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A Nation Of Shopkeepers by John Claridge

August 13, 2012
by the gentle author

Ross Bakeries, Quaker St, 1966

I am grateful to John Claridge for his prescience in taking these photographs, published here for the first time, because if I could travel back to the East End of half a century ago this is exactly what I should like to see – the local shops and the faces of the shopkeepers.

“I used to go to the shops with my mum every Saturday morning, and she’d meet people she knew and they’d be chatting for maybe an hour, so I’d go off and meet other kids and we’d be playing on a bombsite – it was a strange education!” John told me, neatly illustrating how these small shops were integral to the fabric of society in his childhood.“People had a pride in what they were selling or what they were doing” he recalled,“You’d go into these places and they’d all smell different. They all had their distinct character, it was wonderful.”

Although generations of the family were dockers, John’s father warned him that the London Docks were in terminal decline and he sought a career elsewhere. Consequently, even as a youth, John realised that a whole way of life was going to be swept away in the changes which were coming to the East End. And this foresight inspired John to photograph the familiar culture of small shops and shopkeepers that he held in such affection. “Even then I had the feeling that things were going to be overrun, without regard to what those in that society wanted.” he confirmed to me with regret.

As the remaining small shopkeepers now join together to form the East End Trades Guild to fight for their survival, in the face of escalating rents and the incursion of chain stores, John Claridge’s poignant images are a salient reminder of the venerable tradition of local shops here that we cannot afford to lose.

Shop in Spitalfields, 1964.

C & K Grocers, Spitalfields, 1982 – “From the floor to the roof, the shop was stocked full of everything you could imagine.”

Cobbler, Spitalfields, 1969.

Flo’s Stores, Spitalfields, 1962 – “All the shops were individual then. Somebody painted the typography themselves here and it’s brilliant.”

Fruit & Veg, Bethnal Green 1961 – “I’d been to a party and it was five o’clock in the morning, but she was open.”

W.Wernick, Spitalfields, 1962.

Fishmonger, Spitalfields, 1965.

Corner Shop, Spitalfields, 1961 – “The kid’s just got his stuff for his mum and he’s walking back.”

At W.Wernick Poulterers, Spitalfields, 1962 – “She’s got her hat, her cup of tea and her flask. There was no refrigeration but it was chilly.”

Fiorella Shoes, E2, 1966 – “There’s only four pairs of shoes in the window. How could they measure shoes to fit, when they couldn’t even fit the words in the window? The man next door said to me, ‘Would you like me to step back out of the picture?’ I said, ‘No, I’d really like you to be in the picture.”

Bertha, Spitalfields, 1982 – “Everything is closing down but you can still have a wedding! She’s been jilted at the altar and she’s just waiting now.”

Bakers, Spitalfields, 1959 – “There’s only three buns and a cake in the window.”

Jacques Wolff, E13 1960 – “His name was probably Jack Fox and he changed it to Jacques Wolff.”

Waltons, E13 1960 – “They just sold cheap shoes, but you could get a nice Italian pair knocked off from the docks at a good price.”

Churchman’s, Spitalfields, 1968 – “Anything you wanted from cigarettes to headache pills.”

White, Spitalfields 1967 – “I saw these three kids and photographed them, it was only afterwards I saw the name White.”

The Door, E2 1960.

The Window, E16  1982 – “Just a little dress shop, selling bits and pieces. The clothes could have been from almost any era.”

Victor, E14 1968 – “There’s no cars on the road, the place was empty, but there was a flower shop on the corner and it was always full of flowers.”

Photographs copyright © John Claridge

You may also like to take a look at

John Claridge’s East End

Along the Thames with John Claridge

At the Salvation Army with John Claridge

In a Lonely Place

A Few Diversions by John Claridge

This was my Landscape

John Claridge’s Spent Moments

Signs, Posters, Typography & Graphics

Working People & a Dog

Invasion of the Monoliths

Time Out with John Claridge

Views from a Dinghy by John Claridge

People on the Street & a Cat

In Another World with John Claridge

A Few Pints with John Claridge

31 Responses leave one →
  1. Marina B permalink
    August 13, 2012

    Magnificent collection!

  2. August 13, 2012

    These pictures remind me so much of my own London childhood, in Victoria. It doesn’t seem possible that this way of life has all but vanished in so short a time.

  3. August 13, 2012

    That could be Glasgow now!

  4. Adrienne permalink
    August 13, 2012

    Oh aren’t these photographs just fabulous!

  5. August 13, 2012

    When I saw Jacques Wolff’s shop window, the first thought that entered my head was, “Jacques Wollf? Sounds a little exotic for Spitalfields!” On the other hand, perhaps M. Wolff just strode off a boat and fell in love with Spitalfields.

    And two thoughts about “Fruit & Veg, Bethnal Green 1961”:

    i) the woman looks like a winner, strong, hardworking, determined and unbowed;

    ii) how many photographs of Johns have a description that begins with something along the lines of, “I’d been to a party and it was five o’clock in the morning …”

    Keep up the good work, and thanks again for sharing these pictures.

  6. Lee permalink
    August 13, 2012

    Another section of John’s priceless archive !

    Thank you for the privilege of viewing them.

  7. Cindy S. permalink
    August 13, 2012

    Another special body of work, I am drawn in by the innocence of these images- especially the ‘Fishmonger’


  8. Ros permalink
    August 13, 2012

    Another marvellous set of pictures, haunting reminders of how things were. The people in them have a quiet confidence and seem at ease in their surroundings, and there are all those objects that we remember once we see them again but might not have thought of for years, like the big weighing scales in Spitalfields 1964, the newspaper used to wrap the fish, the much worn shoes in the cobblers, the streets empty of cars, and the terms ‘handy stores’ and ‘deshi’ (meaning country as in Bangladesh?) You are right to point out how we may lose yet more small shops and how important they are for our wellbeing. Thank you.

  9. August 13, 2012

    haunting…… thought inspiring. Thank you for sharing

  10. Marien de Goffau permalink
    August 14, 2012

    Wonderful images of nearly half a century ago. These are stories in order to stop and think of the past. Still, the image takes me and I enjoy the beauty of these prints as a unique experience. A novel? Yes, in photography. Unique beautiful photography. A unique series for a fantastic book. Or an exhibition? with a book. Telling stories in a book full of great photography.

  11. August 14, 2012

    Thank goodness for your Father John – a very wise man. I love the C and K grocers and the lovely lady selling fruit – sadly thats all more or less completely gone apart from a few small
    areas in London I know who I would rather shop from! I can just imagine what the CK shop
    must have been like from that picture – it says it all. Thankyou John once again for the most incredible folio of haunting images.

  12. August 14, 2012

    The kids in the window is just such an amazing moment to capture, John have always been a step ahead of everyone else, and here he shows us why with these very moving images from the past.
    I think these pictures hold so much value, not only are they a documentation of the old East End but they are technically and emotionally some of the most beautiful images I have seen for a long time with a bit of rough around the edges, exactly what you would expect from a natural and raw talent like John Claridge.
    Bring it on John and thank you for sharing it with us.


  13. Alf Rutty permalink
    August 14, 2012

    Great old pics of the days when I was a kid being taken to Club Row by my Dad who pitched his wears down on the pavement to earn a few pennies,then we would go round Pettycoat Lane to see the hawkers and stall keepers and jewish women bartering for chickens which seemed to be their main food.
    The bus took us from Enfield to Liverpool St,dropping us off at Shoreditch and ClubRow,as best I can recall.Years later I used to accompany a greengrocer to Spitalfields Market to buy vegetables for sale in his business.

  14. Melvyn Scott permalink
    August 14, 2012

    Just love these pics !! First my Grandfather and then my Father had Wholesale Fruit Shops in Spitalfields Market, and I went into the business in 1960. I first went when I was about 5 years old, and remember that all the shops at that time looked like the one’s in the pics. Someone mentioned in an earlier comment about chicken stalls in Petticoat Lane. Well my Mother’s Parents had one !!!!! on the corner of Petticoat Lane and Goulston Street. I remember that I hated the smell of the chickens! Thanks for posting these, they have brought back some happy memories.

  15. August 14, 2012

    Sadly, the days of the independent, family run High Street retailer have all but been shot to pieces
    by the multiples . . . but JC’s nostalgic East End lens reminds us of what we’re missing . . . despite the best efforts of the Bangladeshi, Ugandan, Pakistan and Indian communities (now, there’s a new project for you John . . . sponsored, of course, by Mary Portas!) . . .

  16. PhotoStorys permalink
    August 15, 2012

    Amazing black and white shots. Such history!

  17. Alice permalink
    August 15, 2012

    Beautiful. Another set of great images, sadly of days gone by. I was lucky enough to spend some time in Shoreditch during the 1980’s and it wasn’t that disimilar albeit a little more commercial business and a few less market stalls!

    I really like ‘Doorway’ the textures are amazing .

    I agree with David, a project sponsored by Mary Portas, what a great idea!

  18. Aubrey permalink
    August 18, 2012

    SO evocative!
    I’m an Islington boy (circa 1930), and remember several of the shops shown due to my uncle, who lived in Spitalfields, insistimg that I visit him every fortnight for a crcket batting lesson in his tiny back gardfen, followed by a pint of Fremlin’s ‘Elephant Ale’.

    Best Wishes to you.
    Keep clicking!


  19. Olga Secerov permalink
    August 20, 2012

    These are very moving images. I really miss the old Spitalfields Market, I often use to walk past it as I was walking to college. I just wish I had my camera at the time. Love the ”Fishmonger” at Spitalfields.

  20. Pete Day permalink
    August 21, 2012

    Lovely pics that bring back memories: I remember shops like these in South Yorkshire, in fact our family ran a grocery shop, amongst rows of terrace houses built by coal companies for miners, c1900.

  21. Roxanne permalink
    August 28, 2012

    Bertha, the bridal store, was my Nan’s shop. I spent many happy days here throughout our childhood. My Nan loved her time here. The shop was open until the early 90’s.

  22. Kay Stallard permalink
    August 28, 2012

    Bertha ‘s in Petticoat Lane was my late mother in laws shop. She died last year.
    My husband has many stories about the shop.
    She started her business in £ 10 and sold to mostly African brides who would come over and buy their dresseses and about a dozen bridesmaids dresses!
    My husband painted the shop pink for her and it appears in the Pet Shop boys video ‘west end boys’.
    Fantastic photos, capturing a bygone age.

  23. September 1, 2012

    you mention the East End Trades Guild Gentle Author ………….., well , would they be able to brainstorm something wonderful up with the esteemed Mr John Claridge and yourself to have a fundraiser , awareness promotion of some kind to help promote the guild ?
    An exhibition of this important work ,made into a limited edition book , prints etc all going towards the guilds campaign.
    To bring the past in to help the present , memories are being made now aren’t they ?
    eg.Berthas wedding shop,people remembering those shops , people want to have meaningful places to shop, social places ,family places.
    Wouldn’t it be wonderful to continue this “venerable tradition of local shops”

  24. john edwards permalink
    September 5, 2012

    How we hated those little corner shops, the only one’s ever open on Sundays but still furtive in the nature of dancing with the devil by picking up a Screws of The World and 10 Woodbine oh! and a sherbert dip with liquorice straw from the lonely hutch of an outpost on the all seeing curtain twitching
    street. Church bells ringing come all ye faithless – heads ringing from a night in the Greyhound [retired]
    & Ashtray – Blue Lagoon now Glue Balloon….. the MOG – miserable old git of a shopkeeper hated because they charged a halfpenny more for rubbish – drip drip of miser’s geld ….. the sliced white loaf
    whose only value was toasted under a hillock of baked beans or fishing, as it’s glutinous ‘sell in your gut’ ingredients would stick to your size 12 hook for hours …….
    The amazing and, to me, macabre mainly jewish poulterer’s / butchers windows always conjure an
    Alfred Hitchcock chill of fear and hilarity in one packet – the solitary or at most duet of naked hung
    skinny birds – I hear the slide of Guillotine, the quartered bodies on spikes o’er London Bridge [ before our time okay but there still ] ‘It was the worst of times. It was the best of times’ . And you nailed it Johnny boyo.

  25. sheila butt permalink
    April 7, 2013

    I lived in Quaker st all my life and when I started work in Great Eastern St I used to go into Ross the bakers every morning to get my cakes for tea break, brings back so many memories brilliant.

  26. frank hadley permalink
    February 12, 2014

    living and going to school in the spitalfields area was great and i remember most of the little shops pictured, on sunday afternoon we would go to a little sweet shop near flower and dean st. which was run by a nice lady, to buy our treats for the evening, don’t let anyone fool you about penniless kids as we had way’s of making money by finding thing’s do depending on the time of year like bob-a-job any money over a bob we shared. penny for the guy, a great earner on friday’s outside aldgate east station. then there was carol singing outside pubs mainly in the city. not forgetting washing cars, also returning beer bottles to reclaim the deposit on the bottle. who needed pocket money? in the 50s. after all we were streetwise.

  27. Chris Love permalink
    February 12, 2014

    An amazing look at an age that will never be again. Had to agree very strongly with John, many things were changed in the 1960’s but no one ever asked the people what they wanted, it just happened.
    I live in Nottingham, and the buildings that were destroyed and memorable landmarks that were lost in the 60’s was criminal. Most of the buildings of character were replaced with faceless concrete monstrosities.
    So thank you for sharing such wonderful photographs of a past of not so long ago.

  28. ian silverton permalink
    August 24, 2014

    Had a pair of mens shoes made at Fiorella Shoes, corner of Brick lane,or in it,they looked and lasted well, 12 pounds paid,thanks for the memiors,made me laugh.

  29. November 25, 2014

    brilliant work by an old master… I feel the need to shoot our ‘village’… (Clifton) , really a part of Bristol, because its all changing soooo quick…

  30. June 17, 2016

    The pictures look lonely but beautiful

  31. Philip Marriage permalink
    March 22, 2017

    These are wonderful photos of past times – every one a classic.

    Small point: the first photo (Ross Bakeries, Quaker Street) must be a little later than the captioned 1966 as the old Grey Eagle pub on the left is in the midst of being demolished (it was still there when I photographed this spot in the autumn of 1967 and the bakery still open). The pub was demolished around 1970 to allow the expansion of the Truman Brewery.

    The ‘Bakers 1959’ shop is, I’m pretty sure, also the Ross Bakeries with Hope Street in the background.

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