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Max Levitas & The Battle Of Cable St

October 6, 2022
by the gentle author

Tickets are available for my Spitalfields tour throughout October & November

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Max Levitas by Phil Maxwell

This week sees the eighty-sixth anniversary of The Battle of Cable St. Here is my interview with the late Max Levitas remembering that day, accompanied by Phil Maxwell‘s pictures of the fiftieth anniversary.

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Max Levitas became an East End hero when he was arrested in 1934, at the age of nineteen years old, for writing anti-Fascist slogans on Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. “There were two of us, we did it at midnight and we wrote ‘All out on September 9th to fight Fascism,’ ‘Down with Fascism’ and ‘Fight Fascism,’ on Nelson’s Column in whitewash,” he told me, his eyes shining with pleasure, still fired up with ebullience at one hundred and two years of age, “And afterwards we went to Lyons Corner House to have something to eat and wash our hands, but when we had finished our tea we decided to go back to see how good it looked, and we got arrested – the police saw the paint on our shoes.”

On September 9th 1934, Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, was due to speak at a rally in Hyde Park but – as Max was always happy to remind you  – he was drowned out by the people of London who converged to express their contempt. It was both fortuitous and timely that the Times reprinted Max’s slogans on September 7th, two days before the rally, in the account of his appearance at Bow St Magistrates Court, thereby spreading the message.

Yet this event was merely the precursor to the confrontation with the Fascists that took place in the East End, two years later on 4th October 1936, that became known as the Battle of Cable St, and in which Max was proud to have played a part – a story he told as an inspirational example of social solidarity in the face of prejudice and hatred. And, as we sat in a quiet corner of the Whitechapel Library, watching the rain fall upon the street market outside, it was a story that I was eager to hear in Max’s first hand account, especially since he was one of last left of those who were there.

Politics had always been personal for Max Levitas, based upon family experience of some of the ugliest events of the twentieth century. His father Harry fled from Lithuania and his mother Leah from Latvia in 1913, both escaping the anti-semitic pogroms of Tsarist Russia. They met in Dublin and married but, on the other side of Europe, Harry’s sister Sara was burnt to death along with fellow-villagers in the synagogue of Akmeyan, and Leah’s sister Rachel was killed with her family by the Nazis in Riga.

“My father was a tailor and a trade unionist,” Max explained in the lively Dublin brogue that still coloured his speech, even after eighty years in the East End. “He formed an Irish/Jewish trade union and then employers blacklisted him, making sure he could never get a job,” Max continued with a philosophical grin, “The only option was to leave Dublin and we lived in Glasgow from 1927 until 1930, but my father had two sisters in London, so we came here to Durward St in Whitechapel in 1931 and stayed ever since.”

With this background, you can appreciate the passionate concern of Max – when he was nineteen and secretary of the Mile End Young Communist League – at a time when the British Government was supporting the Fascist General Franco in the Spanish Civil War. “Even after Hitler was appointed Chancellor in 1933, the British Government was developing arms with Germany,” Max informed me, widening his eyes in condemnation and bringing events into vivid reality that I had viewed only as history until he filled them with personal emotion.

“I was working as a tailor’s presser in a small workshop in Commercial St at the time. Mosley wanted to march through Whitechapel because it was where a large number of Jewish people lived and worked, and I knew the only way to stop him was to have unity of the people. I approached a number of unions, Jewish organisations and the Communist League to band together against the Fascists but although they agreed what I was doing was right, they wouldn’t support me.

But I give credit to the huge number of members of the Jewish and Irish communities and others who turned out that day, October the fourth, 1936. There were thousands that came together in Aldgate, and when we heard that Mosley’s intention was to march along Cable St from Tower Hill into Whitechapel, large numbers of people went to Cable St and barricades were set up. The police attempted to clear Cable St with horses, so that the march could go ahead, but the people of Cable St fought back and the police had to give in.

At three o’clock, we heard that police had decided that the march would not take place, because if it did a number of people would be killed. The Fascists were defeated by the ordinary people of Stepney, people who emptied buckets of water and chamber pots out of their houses, and marbles into the street. This was how they stopped Mosley marching through the East End of London. If he had been able to do so, more people would have joined him and he would have become stronger.”

Max Levitas spoke of being at the centre of a definitive moment in the history of the East End, eighty years ago, when three hundred thousand people came together to form a human chain – in the face of three thousand fascists with an escort of ten thousand police –  to assert the nature of the territory as a place where Fascism and racism are unacceptable. It was a watershed in resistance to Fascism in Europe and the slogan that echoed around Stepney and Whitechapel that day was, “No paseran” – from the Spanish Civil War, “They shall not pass.”

After the war, Max became a highly  respected Communist councillor in Stepney for fifteen years and, a natural orator, he remains eloquent about the nature of his politics.“It was never an issue to forge a Communist state like in the Soviet Union,” he informed me, just in case I got the wrong idea,“We wanted to ensure that the ordinary working people of England could lead decent lives – not to be unemployed, that people weren’t thrown out of their homes when they couldn’t pay their rent, that people weren’t homeless, as so many are today, living with their parents and crowded together in rooms.”

Max’s lifelong political drive was the manifestation of a tenacious spirit. When Max arrived in Whitechapel Library, I did not recognise him at first because he could pass for a man thirty years younger. And later, when I returned his photos to his flat nearby, I discovered Max lived up five flights of stairs and it became obvious that he walked everywhere in the neighbourhood, living independently even at his astounding age. “I used to smoke,” Max admitted to me shyly, when I complimented him on his energy.” I stopped at eighty-four, when my wife died – until then I used to smoke about twenty cigarettes a day, plus a pipe and cigars.” Max confessed, permitting himself a reckless grin of nostalgia.

“My mother and father both died at sixty-five,” Max revealed, turning contemplative,“I put that down to the way they suffered and poverty. My father worked around the clock to keep the family going. He died two years after my mother. At that time there was no National Health Service, and I phoned the doctor when she was sick, asking him to come, and he said, ‘You owe me some money. Unless you pay me, I won’t come.’ I said, ‘You come and see my mother.’ He said, ‘You will have to pay me extra for coming plus what you owe.’ But she died before he came and I had to get an ambulance.”

It was a story that revealed something more of the personal motivation for Max’s determination to fight for better conditions for the people of the East End – yet remarkably, in spite of the struggle of those around him and that he himself had known, Max was a happy man. “I’m always happy, because I can say that my life was worth living, ” he declared to me without qualification.

Max Levitas wanted to live as long as possible to remind us of all the things he had seen. “I believe if racists marched through the East End today, people would stop them in the same way,” he assured me with the unique confidence granted only to those who have known one hundred and two years of life.

Max in 1945

Max campaigning in Stepney in the nineteen sixties

Max with his wife on a trip to Israel in the nineteen seventies

The march for the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Cable St in 1986

In Mile End Rd

In Brick Lane

Photos of 50th anniversary copyright © Phil Maxwell

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry Is For Sale

October 5, 2022
by the gentle author

Tickets are available for my Spitalfields tour throughout October & November

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Graphic by Rob Ryan

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A new chapter opens in the ongoing saga of the historic Whitechapel Bell Foundry as the American developers put the building up for sale. When their option lapsed to buy the land at the rear of the foundry, where they had planned to build their tower of hotel rooms with a swimming pool on the top, we knew that the ill-conceived bell-themed boutique hotel scheme was dead and it was only a matter of time before this outcome arrived.

Shame on all those who killed the world’s most famous bell foundry that operated in Whitechapel for five hundred years from the reign of Elizabeth I to the reign of Elizabeth II, where the Liberty Bell and Big Ben were cast.

Shame on Alan & Kathryn Hughes, the last bell founders, who indulged in asset-stripping, selling off the building to a property developer despite the foundry staff’s offer to buy out the business as a going concern. Shame on Historic England for abnegating their responsibility by advocating the bell-themed boutique hotel over the scheme to re-open the building as a fully-working foundry. Shame on John Biggs, then Mayor of Tower Hamlets, and the former Labour Councillors who acted like neo-liberals, voting for the destruction of the historic foundry for the sake of a chain hotel and betraying their responsibility to the people of Tower Hamlets for whom the world-famous Whitechapel Bell Foundry was a key element of our collective heritage.

Shame on the Planning Inspector at the Public Inquiry who decided that the bell-themed boutique hotel was the Optimum Viable Use for a centuries-old bell foundry. Shame on Chris Pincher, the subsequently disgraced MP, who conveniently stood up in parliament and ‘misspoke’ prior to the Public Inquiry. By announcing on record that Robert Jenrick, then Secretary of State, had called in the Whitechapel Bell Foundry for an Inquiry to save it, Pincher compromised the entire process so that if the Inspector had found the option of the fully-working foundry as the Optimum Viable Use then he would be open to the charge of pre-determination.

Shame on all these people and organisations who delivered this outcome, destroying jobs and priceless cultural heritage while wasting so much public money in the process, defending the developers rotten proposal despite the overwhelming weight of public opinion against it.

Meanwhile, the building has been sitting quietly decaying while providing valuable housing to property guardians. And the London Bell Foundry has been established by those of us who fought since 2016 to stop the hotel, creating the viable alternative plan with the central involvement of Factum Foundation, world leaders in digital casting.

Even as the bell-themed boutique hotel scheme foundered, the London Bell Foundry successfully delivered the first bell commission at the Royal Academy this summer. In support of our campaign to reopen the foundry, Grayson Perry designed the End of Covid Bell which will be seen next at the Royal London Hospital prior to a tour of major hospitals nationwide, enabling those who have been bereaved by Covid to visit and toll the bell in remembrance of their loss.

The challenge now for the London Bell Foundry is to acquire the building in Whitechapel and reopen it as a fully-working foundry, employing a marriage of new and old technology, establishing the foundry as an international centre for the culture and science of bell-founding, and maximising the educational potential, through apprenticeships for local people and work with schools and colleges in East London.

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Graphic by Rob Ryan

Grayson Perry’s End of Covid Bell being installed at the Royal Academy Summer Show

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At The Regis Snack Bar

October 4, 2022
by the gentle author

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These are the Rapacioli brothers – Sergio & Dinos – who run the celebrated Regis Snack Bar, nestling at the foot of the Lloyds Building beside the entrance to the Leadenhall Market in the City of London. As a point of reference, Sergio is the one who resembles George Clooney while Dinos has the rugged Bruce Willis features.

Now you know which is which, in the same manner that Sergio & Dinos like to keep tabs on their regular customers with nicknames such as Million Dollars, Queen Mum, Bill Clinton, Muscles, Lady Victoria, Carlos the Jackal, Kitten, Sir Robin, Black Eye, Mulder, Hovis, Dr Legg, Loophole and the Commander. And it is testament to the charisma of the Rapaciolis and the reputation of the Regis Snack Bar in the City that patrons delight to be addressed in this way when they come to buy their lunch – appreciating that the acquisition of a colloquial term of endearment here indicates they have truly arrived in the Square Mile. As Sergio proudly confirmed for me, “They all answer to their nicknames, they won’t answer to any other.”

“I’ve been here forty-five years, since the mid-seventies, and Dinos – my younger brother – he’s been here a couple of years less. My father and mother, Guiseppe & Angela Rapacioli, they bought the place in 1968 from one of my father’s uncles who had it since the fifties. I think there has been a cafe here over eighty years.

I did a couple of things before I came here, I was a diamond cutter in Hatton Garden, and I worked at Browns in South Molton St, buying and selling fashion. At that time, we were the only people in London stocking Armani and Versace. I used to go the shows in Milan and Venice, and it was a great time – all the parties with models and the designers. I did it from twenty to twenty-four and I enjoyed that part of my life. 

But my father kept saying, “You’ve got a great business here,” and the pay wasn’t great, so I gave it up and came to work at the Regis Snack Bar. It was a sure thing and it’s what I’m good at, and it’s very satisfying when people come back again and again. We start at six and go home at four, five days a week. The customers here are pleasure to deal with, it’s a buzz, and the day goes by.

I was born in Holborn. When we were children, my parents had a restaurant in Theobalds Row but in 1969 we moved out to East London. When I started here in the City there were still a few old guys in bowler hats and we used to open until six because you’d get the Lloyds’ crowd in for tea and a slice of cake in the late afternoon. This market had two butchers then and a couple of fishmongers, they had been here for years but they all left because of the high rents. It was fabulous at Christmas with all the pheasants hanging up.

The boom was in the eighties, people stuck credit cards behind the counter and drank champagne all day. Now, there are some people don’t come in to buy sandwiches any more, they’re bringing packed lunches from home, but most of the people in the Square Mile, their spending hasn’t changed. 

It got quieter when people got made redundant and a few regulars disappeared yet, for those who kept their jobs, it was business as usual. It’s a busy little community here and we still have plenty of regulars who kept us going through the last recession because we’ve been here such a long time. They all know us by our first names.

It’s hard, you’re up early and you’re on your feet all day, my knees and ankles have gone. After the years, it takes its toll on your legs. I have no regrets because it’s been good to us, but there are easier ways to make money.”

Sergio told me his grandmother, Domenica, was born in London but the family returned to Italy when war broke out. As the only English speakers in their remote rural community, any British or Allied soldiers and airmen who needed to hide were brought to them, and the family offered shelter until these men could escape to safety. A framed certificate of commendation hangs today in the Regis Snack Bar in remembrance of this extraordinary act of bravery and Domenica’s grandsons uphold the Rapacioli tradition in their own way by offering a refuge of civility in a very different world.

Around one o’clock, the men and women in suits come out of Richard Rogers’ stainless steel Lloyds building, escaping to cross Leadenhall Place into the cosy wood-panelled chalet-style Regis Snack Bar with its Gill typeface upon the fascia. Hungry for hot toasties and breaded escalopes in ciabatta, and hungry for the affectionate daily ritual of name-calling at the last classic cafe in the City of London.

“I should have been on stage, I’m wasted in here!”

Sergio & Dinos’ grandmother Domenica Rapacioli was a war hero, sheltering airmen shot down in Italy.

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At Gina’s Restaurant

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At Arthur’s Cafe

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At Dino’s Grill & Restuarant

At Syd’s Coffee Stall, Shoreditch High St

Around Billingsgate

October 3, 2022
by the gentle author

Tickets are available for my Spitalfields tour throughout October & November

Click here to book for THE GENTLE AUTHOR’S TOUR OF SPITALFIELDS

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Fish Porters at Number One Snack Bar next to St Magnus the Martyr

These intriguing photographs are selected from a cache of transparencies of unknown origin acquired by the Bishopsgate Institute. We believe they date from the nineteen-sixties but the photographer is unidentified. Can anyone tell us more?

Looking west along Lower Thames St and Monument St

Sign outside St Mary-At-Hill

Pushing barrows of ice up Lovat Lane

Passage next to St Mary-At-Hill

Carved mice on a building in Eastcheap

Old shop in Eastcheap

Billingsgate Market cat

Inside the fish market designed by Horace Jones

Old staircase near Billingsgate

The Coal Exchange, built 1847 demolished 1962

Part of London Bridge crossing Lower Thames St, now removed

The Old Wine Shades, Martin Lane

Sign of a Waterman, now in Museum of London

In All Hallows Lane

Derelict site next to Cannon St Station

Looking towards Bankside Power Station by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, now Tate Modern

Old Blackfriars Station

The Blackfriar pub

Sculptures upon the Blackfriar

Sunrise over Tower Bridge

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

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Charlie Caisey, Fishmonger

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Betty Levy Of Petticoat Lane

October 2, 2022
by the gentle author

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Betty

If you walked through the Petticoat Lane Market in the nineteen-twenties, you would frequently have seen Betty Levy with all her sisters playing hopscotch or skipping games in the street. You could easily have distinguished Betty because she was the baby with the mop of curls, and everyone knew Betty’s mother Hannah – famous as the best fish fryer in the Lane.

But maybe you do not remember, because maybe it is just too long ago for you? Yet that was certainly not the case for Betty herself. At ninety-two years of age, she remembered her childhood as if it were yesterday and given any opportunity she delighted to break into the same songs she sang then, accompanied by the ingenious lyrics she composed herself.

Betty left Petticoat Lane in 1954 but occasionally when speaking of the Lane, she said “And I’m still here,” and you realised it was a statement which transcended immediate reality, because while Petticoat Lane has changed almost beyond recognition, Betty still carried a world and a society and an ethos that incarnated the Petticoat Lane she knew, the place she always counted as home.

“I was born here, in Rosetta Place off Frying Pan Alley and my mother Hannah before me. My grandparents, Mark and Phoebe Harris, lived in Rosetta Place too and if we went in their flat, they always gave us something to eat.

My family have been here for generations, I always understood they were of Dutch descent. My father, Isaac, worked in Smithfield Market, he sold sweets to the porters and we never starved, so he must have made a living. They called him ‘Kosher’ and he sold the sweets from a basket round his neck. He got them from a small warehouse in Commercial St run by Mr Sam. If we were well behaved, he gave us one.

I went to the Jews Free School in Frying Pan Alley, it was a good school with good teachers and they treated us well. My grandmother sometimes gave me a plate of roast potatoes and told me to go and give them to the children in the park, and she left fried fish on the window sill for people to take. Nobody starved in the East End.

When I left school at fourteen, I went to work making dresses in Middlesex St, we were taught how to do it at school and I moved from one factory to another to better myself. I made all my family’s clothes, my children and grandchildren, and their bride’s dresses. If you spend your life doing something, you get a talent for it – I got to be as good as anyone at it. And  I miss it now, I wouldn’t mind doing it again, part-time.

I was only seven years married when my husband Danny died aged thirty-nine, I think he had a heart attack. I met him at a dance at the Hammersmith Palais. We met dancing, we were both good dancers, not fabulous but pretty good. We were married at the Beaumont St Synagogue and we lived with my family at first. Then we found a house in Milward St, Whitechapel, round the back of the London Hospital. Although I was one of a large family, I only had two children – a boy and a girl, Irene and Stephen. After Danny died, my family offered to support me, but I wanted to be independent. If you’ve got to do it, you do it. I worked making dresses and I kept us, because I didn’t want anyone else to bring up my children.

I love the East End, there’s something in the East End that’s nowhere else. It is my home.”

Four of Betty’s sisters in Rosetta Place c. 1925

“We played among the doorsteps, for hours and hours
We never had gardens, so we couldn’t grow flowers.

Some kids they never had shoes, ’cause their dads were on the booze
But, we all lived together the Christians, the Jews

And the Jewish Free School was in dear old Frying Pan Alley.

Now there is not any doorsteps, they’ve knocked them all down,
They built a tower block where we played around.

The kids don’t play now like we used to,
On everybody’s doorsteps, in the East End of town.”

Betty’s new lyrics to the melody of  ‘On Mother Kelly’s Doorstep’

The Levy Sisters. Sally, Phoebe, Lily, Carrie, Jennie,  Becky and Betty (in front).

The Mitchell Family, neighbours in Rosetta Place. Betty Mitchell standing with Betty Clasper and little RayRay in front and Anita Mitchell, Barnie Mitchell,  Siddy  Segal and little Jo in line along the wall.

Some of the Levy grandchildren on the steps of St. Botolph’s Church Bishopsgate c. 1945. Alan, Diana, Bobby, Roy, Richard, Sallyann and little David.

Betty’s grandparents, Mark & Phoebe Harris, Spitalfields, c. 1920

Betty’s mother, Hannah Levy, daughter of Mark & Phoebe Harris, and famous as the best fish fryer in Petticoat Lane.

Betty’s father, Isaac in his ARP uniform.

Hannah Levy and friends in Frying Pan Alley around 1940.

Betty as a Land Army Girl in WWII, based at Sawbridgeworth in Hertfordshire.

Three Bettys (Levy, Cohen and Hyams) and three American airman at Westcliff-on-Sea c. 1945

At the centre (in a headscarf) is Betty with family and friends at the Coronation 0f Queen Elizabeth II. They slept out in Piccadilly to be sure of getting a prime position.

Betty sings at her ninetieth birthday party at Beaumont St Synagogue

Betty dances with her daughter Irene at the party.

You may also like to read these other stories of Petticoat Lane

 

The Wax Sellers of Wentworth St

Henry Jones, Dairyman

Pamela Freedmam, The Princess Alice

The Dioramas of Petticoat Lane

Laurie Allen of Petticoat Lane

Fred the Chestnut Seller

Rochelle Cole, Poulterer

Saeed Malik, Shoeseller

Rob Ryan & The East End Trades Guild

October 1, 2022
by the gentle author

Tickets are available for my Spitalfields tour throughout October & November

Click here to book for THE GENTLE AUTHOR’S TOUR OF SPITALFIELDS

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by Rob Ryan

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As one of those who conjured the EAST END TRADES GUILD into existence back in November 2012 to advocate for the interests of local small businesses, I am beyond proud to announce the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Guild. During such challenging times for independent enterprises, its role is more vital than ever.

In celebration of such an auspicious moment, the Guild have commissioned ROB RYAN to design this year’s map of East End traders which will be available free from all members on Small Business Saturday 3rd December.

Your deadline to join the Guild and be featured on the map is Monday 10th October. Small businesses, independent shops, social enterprises, charities and self-employed people can join.

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CLICK HERE TO JOIN THE EAST END TRADES GUILD

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All members will be invited to our huge tenth anniversary party for the East End Trades Guild on 23rd November at the Bishopsgate Institute which will include a presentation by yours truly, and Paul Gardner promises to wear a suit.

I shall be hosting East End Trades Guild walks around Spitalfields on Small Business Saturday, revealing the diverse histories of the shops that make the place and telling the story of the origins of the Guild here in London’s traditional heartland for small traders and independent endeavours.

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The founding of the East End Trades Guild in 2012 photographed by Martin Osborne

Paul Gardner, Paper Bag Baron & Founder of the East End Trades Guild

Symbol of the East End Trades Guild designed by James Brown, 2012

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Frank Merton Atkins’ City Churches

September 30, 2022
by the gentle author

Tickets are available for my Spitalfields tour tomorrow and through October

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Christ Church, Spitalfields, 1 October 1957

A collection of photographs by Frank Merton Atkins – including these splendid pictures of City churches were donated to the Bishopsgate Institute by his daughter Enid Ghent who had kept them in her loft since he died in 1964.

‘My father worked as a cartographer for a company of civil engineers in Westminster and he drew maps of tram lines,’ Enid recalled, ‘Both his parents were artists and he carried a camera everywhere. He loved to photograph old pubs, especially those that were about to be demolished. Sometimes he got up early in the morning to take photographs before work and at other times he went out on photography excursions in his lunch break. He was always looking around for photographs.’

Captions by Frank Merton Atkins

All Hallows Staining Tower, 25 June 1957, 1.22pm

Cannon Street, looking west from corner of Bush Lane, 7 June 1957, 8.21am

St Botolph Aldgate, from Minories, 31 May 1960, 1.48pm

St Bride from Carter Lane, 31 May 1956, 8.20am

St Clement Danes Church, Strand, from Aldwych, 14 October 1958, 1.22pm

St Dunstan in the East (seen from pavement in front of Custom House), 13 June 1956, 1.14pm

St George Southwark, from Borough High Street, 14 August 1956, 8.15am

St James Garlickhithe, from Queenhithe, 20 May 1957, 8.23am

St Katherine Creechurch, 27 May 1957, 8.32am

St Magnus the Martyr, from the North, 26 June 1956, 8.17am

St Magnus the Martyr, Lower Thames Street, 26 June 1956, 8.23am

St Margaret Lothbury, 2 August 1957, 1.12pm

St Margaret Pattens, from St Mary At Hill, 13 June 1956, 1pm

St Mary Woolnoth, 8 August 1956, 5.49pm

St Pauls Church, Dock Street, Whitechapel, 3 September 1957, 1.09pm

St Pauls and St Augustine from Watling Street, 7 May 1957, 8.25am

St Vedast, from Wood Street, 30 July 1956, 8.17am

Photographs courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

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