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Stephen Gill’s Trolley Portraits

October 3, 2011
by the gentle author

When photographer Stephen Gill slipped a disc carrying heavy photographic equipment ten years ago, he had no idea what the outcome would be. The physiotherapist advised him to buy a trolley for all his kit, and the world became different for Stephen – not only was his injured back able to recover but he found himself part of a select group of society, those who wheel trolleys around. And for someone with a creative imagination, like Stephen, this shift in perspective became the inspiration for a whole new vein of work, manifest in the fine East End Trolley Portraits you see here today.

Included now within the camaraderie of those who wheel trolleys – mostly women – Stephen learnt the significance of these humble devices as instruments of mobility, offering dominion of the pavement to their owners and permitting an independence which might otherwise be denied. More than this, Stephen found that the trolley as we know it was invented here in the East End, at Sholley Trolleys – a family business which started in the Roman Rd and is now based outside Clacton, they have been manufacturing trolleys for over thirty years.

In particular, the rich Autumnal palette of Stephen Gill’s dignified portraits appeals to me, veritable symphonies of deep red and blue. Commonly, people choose their preferred colour of trolley and then co-ordinate or contrast their outfits to striking effect. All these individuals seem especially at home in their environment and, in many cases – such as the trolley lady outside Trinity Green in Whitechapel, pictured above – the colours of their clothing and their trolleys harmonise so beautifully with their surroundings, it is as if they are themselves extensions of the urban landscape.

Observe the hauteur of these noble women, how they grasp the handles of their trolleys with such a firm grip, indicating the strength of their connection to the world. Like eighteenth century aristocrats painted by Gainsborough, these women claim their right to existence and take possession of the place they inhabit with unquestionable authority. Monumental in stature, sentinels wheeling their trolleys through our streets, they are the spiritual guardians of the territory.

Photographs copyright © Stephen Gill

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Joan permalink
    October 3, 2011

    As someone coming to terms with a mobility problem – after being hit by a car seven months ago – and unable now to cart home shopping, I have been wondering about the trolley option. But it felt a bit too ‘old lady’ for someone still in their forties. But looking at these photos I can see I would be joining a fine community.

    I always find the empty pram really poignant. When I was growing up, a local mother of six was unable to leave the house without her – long redundant – pram. I have to say that having spent some years pushing a double buggy up and down the hills of Edinburgh I had no such qualms in getting rid of mine. But I did miss having the basket underneath where it was possible to stow 4 pints of milk and a bag of apples. Maybe for many of us motherhood is such a defining part of our lives that having something wheeled in front of us just feels natural.

    Love the Adam Dant map by the way.

    Best wishes,


  2. jo watts permalink
    October 3, 2011

    a superb piece of work 😀

  3. jeannette permalink
    October 3, 2011

    back in d.c., they were called granny carts and everybody who lived within walking distance of the grocery store had one, black, white, young old, gender fluid, rich, poor, granny or no.

  4. October 3, 2011

    This is a subject close to my heart, I am delighted to see it documented.

    In my 30’s and onwards, I was car free for 12 years. My daily struggle with the shopping and subsequent backache led me to consider a dolly trolley, as some call them. I commissioned a basket maker to make me one. Although my fashion conscious friends mocked me at first, they soon started to change their minds and see the sense in the trolley. My trusty basket was daily admired by strangers.
    Joan, it is not too old ladyish to invest in a trolley. There are now so many interesting colours, patterns, styles, it’s a statement!
    My mum used to have one in the 70’s along with lots of other ladies. They would all get on the bus somehow with their trollies, it was a joy of Saturday morning bus travel as the mood on the bus turned festive and the bus conductress would sing, “hey big spenders” as we all settled in, grateful to get a seat.

    Your blog is a joy by the way.

  5. Gary permalink
    October 3, 2011

    Serious Ladies deep in thought without many smiles.
    Had they been around in earlier times Ralph Mitelle would have had a verse about them in his song “Streets of London”

  6. Mark P permalink
    October 4, 2011

    see also local resident Michael Needham’s Trolley Dollies 2005 project:-

  7. Christine Voge permalink
    October 6, 2011

    Great idea, wonderful photos!

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