Daniel Farson’s fame in the East End is, these days, largely down to his tenure of the Waterman’s Arms on the Isle of Dogs. The photographer and TV documentary maker was host to a shambolic though entertaining couple of years in the early 1960s, when the former Newcastle Arms became packed every night and celebs – Lord Snowdon, Tony Bennett, Clint Eastwood, Shirley Bassey, Groucho Marx and William Burroughs to name just a few – visited for a drink.
The venture was to end in headaches, hangovers and debt. But Farson’s life in Tower Hamlets was far more than a brief stint at the Waterman’s. He had arrived in Limehouse in the late 1950s, driven from the West End by the impossibility of finding somewhere affordable to live, and to the East by the possibilities of finding a house by the hustle and bustle of the river.
He found it in Narrow Street. A flat was being converted above a barge repair yard, part of the premises of barge owners, the Woodward Fishers. Farson moved in and began roaming Docklands with his camera, documenting a waterside that has, in the last few decades, disappeared completely. And as he did so he started to uncover the history of the East End. He discovered that his house was Elizabethan, and that it had once been a pub called the Waterman’s Arms. It was a name he was to co-opt for his business venture a few years later.
But it is his photographs that tell the true story of the East End in the 1960s*. When he moved there it was as unusual as emigrating – his mother and friends certainly didn’t approve – and it was before the invention of ‘Docklands’ made Tower Hamlets a popular and pricey domicile for incomers. Though he was a curiosity at first, his evident love of the area sound made him friends – and that made it possible for him to get the uninhibited and intimate photographs of normal East Enders going about their work, travelling on the river, and most of all drinking in the pub.
Farson loved a drink, as did his subjects. But he managed to keep a steady hand and had a remarkable knack for getting right into his subject’s face – catching a mood or a moment, sometimes with the subject unaware of his presence, often posing for impromptu portraits.
There are snaps from the making of Joan Littlewood’s Sparrows Can’t Sing (Farson had a small role as a navel officer, which was unceremoniously dumped on the cutting room floor by his friend Littlewood. There are striking black-and-white images from Petticoat Lane, where the stall holders and punters are far more colourful and interesting than anything on the stalls themselves.
And there are the drinking scenes. Of course it’s far easier to make subjects forget the camera when there is plenty of drink inside them, and these are largely pictures of East Enders having a laugh. Music figures large too. Part of Farson’s grand plan for the Waterman’s Arms was to give a boost to the great East End tradition of singing in pubs – the roots of that other cockney invitation the music hall. And in its brief life, the Waterman’s stage hosted local talent, such as the man who sang Mule Train, banging his head with a tin tray in time to the music; a docker who impersonated Frankenstein’s monster; a cabbie who sang Jolson; and a girl in glasses known as the ‘white mouse’ who sang so off-key she was greeted with cheers whenever she took the stage. The laughter in the pub crowd comes across in every picture.
A photo of Shirley Bassey on stage gives just a taste of artists who joined in. George Melly, Ida Barr, Annie Ross and, on memorable occasion, Judy Garland, all sang at the Waterman’s Arms.
*Limehouse Days – A personal experience of the East End, by Daniel Farson, published by Michael Joseph ISBN 0718132564