A battle to close ‘the Spiegelhalter gap’ has pitted old against new, progress against tradition. And intriguingly it’s a re-run of a fight that took place nearly a century ago.
The husk of Wickhams 90-year-old department store on the Mile End Road is now home to a cluster of tech start-ups. And owners Resolution Property want to revitalise the building with a series of retail units. But one inconvenient relic of the past stands in the way.
The ‘gap’ is one of the strangest sites in the East End. The mighty facade of the former Wickhams department store dominates the northern side of the Mile End Road, perfect in its mock-classical symmetry, except… something is wrong. The facade is broken by a much smaller building in the middle, with Wickhams split in two. The ‘central’ bell tower is off-centre, topping the left-hand block, which in turn has nine grand windows facing the street – there are only seven on the right.
That smaller building, splitting Wickhams, was home to Spiegelhalters. The German family had settled in the East End around 1828, working as clockmakers and jewellers. They set up shop at 75 Mile End Road, then one of a row of shops.
The Wickham family were a small business too, drapers trading from number 69, but they had big ideas. They expanded, acquiring 71, then 73 and then bought out the Spiegelhalters, who moved along the way to number 85.
But it wouldn’t stop there. In the 1920s, the Wickhams decided to raze the old buildings and construct a custom-built store. The only problem was the Spiegelhalter family, who had changed their name to Salter to avoid anti-German sentiment during WWI, but retained their store’s name. Having been moved once, they were staying put.
The offers were generous. One man recalled working at Wickhams in the 1970s and being told that Mr Salter was offered “the floor covered with sovereigns” to move out. “Only if they are stood on edge,” he replied.
And so the redoubtable Wickhams built their store around number 85. The tower was set off-centre, but the two halves of the new store were built in anticipation that Spiegelhalter’s would eventually be bought and demolished, with the gap filled in. For ever more, a tiny shop would interrupt what was known as ‘The Selfridges’ or ‘Harrods of the East End’ as they called Wickhams, (conveniently ignoring the fact that Harrods was from the East End).
Long before it became the archetypal posh people’s grocer and shuffled off west, Charles Henry Harrod was trading from number 4 Cable Street in Stepney “with a special interest in tea”. It was the astute Harrod’s foresight that led him to relocate and the little grocers would become very rich indeed.
And how had Harrod and his heirs done it? By buying their neighbours’ shops, knocking them down and rebuilding. Eventually everyone takes the money… well not quite everyone.
And now, nearly 100 years later, Spiegelhalter’s is once again a thorn in the side of ‘progress’. One senses the frustration of Matt Yeoman, director of the company that wants to develop the site. “We wanted to make the missing tooth the main entrance to the building. We think it can be done in a way which makes the gap even more meaningful; to make it into an art piece which tells the Spiegelhalter story on its surface. You need to realise that the store is just a brick wall. Everything behind it has disappeared. It would be meaningless to retain it.”
And there’s some truth there – some questions too. Private Eye magazine has recently highlighted the destruction of the old Spiegelhalter interior, and local man David Collard has set up a petition asking the council to list and protect what is left, arguing it represents “the triumph of the individual over corporate bullying”.
There’s a lesson too for the developers trying to remove the gap in Wickhams. By the time the Spiegelhalters shut up shop in 1988, Wickhams was long closed.
Even today, there is a Spiegelhalter’s, scions of the original family, trading in Penzance, Cornwall… the family business is heading for its 200th year. There is no record of the Wickhams still being in business.
Source: East End Life - 2nd March 2015