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Lew Lessen, Barber

November 8, 2022
by the gentle author

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It is my pleasure to publish this interview and series of photographs, comprising a portrait of Lew Lessen who opened his barber’s shop in Shacklewell Lane in 1932, undertaken by Neil Martinson more than forty years ago. “He was a gentle and modest man who was proud of his trade,” Neil admitted to me.

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“The craft of barbering is a most honourable profession – even royalty take their hats off to us. I was apprenticed to a barber. My Dad signed an agreement for me to learn the trade for two years at a shop in Southampton St, which is now Conway St. The hours were long. We were open from 8am to 8pm every day with one hour for lunch, and we opened until 9pm on Saturdays. On Sundays we worked from 9am to 2pm and on Mondays from 8am to 1pm.

I learned the trade as I went on. I used to practice shaving with an old razor on a bottle – lather the bottle as if it was a chin (a very pointed chin) and shave it off. There was a lot of shaving in those days. Men used to come in regularly for their shave. They would have their own shaving mugs numbered. A man would come in and say ‘My mug is number 20.’ I’d fetch it down and lather him.

A barber’s shop was like a club in those days. People would sit and talk for hours. Some customers would come in almost every day,  just for a chat. One customer I always remember was Prince Monolulu, the famous tipster, with his cry of ‘I’ve got a horse.’ His head was full of small bumps, probably fibroid growths, but his frizzy hair covered it, so that it wasn’t noticeable to the naked eye. He asked me whether I would take away a bet for him to the local street bookmaker. He wanted two shillings each way double on two horses, and he told me he didn’t want the bookmaker to know that it was his bet. Well, naturally, getting such ‘inside information’ from such a source was too good to be missed. So not only myself, but my boss, and I also prevailed upon my Dad, who was not a betting man, to join us in the bet. Needless to say both horses finished well down the field.

I’ve seen many changes here, both in the neighbourhood and in hairstyles. It used to be just a matter of short back and sides, with the occasional Boston. A Boston means the hair is cut at the back in a line, instead of gradually tapered out. Then Bostons were short, but now they are long. Before the war, of course, people wanted the sleek look. They wanted their hair slicked down. I would have men come in and want their hair brushed like Ronald Coleman’s or Raymond Navarro’s, both of whom had the patent leather look about them.

The other change has nothing to do with haircutting or shaving. The role of the barber used not to be tonsorial skills. On occasions he would become the confidant, Father Confessor, mentor and advisor of his customers, especially in sexual matters. Sexual knowledge is nowadays everybody’s right, particularly for the younger generation. But before World War Two sexual ignorance among the young was fairly high. I remember being asked for and giving advice on the functions and duties of a bridegroom. I’ve given quite a lot of advice over the years. Many were the secrets told to me in confidence of men, and their maritial and extra-marital experience, and in confidence they remained. What was more, the barber’s was the only place you could get contraceptives in those days.

Over the years I have given service to many unusual customers. There was one man who had a serious operation on this throat, with the result that one of the arteries of his throat was covered by a very thin skin, that was more red in colour than the surrounding area. He could not shave himself for fear of cutting into this thin skin and causing the artery to bleed. He warned me to be careful not to cut the thin skin as it would have been impossible for me to stop the bleeding, and he would have to go to hospital. I shaved this man three times every week, and never once did I cut his skin.

There was one aspect of my profession that always gave me a great deal of personal satisfaction, even if it did not bring me much financial reward. This was whenever it was required of me to go out and give service to customers who could not make the journey to my shop, through illness or disability. I could not leave the shop during working hours, so it meant that after closing the shop, tidying the salon, having my evening meal, then changing to go out, it was after 8pm before I left home to do this service. My charges were always very reasonable, it sometimes meant I was away from home on these evenings for up to one and half hours, and was only a few shillings in pocket. But I never minded this, as I felt it was my small contribution towards helping people who were very unfortunate.”

Lew Lessen outside the barber’s shop in Shacklewell Lane that he opened in 1932

Photographs copyright © Neil Martinson

(This interview was originally published by Centreprise as part of Working Lives, Vol 2 1945-77)

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11 Responses leave one →
  1. Paul Loften permalink
    November 8, 2022

    Wonderful ! I really enjoyed reading about Lew’s working life . I remember Shacklewell Lane in Dalston having a lot of of old interesting shops in the 70’s .

  2. Andy permalink
    November 8, 2022

    I like this very much as it portrays honesty and dedication.
    A trait many of working class have without the deserved riches of the upper classes.
    My Auntie Rae was a machinist in many places.
    Her role was seasonal until she received the horrible letter saying, “Thank you for your work. However, due to the fluctuation of the seasonal trade, your services will no longer be required.”
    Did others get similar?..
    I should Coco.

  3. November 8, 2022

    Another very exciting article. Yes, barbers are actually psychotherapists. That has always been the case since time began.

    Love & Peace

  4. Milo permalink
    November 8, 2022

    There’s nothing like the banter you get in an honest to God barbers. My barber for years in London was Costas on Queensway and i would pop in for a trim every week even though i scarcely needed it. To this day – and verging on the bald – i spent time and care seeking out the ‘right’ barber for me in whatever city i happen to be in. I’ve often thought that a coffee table book on barbers of the world would be quite fascinating.

  5. November 8, 2022

    Wonderful, as ever! There is something very comforting about entering a specialized work environment, and being “enfolded” in that space. Conversation and (dare I say) confessions
    tend to spill out, in this kindred environment. Although I’ve never had the pleasure of getting
    primped by a barber, I always treasure the moments spent at my local car garage. As you describe, my mechanic is a wizard at his trade —- but so much MORE than that. Analyst, world-class
    philosopher, common-sense advisor, and skillful listener. (and did I mention that this garage
    has a bon vide ghost? Yes, The Railroad Man. A ghost.)

    Hats off to the barbers, the car mechanics, and the story-tellers.
    Hurrah and huzzah.

  6. Derek Complin permalink
    November 8, 2022

    A tale that stirred forgotten memories of my own hairdressing experiences as a nipper in the 50s. Times have indeed changed. Thanks so much for sharing.

  7. Cherub permalink
    November 8, 2022

    I really enjoyed reading this, it took me back to being a child in the 60s. I was often with my dad as I had 2 older siblings at home, he would take me out for a walk to the park to give mum a rest.
    It would usually involve a trip to the bookies on the walk home, other times a trip back via the local barber shop where my dad would treat himself to a shave and a haircut. I’d sit there fascinated watching the barber and taking in all the smells of the various lotions and potions.

  8. Georgina Briody permalink
    November 9, 2022

    My lovely relatives lived in Shacklewell Lane about the same time, they may well have known Lew. So good to see this story, brings back memories.

  9. Bill permalink
    November 9, 2022

    The customer in photo # 2 resembles, to my eye, the late Walt Disney. Not so much in the other photos.

    Is it too late to refer to him as “the late”?

    Another enjoyable read!

  10. Nick permalink
    February 18, 2024

    I was about 13 in 1965, lived on Shacklewell Road. The only barber I remember was ” Sids” did lew sell out to Sid? Thank You.

  11. May 25, 2024

    This article beautifully captures the essence of Lew Lessen’s life as a barber, showcasing the deep connection he had with his trade and his customers. Through his reminiscences, we get a glimpse into a bygone era where the barber shop was not just a place for a haircut but a hub of community and camaraderie. Lew’s dedication to his craft and his willingness to go above and beyond for his customers, especially those in need, is truly heartwarming. His anecdotes paint a vivid picture of a time when barbers were not just service providers but trusted confidants and advisors. This article not only honors Lew’s legacy but also sheds light on the rich history and significance of barbering as a profession. Great job capturing such a poignant story!

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