Skip to content

Lush Life In Norton Folgate

February 13, 2015
by the gentle author

As part of the SAVE NORTON FOLGATE cultural festival, we are delighted to welcome Professor Dick Hobbs, Criminologist & Ethnographer, who will be talking about his study of criminality at Nicholls & Clarke in Norton Folgate, LUSH LIFE, next Monday 16th February at 6:30pm at The Water Poet in Folgate StAll events in the festival are free – click here to book your ticket

Professor Dick Hobbs on Blossom St where he once dealt in sanitary ware

Niclar House, the labyrinthine warehouse complex occupying the block between Norton Folgate and Blossom St, is boarded up and awaiting an uncertain future at present. Yet until recently this space was occupied by Nicholls & Clarke, an empire of ironmongery and sanitaryware that contained a hidden warren of semi-criminal subcultures. Dick Hobbs came here as a young man employed to lift toilets, yet he became so fascinated by the creative intricacy of the illicit activities which he encountered that it inspired him to become an Ethnographer and Criminologist.

“My concern is primarily with deviance as an everyday feature of life, an activity that is integral to urban existence, and which I believe justifies academic attention in its own right, without being hampered by any conceits regarding helping the police with their enquiries,” he writes – with appealing irony – in the introduction to his book Lush Life, Constructing Organised Crime in the UK.

Making a sentimental pilgrimage to Spitalfields on his way to an important meeting in Whitehall, Professor Hobbs took me on a stroll over to Blossom St in search of a lost world and we were lucky enough to step inside the empty building. The cavernous basements of Nicholls & Clarke that fan out beneath Spitalfields, in which the workers once hunted rats at two shillings a tail, offered a natural metaphor for the nefarious culture that is the Professor’s special field of expertise and interest. “All ethnographers should bring their biographies to the research table,” he told me.

“It all started at Nicholls & Clarke in Blossom St. My dad got a job here at fourteen years old and worked for forty-seven years as a clerk and warehouseman. He went away for five years to the war, but he wanted to go back afterwards and stayed until he was sixty-three.

When I belatedly became an academic, I based much of the data for my PhD on life and larceny at Nicholls & Clarke. I worked in the warehouse as a young man in the seventies, I’d be doing all sorts of things, carrying toilets, sinks and cast iron baths around. At the time I worked there, the place was full of war heroes from El Alamein, Arnheim and the Atlantic Crossings. Some of these men were quite damaged but they were the enterprise of the firm until the eighties. They were sophisticated and dynamic in the way they did business. It was a wonderful place where I learnt about ducking and diving, and life in general, from a workforce consisting of rough sleepers, bankrupt furriers, degenerate gamblers, fighters, ex-war heroes, and a few ordinary people.

After I left school, I worked as an office boy in Great Eastern St. That was awful, I couldn’t stand office work, so I worked as a dustman and street sweeper. I did all sorts of things, but whenever I needed work I could always ask my father to call up one of the Directors at Nicholls & Clarke, Cyril Wakeman – father of Rick Wakeman – and get me work at twenty pounds a week, cash in hand, to pick up toilets. Cyril liked to talk about Rick’s success, his latest hit and how much the latest tour in America made and which page three girl he was dating. And at the end, he’d always ask how I was doing but I wasn’t dating page three girls, I was lifting toilets.

Working there, it had the biggest influence upon me. I was fascinated by how these ordinary people found a little niche for themselves. They were paid almost nothing but they found a way to make it work for their benefit and win a little self-esteem. They had customers. Plumbers would come round and they would go off into corners doing deals on damaged or old stock.

As a kid, I really enjoyed myself and I loved it there – the characters were amazing. There was Bob a gambler who worked in Blossom St but used to slip out through the shop in Norton Folgate to place bets. Everyone else wore dirty overalls, but he wore a pristine white coat and he looked like a dentist. He put his head down and walked purposefully out through the shop. Once a posh woman who wanted to buy some paint asked, ‘Do you work here?’ and without missing a step he said, ‘Not if I can help it.’ It was a magic moment.

There were elderly Jewish men who had been left behind when everyone else moved out to Forest Hill or wherever. One was Yossul, a furrier who had fallen upon hard times and whenever a manager came along he’d slip into a dark corner, whispering, ‘The Cossacks are coming!’ There was a young man in the office who was unusually ugly and acquired the nickname ‘The young Burt Lancaster,’ which became shortened to ‘Burt Lancaster’ that became shortened to ‘Burt’ and eventually he answered to it. Then there was Charlie Nails who spent all his days in the nail room. Nails were bought by weight and there was always spillage so the firm sent round a scrap metal dealer to collect it once a month. But Charlie sold the boxes of nails direct to the scrap metal dealer who resold them back through the front of the building again. It was sharp. A guy who had nothing found a way to make a life for himself.

While at Nicholls & Clarke, I started to go to night school and I picked up two O levels and an A level. Then I went to teacher training college and qualified as a teacher and worked in Newham for three to four years, before I got a place at the London School of Economics to study Sociology where I was taught by David Downs who had written about East End kids and that’s where I came across the work of Charles Dickens and Henry Mayhew writing about nineteenth century London and Raphael Samuel’s ‘East End Underworld, the life of Arthur Harding,’ which outlined the world of East End criminality that was familiar to my dad. I showed it to him and he was able to correct some of it, such was his level of scholarship. I could talk to him about a scholarly work.

What was once labelled as delinquency is seen as making a good deal these daysl. The world has caught up with the East End and we are all Arthur Daleys now. The East End was always based upon entrepreneurship albeit within a framework of trading connections and communality, but today we’re all traders and encouraged to be entrepreneurs, except there’s little to temper the competitive edge.”

Niclar House, the frontage of Nicholls & Clarke in Norton Folgate.

Professor Dick Hobbs in the former sanitary department of Nicholls & Clarke

You may also like to take a look at

Nicholls & Clarke Hardware

Lenny Hamilton, Jewel Thief

Billy Frost, the Krays’ Driver

The SAVE NORTON FOLGATE exhibition curated by The Gentle Author for The Spitalfields Trust is at Dennis Severs House, 18 Folgate St, E1 6BX,  from tomorrow -Saturday 14th February.

Saturday 14th February 10 – 1pm
Sunday 15th February 10 – 12pm
Tuesday 17th February 4 – 7pm
Thursday 19th February 4 – 7pm
Saturday 21st February 2 – 5pm
Sunday 22nd February 10 – 12pm
Tuesday 24th February 12 – 2pm
Thursday 26th February 12 – 2pm
Saturday 28th February 2 – 5pm
Sunday 1st March 10 – 12pm.
Admission is free
5 Responses leave one →
  1. February 13, 2015

    What a great ART DECO Design in the bathroom — could be modern again today!

    Love & Peace

  2. Pauline Taylor permalink
    February 13, 2015

    I love the response, “Not if I can help it” to the question, ” Do you work here?” That is a real classic, wonderful!

  3. Sarah L Baldwin permalink
    February 13, 2015

    A glorious read, today. Prof. Dick Hobbs is wonderful.

  4. Jill ELjadi permalink
    February 14, 2015

    A transportation back in time. Fantastic, delightful, atmospheric – such food for thought thankyou

  5. February 18, 2015

    Slick Professor Dick – thanks for a wonderful evening, proving that history at ground level is just as interesting as textbook kings and queens.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS