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Category: East End entrepreneurs

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,

Thomas Neale: the man who invented Shadwell

THOMAS NEALE was very much a man of the late 1600s. A master of a dozen fields, who could move effortlessly between jobs, he was an MP for 30 years, the Master of the Mint, and set up the first properly organised postal service in the United States. He was also the proud bearer of one of the many arcane posts in the gift of the monarch. As Groom Porter to Charles II he was the king’s gambling tsar, charged with settling disputes at gaming tables and closing down gambling houses; he even developed a fairer and truer die to outsmart gambling cheats.

Thomas Neale

Thomas Neale

By the end of his short life (he lived from 1641 to 1699), this remarkable man had burned through two fortunes (one courtesy of his wife, the richest woman in England) and he died penniless. But as a young man, he was responsible for transforming a benighted and boggy stretch of East End waterfront into a thriving commercial concern. Neale, almost forgotten today, should be as lauded as more celebrated developers such as William Cubitt, who at least got a slice of the Isle of Dogs named after him. For it was Neale who gave us Shadwell.

Until the 17th century, the area that would become Shadwell was bleak marshland. That began to change with an Act of Parliament in the 1660s that authorised the reclamation of 130 acres of Wapping Marsh. Until then, the sole function of the wasteland had been to flood with the rising of the Thames, and then drain water back to power the mills at Ratcliff. And as late as 1615, the riverside from Ratcliff up to Wapping was undeveloped, save for a few houses to the north (one of which, on the site of King Edward VII Memorial Park, was obviously of some importance, having a brewhouse and an orchard attached).

It was land that nobody had bothered too much about in the preceding centuries, but the rise in trade and shipping in the 1600s would change all that. The maritime adventures of the previous century had transformed England from a minor country off the coast of Europe into a genuine seapower, as Willoughby, Frobisher et al set sail from from Ratcliff. Britain’s trading routes had developed alongside, with the Port of London growing in step. In 1615 there were just ten ships of more than 200 tons in the Port; by 1640 that number had grown to 100. First Deptford, then Blackwall and Ratcliff had been developed, now eyes turned to the moribund waste of Shadwell.

Shadwell Basin

Shadwell Basin

For three centuries the land had been in the ownership of the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s – nobody was quite sure how, as Shadwell lay within the territory of the Manor of Stepney, but for 300 years it had fallen to St Paul’s to maintain the river walls and ditches. The land had been taken from the Church under Cromwell’s Commonwealth, but with the restoration of the monarchy it passed back to the Cathedral, and to their surprise, they found themselves in charge of a valuable piece of real estate.

Enter Thomas Neale, once again, for among his many other jobs he was lessee of the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s. He also already knew the area, as along with friends he had speculatively invested in East India trade and the development of the Ratcliff riverfront. Neale now began a huge programme of draining, reclaiming and laying out roads. It was a skill he would later apply to the development of Seven Dials in Covent Garden (despite the variant spelling, Neal Street is named after our man). He built a waterworks and a mill, with housing fanning out behind the newly developed waterfront. As the shipping business arrived so did the ancillary businesses develop, with ropemakers, breweries, bakies, tanneries, chandlers, smiths and the dozen other businesses of the working port. He even built Shadwell’s own church (it was now a parish) in St Paul’s Shadwell.

isaac newton

isaac newton

All of this was done while Neale was still in his twenties and he had an even more colourful career ahead of him. From 1678 until his death he was Master of the Mint, succeeded by another Stuart polymath, Sir Isaac Newton. Newton apparently complained that the Mint he inherited was a nest of “idlers and jobbers”. He was in charge of a mining company, and set up another to recover treasure from the many wrecks that littered the floors of the world’s oceans. Whatever Neale did, there was one common theme: speculation, and the love of a punt on a scheme that could make him very rich. Him or his patrons – it was Neale who was behind the notorious lottery-loans that poured cash into William and Mary’s Exchequer, boldly labelled “a profitable adventure to the fortunate, and can be unfortunate to none”.

Unfortunately there is no such thing as a sure thing when it comes to speculation and Neale’s difficulty seemed to be not so much raising cash, as holding onto it. Perhaps it was too much time spent around gambling joints as the Groom Porter, perhaps one grand scheme too many, but by 1694, Neale was struggling financially. Fortuitously he would marry the richest widow in England, and became known about London as ‘Golden Neale’. Alas, it wasn’t to last. He died penniless, having blown another fortune, just five years later.

Charles I’s pirate – John Mucknell

WHEN TODD STEVENS set off for a shallow shore dive off Scilly one winter’s day, he had high hopes. Previous expeditions had yielded gold coins, 17th century guns and an anchor. It was all a legacy of the Scilly Isles unique geographic position. Sitting some 20 miles off the toe of Cornwall, the archipelago controlled the western approaches to northern Europe and south

Author and diver Todd Stevens

Author and diver Todd Stevens

to the Mediterranean. Ships must pass the islands on their way east to the East Indies and west to the Caribbean. Unsurprisingly, pirates had settled on Scilly as the perfect base from which to plunder the growing sea trade of England, France, Spain and the Dutch – indeed the disgruntled Dutch would declare war on the islands in 1651, a war which would not officially end until 1986.

Todd, a transplanted cockney who has made Scilly his home (the West Ham cap, proudly worn, is evidence of his East End roots), was in for a much bigger find though. Fighting against the powerful current, he cleared the sand to find the skeleton of a huge vessel. And in doing so, he was led to the story of one of British maritime history’s most unlikely ‘heroes’. Could this be the wreck of the John, an East Indiaman turned pirate vessel, famously lost off Scilly during the English Civil War? The story of Mucknell and Todd’s search for the truth, is told in Stevens’ fascinating new book*.

Drunk, violent and unpredictable, East India Company captain John Mucknell was disloyal to his employers and to the rule of law, stealing his own ship and turning to piracy. Yet Mucknell ended his days as Sir John, a Vice Admiral in Charles I’s own fleet of pirates, and his widow received a royal pension. Mucknell was a Stepney lad, not high-born but certainly of respectable family. The Mucknells were Catholic and worshipped at St Dunstan’s: John had been baptised in the church in the year of his birth, 1608. And he had spent his entire working life as a servant of the East India Company.

Todd Stevens, magging off the coast of Scilly

Todd Stevens, magging off the coast of Scilly

By the 1640s, Mucknell was an established and trusted captain, but he was also a loose cannon. England was in the throes of the Civil War. A loyal Royalist, John was violently at odds with the Puritanical Roundheads and would express his opinions loudly and drunkenly about the inns of Stepney. The Company received reports of his erratic and sometimes paranoid behaviour, but nonetheless in 1643 were to give their man a plum posting: charge of the new John, a state-of-the-art vessel, lighter, lower and fleeter than its predecessors, and carrying 44 guns. They had made a huge mistake.

Mucknell hatched an elaborate plan (though much of the detail seems to have got lost in a fog of rum). The ship was bound for Surat, in Gujarat, India. The East India Company planned that Mucknell would be bringing back a cargo of spices and silks, and there were agents aboard to buy and sell goods. En route, the skipper was charged with picking up a wealthy Portuguese ambassador. But John had other ideas. He had already instructed wife Elizabeth to head for the Royalist stronghold of Bristol, where he would meet her once he had stolen the ship.

Things swiftly deteriorated on the John, and Stevens convincingly argues that Mucknell engineered discord. There were drunken fights and the crew split between loyalists to the Company and those wanting to join Mucknell and rob the ship and its passengers. Mucknell attempted to cast anyone in opposition as ‘a Roundhead’ though its unclear how much his fight was ideological and how much for monetary gain. Within weeks of setting off from Wapping, Mucknell had lost the

John Mucknell's protector, the Prince of Wales, would later reign as Charles II

John Mucknell's protector, the Prince of Wales, would later reign as Charles II

rest of his fleet, before marooning passengers and many of the crew on the small isle of Johanna, off the coast of Mozambique. He then fled back to Bristol, picked up Elizabeth and headed to the Scillies. It was 1643, and the long and bloody English Civil War had another eight years to run.

There are reports of pirates operating out of Scilly since the 11th century. When Mucknell arrived, at the helm of an impressive new 44-gunner, he was immediately able to dominate, and form the rag-bag ‘navy’ into a fighting force. They were unpredictable; there was little honour among thieves and when Naval ships came out to challenge the pirates it was frequently every man for himself. But in the midst of Civil War, the pirate Mucknell found himself enjoying unlikely protection. King Charles was only too happy to see the Puritans get a bloody nose, and he issued letters of marque, authorising Mucknell to attack and rob ships. The pirate was now a privateer, licensed by his monarch. The dissolute merchant mariner, who had no real battle experience, now found himself elevated to Vice Admiral. And the Prince of Wales, the future Charles II, knighted him.

So although he was attacking ships of the English Navy, our man was doing so as Vice Admiral Sir John Mucknell, and he was about to get a powerful ally. Prince Rupert of the Rhine was the archetypal Cavalier, a dashing young man, a born soldier and overall commander of the Royalist forces by his mid-twenties. He had no maritime experience but was put in charge of the pirate fleet operating out of Scilly, and for the next years he would inflict defeat after defeat on the Navy, ransacking East India Company ships, and picking off any foreign vessels that came too close. The Scilly pirates had a vast area of control, operating as far west and south as the Azores, and so controlling the Atlantic sea routes. At his side was Sir John Mucknell.

There were reverses, and after one bloody skirmish Mucknell retreated to Wexford in Ireland to regroup. But by 1651, as the war reached its denouement, he was back, operating out of Scilly. And it was on one of those forays into the Atlantic, off the Azores isle of Terceira, that our man disappears from history. With eight years of bloody piracy behind him, the end seems to have been more mundane, as Rupert’s flagship The Constant Reformation, simply took on water and sunk, taking 300 souls with it. Documentation is scant of course, but there is no record of Mucknell taking another posting after that date.

Are these the ship's cannon from the long-lost ship John?

Are these the ship's cannon from the long-lost ship John?

Did John perish alongside those 300 in the sinking of The Constant Reformation? Or was he saved alongside Prince Rupert (who would go on to live into his sixties and become head of the King’s Navy after the interregnum). Certainly by 1660 he was dead. In that year, we find his wife Elizabeth petitioning the new king, Charles II “for her husband’s pension of £200 a year, for service, granted in 1645, which was five and a half years in arrears when he died”. Basic maths might suggest that Mucknell had been lost in the battle off Terceira. Elizabeth had been “driven from her habitations at Poplar and Bristol, her goods seized and she forced to fly beyond the seas.”
For centuries Mucknell and the John were lost to history. But Todd’s explorations kick the whole story off again, and this year English Heritage announced plans to dive the wreck. The story of the King’s Pirate is not done yet.

* Pirate John Mucknell and the Hunt for the Wreck of the John by Todd Stevens. AuthorHouse Publishing. ISBN 978-1467001588. Order details at
View The King’s pirate in a larger map

Toynbee Hall, Baron de Coubertin and the London Olympics

If the young Pierre de Coubertin were to stroll around the London Olympics site today he’d doubtless be amazed, and slightly baffled, as to how the seed of an idea had flowered. He would certainly be impressed at the competition between all classes of men and women taking place on and in the multifarious tracks, fields, courts, ranges and pools of east London. And he would probably be delighted that for the first time it was happening here.

For it was in the East End that his ideas for an Olympic Games first began to come together. In Whitechapel’s Toynbee Hall, itself a social experiment in bridging the gap between haves and have-nots, to the mutual benefit of both, the French de Coubertin began to embrace a very English idea. Healthy minds and healthy bodies would be cultivated together, to the greater good of society. The roots of Coubertin’s idea lay in a crisis of confidence for the French nation, and the young Baron’s mission was to find a means of rebuilding France’s morale.

In June 1886, Coubertin was on what we would today call a fact-finding tour. The aristocratic 23-year-old had turned his back on the expected military career to tackle social issues and fight for educational reform in France. His country had been humiliatingly trounced in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1 and Coubertin, along with many of his countrymen saw a lack of physical fitness, teamwork, leadership and moral courage as being at the root of the problem.

Coubertin’s first call had been to the English public schools. Eton, Harrow and Rugby were producing young men who spent almost as much time on football, rugby, tennis, fencing or fives as on Latin and Algebra:some people remarked scornfully that exercising the body seemed much more important than stretching the mind at times, with intellect being rather mistrusted. Nonetheless, these were the boys who would go on to form the officer class of the British Army, and Pierre was impressed.

But then, at Toynbee Hall, he found the young scions of the upper and the upper middle classes doing something rather unexpected. Rather than viewing the working classes as people to drive their carriages or till the fields of their estates, the young Oxbridge graduates were working with them: teaching them mathematics and English; running boxing, swimming and rowing clubs. The Toynbee ‘missionaries’ were practising that very Victorian brand of muscular Christianity, helping working class people to help themselves, and giving them skills which would lift them out of poverty.

Toynbee Hall had been founded by Samuel and Henrietta Barnett in 1884, in memory of their friend Arnold Toynbee, a young Oxford historian who had devoted his time to working with the poor of Whitechapel until his untimely death at the age of 31. The idea of ‘two nations’ was a powerful strain in late Victorian thinking, and the Barnetts saw the only way to cure the stubborn poverty of the East End was to get rich and poor working together. The rich would bring their skills, helping to draw out the latent talents of the working classes. In the process, the Oxbridge men would learn valuable social lessons and a divided England would be brought together.

The idea quickly spread, with other ‘settlements’ spring up in London and around the globe. Many of the residents of Toynbee Hall would go on to become major 20th century figures in social reform – Clement Attlee and William Beveridge to name just two. Coubertin was enthralled by what he saw, saying: “Many links across the classes were developed and many friendships formed. Beliefs have joined these different men who fight for the same cause.”

Crucial to Coubertin’s nascent idea was a union of sport and culture – he expressed pleasant surprise at the high-brow books workers were borrowing from the library. And he believed in starting the job young, noting with approval the trips the graduates would lead into the countryside, with teams of children playing sports and learning about the flora and fauna they encountered.

Courbertin made other visits during his time in England, famously to the Much Wenlock Games in 1890. The Shropshire event was unusual in bringing a number of sports together, and had itself been modelled after the ancient Olympic Games. And there had been other ‘Olympics’, including Liverpool’s Grand Olympic Festival, held each year between 1862 and 1867. Pierre could even have looked to his own country: Revolutionary France held L’Olympiade de la Republique annually from 1796-8. By 1896, the Baron was ready to launch his own version, with the first modern Olympiad taking place in Greece.

A century later, the Olympics is a massive global phenomenon. De Coubertin’s social experiment unknowingly anticipated our modern thirst for sport as spectacle and event, and receptacle for ever greater quantities of cash. To the motto of ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ some sceptics might add ‘Ever more expensive’. And the Baron might have wondered how his dream of rich and poor working together sat with the spectacle of ‘Games Lanes’: IOC members speeding in their limousines past the hoi polloi stuck in traffic jams. The Barnetts, meanwhile, would be astonished where their proto-version of ‘we’re all in this together’ has led.

But Whitechapel, as much as Athens and Much Wenlock, takes its proud place in the history of the modern Games. Without Toynbee Hall and its muscular missionaries, there would be no London 2012.

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.

How Cubitt moved the East End to the West End

The Cubitts were the family of master builders who reconstructed much of London in the first half of the 18th century.

Eldest brother Thomas built part of Buckingham Palace, large chunks of Belgravia, Bloomsbury and Camden Town. He eventually became so rich and powerful that he even helped underwrite Prince Albert’s pet project of the Great Exhibition in 1851 and personally funded the building of a kilometre of the Thames Embankment.

Middle brother William, who eventually became Lord Mayor and a Tory MP, built and gave his name to Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs, while youngest brother Lewis built Kings Cross Station, parts of Euston and many of the bridges that carried the railways around Britain.

But perhaps the family’s most remarkable achievement was transplanting a large chunk of the East End to the West End – and building a new suburb in the process.

Thomas was one of London’s first master builders and revolutionary in his method of gathering all the trades together under the umbrella of his firm. He had a humble birth, in 1788, the son of a Norfolk carpenter. He followed his father into the trade but had much grander ideas. There was good money to be made as a ship’s carpenter travelling the trade routes to and from India, and by his early twenties he had salted away enough cash to realise his dream of starting his own firm in London.

The capital was enjoying a huge building boom in the early years of the 19th century. London had never truly recovered from the devastation of the Plague and Great Fire, London had struggled through more than a century of economic stagnation and low population growth, and that only maintained by immigration from overseas and the home counties. But by the turn of the 1800s, London was growing again, and quickly.

Trade with the Empire was mushrooming, and had to be supported by a huge development of the docks of the East End, creating thousands of new jobs. To fill them, thousands of men and women poured in to London each year from Ireland and the shires of England. The canals were snaking out from London to take goods around England, and within a few years a massive investment in railways would transform the economy and infrastructure of the land.

As well as the huge ‘capital projects’ as they would be called today, homes were needed for the builders. The supremely organised and dynamic Thomas, running his own building firm from the Grays Inn Road in his early twenties, was perfectly positioned. His first big job was the London Institution at Finsbury Circus. Then he set to work making the homes for the new Londoners who were building the docks, railways, canals and houses of the growing city. The villages of Camden Town, Highbury and Stoke Newington became London suburbs, their fields and market gardens buried beneath cobbles and brick.

Meanwhile, over in Westminster, landowner Lord Grosvenor was about to see his real estate rocket in value. The Grosvenor estate had begun with the marriage of Sir Thomas Grosvenor to Mary Davies in 1677. Mary brought with her the unpromising dowry of 500 acres of land north of the Thames and west of the City. Marshy and sparsely populated, the land languished for half a century, before the slow repopulation of London made it worthwhile for the family to develop first Mayfair and next Belgravia. Now Lord Grosvenor was eyeing an inhospitable patch of marshland south of Buckingham Palace: the location was ideal, but the land unusable according to many he consulted. In 1824, he turned to the new master builder of London in search of an answer.

Cubitt, creative as ever, had the perfect solution. Over in the East End, the medieval hospital of St Katharine, along with 1250 houses crammed alongside, had been marked for redevelopment by an 1825 Act of Parliament. 23 acres would be demolished and dug out as the new St Katharine Dock. The slum-dwelling inhabitants, mostly dock workers themselves, would be made homeless (probably having to move into even more crowded slums); only the landowners would be compensated.

But if the developers were indifferent about where the former residents went, they did have the problem of what to do with the thousands of tons of earth dug out of the banks of the Thames. Step forward Thomas Cubitt, with a fleet of barges which for months steamed up and down the river – dumping acres of East End soil into the Pimlico bog. Within a few years, elegant new terraces of white stucco would rise from the mud of Wapping-in-the-West, and Thomas Cubitt would become a rich man. The Grosvenors became, and remain to this day, far richer still.

The precocious Thomas, still in his thirties, now handed the business over to younger brother William. He would go on to develop Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs and – with brother Lewis – make a fortune from the railway boom. Thomas was now rich enough to pursue his own projects. He died in 1855 and Queen Victoria (for whom he built Osborne House as well as helping out Albert with his Great Exhibition) described him as “a real national loss. A better, kindhearted or more simple, unassuming man never breathed”.

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.

Bernard Delfont in Whitechapel

Bernard Delfont in Whitchapel by John Rennie

Bernard Delfont in Brick Lane

Three-year-old Boris Winogradsky stood bawling his eyes out. He was lost and a long way from home. To make things worse, he was trying to speak Russian to the confused PC trying to help him.

It was 1909 and the scene was Brick Lane. His father Isaac arrived and, in fractured English, laid claim to young Boris. The family had already journeyed across Europe, from the tiny Ukrainian town of Tokmak, via Hamburg and Tilbury, to make their home in Spitalfields. They weren’t going to lose their youngest member that easily.

Nearly 80 years later, baby Boris would have been through a handful of name changes, becoming Barnet then Bernard, with Winogradsky becoming Grade then Delfont. He would finally find himself Lord Delfont, part of Britain’s most famed entertainment dynasty, theatrical impresario and producer of movies such as The Deer Hunter and the Jazz Singer. As he muses at the end of his autobiography*, ‘I am a most fortunate man.’

Of course most of it was down to hard work, persistence and ambition. The Winogradskys had left a simple life in Tokmak, ‘centred on a house, a garden and some trees’. Now there was no house, no garden and certainly no trees, just a room above a Brick Lane store. As his mother Golda complained to Isaac ‘Don’t we deserve something better? Have we come all this way to live above a shop?’

It was the start of a perpetual drive to something better. A fortunate move to the still-new Boundary Estate soon followed. And Isaac supplemented his work in the garment trade by running a small (and unsuccessful) cinema in the Mile End Road. Meanwhile, he and his wife had a double act, singing Russian folk songs at the Mile End Pavilion, better known as the Yiddisher Theatre, where there was always a sentimental audience for songs from back home.

Isaac’s further venture into the rag trade with his eldest son, who had left Rochelle Street School at 14, was soon to end. Lew – the immigration officers at Tilbury had replaced the Russian ‘Lovat’ with the Anglicised ‘Lew’ just as they had redubbed Boris ‘Barnet’ – was a precocious child. Though barely into his teens, he had been the driving force to set up a profitable embroidery shop with his dad, but then called a halt. Young Winogradsky announced to the family he was following his parents onto the stage, taking to the music halls as a dancer. Lew shortened the family surname, calling himself Lew Grade. His parents were horrified, but changed their minds when they saw the good money he was making.

Meanwhile Barnet, three years younger, had to admit that ‘the fruits of learning were not for me … I was more interested in having fun.’ Fun consisted of making lots of friends, enjoying lots of laughs and developing a nascent stagecraft – practising funny walks and gurning facial contortions. His enduring memory of Rochelle Street wasn’t the lessons but the Zeppelin air raids. Air raid precautions took the primitive form of a man sounding a wooden rattle to warn the pupils to take cover.

There was little shelter of course. Long before the days of Bethnal Green underground, the Winogradskys and their neighbours would trek to Old Street tube. And though the lumbering airships looked harmless, the damage they did was real enough. The real target was the docks, but not far from Barnet’s Henley Buildings home, a stick of bombs was to wipe out an entire street, killing a dozen people.

By 1920, he was at Stepney Jewish School, and it was their Barnet’s habits got him into trouble. He was making a good living running a football sweepstake each week. So good was business, that the young West Ham fan decided to up the ante by increasing the prize to sixpence.

The regime at his new school was stricter than at Rochelle Street, though. An eager-eyed teacher called him to the front, and Barnet opened his hand to reveal a bunch of slips reading ‘Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United’. A swift caning and Barnet decided school was not for him. At the age of 12 he never went back, and was soon to follow his big brother onto the stage.

Last week we left the young Barnet Winogradsky, aged 12, a school dropout. Having travelled the breadth of Europe fleeing the Russian pogroms, it looked like the boy had come a long way, but wasn’t to go much further.

But that reckons without an enormous helping of native intelligence, ambition and chutzpah. Over the next decades, Barnet would become by turns a performer, agent, impresario, and finally businessman. With his brothers he would found a showbiz dynasty that, during the sixties, appeared to monopolise UK entertainment.

First Barnet hit the London stage as an ‘eccentric dancer’ – the high-speed hoofing you see in early 1930s Hollywood musicals. A false start saw him reject his first job, in a revue’s chorus line for famed producer Thomas Convery. ‘I’m not accepting three pounds. I want fifteen pounds a week,’ demanded the pushy Barnet. Thirty seconds later he was back out on Oxford Street.

Accepting fellow East Ender Albert Sutan’s advice that ‘you’re aiming too high … start at the bottom like the rest of us,’ the two formed a duo. They Anglicised their names, becoming Grade and Sutton. The bookings came thin and slow. In desperation their agent tried a name change (‘the business isn’t big enough for two Grades,’ he opined) and dubbed the pair the Delfont Boys.

Bookings all over Europe followed, Paris and Berlin being an eyeopener for the naïve young cockneys. Bust-ups followed too, and when the patronising Albert (later to be reborn as comic Hal Monty) tried to squeeze Barnet (now called Bernie) out of the act, he was rewarded with a punch on the jaw.

Back in London Bernie needed a new partner, and found promising young dancer Toko. But approachin 30 he could see the writing on the wall. Eccentric dancing was hard work, would never top of the bill and was gradually going out of fashion. Bernie took the advice of old East End pal, tap dancer Keith Devon. ‘You’re a businessman, a natural. Why don’t you go into management or set up as an agent?’ And with the encouraging words of Elsie and Doris Waters ringing in his ears (‘We know you’ll be a big success,’ said Elsie. ‘We bring luck.’) he did just that.

It was tough up against established agencies, and he started off, on commission-only, for brother Lew. Lew showed his tough side when Bernie asked for a loan to go out on his own. ‘How can I lend money out of the business to set up my own brother as a competitor?’ Lew pleaded. But the 1940s saw Delfont establishing his own agency, then expanding into theatre production. And by 1947 full-page ads in the Mail and Express were boasting ‘You’re never far from a Bernard Delfont family show.’ The Delfont name was on 14 West End and touring productions plus numerous seaside shows.

By the late fifties, with Delfont running a stable of West End theatres, with agent brothers Lew and Leslie Grade supplying the acts. They’d hardly started though. Into the sixties and Lew was now in TV, as boss of ATV. It made sense for the new TV bosses to look to their variety background for talent, and Delfont’s West End reviews would frequently find themselves on screen. Bernie was now staging the Royal Variety Performance and reinventing London revue with the massively successful Talk of the Town, which was finally to close in 1982.

Delfont was also juggling multiple jobs, finding time to buy up and rejuvenate much of Blackpool seafront (including the Tower, Tower Circus and two piers) for his friend Charles Forte. And in 1966 there was another demand on his skills. Brother Leslie suffered a stroke. With Lew fully occupied at ATV, Bernie stepped in to run his brothers’ company, The Grade Organisation. The success of the organisation was attracting interest, and a bid came in from recording giant EMI. There was only one proviso, that Delfont come with the package.

Delfont had reservations ‘I was not a company man but an independent … a middle-aged businessman who had left it a bit late to start as a corporate executive.’ Nonetheless as chairman and chief executive of EMI Film and Theatre Corporation he built a successful complement to the recording business, funding films as diverse as the Go Between and Mutiny on the Buses. But having steered a merger between EMI and Thorn he was in for a shock. The rules of the newly formed company dictated he must retire, as he’d just turned 70.

There was to be little slowdown. He negotiated the sale of the leisure division to old pal Charles Forte at Trust House Forte, and then just a year later spun the company off again, buying the leisure side and renaming it First Leisure. By now ennobled as Lord Delfont, the East End boy never slowed down until his death in 1994. His legacy lived on … for a while at least. Nephew Michael Grade would head up First Leisure until the company broke itself up in 1999.
East End, West End by Bernard Delfont, published by Macmillan, ISBN 0333511905