Get us in your inbox

Photograph: Andy Parsons

Meet the Londoners keeping local traditions alive

From artisan globe-makers to modern-day lamplighters, we meet the London businesses that are some of the last of their kind in the city

Written by
Alexandra Sims

London’s long history is one of its most treasured assets and there are people who are keeping the city’s heritage alive every day. These workers preserve trades that have been around for decades, arts and crafts that can never be automated, films that would be lost without projectors and reels and nostalgic dishes that gather communities across London. They inhabit everywhere from the sewers under the Savoy to the carriageways of the Royal Parks, and their passionate endeavours tell a hidden history of the capital. 

RECOMMENDED: Discover London's best historic pubs

The last working shire horses
Photograph: Andy Parsons

The last working shire horses

Tom Nixon, Edward MacDowell and Coral Hill with Heath (left) and Nobby (right)

Tom Nixon, trainer at Operation Centaur shire horse centre

‘I grew up on a farm in Ireland. I was 15 when I got my first shire and I’ve always had them since. I learned from my father. I did jobs on the farm and forestry work with my horses.

‘Five years ago a job came up at Operation Centaur. It’s not a job, it’s a way of life. It’s in the blood. It’s like being a priest and getting a calling.

‘There’s still a living to be made with shire horses. I train them gently for a few months. It takes another year of consistent work to get them used to doing all the jobs – carriage work, ploughing, cutting hay.

‘All the horses have their funny ways. Nobby is our youngest shire horse: he’s nine. He doesn’t like other horses, he loves people. In the field he goes off on his own. Heath is a fantastic worker but he doesn’t like to be brushed or pampered. He likes to get on with the job.

‘Shires are low-impact compared to tractors so they encourage the growth of wild flowers and meadow grass. I don’t worry about working shire horses dying out because they will always be needed.

‘I’m the luckiest man in the world to have this job. I go home from work and can’t wait to go back in the morning. I have to drag myself away.

‘I think in the future horses will play a bigger part in agriculture. We can’t afford to lose this craft, it would be a tragedy if we did. They’re a part of our identity.’

Coral Hill, rider and volunteer at Operation Centaur shire horse centre

‘In the 1800s, there were around 40,000 working heavy horses in London. Shire horses were the lorries of their day, pulling heavy vehicles. Once things became mechanised it wasn’t practical to use horses. We’ve got the last working herd in London.

‘Our horses work as therapists, do environmental work and carriage driving. My favourite bit is the equine therapy. The horses help all sorts, including kids with special needs or from difficult backgrounds.

‘It is a concern the breed could die out. We’re hoping to develop an apprenticeship so we can pass on these skills. It would be such a loss if these beautiful creatures didn’t keep going.’

The family-run pie-and-mash shop
Photograph: Andy Parsons

The family-run pie-and-mash shop

Rick Poole and Emma Harrington, owners of M Manze pie-and-mash shops

Rick: ‘The Manzes came over from Italy in 1878 and sold ice cream on Tower Bridge Road, next door to Robert Cooke’s pie-and-mash shop. My grandfather Michele Manze married Robert Cooke’s daughter and he joined the business. We have three shops now. I learned from my dad and when my brothers retired earlier this year, my daughter Emma and my son-in-law took over.’

Emma: ‘I had a Saturday job here when I was younger, but I didn’t know I’d join the business until my uncles retired.’

R: ‘I started working here when I was 11. My first job was drying the dishes. I managed the dumb waiter then I progressed to making pies. Now I run it and  work in the office.’

E: ‘Everything’s still made in the same way it’s been done for the last hundred years.

R: ‘It’s top secret. We hand-fold the pastry and our dough mixture machine is more than a hundred years old. We’ve tried new ones and they don’t last five minutes.’

E: Staff have been here for years. Terry at our Tower Bridge shop was 13 when he started and he’s in his fifties now. Once people start here, they don’t tend to leave.’

R: ‘Because it’s a family business everyone else involved feels like part of the family. We try and keep it traditional because a lot of our customers are pretty hardcore.’

E: ‘They’re very traditional about not using knives, just a spoon and fork. There’s a pie, mash and liquor Facebook page where people post pictures and if there’s a knife in the picture the knife police come out!’

R: ‘To some people, coming here is a ritual. It’s changed, though. During the Second World War it was much busier. It takes us a week now to sell what we’d sell in a day back then. But we also make merchandise now.’

E: ‘I got sent a picture of someone on holiday in Florida wearing our T-shirt at the Nasa space centre.

R: ‘People just think you’re serving pie, mash and liquor but there’s so much more to it. I do feel pressure in having a family business because I feel a lot of loyalty to the customers and staff, and to my grandfather. Emma and her husband coming along has taken the pressure off.’

The lamplighters
Photograph: Andy Parsons

The lamplighters

Iain Bell, operations manager at the British Gas lamplighting team

‘There were thousands of gas lamps all over Britain, but after World War II, councils were rebuilding and ripped the lamps out. There are now 1,500 lamps left in London.

Hyde Park is all gas lamps, as is Green Park. There are lamps in St James’s Park, Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea and at the royal households. London has the only working sewer lamp in Britain. It runs up from the sewer and burns natural gas to stop smells going into the Savoy hotel.

‘Six of us look after the lamps in London. I’ve been with the team for 13 years. Some guys have been lamp attendants for 40 years, so we’re all very tight. We see ourselves as custodians of these lamps.

‘In the old days it was a very labour-intensive job. They’d use a five-foot pole with a wick at the top and a set of bellows at the other end filled with paraffin. They’d light them with a match, 365 days a year.

‘They’re automated now, like your boiler at home. Some have to be wound every 14 days. We climb our ladders, give the glass a wipe, wind the clock, check everything works and move on to the next. We get from lamp to lamp on motorbikes.

‘When the lamps were put in, horses and carts were on the roads, but nowadays, with articulated lorries, they get hit and destroyed. My favourite lamp outside Westminster Abbey got knocked down and is no longer there.

‘As soon as you put up a set of ladders, people talk to you. There have been times we’ve been at Kensington Palace and Prince William has said hello to us.

‘We get some bizarre requests. The most bizarre was a Japanese game show that wanted people to go down into the sewer pipe beneath the lamp.

‘In autumn the lamps come on at four o’clock and I can stand at the bottom of The Mall and see every gas light lit up like a runway. It makes me proud. Gas lamps are part of London’s history. We’re some of the only people doing this in Britain and it’s a privilege to be part of it.’

The artisan globemakers
Photograph: Andy Parsons

The artisan globemakers

Peter Bellerby, founder of Bellerby & Co Globemakers

‘To start with, I just wanted to get my dad a globe for his eightieth birthday. I tried to buy one, but I couldn’t find anything really special so I thought I’d make one. It was a craft project. Two years later I’d spent £200,000, not earned anything and made one globe. I probably made 200 globes before I was happy with one. I used to go to the dump every two weeks with a car full of half-made globes and launch them into the skip.

‘We make about 700 globes a year. They can take anything from four months to a year-and-a-half to finish.

‘It’s difficult to find makers. It takes eight or nine months to learn and you need a lot of patience. You have to move incredibly slowly. You can’t make a mistake and cover it up, you have to start again.

‘All our globes are bespoke. One guy in Hong Kong had illustrations of his dogs piloting biplanes around the world with scarves flying around their necks. It can be quite political. We’ve had people ask for things we won’t do, like take Israel off the map.

‘It’s rare to find things that have been made with so much love and care. Hopefully we’ve reintroduced globemaking. I get calls from people asking if I can help them make globes, so I think we’ve started a resurgence. I’m happy that I get to do something this special every day.’

Isis Linguanotto, painter at Bellerby & Co Globemakers

‘I’ve found my calling working here. I come from a fashion, design and illustration background so I was used to painting, but nothing like maps. It took me a year to paint at a good speed and not make mistakes.

‘I love painting Brazil because that’s where I’m from and it’s very smooth. Canada is hard to paint: it’s got a bazillion lakes, a lot of islands and fjords. Fjords are a nightmare!

‘I still get nervous when I’m varnishing a big globe. If one brushstroke is wrong then you have to restart the whole thing.’

‘I love what I do. It feels like you’re doing something that’s going to last. This is the kind of thing people will pass on to their kids. It’s good to feel that I’ve painted an heirloom.’

The analogue-film enthusiast
Photograph: Andy Parsons

The analogue-film enthusiast

Umit Mesut, owner of celluloid film shop Umit & Son

‘I’ve loved film since I was ten years old. My grandad ran a cinema in Cyprus, and I’d go into the projection room. I loved the mechanical side of it – the reel going round, the lights, the noise. I saved up my pocket money, bought an 8mm projector and haven’t looked back.

‘I’ve had my shop about 34 years. We’ve got projectors and film prints and I’ve got transferring films on to DVD down to a fine art. We do film nights at the Castle Cinema. I keep the projector in the room so people can see how it works, and we have an intermission like in the old days.

‘I’ve got around 2,000 titles in my collection. The rarest are “Metropolis” and “Nosferatu”. I’m Cypriot-Turkish and I recently picked up a 16mm documentary film about Atatürk, Turkey’s first prime minister, from the 1930s. It’s very rare. The BBC wanted to buy it off me but I said it wasn’t for sale. I’m a massive fan of Bruce Lee and I have a full-length Super 8 print of “Enter the Dragon”. The story goes there’s only 20 copies of that in the world.

‘One of the rarest things I have is a Kalee projector. It’s 120 years old and still works perfectly. Everything’s throwaway now, but this is equipment you can fix.

‘I get some wonderful people here. Bob Monkhouse came in to buy some Charlie Chaplin [films]. I’ve had directors from Pinewood. Michael Caine came in to buy a camera. A few years ago a woman asked me to transfer an 8mm film for her. I was looking at the footage and there was Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour prime minister, walking about in the 1930s. It turned out she was his granddaughter.

‘It is a struggle. My landlord has been decent and frozen the rent for this year. But times are not great. I get private work, if it was just sales in the shop I wouldn’t survive. DVDs are finished, everybody watches online and people don’t film on video anymore. But I just soldier on. I wouldn’t change it for anything.’ 

Want to know more about London's history?

  • Things to do
  • City Life

No tourist’s mental image of London would be complete without them, but how many people can actually say what the Tower of London’s Yeoman Warders – or as they’re better known, Beefeaters – actually do every day? 

    You may also like
      Best-selling Time Out offers