In our From the Collections series, a member of our team selects items from our archives and shares why they are drawn to them. Will Roberts, our Digital Engagement Officer, shares his love for some mysterious found photos and reveals how, with the help of social media, some answers were finally uncovered.
There are so many treasures within our Special Collections that it’s hard to pull out a favourite, but recently I was made aware of a set of photographs that really left an impression on me.
A few months back, we needed an image for our website relating to Brick Lane, East London. So, I did what I always do and spoke with Stef Dickers, our all-knowing Special Collections and Archives Manager. Stef produced a perfect set of photos for my needs; photos that came with their own story of discovery – if not of the images themselves. Stef had come across negatives of these images on a stall in Spitalfields market, which he bought for £5 unaware of what they depicted. Once they were developed, they were revealed to be an incredible time capsule.
We had no information about these pictures, such as who the photographer was, when they were taken, or who the people photographed were. As you can see from the gallery below, though, the images are a fascinating slice of life from that time. They show the bustling markets of Brick Lane, full of life and detail. Each image tells a story, and behind each of them are more stories that we may never know, only hypothesise.
I fell in love with these pictures, not only because of what they showed but also for the mystery of where they came from. As they’re favourites of mine, I’ve shared several of them on our social media. One of which, the main image above, I posted on our Facebook page. This led to a wonderful turn of events.
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“At the time I was selling the Socialist Worker newspaper along with a lot of other comrades.” Says Tim Sanders, the man stood on the right of the photo, “We knew it was important to be there every week as the fascists of the National Front (or BNP - they all look the same to me!) were trying to establish a foothold there at the time.”
Tim came across our Facebook post and commented “OMG!!! That’s me!!!”, so I reached out to him to ask him a few questions to help us solve some of the mysteries and gain some insight.
It was the early 1980s and Tim was in his early to mid-twenties, living on Wells Street in Hackney. Though he’s uncertain of the exact date or who took the photographs, he has a hunch and has said he’ll get back to us if he gets some concrete answers.
“I had come down to London to study art a few years before and had gradually been moving eastwards. The place was fascinating to me, as I’d grown up in a small town in the Midlands.”
When asked about the work he was doing in the photos, selling the Socialist Worker, he tells me that “Thatcher was rampant, and racists were trying to take advantage of the discontent to sow division and hatred. We knew we had to stop this and put in a huge effort to be there every week.”
He tells me that after the National Front had been seen off by the local Bengali community and their allies, he and his comrades had felt how important it was to be there supporting the community and help fight racism where possible. “Around this time there was a big physical fight with the fascists” he recalls, “They were expelled from the area and thankfully never came back.”
When I ask for his memories of the area at the time, he says “As you can see, the crowds around Brick Lane were a bit different then, very working class, but like they are now, they were very culturally diverse. There were a lot of curry houses down there, many of which have gone now, some of them were very good and quite cheap - the Sweet and Spicy was particularly good. The Bagel shops are still there too.”
“For me this brings back happy, exciting memories, but also troubling ones about how we still need to be vigilant against the forces of oppression and racism.” He reflects when asked what it’s like to see these pictures. “I do feel quite nostalgic when I look at these photos. Without wanting to romanticise the past, I used to like the unique character of the place and I miss this now. Having said that it’s nice to be able to get a cup of coffee in the East End these days!
“It’s really fascinating seeing Brick Lane as it used to be, so different. Also seeing my young self. Lots of dark hair! It’s an incredible story how Stef came across the negatives; it reveals so many hidden stories.”
He’s right about the hidden stories. That’s part of what I love about our collections and archiving in general. Each photo, each document, each pamphlet, each badge tells the story of a person or people and the lives they led. I’m just happy that Tim was able to discover these images and was able to reminisce, and that we got the chance to discover a small part of his story.
Should you ever see yourself pop up in one of our archival images and you’d like to share your story, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.