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John Olney Of Donovan Brothers

February 1, 2023
by the gentle author

Philip Marriage’s photograph of Donovan’s Bags, Crispin St, in 1985

John Olney told me it all began with two brothers, Jeremiah & Dennis O’Donovan, who came to Liverpool from Dublin in the eighteen thirties at the time of the potato famine in Ireland. Dennis took a passage from Liverpool across the Atlantic to seek his fortune with the Hudson Bay Trading Company, while Jeremiah came to the East End and settled in Fireball Court, Aldgate.

It sounds like an adventure story of long ago, yet John imbues it with a vivid present tense quality because Jeremiah was his great-great-grandfather and, to a degree, the nature of John’s own life has been the outcome of these events. The brothers’ tale explains both how he came to be here and why Donovan Brothers continues today in the way it does as a family business.

I was touched by John’s story because it was the first I have heard of the Irish in Spitalfields recounted to me by a descendant. Of the different waves of immigration that have passed through, the Irish are the least acknowledged and the people who have left the least evidence visible today. Yet anyone who walks through Spitalfields knows the building in Crispin St with the fine old signwriting that says “Donovan Brothers – The noted house for paper bags,” this was where the business began that still runs today at the New Spitalfields Market in Leyton.

John and I sat talking in the office of the Market Tenants’ Association in the grey light of early morning, watching as the wholesale fruit & vegetable market wound up for the night and the car park emptied out. There is an innate modesty to this gracious man with a strong physical presence and a discreet, withheld quality that colours the plain telling of his stories. You can tell from his glinting eyes that John’s family possesses an intensity of meaning for him, yet he adopts a quiet unemotional tone while speaking of it which serves to communicate a greater depth of feeling than any overt emotion.

“So you’ve come to hear about the fields…” he said, thinking out loud. By “the fields” John meant Spitalfields, using a term of reference I had not heard before. In its archaic colloquial tone, it spoke eloquently of his relationship to the place where his family dwelled continuously from the eighteen thirties and where he began his lifelong involvement with markets.

“My mother was a Donovan” declared John, outlining his precise connection to the line of descent, “She was one of eight, five boys and three daughters. We were a very close knit family, and it was so exciting for a boy of seven or eight, when I first entered the Spitalfields shop and sat on the counter. My uncle would sit outside with the chicken seller at the corner of Leyden St and reminisce about old times. It was history that was being spoken, you didn’t have to read it in books. My uncle used to end up at the bottom of Whites Row where there used to be a barbers and I would sit outside on the curb with my sweets – and that’s how it was in the old days.

My grandfather Patrick Donovan was one of nine children, he started the business and then the brothers came in and that’s how Donovan Brothers came about. I always knew I had a job to go to in the family business. You did everything. If there was a job there, from sweeping up to serving, you did it. It was second nature. Our motto was politeness cost nothing, I would always say, ‘Good Morning, Mr So & So,’ and my uncle would say to the customer, ‘The boy will take it out for you.’

We ran it as a family business and if there was a problem we dealt with it at once between us. The eldest was my grandfather, the governor, and when he died my uncles took over. The governor tells you what to do but everyone else asks. To everyone that works for me today, I am the governor, but in the family my elderly uncles are still the governors. Like in all family businesses, you could count upon one another. There’s no one person shouldering all the problems at any one time.

Every one of my uncles ran a different market. We were involved in Covent Garden, Borough and Stratford Market as well as Spitalfields. I would go out and make the deliveries. Whichever market I was in, it was always the same, whenever I walked through, traders would come up to me with orders and say ‘Tell your father.’ No-one knew who I was. I was ‘the boy’ and I still am to my uncles, and this makes a family. Because although we do retire as such, there’s no retirement from the family business. You are born on the job. You die on the job.”

John’s two sons and daughter work for Donovan Brothers now, ensuring the family business goes on for another generation. I think we may permit him to enjoy a certain swagger, coming in to work before dawn in all weathers and continuing his pattern of napping twice a day, at the end of the afternoon and in the late evening, thereby sustaining himself with superlative resilience through the extended antisocial hours that market life entails. The market is a world to itself and it is John Olney’s world.

Portrait of John Olney by Mark Jackson

The building in Crispin St retains its signwriting today

In Commercial St, nineteen sixties

John’s shop in the Spitalfields Market, nineteen eighties

John Olney outside his shop in the New Spitalfields Market, Leyton

Portraits of John Olney  © Mark Jackson

You may also like to read about

Jimmy Huddart, Spitalfields Market Porter

Peter Thomas, Fruit & Vegetable Supplier

Ivor Robins, Fruit & Vegetable Purveyor

John Olney, Donovan Brothers Ltd

Jim Heppel, New Spitalfields Market

Blackie, the Last Spitalfields Market Cat

A Farewell to Spitalfields

12 Responses leave one →
  1. Keith Leonard permalink
    February 1, 2023

    The Irish potato famine was 1845-1852 I think, not the 1830s as stated by John.

  2. Lorraine Whebell permalink
    February 1, 2023

    Another interesting read this morning GA. Thank you

  3. Pauline Taylor permalink
    February 1, 2023

    I think Keith is right and many Irish came here before the potato famine, my 2xgreat grandfather Thomas McGrath was in Wapping before 1810, sadly I can’t discover where he came from although I believe it may have been Tipperary. There was a great musical tradition in that side of the family, my grandfather made Irish musical instruments in his workshop and I loved the smell of the newly sawn wood and the varnish and he and my grandmother would entertain us by singing Irish songs, grandma playing the piano and grandpa a variety of stringed instruments which hung up on the walls of their sitting room when not in use. My father was also always singing Irish songs but he never played an instrument, more very happy memories.

  4. February 1, 2023

    “the market is a world to itself.” /////// (pause) ////// Goodness, a whopper of a statement.
    Perhaps that is exactly why we love exploring markets? We park the car, or turn a corner, or emerge from a subway, and we approach the mouth/entryway of a market. Maybe a familiar one, a favorite place for scoring goods or just jaw-boning with the merchants. Or, during our travels, an exotic one, full of the unknown. But once we enter we are in that “world to itself.”
    I am thinking of……….exploring the blazing fish market at the South Street Seaport in NY at all hours. On a different coast, I’ve visited the Pike Market; famous for men throwing fish to customers. “Hey, watch out there.” I recall visits to the venerable weekend market in Revel, France. There is the main “hub” of the market, but then secondary smaller strands wind up the nearby streets. An old woman setting out a blizzard of old lace and embroidery. Irresistible. Petticoat Lane in London, in the early Seventies. Yes, we really bought that pub mirror. Foolish impractical Yank tourists!? The Rastro, weekend market in Madrid. Another impetuous purchase — don’t even ask. The local farm markets here in the Hudson Valley, a bounty of earthy fruits/vegetables as well as frou-frou specialties. Chutneys, charcuterie, trendy foods. Every kind of apple. The Sunday postcard market in Paris, awash in every kind of ephemera. Ledgers, letters, correspondence, black-edged mourning cards, postage stamps. I scored a vintage hand-made book, full of a boy’s collections of cigar bands. Yes, I should have bartered; but the truth is I would have paid anything to have it. No regrets.

    Best of all, have been the time travels to markets shown by The Gentle Author. These photos captured the scattered old books, hopeful animals-for-adoption, cartons of old LPs, buskers and magicians, parents and kiddos. “a world to itself”.

    Thanks for always shining a light. Meet you at the market.

  5. Robin permalink
    February 1, 2023

    Inspiring story! Many thanks, GA and John Olney.

  6. John cunningham permalink
    February 1, 2023

    St Anne’s Catholic Church in Spitalfields is probably the most visible reminder of the large Irish population that lived there in the 1800s. It was built in 1855 to cater for them. Many of its parishioners no doubt had fled Ireland during the devastating famines of the 1840s. Like most of the Irish in Britain by the third or fourth generation they would have been thoroughly assimilated. Catholic churches of this period in many British cities are the only reminder of these communities

  7. Scott Denny permalink
    February 1, 2023

    Another whopper of a statement.
    “Because although we do retire as such, there’s no retirement from the family business. You are born on the job. You die on the job.”
    You eat, sleep and dream it.
    Maybe hard to understand if you haven’t experienced it.

  8. February 2, 2023

    Really interesting article and thank you GE. It’s really good that the legacy of Donovan Brothers lives on in the form of a mural in Spitalfields, I often walk by on my way through the area. The Irish contribution to the enormous growth of nineteenth century London, its buildings and infrastructure is often overlooked. Huge projects like the underground, Tower Bridge, the sewerage system, the passage of goods through the docks were all reliant on Irish labour. My great grandparents were married in St Anne’s Spitalfields in 1877 and lived in the area in very grim circumstances, if that wasn’t bad enough they would’ve been subjected to a fair deal of prejudice as the Irish were considered ‘vermin’ by many. The places where they ‘lived’ were referred to by Booth as ‘Nests of Irish’. Thank you again for a great post.

  9. Mary Connolly permalink
    February 2, 2023

    Very interested in this letter today. I don’t remember the shop. However it made me think of my late Mum who passed away in 2014. One of her hobbies was to collect paper bags with printing on of where she got them. I found a huge bag in her cupboard . I still have these bags, just couldn’t throw them away. Part of history and of my dear mum. Thank you for reminding me. Yes I do add to them when I can. Best Wishes. Mary.

  10. Marcia Howard permalink
    February 2, 2023

    What a wonderful legacy. I wonder if Dennis O’Donovan made such an impact with the Hudson Bay Trading Company. Each and every one of us has a story to tell

  11. Sean Mooney permalink
    February 3, 2023

    Old St Patrick’s school is still there on Buxton Street, as well as St Anne’s RC Church on Underwood Street. But the story of the Irish in the East End is untold, surprising considering their dominance of the workforce of the world’s largest docks.

  12. February 3, 2023

    We feature the Donovan Bros shop in our book ‘Ghost Signs: A London Story’.

    In correspondence with Michael Donovan, one of the current owners, we found out that the shop sign was first painted in 1946 by Alfred Kiel Signs. The red and yellow colour scheme represented ‘blood and gold’ to the family. The green of the current scheme was never part of it. Michael pointedly noted, “If my grandfather had ever seen it painted green he would have had a fit! Many Irishmen of his generation were very superstitious about the colour green.”

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