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Another Time Another Place: Neil Martinson’s photos of Hackney

PUBLISHED: 07:44 31 January 2018 | UPDATED: 07:44 31 January 2018

Workers in Lesney's Matchbox Factory. Picture: Neil Martinson

Workers in Lesney's Matchbox Factory. Picture: Neil Martinson

Neil Martinson

Born and bred in Hackney, Neil Martinson captured a period of the borough’s working class history on film. While some things have changed, like the Matchbox factory’s closure in 1981, others – like the pressure on housing services – haven’t. 
He tells Emma Bartholomew his story

Initial Cleaning. Picture: Neil MartinsonInitial Cleaning. Picture: Neil Martinson

Neil Martinson wanted to give people a sense of how much Hackney has changed since the ’70s and ’80s – so he’s exhibiting 60 of his never-seen-before photos of what life was like then.

“I called it ‘Another Time Another Place’, because I think Hackney has become another place,” he told the Gazette.

“There’s been a bit of romance about what Hackney was like but at that time it was still recovering from the war.

Neil Martinson. Photo: Neil MartinsonNeil Martinson. Photo: Neil Martinson

“When I was a child I would play in bombed out buildings. You still had the fag end of slum clearance. I grew up in Clissold Road where Stoke Newington School is now, and that was all empty houses along the whole stretch.

“I went to Hackney Downs School and I was unusual in that I stayed in Hackney. If you wanted to be anyone or anywhere you wouldn’t stay in Hackney. It’s quite the opposite now.”

His photos, which will be on show in Stour Space, Hackney Wick, from February 1, show working lives, protests, children and young people, homelessness, Jewish life, street markets and street scenes.

Neil MartinsonNeil Martinson

“I have lots of photos of people at work,” said Neil, “particularly in the tailoring industry – and that doesn’t exist now in Hackney.

“At one point, a third of all manufacturing in Hackney was tailoring. People used to make things, but now in Shoreditch they make money out of thin air.”

Neil’s photos also show buses picking up shift workers to transport them to Hackney’s then largest employer, Lesney’s.

Ridley Road Market. Picture: Neil MartinsonRidley Road Market. Picture: Neil Martinson

Matchbox die-cast toys were made in its factories in Eastway and Lee Conservancy Road until it closed in 1981.

Neil, whose work has appeared in national papers, magazines, and the National Portrait Gallery, started taking photos of street scenes when he was still a pupil at Hackney Downs.

He saved up from his job as a Saturday boy at Stoke Newington’s Woolworths branch to buy a camera.

Sally Army. Picture: Neil MartinsonSally Army. Picture: Neil Martinson

Many of his images appeared in books published by radical bookshop and community hub Centerprise when he was still a schoolboy. They were also used by local campaigns on housing, nurseries, education and trade union rights.

He extensively documented local working lives and when he was 20 he founded campaign group Hackney Flashers with Jo Spence, documenting the lives of working class women and pressing for better women’s rights.

He took pictures for newspapers like Hackney Action and Hackney People’s Press.

Rachel Point. Picture: Neil MartinsonRachel Point. Picture: Neil Martinson

“It was an alternative to the Hackney Gazette,” said Neil. “It was about community politics, feminism and housing groups, and it was done partly because at the time people felt there wasn’t anything locally that reflected the community activity that was taking place.”

One of the pictures he has included in the exhibition was part of a campaign to stop Hackney Council housing families in “the most appalling hotels” in Finsbury Park in 1981.

“They were overcrowded and using facilities that were dangerous, and Hackney Council did change their policy,” he remembers.

Lew Lessenbarber. Picture: Neil MartinsonLew Lessenbarber. Picture: Neil Martinson

At the time Neil wanted to take photos of those who had been “hidden from history”.

One assignment from Centerprise called Working Lives involved him taking pictures of a postman, a vicar and Lou Lessen – a barber in Shacklewell Lane.

“You would never read an account of the working life of a barber,” said Neil. “That never happened before. At school you learned about kings and queens, not those who were making the place around you.”

Homelessl. Picture: Neil MartinsonHomelessl. Picture: Neil Martinson

The exhibition in Stour Space, Roach Road, is open daily from 9am to 5pm until February 22.

Images from the exhibition will be published in a photo book by Café Royal Books this week.

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