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The Manhole Covers Of Spitalfields

January 9, 2022
by the gentle author

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Ever since I wrote about sculptor Keith Bowler’s Roundels, describing how he set new manhole covers into the pavements of Spitalfields with motifs to commemorate all the people, cultures and trades that have passed through, I have been noticing the old ones that inspired him in the first place. This one from the eighteen eighties in Fournier St is undoubtably the most snazzy in the neighbourhood with its dynamic sunburst and catherine wheel spiral. So much wit and grace applied to the design of  a modest coalhole cover, it redefines the notion of utilitarian design. In Bath, Bristol, Brighton and Edinburgh, I have seen whole streets where each house has a different design of coalhole cover, like mismatched buttons on a long overcoat, but in Spitalfields they are sparser and you have to look further to find them.

There is a second example of this Clark, Hunt & Co sunburst, that I like so much, in Redchurch St, just a hundred yards from the former showrooms at 159/60 Shoreditch High St of this company who called themselves the Middlesex Iron Works – founded in 1838, proud contractors to the H.M. War Office, the Admiralty and London County Council. And like many local ironworks, gone long ago, but outlived by their sturdy cast iron products. Alfred Solomons of 195 Caledonian Rd is another name I found here in Spitalfields on a couple of manhole covers, with some rather fetching, almost orientalist, nineteenth century flourishes. I discovered that the Jewish Chronicle reported the birth of a son to Alfred’s wife Celia on 18th December 1894 at the Caledonian Rd address, so these plates commemorate them personally now.

Meanwhile Hayward Brothers of 187 & 189 Union St, Borough, are the most ubiquitous of the named manufacturers with their handsome iron artefacts in the pavements of our neighbourhood. They were founded by William &  Edward Hayward, glaziers who had been trading since 1783 when they bought Robert Henley’s ironmongery business in 1838. As glaziers they brought a whole new progressive mentality to the humble production of coalhole covers, patenting the addition of prisms that admitted light to the cellar below. You can see one of their “semi-prismatic pavement lights” illustrated below, in Calvert Avenue. Such was the success of this company that by 1921 they opened a factory in Enfield, and even invented the “crete-o-lux” concrete system which was used to repave Regent St, but they ceased trading in the nineteen seventies when smokeless zones were introduced in London and coal fires ceased. Regrettably, Spitalfields cannot boast a coalhole by the most celebrated nineteenth century manufacturer, by virtue of their name, A.Smellie of Westminster. The nearest example is in Elizabeth St, Victoria, where I shall have to make a pilgrimage to see it.

Unfailingly, my fascination with the city is deepened by the discovery of new details like these, harbouring human stories waiting to be uncovered by the curious. Even neglected and trodden beneath a million feet, by virtue of being in the street, these ingenious covers remind us of their long dead makers’ names more effectively than any tombstone in a churchyard. There was rain blowing in the wind yesterday but when the sun came out afterwards, the beautiful old iron covers shone brightly like medals – for those who had the eyes to see them – emblazoned upon the streets of Spitalfields.

In Old Broad St.

In Fournier St, a nineteenth century coalhole cover by Alfred Solomons, 195 Caledonian Rd – I am reliable informed there are similar covers in Doughty St and around Bloomsbury.

A more minimal variant on the same design by Alfred Solomons.

Hayward Brothers’ “Patent Self-Locking Semi-Prismatic Pavement Light” in Calvert Avenue.

A more recent example of Hayward Brothers’ self -locking plate.

In Gunthorpe St, this drain cover commemorates Stepney Borough Council created in 1900 and abolished in 1965.

At the Rectory in Fournier St, this early plate by Hayward Brothers of 187 & 189 Union St, Borough, which is also to be found in Lower Richmond Rd.

Another by Haywood Brothers in Spitalfields – although unlabelled, it follows the design of the plate above.

Bullseye in Chance St

In Commercial St, at the junction with Elder St, is this worn plate is made by Griffith of Farringdon Rd, Clerkenwell

In Middlesex St. LCC – London County Council was abolished in 1965. Can it be only co-incidental that this old manhole cover in Petticoat Lane Market, in the former Jewish quarter, has a star of David at the centre?

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5 Responses leave one →
  1. January 9, 2022

    Wonderful manholes! Now, if I ever get to Spitalfields, I’ll walk along looking down and bumping into everyonesearching for manholes. Thank you.

  2. January 9, 2022

    Wonderful story. At first moment I thought it must be coin design! It is everyday design in a special form.

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  3. January 9, 2022

    Fascinating! I wonder if Spitalfields street urchins of yore ever played YOUR version of
    New York City stickball – Using the manhole covers as bases? Alas, that game is probably “too” American, and too much like baseball to appeal to you. But, surely kids of every nation and every generation find ways to turn their neighborhood streets into playgrounds? Would love to know if the London manhole covers were ever used in that way.

    Thank you, GA, for always shining a light.
    Stay safe, all.

  4. paul loften permalink
    January 9, 2022

    Where the coalman did once pour his coal
    A metal plate covers a hole
    A purpose some may say is sole
    For the unseeing passer by to stop
    What would be a very nasty drop.
    Yet this plate does please my eyes
    For they see another function lies
    There beneath my moving feet
    Is the art and story of the street

  5. Nicola Freshwater permalink
    January 10, 2022

    I’m glad you like the sunburst design produced by Clark, Hunt & Co.
    The Hunt in question was my great great grandfather, John Alfred Hunt, who was apprenticed to Mr Henry Clark in 1839. Mr Clark had opened a cabinet ironmongery shop at 159 Shoreditch High Street in 1828. John Alfred was the son of William Hunt, draper, of 124 Shoreditch. In 1854, at the time of the Crimean War, John Alfred joined the Honourable Artillery Company and at the time of his death in 1913 he was the “Father” of the Company. He was also a Member of the Haberdashers’ Company and was its Master in 1898.
    By the company’s centenary in 1928 there were still three members of the Hunt family on the board. Clark, Hunt & Co remained in business until at least the 1960s and was then bought, I believe, by Cakebread Robey.

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