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David Hoffman At St Botolph’s

February 7, 2023
by the gentle author

David Hoffman undertook a significant body of photography documenting the East End in the seventies and eighties that I plan to publish this year as a book entitled, A PLACE TO LIVE, Endurance & Joy in Whitechapel, accompanied by a major photographic exhibition at House of Annetta in Spitalfields.

I believe David’s work is such an important social document, distinguished by its generous humanity and aesthetic flair, that I must publish a collected volume. I have a growing list of supporters for this project, so if you share my appreciation of David’s photography and might consider supporting this endeavour, please drop me a line at

Bobbie Beecroft cuts Mr Sheridan’s hair, 1976

When photographer David Hoffman was squatting in Fieldgate Mansions in Whitechapel in the seventies, he was asked to do fund-raising shots for the shelter in the crypt of St Botolph’s in Aldgate which offered refuge to all homeless people without distinction. Yet this commission turned into a photographic project that extended over many years and resulted in a distinguished body of work documenting the lives of the dispossessed in hundreds of intimate and unsentimental images.

Initially, David found the volatile conditions of the crypt challenging but, over months and years, he became accepted by those at the shelter who adopted him as their own photographer. Rev Malcolm Johnson was the enlightened priest responsible for opening the crypt but, once he moved on, his brave endeavour was closed down. More than thirty years later, most of the people in David’s pictures are dead and forgotten, and his soulful photographs are now the only record of their existence and of the strange camaraderie they discovered in the crypt at St Botolph’s.

“St Botolph’s in Aldgate had a ‘wet shelter,’ an evening shelter for damaged or lost souls where alcohol and drugs were permitted. It was run by Rev Malcolm Johnson and Terry Drummond, who were very generous and accepting, and the purpose was a Christian one, based on the notion that you are accepted whoever you are. I’m not keen on organised religion, but here they were doing something that needed to be done.

I was asked if I could do some photographs to raise funds for the work and I remember arriving at the top of the steps outside the crypt and standing there for five minutes because I didn’t dare to go down. The noise was deafening and it really stank of piss and unwashed bodies. I was frightened I’d get attacked and my camera smashed but, equally, I thought it needed documenting, it was a part of life I’d never seen before. It was very noisy, very smelly, chaotic, and there was a lot of violence.

It was a place to get something to eat, get washed and get clean clothing. Not everybody was on drink or drugs but ninety per cent were. A lot were ex-servicemen who had travelled the world and would reminisce about bars in Cairo or Baghdad. It was amazing what they would talk about.

When I returned, I gave them eighth-size A4 prints so they could put them in their pockets. They gave me permission to take their pictures and, on each visit, I’d bring them prints from the previous evening. So I became their photographer.

Over six or seven years, I’d go every night for two or three months at a stretch. It was important to be regular while you were doing it. You needed to come frequently, so people relaxed and accepted you as part of the scene. I’d go every night for a couple of months. It was a place where nobody else goes, it was a humble part of life.”

Washing a shirt at St Botolph’s, 1978

A volunteer serves tea and sandwiches

Azella, a regular at St Botolph’s, makes herself up before heading to the pub with a pal in 1977. Later that year, Azella was killed when a lorry drove over the cardboard box where she slept in Spitalfields Market.

At St Botolph’s, 1978

At St Botolph’s, 1976

At St Botolph’s, 1978

At St Botolph’s, 1978

At St Botolph’s, 1978

At St Botolph’s, 1978

Leo, eighty-two years old and a non-drinker at St Botolph’s, 1976

At St Botolph’s, 1978

Percy & Jane, non-drinkers, at St Botolph’s, 1978

At St Botolph’s, 1978

At St Botolph’s,  1977

At St Botolph’s, 1978

At St Botolph’s, 1978

At St Botolph’s, 1978

At St Botolph’s, 1978

At St Botolph’s, 1978

Photographs copyright © David Hoffman

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The Dandy’s Perambulations

February 6, 2023
by the gentle author

I am grateful to Sian Rees for kindly drawing my attention to The Dandy’s Perambulations by Robert Cruickshank, being an account of a trip to Kew Gardens in 1819

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Dilruba Khanam, Photographer

February 5, 2023
by the gentle author

This photograph by Dilruba Khanam of a Bengali bride in East London fascinates me with its unlikely combination of lyrical and urban realist elements. The bride in her luxuriant wedding clothes sitting beneath a tree might be an image from a classical miniature painting, if it were not for the satellite dish and the car – which place the picture precisely in the here and now. And when Dilruba told me her principal subjects were fashion and politics, it confirmed the source of the dynamic tension that enlivens this extraordinary image. Yet when Dilruba told me her story, I realised that as much as it reflects aesthetic choices, her remarkable sensibility is the outcome of her own struggle to wrestle freedom from the tyranny of circumstance.

Growing up in a high-ranking Muslim family in Bangladesh, Dilruba acquired a vivid knowledge of politics through personal experience. “The head of my family had supreme authority, and women were not even allowed to go out.” she admitted to me when I visited her in Mile End,”There was a separate conference room for the men where the newspapers were kept and females were not allowed to enter, but I would secretly go there and read them. I was the first female to break the rules, because I could not tolerate any injustice to women and I wanted to fight against it. As a young girl, I knew many politicians closely and I had seen their dirty politics and corruption, and I did not like it.”

At sixteen years old, Dilruba left home and went to live in the YWCA. “It was difficult for me to survive without family support,” she revealed in unsentimental reminiscence, “I was desperate to find a job, and I went from office to office asking. At that time, I had long hair and I  was good looking, and I saw their dirty thinking about me, so I realised I had to protect myself. I cut my hair short and me and my best friend Javine – who was the first professional female magician in Bangladesh – we got training in judo, karate and shooting guns.”

At first, Dilruba pursued athletics but it was photography that became her career. Once she had some training, Dilruba won freelance commissions from newspapers in Dhaka and became Bangladesh’s first professional female photographer, covering politics and fashion. One day, when Audrey Hepburn came to Bangladesh, Dilruba went along to take photographs of a star who herself once portrayed a certain youthful independence. But events took an ironic twist when the other photojournalists, who were all male, took pictures of Dilruba with her short hair and Western casual clothes, making her first prominent public appearance as a professional photographer – which ended upon the front pages of the national newspapers next day instead of Audrey Hepburn. An unexpected turn of events, but one – I like to think – that Audrey would have savoured with amusement.

Thus, Dilruba came to the attention of Rowshan Ershad, First Lady of Bangladesh and wife of President Ershad, who extended her personal support, appointing Dilruba as her official photographer upon all engagements for the next two years. And, almost like fairy tale, a whole new world of success opened up in which Dilruba was invited to Bollywood to photograph the stars, becoming accepted into the world of celebrities, singers, dancers, actors and models who took her as an equal and in many cases as a friend. Yet Dilruba could never forget the wider political picture, and when students at Dhaka University protesting against the ruling party were beaten up, she found that as a woman photographer she alone was able to get into the hospital to photograph their injuries.

Through her own courage and talent, Dilruba had achieved what no woman had done before in Bangladesh, forging a career as a photographer, but she realised that she could never be at peace there. Using the mobility that her professional status gave her she came to London. “First of all, I came to see the difference, and I found this is the place I want to live – because this is a free country.” she explained with a smile of quiet relief, ” I brought my camera with me and I started working with a Bengali newspaper here. Then I published my own glossy magazine ‘Elegant,’ and I stated my own modelling agency with a mixture of Asian and European models.”

“My family apologised to me,” she confided frankly, “when they realised I had done well and the newspapers wrote good things about me, but it was too late. I went through a lot of pain and hardship, and when I needed them most, I was all alone. So I can’t forgive and forget.”

Dilruba Khanam is happy to live a relatively low-profile life in the East End, concentrating on the subjects of her photography rather than becoming a subject herself –  but there is an intensity in her portraits of women, a detachment in her pictures of politicians, and a frequent use of passionate flaming reds, that – in different ways – all speak of the challenges she overcame on her journey to get here.

Dilruba as a teenage rebel in a Bangladeshi policeman’s hat

Azra Javine, the first female magician in Bangladesh with Dilruba the first female photographer in Bangladesh, 1987

Dilruba with her patron Rowshan Ershad, First Lady of Bangladesh

President Ershad of Bangladesh

Dilruba with Audrey Hepburn in Bangladesh, 1989

A famous dancer from Bangladesh

Lata, TV Star

Nasrin Hussain Hema, choreographer

Shabnoor, Film Star

Chatna, Model

Celebrating Boishakhi, 2000

A student of Dhaka University beaten with chains by the Jatiotabadi Chattra Dal (the student front of the Bangladeshi National Party), 1988

Yet another bruised girl of Dhaka University, 1988

John Major in Brick Lane, 1995

George Galloway in Whitechapel, 2009

Dilruba Khanam

Photographs copyright © Dilruba Khanam

East End Toy Manufacturers of 1917

February 4, 2023
by the gentle author

Seeking lost East End toy manufacturers by studying copies of GAMES & TOYS, a trade publication from 1917, in the Young V & A Archive in Bethnal Green, I was struck by the irony of the tragic contrasts in this magazine – where celebratory warlike advertisements selling toy guns and tanks to boys sit alongside features promoting ‘patriotic’ companies employing wounded soldiers in toy manufacture.

Images courtesy Young V & A Archive

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An Astonishing Photographic Discovery

February 3, 2023
by the gentle author

Back in 2014, Spitalfields Life Books published Horace Warner’s SPITALFIELDS NIPPERS. Now there are only a few copies left and I am giving my final lecture on this subject at 6pm next Tuesday 7th February at the beautiful Hanbury Hall in Spitalfields, explaining how we discovered the photographs, who Horace Warner was and why he took his pictures, and revealing what we discovered about the lives of the Nippers.




These breathtaking photographs were taken by Horace Warner in Spitalfields at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Before I published them on Spitalfields Life, they had hardly been seen by anyone outside his immediate family. We were granted permission personally by Horace Warner’s grandson, Ian McGilvray.

Previously, only a handful of Warner’s sympathetic portraits of the children who lived in the courtyards off Quaker St – known as the Spitalfields Nippers – were believed to exist, but through some assiduous detective work by researcher Vicky Stewart and a stroke of good luck upon my part, we were able to make contact with his grandson who keeps two albums comprising more than one hundred of his grandfather’s pictures of Spitalfields, from which the photographs published here are selected.

Many of the pictures in these albums are photographic masterpieces and, after I published the book, David Bailey contacted me to say he believed they are the most significant set of portraits ever taken in the East End.

There is a rare clarity of vision in the tender photography of Horace Warner that brings us startling close to the Londoners of 1900 and permits us to look them in the eye for the first time. You can imagine my excitement when I met Ian McGilvray and opened Horace Warner’s albums to discover so many astonishing pictures. I experienced a sensation almost of vertigo, like looking down the dark well of time and being surprised by these faces in sharp focus, looking back at me.

It was no straightforward journey to get there. I first published a series of Horace Warner’s Spitalfields Nippers in these pages in 2011, reproduced from a booklet accompanying a 1975 exhibition of the handful of pictures once published in fund-raising leaflets by the Bedford Institute in 1912. When I sought to reproduce these pictures in The Gentle Author’s London Album, Vicky Stewart established that the photographic prints were held in the Quaker archive at Friends House in the Euston Rd.

This discovery which permitted me to include those pictures in my Album was reward enough for our labours. The story might easily have ended there, if we had not been shown a 1988 letter from Horace Warner’s daughter Gwen McGilvray that accompanied the prints. In this letter, Gwen mentions the ‘albums’ – this was the first tantalising evidence of the existence of more of Horace Warner’s Spitalfields photographs.

Even as our hopes of finding these other pictures were raised, we were disappointed to realise that Gwen was unlikely to be still alive. Yet through online research and thanks to his unusual surname, Vicky was able to find an address for one of Gwen’s four children, her son Ian, in Norfolk. It was a few years out of date but there was a chance he was still there, so we sent off a copy of The Gentle Author’s London Album to Ian McGilvray.

Within weeks, Ian wrote back to ask if I would like to visit him and see the ‘albums.’ It was my good fortune that the one of Horace Warner’s grandchildren we had been able to reach was also the guardian of the photographic legacy. And so it was that on a bright winter’s day I made a journey to Norfolk to meet Ian and see the complete set of Horace Warner’s Spitalfields Nippers for the first time. My fear was that I had seen the most important images among those already known, but my shock was to recognise that the best pictures have not yet been seen.

These wonderful photographs revolutionise how we think about East Enders at the end of the nineteenth century since, in spite of their poverty, these are undeniably proud people who claim a right to existence which transcends their economic status. Unlike the degraded photographic images created by charitable campaigners or the familiar middle-class studio portraits, Horace Warner’s relaxed intimate pictures draw us into a personal relationship with his subjects whom we meet as our equals. The Spitalfields Nippers are a unique set of photographs, that witness a particular time, a specific place, a discrete society, and an entire lost world.

As a designer managing the family wallpaper-printing business, Horace Warner had the income and resources to explore photography in his spare time and produce images of the highest standard technically. As superintendent of the charitable Bedford Institute, he was brought into close contact over many years with the families who lived nearby in the yards and courts south of Quaker St. As a Quaker, he believed in the equality of all and he was disturbed by the poverty he witnessed in the East End. In the Spitalfields Nippers these things came together for Horace Warner, creating compassionate images that gave dignity to his subjects and producing great photography that is without parallel in his time.

Excerpt of 1988 letter from Horace Warner’s daughter Gwen McGilvray referring to the ‘albums’ and giving the name of his grandson, Ian McGilvray. (Reproduced courtesy of Friends House)

Sisters Wakefield

Walter Seabrook

Celia Compton

Photo referred to by Gwen McGilvray with headlines at the end of the Boer War, dating it to 1902

At the Whitechapel Gallery to see the Burne Jones exhibition 1901

In Pearl St (now Calvin St)

See the man looking over the wall in Union Place

Click here to order SPITALFIELDS NIPPERS by Horace Warner

Towering Folly At Liverpool St Station

February 2, 2023
by the gentle author

‘Where is the top part?’ I asked, when shown the lower portion of a model at the public consultation for the proposed redevelopment of Liverpool Street Station by Network Rail, Sellar & MTR . ‘We don’t have it,’ replied the developers’ representative. ‘So how can I judge the impact?’ I queried, growing suspicious and feeling I was being taken for a fool.

Then I was helpfully directed to a larger, much-smaller-scale, model of the surrounding urban landscape that included a great part of the City of London and in which I had to search to find the Liverpool Street proposal amid the forest of towers. The outcome was that while I could see this would be one more tower among many, the immediate impact upon the station and the former Great Eastern Hotel (designed by Charles Barry Junior and his son and partner Charles Edward Barry, 1883–84) was less discernible.

Yet I was swiftly disenchanted of my innocence when I saw the rendering of the view down Liverpool Street with an overwhelming tower of 11 storeys squatting on top of the fine Victorian hotel like a monstrous succubus in a nightmare. My feelings of nausea were compounded on learning that this would be supported by pilings through the grade II* listed hotel which would be converted to offices and replaced by a new five-star hotel in the block on top, boasting the advantage of City views.

London’s great railway stations – 19th-century cathedrals of glass and steel refracting the ever-changing changing patterns of light from our northern skies – are one of the architectural marvels of Europe. St Pancras, Paddington, Waterloo, King’s Cross and Liverpool Street are universally loved for their inspirational vaulted glass roofs. Euston, Charing Cross and Cannon Street exist as salient reminders of what has been lost through misguided redevelopment in the last century, removing the natural light by plonking ugly buildings on top.

When Liverpool Street Station (built between 1873 and 1875 for the Great Eastern Railway by chief engineer Edward Wilson) was last redeveloped between 1985 and 1992, the former labyrinthine palimpsest was clarified by the sympathetic extension of the 1870s glass roof over the platforms across the passenger concourse to meet the Great Eastern Hotel. Unfortunately, the new development proposes building over the concourse and replacing this part of the roof with a solid ceiling beneath the new office tower which itself will cast a long shadow, obscuring much of the daylight from the remaining Victorian glass vaults above the platforms.

The case put forward at the consultation was that passenger access to Liverpool Street Station needs upgrading and this ‘improvement to the public realm’ can be delivered at no cost to the taxpayer by sticking a massive office block on top of the station. Yet it is a false logic, because Network Rail – as a responsible operator — has a public duty to provide adequate access. It does not follow that such overdevelopment is either necessary or obligatory in order to achieve decent public access to the station.

My heart sank when I saw the artist’s renderings of the wild-flower meadow that the developers plan to plant on top of their block and the rooftop infinity pool which is to be open to all. These are cynical sops to the public. Architects Herzog & de Meuron presumably got this job because of their conversion of Giles Gilbert Scott’s Bankside Power Station into Tate Modern. The hope was that they would bring a similar magic to Liverpool Street Station, but the brief here is entirely misconceived.

Why is the City of London contemplating the construction of new offices at all when so many sit empty, post-Covid and post-Brexit? Flexible working patterns mean the financial industries will require far less office space in future. I see no evidence of the City advancing any cogent or enlightened vision that accommodates to this prospect.

Thankfully, Historic England are objecting to the new development and have revised and updated their listing of the station, adding the sensitively conceived 1985/92 vaulted-glass roof over the passenger concourse which was the result of a seminal conservation battle for the station in the 1980s. The hotel has also been upgraded from grade II to grade II* (the second highest level of protection).

I understand that, for the development to go ahead in its current form, this would have to be successfully challenged and overturned, so we must now brace ourselves for a mighty and possibly protracted fight over Liverpool Street Station. The planning application is expected to be submitted at the end of April.

This article was commissioned by Apollo magazine

Developers’ rendering of proposed redevelopment of Liverpool Street Station. This is the view along Liverpool Street looking east towards the Andaz (formerly the Great Eastern Hotel). Courtesy Sellar/Herzog & de Meuron

The proposed rooftop wild flower meadow Courtesy Sellar/Herzog & de Meuron

The proposed new entrance to Liverpool St Station Courtesy Sellar/Herzog & de Meuron

John Olney Of Donovan Brothers

February 1, 2023
by the gentle author

Philip Marriage’s photograph of Donovan’s Bags, Crispin St, in 1985

John Olney told me it all began with two brothers, Jeremiah & Dennis O’Donovan, who came to Liverpool from Dublin in the eighteen thirties at the time of the potato famine in Ireland. Dennis took a passage from Liverpool across the Atlantic to seek his fortune with the Hudson Bay Trading Company, while Jeremiah came to the East End and settled in Fireball Court, Aldgate.

It sounds like an adventure story of long ago, yet John imbues it with a vivid present tense quality because Jeremiah was his great-great-grandfather and, to a degree, the nature of John’s own life has been the outcome of these events. The brothers’ tale explains both how he came to be here and why Donovan Brothers continues today in the way it does as a family business.

I was touched by John’s story because it was the first I have heard of the Irish in Spitalfields recounted to me by a descendant. Of the different waves of immigration that have passed through, the Irish are the least acknowledged and the people who have left the least evidence visible today. Yet anyone who walks through Spitalfields knows the building in Crispin St with the fine old signwriting that says “Donovan Brothers – The noted house for paper bags,” this was where the business began that still runs today at the New Spitalfields Market in Leyton.

John and I sat talking in the office of the Market Tenants’ Association in the grey light of early morning, watching as the wholesale fruit & vegetable market wound up for the night and the car park emptied out. There is an innate modesty to this gracious man with a strong physical presence and a discreet, withheld quality that colours the plain telling of his stories. You can tell from his glinting eyes that John’s family possesses an intensity of meaning for him, yet he adopts a quiet unemotional tone while speaking of it which serves to communicate a greater depth of feeling than any overt emotion.

“So you’ve come to hear about the fields…” he said, thinking out loud. By “the fields” John meant Spitalfields, using a term of reference I had not heard before. In its archaic colloquial tone, it spoke eloquently of his relationship to the place where his family dwelled continuously from the eighteen thirties and where he began his lifelong involvement with markets.

“My mother was a Donovan” declared John, outlining his precise connection to the line of descent, “She was one of eight, five boys and three daughters. We were a very close knit family, and it was so exciting for a boy of seven or eight, when I first entered the Spitalfields shop and sat on the counter. My uncle would sit outside with the chicken seller at the corner of Leyden St and reminisce about old times. It was history that was being spoken, you didn’t have to read it in books. My uncle used to end up at the bottom of Whites Row where there used to be a barbers and I would sit outside on the curb with my sweets – and that’s how it was in the old days.

My grandfather Patrick Donovan was one of nine children, he started the business and then the brothers came in and that’s how Donovan Brothers came about. I always knew I had a job to go to in the family business. You did everything. If there was a job there, from sweeping up to serving, you did it. It was second nature. Our motto was politeness cost nothing, I would always say, ‘Good Morning, Mr So & So,’ and my uncle would say to the customer, ‘The boy will take it out for you.’

We ran it as a family business and if there was a problem we dealt with it at once between us. The eldest was my grandfather, the governor, and when he died my uncles took over. The governor tells you what to do but everyone else asks. To everyone that works for me today, I am the governor, but in the family my elderly uncles are still the governors. Like in all family businesses, you could count upon one another. There’s no one person shouldering all the problems at any one time.

Every one of my uncles ran a different market. We were involved in Covent Garden, Borough and Stratford Market as well as Spitalfields. I would go out and make the deliveries. Whichever market I was in, it was always the same, whenever I walked through, traders would come up to me with orders and say ‘Tell your father.’ No-one knew who I was. I was ‘the boy’ and I still am to my uncles, and this makes a family. Because although we do retire as such, there’s no retirement from the family business. You are born on the job. You die on the job.”

John’s two sons and daughter work for Donovan Brothers now, ensuring the family business goes on for another generation. I think we may permit him to enjoy a certain swagger, coming in to work before dawn in all weathers and continuing his pattern of napping twice a day, at the end of the afternoon and in the late evening, thereby sustaining himself with superlative resilience through the extended antisocial hours that market life entails. The market is a world to itself and it is John Olney’s world.

Portrait of John Olney by Mark Jackson

The building in Crispin St retains its signwriting today

In Commercial St, nineteen sixties

John’s shop in the Spitalfields Market, nineteen eighties

John Olney outside his shop in the New Spitalfields Market, Leyton

Portraits of John Olney  © Mark Jackson

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A Farewell to Spitalfields