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Tony Bock’s East Enders

May 28, 2024
by the gentle author

Click for tickets for The Gentle Author’s Tour of Spitalfields on Saturday 1st June


Clock Winder at Christ Church, Spitalfields

Here are the East Enders of the nineteen seventies as pictured by photographer Tony Bock in the days when he worked for the East London Advertiser – the poncy dignitaries, the comb-over tories, the kids on the street, the market porters, the fascists, the anti-fascists, the shopkeepers, the sheet metal workers, the unions, the management, the lone dancers, the Saturday shoppers, the Saturday drinkers, the loving family, the West Ham supporters, the late bride, the wedding photographer, the clock winder, the Guinness tippler, the solitary clown, the kneeling politician and the pie & mash shop cat.

Welcome to the teeming masses. Welcome to the infinite variety of life. Welcome to the exuberant clear-eyed vision of Tony Bock. Welcome to the East End of fifty years ago.

Dignitaries await the arrival of the Queen Mother at Toynbee Hall. John Profumo kneels.

Children playing on the street in Poplar.

On the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral.

National Front supporters gather at Brick Lane.

Watching a National Front march in Hackney.

Shopkeepers come out to watch an anti-racism march in Hackney.

A family in Stratford pose in their back yard.

Wedding photographer in Hackney – the couple had been engaged many years.

West Ham fans at Upton Park, not a woman to be seen.

Sports club awards night in Hackney.

Dancers in Victoria Park.

Conservative party workers in the 1974 electoral campaign, Ilford.

Ted Heath campaigns in Ilford for the General Election of 1974.

Ford workers union meeting, Dagenham.

Ford managers, Dagenham.

Press operator at Ford plant, Dagenham.

At Speakers’ Corner, Hyde Park.

Mr East End Contest at E1 Festival.

The shop cat at Kelly’s Pie & Mash Shop, Bethnal Green Rd.

At the White Swan in Poplar.

Enjoying a Guinness in the Royal Oak, Bethnal Green.

Boy on demolition site, Tiller Rd, Isle of Dogs.

Brick Lane Sunday Market.

Clown in Stratford Broadway.

Saturday morning at Roman Rd Market.

Saturday night out in Dagenham.

Spitalfields Market porter in the workers’ club

Photographs copyright © Tony Bock

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The East End Suffragette Map

May 27, 2024
by the gentle author

Click for tickets for The Gentle Author’s Tour of Spitalfields on Saturday 1st June


The central contribution of women in the East End to the Suffrage Movement is not always recognised, so we present researcher Vicky Stewart & designer Adam Tuck‘s map of some key events in the struggle in Bethnal Green, Roman Rd & Bow

Click to enlarge and see the map in the detail

The closure of W F Arber & Co Ltd, after one hundred and seventeen years in the Roman Rd, inspired me to look further at Gary Arber’s story of his grandmother, Emily Arber, organising the free printing of handbills and posters for the Suffragette movement. Just what was going on locally, who were involved, and how were these Suffragettes organised?

Nothing prepared me for what I discovered. My knowledge of Suffragette activity was limited to stories of upper middle class ladies marching behind Mrs Pankhurst, waving ‘Votes for Women’ banners, being imprisoned, getting force-fed, and then eventually securing the vote. In part this was true – Mrs Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel believed middle class women had the education and influence to bring about the necessary change, but Sylvia disagreed and insisted it was only direct action by working class women that could win the vote.

In 1912, Sylvia Pankhurst came to Bow as representative of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) to campaign for local MP George Lansbury, who had resigned his seat in parliament to fight a by-election on the issue of votes for women. Although Lansbury lost the election, he continued to support Sylvia who decided to stay in the East End and do everything in her power to carry on the fight – not only to champion the cause of Suffrage but also to challenge injustice and alleviate suffering wherever she could.

She opened her first WSPU Headquarters in Bow Rd in 1912 but moved to Roman Rd when forming the East London Federation, whose policy was to “combine large-scale public demonstrations with public militancy… [to attract] immediate arrest.”

In January 1914, Christabel asked Sylvia to change the name of the ELF and separate from the WSPU, and the organisation became the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) with new headquarters in Old Ford Rd.

What amazes me about this story is the number of women – often with active support of husbands or sons – who, despite harsh poverty and large families, gave huge support to Sylvia and the campaign. They risked assault and often were beaten by policemen at rallies, on marches and at meetings. They risked being sent to Holloway and subjected to force-feeding. They risked the anger and abuse of those who did not support Women’s’ Suffrage.

So who were these women and what do we know of them? Below you can read extracts from Sylvia Pankhurst’s books, ‘The Suffragette Movement’ and ‘The Home Front’, which locate their actions in the East End.

– Vicky Stewart


Victoria Park “On Sunday, May 25th 1913, was held ‘Women’s May Day’ in East London. The Members of Bow, Bromley, Poplar, and neighbouring districts had prepared for it for many weeks past and had made hundreds of almond branches, which were carried in a great procession with purple, white and green flags, and caps of Liberty flaunting above them from the East India Dock gates by winding ways, to Victoria Park. A vast crowd of people – the biggest ever seen in East London – assembled  …..  to hear the speakers from twenty platforms.”


288 Old Ford Rd was home to Israel Zangwill, political activist and strong supporter of Sylvia and the Suffragette movement.


304 Old Ford Rd was home to Mrs Fischer where meetings were held .


Old Ford Rd was the route taken by the Suffragettes May Day processions to Victoria Park when they met with violence from the police at the gates and suffered many injuries.

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400 Old Ford Rd became the third headquarters of the East London Federation of Suffragettes  in 1914. A Women’s Hall was built on land behind which was used for a cost-price restaurant which provided nutritious meals for a pittance to women suffering from the huge rise in food prices in the early months of the war.


438 Old Ford Rd,  The Mother’s Arms The ELFS set up another creche and baby clinic on this street, staffed by trained nurses and developed upon Montessori lines. This was housed in a converted pub called The Gunmaker’s Arms, whose name was changed to The Mother’s Arms.


Roman Rd “I decided to take the risk of opening a permanent East End headquarters in Bow … Miss Emerson and I went down there together one frosty Friday morning in February to hunt for an office. The sun was like a red ball in the misty, whitey-grey sky. Market stalls, covered with cheerful pink and yellow rhubarb, cabbages, oranges and all sorts of other interesting things, lined both sides of the narrow Roman Rd. ‘The Roman’ , as they call it, was crowded with busy kindly people. I had always liked Bow. That morning my heart warmed to it for ever.”


159 Roman Rd, (now 459) Arber & Co Ltd, Printing Works where Suffragette handbills were printed under the supervision of Emily Arber.


152 Roman Rd In 1912, tickets were available from this house, home of Mrs Margaret Mitchell, second-hand clothes dealer, for a demonstration in Bow Palace with Mrs Pankhurst and George Lansbury.

10 & 11

45 Norman Rd (now Norman Grove) A toy factory was opened in October 1914 to provide women with an income whilst their husbands were at War. They were paid a living wage and could put their children into the nursery further down the road.


Roman Rd Market The East London Federation of Suffragettes ran a stall in the market, decorated with posters and selling their newspaper, The Women’s Dreadnought – a “medium through which working women, however unlettered, might express themselves and find their interests defended.”


103 St Stephen’s Rd was home to George Lansbury and his family.


St Stephen’s Rd “On November 5th 1913, on my way to a Meeting to inaugurate the People’s Army, I happened to call at Mr Lansbury’s house in St Stephen’s Rd. The house was immediately surrounded by detectives and policemen and there seemed no possibility of mistake. But the people of Bow, on hearing of the trouble, came flocking out of the Baths where they had assembled. In the confusion that ensued the detectives dragged Miss Daisy Lansbury off in a taxi, and I went free.

When the police authorities realised their mistake, and learnt that I was actually speaking at the Baths, they sent hundreds of men to take me, but though they met the people in the Roman Rd as they came from the Meeting I escaped. Miss Emerson was again struck on the head, this time by a uniformed constable, and fell to the ground unconscious. Many other people were badly hurt. The people replied with spirit. Two mounted policemen were unhorsed and many others were disabled.”


28 Ford Rd “The members had begged me, if ever I should be imprisoned under the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, to come down to them in the East End, in order that they might protect me, they would not let me be taken back to prison without a struggle as the others had been, they assured me.

On the night of my arrest Zelie Emerson had pressed into my hand an address: ‘Mr and Mrs Payne, 28 Ford Rd, Bow.’ Thither I was now driven in a taxi with two wardresses. As the cab slowed down perforce among the marketing throngs in the Roman Road, friends recognised me, and rushed to the roadway, cheering and waving their hands. Mrs Payne was waiting for me on the doorstep. It was a typical little East End house in a typical little street, the front door opening directly from the pavement, with not an inch of ground to withdraw its windows from the passers-by. I was welcomed by the kindest of kind people, shoemaking home-workers, who carried me in with the utmost tenderness.

They had put their double bed for me in the little front parlour on the ground floor next the street, and had tied up the door knocker. For three days they stopped their work that I might not be disturbed by the noise of their tools. Yet there was no quiet. The detectives, notified of my release, had arrived before me. A hostile crowd collected. A woman flung one of the clogs she wore at the wash-tub at a detectives head. The ‘Cats’, as a hundred angry voices called them, retired to the nearby public-houses, there were several of these havens within a stone’s throw, as there usually are in the East End.

Yet, even though the detectives were out of sight, people were constantly stopping before the house to discuss the Movement and my imprisonment. Children gathered, with prattling treble. If anyone called at the house, or a vehicle stopped before it, detectives at once came hastening forth, a storm of hostile voices. Here indeed was no peace. My hosts carried me upstairs to their own bedroom, at the back of the house, hastily prepared, a small room, longer but scarcely wider than a prison cell – my home when out of prison for many months to come.  (…)

In that little room I slept, wrote, interviewed the Press and personalities of all sorts, and presently edited a weekly paper. Its walls were covered with a cheap, drab paper, with an etching of a ship in full sail, and two old fashioned colour prints of a little girl at her morning and evening prayers. From the window by my bed, I could see the steeple of St Stephen’s Church and the belfry of its school, a jumble of red-tiled roofs, darkened by smoke and age, the dull brick of the walls and the new whitewash of some of the backyards in the next street.

Our colours were nailed to the wall behind my bed, and a flag of purple, white and green was displayed from an opposite dwelling, where pots of scarlet geraniums hung on the whitewashed wall of the yard below, and a beautiful girl with smooth, dark hair and a white bodice would come out to delight my eyes in helping her mother at the wash-tub. The next yard was a fish curers’. An old lady with a chenille net on her grey hair would be passing in and out of the smoke-house, preparing the sawdust fires. A man with his shirt sleeves rolled up would be splitting herrings, and another hooking them on to rods balanced on boards and packing-cases, till the yard was filled, and gleamed with them like a coat of mail. Close by, tall sunflowers were growing, and garments of many colours hung out to dry. Next door to us they bred pigeons and cocks and hens, which cooed and crowed and clucked in the early hours. Two doors away a woman supported a paralysed husband and a number of young children by making shirts at 8d a dozen. Opposite, on the other side of Ford St, was a poor widow with a family of little ones. The detectives endeavoured to hire a room from her, that they might watch me unobserved. “It will be a small fortune to you while it lasts!” they told her. Bravely she refused with disdain, “Money wouldn’t do me any good if I was to hurt that young woman!” The same proposal was made and rejected at every house in Ford Rd.

Flowers and presents of all kinds were showered on me by kindly neighbours. One woman wrote to say that she did not see why I should ever go back to prison when every woman could buy a rolling pin for a penny.”


321 Roman Rd, Second Headquarters of the East London Federation “We decided to take a shop and house at 321 Roman Rd at a weekly rental of 14s 6d a week. It was the only shop to let in the road. The shop window was broken right across, and was only held together by putty. The landlord would not put in new glass, nor would he repair the many holes in the shop and passage flooring because he thought we would only stay a short time. But all such things have since been done.

Plenty of friends at once rallied round us. Women …. came in and scrubbed the floors and cleaned the windows. Mrs Wise, who kept the sweetshop next door, lent us a trestle table for a counter and helped us to put up purple, white and green flags. Her little boy took down the shutters for us every morning, and put them up each night, and her little girls often came in to sweep.”


Bow Rd – Sylvia described it as ‘dingy Bow Rd.’


The George Lansbury Memorial – Elected to parliament in 1910, he resigned his seat in 1912 to campaign for women’s suffrage, and was briefly imprisoned after publicly supporting militant action.

George Lansbury


The Minnie Lansbury Clock is at the Bow Rd near the junction with Alfred St. Minnie Lansbury was the daughter-in-law of George Lansbury, and very actively supported the campaign and was in Holloway. She died at the age of thirty-two.

Minnie Lansbury is congratulated on her way to be arrested at Poplar Town Hall


Bow Rd Police Station The police were horrifyingly brutal towards Suffragettes when on demonstrations and then, once arrested and tried, they would often receive excessively harsh prison sentences. Hunger striking was in protest against the government’s failure to treat them as political prisoners.

Mrs Parsons told Asquith – “We do protest when we go along in processions that suddenly without a word of warning we are pounced upon by detectives and bludgeoned and women are called names by cowardly detectives, when nobody is about. There was one old lady of seventy who was with us the other day, who was knocked to the ground and kicked. She is a shirtmaker and is forced to work on a machine and she has been in the most awful agony. These men are not fit to help rule the country while we have no say in the matter.” (From the Woman’s Dreadnought.)

Under the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ hunger strikers were released when their lives was in danger so as to recuperate before returning to finish their sentences. They told tales of dreadful brutality during force-feeding in Holloway.

17 & 18

13 Tomlin’s Grove “When the procession turned out of Bow Rd into Tomlin’s Grove they found that the street lamps were not lighted and that a strong force of police were waiting in the dark before the house of Councillor Le Manquais. Just as the people at the head of the procession reached the house, the policemen closed around them and arrested Miss Emerson, Miss Godfrey and seven men, two of whom were not in the procession, but were going home to tea in the opposite direction.

At the same moment twenty mounted police came riding down upon the people from the far end of Tomlin’s Grove, and twenty more from the Bow Rd. The people were all unarmed. … There were cries and shrieks and people ran panic-stricken into the little front gardens of the houses in the Grove.

But wherever the people stopped the police hunted them away. I was told that an old woman who saw the police beating the people in her garden was so much upset that she fell down in a fit and died without regaining consciousness. A boy of eighteen was so brutally kicked and trampled on that he had to be carried to the infirmary for treatment. A publican who was passing was knocked down and kicked and one of his ribs was broken. Even the bandsmen were not spared. The police threw their instruments over the garden walls. The big drummer was knocked down and so badly used that he is still on the list for sick insurance benefit. Mr Atkinson, a labourer, was severely handled and was then arrested. In the charge room Inspector Potter was said to have blacked his eye.”


198 Bow Rd was the first Headquarters of the First Headquarters of the East London Federation, 1912. When Sylvia first arrived in Bow she rented an empty baker’s shop at 198 Bow Rd. She used a platform to paint “VOTES FOR WOMEN” in gold across the frontage and addressed the crowds from here.


The Obelisk, Bromley High St “On the following Monday, February 17th (1913) we held a meeting at the Obelisk, a mean-looking monument in a dreary, almost unlighted open space near Bow Church.

Our platform, a high, uncovered cart, was pitched against the dark wall of a dismal council school in the teeth of a bitter wind. Already a little knot of people had gathered; women holding their dark garments closely about them, shivering and talking of the cold, four or five police constables and a couple of Inspectors. We climbed into the cart and watched the crowd growing, the men and women turning from the footpaths to join the mass. … I said I knew it to be a hard thing for men and women to risk imprisonment in such a neighbourhood, where most of them were labouring under the steepest economic pressure, yet I pleaded for some of the women of Bow to join us in showing themselves prepared to make a sacrifice to secure enfranchisement …

… After it was over Mrs Watkins, Mrs Moore, Miss Annie Lansbury, and I broke an undertaker’s window. Willie Lansbury, George Lansbury’s eldest son, who had promised his wife to go to prison instead of her because she had tubercular tendencies and could not leave their little daughter only two years old, broke a window in the Bromley Public Hall.

I was seized by two policemen, three other women were seized. We were dragged, resisting, along the Bow Rd, the crowd cheering and running with us. We were sent to prison without an option of fine.

There were four others inside with me: Annie Lansbury and her brother Will, pale, delicate Mrs. Watkins, a widow struggling to maintain herself by sweated sewing-machine work, and young Mrs. Moore. A moment later little Zelie Emerson was bundled in, flushed and triumphant – she had broken the window of the Liberal Club.

That was the beginning of Militancy in East London. Miss Emerson, Mrs Watkins and I decided to do the hunger-strike, and hoped that we should soon be out to work again. But although Mrs Watkins was released after ten days, Miss Emerson and I were forcibly fed, and she was kept in for seven weeks although she had developed appendicitis, and I for five. When we were once free we found that we were too ill to do anything at all for some weeks.

But we need not have feared that the work would slacken without us. A tremendous flame of enthusiasm had burst forth in the East End. Great meetings were held, and during our imprisonment long processions marched eight times the six miles to cheer us in Holloway, and several times also to Brixton goal, where Mr Will Lansbury was imprisoned. The people of East London, with Miss Dalgleish to help them, certainly kept the purple, white and green flag flying …”


Bromley Public Hall, Bow Rd “On February 14th [1913] … we held a meeting in the Bromley Public Hall, Bow Road, and from it led a procession round the district. …To make sure of imprisonment, I broke a window in the police station … Daisy Lansbury was accused of catching a policeman by the belt, but the charge was dismissed. Zelie Emerson and I went to prison … .and began the hunger and thirst strike … On release we rushed back to the shop, found Mrs Lake scrubbing the table, and it crowded with members arranging to march to Holloway Prison to cheer us next day.”


Bow Palace, 156 Bow Rd was built at the rear of the Three Cups public house and had a capacity of two thousand.

“One Sunday afternoon I spoke in Bow Palace and marched openly with the people of Bow Rd. When I spoke from the window afterwards, a veritable forest of sticks was waved by the crowd. …

While I was in prison after my arrest in Shoreditch …. a Meeting …. was held in Bow Palace on Sunday afternoon, December 14th. After the Meeting it was arranged to go in procession around the district and to hoot outside the houses of hostile Borough Councillors.”

Sylvia Pankhurst – Women over the age of twenty-one were eventually enfranchised in 1928.

Maps reproduced courtesy of Bishopsgate Institute

Postcard reproduced courtesy of Libby Hall Collection at Bishopsgate Institute

Photograph of Suffragette in Holloway courtesy of LSE Women’s Library

Copy of The Women’s Dreadnought courtesy of Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives

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In Search Of The Ropemakers Of Stepney

May 26, 2024
by the gentle author

Click for tickets for The Gentle Author’s Tour of Spitalfields on Saturday 1st June


Rope makers of Stepney

In Stepney, there has always been an answer to the question, “How long is a piece of string?” It is as long as the distance between St Dunstan’s Church and Commercial Rd, which is the extent of the former Frost Brothers’ Rope Factory.

Let me explain how I came upon this arcane piece of knowledge. I published a series of photographs from a copy of Frost Brothers’ Album in the archive of the Bishopsgate Institute produced around 1900, illustrating the process of rope making and yarn spinning. As a consequence, a reader of Spitalfields Life walked into the Institute and donated a series of four group portraits of rope makers at Frost Brothers which I publish here.

I find these pictures even more interesting than the ones I first showed because, while the photos in the Album illustrate the work of the factory, in these newly-revealed photos the subject is the rope makers themselves.

There are two pairs of pictures. Photographed on the same day, the first pair taken – in my estimation – around 1900, show a gang of men looking rather proud of themselves. There is a clear hierarchy among them and, in the first photo, they brandish tankards suggesting some celebratory occasion. The men in bowler hats assume authority and allow themselves more swagger while those in caps withhold their emotions. Yet although all these men are deliberately presenting themselves to the camera, there is relaxed quality and swagger in these pictures which communicates a vivid sense of the personality and presence of the subjects.

The other two photographs show larger groups and I believe were taken as much as a decade earlier. I wonder if the tall man in the bowler hat with a moustache in the centre of the back row in the first of these is the same as the man in the bowler hat in the later photographs? In these earlier photographs, the subjects have been corralled for the camera and many regard us with a weary implacable gaze.

The last of the photographs is the most elaborately staged and detailed. It repays attention for the diverse variety of expressions among its subjects, ranging from blank incomprehension of some to the tenderness of the young couple with the young man’s hands upon the young woman’s shoulders – a fleeting gesture of tenderness recorded for eternity.

I was so fascinated by these photographs I wanted to go and find the rope works for myself and, on an old map, I discovered the ropery stretching from Commercial Rd to St Dunstan’s, but – alas – I could discern nothing on the ground to indicate it was ever there. The Commercial Rd end of the factory is now occupied by the Tower Hamlets car pound, while the long extent of the ropery has been replaced by a terrace of house called Lighterman’s Court that, in its length and extent, follows the pattern of the earlier building quite closely. At the northern end, there is now a park where the factory reached the road facing St Dunstan’s. Yet the terraces of nineteenth century housing in Bromley St and Belgrave St remain on either side and, in Bromley St, the British Prince where the rope makers once quenched their thirsts still stands.

After the disappointment of my quest to find the rope works, I cherish these photographs of the rope makers of Stepney even more as the best record we have of their existence.

Gang of rope makers at Frost Brothers (You can click to enlarge this image)

Rope makers with a bale of fibre and reels of twine (You can click to enlarge this image )

Rope makers including women and boys with coils of rope (You can click to enlarge this image)

Frost Brothers Ropery stretched from Commercial St to St Dunstan’s Churchyard in Stepney

In Bromley St

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

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Frost Bros, Rope Makers & Yarn Spinners

Raphael Samuel’s Farewell To Spitalfields

May 25, 2024
by the gentle author

Tickets are available for The Gentle Author’s Tour of Spitalfields throughout the summer


In 1988, the Bishopsgate Institute staged an exhibition entitled A Farewell to Spitalfields curated by John Shaw and Raphael Samuel, the distinguished historian of the East End. The purpose was to assess the history of Spitalfields in the light of the changes that were forthcoming, as a result of the closure of the Truman Brewery and the Fruit & Vegetable Market – and it is my pleasure to publish these excerpts from Raphael Samuel’s introductory essay accompanied by David Bateman’s photographs of the Spitalfields Market, commissioned as part of this exhibition.

More than a quarter of a century later, it is sobering to recognise the prescience of Raphael Samuel’s words. He was a historian with strong opinions who, on the basis of this article alone, demonstrated an ability to write about the future as clearly as he wrote the past. The Spitalfields portrayed in these pictures has gone and now – for better or worse – we live in the Spitalfields that Raphael Samuel, who died in 1996, wrote of yet did not live to see.

Spitalfields is the oldest industrial suburb in London. It was already densely peopled and “almost entirely built over,” in 1701 when Lambeth was still a marsh, Fulham a market garden and Tottenham Court Rd a green. It owes its origins to those refugee traditions which, in defiance of the Elizabethan building regulations, and to escape the restrictions of the City Guilds, settled in Bishopsgate Without and the Liberty of Norton Folgate.

Spitalfields is a junction between, on the one hand, a settled, indigenous population, and on the other, wave upon wave of newcomer. Even when it was known as ‘The Weavers’ Parish,’ it was still hospitable to many others – poor artisans, street sellers, labourers among them. In the late nineteenth century Spitalfields was one of the great receiving points for Jewish immigration and the northern end of the parish provided a smilar point of entry for country labourers. There was a whole colony of them at Great Eastern Buildings in the eighteen eighties, working as draymen at the brewery, and another at the Bishopsgate Goods Station. This ‘mixed’ character of the neighbourhood is very much in evidence today.

Spitalfields Market – threatened with imminent destruction by a coalition of property developers, City Fathers, and conservationists – is almost as old as Spitalfields. It was already in existence when the area was still an artillery range. In John Stow’s ‘Survey of London’ (1601) it appears a trading point “for fruit, fowl and root.” A market sign was incorporated in the coat of arms for the Liberty of Norton Folgate in Restoration times, and the market’s Royal Charter dates from 1682. The market, in short, preceded the arrival of the Hugeunots and has some claim to being Spitalfields’ original core. The market continued as a collection of ramshackle sheds and stalls until it was transformed, in the 1870s, by Robert Horner, who bought the lease of the land from the Goldsmid family in 1875. Horner was a crow scarer from Essex who, according to market myth, walked to London, became a porter in the market and eventually got a share in a firm. Ambitiously, he set about both securing monopoly rights for the existing traders, and replacing the impromptu buildings with a purpose built market hall – the “Horner” buildings which today is the oldest part of the market complex.

The older, eastern portion of the market is the direct product of Robert Horner’s vision of his own situation. It is built in the manner of the English Arts & Crafts movement. On its own terms, the old market is a pleasing piece and a worthy addition to the diversity of Spitalfields. Its rusticated archways on the Commercial St facade and the repeated peaks of the roof with their smallish sash windows lend a clearly Victorian flavour to Commercial St, which was largely a Victorian venture anyway. Inside the market it is a vintagely Victorian hall of glass and iron of unassuming beauty, even more so when at work, then its true worth as a genuinely functioning piece of Victorian space is revealed. Like St. Pancras in a different way, it has an element of the museum and an aesthetic that overlays the original construction upon utilitarian principles. Most of all the old market appears as a peculiarly English space. An effect that is heightened by the lavish use of ‘Wimbledon’ green. It is that deep traditional green that characterises English municipal space and that, in this case helps to marry the market to the discordant additions of the late 1920’s and to give distinction to the territorial boundaries of the market that have been historically more fluid.

The old market is a celebration of trade, a great piece of Victorian working space, not only of great historical value itself, but contributing to the visual manifestation of the historical development of the whole of Spitalfields. It is a worthy layer in an area that grew by a sort of architectural sedimentation. Hawksmoor’s Christ Church, the Huguenot fronts of Artillery Passage, the Georgian elegance of Elder St and the smaller houses of Wilkes St and Princelet St, the mid-Victorian utility of the Peabody Buildings, the rustic character of the old market, the twentieth century neo-classicism of the Fruit Exchange and several examples of a more unspeakable modernity are some among many accretions which contribute to make Spitalfields what it is. The most perfect example of a palimpsest in which diversity rather than Georgiana or Victoriana represent the true nature of the area.

The character of a district is determined not by its buildings, but by the ensemble of different uses to which they are put, and, above all, by the character of the users. It should be obvious to all but the self-deceived, that to stick an international banking centre in the heart of an old artisan and market quarter, a huge complex with some six thousand executives and subalterns, is, to put it gently, a rupture from tradition. The whole industrial economy of Spitalfields rests on cheap work rooms: rentals in the new office complex are some eight times greater than they are in the purlieus of Brick Lane, and with the dizzy rise in property values which will follow the new development, accommodation of all kinds, whether for working space or home, will be beyond local people.  The market scheme will mean a social revolution, the inversion of what Spitalfields has stood for during four centuries of metropolitan development.

The fate of Spitalfields market illustrates in stark form some of the paradoxes of contemporary metropolitan development: on the one hand, the preservation of ‘historic’ houses; on the other, the wholesale destruction of London’s hereditary occupations and trades and the dispersal of its settled communities. The viewer is thus confronted with two versions of ‘enterprise’ culture: the one that of family business and small scale firms, the other that of international high finance with computer screens linking the City of London to the money markets of the world.

This set of photographs by David Bateman show something of the activity of the market today in what – if the Second Reading of the Market Bill continues its progress through Parliament – are likely to be its closing months.

Raphael Samuel  22nd July 1988


Photographs copyright © David Bateman

Syd Shelton’s East End

May 24, 2024
by the gentle author

Tickets are available for The Gentle Author’s Tour of Spitalfields on Saturday 25th May


Brick Lane 1978

Photographer Syd Shelton‘s enduring fascination with the East End was sparked by a childhood visit from Yorkshire with an uncle and aunt more than fifty years ago. “My cousin was was working in a mission somewhere off Bethnal Green Rd,” Syd recalled, “It was a scary part of London then and I remember my uncle looked out of the window every few minutes to check the wheels were still on his car!”

“The day I left college in 1968, I came down to London and I have worked here ever since, photographing continuously in Hackney and Tower Hamlets,” Syd admitted to me.

In the seventies, Syd became one of the founders of Rock Against Racism, using music as a force for social cohesion, and his photographs of this era include many affectionate images of racial harmony alongside a record of the culture of racism . “It was an exciting time when, after the death of Altab Ali, the Asian community stood up to be counted and the people of the East End became militant against the National Front,” he explained, “In 1981, I got a studio in the Kingsland Rd and I only gave it up recently because the rents became too expensive.”

Syd’s portraits of East Enders span four decades yet he did not set out consciously to document social change. “I never started this as a project, it’s only when I looked back that I realised I had taken swathes of pictures of people in the East End,” he explained, “So now I come back and spend a day on the streets each week to continue.”

“I say I am not a documentary photographer, because I like to talk to people before I take my picture to see what I can coax out of them,” he qualified,“Taking photos is what makes my heart beat.”

Bethnal Green 1980

Linda, Kingsland Rd 1981

Bethnal Green 1980

Bagger, Cambridge Heath Rd 1979

Columbia Rd 1978

Jubilee St, 1979

Petticoat Lane 1981

Brick Lane 1978

Aldgate East 1979

Hoxton 1979

Tower Hamlets 1981

Brick Lane 1976

Jubilee St 1977

Brick Lane 1978

School Cleaners’ Strike 1978

Petticoat Lane 1978

David Widgery, Limehouse 1981

Sisters, Bow 1984

Sisters, Tower Hamlets 1988

Bow Scrapyard 1984

Ridley Rd Market 1992

Ridley Rd Market 1992

Ridley Rd Market 1995

Whitechapel 2013

Shadwell 2013

Brick Lane 2013

Dalston Lane 2013

Bethnal Green 2013

Photographs copyright © Syd Shelton

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What The Gentle Author Did Next

May 23, 2024
by the gentle author


Regular readers will know that it is not my custom to speak about myself too much, but I was persuaded to give an interview at some length to the estimable Albion Magazine which devotes itself a serious exploration of British culture. Readers may find it of interest to learn of some of my activities beyond this daily blog.

I feel honoured that my interview with Isabel Taylor has been published as the lead feature in the magazine’s twentieth anniversary edition.

You can read it by clicking on this link to ALBION MAGAZINE



Tickets are available for The Gentle Author’s Tour of Spitalfields on Saturday 25th May

Peter Riley, Kitchen Porter & Cleaner

May 22, 2024
by the gentle author

Tickets are available for The Gentle Author’s Tour of Spitalfields on Saturday 25th May


Peter Riley


I was surprised and delighted when Peter Riley joined my tour last Saturday. He was passing Christ Church and grew curious when he heard me talking about Spitalfields as a place of sanctuary and refuge, so he walked over to listen and tagged along.

After the tour Peter apologised that he had not booked a ticket, explaining that he was homeless and had been sleeping under bridges and in parks locally for the past three months. He asked if he could tell me his story and if I would publish it.

It was evident from his manner that Peter was a gentle soul of decent character who deserved better. It was also obvious that he was a vulnerable individual and I could not imagine how he had endured these recent months of cold damp weather, sleeping outdoors and often walking all night.

So I took Peter for lunch in Brick Lane yesterday, and learned of his courage and resilience despite his fractured life. It was disappointing but unsurprising to discover that Peter had been let down by those authorities and institutions whose responsibility it is to help him.

Reliable and hardworking, Peter has a lot to offer. I publish his story today in the hope that one of my local readers might be able to assist him in finding a job and somewhere to live. You can reach him by emailing (Please also copy so I can assist in making the connection).

‘I was born in Burnley, Lancashire, with two brothers and two sisters. My mother worked as a nurse at hospital in Manchester. When I was seven years old, my dad moved to London and we lived in Casson House off Brick Lane. In Burnley, he ran a restaurant but in London he stayed at home and looked after us kids.

In 1980, my dad took me, my mum, and my sister to a village in Bangladesh. We lived in a house surrounded by trees and I liked it there, I felt safe. Yet when we were there, my dad got married to another woman. My mum did not like this, she was upset and wanted to come back to England. My uncle bought her a ticket to return and I was left behind. My dad kept me there in Bangladesh for another sixteen years.

I stayed with my step mum who already had one son. I wanted to attend the local school and study. Instead I was used. She put me to herd the sheep, grow vegetables, run errands to the town and clean the house. If she said something that I did not understand, she beat me up. She thought she had the right to do this. She told me if I did not listen to her she would not let me into the house and I would get no food. She wanted me to work for her all day instead of getting an education. She enslaved me. My passport was taken. I had nothing, not even clothes of my own. It was a hard life.

A Bengali man who was visiting from Nottingham, and who knew my mum, heard about me, how I was struggling. He told me, ‘Don’t worry, I’m going to help you and you are going to go back to England.’ He went to see my mum in Manchester and told her my story. She was very worried but he said he would bring me back. The immigration authorities wanted a DNA test, so my mum gave a sample in Manchester and I went to the immigration centre in Dhaka and gave blood. Two months later, I got a new passport and some people bought me a ticket home.

When I returned to England in 1997, I was twenty-two. My dad was living in Manchester Rd on the Isle of Dogs. I could no longer write or speak English. It was a hard to get a job, but I got one in an Indian restaurant in Guildford. I worked two shifts each day as a kitchen porter, washing up and chopping vegetables. The lunchtime shift was from ten until two and nighttime from five until half past eleven. They wanted me working there all day for twelve or thirteen hours at £2 an hour. I can cook – curried rice and biryani – many things. But they did not want to teach me to be a chef or second chef, they only wanted me to do portering. For a six day week, they paid me £80 though they did not want to give the money. It was hard. I would prefer a council cleaning job where I can earn the right pay for the hours. I have done restaurant work and cleaning, and I am prepared to try anything. I have skills.

My step mum came to live with my dad on the Isle of Dogs and she said, ‘I don’t like him to come here.’ So my dad told me, ‘I don’t have a choice, son. I am old and I going to die soon. Look after yourself.’ I rented a room in Bow Rd for £50 a week and I joined the Tower Hamlets housing register and for fourteen years I was on the housing list. After that, they struck my name off the list. I don’t know why. I went to their office in Chrisp St Market to ask and they told me I was cancelled. It was a long time waiting and now my dad has passed away.

Since February, I have been sleeping under a bridge in Wapping. Crisis sent me to a night shelter in Hackney but I was scared to stay there because the single beds were too close together, three or four in a very small room. I went to Isle of Dogs Law Centre and asked. I said, ‘I don’t know what to do, I need your help. I’m homeless, I don’t know how I’m going to find a place to stay.’ They made an application for me and told me to take it to the council and say, ‘I’m homeless.’

The council housing officer asked me, ‘What’s happening?’ I said ‘I’ve been in Tower Hamlets quite a long time but I have got no address.’ She said, ‘You’ve got no priority. If you’re ill or you’ve got family, it would be different.’

I want to have a life like other people have, a social life. I want a normal life where I can work, have a home and be safe. I want to look after myself and other people. I want peace and quiet. But I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s very hard.’

Peter Riley outside Casson House off Brick Lane where he grew up

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