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Mayors of Hackney: The fascinating stories hidden in a corridor of old photos at the town hall

PUBLISHED: 16:14 02 August 2017 | UPDATED: 16:42 02 August 2017

Cllr Herbert S. Morrison Esq, Mayor of Hackney 1920-21

Cllr Herbert S. Morrison Esq, Mayor of Hackney 1920-21

Archant

The refurbished town hall contains a corridor hung with more than a hundred photographs. They show Hackney’s mayors and speakers since 1900. Guided by the head of the modern-day mayor’s office Abbas Panjwani hears some of the best – and strangest – stories that lie behind Hackney’s civic chains.

Peter Mandelson's grandfather, Cllr Herbert S. Morrison, whose mayoral chains were painted on to his portrait - as he refused to wear them. Peter Mandelson's grandfather, Cllr Herbert S. Morrison, whose mayoral chains were painted on to his portrait - as he refused to wear them.

Hanging in a first floor corridor in Hackney Town Hall is the photograph of a mayor, alongside his esteemed predecessors and successors.

Suited and spectacled in black and white, there is nothing immediately distinguishing about the portrait of Cllr Herbert Morrison.

But on closer inspection, the mayoral chain doesn’t quite sit right on top of Cllr Morrison’s blazer. And compared with those next to him, the chain’s pendant is unique, teardrop-shaped, with no visible crest.

Head of the mayor’s office, Ben Bradley, explains Cllr Morrison – later a Labour deputy Prime Minister – was so opposed to wearing the chain that it had to be painted onto the photograph afterwards. The painter had obviously chosen to ignore any detail on the crest.

Politics clearly ran in Cllr Morrison’s blood: his grandson Peter Mandelson would become one of the architects of New Labour.

The photographs in the town hall date back to the first mayor of Hackney in 1900, and they tell a social history in themselves.

Leslie R. House, 1969-70 Leslie R. House, 1969-70

The austere mustachioed figures give way to cleaner cut, younger men in the 1920s. Jewish names and women start to appear from the ’40s and black and Asian mayors from the ’80s.

Since 2002 the post of mayor has been political and the ceremonial duties have instead fallen to the speaker of Hackney. Accordingly, the portraits now show the speaker rather than the mayor.

Pointing out some of his favourites, Ben tells the Gazette: “There’s always been an interest in the photographs. I’ve always thought it would be a good project for a local school to find out a bit more about the mayors and the portraits.”

As well as documenting an important piece of local history, some of the photos are artworks in their own right. One particularly fine example is of 1969-70 mayor Cllr Leslie House by RA Gibson. The sepia photograph has been delicately finished with watercolour tints to give the impression of a full colour painting.

Hackney Council is working on making Gibson’s photographs available to the public from 2018 online. But anyone keen to view the full set of mayoral portraits for themselves can visit the newly refurbished town hall on September 16-17 as part of Open House Weekend.

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Cllr Florence du Vergier, 1943-4

Alderman Mrs F H Du Vergier, JP, 1943-44 Alderman Mrs F H Du Vergier, JP, 1943-44

Cllr Florence du Vergier was appointed mayor in 1943.

She was the first woman to hold the role in what was a relatively good year for female representation – 12 new women councillors had been elected.

A teacher, Cllr du Vergier was a founding member of Hackney North Labour Party.

She’s also one of only 41 people to have been given the Freedom of Hackney – the highest award in what was then the Borough of Hackney, before the creation of the modern local authority area in 1965.

Cllr du Vergier was a founding member of the National Association of Labour Teachers, who tasked themselves with formulating much of Labour’s post-war education policy.

In 1960, following her death, then-mayor Cllr Maurice Blitz opened a drinking fountain on Stoke Newington Common dedicated to Cllr du Vergier for her services in the spheres of housing and public health.

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Cllr Henry Wells-Holland, 1903-4

Alderman H Wells-Holland, mayor of Hackney 1903-04. Alderman H Wells-Holland, mayor of Hackney 1903-04.

Mayor from 1903-4, Cllr Henry Wells-Holland also spent a spell as chairman of Clapton Orient FC – the name Leyton Orient took while they were based in Clapton.

Cllr Wells-Holland, a TA captain, was instrumental in encouraging players and staff to join the war effort..

On December 15, 1914, at Fulham Town Hall, the FA and War Office held a recruitment meeting with the aim of creating a regiment of footballers, staff and supporters. The entire Orient squad joined the 17th Middlesex Regiment, also known as the Football Battalion, becoming the first club to sign up en masse.

Three players would die in action at the Somme.

Cllr Wells-Holland was also instrumental in convincing the London League to grant Orient survival after finishing bottom in 1906 in their first league season.

But the man’s heroics were somewhat overshadowed in 1920 he admitted embezzling £600 and was jailed for six months.

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Cllr Solomon “Solly” Lever

Cllr S Lever, 1951-52 Cllr S Lever, 1951-52

Mayor from 1951 to 1952, Cllr Solomon “Solly” Lever came from humble beginnings as a cabinet maker and baker before becoming mayor.

His political activism started when he became general secretary of the Jewish Baker’s Union, a post he’d hold for over half its existence.

But Cllr Lever’s life was cut short: aged 65, he was abducted and killed in July 1959.

Someone had called Cllr Lever saying a fire had broken out next to Circle House, the headquarters of a community loan scheme, of which he was secretary. He was taken to Circle House near the Hackney Empire, where he was bound and robbed. His body was found in Epping Forest later that morning after his heart gave out – probably because of the trauma, a pathologist said, His killers weren’t caught.

Thousands lined the streets for his funeral, and Lever Court still stands in Valentine Road in testimony, minutes away from the town hall where he served.

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