08 March 2014

the pawnbroker's balls

... three golden ones, hanging above a shop, was always the traditional indication that pawnbrokers were carrying on business inside. Fast forward to the 21st century and places like Cash Converters rely more on neon signs.

In the mid and late Victorian era a branch of my ancestors, in-laws of my maternal great grandfather, were pawnbrokers in Whitechapel, Westminster and Marylebone, central London. In 1861 a certain Robert Chilvers was plying his trade on a stretch of Commercial Road, Whitechapel known as King's Place.

When identifying a distant ancestor in early census returns I always set myself the task of locating their house (often doubling as their place of work too); a task made harder in big cities with road name changes, renumbering, demolition and redevelopment. Rural areas bring their own problems: little or no numbering, that being unnecessary at a time when villages were small and if you needed someone, you knew where they lived.

King's Place was the historic local name for a terrace of shop-fronted dwellings. Nowadays the same area is all known as Commercial Road and the numbering runs above four hundred. How to trace 15 King's Place? The 1861 census provided a clue. The King's Arms public house appeared to be at the start of the row. Googling the pub revealed that modern Town Planners have luckily preserved that Victorian building although it is now the offices of a foreign bank.

Now we're homing in. Using Google Street View I counted fifteen doors along Commercial Road; not so easy when premises have merged and door and window openings have been moved. 15 King's Place appeared to be an Asian run cheap clothing shop. No signs or placards on it, or on adjacent buildings proclaimed its history. Or did they..?

High on the wall was an ornate but seemingly redundant bracket. I edged into the opening of a side road and viewed the bracket sideways on and zoomed right in, just as all good sleuths should.

I knew what I was looking at, the bracket from which the pawnbroker's balls had once dangled! Sharp eyes will pick out two of the three small hooks, the third is end-on at the bottom. The balls are long gone but the bracket remains and speaks across a century and a half. I can now attach a screen capture saved as a jpeg to the data in my files and feel my ancestors are a little closer.

I have also had a piece of incredible success using Britain From the Air, a web site hosting thousands of high resolution aerial photographs, taken in the 1930s mostly of urban and industrial areas. More on that next time!

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