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The Departure Of Richard Lee

May 29, 2016
by the gentle author

Richard Lee

You need to be at Sclater St Market at dawn when the sunlight arrives horizontally from the east, and traders greet you and bid you good morning like one of their own. At six o’clock, I was awaiting the arrival of Richard Lee whose grandfather Henry William Lee started trading bicycles in this market in the eighteen-eighties, initiating a tradition continued through two world wars by his son Henry George Lee, and culminating in Richard Lee who has been here every Sunday for over sixty years. Yet now the time has come for Richard’s departure from Sclater St and I was there to record his final Sunday, after one hundred and thirty years of his family trading in bicycles and bicycle parts in the market.

In this time, three generations of Lees have seen the street change beyond all recognition and Richard now parks his van at the foot of a tower block, built upon a former bomb site where nineteenth century terraces once stood. In fact, as he set to work with stoic good humour, unpacking his battered van and assembling the stall – in recognition of his responsibility as custodian of the history of the market – Richard passed me some black and white photographs, showing the heaving market crowds of yesteryear enfolded by rows of small shops and proud Victorian pubs. Most remarkably, Richard’s father and grandfather are visible to the left of one of the pictures beside a stall hung with tyres and inner tubes which looks just as it does today.

Richard has been down here each Sunday since he was five years old and began working in the stall at thirteen. Now over seventy and of robust stature, he can still assemble his stall by slotting metal poles together with limber ease, informing me with satisfaction that this particular incarnation was manufactured to his specification fifty years ago at the cost of fifty pounds. ‘We used to wheel a barrow from Islington and my father pushed a bicycle and carried another over his shoulder,’ he admitted, recalling the arduous labour of former times.

Once the stalls were in place yet before the stock was unpacked, Richard Green and Clive Brown, stallholders at the western end of the market, convened with Richard over a cup of tea made from water boiled on a primus stove and Richard broke the news that he had sold his house in Essex and cancelled the debit for his weekly market licence. Only if the exchange of contracts upon his house did not go ahead would he return for another week. ‘My kids have flown and I can’t afford to keep a four bedroom house,’ he confessed in sober realism, ‘You can’t live on a pension anymore.’ Richard’s solution is to return to the north of England – whence his grandfather came to London in the nineteenth century – and buy a small house, leaving him enough money to live out his days.

Yet, before this could happen, another day’s trading awaited. Richard’s assistant ‘Steady Eddie’ arrived to hang up the tyres and inner tubes that are the long-recognised symbol and sign of the Lees’ stall, thereby completing the four hour process of setting up. Through the passage of the day, Richard stood at the front while Eddie sat at the rear undertaking repairs and their dialogue consisted of ‘Eddie, got a left-handed pedal?’ and ‘Richard, got a new inner tube?’ Recycled inner tubes repaired by Richard were priced at only one-pound-fifty compared to five pounds for a new one, yet customers could not resist offering just a pound. And when Richard fitted that left-handed pedal, the customer offered him five pounds, refused the ten pound charge asked for both the replacement pedal and the service. ‘I’ll take it off again!’ threatened Richard rolling his eyes, ‘I can’t do it for £5,’ – before he let it go for five pounds. ‘You see why I’m leaving,’ he confided to me in a whisper, catching my eye in weary resignation. ‘I like it when they offer you more than you ask,’ he added with a grin, summoning his humour again, ‘that doesn’t happen very often.’

‘When I was a kid down the waste, there’d be a rag and bone man who left stuff behind and, when he’d gone, I used to sell it,’ Richard continued, warming at the tender reminiscence. He cast his eyes to the left of his stall where he had spread out boxes of his grown-up children’s unwanted toys, cleared out in anticipation of his house sale, yet drawing a lot of interest in the market. ‘It’s a lot of old junk,’ he confessed apologetically, ‘it’s all stuff I’d throw away, but there’s more money in it than the proper stuff.’

The weather was kind for Richard’s last day of trading and a spell of unbroken sunshine brought out large crowds onto Brick Lane and into Sclater St but, by three o’clock as he started to pack up, dark clouds were gathering over Spitalfields. I asked Eddie what he would do without Richard. ‘I’m not a lazy man, I’m going to volunteer at a charity shop,’ he explained, ‘It’s Monday to Friday and there’s no lifting. I came to this country in 1978 but after thirty-five years working for British Rail, my back is gone.’

Old friends and regular customers came to pay their respects to Richard as the descending sun reached the western end of Sclater St. All appeared as usual, everyone packing up as they do each week at that time, yet Richard was packing up for ever. Unknown to all but a few that afternoon, something remarkable was passing into history.

Robert Green helped Richard carry his boxes to the van and told me he would wait until he was ready to go. Leaving them to their task, I paid my respects to Richard, shook hands and handed him the bottle of champagne I had secreted in my bag. But as I turned to go, he called me back. Richard brought out a spanner which had belonged to his grandfather, was used by his father and served Richard too. In use in this place all this time. After more than a century, it had become bent into a subtle curve that fitted the hand. Richard held up his cherished talisman to show me, glowing with pride and delight.

To my mind, the meaning of Sclater St as a place will always be bound up with the human qualities of Richard Lee and his fellow market stalwarts. Whatever architectural changes arrive in this contested site, I shall never be able to walk through Sclater St without thinking of Richard and the hardworking endeavours of his colleagues and their forebears, week after week, in all weathers and through centuries.

Henry George Lee (as a boy) is to be seen on the extreme left of this photo and his father Henry William (with hat and moustache) is the fifth from the left in this picture taken in the twenties

Unpacking the van at 6am

Tossing a tyre

‘Steady Eddie’ arrives to lend a helping hand

“I first came down here when I was five and I was thirteen when I started working on the stall.”

Clive Brown, stallholder opposite Richard Lee, shows off a case of vintage Leica cameras

Patricia & Robert Green, stallholders next to Richard Lee

Clive serenades the market, mid-afternoon

Richard with Gary Aspey, wheel truer

Packing up at 5pm

Packing the van at 6pm

Richard shows off his grandfather’s spanner ‘King Dick’-  in use in this market by three generations over more than a century

Henry Wiliam Lee started trading in the market in the eighteen-eighties

Henry George Lee shows the proper way to fold a bicycle tyre in the Daily Mirror, 1979 (Click image to enlarge)

Richard Lee meets Edward Heath in the seventies

Richard Lee’s account of his family history

Richard Lee with Robert Green, old friend and long-term holder of the next pitch in Sclater St, celebrating the culmination of 130 years of the Lee family trading in the market

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Gary Aspey, Wheel Truer

14 Responses leave one →
  1. Robert Green permalink
    May 29, 2016

    As a long term colleague of Richard this is a sad and considerable loss to me both on a personal and professional level, Richard has been a personal friend for many many years and it has been a friendship that I have valued very highly, I can say in all honesty that in all the years I have known Richard never once have we ever had a cross word, as in every sense a “stalwart” of this market Richards reliable ever presence on a Sunday morning has been both a continuous pleasure and a comfort to me, and I along with many others are going to miss him greatly, I also believe that the market in general is going to suffer as a result of his retirement, in this market Richard has been not just a trader but also an attraction in his own right, every Sunday drawing many people to the area who come to the market specifically to see him, his helpful manner and encyclopedic knowledge of cycle repairs has earned the trust and respect of countless customers who have become as loyal to him as he has been to this market, even I myself as a young boy used to buy all my cycle parts from Richard and his late father, in the months to come I can well imagine the disappointment and dismay that I will see from countless people who as yet are still unaware of his departure, make no mistake, to Sclater St market this is a GREAT loss and I have to now admit that without Richard the market will never be quiet the same again, for me personally I will never be able to stand at my stall without imagining Richard standing next to me and although naturally I wish him all the luck in the world for his retirement I am going to miss him and his friendship far more than I could ever admit to him in person, so farewell Richard my friend, for all your friendship, your comradeship and for all the times we have laughed together, its been an absolute pleasure to have known you and a big big loss to be losing you from the market but now its time to look forward to your new life in retirement and I hope it proves to be everything you want, I wish you well.

  2. May 29, 2016

    Good luck to Richard for his retirement, he has worked very hard all his life. Valerie

  3. Rupert Neil Bumfrey (@rupertbu) permalink
    May 29, 2016

    Hauntingly sad, an amazing narrative which I am sure will tug at the heartstrings of many readers – thank you for your craft GA!

  4. May 29, 2016

    A fine story — my best wishes to Mr Richard Lee!

    Love & Peace

  5. Linda Granfield permalink
    May 29, 2016

    Pass the tissues!
    A touching story of how one man can quietly affect so many people.
    I’m sorry none of his family members were there on his last day of work.
    But I’m grateful GA was.
    May Mr. Lee enjoy a long and happy retirement. (and I hope Robert Green gets to visit Mr. Lee’s new home.)

  6. Shawdian permalink
    May 29, 2016

    Fascinating family history only the English seem to posess. What sticks out in our minds is the Wonderful Spanner (not lost in all those years) but used down the line of family members throughout two World Wars and hopefully will one day go on display at the local Museum. And the very sad and shocking line “Lost the Hotel in Bloomsbury in a Game of CARDS!” Thank heavens such a down fall can no longer happen through playing a game of cards. Our hearts went straight out to the poor wife and family. But how wonderful that a true legend leaves his mark and has effected so many lives. Richard, what a wonderful family legacy. Enjoy your your retirement and thank you for sharing your ‘little piece of London’.

  7. Mo06 permalink
    May 29, 2016

    What a great article.

    I remember there being a place on Brick Lane (or was it just off Brick Lane ?) which used to sell bicycles in the 1990s, not sure if it was the same stall though.

    Fascinating history.

  8. pauline taylor permalink
    May 29, 2016

    Is anyone taking any bets as to how long it will be before Richard is back in the East End? It is obviously so much in his blood that I cannot imagine him ever being happy elsewhere, although I , like everyone else wish him well, and hope that it all turns out for the best.

    How I wish that I had the courage to put up a sign in my shop that says ‘If you don’t want a stupid answer don’t ask a stupid question !!’

  9. Sarah Sutherland permalink
    May 29, 2016

    Truly the end of an era. Hope Richard has a long and happy retirement.

  10. Colin Barber permalink
    May 30, 2016

    Such a lovely piece GA – summed up so much of the spirit of local London life and history.
    Same for the heartfelt reply from Robert Green on his friend.
    Good luck to Richard.

  11. Richard permalink
    May 30, 2016

    What a history! Congratulations and best wishes for your retirement Richard.

  12. May 30, 2016

    So sad to see you leave Richard. Have a great time up north.

  13. May 31, 2016

    Fantastic writing and photographs. Brought a tear to my eye. The word legend is thrown around too much and to the undeserving, but Mr. Richard Lee certainly qualifies.

  14. R Buxton permalink
    May 31, 2016

    ‘If you don’t want a stupid answer don’t ask a stupid question’…

    The essence of so much that is being lost, bound up in a simple but profound statement.

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