• MARY MAGDALENE CRESPIGNY'S SHELL COLLECTION
Mary Magdalene Defour was born on 8 May 1729, the first in the second generation of her French Protestant family to be born in London. Her grandparents, like tens of thousands of other Huguenots, had fled France during the 1680s after refusing to renounce their faith. The family of master-weavers settled in Spitalfields where a silk industry was being established.
Mary Magdalene was among the first baptised at the newly built Christ Church, as were five siblings who all failed to live beyond infancy. Doting on their sole child, Mary Magdalene’s parents encouraged a love of learning that resulted in her life-long fascination for the new discoveries the world had to offer.
Aged thirty, and having resisted several offers of marriage, Mary Magdalene fell in love and married James Crespigny, a wealthy silk merchant, nearly twenty years her senior, and a widower with several grandchildren. After their marriage she moved into his house in Spital Square. Crespigny adored his young wife, bestowing her with jewels, fine clothes and even commissioned her portrait. After his death in 1768, she was left with an annual income of £420 and the interest from £12,000. In her will of 1777, Mary Magdalene bequeathed diamond rings, buckles and bracelets to friends, but left her precious collection of shells to her favourite of James’s grandchildren.
Her final wish was to be interred alongside her beloved husband in the crypt at Christ Church, and there she remained for over two hundred years. In 1984 the bodies there were exhumed prior to major restoration work. Inside her lead-lined coffin, Mary Magdalene was found holding a scallop shell.
• MATILDA CLOVER'S PROPHERCY CARDS
Matilda Clover’s mother died during her birth in 1868, an event her father never forgave her for. The bird-seller and his lame daughter lived in two rooms near the old Jewish burial ground shared with semi-caged finches, larks and nightingales. Matilda had an affinity for birds, teaching several to talk or do tricks that increased their worth and pleased her father. On Friday nights and Saturdays she was paid to undertake tasks for a Jewish family whose faith forbade them to work on their sabbath but whose children taught her to read.
Having trained a jackdaw to select picture cards, Matilda developed a trade making predictions, initially among the Limehouse sailors her father swapped London birds for more exotic species with. After his death, Matilda moved to a single room in Dorset Street taking the smartest birds to train for prophesising at a pitch she had established near Liverpool Street Station.
The dark, narrow streets of Spitalfields forced people to keep their wits about them, especially during the terror the Whitechapel Murders unleashed in 1888. One victim, Mary Kelly, was a neighbour of Matilda and her brutal murder; coupled with another a few months later, badly affected her nerves. Morbid prophecies were shouted at anyone who caught Matilda’s gaze, until she was threatened with confinement at the lunatic asylum.
A police report dated 20 August 1889 provides a witness account of Matilda Clover’s rantings before she leapt into the Thames at London Bridge. When her young body was retrieved and taken to the mortuary at Rotherhithe, an attendant kept the small bundle of prophecy cards he found in her pocket.
• SOLOMON SMILANSKY'S SONS'S TOY
Solomon Smilansky was born in 1897 in Krishinev, then part of Russia, where he met and married Yetta Frankel, a religious girl educated by her rabbi grandfather. Solomon and Yetta left Krishinev in 1922, and arrived in London’s East End with their new baby, Isaac. Yetta gave birth to a second son, Samuel, in 1924, a lively boy his tatanicknamed a ‘cockney vilde bria’(wild child).
The family settled in Bacon Street, off Brick Lane, from where Solomon made waistcoats for retail tailors in the city, and sent his sons to the Jews’ Free School in Bell Lane. The irony of a Jew living in Bacon Street was not lost on him - he saw humour in most things, and treasured his anglicised name, Solly Smile - much to the irritation of Yetta who clung on to their past culture and rarely ventured beyond their home.
Like so many other East End tailors Solly worked extremely long hours and, despite his Singer sewing machine whirring throughout the night, he frequently found time to make rag toys for his sons. Solly also loved to shmooze. Whether delivering work, having a massage at the Russian Vapour Baths or sizing up the sharp tailoring of Hollywood stars at the Mayfair cinema, his trips along Brick Lane always took twice as long as anyone else’s.
When Solly was late returning home on 3 March 1943, Yetta wasn’t unduly worried, long used to her husband’s unreliable timekeeping. That evening, in the chaos of an air-raid alert at Bethnal Green Underground Station, Solomon Smilansky got caught up among the panic as he tried to seek shelter. Alongside 172 others, he tripped, fell and was suffocated in what was to become the largest civilian accident recorded during the war.
• SYDNEY CRABB'S JUBILEE MUGS
Sydney Crabb was born the day the British Empire Exhibition opened at Wembley in 1924. He grew to have a voice of purest cockney and a smile that’d light up a funeral parlour. The strength he demonstrated as a porter at Spitalfields Market belied his bantam-like appearance, often carrying three-tier boxes of onions or a case of 1,064 oranges 4’ 6” high, balanced on a rope knot on the forehead as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
From midnight to mid-morning for fifty years, Syd loaded and unloaded produce, often carrying crates until his shoulders bled. Pranks and scams went hand in hand with the physically tough work, and Syd never failed to be amused by the dozens of cunning tricks he witnessed to ‘improve’ the fruit and veg.
Living in ‘a monkey house full of chattering children’, and later grandchildren, Syd was rarely home, and for decades had a Sunday morning pitch in Petticoat Lane. Stocking it with different items each week, he sold his tat in quick-fire auctions with great panache. Complete dinner services and plaster statues bounced through the air accompanied by the claim of a fanciful pedigree and the promise of a bargain. Curiously, and despite the boast he could sell sand in the desert, Syd is widely remembered for failing to off-load twelve dozen Silver Jubilee mugs due to an unfortunate spelling error.
Sydney Crabb stayed at Spitalfields until it closed in 1991, choosing not to relocate to Hackney Marshes. When he died, one year later aged 68, his funeral, complete with plumed black horses, stopped outside the old market in tribute. Three of Syd’s former workmates each kept a commemorative mug as a reminder of his disastrous Silver Jubilee deal - and now they remind them of him.
• JALIL UDDIN'S TIN OF LONDON THINGS
Jalil Uddin was born in Sylhet, a rural region of Bangladesh, in 1940. By his twentieth birthday, his family had pooled enough money to send him to England inspired by a very different image to the one Jalil discovered.
Home was a damp, run-down house in Chicksand Street; shared on shifts with twenty other Bengali bachelors. Halal being scarce, they ate kosher and Jalil gained a love for Fox’s biscuits. Unable to speak or read English, whenever he went out he would strategically place a brick to help him identify his home. Language difficulties made work hard to find, and Jalil’s first job was with a Jewish furrier, where he learned skills he later adapted for the cut-make-trim workshops that soon established among the Bengali community.
Sending money home didn’t stop Jalil dating several girls before marrying Rose Brady in 1969, and fathering twin sons a year later. Visiting Bangladesh in 1972 made him long for London, but in his homeland Jalil was considered a man of prospects and was married to a Muslim girl in his parents’ village. On his return to England, Jalil met a murubbi(elder) with no sons who offered to teach him the restaurant trade. This fruitful venture enabled him to manage ‘The Bengal Ruby’ in Brick Lane for almost thirty years.
A stroke in 2004 left Jalil paralysed and incapable of working. No longer at the centre of things, he hated his dependence on Rose and the diminishing respect of his Anglicised sons, so sent for his Bangladeshi wife to care for him. Just before his death in 2006, she found an old biscuit tin filled with mementoes of London that Jalil had collected since his arrival 46 years earlier.