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London’s Oldest Ironmonger

September 13, 2019
by the gentle author

Celebrating our tenth anniversary with favourite stories from the first decade

The frontage at 493-495 Hackney Rd 

The factory at the rear of the shop

London’s oldest ironmongers opened for business in 1797 as Presland & Sons, became W.H. Clark Ltd in the eighteen-nineties and was still trading from the same location, over two hundred years later, as Daniel Lewis & Son Ltd – The One Stop Metal Shop. Operating at first from a wooden shack built around 1760, they constructed their own purpose-built shop and factory at the beginning of the nineteenth century, which suited their needs so perfectly that – in an astonishing and rare survival – it stood almost unaltered to the end.

It is architecture of such a utilitarian elegance and lack of ostentation that it did not draw attention to itself. I had no idea there was a complete Georgian shopfront in the Hackney Rd until David Lewis, the proprietor, pointed it out to me and I compared it to the illustration above. Remarkably, even the decorative coloured-glass lozenge above the door was exactly as in the engraving.

When contributing photographer Simon Mooney & I went along to explore, we were amazed to discover a unique complex of buildings that carried two centuries of history of industry in the East End, with many original items of nineteenth century hardware still in stock.

“We were here before the canal, the railway and the docks,” David Lewis informed us proudly,“When the Prince Regent banned horses from being stabled in the city, this area became the centre of the carriage and coach-building industry.” An ironmonger with a lyrical tendency, David reminded us that Cambridge Heath Rd was once a heath, that Bishop Bonnar once built his mansion on this land before the Reformation and that an oval duckpond once existed where the Oval industrial estate stands today behind his premises – all in introduction to the wonders of his personal domain which had been there longer than anything else around.

You entered from the street into the double-height shop, glazed with floor-to-ceiling windows and lined to the roof with meticulously-labelled wooden pigeon-holes, built-in as part of the original architecture. A winding stair led you into the private offices and you discovered beautiful bow-fronted rooms, distinguishing the rear of the terrace that extended two storeys above, offering ample staff quarters.  On one side, was an eccentric, suspended office extension built in 1927 and constructed with panelling and paint supplied by the Great Western Railway, who were customers. This eyrie served as David’s private den, where he sat smoking at a vast nineteenth century desk surrounded by his collection of custom number plates, all spelling Lewis in different configurations of numbers and letters.

A ramp down from the shop led to the rear, past cellars lined with pigeon-holes constructed of the flexo-metal plywood that was the source of the company’s wealth for decades. At the back, was a long factory building with three forges for manufacturing ironwork where you could still feel the presence of many people in the richness of patina created by all the those who worked there through the last two centuries. Occasionally, David paused and, in delight, pulled out boxes full of brass fixtures and iron bolts necessary for nineteenth century carriage building. Upstairs, he showed us an arcane machine for attaching metal rims to wagon wheels, essential when the streets of London went from dirt to cobbles in the nineteenth century.

To the left of the factory, stood a long cobbled shed where the carriages came in for repair, and beneath a slab flowed a stream and there were stones of the Roman road that ran through here. In the layers of gloss paint and the accumulation of old things, in the signs and the ancient graffiti, in the all the original fixtures and fittings, these wonderful buildings spoke eloquently of their industrial past. Yet for David they contained his family history too.

“My dad was Lewis Daniel John Lewis, he was known as Lewis Lewis and his father was also known as Lewis Lewis. It went back to my great-great-great-great- grandfather and my father wanted me to be Lewis Lewis too but my mum wasn’t having it, so I am David Richard Lewis. I first came here with my dad as a nipper, when I was four or five years old, on Saturday mornings while he did the books. I played with all the nuts and bolts, and I was curious to see what was in all the boxes. And I used to run up and down the ramp, I was fascinated by it. I’ve learnt that it’s there because the Hackney Rd follows a natural ridge and there were once mushroom fields on either side at a lower level.

My dad started at W.H.Clark in 1948 as a young boy of fifteen, he had already studied book-keeping and he was taken on as an office junior. At eight years old, it was discovered he was diabetic when he was found lying on the pavement here in Hackney Rd, where my grandparents had a grocer and dairy. He always had to have insulin injections after that. He was tall, six foot one, and a little skinny because he didn’t have much of an appetite – except for chocolate biscuits which he shouldn’t have had, but he enjoyed them with a cup of tea.

He learnt the trade and he worked his way up to office manager. Then, in 1970, one of the partners retired and the other suffered a tragedy and turned to drink and became unsteady. So my grandfather bought the business for my father in 1971 and he took over the directorship of the company. He already knew how to run the business and he set out to build the company up with new customers – he got St Paul’s Cathedral as a customer and we still supply them.

Our biggest selling product was flexo-metal plywood, we had the exclusive distribution contract and we supplied it to the coach-building industry across the entire South-East of England for the construction of buses, coaches, lorries and trucks. They used to pull up outside with vehicles that had no body, no cab – just the engine and a chassis with the driver sitting on a tin bucket. They bought flexo-metal plywood to build the body and we could supply them with a windscreen, lights, chains for tailboards, everything – all the components. Any time I see a van in a fifties or sixties film, it is one of ours. At that time, we employed eighteen people.

I joined in 1992. I went to college and did business studies and I wanted to prove to my dad that I could do it on my own. I became a trademark lawyer, working for the Trademarks Consortium in Pall Mall that protected the trademarking for brands like Cadburys, Bass, Tesco and Schweppes. I’ve always been fascinated by labels because of looking at all the different trademarks on the boxes of screws here and I collect custom number plates.

When the business that supplied flexo-metal plywood went to the wall, my father employed Peter Sandrock who used to run it. He was approached by many global companies because he was a genius mathematician who could do figures in his head, but he wanted to work for my dad because they always got on well and would help each other. He worked for my dad for ten years until 1992 and that’s when I came in, just after I got married.

I started as an office junior like my dad but I found it boring because I had already done other things. So I said, ‘Can I go down and serve behind the counter?’ but he said, ‘You haven’t got the build to carry steel.’ I surprised him by developing muscles and soon I could do it with ease – I’ve got broad shoulders now when I didn’t use to have.

When I was made a director, all the carriage-building trade was moving up north, so I refocused the company towards aluminium and steel supply to metal fabricators, architects and sculptors. But in recent years, due to installation of cctv cameras and the council issuing £130 fines to our customers while picking up orders, our trade has dropped by fifty per cent. We have two to three hundred customers a day and I reckon the council have earned £63,000 a year in fines out of them and so, in a few months, after two centuries of business in this location, we are going to move from here .

It was in 2002, I changed the name of the company from W.H.Clark Ltd, who had been a Mayor of Hackney in the nineteenth century, to Daniel Lewis & Son Ltd, in memory of my father. I am the son.”

London’s oldest ironmonger closed in 2014

Nineteenth century storage filled with nineteenth century carriage fittings in the factory

The enamel sign that was taken down from the frontage in 2002

This is the cobbled workshop where the carriages were wheeled in for repair.

The ceiling in the storeroom is lined with timber painted with nineteenth century sign-writing

Carriage bolts are still in stock

The wooden pigeon-holes stretch to the ceiling in the double-height shop and are contemporary with the building

Daniel Lewis & Son Ltd has collets in stock – pins used for attaching cartwheels to the shaft

David in the factory building

Bert left to in 1962 Good By

Machine for applying metal rims to cartwheels in the factory

A threading machine in the factory

This brick was laid by “Ole Bill” 1927 RIP

 

View towards the bonded warehouse of the Chandlers & Wiltshire Brewery – burnt out in World War II, it is London’s last bombsite and a memorial to the Blitz in the East End

A display of Nettlefolds screws wired to a board in a gilt-crested frame that was displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851

The glass over the entrance was part of the original design of the building, dating from the early nineteenth century

Packaging for hinged metal indicator lights, still in stock

 

Keep this door shut

The crackle on the office wall is authentic, achieved by age, not a paint effect

The name of W.H.Clark impressed upon a carriage shaft manufactured in the forge

Before 1920, no road vehicle was permitted to travel at more than 20mph and had a plate attached to this effect – Daniel Lewis & Son Ltd still had them in stock

The Ascot water heater in David’s office was fully-functional

The shop with the ramp going down towards the factory at the back

The steps from the shop going up to the office

David Lewis at his desk in the rear office lined with panelling and paint supplied by the Great Western Railway

Photographs copyright © Simon Mooney

You may also like to take a look at

Photographs from London’s Oldest Ironmongers

Receipts from London’s Oldest Ironmongers

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Ron Wilkinson permalink
    September 13, 2019

    I love the feel and smell of old workshops. This shop is older than the state of California. The only stuctures as old were built when CA was a Spanish colony. So an old shop like that
    here couldn’t be older than the 19th century.

  2. Peter Wheeler permalink
    September 13, 2019

    Between 1958-1965 my father had a pub in Clerkenwell at the bottom of Exmouth Market. It was call The Nettlefolds. I always knew that Nettlefolds was a Nuts and Bolts manufacturer but never saw the connection to the pub. As far as I knew it was the only pub in London called
    The Nettlefolds.

  3. Paul Loften permalink
    September 13, 2019

    It was a great loss when this store closed. High streets and not so high streets are rapidly becoming the most boring places on earth. Aldi is now the only place that I venture as the middle row has a feast of useful tools , screws , fittings and fixtures and there is some interest for me along with the sometimes , lovely lady cashiers that I chat to when paying the bill for my weekly shop. Thank you for this article

  4. September 13, 2019

    For the record, Presland & Sons is not the oldest surviving ironmongers in London; Comyn Ching the architectural ironmongers, were in business in Shelton Street, Seven Dials, Covent Garden from before 1723.

    When Sir Terry Farrell was tasked with creating the masterplan of the redevelopment of what became known as the “Comyn Ching Triangle”, integral to the project was the reinstatement and refurbishment of the premises and showroom of the longstanding occupants, Comyn Ching ironmongers, at 17-19 Shelton Street, WC2, as per Historic England’s brief. Throughout the now completed project, the “CC” logo can be seen numerous times in various formats in order to both preserve the Comyn Ching heritage and its continued relevance to the area.

    The Seven Dials, laid out in 1692 by Sir Thomas Neale [plans were submitted in 1692 to Sir Christopher Wren, the Surveyor-General, for a building licence], is bounded by Monmouth Street to the W, Mercer Street to the NE and Shelton Street to the SE, and at its core is Ching Court, and a public thoroughfare through it, created in 1983-5.

    At the time, the mathematical knowledge necessary to construct accurate sundials, whether trigonometrical or the geometry of projection, was part of the rediscovery in Renaissance Europe of ancient mathematics. This coincided with an upsurge of interest in recreational mathematics, and an everyday need for reliable public timepieces. Sundials were often erected in public places to regulate the growing number of clocks, which though popular were unreliable and inaccurate. A modern version of that sun dial pillar stands at the centrepoint of the convergence of the Seven Dials streets today.

    The Comyn Ching Triangle is now listed as a prime example of British Post-Modernism.

  5. Peter Metaxas permalink
    September 13, 2019

    As someone who has always worked in and around mechanical ‘stuff’ I found this fascinating.
    I’m going to keep the article open and look at it several time today.
    Excellent
    Best Regards
    Peter
    Iona
    Prince Edward Island
    Canada

  6. the gentle author permalink*
    September 13, 2019

    When the article about Presland & Sons was first published, Comyn Ching was no longer in business and Presland & Sons was de facto London’s oldest ironmonger. Now Presland is gone as well.

  7. Jill Wilson permalink
    September 13, 2019

    What a fantastic place and what a shame that it has gone!

    There seems to her a bit of a recurring theme developing in your tenth anniversary re-runs – that the place or person you were originally celebrating is no longer with us. How sad that life is duller without them…

  8. Steven Burr permalink
    September 14, 2019

    I hope all of this has been preserved!

  9. Robin permalink
    September 17, 2019

    Beautiful images; fascinating place with such a marvelous history. So sad it’s gone!

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