Digging around in Bishopsgate

I spent this afternoon digging around in the Bishopsgate Institute‘s archive, which is housed in the basement of the building. Much of the material is stored in heavy-duty grey boxes with labels like ‘London Collection 3/5’ and ‘ICA Minutes 192-208’. You’ve just gotta start somewhere, so I pulled out one of the London Collection boxes. Inside, lots of what you’d call ephemera – news clippings, land and property deeds, picture postcards, eighteenth century cartoons, advertisements for Charles Chubb‘s Improved Patent Detector Lock and Wiss’s Self Acting Portable Water Closet.

I found a fascinating little typed-up text entitled ‘A Young Jewish Workman in the 1930s’, which appears to be an excerpt from Emanuel Litvinoff‘s Journey Through a Small Planet (1972). I’ve adapted the text into a poem, as follows:

Improve Yourself

All day I inhaled the hairs of
dead foxes, skunks and rabbits
in Dorfmann’s workshop.

I slept amid the debris of failure.
God had torn up my dreams
like an impatient schoolmaster.

Dorfmann’s wife, the machinist,
had big, muscular arms
and shaved every day.

Luba, the finisher, wound
braided plaits of jet-black hair
around her delicate ears.
I was her prisoner.

Thinking of her hotly,
I stroked the silken pelts
spread out on the bench.

These were the wages of lust.

Also of particular interest was a series of cartoons entitled ‘Skelts Characters in Harlequin Jack Sheppard’. Sheppard was a notorious eighteenth-century criminal and popular working-class icon who escaped from prison four times in 1724 before being hanged at Tyburn. He was born in White’s Row, Spitalfields. The series depicts numerous humourous characters including Fleet Ditch Darrell and Winifred Wood; very much in the style of eighteenth-/nineteenth-century satirical draughtsmen like Hogarth and Rowlandson. Skelt is the publisher Matthew Skelt. Don’t know much about him, but he was based in The Minories – a road that runs from Aldgate to the Tower.

I then got stuck right in to the Goss Collection. Charles Goss was the legendary librarian of the Bishopsgate from 1897 to 1941. I spent a good two hours immersed in the peculiar world of this enigmatic man, once described by a fellow librarian as

Pugnacious little Goss, his huge moustache a-bristle, his pen running venom.

Goss was a controversial figure in the library world (opposing the open-access system), author of several acclaimed books on London history, and a ridiculously prolific writer of newspaper articles on subjects as diverse as Jesters, Preparing Mummies and Christmas Customs. Whilst clearly a brilliant mind and energetic librarian and local historian, it seems to me from reading through his letters, articles and other scraps in the collection that Goss nurtured serious status anxieties.  Even his signature – a mess of heavily embellished curls and swoops – shows a man obsessed with his own self-image. I might be wrong, however. As a kind of tribute to this, I am working on a poem, every line of which begins with ‘Mr Goss’. I hope he likes it. I definitely felt a strange presence peering over my shoulders as I read through his letters!


  1. Hey, thanks for sharing! The little text on the young Jewish workman sounds very interesting and I would love to look at it sometime. Do you have the catalogue reference, or remember whereabouts it was in the archive?

    By the way, a little plug: the new edition of Journey Through A Small Planet is to be republished in Penguin Modern Classics on 7th August!

    Best, Aaron

  2. Hi Aaron! Delighted to hear that Journey Through A Small Planet is to be republished. I hope it’s okay that I reshaped your father’s (?) words into a short poem. The prose excerpt itself was found loose in a ‘London Collection’ box in the Bishopsgate Institute’s archives. Next time I’m down there I’ll try and dig out a reference for you.
    Best wishes, Tom

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