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The Dioramas Of Petticoat Lane

January 7, 2020
by the gentle author

As soon as the landlord of The Bell in Petticoat Lane wrote to say he had discovered some neglected old models of Spitalfields in the cellar, I hurried over to take a look. Once upon a time, these beautiful dioramas enjoyed pride of place in the barroom but by then they had been consigned to oblivion.

Although hefty and dusty and in need of a little repair, nevertheless they were skilfully made and full of intriguing detail, and deserved to be seen. Thanks to the enlightened curatorial policy of Archivist Stefan Dickers, today they enjoy a permanent home in the reading room at the Bishopsgate Institute where they can visited during opening hours.

I am always curious to learn more of this southerly corner of Spitalfields closest to the City that gives up its history less readily than some other parts, but where the market dates from the twelfth century – much older than that on the northern side of the parish which was not granted its charter until the seventeenth century. The Bell, topped off by a grotesque brick relief of a bell with a human face and adorned with panels of six thousand bottle tops by Robson Cezar, King of the Bottletops, has always fascinated me. Once the only pub in Petticoat Lane, it can be dated back to 1842 and may be much earlier since a Black Bell Alley stood upon this site in the eighteenth century.

I first saw the dioramas in the cellar of The Bell, when the landlord dragged them out for me to examine, one by one, starting with the largest. There are four – three square boxes and one long box, depicting Petticoat Lane Market and The Bell around a hundred years ago. In the market diorama, stalls line up along Middlesex St selling books and rolls of cloth and provisions, while a priest and a policemen lecture a group of children outside the pub. In total, more than thirty individually modelled and painted clay figures are strategically arranged to convey the human drama of the market. By contrast, the square boxes are less panoramic in ambition, one portrays the barroom of The Bell, one the cellar of The Bell and another shows a drayman with his wagon outside the Truman Brewery in Brick Lane, with a steam train crossing the railway bridge in the background.

A discreet plate on each diorama reveals the maker as Howard Kerslake’s model studio of Southend, a professional model maker’s pedigree that explains the sophisticated false perspectives and clever details such as the elaborate lamp outside The Bell – and the stuffed fish, the jar of pickled onions and the lettered mirror in the barroom – and the easy accomplishment of ambitious subjects such as the drayman’s cart with two horses in Brick Lane.

Nowadays, the dioramas have been dusted down and cleaned up and I recommend a visit to examine them for yourself.

Click on this picture to enlarge the diorama of Petticoat Lane

At the Truman Brewery Brick Lane, looking north

The barroom of The Bell

The cellar of The Bell

The Bell in the 1930s

You may like to read these other Petticoat Lane stories

Postcards from Petticoat Lane

Dennis Anthony’s Photographs of Petticoat Lane

Laurie Allen of Petticoat Lane

Irene & Ivan Kingsley, Market Traders of Petticoat Lane

Henry Jones, Jones Dairy

20 Responses leave one →
  1. January 7, 2020

    Works of art!

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    January 7, 2020

    Wow! I can’t wait to go and see these… Scale model making is one of the favourite aspects of my job and so I can really appreciate how skilfully these have been made. I’m also intrigued to see how big they are.

    Hmm…I wonder if there is a market for modern day dioramas of Spitalfields?

  3. January 7, 2020

    The interior of the bar is the most interesting part as we rarely see interior photographs from this period. The landlady/barmaid’s hair and clothes are of particular interest to me. She looks rather dressed up, indicating that perhaps a little glamour was necessary for the job – film producers should take note of this hard to find detail!

  4. Mary permalink
    January 7, 2020

    What a wonderful “find” and thankfully the landlord and the Bishopsgate Institute realised their as cultural and historical value. I never ceased to be amazed by what GA finds in the BI and I must visit this intriguing gem.
    I love the barmaid and as she appears to be more detailed than the other figures, I wonder if she is based on a real person, probably well known to the modeller. If only she could talk.

  5. John C. Miles permalink
    January 7, 2020

    What amazing, wonderful survivors of an almost-forgotten Victorian art form – thank you, GA, for bringing them to our attention! I find myself wondering whether the lovely gas balloon one can see floating above the Great Eastern Railway lines launched from the gardens of ‘The Eagle’ on City Road…

  6. January 7, 2020

    What stupendous images.
    We’ve been to The Bell for ‘Soul Giant’ an all dayer Northern Soul event held on Sunday afternoons every other month. A smashing pub and this post by GA lends another dimension to the experience.

  7. January 7, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, I was glad to learn that those intriguing dioramas of the Bell in Petticoat Lane are enjoying a new life under your care. Interesting that the pub owner back in the day would invest in such accessible art for his establishment. I hope to drop in next June to see for myself since “today they enjoy a permanent home in the reading room at the Bishopsgate Institute where they can visited during opening hours.”

    Also while I am in the neighborhood, I expect to have lunch at E. Pellicci’s in the East End that you have mentioned with enthusiasm so many times.

  8. January 7, 2020

    Wonderful! Using your post as an additional link for my winter series on Facebook today and probably again in the spring. Great dioramas.

  9. paul loften permalink
    January 7, 2020

    Thanks to all the three parties the Bell’s landlord , the Bishopgate institute and the GA in bringing these lifelike models to us . They are an absolute treasure.
    I’ll have a pint of mild and bitter a chunk of the Cheddar and a pickled onion from the jar. How much is that ? Sixpence thank you madam .
    I can smell the sawdust as well .

  10. mlaiuppa permalink
    January 7, 2020

    Those are fabulous. The best I have ever seen.

    I remember we used to have to make dioramas when I was in school. Poor, lame excuses for dioramas.

    I love them. Probably because my parents have one on the wall of the living room. Folk art. A German interior room of a mountain cabin. Tourist stuff. But still pretty good.

    Knott’s Berry Farm used to have the Mott’s miniatures. Dollhouses that open up and models of interior rooms and quite elaborate. A hat shop. A merchant’s shop. That was the one thing I wanted to see whenever we went. Not the rides. To see the Mott’s miniatures. Not sure where they are now. The exhibition was closed in 1998 and the collection was broken up and sold to private collectors. What a pity.

    When I went to Europe I visited a toy museum in Basel that had some lovely dioramas. Mostly doll and bear toyshops in miniature.

    But those dioramas from the basement of The Bell are simply works of art. They are a time capsule of life as it was. I am so pleased they were saved, found, restored and now have a permanent home where the can be enjoyed by all.

    Just another thing to add to my list should I ever travel to London.

    Thank you so much for sharing this.

  11. Dave White permalink
    January 8, 2020

    What wonderful attention to detail..and what a sense of history…fantastic!

  12. Kathleen Ellis permalink
    January 8, 2020

    Your column brings me such joy!

    And, I am enamored of the toy theaters. My husband, John Ellis, mentioned he was a classmate of George Speaight’s son and you are likely to know of him.

    We now live in California, but long to live in Spitalfields. John had been a colleague of Richard MacCormac. We hope to rent his home from his son Will this summer.

    A devoted reader, Kathleen

  13. January 8, 2020

    These are So Beautiful!! I wish they were mine!!😊🥰😘🌸🌺🎀🌷💝

  14. Carol Himmelman-Christopher permalink
    January 8, 2020

    What a joyful find!!!! Thank you for sharing these.

  15. January 8, 2020

    Wonderful. What a fantastic find & record of Spitalfields past. Thank you for sharing & glad these treasures are now safely in the hands of The Bishopsgate Institute.

  16. Penny Wolswinkel permalink
    January 9, 2020

    I wonder if you can clarify the following “Once the only pub in Petticoat Lane, it can be dated back to 1842 and may be much earlier since a Black Bell Alley stood upon this site in the eighteenth century.”
    As my Dubock ancestors had the Coach and Horses at 129 Petticoat Lane in the Regency Period and it was known to be there at least in 1855.
    I’m always keen to find out as much as I can about the area.

  17. January 9, 2020

    How much fun to find such a miniature treasure of history 🙂 Would love to see the dustfree version.

    I always loved seeing miniature versions of shops etc; I enjoy looking at all the details. Wonder if any of the clayfigures were actual people that once walked that street or selled their wares?

  18. February 2, 2020

    Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful! Reminds me so much of the figurines which are created in the Neapolitan Nativity. Thanks so much. Works of art.

  19. February 12, 2021

    What was the name of the kosher food shop in Petticoat Landme in the 1960’s ?

  20. debra sewell permalink
    May 24, 2023

    I was surprised to see how young and talented Sebastian is. The display of dioramas are marvelous. Kind of like time caught for us to see. thank you

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