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So Long, Norman Riley

August 15, 2021
by the gentle author

Metalworker Norman Riley was a popular East End character, who was born on 27th October 1938 and died on 8th August this year, aged eighty-two. Norman’s sons Chris & Warren continue the family business under the railway arch in Stepney.

Norman Riley

If you are looking for a corner of the old East End, head over to Stepney where –  just south of St Dunstan’s – you will find a few streets lined with neat terraces of brick cottages and a cluster of traditional businesses occupying the crumbling railway arches. This neglected enclave is a fragment that constitutes a reminder of how the entire territory used to be before the bombing and the slum clearances. And, at the heart of it, I discovered Norman Riley, presiding over the family metal work business that he began under an arch fifty years ago in a street that he had known his whole working life.

A notice in flamboyant fairground script, hanging beneath a wrought iron bracket which once suspended the pawnbroker’s sign in the Commercial Rd, announces “Riley & Sons, Metal Work,” and you step through a pillar-box-red metal door of Norman’s own construction to enter his world. “I thought I was going to be downtrodden,” Norman admitted to me later, once he had shown me round the beautiful metal works, “but I’ve come through.”

Energetic and brimming with generous sentiment, Norman occasionally had to break off his monologue whenever the intensity of emotion overcame him. From the stained glass windows that once adorned the bar at Baker St Station now gracing the kitchen, the vast collection of  old tools and machines all maintained in working order and cherished, the crisp paint work in colours popular half a century ago and the overall satisfying sense of order and organisation, it was clear that Norman loved his workshop.

Yet I soon discovered that Norman was passionate about everything, eager to wring the utmost from all experiences, as revealed by his constant mantra during our conversation, “It’s part of life isn’t it?” This simple phrase, capable of infinite nuance and proposing a question that can only be answered in the affirmative, had become Norman’s philosophy and his consolation.

“I’m a Walthamstow boy and, although I was born in 1939, I was born lucky. When I go on holiday, people always ask, ‘What’s Norman been up to?’ because things happen to me. My father was a window cleaner but nobody wanted their windows cleaned during the war. I remember my mum said, ‘We’ve got to have some money for the kids,’ and she gave me and my brother an Oxo cube for dinner. The school I went to was rough and ready, but the policemen’s kids, they had lots of pocket money, and if a kind one was eating an apple, you’d say, ‘Two’s up?’ and they’d give you the core to eat. The only thing I had was football, we made a ball out of rags and bits of string. I was always filthy because we had no bath. I feel five hundred years old when I talk like this. Those were cup of sugar days.

We left and went to Nazeing to a live in a derelict cottage. We just put straw down on the floor with sacks and slept on it. I remember the first time I tasted an orange. The Italian Prisoners-of-War were allotted certain amount of fruit and  big Tony, he cut his orange in half and gave it to me and my brother. When I was six, I drove up the cows up the lane to be milked and back again. I lay there feeding a lamb in the straw once and cried my eyes out at the beauty of it. I went to school at Bumble’s Green. I went back ten years ago to see the duck pond and they still had the register with me and my brothers name in it and I cried my eyes out again.

My first job, at fifteen years old, was just down the road from here at Bromley Sheet Metal in Lowell Rd. I was in a team of guys and we worked all over the East End, and lagging the gasometers down at Purfleet. We lagged asbestos with metal and we smeared asbestos on our heads to look like Geoff Chandler. I worked in six to eight different power stations in London.

We used to watch Sammy McCarthy box, he was the dockers’ boxer. The docks were going strong then and Sally who lived along the road, she decided to make a cafe in her house for the dockers. You went downstairs to the kitchen to get your food and then ate it upstairs in the living room. Only I never got to eat anything because there was all these dockers slinging it about, they made me laugh so much I couldn’t eat my lunch.

I did National Service and it changed my life. It took me out of my world and into a different arena. I’m still in touch with the guys I was in my tent with in Nicosia. I made friends with Martin Bell, he’s a smashing bloke. I’d never spoken to a kid from a posh school before and he’d never spoken to anyone like me. ‘Up to those days, I’d always looked over the fence at real people,’ he said to me, ‘But when they told me to fuck off, I knew I was one of them.’ I met my wife after I came back but I had some problems staying indoors because I’d lived in a tent so long.

We got married the same day as my mother-in-law, she got married in the old church in Stoke Newington and we got married in the one opposite. We flew over to Majorca and took my bivouac with us. It was completely dark there and we were lighting matches to see, so we got over a wall and pitched the tent on the green with broom handles as poles. When we woke up, we were on a building site with four workmen looking down at us. But they let us stay, and we went down to the sea each day. And that’s how I started my married life. We lived on cornflakes we took with us because we had no spending money.

How I got this arch? It was for rent and I was here for a year and a half, and I loved it. After two years, I wanted to give the lady who owned it some flowers because I was so happy here. But they said, ‘She’s just passed away,’ I asked if it would be possible to buy it, and they said you pay seven years rent and I bought it. It touched me when I got the deeds because they were written on parchment and it was a stable with five stalls and a hayloft, 1849. There were two bombed cottages next door that were derelict because nobody wanted them so I was able to buy them and expand. My two boys came over and did welding when they were twelve years old, and now my sons Chris and Warren work here with me.

I was always shy but the army opened me up, that and going to all different places. I never wanted to go out because I didn’t know what life held for me. I never thought I’d own a car, I never thought I’d own a house. I’m so lucky, I’m two pound less now than when I come out the army sixty-five years ago – I’m fit, because I’m here every day working.”

This bracket once suspended the pawnbrokers’ sign in Commercial Rd

Norman in his office with his work book

Norman demonstrates his pressing machine

Norman shows off his flipper and his copper hammer

Norman demonstrates his antique jemmy

Norman’s son Chris and his drills

Norman’s anvil

Norman with one of his creations.

The former cork factory across the road

Riley & Sons, Metal Work, 23 Yorkshire Rd, Stepney, E14 7LR

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10 Responses leave one →
  1. August 15, 2021

    What a lovely story about a hardworking, truly skilled East End character.
    RIP Norman.
    Your sons and family must be so proud of your achievements and legacy.

  2. August 15, 2021

    Mr Norman Riley (1938 – 2021) — R.I.P.

    Love & Peace

  3. August 15, 2021

    Thank you SO much for this sad news TGA. As you know, I lived in White Horse Road, very near York Square, for 41 years. For many years I used to take my son to Stepney Green Coat School and also walked past Norman’s works. We always chatted with Norman, who was great with kids. Chris and Warren are also such lovely characters. Norman was always smiling – one of the great East End characters.

  4. Paul Loften permalink
    August 15, 2021

    So long Norman .A great story RIP. Personally I would have taken that anvil along with me

  5. Robin permalink
    August 15, 2021

    Marvelous chronicle of a talented man’s life. I can’t believe Norman described himself as shy! He seemed so intrigued with life, always making opportunities for himself. So glad to hear that his sons Chris and Warren are carrying on the family business and keeping those skills alive for the East End.

  6. Greta Kelly permalink
    August 15, 2021

    I really enjoyed Norman’s memories, being moved to tears by the beauty of a lamb, his honeymoon adventures! Sleeping on straw, enjoying the taste of his first orange.
    The images show a happy content man, his workshop a credit to him. So organised and tidy. I do hope his sons keep the business up and running. I want to see this place next time I am in London.

    REST IN PEACE Norman.

  7. Mary permalink
    August 15, 2021

    Norman described Martin Bell as a “smashing bloke”, but having read Norman’s incredible story I think Norman was a “smashing bloke”. The East End is the poorer for the loss of one of its true sons.
    RIP Norman.

  8. Pamela Traves permalink
    August 16, 2021

    Norman Riley was a hard worker and a kind man. I enjoyed the pictures of him working and smiling. God Bless You Norman.??????

  9. Kelly Holman permalink
    August 16, 2021

    What a privilege to read Norman’s story. His courage, passion and philosophy of life were moving and inspiring.

    Condolences to his family.

  10. August 17, 2021

    What an amazing man, with a truly gritty start to his life’s story. Norman was born the same year as my late husband, although their growing up years were miles apart from each other. Sincere condolences to Norman’s sons, and long may the business thrive.

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