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400 years since Shakespeare died...

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...

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 Method...

East End of Glasgow to East End of ...

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 nex...

Louis Heren, East Ender, foreign co...

The voice is clipped and correct… an old fashioned military voice perhaps, received pronunciation but with a hint of cockney, the ‘through’ b...

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.


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.

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.




  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

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


The millions of tourists who come to London each year have no doubt where ‘Theatreland’ lies. ‘The West End’ is synonymous with the London stage, with dozens of playhouses clustered around Shaftesbury Avenue, Drury Lane and the Strand.

Yet as we’ve argued in these pages before, the East End of London has every claim to be the cradle of London theatre. The eponymous ‘Theatre’ and the ‘Curtain’, early homes to Shakespeare, and the first English theatres proper, were in Shoreditch. And, in the 19th century, with the rise of the Yiddish theatres and the early music halls, the East End was the lively hub of London dramatic life… if not always of the most respectable kind. You could get away with stuff on the East End stage that the West End would tut at: but that didn’t stop the toffs coming down to watch.

It was this position, just east of respectability, that allowed one of the greatest-ever talents in English theatre to flourish. David Garrick would go on to reinvent English acting and become famed around the English speaking world, but it was at the Goodman’s Fields Theatre in Aldgate that he made his starring debut on October 9, 1741.

The Garric family had arrived in Spitalfields in 1685. Note the pre-Anglicised spelling. Garrick’s grandfather (also David) had fled the chaos following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The Garrics, as Protestant Huguenots, faced persecution and possible death. Along with thousands of others they decamped to London, and changed their surname. By the time of David junior’s birth, in 1717, they were living in Hereford, and then Lichfield, where he went to the grammar school.

Now comes the first lucky chance in the young David’s life. After leaving Lichfield Grammar, he enrolled in Edial Hall School, run by an impoverished local scholar named Samuel Johnson. Johnson, the brilliant son of a Lichfield bookseller, had already been forced to come down from Oxford, unable to pay his fees, and was scratching a living stitching books for his father. In desperation he decided to set up his own school, to teach young men Latin and Greek.

Johnson was brilliant but no businessman. His school closed after a year, having attracted precisely three pupils (including David and his younger brother George). But Johnson, in his mid-twenties, had become firm friends with Garrick, a few years younger, and the pair elected to move to London to seek (if not their fortune) then a more interesting existence than the backwoods of Staffordshire. They would be friends for life.

In 1737, Garrick and another brother Peter set up a wine import business in the Strand, though with David pouring his energies into amateur dramatics (he had made his debut as an 11-year-old Sgt Kite in a school production of Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer), and watching plays at the nearby Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. His attempts to join the company were rebuffed, though: he would have to enter theatre by the back door. Henry Giffard, a customer of his wine business, was running his own theatre in the East End.

And so in 1741, visitors to the Goodman’s Fields Theatre in Aldgate would have seen the young Garrick in a succession of bit parts, quickly progressing to understudying the lead role in Richard III.

It was a pivotal time in London theatre. Most playhouses in London had been shut down, under the draconian licensing acts brought forward by Prime Minister Robert Walpole (largely aimed at quashing satire and criticism of the Government). Those few that remained open were severely limited in the plays they might stage (the beginning of the Lord Chancellor’s censorship of the theatre which would last until the 1960s). The effective banning of new plays was perhaps indirectly responsible for a renewed interest in Shakespeare’s plays, from a century and a half before.

But if the landscape of drama was altering, then the night the man playing Richard did the 1741 equivalent of phoning in sick changed theatre forever. Garrick eagerly stepped up, but his performance of the villainous Richard was nothing like the Shakespeare the London audiences were used to. Rather than sonorously and loudly declaiming the lines, in exaggerated actorly style, Garrick gave a naturalistic performance of light shade, using mannerisms, gestures, body movements … and adjusting the volume to suit the text.

He was a sensation (though not to everyone’s taste), and Goodman’s Fields was soon having to put on extra shows as audiences flocked from around London and further afield to see this reinvention of acting. But that created a problem for the theatre. Giffard had flown under the radar by billing his shows ‘musical entertainments’ and playing down the dramatic side. This though was impossible for the authorities to miss, especially as Horace Walpole, son of the prime minister was in the audience on occasions, writing ‘There was a dozen dukes a night at Goodman’s Fields.’

Garrick had also caught the eye of Charles Fleetwood, manager of the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, who delivered a cruel double blow to the East End theatre: stealing their leading man and forcing the closure Goodman’s Fields. Within three years, Garrick, now a huge star, would take over the licence of Drury Lane from Fleetwood and run it himself.

He was the London stage’s biggest star, a manager, a businessman, and an able restorer of Shakespeare’s plays — removing some of the worst bowdlerisation that had taken place over the previous century and a half and reviving some of the rarely performed plays. He also played a major role in transforming Shakespeare from popular writer into our ‘national’ playwright and poet — a position he’s held ever since. And for 30 years, he expertly balanced high art with popular taste, keeping the punters flowing through the doors of the Theatre Royal. West End theatre as we know it was born — but its gestation was in the East End of London.


Curtain Theatre, Shoreditch

Curtain Theatre, Shoreditch

William West — unwitting Jack the Ripper suspect

It was the end of a long day for William West as he left the offices of the Worker’s Friend newspaper in Whitechapel, with the street lamps barely penetrating the unlit Dutfield’s Yard.

Woolf Wess

Woolf Wess

A normal day for the young immigrant. But In those early hours of 30 September 1888 he would unwittingly find himself caught up in the Whitechapel Murders. We’ll never know for sure whether he stumbled across the body of Elizabeth Stride, the third victim of the serial killer who would become notorious as ‘Jack the Ripper’, or simply passed on oblivious, but West would be called as the first witness in the inquest of the unfortunate ‘Long Liz’. For West, a passionate socialist who would run like a thread through the Jewish workers’ movements of the late 19th and early 20th century, this had a double terror. The 27-year-old had arrived in Whitechapel in the late 1870s, fleeing the anti-Jewish pogroms in Lithuania, and bearing his birth name, Woolf Wess. Stumbling upon the victim of a murder would be horrific enough, but Woolf would have been well aware that many in the press and public alike were already trying to associate the Whitechapel Murders with the large Jewish community in Whitechapel, with increasingly hysterical theories of religious ritual killings. West was ‘the most modest of men’ according to that leading light of East End socialism Rudolf Rocker, but like so many of his fellows, he had undergone an extraordinary journey to end up in Whitechapel. He was born in Vilkmerge in Russia (now Ulkomar in Lithuania) in 1861, the son of a master baker, and was apprenticed at 12 to a shoemaker. At 20, he was working as a factory machinist in the Russian town of Dvinsk (now Daugavpils in Latvia) but desperately looking for a way to escape. A choice of horrors awaited: death in one of the pogroms sweeping Eastern Europe or military services in the Tsar’s army. So, in 1881 he was smuggled onto a boat to London.


Arbeter Fraynd newspaper

A skilled shoemaker, machinist and baker, he easily found work in Whitechapel, but was appalled by the conditions of work and the exploitation of his fellow immigrants. He was also a hard worker and a fast learner, quickly gaining fluent English, alongside Russian, German and Yiddish. He put his energies into organising and directing the men and women he worked among. In 1885, he co-founded the International Workingmen’s Educational Club in Berners Street (now Henriques Street), just south of the Commercial Road, and helped start the Arbeter Fraynd (Workers’ Friend), translating news and radical views into the Yiddish that was the everyday language of Jewish Whitechapel. Questioning at the inquest focused heavily on West’s movements, and the comings and goings at the newspaper and club, but he gave no mention of seeing Stride let alone stumbling across the body. The coroner wanted to know how many members the club had (70 or 80, working men of any nationality could join). He asked about its politics (it was political, a socialist club). How did members get involved? (they were seconded by other members). Did ‘low women’ frequent the area? (he had seen them on occasion). And William Wess (as he was called at the inquest) was questioned in minute detail about the topography of the club, the yard and their surroundings and about his own journey home (the few minutes walk to his lodgings on Cannon Street Road). West had nothing to fear in the end, and neither — soberingly — did the murderer. The killer was never brought to justice and it’s highly improbable we’ll ever know his true identity. The young socialist, duty done, would go on to be a lynchpin of East End radicalism. In 1889 he served as secretary of the strike committee during the East End tailors strike, alongside Charles Mowbray and John Turner. And in 1891, the increasingly popular orator set out on a speaking tour of England, alongside stalwarts of London socialism Kropotkin, Malatesta and Yanovsky. He became a skilled typesetter, working on the new Freedom newspaper, and drew on another of his talents, learned at his master baker father’s side, to set up a co-operative bakery in Brushfield Street, Spitalfields.

Old Dvinsk

Old Dvinsk

During the 1890s, Wess founded and became secretary of the East London Workers Unions; then served as secretary of the International Tailors, Machinists and Pressers’ Trade Union, and the United Ladies and Mantle Makers’ Association. Then, in the early 1900s, he seems to have stepped back from union work, taking a job as a book-keeper in a tobacco factory and sharing a house in Leyton with his friend Tom Keell (the manager of Freedom) and his wife Lillian. It all fell apart when William and Lillian ran off together and by 1906 they were back in Whitechapel, setting up the Arbeiter Fraint club in Jubilee Street. Lillian even tried to set up an Anarchist Society school in the area, but with little success. And in June 1906, William served on the tailors’ strike committee alongside Rudolf Rocker. To the end of his life, West remained enmeshed in the politics of the Left, joining the Labour party in the 1930s, while running the London Freedom Group. He died in May 1946 at 84. But one strange postscript remains. Years later, a ‘friend of a friend of West’ later reported that on that long ago night in 1888, the spooked printer had discovered Stride’s body, but moved it further away from the offices of the newspaper and the club, lest members be implicated in the killing. Truth — or yet another fantasy in the ever-murkier world of ‘Ripperology’? We’ll never know.

Peter Shore — Labour’s forgotten prophet

Governments and faces change, the decades roll by, but one thing is ever present in British politics … the ‘will we, won’t we’ stay in Europe. Forty something years ago it was President De Gaulle saying ‘non’ after years of British vacillation about joining. Today it’s party leaders saying ‘perhaps’ on a referendum, some day, maybe. Yet for three decades, an East End MP was warning of the perils of Europe.


Peter Shore

Peter Shore

Today his name is all but forgotten. Healey, Wilson, Jenkins, Foot and Benn — all still familiar names to anyone with a passing interest in the Labour governments of the sixties and seventies, before Margaret Thatcher banished the Red side of the house to a generation of oblivion. But Shore?

Yet Peter Shore was a mainstay of Labour cabinets and shadow cabinets over three decades and was in the running to become Labour leader after Jim Callaghan resigned. He was also, as many readers will recall, MP for the Stepney constituency (in its various guises) for 33 years, surviving general elections, boundary changes and — latterly — a brutal campaign to have him deselected. Yet he was never meant to be an MP at all.

Shore was born in Yarmouth in 1924, the son of a merchant navy captain, then educated at Quarry Bank grammar school in Liverpool. It was a solid middle class start — he would win a place at Cambridge — but the poverty he saw in pre-War Liverpool made a deep impact. After his war service in the RAF, he joined the Labour party, quickly establishing himself as one of the brightest minds, first heading up the party’s research department, then becoming responsible for party policy, from 1959.

Harold Wilson

Harold Wilson

Shore was to the left of Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, and his open wearing of CND badges around Labour HQ didn’t endear him to his boss. But when Gaitskell died, tragically, unexpectedly, in 1963, Harold Wilson became party leader and increasingly relied on Shore for ideas. And when Stepney MP Walter ‘Stoker’ Edwards (a Whitechapel docker and the first serving naval rating to be elected to parliament) announced his retirement, Shore was swiftly parachuted in to the safe Labour seat. Edwards, poignantly, would die on the day of the 1964 general election.

The intellectual Shore was a very different type of politician, but fiercely protective of British jobs. He supported nationalisation, prices and incomes policies, import controls and national planning. As trade secretary ten years later he would even oppose Freddie Laker’s Skytrain, arguing that it would undermine British Airways. “It is easy enough to put on a private bus service from Marble Arch to Westminster and make it pay, but one knows very well that this will be done only at the expense of London Transport,” he declared. He would later call the Thatcher government’s programme of privatisation “public asset stripping”.

Today, it seems impossibly controlling, but Shore believed there were huge dangers in liberating banks and multinational businesses from tight control. One Conservative journalist said that “Peter Shore was the only possible Labour party leader of whom a Conservative leader had cause to walk in fear”.

Denis Healey

Denis Healey


But it was for his opposition to the Common Market he is best remembered. The battle over ‘Europe’ creates some strange alliances, and historical positions shift. It was Tory prime minister Edward Heath who had taken Britain into Europe in 1972, while the Labour Party (at least below Cabinet/Shadow Cabinet level) were largely opposed. And so it was that in 1975, Stepney MP Peter Shore found himself on the ‘No’ side, campaigning to leave the Common Market alongside Tony Benn, Michael Foot and Barbara Castle, but with the tacit backing of much of the Labour membership. Also campaigning were ‘rivers of blood’ Tory veteran Enoch Powell (by now out of the Conservative Party and become an Ulster Unionist MP), the Communist Party and the National Front.

On the ‘Yes’ side meanwhile, were the Labour big guns of Harold Wilson, Denis Healey, Jim Callaghan and Roy Jenkins, plus most of the parliamentary Conservative Party … including its newly elected leader Margaret Thatcher.

He challenged, unsuccessfully for the Labour leadership — in the end it went to Michael Foot. But increasingly battles were fought closer to home, with the Stepney party fighting to deselect their MP — support for the Falklands War and opposition to unilateral nuclear disarmament were just two positions that enraged local activists. And having doggedly held his seat during Labour’s 18 wilderness years, Shore called it a day just as the party approached power once more. With the 1997 election nearing, the veteran MP — now in his seventies and wearied by repeated attempts to oust him from his seat — gave it up. The redrawn constituency was won by Labour’s Oona King.

There’s a strange postscript to Baron Shore of Stepney’s dogged fight against Europe (the concept rather than the place, that is). This year, Shore’s widow Liz, now 85, defected from the Labour party to stand for UKIP in Cornwall, alongside her daughter and son-in-law. The Shores are still battling Europe then … though not in a way the ‘lost prophet’ of the Labour party might have hoped.

The obituaries for Shore in 2001 were less than generous. He was described as “sticking intelligently to the wrong guns for as long as anyone can remember”; when he was made head of the short-lived Economic Affairs Department, that post was described by Tory Iain Macleod as “a mink-lined kennel for Wilson’s favourite poodle”; Denis Healey described him as “Harold’s lapdog”; even Wilson himself said he had over-promoted Shore and that he was “not up to it”. And one writer reminds us that, having jousted for the Labour leadership in the mid-seventies he was, just a few years later, voted “12th most effective backbencher”.

Enoch Powell

Enoch Powell

Perhaps the truth was that Shore was just too honest and never very good (or remotely interested) in playing the power game. One of the guns he stuck to was an immovable support for the Solidarnosc union (not universally popular in the Labour party). The passage of time, however, has a way of rewriting history. If Peter Shore wasn’t always right, the Stepney MP wasn’t entirely wrong either.


Give my regards to Broad Street

Broad St/east london history/9sep13

‘Give my regards to Broad Street,’ instructed Paul McCartney in his eponymous 1984 movie. But where on earth is Broad Street?

Paul and Ringo in Give My Regards To Broad Street

Paul and Ringo in Give My Regards To Broad Street

In the closing minutes of the film, the erstwhile Beatle is filmed wandering along the dilapidated and crumbling platforms and through the rotting ticket halls of a station of the same name, pausing only to give a cheery smile to a down-and-out swigging from a bottle and bunking down in the station for the night — sure in the knowledge that he is unlikely to be disturbed in his drunken slumber by any passengers.

Most people who saw the film probably assumed Broad Street was a fiction. Everyone that is bar the handful of Londoners who were still using what had once been one of the East End’s first great railway terminal … but was now a decaying, and almost forgotten white elephant.

give my regards to broad street cover

give my regards to broad street cover

Once it had linked the East End docks with the industrial heartland of the West Midlands, and brought many thousands of commuters from East London into the City each day. By 1984 only a handful of Londoners were still using Broad Street. It had become the lost London terminus. Today, few East Enders below the age of 50 will even be aware that beneath the footprint of the giant Broadgate development lies Liverpool Street’s lost twin.


The terminus came about with the extension of the North London Railway, which despite the name was the East End’s own big player in the railway boom of the mid 19th century, having its headquarters and engine sheds at Bow (and latterly at Devons Road). In 1865, the ambitious company cleared a huge patch of City land west of Bishopsgate and built seven platforms, adding an eight in 1891 and a ninth in 1913. What had initially been conceived as a goods service, taking imports from the docks at Wapping and Limehouse to the factories of Birmingham had been expanded to take passengers. The terminus had two booking offices, one for the North London Railway, a second for the London and North Western.

For a period, the Great Northern Railway used Broad Street too, supplementing its Kings Cross terminal a few miles west. A century and a half before cross-London services came back to the capital (with Crossrail being the most recent), Broad Street had overcome the nonsense whereby passengers would take a train into London, but then have to cross the city by other means before embarking once more at a terminus on the other side.

Broad Street Station 1898

Broad Street Station 1898

The reason was that there were no other means. No tubes and no trams, and horribly congested London streets that nobody would want to traverse with luggage. For a while, Broad Street was the undisputed giant of East London termini. Its ailing neighbour Bishopsgate would soon be converted into a goods terminal (it would close in 1964 after a fire and finally be demolished in 2003 to make way for the new Shoreditch station). And the Liverpool Street station that replaced it (built on the site of the old Bedlam asylum), wouldn’t be built until 1874.


From that year, the two termini squatted side by side. Broad Street was enormously successful. What had started as a spin-off from the freight business was, by 1902, a passenger station handling 27 million individual journeys each year. A train arrived at, or departed from, the station every minute.


But as quickly as it had caught on, the station went into decline. the North London Line lost most of its passengers to the expansion of the bus, tram and Tube network and the station became increasingly poorly used. And on September 8, 1915 the station was a victim of the most devastating air raid yet on the City, as ace German pilot Heinrich Matty targeted the financial district of London. A bomb hit a bus outside the station, killing the conductor and a number of passengers, and more explosives hit Norton Folgate, just to the north of the terminus, taking out several of the tracks.

The Blitz of World War II was worse, with a number of stations leading in to the terminal bombed into closure. The loss of Shoreditch, Victoria Park and the entire branch line out to Poplar effectively cut off the life blood of Broad Street. In 1950 the main part of the station was closed, as were all but two lines. East Enders, loyal to their terminus, were still dribbling in each day, but in ever declining numbers.

Those who remember the London of the 60s and 70s will remember a town still pocked with bombsites a quarter of a century after the War. It wouldn’t be until the 1980s that the rebuilding of London began in earnest. John Betjeman, poet laureate and lover of London railways and suburbia, visited the station in 1973, regarded the half-removed roof, and mourned the giant’s decline.

“Standing on the empty concourse at Broad Street today, one has a feeling of its former greatness. Incongruous and ridiculous, in red brick with pavement-light windows is a streamlined booking office for the few passengers who use this potentially popular line. May God save the Old North London!”

But God wasn’t interested, and neither were the old British Railways. By the time McCartney chose the station for the denouement of his 1984 movie, no doubt more attracted by the possibility of a punning title rather than from any great knowledge of London railways, just 300 people were using Broad Street each day. Of course that did make filming (at night in this case) all the easier.

Broad Street 1981

Broad Street 1981

The unkind might have suggested that was approximately the number that saw the movie at the cinema, though the picture did yield the ageing moptop one great song, ‘No More Lonely Nights’, performed as he wanders nostalgically around the near-derelict station (you can check it out on youtube). In 1986 Broad Street, which had narrowly arrived the Beeching axe in the early 60s, was finally closed. A different, more aggressive and more commercial era had been born. As the wrecking balls departed, the builders moved in, to create the new Broadgate complex, of offices, shops, restaurants and squares, where City workers would sip coffee while wielding a curious new invention: the mobile phone — Broadgate was the acme of 80s London. Broad Street meanwhile had vanished without a trace.

Video from driver’s cab of train travelling into Broad Street in the 1970s:

Full movie of Give My Regards To Broad Street: (footage of McCartney walking around the station cuts in at 1hr 35mins

Railway map of London 1899


Cigar makers of the East End of London

The trading vessels that set off for the New World, for Asia, and for the West and East Indies from the 16th century onward, brought back a number of goods, without which it’s impossible to imagine the London of today. No morning tea or coffee? No sugar with which to sweeten it? And where would Londoners be without the potato… a London without chip shops is a baleful prospect. But none of the new crops that came into Wapping seemed to catch on quite so quickly as tobacco. victorian caricatureThe first bales are said to have been landed from Virginia in 1586, and the first pipe of the stuff is supposed to have been smoked at the Pied Bull pub in Islington (though presumably somebody must have stopped for a smoke en route from Wapping to north London). Less than 30 years later there were some 7000 tobacconists in London, and despite the attempts of the tobacco-hating James I to tax the stuff out of existence (he described it as “a custome loathesome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine” in his famed 1604 essay A Counterblaste To Tobacco), Londoners couldn’t get enough. Literally. James had his ministers limit the Virginia planters to exports of no more than 100lb of the stuff a year. Just like modern governments, the monarch expressed a loathing of the drug while happily pocketing the excise duty. By the middle of the 1600s the health benefits of the weed were being proclaimed (a brilliant fiction that persisted into the middle of the 20th century), with Spitalfields apothecaries selling tobacco and prescribing it as a protection during the Great Plague that carried off around 100,000 of the estimated 460,000 Londoners in 1665. And despite the miserable failure of tobacco as a medicine, Londoners kept smoking, munching and sniffing the stuff (with chewing tobacco and snuff just as popular as pipe tobacco). Wapping, Whitechapel and Spitalfields tobacconists in the 1700s were identified by the large wooden figure of a black Indian (native American) with a crown and kilt of tobacco leaves. So lucrative was the trade that top artists were employed to produce cards and shop bills, with the young Hogarth turning his brush to tobacco adverts. As the centuries wore on the fashions changed. By the 19th century cigars and, increasingly cigarettes, were gaining popularity in London. The size of the trade is evidenced by the construction of Tobacco Dock at Wapping. And the great quantity of unrefined tobacco now being brought in to the Pool of London from Virginia and elsewhere was matched by the vigorous attempts of gangs such as the River Pirates and Heavy Horsemen  (not to mention many working on the docks) to liberate the stuff. So a bonded warehouse, with tight security needed to be built. The warehouses were part of the massive London Docks, begun on the marshes of Wapping in 1801 by John Rennie and opened four years later. And alongside grew up the East End cigar and cigarette industry. The East End has a plethora of trades that have come and gone. Lace-making, brewing, tanning and a host of other stink industries are now (largely) history, but the tobacco industry is almost forgotten. Maurice Zeegen, writing in 2003 of his own family firm, charted a fascinating and largely forgotten group of East End incomers, who made the business their own. “After the Huguenots [who settled in numbers after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, in 1598] and before the East European Jews [who arrived en masse from the late 19th century] the Spitalfields area was settled by significant numbers of poor Jews from, predominantly, Amsterdam. They were known as ‘Chuts’, thought to be a take on the sound of the immigrants’ word for ‘good’ in Dutch.” tobacco dock And while the Huguenots were renowned for their lace-making skills, and the 19th century arrivals would be (to a large degree) employed in the garment trades, the profession pursued by many of these people was cigar-making. Many small workshops and factories were established in Bethnal Green, Whitechapel and Spitalfields, among them was the cigar factory of Zeegen Brothers, situated in Chicksand Street, off Brick Lane. Maurice, great-grandson of one of the founders of the factory, writes of his family business surviving into the 1920s before being absorbed into the Godfrey Phillips cigarette company [itself also founded by a Dutch family], based in Jerome Street, Whitechapel. The 1911 History of the County of Middlesex (the area east of the City wall, in those days, belonging to the now defunct county) suggested that the tobacco industry was still a huge employer in what is now the East End. “The manufacture of tobacco is carried on very largely in East London and Hackney, which contain 76 factories for the production of tobacco, cigars, cigarettes, and snuff. In all London there are about 180 factories in this trade, and in the whole of England, the metropolis included, there are about four hundred and thirty, so that in the number of its tobacco factories East London occupies a conspicuous position.” The number of factories (some major operations such as the Carreras works in Camden, which would eventually relocate to Basildon in Essex, others small workshops with a handful of employees) was remarkable enough. But there were numerous small workshops too, employing pieceworkers to treat the tobacco, roll cigars and produce pipe and plug tobacco. The tobacco industry in the East End was thus very like its natural counterpart, the matchmaking industry, where for every giant Fairfield works (Bryant and May’s factory in Bow’s Fairfield Road, which is now the Bow Quarter, but was once the largest ‘manufactory’ in Europe) there were thousands making phosphorous matches in tiny workshops (even in their own homes), and suffering the horror of ‘phossy jaw’ as a result. The raw tobacco would be ‘liquored’ and ‘stripped’, then the leaf handed over to ‘stovers,’ who first placed it on a steam-pan to separate the fibres, and then on a fire-pan to make it fit for keeping and to improve its smoking quality. The final process was that of ‘cooling,’ where a current of cold air is passed through it to drive off the moisture. The cigars the East Enders made were known, reasonably enough, as ‘British cigars’ in the late 19th and early 20th century, and the quality — if variable — was often surprisingly good. Cuban cigars were the acme of smoking excellence of course, but were expensive. Reports of the time compare the best of the East End cigars as ‘infinitely superior’ to the fake Havanas flooding into the London Docks from Belgium and, by the early 1900s, Mexico. The huge cottage industry began to falter under the attack of cheap imports from the Americas and, in the early 20th century, from the new fashion for Egyptian cigarettes, as cigar smoking declined. Ironically it was the massive popularity of smoking in the 20th century that saw off the small East End firms. Adoption of the drug was driven by the big corporations who could afford to advertise their products and drive cigarettes from a minority pursuit to a habit pursued by most adults. Now it was all about the brand, and the East End cigarette factories died off one by one.     Cigar makers of the East End/east end life/9sep13   pics: the Jerome St factory; Tobacco dock; victorian caricature;

From gas to electricity in the East End of London

Last week we looked at the ‘gas wars’ that intermittently flared across London as Victorian businessmen sought, Klondike-style, to stake their claim in a business that would pay off for generations to come. But even as the gaslights flickered on in the new terraces of Bow, Bethnal Green and Stepney, a new form of power was waiting to take its place. Just as the canals would swiftly be supplanted by the railways, so electricity would replace gas as the lighting of choice in the home. old-gasworks-at-dusk-haggerston-1675376

But in the early 1800s, another idea began to grasp the imagination of London entrepreneurs. This was a town built around a river — maybe the river could provide the energy it needed? The new docks and railways required huge amounts of power and during the 1800s the London Hydraulic Power Company (LHPC) began to supply it, with steam-driven power station forcing water at high-pressure all around the capital. It sounds like something from a modern steampunk novel, but by the mid-1800s, much of the dock and railway infrastructure of the East End was running on water power, with the liquid drawn straight from the Thames.

Many of the hydraulic power companies in other parts of Britain were also the providers of the new clean drinking water that cities were demanding — especially as the links between dirty water and cholera became clear. But the LHPC was purely a generating business, and by the late 1800s it had built a huge network of customers, fed by its nearly 200 miles of pipes.

The biggest users of these hydraulic power networks even had their own accumulator towers, where the power supplied to them (in the form of vast quantities of water) could be stored until needed. These tall brick structures replaced the earlier towers, some of which had been 90 metres high, and used a more efficient system of weights. When power was required, a controlled release of weights would push down on the water, generated the energy required to power cranes or train.

Once they were everywhere in the East End. Today, many of the buildings have been demolished and some are simply being allowed to rot. Head east of Tower Bridge, to the junction of Mansell Street and Royal Mint Street, and you’ll see a brick rectangle with faded lettering. Look harder and you may be able to discern ‘London Midland & Scottish Railway City Goods Station and Bonded Stores’. This was once the route of the London & Blackwall Railway, which ran from Minories to Blackwall and the London Docks, and the Minories accumulator tower lay on its route. Minories was a shortlived railway station, opening in 1814 and closing 14 years later when Fenchurch Street was built.

The London & Blackwall Railway is long gone too, eventually being subsumed into the larger LM&S (hence the lettering) and then into British Rail. But the route and the Victorian viaducts of the L&BR, long redundant, were pressed back into use by the new DLR from the late 1980s. Follow the old London & Blackwall Railway and you end up at Blackwall station (now on the DLR) and a rather better preserved example. Before the development of ‘Docklands’ in the 1980s, the area around Blackwall Way was dominated by the Poplar Dock Company, which boasted a complex network of railway goods sheds and a hydraulic power network. The only thing that remains of the development today is the accumulator tower and pump house, saved by commerce (the Victorians would probably approve). It’s now a Majestic Wine warehouse, so you can combine a little architectural history with restocking the drinks cabinet.

But perhaps the most impressive example of the great age of London hydraulic power is the sole LHPC power station to survive with all its machinery intact. You can pay a visit to this one too — and enjoy your lunch at the same time. The Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, on Wapping Wall, was opened by the LHPC in 1890, powered by steam when it opened and converting to electrical turbines in latter years. And from Wapping (and the LHPC’s other hydraulic stations at Pimlico, Rotherhithe, Blackfriars and the Regents Canal) ran an extraordinary 200 miles of pipework around the capital.

The company even bought the Tower Subway, which was first the conduit of a shortlived underground railway and then a foot tunnel beneath the Thames, before that too was forced out of business by the opening of the toll-free Tower Bridge in 1894. The tunnel was now used to run LHPC pipes. At its peak, the Wapping station was forcing water around London at 800 pounds per square inch, not just powering trains and cranes, but raising theatre curtains and even powering the dumb waiters at the Savoy. Remarkably, the system lasted until 1977, when the Wapping station was the last of the five to close.

That was the end of hydraulic power in London, though today it seems a remarkably green alternative to burning coal and gas — one thing London has plenty of, is water.

Map of sites mentioned:

London’s Lost Power Stations and Gasworks by Ben Pedroche, published by the History Press,, £14.99