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The Coles of Brushfield St

June 19, 2012
by Kate Cole

When Kate Cole saw Philip Marriage’s photographs of Spitalfields last week, it inspired her to write this account of her ancestors who once lived in Brushfield St which I publish here today. “When I started my family research in the mid-eighties, I quickly discovered the connection to Spitalfields Market.” Kate told me, “And, even though I have often visited the redeveloped market, when I think of Spitalfields, it is the eighties image that stays in my mind. So Philip Marriage’s photos proved irresistible and led me finally to tell the story of my Victorian grocer of Spitalfields Market.”

Kate Cole and her daughter Rose outside the former Cole’s grocery shop in Brushfield St.

I must be amongst a very rare number of twenty-first century Londoners who can visit the East London home of my ancestors and walk in their steps.  Many of my Victorian ancestors lived in Bishopsgate in the City of London and Brushfield St in Spitalfields. Whilst I can no longer visit my ancestors’ substantial Bishopsgate home and factory, as it was compulsory purchased and swept away in the 1880s by the Great Eastern Railway so they could build the mighty Great Eastern Hotel in its place, I can still visit my ‘ancestral’ home in Brushfield St on the edge of Spitalfields Market.

Up until the 1870s, Brushfield St was known as ‘Union St East’.  Halfway down, on the right-hand side – if you are walking from Bishopsgate – is a parade of shops all dating from the eighteenth century.  Many readers may be familiar with the lovely restored Victorian frontage of the food shop A.Gold and the women’s fashion shop next door, Whistles. But have you ever looked above their signage and spotted a small plaque on the wall in between the two? This is from 1871, marking the parish boundary of Christ Church Middlesex and there on the wall, for all of London to see, is the name of my great-great grandfather, R. A. Cole.

In the 1850s, Robert Andrew Cole was a grocer and tea-dealer, living above his shop and trading from the premises which is now Whistles. Robert Andrew, along with his wife, Sarah Elizabeth (née Ollenbuttle) and their five children, William, Sarah, Margaret, Robert and Arthur, all lived in this terrace – first at 23 and then at 25 – for some thirty years from the 1850s until the 1880s, when the market was redeveloped and Robert Andrew Cole retired to Walthamstow. As an aside, I do find it ironic that today’s swanky redeveloped Spitalfields Market is now known as Old Spitalfields Market. In Robert Andrew Cole’s day, it was a brand spanking new, and perhaps an unwanted market with posh new buildings. Its very existence and construction was probably one of the reasons why the Coles gave up their shop and retired to the countryside of Walthamstow.

For many years, Robert Andrew Cole was also a churchwarden of Christ Church, Spitalfields and also the Governor and Director of the Poor of the parish.  So he must have been amongst the wealthiest of this East London parish. In circa 1869-1870, Union St East was renamed Brushfield St, and it is possibly the renaming of this street which lead to the church boundary being marked in the wall in 1871. Hence, churchwarden R. A. Cole’s name was recorded for posterity in the brick-work. He must have been a very proud man when his name was unveiled on the terrace where he lived.

However, despite their standing in the community, the Cole’s time in Brushfield St was not entirely happy. Two of the Cole children, Sarah Elizabeth and William Henry, succumbed to a devastating outbreak of scarletina – then a deadly infectious disease. Both children were buried in Tower Hamlets Cemetery on 2nd August 1857.  William was aged only twenty-two months and Sarah was a month short of her fourth birthday.  One can only imagine the pain and horror experienced by their parents, along with the fear that their only surviving child, Robert, then aged five, might also fall victim to the terrible disease.

It must have been an awful time for this one Victorian family living in the shadows of Christ Church Spitalfields and the Fruit & Vegetable Market. However, their son Robert, did not become another victim (for, if he had, I would not be writing their story, as he is my great-grandfather). Eight months after burying their two children, a new child, Margaret was born, and a further year later, Arthur. Sadly, Margaret also did not survive childhood and once again, in 1869, the Cole family of Union St East buried another one of their own in Tower Hamlets Cemetery.

I have often pondered the fate of this small East End family.  Of the five children, only two survived into adulthood and, of those two, only one had children of his own. Arthur Cole died a bachelor in his fifties and was buried in the second Cole family grave in Tower Hamlets Cemetery alongside his mother, grandparents, great-aunts, and great-uncles – true Londoners who worked, lived and died in the East End of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Robert Andrew Cole, grocer and tea-dealer of Spitalfields Market, was buried in the same grave as his three children who had not survived childhood.  While Robert Cole, the only child of Robert and Sarah Cole who went on to marry and father his own children, married Louisa Parnall, a member of a fantastically successful Welsh family of industrialists and philanthropists who had a substantial clothing factory on Bishopsgate.

When you are next in Brushfield St, stand and look up at the plaque marking the parish boundary of Christ Church, Middlesex. Then look down into the windows of Whistles clothes shop. The funeral processions of the Cole children must have stopped here on their way to Christ Church, before going to Tower Hamlets Cemetery. Imagine the tragedy and triumph that went on between those four walls and the drama of the daily family life of the Victorian grocer and tea-dealer, Robert Andrew and Sarah Elizabeth Cole.

Robert Andrew Cole, born 10th February 1819, Anthony St, St George in the East, baptised 7th March 1819 in the parish church of St George in the East.  Married 25th December 1850 St Thomas’ Church, Stepney to Sarah Elizabeth Ollenbuttle. Died March 1895 in Walthamstow. Buried in one of two Cole family graves in Tower Hamlets Cemetery. Grocer and tea-dealer of Spitalfields Market for over thirty years. Churchwarden of Christ Church Spitalfields and Governor and Director of the poor of the parish.

Robert Cole, eldest child of Robert Andrew and Sarah Elizabeth Cole, born 4th May 1852 in Tunbridge Wells.  Married 11th January 1880 to Louisa Parnall (great-niece of Robert and Henry Parnall of Bishopsgate).  Died 17th June 1927 in Raynes Park, South London.  Buried in Putney Vale Cemetery.  Grocer and teadealer.

Margaret Cole, baptised 28th March 1858 at Christ Church, Spitalfields. Buried 20th January 1869 in Tower Hamlets Cemetery aged eleven years.  The child in this photo looks to be about seven or eight years old, which dates all three photos to approximately the mid-1860s.

Robert Cole in 1879.

Louise Parnell – This tintype photo and the one of Robert above were possibly taken at their betrothal, before their marriage in January 1880.

The locations of the Coles’ business in Brushfield St and the Parnell’s business in Bishopsgate.

Philip Marriage’s photo of Brushfield St in 1985 with the former Coles premises indicated by the awnings.

Brushfield St in 1985, looking from the east.

The boundary stone with R. A. Cole’s name is on the top left of this picture from the eighties.

The boundary stone of 1871 in Brushfield St with the name of R.A.Cole.

Kate and her daughter Rose are the sixth and seventh consecutive generations of their family to work in the Bishopsgate area. Kate works in Finsbury Sq and Rose has just started in Finsbury Circle.

Archive photographs of Brushfield St © Philip Marriage

Cole family photographs © Kate Cole

You might like to take a look at Kate Cole’s blog Voices of Essex Past

29 Responses leave one →
  1. Gillian permalink
    June 19, 2012

    Lovely history and great photos. The tin one is amazing. Are these Coles any relation to Mrs Susannah Cole publican of the Victoria in Three Colt Street, Limehouse in the 1860s & 70s? She’s mentioned in a family will and the surname rang a bell when I read today’s entry.

  2. June 19, 2012

    As far as I am aware, there is not a Susannah Cole in our family. Plenty of Margarets, Elizabeths, Sarahs, Louises and Louisas but no Susannahs.

  3. Greg Leigh permalink
    June 19, 2012

    Loved your story of Robert Cole and the shop in Brushfield St.
    I know that 1871 boundary stone well , having spent many years
    at that same address , 44/46, selling fruit in my family’s wholesale
    fruit business . My father’s uncle , Morry Mack ,started there in 1922
    ( with his brother – Phil). My father joined in 1931 , myself in 1963
    and continued until 1988.

    I hope the new generation of Spitalfields occupants can , in years to come,
    look back , and enjoy their own special memories.

    Greg .

  4. June 19, 2012

    Such an interesting read, thank you for sharing. My family are from the East End and this story has prompted me to find out more about where they lived and worked.

  5. Annie Martin permalink
    June 19, 2012

    I too can walk in the footsteps of my ancestors. My great grandfather came to London from Bavaria (Germany) in the 1870’s. He was apprenticed to a German watchmaker in Clerkenwell where he slept under his workbench for the first year of his apprenticeship! He found lodgings in Hoxton Square and raised my grandmother and her (seven) siblings in a house on the square, not sure which number unfortunately. The children went to primary school there and my family worshipped and went to Sunday school at St. Monica’s. My German great uncle had a butcher’s shop in Whitechapel and his windows were smashed when the First World War broke out as he had his German name above the door.

    I worked in Clerkenwell myself for a short time and was born in the Royal London as were my mum, granny and one of her brothers.

    It’s nice to feel family connections in the city I live in.

  6. Andy permalink
    June 19, 2012

    This is a lovely post, 2 days go I was actually looking at the boundary signage and was wondering what the history was behind it – and now I know.

  7. June 19, 2012

    Greg, I first discovered the boundary stone on a wet day in February 1988. You probably won’t recall a young woman standing in the middle of the road, gawping up in total astoundment at your shop!

  8. Greg Leigh permalink
    June 20, 2012

    Kate, we missed a nice chat and a cup of Rosie on that wet day in 1988.

    Just a few weeks ago I did some research into the history of
    44/46 ( now Whistles) Brushfield St. but could go no earlier
    than 1875 :-

    1875 – 1894 Henry Webb, China dealer / John Walker, bootmaker
    1894 – 1902 Bowles & Co. , Printers
    1902 (?) – 1908 Lupinsky & Brandon , Tailors
    1908 – 1919 Nathan Kutner/Hyman Cohen/H. Amor – Furriers
    1919 – 1922 H.Amor & Co., Furriers
    1922 – 1988 M.Mack(Spitalfields)Ltd. Wholesale Fruiterers.
    (Ground fl./Sales – 1st.fl./offices – top fl./banana ripening rooms)

    What a surprise to know that before 1895 your great-grandfather had a
    grocer’s shop at that address , I always guessed that the ground
    floor was used as stables in those days.

    I am now wondering if any descendants from the above list, might one day
    happen upon this site and add more to the history of no. 44/46 ?


  9. June 20, 2012

    Greg, you’ve probably hit difficulties because of the name change from Union Street East to Brushfield Street. I also think that there’s been another road re-numbering of Brushfield Street at some stage. The Whistles shop was number 23 Union Street East (you can see this on the 1790s map thegentleauthor has published above). By 1858/1859, the Cole family were living at number 25 Union Street East (I don’t know if they moved or if this was a minor re-number). 25 Union Street East then became 59 Brushfield Street at the time of the early 1870s name change. So at this stage, the Whistles shop must have been either 59 or 57 Brushfield Street. I have no idea why or when it went down to being number 44/46! The demolition of some buildings in the road, or maybe the construction of the Spitalfields Market?

  10. Greg Leigh permalink
    June 20, 2012

    Kate, I knew , but missed the name change from Union St., silly me !
    It will be interesting to find out what was happening at no.23, prior to the 1850s


  11. Robert Andrew Cole permalink
    June 24, 2012

    This is all amazing, what incredible work you must have done to acheive this. I had no idea our family had such history.
    Thank you so much for sending this to me. B

  12. June 24, 2012

    Bob, I had long ago worked out that you were (at least) the 6th consecutive Robert Cole in our family, but had no idea until today that you were another Robert Andrew Cole!

  13. June 26, 2012

    Greg, I’ve just been taking a wander through some of thegentleauthor’s earlier photo posts – including this one about Bishopsgate

    Halfway down the page are two photos of the Bishopsgate’s shops of the tailors Lupinsky and Brandon in the 1880s. After they were compulsory purchased at the end of the nineteenth century, it looks like they moved to Brushfield Street!

  14. Jennifer permalink
    June 28, 2012

    Annie Martin – I too have a German Great Great Grandfather – we only discovered his being German by chance a couple of years ago when a Great Uncle died – the surname on his birth certificate didn’t match that which he used. We assumed that he had been adopted – but it transpires that they changed their name (Great Great Grandfather took his wife’s surname because it was English). Unfortunately, this Great Great Grandfather worked as a Sugar Baker in Pennington Street.

    Kate – what a remarkable story. I love uncovering all this history. You’ve inspired me to start digging into archives again.

  15. Greg Leigh permalink
    June 30, 2012

    Good spot re ;- Lupinsky and Brandon and the compulsory purchase.

    In 1960 the local council proposed to demolish the whole block, including
    no. 44/46, to make way for , would you believe it, 15 parking spaces.

    My father strongly objected to this, as as the site was considered to be the
    best in Spitalfields (fruit market) , lying between the London Fruit Exchange
    and the major fruit auction house of J.Lyons in Gun Street.

    The plan was dropped thank goodness.

    I remember all the original and similar buildings that were there, on both
    sides of the street from 44/46 to Bishopsgate, all trading as fruit wholesalers
    and how much more interesting they were, compared to the glass-fronted
    offices of today.


  16. July 3, 2012

    Greg, if it hadn’t been for your father objecting all those years ago in the 60s, the building with the plaque on it would not have existed in February 1988. So I would not have seen it or known about it, and therefore I won’t have been able to write up the complete story of my Victorian grocer in June 2012 for thegentleauthor. Serendipity?

    Totally agree with you about how much more interesting the original buildings are compared to the glass-fronted offices. Although, I’ve been lucky enough to have worked in many of the tallest glass buildings in London and you can’t beat the view of the sprawling capital – the glass buildings are better from the inside than the outside!

  17. Carol permalink
    March 24, 2013

    I’m hoping some of the above people will still be taking a peek at this lovely page, after all this time since the original comments.
    I’m researching the family of my daughter in law and have, only today, found a marriage of a couple who lived at 29 Brushfield Street – and then found this wonderful website. I’m guessing that no 29 would have been within the current ‘Bishops Square’ ie on the north side of the street. Have you, or any of your respondents, come across Sam and Annie Woolf who were both tailors and lived at no 29 in 1912?

  18. Kathy Illingworth permalink
    May 7, 2013

    I have also enjoyed reading all these messages. I came across this website looking for information on Union Street. My 3x great grandfather James Illingworth from Lancashire was a tailor at 44 Union Street, Bishopsgate Without; first record from 1843. Last record there was his son William in 1870, perhaps because of the street name change? But they had definitely all left the area by 1881. Looking at the map, I think I can make out a 44 2nd from the corner of Union Street and Bishopsgate?

  19. May 8, 2013

    @kathy – yes number 44 was almost on the corner of Bishopsgate and Union Street East. Sadly it is now the glass tower which is RBS’s headquarters

    @carol – I’m not quite sure where number 29 Brushfield Street was in post-Edwardian period. The road does appear to have been renumbered a couple of times after it became Brushfield Street – I suspect because of the building of the market in the 1890s. And possibly renumbered again after the Fruit and Wool Exchange was built in the 20s.

    I revisited this page today for the first time in nearly a year because I am very proud to say that my daughter, Rosie, has just started a new job on Bishopsgate. She’s in a very modern building but its built over the exact location where her Parnall ancestors had their clothing factory between the 1820s and the 1880s (one of 2 factories they had on Bishopsgate). Louisa Parnall (whose picture is in the above post) was her great great grandmother. It is very strange to realise that 7 unbroken generations of my family (including myself) have all worked on Bishopsgate. This is despite our family moving out of the Bishopsgate/Spitalfields area when the Parnall factory was compulsory purchased to make way for the expansion of Liverpool Street station, and Robert Andrew & Sarah Cole retired to the surburbs over 120/130 years ago.

    So for over a hundred years, we’ve all been commuting back to our ‘ancestral home’ and walking in our ancestors footsteps. Once again, with Rosie’s arrival in Bishopsgate, there appears to be strange forces at play with my family’s continuing connection to the area!

  20. John Cole permalink
    August 28, 2013

    A brilliant read Kate!!! You have missed out three of your ancestors who have worked in the City of London within and arouund Spitalfields. your Father,his father and brother.

  21. Andrew Cole permalink
    September 18, 2014

    Some great stories and photos. I discovered this while looking for photos of my dad and grandad’s stall at the old Spitalfields market. My grandad Harry set up the business (Harry Cole & Co.) and my dad worked there from the age of 17 until he retired.
    I have some lovely early memories of the market when it was still a working fruit & veg market. Dad often tells old stories about the place, including hothead Dino (from Dino’s Cafe in the photos) regularly getting knocked out after starting rows with his customers.

  22. Margaret Taylor permalink
    September 28, 2014

    Hi Kate
    Have been reading this article very interesting reading I didn’t realise at the time that my ancestors came from this area, when I was about 18 I used to work in The London Fruit Exchange on one of the companies switchboards many moons ago .I was wondering if I could have a copy to show my children
    Margaret Taylor nee Ollenbuttel

  23. October 31, 2015

    Hi Kate,

    I found this article very interesting, it really brings the families to life. I discovered it after reading the Gadsdons of Spitalfields one. I’m related to the Gadsdons and several ancestors lived in Artillery Ground and worked in Brushfield Street area. One Gadsdon cousin married Maria Cole (my 3xgreat grandparents) and I am wondering if Maria is the sister of Robert Andrew Cole.

    The photographs are wonderful to see too. Thank you for sharing.

  24. Karen Manser permalink
    November 19, 2015

    Dear Kate,

    Doing a search on the web, I came across your article, ‘The Coles of Brushfield Street.’ I read this with great interest as it seems that we share common ancestors in the Ollenbittle family. Sarah Ollenbittle, the wife of Robert Cole, was the sister of my direct ancestor, Henry Ollenbittle. I was even more excited to see that you have some photos of the Cole family. I have no photos of Ollenbittles before WW1. I assume that if you had a photo of Sarah, you would have included it with the ones which you used but I just wondered, if you had these, you also might have one of Sarah (or any other Ollenbittles.) If you do have any, I would be very grateful if you would share them with me. In return, I can offer you the death certificate of Sarah’s mother, Sarah Louisa in 1874 (also living in Brushfield Street.) I do have lots of information on the Ollenbittles as far as is available for families such as theirs, but I assume that you would have much of this information as it is available on Ancestry or other genealogy sites.

    I hope you do not mind me contacting you in this way & I look forward to hearing from you.


    Karen Manser

  25. Edward permalink
    February 28, 2018

    Great to hear your story. Your ancestors on the street were contemporaries of ours. They were Agnes and Paul Rochefort who had a picture framing shop at 10-12 Brushfield Street around 1869 to 1877. Annie Martin, you might find it interesting to know that Agnes’ father Louis Rochefort (yes, that is right – Agnes and Paul were cousins, both born as Rocheforts) also came to London from Germany in the 1840s (the family were in Treptow and Breslau, now Poland). Louis initially worked as a watchmaker, based in Paul St, then 15 Crown Street (now Sun Street) before starting the framing business.

  26. Yvonne Jaques permalink
    December 3, 2018

    What a wonderful inheritance and a good deal of work done researching it. Much enhanced by the photographs

  27. Mr Melvyn Scott permalink
    January 24, 2019

    Hi, a message for Greg Leigh. Greg I used to know you as my name was Melvyn Hyams, do you remember? I have since changed my surname, but H. Hyams (Spitalfields) Ltd. was just along the road from you, next door to the Blue Cafe.

    Ah the good old days, did my growing up working there. Do you remember bumping into each other in Riccione, Italy in the early sixties? You were staying at the Atlantic Hotel.

  28. December 6, 2019

    Kate, lovely reading your account. Like Andrew Cole above, I remember the company Harry Cole and Co. Harry’s twin brothers (whose names I can’t remember but I remember they were mad keen Chelsea supporters!) worked with him but also Harry’s sons Peter and Richard. I’m assuming that Andrew is the son of one of those (?). Two very nice young men indeed. My father was Salvatore Ferrigno, known as Neil. He had an office in the building The Fruit Exchange opposite Harry Cole and Co (now transformed but the original exterior having been preserved, thank goodness! My father inherited his fruit importing business from his father of the same name who inherited it from even his father of the same name! The original Salvatore Ferrigno came to London in around 1860 to import his own lemons from the Amalfi coast, some of which weigh around 2lbs. My father used to take me to Spitalfields Market on Saturday mornings when I was a little girl, presumably to give my mother a rest!! All the men in the market – my father’s customers – were lovely to me but I do particularly remember Peter and Richard Cole. I do hope they are well and perhaps still living in Wimbledon?? Mary Baker nee Ferrigno

  29. Alistair permalink
    March 23, 2023

    Whilst clearing an old shed I came across an old wooden market box with Harry Cole Ltd. Spittalfields Market and deposit 3/- on the end. I wondered whether it is related to your family and whether you might like it? I’ll forgo the 3/- !

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