The bright lights of St James

Bella Saltiel interviews Adrian Irwin about half a century with the world’s best commute

Adrian and Christine outside their shop (credit: Julian Zerressen)
Adrian and Christine outside their shop (credit: Julian Zerressen)

The idea to combine their work and living space came to 78-year-old Adrian soon after he met his bride-to-be, Chrissy, at a friend’s wedding. Keen to live together despite the fact that they were not yet married – “people didn’t do that in those days,” Chrissy laughs – Adrian decided they “may as well have a shop” too.

“We looked at lots of places and there were some horrors before we came here,” Chrissy told the Echo, “We’d almost given up and then suddenly we got a phone call out of the blue…. We came here and that was it. It was perfect.”

Their dream home – an electronics shop named after Adrian in Coppermill Lane, Walthamstow – dates back to the early 1900s and was originally a dairy. Sometime before WWII, the dairy closed and was replaced by a cycle shop and then a wireless radio shop, before finally the Irwins arrived to take it over.

Since moving to St James 48 years ago, the couple have occasionally thought of leaving but inevitably decided “there’s nowhere in London, or maybe even the country” that’s as well connected. They both like to keep busy helping out for the community: Chrissy knits for the nearby Mill community centre [home of the Echo] and Adrian works on rebuilding the model railway at the Pump House Museum.

Adrian and Christine outside their shop (credit: Julian Zerressen)

Adrian, who is semi-retired but still works in the shop a few days a week “to keep busy”, discovered his chosen profession at a young age. He was always good with his hands and would fix broken items for his school friends in exchange for “pocket money”, eventually deciding that “school was getting a bit in the way”. When he left and found he could make a life for himself living off his talent, he “couldn’t believe [his] luck”.

This story is published by Waltham Forest Echo, Waltham Forest's free monthly newspaper and free news website. We are a not-for-profit publication, published by a small social enterprise. We have no rich backers and rely on the support of our readers. Donate or become a supporter.

In the 1960s, Adrian spent some time working in television and, by the time he set up his own business, had already made a name for himself as an expert in TVs and sound systems. He was even commissioned to install the entire sound system at Yi-Ban, a large Chinese restaurant in Docklands, but, after years of blasting bass, he went “totally deaf in his left ear” and decided to go into lighting instead.

Nowadays, the front of the shop is resplendent with art-deco chandeliers, all lovingly restored. Despite this niche area of expertise, the demand “speaks for itself”, Adrian says, gesturing towards a living room cluttered with brass lamp-stands, loose wires and bulbs. To get to his studio requires dodging delicate glass lampshades and work surfaces scattered with odds and ends. Chrissy could “live without the mess” but for Adrian it means he never has to commute and can potter about, fixing items on their kitchen-table and working at his own pace.

Inside the workshop (credit: Julian Zerressen)

Adrian chalks his success down to 60 years of experience. People drive from all across the city (one customer came from as far as Bristol) to have their vintage lights restored and, to this day, he’s never found a task too difficult. “My saying is everything and anything can be done with time and money”, Adrian says. Perhaps his most memorable job of recent years is installing LED lighting inside the narrow boats moored along the canal.

Soon, though, he will have to start thinking about slowing down. He’s nearly 80 and the business can’t go on forever, especially since none of his children trained to take over the lighting business. Still, he’s confident that, despite living in a “throwaway culture”, specialists like him won’t be replaced by modern technology overnight. If the shop’s popularity is anything to go by, the demand for vintage lighting has yet to go extinct.

Adrian Irwin, 145 Coppermill Ln, E17 7HD – Open Friday and Saturdays only

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