Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives is currently home to the temporary exhibition After You’ve Gone: East End Shopfronts 1988, based on a collection of 250 photographs taken by Alan Dein, oral historian (and stalwart of Radio 4’s schedule).
When they were taken, Dein lived in Stepney and his photographs were an attempt to capture the last remnants of the Jewish East End. The images depict local businesses – kosher butchers, tailors, shoe shops – most of which were closed or near derelict.
Dein’s footsteps were retraced in 2012 by Ais Clafferty. Her photographs of what occupies the locations today hang alongside Dein’s originals, as do detailed captions, digging out the bare facts the businesses and their owners left behind in official records. There’s also a listening booth — kitted out as a cosy front room — with oral history recordings fleshing out the official with personal memories of the shops from local residents.
This is an exhibition about absence and the photographs are all the more poignant given their everyday nature. One look at Dein’s shopfronts and you imagine the owners and their customers: the families who would have bought their shoes at Schwartz’s and their sweets at Leon’s and then you ponder all the hundreds of other East End businesses that had closed their doors before Dein picked up his camera.
London won’t stop changing: even with an Evening Standard campaign and positive noises from the Mayor, many small independent shops will continue to have a threatened existence. What has altered since Dein took his photographs are the processes and methods to record change. Dein took these images to be kept as slides in his personal collection. Now, with websites devoted to Ghost Signs and detailed London Flickr groups, it’s easier than even to record how our City changes – and to share it.
A record of an altering London, a nostalgic remembrance for independent shops – even an ode to the lost art of the sign-writer, After You’ve Gone doesn’t set out to tell the story of the East End in the 1980s. However, it’s a great example of how with a bit of thought – and hours spent by volunteers scouring the archives and pounding the streets – a local history centre can reveal and illuminate the recent past.
By Ross McFarlane
After You’ve Gone: East End Shopfronts, 1988 is at Tower Hamlets Library & Archives, 277 Bancroft Road, E1, until 12 July. Alan Dein will be giving a talk on the exhibition at 2pm on Saturday 9 June at 2pm.