Photos of Roman Road, Bow and Bethnal Green

Spend enough time in Roman Road and you’ll see one of the Photo Friends, camera in hand and looking for another glimpse of Bow to immortalise in film … or nowadays on memory card. Don Archer, Ken Claisse, John Curtis, Jim Hardiman, Mireya Saavedra,

Emily Shepherd and Pam Tesner are the Friends. Veterans of the East End (the youngest member 50, the oldest in the mid-eighties) and most of them have lived and worked in Bethnal Green or Bow all their lives. And this month Oxford House in Bethnal Green offers the rest of us a chance to see the work they’ve been doing – a visual journal of a vanishing East End that they’ve been patiently compiling over the years.


Roman Road, Bow in the 1960s

Roman Road, Bow in the 1960s

Though it’s all come together rather well, the starting point of the collection was the sort of happy accident that often sparks off creative work. Photography tutor to the group, Sarah Ainslie, takes up the story. “When we began, one of the members had black and white photos they’d taken in the 1960s, so we used these as a basis for a project, focusing on the shops and square of Roman Road.” First the members photographed exteriors of all the shops down to Grove Road, a lively, gaudy mix of grocers, fast food emporia, estate agents and the rest … all the elements of a living high street. But shops are as much about the people who own and work in them as the products they sell. So the group interviewed the shop owners, and dug in to their family history. Visitors to the exhibition will see the exterior shots of the shops, placed together to form long collages of the street.

The run of images tell a story of a street sometimes in decline, but in a process of constant change, and with small business owners at its core, battling to keep one of the East End’s oldest and best loved ‘market streets’ in business.

The second focus of the exhibition follows in the footsteps of almost-forgotten East End painter Noel GibsonGibson, a self-taught Scottish artist, lived in the area during the 1960s and documented a slice of London that was changing so quickly that “sometimes I’d go back to capture a detail and find the street had disappeared!”. Even in some of the 1960s photographs, one sees the odd boarded-up shop. A neat run of Victorian terracing is suddenly interrupted by a block of 1970s concrete – the work of the Friends in documenting the Roman then and now perfectly reflects the constant and sometimes violent change in the architectural fabric of the Roman. Many of the buildings needed to go, many more were casually discarded by the developers.

A cache of Noel’s paintings were bought by Tower Hamlets Council a few decades bac, the plan being to hang them inmunicipal buildings. And this year, the Friends were invited by Tower Hamlets Local History and Archives to find the locations that Noel had painted in the 1960s and photograph them for their collection. You’ll see the new photos alongside copies of the paintings.

Noel Gibson painting of Hessel Street, Stepney

Noel Gibson painting of Hessel Street, Stepney

The street wasn’t always called Roman Road of course. Older members of the group could remember when it was still called Green Street. Before that it had been called Drift Street. But in the 1950s, the local council, enthusiastically grabbed hold of evidence that the old Roman Road from Colchester to London had passed nearby, and rebranded the thoroughfare. Now, just as Petticoat Lane became ‘the Lane’, Roman Road became simply ‘the Roman’ to all East Enders; it also became the place to go for clothes and shoes for those who didn’t fancy shelling out at West End prices.

The history, if questionable on some of the detail, is broadly sound. The Romans did come this way (or very nearby). The modern A12 trunk road, named in 1922, is laid along the route of the original Roman road from Camulodunum to Londinium: even if logic and tradition didn’t suggest the route, archeological digs (and roadworks) down the decades have uncovered evidence of the old Roman stonework of the road, sometimes in remarkably good order for a thoroughfare 2000 years old. The A12 takes a very un-Roman 90-degree turn as it hits the east side of Victoria Park, before heading south to the Blackwall Tunnel Approach.

For most of its history it would have continued south-west, across the Old Ford (where extensive evidence of Roman occupation was found in recent years) and along the route of ‘Green Street’ into the City. Archeologists have uncovered evidence of a late Roman settlement at Old Ford dating from the fourth and fifth centuries CE. And excavations in 2002–3 discovered a substantial ‘ribbon’ development along the line of the road, surrounded by fields. Near the river there was evidence for a cluster of wooden buildings dominated by a large open-ended barn. Large amounts of cattle bone were also discovered, suggesting butchery to supply the London market.

But it’s the Roman’s more recent history that’s charted here, and in many ways it has been a sad decline over the past half century. Street markets all over London struggle and the Roman is no exception. Market days are fewer, and stalls are sparser. Shops are occupied though, and owners seem determined to keep the Roman in business. After 2000 years it’s not ready to disappear quite yet.

* Roman Road, Today and Yesterday is at Oxford House, Derbyshire St, E2 6HG, 1 December until 2 January, with a private view on 6 December. Opening times are Monday to Friday, 9am to 10pm; Saturday and Sunday, 10.30am to 1.30pm. Thanks go Tower Hamlets and Gateway Housing’s Betty May Gray Charity for their funding of the project, and to Four Corners for funding and giving the group the space and support to work.

* There is an excellent gallery of Noel Gibson’s paintings online at the BBC website.

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About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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