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Philip Cunningham’s Portraits

January 15, 2024
by the gentle author

In the seventies, while living in Mile End Place and employed as a Youth Worker at Oxford House in Bethnal Green and then as a Probationary Teacher at Brooke House School in Clapton, Photographer Philip Cunningham took these tender portraits of his friends and colleagues. “I love the East End and often dream of it,” Philip admitted to me recently.

Publican at The Albion, Bethnal Green Rd. “We would often go there from Oxford House where I was a youth worker. Billy Quinn, ‘The Hungry Fighter’ used to drink in there. He would shuffle in, in his slippers and, if I offered him a drink, the answer was always the same. ‘No! No! I don’t want a drink off you, I saved my money!’ He had fought a lot of bouts in America and was a great character.”

Proprietor of Barratts’ hardware – “An unbelievable shop in Stepney Way. It sold EVERYTHING, including paraffin – a shop you would not see nowadays.”

Terry & Brenda Green, publicans at The Three Crowns, Mile End

“My drinking pal, Grahame the window cleaner, knew all that was happening on the Mile End Rd.”

Oxford House bar

“Bob Drinkwater ran the youth club at Oxford House where I was a youth worker” c. 1974

Pat Leeder worked as a volunteer at Oxford House

Caretaker at Oxford House

My friend Michael Chalkley worked for the Bangladeshi Youth League and Bangladeshi Welfare Association

Frank Sewell worked at Kingsley Hall, Bow, and ran a second hand shop of which the proceeds went to the Hall, which was ruinous at that time

Historian Bill Fishman in Whitechapel Market

Mr Green

Kids from the youth club at Oxford House, Weavers’ Fields Adventure Playground, c. 1974

Kids from the youth club at Oxford House, Weavers’ Fields Adventure Playground, c. 1974

Salim, Noorjahan, Jabid and Sobir with Michael Chalkley, c. 1977

Coal Men, A G Martin & Sons, delivering to Mile End Place

Mr & Mrs Jacobs, neighbours at Mile End Place

Mr & Mrs Mills, neighbours at Mile End Place

Commie Roofers, Mile End Place

Friend and fighter against racism, Sunwah Ali at the Bangladeshi Youth League office, c. 1978

Norr Miah was a friend, colleague and trustee of the Bangladeshi Youth League

Chess players at Brooke House School, c. 1979

Teacher at Brooke House  – “The best school I ever taught in with a really congenial staff” c. 1979

“Boys from Brooke House School where I was a probationary teacher, c.1979”

“My friend and colleague Salim Ullah with his baby” c.1977

John Smeeth (AKA John the Beard), my daughter Andrea, and Michael Wiston (AKA Whizzy)  c. 1977

Eddie Marsan (dressed as Superman) and friends, Mile End Place

“Rembert Langham in our studio in New Crane Wharf, Wapping. He made monsters for Dr Who and went pot-holing”1975

“John the Fruit used to drink in the Three Crowns and we were good friends. We were in the pub one night when some tough characters came in. It turned out they owned this property I had been photographing. I asked if I could do some photos inside, they said, ‘Yes, come on Thursday.’ I duly arrived, but the place was locked and no one was about. Then John the Fruit turned up so I took his picture, as you see above. Later that week in the Three Crowns, the rough guys walked in and, when they saw me, accused me of not turning up. I was grabbed by the shoulder to be taken outside (very nasty). However John, who was an ex-boxer and pretty fit for an old boy, pulled the bloke holding me aside and said ‘He was there, because I was there with him!’ They put me down and were most apologetic to John. He saved me from something bad, God Bless Him!!”

Abdul Bari & friend, Whitechapel. “Abdul Bari (Botly Boy) lived in the Bancroft Estate and was a parent at John Scurr School where I was a governor and where my daughter attended. The photo was taken on Christmas day.”

Printer at the Surma newspaper, Brick Lane. The paper supported Sheikh Mujibur Rahman & the Awami League.

Porters at Spitalfields Market c.1978

Porters at Spitalfields Market c.1978

Boys on wasteland, Whitechapel c.1977

My friends Sadie & Murat Ozturk ran the kebab shop on Mile End Rd. Their daughter Aysher was best friends with my daughter and both went to John Scurr School. We spent alternate Christmases at each others’ home until they returned to Turkey. They were very hard-working and I hope they have prospered. c.1978

Engineers in the Mile End Automatic Laundry. It was a fantastic facility for people like us, with just an outside toilet and a butler’s sink in the kitchen. It had machines to iron your sheets which was a palaver, but everyone used to help each another. c.1975

Jan Alam & Union Steward, Raj Jalal on an Anti-Fascist march in Whitechapel

Chris Carpenter & Jim Wolveridge on Mile End Waste. My long-time friend Chris was a teacher at John Scurr School who went to Zimbabwe to teach for a number of years. When he arrived there were very few books in the School, but oddly there was one called ‘Ain’t It Grand’ by Jim Wolveridge. How it got there nobody could explain. Jim Wolveridge used to have a second hand book stall on the Waste every Saturday. In this photo, Chris is telling him about finding his book in his school in Zimbabwe. c.1985

My photography student Rodney at Deptford Green Youth Centre would often say ‘Hush up & listen to the Teach!’

Michael Rosen and Nik Chakraborty both taught my daughter at John Scurr School. c.1979

Photography students at Deptford Green Youth Centre. They were eager to learn and I hope they’ve all done well. c.1979

My friend and colleague, Caroline Merion at Tower Hamlets Local History Library where she spent most of her time. I went to her house once or twice and I noticed she had a habit of hoarding bags. c.1979

Harry Watton worked in the Local History Library in Bancroft Rd for many years. He was always helpful and had an immense knowledge about Tower Hamlets. c.1979

The Rev David Moore from the Bow Mission and Santiago Bell, an exile from Pinochet’s Chile who was a ceramicist and wood carver. He taught David to carve and, on retirement, David built himself a studio and has been carving ever since. This picture was taken at the opening of Bow Single Homeless & Alcoholic Rehabilitation Project and the carving, which was the work of both David and Santiago, depicts the journey of rehabilitation. c.1986

Builders at Oxford House. c.1978

Gasmen at Mile End Place, 1977

Harry Diamond at a beer festival at Stepping Stones Farm Stepney. After I left art school in 1978,  I met Harry at Camerawork in Alie St. He was always generous with his knowledge of photography and, after talking to him, I changed the type of film I was using. Harry was famously painted by Lucien Freud standing next to a pot plant, but when I asked Harry what he thought of Lucien, he did not have a high opinion of the great artist. c.1978

Teacher Martin Cale and Bob the School-keeper (an ex-docker) at John Scurr School. c.1978

At Hungerford Bridge, I came across this man in a doorway. He was not yet asleep so I asked if I could take his photo. ‘If you give me a cigarette,’ he said. ‘I only smoke rollups,’ I replied. ‘That’ll do.’ I rolled him a cigarette then took his portrait. c.1978

Paul Rutishauser ran the print workshop in the basement of St George’s Town Hall in Cable St

‘We don’t want to live in Southend’ – Housing demonstration on the steps of the old Town Hall

Kids from Stepping Stones Farm in Stepney c.1980

“Kingsley Hall was a Charles Voysey designed building off Devons Rd, Bow, that had fallen into disrepair and which we were trying to turn into a community centre.”

Kids from Kingsley Hall

In the pub with Geoff Cade and Helen Jefferies (centre and right) who worked at Kingsley Hall

“Geoffrey Cade worked at Kingsley Hall from about 1982. He fought injustice all his life and was a founding member of Campaign for Police Accountability, a good friend and colleague.”

East London Advertiser reporters strike in Bethnal Green, long before the paper moved to Romford c.1979

National Association of Local Government Officers on strike at the Ocean Estate

Teachers on strike c. 1984

Policing the Teacher’s Strike c. 1984

Teachers of George Green’s School, Isle of Dogs, in support of Ambulance Crews c. 1983

Kevin Courtney was my National Union of Teachers Representative when I began my teaching career

Lollipop Lady in Devons Rd, Bow

“Our first play scheme was in the summer of 1979. One of the workers was a musician called Lesley and her boyfriend was forming a band, so they asked me to photograph them and, as they lived on the Ocean Estate, we went into Mile End Park to do the shoot.”

Does anyone remember the name of this band?

Busker in Cheshire St c. 1979

“We bought our fruit and vegetables every Saturday from John the greengrocer in Globe Rd who did all his business in old money.” c.1980

Photographs copyright © Philip Cunningham

You may also like to take a look at

A Lost Corner of Whitechapel

Philip Cunningham at Mile End Place

15 Responses leave one →
  1. Andy permalink
    January 15, 2024

    It is out of tribute to the kind Gentle Author that I am trying my very best and writing for him and all of you a long spiel .
    These photographs explain something if not everything about the characters and the people of the East End around the Mile End Waste ( does anybody on here remember “Johnny’s” the toy shop which had a stall on the waste on Saturday afternoons and a shop more or less opposite open then and other days?
    Johnnie with his pencil moustache with the gift of the gab selling and shouting the price reductions to get a crowd round.
    No wonder I still go up to complete strangers and chat even though I am a pensioner . The photographs convey how a child could easily do that .
    Often that meant acts of philanthropy but occasionally it would get us into trouble we later regretted.
    I do hope this gets others to evoke their memories and if any teachers want me to tell my story to them please ask . It will be a honour to those who deserve that honour .Unsung heroes indeed .The Gentle Author gives us a chance and knows my details .

  2. January 15, 2024

    Thank you, Philip Cunningham, for these magnificent photographs, so full of charm and character. I don’t imagine Mile End could have had a better chronicler. I love the faces of these people who’d otherwise be lost to history.
    Wild guess about the unknown band: is it ATV?

  3. January 15, 2024

    An astonishing set of images, thank you for posting.

  4. Frances Donnelly permalink
    January 15, 2024

    wonderful,evocative photos. I’m chiefly struck by the warmth, confidence and optimism in the faces conveyed. Not sure if people would be so unguarded nowadays-a tribute to the relationship Philip created with his subjects.

  5. Bernie permalink
    January 15, 2024

    Two things strike me about this set of excellent images. One is that where the subject allows they are very creatively and excellently posed. The second is that in many cases trousers are remarkably long and with freshly ironed creases. Unusually good!

  6. January 15, 2024

    What wonderful memories! Thanks dear GA and Phillip. Funnily enough, the latter ones cut across the very start of my teaching career which started in East London too. In fact, I remember the teachers’ strike because I was still at university but we went to the match and rally. If you worked in a tough school, you forged friendships for life. I am still in regular contact with ex-colleagues. Schools were/are special places that can give kids a chance. Some didn’t want it, but we tried nonetheless. Great to see a youthful Michael Rosen here – how amazing to have been taught by him!
    I also remember smoke in the staffroom so thick, you could not easily see from one side to the other, Friday pub lunchtimes ( would never happen now!), and teachers shouting from the staffroom window for volunteers to go to the local pie and mash shop as an early version of Deliveroo. Payment was also made through the window a few minutes later. Times were simpler back then. Gosh I feel old.

  7. January 15, 2024

    Scenes from a time when I was in London, England and Scotland for the first time. The photos capture this atmosphere wonderfully. And, amazingly, flared pants are back after 45 years — surprise!

    Michael Rosen has become a wonderful children’s book author. There are no limits to his fantasies — I admire him!

    Love & Peace

  8. David S permalink
    January 15, 2024

    I found this which contains a bit more info about the band…

  9. January 15, 2024

    Wow, I never expected to see someone I know about in the pictures! That’s a wonderful picture of Michael Rosen, I wonder if he knows about it?

  10. Lesley Bown permalink
    January 15, 2024

    Lovely pictures. Out here in the sticks we still have shops that sell everything including paraffin!

  11. John Venes permalink
    January 15, 2024

    Just to endorse these comments and add a thought, if I may.
    Like lots of us here I lived in the area until 1975 when I got married and joined the eastward drift to Essex…
    But, anyway, all the scenes and people look so familiar yet it’s all changed beyond recognition and the old folks gone.
    I have great memories of growing up in Bethnal Green but do feel a sense of melancholy looking at these photos and what we have lost.

  12. January 15, 2024

    Born in Bethnal Green and having lived near Victoria Park long before it became renamed Victoria Park Village, these photos remind me of those happy days and the characters that lived there.
    I remember John the Greengrocer in Globe Road, kids playing on bomb sites and yes, Mile End Waste and all it’s attractions…. happy days.
    How lovely to see that great actor and East End boy Eddie Marsan in his superman outfit!

  13. Cherub permalink
    January 16, 2024

    Love the pic of the kids with Eddie Marsan in the middle, that little lad has gone on to become one of Britain’s best actors.

  14. Amos Julien permalink
    January 17, 2024

    Some good photos here especially the ones in relation to Kingsley Hall. Its a reminder of how ease and innocence can reach out to the most remotest part of our own selves in that memories remain undimmed by the passage of time.

  15. January 21, 2024

    What a treasure trove of photographs. I love the sense of community activistism that permeates these images, as well as their quality.
    A wonderful archive. Will there be a book, I wonder?

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