Snapshots in (Comics) Time: A Bethnal Green Newsagent, 1951

This photo of “S Lavner“, newsagent and tobacconist, situated at 241 Bethnal Green Road, E2, was taken in Bethnal Green by seminal British post-war artist, photographer, collagist, printmaker and teacher Nigel Henderson – and offers a fascinating snapshot of London’s past – and, indeed, comics retailing history in Britain.

The shop front of S. Lavner, newsagent, 241 Bethnal Green, London, circa 1951. Released as part of a publicity pack for "Nigel Henderson's Streets" in 2017. Photo © Nigel Henderson Estate

The shop front of S. Lavner, newsagent, 241 Bethnal Green, London, circa 1951. Released as part of a publicity pack for Nigel Henderson’s Streets in 2017. Photo © Nigel Henderson Estate

Nigel Henderson lived in Bethnal Green between 1948 and 1953 and documented the life that surrounded him in photographs which have been published Nigel Henderson’s Streets by Tate Publishing, who issued this photograph as part of the book’s press campaign back in 2017.

Recently highlighted by artist and author David Roach, whose latest book, Master of British Comic Art is released next April, the newsagent proudly advertises that it sells American comics, the “Biggest Selection in East London” – which is interesting because there was no official distribution of US comics at that time. 

So how did they get to the UK? Well, as we’ve previously noted in our 21017 item on an exhibition of Ken Russell’s photographs, there were two routes, one via US military bases in the UK during the 1940s and 50s. Artist Nick Neocleous recalls original Fantasy Advertiser editor and publisher Frank Dobson once told him host kids would ask the GIs “Got any gum chum?” But many would get comics from them.

“My dad told me that in the 1930s there was a newsagent about a mile away that, every Saturday, would get in American comics and film magazines, and the US Sunday comics supplements, and he would cycle over to get as many as he could afford,” recalls artist and Cartoon Museum curator Steve Marchant. “‘Dick Tracy‘ was his favourite.”

They also came over as ballast on ships, well into the 1960s, which is why they were so erratic as far as continuity was concerned. In Cardiff’s docks Saunders newsagents was where collector John Leslie Sinclair got my four colour fix in the late 1950s.

The US edition of Crime Patrol #12 published by EC in 1949, on display in the winder of S Lavner in 1951. Cover art by Johnny Craig

The US edition of Crime Patrol #12 published by EC in 1949, on display in the winder of S Lavner in 1951. Cover art by Johnny Craig

Johnny Craig - Crime Patrol #12 Cover Original Art (EC, 1949), sold by Heritage Auctions in 2005 for $5,750. Few artists could capture a sweaty, fearful expression as convincingly as Johnny Craig -- limning the peak moment of fear and loathing was one of Craig's hallmarks. Regarding Craig's renowned precision, William Gaines told The Comics Journal, "He would take an entire month to write and draw one story. It was just his nature. A lot of guys in comics bat stuff out; Johnny never did. Everything had to be perfect." Image: Heritage Auctions

Johnny Craig – Crime Patrol #12 Cover Original Art (EC, 1949), sold by Heritage Auctions in 2005 for $5,750. Few artists could capture a sweaty, fearful expression as convincingly as Johnny Craig — limning the peak moment of fear and loathing was one of Craig’s hallmarks. Regarding Craig’s renowned precision, William Gaines told The Comics Journal, “He would take an entire month to write and draw one story. It was just his nature. A lot of guys in comics bat stuff out; Johnny never did. Everything had to be perfect.” Image: Heritage Auctions

Comics collector Peter Hansen, who is driving a project to create a British Comics Museum, notes there was a British reprint of Crime Patrol on display in the window, and the Flash comic on display is actually a British one-off production, drawn by a single artist from around 1953/4, published more as an annual rather than a comic. “He’s more like a very strong cowboy hero who lives in a cave with his horse” Peter recalls, rather than DC Comics better-known Flash superhero character.

David Roach notes the shop is selling a great mix of sleazy US comics and magazines (Flirt, True Confessions) and equally disreputable British paperbacks such as Siren and Blonde Baby – and No Mean City, an expose about the mean streets of Glasgow that John Leslie Sinclair notes was so well known Maggie Bell sang about it in the opening to the TV crime series, Taggart.

No Mean City - Paperback Cover - with thanks to David Roach

No Mean City – Paperback Cover – with thanks to David Roach

Bear Alley publisher and author Steve Holland thinks the photo dates from March 1951. “The shop owner was putting out new stock, and quite a few of the paperbacks date from that month,” he notes. “Of those I can read, Devil’s Planet, Blonde Baby, The Chisellor, Dames Are No Dice and Six Gun Saddle Tramp are all March titles.

“There are also a couple of slightly older but still recent titles – for example, Tales of Tomorrow #3 from November 1950.”

Google Maps: 241 Bethnal Green Road - May 2019

241 Bethnal Green Road – May 2019. Image: Google Maps

Very much an image of yesteryear, readers will no doubt not be surprised to learn that S Lavner is long gone from the streets of Bethnal Green, today the location of a mobile phone shop.

Nigel Henderson, who died in 1985, prowled the streets of postwar East London with his camera. His work, which was regularly published in the British Journal of Photography, inspired a brash new wave of artists, but writer Tom Dyckhoff noted back in 2002 that this quiet amateur never saw himself as a cultural revolutionary.

Born into London’s literary and artistic world – his mother managed Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery – he moved to Chisenhale Road, Bethnal Green in 1945. His wife – Virginia Woolf’s niece, Judith – was contributing to a sociological project in the East End and Nigel was attending the Slade School of Art.

A poster for a 1978 exhibition of Nigel Henderson's Bethnal Green photographs. Image: Four Corners/Half Moon Photography Workshop, Nigel Henderson © Nigel Henderson Estate

A poster for a 1978 exhibition of Nigel Henderson’s Bethnal Green photographs. Image: Four Corners/Half Moon Photography Workshop, Nigel Henderson © Nigel Henderson Estate

Over a period of years, Nigel became interested in photography. The life of his neighbours and their children fascinated him and  he took thousands of photographs, which reveal a strong interest in direct observation as well as in graffiti and the graphic display of shopfronts and hoardings. The street scenes later provided important subjects  for more experimental work. His photographs of the area comprise an invaluable testimony, many of subjects that are not recorded elsewhere, and their astonishing detail offers hours of delight for the curious.

“After the second world war, Nigel Henderson would wander the streets of Bethnal Green with his scavenger’s eye, looking for comfort in the continuity of life. It did him good,” Dyckhoff wrote for The Guardian. “Henderson had his war wounds like everyone else – not physical, but mental… At the end of the war, Henderson suffered a breakdown, and attended a clinic at Guy’s hospital. The walks were a kind of therapy, a routine to help make sense of the mess inside him and out on the streets.”

“Henderson’s routine was making art. After two years of walking and staring, he was given a camera, and began to photograph fragments from the world before the war. Its remains seemed to comfort him.”

In later life, Nigel Henderson lives and works in Essex and taught at the University of East Anglia. The Nigel Henderson Estate appointed Tate Images as the Copyright Agent for all permissions clearance of his work in 2012 and in April 2015 the Tate made over 3000 of his photographs available through its web site.

Nigel Henderson's StreetsStreets: Nigel Henderson’s East End, edited by Clive Coward includes 150 rarely seen photographs from Henderson’s collection held in the Tate archive, was published by Tate Publishing in 2017

This beautiful book showcases 150 of digitised photographs which capture the heart of working-class life. From hop-scotching children to a funeral cortege, and street parties celebrating the 1953 coronation, Henderson’s unique view of the streets evokes the wit, resilience and character of the local people as well as documenting a way of life that would soon disappear, as Britain moved into the 1960s. The blog Spitalfieds Life has a selection here, including the S Laverner photograph

• Tate Publishing is online at | Follow the on Twitter @Tate_Publishing | Tate Images: www.tate-images.com

Tate: Louis Henderson on how the work of his great uncle, Nigel Henderson (1917–1985), still haunts the present

Wikipedia: Nigel Henderson

Nigel Henderson’s son Stephen is an artist and sculptor living in Essex and is online at www.birdsandfish.co.uk

Nigel Henderson’s Streets by Tate Publishing from AmazonUK

With thanks to David Roach

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The founder of downthetubes, John works as a comics editor, writer, as Creative Consultant on the Dan Dare audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. Working in British comics publishing for over 30 years, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine. He also edited the comics anthology STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War and “Dan Dare”. He’s the writer of “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood for digital comic 100% Biodegradable.



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3 replies

  1. Ah yes – the mean streets of Bethnal Green. I was 10 years old in 1951, and living in Devon. London – some 200 miles away – had the image of a wicked place, almost a foreign country in fact. And in 1951 – six years after the end of WWII – there was still rationing, as the sign on the far right in the photo shows. What are “GENUINE NEAPOLITAN ICES” doing on sale in Bethnal Green? No brand name!

    • I’ve got a huge book on ice cream branding somewhere in the house but I’m beggared if I can find it. But Wall’s ice cream was sold from bicycles in London in 1923 (and ice cream has been available in Britain for much longer, of course – in fact, the ice cream cone was an English invention. Although the cone itself can be traced back hundreds of years, the first recording of cones being used for serving ice cream was in 1888 in “Mrs Marshall’s Cookery Book”.

      Yes, you’re right – sugar was rationed during World War Two, one of the first things to be rationed along with bacon and butter, (followed by meat, fish, tea, jam, biscuits, breakfast cereals, cheese, eggs, milk and canned fruit) and sweet rationing continued until 6th February 1953.

      However, it wasn’t all gloom and doom for those with a sweet tooth, it seems. From what I can ascertain, ice cream was never rationed – although it was quite often in short supply because some of its ingredients were. However, in the US, for example, the ice cream industry supplemented its sugar ration with corn-sugar sweeteners and sweetened condensed milk.

      In the UK, within days of the outbreak of war, the Woolworth Chairman, William Stephenson, was called to serve the nation to head Aircraft Production for the Air Ministry, bringing his expertise in mass production to the task of making components and assembling enough Spitfires to repel an expected attack from Nazi Germany. The role gave him full access to the heart of Government.

      The Woolworths Museum notes Stephenson and his Food Buyer Bill Lacey used the new access to persuade the powers-that-be not to ration ice-cream, biscuits and chocolate. In exchange, stocks would be reserved for the stores in the towns and cities facing the worst bombardment. It was hoped that the initiative, and a similar venture for patriotic comics and jigsaw puzzles, would be good for morale on the Home Front.

      Bethnal Green, the Isle of Dogs and the East End would definitely qualify as suffering “the worst bombardment”.

      For those who weren’t in immediate danger of being bombed, the “carrot on a stick” was the official wartime substitute for ice-cream, offered as the alternative when ice cream supplies ran low, and the some British children born just before the war didn’t discover what ice-cream actually was until the fighting had finished and rationing stopped.

      (There’s a charming Pathé film here – “Before and After: Easter in Peacetime and Wartime“).

      Woolworths Bill Lacey experimented with new food products that were nourishing and could be produced cheaply. For example, Symingtons Powdered Soups and Table Cremes (blancmanges using artificial sweeteners) were hurried to the shelves and offered for sixpence with the marketing slogan ‘just add water’, long before the advent of cup-a-soups. Despite the decision to ration the sales of sugar in January 1940, that summer Cadbury’s advertised teatime biscuit assortments, noting they were available in ‘all Woolworth stores’. Sweet rationing was introduced in 1942. The new rules gave an allowance of seven ounces (200 grams) to everyone over five years old.

      News of the introduction of sweet rationing in 1942 prompted long queues at pic’n’mix counters across the UK. Woolworths customers and employees of the era recall the unofficial redistribution of rations in-store. Many adults, particularly old age pensioners, handed in their coupons “for the little ones” so that children would never be turned away from the sweet counters.

      “As a child in London we would only get one ice cream a week,” recalled Keith Talbot back in 2005. “For this my mother would have to stand in line with many others along the North Circular Road until I came out of school and take her place for my ration of ice cream.”

      Of course there, there were ways around the rationing; earlier this year, for example, an ice cream made during World War Two went back on sale at Kettering’s Wicksteed Park. The Park brought in a herd of goats to make the sweet treat in the 1940s because cow’s milk was rationed, giving the ice cream a unique texture, after a national search for the recipe a few years ago.

      By the 1950s, ice cream, which remained unrationed, was in plentiful supply. Factories in Dublin sent over a dozen different varieties of cones and cornets, with toppings and sauces. So it’s no surprise you can see “Neapolitan ice cream” on sale and it was never a really a brand name, after all they were first introduced here in the 19th century. (At that time, pressed blocks composed of special flavours were trendy. The best ones were made with “Neapolitan-style” ice creams).

      Incidentally, one of the scientists who conducted research for ice cream maker Lyons was a young Margaret Roberts. You might know her by her married name – Thatcher.

  2. John,

    A nice article. If the original photo caption is correct and the newsagent was at number 241 Bethnal Green, then I think the Google capture shows number 237. The shop would have been at the location of the Instant Print shop.

    Regards,

    Graham Bates

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