For years, I longed to visit Hiller Brothers, the last barrow workshop in the East End, at 64 Squirries St, Bethnal Green, but – until yesterday – I had to content myself with peering through a tiny glass panel in the metal shutter each time I passed to wonder at the piles of old wooden barrows within.
The last of the Hiller Brothers, Bob, left here in 1991 when the workshop was let to tenants who carried on the work of repairing and maintaining barrows. Then, earlier this year, Bob Hiller died and now the building has been sold for demolition and redevelopment. Within a matter of weeks the workshop must be cleared out, which means that I was able to pay a visit at last to view the barrows for sale.
Hiller Brothers began manufacturing and hiring barrows in the eighteen-sixties at 67 James St on the other side of Bethnal Green, moving to these premises in 1942 which they bought from Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists who opened it as their East End office in 1933.
The history of Hiller Brothers is all there to be read in the addresses carved onto the side of the barrows in elegant italic letters. From outside on the street, all that is visible is a non-descript rendered house with a battered door and two squat windows, and a tall metal shutter screening off the adjoining yard. Once you go inside and step down into the workshop, you realise it is a nineteenth century building. From the workshop, a side door leads into the cobbled yard which was once a cowshed, now piled high with dozens of costermongers’ barrows and beyond lies a pile of hundreds of steel-rimmed handmade wooden wheels, each with lettering incised into them.
It is an overwhelming vision, the graveyard of lost barrows in last days of the last barrow-maker in the East End.
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