The Old Signs Of Spitalfields
It’s usually above shop signage that you find the hidden history of London. However in East London it’s the collection of charming old signs in Spitalfields that give you an insight to the area.
From a wander around the streets by Christ Church Spitalfields, these were my favourite and the most fascinating.
A. Gold, Brushfield Street
Possibly the most instagrammable shop front in E1, A Gold stands for a real person; Amelia Gold.
A Jewish Hungarian who arrived seeking refuge in Spitalfields around 1880, Amelia worked in as a milliner (hat maker). She was one of around 125,000 Jewish refugees who came here in the late 19th Century, often taking up work in textile production or the rag trade.
Verde & Co. Brushfield Street
Next door is a coffeeshop, still known as Verde & Co, but not the original.
In 2006 Jeanette Winterson bought the shop dating from 1789. Back then she was the only shop on this street, renovating the derelict space, removing rats and rotten floorboards.
Sadly, last year she was forced to relocate. Hikes in business rates meant she was moved on, opening a shop around the corner while another coffeeshop has snatched up the prime real estate. I don’t want to sound miserable, but how long until we think it’s be a Pret?
Percy Dalton, Crispin Street
Now getting increasingly hard to read, I chatted to the owner of the corner house while I was taking this photo.
He said he hired someone to repaint the sign around 20 years ago, but they ‘mucked up’ the paint quality, using the wrong kind so it started peeling within a few years.
The ground floor is now occupied by The English Restaurant but his children still live above. It’s expensive to repaint he says, just the cost of hiring a cherry picker is a bit much right now. He laughs off my comment of borrowing one from a local Street Art commission.
Back to the history though, Percy Dalton started selling roasted peanuts from his barrow in the 1930s. Now based in Haverhill, they import, process and package 10,000 tons of nut each year.
Donovan Brothers, Crispin Street
A few doors down there’s a faded sign is far better condition. That of Jeremiah and Dennis O’Donovan, Irish immigrants who escaped to London following the 1830s potato famine.
Jeremiah stayed in London, starting a paper bag business to complement the nearby fruit and veg market. His brother however crossed the Atlantic with the Hudson Bay Company. The history was recounted by Jeremiah’s great-great-grandson John Olney to blogger Spitalfields Life.
Today John still runs the family business out of New Spitalfields Market in Leyton.
Soup Kitchen, Brune Street
Not a painted sign, but it seemed criminal to overlook this remarkable bit of typography and history.
This kitchen helped the impoverished Jewish population that had steadily increased in Spitalfields since the 1880s. Established in 1902 (the number 5662 is the same year in the Jewish calendar) at its height it served 5,000 people a week, only closing in 1992.
Today it’s private flats, one of the first warehouse buildings to be converted into residences in the area.
Godfrey Phillips Ltd, Commerical Street
Founded in 1844 by – you guessed it – Godfrey Phillips. This was a tobacco factory, registered as a Limited Company in 1909 which opened their new HQ at 112 Commercial Street in 1936.
The huge building is now mixed-use, leasing office space to a variety of businesses. Caretaker Jimmy Keane gives a vivid interview about it’s history back in 2011.
Stapleton’s, Commercial Street
Established in 1842, Stapleton’s was a repository (store house) for horses. It didn’t seem to have a great reputation though. One of of the few mentions it gets is from The Merry Gee-Gee by J G Lyall of 1899 (full title; How to breed, break, and ride him for’ard away and the noble art of backing winners on the turf)
“If you are fastidious as to rubbing shoulders with some terrible scadgers, don’t go to Stapleton’s as it adjoins Spitalfields Market and you meet the veriest dregs of East End Costermonger (fruit and veg seller) society there. If on the other hand, your clothes are getting shabby and you would like to be a veritable toff for the day, go to Stapleton’s and you highest ambition will be gratified.”
Hard to believe that over 100 years later this was the proposed location for Time Out’s London Night Market, a project that was rejected by local residents.
W.Wakefield, Commercial Street
Now occupied by Ben Sherman, the signage of W.Wakefield is clearly visible above the doors.
It was revealed in 2012 having been covered in 2008, and according to the London Gazette, W.Wakefield was dissolved on 10 September 1979 at a meeting at the nearby Fruit and Wool Exchange. The Exchange itself moved out of Spitalfields in 1991.
W&A Jones, Fournier Street
At number 3 you can just make out the faint outline of W&A Jones, painstakingly restored by Jim Howett in 1998.
Owned by designer, Marianna Kennedy. In a curious little link her and her husband were responsible for renovating 42 Brushfield Street (A Gold who we met earlier in the post).
Thanks to a tip-off via email, I was shown the below photo from 1896 – taken from the wonderful Spitalfields Life blog post. The house was built in 1755 and it seems that like W&A Jones was a pawnbrokers.
H Suskin, Wilkes Street
Part of the historic textile trade that was been part of Spitlafields history since the 18th century, H Suskin at 4 Wilkes Street is now an events and gallery space.
I couldn’t find much information about the business, but the original 1720s building didn’t survive a bomb blast in WW2. The current one was built around the 1950s.
S.Schwartz, Fournier Street
Fournier Street used to be known as Church Street and Number 33 (built 1725) had a suitably religious list of tenants. They included Paul Covenant and Gédćon Patron were two French ministers living there in 1759 and 1766 respectively.
The passageway on the other hand was a bit more rough and ready, leading into Worrall’s yard named after the builder responsible for the surrounding houses; Samuel Worrall. As for S.Schwartz, it was a local dairy (complete with a cow in the yard!) up until the 1950s but after that it was an ‘Express Dairy’ – bought by Arla in 2003. It seems then, that although the history is there, the sign is quite recent.
Modern Saree, Princelet Street
Numbers 14-24 were all built by the same Samuel Worrall who worked on Fournier Street in 1721. But it’s always the signage of no.22 that catches my eye.
Having been looking for clues for years I found much info about Modern Saree Centre, the house appearing to be ether private offices or a residence. In any case it nicely shows the change from majority Jewish-owned to the influx of Bengali immigrants who began arriving in Brick Lane from the 1940s onwards.
CH N Katz, Brick Lane
Given the fame of Jewish Beigals at the other end of Brick Lane, I had mistakenly assumed the name Katz was linked. Clearly I was thinking of the New York Katz Deli…
In fact the little Jewish shop was a twine, string and paper bags wholesaler. It closed in 1988.
Ye Olde Frying Pan, Brick Lane
On the corner of Thrawl Street, the building bears the hallmarks of a classic english pub location. Looking up, sure enough you’ll spot the terracotta sign; Ye Old Frying Pan complete with two crossed kitchen utensils.
The pub closed in 1991, having opened back in 1805.
Discover more of Spitalfields history and its colourful character on my walking tour of the area. Upcoming dates are listed below;
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