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In Search Of Horace Warner

February 17, 2021
by the gentle author

All titles in the Spitalfields Life Bookshop are half price in our Valentine’s sale. Some are already sold out and others are running low, so – with weeks of lockdown yet to come – this is the ideal opportunity to complete your collection.

Enter the code VALENTINE at checkout to claim your discount.


Today I explore the life of Horace Warner, photographer of SPITALFIELDS NIPPERS which is included in the sale.

Horace Warner (1871-1939)

This is a self-portrait by Horace Warner taken when he was around thirty years old at the time he was photographing the Spitalfields Nippers, the pictures by which he is remembered and that establish his posthumous reputation as a photographer. If you look closely you can just see the bulb in his left hand to control the shutter, permitting him to capture this image of himself.

With his pale moon-like face, straggly moustache and shiny locks, Horace looks younger than his years and yet there is an intensity in his concentration matched by the poised energy of his right arm. This is how he chose to present himself – wielding a brush, indicative of his profession as a wallpaper designer in the family business of Jeffrey & Co, run by his father Metford Warner (1843-1930), where he and his brother Marcus worked. The company was established in 1836 and Metford was a junior partner who became proprietor by 1869 and, under his leadership, they became a leading manufacturer. He was committed to representing artists’ designs more accurately than had been done before and commissioned William Burges and Walter Crane, among other leading designers of the time – most famously, collaborating with William Morris.

I set out to visit three places that were familiar to Horace Warner in an attempt to better understand the connections between the different aspects of his life that found their expression in these locations. First, I took the train to Highbury and walked up the hill beside the long eighteenth century terrace bounding the fields, turning off into the quiet crescent of Aberdeen Park, a private estate laid out in the eighteen-fifties.

The turret of the former Warner family house stood out among the other comfortably-appointed villas, as testimony to the success of Jeffrey & Co, supplying wallpaper to the artistic classes in the growing capital at the end of the nineteenth century. A woman pushing a pram along the pavement in front of me turned out to be the nanny employed by the current residents and, when I explained the reason for my visit, she volunteered that there were a series of old photographs still hanging in an upper room, which also retains its turn of the century embossed wallpaper.

Leaving the ghosts of Aberdeen Park, I turned south, following Horace’s route to work by walking for half an hour down through Canonbury, past the Tower and along the route of the New River, to meet the Essex Rd where the Jeffrey & Co wallpaper factory stands. An elegant turn-of-the century utilitarian building with three well-lit floors above for manufacturing and a showroom on the ground floor, it is currently occupied by a wholefood chain. William Morris’ wallpaper designs were all printed here until the thirties when they were taken over by Sandersons and the factory closed in 1940 but, if you go round to the side street, the loading doors remain as if another delivery might arrive at any time.

From here, the East End is a couple of miles south. In her nineties, Horace Warner’s surviving daughter, Ruth Finken, still remembers accompanying her father on this journey as a small child to deliver Christmas presents in Quaker St, where he was Sunday School teacher. She recalls how dark, dirty and frightening everything looked, and being told to hold her father’s hand and keep close. Ruth reports that her father was always one for getting the family to pose for his photos and that he spent ages getting everyone in exactly the right position. She also has a memory of one of his photographs of a pair of child’s boots upon the drawing room wall, along with a couple of his portraits of the Spitalfields Nippers, as reminders of those who were less fortunate.

Horace Warner’s participation as Superintendent at the Bedford Institute continued an involvement for his family in Spitalfields that stretched back to the seventeenth century when the Warner Bell Foundry was established. The Warner family were part of the Quaker movement too, almost since its inception, and the naming of Quaker St derives from the Friends Meeting House that opened there in 1656.

Yet the Quaker Mission at the Bedford Institute, that Horace Warner knew, owed its origin to a revival of Quakerism that happened a century later in Spitalfields – encouraged by Peter Bedford (1780-1864), a philanthropist silk merchant who devoted himself to alleviating poor social conditions. Rebuilt in 1893, the handsome red brick Bedford House that stands today would have been familiar to Warner.

In The Condition of The Working Class in England, Frederick Engels referred to the tragedy of a family living in the courtyards south of Quaker St as an example of the degradation of the poor in London and it was these people, living almost upon the doorstep of the Bedford Institute, that Horace Warner befriended and photographed. It was a small area, a narrow rectangle of shabby dwellings circumscribed by roads upon four sides, and no more than a hundred yards wide and five hundreds yards long. Today there is nothing left of it but Horace Warner’s photographs, yet since he annotated them with the names of his subjects we hope we can now discover more about the lives of these people through research into the records. Ultimately, what we can discover about Horace Warner exists in his response to others and their response to him, as manifest in his photographs.

“There isn’t a great deal of information we know about Horace,” his grandson Ian McGilvray admitted to me, “and, in any case, I imagine he would probably have been quite content to have it that way.”

The Warner family home in Aberdeen Park, Highbury

Jeffrey & Co, Wallpaper Factory & Showroom, 64 Essex Rd – the family business run by Metford Warner, where Horace worked with his brother Marcus

Bedford Institute, Quaker St, Spitafields, where Horace Warner was Sunday School Superintendent

Horace Warner’s photograph of one of the yards off Quaker St

Horace Warner’s photograph of Union Place off Quaker St

Horace Warner’s photograph of the children who lived in the yards beside Quaker St in 1900

Washing Day, Horace Warner’s photograph of children boiling up hot water for laundry

Little Adelaide’s Best & Only Boots – a photograph by Horace Warner that Ruth Finken, his daughter, remembers upon the drawing room wall as a child – the Bedford Institute distributed boots to children

Click here to buy a copy of SPITALFIELDS NIPPERS at half price

You can see more of Horace Warner’s photographs here

An Astonishing Photographic Discovery

John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana

February 16, 2021
by the gentle author

All titles in the Spitalfields Life Bookshop are half price in our Valentine’s sale. Some are already sold out and others are running low, so – with weeks of lockdown yet to come – this is the ideal opportunity to complete your collection.

Enter the code VALENTINE at checkout to claim your discount.


Today I present the etchings of John Thomas Smith who is featured in THE GENTLE AUTHOR’S CRIES OF LONDON which is included in the sale.

This is William Conway of Crab Tree Row, Bethnal Green, who walked twenty-five miles every day, calling, “Hard metal spoons to sell or change.” Born in 1752 in Worship St, Spitalfields, he is pictured here forty-seven years into his profession, following in the footsteps of his father, also an itinerant trader. Conway had eleven walks around London which he took in turn, wore out a pair of boots every six weeks and claimed that he never knew a day’s illness.

This is just one of the remarkable portraits by John Thomas Smith collected together  in a large handsome volume entitled “Vagabondiana,” published in 1817, that I discovered in the collection of the Bishopsgate Institute. John Thomas Smith is an intriguing and unjustly neglected artist of the early nineteenth century who is chiefly remembered today for being born in the back of a Hackney carriage in Great Portland St and for his murky portrait of Joseph Mallord William Turner.

On the opening page of “Vagabondiana”, Smith’s project is introduced to the reader with delicately ambiguous irony. “Beggary, of late, has become so dreadful in London, that the more active interference of the legislature was deemed absolutely necessary, indeed the deceptions of the idle and sturdy were so various, cunning and extensive, that it was in most instances extremely difficult to discover the real object of charity. Concluding, therefore, that from the reduction of metropolitan beggars, several curious characters would disappear by being either compelled to industry, or to partake of the liberal parochial rates, provided for them in their respective work-houses, it occurred to the author of the present publication, that likenesses of the most remarkable of them, with a few particulars of their habits, would not be unamusing to those to whom they have been a pest for several years.”

Yet in spite of these apparently self-righteous, Scrooge-like, sentiments – that today might be still be voiced by any number of venerable bigots – John Thomas Smith’s pictures tell another story. From the moment I cast my eyes upon these breathtakingly beautiful engravings, I was captivated by their human presence. There are few smiling faces here, because Smith allows his subjects to retain their self possession, and his fine calligraphic line celebrates their idiosyncrasy borne of ingenious strategies to survive on the street.

You can tell from these works that John Thomas Smith loved Rembrandt, Hogarth and Goya’s prints because the stylistic influences are clear, in fact Smith became keeper of drawings and prints at the British Museum. More surprising is how modern these drawings feel – there are several that could pass as the work of Mervyn Peake. Heath Robinson’s drawings also spring to mind, especially his illustrations to Shakespeare and there are a couple of craggy stooping figures woven of jagged lines that are worthy of Ronald Searle or Quentin Blake.

If you are looking for the poetry of life, you will find it in abundance in these unsentimental yet compassionate studies that cut across two centuries to bring us a vivid sense of London street life in 1817. It is a dazzling vision of London that Smith proposes, populated by his vibrant characters.

The quality of Smith’s portraits transcend any condescension because through his sympathetic curiosity Smith came to portray his vagabonds with dignity, befitting an artist who was literally born in the street, who walked the city, who knew these people and who drew them in the street. He narrowly escaped a lynch mob once when his motives were misconstrued and he was mistaken for a police sketch artist. No wonder his biography states that, “Mr Smith happily escaped the necessity of continuing his labours as an artist, being appointed keeper of prints & drawings at the British Museum.”

Smith described his subjects as “curious characters” and while some may be exotic, it is obvious that these people cannot all fairly be classed as vagabonds, unless we chose instead to celebrate “Vagabondiana” as the self-respecting state of those who eek existence at the margins through their own wits. One cannot deny the romance of vagabond life, with its own culture and custom. Through pathos, John Thomas Smith sought to expose common human qualities and show vagabonds as people, rather than merely as pests or vermin to be driven out.

A Jewish mendicant, unable to walk, who sat in a box on wheels in Petticoat Lane

Israel Potter, one of the oldest menders of chairs still living

Strolling clowns

Bernado Millano, the bladder man

Itinerant third generation vendor of elegies, Christmas carols and love songs

A crippled sailor advertises his maritime past

George Smith, a brush maker afflicted with rheumatism who sold chickweed as bird food

A native of Lucca accompanying his dancing dolls upon the bagpipes

Blinded in one eye, this beggar seeks reward for sweeping the street

Priscilla who sat in the street in Clerkenwell making quilts

Anatony Antonini, selling artificial silk flowers adorned with birds cast in wax

This boot lace seller was a Scotman who lost his hands in the wars

Charles Wood and his dancing dog

Staffordshire ware vendors bought their stock from the Paddington basin and sold it door to door

Rattle-puzzle vendors

A blind beggar with a note hung round his neck appealing for charity

Pickled cucumbers!

Very fine, Very cheap



Fly poster

Door mats



Live haddock

Henry Dinsdale

Plaster casts


Roasting Jack

Young lambs

The flying pie man

A poor painter removing

Umbrellas to mend

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute


The Gentle Author assembles a choice selection of CRIES OF LONDON, telling the stories of the artists and celebrated traders, and revealing the unexpected social realities contained within these cheap colourful prints produced for the mass market.

For centuries, these lively images of familiar hawkers and pedlars have been treasured by Londoners. In the capital, those who had no other means of income could always sell wares in the street and, by turning their presence into performance through song, they won the hearts of generations and came to embody the spirit of London itself.

John Allin, Painter

February 15, 2021
by the gentle author

All titles in the Spitalfields Life Bookshop are half price in our Valentine’s sale. Some are already sold out and others are running low, so – with weeks of lockdown yet to come – this is the ideal opportunity to complete your collection.

Enter the code VALENTINE at checkout to claim your discount.


Today I present the paintings of John Allin who is featured in EAST END VERNACULAR, ARTISTS WHO PAINTED LONDON’S EAST END STREETS IN THE 20TH CENTURY which is included in the sale

Gun St, Spitalfields

John Allin (1934-1991) took to painting while serving a six month prison sentence for receiving some stolen shirts and achieved considerable success in the sixties and seventies with his vivid intricate pictures recalling the East End of his childhood. There is a dreamlike quality to these visions in sharp focus of an emotionalised cityscape, created at a time when the Jewish people were leaving to seek better housing in the suburbs and their culture was fading from those streets which had once been its home.

Returning from National Service in the Merchant Navy, Allin worked in the parks department planting trees, later as a swimming pool attendant and then as a long distance lorry driver – all before his conviction and imprisonment. After discovering his artistic talent, he devoted himself to painting and won attention with his first exhibition in 1969 at the Portal Gallery, specialising in primitive and outsider art. In 1974, he collaborated with Arnold Wesker on a book of reminiscence, “Say Goodbye: You may never see them again” in which he reveals an equivocation about the East End. “I saw it as a place where people lived, earned their living, grew up, moved on … they had dignity … I like painting the past with dignity…” he said in an interview with Wesker, “but what they’ve done to the East End is diabolical! They’ve scuppered it, built and built and torn down and torn out and took lots of identity away and made it into just a concrete nothing… But people go on, don’t they? Eating their eels and giving their custom where they’ve always given their custom … Funny how people can go on and take anything and everything.”

Like Joe Orton in the theatre, Allin’s reputation as an ex-con fuelled his reputation in newspapers and on television but he found there was a price to pay, as he revealed to Wesker, “You know how I started painting don’t you? In prison! Well, when I come out the kids at school give my kid a rough time … the silly bloody journalists didn’t help. ‘Jail-bird becomes painter!’ You’d’ve thought I’d done God knows what … I mean the neighbours used to say things like ‘Look at ‘im! Jail-bird and he’s on telly! Ought to be sent back inside the nick!’ I was the oddity in the district, the lazy fat bastard that paints. Give me a half a chance and I’d move mate.” In fact, Allin joined Gerry Cottle’s Circus, touring as a handyman to create another book, “John Allin’s Circus Life” in 1982.

Although he was the first British recipient of the international Prix Suisse de Peinture Naive award in 1979, the categorisation of Outsider or Primitive artist is no longer adequate to apply to John Allin. More than twenty years after his death, his charismatic paintings deserve to be recognised as sophisticated works which communicate an entire social world through an unapologetically personal and emotionally charged visual vocabulary.

Spitalfields Market, Brushfield St.

Great Synagogue, Brick Lane.

Jewish Soup Kitchen, Brune St.

Christ Church School, Brick Lane.

Heneage St and Brick Lane.

Rothschild Dwellings, Spitalfields.

Whitechapel Rd.

Christ Church Park, Commmercial St.


Wentworth St.

Fashion St with gramophone man in the foreground..

Churchill Walk.

Young Communist League rally, corner of Brick Lane and Old Montague St.

Hessel St.

Snow Scene.

Anti-Fascist Rally at Gardiners’ Corner, 1936.

Cole’s Chicken Shop, Cobb St.

Factory Workers

Paintings copyright © Estate of John Allin

Take a look at some of the other artists featured in East End Vernacular

Pearl Binder, Artist

Roland Collins, Artist

Anthony Eyton, Artist

Doreen Fletcher, Artist

Elwin Hawthorn, Artist

Rose Henriques, Artist

Dan Jones,  Artist

Jock McFadyen, Artist

Cyril Mann, Artist

Henry Silk, Artist

Albert Turpin, Artist

Click here to order a copy of EAST END VERNACULAR for half price

At The Custom House

February 14, 2021
by the gentle author

All titles in the Spitalfields Life Bookshop are half price in our Valentine’s sale. Some are already sold out and others are running low, so – with weeks of lockdown yet to come – this is the ideal opportunity to complete your collection.

Enter the code VALENTINE at checkout to claim your discount.


Custom House by Robert Smirke, 1825, with elements by David Laing, 1817

I walked down in the frost recently to visit the Custom House. For years, I was unaware of the nature of this enormous austere building which presents an implacable front of Portland stone to the Thames between the Tower of London and old Billingsgate Market. Once I understood its purpose, then its commanding position over the Pool of London became evident.

For more than seven hundred years, this is where all cargoes passing through the Port of London were declared and duties paid, as well as serving as a passport office for migrants, registering upon arrival and departure. Perhaps no building is as central to our history as a seafaring nation than the Custom House. In recent years, we have come to re-evaluate the morality of the creation of Empire and the wealth it delivered. London was the financial capital of the system of slavery and the centre of the sugar trade, and the Custom House was part of this.

The evolution of the Custom House through the centuries follows the growth of Britain’s status as a trading nation, which makes this a pertinent moment to reflect upon the history of the building and the legacy it embodies.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the epic Long Room – claimed to be the longest in Europe – at the heart of the Custom House was renowned as a wonder in its own right. Londoners came to observe the variety of races of traders from across the globe who attended to fulfil their obligations in the form of tariffs and taxes.

When Geoffrey Chaucer worked as Comptroller of the Customs of Wools, Skins and Tanned Hides in the Custom House constructed by John Churchman in 1382, duties had formerly been collected since 1203 at Wool Quay just to the east. Tudor expansionism was reflected in an enlarged Custom House of 1559, destroyed a century later by the Great Fire.

The rebuilding of the Custom House was the first priority and it was Christopher Wren who established the pattern of the central Long Room surrounded by smaller offices, which has been maintained in the subsequent buildings each larger than the one before. It is a template that has been replicated in Custom Houses around the world.

Wren’s Custom House was destroyed by fire in 1717, initiating a series of ill-fated replacements that suffered multiple calamities. The next Custom House, designed by Thomas Ripley, caught fire in 1814, resulting in an explosion of gunpowder and spirits that dispersed paperwork as far as the Hackney Marshes. Simultaneously, the unfinished replacement, designed by David Laing, foundered when builder John Peto died unexpectedly leaving the project with insufficient financial backing.

Within two years of completion, Laing’s new Custom House developed structural problems, revealed when the ceiling of the Long Room partially collapsed in 1824. Canny architect Robert Smirke advised occupants to move out of the Long Room two days before it fell down and undertook an investigation which exposed shoddy workmanship and unstable riverfront foundations done on the cheap.

Unsurprisingly, Smirke was employed to rebuild and repair the Custom House, and he replaced the entire central section containing the Long Room in 1825. It is Smirke’s sober sensibility that prevails today, incorporating Laing’s east and west wings into an authoritative frontage of uniformity with an institutional restraint in embellishment and a spare, sombre proportion throughout.

For decades, the Custom House has been inaccessible to the public which is why a building of such central significance has become relatively unnoticed, yet it is publicly-owned. Now Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs has vacated it and it has been leased to an offshore property developer based in the Bermuda tax haven. They have submitted a planning application for an unsympathetic conversion to a luxury hotel that will be destructive to the fabric of the grade I listed building, erasing its meaning and significance. In particular, suites of Georgian offices which are a unique survival will be destroyed and two light-box bars added to the roof, compromising the river frontage.

Meanwhile, SAVE Britain’s Heritage have prepared an imaginative alternative scheme which takes advantage of its spectacular location and the potential of returning the Long Room as a public space for Londoners. The obvious riverside precedents of Somerset House and Tate Modern demonstrate how the Custom House could be put successfully to public use again.

Readers are encouraged to write to the City of London, objecting to the current planning application to convert the Custom House to a luxury hotel. Below you will find instructions for how to object effectively.

Christopher Wren’s Custom House

“The Custom House, in the uppermost of which is a magnificent room running the whole length of the building. On this spot is a busy concourse of nations who pay their tribute towards the support of Great Britain. In front of this building, ships of three hundred and fifty tons burthen can lie and discharge their cargoes.” From The Microcosm of London by Augustus Pugin & Thomas Rowlandson 1805 (Image courtesy Bishopsgate Institute)

Thomas Ripley’s Custom House from The Microcosm of London by Augustus Pugin & Thomas Rowlandson, 1805

David Laing’s Custom House, 1817

Plan of Laing’s Custom House

“Between London Bridge and the Tower, and – separating it from the Thames – a broad quay that was for long almost the only riverside walk in London open to the public, is the Custom House. Five earlier buildings on the same site were destroyed by fire, and the present structure was erected in 1814-17, the fine facade being designed by Sir R. Smirke. Some 2,000 officials are employed at the Custom House, and in its famous Long Room alone -190 ft by 66 ft – eighty clerks are habitually engaged. This is not surprising, for the trade of the Port of London is by far the greatest of any port in the world. The building, which is entered from Lower Thames St, contains an interesting Smuggling Museum.”

From The Queen’s London: a Pictorial & Descriptive Record of the Streets, Buildings, Parks & Scenery of the Great Metropolis, 1896

Custom House c. 1910 (Image courtesy LAMAS Collection, Bishopsgate Institute)

Boundaries of the parishes of All Hallows by the Tower and St Dunstan in the East, marked on the river wall which was designed by John Rennie, 1819

The Lower Thames St frontage with the main entrance

The Custom House as it appeared before the Great Fire by Wenceslas Hollar, 1647


The offshore leaseholders of the Custom House want to undertake an unsympathetic and destructive conversion of this listed Grade I historic building into a luxury hotel when it should be put back to public use for all Londoners.

  • The exclusivity of the luxury hotel development contradicts the City of London’s policy as outlined in the City Plan 2036, which gives preference to ‘office-led cultural use,’ as part of the City’s ambition to open heritage spaces to attract a wider cultural demographic. 
  • The hotel development will destroy suites of Georgian offices that are a unique survival.
  • The hotel development will add two light box pavilions as bars on the roof which will compromise the principal frontage.


Lodge an objection to the redevelopment by writing a personal letter to the City of London Corporation as soon as possible.

Please write in your own words and head it OBJECTION.

Quote Planning Applications 20/00632/LBC and 20/00631/FULMAJ

Anyone can object wherever they live. Members of one household can each write separately. You must include your postal address.

Email your objection to and copy it to (Chair of Planning & Transportation Committee)

Or by post to:

The Department of the Built Environment,
City of London,
PO Box 270,

Love Tokens From The Thames

February 13, 2021
by the gentle author

We are having a VALENTINE’S SALE with all titles in the Spitalfields Life Bookshop at half price this weekend. Some books are already sold out and others are running out, so – with weeks of lockdown yet to go – this is the opportunity to complete your collection.

Enter the code VALENTINE at checkout to claim your discount.


On the eve of St Valentine’s, I feature these love tokens that are published in THE GENTLE AUTHOR’S LONDON ALBUM which is included in the sale.

These love tokens are from the collection gathered by my Thames mudlark friend Steve Brooker, widely known as Mud God.

The magical potential of throwing a coin into the water has been recognised by different cultures in different times with all kinds of meanings. Yet since we can never ask those who threw these tokens why they did it, we can only surmise that engraving your beloved’s name upon a coin and throwing it into the water was a gesture to attract good fortune. It was a wish.

With a great river like the Thames racing down towards the ocean, there is a sense of a connection to the infinite. And there is a sweet romance to the notion of a lover secretly throwing a token into the water, feeling that the strength of their emotions connects them to a force larger than themselves.

Naturally, it was not part of the conceit that someone might ever find these coins, centuries later – which gives them a mysterious poetry now, because each one represents a love story we shall never learn. Those who threw them have gone from the earth long ago, and all we can envisage are the coins tossed by unseen hands, flying from the river bank or a from the parapet of a bridge or from a boat, turning over in the air, plip-plopping into the water and spiralling down to lie for centuries in the mud, until Steve Brooker came along to gather them up. Much as we may yearn, we can never trace them back to ask “What happened?”

In the reign of William III, it was the fashion for a young man to give a crooked coin to the object of his affections. The coin was bent both to become an amulet and to prevent it being reused. If the token was kept, it indicated that the affection was reciprocated, but if the coin was discarded then it was a rejection – which casts a different light upon these coins in the river. Are they, each one, evidence of unrequited affections?

From the end of the eighteenth century and until the early twentieth century, smoothed coins were used as love tokens, with the initials of the sender engraved or embossed upon the surface. Sometimes these were pierced, which gave recipient the option to wear it around the neck. In Steve’s collection, the tokens range from heavy silver coins with initials professionally engraved to pennies worn smooth through hours of labour and engraved in stilted painstaking letters. In many examples shown here, the amount of effort expended in working these coins, smoothing, engraving or cutting them is truly extraordinary, which speaks of the longing of the makers.

Steve has found many thousands of coins in the bed of the Thames over the years but it is these worked examples that mean most to him because he recognises the dignity of the human emotion that each one manifests. Those who threw them into the river did not know that Steve was going to be there one day to catch them yet, whatever the outcome of these romances, he ensures that the tokens are kept safe.

Benjamin Claridge.

The reverse of the Benjamin Claridge coin, from the eighteenth century or earlier.

The intials M and W intertwined upon a Georgian silver coin.

The intial W upon the smoothed face of Georgian silver coin, bent into an S shape.

Crooked Georgian silver coin, as the token of a vow or promise.

The initials AMD upon a smoothed coins that has been pierced to wear around the neck.

A copper penny with the letter D.

C.M. Marsh impressed into a penny.

The letter R punched into a penny within a lucky horseshoe.

Pierced coin set with semi-precious stones.

Who was Snod? Is this a lover’s token or a dog tag?

This pierced silver threepence commemorates the date January 11th 1921.

On the reverse of the silver threepence are the initials, L T. Are these the initials of the giver, or does it signify “Love Token”?

A smoothed penny with the name Voilet upon it. A phonetic spelling of the name “Violet”as the beloved spoke it?

Cut coins from the early twentieth century.

Read my stories

Steve Brooker, Mudlark

Click here to buy a copy of The Gentle Author’s London Album for half price

Snowfall At Bow Cemetery

February 12, 2021
by the gentle author

We are having a VALENTINE’S SALE with all titles in the Spitalfields Life Bookshop at half price this weekend. Some books are already sold out and others are running out, so – with weeks of lockdown yet to go – this is a good opportunity to complete your collection.

Enter the code VALENTINE at checkout to claim your discount.


A hush was cast upon the East End as the snow came down, taking possession of the territory. Awaking and looking from my bedroom window, the dark boughs of the great yew tree in the yard were weighed down with a heavy covering of white – a bucolic wintry vision filling my gaze, as if the house had been transported in the night and I had woken high in the mountains.

Even as I opened my eyes, I knew I wanted to go to the cemetery, where I pay a visit to admire the precocious bulbs each spring. The appealing irony is that this vast garden of death has become the largest preserve of wildlife in East London. Created once the small parish churchyards filled up, it is where those numberless thousands who made the East End in the nineteenth century are buried. On the Western side of the cemetery, near the main entrance, are fancy tombs and grand monuments but, as you walk East, they diminish and become more uniformly modest until, at the remotest extremity, there are only tiny stones. At first, I thought these were for children when, in fact, they were simply the cheapest option. Yet even these represent an aggrandisement, beyond the majority of those who were buried here in unmarked communal graves.

My spirits lifted to leave the icy mess of the streets and enter the quiet of the cemetery where since 1966, a forest has been permitted to grow. A freezing mist hung beneath the high woodland canopy, and the covering of white served to emphasise the rich green and golden lichen hues of the stones, and subtle brown tones of the tree trunks ascending from among the graves. As on my previous visits, I quickly lost myself in the network of narrow paths, letting the trees surround me in the areas where no human footprint had yet been made upon the snowy coverlet, beneath which the dead lay slumbering in their graves.

Crows called to each other and woodpeckers hammered away high in the tree tops, their sounds echoing in the still air. Thrushes searched for grubs under leaves in the rare patches of uncovered earth beneath stands of holly, and a young fox came by – standing out as a vivid rusty brown against the pale snow – slinking along self-conscious of his exposure. The spring bulbs were evidenced only by sparse green spears, protruding from snow criss-crossed by animal and bird tracks.

It was a very different place from the lush undergrowth of high summer and another place again from the crocus-spangled garden of spring, yet I always discover peace and solitude here – a rare commodity in the East End – and, even in this bleakest season, there was life.

You may also like to read about

At Bow Cemetery

Spring Bulbs at Bow Cemetery

List Of Local Shops Open For Business

February 11, 2021
by the gentle author

Boy in Woolworths, Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell, 1954

This is the list of essential shops that are open in Spitalfields and vicinity during the current lockdown. Readers are especially encouraged to support small independent businesses who offer an invaluable service to the community. This list confirms that it is possible to source all essential supplies locally without recourse to supermarkets.

Be advised many shops are operating limited opening hours at present, so I recommend you call in advance to avoid risking a wasted journey. Please send any additions or amendments for next week’s list to

This week’s photographs are by Colin O’Brien.

Two women and a baby in Woolworths, Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell, 1954


The Albion, 2/4 Boundary St
Ali’s Mini Superstore, 50d Greatorex St
AM2PM, 210 Brick Lane
Planet Organic, 132 Commercial St
Banglatown Cash & Carry, 67 Hanbury St
Breid Bakery, Arch 72, Dunbridge St
Brick Lane Minimarket, 100 Brick Lane
The Butchery Ltd, 6a Lamb St
City Supermarket, 10 Quaker St
Costprice Minimarket, 41 Brick Lane
Faizah Minimarket, 2 Old Montague St
JB Foodstore, 97 Brick Lane
Haajang’s Corner, 78 Wentworth St
Leila’s Shop, 17 Calvert Avenue
Nisa Local, 92 Whitechapel High St
Pavilion Bakery, 130 Columbia Rd
Rinkoff’s Bakery, 224 Jubilee Street & 79 Vallance Rd
Sylhet Sweet Shop, 109 Hanbury St
Taj Stores, 112 Brick Lane
Zaman Brothers, Fish & Meat Bazaar, 19 Brick Lane


Girl with ice cream cone, 1963


Before you order from a delivery app, why not call the take away or restaurant direct?

Absurd Bird Fried Chicken, 54 Commercial St
Al Badam Fried Chicken, 37 Brick Lane
Allpress Coffee, 58 Redchurch St
The Association, 10-12 Creechurch Lane
Band of Burgers, 22 Osborn St
Beef & Birds, Brick Lane
Beigel Bake, 159 Brick Lane
Beigel Shop, 155 Brick Lane
Bellboi Coffee, 104 Sclater St
Bengal Village, 75 Brick Lane
Big Moe’s Diner, 95 Whitechapel High St
Burro E Salvia Pastificio, 52 Redchurch St
Cafe 388, 388 Bethnal Green Rd
China Feng, 43 Commercial St
Circle & Slice Pizza, 11 Whitechapel Rd
Crosstown Doughnuts, 157 Brick Lane
Dark Sugars, 45a Hanbury St (Take away ice cream and deliveries of chocolate)
Donburi & Co, Korean & Japanese, 13 Artillery Passage
Eastern Eye Balti House, 63a Brick Lane
Enso Thai & Japanese, 94 Brick Lane
Exmouth Coffee Shop, 83 Whitechapel High St
Grounded Coffee Shop, 9 Whitechapel Rd
Holy Shot Coffee, 155 Bethnal Green Rd
Hotbox Smoked Meats, 46-48 Commercial St
Jack The Chipper, 74 Whitechapel High St
Jonestown Coffee, 215 Bethnal Green Rd
Laboratorio Pizza, 79 Brick Lane
La Cucina, 96 Brick Lane
Leon, 3 Crispin Place, Spitalfields Market
Madhubon Sweets, 42 Brick Lane
Mooshies Vegan Burgers, 104 Brick Lane
Nude Expresso, The Roastery, 25 Hanbury St
E. Pellicci, 332 Bethnal Green Rd
Pepe’s Peri Peri, 82 Brick Lane
Peter’s Cafe, 73 Aldgate High St
Picky Wops Vegan Pizza, 53 Brick Lane
Polo Bar, 176 Bishopsgate
Poppies, 6-8 Hanbury St
Quaker St Cafe, 10 Quaker St
Rajmahal Sweets, 57 Brick Lane
Rosa’s Thai Cafe, 12 Hanbury St
Shawarma Lebanese, 84 Brick Lane
Shoreditch Fish & Chips, 117 Redchurch St
Sichuan Folk, 32 Hanbury St
String Ray Globe Cafe, 109 Columbia Road
Sushi Show, 136 Bethnal Green Rd
Vegan Yes, Italian & Thai Fusion, 64 Brick Lane
The Watch House, 139 Commercial St
White Horse Kebab, 336 Bethnal Green Rd
Yuriko Sushi & Bento, 48 Brick Lane


Clothes shop cat, seventies


Brick Lane Bookshop, 166 Brick Lane (Books ordered by phone or email are delivered free locally)
Brick Lane Bikes, 118 Bethnal Green Rd
Day Lewis Pharmacy, 14 Old Montague St
E1 Cycles, 4 Commercial St
Eden Floral Designs, 10 Wentworth St (Order fresh flowers online for free delivery)
Flashback Records, 131 Bethnal Green Rd (Order records online for delivery)
GH Cityprint, 58-60 Middlesex St
Harry Brand, 122 Columbia Road (Order gifts online for delivery)
Leyland Hardware, 2-4 Great Eastern St
Newman’s Stationery, 324 Bethnal Green Rd (Call for local delivery)
Post Office, 160a Brick Lane
Rose Locksmith & DIY, 149 Bethnal Green Rd
Sid’s DIY, 2 Commercial St


Girl with pram, Kingsland Rd, eighties


E1 Dry Cleaners, Cannon Street Rd, E1 2LY
E5 Bakehouse, Arch 395, Mentmore Terrace, London Fields (Customers are encouraged to order online and collect in person)
Gold Star Dry Cleaning & Laundry, 330 Burdett Rd
Hackney Essentials, 235 Victoria Park Rd
Quality Dry Cleaners, 16a White Church Lane
Newham Books, 747 Barking Rd (Books ordered by phone or email are posted out)
Old Bank Vault Gallery, 283 Hackney Rd (Order online)
Rajboy, 564 Commercial Rd, E14 7JD (Take away service available)
Region Choice Chemist, 68 Cambridge Heath Rd
Symposium Italian Restaurant, 363 Roman Road (Take away service available)
Thompsons DIY, 442-444 Roman Rd


Woman in a summer dress, Chatsworth Rd, Hackney, eighties

Images copyright @ Estate of Colin O’Brien

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Colin O’ Brien, Photographer