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At S. Festenstein & Sons, Furriers

October 25, 2019
by the gentle author

Observe this young woman peering from the upper window of S.Festenstein & Sons in Banner St, Bunhill Row, around 1900. She looks a little precarious, as if she had climbed up onto a table in her curiosity to look down at the photographer below. She did not know that Mr Festenstein was standing in the doorway in his top hat, three floors below, and I wonder if any comment was made when the photograph was shown to the proprietor later. Yet she had won her place in eternity, which is surely a satisfactory outcome from taking a five minute break?

Danny Tabi, the last furrier in the East End, told me that in 1967 he worked at Gale Furs in Fournier St, when James Mason was filming The London Nobody Knows in the street outside. There is a famous tracking shot that captures all the factory workers as they crowd the pavement and lean from the windows. Danny can name all of them and now regrets that – unlike the woman at Festensteins – he forsook his opportunity to be captured on film, just because he wanted to finish his piece of work in hand.

The fur trade flourished in East London for centuries, working with imported skins that came through the London Docks – and these photographs of Festenstein & Sons, one among hundreds of similar companies, record a trade that no longer suits the sensibility of our modern world and has almost vanished entirely today.

S. Festenstein & Sons, 31 & 33, Banner St, Bunhill Row, EC1

Is this Mr Festenstein in his silk hat?

Factory workers step outside to watch the photographer

In the Factory

In the Skin Department

In the Showroon

Home Order Department

Overseas Order Department

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

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Danny Tabi, Furrier

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Ian Silverton permalink
    October 25, 2019

    Looks very much like my Friend Jeff Warnicks old Furniture Factory in EC1 he produced Repro Furniture from there in the 60s up until 1990s when he sold out to developers for a nice tidy sum, sorry should say from the 1940s as he had a bomb shelter built during the war for the staff in the basement, he told me people where lining up to purchase that separately as a restaurant, looking at the pictures nothing had change when ever I visited him there on my return to UK, his son even had a separate Office High above the building buying skins and trading off,they where all leather though, people working there made items in the half dark,just as they did in the your pictures,no lifts just old wooden stairs to carry the wood up,and the furniture down, let me know if anyone else refer it is. Stay safe Uk

  2. Corvin permalink
    October 25, 2019

    Presumably not a cat skin in sight?

  3. Paul Loften permalink
    October 25, 2019

    My father was a nailer in the East End fur trade before the war. Exactly like those pictured in the photos He was just a boy at the time and the work made him quite ill. He was allergic to the fur but he still had to do it every day as the family depended on his meager income. He hated it
    He was called up on the outbreak of war first as an infantryman and then thanks to his quick brain became a signalman that was selected after intensive training as a high speed Morse operator for SHAEF ( Supreme HQ Allied Expeditionary Force) and took part in the Normandy landings in 1944. He actually sent the message to all news agencies from Luneburg Heath on May 8th 1945 that the Germans had surrendered . We once had the original copy with his initials as sender . He never returned to the fur trade as the army had taught him a trade in telecommunications and he worked in government telecommunications for the rest of his working life

  4. Zelda Harris permalink
    October 25, 2019

    My mother Rene started her working life in a place like that which belonged to her brother in law.She went in to learn millinary and dressmaking there was nothing that she could not sew or mend.They worked in horrible conditions hardly…. allowed to raise their heads from the sewing machine.She came to Israel aged 75 and volunteered to sew for the charity organisations in Netanya

  5. October 25, 2019

    What an interesting job! Working those wonderful fur raps and coats. That is long gone and it is better the animals really killed today.???????

  6. October 25, 2019

    I found this article doing a web search for my relatives and this is my great great grandpas place…So cool to see these pictures thank you!!!

  7. Sue permalink
    October 25, 2019

    A different world. My mum left school and worked for furriers in Oxford Circus (National Furs?) when she was thirteen. When I was a child she did outwork for a furriers in Bond Street called Sharp(e) Bros. Run by two brothers always referred to as Mr.Max and Mr.Sidney. I occasionally accompanied her on trips up to London and was amazed at the floors of workers though it was much smaller than that pictured. In later life she was horrified at the thought of all the endangered species but as she said they just didn’t think about it back then.

  8. October 26, 2019

    Wonderful to see a descendant of Mr Festenstein make a comment above! It may not be PC today, but a fascinating insight into yet another part of our disappearing world

  9. Anthony Brady permalink
    October 26, 2019

    When a person you have met for the first time says their occupation is “furnelling” your curiosity is stimulated immediately. Carlos was a furneller. In time he would relate to me a little of what his work entailed. On first appearance I looked into the friendly but slightly battered face of a West Indian man. He was in his thirties, had become detached from his roots and rejected by the supportive elements of his community. Now: it was the mid-nineteen eighties, Carlos was on the way up from homelessness, as I helped him move into his resettlement bed-sitter in the London district called Hoxton, situated in the one-time Metropolitan Borough of Shoreditch.

    To be precise, the locality was Haggerston: a rundown area where many large family houses had been converted to small upholstery and furniture workshops. Poverty had been the predominant influence since the nineteenth century: indeed, Charles Dickens had drawn extensively on its living conditions as graphic background to his renowned novel Oliver Twist. Carlos had chosen the area as a priority on the list of possibilities that his resettlement plan proposed because the factory he worked in was there and his friend Georgina planned to move into the neighbourhood. He had arrived at a time when the developers and estate agents were talking up the area as being on “a cusp.” Housing, social and commercial change was inevitable and neatly encapsulated in the way a letter writer to The Hackney Gazette put it: “The Nigels and the Pamelas are arriving on a tide of builder’s skips.”

    In what seemed an overnight transformation the whole face of the area changed as artists moved in and the likes of Rachel Whitereade, Tracy Emin, Damien Hirst and Gilbert and George set up their studios and small art galleries opened their doors. The writer Martin Amis came and was inspired to write a best seller novel: London Fields. For Carlos and his friend this nouveau bohemia would easily accommodate, nay indulge their, how should I put it, as I had been given the merest hint, their unusual proclivities? Here they could safely put another face on their relationship.

    I hope the reader will not be disappointed when I fail to describe in detail the work of furnelling except to mention, that it involves the stripping of animal skins and stroking the fur in one direction to match it for sewing into garments. Carlos showed me a few examples from his wardrobe – in which, I noticed, hung a disproportionate quantity of women’s clothes. I surmised that they must be owned by Georgina who, during this period of Carlos’s transition, I never actually met.

    Some years passed and I again found myself in the area. I decided to call by and re-new my acquaintance with Carlos. The change in the locality was compelling and as I enjoyed the ambiance of a wine-bar I studied an artist’s embellished advertisement. It featured a ‘photo of a fur coated dancer billed as Carla Candida who performed on a regular basis in a nearby pub cum restaurant cum disco: The Queen’s Arms. Although the face in the photo was unfamiliar I thought that I might have seen it before.

    At Carlos’s flat the door was opened by a stranger and I stated my reason for calling. The face I looked at was not that of Carlos but I noticed as I was invited in, that despite a bushy moustache, it was of a woman dressed as a man. “I’m George – it’s my wife that you must be after!” he said, as I followed him into the flat. Before I had time to take in the surroundings a perfectly made up woman in a mini-skirt approached and embracing me firmly planted a lipstick tasting kiss on my lips. I looked directly into her face. I took in the perfect false eyelashes, the carefully applied mascara, the delicately rouged cheeks, the deceptive wig, the striking ear rings. It would be an exaggeration to say I felt a heaving bosom pressed to my palpitating chest and that I detected a hint of Chanel No 5. Resistance was futile.

    One thing was inescapable: Carlos had become Carla. I was de-clutched and invited to tea. This was efficiently laid on by his “husband.” An amusing hour or so passed but I had to decline the invitation for that evening’s performance in The Queen’s Arms.

    Anthony J M Brady
    Formerly Administrator
    Providence Row Night Refuge
    50 Crispin Street
    This is an extract from his book:
    Nothing Matches – but It’s Home
    A Quartet: Scenes from An Examined Life

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