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Surma Centre Portraits

October 11, 2019
by the gentle author

Contributing Photographer Patricia Niven and Novelist Sarah Winman made this series of portraits and interviews at the Surma Centre at Toynbee Hall.

“After the Second World War, Britain required labour to assist in post-war reconstruction. Commonwealth countries were targeted and, in what was then East Pakistan (it became Bangladesh after the 1971 Liberation War), vouchers appeared on Post Office counters, urging people to come and work in the United Kingdom, no visa required. The majority of men who came in the fifties and sixties came from a rural background where education was scarce and illiteracy was common. But this generation were hard workers, used to working with their hands, men who could commit to long hours, who had an eagerness to work and a young man’s inquisitiveness to see the world: the perfect workforce to help rebuild this nation. And they did rebuild it, and were soon found working in factories and ship yards, building roads and houses, crossing seas in the merchant navy. These pioneers were the men we met at the Surma Centre.” – Sarah Winman

Shah Mohammed Ali, age 75 years.

I came to this country in November 1961 because my uncle was already living here and inspired me to come. In East Pakistan, I had been working in a shop. I felt life was good. My earliest memory of London was Buckingham Palace. I missed my friends and family but I really missed the weather back home. I became a factory worker, and worked all over the country: a cotton factory in Oldham, a foundry in Sheffield, an aluminium factory in London and Ford motor factory in Dagenham. Ford gave me a good, comfortable life. We had friends all over the country and they would tell us if there was more money being offered at a different factory and then we’d move. I thought I would stay in Britain for four years and then go back home. My heart is in Bangladesh. The roses smell sweeter.

Eyor Miah, age 69 years.

I came to this country in September 1965. I had been a student in East Pakistan. Life was hard, my father was a sailor. I read in a Bengali newspaper stories of people travelling and earning money, and I thought that I, too, would like to do that. I wrote to somebody I knew here to help me. It was a slow process, all done by mail, because of course, there was no internet. It took me two years to gain my papers. I didn’t mind because I was very determined to achieve.

When I first arrived, I became a machinist in the tailoring industry and I earned £1 and ten shillings a week. My weekly outlay was £1 and the rest I saved. Brick Lane was very rundown then. The Jewish population were very welcoming, probably because they were eager for workers! We would queue up outside the mosque and they would come and pick the ones they wanted. In 1969 I bought a house for £55. Of course, I missed my mother who stayed in Bangladesh, and before 1971 I actually thought I would return to live. After that date though, I felt Britain was my home and life was better here.

After tailoring, I worked in restaurants and then began my own business as a travel agent, set up my own restaurants and grocery shop. I have four children. Life has been good to me.

Rokib Ullah, age 81 years.

I came to this country in 1959, because workers were being recruited from the Commonwealth to rebuild after the Second World War. Life in East Pakistan then was good. I was very young and working as a farmer. My fellow countrymen told me about the work in the UK and I came here by air. When I arrived, the airport was so small, not like it is today. And the weather was awful, so bad, not like home, I found that difficult, together with missing my neighbours and friends. I worked in a tyre factory, and then in garment and leather factories. I planned to stay here and earn enough money, and then return to Bangladesh. I am a pensioner now and frequently go back to Bangladesh. It is in my heart. One day I plan to go there forever.

Syed Abdul Kadir, age 77 years.

I first came to this country in 1953. I was in the navy in Karachi and I was selected by the Pakistan Government to be in the Guard of Honour in London at the Queen’s Coronation. I remember this day very clearly. It was June and the weather was cold. When Queen Elizabeth was crowned the noise was tremendous. There were shouts of “God Save the Queen!” and gun salutes were fired. We marched to Buckingham Palace where more crowds were waiting. The Queen and her family came out on the balcony and the RAF flew past the Mall, and the skies above Victoria Embankment were lit up by fireworks. I feel very lucky to have been part of this, and I still have my Coronation ceremony medal.

Since my first visit, I developed a fondness for the British culture, its people and the Royal Family. I have always believed this country looks after its poor.

I owe the Pakistan Navy for much of my experiences in life and was lucky to travel and to see the world. I actively participated in the 1965 India-Pakistan war and the 1971 Pakistan war and have medals for both.

My family are settled here and my life revolves around grandchildren. I have been coming to Surma since 2004. When someone sees me, they call me “Captain!” We are like a family here.

Shunu Miah, age 79 years.

I came to this country in November 1961. Back home, I helped my father farm. It was a good life, still East Pakistan, the population was low, not much poverty, food for everyone: it was a land of plenty. It wasn’t a bad life, I was young and was just looking for more. My uncle had been in the UK since 1931, my father since 1946, both encouraged me to come.

Cinema here was my greatest memory. Back home, cinema was rare. Every Saturday and Sunday there was a cinema above Cafe Naz on Brick Lane, or I’d go to the cinema in Commercial Rd, or up to the West End. It was so exciting, the buildings, the underground, the lights! People were friendly and welcoming then. I saw Indian films, but also Samson and Delilah and the Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston.

I have worked at the Savoy Hotel as a kitchen porter and also in cotton factories in Bradford. What did I miss? Family and friends, of course, but also the weather. The smell of flowers, too, they are much stronger back home. I thought I would stay here and work for three or four years, go home and buy land, build a house and live happily ever after. I have helped to build homes for my family in Bangladesh. I have never been able to own a home here.

Abul Azad, Co-ordinator at the Surma Centre.

“These men are very loyal to a country that has given them a home,” said Abul Azad, the charismatic project co-ordinator at Surma Centre in Whitechapel. “When they first arrived, living conditions were bad, sometimes up to ten people lived in a room. Facilities were unhealthy, toilets outside, and nothing to protect them from an unfamiliar cold that many still talk about. Most intended to earn money to send back to families, and then return after a few years – a dream realised by few, especially after the settlement of families. Instead they were open to exploitation, often working over sixty hours a week, the consequence of which is clearly visible today in low state pensions, due to companies not paying the correct National Insurance contributions. And most Bangladeshi people don’t have private pensions. Culturally, pensions are not of this generation. Their families are their pension – always imagined they would be looked after. But times are changing for everyone.”

Surma runs a regular coffee morning, providing support for elderly Bangladeshi people. The language barrier is still the greatest hindrance to this older generation and Surma provides a specialist team ready to assist their needs – both financially and socially – and to provide free legal advice. It is also quite simply a haven for people to get out of the house and to be amongst their peers, to read newspapers, to have discussions, to talk about what is happening here and in Bangladesh.

There is something profound that holds this group together, a deep unspoken, clothed in dignity. Maybe it is the history of a shared journey, where the desire for a better life meant hours of physical hardship and unceasing toil and lonely years of not being able to communicate. Maybe it is quite simply the longing for home, remaining just that: an unrealised dream. Whatever it is – “This is a very beautiful group.” said Abul Azad.

Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven

You may also like to take look at these other portraits by Patricia Niven and Sarah Winman

Golden Oldies from the Golden Lane Estate

John Player’s Cries Of London 1913

October 10, 2019
by the gentle author

In this set of John Player’s Cries of London from 1913 an appealing pantomime aesthetic prevails. These crudely printed cards portray an idealised old London in which the cats’ meat is as pink as the spots on a hat box and the hawkers are resolutely cheery as they go about the the streets plying their wares. Although the clouded skies that accompany each vendor will strike an unexpectedly familiar note of authenticity for any Londoner.

I cannot deny there is a little moralism in the text on the reverse of these cards, apparent when we are told that these itinerants, “were then a more respectable class than at present,” evidenced by the basket seller’s family who made “better kinds of baskets… some of them being neatly coloured and decorated.” Elsewhere we encounter “the cleanly housewife who strews sand plentifully over her floor,” and “the London housewives” who place Lavender in their linen cupboards.

Player’s Cries of London are a model of decorum except for the last two cards, the Dust Man (whose title still lingers in the vocabulary to describe Refuse Collectors) and the Chimney Sweep – who are missing their implicit companion, the Night Soil Man, as presumably too scatological. The Dust Man looks distracted while the Chimney Sweep is overly cheerful verging on the demonic. Even if these charismatic gaudy images have been more than a little sanitised, in the wicked grin of this bratty little urchin we are reminded of the witty libertarian spirit of the old Cries of London.

All Cries of London are fascinating to me – whether prints, cigarette cards, biscuit tins, plates or playing cards, because the changing nature of these images traces evolving perceptions of the urban poor. It is a genre that delights me by celebrating the infinite resourcefulness of those who created a living out of nothing on the streets of London.


You may like to take a look at

William Nicholson’s London Types

John Leighton’s London Cries

Francis Wheatley’s Cries of London

John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana of 1817

Adam Dant’s  New Cries of Spittlefields

Ben Hur In Stepney

October 9, 2019
by the gentle author

The Palaseum Cinema (also known as the Ben Hur) painted by Doreen Fletcher, 1985

Ian Ben Hur, grandson of Ben Hur who was both projectionist and proprietor at the Palaseum Cinema in White Horse Rd, Stepney from 1917, sent me this glorious film celebrating a party thrown by his grandfather for eight hundred children at the Jubilee of 1935. Ben placed a camera on the front of a car to take some of the shots and showed the completed film to audiences at his cinema. How much I would love to have been there to witness their reaction.

Too often, we think of the East End in the thirties as defined by social problems, the poverty and deprivation, and the rise of fascism, yet these images confront us with the vitality of that society. The delightful sequences of crowds arriving at the cinema remind me of the Lumiere Brothers’ film of workers leaving the factory, with spectators offering spontaneous greeting as they recognise the camera. Above all, the wonder of this film is the exuberance of the community which is conveyed and no viewer can fail to be touched by these joyful personalities presenting themselves to the lens with such confident self-possession.

Ben Hur was born Henry Ben Solomon, but changed his name by deed poll to Ben Hur after gaining fame by beating a market bully who was a bare-knuckle boxing champion after seventy-seven rounds. He made money with a stage act as The World Strongest Man and used it to buy businesses including the Palaseum. Renowned for his charitable endeavours including donations to the Royal London Hospital, Ben lived until in 1960.

The Ben Hur cinema which was also known as the Palaseum was converted to a bingo club in 1962 and then a snooker club in the eighties, closing in 2007 before the building was demolished in 2008.

Celebrations in Challis Court by Rose Henriques (Courtesy of Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives)

Lilo Blum, Hyde Park Equestrian

October 8, 2019
by the gentle author

‘The first time I rode in Hyde Park was in 1937…’

Born in Germany in 1927, Lilo and her family came to London as refugees escaping the Nazis in 1937 when she was just ten years old, but within a couple of years she had set up her own livery stable next to Hyde Park. Lilo Blum’s Riding Stables flourished for forty-five years as a popular London institution, occupying Lilo’s entire working life and proving an irresistible magnet for any celebrity, jetsetter or socialite who enjoyed a canter in the Park.

My meeting with Lilo Blum came about when her nephew Edward recognised a photograph of his aunt’s stables in Grosvenor Park Crescent in 1952 by Israel Bidermanas published on Spitalfields Life and wrote to me. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to interview Lilo at her swish flat in Park Lane with a magnificent view over Hyde Park and hear her triumphant story in her own words.

“I was four or five when I learnt to ride. My brother was three years older than me and I remember he rode in a pony race, and I cried because I wanted to ride as well. So they got me a quiet pony and I rode round the course, quite a few miles behind the others, but at least it kept me quiet. Working with horses runs in our family and my father was a well-known veterinarian. He could tell at one glance if a horse was lame, because in those days they didn’t have x-rays and you had to be able to just say what was wrong.

I started my riding stables in 1943 when I was sixteen years old. I collected threepenny bits in an old whisky bottle and then I went with my father to the big sales at Newmarket where they sold racehorses. We bought one for fifty-five guineas and I called him ‘Pick-up.’ After I had bought him, I thought ‘What am I going to do with him?’ because he was baby racehorse and unbroken, so I couldn’t use him in a riding school. But I was lucky because I had some friends who worked at Knightsbridge barracks and they agreed to keep him in their stable for me.

The sergeant offered to ask his commanding officer if I would be allowed to take my horse riding from the barracks and, luckily for me, they allowed it during the war. The sergeant broke in my horse, and got him nice and quiet and civilised, so people could eventually ride him and I knew he wouldn’t throw anybody off.  Then I sold ‘Pick-up’ to the Huntley & Palmers people and he raced for them and won some races, which was good for me. I can’t remember how much I got but it was enough to buy some ponies and that was how I started my riding stable.

The first time I rode in Hyde Park was in 1937. Before the war, you could see a thousand horses riding down Rotten Row. You had to dress up properly for riding then and the ladies they rode side-saddle – I tried it once, I didn’t like it. There were hundreds and hundreds of stables in the mews around Hyde Park then. I remember when all the mews were horses. It’ll never come back again. After the war, people didn’t dress up for riding any more. Society changed.

I had around twenty horses in my stable and lived for forty-two years in Knightsbridge in Old Barrack Yard, next to The Grenadier. I’ve spent many hours in their with some of our people and I’ve seen a few landlords come and go. If I had a penny for every time people asked me ‘Where’s The Grenadier?’ without question I’d be a millionaire. Most of my friends I met through horses.

I love horses but there were some anxious moments. It was always a gamble because you’d buy a horse in the country yet if it was no good in the traffic you might just as well get rid of it. My father taught me a lot and I had a great friend, an Irish racehorse trainer who was very good at picking out horses.

My favourite horse, we called it ‘Decision’ because we saw it at a sale and my father wasn’t quite sure about it but then the owner asked, ‘What’s your decision?’ He was very popular and he made me a lot of money. He lived to be old and he worked really hard and we thought ‘Well, he’s done well for us,’ so we turned him out in a field but he didn’t like it. He was so used to working and being in the traffic that he died soon after.

With horses, it’s seven days a week, twelve hours a day starting at 5:30am. Often, I would have just locked up and put all the horses away when a whole lot of people would come down, but I would never refuse them. I would unlock the door again, get the horses out and show them all around Hyde Park. It’s nice when people appreciate what you do for them.

Once I started my stable in Grosvenor Crescent Mews, I had loads and loads of famous people coming to ride. Zsa Zsa Gabor kept her horse with us for a little while, but she liked to go one better so she took him down to the Duke of Marlborough in Wiltshire where she galloped all across his lawn and he wasn’t too happy. So she brought her horse back again and rode him out in Hyde Park. Then she decided to go abroad and asked me to sell her horse, and he became the symbol of Lloyds Bank and starred in ‘Black Beauty’ with Vivien Leigh and ‘Knights of the Round Table’ with Robert Taylor and Ava Gardner. A very famous horse.

I remember one day we had our ponies out and the Household Cavalry were training and making an awful lot of noise, so I called Andrew Parker-Bowles, who was officer in charge, and said, ‘You’re upsetting my ponies!’ To be fair he was very nice about it, and he was always very nice to me after that. In fact, one of my horses had an injury and he took it into the barracks to have it treated, so it didn’t do any harm to tell him off.

Topol lived in the house on the corner and we had Jean Simmons & Stewart Grainger at the top of the mews with their daughter Tracy who used to come and mess about with the ponies. Paul Newman came, Raquel Welch was another regular, and Stirling Moss – he lived in our mews, I knew him when he was a kid.

Luciano Pavarotti was a heavy man and he used to sit at the front of the horse, so I said to him, ‘Hey mister, you give my horse a sore back! Sit further back in the saddle.’ Mohammad Ali rode one of our horses in the Park too, but after I shook hands with him I felt mine was going to drop off! Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister’s husband, the Polish Prince Radziwiłł kept his horses with us and that’s how I got to know the Kennedys. I taught the little children, Caroline & John Kennedy to ride but I always had to have a police escort when I took them out.

Sometimes we got these pushy mums. I’ll never forget one lady, she said to me, ‘When are you going to teach my little girl to trot?’ and I said, ‘Give her a bit of a chance, she’s only two years old.’ I told the little kid, ‘Your mummy wants me to teach you to trot,’ and she did it once it, but she couldn’t get the rhythm so she said, ‘Enough now!’ I’ll never forget that but, in time, she turned out good.

I ran my stables until 1988 and it was a great success. Eventually the Duke of Westminster built the Lanesborough Hotel at Hyde Park Corner and he didn’t want any more horses in the mews. It was very disappointing after forty-five years, but life goes on. Everything has changed so much hasn’t it?

It has been an interesting life I must say. You’ve got to make the best of it. I keep telling my friends, ‘It’s a rehearsal not the real thing,’ but they don’t take any notice. I made money and blew money like everybody else. I was lucky I always worked for myself which is a great thing. I’ve done alright. I can’t complain! If I see a horse I like out in the park from my window, I still think ‘That one’s nice, that would have done me nicely.'”

Lilo Blum’s Riding Stables, Grosvenor Park Crescent W1 – as photographed by Israel Bidermanas in 1952. Lilo’s dog Peggy sleeps in the foreground.

The Grenadier, Old Barrack Yard, Lilo Blum’s local for half a century

Archive photographs courtesy © Bishopsgate Institute

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Peter Rayner, Baker, Bell Tuner & Train Driver

October 7, 2019
by the gentle author

Any readers who can give some spare time over coming weeks are invited to a meeting of the campaign to Save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry at Bow Church, 230 Bow Rd, E3 3AH, this Thursday 10th October at 6pm. Plans are underway for a large public rally and march in Whitechapel in November.

Peter Rayner

It is rare that you meet anyone with such an array of practical skills and accomplishments as Peter Rayner. We met at the Save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry meeting at East London Mosque in September and then I visited Peter at his home in Stratford where he told me his story.

“On my father’s side, I am an East End boy and, on my mother’s side, I am Leicestershire. They met when dad was in the army and mum was in the land army in Kent but although I was born and bred in Hertfordshire I consider myself an East Ender.

I always wanted to be a train driver but I left school and went into catering. My parents told me there would be more money in it. I had always been interested in making bread and cakes. I got all my qualifications and I worked for a small family bakers in Enfield but, when the old boy died, I was unemployed.

Through my bellringing, I heard there was a job going at Whitechapel Bell Foundry so I tried my hand there. I had learnt to ring bells at St Mary’s Cheshunt at the age of twenty.

I joined the foundry in October 1973 when I was twenty-four. My job was tuning bells, shaving metal off the inside. They normally cast bells sharp and by increasing the internal diameter you bring the note down in pitch to what you want. They taught me, the only place you can learn to make bells is in a bell foundry. The first job I worked on with Wallace Spragget and John Slater was the bells for All Saints, Worcester. Wally had worked Gillett & Johnston’s bell foundry which was in Croydon and, when it shut down, he transferred to Whitechapel. He had spent his life tuning bells and he took me under his wing and taught me.

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry was an old world place, still in the Victorian era, but I enjoyed working there because there was so much history. When I was there they demolished the old chain shop which was a bit ramshackle and built the new extension on the back.

Apart from the odd spell when it was quiet, were always fairly busy. When people asked me how many people worked at the bell foundry, I used to joke, ‘Only about half of us!’ It was thirty-five people but about fifteen were only concentrating on the handbells, while the rest of us were doing the big bells, making the moulds, casting the bells, tuning the bells and building the frames.

The moulds are a mixture of London clay, horse hair, goats hair and various types of sand so when it is mixed up it is a form of black pudding, though I would not recommend eating it.

I liked working there because I have always enjoyed working with my hands. I was working on old bells coming in for retuning, because they did not know how to tune bells in the old days. Some would be five, six or seven hundred years old. It will be two, three or five hundred years before the bells I worked on need any further attention. Bells do not often wear out. They get dirty and covered in crap from pigeons. Generally bells come in because the frame and fittings are completely worn out.

I worked on the bells for Durham, Gloucester and Canterbury Cathedrals, and also Hexham Abbey, Barking Abbey and Romsey Abbey. In London, Chelsea Old Church, Wimbledon, St Leonards Streatham and St Clement Danes among others. So I can say I have left my mark in bells.

The largest bell I was involved with was the American Bicentennial Bell cast in 1975 for the celebrations in 1976 in Philadelphia. It was about seven feet in diameter and weighed five and a half tons. A big bell. We did replica Liberty Bells, I was involved in casting fifteen of them. The plan was to put one in every state of the union, but how far they got with that I do not know. They were still knocking them out when I left the foundry in 1987.

When I first joined the bell foundry, it was run by Douglas and William Hughes. Alan who became the next bell founder was Bill Hughes’ son. He took over the business when they retired. Douglas Hughes had been an army officer and if you did something wrong you got a tongue lashing, but that was the end of it. Bill Hughes was quieter and he did all the working inspections and paperwork, getting the estimates done. I got on alright with both of them.

After Wally Spragget died, I took over bell tuning but by then I was married with a mortgage and things were getting a bit tight financially, so I had to find a better paid job. I got a job as a guard on the Underground, it was double the wages. After I finished my training, I was based at Golders Green but after nine months I was transferred to the East End depots. I became a train driver on the District Line based in Earls Court and Parsons Green for ten years.

When the Jubilee Line opened I knew there would be a depot in the East End, so I put my application in and transferred to Stratford in 1997. I was a test train driver until the Jubilee Line extended and I was on it for about ten years, so I fulfilled my ambition to be a train driver. I had a really rough day once, one of those days when everything goes wrong on the tube and I got home home late. I slammed my retirement notice in next morning and got a full pension.

That was eleven years ago but I am still heavily involved in bell ringing and I have bought a canal boat and I do model railways. I do most of the cooking at home and, occasionally, I provide bread and cake for bellringers dinners and things like that.

I am very sad that the Whitechapel Bell Foundry has closed because I spent more than ten years of my life there. Nowadays, I am on the canals and I have seen the example of what could happen at Middleport Pottery near Stoke on Trent. I am very impressed with what they have done. Every time I go past on my boat I stop there. When I was there three weeks ago, the apprentices were selling the stuff they made and we bought a complete dinner service.

The developers who want to turn the Whitechapel Bell Foundry into a boutique hotel plan to have a foundry casting handbells in the same place where they serve the food, but the two will not mix because of the air pollution. I do not think the hotel will work because there are already lots of hotels in Whitechapel.”

Peter Rayner tuning a bell at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in the seventies

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Hope for The Whitechapel Bell Foundry

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Save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry

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The Harvest Festival Of The Sea

October 6, 2019
by the gentle author

Today we preview the annual Fish Harvest Festival which will be held at St Mary-at-Hill next Sunday October 13th

Frank David, Billingsgate Porter for sixty years

Thomas à Becket was the first rector of St Mary-at-Hill in the City of London, the ancient church upon a rise above the old Billingsgate Market, where each year at this season the Harvest Festival of the Sea is celebrated – to give thanks for the fish of the deep that we all delight to eat, and which sustained a culture of porters and fishmongers here for centuries.

The market itself may have moved out to the Isle of Dogs in 1982, but that does not stop the senior porters and fishmongers making an annual pilgrimage back up the cobbled hill where, as young men, they once wheeled barrows of fish in the dawn. For one day a year, this glorious church designed by Sir Christopher Wren is recast as a fishmongers, with an artful display of gleaming fish and other exotic ocean creatures spilling out of the porch, causing the worn marble tombstones to glisten like slabs in a fish shop, and imparting an unmistakeably fishy aroma to the entire building. Yet it all serves to make the men from Billingsgate feel at home, in their chosen watery element – as I discovered when I went along to join the congregation.

Frank David and Billy Hallet, two senior porters in white overalls, both took off their hats – or “bobbins” as they are called – to greet me. These unique pieces of headgear once enabled the porters to balance stacks of fish boxes upon their heads, while the brim protected them from any spillage. Frank – a veteran of eighty-nine years old – who was a porter for sixty years from the age of eighteen, showed me the bobbin he had worn throughout his career, originally worn by his grandfather Jim David in Billingsgate in the eighteen-nineties and then passed down by his father Tim David.

Of sturdy wooden construction, covered with canvas and bitumen, stitched and studded, these curious glossy black artefacts seemed almost to have a life of their own. “When you had twelve boxes of kippers on your head, you knew you’d got it on,” quipped Billy, displaying his “brand new” hat, made only in the nineteen thirties. A mere stripling of seventy-three, still fit and healthy, Billy started his career at Christmas 1959 in the old Billingsgate market carrying boxes on his bobbin and wheeling barrows of fish up the incline past St Mary-at-Hill to the trucks waiting in Eastcheap. Caustic that the City of London revoked the porters’ licences after more than one hundred and thirty years – “Our traditions are disappearing,” he confided to me in the churchyard, rolling his eyes and striking a suitably elegiac Autumnal note.

Proudly attending the  spectacular display of fish in the porch, I met Eddie Hill, a fishmonger who started his career in 1948. He recalled the good times after the war when fish was cheap and you could walk across Lowestoft harbour stepping from one herring boat to the next. “My father said, ‘We’re fishing the ocean dry and one day it’ll be a luxury item,'” he told me, lowering his voice, “And he was right, now it has come to pass.” Charlie Caisey, a fishmonger who once ran the fish shop opposite Harrods, employing thirty-five staff, showed me his daybook from 1967 when he was trading in the old Billingsgate market. “No-one would believe it now!” he exclaimed, wondering at the low prices evidenced by his own handwriting, “We had four people then who made living out of  just selling parsley and two who made a living out of just washing fishboxes.”

By now, the swelling tones of the organ installed by William Hill in 1848 were summoning us all to sit beneath Wren’s cupola and the Billingsgate men, in their overalls, modestly occupied the back row as the dignitaries of the City, in their dark suits and fur trimmed robes, processed to take their seats at the front. We all sang and prayed together as the church became a great lantern illuminated by shifting patterns of October sunshine, while the bones of the long-dead slumbered peacefully beneath our feet. The verses referring to “those who go down the sea in ships and occupy themselves upon the great waters,” and the lyrics of “For those in peril on the sea” reminded us of the plain reality upon which the trade is based, as we sat in the elegantly proportioned classical space and the smell of fish drifted among us upon the currents of air.

In spite of sombre regrets at the loss of stocks in the ocean and unease over the changes in the industry, all were unified in wonder at miracle of the harvest of our oceans and by their love of fish – manifest in the delight we shared to see such an extravagant variety displayed upon the slab in the church. And I enjoyed my own personal Harvest Festival of the Sea in Spitalfields for the next week, thanks to the large bag of fresh fish that Eddie Hill slipped into my hand as I left the church.

St Mary-at-Hill was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in 1677

Senior fishmongers from Billingsgate worked from dawn to prepare the display of fish in the church

Fishmonger Charlie Caisey’s market book from 1967

Charlie Caisey explains the varieties of fish to the curious


Frank David and Billy Hallet, Billingsgate Porters

Frank’s “bobbin” is a hundred and twenty years old and Billy’s is “brand new” from the nineteen thirties

Billy Hallet’s porter’s badge, now revoked by the City of London

Jim Shrubb, Beadle of Billingsgate with friends

The mace of Billingsgate, made in 1669

John White (President & Alderman), Michael Welbank (Master) and John Bowman (Secretary) of the Billingsgate Ward Club


Dennis Ranstead, Sidesman Emeritus and Graham Mundy, Church Warden of St Mary-at-Hill

Senior Porters and Fishmongers of Billingsgate

Frank sweeps up the parsley at the end of the service

The cobbled hill leading down from the church to the old Billingsgate Market

Frank David with the “bobbin” first worn by his grandfather Jim David at Billingsgate in the 1890s

Photographs copyright © Ashley Jordan Gordon

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The Last Porters of Billingsgate Market

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At The Fishmongers Hall

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October 5, 2019
by the gentle author

I first came across artist Ruth Franklin‘s work in Whitechapel in 2015, when she displayed her cardboard sculptures of sewing machines and hairdressing tools, reflecting her family’s history in these trades in the East End.

‘My work is about the importance of household artefacts and family professions in uncovering childhood memories and family history,’ says Ruth.

‘I have been reflecting on my grandparents, who fled Poland in the early 1900’s, to settle in the East End of London, where they set up a tailors workshop. Looking too at my father’s profession as a women’s hairdresser, I have been creating tailoring and hairdressing ‘objects’, both real and imaginary, through sewn paper constructions, and amalgamated workshop and hairdressers tools.’

Now Ruth is showing her new sculptures of hand tools in a joint exhibition with Sara Radstone & Kate Starkey at House Mill on Three Mills Island in Bromley-by-Bow from Wednesday 9th – Sunday 13th October. All are welcome at the private view on Thursday 10th, 6–8:30pm.

The spectacular eighteenth-century House Mill is Europe’s largest tidal mill and, if you have never visited, this is an ideal opportunity.

Power drill (2019)

Hand drill (2019)

Hammer (2019)

Tape Measure (2019)

Sewing machine (2015)

Iron (2015)

Hairdryer (2015)

Hairdressing tools (2015)

Equipment (2015)

The Salon (2015)

Tools for the salon  (2015)

Curling machine (2015)

Manya (2015)

Alfy in May, mother’s brogue (2015)

Artwork copyright © Ruth Franklin

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At House Mill