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.


5 comments on “London’s Best Joke”

  1. Bill says:

    What can be done?

    Anyway, what’s in Spiegelhalter’s now?

    For that matter, what’s in Wickham’s?

  2. Vivienne says:

    Feeling very stupid. Must have walked past that building more than once and haven’t noticed.

  3. Jo W says:

    Last photo I saw showed a Tesco Express in one part of the ground floor and a Sports Direct in the other. Spiegelhalters was still the (shut down) space in the middle. 🙂

  4. Peter Tromans says:

    I had a look on Google Street View. It seems someone has made a copy of part of a column with its capital. It’s positioned in front of the building to resemble the top of a fallen column emerging from the pavement – all very Roman Forum for the Mile End Road! Is it a recent addition? I can’t see it on the picture above – though it may be behind the black car.

  5. Bill says:

    Thanks for that information, Jo W and Peter Tromans. If I ever have the good luck to get back to London, I hope to see it. It is amazing to think so much effort went into building- a department store! That the knowledge existed to put up something like that, for such a quotidian reason- everyday commerce- shows that people really believed their efforts would live on, even if…well, even if their purposes would roll back their eyes and die. Rather like the first Madison Square Garden in NYC.

    Were it demolished tomorrow, would any element of it be salvaged? Who’s in the market for monumental columns, magnificent entablatures? Even if they weren’t the best, not that I can judge. Still looks pretty great. Better than anything Trump and his cronies could put up.

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