Roman Road is home to many family-run businesses, whose trades have been handed carefully down through the generations. As a result, many of the high street shops we regularly walk past are over a century old.
Throughout the 20th century, these businesses have also become intertwined with the social history of the East End – from G. Kelly’s Victorian working-class pie legacy, to Randolfi’s lemon ices. Evoking memories of the Roman in the mid-century, these shop units contain the story of the East End itself.
Saucy Kipper Fish Bar
Owner Savvas Argyrou, aka The Codfather, has been selling classic fish and chips on the Roman for nearly 50 years, since the 1970s.
He bought his chippy in 1971 from Louis’ Fish Bar, The Saucy Kipper’s predecessor, running the shop with his wife Des.
Savvas Argyrou has become quite the local celebrity – known for his over the counter friendliness and always being there when a craving for fish and chips strike.
‘Some of our regulars come in every week,’ Argyrou says, ‘and some come in everyday. It is a joy to see the same faces.’
Despite all the changes he’s seen on the Roman, he can’t imagine moving anywhere else. ‘It’s my life. I don’t regret one minute. As soon as I don’t enjoy it, I’ll give it up.’
This family-run florist has a loyal local following and their seasonal floral window displays in their green-fronted shop will be a familiar sight to those who frequent the high street. It is currently helmed by Lee Adams, whose grandfather bought the business from the original Mr. Dennington in the 1970s. Mr. Dennington, in turn, has been operating as a florist on Roman Road since the 1950s, meaning this shop is around 70 years old.
Adams works with his mother, sister and uncle running the shop and online business, and they are well-versed in the language of flowers. ‘We all teach each other everything’ he explains. ‘It’s part of our blood and we’ve been learning it since we were kids.’
Thompson’s is an 80 year-old DIY-dynasty serving locals with building supplies for three generations. Their shop is a maze-like wonderland of tools, behind their deep blue-fronted shop next to the Young Prince pub on the high street.
It is currently looked after by Annie Wakerly, whose grandparents and uncle initially started the shop in Bromley-by-Bow before moving to Roman Road in 1952. Now, Wakerly’s daughter, Katie – who can be seen accompanying her in the shop – is poised to take over next, so they will be a fourth-generation shop soon.
G. Kelly Noted Eel & Pie Shop
This famous eel pie and mash shop officially opened in 1939 by George Kelly, who comes from a local family of pie-vendors. There was another pie shop in the family at 600 Roman Road which was even older, having been in the family for four generations.
G. Kelly’s eel pies and mash is truly a piece of East End history as a working-class fare going back to the Victoria era, where pies with eels (often fished from the Thames) made for cheap and filling food. A hundred years ago, eel pie vendors on the sides of these streets would be a common sight.
Over a century later, only G. Kelly and a few other pie vendors might remain, but current owner Neil Vening is faithfully carrying on the eel pie legacy. But their food is well-loved by local people and beyond; after re-opening following a two-year closure for refurbishment, there was a very real clamour for their food on both social media and in real life.
As the remaining eel pie vendors on the stretch of the Roman, they have also become inextricable from social history of the East End itself. For evidence of that, look no further than Melanie McGrath’s book, Pie and Mash Down the Roman.
This quiet, unassuming cafe near the entrance of the market is easily the oldest restaurant on Roman Road. For three generations and over a century, they have been serving cuppas, cakes and their famous lemon ices. The latter have become seared in the childhood memories of those who grew up here in the 50s and 60s.
The shop was first started by one Louis Randofi 1919 at 218, further down the street. Then in the 50s it moved to 508, in front of the market – where their cheesecake and lemon ices became the stuff of local legends.
Now the building has moved further up again so it is right on the market, where Louis’ descendent Gino can still be seen quietly serving customers like the milkman and local artist Jon George, who have both been regulars for decades.
Arber & Co
Sadly Arber & Co, the oldest print shop in the East End, no longer exists as of 2014 – it is now a beauty salon at 459 Roman Road. But as the unofficial printers of the Suffragettes, and a family businesses who lived through both world wars, we think they deserve an honorary mention.
Walter Francis Arber and his wife Emily started the company in 1897. The shop survived for three generations until grandson Gary Arber closed the shop’s doors 120 years, blaming high business rates.
Gary Arber remembers his grandfather speaking about his memories from the First World War in this area – of standing at the entrance of the shop and watching zeppelins fly over.
This shop is also intertwined with this local area’s history of women’s suffrage, as they were the Suffragettes’ unofficial printers. Arber said, ‘My grandmother was one of the Suffragettes and she made my grandfather print all their leaflets and posters, and she wouldn’t let him charge for it.
Listen to audio of Gary Arber talking about the shop’s history.
With its signature orange fronted building just before the Roman Road market arch, Abbotts is perhaps the oldest surviving businesses on the Roman, existing for 130 years. We know that Charles Abbott took over the shop in 1882, but it is evidently old enough that the exact details of how the business started are lost to history.
Its current showroom, located at 470-480 Roman Road, was built in 1979. Previously to that, the building was a series of terraced houses, and Abbotts occupied only a singular unit. The whole block was purchased and rebuilt by George Abbott in 1970s, the grandson of Charles.
It is truly a family-run business, currently helmed by the third and fourth generation of Abbotts: brothers George and Phil, along with sisters Lynette and Daphne, and Phil’s sons Ben and Josh.
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