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In Old Rotherhithe

August 6, 2020
by the gentle author

St Mary Rotherhithe Free School founded 1613

To be candid, there is not a lot left of old Rotherhithe – yet what remains is still powerfully evocative of the centuries of thriving maritime industry that once defined the identity of this place. Most visitors today arrive by train – as I did – through the Brunel tunnel built between 1825 and 1843, constructed when the growth of the docks brought thousands of tall ships to the Thames and the traffic made river crossing by water almost impossible.

Just fifty yards from Rotherhithe Station is a narrow door through which you can descend into the 1825 shaft via a makeshift staircase. You find yourself inside a huge round cavern, smoke-blackened as if the former lair of a fiery dragon. Incredibly, Marc Brunel built this cylinder of brick at ground level – fifty feet high and twenty-five feet in diameter – and waited while it sank into the damp earth, digging out the mud from the core as it descended, to create the shaft which then became the access point for excavating the tunnel beneath the river.

It was the world’s first underwater tunnel. At a moment of optimism in 1826, a banquet for a thousand investors was held at the bottom of the shaft and then, at a moment of cataclysm in 1828, the Thames surged up from beneath filling it with water – and Marc’s twenty-two-year-old son Isambard was fished out, unconscious, from the swirling torrent. Envisaging this diabolic calamity, I was happy to leave the subterranean depths of the Brunels’ fierce imaginative ambition – still murky with soot from the steam trains that once ran through – and return to the sunlight of the riverside.

Leaning out precariously upon the Thames’ bank is an ancient tavern known as The Spread Eagle until 1957, when it was rechristened The Mayflower – in reference to the Pilgrims who sailed from Rotherhithe to Southampton in 1620, on the first leg of their journey to New England. Facing it across the other side of Rotherhithe St towers John James’ St Mary’s Rotherhithe of 1716 where an attractive monument of 1625 to Captain Anthony Wood, retrieved from the previous church, sports a fine galleon in full sail that some would like to believe is The Mayflower itself – whose skipper, Captain Christopher Jones, is buried in the churchyard.

Also in the churchyard, sits the handsome tomb of Prince Lee Boo. A native of the Pacific Islands, he befriended Captain Wilson of Rotherhithe and his two sons who were shipwrecked upon the shores of Ulong in 1783. Abba Thule, the ruler of the Islands, was so delighted when the Europeans used their firearms to subdue his enemies and impressed with their joinery skills in constructing a new vessel, that he asked them to take his second son, Lee Boo, with them to London to become an Englishman.

Arriving in Portsmouth in July 1784, Lee Boo travelled with Captain Wilson to Rotherhithe where he lived as one of the family, until December when it was discovered he had smallpox – the disease which claimed the lives of more Londoners than any other at that time. At just twenty years old, Lee Boo was buried inside the Wilson family vault in Rotherhithe churchyard, but – before he died – he sent a plaintive message home to tell his father “that the Captain and Mother very kind.”

Across the churchyard from The Mayflower is Rotherhithe Free School, founded by two Peter Hills and Robert Bell in 1613 to educate the sons of seafarers. Still displaying a pair of weathered figures of schoolchildren, the attractive schoolhouse of 1797 was vacated in 1939 yet the school may still be found close by in Salter Rd. Thus, the pub, the church and the schoolhouse define the centre of the former village of Rotherhithe with a line of converted old warehouses extending upon the river frontage for a just couple of hundred yards in either direction beyond this enclave.

Take a short walk to the west and you will discover The Angel overlooking the ruins of King Edward III’s manor house but – if you are a hardy walker and choose to set out eastward along the river – you will need to exercise the full extent of your imagination to envisage the vast vanished complex of wharfs, quays and stores that once filled this entire peninsular.

At the entrance to the Rotherhithe road tunnel stands the Norwegian Church with its ship weather vane

Chimney of the Brunel Engine House seen from the garden on top of the tunnel’s access shaft

Isambard Kingdom Brunel presides upon his audacious work

Visitors gawp in the diabolic cavern of Brunel’s smoke-blackened shaft descending to the Thames tunnel

 

John James’ St Mary’s Rotherhithe of 1716

The tomb of Prince Lee Boo, a native of the Pelew or Pallas Islands ( the Republic of Belau), who died in Rotherhithe of smallpox in  1784 aged twenty

Graffiti upon the church tower

 

Monument in St Mary’s, retrieved from the earlier church


Charles Hay & Sons Ltd, Barge Builders since 1789

Peeking through the window into the costume store of Sands Films

Inside The Mayflower

A lone survivor of the warehouses that once lined the river bank

Looking east towards Rotherhithe from The Angel

The Angel

The ruins of King Edward III’s manor house

Bascule bridge

Nelson House

Metropolitan Asylum Board china from the Smallpox Hospital Ships once moored here

Looking across towards the Isle of Dogs from Surrey Docks Farm

Take a look at

Adam Dant’s Map of Stories from the History of Rotherhithe

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The Education Of Audrey Kneller

August 5, 2020
by the gentle author

Audrey Kneller sent me this candid memoir of her years in Spitalfields which is it is my pleasure to publish for the first time. In the second of two extracts, Audrey describes her education in Judaism.

Deal St School Trip 1955 – Audrey is third from right, peering round the girl in front

In June 1953, my sister Yvonne & I were enrolled at the Robert Montefiore Primary School in Deal St on the corner of Hanbury St. It was not surprising, given the demographic of the area, that ninety per cent of the pupils were Jewish, so we felt at home in our new environment. I was eight and a half years old, and my sister was eleven.

Yvonne was selected to start the following September at the sister school, Robert Montefiore Secondary Modern in Valance Rd, Whitechapel, which although not a grammar school had a very good reputation. Under the fatherly guidance of headmaster, Mr Nurse, the school turned out first class citizens, well equipped to deal with the pressures of modern living.

Between 1953 and 1956, Yvonne & I walked to school down Fleur-de-Lis St, passing Commercial St Police Station on the left and the little grocery shop on the right, run by a kindly old lady who was always willing to sell us a couple of eggs or four ounces of butter if we ran short. We turned right into Commercial St, dominated by the vastness of the Godfrey Phillips Tobacco Company building, past the local tuck shop and a greengrocers run by two elderly ladies. One was a widow and the other had become a confirmed spinster after her fiancé was killed in the First World War. They told us they were almost killed during the Second World War when an oil bomb fell behind the shop. Luckily, they escaped through the front and lived to tell of their hair-raising experience.

Then we crossed over into Hanbury St and walked down towards Deal St. To a child, the road seemed wide and the walk long, punctuated by intriguing sights, sounds and smells. There was always a great deal of activity inside the workshops to the left and I remember wood shavings on the ground, and hearing the electric saw and smelling the sawdust as I passed. I always kept to the left-hand side of Hanbury St, never deviating from the route.

I noticed several half-ruined houses with no roofs, merely slats of wood where the ceilings had been, allowing the sky to peep through. Were they bombed, I wondered? I assumed this explained why there were so many ruined buildings. A common sight, particularly in Aldgate and Whitechapel, was where the whole side of a building was missing and you could see one bare wall, several storeys high, with fireplaces where the floors had been. I walked with a sense of horror and bewilderment. The war had only recently given way to an austere peace, and the reminders of the damage to life, limb and property moved me deeply.

The sight of my school at the junction of Deal St and Hanbury St told me I was safe. One day, my mother came to have a chat with my teacher and they decided that I was like Schubert with his “Unfinished Symphony.” Although my work was good, I was rather slow and took a long time to finish. Yet they decided that the patience of the recipient was rewarded.

Every night I prayed that I would pass my “11 Plus,” so that I could go the revered grammar school in Spital Sq, the Central Foundation School for Girls. On the day of the exam, I was recovering from flu and had a coughing spell during the maths test. I was off sick when the results came through but I was told that I was eligible for a governors’ place at Spital Sq, subject to passing the entrance examination. I ran home with my head held high and told my family.

Later I realised that governors’ places were for those who had not passed but were termed as “Grammar Marginals,” so we could be given another chance. A couple of weeks later I entered the portals of Spital Sq to sit the examination but found some of the questions above my head, especially the arithmetical ones. Also the interview with the headmistress did not go well. She was not impressed with my replies to questions concerning a future career. So I was not surprised to learn that it was not my destiny to go there, but then another door opened.

A few of us who had not managed to get into Spital Sq were offered governors’ places for a Jewish grammar school in Stoke Newington, subject to an entrance examination, and the idea rather appealed to me. It was the Avigdor School, a privately-run school supported by the London County Council. The examination was incredibly easy, consisting of elementary questions about the Old Testament and, shortly afterwards, I and my fellows were awarded places.

Mr Nurse, my sister’s headmaster, was very disappointed at my decision to go to Avigdor School. He made no secret of this when he met me later at Yvonne’s prize-giving, as he had put my name on the waiting list ahead of hundreds of others to go to Robert Montefiore Secondary Modern. My mother tried to persuade me to change my mind but I was excited at the thought of striking out on my own.

On my first day at the new school, I was asked by the girl sitting next to me, “Are you “frum“?” This is a Yiddish term to describe someone who is religiously observant. In all innocence I answered, “Yes.” In fact, I was more in thought than deed, but Shula was frum and came from an Orthodox family. She immediately became my best friend. Her parents were émigrés prior to the war, her mother from Germany and her father from Hungary.

Shula was part of the generation of British Jewry whose parents had escaped Nazi persecution to form a new community in North London. I learned that Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill was thickly populated by Orthodox Jews of German and Polish origin.

Those of German origin were yekkes while the Poles were the chasidim (pious ones), who dressed in the sombre garb of their forefathers.The women were not allowed to reveal any part of their anatomy except hands, face and ankles, so they wore long sleeves and thick stockings. Married women had their hair cut short and wore sheitels (wigs). By contrast, the yekkes were less strict in their dress, the men dispensed with payos (sidelocks) and the women did wear sheitels but drew the line at sleeveless clothing.

Shula’s family did not view themselves as yekkes or chasidim and,  although strictly Orthodox, her mother did not wear a sheitel. Another girl in my class, Caroline Rosenthal, a bouncy girl with curly black hair and rosy cheeks whose family were Orthodox also immediately became my friend. Caroline was exactly a year younger than me but, because she was very bright, she had been moved up a year.

She invited me to stay with her for the week of Pesach or Passover, and it was then that I became acquainted with the way of life of Orthodox Jews. It had a profound effect on me. Until this point, my Jewish education had been sketchy but I was now at a school with a curriculum of Jewish subjects which completely changed my way of thinking.

Over the next four years I became transformed, partly due to the visits to the homes of my religious friends and partly due to my teachings at school. Prayer played a large part in my life and I was able to recite prayers in Hebrew off by heart. Becoming religious was not an easy transition and was not entirely welcomed at home where I found myself alone in my beliefs.

Yet I was happier than I had been for a long time, with reservations. I had achieved almost the impossible in my education but grown detached from my family who, by comparison with my new friends, seemed heathen to me. Although my mother kept a kosher home, I introduced stricter dietary laws. The separation of milk and meat utensils was approved of by my mother but greeted with dismay by my sister. My mother was hard pressed to please us both.

Years later, I realised my decision to go to Avigdor School in the face of my mother’s opposition was in some ways unwise. Although I learned about Judaism, which proved an asset in later life, I had no qualifications and the events which caused me to leave were unfortunate. The London County Council tried to close the school down because of “low standards.” But, years later, I learned from the Jewish Chronicle that the governors had not approved of the interest shown by the teachers in secular subjects and felt the school should confine itself to activities of a religious nature. In 1959, following an article which appeared in the Jewish Chronicle headed “Avigdor School Has Failed,” we heard that the school would close.

For the last year, we had only five pupils in our class. Ultimately, Shula was accepted by our sister school, the Hasmonean Grammar School for Girls in Hendon, while Caroline and l left to go to another grammar school in North London. It was sad that the Avigdor School which was the experiment and brainchild of Rabbi Dr Solomon Schonfeld, Principal of the Jewish Secondary Schools Movement, had failed. He was a hero who saved countless people from the Holocaust, risking his life to do so.

My education in Stoke Newington isolated me to an extent from Elder St. I grew away from it, looking forward to each school day when I could ride on the bus northwards to cleaner, fresher air.

Although none of my family were Orthodox, my maternal grandfather, Nathan, was very observant. After his passing, as there were no men to lead the way, observances slipped though my mother and her sisters upheld our faith. When High Holydays arrived, we dressed up in our best clothes and attended Morning Service. After lunch, Auntie Sophie’s front room was the usual place for the family to congregate. Friends, neighbours and children all gathered in their finery for a mootel (chinwag).

At Rosh Hashanah we would wish everyone Happy New Year over a drink of Auntie Sophie’s homemade morello cherry wine and a slice of cake. She lived all her days in and around Spitalfields, devoting herself entirely to her children and their families.

Towards the latter part of 1958, my mother received a Notice to Quit under the 1957 Rent Act. The landlord’s agent had observed the improvements she had made and, realising that she was receiving rent from the two flats upstairs, he reported back to the landlord who immediately gave instructions for her rent to be doubled.

My mother was offered the house for £2,000, which was a fair price at the time, but she could not buy it because of its poor state and the prohibitive cost of the repairs. She sought the help of her nephew who was a chartered surveyor. In those days, single women could not take out mortgages but with his help as a guarantor, they found a property.

We moved out of Elder St in April 1959 to a more comfortable two-storey terrace in Stoke Newington. Although it was as yet still untouched by bulldozer or developer, we knew the writing was on the wall for Elder St because our landlord had plans for number 20 that included demolition.

Playing in Toynbee St in 1952. Audrey is in the front on the left, aged seven and a half, and her sister Yvonne is at the back on the right. Brune House is behind and you can just see the bottom of a big sign advertising Charringtons.

You may also like to read the first extract of Audrey Kneller’s memoir

Audrey Kneller of Elder St

Audrey Kneller Of Elder St

August 4, 2020
by the gentle author

Audrey Kneller sent me this evocative memoir of her years in Spitalfields which is it is my pleasure to publish for the first time here today. In this first of two extracts, Audrey describes her life in Elder St.

Audrey on trip to Epping Forest, aged twelve in 1957

Elder St was not a pretty place in spite of its name. No buds burst forth each spring to awaken our spirits and no birds sang merrily to remind us of the wonders of nature. Instead soot lay unmolested in every crevice of the ancient brickwork, while the clanking and hissing of steam trains shunting reminded us of the presence of the large London terminus. Poverty was a mantle we refused to wear, but it lurked menacingly on every street corner.

Early in 1953, my Auntie Sophie happened to bump into Millie Berman, an old school friend of my mother’s. This chance meeting was to bring great changes. Millie lived with her daughter on the upper floors of a rented house in Elder St and was looking for someone to take over the tenancy as she was intending to move. Clearly this was an opportunity not be missed.

Shortly after the Coronation in June 1953, we left the comfort of our temporary home in Edgware and moved into the four-storey terraced house at 20 Elder St, Norton Folgate, E1. Our first impressions were far from favourable. The tallness of the houses and total absence of trees or even a blade of grass was very forbidding. However we gradually settled and discovered the bizarre fascinations of an urban existence.

At the back, towards Bishopsgate, there was a large bomb site where I joined some boys playing cowboys and indians, and had a lovely time amid the dirt and rubble. My mother, being a genteel person, was quite horrified when I returned home looking the worse for wear. Thereafter I played more civilised games with my sister and the other refined children of the neighbourhood inside the safe confines of the street. The bomb site, however, came into its own on Guy Fawkes Night when the sky was lit up with the flames of a huge bonfire and accompanying fireworks, watched by us from a third floor bedroom window.

Our part of Elder St was an ideal playground, not only because it sheltered us from traffic but also because of the numbers of children living in the surrounding houses and tenements, so we were seldom short of playmates. In those days, the threat of the motor car was almost non-existent, leaving us to play unrestricted and unhampered, a freedom children cannot enjoy today.

In fact, I cannot remember ever, in the early days of our life in Elder St, seeing a car impinge on our games of higher and higher, piggy in the middle and others too numerous to mention. We played in the road outside our door and no-one ever prevented us from chalking out our squares on the pavement for hopscotch. The black-painted iron bars above the basement in front of the some of the houses could easily be squeezed behind, if a side bar was missing, in order to retrieve a lost ball. These hump-shaped grills were nicknamed “airies,” and a cry would often go up, “It’s gone down the airy!” It was up to the smallest and bravest of us to crawl down into the tiny space below, and once down there you had an awful feeling of being trapped in a cage until you emerged triumphant with the lost ball.

I remember long summer evenings spent playing in the street and the man who came along on his three-wheeler, peddling ices. “Yum Yum” was the brand name and yum yum his ice lollies were, delicious and creamy. A good selling point was that every so often one of the lolly sticks would have the name “YUM YUM” printed on it and whoever had such a stick could have another lolly free on presenting it to the ice cream man. Once this fact became known, some of us sat in the gutter scratching the words “YUM YUM” on our spare sticks. But the ice cream man was not fooled and, some time later, when he came round again after an unexpectedly long interval, the name of the product had been changed to “WHIM”. The lollies were the same but somehow the gilt had gone from the gingerbread.

I recall with affection the Josephs family. Simon Josephs was my age and lived with his parents, two maiden aunts and an elderly grandmother around the corner in Fleur-de-Lis St. Their house was much smaller than ours and poorly built but they were a happy family. They even had a television set, which we did not have, and we lost no opportunity when invited to view. We also spent happy hours playing with Simon and his games, especially my favourite one of Monopoly.

Next door to the Josephs lived an elderly spinster and her bachelor brother who was disabled, having been afflicted with shell shock in the First World War, and I remember sitting with them one Yom Kippur evening waiting for the fast to end. One by one, the tiny houses and the dark overcrowded tenements in Fleur-de-Lis St became empty and boarded up awaiting demolition. The Josephs, we heard later, were re-housed in a new flat on the Ocean Estate in Mile End.

Number 26 Elder St was a tall narrow house accommodating two families, one Jewish and the one Gentile. My sister Yvonne and I would sometimes sit on the steps of the house playing gobs or five stones with the daughters of the respective families. Avril Levy from the Jewish family had a famous auntie, Adele Leigh a renowned opera singer, who would often call round, leaving her sporty two-seater Sunbeam Rapier outside the house.

In Blossom St lived a family that to me epitomised poverty both materially and spiritually. The children were neglected and ran around with bare feet and bare bottoms. I was very shocked because they were so different from us yet lived almost on our doorstep. One day, Christine, a little girl who lived at 16 Elder St, decided that we should venture into the house in Blossom St. We peered inside what seemed to be a dark hole with no semblance of what I considered to be the trappings of a home. Dirt and decay lay all around and I caught a glimpse of a man lying asleep on an old armchair which, instead of cushions, was covered with sacks filled with horse hair. Overcome by feelings of horror, disbelief and the foul stench that pervaded the building, we stepped backwards into the street, and quickly walked back to the welcome ‘civilisation’ of Elder St, never to set foot again in Blossom St.

As to the past history of our house, we were led to believe that it was built in the early eighteen-hundreds. I cannot support the validity of this but the house certainly contained some unusual features.

Looking through the windows at the back, high walls surrounded the yard which was no more than ten feet in depth, just enough space for a coal storage area and a washing line to be strung across. Our convenient position near Liverpool St Station could also be a disadvantage, if the wind was blowing in the wrong direction our clean laundry would be showered with a fine layer of soot.

Ours was the only house in Elder St – and for all we knew anywhere else in Norton Folgate – to have a bathroom. The fittings were brass and, instead of having a normal plughole, there was a tall brass post affair which had to be lifted up to let the water run away. Hot water came from an ancient geyser on the wall above the bath but woe betides anyone who fell foul of the delicate lighting-up procedure. I did once and was greeted with a loud bang. The secret was to run the water first and then ignite the gas. Henceforth, unless my mother or sister were there to do the honours, I felt it safer to spend my bath times in an old zinc tub in front of the fireplace in the living room.

Nevertheless, it was handy to have a bathroom, especially as a connecting door led into the back bedroom thereby giving us a bathroom en suite! The toilet was situated next to the bathroom on the first floor landing. To have an inside toilet was again untypical of the area, most toilets being situated outside in the backyard, as I found at our cousin’s house in Buxton St.

A house of this size required regular maintenance and my mother employed a spare-time handyman to keep the interior in a good state of repair. He came and went for six years, painting, papering, plumbing and fixing, and no sooner had he finished on the top floor than it was time to start again at the bottom, rather like the Forth Bridge.

An interesting feature of the house was a long speaking tube with a whistle at one end, extending from the top floor right down to the basement. Presumably a device once used by servants, this was a source of amusement. Another source of great amusement to us, as well as to other children in our street, was the wall panelling. We succeeded in convincing them that one on the first floor landing slid back to reveal a secret passageway, such as the ones used by Cavaliers to escape the Roundheads during the Civil War.

One day, my sister told some children playing in the street that there was something strange in our basement and they immediately came to investigate. Meanwhile, I had dressed up a tailor’s dummy in an old red frock and hid behind it. As the children descended the basement stairs, I slowly moved the dummy forward, calling out in an eerie voice. The inquisitive children scattered in haste, believing me to be a headless ghost!

Not long after we moved into Elder St, we discovered the presence of unwelcome lodgers lurking behind the skirting boards. After mousetraps failed to catch them, we acquired the services of a cat. One day, one of our cousins from Buxton St called round with a tabby who had the perfect markings of a tiger, so the name stuck. Tiger was a wonderfully docile pet but he lived up this name in keeping the rodent community at bay.

One day I found him sitting on the landing and tried to pick him to carry him downstairs but he would not budge. I could not understand it until my mother pointed out that he was standing guard over a small hole in the skirting board. We left him there all that day and eventually he returned to us of his own accord, presumably having accomplished his mission.

As to the other houses in Elder St, I am sure that none of us children had any idea of their historic value. As far as I could see, we were surrounded by decaying walls and we had to make the best of the situation until circumstances improved.

Although we may have been devoid of pastoral pleasures in Spitalfields, life was far from dull. We were living on the fringes of a great nucleus of Jewish enterprise and culture – consisting of delicatessens, bakeries, butcher shops and kosher restaurants, intermingled with other Jewish-owned businesses in the garment, jewellery and shoe trades, bookshops, a Yiddish theatre and numerous synagogues – stretching from Brick Lane southward to Houndsditch and eastward as far as Bow. This was our heritage, we had returned to the roots set down by our grandparents and thousands of other immigrants fifty years earlier.

A second instalment of Audrey Kneller’s memoir follows tomorrow

Audrey’s tenth birthday tea in 1955

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Dragan Novakovic’s Club Row

August 3, 2020
by the gentle author

In this second selection of East End market photography by Dragan Novaković from the late seventies, we include rare pictures of the ancient Club Row animal and bird market which closed in 1983 when street trading in live animals became outlawed

Photographs copyright © Dragan Novaković

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At Emery Walker’s House

August 2, 2020
by the gentle author

Kelmscott Press & Doves Press editions at Emery Walker’s House

Typographer and Printer, Emery Walker and Designer and Poet, William Morris both lived in houses on the Thames in Hammersmith, but they first met at a Socialist meeting in Bethnal Green and travelled home together on the train to West London.

Both houses are adorned with plaques commemorating their illustrious former residents, and remarkably Emery Walker’s House in Hammersmith Terrace has survived almost as he left it, thanks to the benign auspices of his daughter, Dorothy, and her companion Elizabeth de Haas. Today it boasts one of London’s best preserved Arts & Crafts interiors and stepping through the threshold is to step back in time and encounter the dramas that were played out here over a century ago.

After their first meeting, Emery Walker and William Morris met each other regularly walking on the riverside path and soon became firm friends. Morris once commented that his day was not complete without a sight of Walker and the outcome of their friendship was that Emery Walker took responsibility for the technical side of Morris’ printing endeavours at the Kelmscott Press – designing the Kelmscott typeface – and then subsequently nursing Morris through his final illness.

The previous resident of Emery Walker’s house was Thomas Cobden-Sanderson, who is credited with coining the phrase ‘arts and crafts.’ After Morris’ death, he and Emery Walker established the Doves Press in 1900, for which Walker designed the celebrated Doves typeface. Although this highly successful creative partnership set the precedent for the private press movement of the twentieth century and they employed typographer Edward Johnston, who also lived in Hammersmith Terrace, it came to grief due to Cobden-Sanderson’s volatile emotional behaviour. The nadir arrived when Cobden-Sanderson dumped more than a ton of Doves type off Hammersmith Bridge to prevent Emery Walker having any further use of it. Only in own time have specimens been retrieved from the Thames and the font recreated digitally.

Meanwhile, William Morris’ daughter May and her husband, Henry Halliday Sparling, who was Secretary of the Socialist League moved in next door to Emery Walker – until May’s lover, George Bernard Shaw, moved in with them too and Henry Halliday Sparling moved out.

As with many old houses, you wish the walls could speak to you of the former residents and at Emery Walker’s house they do, because they are all papered with designs by William Morris. Within these richly patterned walls are rare pieces of furniture by Philip Webb, hangings and carpets by Morris & Co, photographs of William Morris by Emery Walker, a drawing of May Morris by Edward Burne Jones, needlework by May Morris and more. Most of the clutter and paraphernalia gathered by Emery Walker remains, including a lock of William Morris’ hair and several pairs of his spectacles.

Yet in spite of these treasures, it is the unselfconsciously shabby, lived-in quality of the house which is most appealing, mixing as many as five different William Morris textile and wallpaper designs in one room. Elsewhere, a Philip Webb linen press has been moved, revealing an earlier Morris wallpaper behind it and a more recent Morris paper applied only on the walls surrounding it.

Thus, the ghosts of the long-gone linger in this shadowy old riverside house in Hammersmith.

Click here to enjoy a virtual tour of Emery Walker’s House

Looking upriver

This seventeenth century chair belonged to William Morris and was given to Emery Walker by May Morris after her father’s death with addition of the tapestry cushion designed and worked by May

Portraits of William Morris taken by Emery Walker

Four different designs by William Morris for Morris & Co combined in the same room

Emory Walker looks down from the chimney breast in his drawing room. The teapot and salts once belonged to Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Fireplace with tiles by William de Morgan

Traditional English rush-seated ladder back chair by Ernest Barnsley and Morris & Co carpet bearing the tulip and lily design which is believed to have belonged to Morris, acquired from the sale at Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire

William Morris’ daisy wallpaper and Sussex chairs in the bedroom overlooking the river

Woollen bedcover embroidered by May Morris

Looking downstream

A yellow flag iris at Hammersmith Bridge where Emery Walker’s Doves typeface was dumped in to the Thames by Thomas Cobden-Sanderson

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William Morris in the East End

At Kelmscott House

Dragan Novakovic’s Brick Lane

August 1, 2020
by the gentle author

These Brick Lane photographs by Dragan Novaković are from the late seventies. Dragan came to London from Belgrade in 1968 and returned home in 1977, working for the state news agency Tanjug and then Reuters before his retirement in 2011.

‘I printed very rarely and very little, and for the next forty-odd years had these photographs only as contact sheets.’ explains Dragan, ‘I saw them properly as ‘enlargements’ for the first time in 2012, after I had scanned the negatives and post-processed the files.’

“I was introduced to London’s street markets by my friend and fellow countryman Mario who had a stall in Portobello Market specializing in post office clocks and bric-a-brac. I enjoyed sitting there with him amid the hustle and bustle, with people stopping by for a chat or to strike a bargain.

One early winter morning Mario picked me up in his old mini van and told me we were going to Bermondsey Market in search of clocks. It was still dark and foggy when we arrived and what met my eye made me gaze around in wonder – the scene looked to me as something out of Dickens!

The second time we went looking for clocks Mario took me to Brick Lane. Though there were plenty of open-air markets where I came from, I had seen nothing of the kind and size of Brick Lane and was fascinated by the crowds, the street musicians, the wares, the whole atmosphere. I sensed a strong community spirit and togetherness. I was hooked and I knew that I would have to come again in my spare time and take pictures.

Over the years I visited Brick Lane and other East End markets whenever I could spare the time and afford a few rolls of film. Living first in Earl’s Court and then behind Olympia, I would mount my old bicycle, bought in Brick Lane (of course!), and pedal hard across the West End in order to be there where life overflowed with activity.

I took what I consider snapshots without any plan or project in mind but simply because the challenge was too strong and I could not help it. I developed the films and made contact prints regularly but, never having a proper darkroom, made no enlargements to help me evaluate properly what I had done. Now I wish I had taken many more pictures at these locations.” – Dragan Novaković

Photographs copyright © Dragan Novaković

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Watermen’s Stairs In Wapping

July 31, 2020
by the gentle author

Wapping Old Stairs

I need to keep reminding myself of the river. Rarely a week goes by without some purpose to go down there but, if no such reason occurs, I often take a walk simply to pay my respects to the Thames. Even as you descend from the Highway into Wapping, you sense a change of atmosphere when you enter the former marshlands that remain susceptible to fog and mist on winter mornings. Yet the river does not declare itself at first, on account of the long wall of old warehouses that line the shore, blocking the view of the water from Wapping High St.

The feeling here is like being offstage in a great theatre and walking in the shadowy wing space while the bright lights and main events take place nearby. Fortunately, there are alleys leading between the tall warehouses which deliver you to the waterfront staircases where you may gaze upon the vast spectacle of the Thames, like an interloper in the backstage peeping round the scenery at the action. There is a compelling magnetism drawing you down these dark passages, without ever knowing precisely what you will find, since the water level rises and falls by seven metres every day – you may equally discover waves lapping at the foot of the stairs or you may descend onto an expansive beach.

These were once Watermen’s Stairs, where passengers might get picked up or dropped off, seeking transport across or along the Thames. Just as taxi drivers of contemporary London learn the Knowledge, Watermen once knew the all the names and order of the hundreds of stairs that lined the banks of the Thames, of which only a handful survive today.

Arriving in Wapping by crossing the bridge in Old Gravel Lane, a short detour to the east would take me to Shadwell Stairs but instead I go straight to the Prospect of Whitby where a narrow passage to the right leads to Pelican Stairs. Centuries ago, the Prospect was known as the Pelican, giving its name to the stairs which have retained their name irrespective of the changing identity of the pub. These worn stone steps connect to a slippery wooden stair leading to wide beach at low tide where you may enjoy impressive views towards the Isle of Dogs.

West of here is New Crane Stairs and then, at the side of Wapping Station, another passage leads you to Wapping Dock Stairs. Further down the High St, opposite the entrance to Brewhouse Lane, is a passageway leading to a fiercely-guarded pier, known as King Henry’s Stairs – though John Roque’s map of 1746 labels this as the notorious Execution Dock Stairs. Continue west and round the side of the river police station, you discover Wapping Police Stairs in a strategic state of disrepair and beyond, in the park, is Wapping New Stairs.

It is a curious pilgrimage, but when you visit each of these stairs you are visiting another time – when these were the main entry and exit points into Wapping. The highlight is undoubtedly Wapping Old Stairs with its magnificently weathered stone staircase abutting the Town of Ramsgate and offering magnificent views to Tower Bridge from the beach. If you are walking further towards the Tower, Aldermans’ Stairs is worth venturing at low tide when a fragment of ancient stone causeway is revealed, permitting passengers to embark and disembark from vessels without wading through Thames mud.

Shadwell Stairs

Pelican Stairs

Pelican Stairs at night

View into the Prospect of Whitby from Pelican Stairs

New Crane Stairs

Wapping Dock Stairs

Execution Dock Stairs, now known as King Henry’s Stairs

Entrance to Wapping Police Stairs

Wapping Police Stairs

Metropolitan Police Service Warning: These stairs are unsafe!

Wapping New Stairs with Rotherithe Church in the distance

Light in Wapping High St

Wapping Pier Head

Entrance to Wapping Old Stairs

Wapping Old Stairs

Passageway to Wapping Old Stairs at night

Aldermans’ Stairs, St Katharine’s Way

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