Mind the Spiegelhalter Gap! Wickham’s Department Store, Mile End Road

Along the Mile End Road you’ll spot this impressive building. It’s the former Wickham’s Department Store, but there’s something very strange about the facade.

Mind the Spiegelhalter Gap! Wickham’s Department Store, Mile End Road | Look Up London

As subtle as a missing front tooth, the building is interrupted by ‘Spiegelhalters’ and the story behind it is one of my favourites in London.

Wickhams Department Store

The intimidating sandstone building dates from the 1920s, intended to transform Wickham’s Department store into a sort of Harrods of the East End.

Mind the Spiegelhalter Gap! Wickham’s Department Store, Mile End Road | Look Up London

However the shop has more humble roots. Originally drapers, the Wickham family traded from 69, 71 and 73 Mile End Road during the late 19th century.

Back then it there were a number of other shops on the block, including the Spiegelhalters – clockmakers and jewellers – who had been based at no. 75 since the 1880s.

The Spiegelhalters

The Spiegelhaters were German immigrants to London, starting with George Spiegelhater who established an East End jewellers and watchmakers from 1828.

In 1892, as Wickham’s success grew, they asked to expand into no. 75. The Spiegelhalters’ obliged, moving further East into no. 81.

You can view a wonderful photo and illustration of the shop front at number 81. on a website here.

In the 1920s, Wickham had even bigger ambitions. They wanted a department store building that rivalled Selfridges on Oxford Street and commissioned T, Jay Evans & Son to design one. The only trouble was, they were after the whole block.

Mind the Spiegelhalter Gap! Wickham’s Department Store, Mile End Road | Look Up London

The issue with this plan was that the Spiegelhalters’ were in the way. They refused to sell their shop and so Wickham’s did the only sensible thing and built around them.

The final product is best described by architecture critic Ian Nairn as “one of the best visual jokes in London”.

Mind the Spiegelhalter Gap! Wickham’s Department Store, Mile End Road | Look Up London

In the end, the Spiegelhalters had the last laugh. Wickham’s closed in the 1960s whereas the Spiegelhalters held on until 1982.

I’m also very happy to report that there is still a shop, run by the Spiegelhalter family, in Penzance.

Redevelopment of 69-89 Mile End Road

Although within the Stepney Green Conservation Area, numbers 69-89 isn’t listed either locally or through Historic England. So when development was proposed in 2015 there was no obligation to save the facade’s quirky history.

However, thanks to a campaign from David Collard, the facade was retained. Although not everyone was happy (in all fairness it’s only a flimsy bit of façadism behind which looms a glass box). At least we can at least be thankful that this David and Goliath symbol has been kept for posterity.

The architects were Buckley Gray Yeoman and you can see more interior shots of the mixed use office space here.

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1 Comment

  • Judith Barnett

    Reply

    Love this quote “Our remodelling turned the holdout unit into the heart and soul of the building rather than the thorn in its side.” And wow – that domed skylight is a think of beauty isn’t it. Fantastic.

    May 5, 2021 at 10:56 am

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