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At KTS, The Corner

February 22, 2022
by the gentle author

Thank you to everyone who has contributed so far to my crowd-funder to launch a COMMUNITY TOURISM PROJECT in Spitalfields as a BETTER ALTERNATIVE to the serial killer tours that monetise misogyny. We are around halfway now, so please help by spreading the word.




Map of The Gentle Author’s Tour of Spitalfields designed by Adam Dant


Everyone in East London knows KTS The Corner, Tony O’Kane’s timber and DIY shop. With Tony’s ingenious wooden designs upon the fascia and the three-sided clock he designed over the door, this singular family business never fails catch the eye of anyone passing the corner of the Kingsland Rd and Englefield Rd in Dalston. In fact, KTS The Corner is such an established landmark that it is “a point of knowledge” for taxi drivers.

Yet, in spite of its fame, there is an enigma about KTS which can now be revealed for the first time. “People think it stands for Kingsland Timber Service,” said Tony with a glint in his eye, “Even my accountant thinks it does, but it doesn’t – it stands for three of my children, Katie, Toni and Sean.” And then he crossed his arms and tapped his foot upon the ground, chuckling to himself at this ingenious ruse. It was entirely characteristic of Tony’s irrepressible creative spirit which finds its expression in every aspect of this modest family concern, now among the last of the independent one-stop shops for small builders and people doing up their homes.

On the Kingsland Rd, Tony’s magnificent pavement display of brushes, mops and shovels, arrayed like soldiers on parade, guard the wonders that lie within. To enter, you walk underneath Tony’s unique three-sided clock – constructed to be seen from East, South and North – with his own illustrations of building materials replacing the numerals. Inside, there are two counters, one on either side, where Tony’s sons and daughters lean over to greet you, offering key cutting on your left and a phantasmagoric array of fixtures to your right. Step further, and the temporal theme becomes apparent, as I discovered when Tony took me on the tour. Each department has a different home made clock with items of stock replacing the numerals, whether nails and screws, electrical fittings, locks and keys, copper piping joints, or even paints upon a palette-shaped clock face. Whenever I expressed my approval, Tony grimaced shyly and gave a shrug, indicating that he was just amusing himself.

Rashly, Tony left his sons in charge while we retired to his cubicle office stacked with invoices and receipts where, over a cup of tea, he explained how he came to be there.

“I’m from from Hoxton, I went to St Monica’s School in Hoxton Sq. To get me to concentrate on anything they had to tie me down, but, if anything physical needed doing, like moving tables and chairs, I’d be there doing it. My dad did his own decorating and my mother wanted everything completely changed every year or eighteen months, so he taught me how to hang wallpaper and to do lots of little jobs. After Cardinal Pole’s Secondary School, I did an apprenticeship in carpentry and got a City & Guilds distinction. Starting at fifteen, I did four years apprenticeship at Yeomans & Partners. Back then, when you came out of your apprenticeship, they made you redundant. You got the notice in your pay packet on the Thursday but on Saturday you’d get a letter advertising that they needed carpenters at the same company. They wanted you to work for them but without benefits and you had to pay a weekly holiday stamp.

I went self-employed from that moment. At the age of nineteen, I started my own company. I covered all the trades because I learnt that the first person to arrive on a building site is a carpenter and the last person to leave the site upon completion is a carpenter. Nine out of ten foremen are ex-carpenters and joiners, since the carpenter gets involved with every single other trade. So, over the years, I picked up plumbing, heating, electrics. When I started my company, I wouldn’t employ anyone if I couldn’t do their job – so I knew how much to pay ’em and whether they was doing it right or wrong.

This was in 1973, and Hackney Council offered me a grant to do up a building in Broadway Market. I just wanted an office, a workshop and a warehouse but they said you have to open a shop. So, as I was a building company, I opened a builders’ merchants and then, twenty years ago, I bought this place. When I bought it, it was just the corner, there was no shopfront. I designed the shopfront and found the old doors. I used to come here with my dad when we were doing the decorating for my mum, because they made pelmets to order here but, as a child, I never thought I’d own this place.”

Tony is proud to assure you that he stocks more lines than those ubiquitous warehouse chains selling DIY materials, and he took me down into the vast cellar where entire aisles of neatly filed varieties of hammers and hundreds of near-identical light fixtures illustrated the innumerable byways of unlikely creativity. At the rear of the shop, through a narrow door, I discovered the carpentry workshop where resident carpenter Mike presides upon some handsome old mechanical saws in a lean-to shed stacked with timber. He will cut wood to any shape or dimension you require upon the old workbench here.

Tony’s witty designs upon the Englewood Rd side of the building are the most visible display of his creative abilities, in pictograms conveying Plumbing & Electrical, Joinery, Keys Cut, Gardening and Timber Cut-to-Size. When Tony took these down to overhaul them once, it caused a stir in the national press. Thousands required reassurance that Tony’s designs would be reinstated exactly as before. It was an unexpected recognition of Tony’s talent and a powerful reminder of the secret romance we all harbour for traditional hardware shops.

Tony with his sons Jack and Sean.

A magnificent pavement display of brushes, mops and shovels.

The temporary removal of Tony’s wooden pictograms triggered a public outcry in the national press.


In the Kingsland Rd, you may also like to read about

William Gee Ltd, Haberdashers

Arthur’s Cafe

At the Geffrye Almshouses

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Cherub permalink
    February 22, 2022

    What a fantastic shop, I am always so pleased when I read about shops like this surviving. When I lived out at Upminster years ago there was a DIY shop like this called Jarvo’s, it was like a goldmine for all your DIY needs. They knew where to find absolutely everything they stocked in the blink of an eye and even had things like door handles going back to about the 1940s or 50s.

    Long live these retailers, far better than a trip to a DIY superstore and you get advice and banter thrown in free to make your day that bit more cheerful.

  2. February 22, 2022

    These are my favourite shops in town! Just yesterday I was back at the oldest — Haushaltswaren Koch is over 110 years old and continues tirelessly. Here you can get things that are NOT available elsewhere. And often they are even cheaper!

    Love & Peace

  3. KeithB permalink
    February 22, 2022

    ” I covered all the trades because I learnt that the first person to arrive on a building site is a carpenter and the last person to leave the site upon completion is a carpenter. ”

    And Tony is right too, even for ‘modern’ 20 story blocks of flats.

    “Back then, when you came out of your apprenticeship, they made you redundant. You got the notice in your pay packet on the Thursday but on Saturday you’d get a letter advertising that they needed carpenters at the same company.”

    Zero hour contracts 1960s style.

  4. Paul Loften permalink
    February 22, 2022

    I have been in this shop a few times when I used to go down the Dalston Waste .A long time ago now but it’s a shop that stays in your memory

  5. February 22, 2022

    Mark my words (ahem) — One day we will turn around, and all of these unique and wondrous emporiums will be gone. We will be left wandering the aisles of soulless big box stores, wondering if anyone works there; as we haplessly “help ourselves” while security cameras record our movements. Harumph. //// And that makes our appreciation for this amazing hardware store even MORE intense, and brings an even bigger smile. From the cheerful clock to the (gasp)
    pictograms this business announces itself as a place to be, when one needs a lift. (or a widget)
    Trust me, if I lived nearby, I’d be there every day………just to fill up on the visual vitamins. I love the colors, the chock-a-block abundance of the place, the usefulness of the wares, and the friendly vibe. //// Thank you, GA. You always shine a light.
    **And, yes, I would love to own that shiny yellow hand cart. (by the way, what would the British call a hand cart?)

  6. Penny Gardner permalink
    February 22, 2022

    Very nice …I wonder how he keeps his green walls graffiti free ..I guess the models are above casual vandalism height .You ‘d have to work @ it to snap those off . The joys of urban living . I planted rose wall around the greensward of my parent’s coucil house in North London. Not the most picturesque of plants but it defeated casual vandals with a handful of spines. Well done anyone who tries to create a pleasant responsible presence in urban areas, rather than metal shutters and boards .

  7. Andy Strowman permalink
    February 22, 2022

    I really like this article because it heralds power & personal service.

  8. Marcia Howard permalink
    February 22, 2022

    What a fabulous shop. I know I’m a ‘girl’ and a fairly elderly one at that, but a hardware store is like an Aladdin’s Cave to me. Sheer Magic.

  9. Douglas permalink
    February 22, 2022

    Stores like this are wonderful treasures. We have a few,not quite as good, where I live far, far from London. I have only recently discovered your site and rate it as one of my best web finds. Found it through John Rogers my favorite YouTube channel, also recently discovered. I visited London on in the70s and kick myself for not being more adventurous and discovering neighborhoods like Spitalfields. Thank goodness for your website.
    Thank you!

  10. Robin permalink
    February 22, 2022

    Hardware heaven! So much better than the chain stores. Glad to see that Tony and his children are keeping up the tradition of independent shops.

  11. Ann Vosper permalink
    February 22, 2022

    Truly an Aladdin’s cave of a shop! We have a couple of excellent ‘proper’ hardware stores here in South Devon. Long may these shops last. Who wants to go into a modern DIY store when these marvellous shops exist? Wonderful!

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