James Goff: Founder of Stirling Ackroyd, Pioneer of Shoreditch

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The founder of Stirling Ackroyd, and undeniable pioneer of the Shoreditch property market, bounces from phone call to phone call about everything from Ibiza properties to flying visits from his accountant. Inside the cancer ward at The Royal Marsden, it’s business as usual for James Goff.

Just his routine would make one’s head spin, forget about the effects of the chemotherapy. Nevertheless, notwithstanding his less-than-flattering pale green hospital robe, James’ energy makes it a challenge to pinpoint who in this bustling room of people is actually the ten year long cancer patient.

Well known as a key figure in kick-starting property development in Shoreditch, James Goff brought Stirling Ackroyd Estate Agency into being in 1987. It has since spread it's wings across the breadth of London, now with over 100 employees, it's property portfolio includes iconic Shoreditch venues such as The Light Bar and Paper Dress. Speaking with a pride that none other than a founding father of the area could, his charismatic laugh bellows down the gardens of the Royal Marsden as he describes some of his fondest memories of the East End.

While he began his career in the trade working for somebody else’s agency, James’ enterprising spirit led him to set up his own property business, “I thought let’s get a brand, so I looked for names and I liked the name Stirling, you know after Stirling Moss. And then I was at a dinner party and someone said ‘Gosh what a shame the Warner brothers have just taken over Ackroyd Spillers,’ which was a very rooted London city name, and I thought I’ll have the ‘Ackroyd’ too!”

The spontaneous name swiping from legendary British motor racing driver Sir Stirling Moss proved apt, as Stirling Ackroyd sped ahead of the competition. It rooted itself in the foundations of Shoreditch eons before there was even the slightest sense of cool about it, a move which today makes the brand indistinguishable from the area. What was it that drew James Goff so magnetically to the setting?

“The low values and the building attracted me there in the first place. I thought hang on, this is right next to the city, one day this is going to happen. It probably took longer than I thought, but you know, there it is…it’s got its own identity, it is a place, a real place.”

James’ eyes glint with wicked humour as he remembers the opinion held by his own father, who came down to visit him just after he’d set up the first offices at 134-136 Curtain Road. Having provided his son with a boarding school education, Goff senior did very little to disguise his disapproval at his son’s chosen location for his new empire exclaiming in no uncertain words, “Christ almighty, what the hell are you doing here? What has happened? What have I done wrong to find you in this bloody dump?”

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Undeterred, James continued to expand his property kingdom, “I set myself a challenge - if I could only have one building in Shoreditch, which building would it be? It’s not all about money, it’s about style. And I chose 40 Great Eastern Street. So the next day when I walked past that building, I went in to introduce myself and said ‘I want to buy this building, I haven’t got any money now but I want to buy it one day, so whenever you come to sell it, will you let me know?’ He was an Indian gentleman in the textiles business, after that day whenever I went past, we always had a good laugh. And about five years later, he came up and said ‘Mr Goff, I want to sell my building!’ so I bought it.”

Today’s Shoreditch is a very different place to when Stirling Ackroyd was first established. “When I first came to Shoreditch in 1984, you could buy anything you wanted near enough for 20 quid a foot. Now we’re selling flats for £1,000 a foot plus.”

“I’ve enjoyed helping to see that Shoreditch prospers and for lots of Victorian buildings to be retained rather than smashed down, which is what happened a lot elsewhere in London. Hopefully part of my legacy is that I’ve helped that process. I like the buildings, I like the style of them, they’re attractive, I think brick can be beautiful. The spaces themselves provide very good interiors, great light, high ceilings, the shape and form and scale of them is correct, and they seem to fit modern purposes more than some modern architectural designs do, those are things to be treasured really.”

It becomes obvious after only twenty minutes that James could sit and talk of his time in the area for days on end. The natural storyteller he is, a life less extraordinary would have surely been wasted.

James has enough stories to fill a book, so it's little wonder he is heavily featured  in 'Factual Nonsense', a publication recently relaunched on 31 Museum Street at ongoing exhibition 'The Art and Death of Joshua Compston'. Both the book and the exhibition  bring to light the activities of late gallerist Joshua Compston, an iconic figure who died at the tender age of 25 amidst efforts to create a cultural shift in and around Shoreditch. Once pallbearer at Joshua's funeral, James is now the main event in the eulogical pages of the book which read ‘In memory of James Goff’.  He can't help but scoff, “The cheek of it, I’m not even dead yet!” 

He might have been quite literally written off, but James' story is not over yet. He and Compston shared a vision to make the East End London’s artistic quarter. "We’re always looking for ways of helping the area out, originally I sponsored a lot of the artists. Now we see tourist tours going on, and we’re very proud of Shoreditch, we have a big map of it on our window.”

He recalls an amusing memory where he’d managed to get The Prince’s Foundation interested in buying a building on Charlotte Road. “We talked about it and gave a price, and they said ‘that’s ridiculous, will you rent it to us?’ my client said, ‘Yes, but the only way we’ll rent it is if the Prince of Wales gives a personal guarantee.’ So I had to ring up the Prince’s number two about that. He responded, ‘Well Prince Charles won’t be happy doing that! So we’d better look at buying again.’ And through that we got a very good price, and I’m sure they’re very happy now. And for the Queen to go and open a building in Shoreditch, I don’t think she’d done that for a very long time! We had a lovely picture of her in a Rolls Royce beneath one of our boards, looking out the window a bit lost like ‘Where am I? What’s my son done?’ A bit like what my father did, they share that in common!” Despite the book’s tribute, James is alive, kicking, and brimming with humour.

James Goff and The Estate Office have been friends since 1987. 

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