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Paul Gardner’s Collection

May 10, 2018
by the gentle author

You will recall that I have written about Paul Gardner, the fourth generation paper bag seller, quite a few times in these pages. Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen is the longest established family business in Spitalfields, trading in the same building for one hundred and forty years, and acquiring a unique assembly of heirlooms.

So I visited Paul’s shop at 149 Commercial St to photograph this collection of artefacts which have accumulated there since his great-grandfather James Gardner first opened in 1870, trading as scalemakers. We took down some things from the walls and photographed them on the floor, we arranged other items on the worn counter-top and I stood upon Paul’s chair to take my pictures. Both Paul and his customers were extremely gracious, continuing their transactions and buying their bags as usual, politely disregarding the mayhem.

Paul told me that if he were a paper bag, he would be a brown paper bag because they are his bestsellers – multi-purpose bags, and the ones he has made most money out of over the years. So it is entirely appropriate that when Spitalfields Life Contributing Artist Lucinda Rogers drew her portrait of Paul in his shop a few years back, she drew it on brown paper. Now it hangs in pride of place high up on the wall behind the counter.

Coming upon the artefacts pictured below in a museum would be intriguing but not surprising. In a museum they would be removed from life and arranged. But the only arrangement you see below was created for these photos. Discovering these items still remaining in the working place where they belong is enthralling in a different way. In Paul’s shop they retain their full functional quality as objects that were once in use here (the coin tray and Oxo tin are still in use), acquiring dditional meaning as mementos of the three antecedents who pursued the same trade in this place where Paul works today. Quite simply, these are the things that James, Bertie and Roy left behind, and their presence lingers in these everyday possessions as evidence of their working lives and evocations of the world they knew. Today, Paul is his predecessors’ representative and the custodian of their stuff. Yet I do not think Paul thinks twice about his wooden coin tray that is worn by four generations of use, unless someone points it out to him.

Paul has a fine collection of greengrocer’s labels specifying varieties of apples and pears – Comice, Ripe Williams, Dunn’s Seedlings, Choice Worcesters and Ellison’s Orange, names as lyrical as a Betjeman verse. Equally, there is a powerful magic to the simple phrase ‘morning gathered’ evoking images of dawn in the orchards, though I do wonder what kind of customer could be enticed by the pale allure of ‘Worthing grown.’

Most fascinating to me is the Day Book begun by James Gardner on 1st January 1892 with bold calligraphic flourishes. James used this sturdy book with fine marbled endpapers to record all the different East End greengrocers where he serviced the scales on a regular basis. James’ elegant italic hand can readily be deciphered to read many familiar addresses in Spitalfields. It is remarkable that he could maintain such poised handwriting when you consider how many customers James visited in a single day, though as business increased through the life of this ledger, his handwriting becomes hastier and more excited.

There was so much more – including the family bible ‘Won by the Bugler James Gardner of the 1st Tower Hamlets rifle Brigade for shooting. Presented by Lady Jane Taylor, December 21st 1882,’ with the entire family tree over five generations (revealing James’ year of birth as 1847 and his origin as Thaxted in Essex), the catalogues of scales, the insurance certificates, various family military cards from the different wars, and the modern receipt books with their blue carbon pages that end in 1968 on the day Paul’s father Roy Gardner died – all the pamphlets and pieces of paper that add up to four generations of trading for Gardners.

I do not want to see Paul Gardner’s collection in a museum, I want to see it stay where it belongs in his shop, scattered among all the different stacks of coloured paper bags, and hidden among the tapes and tags, to be discovered on shelves and racks, behind the modest green facade of the most celebrated business in Commercial St.

Roy Gardner stands outside Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen in the nineteen forties – note the sales tickets on display inside the shop.

Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen, 149 Commercial St, London E1 6BJ (6:30am – 2:30pm, Monday to Friday)

You may like to read these other stories about Gardners Market Sundriesmen

Paul Gardner, Paper Bag Seller

Roy Gardner’s Sales Tickets

At Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen

Joan Rose at Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen

James Brown at Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen

Vigil at Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Judi Jones permalink
    May 10, 2018

    Dear Gentle Author,

    I’m a late comer to your wonderful world, having only recently discovered Spitalfield’s Life and I’m so thrilled I did. I have a lot of catching up to do reading through your treasure trove of stories . . . in the meantime, I open your page every morning and am never disappointed . . . it’s always an inspiring start to my day. Thank you.

  2. Saige (formerly Jane) Vendome England permalink
    May 10, 2018

    Thank you Gentle Author for your beautiful reminiscences about daily life in Spitalfields. I feel I have come to know the Grandmother who died before my birth by reading your writings. Commercial Street is familiar to me from my research via Ancestry and your writing has helped bring to life so many streets, shops and people descended from the lively characters I too am descended from. Through one of your blogs I met fellow descendants of Huguenot Vendomes and now I meet a lovely paper bag seller – clearly a man whose time has come into its own as we go about banning the wretched plastics of our age. Thank you again and if you are ever in New Zealand do please know a brew of tea will find you here.

  3. Richard Ironside permalink
    May 10, 2018

    As a retired greengrocer seeing all these artefacts from years gone by makes me yearn for those simpler happier times. I remember as a very young boy in 50’s being taken to Covent Garden at 4a.m it was another world we seemed to walk for miles to find the freshest produce and after breakfast we visited one of the many sundriesmen hidden away in a basement for bags hooks and ticket pins.
    Morning Gathered ticket would be used on the mushroom display, Worthing tomatoes were considered to be the tastiest available because of the soil and the light; Rochfords had a nursery in Worthing growing Muscat grapes they sent to Pouparts in Covent Garden and Spitalfields

  4. DAVID LAWSON permalink
    May 10, 2018

    Dear Gentle Author

    Thank you as ever for this article. As an occasional customer at Gardners I would like to record that it is experience that is always somehow very comforting. Paul is always most accommodating to anyone who is there and it is obvious that the trading community of the area feel at home in this timeless store. We can only hope that in the pressures of the current commercial world this establishment may continue

  5. Coralie Mattys permalink
    May 10, 2018

    Really interesting piece. I love that the insignificant of social history is kept – I hope that plans are afoot to ensure that this is preserved beyond the life of the shop and its owners.


  6. May 10, 2018

    I agree with your statement that Paul Gardener’s material should stay in his own collection in the shop rather than going to a museum. Unfortunately material given to a museum does not necessarily go on public display nor gives across full details.

    It would also be good if Paul Gardener wrote short details of the material and printed this in a short booklet. It would be interesting too !

  7. May 10, 2018

    I almost feel that I “know” Paul Gardner thanks to you. I know, for certain, that his would be one of my most favorite shops if I lived in your neck of the woods. I am a paper hound, and would find lots of uses for Paul’s offerings in my collage work. Since the shop always looks a bit “full to the top”, it makes me grin to think of the “extra” hub bub that took place as you photographed and staged all the wares. Nice to see Lucinda’s sketch at the top, also.
    Long live Paul and his wonderful emporium.

  8. Adele permalink
    May 10, 2018

    Ah, the memories in this post! My late Uncle Sam, the Tomato Man, bought his brown paper bags at Mr Gardner’s shop, didn’t realize he also probably bought all his signs there too. Seeing the weights brought back many memories of my uncle wheeling his empty barrow back from Watney Market, with only his scale, the weights, and his signs, (plus a large bag of choice tomatoes for my mum.)

    Thanks once again GA!

  9. Gary Arber permalink
    May 10, 2018

    If Paul finds himself in the position that I was in 2014 and has to close his old shop he will find that nothing will be wasted. when I closed, a large number of people, many spitalfieldslife friends came to buy all of the old fittings, even the counter. a lady writer bought two of the large display cases and sent me a photo of them in her home, they looked well. she told me that her husband, an artist took the very thick dust bunnies that had accumulated on the top to his studio as works of art.

  10. Cathy Unwin permalink
    May 12, 2018

    So happy that the shop is still going; I used to pass it when I worked near Old St. Lovely to see the fruit labels especially Ellisons Orange. The apple tree in our garden in Tottenham was that variety which we think was there before the house was built as the land was all still orchards in the early 20th C near Downhills Park. A delciously crisp juicy apple freshly picked and cooks well too. My family were Allens at Shoreditch a few generations ago and Mum’s maiden name was Gardner tho I don’t think there’s a direct connection.

  11. May 13, 2018

    The art of the paper bag seller.

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