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.