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Stephen Gill’s Trolley Women

July 9, 2023
by the gentle author

Tickets are available for my tour throughout July, August & September


When photographer Stephen Gill slipped a disc carrying heavy photographic equipment a few years ago, he had no idea what the outcome would be. The physiotherapist advised him to buy a trolley for all his kit, and the world became different for Stephen – not only was his injured back able to recover but he found himself part of a select group of society, those who wheel trolleys around. And for someone with a creative imagination, like Stephen, this shift in perspective became the inspiration for a whole new vein of work, manifest in the fine East End Trolley Portraits you see here today.

Included now within the camaraderie of those who wheel trolleys – mostly women – Stephen learnt the significance of these humble devices as instruments of mobility, offering dominion of the pavement to their owners and permitting an independence which might otherwise be denied. More than this, Stephen found that the trolley as we know it was invented here in the East End, at Sholley Trolleys – a family business which started in the Roman Rd and is now based outside Clacton, they have been manufacturing trolleys for over thirty years.

In particular, the rich palette of Stephen Gill’s dignified portraits appeals to me, veritable symphonies of deep red and blue. Commonly, people choose their preferred colour of trolley and then co-ordinate or contrast their outfits to striking effect. All these individuals seem especially at home in their environment and, in many cases – such as the trolley lady outside Trinity Green in Whitechapel, pictured above – the colours of their clothing and their trolleys harmonise so beautifully with their surroundings, it is as if they are themselves extensions of the urban landscape.

Observe the hauteur of these noble women, how they grasp the handles of their trolleys with such a firm grip, indicating the strength of their connection to the world. Like eighteenth century aristocrats painted by Gainsborough, these women claim their right to existence and take possession of the place they inhabit with unquestionable authority. Monumental in stature, sentinels wheeling their trolleys through our streets, they are the spiritual guardians of the territory.

Photographs copyright © Stephen Gill

9 Responses leave one →
  1. July 9, 2023

    Thank you GA and Stephen. My mum was a very slight woman but she possessed two trolleys, neither of which were as sturdy as the models shown here. When my parents lived just outside of Dover, we used to regularly shop in Calais when I visited them. The fare was only £5 return so perfectly affordable for a day trip. The trolley was always first off of the ferry. It could be used to create a way through the throngs of “booze cruise” regulars. The trolley was the first on the bus to the hypermarket to be filled with French wine, cheeses and Suchard Rocher ( my favourite chocolates, unobtainable this side of the channel). The trolley accompanied us to le restaurant et le café before our ferry home. For a trolley, it led a very interesting life, clanking through customs, groaning under the weight. It was probably also used for the local shop too but I only remember it on the trips to France. Happy days!

  2. Clare Shepherd permalink
    July 9, 2023

    1 love the pound look on these elderly ladies faces, as if they’re say this is me and my trolley and I’m getting on with my life. Brilliant! Thanks

  3. Jan permalink
    July 9, 2023

    Very interesting. I remember buying a whicker trolley for my mum probably in the mid 1960s. I would have been about 12. It has a handle at the centre rather like a walking stick. They were a common sight then, far more so than the ones featured here. I remember making a plastic covering for the top, a bit like a huge shower cap, to keep the shopping dry.

  4. Mary Percival permalink
    July 9, 2023

    Lovely pictures really capturing the women’s’ dignity and independence. Interesting about the firm that makes these square wheeled aluminium frames. But there are so many other wheeled shopping baskets – fabric, wicker, 2, 3 and 4 wheels that must go back a century. An illustrated history would be fascinating.

  5. John Cunningham permalink
    July 9, 2023

    I remember ladies using shopping trolleys when I was a child in the 50s and 60s. A very sensible and practical way of bringing the shopping home. My mum had a succession of them. I wonder why it took so long before somebody realised that wheels could also be attached to suitcases? I remember during the same period going on holiday lugging big heavy suitcases around.

  6. Cherub permalink
    July 10, 2023

    I love trollies, it’s very common to see both women and men with them where I live in Switzerland. I have a grey patterned one in Switzerland, a pink one with a bird pattern in Scotland. If people don’t have a trolley in Switzerland, they use a small suitcase on wheels.

    Back in the 70s when I was at high school, girls at my school were allowed to take woodwork as an activity. We made wooden shopping trolleys, painted them and added a PVC waterproof cover. My dad used mine to transport beer and wine from the shops at Christmas ?

  7. Michael permalink
    July 10, 2023

    Oh I love my 4 wheeler trolley, use it for everything from the Christmas Turkey, to the electric drill. I’m not your traditional lady but I count myself one of them anyway.

  8. July 10, 2023

    I still have my mother’s trolley – I used it myself here in the U.S. and everyone would comment positively about it – I continued to use it until I became to old to shop. Now it sits in a spare room and I consider it an ‘OBJET D’ART’!

  9. July 10, 2023

    @jan you have reminded me of my late Mum’s first trolley which was wicker! When I was little, we had a pet Siamese cat which was exceedingly tolerant. We used to take for rides in said wicker trolley. The cat would sit with one paw casually placed over the rim, taking in the sights of the garden and our quiet street. Thank you for reminding me of happy, carefree days with my feline friend.

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