The London Nobody Knows – revisited. Photos & text: David Secombe. (4/4)

London Bridge. Photo © David Secombe, 2002.

From The London Nobody Knows, Geoffrey Fletcher, 1962:

Begging, pure and simple, seems to have almost disappeared from the London streets, even the most impoverished making an attempt to offer some trifle in exchange for a coin. Mayhew’s book on the London poor is one of several books necessary for a study of the city’s pavement life, of which now only fragments remain. Victorian London was full of such harrowing sights as the man I saw years ago, legless and armless, selling ballads, or the festering bundel of rags covering the remains of a woman I saw more recently on the Embankment – a bundle of rags, however, that did not lack vocal abilities. On my starting to draw her, she cursed in language which would have given a bargee the shudders, and so I pushed off.

David Secombe:

The dolls in the photograph above were situated in the elevated walkway which links London Bridge with London Bridge Station, and formed part of an elaborate and idiosyncratic beggar’s pitch. The beggar in question had taped dolls holding lit joss sticks to three posts in the walkway, and as commuters hurried past him and his installation he performed a manic, shuffling dance, jerking back and forth violently, lunging at them with his cap. I asked him if he would mind having his photo taken and he declined, although he didn’t object to me picturing the dolls. He was clearly very proud of his pitch, which seemed more suited to White Cube or Flowers East than a begging bowl on London Bridge Station. There is probably some earlier precedent for his particular schtick, but I can find nothing like it in Mayhew, and he may have invented a new form: avant-garde panhandling.

Given time, certain members of London’s homeless communities become landmarks. In his ‘biography’ of London, Peter Ackroyd mentions the lady who appeared to live in a doorway near the shop Forbidden Planet on New Oxford Street for much of the 1990s: as Ackroyd noted, she had sat there day in, day out for so long that her outline was impressed upon the stone behind her. And there was the eccentrically dressed but actually quite beautiful woman who was a fixture in Lincoln’s Inn Fields for many years. I don’t know what became of the doll man, but I rather hope that his fate was less grim than the elderly oriental man who is a current fixture on Hungerford Bridge. He has a kind of toy guitar equipped with one string and a little hammer which he taps on it, feebly hitting the same note over and over again. He is worthy of Mayhew, and Fletcher, in authentic human misery.

… for The London Column.


The London Nobody Knows – revisited. Photos & text: David Secombe (3/4)

Sidney Street, Whitechapel. Photo © David Secombe 2010.

From The London Nobody Knows, Geoffrey Fletcher, 1962:

Half a century ago, the East End remained a closed book to the rest of London; hence the alarm created by the Hounsditch murders and the ensuing gun battle of Sidney Street. Londoners realized the unpleasant fact that there were gunmen in their midst and a vast floating population of refugees and anarchists living somewhere or other only a short distance from the opulent City. Peter the Painter, that elusive, unsatisfactory figure, and his gun-toting frienfds have always fascinated me, and I have visited the scene of their operations time and time and again. Whenever I go, in spite of modern changes (though there is a great deal left unchanged), I seem to see the top-hatted figure of Winston Churchill peering round a doorway during the gun battle, and policemen with walrus moustaches stare of the past, along with loungers in greasy cloth caps.

Sidney Street is more orderly today, and on the site of the siege the houses have been replaced by flats, but I remember the besieged house clearly … I also remember also a local coming out to watch me draw the house and telling me how he had watched the siege and the smoke coming out of the roof.

David Secombe:

Last year was the 100th anniversary of the Sidney Street Siege, and the full text of The Guardian‘s contemporary report may be read herePeter the Painter, the legendary leader of the terrorists, was never found and uncertainty as to his real identity – indeed, doubts as to whether he ever actually existed – persist to this day. (In Julian Fellowes’s recent Titanic TV series, he had Peter the Painter on board the ill-fated liner, which prompted a few derisive guffaws round my neck of the woods.) In 2006, Tower Hamlets Council named a social housing complex on the corner of Sidney Street and Commercial Road after the mysterious renegade, a decision which brought complaints from the Metropolitan Police and others. The above photo was taken a few yards from the spot where 100 Sidney Street stood.

Fletcher’s account of the environs of Sidney Street was written fifty years after the siege, and The London Nobody Knows is all of fifty years away from us. Since Fletcher described the area with his antiquarian eye, the locale has developed newer sets of associations, newer urban mythologies. One strand of modern folklore which was brewing at the time of Fletcher’s early ’60s rambles eventually bore bloody fruit in a pub round the corner: a few steps from Sidney Street, on the Whitechapel Road, is The Blind Beggar, where Ronnie Kray shot George Cornell in 1966, and now a fixture on the unofficial London underworld coach tour. The Kray Twins were local, of course, and famously lauded as a positive force by a vocal assortment of cartoonish East End stereotypes. Local boys who made good and took care of their neighbours – a bit heavy handed sometimes, but they only fought their own. Violent but fair. That sort of thing. But that implausible golden era of neighbourly, family-loving criminals is as distant from us now as the Sidney Street Siege was to them, so it is no wonder that the 1960s East End seems impossibly exotic today. Back in the early ’90s, I spent an afternoon sightseeing in the East End with a former Kray associate, and we had lunch in Bloom’s, the famous kosher restaurant in Whitechapel High Street. As we entered the rather grand premises, my companion wistfully observed that ‘a few of the lads considered knocking this place over, back in the sixties. Lot of money used to come through here, all those nobs heading east for a bit of a thrill.’ Bloom’s finally closed in 1996, its heyday long past.

In the last three decades, Whitechapel has become predominantly Bangladeshi in its ethnic make-up, and the East London Mosque, opposite the Blind Beggar, is a kind of 20th century counterpart to Hawksmoor’s great Christ Church, Spitalfields. And, with a certain historical inevitability, present-day suspicions of the ‘immigrant’ community crystallise around their perceived terrorist potential – so in that respect, the East End of 2012 is remarkably similar to that of 1911.

… for The London Column.


The London Nobody Knows – revisited. Photos & text: David Secombe. (2/4)

St. Anne’s, Limehouse. Photo © David Secombe 2010.

From The London Nobody Knows, Geoffrey Fletcher, 1962:

St. Anne’s, Limehouse, was built by Hawksmoor, 1712-30, one of his three churches in the East End which alone make a worthwhile pilgrimage: the other two are St. George in the East and Christ Church, Spitalfields. All were begun within a few years of each other. As early as the 1730s, overcrowding had become a characteristic of the East End, a process accelerated in the early 19th century by the building of the docks between 1800 and 1830, the demand for unskilled labour, and the arrival of Jews and other refugees from Eastern Europe. These three churches were built as necessities, but there is nothing utilitarian about them. Their originality continues to surprise us. Hawksmoor’s architecture, imbued with Baroque rhythms, is massive yet solid, like Johnson’s prose. Characteristic of how little we really value them is the fact that, at time of writing, Christ Church, Spitalfields, is under threat of demolition, though thousands of pounds are uselessly thrown away in every conceivable direction.

David Secombe:

Christ Church, Spitalfields, was not demolished and has in recent years been the beneficiary of grants to restore the fabric of the building after decades of neglect. Hawksmoor’s six London churches have experienced a revival in general, and have become talismans for those who seek to pursue a hidden or mystical history of the city. Peter Ackroyd’s 1985 novel Hawksmoor elaborates upon ideas proposed by Ian Sinclair that Hawksmoor’s churches map an Eye of Horus upon the capital, whilst Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell links the Jack the Ripper murders to the looming presence of Christ Church over Whitechapel. Psychogeography aside, the massiveness and intensity of Hawksmoor’s designs have a slightly forbidding quality– and his monumental East End churches must have appeared anomalous and strange to those living in the surrounding Georgian and Victorian slums. In the 21st century, however, Christ Church looks anomalous for a different reason: the deadly corporatised make-over of Spitalfields market has transformed the area into Covent Garden East, and Hawksmoor’s magnificent creation now looms over a retail theme park safe for hipsters and their friends.

… for The London Column. 



The London Nobody Knows – revisited. Photos & text: David Secombe (1/4)

Limehouse. Photo © David Secombe 2010.

From The London Nobody Knows, Geoffrey Fletcher, 1962:

My chief pleasures in Limehouse are confined to a small area, centering on the church of St. Anne. The undertaker’s opposite the church is a rare example of popular art. Even today, East End funerals are often florid affairs – it is only a few years since I saw a horse-drawn one – but such undertaker’s as [the one in the above photo] must be becoming rare, so it is worth study. It is hall-marked Victorian. The shop front is highly ornate and painted black, gold and purple. Two classical statues hold torches, and there achievements of arms in the window and also inside the parlour. The door announces ‘Superior funerals at lowest possible charges’. On one side of the window is a mirror on which is painted the most depressing subject possible – a female figure in white holding on (surely not like grim death?) to a stone cross and below her are the waves of a tempestuous sea. Inside the shop are strip lights – the only innovation to break up the harmony of this splendid period piece – a selection of coffin handles and other ironmongery and a photograph of Limehouse church. As I looked, a workman, with a mouthful of nails, was hammering at a coffin. An unpleasant Teutonic thought occurred to me that, at this very moment, the future occupant of the coffin might well be at home enjoying his jellied eels . . . Undertaker’s parlours of such Victorian quality must be enjoyed before it is too late. This one mentioned is, I believe, the best in London. People stare through the windows of undertakers – at what? Unless they are connoisseurs of Victoriana there seems to me little beyond the elaboration of terror and a frowsy dread that has no name.

David Secombe:

The shop Geoffrey Fletcher rhapsodised over fifty years ago remains in situ opposite St. Anne’s, but is now derelict. When I took this photo a couple of years ago, it was possible to see the remnants of the shopfront, but a matter of days later the entrance was boarded up and the last remnant of the Victorian throwback that Fletcher described with such relish disappeared from view. This week we are running a small selection of excerpts from Fletcher’s classic, alongside contemporary views of the sights he delineated so lovingly.  Fletcher’s book is a kind of requiem for an older, more private city – and although his fears about the fate of many individual buildings proved to be unfounded, Londoners are faced with a new wave of monolithic redevelopment. In our current era of corporate-sponsored ‘regeneration’, the final words of the book seem truer than ever: ‘Off-beat London is hopelessly out of date, and it simply does not pay. I hope, therefore, that this book will be a stimulus to explore the under-valued parts of London before it is too late, before it vanishes as if it had never been. The old London was essentially a domestic city, never a grandiose or bombastic one. Its architecture was therefore scaled to human proportions. Of the new London, the London of take-over bids and soul-destroying office blocks, the less said, the better’.

… for The London Column.


Jubilee. Photo & text: David Secombe.

Buckingham Palace, 1991. Photo © David Secombe.

David Secombe writes:

In 1991, the BBC produced a documentary to mark Queen Elizabeth’s 40th anniversary as monarch. It was produced by the doyen of BBC documentary filmmakers, Edward Mirzoeff, famous for his Betjeman films and his editorship of the flagship 1980s documentary series 40 Minutes. I was tasked with doing the stills. The access Eddie and his small team had been given was unique, but the stills photographer had to manage as best he could, ducking out of shot (or not ducking out of shot), not treading on the sound man’s heels, and generally trying not to get fired. This picture was taken on my first day of the project, and shows the Queen having her portrait painted by Andrew Festing. The grainy, lightly impressionist tone of the image is largely a product of the fast Fuji film I used for much of the project: more a product of desperation, looking for stock that would cope with the relentlessly low levels of light, than any conscious creative decision. (‘Braille photography’ was a phrase which got used on more than one occasion.)

Stephen Frears film The Queen, featuring Helen Mirren’s acclaimed turn as Her Majesty, opens with a sequence in which the Queen has her portrait painted. The look of the sequence betrays the research the production team invested in Eddie’s film, and some of the details are lifted from the above picture (when the image first appeared, I remember being asked a lot of questions about the Queen’s silver shoes – this obviously made an impression on Frears’ team). I have heard that Stephen Frears denies ever seeing Eddie’s film. How sweet.

… for The London Column. © David Secombe 2012.


Underground, Overground. Text: Andrew Martin, photo: Tim Marshall. (5/5)

Bakerloo Line. © Tim Marshall 1992.

Andrew Martin writes:

There are the books full of Underground ghost stories. An invisible runner pounds along the platforms at Elephant & Castle; children scream in the basement of what used to be the surface building of Hyde Park Corner, and which became Pizza on the Park. (They continued to scream it was said, even while the Four Seasons and Margheritas were being rolled out.) William Terris, an actor murdered in 1897, manifests in Covent Garden station. The best one I know of was sent to me in a letter a few years ago. Late one night a Piccadilly Line driver was running his empty train into the depot at Northfields when he heard a knock on his cab’s connecting door into the carriage. He turned and opened the door, saw no one there but noticed that all the connecting doors of the carriage were open, as though someone had walked along the length of the train. The driver refused to continue, so another man was brought in to close the doors and take the train into the depot. Shortly after he started the train he heard a knock … and all the doors were open again.

The text is from Underground, Overground: a passenger’s history of the Tube, published by Profile Books (also available here). The photos are from Tim Marshall’s series When a Tube train stops.


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