Krissie Nicolson is the latest in a long line of female pioneers in the East End fighting for better working conditions. She founded the East End Trades Guild, a reinvention of the workers union, to help support independent small businesses, and is leading a highly-publicised campaign to reduce crippling workspace and business rates cost.
Following in the footsteps of Bow’s much loved Sylvia Pankhurst and Annie Besant, Nicolson dedicates her life to supporting the small, independent businesses that form the backbone of local community – neighbourhood shops, cafes, artisans, mechanics and makers.
Krissie Nicolson sat down for an interview in the legendary Bethnal Green cafe, E Pellicci, to explain what motivated her to start her revolution and how small businesses in East London have teamed up to form the East End Trades Guild, fighting for independent, neighbourhood shops, cafes and small businesses in the area.
Founding the East End Trades Guild
The story began in 2012, when Nicolson was studying for her Masters in Community Organising at Queen Mary University. She happened to see an article about Paul Gardner of Gardners bags on the Spitalfields Life blog by the Gentle Author that explained that this venerable family business (which had traded on the premises since 1870, selling paper bags and similar items for stall holders) was under threat because of the landlord wishing to make a large increase in his rent.
Nicolson was spurred on by reading this article to meet with Paul Gardner, so that she could start putting the relationship-building skills she was learning at university into use. She was very impressed by him and his historic business (founded in 1870) and he introduced her to a lot of other small businesses in the area. ‘It was a collective thing’.
Nicolson soon found out that most of these other businesses were facing similar problems due to rising rental prices in the area. They had a general meeting and decided that their priorities were rents, rates and planning. Finally, they formed the East End Trades Guild in 2012, with Paul Gardner of Gardner’s bags and Nevio and Anna Pellicci of E Pellicci among the founder members.
Guilds are a medieval invention and usually referred to an association of craftspeople or merchants who oversaw the practice of their craft or trade in a particular area. Many of the UK’s ancient guilds still survive as livery companies in the City of London but the East End Trades Guild represents small businesses and self-employed people who are working right now in the heart of East London. ‘It’s a grassroots organisation and close to its members’, explained Nicolson.
Early days of the East End Trades Guild
The Guild started campaigning right away, winning compensation for some small traders whose livelihood was being threatened by Crossrail. Works on the Cambridge Heath Road had prevented customers from reaching several shops and business was suffering. The Guild also campaigned to have temporary toilets added to Petticoat Lane.
They also helped the owner of the popular Spitalfields shop Wood’N’Things when it looked as though he might lose his lease, arranging a meeting with Rushanara Ali (the MP for Bethnal Green and Bow) and later with the landlords, Ballymore, who finally agreed to give his lease back to him.
At this point, Nevio Pellicci popped by to say ‘Isn’t it amazing, what she’s achieved?’. He’s very proud of being a founder member of the Guild and displays the logo prominently in the cafe.
Nicolson explains that it wasn’t always easy for her to take on this role. ‘As a single parent, it was cripplingly stressful at the beginning. I didn’t have much confidence talking to people and sometimes asked myself “What am I doing? This is crazy”.
Now it’s a real joy, I’m so proud of what we’ve achieved together. A lot of traditional civic institutions don’t cross race, gender, religion and class divisions but the Guild can. It’s very unifying… Working with businesses has given me so much confidence and I’ve learned an incredible amount. I’m very grateful for that’.
The development of the Guild from 2016 onwards
Nicolson had to take some time out of the Guild for other work and the members found it difficult to run the group themselves. Eventually, they brought her back as a Director of the organisation and rebuilt the membership through crowdfunding. They now have 250 members, each paying less than £10 a month for their membership.
The revitalised Guild decided to focus on a business rates campaign as they realised that was the major concern of its members. Business rates had been left unchanged for five years but then were raised massively, causing immense problems for many small East London businesses.
They created a petition asking for devolution of local business rates from Central Government and it was delivered to Number Ten Downing Street by Paul Gardner (of Gardners), Len Maloney (of JC Motors) and Sarah Haque (of Urban Species) with the backing of the Mayor of Hackney and the Mayor of Tower Hamlets. The petition was very successful and many of their demands have been met.
More recently, the Guild created an ‘Affordable Workspace Manifesto’ which has influenced national Labour Party policy and have also created a ‘Guardians of the Arches’ campaign, trying to safeguard the livelihoods of Network Rail tenants operating from railway arches, which has received cross-party support in Parliament.
What the future holds for the East End Trades Guild
Now the Guild is building an app for its members to help create transparency about commercial rents for small business owners. Often rents charged to different customers in a small area differ enormously and up till now, business owners didn’t have a way to check.
This is important because commercial property law states that if you can produce proof of lower rates locally you can negotiate with your landlord. Tower Hamlets Council will be adding their data in the interests of transparency, as will Transport for London. The app will launch in 2019.
How you can help the Guild
If you are a local business, pledge to join the Guild on their Spacehive page and you can appear on the East End Independents map designed by artist Adam Dant in time for Small Business Saturday (December 1st). Hurry up though, it closes on the 22nd October.
If you don’t run a business, support the Guild by supporting its members’ shops and businesses. You can pick up a free East End Independents map on Small Business Saturday in any of their shops.
In the Roman Road area alone, G Kelly Pie and Mash, Snap Store, Luminor Sign Company, Vinarius, Symposium, Carefully Sorted, Tower Hamlets Mums, Studio Wick, Paradise Cycles, Ginger White, Marybow Property, Lemon Tree Cakes, One Little Girl and a Can of Gasoline, Rosso Corse, Bancroft Garage, Ko Muay Thai Gym, Matter Architecture, Darcy Turner, Chrome & Black, Ginger White, Showhow and Tyre World are all members of the Guild.
Find more Guild members on the online map on the East End Trade Guild’s website here.