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Crowden & Keeves’ Hardware

January 21, 2021
by the gentle author

Richard Ince proprietor of James Ince & Sons, Britain’s oldest umbrella manufacturers, showed me this catalogue published by Crowden & Keeves in 1930 which had been knocking around his factory for as long as he could remember. Operating from premises in Calvert Avenue and Boundary St, they were one of the last great hardware suppliers in the East End, yet the quality of their products was such that their letterboxes and door knockers may still be recognised in use around the neighbourhood today.





The umbrellas were supplied to Crowden & Keeves by James Ince & Sons

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Adam Dant’s Club Row

January 20, 2021
by the gentle author

In 2018, Adam Dant – the last artist on Redchurch St – was evicted from his studio on Club Row which has sat empty since then. In this series of watercolours, Adam contemplates the transformation of the place through time.

Roman Club Row Two Roman legionaries find a hiding place on Club Row as Boudica and her army parade down Ermine St (Shoreditch High St) to lay siege to London.

Medieval Club Row A ramshackle brick makers dwelling on the ‘swanfields’ with the tower of St Mary’s Spittal in the distance.

Tudor Club Row Archers such as ‘The Duke of Shoreditch’ practice and compete at ‘The Butts’ outside the city walls. The tower of Old St Paul’s can be seen in the distance as well as Shakespeare’s ‘Theatre’.

Georgian Club Row It is recorded that a ‘Rabbet shop’ stood on the site of 15 Club Row in the eighteenth century though it is not recorded whether the rabbits were sold for meat or fur, or both.

Victorian Club Row The owners and family of the nineteenth century sweet shop on Club Row lived in the tiny rooms above the shop.

Thirties Club Row Residents of the Boundary Estate – such as Joan Rose – recall buying pickled cucumbers from the window of a fried fish shop at 15 Club Row.

Forties Club Row Like much of the East End during the blitz, buildings on Club Row were destroyed or partially destroyed. Some say that unexploded ordinance is still buried under the streets.

Sixties Club Row  ‘The Peppermint Lounge’ on Club Row, according to many elderly cab drivers, was the place in London where a new dance craze called ‘The Twist’ emerged. It is not known what was enjoyed by visitors to the ‘Club Mirage’ or – in fact – how much the club lived up to its name.

Seventies Club Row The smell of blow-torched chickens once greeted shoppers who entered the portals of ‘Gongo Grocer’ where the Bengali butcher spent his days gutting, boning and singeing poultry.

Eighties Club Row Like all the Bengali Mini Cab offices in the area the ‘Fully Insuranced Tower Cars’ was replete with a huge aerial on the roof. Unfortunately, the mast seriously interfered with the television signals of neighbours leading to regular altercations.

Nineties Club Row As ‘The Gallerette,’ 15 Club Row played host to exhibitions and art extravaganzas when the area became a popular haunt for a young artistic crowd. One such exhibition was ‘God’s Largest Creature’, a life-size photocopy of an elephant by Keith Farquar. An invitation was extended to one of Chipperfield’s Elephants and to Glasgow’s Black Rose drinking club who enjoyed bottles of Elephant beer.

Twenty-twenties Club Row  In July 2018 the planning department approved the demolition of the ‘Atelier Dant’ at number 15 for the construction of what in the the recent past might have been called a ‘yuppie flat,’ yet nothing has occurred since then apart from a predictable accumulation of graffiti.

Adam’s Dant’s woodcut of ‘Arnold Circus as Mount Olympus’ is featured in this year’s Royal Academy Show




Adam Dant’s MAPS OF LONDON & BEYOND is a mighty monograph collecting together all your favourite works by Spitalfields Life‘s Contributing Cartographer in a beautiful big hardback book.

Including a map of London riots, the locations of early coffee houses and a colourful depiction of slang through the centuries, Adam Dant’s vision of city life and our prevailing obsessions with money, power and the pursuit of pleasure may genuinely be described as ‘Hogarthian.’

Unparalleled in his draughtsmanship and inventiveness, Adam Dant explores the byways of London’s cultural history in his ingenious drawings, annotated with erudite commentary and offering hours of fascination for the curious.

The book includes an extensive interview with Adam Dant by The Gentle Author.

Adam Dant’s limited edition prints are available to purchase through TAG Fine Arts

Merlin Is Missing!

January 19, 2021
by the gentle author

Merlin the raven has gone missing from the Tower – has anyone seen her?

Chris Skaife & Merlin

Every day at first light, Chris Skaife, Master Raven Keeper at the Tower of London, awakens the ravens from their slumbers and feeds them breakfast. It is one of the lesser known rituals at the Tower, as Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Martin Usborne & I discovered when we paid an early morning call upon London’s most pampered birds once upon a time.

The keeping of ravens at the Tower is a serious business, since legend has it that, ‘If the ravens leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall…’ Fortunately, we can all rest assured thanks to Chris Skaife who undertakes his breakfast duties conscientiously, delivering bloody morsels to the ravens each dawn and thereby ensuring their continued residence at this most favoured of accommodations.“We keep them in night boxes for their own safety,” Chris explained to me, just in case I should think the ravens were incarcerated at the Tower like those monarchs of yore, “because we have quite a lot of foxes that get in through the sewers at night.”

First thing, Chris unlocks the bird boxes built into the ancient wall at the base of the Wakefield Tower and, as soon as he opens each door, a raven shoots out blindly like a bullet from a gun, before lurching around drunkenly on the lawn as its eyes  accustom to the daylight, brought to consciousness by the smell of fresh meat. Next, Chris feeds the greedy brother ravens Gripp – named after Charles Dickens’ pet raven – & Jubilee – a gift to the Queen on her Diamond Anniversary – who share a cage in the shadow of the White Tower.

Once this is accomplished, Chris walks over to Tower Green where Merlin the lone raven lives apart from her fellows. He undertakes this part of the breakfast service last, because there is little doubt that Merlin is the primary focus of Chris’ emotional engagement. She has night quarters within the Queen’s House, once Anne Boleyn’s dwelling, and it suits her imperious nature very well. Ravens are monogamous creatures that mate for life but, like Elizabeth I, Merlin has no consort. “She chose her partner, it’s me,” Chris assured me in a whisper, eager to confide his infatuation with the top bird, before he opened the door to wake her. Then, “It’s me!” he announced cheerily to Merlin but, with suitably aristocratic disdain, she took her dead mouse from him and flounced off across the lawn where she pecked at her breakfast a little before burying it under a piece of turf to finish later, as is her custom.

“The other birds watch her bury the food, then lift up the turf and steal it,” Chris revealed to me as he watched his charge with proprietorial concern, “They are scavengers by nature, and will hunt in packs to kill – not for fun but to eat. They’ll attack a seagull and swing it round but they won’t kill it, gulls are too big. They’ll take sweets, crisps and sandwiches off children, and cigarettes off adults. They’ll steal a purse from a small child, empty it out and bury the money. They’ll play dead, sun-bathing, and a member of the public will say, ‘There’s a dead raven,’ and then the bird will get up and walk away. But I would not advise any members of the public to touch them, they have the capacity to take off a small child’s finger – not that they have done, yet.”

We walked around to the other side of the lawn where Merlin perched upon a low rail. Close up, these elegant birds are sleek as seals, glossy black, gleaming blue and green, with a disconcerting black eye and a deep rasping voice. Chris sat down next to Merlin and extended his finger to stroke her beak affectionately, while she gave him some playful pecks upon the wrist.

“Students from Queen Mary University are going to study the ravens’ behaviour all day long for three years.” he informed me, “There’s going to be problem-solving for ravens, they’re trying to prove ravens are ‘feathered apes.’ We believe that crows, ravens and magpies have the same brain capacity as great apes. If they are a pair, ravens will mimic each other’s movements for satisfaction. They all have their own personalities, their moods, and their foibles, just like people.”

Then Merlin hopped off her perch onto the lawn where Chris followed and, to my surprise, she untied one of Chris’s shoelaces with her beak, tugging upon it affectionately and causing him to chuckle in great delight. While he was thus entrammelled, I asked Chris how he came to this role in life. “Derrick Coyle, the previous Master Raven Keeper, said to me, ‘I think the birds will like you.’ He introduced me to it and I’ve been taking care of them ever since. Chris admitted plainly, opening his heart, The ravens are continually on your mind. It takes a lot of dedication, it’s early starts and late nights – I have a secret whistle which brings them to bed.”

It was apparent then that Merlin had Chris on a leash which was only as long as his shoelace. “If one of the other birds comes into her territory, she will come and sit by me for protection,” he confessed, confirming his Royal romance with a blush of tender recollection, “She sees me as one of her own.”

“Alright you lot, up you get!”

“A pigeon flew into the cage the other day and the two boys got it, that was a mess.”

“It’s me!”

“She chose her partner, it’s me.”

“She sees me as one of her own.”

Chris Skaife & Merlin

Charles Dickens’ Raven “Grip” – favourite expression, “Halloa old girl!”

Tower photographs copyright © Martin Usborne

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Philip Cunningham’s Dead Signs

January 18, 2021
by the gentle author

Inspired by Saturday’s post, Philip Cunningham sent me these photos of dead signs from the seventies

“When I was a student at Ravensbourne College of Art, I became very interested in photography. A tutor used to come and have an occasional drink in my local, the Three Crowns on Mile End Rd, and we would walk around the streets which were still derelict, either from the war or slum clearances. He was a painter not a photographer, but he impressed on me that all we were looking at would change and that I should document ‘everything,’ which I tried to do.”

Philip Cunningham

Edward Mann Buildings, Stepney

At the entrance to Mile End Place, Mile End Rd

‘Motor spirit sold’

‘Nordsten was a fantastic place where you could get anything sharpened – saws, lawnmower blades, chisels, planes, etc’

S H Defries & Co Ltd

Corner Cafe, Bethnal Green

Brady St

‘Brady St Dwellings were poky flats with a small coal bunker next to each front door that would not even hold enough fuel for one night. At the end of the courtyard was a chapel with these signs urging the tenants to work harder.’

Brady St Dwellings

St Dunstan’s Estate

Ritz Cafe

McCarthy O’Connor Snooks can eat three Shreaded Wheat (at least) ”We eat three Shredded Wheat’ was a slogan of the Labour Party in the seventies’

The People’s Arcade, Limehouse

The Ship, Stepney Way. ‘The pub was bombed in the war and I believe a lot of people perished.’



Springfield Lodge

The Three Suns, Wapping. ‘The Three Suns refers to a rare astronomical optical phenomenon that occurred before The Battle of Mortimer’s Cross on 2 February 1461 in the War of the Roses.’

St Dunstan’s Wharf, Limehouse

Shelter entrance, Bethnal Green

Mile End Rd

Photographs copyright © Philip Cunningham

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Winter Flowers

January 17, 2021
by the gentle author

‘No enemy but winter and rough weather…’ As You Like It

Every year at this low ebb of the season, I cultivate bulbs and winter-flowering plants in my collection of old pots from the market and arrange them upon the oak dresser, to observe their growth at close quarters and thereby gain solace and inspiration until my garden shows any convincing signs of new life.

Each morning, I drag myself from bed – coughing and wheezing from winter chills – and stumble to the dresser in my pyjamas like one in a holy order paying due reverence to an altar. When the grey gloom of morning feels unremitting, the musky scent of hyacinth or the delicate fragrance of the cyclamen is a tonic to my system, tangible evidence that the season of green leaves and abundant flowers will return. When plant life is scarce, my flowers in pots acquire a magical allure for me, an enchanted quality confirmed by the speed of their growth in the warmth of the house, and I delight to have this collection of diverse varieties in dishes to wonder at, as if each one were a unique specimen from an exotic land.

And once they have flowered, I place these plants in a cold corner of the house until I can replant them in the garden. As a consequence, my clumps of Hellebores and Snowdrops are expanding every year and thus I get to enjoy my plants at least twice over – at first on the dresser and in subsequent years growing in my garden.

Staffordshire figure of Orlando from As You Like It

Keeper Of The Dead Signs

January 16, 2021
by the gentle author

Commit no Nuisance

I am the keeper of the old signs in Spitalfields. I have embraced it as my self-appointed duty, because although many are “dead” and others have become “ghosts,” disappearing into ether, they are all of interest to me. By “dead” signs, I mean those that no longer have a function, where their useful life is over, and by ghost” signs, I refer to the next stage in the afterlife of signage where the text fades into illegibility until eventually no trace remains.

Some old signs are prominently placed and some are hidden in obscure corners but, irrespective of their locations, their irrelevance has rendered them invisible – yet I welcome them all into my collection. The more shabby and disregarded, the more I like them, because, as the passing years have taken away their original purpose, these signs have become transformed into poetry. In many cases, the people whom these notices address are long gone, so unless I am there to pay attention to these redundant placards and grant them dignity, they can only talk to themselves like crazy old folk rambling in the dark.

Given that the street name was altered generations ago, who now requires a sign (such as you will find at the junction with St Matthew’s Row) to remind them that Cheshire St was formerly Hare St, just in case of any confusion?  I doubt if anyone can remember when it was Hare St. And yet I cannot deny the romance of knowing this older name, recalling the former hare marsh at the end of the street.

Ever since someone pointed out to me that “Refuse to be put in this basket” could be interpreted as an instruction to reject being placed in the basket yourself, the literal netherworld implied by signs has captivated me. Now when I see the sign outside the travel agent in Brick Lane with the image of Concorde, I yearn to go in and ask to buy a ticket for Concorde as if – through some warp in reality – the sign was a portal inviting me to a different world where Concorde is still flying and this office in Spitalfields is the exclusive agent. I am fascinated by the human instinct to put up signs, craving permanent declarations and desiring to accrete more and more of them, whilst equally I recognise it is in the survival instinct of city dwellers that we learn to exclude all the signs from our consciousness, if we are to preserve our sanity.

To my mind, there is an appealing raffish humour which these old signs acquire through longevity, when they cock a snook at us with messages which the passage of time has rendered absurd. “Commit no Nuisance” painted discreetly in Fournier St on the side of Christ Church, Spitalfields, has long been a cherished favourite of mine. I wonder what genius came up with this notion, which if it were effective would surely be emblazoned on every street in the world. It could solve many of the problems of humanity at a stroke. Although, unfortunately, it does rely upon a certain obedient compliance from those most likely to offend, who are also those most unlikely to pay attention. In fact, I am reliably informed that this sign is actually employing the language of euphemism to instruct customers of the Ten Bells not urinate against the church wall. Almost faded into illegibility today, with pitiful nobility, “Commit no Nuisance,” speaks in a polite trembling whisper that is universally ignored by those passing in Commercial St.

Even in the face of evidence to the contrary, signs can still propose a convincing reality, which is why it is so perplexing to see those for businesses that no longer exist. They direct me to showrooms, registered offices and departments which have gone, but as long as the signs remain, my imagination conjures the expectation of their continued existence. These old signs speak of the sweatshops and factories that defined the East End until recently, and they talk to me in the voices of past inhabitants, even over the hubbub of the modern city. Such is the modest reward to be drawn from my honorary role as the keep of old signs in Spitalfields.

Generations have passed since Cheshire St was known as Hare St

This sign at the entrance to Dray Walk in the Truman Brewery, closed twenty years ago, was once altered from “Truman’s” to “Truman Ltd” when the company was sold, and, with due respect, the name of successive company secretaries was updated in stencilled lettering. These considerations are mere vanities now upon a dead sign surrounded by ads for the shops and bars that occupy Dray Walk today.

Travel agent on Brick Lane offering flights on Concorde

Steam department works office in Fashion St

Top prices at the former scrap metal dealer in Vallance Rd

Incised on the side of Christ Church Spitalfields: In case of fire apply for the men of the engine house and ladders at the Station House, No 1 Church Passage, Spital Square. 1843. A precaution adopted after the great fire of 1836

No more enamelling on Brick Lane

No more veneers on Great Eastern St

Car Park on Petticoat Lane

Registered Office in Commercial St

Charlie’s Motors once offered services from £30 in Brady St

On Christ Church, Spitafields: All applications about Marriages, Burials & c. at this church must be made to Mr Root. Note the reference to Church St – renamed Fournier St in the nineteenth century

Car Spares on Three Colts Lane

On Commercial St, “Woollen” overpainted onto “Glass Globes”

Off Charlotte Rd, a courteous hand directs you to non-existent showrooms

Diaphanous oblivion on Commercial St

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So Long, Gerry Cottle

January 15, 2021
by the gentle author

Legendary Circus Showman Gerry Cottle died aged seventy-five of the Coronavirus on Wednesday

Gerry Cottle

When Gerry Cottle’s Circus passed through the East End, I took the opportunity to meet the man behind the legend. With robust swagger, I found Gerry leaning against a caravan and munching his way through a Bakewell Tart while casting a custodial eye over the expectant audience arriving for the Saturday matinee.

Every inch the showman, Gerry saw Jack Hilton’s Circus at Earl’s Court in 1953 at the age of eight, when his parents took him along to the show, and from that day on he was simply biding his time until, at fifteen, he ditched his O Levels and ran away from his middle-class upbringing to join the circus. “It was the polar bears that got me,” he later admitted fondly.

Marrying Betty Fossett, a princess of Britain’s greatest and oldest Circus family  – the Fossetts have been riding bareback for more than two centuries – Gerry embraced his destiny when he opened his own circus in July 1970, with just five performers including himself and Betty. The first venue was Sturminster Newton in a small second-hand tent that had previously been used for flower shows. By now, he had learnt juggling, stilt-walking, acrobatics, clowning and bareback horse riding.

It was the beginning of a twenty-year ascendancy that made Gerry Cottle’s name synonymous with circus in this country and involved the acquisition of elephants, lions, tigers, chimpanzees and polar bears. “I guess those glorious years in the mid-seventies were my heyday, I felt pretty invincible,” admitted Gerry, contemplating  the fulfilment of his ambition to become Britain’s largest circus owner. Yet changing public opinion turned against the use of animals and, reluctantly, Gerry had to accept the inevitable loss of the beasts which were an integral element of circus for centuries. “Originally, people came to circuses because they had never seen these animals before,” he explained to me, “P T Barnum said, ‘A circus is not a circus without elephants and clowns’ – so if you can’t have elephants, you need to have good comedy.”

Steeped in circus lore and history, Gerry faced the creative challenge that has preoccupied the latter part of his career – of reinventing circus for contemporary audiences, without animals. He started with a Rainbow Circus that saw his three daughters – the Cottle Sisters – in the ring for the first time, followed by a Rock & Roll Circus and a Shark Show. Employing top stunt acts, acrobats, magicians and clowns, Gerry set out on a tour of the Far East that proved immensely lucrative. Flush with cash, he returned home and became the impresario who presented both the Moscow Circus and the Chinese State Circus in Britain, further boosting his fortune. Yet alongside this success, Gerry acquired a cocaine habit and a sex addiction. “I was a bad boy,” he confessed to me in roguish understatement, exercising his considerable charm.

Overcoming his demons, Gerry’s comeback was The Circus of Horrors in 1995, a gothic-themed performance constructed around dramatic stunts. Then, retiring to Wookey Hole in Somerset, Gerry started his own circus school with students drawn from the local population and this became the basis of his current circus, entitled ‘Wow,’ with a company of young performers eager to flaunt their impressive talents.

As one who has not been to the circus since I was a child, I was entranced to enter the big top filled with an audience that roared in excitement at this charismatic show. Combining music theatre, variety, magic, stunts and acrobatics, ‘Wow’ comprised fifty acts in one hundred minutes, introduced by a pair of clowns. The exhilarating pace, packed with fast-moving spectacle and comedy, was irresistible. Where once horses defined the circular motion which characterises a circus show, bicycles and performers on roller skates fulfilled this gesture. Rather than a sequence of unconnected acts, ‘Wow’ was distinguished by strong company work in which all members of the team give of their utmost, offering strong mutual support, and resulting in a show of palpable joy and delight.

After fifty years of working in circus, ‘Wow’ manifested Gerry’s unique and profound understanding of the medium. Over two hundred and fifty years after the first circus was opened by Philip Astley in Blackfriars in 1768, circus is still alive and evolving in this country, thanks – in no small measure – to the particular genius, distinctive passion, infinite tenacity and strength of personality of Gerry Cottle.

Photographs copyright © Estate of Colin O’Brien

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