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The Roundels Of Spitalfields

December 15, 2018
by the gentle author

Around the streets of Spitalfields there are circular metal plates set into the pavement. Many people are puzzled by them. Are they decorative coal hole covers as you find in other parts of London? Or is there a mysterious significance to them?

Sculptor Keith Bowler was walking down Brick Lane one day when he heard a tour guide explaining to a group of tourists that these plaques or roundels – to give them their correct name – were placed there in the nineteenth century for the benefit of people who could not read. Keith stuck his neck out and told the guide this was nonsense, that he made them on his kitchen table a few years ago. And although the tour guide gave Keith a strange look and was a little dubious of his claim, this is the truth of the matter.

“I was approached by Bethnal Green City Challenge in 1995, and I was asked to research, design and fabricate twenty five roundels. I was given a list of sites and I spent a few months doing it,” explained Keith summarily as we sat at the table where he cast the moulds for the roundels in the basement kitchen of his house in Wilkes St. Keith cut the round patterns out of board and then set real objects in place on them, such as the scissors you see above. From these patterns he made moulds that were sent over to Hoyle & Sons, the traditional family-run foundry by the canal in the Cambridge Heath Rd, where they were cast in iron before being installed by council workers.

The notion was that the pavements were already set with pieces of ironwork, made it a natural idea to introduce pieces of sculpture, and the emblems and locations were chosen to reflect the culture and history of Spitalfields. Sometimes there was a literal story illustrated by the presence of the roundel, like the match girls from the Bryant & May factory who met in the Hanbury Hall to create the first trade union. Elsewhere, like the scissors and buttons above in Brick Lane, the roundel simply records the clothing industry that once existed there. Once there were interpretative leaflets produced by the council which directed people on a trail around the neighbourhood, but these disappeared in a few months leaving passersby to create their own interpretations.

The roundels have acquired a history of their own. For example, the weaver’s shuttle and reels of thread marking the silk weavers in Folgate St were cast from a shuttle and reels that Dennis Severs found in his house and lent to Keith. And there was controversy from the start about the roundels, when two were mistakenly installed on the City of London side of the street in Petticoat Lane and at at the end of Artillery Passage in City territory, leading to angry phone calls from the Corporation demanding they be moved. Six are missing entirely now, stolen by thieves or covered by workmen, though occasionally roundels turn up and wind their way back to Keith. He has a line of errant roundels in his hallway, ready to be reinstalled and, as he keeps the moulds, plans are afoot to complete the set again.

Keith told me he liked the name “roundels” because it was once used to refer to the symbols on the wings of Spitfires, and is also a term in heraldry. There is a simplicity to these attractive designs that I walk past every day and which have seeped into my subconscious, witnessing the presence of what has gone. I photographed half a dozen of my favourites to show you, but there are at least eight more roundels to be found on the streets of Spitalfields.

On Brick Lane, among the Bengali shops, a henna stenciled hand

Commemorating the Bryant & May match girls, outside the Hanbury Hall on Hanbury St

In Folgate St, cast from a shuttle and reels from Dennis Severs’ House

In Brick Lane, outside the railings of Grey Eagle Brewery

In Princelet St, commemorating the first Jewish Theatre, where Jacob Adler once played

In Petticoat Lane, on the site of the ancient market

In Wentworth St, an over-vigilant council worker filled in this roundel as a potential trip hazard

You may also like the read about

The Manhole Covers of Spitalfields

The Ghost Signs of Spitalfields

6 Responses leave one →
  1. December 15, 2018

    Keith did a great job, the roundels are wonderful. But as for that council worker….Valerie

  2. December 15, 2018

    The roundels are great.

  3. Jennifer Newbold permalink
    December 15, 2018

    Dear G.A,

    I was very amused by this anecdote!

    I do believe that some (not all, but a few!) tour guides make up some awful rubbish. As an historical interpreter, one of the first things we are taught is “don’t make stuff up!” Someone will catch you out one day…

  4. Marcia Howard permalink
    December 15, 2018

    Wonderful story! I love that these roundels are ‘modern’ but are already gathering a colourful past. Tour guides need a bit of training obviously, but his story was plausible. I have been to villages in Puglia Italy where everyone’s trade was painted on a plaque near their front door, for the benefit of all those who couldn’t read. I was also in Russia last August, and discovered the most wonderfully ornate drain or vent covers set in the pavements. I took lots of photos of them; they were fascinating, but sadly I had no-one there who could explain the relevance of each one.

  5. Greg Tingey permalink
    December 16, 2018

    Very sllight correction (perhaps)
    In Wentworth St, an over-vigilantstupid & ignorant council worker filled in this roundel ….
    Time to scrape it out again!

  6. Sheila O'Connell permalink
    December 16, 2018

    Another interesting example of art in the pavement is in Marchmont Street, Bloomsbury

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