The Cole family of Spitalfields Market

Update 19 June 2012: thegentleauthor of Spitalfields Life has today published my story with more accompanying photos: The Coles of Brushfield Street

I have long resisted the temptation to publish any stories from my own non-Essex family history on my blog.  But today, because of this post with images of Spitalfields Market and Brushfield Street on the delicious Spitalfields Life blog and the recent BBC programme about the market traders of New Spitalfields Market, I can resist no longer.  For the first time on my blog, I will be publishing a non-Essex story from the Victorian period. Although, if you persevere to the end of this post, you will see how this post is most definitely related to my interest in the local history of Great Dunmow.

I must be among a very rare number of 21st Century Londoners who can visit the East London home of my ancestors and walk in their steps.  Many of my Victorian ancestors lived in the street of Bishopsgate in the City of London and its neighbouring street, Brushfield Street. Whilst I can no longer visit my ancestors’ substantial Victorian Bishopsgate home and factory, as it was compulsory purchased and swept away in the 1880s by the powerful Great Eastern Railway so they could build the mighty Great Eastern Hotel in its place, I can still visit my ‘ancestral’ home  in Brushfield Street on the edge of Spitalfields Market.  This market is an ancient market that lies on the edge of City of London and for centuries, was THE fruit and veg market of London. Sadly, now, as is the fate of many other ancient markets, it is the home of swanky boutiques, shops and posh eateries with house-prices to match.  If you want to read about the history of the area, then I do recommend the Spitalfields Life blog.

One of the major roads next to Spitalfields Market is Brushfield Street.   Up until the 1870s, Brushfield Street’s name was ‘Union Street East’.  Halfway down, on the right-hand side is a parade of shops all dating from the 18th century.  Many readers of my blog may be familiar with the restored lovely Victorian frontage of the food shop A Gold and the next door women’s fashion shop, Whistles.

Restored shop front of A. Gold, Brushfield Street

Restored shop front of A. Gold, Brushfield Street

Brushfield Street

Brushfield Street

If you do know these two shops, have you ever looked up above their signage and spotted a small plaque on the wall in between the two?  This is a plaque from 1871 marking the Christchurch Middlesex parish boundary.

Christchurch Parish Boundary marker in Brushfield Street

Christchurch Parish Boundary marker in Brushfield Street

And here is the same plaque from a photo I took about 20 years ago before the area was redeveloped.

Brushfield Street

Brushfield Street

Brushfield Street

Brushfield Street in the late 1990s

There on the wall for all of London to see, is the name of my great-great grandfather, R. A. Cole!


Robert Andrew Cole was a grocer and tea-dealer – living above his shop and trading from the shop which is now Whistles.   Robert Andrew, along with his wife, Sarah Elizabeth (nee Ollenbuttel) and their five children, William, Sarah, Margaret, Robert and Arthur, all lived in Brushfield Street/Union Street East for some 30 years from the 1850s until the 1880s when the market was redeveloped and Robert Andrew Cole retired to Walthamstow.  As an aside, I do find it ironic that today’s swanky redeveloped Spitalfields Market is now known as Old Spitalfields Market.  In Robert Andrew Cole’s day, it was a brand spanking new, and perhaps an unwanted market with posh new buildings!  Its very existence and construction was probably one of the reasons why the Coles gave up their shop and retired to the countryside of Walthamstow.

For many years, Robert Andrew Cole was also a churchwarden of the nearby stunning Hawksmoor church, Christchurch, Spitalfields and also the Governor and Director of the Poor of the parish of Christchurch Spitalfields.  So he must have been amongst some of the wealthiest of this poor east London parish.   In circa 1869-1870, Union Street East was renamed to Brushfield Street, and it is possibly the renaming of this street which lead to the church boundary being marked in the wall in 1871.  Hence  churchwarden R. A. Cole’s name was recorded for posterity in the brick-work and fabric of Brushfield Street.  He must have been a very proud man when his name was unveiled!


Brushfield Street with Hawksmoor's Christ Church in the background

Brushfield Street with Hawksmoor’s Christ Church in the background

However, despite their standing in the community, the Cole’s time in Brushfield Street was not an entirely happy time.  Two of the Cole children, Sarah Elizabeth and William Henry, succumbed to a devastating outbreak of scarletina– at that time a deadly infectious disease for many who caught it.   Both children were buried in Tower Hamlets Cemetery on 2nd August 1857.  William was aged only 22 months and Sarah was a month short of her 4th birthday.  One can only imagine the pain and horror of their parents along with their fear and hope that their only surviving child, Robert, then aged 5, wouldn’t also fall victim to this terrible disease.  This must have been an awful time for this one Victorian family living in the shadows of Christchurch Spitalfields and the fruit and veg market.  However, their son Robert, didn’t become another victim (for, if he had, I wouldn’t be writing their story, as he’s my great-grandfather).  Eight months after burying their two children, a new child, Margaret was born, and a further year later, Arthur was born.  Sadly, Margaret also didn’t survive childhood and once again, in 1869, this small family of Union Street East buried one of their own in one of the two Cole family graves in Tower Hamlets Cemetery.

I have often pondered the fate of this small east-end family.  Of the five children, only two survived into adulthood, and of those two, only one had children of his own.  Arthur Cole died a bachelor in his 50s and was buried in the second Cole family grave in Tower Hamlets cemetery alongside his mother, grandparents, great-aunts, and great-uncles – true Londoners who had worked, lived and died in the eastend of the 18th and 19th century.  Robert Andrew Cole, grocer and tea-dealer of Spitalfields Market, was buried in the same grave as his three children who hadn’t survived childhood.  Robert Cole, the only child of Robert Andrew and Sarah Elizabeth Cole who went on to marry and father his own children, married Louisa Parnall.  Louisa was a member of a fantastically successful Welsh family of industrialists and philanthropists who had a substantial Victorian clothes-making factory on Bishopsgate:  the Parnalls of Carmarthenshire and Bishopsgate.

As I said at the start of this post, it is not often a 21st century person can visit the home their Victorian ancestors within the East End of London.  However, not only can I visit my ancestors home, but I can also see them and almost feel and touch them.   Here are three members of the Cole family of Spitalfields Market in their Sunday-best finery, captured forever through the lens of the east-end photographer, Elias Gottheil, sometime in the mid 1860s.

Robert Andrew Cole
Robert Andrew Cole, born 10 February 1819, Anthony Street, St George in the East, east London, baptised 7 March 1819 in the parish church of St George in the East.  Married 25 December 1850 St Thomas’ Church, Stepney to Sarah Elizabeth Ollenbuttel. Died March 1895 in Walthamstow. Buried in one of two Cole family graves in Tower Hamlets Cemetery. Grocer and tea-dealer of Spitalfields Market for over 30 years. Upper churchwarden of Christchurch Spitalfields c1870-74, member of several parish committees such as the committee founded by G. Fournier in the 1840s to carry out charity-work, and Governor and Director of the poor of the parish.

Robert Cole
Robert Cole – eldest child of Robert Andrew and Sarah Elizabeth (nee Ollenbuttel) Cole, born 4 May 1852 in Tunbridge Wells (I have no idea why he was born here).  Married 11 January 1880 in St Thomas, Mile End Old Town to Louisa Parnall (great-niece of Robert and Henry Parnall of Bishopsgate).  Died 17 June 1927 in Raynes Park, South London.  Buried in Putney Vale Cemetery, London.  Grocer and teadealer.


Margaret Cole
Margaret Cole, baptised 28 March 1858 at Christchurch Spitalfields.  Buried 20 January 1869 in Tower Hamlets Cemetery aged 11 years.  The child in this photo looks to be about 7 or 8 years old, which dates all three photos to approximately the mid 1860s.

Robert Cole

Robert Cole

Louisa Parnall

Louisa Parnall


Robert Cole and Louisa Parnall.  Tintype photos possibly taken at their betrothal, before their January 1880 marriage.   It was Louisa Parnall’s sister, Alice Parnall, who along with her husband, James Nelson Kemp, left East London to live in Great Dunmow, first in the White Horse and then the Royal Oak.  And, whilst I was researching the  Parnall family and the Kemps of Great Dunmow in the Essex Record Office, I stumbled across the town’s Tudor churchwarden accounts and thus sparked the flame of my passion in discovering the lost voices of Tudor Great Dunmow.

If you are ever fortunate enough to be in the Spitalfields Market area of East London, take a stroll down Brushfield Street and look at the plaque there marking the parish boundary of Christchurch, Middlesex.  Then look into the windows of Whistles women’s clothes shop and imagine the Victorian tragedy and triumph that went on between those four walls and the drama of the daily family life of the grocer and tea-dealer, Robert Andrew and Sarah Elizabeth Cole.

(c) Essex Voices Past 2012

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9 Responses to The Cole family of Spitalfields Market

  1. lynne pardoe says:

    what a wonderful history to have! That was fascinating, I’m glad you took the trouble to write it down, hopefully your descendents will be too.

  2. the narrator says:

    Thank you Lynne. After publishing this post, both my daughters have become interested in the story too. So now I have them to hand this on to!

  3. Margaret Taylor says:

    My brother sent me this article very interesting as my maiden name was Ollenbuttel
    I expect my brother will be checking our Family Tree is there any chance of a copy of this story please
    Thank you
    Margaret Taylor (nee Ollenbuttel)

  4. the narrator says:

    Hi Margaret – good to hear from you! I guess we must be related somewhere along the line. The Sarah Elizabeth Cole (nee Ollenbuttel) of this story was the daughter of Henry and Sarah Louisa (nee Etjen) Ollenbuttel. Most (if not all?) of the Ollenbuttels in Britain are descendants of these two. Many years ago I was given a family details by William Ollenbuttel of Bristol – perhaps you are related to him?

    There is a more complete account of this story on Spitalfields Life here

  5. Margaret Taylor says:

    Hello .yes William Ollenbuttel was my eldest brother who sadly is no longer with us.

  6. the narrator says:

    I’m sorry to hear that. We were in correspondence with each other at the turn of the Millennium to compare family trees.

  7. Margaret Taylor says:

    Dear Sir
    I have reread this article re my family and I was wondering if I could get a copy of it to show my Sons. When I was about 17 or 18 I used to work at the London Fruit Exchange for one of the company,s Goodwin Simons on their switchboard,and did not know any of this story to think I walked in the footsteps of our family .
    Margaret Taylor (Ollenbuttel)

    • the narrator says:

      Hi Margaret

      I’m afraid I don’t have any hard copies of my blog posts. Best thing you could do is, on this page, press Ctrl+P and then either print it to your printer or print to a pdf file.

      Yes, I think many of us don’t realise when we walk in our ancestors’ footsteps. It’s very rare to be able to walk in the steps of an eastender’s footsteps because many of the buildings have long good – the blitz, post-war slum clearances etc. The threat to our own past is now the fact that the City of London has spilled into Spitalfields and thus many new glass fronted office blocks containing international corporates are being built in Brushfield Street.

  8. Jude says:

    My family name is also Cole who lived at 66 Brushfield St. which I believe is the Exchange now. The family had a stall in Spitefields and a cafe on Fournier street that was run by Walter and Fred Linger. My grandfather’s name was Alfred. It is amazing how parallel are our pasts !!!

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