Sign of the times: the mystery of Henry Finkelstein

Two weeks ago a little piece of Roman Road went back in time. The shop front of No. 430, at what is now Delicious Vape, was taken down and underneath it was a faded sign that said simply ‘Henry Finkelstein’. Its peeling paintwork and faded old-world colours captured the imagination of the whole road. Photos of the sign duly made the rounds on social media. Who was Henry Finkelstein? What did he do? When?

Well, we have some of the answers. Like everyone, we wanted to find out more. So we did some digging. After a trip to the Tower Hamlets Archives, trawling through census sheets, and a fair bit of googling, we have at least partially solved the mystery of Henry Finkelstein.

In the 1930 and 1932 London trade directories, ‘Hy. Finkelstein’ is listed as the occupier of what was then 158A Roman Road, on the stretch between Lyal Road and Dane Place. (Roman Road was shorter back then.) His trade is listed as tinware manufacturer.

Henry Finkelstein was a tinsmith who worked across East London during the first half of the 20th century. He first appears in the 1911 census as a 29 year-old living in Whitechapel. There were several Henry Finkelstein’s knocking about East London at the time, but we have a hunch this was the one who went on to trade on Roman Road. Why are we so sure? His profession is listed at ‘Tinsmith’.

A year after the 1911 census, Finkelstein got himself into a spot of bother. In January of 1912 he was nicked for stealing tin! We know this thanks to some superb detective work from Kevin Parry, who found the relevant news article while browsing findmypast.co.uk. The following is an excerpt from the January 27 edition of the East London Observer:


Detective-Sergt. G. Weston, H, Division, stated that on the evening of the 12th inst. he went, with other officers, to a shed adjoining a public house in Rutland Street. He saw a candle burning in the shed, and Stiller and Finkelstein were engaged in taking tin plates from a box […] Finkelstein said: “It is a pity I came in here; I was only going past, and looked in the door. Stiller said to me, ‘I have got some nice sizes, Finkelstein.’ I said to Stiller, ‘Where did you get it all from?’ and he said, ‘Mind your own business.’ “

Classic. Poor Henry Finkelstein was just in the wrong place at the wrong time don’t you know. Alas, the judge didn’t see it that way. Finkelstein was sentenced to six months at Wormwood Scrubs Prison.

We suspect this is the same Henry Finkelstein who, by 1928, was working independently as a tin plate worker at 10 Waterloo Road, E2. The road has changed in name since, but it’s Bethnal Green, and by this point it’s safe to say Finkelstein was an East End lad.

During his stint on the Roman, Finkelstein sat directly opposite Arber’s printing, and was a stone’s throw away from Abbotts. We can only guess who made the sign, but the original Luminor Sign Co was open at the time. Who knows, maybe it was their handywork?

By 1935 Finkelstein’s Roman Road venture was doing well enough to have a fleet of lorries, or at least a lorry. We know this because of a newspaper clipping from the Nottingham Evening Post. (Big thank you to reader Deborah Coone for bringing it to our attention.)

The story, dated Thursday 26 September 1935, runs as follows:



At Lincoln Police Court, to-day, Henry Arthur Tebble, Windyridge, Sawbridgeworth, Herts., was summoned as the driver of a goods vehicle who had failed to keep current records, Henry Finkelstein, owner of the vehicle, of Roman-road, Bow, London, being summoned for not causing the driver to keep those records.

For Finkelstein, Mr. H. T. Jackson stated that his client was not appreciative of the condition of the license. He thought that if he gave the driver his log book he would he would normally keep it filled in, according with his duty. Finkelstein was fined £5 and the driver 15s.

Poor Henry just couldn’t catch a break. That’s equivalent to around £350 today. We were unable to confirm whether Henry Tebble kept his driving job, but if he did we imagine he was a bit more careful with his log book.

By 1937 Henry Finkelstein’s time on Roman Road had come to and end. He moved to Station Approach in Forest Gate. If he’s the Finkelstein we think he is he would have been 55 by this time; well deserving of some peace and quiet.

So there you have it. The mysterious Henry Finkelstein of Roman Road was a tinware manufacturer who played it fast and loose with the law. After a lifetime devoted to his craft he moved further east for some well-earned downtime, making way for the next generation of independent businesses.

The sign remained, and still remains. It has been covered up again but rest assured it is still there. One can only imagine what other wonders are hidden just beneath the surface of the Roman. There are countless untold stories here. Here’s to unearthing a few more.

If you enjoyed this piece you may like browsing our Roman Road Market image archives


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Frederick O'Brien

Fred is a writer and researcher with a background in sustainable development. His research has featured in The Independent, the Evening Standard, and the New York Post, among others.

Frederick O'Brien has 85 posts and counting. See all posts by Frederick O'Brien

One thought on “Sign of the times: the mystery of Henry Finkelstein

  • June 12, 2019 at 1:04 pm

    A little more information…. if he was 29 in 1911 he was only 55 in 1937. In fact the 1939 register he gave his year of birth as 1884. He died in 1950 in a nice big house in South Woodford. His children used the surname Finlay.


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