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So Long, Arthur Of Arthur’s Cafe

January 9, 2018
by the gentle author

I am sorry to report the passing of Arthur Woodham of Arthur’s Cafe, a legend in the Kingsland Rd, who died over the weekend having reached his ninety-first birthday on Christmas Day

Arthur Woodham (1926 – 2018)

This is Arthur of the celebrated Arthur’s Cafe – in the Kingsland Rd since 1935. Even at ninety years old, Arthur was still running around his magnificent shining cafe, taking orders and serving customers with sprightly efficiency. Possessing the grace, good manners and handsome features of a young Trevor Howard, he was a charismatic figure, venerated in Dalston and throughout the East End.

Imagine my excitement, when I paid a visit, to see Arthur waiting in the doorway of his cafe in anticipation of my arrival. My heart skipped a beat and I ran across the road to shake his hand. Then, taking advantage of the lull between the late breakfast trade and the early lunch trade, we sat down at the window table to enjoy the sunlight, and I found myself close up to his neatly styled grey locks and immaculately shaven jowls, while Arthur fixed his liquid grey eyes upon mine and commenced his story.

“I was born in Bethnal Green, and in 1935 we moved over to the Kingsland Rd and opened the cafe. My father was Arthur too and his cafe used to be further down the road, opposite the Geffrye Museum. If you was trying to buy a cafe, you tried to buy one with accommodation above, so if things got quiet you could rent the space, but I’ve always lived up there all this time.

Once I left school at fourteen, I worked with him behind the counter and I helped out before that too. I was the eldest son and you had no choice – you had to go into it whether you liked it or not. In those days, my father used to make his own ice cream and sarsaparilla, and my grandmother helped out in the kitchen with the washing up. At first, when the war came, I didn’t want to go into the shop but I have no regrets. I was about fifteen when war broke out, and I worked in the cafe all through the war. They dropped a bomb on the shelter across the road at the Geffrye Museum and my father kept open all night to make everyone a cup of tea. I’ll always remember one man was very bad, he lost thirteen in his family.

When I was a boy, it was either coffee shops with wooden floors or cafes that were more like sandwich bars, but after the war cafes starting doing hot dinners, roast beef, steak pie, lamb chops. I run my cafe the old fashioned way, we don’t do frozen stuff, it’s all fresh. I get up around twelve thirty/one o’clock, but people won’t believe you if you tell them that. I cook my own ham and cut all my chips by hand. My grandson gets in at five fifteen and we open at seven, serving breakfast until eleven thirty. No toast after eleven thirty and no chips before twelve. At eleven thirty we clean up and put serviettes and glasses on the tables, and I go upstairs and put on a clean coat. We have a different class of people for lunch. This is a working class cafe, we serve plain English food, we don’t serve pasta like some do.We’ve got a good mixed clientele, a nice class of people, white people and black people.

I like it, this is my life. You’ve got to like it to keep in it. I meet people. I speak to people. In the cafe, if you like it, you make a lot of friends. I’ve been serving people for over fifty years, people I grew up with. I opened up here when I was twenty-one in 1948, my father gave me a hand for a while and then he closed down the old cafe. I’ve been here ever since, four hundred and ninety-five Kingsland Rd. It’s been a cafe as long as I can remember and I’m ninety-one this year. It was me and my father, and now it’s me and my grandson – since he was a boy, he’s worked for me – that’s three generations. I’ll go on as long as I can, I’m ninety-one on Christmas Day. The Pelliccis, they’re friends of mine – I’m the oldest cafe in the Kingsland Rd and they’re the oldest cafe in Bethnal Green.”

Then it was eleven thirty. No more toast would be served, and it became imperative that Arthur go upstairs at once to change his coat in the time-honoured fashion, whilst serviettes and glasses were swiftly laid upon the tables, as the tempo of the day’s proceedings went up a notch in anticipation of luncheon. Yet this flurry of activity allowed me the opportunity of a snatching a few words with Arthur’s grandson James, who in spite of his youthful demeanour  revealed he had been there twenty years. “Since I was twelve, I worked here in my school holidays,” he confessed with a shy smile of pride,”And then my grandfather asked me to work with him, and I did.”

“My grandfather is an actor, and this is the stage where he performs best,” James continued, as if to introduce Arthur who appeared on cue from upstairs, now changed into an identical but perfectly clean white coat and seemingly revived with a new energy. “Do you think you will still be here at ninety?” I whispered to James across the table. “If I’ve got my grandfather’s energy, I’ll still be here!” he replied with an emotional smile as Arthur breezed past, making sure that everything was in order before assuming his heroic position at the head of the steel counter – as he did each day since 1948 – tea towel over one shoulder, ready for whatever the lunch service would bring.

“I remember those custard tarts my dad was holding, they were threepence each” – Arthur at at twenty-one years old when he opened his own cafe in 1948 with the assistance of Arthur, his father. Inset shows, the third generation Arthur and his son James at Arthur’s Cafe.

Arthur and his grandson James

Arthur arranges serviettes in readiness for the lunchtime rush

James rustles up a mean sandwich

“My grandfather is an actor and this is his stage where he performs best.”

Arthur’s wife Eileen lent a hand

The lull between late breakfast and early lunch when Arthur went upstairs to change into a fresh coat

Arthur  with his old friend Terry Dunford

[youtube qaHh3FNG8OU nolink]

Arthur Woodham (1926 – 2018)

34 Responses leave one →
  1. January 9, 2018

    He sounds like a great character

  2. Ron Bunting permalink
    January 9, 2018

    People mostly understand that sort of Cafe are the greatest places to eat ,great food, nice atmosphere and if you keep going back you tend to notice that most of the customers are the same ones every day .Why? because it becomes Their cafe and they know exactly what they want and they will get it everytime. I hope young James can carry on as long as his Late lamented Grandad .

  3. Hélène permalink
    January 9, 2018

    Great atmosphere in this lovely spotless place where everyone seems so happy. Best of luck to you, James

  4. January 9, 2018

    Fine life. No toast after eleven thirty, no chips before twelve. That I can get on board with. Hope it continues with his grandson.

  5. January 9, 2018

    What a shame he’s gone, but what a life – or rather two lives, given that his working day began just after midnight! It’s wonderful that he was so active right to the end.

    Thoughts of Liver and Bacon have got me drooling – and what a great price for lunch.

  6. Vicki Crowther permalink
    January 9, 2018

    A wonderful read. You are doing such a great job in bringing these iconic places and people to life
    Thank you

  7. dar permalink
    January 9, 2018

    What an amazing Athlete, as well. My parents’ chippy pretty well destroyed their health after only 18 yrs of on-yer -feet ,14 hr days, six days a week in toronto,canada. Am looking forward to dining at Arthur’s Heavenly Cafe !

  8. stuart goodman permalink
    January 9, 2018

    sad to see the passing of another legend. had more than one bacon sandwich there!
    thanks for all your efforts in the publishing of the site. reading it is my breakfast ritual.

  9. January 9, 2018

    We are sometimes asked how to identify/define ‘British’. This obituary article made me think of my dogged Three Bridges Granny in Sussex and the family business (bicycle shop, lockups, garage, petrol pumps) and my uncle managing the daily running of it after his father’s premature death in 1953 – all an extension of the end of terrace house my mother grew up in after WW1 and the rise of high street traders (formerly servants in wealthy homes).

    My Granny’s day was about presiding at the head of the vast Tudor oak kitchen table and looking after the callers, the tradespeople, the neighbours and nearby grandchildren who popped in throughout the day. I have the big whicker laundry basket that used to be collected and taken to an East Grinstead laundry – the mechanics overalls? Her household things? Both?

    Traders like my grandparents and this faithful Bethnal Green cafe trader are fewer & fewer. My Grans’ Three Bridges no longer exists as the village high street. Three Bridges is a decimated suburb of Crawley now – its contained village character savaged by ‘progress’. A block of flats suts in the forecourt and Granny’s house is a set of offices now.

    I read this blog as others do – to fix in my mind the dots on the line of time as change overwhelms townscapes and to bear witness as The Gentle Author does. Change & progress choke on one another more often than not.

    I salute this cafe and hope with all my heart that it can continue in the same way for decades to come – an oasis of quiet reliability in an area taking hit after hit from those who claim to serve need but whose greedy hit & run motives are quite naked.

    We will always need these modest corners to provide homely respite – perhaps increasingly as the madness ramps up.

  10. January 9, 2018

    Arthur’s cafe was always superb, he will be sorely missed. I hope his grandson will carry on the tradition. Valerie

  11. January 9, 2018

    What an amazing life – right up to the end. Goodbye Arthur.

  12. Helen Breen permalink
    January 9, 2018

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thank for yet another story of a life well lived in East London. Arthur and his son certainly make a handsome pair. May Arthur’s Café never be displaced by urban renewal…

  13. Chris Abbot permalink
    January 9, 2018

    Arthur’s was my favourite cafe in London and I used it for nearly thirty years.
    Arthur was a character and would always have a word and a moan and if he liked you get a chop or a bit of steak out.
    I loved everything about it…the tea was strong and the bread delicious and covered in real butter, the lamb chops sweet and the chips just delicious and in the summer the salads with beetroot and onion were just as my nan would do one.
    But the staple for myself would have always been the sausage, egg and chips…the cure to many a hangover and the Godsend to many.
    I used to know Nevio at Pellicci’s (who has also left us) and frequented there, but I loved Arthur’s as I lived just around the corner and have moved from London nearly ten years now.
    The area has changed beyond recognition now and this is sad news for a man and a cafe so much a part of my life there.
    So no more “Little gravy or a lot of gravy”
    Good luck to James and the rest of the family and long may it continue.
    Godspeed Arthur

  14. Lyn in Yorkshire permalink
    January 9, 2018

    You touch my heart and my soul with your stories

  15. jen permalink
    January 9, 2018

    Such a great story! And his youthful looks and vigor are testament to doing what you love and never stopping.

  16. John Hooker permalink
    January 9, 2018

    My Nan Alice, ran the Peerless Laundry ( forerunner of dry cleaners) at 172 Kingsland Road, corner of Hows Street – not far from Arthurs Dad’s cafe. So knew the family well.
    In the late 50’s and 60’s my father worked for Watsons Newspaper Wholesalers ( later bought out by WHSMITH) which was a couple of doors down from Arthurs Cafe.
    After finishing their night work at 6am the lads would go into Arthurs to drink tea and play cards. This was ok until the breakfast trade started and Arthur would have to sling them out for being too noisy.
    I myself used Arthurs when I worked in Hackney. He would be whistling and taking orders at the same time. Always loved the stewed steak – with a little gravy or a lot of gravy.

  17. Jilly sharpe permalink
    January 9, 2018

    A huge loss for the london community, let’s hope James and his family may be able to continue Arthur’s legacy.

  18. Chris Roberts permalink
    January 9, 2018

    RIP Arthur. So sad, Arthur’s Cafe is the Best Cafe there is, no question. Always a perfect gent, always spotless, as is his Cafe. I feel like a part of the old world has been taken, they just don’t make them like Arthur and his wife anymore! The Cafe will live on, but Arthur’s passing has left a giant hole in the world.

  19. Marcia Howard permalink
    January 9, 2018

    Amazing. An institution in himself. RIP Arthur, and good luck to grandson James. Long may that spotless cafe continue….

  20. January 10, 2018

    So Long, Arthur Woodham (1926 – 2018) — R.I.P.

    Love & Peace

  21. Dave Gething permalink
    January 10, 2018

    Only been once. Late last year. Mr Woodham was present in his white coat. My lunch partner asked for vinegar (for her chips! what are people like?) & he said “you mean the house white.” I’ve been chuckling quietly to myself over that ever since. Lunch was lovely too. I ordered liver. It’s the only kind of place I ever order liver. Must go again soon. The best kind of local business.

  22. EJ Wilkinson permalink
    January 10, 2018

    A wonderful tribute to a wonderful man.

  23. Vick Ryder permalink
    January 10, 2018

    A true gentleman. Will be very much missed. RIP Arthur.

  24. January 11, 2018

    A life well lived. (But when did he sleep?)

    A proper East End story. Arthur was an institution.

  25. January 11, 2018

    As a neighbour of Arthur’s for more than 25 years I send my deepest condolences to his wife, family, staff and friends. I will miss my Saturday walks and talks with him, catching up with local gossip. An era has come to an end. There is only one Arthur. Hail Arthur. X

  26. Peter permalink
    January 12, 2018

    Very sorry to hear of Arthur Woodham’s death. He and his estimable café were truly one of a kind.

    In the early 1990’s my workmates and I worked near the Waste, very slightly south down Kingsland Road from Arthur’s eponymous café and we soon became lunchtime regulars. Back then good and affordable places to eat were few and far between. So in hungry anticipation we’d walk the short journey to the front door of number 495 and be quietly acknowledged either by the man in the neat white overcoat and a spotless tea towel insouciantly at his shoulder, Arthur himself, or James, busy behind the counter, or Jenny, by the urn brewing up tea. On the tiled side wall between the end of the shining counter and the kitchen entrance hung the Perspex menu sign-board. Each day had it’s specials and once seated at one of the terrazzo tables and having given the menu a quick glance, you’d place your order with Arthur. Unfailingly he’d repeat back to you exactly what you’d chosen but in a completely different sequence. Just for the joy, yours but mainly his, of trying to confuse you. In summer, I might ask for a ham (cut from the bone) and salad (never forgetting the beetroot) sandwich in thickly cut slices of crusty white, generously buttered and expertly assembled by James; in winter I might prefer hot stewed steak (always with ‘a lot of gravy’), potatoes, carrots, peas and dumplings that’d arrive steaming in a shallow bowl. On other days the perfect simplicity of ham, egg and chips. Arthur’s hand-cut chips were legend. And perhaps bananas and custard for pudding? And maybe yet another cup of tea? Invariably you’d overhear someone asking for a glass of milk and without fail, Arthur would call out ‘one white wine!’ How did we ever get any work done? Once ensconced, you didn’t want to leave.

    Going to lunch at Arthur’s was also about your fellow diners. King’s Gym was just across the road and huge man-mountains would come in having just finished intensive boxing training, sit down at the fixed seats, occupying the space meant for two, and consume plates piled high with carbs and calories. Arthur’s was the very first place I saw a mobile phone. Early adopters were brickies, chippies, sparks and other tradesmen who ate at the café. Back then, the idea of ‘mobile’ was a moot point. They were the size and weight of large bricks and were slammed down ostentatiously onto the tables. Once the serious business of eating was done and the ‘Sun’ set aside a plumber might make a vain attempt to wind-up Arthur with this or that comment, laughing loudly while doing so. I don’t recall Arthur ever being worsted. He’d give as good as he got.

    But that was then and this is now. The hipsterfication of Dalston and much of the rest of London goes hand-in-hand with the onward march of food ‘culture’: so-called ‘street food’, anything with the prefix ‘proper’ in it and ‘pop-up’ bars, cafés, restaurants and other oh so exciting dining ‘experiences’. The first world preoccupation with the ‘local’, ‘real’, ‘heritage’, ‘foraged’, ‘sourced’, ‘seasonal’ and ‘artisanal’ has become wearisome. Are we all ‘foodies’ now? This process has taken something basic, our need to eat, and transformed it into a self-conscious lifestyle choice. Of course it doesn’t have to be like this. Arthur’s Cafe was keeping it real decades before ‘keeping it real’ was even a thing.

    There were times when our walk to the café revealed it was shut. Arthur and the café were taking a well-earned summer break. But our disappointment was real and profound. Where else can we go? And now Arthur has well and truly gone. And not just for the summer. I sincerely hope — as I’m sure do many, many others who’ve had the pleasure — that under Arthur’s grandson James, this venerable institution will continue long into the future. Already missed but not forgotten: Arthur of Arthur’s Cafe, thank you.

  27. Penny permalink
    January 13, 2018

    Best chips in Hackney and served by a 100% gent. Arthur personified the best of the old East End, and bridged the gap into the new. Best of luck to Arthur’s grandson – top tip, don’t change the chip recipe!

  28. January 15, 2018

    I use Arthur’s cafe every week sometimes 3 times a week, and have done for many, many years, as do many of my friends and family. It’s simply the best cafe in London, there isn’t a better cafe anywhere, Arthur has run this place like a finely tuned engine and it’s apparent from the moment you walk through the door, it’s immaculate, the food and service simply superb, the atmosphere unrivalled. Arthur was an absolute gentleman, a true east ender with many great stories, and hugely respected, he will be missed by thousands.

  29. Steven Julians permalink
    January 19, 2018

    Always loved the way he’d tell you what you were having if you were dithering over your choice, invariably with the comment ‘Come on, I ain’t got all bleeding day’ so you just went ‘Yeah OK Arthur, that’ll do’. A friend once asked them what coffee they did and got the classic reply ‘Black or White’

    RIP Arthur

  30. Andy permalink
    January 29, 2018

    Does anyone know when the funeral is due to take place and whether he is going from the café or passing by the café, I wish to pay my respects.

  31. sajid permalink
    May 18, 2018

    My parents moved from nearby clarissa st haggerston to my present address in Dalston in summer 1979 and as a child growing up in 1980s i would see Arthurs cafe daily opposite the old Tempo when going DeBeauvoir school.
    Ever since the late 1990s i would pop inside the cafe and buy the divinley made tottenham cakes absolutley delicous.
    thankyou James i’l miss yah..

  32. Mark permalink
    May 19, 2018

    Cant believe arthurs will serve its last breakfast on friday 25th of may i would like to wish james and staff all the best and i hope you can open up somewhere nearby im sure you’ll be well supported .

  33. Mat permalink
    July 17, 2018

    I live in Central America and have just come back on my annual visit. Usually my first stop (before unpacking) is Arthur’s but I’m saddened to learn he has passed and the cafe is closed for good. RIP, a true grumpy legend. (I used to go in for the good natured verbal abuse as much as the food!)
    Anyone know if James has found a new site yet?

  34. Leslie.foy permalink
    August 5, 2023

    So sad to hear of Arthur’s passing.i used to have breakfast there in the seventies when i worked for Hackney could park up outside in them days.such a great man.Alwas on parade was Arthur smart and run the cafe like clockwork.some young people of today wanna read about this man and his family and their work mentally thats when life wss good and people were a lot closer and respectful.RIP Arthur

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