Reg Beer, winner in the Lifetime Achievement category at The Wharf Innovation In Business Awards 2016, has seen a great deal of change in London’s Docklands during his 72 years. The founder of Frontispiece, a shop specialising in maps and prints from around the world , may not have been born in east London – the Second World War saw to that – but his family lived there before and returned soon after.
Reg left school in 1960 to begin a career as a journalist on Fleet Street, among other trades, before becoming a senior teacher at a comprehensive in the Docklands and eventually setting up Frontispiece at Wapping’s Tobacco Dock in 1989.
Five years passed before he moved his business into new digs at the newly constructed Canary Wharf, where he remained for 20 years until the summer of 2015.
It was there that Frontispiece made its name. While the business was founded on its owner’s personal interest in antique maps and prints, wood block engravings, journals, lithographs and much else besides, it soon evolved to become something of an institution, sought out by collectors, gift seekers and municipal bodies.
If the London Docklands Development Corporation needed information on rights of way, or a council was involved in a land dispute, the chances were that Frontispiece possessed a map or document that could lay the matter to rest.
When a bride-to-be sought five historical photos of the little known Surrey church in which she was set to be married, Reg was able to find them and present them to her bridesmaids as gifts.
And he achieved this as one of the first traders to set up shop in what was then a relatively new trading space in the empty Canary Wharf.
“It was a tough environment when I started,” said Reg. “People would come down the escalator from the forecourt and ask where the shops were. I wasn’t sure Canary Wharf would take off but, as we all now know, it certainly did.
“Who would have thought when it started 25 years ago it would become the financial capital of the world – it was just a dock.
“Ken Livingstone said at the time that it would be a second-rate Hong Kong, but how wrong he was and how right we were to go ahead.”
Retail is just one element of Reg’s contribution to the Docklands. He served as a councillor for 13 years, chairing the social services committee and rising to the role of deputy mayor and he is still a magistrate.
While he no longer serves on the council, Reg is still adamant that local administrators continue to do their utmost to preserve the community that has witnessed the growth of the Docklands.
"Such success brings with it bad consequences as well as good,” he said. “My family have lived in the East End since the mid-19th century.
“However, my daughter, who was born in the London Hospital and teaches on the Isle of Dogs, cannot afford to live in her own community.
“With one-bedroom flats in The Spire – a tower being built 500 yards from her family home – priced at £750,000, the success of Canary Wharf has left her and thousands of other Cockneys behind.”
For Reg at least, east London’s success must be also be measured by the strength of the community.
And if the future of east London and all of its residents is to be secured, the question of housing needs to be addressed.
But community aside, the Docklands remains a home to opportunity and innovation.
When his name was called on awards night, having been nominated by friend and photographer Ben Broomfield , it came as a surprise to Reg. Nonetheless, an element of preparation crept in.
“My colleague came with me and, before we left I slipped my harmonica into her handbag,” said Reg.
“It was a quite wonderful surprise, and when the award was presented by Levi Roots of Reggae Reggae Sauce fame I asked him if he sang the blues.
He said ‘no’, but before the night was out, I was on stage playing with the band.”
It was a wonderful ending to a celebratory night in the story of Reg Beer and Frontispiece; a company built on boundless passion and, contrastingly, a dedication to boundaries.
Frontispiece continues to operate from Cannon Workshops.
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