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Peta Bridle’s East End Sketchbook

January 12, 2022
by the gentle author

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Every few months, Peta Bridle sends me a collection of her sketches and here are some of the latest

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View Over Spitalfields

During Open House weekend I was granted this magnificent view. Far below, a man leans against a bollard in Puma Court while, to the right, the rooftops of Fournier St meet Brick Lane Mosque and the former Warner Bell Foundry chimney. At the end of Puma Court is Wilkes St with chimney stacks and weaver’s lofts, while to the left, someone is crossing Princelet St. In the distance, Spitalfields’ old terraces recede to meet the tower blocks of Whitechapel.

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Fleur De Lis Alley

With its three tottering lampposts, this ancient paved alley once linked Shoreditch High St and  Blossom St in Norton Folgate. I wandered round here photographing the black-bricked Victorian warehouses and cobbled streets before the redevelopment, but now all I have are my old photos to remind me.

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Liverpool St Station

Pigeons swoop from one end of the roof of Liverpool St Station to the other as if in a giant aviary. From my position on a raised walkway, I could observe the continuous rush of running feet, bicycle wheels, pushchairs, wheelchairs and suitcases crossing the concourse beneath. This station is like a glass cathedral supported by decorative ironwork and flooded with light.

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Three  Pots On A Sill In Fournier St

I met Rodney Archer only once when he had a sale at his home of art, antiques and collectables, where I bought a small paper pattern for silk weaving. Now I regret not asking if I could visit to make an etching of his beautiful house. After he died, I returned but the atmosphere was sombre, so just I took a photograph of these flowerpots on the sill overlooking the garden. As I took my pictures, one of Rodney’s cat sat on the stair and pawed my hair clip through the bannisters, wanting attention, so I stopped what I was doing and gave him a stroke.

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The Society For The Protection Of Ancient Buildings

This is the last Georgian house in Spital Sq which was once lined with fine mansions built by silk merchants. It was the attractive contrast of the blue railings and shutters against the red painted doorway that caught my eye.

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Wilkes St

Two trips were required to render these beautiful terraces. I pencilled them in on one day and returned another to ink in my sketch.

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The Still & Star, Aldgate

I took shelter under the arch of Little Somerset St when it started to rain but a few drops splashed onto my picture and I had to retreat further. Many passersby stopped to talk to me about this historic pub and its pitiful fate. Hoardings surround the development site and I was surprised to see the pub still standing, so I took the opportunity to make this sketch before its demolition.

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The Whitechapel Bell Foundry

I sat with my back to a large lamppost facing the long foundry wall to make this sketch. Many locals stopped to express their disappointment and sadness that the foundry has closed and the resultant loss to the community. Currently the building is occupied by property guardians and, after the pandemic, I wonder if the threatened redevelopment into a boutique hotel will ever go ahead.

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Brussel Sprouts & Cabbages, Spitalfields City Farm

An occasional East London Line train rattled past beyond the fence as I was drawing. After I finished, one of the gardeners kindly showed me around, pointing out what was growing and how to cook it. Even though the brussel sprouts have not yet appeared, there was already an abundance of green leaves in the cabbage patch.

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The Vegetable Patch, Spitalfields City Farm

Over the summer I made many visits to the farm as it offered such a lovely environment for drawing. On my first visit, I made this sketch overlooking the vegetable beds with the pigsty in the background. That day, there was a party of school children in the yurt, mums and dads exploring with their babies and toddlers, with the sound of chickens, ducks and sheep in the background.

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Bella The Cat, Spitalfields City Farm

In the poly-tunnel, there were chard, courgettes, sunflowers, cucumbers supported on string and sticks, and a hefty kodu dangling on the left. Although summer rain drummed on the roof, I was quite dry inside. Some school children took shelter briefly too, followed by Bella the farm cat, who sat staring out of the doorway, waiting for the shower to pass. I took the opportunity to include her in my picture but, when I looked again, she had disappeared.

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Chard, Spring Cabbage & Sunflowers, Spitalfields City Farm

On each visit, the scenery changes at the farm, with plants sprouting profusely, accelerated by alternating bouts of rain and sunshine. Plastic bottles rattled gently on top of the canes amongst the greenery, while – on this day – a group of gardeners were busy digging and harvesting.

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Arnold Circus

An unusually mild day in October granted ideal conditions to visit Arnold Circus, as leaves from the plane trees were falling and the wind was sending them skittering around the pathways. The bandstand sits on top of a circular mound, which was made from the demolition pile of former slum housing, when the area was cleared to build the red brick council dwellings that surround the gardens today.

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The Master’s House, St. Katharine’s Precinct, Limehouse

I found a shady corner of the garden to sketch, when the lawns were dappled in shade and a few people sat outside enjoying the tranquillity. Yet, above the noise of birdsong, I could hear background traffic and the Docklands Light Railway trains. A robin perched on a chair next to me to observe what I was doing, and a very peaceful and enjoyable day was spent at St Katharine’s Precinct.

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Paul Gardner, Gardner’s Bags, Leyton

Paul’s family ran a bag and market sundries shop in Spitalfields for one hundred and fifty years. Just before the pandemic, he moved out to a new shop in Leyton and it was a pleasure to visit him there. Plastic bags on strings hang like bunting overhead and rolls of fluorescent stickers are stacked up on the old wooden counter. Paul stands with a large set of green scales in front of him with his old greengrocers’ fruit and vegetable signs displayed behind him. He has made use of all his available wall space to create a gallery of the many artworks that have been done celebrating Gardner’s Bags.

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Drawings copyright © Peta Bridle

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Billy & Charley’s Shadwell Shams

January 11, 2022
by the gentle author

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William Smith & Charles Eaton – better known as Billy & Charley – were a couple of Thames mudlarks who sold artefacts they claimed to have found in the Thames in Shadwell and elsewhere. Yet this threadbare veil of fiction conceals the astonishing resourcefulness and creativity that these two illiterate East Enders demonstrated in designing and casting tens of thousands of cod-medieval trinkets – eventually referred to as “Shadwell Shams” – which had the nineteenth century archaeological establishment running around in circles of confusion and misdirection for decades.

“They were intelligent but without knowledge,” explained collector Philip Mernick, outlining the central mystery of Billy & Charley, “someone told them ‘If you can make these, you can get money for them.’ Yet someone must also have given them the designs, because I find it hard to believe they had the imagination to invent all these – but maybe they did?”

Working in Rosemary Lane, significantly placed close to the Royal Mint, Billy & Charley operated in an area where small workshops casting maritime fixtures and fittings for the docks were common. Between 1856 until 1870, they used lead alloy and cut into plaster of paris with nails and knives to create moulds, finishing their counterfeit antiquities with acid to simulate the effects of age. Formerly, they made money as mudlarks selling their Thames discoveries to a dealer, William Edwards, whom Billy first met in 1845. Edwards described Billy & Charley as “his boys” and became their fence, passing on their fakes to George Eastwood, a more established antiques dealer based in the City Rd.

Badges, such as these from Philip Mernick’s collection, were their commonest productions – costing less than tuppence to make, yet selling for half a crown. These items were eagerly acquired in a new market for antiquities among the middle class who had spare cash but not sufficient education to understand what they were buying. Yet many eminent figures were also duped, including the archaeologist, Charles Roach Smith, who was convinced the artefacts were from the sixteenth century, suggesting that they could not be forgeries if there was no original from which they were copied. Similarly, Rev Thomas Hugo, Vicar of St Botolph’s, Bishopsgate, took an interest, believing them to be medieval pilgrims’ badges.

The question became a matter for the courts in August 1858 when the dealer George Eastwood sued The Athenaeum for accusing him of selling fakes. Eastwood testified he paid £296 to William Edwards for over a thousand objects that Edwards had originally bought for £200. Speaking both for himself and Charley, Billy Smith – described in the record as a “rough looking man” – assured the court that they had found the items in the Thames and earned £400 from the sale. Without further evidence, the judge returned a verdict of not guilty upon the publisher since Eastwood had not been named explicitly in print.

The publicity generated by the trial proved ideal for the opening of Eastwood’s new shop, moving his business from City Rd to Haymarket in 1859 and enjoying a boost in sales of Billy & Charley’s creations. Yet, two years later, the bottom fell out of the market when a sceptical member of the Society of Antiquaries visited Shadwell Dock and uncovered the truth from a sewer hunter who confirmed Billy & Charley’s covert means of production.

As they were losing credibility, Billy & Charley were becoming more accomplished and ambitious in their works, branching out into more elaborate designs and casting in brass. It led them to travel beyond the capital, in hope of escaping their reputation and selling their wares. They were arrested in Windsor in 1867 but, without sufficient ground for prosecution, they were released. By 1869, their designs could be bought for a penny each.

A year later, Charley died of consumption in a tenement in Wellclose Sq at thirty-five years old. The same year, Billy was forced to admit that he copied the design of a badge from a butter mould – and thus he vanishes from the historical record.

It is a wonder that the archaeological establishment were fooled for so long by Billy & Charley, when their pseudo-medieval designs include Arabic dates that were not used in Europe before the fifteenth century. Maybe the conviction and fluency of their work persuaded the original purchasers of its authenticity? Far from crude or cynical productions, Billy & Charley’s creations possess character, humour and even panache, suggesting they are the outcome of an ingenious delight – one which could even find inspiration for a pilgrim’s badge in a butter mould. Studying these works, it becomes apparent that there is a creative intelligence at work which, in another time, might be celebrated as the talent of an artist or designer, even if in Billy & Charley’s world it found its only outlet in semi-criminal activity.

Yet the final irony lies with Billy & Charley  – today their Shadwell Shams are commonly worth more than the genuine antiquities they forged.

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Chaplin In Spitalfields

January 10, 2022
by the gentle author

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Somehow, it came as no surprise to discover that he had been here – because I always thought of Charlie Chaplin as the one who carried a certain culture of the penniless, the ragged and the downtrodden from Europe across the Atlantic, translating it with such superlative success into an infinite capacity for hope, humour and resourcefulness in America. For centuries, Spitalfields has offered a refuge to the homeless and the dispossessed, so it makes sense that the most famous tramp of all time should have known this place.

Vivian Betts who grew up in The Primrose in Bishopsgate gave me handful of playbills that had been in the pub as long as she remembered and which she took with her when they left in 1974 before the building was demolished. These bills were for the Royal Cambridge Theatre of Varieties in Commercial St. Opening in 1864, this vast two thousand seater theatre with a bar capacity of another thousand must have once presented a dramatic counterpoint to the church on the other side of the Spitalfields Market. Yet in the nineteenth century, it was one among many theatres in the immediate vicinity, in the days when the East End could match the West End for theatre and night life.

The ten-year-old Chaplin performed here as one of The Eight Lancashire Lads, a juvenile clog dance troupe, on Tuesday 24th October 1899 as part of the First Anniversary Benefit Performance, celebrating the reopening of the theatre a year earlier, after a fire that had destroyed it in 1896.

Before he died, Chaplin’s alcoholic father signed up his son at the age of eight, in November 1898, with his friend William Jackson who managed The Eight Lancashire Lads, in return for the boy’s board and lodgings and a payment of half a crown a week to Chaplin’s mother Hannah. The engagement took Chaplin away from his pitiful London childhood and from his mother who had struggled to support him and his elder brother Sydney on her own, existing at the edge of mental illness while moving the family in and out of a succession of rented rooms until her younger son ended up in the workhouse at seven.

“After practising for eight weeks, I was eligible to dance with the troupe. But now that I was past eight years old, I had lost my assurance and confronting the audience for the first time gave me stage fright. I could hardly move my legs. It was weeks before I could do a solo dance as the rest of them did.” Chaplin wrote of joining The Eight Lancashire Lads with whom he made his debut in Babes in the Wood, on Boxing Day 1898 at the Theatre Royal, Manchester.“My memory of this period goes in and out of focus,” he admitted later, “The outstanding impression was of a quagmire of miserable circumstances.”

Yet Chaplin’s experience touring Britain when Music Hall was at its peak of popularity proved both a great adventure and an unparalleled schooling in the method, technique and discipline that every performer requires to hold an audience. “Audiences like The Eight Lancashire Lads because, as Mr Jackson said, we were so unlike theatrical children. It was his boast that we never wore grease paint and our rosy cheeks were natural. If some of us looked a little pale before going on, he would tell us to pinch our cheeks,” Chaplin recalled,“But in London, after working two or three Music Halls a night, we would occasionally forget and look a little weary and bored as we stood on the stage, until we caught sight of Mr Jackson in the wings, grinning emphatically and pointing to his face, which had an electrifying effect of making us break into sparkling grins.”

The handbills that Vivian Betts gave me for the Royal Cambridge Theatre of Varieties date from 1900 and, significantly, one contains the announcement of Edisonograph Animated Pictures as part of the programme, advertising the new medium in which Chaplin was to become pre-eminent and that would eventually eclipse Music Hall itself.

As soon as he had mastered the dance act, Chaplin was impatient to move on to solo comedy. “I was not particularly enamoured with being just a clog dancer in a troupe of eight lads. Like the rest of them I was ambitious to do a single act, not only because it meant more money but because I instinctively felt it would be more gratifying than just dancing,” he wrote later of his precocious ten-year-old self, “I would like to have been a boy comedian – but that would have required nerve, to stand on the stage alone.”

It was in Whitechapel in the autumn of 1907 that the seventeen-year-old Chaplin made his solo comedy debut, at a Music Hall in the Cambridge Heath Rd. “I had obtained a trial week without pay at the Foresters’ Music Hall situated off the Mile End Rd in the centre of the Jewish quarter. My hopes and dreams depended on that trial week,” he declared. Yet the young Chaplin made a spectacular misjudgement. “At the time, Jewish comedians were all the rage in London, so I thought I would hide my youth under whiskers. I invested in musical arrangements for songs and funny dialogue taken from an American joke book, Madison’s Budget.” Chaplin was foolishly unaware that a Jewish satire might not play in the East End in front of a Jewish audience. “Although I was innocent of it, my comedy was most anti-Semitic and my jokes were not only old ones but very poor, like my Jewish accident.”

The disastrous consequences of Chaplin’s error in Whitechapel were to haunt him for the rest of his career. “After the first couple of jokes, the audience started throwing coins and orange peel and stamping their feet and booing. At first, I was not conscious of what was going on. Then the horror of it filtered into my mind. When I came off stage, I went straight to my dressing room, took off my make-up, left the theatre and never returned. I did my best to erase the night’s horror from my mind, but it left an indelible mark on my confidence.” he concluded in hindsight, conceding, “The ghastly experience taught me to see myself in a truer light.”

In 1908, Chaplin signed with Fred Karno’s comedy company in which he quickly became a rising star and, touring to America in 1913, he was talent spotted by the Keystone Film Studios and offered a contract at twenty-four years old for $150 a week. “What had happened? It seemed the world had suddenly changed, had taken me into its fond embrace and adopted me.” he wrote in astonishment and relief at his change of  fortune in a life that had previously comprised only struggle.

Now I shall always think of the ten-year-old Chaplin when I walk down Commercial St, on his way to the Cambridge Theatre of Varieties, pinching his sallow cheeks to make a show of good cheer and with his whole life in motion pictures awaiting him.

At the northern end of Commercial St is the site of The Theatre, the first purpose-built theatre, where William Shakespeare performed and his early plays were staged. At the southern end of Commercial St is the site of the Goodman’s Fields Theatre, where David Garrick made his debut in Richard III and initiated the Shakespeare revival. And in middle was the Royal Cambridge Theatre of Varieties, where Charlie Chaplin played. Most that pass down it may be unaware, yet the line of Commercial St traces a major trajectory through our culture.

Charlie Chaplin performed with The Eight Yorkshire Lads at the Royal Cambridge Theatre of Varieties in Commercial St on Tuesday 24th October 1899.

The extension of the Godfrey & Phillips cigarette factory replaced the demolished Royal Cambridge Theatre of Varieties in 1936.

The entrance of the Godfrey & Phillips building echoes the entrance of the Royal Cambridge Theatre of Varieties.

Foresters Music Hall, 95 Cambridge Heath Rd – where Charlie Chaplin gave his disastrous first solo comedy performance in 1907 – demolished in 1965.

My grateful thanks to David Robinson, Chaplin’s biographer, for his assistance with this article.

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The Manhole Covers Of Spitalfields

January 9, 2022
by the gentle author

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Ever since I wrote about sculptor Keith Bowler’s Roundels, describing how he set new manhole covers into the pavements of Spitalfields with motifs to commemorate all the people, cultures and trades that have passed through, I have been noticing the old ones that inspired him in the first place. This one from the eighteen eighties in Fournier St is undoubtably the most snazzy in the neighbourhood with its dynamic sunburst and catherine wheel spiral. So much wit and grace applied to the design of  a modest coalhole cover, it redefines the notion of utilitarian design. In Bath, Bristol, Brighton and Edinburgh, I have seen whole streets where each house has a different design of coalhole cover, like mismatched buttons on a long overcoat, but in Spitalfields they are sparser and you have to look further to find them.

There is a second example of this Clark, Hunt & Co sunburst, that I like so much, in Redchurch St, just a hundred yards from the former showrooms at 159/60 Shoreditch High St of this company who called themselves the Middlesex Iron Works – founded in 1838, proud contractors to the H.M. War Office, the Admiralty and London County Council. And like many local ironworks, gone long ago, but outlived by their sturdy cast iron products. Alfred Solomons of 195 Caledonian Rd is another name I found here in Spitalfields on a couple of manhole covers, with some rather fetching, almost orientalist, nineteenth century flourishes. I discovered that the Jewish Chronicle reported the birth of a son to Alfred’s wife Celia on 18th December 1894 at the Caledonian Rd address, so these plates commemorate them personally now.

Meanwhile Hayward Brothers of 187 & 189 Union St, Borough, are the most ubiquitous of the named manufacturers with their handsome iron artefacts in the pavements of our neighbourhood. They were founded by William &  Edward Hayward, glaziers who had been trading since 1783 when they bought Robert Henley’s ironmongery business in 1838. As glaziers they brought a whole new progressive mentality to the humble production of coalhole covers, patenting the addition of prisms that admitted light to the cellar below. You can see one of their “semi-prismatic pavement lights” illustrated below, in Calvert Avenue. Such was the success of this company that by 1921 they opened a factory in Enfield, and even invented the “crete-o-lux” concrete system which was used to repave Regent St, but they ceased trading in the nineteen seventies when smokeless zones were introduced in London and coal fires ceased. Regrettably, Spitalfields cannot boast a coalhole by the most celebrated nineteenth century manufacturer, by virtue of their name, A.Smellie of Westminster. The nearest example is in Elizabeth St, Victoria, where I shall have to make a pilgrimage to see it.

Unfailingly, my fascination with the city is deepened by the discovery of new details like these, harbouring human stories waiting to be uncovered by the curious. Even neglected and trodden beneath a million feet, by virtue of being in the street, these ingenious covers remind us of their long dead makers’ names more effectively than any tombstone in a churchyard. There was rain blowing in the wind yesterday but when the sun came out afterwards, the beautiful old iron covers shone brightly like medals – for those who had the eyes to see them – emblazoned upon the streets of Spitalfields.

In Old Broad St.

In Fournier St, a nineteenth century coalhole cover by Alfred Solomons, 195 Caledonian Rd – I am reliable informed there are similar covers in Doughty St and around Bloomsbury.

A more minimal variant on the same design by Alfred Solomons.

Hayward Brothers’ “Patent Self-Locking Semi-Prismatic Pavement Light” in Calvert Avenue.

A more recent example of Hayward Brothers’ self -locking plate.

In Gunthorpe St, this drain cover commemorates Stepney Borough Council created in 1900 and abolished in 1965.

At the Rectory in Fournier St, this early plate by Hayward Brothers of 187 & 189 Union St, Borough, which is also to be found in Lower Richmond Rd.

Another by Haywood Brothers in Spitalfields – although unlabelled, it follows the design of the plate above.

Bullseye in Chance St

In Commercial St, at the junction with Elder St, is this worn plate is made by Griffith of Farringdon Rd, Clerkenwell

In Middlesex St. LCC – London County Council was abolished in 1965. Can it be only co-incidental that this old manhole cover in Petticoat Lane Market, in the former Jewish quarter, has a star of David at the centre?

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Margaret Rope’s East End Saints

January 8, 2022
by the gentle author

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A familiar East End scene of 1933 – children playing cricket in the street and Nipper the dog joining in – yet it is transformed by the lyrical vision of the forgotten stained glass artist Margaret Rope, who created a whole sequence of these sublime works – now dispersed – depicting both saints of legend and residents of Haggerston with an equal religious intensity.

This panel is surmounted by a portrayal of St Leonard, the sixth century French saint, outside a recognisable St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch, with a red number six London bus going past. Margaret Rope’s extraordinary work mixes the temporal and the spiritual, rendering scenes from religious iconography as literal action and transforming everyday life into revelations – describing a universe simultaneously magical and human.

Between 1931 and 1947, the artist known simply to her family as ‘”Tor,” designed a series of eight windows depicting “East End Everyday Saints” for St Augustine’s church off the Hackney Rd, portraying miracles enacted within a recognisable East End environment. For many years these were a popular attraction, until St Augustine’s was closed and Margaret Rope’s windows removed in the nineteen-eighties, with two transferred across the road to St Saviour’s Priory in the Queensbridge Rd and the remaining six taken out of the East End to be installed in the crypt of St Mary Magdalene, Munster Sq. Intrigued by the attractive idea of Margaret Rope’s transcendent vision of the East End, I set out to find them for myself.

At St Saviour’s Priory, Sister Elizabeth was eager to show me their cherished windows of St Paul and St Margaret, both glowing with lustrous colour and crammed with intricate detail. St Paul, the patron saint of London, is depicted at the moment of his transformative vision, beneath St Paul’s Cathedral – as if it were happening not on the road to Damascus but in Ludgate Circus. The other window, portraying St Margaret, has particular meaning for the sisters at St Saviours, because they are members of the Society of St Margaret, whose predecessors first came from Sussex to Spitalfields in 1866 to tend to the victims of cholera. In Margaret Rope’s window, St Margaret resolutely faces out a dragon while Christ hands a tiny version of the red brick priory to John Mason Neale, the priest who founded the order. Both windows are engaging exercises in magical thinking and the warmth of the colours, especially turquoise greens and soft pinks, delights the eye with its glimmering life.

I found the other six windows in the crypt of St Mary Magdalene near Regents Park, now used as a seniors’ day centre, where they are illuminated from the reverse by fluorescent tubes. The first window you see as you walk in the door is St Anne, which contains an intimate scene of a mother and her two children, complete with a teddy bear lying on the floor and a tortoiseshell cat sleeping by the range.

Next comes St George, who looks like a young athlete straight out of the Repton Boxing Club, followed by St Leonard, St Michael, then St Augustine and St Joseph. All share the same affectionate quality in their observation of human detail that sets them above mere decorative windows. These are poems in stained glass manifesting the resilient spirit of the East End which endured World War II. Another window by Margaret Rope in St Peters in the London Docks, completed in 1940, showed parishioners celebrating Midnight Mass at Christmas in a bomb shelter.

Margaret Edith Aldrich Rope was born in 1891 into a farming family on the Suffolk coast at Leiston. Her uncle George was a Royal Academician, and she was able to study at Chelsea College of Art and Central School of Arts & Crafts, where she specialised in stained glass. Unmarried, she pursued a long and prolific working life, creating over one hundred windows in her fifty year career, taking time out to join the Women’s Land Army in World War I and to care for evacuees at a hospital in North Wales during World War II, before returning to her native Suffolk at the age of eighty-seven in 1978.

Her nickname “Tor” was short for tortoise and she signed all  her works with a tortoise discreetly woven into the design. Upon close examination, every window reveals hidden texts inscribed in the richly coloured shadows. So much thought and imagination is evident in these modest works executed in the magical realist style. They transcend their period as neglected yet enduring masterpieces of stained glass and I recommend you make your own acquaintance with the stylish work of Margaret Rope, celebrating the miraculous quality of the everyday.

St Leonard is portrayed in a moment of revelation outside St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch, with Arnold Circus in the background and a London bus passing in the foreground

The lower panel of the St George window

A domestic East End scene from the lower panel of the St Anne’s window

This tortoise-shell cat is a detail from the panel above

The lower panel from the St Michael window

Mother Kate, Prioress of St Saviour’s and Father Burrows with his dog, Nipper, standing outside St Augustine’s in York St, now Yorkton St. In the right hand corner you can see the tortoise motif that Margaret Rope used to sign all her works.

Sisters of St Saviour’s Priory, portrayed in the lower panel of the St Margaret window, 1932

Margaret Rope’s St Paul and St Margaret, now in the entrance of Saviour’s Priory, Queensbridge Rd

Stained glass artist, Margaret Edith Aldrich Rope known as “Tor” (1891-1988)

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Old Trees in Greenwich

January 7, 2022
by the gentle author

Please support our JANUARY BOOK SALE. We only have nine titles left in the warehouse and some are on the brink of going out of print, so you can assist us clear the shelves by buying copies at half price to complete your collection, or as gifts for family and friends.

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On the day my old cat died, I went for a walk in Greenwich Park to seek consolation and was uplifted to encounter the awe-inspiring host of ancient trees there. I promised myself I would return in the depths of winter to photograph these magnificent specimens on a clear day when they were bare of leaves. So that was what I did, braving the bitter wind and the plunging temperatures for an afternoon with my camera.

In the early 1660’s, Charles II commissioned Le Notre, gardener to Louis XIV, to design the layout of the landscape and the impressive avenues of sweet chestnuts remain, many now approaching four hundred years old. These ancient trees confront you, rising up in the winter sunlight to cast long shadows over the grass and dominating the lonely park with their powerful gnarly presences worthy of paintings by Arthur Rackham.

I have always been in thrall to the fairy tale allure cast by old trees. As a small child, I drew trees continuously once I discovered how easy they were to conjure into life upon paper, following the sinuous lines where I pleased. This delight persists and, even now, I cannot look at these venerable sweet chestnuts in Greenwich without seeing them in motion, as if my photographs captured frozen moments in their swirling dance.

Throughout my childhood, I delighted to climb trees, taking advantage of the facility of my lanky limbs and proximity of large specimens where I could ascend among the leafy boughs and spend an afternoon reading in seclusion, released from the the quotidian world into an arena of magic and possibility. Since the life span of great trees surpasses that of humans, they remind us of the time that passed before we were born and reassure us that the world will continue to exist when we are gone.

Secreted in a dell in the heart of the park, lies the Queen Elizabeth Oak, planted in the twelfth century. Legend has it, Henry VIII danced with Anne Boleyn beneath its branches and later their daughter, Elizabeth I, picnicked in its shade when this was a hunting ground for the royal palace at Greenwich. After flourishing for eight hundred years, the old oak died in the nineteenth century and then fell over a century later, in 1991, but still survives within a protective enclosure of iron railing for visitors to wonder at.

If any readers seek an excuse to venture out for a bracing walk in the frost, I recommend a pilgrimage to pay homage to the old trees in Greenwich Park. They are witnesses to centuries of history and offer a necessary corrective to restore a sense of proportion and hope in these strange times.

Queen Elizabeth’s Oak dating from the twelfth century

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January 6, 2022
by the gentle author

Please support our JANUARY BOOK SALE. We only have nine titles left in the warehouse and some are on the brink of going out of print, so you can assist us clear the shelves by buying copies at half price to complete your collection, or as gifts for family and friends.

Click here and enter code ‘2022’ at checkout to get 50% discount

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White Hart Tavern, Bishopsgate

Leafing through the fat volumes of Walter Thornbury’s London Old & New is the least energetic form of pub crawl I know and yet I found I was intoxicated merely by studying these tottering old taverns, lurching at strange angles like inebriated old men sat by the wayside. Published in the eighteen-seventies, these publications looked back to London and its rural outskirts in the early nineteenth century, evoking a city encircled by coaching inns where pigs roamed loose in Edgware Rd and shepherds drove sheep to market down Highgate Hill.

Bell Tavern, Edmonton

Jack Straw’s Castle, Hampstead

Spaniards’ Hotel, Highgate

Old Crown Inn, Highgate

Gate House Tavern, Highgate

The Brill Tavern, Somers Town

The Castle Tavern, Kentish Town

Old Mother Red Cap Tavern, Camden

Queen’s Head & Artichoke, Edgware Rd

Bell Inn, Kilburn

Halfway House, Kensington

Black Lion Tavern,  Chelsea

World’s End Tavern, Chelsea

Gun Tavern, Pimlico

Rose & Crown, Kensington

Tattersall’s, Knightsbridge

Three Cranes Tavern, Upper Thames St, City of London

The Old Queen’s Head, Islington

Old Red Lion, Upon the banks of the Fleet – prior to demolition

Saracen’s Head, Snow Hill – prior to demolition

Old Tabard Tavern, Southwark – prior to demolition

 

White Hart Tavern, Borough

Inns of the Borough

 

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

You may like to take a look at other engravings from London Old & New

Long Forgotten London

More Long Forgotten London

and  more pubs

Antony Cairns’ East End Pubs

Alex Pink’s East End Pubs Then & Now

The Gentle Author’s Pub Crawl

The Gentle Author’s Next Pub Crawl

The Gentle Author’s Spitalfields Pub Crawl

The Gentle Author’s Dead Pubs Crawl

The Gentle Author’s Next Dead Pubs Crawl

The Gentle Author’s Wapping Pub Crawl

The Gentle Author’s Piccadilly Pub Crawl