I’d rather graft than do nothing
In the 19th and most of the 20th Centuries, Shoreditch was
an industrial centre: printing, box-making, clothes, footwear
and haberdashery manufacture, leather chandlery and glass making
were major trades, and still have a presence today. But the
biggest employer by far was the furniture trade.
The Regent’s Canal was a living organ for transporting goods
to and from the area, into the middle of the last century.
And this brought timber, lots of timber, which made Shoreditch
the leading furniture making area in London up to about 30 years
ago. The City Sawmills in New North Road and the Eagle Saw Mills
in Wenlock Basin were the largest of several saw mills and timber
yards. With furniture making came a range of associated
specialist skills and suppliers of materials, such as fabrics,
iron and brass work, springs, locks and glass for doors.
Every type and quality of furniture was produced in Shoreditch.
In recognition of Shoreditch as the centre for furniture
production, the London County Council created the Technical
Institute in Pitfield Street in 1893, with courses in every
branch of furniture and upholstery manufacture and design.
It was the first of its kind in London.
Henry Tyzack, a sawmaker from Sheffield, set up shop in
Shoreditch in 1839. The Tyzack family had shops locally in
Old Street, New North Road and Kingsland Road (which remains)
selling a huge variety of tools used in woodworking and
other trades. Their main competitors were Parry’s.
The presence of these trades and products gave rise to a
whole generation of men who were fitters. People like
John Sawyer, who travelled the country as a fitter and joiner.
His father represented the prior generation of workers, having
a stall on the slim sliver of pavement known as ‘The Waste’ on
Kingsland Road . John took his father’s boxes of screws
to sell. Nobody went near them, so John mixed them up in
buckets and sold them at five shillings (25p) a handful.
The cost worked out about the same but the art was in the
psychology of the sale.
Notable large local companies include Goddard and Gibbs,
a spectacular stained glass factory in Kingsland Road.
The firm moved there in 1946 and made stained glass windows
for all over the world, winning the Queen’s Award for Industry.
It ran a successful apprentice scheme up to its move to
Stratford in the 1990s. Scandalously, the listed building
was bulldozed by the developer and Shoreditch lost one of
its finest industrial buildings.
Foxes specialised in safe installation and removal. Based
in Hoxton Square for about a century, it employed generations
of local people until moving in order to expand at the
beginning of this century. Less well known is that Shoreditch
became a centre for motor transport before mass production,
which required huge factories, took over. This followed
the local tradition of making horse transport and
cartage – cart making. There were also rubber works locally,
such as the Universal Rubber Company at 34-36 Kingsland Road,
to make tyres. Bespoke cars and vans were made in the days
before mass production, and Shoreditch could turn its hand
to anything. People from Shoreditch have formed their own
businesses, sometimes in retail, sometimes in local warehouses
or in manufacturing. Pat Murphy worked for his Uncle Ted
for a time. Ted was a gifted artist. He set up his own business
making intricate Christmas decorations in a factory in
Kingsland Road. Joyce Howes’ parents ran the newspaper stall
outside the London Apprentice in Old Street. Her mother’s
family came from Norfolk and had a tradition of working in
the royal households of Sandringham and Buckingham Palace.
But Joyce’s gran put a stop to that saying she was not
letting her daughter “work as a skivvy for nothing”. Joyce’s
father came to Shoreditch from Scotland in his teens to join
his brother. On arriving, he got his first ever footwear,
a pair of brown boots. For the rest of his life, he only
wore brown boots “so shiny you could see your face in them”.
He also wore brown suits. This earned him the nickname of
‘Brownie’ in Hoxton Street Market, which he’d walk through
People from Shoreditch have had successful careers in
all the fields. In early days, Edmund Halley, the Astronomer
Royal who identified and thus named Halley’s Comet, came
from Haggerston. Thomas Fairchild, ‘the Father of the
Flower Garden’, was the original city gardener. A nurseryman
and scientific botanist, he ran the equivalent of a modern
nursery and garden centre in Ivy Lane, Hoxton, in the
late 16oos and early 1700s. He was the first person to create
a hybrid plant known as Fairchild’s Mule. Although
few so illustrious, some of Shoreditch’s own have gone
into one of the fields of science. Betty’s brother, Jim,
went to night school and qualified as a Chartered Mechanical
Engineer. He travelled the world with his profession,
working for a large firm in the City. But for many, work
was often hard to find , and hard when found . Mark Brooks
wrote this poem, reflecting many a Shoreditch working life.
Birds sing at the close of a day
As the sun settles and the moon finds its own way
As one sits thinking of the past day
Over the boredom and drudgeries of living this way
Working, working, living day to day
No prospects of wealth or fame to come my way
But in my head, my dreams no one can take away
For at the close of each day
I shut my eyes and fly away
People would turn their hand to anything, and many were
constantly in and out of employment. There was little job
security. This was a pattern set from the earliest times:
in the furniture trade, a carpenter would get enough money
for timber for one chair, then hawk it round the warehouses
to sell it to make a little bit and buy more wood for the
next chair. If he didn’t sell it, the family didn’t
eat. Later, different components, such as the legs or seat,
of a chair would be made by one carpenter in his house
and then taken to the factory to put together. It could be
said that ducking and diving was, and is, a major Shoreditch
occupation. If local networks didn’t come up with anything,
people would walk round the streets looking for
‘help wanted’ signs.
Up to the 1960s, even skilled workers would have work
for maybe two or three days a week, then have to sign
on for the others. The furniture and rag trades especially
worked this way. Joyce Howes’ husband was a skilled presser,
but he was still ‘in and out of work like a yo-yo’, even
though the same tailor would have him back again and again
when there was a job on. They had just about enough money
to pay the rent and eat, but often had to rely on the
family to help out.
Youngsters would earn the odd penny or shilling doing odd
jobs in the markets, helping to clear up factories or
workshops, picking stray threads off clothes or helping to
deliver things. Those with parents doing piece work
(payment by the piece) at home would routinely help out –
stuffing envelopes, sewing, making things like crackers
or rosettes. Betty Kemp’s mother represents workers of
bygone times. She was a home worker making satin lined
chocolate boxes, which were a real work of art. Betty
recalls her mum melting chunks of glue in a black pot on
the range in their kitchen , before using small brushes to
glue and then construct the boxes which graced the very
best confectioners. One wonders in these health and safety
obsessed times what would be made of the bubbling glue
pot next to the Sunday roast!
Tom Carlow’s family’s employment was pretty typical. His
father was a French polisher, and then worked at Spitalfields
meat market. His mother did the same as Betty’s, trimming
boxes for a small, local firm. Sometimes, she went into
the workshop, other times she’d do the work at home, with
the family helping out. If Tom was home from school for
any reason, she might take him into work with her and
he’d help out gluing and trimming. The work suited a woman
with a young family, as she could vary the hours. Tom’s
brother worked as an engineer and his sister Flossie put
gold blocking on autograph books and photo albums.
Irene Cakebread’s father was a French polisher, while she
went to work for a local printer. When her firm moved to
Suffolk, she and her family were offered a house there. Her
father was keen to go, but her mother refused as she said
“there’s too much green”. Warehouses and factories along
the canal provided numerous jobs for local people, as well
as goods, both officially and unofficially. A printer on
the north side of the canal by Whitmore Bridge used
to print the Marvel comic. Local boys would go down each
week to be given a free copy.
Alan Shea ran both fruit and vegetable stalls and a shop
selling ‘pick and mix’ in Hoxton Street in the 1980s. He’d
get up at 1am to go to buy stock, make up orders, then
make deliveries to caterers as well as individual homes,
then set up the stall and serve all day, then do the
books and fall into bed at 9pm. And this was seven days
a week. He even went to farms in Essex to buy direct from
the farmers. Asked how he coped working all the hours,
he says ” I’d rather graft than do nothing”.
Of course, some jobs were not always legal. Crime featured
locally, as everywhere. There are those born in Shoreditch
whose careers have taken them to the wrong side of the law.
People talked about a particular group of women in the
1950s who would meet up to wait for their children at the
school gates. This group of women were always exquisitely
dressed , unlike the rest of the mothers waiting for
their broods. This was a cause for much discussion among
the other mothers. It transpired that one of these women
worked for Shirley Pitts, a local girl who hit the headlines
as the most successful shoplifter, possibly of all time.
The book of her life, ‘Gone Shopping’, tells all. Shirley
and her ‘girls ‘ focused their attention on big West End
Stores like Harrods but made ‘shopping’ expeditions as far
afield as Paris, Geneva and Berlin.
Born in 1934, Shirley had become the adult of the family
aged seven when her dad was sent to jail. To survive, she
started off by thieving bread from doorsteps and coal from
coal-carts. She died in 1992, and the most famous faces
of the criminal underworld were present at her funeral.
Even the Kray twins , who started off in Crondal Street,
sent their condolences. Fourteen ‘ Rollers ‘ accompanied
the coffin to the graveside and a huge floral tribute in
the shape of a Harrods bag carried the epitaph ‘Gone Shopping’.
She was buried in an expensive dress, specially stolen
for the occasion. Shirley wasn’t the first of her ilk.
Writing of her memories of 1910, the late Grace Blacketer
recalled a felon who stood out from the rest, one Dinkie,
a bookmaker’s widow. Dinkie worked ‘the Nile’, the
small market on Nile Street. She was far from dinkie
however, being a large corseted lump. Primarily she
was a moneylender, with a retinue of thugs to make sure
the loan repayments were kept up to date. Anyone seen
about with a broken limb was suspected of being ‘a dinkie’.
Dinkie could fix almost anything, at a price, including
people on the run . She could hide you , organise abortions
for unwanted pregnancies, and sort out any problems you
had, if you could afford her. When she died in the late
19th century she was reputedly worth half a million pounds.
Fictional crime, too, was a nice little earner for
some locals. Perhaps, not having to look far for role
models, people like George Sewell (1924-2007) brought
a villainous presence to television and cinema screens
for many years. Up to the age of thirty five, George
had an eclectic range of jobs, including working as
an assistant to a French roller-skating team. But a
chance meeting with actor Dudley Sutton in a pub set him
on the path to Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, and
thence on to celluloid fame in films like ‘Get Carter’
and TV series such as ‘Z Cars’. Given that he grew up
with England’s then premier film studios on his doorstep,
it’s in keeping that his career veered in that direction.
Gainsborough Studios, by the canal on Poole Road, started
off as a power station for the Metropolitan Electric Railway,
before becoming a centre of film-making from 1921. Silent
movies were made there, and then talkies. One film, ‘The
Camels are Coming’ had desert scenes filmed on the roof
which was covered with sand carried manually up and then
back down again . The Gainsborough Studio’s most famous
artist was Alfred Hitchcock, who started his career there
in the props department. It subsequently became a warehouse –
notably Kelaty’s, piled high with oriental carpets, in
the 1970s and 1980s. It has now been largely demolished
and re-built as flats. The new development has a giant
sculpture of Hitchcock’s head as its centrepiece.
With the Gainsborough Studios just around the corner, it
seemed natural when someone mentioned that Hitchcock’s
1935 film ‘The 39 Steps’ had been partly filmed in Hoxton
Hall. And Haggerston Park’s north gate features in the
1940s film ‘Odd Man Out’ with James Mason. Edie Murphy’s
mother and father were Pearly King and Queen. They appear
as themselves singing ‘Any Old Iron’ in the film
‘London Town’ with Kay Kendal. Local hardman, Lenny Mclean,
played Barry the Baptist in ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking
Barrels’. There is now even a film named ‘Shoreditch’,
made a couple of years back, starring Joely Richardson
and Shane Ritchie. Shoreditch continues to have significant
links with the film industry, from model making to animation.
Entertainers have left their mark down the centuries.
Shakespeare and his cronies may have been some of the first,
but they were certainly not the last to visit the area.
Other, more home grown, are familiar faces.
Published in 2009 by Shoreditch Trust, Shoreditch Tales by Carolyn Clark and Linda Wilkinson is written very much with the personal experiences of east end families in mind and contains many interesting stories and anecdotes. I’m very pleased that Carolyn Clark gave me permission to reproduce chapter eight, entitled ‘Work’, which for me was a most interesting insight into the furniture trades of Hackney. (Carolyn is currently doing a project on heritage of Regent’s Canal in Hackney and the buildings which line it. If you have anything about timberyards/factories etc, please contact her through the Shoreditch Tales website).