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The Mystery Of Isabelle Barker’s Hat

July 23, 2021
by the gentle author

Each day now, I am rehearsing actor Joel Saxon for the immersive tour of Dennis Severs House, commissioned by the Spitalfields Trust as a re-imagination of the tours that Dennis Severs gave in the eighties.

Tours commence next Thursday 29th July and booking is open until the end of November.

Click here to book tickets

Even though I took this photograph of the hat in question, when I examined the image later it became ambiguous to my eyes. If I did not know it was a hat, I might mistake it for a black cabbage, a truffle, or an exotic dried fruit, or maybe even a specimen of a brain preserved in a medical museum.

Did you notice this hat when you visited the Smoking Room at Dennis Severs’ House in Folgate St? You will be forgiven if you did not, because there is so much detail everywhere and, by candlelight, the hat’s faded velvet tones merge unobtrusively into the surroundings. It seems entirely natural to find this hat in the same room as the painting of the gambling scene from William Hogarth’s “The Rake’s Progress” because it is almost identical to the hat Hogarth wore in his famous self-portrait, of the style commonly worn by men in his era, when they were not bewigged.

Yet, as with so much in this house of paradoxes, the hat is not what it appears to be upon first glance. If it even caught your eye at all because the gloom contrives to conjure virtual invisibility for this modest piece of headgear – if it even caught your eye, would you give it a second glance?

It was Fay Cattini who brought me to Dennis Severs’ house in the search for Isabelle Barker’s hat. Fay and her husband Jim befriended the redoubtable Miss Barker, as an elderly spinster, in the last years of her life until her death in 2008 at the age of ninety-eight. To this day, Fay keeps a copy of Isabelle’s grandparents’ marriage certificate dated 14th June 1853. Daniel Barker was a milkman who lived with his wife Ann in Fieldgate St, Whitechapel and the next generation of the family ran Barker’s Dairy in Shepherd St (now Toynbee St), Spitalfields. Isabelle grew up there as one of three sisters before she moved to her flat in Barnet House round the corner in Bell Lane where she lived out her years – her whole life encompassing a century within a quarter-mile at the heart of Spitalfields.

“I was born in Tenterground, known as the Dutch Tenter because there were so many Jews of Dutch origins living there. My family were Christians but we always got on so well with the Jews – wonderful people they were. We had a dairy. The cows came in by train from Essex to Liverpool St and we kept them while they were in milk. Then they went to the butchers. The children would buy a cake at Oswins the baker around the corner and then come and buy milk from us.” wrote Isabelle in the Friends of Christ Church magazine in 1996 when she was eighty-seven years old.

Fay Cattini first became aware of Isabelle when, in her teens, she joined the church choir which was enhanced by Isabelle’s sweet soprano voice. Isabelle played the piano for church meetings and tried to teach Fay to play too, using an old-fashioned technique that required balancing matchboxes on your hand to keep them in the right place. “I grew up with Isobel,” admitted Fay,“I think Isobel was one of the respectable poor whose life revolved around home and church. She had very thin ankles because she loved to walk, in her youth she joined the Campaigners (a church youth movement) and one of the things they did was to march up to the West End and back. She enjoyed walking, and she and her best friend Gladys Smith would get the bus and walk around Oxford St and down to the Embankment. Even when she was in her nineties, I never had to walk slowly with her.”

Years later, Fay and Jim Cattini shared the task of escorting Isabelle over to The Market Cafe in Fournier St for lunch six days a week. In those days, the cafe was the social focus of Spitalfields, as Fay told me,“Isabelle was quite deaf, so she liked to talk rather than listen. At The Market Cafe where she ate lunch every day, Isabelle met Dennis Severs. Dennis, Gilbert & George, and Rodney Archer were all very sweet to her. I don’t think she cooked or was very domestic but walking to The Market Cafe every day – good food and good company – then walking back again to her small flat on the second floor of Barnet House, that’s what kept her going.”

In fact, Fay remembered that Isobel gave her hat to Dennis Severs, who called her his “Queen Mother” in fond acknowledgement of her natural dignity, and he threw her an elaborate eightieth birthday party at his house in 1989. But although nothing ever gets thrown away at 18 Folgate St, when we asked curator David Milne about Isabelle Barker’s hat, he knew of no woman’s hat on the premises fitting the description – which was clear in Fay’s mind because Isabelle took great pride in her appearance and never went out without a hat, handbag and gloves.

“Although she was an East End person,” explained Fay affectionately,“she always looked very smart, quite refined, and she spoke correctly, definitely not a cockney. She had a pension from her job at the Post Office as a telephonist supervisor, but everything in her flat was shabby because she wouldn’t spend any money. As long as she had what she needed that was sufficient for her. She respected men more than women and refused to be served by a female cashier at the bank. Her philosophy of life was that you didn’t dwell on anything. When Dennis died of AIDS she wouldn’t talk about it and when her best friend Gladys had dementia she didn’t want to visit her. It was an old-fashioned way of dealing with things, but I think anyone that lives to ninety-eight is impressive. You had to soldier on, that was her attitude, she was a Victorian.”

When Fay showed me the photo you see below, of Isabelle Barker with Dennis Severs at her eightieth birthday party, David realised at once which hat belonged to her. Even though it looks spectacularly undistinguished in this picture, David spotted the hat in the background of the photo on the stand in the corner of the Smoking Room – which explains why the photo was taken in this room which was otherwise an exclusive male enclave.

At once, David removed the hat from the stand in the Smoking Room where it sat all these years and confirmed that, although it is the perfect doppel-ganger of an eighteenth-century man’s hat, inside it has a tell-tale label from a mid-twentieth century producer of ladies’ hats. It was Isabelle Barker’s hat! The masquerade of Isabelle Barker’s hat fooled everyone for more than twenty years and, while we were triumphant to have discovered Isabelle’s hat and uncovered the visual pun that it manifests so successfully, we were also delighted to have stumbled upon an unlikely yet enduring memorial to a remarkable woman of Spitalfields.

Dennis Severs & Isabelle Barker at her eightieth birthday party with the hat in the background

William Hogarth wearing his famous hat

Barker’s Dairy as advertised in the Spitalfields Parish Magazine in 1923

Fay and Isabelle in 2001

Dennis Severs House, 18 Folgate St, Spitalfields, E1 6BX

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7 Responses leave one →
  1. Clare Burgess permalink
    July 23, 2021

    We attended Denis’s wonderful tour after my husband did some ornate plasterwork for him. In the scene played out in the smoking room it would’ve be hard to notice anything in the background, since the invisible action that played out before us grabbed all of our attention. Entering this room to survey the scene of a just left tea, certain that the occupants had scuttled out of the other door to avoid us, and then realising that the tablescape exactly replicated the painting hung on the wall behind, is the moment I remember above all others on his incredibly evocative, theatrical tour. It was breathtaking!

  2. July 23, 2021

    Thanks you so much for this. I knew Isabel Barker from 1976, when I arrived in the East End from Sussex, until 2001, when my family and I moved down to Bournemouth. She was a kind, indomitable, and remarkable individual. Talking to her was a history lesson in itself. This is a lovely record of a remarkable woman.

  3. July 23, 2021

    A wonderful insight. I look forward to visiting as soon as possible

  4. Linda Granfield permalink
    July 23, 2021

    A fascinating woman–thank you for the introduction!

    And the photograph of the hat? I thought I was looking at an oil painting!

  5. Lizebeth permalink
    July 23, 2021

    What a mysterious and wonderful object is that hat. This brings back memories of meeting Dennis. My first time at the House, and there was meant to be a children’s tour, but I was so desperate to go there that I said I would be happy to work around them, if they could manage it. Turns out, the tour was cancelled, so I had a delightful hour or so with Dennis himself. The house is a tour de force of imagination, combined with history. Thank you to all the wonderful people who still maintain and treasure it.

  6. Kelly Holman permalink
    July 24, 2021

    Such a wonderful story. Thank you.

  7. Guillaume permalink
    July 26, 2021

    Ah, that dimple in Dennis Severs’ chin!

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