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Category: East End photographers

Photos of Roman Road, Bow and Bethnal Green

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

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


Roman Road, Bow in the 1960s

Roman Road, Bow in the 1960s

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

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

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

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

Noel Gibson painting of Hessel Street, Stepney

Noel Gibson painting of Hessel Street, Stepney

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

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

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

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

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

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

View Roman Road photos in a larger map

London From The Air

Centuries of change

Centuries of change, building and rebuilding have shaped the East End, its buildings and the routes of its streets.

It’s a wealth of detail that we, at pavement level or behind the wheels of our cars, rarely get to see. Occasionally, circling for landing on a Heathrow-bound plane, we take an unplanned trip over the City and have fun picking out the sites, but all too briefly.

A fascinating book of photographs of London by day, by night but always from the air puts that right. And in the process it provides striking insights into the collision of old and new that is the East End.

London From The Air* does so by bringing together the superb aerial photographs of Jason Hawkes and a text by Felix Barker. Barker has written a host of books on London’s past, including London: 2000 Years of a City and its People and The History of London in Maps (both with Peter Jackson).

Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf

While Hawkes happily points his camera at whatever grabs him, Barker is left with the painstaking detective work of identifying historically interesting streets and buildings. “Much time has had to be spent with the magnifying glass and Ordnance Survey maps,” admits Barker.

“Local history libraries have been badgered to identify perplexing buildings. Anyone who prides himself on knowing his London can have a good game spotting some of the more obscure places.”

A spectacular panorama of the Isle of Dogs displays not just the massive developments of Canary Wharf, but how a surprisingly large part of the Island is made up of the greenery of Mudchute and Millwall Park.

Another picture peers down at a Canary Wharf lit by the orange glow of the sunset. This north part of the Isle of Dogs is revealed to be more water than land, and No 1 Canada Square seems to be floating in the middle of the flood.

A shot of Whitechapel draws the eye irresistibly to the bullseye-like helicopter landing pad of the London Hospital. And then the huge sprawl of the hospital itself becomes clear, dwarfing the buildings around it.

A picture from above Mile End looks back to London, revealing Mile End Road carving its way from Essex into the heart of the City. The main route in to town for two millennia, it is now bathed in a haze of petrol fumes.

The Tower of London is revealed not so much as London’s premier tourist attraction but as the great fortress it once was – the Tower’s immaculately preserved buildings squat behind the massive defending walls and moat.

At first the pictures appear more like patterns – beautiful jumbles of shape and colour as modern grid-like street systems butt up against ancient curving routes like the Highway. Then it becomes addictive to peer deeper into the pictures. What is that green space tucked away in Wapping? Is that line the route of a disused railway?

Students of London history won’t stop at the East End of course. Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye, St Pauls, Westminster Abbey and many more are spectacularly shown from above.

But just as striking are the unexpected gems. The enormous Jewish cemetery at East Ham appears as thousand upon thousand of neatly arrayed playing cards. The endless terraces of Ilford are aligned with a military precision reflecting the Imperial street names of Khartoum, Madras and Bengal. And shots down the river, through the Thames Barrier, the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge and beyond into Essex, have a bleak and misty beauty.

• London From The Air (photographs by Jason Hawkes, text by Felix Barker). Ebury Press, hardback £25.

The cockney photographers

Forty years ago, Swinging London was yet to swing. Everything was in black and white and, in class-bound Britain, fashion photographers were trades-men – polite, smart, seen but not heard.

A new breed of snappers changed all that – Terry O’Neill, Brian Duffy, David Bailey and Terence Donovan.

Bailey and Donovan, two kids from the East End, became probably the most celebrated photographers of glamourous women the Sixties produced. But while both moved in the glitzy fashion world of New York, Milan and Paris, they constantly returned to and celebrated their East End pasts.

Both men started their careers in the West End studio of the doyen of fashion photographers – John French.
They were a blast of fresh air, sweeping away the genteel atmosphere of the Forties and Fifties. Brian Duffy remarked on the culture shock the three were to the business. “Before 1960, a fashion photographer was tall, thin and camp. But we three are different: short, fat and heterosexual!”

Stepney actor Terence Stamp

And they were working class. A decade before they would probably have had to conceal their roots – in the Sixties they could celebrate them. In between fashion shoots for Vogue, and portraits of the characters that made Sixties Britain a creative and artistic powerhouse – pictures in the show include Julie Christie, Francis Bacon, Peter Blake and that other East End boy, Terence Stamp – Donovan was continually returning to Stepney.

The idea of leaving the city he loved for a home in the country alarmed him. “What do I do with it?” he demanded. “I don’t want to take a picture of it, and I don’t want to walk in it.” So he would come back to Stepney each Sunday to see his aunts and uncles, and to revisit the sites of his youth. Taking his camera and travelling alone round the streets of his childhood – marking the bombsites, the docks, the cobbled streets and the characters of an East End that was soon to disappear as the developers moved in.

National service in Singapore

Bailey was doing the same. His early attempts to snap his East End surroundings, on a battered box Brownie, had been a failure. He’d got his first decent camera when he was on National Service in Singapore. And by the Sixties he was at the top of his trade, having broken free of the career path he dreaded. “If you came from the East End there were only three things you could become – a boxer, a car thief, or maybe a musician,” he joked later.

Donovan, too, was grateful he’d broken through the horizons of his childhood, continually surprised he wasn’t “down at Tate and Lyle’s loading sugar”. And in the Sixties, in between fashion shoots of his muse Jean Shrimpton, of Twiggy, of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, Bailey too would often return to Tower Hamlets with his camera.

It became business as well as pleasure. His set of pictures for the Sunday Times in 1968, East End Faces, was a technicolor record of local life, pubs, clubs and kid boxers – among them a youthful “Johnny” (later to become John H) Stracey.

Reggie Kray’s wedding photos

Most famously of all, Bailey became a wedding photographer for the day, doing the honours at Reggie Kray’s wedding to Frances Shea in Bethnal Green.
The worldwide fashion shoots for the likes of Vogue go on to this day for Bailey. Donovan was still photographing the world’s most beautiful women in couture’s most expensive clothes until his death in 1996. The East End they continually recorded is, sadly, largely gone.

“It was a kind of innocence,” says Bailey. “But it’s all gone now. My regret is not taking more pictures at the time.”

Harry Hammond, East End photographer

Photographer Harry Hammond came from a more gentle age, when celebrity snappers were out to make the best of their subjects – rather than catch them off guard, inebriated or partially clothed. ‘I always tried to catch the star looking their best or most glamorous,’ he explained, ‘That’s how picture editors liked their photos in those days’. And the stars were grateful. As Cliff Richard fondly recalled. ‘In the days of Harry Hammond, photographers only wanted to show the best of you – that’s why it was always such a pleasure to have Harry around.’

But although East End boy Harry found fame in the Tin Pan Alley Days of fifties London, he was already decades into a career that had begun in the Thirties, making portraits of everyone from Noel Coward, to HG Wells, to Errol Flynn. Along the way he had captured the great bandleaders of the 1930s (including Whitechapel’s Bert Ambrose) and snapped the early and sparsely attended London gigs of Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday, as well as debs and Dukes. And in a wartime departure from glamour, he had worked in reconnaissance for the RAF – a low-tech operation involving hanging out of the side of the plane with a handheld camera.

The Bow boy (his dad worked for London Transport and his mum was a dressmaker) left school at 14 and headed straight into an apprenticeship in Fleet Street – four years learning his trade at the London Art Service. He had an early brush with glamour, as he remembered years afterwards. “A dapper stranger in a sharp suit sauntered into the studio and said, ‘The model agency sent me to do the Brylcreem advertisement’. We took a few head shots of him to match the art department’s layout, which were in due course used in the national press. He agreed to the usual model fee of one guinea, and I asked his name for our files. ‘Flynn’, he said jauntily, tapping the ash from his cigarette. ‘Errol Flynn’.”

By the late thirties Harry was moving between society portraits of aristocracy and beautifully composed publicity photos of the cream of London arts, cinema and literature. The debutante season provided a new stream of clients each year, and there were publicity and press shots of the big bands, led by Ted Heath, Geraldo and Ambrose. Little wonder that Hammond displayed an extraordinary ability to adapt to his clients and make them comfortable whoever they were – an invaluable talent in a photographer.

His next gig was a major departure, though, in every way. At the outbreak of war he volunteered for the RAF and found himself taking observation pictures from planes in North Africa. This was a crude affair, which involved Harry and his pals hanging out of the plane, camera in hand. He took it with his customary charm and calm and – as a bonus – met his future wife Peggy, a WAAF fitness instructor.
Back in London he went freelance and became the house photographer for the Musical Express, recently bought and relaunched by promoter Maurice Kinn as the New Musical Express. Both Kinn and Hammond realised the old musical order was dying, but were rare among the older generation in taking rock and roll seriously. A decade or more later, Andrew Loog Oldham, then-manager of the Rolling Stones, recalled: “He always stood out away from the other snappers who loathed us, wished us no good, and couldn’t wait to get back to snapping Vera Lynn.

Today’s photographers use digital cameras that can hold hundreds of images and slip into a pocket. But back in the early days of rock and roll, even compact film was a distant dream. Harry had to capture the best of a two-hour gig, featuring half a dozen artists, with just half a dozen plates. Hammond, though, always seemed to get the killer shot.

In the fifties, Hammond was alone in creating portraits of the American rockers who would inspire the Stones, the Beatles and the rest. Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochrane and many others were immortalised in stunning chiaroscuro shots. And when the British answer came along, Harry was on hand with camera. Cliff Richard, Adam Faith, Billy Fury and the rest queued up to have their pictures taken by the man who had captured their heroes.

By the Sixties, the charming Harry, now into his forties, was the house photographer for British pop music. Those were the last days of Harry as a snapper though. From being the dominant player in a field of one in the early years of British pop music, he now found himself jostling for shoulder room with an increasing pack. That, and the inevitable collapse of a personal relationship with the artists, decided Hammond to call it a day in the mid-Sixties. He didn’t turn his back on pop music though: it says much for his empathy with pop musicians that he decided to make the move into management with the Overlanders. And in an era when managers were notorious for ripping off their charges, Harry was respected for the fairness  of his dealings.

His retirement was a long one but there was still music – his own. Not Ambrose, Sinatra or Buddy Holly this time – Harry taught himself to play the violin, as well as indulging his loves for vintage cars, poetry and chess. He died in 2009, aged 88.