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Henry Chapman, Jack Of All Trades

December 11, 2011
by the gentle author

Harry has been coming to the Sunday market for more than seventy-five years

For as long as Gina Christianou can remember – certainly as long ago as the days of the animal market in Club Row – Henry Chapman, known universally as Harry, has been coming to her restaurant in the Bethnal Green Rd each Sunday, ordering sausage, egg and chips, and drinking seven cups of coffee, one after the other, to sustain him while enjoying the busy social life of this celebrated Spitalfields meeting point. After all this time, at eighty-three years old, Harry has become a fixture – so that now, as long as he is there occupying his central position at the front of Gina’s Restaurant on Sunday, you can know that all is well with the world.

With his bright-eyed charm and extravagantly bushy eyebrows, Harry is a popular character and his table is always full with those eager to share his company, yet few even know where Harry comes from each Sunday. So last week, Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien and I waited at the next table until there was a gap in the flow and, once introductions had been exchanged, we were delighted to accept Harry’s gracious invitation to join him while he enjoyed his fifth cup of coffee of the morning. “I never drink it anywhere else,” he explained to me with a complicit smile, revealing that these seven cups at Gina’s comprise his entire caffeine intake for the week – just in case I might assume he were an immoderate character.

These days, Harry always wears his carpet slippers for comfort’s sake and has a walking frame, yet he still hops on the bus and comes all the way from Battersea each week to Spitalfields, just as he has done regularly for more than seventy-five years.

“It’s a kind of habit, I was only a boy when I used to come here from Battersea with my father. They sold cats and dogs here then, you could buy a goat – even foxes and eagles. I always get here about half past eight and I might leave at two or three o’clock, it depends on how I feel. I shall go home and get something to eat and watch television and go to bed.

On Monday morning, I collect my pension and then I go to a cafe in Peckham to see my friends and decide where we are going to go on Thursday. Every Thursday, I go out with a couple of mates and we take a trip by bus. Last week, I went to Dartford and Gravesend – I don’t like Dartford very much, I was there in the fever hospital for four months when I was a child, though I can’t remember it because it’s such a long time ago. We always meet outside the betting shop before we set out.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, I go to the cafe where I live. It’s on the street and it’s tiny, you couldn’t hardly call it a cafe because they only sell cakes, beans on toast, eggs on toast, no dinners. I don’t cook for myself. I don’t even make tea at home, I only keep it in case a visitor wants a cup, I drink orange juice. I’ve lived in my council flat in Battersea for the past twenty-seven years and I have a cat called Jake, he’s twelve years old.

My wife was Irish and she liked to drink but I don’t drink because I used to suffer with very bad migraines – floating lights, sickness and diarrhoea. I was paralysed for a while, then I wore glasses for six years and I recovered, but my wife left me and took the children with her. After I got divorced, I was in lodgings and met Mr Cornish, and he asked me to go and live with him, and I worked for him organising charity events. He used to take me all over the West End to get Sandeman’s port, silk ties at Liberty and perfume at Penhaligons, and I went to all the theatres to collect tickets for the shows and the Harlem Globetrotters, and I met the Prince & Princess of Bengal and Melissa Martin and Sheila Hancock and Leslie Crowther. Sometimes, he sent me to Marks & Spencer to get cakes for nothing and we’d have a raffle. But he was an old man and after three years he died, and that’s when I went to live with an elderly lady, as her lodger, until she died too. Then I went to live with my brother until I had to go into hospital to have an operation to put a plastic valve in my heart, and after that I got the flat I have now. That was in 1985 and now it’s leaking, so they are talking about keyhole surgery.

When I was a boy, I used to go and take care of the horses in Battersea Park. After I left school, I set out to be a carpenter but I couldn’t get an apprenticeship so I went to work in a papermill, from there I got a job in a steelworks and then I worked in a corn chandler, then a couple of years in the navy, then eighteen years in the gas works at Wandsworth as coke plant operator, followed by fifteen years at the council maintaining the streets, changing light-bulbs in street lights, laying pavement slabs and street sweeping until I had to retire. I needed the heart operation, so I took early retirement and I haven’t worked since – I suppose you could say I am a Jack of all trades.

I regret that I don’t see my children, they know where I live but they haven’t been to see me for twenty years. I don’t have any other relatives, just my half-brother and sister, and they’re probably dead now because they’re older than me. I might get a Christmas invitation, otherwise I’ll spend it by myself. It doesn’t matter if I’m on my own because it doesn’t worry me, I’ll have Jake. I’m not unhappy, I live on my own and do as I please. I journey on with life. I’ll be here next week, if nothing happens to me.”

Henry Chapman, Jack of all trades.

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

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6 Responses leave one →
  1. jeannette permalink
    December 11, 2011

    merry christmas, mr. chapman. your eyes are bright, just as g.a. says. it must be battersea. love to jake.

  2. December 11, 2011

    a lovely tale. I hope he and Jake share many more years together

  3. December 11, 2011

    a very simple life
    i wonder what henry does on friday and saturday

  4. December 12, 2011

    I journey on with life.
    – Henry Chapman

    you are an inspiration Henry ……thank you for the lovely artical ……….again g.a.

  5. Tina Gray permalink
    February 10, 2014

    I have been told that sadly Harry passed away March 2013
    Rest In Peace Harry!

  6. patrick gilligan permalink
    April 18, 2016

    Rest in peace, I miss you…thanks for being a great step grandad. i appreciate all what you done for me! x

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