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Paul Gardner’s collection

February 10, 2010
by the gentle author

You will recall that I wrote about Paul Gardner, the fourth generation paper bag seller, recently. Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen is the longest established family business in Spitalfields, trading in the same building for one hundred and forty years. Yesterday, I went back to Paul’s shop at 149 Commercial St to photograph some of the unique collection of artifacts that have accumulated there since his great-grandfather James Gardner first opened in 1870, trading as scalemakers. We took down some things from the walls and photographed them on the floor, we arranged other items on the worn counter-top and I stood upon Paul’s chair to take my pictures. Let me say, both Paul and his customers were extremely gracious, continuing their transactions and buying their bags as usual, politely disregarding the morning’s photographic mayhem.

Paul told me that if he were a paper bag, he would be a brown paper bag because they are his bestsellers – multi-purpose bags, and the ones he has made most money out of over the years. So it is entirely appropriate that when Lucinda Rogers drew this portrait of Paul in his shop a few years back, she drew it on brown paper. Now it hangs in pride of place high up on the wall behind the counter.

Coming upon the artifacts pictured below in a museum would be intriguing but not surprising. In a museum they would be removed from life and arranged. But the only arrangement you see below was created for these photos. Discovering these items still remaining in the living working place where they belong is enthralling in a different way. In Paul’s shop they retain their full functional quality as objects that were once in use here (the coin tray and Oxo tin are still in use), now acquiring an intoxicating poetic meaning as the relics of the three antecedents who pursued the same trade in this place where Paul works today. Quite simply, these are the things that James, Bertie and Roy left behind, and their presence lingers in these everyday possessions as the evidence of their working lives and as evocations of the world they knew. Today, Paul is his predecessors’ unselfconscious living representative and the custodian of their stuff. I do not think Paul thinks twice about his wooden coin tray that is worn by four generations of use, unless someone points it out to him. And there is something profoundly beautiful about this.

You will recognise the style of the price labels from the one which Paul was holding up in my portrait of him. I love the varieties of apples and pears specified here, Comice, Ripe Williams, Dunn’s Seedlings, Choice Worcesters and Ellison’s Orange, names as lyrical as a Betjeman verse. Equally, there is a powerful magic to the simple phrase “morning gathered” that fills my mind with images of dawn in the orchards, though I do wonder what kind of world it was that could be enticed by the pale allure of “Worthing grown”.

Most fascinating to me was the Day Book begun by James Gardner on 1st January 1892 with some bold calligraphic flourishes. We all recognise that auspicious sense of possibility when you write your name to inaugurate a new book, revealing the future as a sequence of blank pages, ripe with potential. James used this sturdy book with fine marbled endpapers to record all the different East End greengrocers where he serviced the scales on a regular basis. James’ elegant italic hand can readily be deciphered to read many familiar addresses in Spitalfields. It is remarkable that he could maintain such poised handwriting when you consider how many customers James visited in a single day sometimes, though as business increased through the life of this ledger, his handwriting becomes hastier and more excited.

There was so much more I could show you, the family bible “Won by the Bugler James Gardner of the 1st Tower Hamlets rifle Brigade for shooting. Presented by Lady Jane Taylor, December 21st 1882”, with the entire family tree over five generations (revealing James’ year of birth as 1847 and his origin as Thaxted in Essex), the catalogues of scales, the insurance certificates, various family military cards from the different wars, and the modern receipt books with their blue carbon pages that end in 1968 on the day Paul’s father Roy Gardner died – all the pamphlets and pieces of paper that add up to four generations of trading for Gardners.

As you know, Paul Gardner’s business is now under threat as the landlord threatens to raise his annual rent from £15000 to £25000 in June. For a business with a small turnover, this is an untenable increase. Meanwhile, hundreds of the smallest businesses and market traders, that are the basis of the economy in East London, rely upon Paul – because no-one else is prepared to sell such small quantities of bags at a time. I am relieved to report that he has commenced renegotiation of the increase and we have to hope that Messrs Tarn & Tarn, the managing agents, recognise their wider social responsibility to the neighbourhood in their handling of Gardners, because I am sure they would not wish to become responsible for sending Spitalfields’ oldest family business to the wall.

I never want to see Paul Gardner’s collection in a museum, I want to see it stay where it belongs in his shop, scattered among all the different stacks of coloured paper bags, and hidden among the tapes and tags, to be discovered on shelves and racks, behind the modest green facade of this celebrated business in Commercial St.

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Ian Harris permalink
    February 10, 2010

    So good gentle author, it would be a tragedy if Paul Gardner is forced out of business.

  2. julie permalink
    February 10, 2010


  3. Joan permalink
    February 10, 2010

    Love the Lucinda Rogers illustration. My partner immediately recognised the artist because he is a big fan of the Rowley Leigh cookbook that she illustrated so beautifully (fantastic biscotti recipe!).

    On a different note have you seen the article about Timothy Everest/ Mark Gertler’s house in the new issue of Selvedge. Some lovely photos.

    Best wishes,


  4. Effie permalink
    October 29, 2010

    Paul Gardner is such a gentle soul. I hope that they’ll let the man continue the family tradition.

  5. Vicky permalink
    May 25, 2011

    I’m writing this over a year later. I do hope he managed to negotiate a lesser rent increase, what was proposed was preposterous. Now I will have to keep reading and catching up in order to find out. Bated breath.

    When in junior school in the 50’s many children who had ‘cold dinners’ brought their sandwiches in Oxo tins, just like this one. I yearned for one too but as I had ‘hot dinners’ so it was never to be. (What children crave can never be imagined by grown ups).

  6. Shawdiane permalink
    December 10, 2014

    Could you please tell me the good news that Paul’s shop is still going strong? It would be a disgrace if after all this time, he has had to close down through nothing but anothers extortionate greed. Paul Gardener is a National Treasure & we should be proud of him & his family. If only we had more like them.

    All the best Paul for 2015

    Isle of Wight

  7. January 16, 2015

    I’ve been drawing Gardners’ today and found your article — beautifully written and lovely to hear more of the story as I draw it. Thanks.

  8. Joe Fowler permalink
    January 14, 2020

    Hi, do you know where I could buy some of these old signs?


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