Oral London histories

Kings and Queens, admirals and generals and captains of industry, wars and plagues. As celebrated kids’ author Michael Rosen acknowledges in his introduction to a priceless gem of a book about the East End, history used to be about the ‘big’ names (mostly men of course) who shaped events, and the big events (ideally cataclysmic) that they shaped.

Michael Rosen

Michael Rosen

There’s a problem of course … that kind of history tends to cut out the ordinary people, the poor and the dispossessed. But throughout the 20th century, and largely using the new recorded media, enterprising historians were recording the voices and stories of ordinary men and women.

The War on our Doorstep: London’s East End and how the Blitz Changed it Forever* is a beautiful collection of reminiscences drawn from the Museum of London’s oral history collection. Here, recorded in the latter years of the 20th century, are the authentic voices of those born in the 1890s (among others). There’s is a world of moonlight flits, shoeless children and gin at a penny a pop. It’s ancient history to many readers, though for some of us only a generation or two away.

One of the most striking inclusions is a map of the East End, circa 1920, showing the areas of London with and without electricity. The East End (and Bermondsey south of the river) stand out among a sea of switched-on areas, including the City, Greenwich and the Borough. They may have only been in the queue — nonetheless the contrast is striking. And this of course was the engine of London’s economy, the docks both north and south of the river. A point nicely summarised in Cicely Fox-Smith’s poem Nitrates, a classic of the 1920s.

...All alone I went a-walking by the London Docks one day,

For to see the ships discharging in the basins where they lay,

And the cargoes that I saw there, they were every sort of kind,

Every blessed brand of merchandise a man could bring to mind;

There were things in crates and boxes, there was stuff in bags and bales,

There were tea-chests wrapped in matting, there were Eastern-looking frails,

There were balks of teak and greenheart, there were stacks of spruce and pine,

There was cork, and frozen carcasses, and casks of Spanish wine,

There was rice and spice and coco-nuts, and rum enough was there

For to warm all London’s innards up and leave a drop to spare…

Riches indeed. Though most East Enders weren’t sharing in them. Around Stepney and Whitechapel, most families were crammed into once-grand houses that by the early years of the 20th century had been subdivided and sublet many times. For most East Enders, ‘home’ was a set of rooms rather than a building, and families tended to be loyal to their area rather than sentimental about houses. Henry Corke was a boy in Bethnal Green in the 1920s. He remembered: ‘When I was a younger boy, I couldn’t bear the thought of living in a house without any family. There was us, we only had two rooms. The woman upstairs had about seven or nine kids. There was an old couple downstairs. Was about 40 of us in there.’


And if rents were low, there were greater savings to be made by cramming extra people in. ‘Miss M’ recalled that: ‘We used to use the doors off the cupboards laid on chairs and made up as beds. Nobody complained: the superintendent didn’t mind because everybody was doing the same.’ For Vicki Green, there was comfort in numbers, in ‘a three-storey house, two rooms on each floor, my uncle and family on the ground floor, another uncle on the first floor, and another on the second. My dad and mum and three of us kids on the top. There were 14 children in the house and we grew up almost like brothers and sisters.’

For some of the kids, growing up in such poverty was horrific. Charles Lisle was raised at 5 Wilson Street. ‘If you went out in the kitchen in the dark you trod on hundreds of black beetles. Oh it was a terrible place.’ And Vicki Green had a terror of going two floors down to the communal toilet in the middle of the night, lit by candle. ‘One of my cousins put the candle on the seat, and set her nightdress alight!’ Of course everything had to be shared with so many in one building. Sinks were in the backyard, as would be the one tap; washing would be hung along the corridors of the houses. ‘A primitive life,’ reckoned Vicki.

But for Jack Miller, growing up in Spitalfields in the 1920s, there was poetry in it. ‘We lived in two rooms on the second floor. My brother and I used to sleep in the garret but I liked it because it overlooked the rooftops and the soaring steeple of Christ Church. I was always charmed because there would be a carolling of the bells and it would waft across the skyline. That and the chanting, because on Sunday there would be Hebrew classes in the Brick Lane Talmud Torah. They would be reciting in Hebrew and it would blend with the sound of the bells.’

The superintendent may not have minded, but then he had a hard job keeping track of comings and goings, especially with multiple subletting and the constant moonlight flits. ‘You’d pack up when you owed a few bob rent, put your things on an old barrow for tuppence or threepence which you’d hired, and you’d move to somewhere else,’ recalled Stan Rose.

Or if you were unlucky, the superintendent and his team got to you first. The marvellously named Hilda Bunyon recalled an old woman, sitting out on the street, where she’d been escorted by the superintendent. Now in would come ‘the brokers’. In top hats and tail coats they’d ‘open a window and throw out the bits and pieces, all out on the road. The men would try to sell these. Tuppence for a chair … and get the money back owing to them.’ Neighbours, sympathetic perhaps but keen on a bargain, would snap them up. The now homeless unfortunate, meanwhile, would have to fall on the sympathy of friends … that or the horror of the workhouse.



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Made in Bow

It was a London mystery to rival anything solved by Sherlock Holmes. For decades, there had been a growing interest in Bow Pottery, a mark to sit alongside the more famous Wedgewoods and Meissens. But the location of Thomas Frye’s Bow works remained a mystery. All changed in the last few weeks when the curators at Bow’s Nunnery Gallery got together with dogged local historian Phil Mernick. A little architectural history along the Bow Road, combined with poring over 18th century maps of the area, finally uncovered the whereabouts of the East End’s own porcelain works.

As long as Europeans had been journeying to the Far East, they had been entranced by the fine ceramic pots and plates they discovered there — a far cry from the crude wooden trencher from which a medieval Englishman would (if he was lucky) eat his dinner. So desirable and sought-after did the material become that the English even began to call it ‘China’, after the country of origin, rather than using the French-Italian. But as increasing quantities of chinaware came in to London, much of it on the ships of the East India Company, enterprising English merchants started wondering ‘How is it made?’

Because imported china was hideously expensive. And so began a series of experiments around Europe — with varying degrees of success. The first Chinese porcelain dates from as early as the Han Dynasty, a couple of hundred years AD. They had discovered the secret of superheating clay until it transmuted into glass, giving the characteristic mix of translucence and toughness. More than a millennium later, even the geniuses of Renaissance Italy couldn’t crack the recipe — Medici porcelain, in 16th century Florence, proved both too soft and too opaque. Pot makers in the Saxon town of Colditz were similarly baffled.

But an enterprising pair of Londoners decided to have a go. Thomas Frye was a Dublin man, born in 1710, but had moved to London to make his living as a portraitist in 1734. He was a gifted miniaturist, engraver and expert in mezzotinting and enamel work, and one of his first commissions was to paint the Prince of Wales, for the Saddlers’ Company.

But Frye was also a keen inventor and in his experiments with china clay he discovered a method of making porcelain out of bone ash. In 1744, Frye and his partner, Edward Heylen took out a patent for the production of artificial soft-paste porcelain. The inventors and manufacturers of porcelain in England called their product “New Canton”, a nod to the pottery from the Far East with which they hoped to compete. The pair needed a backer, and found one in  the rich and powerful Peers family, directors of the East India Company, and owners of large tracts of land around Bromley, Bow and Stratford. Court deeds of 1744 record Edward Heylen buying a property on the London side of the River Lea, at Bow.

The purists were rather sniffy about Frye and Heylen’s attempts to compete with Meissen and Ming. Describing their tableware as “the more ordinary sorts of ware for common use”. Another called Bow porcelain “a peasant art which appeals to an unacademic sense of beauty rather than taste.” A later critic said that  “The wares of Bow do not, even in the years of Frye’s association with the factory, show much consistency either in design or in execution”. To be fair, the pair were blazing a trail. The Chelsea Porcelain Manufactory had opened the year before, but the more famous marques of Wedgewood, Derby and Worcester were still a decade or so away. And business was good.. By 1750, Frye and Heylen were in partnership with John Wetherby and John Crowther, who owned a wholesale pottery business at St Katherine by the Tower.  An account of the business returns for a period of five years shows that the cash receipts, £6,573 in 1750-1, increased steadily from year to year, hitting £11,229 in 1755. The firm took a shop in Cornhill, selling chinaware to wealthy City merchants.

But despite his success Frye was still toiling long hours in the factory furnaces as well as designing new lines. Eventually the long hours and gruelling work took their toll. Frye died in 1762, at the age of just 52. He is buried in Hornsey Churchyard, in north London. The work went on, but without his driving force and energy, quality slipped. Their was another 13 years of production at Bow, but towards the end products were underfired and lacked their earlier translucence and in 1776 the works closed.Frye’s legacy remains. His processes changed pottery forever and one of his daughters went on to work for Wedgewood. And the fact you will still find Bow porcelain today – tough enough to last 250 years – is testament to Frye’s vision.

800px-Bow_sauceboat Bow_Porcelain_Factory_-_Flora_-_c1762 Bow_Porcelain_Factory_-_Lady_Falconer_-_c1755 Bowvanda Derby-pair-figures-vintner-companion-antique-3385_1_3385

But for 250 years, the whereabouts of the Bow manufactory remained a mystery — until the team at Bow Arts’ Nunnery’s Gallery decided to do some digging. The Heritage Lottery Fund provided the backing for three artists — Lizzie Cannon, Felicity Hammond and Mathew Weir — to develop their own work inspired by Bow porcelain. The artists also hooked up with year 5 children from Park Primary School in Stratford, who produced their own designs while exploring the history of their local area’.You can see the results of their research and experimentation in the Made in Bow exhibition at The Nunnery.


Enter renowned local historian Phil Mernick. He told the team that the original factory would have been just beyond Bow Bridge, but that the site of the first experiments was possibly in the backyard of a house. Some reports have these happening in the backyard of a rectory opposite Bow Church, and in the late 1740s, records have the rectory being converted into a workhouse. A stroll down Bow Road yielded some clues, including one building obviously older than its neighbours. Phil went back to his sources and located the Bow Workhouse on a 1799 map. At that time it had a long garden going back to what is now Grove Hall Park. Checking the location against modern maps, the factory is pinned down to what would have been 209-11 Bow Road. You can find it today next to Unity Tyre, at 213-217. A marvellous piece of detective work, though Phil — modest as ever — dismisses his work in three words, calling it: ‘old-fashioned research’.


No legend mark the spot, and the name of Bow Porcelain isn’t up there with Derby, Wedgewood or Spode … time for Tower Hamlets to commission a plaque of its own perhaps.

Bow Arts Trust,183 Bow Road, London. E3 2SJ.

+44 (0)20 8980 7774


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London wins Olympics… no not that one

Paris. 6 July 2005, and after a gruelling four-round ballot of the International Olympic Committee, Moscow, New York City and Madrid are eliminated and London wins the final round by a margin of four votes over Paris – the 2012 Olympics are coming to the East End of London. Sebastian Coe was the hero of the day, but his recents travails make 2005 seem a very long time ago.

As we approach Brazil’s beleaguered games – Will visitors brave the Zika Virus? Will the stadia be finished? Will there be any Russians there? – we revisit a piece we first published back in 2005, looking at how London won the Olympic Games. No, not that one, the first post-WW2 Games in 1948. Run on a shoestring, with the British team bringing their own sarnies, it was a very British, cut-price, make do and mend, triumph. And almost certainly, nobody was on drugs…

So, after a solid year of campaigning, the British Olympic Bid team won the Games for London, bringing the World’s greatest sporting jamboree back to the capital. With the Olympic stadium and village on our very doorstep, and some aquatic events taking place on the River Lea, the Games promise to change the East End for ever. It’s a far cry from the stripped-down Games of 1948, the last time London hosted the Olympics.

It was three years since war had ended and Europe was still in rubble. There hadn’t been an Olympics since 1936, when Hitler had staged his showpiece Games in Berlin … the games that were to demonstrate conclusively the superiority of the Aryan athlete over other races. Hitler had made the Games the most expensive ever, spending an estimated £7m on facilities, sprucing up Berlin and removing all overt signs of persecution of German Jews.

A black sharecropper’s son from Alabama was to spoil the Fuehrer’s party of course. Jesse Owens won the men’s 100 metres sprint, the long jump, the 200 metres, and was part of the 4 x 100 metres men’s relay team. Hitler refused to present medals to African-Americans, and left the stadium in disgust.

And that wasn’t the end of Hitler’s disruption of the Olympic Games, with both the 1940 Games (planned for Tokyo) and the 1944 Olympiad (awarded to London) being cancelled because of World War II.

Much of London was in ruins, and many of the athletes who would have been competing had been killed or wounded in the War. But London rose to the challenge, hosting a no-frills games.

The centrepiece was Wembley Stadium — the world famous football ground is currently being rebuilt of course. Wembley effectively underwrote the Games, with little prospect of money from a cash-strapped Government. The perimeter turf was stripped away to reveal the old cinder athletics track, dating from the Empire Games of 1924. The emergent running strip was given a top dressing of cinders, collected from the fireplaces of Leicester (why Leicester there is no record) and the runners were ready to do their stuff. The mind boggles at the thought of modern athletes placing their expensive Nike-clad toes onto such a track.

Germany and Japan were not invited to take part; Russia was, but declined. School buildings were pressed into services to house athletes; Government buildings were converted into administrative offices and what would now be called ‘media centres’. And those few Londoners lucky enough to have a black-and-white telly could watch the Games live (there were no recordings then). This was the first Olympiad to be broadcast on TV.

Go back to the previous London Olympics, held at a new 68,000 stadium in Shepherds Bush. Amidst long-departed events such as Lacrosse and Powerboating, there were continual arguments: American flag-bearer Ralph Rose refusing to dip the Stars and Stripes to the King and Queen; Finnish athletes refusing to march under the flag of Russia; and fist fights breaking out in the stands; and constant controversy over decisions by the British referees in cycling, wrestling and athletics. This was the games when the marathon distance was raised from the old standard 25 miles to 26 miles, 385 yards. The extra 2km was added to take the starting line back to Windsor Castle, so the Royal Family could get a better view.

Again, London had been awarded the Games at a time of turmoil. Rome was originally down to host the 1908 Olympics, but withdrew after Mount Vesuvius erupted and threw the country into chaos.

The 2012 Olympiad may be a considerably slicker and more sophisticated event than its predecessors, but perhaps, like the budget-basement games of 1948 it will have a broader reach than just sporting excellence. Then, the Olympiad was one of the first opportunities since the War for London to mount a public celebration. East Enders will be hoping that the Olympics now heralds a financial shot in the arm for their part of London … with the rise of London’s new financial district at Canary Wharf, maybe the power really is shifting to the east.

David Beckham was in no doubt about the value of an Olympics in the unlikely setting of the Lea Valley: in the afterglow of the bid win, he was wistfully remembering boyhood days canoeing on the River Lea. “I grew up in the East End of London, I’ve got friends who have got children in the East End of London,” he said. “It is going to regenerate so many things in London, in the whole country.”2


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Escaping to the East End… the Great Fire of London 350 years on

As various events roll out in London to mark 350 years since the Great Fire, I’ve dusted off from the vaults a couple of pieces from eastlondonhistory.com looking at the background to the blaze, with Plague sweeping London the year before, and how Dr Jonson scarpered to the safe green fields of Bethnal Green (I know, hard to believe today, but it was then a sylvan stretch of Middlesex…

The Plague & the Thames

Samuel Pepys and the Great Fire of London


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Roman Road festival 2016

Roman Road Summer Festival 2016 flyer

A reminder that, if you’re looking for free things to do to occupy you and the kids this weekend, the Roman Road festival is back.

Roman Road Summer Festival is set to return for its third year and will showcase the best of the East End’s talent, heritage, culture and arts all provided in partnership with local businesses, schools and groups.

The festival will take place on Sunday 24th July between 11am and 7pm and includes all the below plus more being added all the time.

For updates join our Festival Facebook event and follow Roman Road LDN on Twitter.

  • 11am-12noon Music and inspiring talks from Sunday Assembly East End, our local branch of Sunday Assembly, the ‘global movement of wonder and good’
  • 12.15-12.40 Rebirth Network Hip Hop dance display
  • 13.25-13.45 Taal Torongo Bangladeshi folk dance display
  • 13.55-14.20 Roman Road Pop-Up Choir; come along and learn a song. No experience or talent necessary.
  • 14.35-14.35 Music from ELAM featuring local up and coming bands from the pioneering East London Academy of Music
  • 15.50-16.20 Ruth Johnson semi-finalist of The Voice
  • 16.35-17.25 African blues and jazz musician Muntu Valdo
  • 17.40-18.30 Funk and Motown band Freddy and the Freeloaders fresh from Glastonbury
  • 18.45-19.00 Synchronised psychedelic dance performance from Action Men to round off the festival

You can read up on the history of Roman Road here: http://eastlondonhistory.com/2012/11/29/photos-of-roman-road-bow-and-bethnal-green/

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Labour and the EU. Before Corbyn there was Peter Shore

As the increasingly acrimonious Labour leadership contest cranks into motion, it might be interesting to have a look back at how Labour was in the early Seventies. In recent decades it’s been an article of faith in British politics that, broadly, Labour = pro-EU and the Tories = anti. Reductionists will ascribe that to Labour being welcoming of foreigners and different cultures, with Conservatives being, well rather more conservative. As ever, it’s a bit more complicated than that of course, but certainly in the 1960s and 70s to be on the left of the Labour party meant, broadly, to be anti the idea of joining the Common Market > European Community > EU. Peter Shore was one of the big beasts of the parliamentary Labour party and the Governments of Harold Wilson onward. So it might be a time to have a quick look back at a much-respected East End of London MP who was often a thorn in the side of Labour party leaders.

Peter Shore — Labour’s forgotten prophet

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400 years since Shakespeare died… and why he’s an EastEnder

April 23* marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of the English language’s greatest playwright, born the humble son of a glover in Stratford upon Avon. Yet though William Shakespeare was a son of Staffordshire, his apprenticeship as an actor – and his transformation into the most famous name in theatre – took place in the East End of London. 

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Shakespeare, indeed, became a Londoner at a fortuitous time. For when he fetched up in Bishopsgate in the 1580s, theatre himself was being invented. The old tradition of travelling players, moving from town to town to perform plays, music and masques in the way of a travelling fair, was dying. Now, for the first time, entrepreneurial actor-managers would put down foundations, building dedicated theatres. In the growing and ever-richer London, they had the confidence that rather than chasing their audience, the audience would come to them.

The very first purpose-built  playhouse (at least since Roman London) had been built in Whitechapel in 1567, in the grounds of the Red Lion tavern. With trapdoors and a fly tower for aerial stunts, it cost a princely £20, but was not a success. The fields around Whitechapel were too distant from the City for people to travel in numbers simply to see a play, especially in the depths of winter. In any case, the owner, Whitechapel grocer John Brayne would soon fall into dispute with his builders over money.

The Theatre, Shoreditch

The Theatre, Shoreditch

A few years later Brayne, and his brother-in-law, the actor-manager James Burbage would build The Theatre in Shoreditch. And there was a crucial difference. While. The Red Lion was merely a receiving house for touring companies, The Theatre accepted long-term engagements – in effect having its own repertory company. It was the first modern theatre proper, and a new tradition had been born.

Plaque marking the site of The Theatre, in Shoreditch

Plaque marking the site of The Theatre, in Shoreditch

That would be exciting enough, but to this new invention came a young actor, fresh from the West Country. Shakespeare had ideas of his own, shrugging off snobbish critics such as Robert Greene, who said only the Oxford-educated upper classes should write plays, and it was at The Theatre that ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘Hamlet’ and many more were first performed.


The Theatre was shortlived. After a disagreement with freeholder Giles Allen in 1598, the theatre company waited until their landlord was away for Christmas, and sneakily dismantled the whole affair, re-erecting it as The Globe on the South Bank. The site was never lost however and in recent years, excavations at Shoreditch’s New Inn Yard have uncovered the stonework of the original theatre. And by now, Shoreditch had the world’s second theatre, The Curtain having opened nearby in 1577.

Christopher Marlowe

Christopher Marlowe

William Shakespeare would die in 1616, retired back home in Stratford, a wealthy man. Today, academics argue about who this man really was. A great playwright, or simply an actor-manager speaking the words of a shadowy author behind the scenes… the Earl of Oxford perhaps? Francis Bacon? Christopher Marlowe?

Such doubts are irrelevant really, for Shakespeare’s work of course, never dies, falling out of fashion at periods in the intervening four centuries but always coming back.

So visitors to the newly established Goodman’s Fields Theatre in Aldgate in the 1740s would have seen a young David Garrick in a succession of bit parts, quickly progressing to understudying the lead role in Richard III. Why Shakespeare? Well it  was a pivotal time in London theatre. Most playhouses had been shut down, under the draconian licensing acts of Prime Minister Robert Walpole (largely aimed at quashing satire and criticism of the Government). Those few that remained open were severely limited in the

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon

plays they might stage (the beginning of the Lord Chancellor’s censorship of the theatre which would last until the 1960s). With new plays banned, impresarios had to dig back into the repertoire,  blowing the dust of those Shakespeare plays, from a century and a half before.

And they were like new, with Garrick throwing aside the stiff and declamatory style the London audiences were used to, and delivering a naturalistic performance of light shade, using mannerisms, gestures and body movements (though he would probably still look stagey to our modern eyes). It was the beginning of a new tradition, where people could reinvent the Bard as they chose.

It seems everyone in the theatre has. And the plays have a lasting East End connection.

So when film director Barney Platt-Mills arrived in the East End in 1968 with his 35mm camera, to shoot the work of Joan Littlewood’s ‘Play Barn’, he consciously evoked the spirit of the Bard. Littlewood, that great champion of improvisation, had grown frustrated with local youths vandalising her theatre. So, brilliantly, she dragged them inside to improvise performances

Bronco Bullfrog

Bronco Bullfrog

onstage. Barney improvised his own title from Shakespeare, to call his film ‘Everyone’s an actor Shakespeare’ said, and a year later would work the piece up into the seminal East End youth movie ‘Bronco Bullfrog’.

And who even needs a theatre? One of the most popular street performers of the Victorian East End was ‘the Street Reciter’, who could drum up 10 shillings a week parading up and down the Commercial Road reciting entire Shakespeare plays… backwards. And translations of Shakespeare into every language under the sun are nothing new. Actor-manager Abraham Goldfaden stepped off a ship from Riga in 1883, and his company was soon performing in halls and clubs all over the East End. Their first permanent home was the Hebrew Dramatic Club in Princes Street (later Princelet Street), which opened in 1886, with Yiddish translations of Shakespeare hugely popular.

Steven Berkoff

Steven Berkoff

A few decades later, Stepney’s Steven Berkoff (a descendant of those incoming East End Jews) was an actor-manager himself. Many know him as a screen heavy (playing George Cornell in the 1990 film ‘The Krays’) but his real love is Shakespeare, producing  Richard II and Coriolanus for the New York Shakespeare Festival, and mounting ‘Shakespeare’s Villains’ at the Haymarket’s Theatre Royal.

And when the sadly departed Half Moon theatre was launched in a disused synagogue in Alie Street, Aldgate, in 1972, its founders reached right back to the days of The Globe and The Theatre, with performers and audience meeting in the pit. That the synagogue held just 80 people only added to the power and intimacy. It says much about the enduring power of Shakespeare’s work that in doing so they anticipated modern theatre. In that stripped-down space you would go to the Half Moon to see Edward Bond, Dario Fo and Eleanor Marx, as well as

Half Moon Theatre

Half Moon Theatre

Shakespeare. You might also see Frances de la Tour, an actress, best-known to young audiences as Olympe Maxime, headmistress of Beauxbatons Academy, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, but better known to their parents as Miss Jones in Rising Damp, playing the title role of Hamlet, in 1980.

Women playing men? Men playing women? Black actors playing white parts? Shocking a few short years ago… but standard stuff now.

And when the World came to the East End four years ago to watch the Olympics, opening ceremony director (and Mile End resident) Danny Boyle decided that a bell would strike a suitably patriotic note for the opening of the Games. A two-metre-tall, three-metre-

Olympic 2012 bell

Olympic 2012 bell

wide bell was duly commissioned from the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, though the 23-tonne monster – the world’s largest tuned bell – had to be cast in Asten, in the Netherlands, as it was too big for the Whitechapel works. On its side reads an inscription from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. “Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,”

So, make of his work what you may. It’s all part of the enduring connection and constant reinvention of Shakespeare’s work… and it all started here. Happy birthday Will.

*Almost as significant for English readers, April 23 is also St George’s Day, George being England’s patron saint.


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Whitechapel to Sierra Leone

Number 212 Whitechapel High Street is an unremarkable stretch of London street today — though doubtless home to good works as the site of the Methodist Church’s Whitechapel Mission. But two centuries ago, it was one of the linchpins of a much more ambiguous charitable institution… and it has a pivotal role in the history of London.

Whitechapel Mission logo

Whitechapel Mission logo with dove of peace

For this was the site of the White Raven tavern, and it was from here that the controversial Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor disbursed its funds, and launched a plan to resettle the ever-growing non-white population of London back in Africa. It’s a period in London history that’s uncomfortable to recall today… but part of London history it is.

The image of London as a white city before the large-scale immigrations of the 20th century is, of course, a myth. While those living in rural England would likely never have seen a Black, Asian or Chinese face, the story in the port cities of England, in London, Liverpool and Bristol, was different.

The Old Whitechapel Methodist Mission building

The Old Whitechapel Methodist Mission building

One of the major reasons was slavery, with many Black people being brought to London as servants, but there were also Black seaman who had signed up on British ships and found themselves settled, or marooned in London, alongside ‘Lascars’, as Asian seamen were known. And after 1776, many Black soldiers who had fought on England’s losing side in the American War of Independence, ended up back in London — refugees from retribution by the victors. Many suffered prejudice: though the word racism had not yet been coined a Black sailor seeking employment in London was unlikely to have much luck, and so many found themselves destitute.

And so it was that a group of London worthies established the Committee in in 1786 to help. But almost immediately they met suspicion from their beneficiaries — and little wonder. Among the founders of the committee were Thomas Beddington: a philanthropist, an abolitionist… but also a trader with the West Indies and a slaver. Alongside George Peters, the Governor of the Bank of England, there was John Julius Angerstein. Another self-professed philanthropist, Angerstein had grown so rich on his slaving estates in Grenada that he could stock his Pall Mall home with the finest collection of art in London. When he died, it would form the nucleus of the new National Gallery’s catalogue. And there was General Robert Melvill, Governor of the slave colony of Grenada.

Whitechapel Mission today

Whitechapel Mission today

Samuel Hoare, a Quaker and one of the founders of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was aboard too, as was Granville Sharp, who would become one of the most tireless campaigners for the rights of slaves in the celebrated Jonathan Strong case, but it was hardly surprising that many were sceptical about the motives of men so bound up in profiting from slavery.

Initially the alms distributed at the White Raven were for the relief of the Lascars, and then the Committee identified 250 ‘Blacks in Distress’, just 35 of them from the East Indies, the others originating from Africa and the West Indies. 100 of those said they had been in the Royal Navy before being washed up in London. Significant funds were raised, and distributed from the door of the White Raven, but the Committee soon had grander plans. Rather than trying to settle Black people in Wapping, Whitechapel and the City, how about finding a new home for them back in Africa?

London historians argue about the motives of the men. Were they trying in some small way to right the injustice of the countless million slaves who had been taken from Africa over the centuries? Or simply trying a little proto-ethnic cleansing of the streets of London, returning them to their once exclusively white status? And certainly Britain’s earliest attempts to resettle displaced Black people were less than successful. After the American Civil War, large numbers of freed slaves, and those who had fought on the losing side were offered the chance to resettle by the British authorities — in Nova Scotia. Not surprisingly perhaps, this experiment in a cold and unhospitable corner of America largely failed. The Committee, at their Whitechapel meetings, now set their eyes on a new state in Africa — Sierra Leone.

It’s a testament to how bad things must have been in London that any signed up to travel at all. The invitation, after being taken from Africa by force, transported halfway around the world in chains, and marooned in a foreign land, was to be uprooted once more, for a strange country most of them would never have seen (many of them would never have seen Africa at all, let alone Sierra Leone). to leave London and travel back to a part of Africa most of them had never seen. And yet, in October 1786, barges left London’s Wapping en route to three ships off Deptford (and thence to Africa). There were several hundred men, women and children aboard (they would be followed by another fleet from Portsmouth the following year).

Each signed an agreement that they would remain British subjects, and enjoy the protection of the Royal Navy, and each was handed a paper granted them citizenship of Sierra Leone. And in May 1787 they landed in ‘the Province of Freedom’ and set about building the new capital of Granville Town, named after Mr Sharp. The result was perhaps sadly predictable — disease and attacks from the local people cut a swathe through the colonists. But still they came.

The Committee continued meeting at Whitechapel’s White Raven in any event, and soon mutated into the Sierra Leone Company. The new colony, with its new capital Freetown, continued to welcome new settlers, including hundreds from the ill-conceived Nova Scotia experiment, and still they struggled. The new Africans found that their ‘protection’ from the British Government was a double-edged sword, with British companies holding trading rights for the colony, and their own ventures unable to thrive. The Sierra Leone Company refused to let the settlers have freehold of the land: the ‘freed’ Black settlers were still working for a company in far-off London. And the brave new world conceived in an East End pub was beginning to look horribly familiar.

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East End of Glasgow to East End of London

Brother Walfrid and the East End/

In 1893, an Irish priest arrived as headmaster at St Anne’s School in Underwood Road, Whitechapel. Over the next decade and a half, he would transform the school, introducing the children to the virtues of hard work, study and — his greatest love of all — football. It was a very Victorian recipe for success, mens sana in corpore sano, and was being repeated by enlightened teachers all over London. But more than any of them, Brother Walfrid had particularly impressive form, having already set up a team in his previous posting of Glasgow.


Walfrid was a missionary, like many others of his time, but unlike the young priests and academics who had come to the East End from Oxford and Cambridge, he knew poverty at first hand. He had been born Andrew Kerins, on 18 May 1840 in the Sligo town of Ballymote, in north-west Ireland. He was lucky to survive. Between 1845 and 1852, the Potato Famine would devastate Ireland, with a million of the eight million population dying from starvation and disease, and another million emigrating. Huge numbers took the boat to New York, many more to London, where they would literally build the mushrooming city — on the roads, railways and houses — as well as working in the docks.


But many of them found poverty in London too — Whitechapel and Stepney were some of the poorest Irish quarters of the capital. There was work, but there was also drunkenness, prejudice and despair. Catholic immigrants especially found a way out through education and decent employment hard to come by. The church schools, such as St Anne’s, were a way of addressing that.


Andrew, by now an Irish Marist Brother, and rebaptised Walfrid, would take a different route before his ten years in Whitechapel, however. He first headed to another East End, that of Glasgow, where many more Irish Catholics had settled, in search of work in the docks and steelyards. He trained as a teacher and was posted to St Mary’s School in Glasgow; in 1874, he was promoted to be headmaster of Sacred Heart School.


Walfrid encountered a problem. Although his children needed help, their parents were loath to accept charity. He set up the Poor Children’s Dinner Table, also known as ‘penny dinners’ for the pupils, so that they were at least paying a token amount for their one decent meal of the day.

And there was another problem — funding the charity. The enterprising priest decided to tap in to the new craze sweeping Britain — Association Football. By arranging exhibition matches, he could bring the community together and raised much needed funds for ‘the table’.


It was good, but not enough. He looked at the example of Rangers Football Club, which was playing in front of thousands of people on Glasgow Green. Then, on 12 February 1887, Edinburgh Hibernian won the Scottish Cup at Hampden Park in Glasgow. Established purely for Irish Catholics and, influenced greatly by the temperance movement, it was a team supported by all the Irish in Scotland. After the game, Brother Walfrid and his friend John Glass invited the victorious team to St. Mary’s Hall in Calton for a celebration. The Hibernian Secretary, John McFadden, jokingly suggested to Walfrid that he should do the same for the Irish in Glasgow that Hibernian had done for their relatives in Edinburgh.


On 6 November 1887, at St Mary’s Church Hall in East Rose Street, the priest got some of the most powerful men in Glasgow together and drew up the constitution for his new club. Cannily realising that there was support to be had from the licensed trade, the Glasgow organistation decided not to wave the flag for temperance. The club also narrowly defeated a vote to be exclusively Catholic: Walfrid wanted a team for everyone, saying: “It is not his creed nor his nationality which counts – it’s the man himself.” And as for a name — suggestions included Glasgow Hibernian, but Walfrid suggested ‘Celtic’ to reflect the club’s Irish roots. The nickname ‘The Bhoys’ also reflected Gaelic Irish spellings.


What came next was more remarkable. Walfrid scraped together the £50 ground rent on a patch of farmland — and called upon his supporters to build Celtic Park by hand. An army of builders, labourers, gardeners and general enthusiasts constructed the new ground, which stood 100 yards or so north-east of the present Celtic Park. The first match was a 5-2 win over future arch-rivals Rangers, a ‘friendly’ but with 5000 watching. None among them could know they were witnessing the start of one of the world’s great football rivalries.


By the time Walfrid was sent to repeat his good work in Bethnal Green and Bow, in 1893, his project was in good shape. So good that, alas, its charitable mission had been rather forgotten. The Glasgow press were continually critical of the club refusing to play benefit matches for the Catholic poor. Instead, directors would reconstitute Celtic as a limited company, with several players and staff doing suspiciously well from the monster Walfrid had created. Ironically, given the temperance roots, many of them had purchased pubs in Glasgow, and were profiting handsomely for a second time. Celtic would go on to be the first British club to win the European Cup, in 1967, beating Manchester United to that feat by a year. Remarkably, all the team were born within a 30-mile radius of Celtic Park… the priest’s dream of success for local lads was still playing out.


Walfrid worked his magic again in London, though without quite such dramatic results. Perhaps if things had gone differently the Whitechapel Boy’s Guild and Young Men’s Club could now be vying for the Champions League with Barcelona and Bayern Munich. In 1908 Walfrid retired and would die seven years later.

References: http://talfanzine.info/blog/2012/01/05/fk-the-plc-a-brief-history-of-celtic-fcs-boardroom/



  1. only surviving photo of Walfrid
  2. his statue outside Celtic Park
  3. The first Celtic team — note the absence of hoops in those days
  4. The team en route to winning the 1967 European Cup
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Louis Heren, East Ender, foreign correspondent and veteran executive at the Times of London

The voice is clipped and correct… an old fashioned military voice perhaps, received

pronunciation but with a hint of cockney, the ‘through’ becoming ‘frew’, his ‘Ls’ beoming ‘Ws’.

Over decades as a foreign correspondent Louis Heren’s rough Shadwell vowels may have

become smoothed off, but he never forgot.

‘The old East End should have been a wretched place but it wasn’t. People had to live close

together. Because they had to live close together they had to behave themselves. It was a

civilised place.’

Heren was being interviewed by the BBC for an early Seventies programme in which East

Enders who’d made good (ie got out) were taken back to the east London of their youth —

Lionel Bart was another colourful interviewee. There was nostalgia and sentiment for sure,

but it was hardly misty eyed. Over decades as a foreign correspondent on The Times, Heren

had earned a reputation for speaking truth to power and he was angry about what had

happened to his childhood playground.

By the time Louis went back in the Seventies, the East End as he knew it had all but been

destroyed. He had no doubt who the culprits were. ‘The war smashed those communities.

We all lived alongside one another: Irish, Jews, cockneys who’d been here hundreds of

years. We might not have liked each other very much at times but by god we got on. You

had to. How can you get along with each other sitting up in the sky in a flat. The planners

think they have a great idea…’

Heren was born in Shadwell in 1919. His dad worked on the Times as a printer but died

when Louis, the youngest of three, was just four years old. He was a typical East End

‘mongrel’, he joked, ‘half Irish, half Jewish and half Basque. His mum, to make ends meet,

ran a coffee shop for dockers at the gates of the docks, ‘a good pull up for car men’ as he

would later call it. Ironically mum had been born in a pub much used by Times journalists

after the paper (without Heren) moved to Wapping in the Eighties.

Shadwell was a slum and the options might have been crime, a ship or the docks, but Louis

got into the local grammar school and an English teacher introduced him to good literature

and gifted him a lifetime taste for reading. Aged 14, he got a job as a messenger at the

Times in its old Blackfriars building. He would be there for the duration.

He was a boy who loved to learn and volunteered for whatever writing and layout chores that

came up, and by 1937 he was on his first reporting job, covering the street parties in the

East End to celebrate George VI’s Coronation. As veteran journalist (and friend) Godfrey

Hodgson pointed out years later ‘most of the reporters in the Times newsroom then would

probably not have been able to find Shadwell without a compass’.

In 1939 he volunteered for the Royal Artillery, serving with distinction in France, Iceland and

Greenland before being made an officer and sent to India. He was demobbed in 1946,

having reached the rank of major and returned to The Times as a foreign correspondent.

Heren might have been the model of the hard-bitten, clear-eyed British foreign

correspondent. He first made his mark covering Indian independence in 1947 and created a

furore back in Britain with his graphic eyewitness accounts of massacres in the Punjab. He

went on to Israel, Beirut, Jordan, Korea, Vietnam, Egypt, Singapore, India, Germany and

Washington, DC. And he was the first to report to the world the discovery of the Dead Sea

Scrolls. While India correspondent, he heard rumours of a plot to assassinate Gandhi, so he

joined his weaving workshop in order to get a scoop (he failed as the killing happened


And Heren reported from Vietnam in the early days of American intervention in the 1950s. Many

journalists point to him as the likely inspiration for the Thomas Fowler character in that

excoriating critique of Americans and their foreign policy in Asia, The Quiet American

(Graham Greene was a guest of Heren and his wife Patricia on their Singapore houseboat

while he was researching the book). And Peter Mackay of the Daily Mail even wrote of the

physical resemblance between the older Heren and Michael Caine, who played Fowler in the

2002 film of the book.

In 1961 he became Washington correspondent of The Times. He loved America but was

deeply sceptical of John F Kennedy’s Camelot myth. He offended JFK’s court by writing an

article, tongue in cheek, comparing Washington, with its affluent white suburbs separated

from predominantly black downtown by Rock Creek Park, to a town in British India with its

cantonments and its native city. He got on better with Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon

Johnson, covering the civil rights movement in the South and writing books about US


He was a foreign correspondent of the old school, like Tom Fowler rarely returning to base,

but nowhere held the romance of the old East End. It had been like living in a village, Heren

says, ‘only much more interesting’. Everyone worked on the river, the ‘London river’ as the

kids called it (nobody called it the Thames). The river dominated their lives. Most of his pals’

dads (and his father’s friends) worked on the river. A strong memory was children crying

because dad was away on a tramp steamer for weeks and months. Heren loved the mix of

languages and cultures and he loved the romance of those dirty British coasters sounding

their horns as they sailed off with their cargoes of ‘Tyne coal, road-rails, pig-lead and


And where ever he travelled, he had no fear of speaking the truth. Colleagues remembered

him as a fearsome (though kind) figure. As for politicians — he famously advised that the

reporter should always ensure that ‘When a politician tells you something in confidence,

always ask yourself “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?”.’

Back in London in the Seventies he settled back into The Times, but the old days were

dying. He weathered the decades brutal strikes and feeble management and had high hopes

for Rupert Murdoch’s takeover. But passed over for editor in favour of Harold Evans and

then Charles Douglas-Home, he retired in 1981, opting for Hampstead and the life of a


By the time Heren was interviewed about his book by the BBC in the early Seventies,

the old East End had gone, but it had made him. It might have been tough but it had created

tough kids like Heren, with a headful of happy memories and a burning ambition to do

something other with their lives. ‘I remember sitting in a science lesson at school and a

teacher was talking about the survival of the fittest and he said “By god you kids must be

tough to survive here!”.



Growing Up Poor In London by Louis Heren, published by Phoenix

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