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Lew Lessen, Barber

January 25, 2017
by Neil Martinson

Today it is my pleasure to publish this interview and series of photographs, comprising a portrait of Lew Lessen who opened his barber’s shop in Shacklewell Lane in 1932, undertaken by Neil Martinson forty years ago. “He was a gentle and modest man who was proud of his trade,” Neil admitted to me.

“The craft of barbering is a most honourable profession – even royalty take their hats off to us. I was apprenticed to a barber. My Dad signed an agreement for me to learn the trade for two years at a shop in Southampton St, which is now Conway St. The hours were long. We were open from 8am to 8pm every day with one hour for lunch, and we opened until 9pm on Saturdays. On Sundays we worked from 9am to 2pm and on Mondays from 8am to 1pm.

I learned the trade as I went on. I used to practice shaving with an old razor on a bottle – lather the bottle as if it was a chin (a very pointed chin) and shave it off. There was a lot of shaving in those days. Men used to come in regularly for their shave. They would have their own shaving mugs numbered. A man would come in and say ‘My mug is number 20.’ I’d fetch it down and lather him.

A barber’s shop was like a club in those days. People would sit and talk for hours. Some customers would come in almost every day,  just for a chat. One customer I always remember was Prince Monolulu, the famous tipster, with his cry of ‘I’ve got a horse.’ His head was full of small bumps, probably fibroid growths, but his frizzy hair covered it, so that it wasn’t noticeable to the naked eye. He asked me whether I would take away a bet for him to the local street bookmaker. He wanted two shillings each way double on two horses, and he told me he didn’t want the bookmaker to know that it was his bet. Well, naturally, getting such ‘inside information’ from such a source was too good to be missed. So not only myself, but my boss, and I also prevailed upon my Dad, who was not a betting man, to join us in the bet. Needless to say both horses finished well down the field.

I’ve seen many changes here, both in the neighbourhood and in hairstyles. It used to be just a matter of short back and sides, with the occasional Boston. A Boston means the hair is cut at the back in a line, instead of gradually tapered out. Then Bostons were short, but now they are long. Before the war, of course, people wanted the sleek look. They wanted their hair slicked down. I would have men come in and want their hair brushed like Ronald Coleman’s or Raymond Navarro’s, both of whom had the patent leather look about them.

The other change has nothing to do with haircutting or shaving. The role of the barber used not to be tonsorial skills. On occasions he would become the confidant, Father Confessor, mentor and advisor of his customers, especially in sexual matters. Sexual knowledge is nowadays everybody’s right, particularly for the younger generation. But before World War Two sexual ignorance among the young was fairly high. I remember being asked for and giving advice on the functions and duties of a bridegroom. I’ve given quite a lot of advice over the years. Many were the secrets told to me in confidence of men, and their maritial and extra-marital experience, and in confidence they remained. What was more, the barber’s was the only place you could get contraceptives in those days.

Over the years I have given service to many unusual customers. There was one man who had a serious operation on this throat, with the result that one of the arteries of his throat was covered by a very thin skin, that was more red in colour than the surrounding area. He could not shave himself for fear of cutting into this thin skin and causing the artery to bleed. He warned me to be careful not to cut the thin skin as it would have been impossible for me to stop the bleeding, and he would have to go to hospital. I shaved this man three times every week, and never once did I cut his skin.

There was one aspect of my profession that always gave me a great deal of personal satisfaction, even if it did not bring me much financial reward. This was whenever it was required of me to go out and give service to customers who could not make the journey to my shop, through illness or disability. I could not leave the shop during working hours, so it meant that after closing the shop, tidying the salon, having my evening meal, then changing to go out, it was after 8pm before I left home to do this service. My charges were always very reasonable, it sometimes meant I was away from home on these evenings for up to one and half hours, and was only a few shillings in pocket. But I never minded this, as I felt it was my small contribution towards helping people who were very unfortunate.”

Lew Lessen outside the barber’s shop in Shacklewell Lane that he opened in 1932

Photographs copyright © Neil Martinson

(This interview was originally published by Centreprise as part of Working Lives, Vol 2 1945-77)

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8 Responses leave one →
  1. martin permalink
    January 25, 2017

    i feel more manly already!

  2. January 25, 2017

    Fantastic post, what a lovely insight

  3. January 25, 2017

    Hairdressers seem to be a very special breed of caring people. I enjoyed the report today! Valerie

  4. Richard permalink
    January 25, 2017

    Lovely photos. A great man.

  5. Ros permalink
    January 25, 2017

    What a nice piece about a caring man. The photos are revealing too about the lotions and potions used by barbers in 1977 or thereabouts. It was also interesting to find out more about its author Neil Martinson by clicking on the link. It mentions Centerprise, a dynamic Hackney-based community organisation which was very influential, encouraging creativity and challenging inequality. Although it no longer exists, one of its founders, Ken Worpole whom you have featured before, is still active in a host of ways.

  6. Alan Bennett permalink
    January 25, 2017

    Thank you for this! My father was a barber for all of his working life (beginning at the age of 14 but interrupted by WW2 for service in N Africa, Sicily and Italy) and his experiences were much the same. I remember going with him to visit older men and disabled men and women to cut their hair, often on a Thursday afternoon, which was half-day closing in our town (Darlaston, then S.Staffs). One memory from my childhood is old men arriving in those blue invalid cars, and my father carrying the Great War veteran who had lost his legs up into the shop. Sadly, there seemed to be a lot of those – and blinded and otherwise maimed. Maybe it was because my father was used to the horrors of war that the felt comfortable coming to his shop, I don’t know.

    His father was a barber before him, as was his. The family originated in London (I was told by my father that we were Huguenot, but genealogy is really not my thing) and slowly moved north via Pershore and Worcester, all being barbers and, on the side, farmers and metal workers.

    The photographs of Mr Lessen’s shop bring back so many memories. There seems to be a resurgence in “trendy” barbers but the old stalwarts were the real thing.

  7. stan rondeau permalink
    January 26, 2017

    I have found all my life, barbers talk behind your back
    Can you trust them ?

    Stan Rondeau

  8. Ian Silverton permalink
    January 26, 2017

    As a small boy,remember going to such places.always the same haircut. Clippers up the back of your neck,as far as they would go,then the same around the sides,then a bit of comb and razor work,followed by some white cream,that left your hair dry,then a load of white powder all over your very saw neck.GREAT used to dread it.

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