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The East End Trades Guild needs you!

April 25, 2012
by the gentle author

With this sign, Paul Gardner, fourth generation paper bag seller and proprietor of Spitalfields’ oldest family business, eloquently expresses the situation that he and other small independent traders find themselves in. “2 & 8” is rhyming slang for “a bit of a state,” as he explained to me when I called round to his shop, Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen in Commercial St, yesterday.

Since the rebuilding of the Spitalfields Market introduced expensive office property and chain-stores into the neighbourhood, landlords have been pushing up rents mercilessly to the detriment of the small trades and family businesses which have always characterised this area at the boundary of the City of London.

Now change is in the air, as these independent traders are gathering together to form The East End Trades Guild, a union that can square up to exploitative landlords, demand the concessions from local government that are being granted to corporations, and be an advocate for the interests of shopkeepers and small businesses. It all started after community organiser Krissie Nicolson went to visit Paul Gardner, when she read in the pages of  Spitalfields Life that he was being confronted with an overnight rent increase from £15,000 to £25,000 a year. It soon became clear that many others were facing similar pressure and then – in a defining moment – the Duke of Uke, Britain’s only ukulele shop, was forced out of Hanbury St. Matthew Reynolds, the proprietor, had created a destination that drew people from far and wide, encouraging some high-end brands to open there beside him, and raising the value of all the property in the street. Through this example, the simple paradox became apparent – upmarket companies are moving into the area because of the attractive identity created by local businesses, and those same businesses are getting pushed out as a result.

In such a climate, looking to short-term gain, landlords have escalated rents wildly with destructive outcome – as seen in Cheshire St, where exorbitant increases led to the departure of Shelf, Mimi, Labour and Wait, and other businesses which drew customers to come there from across London. Over a year later, many of those properties remain empty in a street that has lost its passing trade as a consequence, such is the hubris of the greedy landlord. The irony here is that the Duke of Uke has now opened in Cheshire St and looks set to bring it back to life by attracting other businesses, just as happened in Hanbury St. Maybe in a few years, he will get pushed out once more when the properties surrounding him are full, after he has put the street back on the map?

Landlords are seduced by fantasies of replacing independent traders with chain-stores, yet I am informed that among the largest chain-stores in Spitalfields some are unable to pay their rents. These overblown corporate enterprises stumble from one financial crisis to the next, seeking constant recapitalisation while still adding to their property portfolios by opening more unprofitable shops. As an alternative to this, a responsible private individual who commits themselves to paying a realistic rent long-term is a more prudent option for the owner of the property – if the landlords were not blinded by the pound signs in their eyes. Pursued to its bitter end, the landlords’ short-term profit motive will result in streets lined with chain-stores, and then the value of the commercial property will fall when the area resembles everywhere else and its distinctive appeal is gone.

Unless this situation can be changed, the outcome will be a complete loss of the culture of  artisans and family businesses that has defined Spitalfields historically. As Raphael Samuel, the foremost historian of the East End, wrote with remarkable prescience in 1988 –“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.”

It was in Spitalfields that the match girls of Bryant & May met to form the very first trade union in the nineteenth century and now, demonstrating the same indomitable spirit, the shopkeepers and independent small businesses of the East End are gathering next Monday 30th April at 6:30pm at the Bishopsgate Institute to inaugurate The East End Trades Guild, which launches formally as a pressure group in September. All local small trades are invited to this open meeting to discuss what can be done to ensure their survival and to contribute ideas which can form the policy for the guild. If you are a shopkeeper or you run a small business in the East End, you need to be there to make your voice heard.

Paul Gardner, whose plight was the catalyst for the founding of The East End Trades Guild is its founder member. When I visited him in the building in Commercial St where his family have traded, serving the people of the East End for over one hundred and forty years, he said to me, “I hope it will unite us and give the little businesses a chance to survive, because unless something is done we’re all going to be gone from here in the next five years.”

Graphic by James Brown

You may also like to read

CHIT CHAT – The Umbrella Maker, The Dairyman & The Paper Bag Seller

and the article that started it all

Paul Gardner, Paper Bag Seller

and Raphael Samuel’s essay

A Farewell to Spitalfields

17 Responses leave one →
  1. jeannette permalink
    April 25, 2012

    power to the people.

  2. Annie permalink
    April 25, 2012

    Trades Guild. Very pleasing. As an ex-resident of London who paid a brief visit to old stamping grounds recently, and almost swooned at the property prices expected to be paid, you have my full support. I look forward to seeing what happens next.

  3. Andy Willoughby permalink
    April 25, 2012

    Many thanks for a good article, explaining very clearly the dilemmas involved in the smartening of the area, i.e. the destruction of the very things that makes it attractive in the first place! Very well written.

  4. Steve permalink
    April 25, 2012

    All power to you Gentle Author and to the East End Trades Guild. I’m a market trader at Spitalfields Antiques market on Thursdays and see the face of Spitalfields changing on a weekly basis. The whole area is rapidly becoming just another part of Corporate England with its boring shops and food outlets. We in the market are too becoming under pressure with more and more rules imposed upon us, in fact one feels it’s only a matter of time before we are made to wear embroidered shirts with logos upon them. Thank you.

  5. April 25, 2012

    This issue has needed highlighting for so long and thank you for doing so.
    This area has a special place in my heart along with the locals.
    You all have my full support.

  6. John and Sue Satchell permalink
    April 25, 2012

    you just have to look at areas like portobello road and camden lock to see what how wonderfully unique areas get spoiled by greed. i love spitalfields and its surrounding streets and i too can see that it is losing its edge as far as i am concerned. good luck in this initiative, power to the people indeed!

  7. joan permalink
    April 25, 2012

    I was at the Bishopsgate Institute for the first time on Saturday – for a comics convention with my kids. Really disappointed to see that the catering outlet is part of a chain (benugos) rather than an independent. This is symptomatic, I guess. It was a nice cup of tea though, with very friendly service.

    Best wishes,


  8. aubrey permalink
    April 25, 2012

    Depressing. Whenever I visit the area (which is fairly frequently), I notice that the changes are becoming ever more rapid. The area’s character seems to have all but disappeared. Where are the ‘weekday’ small stall holders? Where have the Sunday bric-a-brac sellers gone? ‘Luxury Flats for sale’. Is it not far off that we’ll see separated gated housing appearing in the area?

  9. April 25, 2012

    Great stuff…thank you!

  10. April 25, 2012

    Brilliant piece.
    You spurred me to write this:

  11. Rebecca Mitchell permalink
    April 25, 2012

    Here in the US we have seen many neighborhoods in our cities and towns ruined by greedy landlords, driving out the small shops and trades. In sad irony, the big chain shops that take over are seldom reliable tenants — departing with the latest downturn in the economy or consumer whim. In London, the antiques stalls at Antiquarius were lost to a greedy landlord who installed a banal Anthropologie store in the historic building. Why was there no organized protest from Chelsea residents?

  12. Joyce permalink
    April 25, 2012

    Great article . . .

  13. April 26, 2012

    Am very heartened to see this. The alarming tide of commercial activity which is endeavouring to engulf the area, and with it the character of Spitalfields is concerning. Wishing every success to The East End Trades Guild and all the small independent trades and businesses which are such an integral part of the essence of Spitalfields life.

  14. April 26, 2012

    How refreshing to read this. I have one of the shops on Cheshire Street- Comfort Station – and I’ve been there for 8 years now. Its been wonderful watching the street grow and very sad watching it empty. We are only hanging on in there because my rent review isn’t for a couple more years. Looking forward to the meeting!

  15. April 28, 2012

    Good luck. It seems an uphill struggle, in Spitalfields, in England and in Europe generally. It’s a battle worth fighting, but it seems so unending, with so many defeats along the way.

  16. April 29, 2012

    This is a wonderful initiative. The 1929 Exchange, currently under threat of demolition, houses many ‘SME’s (Small and Medium Enterprises) and these would all be lost; that would also affect Spitalfields Market as some of these Exchange businesses/tenants have stalls in the market. The Old Market itself is already in crisis with spiralling rents and corporate-style management.
    If the Exchange goes, it will be replaced by a new office block that the developers have stated they will lease to a single tenant, a corporation like Apple or Google. We need buildings that support the diversity that is Spitalfields. The Exchange could be retained and keep on offering spaces, offices and studios for small businesses, designers, makers – while also adding some new (independent!) shops. Open the beautiful building up once restored, and watch visitors flock to a new heritage destination in East London.
    The Old Market too needs support, as so many interesting stalls/small businesses have had to leave or have been forced to leave as they cannot survive the corporate cosh.
    The East End Trades Guild is a great idea for small businesses from all over Tower Hamlets. Together we are stronger…yes!

  17. Rob permalink
    May 14, 2012

    Same as Covent Garden in the 70’s I worked a lot in Studio B studios and there was the Brahms and Liszt wine bar the Zanzibar and a few good shops… look at it now…fashion tourista!!

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