Poll Tax rebel vicar’s daughter takes up batton for East End’s small traders

Krissie Nicolson is a ‘serial Marathon runner’ when she’s not out recruiting small traders in London’s East End to band together to stop big business and the City encroaching on their manor.

She’s already done five runs including twice pacing the streets of London and once in the New York Marathon.

But Monday evening sees her in a new role launching the East End Trades Guild with a musicians’ fanfare at Spitalfields Church.

It’s something she has been working on since her Community Organising degree at Queen Mary College in Mile End where she graduated last year.

“I may have just one more marathon left in me,” Krissie confides. “But my real passion is giving a voice to the small traders who are being swamped by red tape and big business. It’s a mission that’s taking over my life.”

She has recruited 100 small businesses so far, since her initial steering group meeting in the summer at the Bishopsgate Institute which attracted 30 traders through the grapevine.

But there are hundreds more, even thousands, across the East End she is targeting over the coming months.

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“I was on Masters course when I read about Paul Gardner, the paper-bag seller in Commercial Street facing an extortionate rent rise,” she explains. “The landlord’s agent backed down and it was victory for the small trader.

“But a friend at the same time who ran the Duke of Uke music shop in Hanbury Street wasn’t so lucky and had to move out to Cheshire Street because of rocketing rent.

“He was a victim of his own success because he had made Hanbury Street a community hub with music lessons, a basement studio and live gigs—which ironically increased the property value he could no longer afford.”

She realised the City was encroaching on fringe neighbourhoods of Spitalfields and Shoreditch, pushing out the artists and small businesses that are the heart and soul of the East End.

It sparked the mission in this 37-year-old daughter of a rebellious vicar. She called in at shops and businesses, introduced herself and explained her interested in their grievances.

“The list of issues they faced was endless,” she recalls. “The top three were rent, rates and planning, but there were also concerns about parking restrictions, waste collection and anti-social behaviour.

“Small businesses are faced at every turn with confrontation and challenge. They pay enormous rents and rates, but don’t get any service for it, unlike domestic council tax where at least you know you get services in return.”

It was like waving a red flag to this tough single mum raising a teenage boy who cut her teeth as a volunteer with London Citizens network.

“I’ve been through rigorous training on negotiation and collective negotiation,” she tells you.

“It’s down to a fair amount of bloody-mindedness I inherited from my father, a vicar who refused to pay his Poll Tax in 1990 because he saw it as un-Christian.”

Her dad, the Rev Paul Nicolson, went on to set up the Zakaus charity trust—a name taken from the Biblical tax collector—and to chair Taxpayers Against Poverty, fundamental ideals that spurred Krissie on to fight for the thousands of small traders she says need a voice.

“If enough traders pull together, they have to be listened to,” she insists. “For me, that’s a massive mission in life—to get them organised.”

The Guild is to organise members street-by-street, area-by-area, at the grassroots. Members will have area meetings to deal with local topics and hold quarterly assemblies for broader issues across the whole East End.

This would have been ideal for the small businesses in Spitalfields who were given notices to quit earlier this year by the City of London Corporation for the controversial redevelopment of the Fruit & Wool Exchange—in the face of the massive public outcry.

“If we had been in time we would have organised those traders,” Krissie believes. “We would have asked for a meeting with the City Corporation and been ignored—that’s the reality of it.

“But if we can’t get a meeting, we would take creative action.”

The “creative action” she learned as a volunteer at Shoreditch Citizens which was unable to get a meeting with the head of Hackney Homes over housing issues.

She helped set up an advice desk on the pavement outside their offices. They soon got the meeting and many bad housing issues were resolved.

It’s the same with small businesses, she feels, working together to show they have teeth.

The groundswell is growing. The handful who turned up for Krissie’s steering group in July has grown to 100 and she expects that to double by Monday’s fanfare launch—with thousands more waiting to be recruited over the coming months.

It’s a tough campaign. But Krissie Nicolson appears to have that marathon staying power to keep on to the finish, to give the shopkeepers, caf� owners, artists, textile traders and all small businesses that voice to help turn the tide that threatens to engulf them.