting is most beautiful to watch. First the molten bell metal is lifted in its vessel from the crucible by ten men pulling steadily together. The orange-hot vessel is tilted, pouring the liquid metal in a dazzling pool into a large beaker and showering bright sparks like fireworks in all directions.

The workmen, in caps, leather aprons, and heavy gloves, stand ready, their serious faces lit by the radiance. Not a word is spoken. They move without instruction, grouping and regrouping with natural unison.

The large beaker is wheeled into the foundry, hoisted into position by pulleys, and tilted to the required angle by manipulating the control wheel. One of the workmen swiftly removes surface cinders from the liquid, as one removes tea leaves from a cup of hot tea, and the glowing metal pours slowly into the bell mould until the bubbling at the riser (hole) indicates that the mould is full.

The laden bell mould is set aside to cool. In a couple of days the emerging bell will be scraped, polished and tuned. And half a century hence perhaps it will wend its way back to the foundry again.

Pearl Binder (1904-1990)



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At The Three Crowns

October 25, 2020
by the gentle author

Philip Cunningham sent me these photographs of The Three Crowns, his favourite pub in the Mile End Rd in the seventies, as fondly remembered through a haze of beer and cigarettes.

“Once upon a time, there were plenty of public houses along the Mile End Rd. On the corner of Globe Rd and Alderney St was The Horn of Plenty. On the corner of Globe Rd and Mile End Rd was The Globe and on the opposite corner was The Kings Arms. A few yards along the Mile End Rd was The White Swan and a few yards further down was The Three Crowns.

When we moved to Stepney in the early seventies, The White Swan had already gone but all the others were open and there were many more pubs within easy walking distance, so I was truly spoilt for choice.

My favourite was The Three Crowns, not only because it was nearest but because a lot of local characters went there, along with staff from the nearby hospitals and Queen Mary College, just down the road. Next door was a gambling club and the members of this spilt over into the pub too. At the entrance was a magnificent tiled picture of The Three Crowns and The Cloth of Gold.

Punters would gamble on anything but my favourite was the running races they had down Mile End Rd. At this time Ada and her dad Alf ran the pub along with Polo and Taweek who served behind the bar. Ada used to get enormous hams and, for half a crown, she made you a doorstep sandwich with thick layers of ham and as much mustard as you wanted.

When Ada retired, the pub was taken over by Terry Green and his wife Brenda. Terry had been a docker and with his severance payment he re-designed the interior in a novel design, including inverted Corinthian columns. I became great friends with Jimmy, his brother, and we wandered around the East End together looking for old buildings, breweries, pubs and places he had once lived.

Jimmy explained to me the intricacies of ‘van dragging.’ ‘What else could we do? We had no food?’ he confessed. Cathy, Terry and Jimmy’s sister, worked behind the bar, she was lovely and always greeted you with a smile.

The Three Crowns was a pub where you could meet and have good chat over a glass of beer. Unfortunately when Terry retired the pub became a music venue and conversation was no longer possible, so I went elsewhere. This incarnation did not last long but, before the incumbents left, they tried to remove the tiles of The Cloth of Gold which broke and when I last saw the ceramic mural it was totally destroyed.

The Mile End Rd is a completely straight road. So how a car could swerve off it, mount the kerb, miss a lamp post and crash into a pub is beyond my understanding. Yet this is what happened at The Three Crowns once in the early hours of the morning.

Cathy told me the full story a couple of weeks later, after the driver’s insurance company informed him of the cost of the damage, and he came round irate and full of complaints. He believed he had only knocked the front door in when, in fact, he had caused serious major structural damage, requiring the front wall of the building to be shored up and the ground floor entirely rebuilt.”

Philip Cunningham

In the days of Ada & Polo

Snooker in Ada’s day

Brenda the Barmaid

One of Terry’s notorious inverted Corinthian columns

Cathy with two students from Queen Mary University

Jimmy the Photographer, John the Fruit and pal

Brothers Jimmy and Terry (centre) and pals

Jimmy and Terry with Brenda

Terry and a pal

Regulars at The Three Crowns

The Three Crowns

After the car crashed into the saloon bar…

Photographs copyright © Philip Cunningham

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Dicky Lumskul’s Ramble Through London

October 24, 2020
by the gentle author

Courtesy of the late Mike Henbrey, it is my pleasure to publish this three-hundred-year-old ballad of the London streets and the trades you might expect to find in each of them, as printed and published by J. Pitts, Wholesale Toy & Marble Warehouse, 6 Great St Andrew Street, Seven Dials

Copyright © Mike Henbrey Collection


by Spitalfields Life Contributing Slang Lexicographer Jonathon Green

Bellman – one who rings a bell and makes announcements, a town crier
Clogger – a clogmaker
Cropper – one who operates a shearing machine, either for metal or cloth
Currier – one whose trade is the dressing and colouring of leather after it is tanned
Edger – is presumably Edgeware
Fingersmith – a pickpocket
Gauger – an exciseman, especially who who checks measurements of liquor
Lumper – a labourer, especially on the docks
Shees (Wentworth St) – a misprint for shoes [nothing in OED]
Tow hackler (or Heckler) – one who dresses tow, i.e. unworked flax, with a heckle, a form of comb, splitting and straightening the fibres
Triangles – my sense is that these are triangular, filled pastries [again, nothing in OED]
NOTELumskull is not in Green’s Dictionary of Slang nor indeed the OED where one might have expected it as an alternative spelling of num(b)scull/num(b)skull. Seems to combine that word and lummocks/lummox.

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Protest To Save Arnold Circus!

October 23, 2020
by the gentle author

We need as many people as possible to join a socially-distanced peaceful protest at 10am this morning (Friday 23rd October) led by Dan Cruickshank to stop damage to the historic fabric of Arnold Circus on the Boundary Estate, Britain’s first Council Estate which is grade II listed.

Tower Hamlets Council have refused to listen to residents’ concerns about the corporate-style pedestrianisation and, this morning, they are pressing ahead with these works without completing the consultation or showing residents the final plans.

The Council are ignoring a demand by the Friends of Arnold Circus who requested that work be halted until final plans are approved. No heritage bodies were consulted about the pedestrianisation and when the Spitalfields Trust wrote expressing concerns on September 4th this was also ignored by the Council until prompted over a month later.

The Friends of Arnold Circus and the Spitalfields Trust welcome the pedestrianisation but question how it is being imposed without any public consensus and without any respect for the heritage.

Already damage has been done on the corner of Navarre St where a group of workmen, who admitted that they were pipe layers not stone masons, were tasked with removing and relaying original York paving that is over a hundred years old. Without skills in this specialist area and without the supervision of a heritage adviser, it is no surprise that stones have been broken and relaid incorrectly.

Proposed corporate style pedestrianisation of Arnold Circus that ignores the historic fabric and symmetry of the architecture


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