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So Long, James McBarron

May 27, 2021
by the gentle author

James Mc Barron died on Monday at the fine age of ninety-four, he was born in Hoxton on 21st September 1926

James McBarron

When I published Horace Warner’s photographs of Spitalfields Nippers from around 1900, I never expected to meet anyone who knew them. Yet Lynne Ellis wrote to say her father James McBarron recognised Celia Compton whom Horace Warner photographed at the age of fifteen in 1901. By the time James knew Celia, when he was a child in the thirties, she was Mrs Hayday and he encountered her as a money-lender when he was sent to make weekly repayments on his mother’s loans.

Intrigued by this unexpected connection to a photograph of more than a century ago, I took the train from Fenchurch St down to Stanford Le Hope to meet James McBarron and learn more of his story. This is what he told me.

“I am from Hoxton, Shoreditch, I was born in George Sq at the back of Hoxton Sq – it’s not there anymore. There were seven tenements and another building where Mrs Hayday lived, all around a yard with a lamppost in the middle. We attached a rope onto the lamppost and swung on it. We used to have a bonfire there in November and all the families came along. It was like a village and a lot of people were related, and everyone knew each other. We were clannish and there were quite a few families with members in different flats – my grandmother and grandfather lived there in one flat and I had two aunts in another.

Eighty years later I can still remember Mrs Hayday, even though I was only seven, eight or nine at the time. It was in 1936 or thereabouts. She was a money-lender and I was sent by my mother every Sunday to pay sixpence to her, but it didn’t mean anything to me at the time. To my eyes, as young boy, she was overwhelming. I was shown into the bedroom by her daughter and she was always lying there in bed. She took out a book from the bedside and made a note of the money.  I recall an impression of crisp white sheets and she had dyed blonde hair. She was a buxom woman, a little blowsy. She smelled of scent – Phul Nana by Grossmith – the only scent I knew as a young boy, the factory was in Newgate St. I was awestruck because she was so unlike any of the other people I knew. There was a never a man there or a Mr Hayday. She was a very nice lady, she said, ‘Hello’ and ‘Say ‘Hello’ to your mum and dad,’And that was Mrs Hayday.’

My father, George, was a carpenter from Sunderland and he served in the Great War. My mother worked at Tom Smith’s Cracker Factory in Old St. My parents met in London and my mother’s family already lived in George Sq. My grandfather, he was an inventor and I admired him very much. He made a little working steam engine, and he tapped the gas main and had a tube with a little flame, so he could light his roll-ups. He played the violin and read music, and he never went to work. My gran used to go round to the pub for a jug of beer and they’d all go upstairs to my grandparents’ flat and play darts, and he’d play the violin.

We kids used to chop firewood to make money. The boys and girls used to go around collecting tea-chests and packing-boxes from the back of all the furniture factories, and say ‘Can we take it away, Mister?’ We chopped it up into sticks and made bundles, and we’d sell them for a penny or a ha-penny. We used to go to Spitalfields Market and ask for ‘Any spunks?’ or ‘Spunky oranges and apples?’ and they’d chuck the fruit that was going bad to us.

We didn’t think we were poor, except there was a family called Laban who were better off than us. He was a bookmaker and had touts. I remember their son had a jacket with pleats in the back and I wanted one like it, but when my mum eventually got me one it wasn’t so good. My father had a blue serge suit and it was pawned each Monday to pay the rent and bought back each Friday when he got paid. On Sundays, we went down to Stephenson’s Bakery in Curtain Rd to get a penny loaf.

When you came out of George Sq, there was a little alleyway leading through to Hoxton Market. There was Marcus the Newsagent, and next to it was Pollock’s and they had toy theatres in the window and these glass bottles with coloured liquid – it was a tiny shop. Next to that was Neville’s where my father bought our boots and shoes. I can remember every shop in the Market. Hoxton St was different then, bustling with stalls and there were barrows selling roasted chestnuts and boiled sheep’s heads.

William was the eldest child in our family, then I was born, then Peter, then Johnny  and last of all Margaret. There was twenty-one years between us and she was born while I was away in the army, so she didn’t know me when I came back. I knocked them up at seven in the morning and called, ‘Here’s your boy, back again!’ We had three rooms – two bedrooms and a living room, and that’s why we had to move.

After the war, they moved us up to Haggerston to a new building in Stean St and George Sq was demolished because it was a slum. Everything broke up when people moved out. They took out all our furniture – including a table and chest of drawers my father made – and put it in a closed van and fumigated it because of the bugs. I’ve still got his tool box. It was a ragtag and bobtail existence, but I think we were a little better off than some.

Celia Compton photographed at age fifteen by Horace Warner in 1901. Years later in 1936, a year after her husband died and when James McBarron was a child, she lived at 5e George Sq and he knew her by her married name of Celia Hayday.

James McBarron with his father’s carpentry box

Margaret & George McBarron in Haggerston

James and his brother Peter

As a boy, James visited Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Theatre shop at 208 Hoxton Old Town

James’ younger brother Johnny in the new flat when the family were rehoused in Stean St, Haggerston, in 1946

James’ elder brother William at the piano

James & June McBarron

James & June McBarron got married in St Leonard’s Shoreditch on 5th June 1954

James McBarron, 1965

James catches mackerel on holiday in Devon

James & June McBarron’s children, Lynne & Ian, in the sixties

You may also like to read these other Hoxton stories

Kitty Jennings, Dressmaker

Joseph Markovitch, I’ve live in Hoxton for eight-six and a half years

James Parkinson, Physician of Hoxton

AS Jasper, A Hoxton Childhood

Thomas Fairchild, Gardener of Hoxton

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Haydn E Ebbs permalink
    May 27, 2021

    Another great read and interesting history of the area.
    I have many distant cousins with the name HAYDAY, all from around Bethnal Green area from way back to the 1700’s. Must look into it and see if Celia was related

  2. May 27, 2021

    A lovely story and photographs of a real Eastender and fascinating to hear of James’ link with a Spitalfields Nipper.
    May he Rest In Peace.

  3. Wendy Lowe permalink
    May 27, 2021

    A fascinating life and I’m left wondering if the Pollock’s toy shop he referred to is the same Pollock’s Toy shop & Museum now in Scala St W1 (near Goodge St tube)? I’ve visited it several times – wonderful shop and museum in a rickety old townhouse.

  4. May 27, 2021


    Love & Peace

  5. May 27, 2021

    Loved the story – each memory so alive and crisp like it happened yesterday. I was really struck by the self-assurance of the family members in the photos. They were so poor and yet played the piano and violin. They seem such nice familiar people, like people I’ve always known. Couldn’t get over the suit pawned on Monday to pay the rent, and redeemed on Friday when he got paid. Did he need it for Church on Sunday I wonder.

  6. Cherub permalink
    May 27, 2021

    The lives of ordinary people are often far more interesting than the lives of the rich and famous.
    How wonderful James kept his father’s toolbox all his life. I hope it gets passed on.

  7. paul loften permalink
    May 27, 2021

    Who would have thought anyone would know a picture from Spitalfields Nippers. Simply amazing. Well spotted James.! That gives all of us readers the connection to Both James and Celia
    and all the little nippers whose lives took them far and wide .

  8. May 27, 2021

    I so enjoyed this vivid introduction, and all the photos of course……..But when I came upon the photo of James with his Dad’s toolbox, I lost it. It’s a brilliant photo, with a warm-hearted intent. I still have a woolen baseball uniform that my Dad wore during his wartime service in the Pacific (he was a savvy pitcher, with a wicked pick-off move to first base) and I put it on
    occasionally. For a few moments, I can “inhabit” the persona of my dear Dad. All of his
    quirks, eccentricities, loving ways, and love of humor/movies/sports comes flooding back.
    I guess THAT was what I saw in the eyes of James, and the tool box.

    I will think of that photo all day. Thank you for allowing us to meet
    James, and other notables. These are treasured stories.

  9. May 27, 2021

    All very interesting, he’s had a great life with family. R I P James ?

  10. Kelly Holman permalink
    May 31, 2021

    Such a privilege to read about James McBarron’s life and enjoy some of its moments from afar. Condolences to his family.

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