I shall present here, a brief investigation into one of Whitechapel’s grander buildings, the old Wickhams Deparment Store on Mile End Road.
I can see it’s tower from the front door of my home. The whole place has been empty for the duration of my time spent here in the East End.
Now, the architectural and historical significance of the building has previously been addressed (rather well I may add) in other weblogs, respectively here and here. I shall elucidate quite directly… You can hear this much from any diner at Billy Bunter’s Snack Bar, 24-7. This is all cabbie knowledge here. Straight up.
The Wickham’s Department Store was built in 1927 and heralded as the “Harrods of the East End“. You have this very austere classical façade, all doric columns and Italianate rustication in one of East London’s main thoroughfares, made faintly hilarious by a gaping architectural hole in the frontage and repeating motif. I had presumed, a little hastily, that the gap was the site of a bomb and was cheap infill, but no, Whitechapel rounds on us again with a charming quirk of local history.
81 Mile End Road was a property belonging to a certain Mr Otto Spiegelhalter. This guy had emigrated from Germany in 1828 and had set up a jewelry business in Whitechapel. By 1880, he had moved his business up the road to 81 Mile End Road where Mr Spiegelhalter’s three sons were all born. Mr Spiegelhalter died in 1902 and in time, the brothers took on the running of the jewelry business from these premises. Incidentally, anti-German sentiment at the time was unfortunately high and pervasive following the Great War and in 1919, the brothers all changed their name from Spiegelhalter to Salter.
Then, come the 20s, and in a standard jerk of property developers’ supposed might and brilliance, the rest of the row were demolished to make way for the building of Wickhams and the brothers were offered serious renumeration to sell up and allow their premises to be demolished. But despite all that they were offered (and we can imagine that in time, this became some substantial sum), the brothers refused to sell their property. In my opinion, this is brilliant!
And so the department store, all grand and self-possessing was built around the Spiegelhalters’ shop. And this arrangement remains to this day. Even the original symmetry of the original is forever marred, with the stone-clad tower off-centre and an incorrect number of columns on either side, even were the Spiegelhalters’ building removed. The fun of it… the bloody fun of it!
All this still stands, until recently when strange lights have been left on at night. Figures creep around the balusters. “There’s this store where the creatures meet,” and I wonder, what are they doing in there?
It turns out they are modernising the old Wickhams Department Store. The horror, dear readers, is all to evident from this webpage. Henceforth, it shall be known as – The Water Lily. What else can we expect or pray for in this day, this age but, retail…
The Water Lily will bring “a new retail experience,” to Wickham’s Department Store. And, I am saddened and disgusted to reveal, dear reader, that “Grocery giant Tesco have already committed to take a large unit on the ground floor facing Mile End Road.”
Seven years after a momentous Anti-War March through Hyde Park, I returned back to Whitechapel from a long hard day at the office in Tottenham. The tower at Wickham’s was lit up, nay swathed, in a series of garish colours – purple, blue, lime green, yellow. Upstairs, the new Wickham and Cleveland banqueting suites were opened up to a select crowd. I was allowed straight in. Maybe the guys on the door thought they knew the calibre, didn’t think twice about admitting one of Whitechapel’s ghosts into, what turned to be, the Water Lily’s inaugural event. So there I was, flash in hand: nothing but contempt for the business boys and the top brass of Tower Hamlets Council who were filling the High Table.
The speeches, all name-checkin’ the economy, how the Water Lily’s gonna help us sustain throughout the night and the dark times, how the dolled-up proles at the event can help Haiti – dinner just £5 a plate. Yeah U can pretend this int Whitechapel, I thought to myself. Lord Mayor, plus his confidante, they were wanting in on my Ghost Style…
I split, I left the party – see I got no taste for even the local petty bourgeois. Then I slipped into the depths of the old building, looking to find some ghosts.
And honestly, reader, this is the first time I’ve scared myself like this in Whitechapel. Heart got beating. Talk about the ghost hunting the ghost. Judder of my flash lit up piles of detritus and refuse, jewish scrawls still on the basement walls of the old Wickham’s Department Store building. Everywhere damp, smelling of brick dust where they’re demolishing parts of the East End’s built heritage.
At the lowest part of the building, I could feel an open breeze. Came to an opening and looked across a very dark courtyard. And in the gloom, I could see the back of a different storey. And it’s the back of the Spiegelhelter property. Finally demolished, finally obliterated by retail capitalism.
Colombo’s in the phone box, still hungry, still needing a drink. A fleet of cabs moves up from Aldgate, for the city boys and girls to pile out and banquet. Meanwhile a wind blows through all the shit and the filth of Whitechapel outside.