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So Long, Philip Pittack

May 12, 2020
by the gentle author

The rag merchant Philip Pittack died yesterday of the Coronavirus. He was a charismatic and universally popular character in the East End and beyond, one of the very last of the gentlemen cloth merchants of Spitalfields. Running Crescent Trading in Quaker St in genial partnership with Martin White, the duo were celebrated as the Mike & Bernie Winters of the textile trade.

“Even though my parents didn’t have a lot, they always made sure we were properly turned out”

There were very few who can say – as Philip Pittack did – that they were a third generation rag merchant. In fact, Philip’s grandfather Mendell was a weaver in Poland before he came to this country, which meant the family involvement with textiles might have gone back even further through preceding generations.

Although the work of a rag merchant may seem arcane now, it was the praecursor of recycling. With characteristic panache, Philip found an ingenious way to embody the past and present of his profession. He carved a cosy niche for himself – working with Martin White, a cloth merchant of equal pedigree, at Crescent Trading – selling high quality remnants, ends of runs and surplus fabric, to fashion students, young designers and film and theatre costumiers.

Few could match Philip’s encyclopaedic knowledge of cloth, its qualities and manufacture, yet he was generous with his inheritance – delighting in passing on his textile wisdom, acquired over generations, to young people starting in the industry.

My grandfather Mendell came over from Poland more than a hundred years ago, before the First World War. ‘Ptack’ means ‘little bird’ in Polish but, when he arrived at the Port of London as an immigrant, it got written incorrectly down as Pittack, and that was what it became. He lived in Stamford Hill and had a warehouse at 102/104 Mare St. He went around the textile factories in the East End, collecting the waste which got shredded up and made back into cloth, but he was a lazy bugger who liked whisky and women. My grandmother, she was a tough nut, she worked at the Cally selling rags. It was a free-for-all, and she barged her way in and always made sure she got a good pitch.

My father David, he went to school in Mile End and went into the family business as a kid. He learnt the rag business with his brother Joe. They were tough guys brought up the hard way. When Mosley and his cronies came around, they were in the front row – you didn’t argue with them. They moved into buying surplus rolls of cloth as well as rags and opened a shop too. He did that until he died in February 1977, aged sixty-six. He smoked Churchman’s No 1 like a chimney. He was big fellow with hands like bunches of bananas but he wasted away to a twig.

I used to have a Saturday job, when I was ten years old, to get my pocket money, at a shop selling electrical goods and records, Bardens. I went out with the guys installing televisions and fridges. Eventually, they offered me a job at fourteen years old and were training me to be TV engineer. But, one day, my dad bought a large pile of remnants which took three days to sort and he said, ‘You’re not going to work tomorrow, you’re going to come and help me schlep!’ I lost my job at Bardens and that’s how I started as a rag merchant at fourteen and a half.

After three days of carrying sacks of rags, my father said to me, ‘This is what you are going to do, and you are also a rag sorter.” And that’s what I did, night and bloody day. And if I did anything wrong, my grandfather would come up and thump me on the head. You had either wools, cottons or rayons in those days. There were over a hundred grades of rags, both in quality and material, and  I could tell you hundreds of names of different grades of rags but they wouldn’t mean anything to you.

Then eventually, when I was eighteen, my father said, ‘Here’s a hundred pounds, go out and buy rags, and if you don’t buy any and I don’t sell any, then you don’t earn anything.’ There were hundreds of clothing factories in the East End in those days and you had to go cold-calling to buy the textile waste. There used to be twenty other chaps doing the same thing, so it was very competitive. You climbed under the sewing tables and filled up sacks, then weighed them on a hand-held butchers’ scale with a hook on one end. If they were looking, they got the correct weigh. But the art of the exercise was balancing the sack on your toe while you were weighing it and you could get several pounds off like that. My father taught me how to do it. You’d say, ‘Do you want the correct weight or the correct price?’ and if they said, ‘The correct price,’ then you cut down the weight. They’d have to have paid the dustman to take it away, if we didn’t, but they got greedy.

Over several years, I built up my own round and went round in the truck. But then, my uncle got caught stealing off my dad. By that time, we had a shop in Barnet, so my father turned round – he’d had enough of my uncle thieving – and he said, ‘Give him the shop.’ We had to give up that side of the business. After my father got sick, and I got married and became a parent, he took a back seat. It was very hard work, packing up three or four tons of rags into sacks. Each sack weighed between fifty and one hundred and fifty pounds, and I used to carry them on my back. I can’t believe I used to do it now!

We carried on with the business until I walked away. I’d had enough of my brother, I found he was doing things behind my back with the money. I signed away all the merchandise and suppliers to him in June 1978. I had nothing, they cut off my gas and electricity, and I had my kids at private school. I borrowed five hundred pounds from my sister-in-law to do a little deal. It was the first deal I did on my own. I bought all this cloth for a gentleman who operated twenty-four hours a day out of Great Titchfield St, but when I got there I discovered he already had a warehouse full of the same stuff and I was stuck with a rented van containing five hundred pounds worth of it.

I was almost crying as I was sitting in the truck, waiting for the light to change, until this guy who I knew through business walked up and said, ‘Why don’t you sell it to me?’ I opened up the truck to show him and he said, ‘We’ll buy that.’ But he had a reputation for not paying, so I said, ‘I’ve got to have the money now. As long as you can give me the five hundred pounds, I can come have the rest tomorrow.’ I went and paid back my sister-in-law, and the next day I came back and he gave me the rest. It all came out in the wash! I made four hundred pounds on the deal, and I was jumping up and down on the pavement. Then I went off, and paid the gas and electricity bills and everything else.

I built up my own round with my own people and, eventually, I went to Prouts and bought my own truck. I knew which one I wanted and ex-wife loaned me the money. I went out and filled it up with diesel and it was only me – I’d arrived as a rag merchant.”

At a family wedding, 1946. Philip is three years old. On the left is Barnet Smulevich, Philip’s grandfather. Mendell Pittack, Philip’s other grandfather stands on the right. Philip’a parents, Tilley & David stand behind him and his elder brother Stanley and their cousin, Rosalind Ferguson.

Philip holds his mother’s hand at Cailley St Clapton, shortly after the war, surrounded by other family members.

Riding Muffin the Mule on the beach at Cliftonville, aged six in 1949

Philip with his parents, David and Tilley

Aged fourteen

Bar mitvah, 1956

David Pittack sorting rags at his warehouse in Mare St in the sixties

Skylarking after hours at the Copper Grill in Wigmore St in the sixties

Philip on bongos, enjoying high jinks with pals in Mallorca

In a silver mohair suit, at a Waste Trades Dinner at the Connaught Rooms in Great Queen St

Posing with a pal’s Mustang at Great Fosters country house hotel

passport photo, seventies

Best man at a wedding in the seventies

In the eighties

Martin White & Philip Pittack, Winter 2010

You may like to read my earlier stories about Crescent Trading

The Return of Crescent Trading

Fire at Crescent Trading

Philip Pittack & Martin White, Cloth Merchants

All Change at Crescent Trading

29 Responses leave one →
  1. May 12, 2020

    Rest in Peace Mr. Pittack.????

  2. May 12, 2020

    I am so sorry to read this. My thoughts are with Philip’s family. I love his powerful descriptions of life as a rag merchant: a window into a different world. Thank you for recording his memories.

  3. Peta permalink
    May 12, 2020

    Very sad to read this post today. I visited Philip and Martin at Crescent Trading a few times. He was a lovely man. Peta

  4. Gabriella Loria permalink
    May 12, 2020

    A little shocked to read this today. Philip you were a real treasure and will be missed by many of us.
    Rest in Peace and keep smiling.

  5. Deborah Andrews permalink
    May 12, 2020

    We will miss you so much, I can’t believe I’ll never see you again

  6. Kelly Holman permalink
    May 12, 2020

    Sincere condolences to Mr Pittack’s family. I did not know him but have read of his life here and I am very sorry indeed to read this sad news.

  7. May 12, 2020

    You’ve introduced your readers to so many fascinating, vibrant people — and an earlier post about
    Mr. Pittack’s life and career was a “keeper”. I am very sorry to hear about his passing.

    Stay safe, all.
    Onward and upward.

  8. May 12, 2020

    A lovely story. RIP Mr Pittack

  9. Esther permalink
    May 12, 2020

    I remember first reading about Philip and his brother and their clothbusiness: I realy enjoyed the story.
    So sad to hear he has passed…
    My condolances to his brother and family.

  10. May 12, 2020

    I had never met Philip in person, but from your previous writings and recollections of his life I felt I had. To read this morning of his passing was truly sad. Rest in Peace dear man ?

  11. paul loften permalink
    May 12, 2020

    So sorry to hear of Philip’s passing. It weighs on our hearts that yet another life has been prematurely taken.
    Thank you for keeping us informed. You are invaluable. How else would we get to know of these things which happen around us and matter so much? We read about their lives and then they are suddenly gone. It deeply affects me.

  12. May 12, 2020

    What a colourful life Philip led and what great pictures, really evocative. Thanks for sharing. Most of us will have, or have had, someone we knew, however far back or recent, distant or close, taken by the virus. The pandemic is no longer abstract when we can put a name or a face to the daily death toll statistic. Stay safe.

  13. Eddie H permalink
    May 12, 2020

    Sounded a great character, RIP

  14. May 12, 2020

    Mr Philip Pittack — R.I.P.

    Love & Peace

  15. Andrea Cripps permalink
    May 12, 2020

    So sorry to hear about mr Philip he was an inspiration .
    A sad loss to the fabric and costume world.

  16. Adele Lester permalink
    May 12, 2020

    Sorry to hear. Wishing the family ‘Long Life”.

  17. Saba permalink
    May 12, 2020

    With a lifelong interest in sewing and style, I miss the classic retail fabric dealers that we had here in New York. I did not know you, Mr. Pittack, but I thank you for the gifts you gave to us all.

  18. Jonathan van Halbert permalink
    May 12, 2020

    I am so very sad to learn of this.. Love and best wishes, Jonathan van Halbert.

  19. David Burns permalink
    May 13, 2020

    Such a warm and wonderful man with a lesson in how to live life that we can all learn from. Something that makes his tragic passing all the more sad.

    Some people in life just make life better, and make you as a person better. Philip was one such person.

    Why youngest daughter says that one of her most treasured childhood memories will be of getting up early on a Sunday to visit Philip at the warehouse. He enthralled her and she is inconsolable. I’m much the same.

    A legend leaves us and the East End will never be quite the same again.

    Rest in peace Philip. We may have broken bread at different churches, but if there is something to look forward to after this earth, then I hope we’ll see each other again.

    David and my daughter Livia (recently 10)

  20. May 13, 2020

    Thank you Gentle Author for this post so that we can pay our respects to another East End character taken to soon. Sympathy to all the family at this sad time.
    Rest In Peace Philip Pittack……sleep well.

  21. Stuart permalink
    May 13, 2020

    Very sad news, I’m so sorry to hear this.

    I have enjoyed working with Crescent Trading for years, and always had a bit of banter with Philip and Martin while delving through the racks, looking for that hidden-gem bolt of cloth.

    Philip was a great guy and will be terribly missed.

    My condolences to Martin and to the Pittack family.

    Best wishes, Stuart

  22. Nicole Mitchell permalink
    May 13, 2020

    I love you dad you were truly one of a kind and will he missed by so many ?

  23. Mr Mulji permalink
    May 14, 2020

    Philip, you”ll missed . Both you and Martin always looked after me. I started my business with your help and guidance . Gosh over 35yrs of trading with you both. RIP my friend . Mr “X”

  24. Ashley Brodin permalink
    May 14, 2020

    Philip was the first guy I got drunk with and learned to play baccarat!
    Party in New York and much fun as young men. Sadly missed but never forgotten.

  25. May 14, 2020

    So sorry to hear this, Mr Pittack seemed a truly lovely man and was a real life force. Thoughts with his family and friends.

  26. Martin White permalink
    June 8, 2020

    Devastated at losing my friend and partner of over 30 + years. I will carry on with the business because that is what you would have expected of me. You have left a big void. I will miss you everyday. Martin

  27. andrew stern permalink
    July 6, 2021

    How lovely it was to read your resume Philip.

    How shocked I am to read of your passing. We would only chat infrequently but as one of your only first cousin on your late Mother’s side I was stunned when I looked up to see if your company was trading again, only to see you’d passed last year but no one has notified me. You kept quite close to both my late father & his two brothers in England.

    Rest in Peace & wishing a long life to Bunny his wife, and his two children

  28. October 4, 2021

    I’ve really enjoyed ready your story Philip but so sad to hear you stopped living.
    I haven’t seen Philip or Martin for nearly 15 years but I have enjoyed the odd email contact with Philip over the years.
    Philip and Martin I saw almost weekly for all things cloth when I was in London and we still did some business when I moved home to NZ.
    Philip was a very kind man and I so enjoyed the business relationship I had with him and Martin, he will be missed. Condolences to Martin and Philip’s family.
    Philip you wouldn’t believe it but Kike is 18 now!

  29. Derrick Stephen Woolf permalink
    December 24, 2023

    I knew that Philip had died but have only just came across this very intersting article and pictures.

    Mendal, Philips’s grandfather ,was my great grandfather and together with his wife attended my barmitvah ! Philip’s dad gave me a £20 note that day !

    I remember their workshop , up the stairs in Hackney.

    I have very fond memories of the Pittack family and remember the family issues but more so their wonderful hospitality.

    Derrick Woolf

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