A story to inspire the underdog, the old Wickhams department store on Mile End Road was a masterpiece of thwarted desire. Called the ‘Harrods of the East’, its architectural model was actually Selfridges, although Spiegelhalter’s little structure caused the march of columns to stop and start again. . . . . . . . . .
Exclusively for Patrons, here is List 1: Run 12 the next ‘run’ from my travelogue Pootling around London: Manor House to Gibson Square, again I hope you find it both amusing and informative.
Thank You again for your support.
Barbican EC2 to Mile End Station E3
The City is a strange place on Sundays, weekdays the world’s mercantile heart is frenetic, but it is reduced to a ghost town at weekends. It must be the one place in England that the hostelries’ doors remain firmly closed on the Sabbath. Taking advantage of the absence of traffic I can check out a few ‘points’.
There’s the Barbican Arts Centre of course and the adjacent Guildhall School of Music and Drama, but what interests me is a small ancient ruin surrounded by modern office blocks, situated on the edge of the only dual carriageway in the City of London
Saint Alphage was the first Archbishop of Canterbury to die a violent death. He had been captured by Vikings whose motivation was to hold him hostage for a ransom. The cleric refused to accede to their demands and in a drunken frenzy, they pelted the archbishop with cattle bones. A Christian convert, not wishing to see the Prelate die by a T-bone steak administered the fatal blow with his axe, thus ensuring Alphage’s martyrdom. The remains of a church which carries his name was built into London Wall is now hemmed in between vast modern office blocks, a testimony to the longevity of this city.
Skirting the northern boundary of the City of London I am not having to spend time watching out for irresponsible motorists, the roads are almost deserted. This gives me the opportunity to observe these streets whose names conjure up their previous use. Take Silk Street a stone’s throw from where Huguenots move their exquisite silk tapestries. Is it too much of an assumption to think that silk merchants once traded around here?
Soon I’m in Ropemaker Street, devoid of curves, the road once was used to lay out rope walks, this manufacturing process survived into the mid-19th century. Robinson Crusoe was written here, could it be that Daniel Defoe looking out of his window on a Sunday felt that he was marooned? So quiet is it hereabouts.
After crossing Bishopsgate, usually crammed nose-to-tail with traffic, I turn into a narrow lane beside the Bishopsgate Institute. This is Artillery Lane, in which two London ordnance organisations laid claim. Both the Tower Ordnance and the Honourable Artillery Company used this spot for a bit of practice, and hopefully not to settle their long-running dispute over its ownership. As the City expanded this area was being developed, so the two military companies decided it prudent to have a spot of target practice elsewhere. Likewise my next road, Gun Street was indicative of this area’s former use.
Crossing Commercial Street, where prior to the wonders of the internet, at night one would frequently see groups of available girls offering ‘business’, probably standing on the same corners as their predecessors frequented in Jack the Ripper’s time. Nowadays this simple piece of enterprise has been lost to the ‘gig economy’.
On the right is the huge Christ Church, Spitalfields, designed by the poster boy of the occult, Nicholas Hawksmoor, it has been the centre of conspiracy theorists for years. Built over a plaque pit, the soot-covered building looming over the area like a giant raven, its dark recesses only added to an air of menace. If that wasn’t enough, the graveyard has within it a strange pyramid.
Turning right into Hanbury Street and the location of Jack the Ripper’s victim Anne Chapman, whose body was found behind number twenty-nine on the 8th September 1888.
Anne Chapman’s murder really started the Jack-the-Ripper scare, which continues to this day. Anne had been married to a veterinary surgeon and borne three children. Her alcoholism had broken up the family and eventually, she became a prostitute to support her addiction.
Running through a couple of streets I find myself at the centre of the cab trade. Dozens of railway arches, each containing a business supplying essential services for the cabbie. There is an insurance broker, cab wash, garages, bodywork repairers, suppliers of adverts on the vehicle and roof signs, tyre replacement; on Vallance Road, I even pass the main dealer selling new vehicles.
Turning left out of Vallance Road into Whitechapel Road on my left are huge mounds of detritus, the result of yesterday’s market, and marooned amongst the empty boxes is Edward VII Drinking Fountain, rather incongruously announcing that it was erected by subscriptions raised by the Jewish inhabitants of East London in 1911. This community now having been replaced by the largest Muslim population in London.
Just to emphasise this change in the demographic make-up, number 259 Whitechapel Road is now the UKAY International Saree Centre, a hundred years ago Joseph Merrick, known as The Elephant Man lived and exhibited himself in these premises.
At the end of the market, as I wait at the traffic lights, I notice the Blind Beggar pub where Ronnie Kray murdered George Cornell, a member of the Richardson Gang, for having the audacity to drink in the wrong establishment.
After all these depressing sights, on the next block, there is a story to inspire the underdog.
The old Wickhams department store on Mile End Road completed in 1927, was a masterpiece of thwarted desire. Although called the ‘Harrods of the East’, its architectural model was actually Selfridges, its façade; a confident parade of giant iconic columns in imitation of the Oxford Street version. It even went one better by having a tower in the centre: Gordon Selfridge planned one for his store but never achieved it.
All would have been perfect had it not been for the Spiegelhalter, a family of jewellers who owned a two-storey building near the middle of the site. They were descendants of the first Mr Spiegelhalter who had set up shop in Whitechapel in 1828 after coming to Britain from Germany, and the business had moved to 81 Mile End Road in 1880.
The Spiegelhalters refused every inducement to sell up, causing an exceptional case of colonnadus interruptus, their little structure causing the march of columns to stop and start again. It also meant the tower was built slightly off-centre. The original idea for Selfridges – a completed colonnade plus a tower – was fated to be achieved in neither Oxford Street nor Mile End Road.
What we have instead is more interesting, a graphic demonstration of how competing ambitions and sheer obstinacy shape a city. As it turned out the Spiegelhalter lasted longer. Wickhams closed in the Sixties, Spiegelhalter continued trading until 1982.
Coming to the end of the run I find myself travelling under what must be the only bridge in London used as a park with trees and shrubs above me.
Inspiration on every corner
With hundreds of runs to memorise my method was to write down something that took my eye at each junction, no matter how mundane it seemed at the time. When I tried to learn the run at a later date, these ‘images’ played into my memory recalling the day that I first journeyed along that route. It was just then a case of reciting the roads and turning mantra fashion. When two points were asked at an appearance, once I had correctly identified the locations of the points, the task of running from one to the other was then made considerably easier.