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John Claridge’s Cafe Society

May 8, 2022
by the gentle author

Commercial Cafe, Commercial Rd  1965

“This was one of those places you could just pop in from the cold and warm up,” photographer John Claridge recalled affectionately while contemplating this beloved cafe of yesteryear, “I love the front of it – it was just beautiful, especially the typography. The window above the curtain used to get all steamed up. It was very welcoming, you know, and it was was gorgeous to come in and have a nice cup of tea.”

In this set of photographs, John shows us his collection of cherished East End cafes, accompanied by some random portraits of people that you might expect to meet in them. “Everywhere you went, you would find a cafe where you could go in and get a bacon sarnie and a cup of tea,” he told me ,“they were not fancy restaurants but you could always rely on getting a cuppa and a sandwich.” In John’s youth, the East End was full of independently-run cafes where everyone could afford to eat, and his pictures celebrate these egalitarian and homely places that were once centres for the life of the community.

“You don’t have to build things up, you just show people the beauty of what is.” John assured me, neatly encapsulating his modest aesthetic which suits these subjects so well.

Pepsi, Narrow St 1963 – “I just love these graphics, and when you see it you hope it’s not going to go.”

Boxing managers at Terry Lawless’ Gym, E16 1969.

Windsor Cafe, 1982.

Windsor Cafe, 1982 – “As I walked past the Windsor Cafe, I looked back and saw ‘Snack Bar or Cafe.’ Genius!”

The Wall, 1961 – “We were all seventeen. At weekends we’d go down Southend. Peter on the left, his sister was going out with Georgie Fame.”

7Up, Spitalfields 1967.

Michael Ferrier, Breaker’s Yard, E16 1975 – “He looks like the artful dodger.”

Alfie Ferrier, Breaker’s Yard, E16 1975 – “Michael’s father was sitting inside the hut with his little wood-burner, where he had his cup of tea and a cigarette.”

Victory Cafe, Hackney Rd 1963 – “This was very early, they’d just delivered the sack of potatoes.”

Ted, Cheshire St 1967 – “This made me laugh, it’s his wardrobe in the background hanging there. It’s as if he’s about to burst into song or something!”


Scrap, Brick Lane 1966.

78b, Spitalfields 1967 – “You remember the lady in the kiosk? This is her with her friend.”

Spitalfields 1963 – “Just a chap standing with his eyes closed. He looked content and I didn’t want to disturb him.”

Father Bill Shergold, founder of 59 Club, at Southend – “I met him at the 59 Club to say hello. And someone wanted me to do a portrait  for a charity thing, so I said, ‘Absolutely, we’ll get him down to Southend.'”

Cafe under a railway arch, E1 1968.

Isle of Dogs, 1970s – “This couple with the four kids lived in that tiny caravan. I did this picture for a charity to make people aware of poor living conditions.”

Hot Pies, E2 1982 – “It makes you think twice whether you would eat one of their hot pies.”

Under the Light, Puma Court, Spitalfields 1970 – “Two of my ex-brother-in-laws with Santi, a Spaniard who became a squash champion – we were on the way to the pub. Keith was working at the Truman Brewery in Brick Lane at the time and I had a studio in the City, so I said, ‘I’ll meet you after work for a drink.'”

Dog, Wapping – “This was taken for anti-litter campaign and the headline was ‘You foul the pavement more than he does.'”

Photographs copyright © John Claridge

You may also like to take a look at

John Claridge’s East End

Along the Thames with John Claridge

At the Salvation Army with John Claridge

In a Lonely Place

A Few Diversions by John Claridge

10 Responses leave one →
  1. May 8, 2022

    I love John Claridge’s picture. They’re very real, he never lies.

  2. May 8, 2022

    Magnificent photos, taken in magnificent places at a magnificent time.

    Love & Peace

  3. Annie S permalink
    May 8, 2022

    Wonderful photographs – so evocative of the era!

  4. Mark permalink
    May 8, 2022

    As this septic isle slips further down the pan daily, these heart warming portraits from the incomparable Mr Claridge make my day happier. Wunderbar! Deep joy!

  5. May 8, 2022

    I have learned so much from reading Spitalfields Life — and the discovery of John Claridge’s photography has been one of the richest take-aways. His photos express his fascinations, his
    passions, his love of imperfection and human fragility. He’s a born explorer.
    Treat yourself to a whole VOLUME of John Claridge’s photos — published by Spitalfields Life,

    Oh wow — that second photo showing the row-on-row of bricks — just amazingly gritty and
    oddly gentle and comforting.

    Thank you, GA, as ever.

  6. Douglas permalink
    May 8, 2022

    These old Cafe fronts are the best. It’s so important that photographers recorded them. And in such beautiful way.

  7. Cherub permalink
    May 8, 2022

    There used to be a cheap and cheerful cafe on a corner of the Mile End Road we went to for sausage and chips when I was a student in the mid 90s. I can’t remember what it was called, but it was at the end with the tube station and opposite. Someone once told me it was loosely run as a project to help people with mental health and learning difficulty issues, but I don’t know if that was true.

    The dog makes me think Bill Sykes isn’t far away!

  8. John Cunningham permalink
    May 8, 2022

    Not many old caffs survive. But there is still a great one of the old school going strong. It’s in Westminster of all places, The Regency Cafe. I often pop in for a “full monty” fry up breakfast when I’m in London. Real characters working and dining there.

  9. Mark permalink
    May 9, 2022

    Can you see Winston Smith being arrested by Big Brother’s secret police, as he plays chess in the Victory Cafe? I can!

  10. Stella permalink
    July 26, 2022

    These old-fashioned cafés still exist here and there in various towns in the UK; we called them ‘the working-man’s cafe’ ….they sold the best ‘fry-ups’ and are not lost altogether: long may they continue!

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