Today I'm delighted to be able to share with you an extract of Chapter One from Kate Thompson's latest book The Wedding Girls which is published today.
If a wedding marks the first day of the rest of your life, then the story starts with the dress.
It's 1936 and the streets of London's East End are grimy and brutal, but in one corner of Bethnal Green it is forever Hollywood . . .
Herbie Taylor's photography studio is nestled in the heart of bustling Green Street. Tomboy Stella and troubled Winnie work in Herbie's studio; their best friend and hopeless romantic Kitty works next door as an apprentice dressmaker. All life passes through the studio, wishing to capture that perfect moment in time.
Kitty works tirelessly to create magical bridal gowns, but with each stitch she wonders if she'll ever get a chance to wear a white dress. Stella and Winnie sprinkle a dusting of Hollywood glamour over happy newly-weds, but secretly dream of escaping the East End . . .
Community is strong on Green Street, but can it stand the ultimate test? As clouds of war brew on the horizon, danger looms over the East End. Will the Wedding Girls find their happy ever afters, before it's too late?
14th February 1936
From out of the reddish gloom of the darkroom emerged a spellbinding image. Stella held her breath, as she always did, for there was a curious alchemy to this moment, as if her breath alone might disturb this delicate part of the process.
The surface of the clear liquid rippled as Herbie gently lifted the print from the processing tank with a pair of tongs.
‘Here’s our bonny bride,’ the photographer smiled, relieved, as he lifted the image up and placed it in the drying cabinet, as proudly as if he were a physician who had just helped to deliver an infant into the world.
‘Say, Herbie! She’s a pocketbook Venus!’ Stella breathed, transfixed, as she gazed at the image. Stella must have looked at hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs of brides over the years, but there was something captivating about this one. She had known eighteen-year-old milliner Doris Simpson was a beauty from the moment she and her beau had first stepped into the photographic studio all those months ago, but seeing her now, smiling adoringly up at the face of her new husband, she was the very image of radiance.
Stella had never seen such spirit etched on the face of a new bride. It had been a wild and blustery day yesterday when Stella and Herbie had stood shivering on the steps outside Christ Church on the Isle of Dogs, to photograph the newlyweds. The wind whipping off the docks had sent the bride’s veil billowing around her face as a shower of green leaves spiralled down from the trees above and cascaded over the couple like confetti.
It had been a simple wedding, the bride clutching a tiny bouquet of red carnations and maidenhair fern, her green eyes sparkling under a headdress of orange blossom, attended by two skittish bridesmaids in apricot satin. There had only been time for a few photographs on the church steps, none of the usual elaborate family formations Herbie would have preferred, before the wedding party retired to the bride’s mother’s for a buffet and a knees-up. Stella knew the married couple didn’t have two ha’pennies to rub together and had opted for the most basic wedding photography album their slender means would permit.
Doris’s new husband was whispering something in her ear, his hand snaked around her twenty-two-inch waist drawing her close, and her head was thrown back in laughter. Hope and love were transformative. Stella knew that this day was the birth of their future life together.
‘Gladdens your heart, don’t it?’ she grinned, unable to tear her eyes from the picture. ‘I hope they choose to frame this one.’
‘I dare say they will,’ sighed Herbie. ‘You’d think a bride might want . . .’ His voice trailed off, frustrated, as he stroked the ends of his small neat moustache in the hope it might conjure up the right words. ‘
. . . more formal pictorialism in a studio. A bride that beautiful – just think, Stella. I could have made her look like Ginger Rogers with the right lighting . . .’
With that, he gazed around his basement darkroom. To anyone else, the small room below the earth would be an oppressive place; icy-cold, dank and heavy with the cloying odour of chemicals. But to Herbie, it was his sanctuary. Glass-stoppered bottles of ammonia, ethyl, potassium cyanide, red prussiate of potash crystals and silver nitrate sat up on high, next to pots bulging with scalpels and paintbrushes. Racks of mounts and frames were neatly stacked according to size, and sitting in pride of place were three processing dishes.
It still seemed astonishing to Stella that through the application of chemicals – developer, stopper, fixer and washes – images could emerge. There was a physicality to it that never failed to thrill her.
‘Hark at me, eh, Stella love?’ Herbie smiled sadly. ‘Whatever do I sound like? A real old fuddy-duddy.’
‘Not at all, boss, but I know money’s tight for the Simpsons. She’d have loved the full choral and floral, but they’re saving every last penny. They’re moving out to Dagenham soon as the ink’s dry on the wedding certificate.’
‘Really?’ he exclaimed. ‘Why this sudden exodus from the East End? Indoor plumbing will never replace the spirit of these streets. Mind you, I never was much good at change.’
His eyes flickered to a framed portrait of King Edward VIII, just weeks into his reign, following the sudden death of his father.
‘Out with the old and in with the new. I hear His Majesty’s stepping out with a married woman. An American, would you believe? At it like a fiddler’s elbow, according to Gladys next door.’
Tutting, he straightened the portrait and rubbed an imaginary smudge from the corner of the glass.
‘I don’t much care who’s warming his bed sheets as long as he shows his face in the East End like his father did; cruised right through Stepney, he did, in an open landau. God rest his soul.’
Stella felt her heart go out to the elderly widower. Herbie Taylor, photographer – or in his words, commercial photographic artist – was the doyen of studio portraiture in Bethnal Green. The Jewish in neighbouring Whitechapel had Boris Bennett, and Poplar had William Whiffin. Bethnal Green had Herbie Taylor & Sons Photographic Portraiture, a longstanding family business, based proudly at number 224 Green Street, London E2.
In its day, there had been a Herbie Taylor & Sons on every major thoroughfare in all the East End districts, from Poplar to Shoreditch, five studios in all; there had even been talk of opening one up West! Herbie was a part of the fabric of the East End community, and there wasn’t a family in Bethnal Green whose life he hadn’t documented from the other side of his lens; from christenings to coming-of-age portraits, weddings and processions, to beauty queen contests and even last year’s Silver Jubilee celebrations. But big East End weddings, photographed in his studio upstairs, were what Herbie loved best, and he poured his heart and soul into making every bride look the very best she could.
Herbie had photographed all the Cockney great and good, from costermongers to corset makers, local dignitaries to boxers. No matter that most of the families in this neighbourhood were so poor that Herbie’s portraits more often as not covered a nasty patch of damp, or that people saved for years to afford it. To have a ‘Herbie’ on your wall was a badge of honour for the proud working-class folk of Bethnal Green.
Stella had felt blessed when Herbie had taken her on as a fourteen-year-old apprentice, straight from school in 1933, just as the Depression had crept in and taken a savage bite out of his business. She had watched helplessly as Herbie’s fortunes had trickled away, and with it, most of his staff. One by one, the stores had closed, leaving only this one, his flagship shop on Green Street. Herbie had been forced to give up his grand house by Victoria Park and move into the stuffy attic rooms above the studio, but Stella suspected they didn’t get much use. Her boss worked from eight in the morning until past midnight, six days a week, as if driven by a motor. Herbie was a good old-fashioned grafter, but deep down, she suspected he also worked to forget. Stella was seventeen, Herbie nearing sixty, so it had never seemed respectful to ask the widower what had happened to his wife and son all those years ago, but it didn’t stop her wondering.