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Category: East End crafts and craftspeople

Escaped tigers and white elephants … the Tobacco Dock story

IT SEEMED such a great idea. A prime chunk of derelict real estate, right at the epicentre of the coming Docklands boom. Just like in the Long Good

The Old Tobacco Dock, Wapping

The Old Tobacco Dock, Wapping

Friday: what could go wrong? As the rubble of the demolished docks was swept away, vast acres of new land were exposed to view. To the west lay Rupert Murdoch’s monstrous Fleet Street on Thames at Wapping. To the east, the glittering towers of Canary Wharf were just beginning to emerge from the Isle of Dogs clay – a bit like spring flowers after a particularly long and brutal economic winter.

Tobacco Dock was and is a beautiful building too. When they constructed docks in the early 19th century they built them to last. And of course, being bonded warehouses for the holding of valuable imported Virginia tobacco, the structures had to be secure, to stop the fragrant cargoes from going over the wall. The fashion of the late eighties was to no longer demolish the massive Georgian buildings of the old docks, but to repurpose them for a yuppified ‘Docklands’, with modern interiors being created within the old shells. Frequently, of course, new ‘faux’ warehouses would be built to fill in the gaps.

So the owners of Tobacco Dock, Lawrie Cohen and Brian Jackson, (working with gifted architect Terry Farrell, who who artfully reconstructed Charing Cross station) and surfing a retail boom,

Replica ships evoke memories of Tobacco Dock's past

Replica ships evoke memories of Tobacco Dock's past

must have looked at their Grade One listed purchase, to be transformed from Napoleonic warehouse to 1990s’ shopping centre and presumably thought: “What can go wrong?” And so they opened their doors, on 22 March 1989 … and nobody came.

If the building had had a colourful early life (we touch on Jamrach and his escaped tiger, as well as the Queen’s Tobacco Pipe below) the years leading up to launch had been beset with snags. The owners had swallowed the expensive necessity of preserving the essential elements of Sir John Rennie’s original design. The great architect of London Bridge, the London Docks and much more of the infrastructure of maritime and commercial London had rested his roofs on huge iron pillars, while the warehouse itself stood atop vast subterranean, arched brick vaults, built for the storing of the tobacco. Legend has it the elaborate brickwork was assembled by French prisoners taken during the Napoleonic Wars.

But planning permission seemed to go out of the window as the owners discovered that Rupert Murdoch had been given planning permission to knock down a section of the old dock, and use the land to expand the looming Fortress Wapping next door. The pair had just three months to match Murdoch’s bid, and were bailed out at the eleventh hour by builder Harry Neal, who came up with £500,000.

The shops that took the units in the new centre were very much of the 1980s. There was a Body Shop, a Next, a Monsoon and a Filofax shop – all Tobacco Dock lacked was an outlet selling jumbo mobile builders’ phones. But the traders who had counted on footfall from shoppers and tourists waited in vain. The Sunday Times nipped next door to get a story but that was about it. Amjal Chaudry, who took a unit to sell craftwork and jewellery told the paper in 1990 that he was seeing three or four people a day, taking £30 if he was lucky.

Charles Jamrach's Ratcliff Highway Shop

Charles Jamrach's Ratcliff Highway Shop

The problem? As property and retail experts will always say: it’s about location, location … oh and location. You could say the mall was a short walk from Tower Hill, but who was going to take that walk along the traffic and fume congested highway. It was hard to get to, as well. There was Wapping station on the East London Line and Shadwell on the recently opened DLR, but both were poorly connected, unlike today, with the Ginger Line Overground and the ever-expanding DLR. The owners built a multi-storey carpark opposite, but even that set new records for a London car park with no cars in it.

The centre found occasional uses – as a location for pop video shoots (among them Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s Messages), for a commercial for the Ford Ka, and for filming of BBC time-slip drama Ashes to Ashes five years ago.

The remarkable fact was that the complex didn’t close. The shops left, one by one, until by the late nineties there were only two businesses left: Frank & Stein’s and Henry’s Cafe Bar. In the mid-nineties a new plan was launched, to transform the Dock into a factory outlet complex. A bad omen perhaps was that this idea was floated by Gerald Ratner, the man who had destroyed his own jewellery company with a Russian Roulette approach to PR. And in 2000, Henry’s Cafe closed, leaving Frank & Stein’s as the only tenant. The owners were now forced to keep the complex open for another eight years, at which point the restaurant closed, and they could bar the gates for … the last time?

View of Tobacco Dock from the road

View of Tobacco Dock from the road

You can’t get in there now, though you can see the replicas of sailing vessels the Three Sisters and Sea Lark, and the statues of animals commemorating the adventures of Charles Jamrach, who ran a zoo/petshop on the Highway in Victorian times. The story, perhaps embroidered over time, has a tiger escaping and seizing a local boy in its mouth, with Jamrach heroically prising the lad from the beast’s jaws. Tiger and boy are here in statue form, gazing quizzically at each other. Perhaps they are wondering where everybody is? There is a bear too, another reminder of the eccentric menagerie. No expense was spared in making Tobacco Dock work – but to no avail.

With thanks to View From the Mirror’ a Taxi Driver’s London,

Dock deaths and the Poplar Hospital

Docklands hospital in Poplar

Poplar Hospital catered for the wounded from the East India Docks

THE NAME of the infirmary was tellingly blunt. The ‘Poplar Hospital for Accidents’ suggested that the East End of the 1800s was a dangerous place where bad things happened. And though it would become a refuge for East Enders suffering every kind of ailment, primarily it was created to cope with the constant stream of broken and shattered men carried from the East India Docks – the most dangerous place of all.

Dock work was inherently dangerous of course. The frequently half-cut dockers (cheap booze being one way to make a hellish job bearable) were manoeuvring large, heavy objects between moving ship and stable shore across narrow gangplanks, often slick with ice or other muck. They worked in a confusion of men and vehicles, alongside precipitous drops into the filthy Thames, with sharp grappling hooks being swung around with sometimes careless abandon. But a series of historical turns would make the job more dangerous still during the 1800s.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the Port of London was completely gridlocked, with ships taking days or weeks to be emptied, turned round and sent back to sea. The answer was to build a series of new, enclosed docks, increasing capacity while bringing down costs to the merchant companies, and thus of the goods they were importing. The West India Dock was built in 1802, the East India in 1803, London Docks in 1805 and half a dozen more would follow. The dock owners were now losing less stock through theft, with their well-protected docks, and so prices could come down further. It would lead to an economic boom for England and the beginnings of the great days of London retail. East End stores and market stalls were now selling imported fabrics, tea, coffee, rum, oranges and bananas, and East Enders could afford to buy them.

But with increased capacity came competition, as the dock owners cut prices to vie for business. That meant lower wages for the dockers, who were already on a daily rate or were being paid by the quantity they shifted throughout the day. And there was more competition for jobs, as new labour came in from the English countryside and from Ireland, forcing down wages further. Corners would be cut, and so accidents would happen.

The work itself was dangerous, dirty and tiring (and tired men had more accidents). Bags would burst, showering dockers with iodine, phosphate, asbestos, lead, cement or guano. A docker of more recent vintage, Bill Abbott, recalled the perils of working with inexperienced men, saying: “I’ve had chaps working with me down a ship’s hold that never handled a hook or done a job down a ship’s hold in their lives. On one occasion, put on sugar, and I gave him a hook…And said “now put your hook in there”, and I’m saying that, as he did so he went literally – bashed his hook right through the middle of me hand. I’ve still got a little hole there now. Almost pinned me hand to the bag of sugar.”

Bill got off lightly. Cargoes could fall from nets or slings as they were being winched to and fro. The busy river would roll ships around at the dock, casting men over the side, to be drowned or crushed between hull and dock. Within the holds of the ship, barrels and chests would be dislodged, crushing men beneath them. In the confused melee of river traffic, collisions occurred, despite the skills of the watermen and lightermen – even those experienced river pilots went over the side from time to time. On the dock itself, cranes, winches, tractors, locomotives and platform trucks all added to the accident count.

So in the early 1850s, a drive was launched. Money was raised by charitable donations and the former Custom House was purchased and transformed into the new Poplar Hospital in 1855. It was soon bursting at the seams and had to be expanded twice over the following years; at one point, it was estimated that a dozen new cases were being treated at the hospital every hour of the day and night, and the hospital bore a plaque “in grateful recognition of the splendid services rendered by the Hospital to the Staff of the London and India Dock Company, since the Hospital was established”.

Seventy years on, its role hadn’t changed. Poplar Borough Council published its Official Guide to the Metropolitan Borough of Poplar in 1927, and reported that: “Accidents in the Port of London, in the docks and shipping, amongst the factories and the engineering works, are of frequent occurrence, and often of the most terrible character … immediate attention to the injured is often a vital consideration.”

The injuries were horrific of course. Crushed limbs, severe lacerations, arms or legs often amputated by falling machinery or whipping ropes. And the Poplar Hospital, while a boon, was still severely limited in what it could do for patients. By the mid-1800s, anasthaesia was becoming established at least. In the early 19th century surgery had been an horrific affair, with pain relief consisting of biting on a strap of leather and a strong will. Unsurprisingly, many died of shock during their operations. One estimate put the post-operative death rate in London hospitals at over 90 per cent in the early 1800s. And it was a common saw that you were safer outside hospital than in. Infection was rife, with no understanding of what caused disease, let alone antibiotics to combat it. A docker might go in with a serious wound only to die from infections picked up in hospital. By the late 1800s, antibiotics had joined anasthaesia, and surgical techniques had improved, but survival rates were still pitifully low.

Times would change of course. The hospital suffered bomb damage in 1941 but wouldn’t close until 1975. In 1982 it was demolished to make way for new houses – the old Victorian buildings and limited space no longer suitable for the demands of modern medicine, though the people of Poplar would miss their local hospital. But by then of course, the docks were all but dead. Downriver, at Tilbury, the docks may still be dangerous places but the advent of health and safety awareness meant the carnage of the docks was history.

Strikes in the East End of London during World War 1

1910 strike picture

Police strike in 1910

The years before the First World War saw more strikes in the East End of London than ever before, and it was little wonder that unrest centred on this part of London. A centre for industry and imports, with a high proportion of poorly paid and casual workers, the East End suffered more than most from the driving down in wages and fall in living standards that beset Britain at the time. Great East End industrial conflicts of the late Victorian era, such as the 1887 match girls’ strike in Bow, and the dock strike of 1889, had been followed by ‘the Great Unrest’ – a series of crippling strikes in the years before 1914.

With the outbreak of war, East Enders buried many of their grievances beneath the patriotic fervour required to get through what would be the most terrible war yet for Europe. Regardless of the fact that most residents of Stepney or Shadwell had little idea and less interest in events in Sarajevo or Sinai, Londoners would pull together behind their boys … up to a point. In any case, strikes were officially banned: the TUC and the government had agreed on that. And with the Labour Party joining Lloyd George’s coalition government in 1916, there was no true opposition. But there were stresses. Wars are always meant to be over ‘by Christmas’ of course, but the conflict limped interminably on, and by 1917 Londoners were heartily sick of the endless casualties and the privations at home.

The shortage of manpower also had an inevitable effect on industry. Though women couldn’t do the heavy work on the East and West India Docks, they could replace men in the factories – munitions factories had mushroomed all over Bethnal Green, Stepney and Wapping – and it led to conflict on both sides. A series of unofficial strikes by men, protesting at the ‘dilution’ of the workforce by women), simply exaggerated the manpower shortage, and had the unexpected effect of forcing up piecework rates for the women. By the time the war ended in November 1918, London had even seen its first strike for equal pay by women working on the trams and buses – legislation wouldn’t arrive until the Equal Pay Act in 1970.

But perhaps the most alarming signal to any government is when the officers of national security start turning. There had been isolated mutinies within the British army, with enlisted men turning on their officers, but they tended to be summarily dealt with on the battlefield. More worrying was a demonstration called by the National Union of Police and Prison Officers on Tower Hill in August 1918. East End copper Tommy Thiel had been sacked for this union activities, and the vast majority of London bobbies downed truncheons in sympathy. A squad of 600 flying pickets ensured the strike stayed solid.

And there were other ways of protesting. With wages held down, a depressed wartime economy and strict rationing, East Enders were feeling severely pinched by 1918. Rent strikes became common (and would bleed into the Poplarism rate strikes of the 1920s): Londoners couldn’t avoid noticing that Russia’s role in the War had ended with a workers’ revolution, and many were sympathetic. For those female munitions workers, their reward at the close of hostilities in November 1918 was ‘thankyou and goodbye’. Many women saw their jobs disappear, while many others were given back to returning soldiers. And numerous soldiers returned to no job, no home and broken families. Their option was the Poor Law and the workhouse or begging on the streets of Whitechapel. The British Government scented revolt in the air, and became distinctly uneasy.

With the Armistice, the dam was broken, and four years of frustration came flooding through. Historian Walter Kendall argues that “the crisis British society faced between 1918 and 1920 was probably the most serious since the time of the Chartists”. The police union grew to 50,000 members, while mutinies in the army multiplied. Things came to a head in 1919, with Lloyd George’s misguided plans in for a British expeditionary force to the Russian port of Archangel. Not content with four years of exhausting conflict, Britain now planned to invade Russia and put down the Revolution. The scheme had to be abandoned when British soldiers declared solidarity with Russia and simply refused to embark. The Government backed down and demobilised the angry soldiers – more men would return to Civvy Street and no jobs.

Again in 1920 Lloyd George proposed military action against Russia (Poland and France had already invaded her western territories) and again the East End stepped in. In May that year, men at the East India Docks refused to load a ship called the Jolly George which was bound for Russia with a load of munitions for the Polish army. East End railwayman then stepped in, refusing to carry cargoes of weapons bound for the docks. And union members began to withhold their labour in pursuit of closed shops, forcing every employee to join the union.

There were some ironies though, and the enemy wasn’t always obvious. Black American writer Claude McKay was visiting London in these years, and spent time with Sylvia Pankhurst at the offices of her Women’s Dreadnought newspaper. There were some 60 sawmills in London, most of them out in the East End and most out on strike, and right opposite the Dreadnought’s 198 Bow Road office was one of London’s biggest. The union men told McKay indignantly that some of their fellows were still working. The part-owner of this home for scabs? None other than “George Lansbury, Labour member of parliament and managing editor of the Daily Herald…the strikers thought it would make an excellent story for the Dreadnought. So did I!”

Lansbury, of course, would do more than most to champion the cause of East End workers in the years to come. The 1920s would see East End dissent on an unprecedented scale.

Fleet Street moves to the East End

The second half of the 19th century was a great age for the press, as taxes on publications and newsprint were removed, new printing techniques made big print runs possible, and pioneering editors such as the pacificist WT Stead reinvented their trade. And as the 20th century approached, a new breed of entrepreneurial owners would push the industry to new heights.

In 1896, Alfred Harmsworth launched the Daily Mail, costing a halfpenny against the penny cover price of its rivals. The Mail was fiercely imperialist, backing the Government in the Boer War (to the horror of Stead) and earning a reputation for putting patriotism above objectivity. The power of the press was such that many people blamed Harmsworth for Britain’s entry into the First World War (he had been predicting war with ‘The Hun’ since the turn of the century). ‘The most unscrupulous man in Britain,’ railed Lloyd George – before inviting him into his cabinet. But, adding popular features and crisp, concise writing into the mix, the Mail was a huge success.

In 1900 Sir Arthur Pearson founded the Daily Express, which moved its sights from court, war and hard news reporting, bringing in gossip, sports and features for women. And in 1903, Harmsworth launched the Daily Mirror, which replaced illustrations with photographs. Popular mass journalism had been born.

Over the following years, many more papers followed: The Daily Sketch in 1909, the Daily Herald in 1911 (the first national paper of the Labour movement), the Sunday Pictorial (Sunday Mirror) in 1915, Sunday Express in 1918, the Daily Worker and News Chronicle in 1930.

Alongside them, London had three paid-for evening papers, each of them hitting the streets in several editions each day. Its unimaginable today, but in an age before radio and TV, let alone the instant information of the internet, the paper was your only source of information. People would wait on East End corners for the latest edition of The Star (born 1888), The Evening News (1881) or The Evening Standard (1827) to get the racing results from the courses around the country. And scandal was never far away. Journalists from The Star were accused of sensationalising the Whitechapel Murders in 1888 and even inventing the name of Jack the Ripper.

The 1950s and 60s were a peak for Fleet Street, with a dominant Daily Mirror (by now transformed into a Labour, working class title) battling the Mail and the Express for readers, and readerships for ‘the qualities’ steadily climbing. In the 60s, the Daily Express sold an astonishing 6m copies a day (against a tenth of that today) and had foreign correspondents dotted around the globe. The Daily Mirror, meanwhile, was selling 5m copies against 1.2m today.

But things were about to change dramatically. Along with huge readerships the papers had accrued huge staffs. Proprietors began to look at new print technologies as a way of cutting costs, particularly a move from the old, labour intensive hot metal style of typesetting and printing. In 1968, Rupert Murdoch bought the News of the World and added the Sun in 1969.

It was a baleful end for a paper that had started as the Daily Herald before being unsuccessfully reinvented by Mirror Group in the early Sixties. The remnant of a paper once edited by Hamilton Fyfe, Charles Lapworth and George Lansbury would now feature Page 3 girls and greet the sinking of the Belgrano with the headline ‘Gotcha!’. Murdoch added the Times and Sunday Times to his News International portfolio in 1981. Long battles with the unions ensued, with lockouts, papers shut down for months at a time, and a state of simmering war between journalists and printers (who could stop the presses at any time).

Fleet Street needed to change but change was brutal when it came. Under the guise of launching a new Sunday paper, Murdoch moved his titles to Wapping over a dramatic weekend in 1986. The aim, with the complicit assistance of the Tory government was to break the unions and, in a violent replay of the Miners Strike of the two years before, that was exactly what they did.

‘The Dirty Digger’, as Private Eye gleefully dubbed him, declared that Fleet Street had ‘three times the number of jobs at five times the level of wages’ as other countries. He also knew the new Atex typesetting technology could remove typesetters at a stroke, and neuter their powerful unions. Murdoch, who as a student at Oxford was so left wing he was dubbed ‘Red Rupe’, devised a military style plan to smash the print unions and make printing profitable.

Police officers would hold back the pickets each night, and Wapping residents (who often couldn’t get to their own front doors) would find themselves in a warzone. Just over a year later the pickets admitted defeat – News International hadn’t lost a single night of printing, and the industury was changed forever.

Many of the other papers may not have liked Murdoch’s approach, but they quickly followed his lead. The papers left their old Fleet Street homes, with editorial office upstairs and presses below, for the East End.

1 Canada Square, previously derided as the most obvious landmark of a white elephant Docklands, became home to the Telegraph, the Mirror, the People and the Independent. The Mail, along with its Evening Standard, would head in the opposite direction, to Kensington, and the Express to the south side of Blackfriars Bridge. The Telegraph and Express papers, meanwhile, would be printed at Westferry on the Isle of Dogs.

Fleet Street had moved to the East End. Meanwhile the printers and compositors, many of them East Enders themselves, found themselves out of jobs – most would never work in newspapers again. 301 years after the Daily Courant first hit the London streets, we stand at the other end of the newspaper revolution, with dwindling sales and the reputation of newspapers and their proprietors (and their friends in police and Parliament) lower than ever. As the owners of News International lurch through their daily crises, East Enders may be wondering how much longer they’ll have the Murdochs as neighbours.

William Addis, inventor of the toothbrush

They are called Eureka moments, as chance and inspiration combine to create something great. Archimedes, the man whose overflowing bath led to his principle for discerning the volume of objects must top the list of course. And Einstein has to be right up there. Observing the clock tower in Bern, the German genius suddenly realised that time could move at different speeds in different places, and thus relativity was born.

But, with no disrespect to the scientists, East Ender William Addis’s invention probably tops them all. For the simple device he developed is not only used by every one of us, twice a day, it has prevented pain, illness, misery and early death. Addis was the father of modern oral hygiene and the company he founded is in business to this day. But it came from an unlikely source.

In 1780, the unfortunate Addis was arrested on the streets of Spitalfields and charged with causing a riot. At 46, William was already a successful businessman, a stationer and rag merchant, supplying finished paper to the book trade. The rags he harvested would be pulped down and remade into new sheets of paper – nothing went to waste.

William’s clients, the London booksellers of the 18th century, also sold patent medicines and supplies for pharmacists. It seems curious today, but is maybe no odder than barbers also being surgeons or American pharmacies also being ‘soda fountains’. Or, for that matter, modern London bookstores also doubling as coffee shops.

As he languished in his Newgate gaol cell, William struggled to clean his teeth with the traditional combination of a rag with salt and soot. If only he could get in between the teeth, he could do a much better job. Spying a broom, Addis got an idea. He picked a small animal bone from his plate and drilled small holes in it, pestered a guard to get him some bristles and – eureka – the toothbrush was born.

Timing is all of course, and this was an idea happening at just the right moment. Refined sugar, unknown in London in medieval times, was now being consumed in industrial quantities as supplies came back from the West Indies. Georgian Londoners had rotten teeth but effective dental repairs were a century away, with the only option painful extraction (by those barber surgeons again). Addis, however, added prevention to the mix.

Back at liberty, the entrepreneurial William realised that his new ‘tooth brush’ could be a winner. He produced a small number of the products, fashioned from animal bone and horsehair and offered them to his contacts in the book trade. They quickly sold and soon a toothbrush became a fashionable thing to have in Georgian London.

It was a hard thing to patent, and other manufacturers soon copied William’s bright idea, but it didn’t stop the company growing, and William growing rich. By 1840, the company was run by his son (also called William). Rather than a central ‘manufactory’, the Addis company used a system that was widespread in the East End of the time, piecework, with the women of Spitalfields and Whitechapel producing the brushes in their own homes. The system was also the basis for the matchmaking business, weaving, laundry and many more trades. The women would be paid by how much they produced, invariably having to buy their own tools and materials up front. And if the goods weren’t up to scratch – the company wouldn’t pay.

A brutal system in the days before unions and the legal protection they afforded workers – but the Addises grew very wealthy. By 1840, William Jr was employing 60 workers in an increasingly sophisticated production involving 53 separate processes, and producing four different models: Gents, Ladies, Child’s and Tom Thumb. William would use badger hair for the poshest brushes, but imported hog, pig or boar hair for the rest, mostly from Russia, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and France.

Most of us wouldn’t fancy brushing our teeth with a mixture of bone and hair, but an American invention was to change everything. On 28 February 1935, and after dozens of failed experiments, Wallace Hume Carothers, the head of organic chemistry at DuPont in Delaware, came up with the molten polymer the company would market as Nylon. Carothers, tragically, would kill himself a couple of years later, wracked by depression and convinced his work was useless.

But the Addis company, now marketing its wares as Wisdom Toothbrushes, was quick to see the potential of nylon. Agreeing a deal with the UK licensee, ICI, they produced the first synthetic brushes and launched a huge newspaper campaign. The new brush was more expensive than the competition at 2 shillings (10p) but the timing was perfect. It was 1940 and British housewives were being told to waste nothing – animal bones were going into soups and stews or simply being boiled off by butchers and slaughterhouses, their marrow making nutritious stock. A shortage of bone thus worked in the favour of the Addises and their new nylon brushes.

By the 1960s, Wisdom had moved out to Suffolk and a new factory, and the last Addis left the firm in 1996, bringing more than 200 years of history to a close. But the legacy is clear – a product as ubiquitous and essential as any, the toothbrush is repeatedly voted the one object Britons could not live without. For William Addis, his unfortunate incarceration in a London prison was not just the happy accident that made his fortune, it was one that changed the world.

Lee Cooper in Petticoat Lane

It’s an iconic brand that started out in the early 1900s cladding the working man in denim, and then took jeans off the farm and out of the factory and onto the high street. Through canny marketing, this great survivor of the fashion business made jeans the uniform of choice for teenagers in the 1950s and ever since.

But the name of this company isn’t Levi Strauss and the base of operations is a long way from San Francisco. Lee Cooper jeans were born in the very heart of the old East End rag trade in Petticoat Lane. Here, in 1908, Morris Cooper and Louis Maister took on the lease of a rundown factory at 94-96 Middlesex Street, with a very distinct business plan in mind.

Morris and Louis had already been around, having left their hometown in Lithuania to set up business in South Africa. Morris was a gifted tailor, both the men worked hard, but the elaborate waistcoats they were producing would only ever sell so many. The pair realised that there was more business and a greater availability of skilled and affordable labour in London. With the huge influx of Jews and their tailoring skills from Eastern Europe, Whitechapel was clothing half the world in the early 1900s. Their plan was to make workwear in the East End and export it back to South Africa, where they knew there was big demand going begging.

By the outbreak of World War I, Morris and Louis had 600 employees, but exports and long sea journeys were looking less appealing with the threat of U-boats, so the resourceful pair pursued contracts to make uniforms for the army. A combination of Morris’s tailoring skills and Louis’ business nous saw the company thriving. Wars end of course and so do lucrative contracts, and as the 1920s dawned times were tough for M Cooper (Overalls) Ltd. Louis decided to leave and Morris focused his product lines on rugged workwear (products that even the General Strike couldn’t kill off) and a bold experiment in high-quality denim jackets and trousers. Over in California, Levi Strauss had recently moved from their denim overalls to producing the first modern ‘jeans’. Morris Cooper always kept an eye on what the Americans were doing and he wouldn’t be far behind.
War would again change the direction of the company, with Morris dividing the business into two in 1939. Workwear and denimwear would continue, but alongside the company went back into battle dress and flying overalls for the RAF. The owner’s brilliant pattern making won military contracts and made the company rich, as it became one of the military’s biggest suppliers.

But just as the company soared, tragedy struck. Morris was killed in a car crash and with his son Harold away on active service with the RAF, it was left up to other members of the family to keep the business afloat. In fact, mismanagement would almost sink it, and when Harold returned to Whitechapel he was horrified to find the family firm on the brink of collapse.

The new boss swiftly cleared out the people who had driven the family firm to the edge and determined to save the company. He remembered years later that it was “pride and wanting to save my father’s name” that drove him, as much as any desire to enter the rag trade. But he swiftly showed his father’s canniness in propelling the company in a new direction. Rationing was killing traditional tailoring, with a man’s suit costing 26 ration coupons. You needed just one to buy a pair of jeans, and the downmarket workwear quickly became not just a pragmatic choice but a fashionable one.

By now, Harold had opened a factory in the huge new housing development at Harold Hill – his workers would be the thousands moving out from East End slums to a greener life in Essex. By now, Cooper’s was Britain’s biggest denim brand but it needed a label. Harold, looking across the Atlantic to Levi’s and its association with rock ‘n’ roll, cowboys and stars such as Marlon Brando and James Dean, decided to modernise his brand. From now on, the jeans would be labelled ‘Lee Cooper’ with his wife Daphne’s maiden name of ‘Leigh’ suitably Americanised.

In the fifties and sixties, 80 per cent of British workwear was made by Lee Cooper, but the counter-culture was far more interesting. Levi’s, Lee and Wrangler still hadn’t arrived in Britain, so the teddy boys ripped their cinema seats clad in Lee Cooper, and when the mods and rockers battled on Brighton seafront, both were clad in the same brand of jeans. It was a trend that would continue through the hippies and punk to the present day – when youth cults no longer exist, but just about everyone, of every age, owns at least one pair of jeans.

Jeans weren’t Harold Cooper’s only innovation. He was the first to introduce front-zipped slacks for British women. Many were outraged at this ‘tasteless’ style. He personally oversaw bold publicity campaigns, with big, full-colour ads in the press. He even dreamt up the fictional designer Alfredo Angelous, appealing to the Mods’ snobbish love of all things Italian.

By the 1980s the company was making around 40,000 garments a week and its annual turnover exceeded £100 million. Harold sold his majority share in the company in 1989. By that time he had been caring for Daphne for nearly 25 years; she had been wheelchair bound since the mid-sixties. The tireless Cooper built his wife a single-storey home in North London and the two enjoyed regular trips to the opera, the theatre and out to dinner. Six months after the couple’s 60th wedding anniversary in 2005, Harold suffered a stroke and Daphne died the year after. Despite everything Harold was still working at Lee Cooper until his death in 2008, at the age of 90. Lee Cooper is still going strong, and a stroll down any high street in the world confirms that denim isn’t going away. It’s a story that owes as much to austerity and ration books as rock ‘n’ roll and the American West.

The glassmakers of Ratcliff

As you sip from your glass, read by the light of your window or crunch your way across a pavement carpeted with former car windows, you might reflect that glass is cheap, glass is everywhere. But it wasn’t always so. The unlikely alchemy which transforms sand into crystal, opacity to transparency, was once a secret closely guarded.

Travel back a few centuries and even amid the protectionist guilds of the City London – those who sought to exclude outsiders from becoming fishmongers, tallow-makers, chandlers and the rest – glass was special, an almost magical process guarded jealously by the aristocracy. The secret had travelled down the centuries and across Europe from the glass makers of Murano and Burano, in the Venice Lagoon to London where – amid its finest exponents – were the glassmakers of Ratcliff.

‘Bowles’s Manufactory’ and its ‘Glass Houses’ first appear on maps of the East End in the 1790s, as part of a detailed plan of the area drawn by William Fraser of the Shadwell Waterworks. Ratcliff had, in 1794, been almost totally destroyed by fire – the worst conflagration in London since the Great Fire in 1666 and not matched again until the bombs of the Blitz a century and a half later. Fraser, the sort of man to whom historians say prayers of thanks, was an assiduous type who set to carefully describing Ratcliff in painstaking detail.

John Bowles had started his glassworks at the Bear Garden Bankside in Southwark in the 1670s after splitting with his partner the Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham was a sharp business brain as well as a toff, though his claim that he had discovered the art of making looking-glass plates (mirrors in other words) and previously a secret only of the Venetians was questionable. Glassmaking was tricky certainly. It was hard to get heat and process consistently right, with medieval glass generally knobbly and translucent rather than transparent, but there were already a select few who had the art. Certainly though, anybody who could make glass good enough for mirrors could make a lot of money, and Buckingham managed to obtain a patent, or monopoly, in 1663, from Charles II.

In 1768 though, Buckingham’s double dealings saw him proclaimed traitor, lodged in the Tower of London and stripped of his patent. But the secret was (at least partially) out. The Duke gave the whole business to his apprentice John Dawson, with the money behind a six-acre factory coming from John Bowles. Within a year or two Dawson had mysteriously disappeared from the business, and Bowles relocated from cramped Bankside to the expanding hamlet of Ratcliff. It gave good access to the Thames, where the silica, sodium carbonate and limestone arrived on barges, and from whose wharves the finished glass was despatched to Europe, and it gave room to build. Equally important, Ratcliff already had a tradition of glassmaking, stretching back decades. Perhaps here Bowles found the skilled men he needed to make his Crown Ratcliff pieces.

Back in 1621 in Broad Street, Ratcliff, Abraham Bigoe had won his own patent from James I to produce glass. In 1680, the Bigoe family sold up and left for Stourbridge. Bowles appears to have taken over the works and, razing them to the ground, started from scratch. He leased the stretch of Ratcliff between Love Lane (then called Cut Throat Lane), the eastern boundary of Sun Tavern Fields and Schoolhouse Lane. It was a huge operation, with new brick workshops and storehouses, a house, stables, gardens and orchards. Nearly a century later the works was going strong, producing its ‘crown glass’ – window-glass which bettered the former supply from Normandy. Bowles was making glass for the windows of coaches for portraits and for the new fashion of sash windows, which were replacing the old lattice casements with their diamond-shaped panes. For decades, the glass was made with a crown embossed in the centre of each plate. Some say there are windows in some old houses in Ratcliff in which the figure can still be faintly traced.

The secret was jealously guarded. Of course we have our secret formulas today. The makers of Coca Cola and KFC earnestly talk of secret recipes containing dozens of ingredients, of only a handful of the cognoscenti knowing the whole truth, and those few always choosing, Royal Family style, to travel separately, lest the whole crew be lost at once. The Bowles family, meanwhile, bought all their raw ingredients from the Continent. Sodium carbonate of the quality they needed could only be obtained (so they believed or claimed) from the burnt ashes of a Spanish weed called “barilla”. It may have been hocus pocus and hype – but it certainly made their process hard to copy. It also made them rich.

But every family business runs out of steam in the end it seems. The Bowleses managed to keep the business for five generations. The story ends in 1794, the year of the Ratcliff Fire. Family firms, like the Royal Family, always need an heir and a spare, but that year the company was inherited by a minor, far too young to run the business and certainly too young to rebuild after the fire. The Bowleses were now extraordinarily wealthy but they seem to have simply decided enough was enough at this point – and simply shut the family firm.

William Caslon, typesetter

When William Caslon set up shop in the Minories in 1716, he had his work, and his future, cut out. The young Caslon, who had been born in Cradley, Worcestershire in 1692, was a skilled engraver and toolmaker. He made a living engraving Government marks on the locks of guns, and also turned his cutting skills to punch-cutting, making the hard metal punches used to make the moulds for type founding. The type-makers would then flow molten lead into Caslon’s moulds, to produce a single piece of type, ready for typesetting.

But London typesetters were held in low regard. English printing was behind its Continental counterparts, and most of the typefaces used in London presses came from Dutch typefounders. All this was to change in 1719, when a group of London printers and booksellers asked the young engraver to cut a font of ‘Arabic’ type, for a new Psalter and New Testament. Copies of this were to accompany the missionaries aboard the vessels flooding out of Wapping, on the trade routes to the Far East. The evangelistic bookmen hoped that they would be able to export Christianity about the merchant ships.

Dissatisfied with the dull Dutch typefaces on offer, Caslon soon took to cutting his own font designs. He began with the Dutch faces as his model, but refined them, making them more delicate and inventive. An excited Caslon went on to create a large number of ‘exotic’ typefaces.

Having added design to his punch-cutting skills, the enterprising Caslon soon realised that there was a business in the making. Craftsman, artist and businessman in one, he became the first great English type-founder. He set up his foundry in Chiswell Street, in the City, in 1720, and built a substantial country home in rural Bethnal Green.

The taste for Caslon spread to the United States, and Caslon was the typeface used for the Declaration of Independence in 1776, joining that other great export from the East End – the Liberty Bell. The family business, meanwhile, had passed from father to son, through four generations, all called, with a remarkable lack of imagination, William Caslon.

But typefaces, like any other design, go in and out of fashion, and by the early 1800s, the taste for Caslon had dropped off, in favour of newer typefaces, and in 1819, William Caslon IV sold the Chiswell Street business to Sheffield typefounders Stephenson Blake and Co. But around 1840, there was a revival of interest in the fonts. This was a burgeoning time for English print – with presses becoming more plentiful, printing cheaper, and an explosion in the number of pamphlets, newspapers, and cheap popular novels. Printers found that the Caslon faces, elegant, clear and easy on the eye, worked as well as they ever had, and better than most. George Bernard Shaw, went so far as to insist that Caslon be the only typeface used in his books.

Daniel Berkeley Updike was a Bostonian printer, typographer and typographic
historian of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He explained the popularity of Caslon’s types in the US. ‘While he modelled his letters on Dutch types, they were much better; for he introduced into his fonts a quality of interest, a variety of design, and a delicacy of modelling, which few Dutch types possessed. Dutch fonts were monotonous, but Caslon’s fonts were not so. His letters when analyzed, especially in the smaller sizes, are not perfect individually; but in their mass their effect is agreeable. That is, I think, their secret: a perfection of the whole, derived from harmonious but not necessarily perfect individual letterforms.’

The Caslon connection with typefounding disappeared for good when the other family foundry, HW Caslon & Co, having passed down through various members of the family until 1937, was itself sold to Stephenson Blake.

William Caslon has his local memorials – William Caslon House in Patriot Square and Caslon Place in Cudworth Street. But his true legacy is in his enduring typefaces. If you read books, magazines and newspapers, you will encounter a Caslon cut sooner rather than later.

Bow Pottery


Wedgewood, Meissen, Delft – all are world famous names in the world of pottery.
But 250 years ago it was Bow pottery that was drawing the eyes of the world, and all thanks to a young Irish painter who settled in the East End.
Thomas Frye had been born in Dublin in 1710 and, having won acclaim in his native Ireland as a painter,came to London in 1734.
One of his first coups as a portraitist was his commission to paint the Prince of Wales, for the Saddlers’ Company. Among the other specialities of the multi-talented artist were miniature painting, mezzotint, engraving and enamel work.
But Frye was also a keen inventor and his love of art and love of discovery came together when he devised a method of producing porcelain, the beautiful translucent china pottery as popular in the eighteenth century as it is today.
Porcelain may have been popular at the time but there were two big problems. First it was very fragile and second, with all the pieces coming from abroad, it was very expensive.
Solution
Frye had a solution. As a result of his experiments with china clay he discovered a method of making porcelain out of bone ash. This not only produced a porcelain of brilliant whiteness and luminescence but one of extraordinary durability.
The second solution was obvious – he would set up a factory in London to manufacture his new china.
In 1744, Frye and his partner, Edward Heylen took out a patent for the production of artificial soft-paste porcelain. The inventors and manufacturers of porcelain in England called their product “New Canton”, a nod to the pottery from the Far East with which they hoped to compete.


The next step was to set up a factory. Frye had attracted the interest of the rich and powerful Peers family. They owned huge tracts of land across Bromley, Bow and Stratford. They were also directors of the all-powerful East India Company, mainstay of Britain’s overseas trade at the time, and whose great ships unloaded their imported wares on the Isle of Dogs, near the mouth of Bow Creek.
The Court Book of 1744 shows that Edward Heylen acquired a property on the London side of the River Lea, at Bow. On 7 July 1749, an insurance policy was taken out for the new works.
Backing
And, with the backing of the Peers family, the china factory was set up near Bow Bridge in 1749, with Fry running the operation. The Bow Porcelain Manufactory of New Canton was ready to start work.
Business was good. By 1750, Frye and Heylen were in partnership with John Wetherby and John Crowther, who owned a wholesale pottery business at St Katherine by the Tower.
Frye’s work was down to earth from the word go, concentrating on “the more ordinary sorts of ware for common use”. That didn’t please the purists. One expert has described Bow porcelain as “a peasant art which appeals to an unacademic sense of beauty rather than taste.”
Still, what do experts know. Very soon the demand was so great that another factory was opened, this time on the Stratford side of the River Lea.
Died
But despite his success Frye was still toiling long hours in the factory furnaces as well as designing new lines. Eventually the long hours and gruelling work took their toll. Frye died in 1762, at the age of just 52, and is buried in Hornsey Churchyard.
The work went on, but without his driving force and energy, quality slipped. Their was another 13 years of production at Bow, but towards the end products were underfired and lacked their earlier translucence and in 1776 the works closed.
Frye’s legacy remains. His processes changed pottery forever and one of his daughters went on to work for Wedgewood.
And the fact you will still find Bow porcelain today – tough enough to last 250 years – is testament to Frye’s vision.
Further reading: Bow Porcelain, Adams and Redstone (Faber and Faber.)