London’s Best Joke
That joke, in the words of the immortal Ian Nairn, chronicler of London buildings good and bad, is architectural, and is in the East End. Once there were large department stores built all over the capital in imitation of Selfridges, Debenham & Freebody, Bourne & Hollingsworth and the like in Oxford Street. Unfortunately, few of them managed to be as successful (even the Oxford Street ones have nearly all vanished now). One such place was Wickhams, the so-called Selfridges of the East End, built for its working class populace rather too late in 1927.
It was meant to upstage its grand cousin by having a colonnaded front with an added central tower and clock that Selfridges did not have. However, there was a fly in the ointment; the Spiegelhalter family business of clockmakers and jewellers, at No. 81 Mile End Road. They had already moved a few doors along once to accommodate Wickhams’ expansion once, and they weren’t about to do it again.
Their refusal to move led to the situation in which the new store was built around the family shop, which happily continued to trade. It was assumed that the Spiegelhalters would eventually tire of the chaos and move, but they didn’t. The family had lived in the East end of London since about 1828, working as jewellers and clockmakers, so they stuck. As a result the facade of the building is complete right up to the boundary either side of the jewellers, with even the column immediately to the right of the little shop having a flat side, waiting to be completed once the Spiegelhalters’ land had been bought.
Because of anti-German sentiment flowing from the Great War, in 1919 the Spiegelhalters changed their names by deed poll to Salter, but the shop retained its original name. And they continued to trade.
Wickhams never did manage to buy out the Spiegelhalters, and their grand Debenhams facade remained unfinished. Department stores fell from fashion in the 1960s and Wickhams went first. The’ Salter’ family finally closed the shop at 81 Mile End Road in 1982. The building, with the gap still in it, remains.