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The Roundels Of Spitalfields

November 24, 2022
by the gentle author

In celebration of EETG‘s tenth anniversary, I am hosting THE EAST END TRADES GUILD TOUR OF SPITALFIELDS on Saturday 3rd December, telling the stories of local shops and their origins in this traditional heartland for small traders.




Around the streets of Spitalfields there are circular metal plates set into the pavement. Many people are puzzled by them. Are they decorative coal hole covers as you find in other parts of London? Or is there a mysterious significance to them?

Sculptor Keith Bowler was walking down Brick Lane one day when he heard a tour guide explaining to a group of tourists that these plaques or roundels – to give them their correct name – were placed there in the nineteenth century for the benefit of people who could not read. Keith stuck his neck out and told the guide this was nonsense, that he made them on his kitchen table a few years ago. And although the tour guide gave Keith a strange look and was a little dubious of his claim, this is the truth of the matter.

“I was approached by Bethnal Green City Challenge in 1995, and I was asked to research, design and fabricate twenty five roundels. I was given a list of sites and I spent a few months doing it,” explained Keith summarily as we sat at the table where he cast the moulds for the roundels in the basement kitchen of his house in Wilkes St. Keith cut the round patterns out of board and then set real objects in place on them, such as the scissors you see above. From these patterns he made moulds that were sent over to Hoyle & Sons, the traditional family-run foundry by the canal in the Cambridge Heath Rd, where they were cast in iron before being installed by council workers.

The notion was that the pavements were already set with pieces of ironwork, made it a natural idea to introduce pieces of sculpture, and the emblems and locations were chosen to reflect the culture and history of Spitalfields. Sometimes there was a literal story illustrated by the presence of the roundel, like the match girls from the Bryant & May factory who met in the Hanbury Hall to create the first trade union. Elsewhere, like the scissors and buttons above in Brick Lane, the roundel simply records the clothing industry that once existed there. Once there were interpretative leaflets produced by the council which directed people on a trail around the neighbourhood, but these disappeared in a few months leaving passersby to create their own interpretations.

The roundels have acquired a history of their own. For example, the weaver’s shuttle and reels of thread marking the silk weavers in Folgate St were cast from a shuttle and reels that Dennis Severs found in his house and lent to Keith. And there was controversy from the start about the roundels, when two were mistakenly installed on the City of London side of the street in Petticoat Lane and at at the end of Artillery Passage in City territory, leading to angry phone calls from the Corporation demanding they be moved. Six are missing entirely now, stolen by thieves or covered by workmen, though occasionally roundels turn up and wind their way back to Keith. He has a line of errant roundels in his hallway, ready to be reinstalled and, as he keeps the moulds, plans are afoot to complete the set again.

Keith told me he liked the name “roundels” because it was once used to refer to the symbols on the wings of Spitfires, and is also a term in heraldry. There is a simplicity to these attractive designs that I walk past every day and which have seeped into my subconscious, witnessing the presence of what has gone. I photographed half a dozen of my favourites to show you, but there are at least eight more roundels to be found on the streets of Spitalfields.

On Brick Lane, among the Bengali shops, a henna stenciled hand

Commemorating the Bryant & May match girls, outside the Hanbury Hall on Hanbury St

In Folgate St, cast from a shuttle and reels from Dennis Severs’ House

In Brick Lane, outside the railings of Grey Eagle Brewery

In Princelet St, commemorating the first Jewish Theatre, where Jacob Adler once played

In Petticoat Lane, on the site of the ancient market

In Wentworth St, an over-vigilant council worker filled in this roundel as a potential trip hazard

You may also like the read about

The Manhole Covers of Spitalfields

The Ghost Signs of Spitalfields

4 Responses leave one →
  1. November 24, 2022

    What a pity about the last one… They’re beautiful.

  2. November 24, 2022

    Did I miss it? — What diameter are these wonderful heraldic design elements? Makes me envious.
    Hey, Manhattan City Council! — Please import artist Keith Bowler over here, and let’s have some roundels installed all along Fifth Avenue sidewalks. Imagining all the possibilities — perhaps a lion’s head outside the NY Public Library? Or a beautiful fern in the Flower District? Oh, the possibilities in Greenwich Village!?

    Thank you GA and Mr. Bowler.

    Happy Thanksgiving, all.

  3. November 24, 2022

    A perfect example of an urban legend!

  4. Christy permalink
    November 25, 2022

    Can’t choose a favorite!

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