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Cecil Osborne’s Murals For Sale

September 16, 2019
by the gentle author

The three lost panels by East End artist Cecil Osborne (1909-96) which once hung in St Pancras Town Hall in Euston Rd, and were recently rediscovered, are now up for auction at Roseberys in West Norwood on Tuesday 24th September. Click here for details of the sale

St Pancras & Kings Cross, 1956 (Click to enlarge)

Camden, Highgate & Hampstead, 1958 (Click to enlarge)

Bloomsbury & Fitzrovia, 1965 (Click to enlarge)

David Buckman author of From Bow to Biennale, the history of the East London Group of painters, took me to meet anthropologist Dr Kaori O’Connor at her flat on the top floor of an old mansion block near Bedford Sq.

There was an air of mystery about David’s invitation and I was excited because he promised to show me three important lost murals by East End artist Cecil Osborne illustrating the history of the former London Borough of St Pancras. Let me confess, I was not disappointed to encounter this splendid triptych.

Cecil Osborne was born in Poplar in 1909 and, after studying at a commercial college, sought clerical work. Yet he had artistic talent and educated himself in art by reading books and visiting galleries. After viewing the East London Group exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1928, Cecil presented his work to the leader of the Group, John Cooper, and joined Cooper’s art classes at the Bow & Bromley Institute. As a consequence, Cecil exhibited around thirty of his paintings in East London Group exhibitions from 1929 until 1936, as well as supplying his clerical skills as secretary and treasurer of the Group.

In writing his book, David Buckman spent more that twenty years researching the lost history of the East London Group which had become dispersed after the Second World War. When David corresponded with Cecil in the last years of his life, after he had retired to Spain, David learnt of three murals which Cecil had painted for St Pancras Town Hall in the Euston Rd that had been removed from their original location and subsequently lost.

Cecil’s son Dorian Osborne supplied this description:

“The offer was from my father to supply three pictures painted in oils depicting the history of the Borough on canvases to be hung in the small Assembly Room at St Pancras Town Hall in Euston Rd. The council supplied the materials and father designed and painted the series which are six feet by six feet square.

We were living at 46 Belsize Sq at the time and that is where the first was painted, the work commencing in, I seem to recall, 1956 or thereabouts.  My brother and I were used as artist’s models for some of the children depicted. Also there are two rather ragged children shown in some sections which were based on the Bisto advertisement – for example, in one panel, pushing a hand-cart. The motorcar depicted in the illustration of the Doric Arch at Euston Station is a Triumph Gloria.

In 1958, we moved to 7 Redston Rd, N8, and that is where the second panel was completed and the third executed.  It is the third which shows the Post Office Tower, as it was in progress when Mary and I married in 1965 and she remembers seeing this panel in the house. At a later date, the council moved all three to the public lending library in Brecknock Rd near Kentish Town from where they were moved into storage.”

After David’s book was published, Dr Kaori O’Connor contacted him to say she had the murals, as she explained to me:

“I did not acquire the paintings so much as rescue them. They turned up in a weekly sale at the old Phillips auction rooms in Bayswater in the nineteen-nineties. Not a picture sale, but a general one, thrown in with furniture and oddments.

I saw one of the canvas panels poking out from behind a fridge. The Phillips staff knew nothing about their background and did not know what to make of them. I realised that some of the places featured in the paintings were near to where I live in Bloomsbury and knew I had to save them. If they had failed to sell, they would have been scrapped. As I recall, there were no other bidders.

Once I got them home, I realised they were a unique social history of a part of London that is rapidly changing out of recognition, while also acquiring a new cultural and artistic life today. Only recently, when I met David Buckman, I learned about the artist Cecil Osborne, his life and how the panels came to be painted for the old St Pancras Borough Council which no longer exists.

I have had the panels for some twenty years, and they remain as fresh and fascinating as the day I first saw them. They have a unique presence with a very strong sense of time and place, and tell their many stories eloquently. They are also very good company.

They were painted for a public space, intended to be seen by many people, so I would like them to find a new home where they can be widely appreciated as the remarkable artworks they are. I believe the past they depict can only enrich the present and future.

St Pancras Town Hall, now Camden Town Hall, where Cecil Osborne’s murals originally hung

Paintings photographed by Lucinda Douglas Menzies

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Dorothy Annan’s Murals at the Barbican

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At the Painted Hall in Greenwich

Remembering Madge Gill

September 15, 2019
by the gentle author

Last December, Sophie Dutton put out a call in these pages for anyone who knew the artist Madge Gill (1882–1961), as part of her research for curating the major exhibition MADGE GILL : MYRNINEST running currently at William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow until 22nd September.

More than thirty people got in touch and today we publish Sophie’s interview with Michael Morgan Theis who knew Madge Gill as a youth.

During the thirties Madge Gill became friends with Louise Morgan, a journalist from The News Chronicle, and they corresponded regularly for the rest of Madge’s life. Then, when Sophie Dutton contacted Louise’s son Michael, it became apparent that he also enjoyed a friendship with the artist.

Now ninety-two years old, Michael was born in London within the sound of Bow Bells. He first met Madge Gill as a child but continued to know her through the post-war years. 

Michael Morgan Theis

Michael – My mother was a journalist who worked as a special correspondent at The News Chronicle from the early thirties and kept her nose very close to the ground. It was around this time she heard about Madge Gill and I believe she first visited her in the mid thirties.

My mother was a feminist and always interested in what women were doing. It was even more outlandish in the twenties and thirties than it is now, and God knows it is tough enough for women now. Madge was more than just a story to her, there was a friendship along with a lot of letters and postcards sent between them over the years.

Sophie – When did you first meet Madge Gill?

Michael – Around 1937-38, my mother took me with her to Madge’s house on Plashet Grove. I was immediately fascinated by her, just the way she would sit at the table with a mug of tea and start drawing in one corner, especially when she was doing the long mural fabrics. She would just go. There did not seem to be any plan for anything at all.

After this meeting, I started going to her house by myself. She would not talk much but I was fascinated just watching. As a ten or eleven-year-old, I was happy there until my mother would come round banging on the door to take me back home to Central London.

Sophie – Would you sit with her for quite a long time while she worked?

Michael – Given half the chance, yes. In 1940, I was evacuated to America. When I came back in mid-1944 I often found myself at a loose end so, during these times, I used to cycle or motorcycle to her home on Plashet Grove. I was always welcome. I remember filling hours just sitting and watching her producing things. Whenever I went down to visit I would always get a postcard from Madge afterwards, saying, ‘Thanks for coming’ on the front with a drawing on the back.

We would talk a little but she really did not talk very much, least of all about herself. She would often mutter away as she was drawing but to me it was just background noise. It was just like free-fall talk. Rather than looking for a reason in her method, I was just fascinated to watch her actually doing it. Seeing her hand dipping the pen into the ink and the actual drawing. It was a picture in the making, like a cartoon – a moving cartoon.

I felt I knew her and felt I knew what she was driving at. What I felt was the inside of her head all coming out and it was a fascinating process to watch. I liked the fact she started in one tiny bit of the fabric, went on straight through to the end, and it resulted in one whole entity.

Sophie – You mentioned Madge did not really talk very much while she was making work, do you remember any conversations or anything specific you might have talked about?

Michael – She told me about buying ‘balloon cloth,’ which were these long cloths. She said she bought them at a surplus sale just after the First World War. She thought they were marvellous to draw on, rather than being stuck with a piece of paper which had very finite limits. On this sort of material she could just go on and on. It was perfect for drawing all her staircases, which led to doors, which led onto something else which continued onto something else.

Sophie – Sitting there with her, how would you describe her drawing technique?

Michael – Entirely a stream of consciousness. I did not get a feeling anything was planned at all. I watched her drawing one of her grand staircases and I do not think she had any idea what was going to be at the top. There is one I particularly remember where the doors open and a sunrise is coming up behind, but going out to nothing. There was nothing there, I presumed it was going out to heaven. Whether she presumed that as well I do not know… probably.

Sophie Did you see her creating any of her automatic writing or embroideries?

Michael – I never saw her doing any of that, although I remember my mother talking about the automatic writing. Reading the letters from her now I can see she had a side, but I was never aware of when I would meet with her.

It was a side I had not appreciated—the mystical side and the way she used names of saints that came to her while she was working. My relationship with her was very matter of fact, perhaps she knew I was not interested in that kind of thing.

I just loved the drawings, going from one line to the next, almost forgetting where she was and starting again. Some of her letters to my mother are just like her drawings—words of her own invention, very florid with swirling movements.

Sophie – What was Madge Gill’s home like?

Michael – It was a terraced house with a small passageway that led out to the kitchen and there was an upstairs, but I never went there. I never saw inside the front room, I just went straight to the kitchen.

I do not remember any of her work being pinned up on the walls. It was a standard East End house with a few framed pictures on the wall. It could have been anywhere. All those terraced houses were very much the same.

I remember everything being quite tickety-boo. Nothing was misplaced in the kitchen, except for around the table where everything was laid out, filled with papers and inks and pens -whatever she was working on. There seemed to be a few things around that she – perhaps – was using for reference. Everything was modest and she used standard small bell-bottomed bottles of India ink.

I never saw her wear the embroidered pieces she made, I just remember her being in a plain frock, jumper or blouse with her hair down.

Sophie – She was known to practice as a medium. Did you ever witness her practicing or did she ever predict anything for you?

Michael – I remember my mother talking about Madge Gill’s spirituality and  I have read about it since her death, but I did not see that side of her. I was totally uninterested in it because mysticism has never really fitted with my life. I am a bit of a cynic. I am not very imaginative when it comes to taking things into places I cannot know and never can know.

However, I have always wondered -why was she doing this? What was driving her to do it? She did seem like somebody driven while she was working. I guess you could turn around and say, ‘Well she was in a trance’ or ‘She was this’ or ‘She was that’ but I did not think she was at the time and, if she was, I just didn’t notice it.

Sophie – How do you think she would feel about her work being exhibited now?

Michael – Like any artist, I feel she would like to be recognised. I cannot really answer that question myself though. She produced things, got on with it and then moved onto the next thing. I do not think she ever had an idea about exhibiting. I think it was other people like my mother or Roger Cardinal who were getting that side of things going.

Sophie – She was working outside the art world and making work through her own compulsion. She has often been categorised as an ‘outsider artist’ but how would you describe her artwork?

Michael – I remember I was not happy when I first saw her work described as ‘outsider art,’ because she was not an outsider. She was Madge Gill and she was unique. I do not think it is a good description for anybody really.

Sophie –What intrigues you about her artwork?

Michael – I was always amazed by the skill of what she was working on, whether it was a postcard or a sheet of paper, which all seemed to come from within herself.

I liked having it around. The only reason I did not keep any of it in the end is because my wife could not stand it. She felt it was all spiritualist and it was not her scene at all. She was interested in things that were revolutionary, without realising how revolutionary Madge was in her own way.

Sophie – Why would you describe her as revolutionary?

Michael – She was unique and she put her own stamp on everything she did. I never felt Madge Gill’s work was weird. I was just fascinated by it. There was a bit of magic to it, you could not help but ask where it all came from.

Recently discovered tapestries by Madge Gill on display at the William Morris Gallery

Madge Gill at work on a large tapestry (photograph courtesy of Getty)

Madge Gill (1882-1961) (photograph courtesy of Getty)

Sophie Dutton’s book about her researches into Madge Gill’s life and work is available from Rough Trade Books

Take a look at Sophie’s earlier article

Looking for Madge Gill

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Three Ghastly East End Facades

September 14, 2019
by the gentle author

Today I publish the stories of three East End facades from my forthcoming book THE CREEPING PLAGUE OF GHASTLY FACADISM published on 31st October.

Producing this book has unavoidably cost more than anticipated, so I have set up a crowd-funding page and need to call upon your generous support to help me raise the shortfall of £4,700. Please click here if you are able to contribute towards publication

You can also offer support by ordering a copy in advance for £15. Click here to preorder

Spiegelhalters shopfront of 1925 with its mosaics and curved glass survived until recently

Spiegelhalter Brothers, 81 Mile End Rd, E1

Georg Spiegelhalter opened his watch and clockmaker and jeweller’s shop in Whitechapel at 6 Mount Place in 1828 after he emigrated from Neukirch, Germany. His son Otto moved the business to 81 Mile End Road in 1892. Otto had fifteen children and, when he died in 1902, the shop was taken over by his sons – the Spiegelhalter brothers, Edward, Emil, Leo, Frank & George – who had been born on the premises.

Built in 1927, Wickhams Department Store in the Mile End Road aspired to be the ‘Harrods of East London.’ The developers assumed the small shopkeepers in the terrace would all fall into line and agree to move out so their new store could proceed. But they met their match in Leo Spiegelhalter who refused and the characterful old shop famously remained sandwiched in the middle of the generic neo-classical department store even after Wickhams closed in the sixties.

George’s son Michael Spiegelhalter continued in the shop until 1988 and the elaborate nineteenth century frontage with its curved glass and mosaic survived until recently.

The planning application to redevelop the department store as offices claimed ‘the attractiveness and uniformity of 69–89 Mile End Road is only marred by 81 Mile End Road which is inferior in terms of appearance, detailing and architecture.’ Yet Spiegelhalters was described by Ian Nairn as ‘one of the best visual jokes in London’ and, after a public outcry, the developers were forced to keep the Spiegelhalters façade, rather than adopt their preferred option of an architectural void.

The Spiegelhalter family continue to trade as jewellers in Penzance.

Whitechapel Public Baths, 25 Old Castle St, E1

Following Edwin Chadwick’s sanitary report of 1842, a Committee for Baths for the Labouring Classes was formed in October 1844, spurred on by concern to prevent further outbreaks of cholera. The Committee agreed to make their first intervention in Whitechapel and subscriptions were sought.

Inspired by the 1846 Baths & Washhouses Act, this pioneering facility where people could wash themselves and their laundry was designed by Price Pritchard Baly and completed in 1851. Its con- struction was utilitarian, combining brown brick walls with an iron roof. The Builder lauded its ‘useful’ design but described the scheme as entirely devoid of the ‘beautiful,’ noting that its appearance was ‘not simply plain and unpretending, but downright ugly.’

Lack of funding forced the Committee to abandon its ambition to build four bathhouses of several storeys each and the single storey Whitechapel Baths was their only success.

The bathhouse closed in the nineteen-nineties and was rebuilt as the Women’s Library in 2002. Since 2013, it has become an events space for London Metropolitan University.

The Cock & Hoop, Artillery Lane, E1

Thomas Lloyd is recorded as the first landlord in 1805. Victualler Nathaniel Gill married Maria Elizabeth Bradbrook, a baker from Bethnal Green, in 1849 and died a few months after their marriage. Maria took over managing the pub and started the Cock & Hoop Ragged School there, employing William Wright as master. The pub was renamed The Artillery Tavern in 1873 and may have been rebuilt at this time, closing for good in 1908.

Then the building was incorporated as additional accommodation for the Providence Row Night Refuge & Convent which faced onto the next street, Crispin Street. In 1982, it was described as Pursell House, ‘hostels for working girls.’

The Providence Row Night Shelter which had opened in 1867 closed in 2002 and, after reconfiguration, was converted into student housing for the London School of Economics in 2006.


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

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

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

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London’s Oldest Ironmonger

September 13, 2019
by the gentle author

Celebrating our tenth anniversary with favourite stories from the first decade

The frontage at 493-495 Hackney Rd 

The factory at the rear of the shop

London’s oldest ironmongers opened for business in 1797 as Presland & Sons, became W.H. Clark Ltd in the eighteen-nineties and was still trading from the same location, over two hundred years later, as Daniel Lewis & Son Ltd – The One Stop Metal Shop. Operating at first from a wooden shack built around 1760, they constructed their own purpose-built shop and factory at the beginning of the nineteenth century, which suited their needs so perfectly that – in an astonishing and rare survival – it stood almost unaltered to the end.

It is architecture of such a utilitarian elegance and lack of ostentation that it did not draw attention to itself. I had no idea there was a complete Georgian shopfront in the Hackney Rd until David Lewis, the proprietor, pointed it out to me and I compared it to the illustration above. Remarkably, even the decorative coloured-glass lozenge above the door was exactly as in the engraving.

When contributing photographer Simon Mooney & I went along to explore, we were amazed to discover a unique complex of buildings that carried two centuries of history of industry in the East End, with many original items of nineteenth century hardware still in stock.

“We were here before the canal, the railway and the docks,” David Lewis informed us proudly,“When the Prince Regent banned horses from being stabled in the city, this area became the centre of the carriage and coach-building industry.” An ironmonger with a lyrical tendency, David reminded us that Cambridge Heath Rd was once a heath, that Bishop Bonnar once built his mansion on this land before the Reformation and that an oval duckpond once existed where the Oval industrial estate stands today behind his premises – all in introduction to the wonders of his personal domain which had been there longer than anything else around.

You entered from the street into the double-height shop, glazed with floor-to-ceiling windows and lined to the roof with meticulously-labelled wooden pigeon-holes, built-in as part of the original architecture. A winding stair led you into the private offices and you discovered beautiful bow-fronted rooms, distinguishing the rear of the terrace that extended two storeys above, offering ample staff quarters.  On one side, was an eccentric, suspended office extension built in 1927 and constructed with panelling and paint supplied by the Great Western Railway, who were customers. This eyrie served as David’s private den, where he sat smoking at a vast nineteenth century desk surrounded by his collection of custom number plates, all spelling Lewis in different configurations of numbers and letters.

A ramp down from the shop led to the rear, past cellars lined with pigeon-holes constructed of the flexo-metal plywood that was the source of the company’s wealth for decades. At the back, was a long factory building with three forges for manufacturing ironwork where you could still feel the presence of many people in the richness of patina created by all the those who worked there through the last two centuries. Occasionally, David paused and, in delight, pulled out boxes full of brass fixtures and iron bolts necessary for nineteenth century carriage building. Upstairs, he showed us an arcane machine for attaching metal rims to wagon wheels, essential when the streets of London went from dirt to cobbles in the nineteenth century.

To the left of the factory, stood a long cobbled shed where the carriages came in for repair, and beneath a slab flowed a stream and there were stones of the Roman road that ran through here. In the layers of gloss paint and the accumulation of old things, in the signs and the ancient graffiti, in the all the original fixtures and fittings, these wonderful buildings spoke eloquently of their industrial past. Yet for David they contained his family history too.

“My dad was Lewis Daniel John Lewis, he was known as Lewis Lewis and his father was also known as Lewis Lewis. It went back to my great-great-great-great- grandfather and my father wanted me to be Lewis Lewis too but my mum wasn’t having it, so I am David Richard Lewis. I first came here with my dad as a nipper, when I was four or five years old, on Saturday mornings while he did the books. I played with all the nuts and bolts, and I was curious to see what was in all the boxes. And I used to run up and down the ramp, I was fascinated by it. I’ve learnt that it’s there because the Hackney Rd follows a natural ridge and there were once mushroom fields on either side at a lower level.

My dad started at W.H.Clark in 1948 as a young boy of fifteen, he had already studied book-keeping and he was taken on as an office junior. At eight years old, it was discovered he was diabetic when he was found lying on the pavement here in Hackney Rd, where my grandparents had a grocer and dairy. He always had to have insulin injections after that. He was tall, six foot one, and a little skinny because he didn’t have much of an appetite – except for chocolate biscuits which he shouldn’t have had, but he enjoyed them with a cup of tea.

He learnt the trade and he worked his way up to office manager. Then, in 1970, one of the partners retired and the other suffered a tragedy and turned to drink and became unsteady. So my grandfather bought the business for my father in 1971 and he took over the directorship of the company. He already knew how to run the business and he set out to build the company up with new customers – he got St Paul’s Cathedral as a customer and we still supply them.

Our biggest selling product was flexo-metal plywood, we had the exclusive distribution contract and we supplied it to the coach-building industry across the entire South-East of England for the construction of buses, coaches, lorries and trucks. They used to pull up outside with vehicles that had no body, no cab – just the engine and a chassis with the driver sitting on a tin bucket. They bought flexo-metal plywood to build the body and we could supply them with a windscreen, lights, chains for tailboards, everything – all the components. Any time I see a van in a fifties or sixties film, it is one of ours. At that time, we employed eighteen people.

I joined in 1992. I went to college and did business studies and I wanted to prove to my dad that I could do it on my own. I became a trademark lawyer, working for the Trademarks Consortium in Pall Mall that protected the trademarking for brands like Cadburys, Bass, Tesco and Schweppes. I’ve always been fascinated by labels because of looking at all the different trademarks on the boxes of screws here and I collect custom number plates.

When the business that supplied flexo-metal plywood went to the wall, my father employed Peter Sandrock who used to run it. He was approached by many global companies because he was a genius mathematician who could do figures in his head, but he wanted to work for my dad because they always got on well and would help each other. He worked for my dad for ten years until 1992 and that’s when I came in, just after I got married.

I started as an office junior like my dad but I found it boring because I had already done other things. So I said, ‘Can I go down and serve behind the counter?’ but he said, ‘You haven’t got the build to carry steel.’ I surprised him by developing muscles and soon I could do it with ease – I’ve got broad shoulders now when I didn’t use to have.

When I was made a director, all the carriage-building trade was moving up north, so I refocused the company towards aluminium and steel supply to metal fabricators, architects and sculptors. But in recent years, due to installation of cctv cameras and the council issuing £130 fines to our customers while picking up orders, our trade has dropped by fifty per cent. We have two to three hundred customers a day and I reckon the council have earned £63,000 a year in fines out of them and so, in a few months, after two centuries of business in this location, we are going to move from here .

It was in 2002, I changed the name of the company from W.H.Clark Ltd, who had been a Mayor of Hackney in the nineteenth century, to Daniel Lewis & Son Ltd, in memory of my father. I am the son.”

London’s oldest ironmonger closed in 2014

Nineteenth century storage filled with nineteenth century carriage fittings in the factory

The enamel sign that was taken down from the frontage in 2002

This is the cobbled workshop where the carriages were wheeled in for repair.

The ceiling in the storeroom is lined with timber painted with nineteenth century sign-writing

Carriage bolts are still in stock

The wooden pigeon-holes stretch to the ceiling in the double-height shop and are contemporary with the building

Daniel Lewis & Son Ltd has collets in stock – pins used for attaching cartwheels to the shaft

David in the factory building

Bert left to in 1962 Good By

Machine for applying metal rims to cartwheels in the factory

A threading machine in the factory

This brick was laid by “Ole Bill” 1927 RIP


View towards the bonded warehouse of the Chandlers & Wiltshire Brewery – burnt out in World War II, it is London’s last bombsite and a memorial to the Blitz in the East End

A display of Nettlefolds screws wired to a board in a gilt-crested frame that was displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851

The glass over the entrance was part of the original design of the building, dating from the early nineteenth century

Packaging for hinged metal indicator lights, still in stock


Keep this door shut

The crackle on the office wall is authentic, achieved by age, not a paint effect

The name of W.H.Clark impressed upon a carriage shaft manufactured in the forge

Before 1920, no road vehicle was permitted to travel at more than 20mph and had a plate attached to this effect – Daniel Lewis & Son Ltd still had them in stock

The Ascot water heater in David’s office was fully-functional

The shop with the ramp going down towards the factory at the back

The steps from the shop going up to the office

David Lewis at his desk in the rear office lined with panelling and paint supplied by the Great Western Railway

Photographs copyright © Simon Mooney

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At Tubby Isaac’s Jellied Eels Stall

September 12, 2019
by the gentle author

Celebrating our tenth anniversary with favourite stories from the first decade

Paul Simpson

At the furthest extent of Spitalfields where it meets Aldgate was Tubby Isaac’s Jellied Eel Stall, run by Paul Simpson, fourth generation in this celebrated business founded in 1919, selling the fresh seafood that was once the staple diet in this neighbourhood. Where the traffic thunders down Aldgate High St, tucked round the corner of Goulston St, Tubby Isaac’s stall sheltered from the hurly-burly. And one morning, Paul told me the story of his world-famous stall as he set up for the day, while I savoured the salty-sweet seaweed scent of the seafood and eager customers arrived to eat that famous East End delicacy, jellied eels for breakfast.

“I’ll be the last one ever to do this!” Paul confessed to me with pride tinged by melancholy, as he pulled a huge bowl of eels from the fridge,“My father, Ted Simpson, had the business before me, he got it from his Uncle Solly who took over from Tubby Isaac, who opened the first stall in 1919. Isaac ran it until 1939 when he got a whiff of another war coming and emigrated to America with his boys, so they would not be conscripted – but then they got enlisted over there instead. And when Isaac left, his nephew Solly took over the business and ran it until he died in 1975. Then my dad ran it from 1975 ’til 1989, and I’ve been here ever since.”

“I began working at the Walthamstow stall when I was fourteen – as a runner, cleaning, washing up, cutting bread, getting the beers, buying the coffees, collecting the bacon sandwiches. and sweeping up. The business isn’t what it was years ago, all the eels stalls along Roman Road and Brick Lane – they were here for a long, long time and they’ve closed. It’s a sign of the times.” he informed me plainly. Yet Paul Simpson was steadfast and philosophical, serving his regular customers daily, and taking consolation from their devotion to his stall. In fact, “Regular customers are my only customers” he admitted to me with a weary smile, “and some of them are in their eighties and nineties who used to come here with their parents!”

Understandably, Paul took his eels very seriously. Divulging something of the magic of the preparation of this mysterious fish, he explained that when eels are boiled, the jelly exuded during the cooking sets to create a natural preservative. “Look, it creates its own jelly!” declared Paul, holding up the huge bowl of eels to show me and letting it quiver enticingly for my pleasure. The jelly was a crucial factor before refrigeration, when a family could eat from a bowl of jellied eels and then put the dish in a cold pantry, where the jelly would reset preserving it for the next day. Paul was insistent that he only sold top-quality eels, always fresh never frozen, and after a lifetime on the stall, being particular about seafood was almost his religion. “If you sell good stuff, they will come,” he reassured me, seeing that I was anxious about the future of his stall after what he had revealed.

Resuming work, removing bowls of winkles, cockles, prawns and mussels from the fridge, “It ain’t a job of enjoyment, it’s a job of necessity,” protested Paul, turning morose again, sighing as he arranged oysters in a tray, “It’s what I know, it’s what pays the bills but it ain’t the kind of job you want your kids to do, when there’s no reward for working your guts off.” Yet in spite of this bluster, it was apparent Peter harboured a self-respecting sense of independence at holding out again history, after lesser eel sellers shut up shop. “When it turns cold, I put so many clothes on I look like the Michelin man by the end of the day!” he boasted to me with a swagger, as if to convince me of his survival ability.

Then Jim arrived, one of Tubby Isaac’s regulars, a cab driver who wolfed a dish of eels doused in vinegar and liberally sprinkled with pepper, taking a couple of lobster tails with him for a snack later. Paul brightened at once to greet Jim and they fell into hasty familiar chit-chat, the football, the weather and the day’s rounds, and Jim got back on the road before the traffic warden came along. “It’s like a pub here, the regulars come all day.” Paul confided to me with a residual smile. And I saw there was a certain beauty to the oasis of civility that Tubby Isaac’s manifested, where old friends could return regularly over an entire lifetime, a landmark of continuity in existence.

It was a testament to Paul Simpson’s tenacity and the quality of his fish that Tubby Isaac’s lasted so long, after this once densely populated former Jewish neighbourhood had emptied out and the culture of which jellied eels was a part had almost vanished. Tubby Isaac’s was a stubborn fragment of an earlier world, carrying the lively history of the society it once served – even after all the other jellied eels stalls in Aldgate had gone and the street was no longer full with people enjoying eels.

Tubby Isaac’s closed forever in 2013

The earliest photo of “Tubby” Isaac Brenner who founded the stall in 1919

Tubby and one of his sons in the twenties

Ted Simpson, Solly and Patsy Gritzman in the forties, after Tubby and his sons left for America

In Petticoat Lane, sixties

Ted serves jellied eels to Burt Reynolds and American talk show host Mike Douglas in the seventies

Ted shakes hands with Ronnie Corbett

Joan Rivers helped out at the stall in the eighties

Paul Simpson at the stall in 1989, before it became refridgerated

Tubby Isaacs stall in Aldgate

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