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Memories of Ship Tavern Passage

May 8, 2019
by Gillian Tindall

Contributing Writer Gillian Tindall recalls her first job in a bookshop in Ship Tavern Passage in the City of London in the fifties. Gillian’s next book is about memory and will be published by Chatto & Windus in October.

Gillian Tindall in the fifties

I was born in London but the blitz of the Second World War intervened too soon for me to have retained any memory of the house of my birth. Like most of the London babies and children of my generation I was bundled off to the countryside, in my case Sussex.

With the passing years this became my place of childhood. For though most of London had not been comprehensively wrecked by German bombs, the notion persisted for a good ten years after the war that most of it was only fit for redevelopment. London was admittedly very dirty still in that time of open fires before Clean Air Acts and the disappearance of steam trains. I remember my seven-year-old surprise – on a rare London visit one spring – at seeing how green the new leaves were in the parks. I was used to the joys of primrose and bluebells in the country, but against the sooty black town branches that ‘came off’ on your hands (“Darling, I told you not to touch!”) these London leaves amazed me with their delicate beauty.

In other respects London seemed a compelling but faintly sinister place, wonderfully busy with huge shops, tall buses and taxis hailed ‘for a treat,’ yet reputedly full of ‘slums’ that I never managed to locate. My mother wore a hat and her best coat when going ‘up to Town,’ yet sometimes I would glimpse in dark doorways or down side-streets people far shabbier and stranger than any to be seen in our country village. I longed to explore further.

The years passed and everything changed. My mother was dead, we moved house, and I found myself living near Hampstead Heath with my father. Grocery shopping and cooking in the intervals of working for a college entrance exam suited me fine, and my exploring project took off. But once the exam was done there was a vague feeling I ought to have a job. This was the modernity of the fifties: goodness me, a girl should not be hanging round at home, poor dear! A job was found for me in a bookshop off Gracechurch St in the City of London and, for a mercifully brief period in my life, I joined the inexorable morning and evening tide of rush hour travel.

Neither the bookshop nor its two other branches exist any more. Several years after my brief sojourn there it collapsed with, what I have been told, was an impressive backlog of debt and mismanagement. Indeed, even to my utterly ignorant perceptions, it seemed rather chaotically run. It was in Ship Tavern Passage which led into one end of Leadenhall Market and still does, though the alley as I knew it is gone. The market is flourishing still, if somewhat transformed. Its elaborate columns and façades beautified with dark red paint and gilding. The tempting meat and vegetable stalls that I remember and the one sandwich bar – to which I gratefully escaped for a late snack when lunch-hour customers had returned to their offices – have gone, to be replaced by restaurants and wine bars. The sole remaining old building in Ship Tavern Passage is, confusingly, an inn called the Swan (which I am told was only saved in 1985 from the developers’ wrecking ball by a last minute protest). The site that was occupied by the bookshop where I worked and by its modest neighbouring shops is now covered by the corporate architecture of Marks & Spencer.

I liked talking to customers about the books they were seeking, though many of these seemed to be allocated monthly by a national membership organisation, an institutional precursor to modern, informal book clubs. (Why – if these volumes were for members at a special rate – they had to be obtained in a bookshop puzzles me today. But so it was. The standard price for a hardback was seven shillings and sixpence, and there were relatively few paperbacks). However, my task – according to the dragon-lady who was head-assistant – was to dust the books full-time, since soot still reigned everywhere. I remember my forearms being permanently grey, for I soon learned to push up the sleeves of the black jersey I seem to have worn every day. The habit, though not the jersey, has remained with me for life.

In the basement was a less prestigious department where china was sold (a bad sign in a bookshop, as I now know) and pictures were brought in to be framed. Sometimes I would be sent down there, where I was terrorised by an ever-returning customer who was enraged that the picture he had left for framing had disappeared. In vain, would I repeat to him that it was nothing to do with me, while the other assistant (who knew nothing of the picture either and talked to me of little else beside her secret and exciting extra-marital affaire) hid in the stock-room. Once, I was rescued from the furious customer by a grander and much nicer lady than the dragon upstairs. She was the buyer for books, who used to take refuge in the basement to avoid being overwhelmed by publishers’ reps.

I was paid £5 a week cash in a small brown envelope, handed to me by a pay-clerk who for some reason disapproved of me – or perhaps just of life and his own circumstances. This modest sum would have been just enough for me to live on week to week, bed-sitters and fares both then being extraordinarily cheap. But as I was living at home with my father my wage was all – apart from the small cost of sandwiches – spending money. Only it was very difficult then in the City to buy the sort of things girls needed, such as stockings, underclothes and hair-ribbons. Even though ‘lady-typists’ had been a known species for most of the twentieth century, the Square Mile remained a preserve of men in three-piece suits and bowler hats.

I had got onto terms with only small segments of London and the City not at all, as I scuttled between Liverpool St tube station and Ship Tavern Passage, afraid of being late and incurring the dragon’s displeasure. Yet occasionally the nicer lady would suggest that I be sent on an errand to one of the big banks in Lombard St with – what I can only suppose – were the day’s takings, in a small canvas bag. Security did not seem to have been an issue in those peace-seeking, post-war times.

I enjoyed these outings into the sparrow-populated, starling-haunted streets, that were still lined with heavy Victorian buildings, not a glass tower in sight. But how ignorant I was! As I went by, Mary Woolnoth’s bell would chime – ‘with a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.‘ I had barely heard of TS Eliot then, let alone that he passed eight years in his thirties in tedious bank-employment just there, or had I any idea that he would become for me the prince of poets, haunting much of my adult work on place and history.

I also do not think I knew that a year or two before a temple of Mithras had been unearthed on a building site not far off, and was even then being laboriously (and rather ineptly) removed for re-erection at a different site nearby. I certainly did not know (since no one else seemed to then either) that the space which became Leadenhall Market was once the heart of the Roman basilica and forum, constructed in the first century AD. Its ruins were uncovered in 1881, when the iron structure of the Victorian market was going up. Only recently has it been confirmed that this was indeed the forum, the epicentre of judicial and financial administration. Some of the ruins are there to this day, carefully preserved in the basement of an upmarket gentlemen’s barbers, Nicholson & Griffin, on the corner of Gracechurch St.

I should like to go back to the old, unpretentious Leadenhall Market and the days when a cup of tea cost tuppence ha’penny and a cup of weak coffee thripence because coffee was posher. I should like to go back to the time when tube fares too were in pennies and no-one but the drunks round Spitalfields slept in the streets, because the newspapers every evening had columns and columns of attics and basements and little backrooms to rent for tiny weekly amounts.

I should not like to go back to being that dreamy girl in a grubby black jersey, a duffle coat and ‘ballet-slippers,’ who knew nothing much about anything and had all her life before her. However alarming various different national and world trends seem to be, and however tiresome it is for me no longer being able to walk all day round London (after a lifetime of doing this my over-used feet hurt and I get too tired), I think I should much rather be the me of today. Life has been satisfactory, and sometimes wonderful, but I do not want the labour of starting it all over again.

Ship Tavern Passage off Gracechurch St as portrayed by Henrie Pitcher in 1911 yet it was unaltered in the fifties when Gillian Tindall first knew it

Ship Tavern Passage today

You may like to read these other stories by Gillian Tindall

At Captain Cook’s House in Mile End

In Stepney, 1963

Stepney’s Lost Mansions

Where The White Chapel Once Stood

The Old South Bank

Leonard Fenton, Actor

In Old Deptford

Lifesaving in Limehouse

From Bedlam To Liverpool St

Smithfield’s Bloody Past

The Tunnel Through Time

13 Responses leave one →
  1. Annelise Goodsir permalink
    May 8, 2019

    A lovely and fascinating read! Also love the painting by Henrie Pitcher. Thank you.

  2. Peter Smith permalink
    May 8, 2019

    A lovely evocative story. The city evolves constantly. Let’s hope it retains its essential character. In 1978 I started work in the City as an articled clerk (now called a trainee solicitor). In 1986 we moved into the newly built 77 Gracechurch Street office next door to the Swan. The Swan was a regular haunt for us all after work drinks and celebrations.

  3. Helen Breen permalink
    May 8, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what delightful memories Gillian Tindall shared of her youth working in the City in the fifties. I can particularly relate to her observation:

    “I had barely heard of TS Eliot then, let alone that he passed eight years in his thirties in tedious bank-employment just there, or had I any idea that he would become for me the prince of poets, haunting much of my adult work on place and history.”

  4. May 8, 2019

    Lovely article. I loved it. Thank you, Gillian.

  5. Paul Loften permalink
    May 8, 2019

    I worked in the City the 60’s and 70’s and then made a complete change to Hampstead also to the world of books and I never regretted it . Gillian you call yourself an ignorant girl who knew nothing and before us we see an image of a generation totally immersed in a small black box walking down the street?

  6. May 8, 2019

    I worked in the City the 60′s and 70′s and then made a complete change to Hampstead also to the world of books and I never regretted it . Gillian you call yourself an ignorant girl who knew nothing and before us we see an image of a generation totally immersed in a small black box walking down the street?

  7. Ros permalink
    May 8, 2019

    What wonderful powers of memory Gillian has – she transports us to the world she saw around her then so that we too can see and feel it. I look forward very much to her forthcoming book.

  8. May 8, 2019

    This is the first time I’ve ever read anything by Gillian Tindall. Really evocative of how I imagine London in the 1950s. Must read more about dragon’s, soot and extra marital affairs!

  9. Delia Folkard permalink
    May 8, 2019

    Thank you Gillian, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this account of your early working life in London and am now working my way through your previous very informative blogs.

  10. Jeannette permalink
    May 8, 2019

    this is great, thanks, Celestine is one of my favorite books.

  11. sprite permalink
    May 9, 2019

    a beautiful read, so well written and evocative of that part of the east end

  12. Tony Gould permalink
    May 9, 2019

    A lovely piece, Gillian. An old New Society colleague and friend (the art editor, Tony Garrett) sent me the web link and I enjoyed reading about your early days. I’m glad to learn that you have a book on Memory coming out in the autumn. I will look forward to seeing that.

  13. Richard permalink
    May 11, 2019

    I enjoyed your book on Calcutta. Thanks.

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