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The Dioramas Of Petticoat Lane

March 21, 2024
by the gentle author


Join me on Easter Monday, April 1st, for THE GENTLE AUTHOR’S TOUR OF THE CITY OF LONDON. Meet me on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral at 2pm. We will walk eastward together through the Square Mile to explore the wonders and the wickedness of the City. Photo courtesy of Bishopsgate Institute




When the landlord of The Bell in Petticoat Lane wrote to say he had discovered some neglected old models of Spitalfields in the cellar, I hurried over to take a look. Once upon a time, these beautiful dioramas enjoyed pride of place in the barroom but by then they had been consigned to oblivion.

Although hefty and dusty and in need of a little repair, nevertheless they were skilfully made and full of intriguing detail, and deserved to be seen. Thanks to the enlightened curatorial policy of Archivist Stefan Dickers, today they enjoy a permanent home in the reading room at the Bishopsgate Institute where they can visited during opening hours.

I am always curious to learn more of this southerly corner of Spitalfields closest to the City that gives up its history less readily than some other parts, but where the market dates from the twelfth century – much older than that on the northern side of the parish which was not granted its charter until the seventeenth century. The Bell, topped off by a grotesque brick relief of a bell with a human face and adorned with panels of six thousand bottle tops by Robson Cezar, King of the Bottletops, has always fascinated me. Once the only pub in Petticoat Lane, it can be dated back to 1842 and may be much earlier since a Black Bell Alley stood upon this site in the eighteenth century.

I first saw the dioramas in the cellar of The Bell, when the landlord dragged them out for me to examine, one by one, starting with the largest. There are four – three square boxes and one long box, depicting Petticoat Lane Market and The Bell around a hundred years ago. In the market diorama, stalls line up along Middlesex St selling books and rolls of cloth and provisions, while a priest and a policemen lecture a group of children outside the pub. In total, more than thirty individually modelled and painted clay figures are strategically arranged to convey the human drama of the market. By contrast, the square boxes are less panoramic in ambition, one portrays the barroom of The Bell, one the cellar of The Bell and another shows a drayman with his wagon outside the Truman Brewery in Brick Lane, with a steam train crossing the railway bridge in the background.

A discreet plate on each diorama reveals the maker as Howard Kerslake’s model studio of Southend, a professional model maker’s pedigree that explains the sophisticated false perspectives and clever details such as the elaborate lamp outside The Bell – and the stuffed fish, the jar of pickled onions and the lettered mirror in the barroom – and the easy accomplishment of ambitious subjects such as the drayman’s cart with two horses in Brick Lane.

Nowadays, the dioramas have been dusted down and cleaned up and I recommend a visit to examine them for yourself.

Click on this picture to enlarge the diorama of Petticoat Lane

At the Truman Brewery Brick Lane, looking north

The barroom of The Bell

The cellar of The Bell

The Bell in the 1930s

You may like to read these other Petticoat Lane stories

Postcards from Petticoat Lane

Dennis Anthony’s Photographs of Petticoat Lane

Laurie Allen of Petticoat Lane

Irene & Ivan Kingsley, Market Traders of Petticoat Lane

Henry Jones, Jones Dairy

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Andy permalink
    March 21, 2024

    I think these are blinking smashing .
    They evoke so many memories for me .
    A community .
    Thank you Landlord and the Gentle Author .


  2. Christopher permalink
    March 21, 2024

    Fascinating treasure and they are wonderful …. never knew what a diorama was

  3. Pauline Taylor permalink
    March 21, 2024

    Thank you for sharing these they are so good and definitely deserve to be on public display so thank you to an enlightened archivist.

  4. March 21, 2024

    I’ve always been fascinated by worlds in miniature. I agree with Andy; couldn’t have put it better! The bar room–I feel as though I’m actually there.

    I wandered past the Bishopsgate Institute last week, and I didn’t go in. Now I’m kicking myself.

    Thanks so much for sharing these!

  5. March 21, 2024

    Hey, I never even think of using the word “cunning” — but THESE models are cunning-to-the-
    max. Such things are made with such galloping enthusiasm (quite obvious!) but then frequently they languish, get dusty, broken, set aside, put up on a shelf. These lovely examples are now –
    hurrah! — on display AND being shared with the world, via Spitalfields Life. I suspect so many of your readers (me included) will remember today how it felt to attempt to build a miniature
    something-or-other. Challenging, to say the least. And yet such an engaging thing to attempt.
    I remember an afternoon when a teenage boyfriend and I set out to create a miniature model of a mythic beach house, using match sticks. Hours went by. We hunched over the project, wrangled with bits of glue, concocted work-arounds, made little progress, but thoroughly loved the process. Dare I say, working on that together provided strong “glue” for our romance; as we discovered each other’s child selves. Thank you, GA, for shining a light. On the dioramas
    and on our memories.

  6. Eve permalink
    March 21, 2024

    A delightful model, skillfully crafted with fine attention to minute detail familiar as a typical scene of the famous old London cockney street market..

  7. Irene Lilian Pugh permalink
    March 21, 2024

    Miniatures of perfection and brings alive London’s history and way of life. And reminds me of my late great grandfather H Goldsmith who had been a drayman. Thank you GA.


  8. Cherub permalink
    March 22, 2024

    How lovely are these, the little figures are smashing. This should be on display somewhere.

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