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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.’

Stepney

Stepney

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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Philip Cunningham at Mile End Place

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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Caroline Gilfillan & Andrew Scott’s East End

January 14, 2021
by the gentle author

It is my pleasure to present these poems by Caroline Gilfillan with photographs by Andrew Scott – dating from the early seventies and encapsulating that era when Caroline & Andrew were squatters in the East End.

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Spitalfields Street Sweepers

Council issue donkey jackets slung over saggy suits,

the street sweepers get to work,

broom heads shooshing over concrete and tar,

herding paper and peel and fag ends into heaps,

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strong fingers grasping the broom handles,

knuckles big and smooth as weathered stones

moving easy in their bags of skin, watchful eyes

on you, your finger-clicks, your lens.

.

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Aldgate Gent

Shoes shined, trilby brushed, ears scrubbed

clean as a baby’s back, he chugs through the

sun drops and diesel clag of Aldgate.

No crumbs in his turn-ups, no fluff in his pockets:

the wife, at home in one of the new flats

over by Mile End, keeps him spruce.

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He’s on his way to meet Solly at Bloom’s

for gefilte fish and a chinwag. We flew

past him in a dented van, croaky from

last night’s pints, hair in need of a good cut

and ears a good wash behind. And No,

we didn’t notice him, but he was a good

father to his sons, if inclined to sound off.

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His wife went first but his sister cooked for him

after, and the nurses at the London

did him proud when the time came.

Us? We played our gigs and tumbled on,

leaving scraps of quavers and clefs

scattered across the pavement, the kerb,

the bang, rattle and clank of Aldgate East.

.

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Stoneyard Lane Prefabs

Two ticks and the fixer of the Squatters Union

has done the break-in, courtesy of a jemmy.

The door creaks in the fish-mud breeze blowing up

from Shadwell docks. Here you are girls.

Faces poke, glint through curtain cracks.

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A man comes back for his hobnailed boots. Stands lit up

by orange street lights, his meek face

breathing beer. We got behind with the rent, he says,

muddy laces spilling over knuckles.

Thought we’d leave before the council chucked us out.

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The next morning two hoods from the council break the lock,

bawl through the drunken door, Clear out or we’ll

board you in. Bump-clang of an Audi brings bailiffs.

The fixer flies in, fists up to his chin.

Has words. We hunch on the kerb with our carrier bags.

.

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Mile End Automatic Laundry

Natter chat, neat fold, wheel carts of nets, sheets, blankets, undies, pillow-slips,

feed the steel drum, twirl and swoosh, dose of froth, soaping out the Stepney dirt.

Say hello to the scruffs from the squats off Commercial Road, more of them now,

breaking the GLC doors off their hinges, and I don’t stick my nose

where it’s not wanted, though you can tell a lot by a person’s laundry,

can’t you? That girl with the hacked-off hair, no bras in her bag, and no

fancy knickers, though the boy brings in shirts, must go to work

somewhere smarter than the street where they live and that

pond-life pub on the corner. Speaking of which,

walking home the other night I heard music,

a group, with drums, guitars, the lot,

so I peeped in and there was

the girl, earnest as a nun, singing

You can get it if you really want

and I thought

just you wait

and see.

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Poems copyright © Caroline Gilfillan

Photographs copyright © Andrew Scott

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My Scrap Collection

January 13, 2021
by the gentle author

For some years, I have been collecting Victorian scraps of tradesmen and street characters, and putting them in a drawer. These damp January days gave me the ideal opportunity to search through the contents and study my collection in detail. I am especially fascinated by the mixture of whimsical fantasy and social observation in these colourful miniatures, in which even the comic grotesques are derived from the daily reality of the collectors who once cherished these images.

Street Photographer

Exotic Birds

Sweets & Dainties

Acrobat & Performing Dog

Performing Dogs

The Muffin Man

Street Musician

Street Musician

Baker

Smoker

Butcher

Waiter

Itinerant

Sweep

Naturalist

Lounge Lizard

Dustman

Costermonger

Spraying the roads

Milkman

Knife Grinder

Scottish Herring Girls followed the shoals around the East Coast, gutting and packing the herring.

Herring Girl

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List Of Local Shops Open For Business

January 12, 2021
by the gentle author

These are the essential shops that are open in Spitalfields and vicinity during the current lockdown. Readers are especially encouraged to support small independent businesses who offer an invaluable service to the community. This list confirms that it is possible to source all essential supplies locally without recourse to supermarkets.

Be advised many shops are operating limited opening hours at present, so I recommend you call in advance to avoid risking a wasted journey. Please send any additions or amendments for next week’s list to spitalfieldslife@gmail.com

This weeks illustrations are photographs by Tony Hall from the sixties and seventies. See the full set here

GROCERS & FOOD SHOPS

The Albion, 2/4 Boundary St
Ali’s Mini Superstore, 50d Greatorex St
AM2PM, 210 Brick Lane
Planet Organic, 132 Commercial St
Banglatown Cash & Carry, 67 Hanbury St
Breid Bakery, Arch 72, Dunbridge St
Brick Lane Minimarket, 100 Brick Lane
The Butchery Ltd, 6a Lamb St
City Supermarket, 10 Quaker St
Costprice Minimarket, 41 Brick Lane
Faizah Minimarket, 2 Old Montague St
JB Foodstore, 97 Brick Lane
Haajang’s Corner, 78 Wentworth St
Leila’s Shop, 17 Calvert Avenue
Nisa Local, 92 Whitechapel High St
Pavilion Bakery, 130 Columbia Rd
Rinkoff’s Bakery, 224 Jubilee Street & 79 Vallance Rd
Sylhet Sweet Shop, 109 Hanbury St
Taj Stores, 112 Brick Lane
Zaman Brothers, Fish & Meat Bazaar, 19 Brick Lane

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TAKE AWAY FOOD SHOPS

Before you order from a delivery app, why not call the take away or restaurant direct?

Absurd Bird Fried Chicken, 54 Commercial St
Al Badam Fried Chicken, 37 Brick Lane
Allpress Coffee, 58 Redchurch St
Band of Burgers, 22 Osborn St
Beef & Birds, Brick Lane
Beigel Bake, 159 Brick Lane
Beigel Shop, 155 Brick Lane
Bellboi Coffee, 104 Sclater St
Bengal Village, 75 Brick Lane
Big Moe’s Diner, 95 Whitechapel High St
Burro E Salvia Pastificio, 52 Redchurch St
China Feng, 43 Commercial St
Circle & Slice Pizza, 11 Whitechapel Rd
Crosstown Doughnuts, 157 Brick Lane
Dark Sugars, 45a Hanbury St (Take away ice cream and deliveries of chocolate)
Donburi & Co, Korean & Japanese, 13 Artillery Passage
Eastern Eye Balti House, 63a Brick Lane
Enso Thai & Japanese, 94 Brick Lane
Exmouth Coffee Shop, 83 Whitechapel High St
Grounded Coffee Shop, 9 Whitechapel Rd
Holy Shot Coffee, 155 Bethnal Green Rd
Hotbox Smoked Meats, 46-48 Commercial St
Jack The Chipper, 74 Whitechapel High St
Jonestown Coffee, 215 Bethnal Green Rd
Laboratorio Pizza, 79 Brick Lane
La Cucina, 96 Brick Lane
Leon, 3 Crispin Place, Spitalfields Market
Madhubon Sweets, 42 Brick Lane
Mooshies Vegan Burgers, 104 Brick Lane
Nude Expresso, The Roastery, 25 Hanbury St
E. Pellicci, 332 Bethnal Green Rd
Pepe’s Peri Peri, 82 Brick Lane
Peter’s Cafe, 73 Aldgate High St
Picky Wops Vegan Pizza, 53 Brick Lane
Polo Bar, 176 Bishopsgate
Poppies, 6-8 Hanbury St
Quaker St Cafe, 10 Quaker St
Rajmahal Sweets, 57 Brick Lane
Rosa’s Thai Cafe, 12 Hanbury St
Shawarma Lebanese, 84 Brick Lane
Shoreditch Fish & Chips, 117 Redchurch St
Sichuan Folk, 32 Hanbury St
String Ray Globe Cafe, 109 Columbia Road
Sushi Show, 136 Bethnal Green Rd
Vegan Yes, Italian & Thai Fusion, 64 Brick Lane
The Watch House, 139 Commercial St
White Horse Kebab, 336 Bethnal Green Rd
Yuriko Sushi & Bento, 48 Brick Lane

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OTHER SHOPS & SERVICES

Brick Lane Bookshop, 166 Brick Lane (Books ordered by phone or email are delivered free locally)
Brick Lane Bikes, 118 Bethnal Green Rd
Day Lewis Pharmacy, 14 Old Montague St
E1 Cycles, 4 Commercial St
Eden Floral Designs, 10 Wentworth St (Order fresh flowers online for free delivery)
Flashback Records, 131 Bethnal Green Rd (Order records online for delivery)
Harry Brand, 122 Columbia Road (Order gifts online for delivery)
Leyland Hardware, 2-4 Great Eastern St
Post Office, 160a Brick Lane
Rose Locksmith & DIY, 149 Bethnal Green Rd
Sid’s DIY, 2 Commercial St

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ELSEWHERE

E1 Dry Cleaners, Cannon Street Rd, E1 2LY
E5 Bakehouse, Arch 395, Mentmore Terrace, London Fields (Customers are encouraged to order online and collect in person)
Gold Star Dry Cleaning & Laundry, 330 Burdett Rd
Hackney Essentials, 235 Victoria Park Rd
Quality Dry Cleaners, 16a White Church Lane
Newham Books, 747 Barking Rd (Books ordered by phone or email are posted out)
Rajboy, 564 Commercial Rd, E14 7JD (Take away service available)
Region Choice Chemist, 68 Cambridge Heath Rd
Symposium Italian Restaurant, 363 Roman Road (Take away service available)
Thompsons DIY, 442-444 Roman Rd

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Photographs copyright © Estate of Tony Hall

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