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At Highgate Cemetery

July 25, 2021
by the gentle author


If you seek to lose yourself in London and escape the scorching summer heat, Highgate Cemetery is the ideal destination. You step through the gothic-inspired gatehouse and take the winding path up the hill among the trees, with gracious architectural monuments, tombs and statues on either side. Foliage and shadow enclose the cemetery, shielding it from the city.

At the top of the hill you arrive at a grand entrance with exotically carved stone pillars and iron gates, hung with dense growth of ivy and creepers. You encounter deep shadows at the portal and, unavoidably, confront your own mortality. As you ascend the shady path alone towards the light, lined with doors, it is as if you are entering the ancient metropolis of a lost civilisation. But the residents have not fled, they are all still here under the permanent lockdown of death.

You wonder what you will find at the other end of this passageway. Yet you emerge again into the light to discover a narrow street of doorways leading to the left and the right, open to the sky and lined with flowers. As you pace around, you recognise that each one is subtly distinct from the others, with names to enable the holy postman. Within minutes, you discover this street is circular. You have arrived at the heart of the necropolis and you can walk for eternity around this street. You can change direction, but you can only travel in a circle.

Thank goodness there are stairs that permit you to escape and return to the world of the living, where you can stand and impassively observe this curious architectural feature at the heart of the cemetery. If you seek the soul of London, you will find it here in the rotunda at Highgate Cemetery.


Highgate Cemetery, Swain’s Lane, London N6 6PJ

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In City Churchyards

The Queenhithe Mosaic

July 24, 2021
by the gentle author

Queenhithe is a natural inlet of the Thames in the City of London, it means ‘Queen’s harbour’ and is named after Queen Matilda who granted a charter for the use of the dock at the beginning of the twelfth century. This is just one of two thousand years of historical events illustrated in a twenty metre mosaic installed upon the river wall at Queenhithe.

Commissioned by the City of London and paid for by 4C Hotel Group, it was designed by Tessa Hunkin and executed by South Bank Mosaics under the supervision of Jo Thorpe – and I recommend you take a stroll down through the City to the river, and study the intricate and lively detail of this epic work for yourself.


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The Mystery Of Isabelle Barker’s Hat

July 23, 2021
by the gentle author

Each day now, I am rehearsing actor Joel Saxon for the immersive tour of Dennis Severs House, commissioned by the Spitalfields Trust as a re-imagination of the tours that Dennis Severs gave in the eighties.

Tours commence next Thursday 29th July and booking is open until the end of November.

Click here to book tickets

Even though I took this photograph of the hat in question, when I examined the image later it became ambiguous to my eyes. If I did not know it was a hat, I might mistake it for a black cabbage, a truffle, or an exotic dried fruit, or maybe even a specimen of a brain preserved in a medical museum.

Did you notice this hat when you visited the Smoking Room at Dennis Severs’ House in Folgate St? You will be forgiven if you did not, because there is so much detail everywhere and, by candlelight, the hat’s faded velvet tones merge unobtrusively into the surroundings. It seems entirely natural to find this hat in the same room as the painting of the gambling scene from William Hogarth’s “The Rake’s Progress” because it is almost identical to the hat Hogarth wore in his famous self-portrait, of the style commonly worn by men in his era, when they were not bewigged.

Yet, as with so much in this house of paradoxes, the hat is not what it appears to be upon first glance. If it even caught your eye at all because the gloom contrives to conjure virtual invisibility for this modest piece of headgear – if it even caught your eye, would you give it a second glance?

It was Fay Cattini who brought me to Dennis Severs’ house in the search for Isabelle Barker’s hat. Fay and her husband Jim befriended the redoubtable Miss Barker, as an elderly spinster, in the last years of her life until her death in 2008 at the age of ninety-eight. To this day, Fay keeps a copy of Isabelle’s grandparents’ marriage certificate dated 14th June 1853. Daniel Barker was a milkman who lived with his wife Ann in Fieldgate St, Whitechapel and the next generation of the family ran Barker’s Dairy in Shepherd St (now Toynbee St), Spitalfields. Isabelle grew up there as one of three sisters before she moved to her flat in Barnet House round the corner in Bell Lane where she lived out her years – her whole life encompassing a century within a quarter-mile at the heart of Spitalfields.

“I was born in Tenterground, known as the Dutch Tenter because there were so many Jews of Dutch origins living there. My family were Christians but we always got on so well with the Jews – wonderful people they were. We had a dairy. The cows came in by train from Essex to Liverpool St and we kept them while they were in milk. Then they went to the butchers. The children would buy a cake at Oswins the baker around the corner and then come and buy milk from us.” wrote Isabelle in the Friends of Christ Church magazine in 1996 when she was eighty-seven years old.

Fay Cattini first became aware of Isabelle when, in her teens, she joined the church choir which was enhanced by Isabelle’s sweet soprano voice. Isabelle played the piano for church meetings and tried to teach Fay to play too, using an old-fashioned technique that required balancing matchboxes on your hand to keep them in the right place. “I grew up with Isobel,” admitted Fay,“I think Isobel was one of the respectable poor whose life revolved around home and church. She had very thin ankles because she loved to walk, in her youth she joined the Campaigners (a church youth movement) and one of the things they did was to march up to the West End and back. She enjoyed walking, and she and her best friend Gladys Smith would get the bus and walk around Oxford St and down to the Embankment. Even when she was in her nineties, I never had to walk slowly with her.”

Years later, Fay and Jim Cattini shared the task of escorting Isabelle over to The Market Cafe in Fournier St for lunch six days a week. In those days, the cafe was the social focus of Spitalfields, as Fay told me,“Isabelle was quite deaf, so she liked to talk rather than listen. At The Market Cafe where she ate lunch every day, Isabelle met Dennis Severs. Dennis, Gilbert & George, and Rodney Archer were all very sweet to her. I don’t think she cooked or was very domestic but walking to The Market Cafe every day – good food and good company – then walking back again to her small flat on the second floor of Barnet House, that’s what kept her going.”

In fact, Fay remembered that Isobel gave her hat to Dennis Severs, who called her his “Queen Mother” in fond acknowledgement of her natural dignity, and he threw her an elaborate eightieth birthday party at his house in 1989. But although nothing ever gets thrown away at 18 Folgate St, when we asked curator David Milne about Isabelle Barker’s hat, he knew of no woman’s hat on the premises fitting the description – which was clear in Fay’s mind because Isabelle took great pride in her appearance and never went out without a hat, handbag and gloves.

“Although she was an East End person,” explained Fay affectionately,“she always looked very smart, quite refined, and she spoke correctly, definitely not a cockney. She had a pension from her job at the Post Office as a telephonist supervisor, but everything in her flat was shabby because she wouldn’t spend any money. As long as she had what she needed that was sufficient for her. She respected men more than women and refused to be served by a female cashier at the bank. Her philosophy of life was that you didn’t dwell on anything. When Dennis died of AIDS she wouldn’t talk about it and when her best friend Gladys had dementia she didn’t want to visit her. It was an old-fashioned way of dealing with things, but I think anyone that lives to ninety-eight is impressive. You had to soldier on, that was her attitude, she was a Victorian.”

When Fay showed me the photo you see below, of Isabelle Barker with Dennis Severs at her eightieth birthday party, David realised at once which hat belonged to her. Even though it looks spectacularly undistinguished in this picture, David spotted the hat in the background of the photo on the stand in the corner of the Smoking Room – which explains why the photo was taken in this room which was otherwise an exclusive male enclave.

At once, David removed the hat from the stand in the Smoking Room where it sat all these years and confirmed that, although it is the perfect doppel-ganger of an eighteenth-century man’s hat, inside it has a tell-tale label from a mid-twentieth century producer of ladies’ hats. It was Isabelle Barker’s hat! The masquerade of Isabelle Barker’s hat fooled everyone for more than twenty years and, while we were triumphant to have discovered Isabelle’s hat and uncovered the visual pun that it manifests so successfully, we were also delighted to have stumbled upon an unlikely yet enduring memorial to a remarkable woman of Spitalfields.

Dennis Severs & Isabelle Barker at her eightieth birthday party with the hat in the background

William Hogarth wearing his famous hat

Barker’s Dairy as advertised in the Spitalfields Parish Magazine in 1923

Fay and Isabelle in 2001

Dennis Severs House, 18 Folgate St, Spitalfields, E1 6BX

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Dennis Severs’ Tour

Ebbe Sadolin’s London

July 22, 2021
by the gentle author

Danish Illustrator Ebbe Sadolin (1900-82) visited London in the years following the War to capture the character of the capital, just recovering from the Blitz, in a series of lyrical drawings executed in elegant spidery lines. Remarkably, he included as many images of the East End as the West End and I publish a selection of favourites here from the forties.

George & Dragon, Shoreditch

St Katherine’s Way, Wapping

The Prospect of Whitby, Wapping

Stocks, Shoreditch

Petticoat Lane

Tower Green, Tower of London

The Olde Cheshire Cheese, Fleet St

Rough Sleeper, Shoreditch

Islington Green

Nightingale Lane, Wapping

Fleet St

Wapping churchyard

Tower of London

Commercial Rd, Stepney

St Pancras Station

High St, Plaistow

Bride of Denmark, Queen Anne’s Gate

Liverpool St Station

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Huguenot Fan Makers

July 21, 2021
by the gentle author

Fan commemorating the Battle of Dettingen by Francis Chassereau, 1743. Lacquered wood, etching & watercolour on paper (Helene Alexander Collection)


Whilst the Fan Museum is closed, curator Jacob Moss reveals recent research into Huguenot fan makers in an online talk organised by Huguenots of Spitalfields, tomorrow Thursday July 22nd at noon.

From the seventeenth century, the making and selling of handheld fans in London involved significant numbers of Huguenot refugees. Jacob Moss explores the complexities of a once thriving industry by tracing the Chassereau dynasty who, following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, fled from France to London where successive generations were fan-makers throughout the eighteenth century.

Click here to book

The Fan Museum is the brainchild of Helene Alexander who has devoted her life with an heroic passion to assembling the world’s greatest collection of fans – which currently stands at over five thousand, dating from the eleventh century to the present day. Below you can see a selection from the museum collection.

Folding fan with bone monture & woodblock printed leaf commemorating the Restoration of Charles II. 
English, c. 1660 
(Helene Alexander Collection)

Folding fan (opens two ways) with ivory monture. Each stick is affixed to a painted palmette.
 European (probably French), c. 1670s
 (Helene Alexander Collection)

Ivory brisé fan painted with curious depictions of European figures.
 Chinese for export, c. 1700(Helene Alexander Collection)

Ivory brisé fan painted in the style of Hondecoeter.
 Dutch, c. 1700 (Helene Alexander Collection)

Folding fan with bone monture. The printed & hand-coloured leaf has a mask motif with peepholes. 
English, c. 1730

Folding fan with ivory monture, the guards with silver piqué work. The leaf is painted on the obverse with vignettes themed around the life cycle of one man. European (possibly German)  c. 1730/40 
(Helene Alexander Collection)

Folding fan with ivory monture & painted leaf. 
English, c. 1740s
 (Helene Alexander Collection)

Folding fan with ivory monture & painted leaf, showing Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens.
 English, c. 1750s

Folding fan with wooden monture & printed leaf, showing couples promenading. 
French, c. 1795-1800
 (Helene Alexander Collection)

Folding fan with gilt mother of pearl monture & painted leaf, signed ‘E. Parmentier.
’ French, c. 1860s

‘Landscape in Martinique’, design for a fan by Paul Gauguin. Watercolour & pastel on paper. French, c. 1887

Folding fan with blonde tortoiseshell monture, one guard set with guioché enamelling, silver & gold work by Fabergé. Fine Brussels lace leaf. 
French/Russian, c. 1880s
 (Helene Alexander Collection)

Folding fan with smoked mother of pearl monture, the leaf painted by Walter Sickert with a music hall scene showing Little Dot Hetherington at the Old Bedford Theatre. 
English, c. 1890

Folding fan with tortoiseshell monture carved to resemble sunrays. Canepin leaf studded with rose diamonds & rock crystal, & painted with a female figure & putti amidst clouds, signed ‘G. Lasellaz ’92’. 
French, c. 1892
 (Helene Alexander Collection)

Folding fan with horn monture & painted leaf, signed ‘Luc. F.’
 French, c. 1900

Folding fan with ivory & mother of pearl monture, the painted leaf, signed (Maurice) ‘Leloir.’ 
French, c. 1900
 (Helene Alexander Collection)

Folding fan with mother of pearl monture & painted leaf, signed ‘Billotey.’ 
French, c. 1905
 (Helene Alexander Collection)

Horn brisé fan with design of brambles & insets of mother of pearl. 
French, c.1905
 (Helene Alexander Collection)

Folding fan with Art Nouveau style tinted mother of pearl monture & painted leaf, signed ‘G. Darcey.’ 
French, c. 1905
 (Helene Alexander Collection)

Folding fan with tortoiseshell monture & feather ‘marquetry’ leaf. French, c. 1920

The Fan Museum, 12 Crooms Hill, Greenwich, SE10 8ER

Beano Time

July 20, 2021
by the gentle author

A beano from Stepney in the twenties (courtesy Irene Sheath)

We have reached that time of year when a certain clamminess prevails in the city and East Enders turn restless, yearning for a trip to the sea or at the very least an excursion to glimpse some green fields. In the last century, pubs, workplaces and clubs organised annual summer beanos, which gave everyone the opportunity to pile into a coach and enjoy a day out, usually with liberal opportunity for refreshment and sing-songs on the way home.

Ladies’ beano from The Globe in Hartley St, Bethnal Green, in the fifties. Chris Dixon, who submitted the picture, recognises his grandmother, Flo Beazley, furthest left in the front row beside her next door neighbour Flo Wheeler, who had a fruit and vegetable stall on Green St. (courtesy Chris Dixon)

Another beano from the fifties – eighth from the left is Jim Tyrrell (1908-1991) who worked at Stepney Power Station in Limehouse and drank at the Rainbow on the Highway in Ratcliff.

Mid-twentieth century beano from the archive of Britton’s Coaches in Cable St. (courtesy Martin Harris)


Beano from the Rhodeswell Stores, Rhodeswell Rd, Limehouse in the mid-twenties.

Taken on the way to Southend, this is a ladies’ beano from The Beehive in the Roman Rd during the fifties or sixties in a coach from Empress Coaches. The only men in the photo are the driver and the accordionist. Joan Lord (née Collins) who submitted the photo is the daughter of the publicans of The Beehive. (Courtesy Joan Lord)

Terrie Conway Driver, who submitted this picture of a beano from The Duke of Gloucester, Seabright St, Bethnal Green, points out that her grandfather is seventh from the left in the back row.  (Courtesy Terrie Conway Driver)

Taken on the way to Southend, this is a men’s beano from The Beehive in the Roman Rd in the fifties or sixties in a coach from Empress Coaches. (Courtesy Joan Lord)

Beano in the twenties from the Victory Public House in Ben Jonson Rd, on the corner with Carr St.  Note the charabanc – the name derives from the French char à bancs (“carriage with wooden benches”) and they were originally horse-drawn.

A crowd gathers before a beano from The Queens’ Head in Chicksand St in the early fifties. John Charlton who submitted the photograph pointed out his grandfather George standing in the flat cap holding a bottle of beer on the right with John’s father Bill on the left of him, while John stands directly in front of the man in the straw hat. (Courtesy John Charlton)

Beano for Stepney Borough Council workers in the mid-twentieth century. (Courtesy Susan Armstrong)

Martin Harris, who submitted this picture, indicated that the driver, standing second from the left, is Teddy Britton, his second cousin. (Courtesy Martin Harris)

In the Panama hat is Ted Marks who owned the fish place at the side of the Martin Frobisher School, and is seen here taking his staff out on their annual beano.

George, the father of Colin Watson who submitted this photo, is among those who went on this beano from the Taylor Walker brewery in Limehouse. (Courtesy Colin Watson)

Pub beano setting out for Margate or Southend. (Courtesy John McCarthy)

Men’s beano from c. 1960 (courtesy Cathy Cocline)

Late sixties or early seventies ladies’ beano organised by the Locksley Estate Tenants Association in Limehouse, leaving from outside The Prince Alfred in Locksley St.

The father of John McCarthy, who submitted this photo, is on the far right squatting down with a beer in his hand, in this beano photo taken in the early sixties, which may be from his local, The Shakespeare in Bethnal Green Rd. Equally, it could be a works’ outing, as he was a dustman working for Bethnal Green Council. Typically, the men are wearing button holes and an accordionist accompanies them. Accordionists earned a fortune every summer weekend, playing at beanos. (courtesy John McCarthy)

John Sheehan, who submitted this picture, remembers it was taken on a beano to Clacton in the sixties. From left to right, you can seee John Driscoll who lived in Grosvenor Buildings, Dan Daley of Constant House, outsider Johnny Gamm from Hackney, alongside his cousin, John Sheehan from Constant House and Bill Britton from Holmsdale House. (Courtesy John Sheehan)

Photographs courtesy Tower Hamlets Community Homes

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At Empress Coaches

Dan Cruickshank At Arnold Circus

July 19, 2021
by the gentle author

Arnold Circus under construction a century ago

We are delighted to announce that Dan Cruickshank is writing a book about the evolution of the Boundary Estate from the ruins of the Old Nichol. He will be giving a lecture, The Quest for Beauty, based upon his forthcoming book on Thursday 29th July 6pm in the bandstand at Arnold Circus.

Dan’s talk will touch upon the nature of the notorious Old Nichol and the process by which the nascent London County Council’s pioneering project of publicly funded ‘council’ housing was developed. He will look at the architecture of the Boundary Estate and ‘the quest for beauty as a means of raising the quality of life in the area’ as well as examining who the new tenements were built for. In conclusion, he will focus on the controversial current proposals.

This free event is part of the Friends of Arnold Circus Annual General Meeting. It is open to all, but only FOAC members will be able to vote at the initial business section of the evening’s proceedings.

Click here to reserve your free ticket

The empty space after the site was cleared and before the Boundary Estate was built

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Who Was Arnold Circus?