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Thomas Rainsborough

Thomas Rainsborough, the Levellers ...

Roundheads versus Cavaliers, Parliament versus Royalty. In the popular mind the English Civil War is a simple conflict of two clearly opposing faction...

Bow dye

Bow Dye/east end life/27may13 Renaissance man, polymath, uomo universale -- there are many ways to describe the remarkable Cornelis Jacobszoon Dreb...

In Darkest London

Darkest London/east end history/8jul13/rennie The job of a middle class female in Victorian London was straightforward. To marry, to bear children ...

John Lydon, No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs

St Patrick’s Day … Lond...

I REALISED as I looked around my Essex classroom 40-odd years ago that pretty much all of us came from somewhere else. The name were Jewish, Welsh, Sc...

Thomas Rainsborough, the Levellers and the English Civil War

Roundheads versus Cavaliers, Parliament versus Royalty. In the popular mind the English Civil War is a simple conflict of two clearly opposing factions, which will end with the beheading of one king — and unfold a decade later with the return of his son to the throne. But the series of battles that would play out during the First and Second English Civil Wars in the

Thomas Rainsborough

Thomas Rainsborough

1640s were anything but clear cut. And while the Parliamentarians were bitterly opposed to the high-handed rule Charles I they were almost equally divided among themselves. The bitter factional disputes would play out with the killing of Thomas Rainsborough on October 30, 1648. The sword that slew the Leveller leader was in the hand of a Cavalier soldier — but was it Oliver Cromwell himself who directed the blade?

The unveiling of a plaque by Tony Benn in St John’s Churchyard a week or two back is an attempt to bring Rainsborough back into the public consciousness. Benn, a hero of the left, and a thorn in the side of his own leaders (though it might be pushing it rather to equate Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan with Cromwell) could certainly identify with the satisfyingly awkward Rainsborough. He would certainly applaud the Levellers (who elected ‘agitators’ from among their ranks) and their attacks on the House of Lords and inherited power, as well as their demand for their ‘natural, God-given rights’.

Rainsborough had been born in 1610, the son of a prominent, though not an aristocratic family. He was the son of William Rainsborough, a Vice-Admiral in command of his own vessel in the Royal Navy, as well as a Member of Parliament and the King’s Ambassador to Morocco. For William’s exploits in battling white slavery in Morocco, he was offered an hereditary knighthood by Charles I in 1642, but turned it down (accepting a life peerage instead). It was a combination of the military with politics his sons (William Rainsborowe and Thomas) would follow.

Thomas proved himself to be a talented and flexible military man. He was already in the navy before the outbreak of the First Civil War in 1642, and during the conflict, as Parliament turned against the King, he was put in command of the Swallow and other English warships. By May 1645, he had transferred to the New Model Army, fighting at the Battle of Naseby (a devastating defeat for the Cavaliers), at Bristol, Berkeley Castle and the Siege of Droitwich.

 

Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell

In January 1647 became the MP for Droitwich. He was a voice for the Roundheads, but also a dissenter in their midst. Leaders of the Parliamentary side, Oliver Cromwell and his son-in-law, Henry Ireton wanted freedom from Royal tyranny but they certainly didn’t want communism, and Rainsborough’s espousal of the ideas of the Ranters and Levellers were altogether too revolutionary. The Ranters were a religious sect believing that God was in every creature: rejecting centralised organisation, they were seen as a threat not just to the established Church but to the fabric of society. The Levellers meanwhile argued that the king (or whoever should replace him) must be elected by all the people (well, men at least). Universal suffrage and the dismantling of the structures of society and government weren’t in Cromwell’s plan — in the latter years of the Commonwealth (1649-1660), he would became a king in all but name.

So Rainsborough’s addresses at the Levellers’ Putney Debates were concerning to his leaders such as Cromwell and Thomas Fairfax — especially when the soldier attempted to serve a copy of the Leveller tract Agreement of the People on his general, at the Corkbush Field rendezvous of 1647. Fairfax brushed him aside and arranged a transfer well away from the cockpit of London politics. The first plan was to put him back in the Navy as a Vice-Admiral, but his Leveller beliefs elicited a mutiny among his men. So Rainsborough was sent to assist the Roundhead cause at the Siege of Pontefract Castle. Again he found opposition, with the Parliamentary commander in Yorkshire, Sir Henry Cholmley, refusing to accept his authority. While the arguments continued, Thomas and his men were billeted in Doncaster, and it was there he met his death. Not on the field or at sea: four royalists had managed to get into the fortified billet and kidnap him. In the struggle, one ran through Rainsborough with his sword.

How had they got to him? The bitter suspicion was that Cromwell et al had arranged the killing. Certainly, without

King Charles I

King Charles I

Rainsborough, the Levellers’ influence waned during the Second Civil War. 3000 mourners paraded through London wearing the green ribbons and rosemary branches of the movement, but the impetus for a truly revolutionary England had gone. King Cromwell would soon ascend the throne. The whole story, if slightly buffed and beautified for modern eyes, can be seen in ‘The Devil’s Whore’, a movie released a few years back, starring Michael Fassbender as Rainsborough and Dominic West as Cromwell. Peter Capaldi plays Charles I, though without ‘Thick of It’ profanities.

Rainsborough’s remains lie somewhere in St John’s Churchyard — though until the unveiling of the plaque on May 12, you wouldn’t have found a clearly marked spot. The site, though lovely, is slightly surreal: a graveyard without stones, accompanying a tower without a church. The graveyard is neatly turfed over, while what remains of the old tombstones are serried along the walls of the plot. St John’s itself was lost to enemy bombing during World War 2: the husk was demolished and new apartments were built around the tower.

 

 

Bow dye

Bow Dye/east end life/27may13

Renaissance man, polymath, uomo universale — there are many ways to describe the remarkable Cornelis Jacobszoon Drebbel. He was a multi-talented Dutchman who came to London as a guest of James I to share his extraordinarily eclectic scientific knowlege. In the 1660s he had invented the first working submarine, he devised revolutionary microscopes and telescopes, invented an air conditiong system, the first working thermometer, even a chicken incubator — yet he would die almost penniless, the landlord of an East End pub. And among the eccentric and brilliant Cornelis’s grand plans and myriad inventions it was a happy accident, at a windowsill in Bow, that made his family’s fortune.

Drebbel had been born in Alkmaar, in what would become the Netherlands, in 1572, the son of a farmer. He could certainly read and write, and studied Latin, but he had no university education. The scientific genius that would emerge was of a more practical colour — Cornelis learned by experimentation, and he was tireless. Leaving school, he was sent to Haarlem as an apprentice to the famed engraver and painter Hendrick Goltzius and it was here his interest in chemistry was born. Goltzius was an enthusiastic experimenter in alchemy, that medieval mix of the scientific and the mystical, whose grail was the search for the Philosopher’s Stone, for the Elixir of Life, and for the elements that would turn base metals to gold.

Easy for our modern minds to dismiss such stuff as a naive belief in superstition and magic, but the alchemists were on to something. They knew that elements could, seemingly magically, transform themselves — water could freeze solid or boil into nothing, acids could eat strong metals. Alchemy, in fact, would set modern chemistry in motion. By the 1590s, Drebbel’s interests were expanding furiously. In 1600, his nascent studies in engineering saw him being employed by the burghers of Middelburg, in the southern Netherlands, to build their town a fountain. While there he met Hans Lippershey, who was working in the growing science of optics, making spectacles and telescopes — Drebbel eagerly learned his skills. He became obsessed with inventions: the old age of alchemy and mysticism was giving way to a new world of experiment and science.

And it was this that attracted the attention of James I, who had recently succeeded to the throne of England. This ‘wisest fool in Christendom’ perhaps also straddled the medieval and modern, being simultaneously an enthusiastic burner of witches and a fan of the new sciences. The Scottish king, a poet and scholar, and rather beleaguered in his new London court, was keen to gather the brightest of the age around him, and collected explorers, theologians, economists and alchemists around him at court. Drebbel was invited to join him in 1604. He settled, with wife and family, in the Middlesex village of Bow, and set to work impressing the king.

While at court he demonstrated his perpetual motion machine, which told the time, date and season. Its fame spread across Europe, and Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II invited Cornelis to Prague to demonstrate its (dubious) efficacy. He became famous for his invention, in 1621, of a microscope with two convex lenses. He wrote a seminal work on the nature of the chemical elements (the move from alchemy to chemistry again). And he was devising his own compounds, including mercury fulminate, which would become used in explosives in the years to come. He demonstrated an air-conditioned room to the king and his courtiers (it was so cold they had to swiftly depart). And, practical as ever, he invented a chicken incubator with a mercury thermostat to keep it at a constant temperature — setting a template for the development of modern, reliable thermometers.

But now Drebbel started on a new project. James was looking for new weapons for his growing navy — with the new Great Britain’s imperial expansion, the navy was becoming far more important than the land army. He would devise various bombs for James and his successor Charles I, but even more boldly, he was to make the first navigable submarine. Gravesend naval man William Bourne had drawn plans for such a craft in the 1570s, and in between 1620 and 1624, Drebbel drew on those plans to build three working models, each bigger than the last. The last of them had six oars and carried 16 passengers (including James, who thus became the first monarch to travel underwater). Thousands of Londoners lined the banks of the Thames, as the vessel travelled from Westminster to Greenwich and back, staying underwater for some three hours.

But how did he do it? Argument still rages as to how ‘submarine’ the craft was — it was perhaps more a semi-submersible. But many accounts of the day have Drebbel putting his alchemical knowledge into practice, burning potassium nitrate within the submarine to generate oxygen (and simultaneously absorb carbon dioxide build up). If so, he had anticipated the ‘rebreather’, invented by Fleuss in the 1870s, by 250 years.

And yet … with all his brilliant inventions, Drebbel was never able to secure the patronage and money he needed, and by the late 1620s was near poverty, running a London alehouse and drawing up plans (never implemented) for draining the Lincolnshire fens. He was still conducting his experiments though and so it was that, while developing a coloured liquid for one of his thermometers, he accidentally dripped a solution of aqua regia (nitro-hydrochloric acid) on his tin window sill. The resultant colour, was a brilliant scarlet, much brighter and longer lasting than the existing carmines used in fabric dying. Cornelis had just a few more years to live, but his daughters Anna and Catharina and sons-in-law Abraham and Johannes Sibertus Kuffler established a dye works in Bow, with the colour of ‘Bow Dye’ a closely guarded family secret. Nobody could prise it from them, and the brilliant scarlet of Bow Dye became the fashionable toast of Europe. Cornelis died almost penniless … but his descendants made their fortunes.

 

In Darkest London

Darkest London/east end history/8jul13/rennie

The job of a middle class female in Victorian London was straightforward. To marry, to bear children and to maintain unimpeachable standards of behaviour and sexual continence. Divorce (even when it became legal) meant banishment from society. An education? That was for men.

But the straitened, buttoned-up Britain of the latter 1800s didn’t just march to one beat. It was an industrial age that was creating huge poverty and slums just as it was making many very rich. A time of social ferment and new political ideas, with the fight for socialism and universal suffrage. And that created a new kind of woman. The feminist, educated, independent career woman appeared in the novels of Henry James, in the plays of Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw, in the suffragette movement — and in a battalion of independent-minded women who took on poverty and social injustice in the East End.

Margaret Harkness was a typical New Woman. She had been born at Upton-on-Severn in Worcestershire, on 28 February 1854, the daughter of a conservative clergyman. Her first decision, to train as a nurse, was challenging enough for her parents, though acceptable. Soon enough she would marry a wealthy man and settle into domesticity. To their horror, though, she made it clear she had no interest in marriage, deciding to stay single and work as a freelance journalist.

Her first works were rather dry histories on Egypt and Assyria, but by the early 1880s she had been captured by stories closer to home… though a million miles from the rural peace of the Malverns. She began writing for socialist paper Justice on the scandals of child poverty and malnourishment in the East End. And as a social reformer she was becoming increasingly involved, rather than simply observing and writing. She moved to the East End, into a little flat into the newly constructed Katherine Buildings, the first project of the East End Dwellings Company, which would move hundreds of East Enders out of slum tenements and into their vast red-brick blocks, the so-called ‘Red Cliffs of Stepney’.

The EEDC was unusual among the new ‘model dwellings’ companies in that it allowed casual and day workers (among the poorest and least secure of employees of course), and Margaret particularly wanted to observe and write about them. As so often with Victorian philanthropists working among the East End poor, there was a sense of missionary amid a foreign race, even a different species. The EEDC also, uniquely, eschewed strong-arm rent collection methods, instead copying the model of Octavia Hill, and so using female rent collectors. Katherine House had been named for one of the first of those, Catherine [sic] Potts. Catherine was Margaret’s second cousin, and another toff who had come to the East End, going to work with Toynbee Hall founders Samuel and Henrietta Barnett.

Catherine and her sister Beatrice (the future Beatrice Webb, who would go on to found the LSE and be instrumental in the establishment of the Fabian Society) became part of Margaret’s East End circle, along with Eleanor Marx and Annie Besant. Now the young journalist was becomingly increasingly politically engaged, joining the Social Democratic Federation and helped mediate in the 1889 East End Dock Strike.

But it was an experiment with her writing where Margaret made her mark. The ‘Condition of England’ novel was a genre in itself, with notable entrants such as North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell and Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil, or The Two Nations. And writers had drawn on their journalism to create them, famously Charles Dickens with Hard Times. But a woman living in the East End and novelising the scenes she saw around her was unique. And blurring the lines between journalism and fiction also let her create her own blend of socialism and feminism — her main concern, in truth, was the lot of East End women, and she tackled their social and sexual oppression head on in her first book A City Girl.

The eponymous heroine is young East End seamstress, Nelly Ambrose, seduced by a West End middle-class radical, Arthur Grant, treasurer in the local hospital for poor women and children. It caught the eye of Frederick Engels, who had seen at first hand the horror of the workers’ lot during his days as a young manager in a Manchester mill firm. He liked her novel, but criticised her inability to give it a socialist core. He famously went on to berate the East Enders for their lack of revolutionary fervour. ‘Nowhere in the civilised world are the working people less actively resistant, more passively submitting to fate, more bewildered than in the East End of London.’

Set in the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee (1887) Out of Work, a year later, describes poor carpenter, Joseph Coney, who comes to London from rural England to seek employment. He gets casual jobs at the East End Docks, is often hungry and unemployed, and laments: ‘I guess I ain’t wanted. There are too many of us poor folks, and not enough work for us to do.’ Finally, in perfect melodramatic Victorian style, he becomes alcoholic, destitute and returns home to expire on his mother’s tomb. Harkness reflected that in years to come, the ‘chain’ system of the casualised docks would be looked back on in horror.

In A Manchester Shirtmaker, Margaret moves the action to the horrors of the sweatshop, with its internecine battles between English, Irish and Jewish workers; and to the workhouse, appalling industrial accidents and inevitable death. True to form, the heroine poisons her baby with opium, is sent to the lunatic asylum and strangles herself to death.

But it is in her fourth, and most successful novel, In Darkest London, that Harkness really found her voice. She seems to have become disillusioned with socialism, and been attracted by the social activism of the Salvation Army. The novel follows the travails of Captain Lobe, as he works to bring relief to the ‘down-and-outs’ of the East End slums. The title references both Stanley’s famous travel narrative, In Darkest Africa and William Booth’s In Darkest London and the Way Out, which revealed the moral problems of poverty in England. Some of the colour in the book could only have come from a journalist ‘reporting’ from the scene:

“Whitechapel Road is ‘the most cosmopolitan place in London…a grinning Hottentot elbows his way through a crowd of long-eyed Jewesses. An Algerian merchant walks arm-in-arm with a native of Calcutta. A little Italian plays pitch-and-toss with a small Russian. A Polish Jew enjoys sauerkraut with a German Gentile. And among the foreigner lounges the East End loafer, monarch of all he surveys…it is amusing to see his British air of superiority. He is looked upon as scum by his own nation…he has a mind, although he does his best to destroy it by narcotics and stimulants.”

She wryly notes the morbid fascinations of the locals. There are echoes of Orwell, 50 years later, whose overwhelming impression of the East End was that very little of interest happened in a very grey world:

‘The only things in which East End people take much interest are murders and funerals. Their lives are so dull, nothing else sets their sluggish blood in motion. But a murder gives them two sensations. Was the person poisoned, or was his throat cut? Did the corpse turn black, or did it keep until the nails were put into the coffin?’

Margaret would leave the East End and travel the world, before dying in Italy in 1923, largely forgotten. The irony? In her 1880s and 90s heyday, those seminal novels would be published under the pseudonym ‘John Law’. A feminist and radical writer she may have been — but London still wasn’t ready for such works from a woman’s pen.

[ENDS]

 

St Patrick’s Day … London Irish historical connections

I REALISED as I looked around my Essex classroom 40-odd years ago that pretty much all of us came from somewhere else. The name were Jewish, Welsh, Scots or Irish: even digging back a couple of generations, my own provenance was a good mongrel mix of Lowland Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cheshire and Norfolk. And of course most of us Essex people – from Romford, Ongar and Brentwood – had come from London a generation or so back. East Enders escaping the dirt and bombs of Charlton, Poplar and Tottenham for decent indoor plumbing and a front and back garden in Basildon or a suburban semi in Upminster.

But by far the biggest group was the Irish. Not surprising when you consider that that the occupants of the Emerald Isle had largely decamped during the mid-nineteenth century, seeking escape from poverty and famine and finding work in building the roads, railways and housing estates of a mushrooming London. Our city was built by the Irish (and they’d been coming for centuries before of course) but the English have always had an ambivalent, at times violently hostile attitude … no matter how much Irish blood runs in our veins. Dip into the DNA of most Londoners and you’ll find a bit of Cork, Kerry or Cavan in there. St Patrick’s Day is an excuse for Londoners to drink too much Guinness and paint the

John Lydon, No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs

John Lydon, No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs

town green. But let’s take a look at ten historic London-Irish connections that go beyond the blarney.

  1. In 1736 there are violent riots in Spitalfields, as locals turn on the Irish incomers, who differ in dress and culture and speak Gaelic.
  2. 1780: The Gordon Riots. The Irish had been settling in the East End for generations and there was a substantial population at the East End of Cable Street, which became known as Knockfergus. The eccentric MP, Lord George Gordon, instigated anti-Catholic riots in 1780, and it led to violent attacks on the homes of Irish Londoners there. By the time the smoke cleared on the Gordon Riots, 700 were dead.
  3. Huguenots would also settle in Spitalfields and, like the Irish, would be feared and attacked by some of the locals. In their case it was because they brought superior silk weaving skills which put the locals out of work. The Huguenots were Protestants of course, who would left the Low Countries to flee persecution after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. But many of their number would be encouraged to settle in the Irish ‘colonies’, in an echo fo the Scots Planters, who took looted Irish land. The roots of religious conflict between England and Ireland go deep, and are often very tangled.
  4. In the late 19th century, hysteria about revolution was running high in London, with genuine fear that the the overthrown of Crown and State was being plotted. The fears weren’t entirely without foundation of course. Most of the hysteria was directed at immigrants from Eastern Europe, who were bringing new socialist ideas with them, and from Ireland – from where Popish plotting against the Crown was suspected.
  5. Edmund Spenser, born in 1582 in West Smithfield. Spenser was a man of his time, combining a political role with his genius as a poet – he gave us The Fairie Queene of course. But the sublime beauty of his writing was matched by a brutally pragmatic approach to ‘The Irish Problem’. In his time as an administrator in Ireland, Spenser advocated a de facto genocide against the Irish people, in his pamphlet A View of the Present State of Ireland.
  6. In 1822, Sir Robert Peel became Home Secretary and proposed a new Metropolitan police force for London, basing it on the Royal Irish Constabulary he had founded eight years before (the first force to bear the nickname ‘Peelers’).
  7. 1912: A year of mass strikes in the East End and around Britain. For the first time, there was a union between the garment workers (largely Jewish) and the dockers (largely Irish) though the strike would peter out with little solid achieved.
  8. 1936: For Bill Fishman, an eyewitness at the Battle of Cable Street 24 years after the above dispute, the union of disparate groups there had its roots in that 1912 linkup, saying: “It was moving to me to see bearded Jews and Irish dockers side by side as comrades.” Some stories, it seems, take decades to play out.
  9. 19 Princelet Street, the East End’s Museum of Diversity. The Irish take their place alongside the Jews, Huguenots and others. And with the first-ever Jesuit Pope now being enthroned, it’s interesting to reflect just how dangerous it was for the followers of Ignatius Loyola (and Catholics generally) during certain periods of the East End’s past.
  10. No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish. London-Irishman John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) famously took this as the title of his memoir, citing this as a sign commonly seen in guesthouses in London in the 1950s. Debate than raged about how common (if at all) such signs actually were, but certainly Irish labourers arriving from Cork and looking for board would find some doors slammed in their faces. And if you were black…

10 historic East End theatres

View East End theatre map in a larger map

  • Britannia Theatre Hoxton
  • Hoxton Hall
  • The Theatre
  • Curtain Theatre
  • Royal Cambridge Music Hall
  • Red Lion Theatre
  • Goodman’s Fields Theatre
  • Half Moon Theatre
  • Garrick Theatre
  • Wilton’s Music Hall

Stepney by Samantha Bird

MAGNIS AD MAIORA runs the legend beneath the coat of arms of the London Borough of Stepney – ‘from great things to greater’ for those of us unlucky (or lucky) enough to not have studied Latin at school. But how far did the borough achieve such aspirations? Did life get better over the course of the first half of the 20th century? Looking at the lot of Stepney dwellers around the turn of the century it could scarcely have got much worse.

St Dunstans Church, Stepney

St Dunstans Church, Stepney

Those, and many others are the questions posed in Dr Samantha Bird’s excellent new book on the area*, “the first single volume history of Stepney in modern times”, in which she draws her historical line from the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 to the Festival of Britain in 1951. The tricky thing with the East End, though, is where do you draw your geographic boundaries? This isn’t the historical village of Stepney, rather the borough which emerged from the 1899 London Government Act, and bordered to the west by the City, to the north by Bethnal Green, to the east by Poplar and south by the Thames. This Stepney includes “the parishes of Mile End Old Town and St George’s in the East; the districts of Limehouse and the Whitechapel Boards of Works, with the Tower of London and the Liberties thereof”. This new Stepney, which tried to fashion administrable cohesion from an area which had sprawled noisomely over the Middlesex countryside in the previous century or so, was a triumph of Victorian political tidiness: with 20 wards, 60 councillors, and three parliamentary constituencies: Limehouse, Mile End and Whitechapel.

The one thing that hadn’t changed, since the time of Samuel Pepys, was the poverty of the people. According to tax records in Pepys’s day, “half of the residents of the East of London were classified as poor”. Since medieval times, the area east of the City wall had been seen as London’s backyard, and like many of our backyards, there was a lot dumped out there. So workshops, shipyards, bakeries, mills and distilleries poured forth their filth and stenches alongside the allotments and market gardens. As for the people, they were little regarded. In 1845, the railway speculators drove their new line out from Fenchurch Street to Tilbury. No consideration was shown to the East Enders who lived nearby (those whose homes weren’t demolished). The tracks ran so close that people had to keep their windows closed as the trains passed “lest their bedding catch fire from the sparks”.

But fast forward to the end of the Victorian era, past the Houndsditch Murders and Churchill’s grandstanding at the Sidney Street Siege – and how did this new borough cope with the 20th century? Certain themes emerge over and over again. The East End had coalesced as a series of slums as the old fields of Middlesex were covered with increasingly dense housing. And poor housing was to dominate the politics of Stepney throughout the first half of the century. There were those made homeless by the Zeppelin air raids of the Great War, and the paucity of homes for heroes in the years after. With Poplarism there was the emergence of a whole political movement centred on the inequities of housing policy. And in World War 2, huge numbers of Stepney dwellers were bombed out, killed or displaced by enemy action. Once war was over the decisions were huge, and partial rebuilding sat alongside relocation to the New Towns of Essex.

Along the way, Bird examines how a unique admixture of cultures created the political life of Stepney. In particular, between the wars, an alliance between Irish and Jewish dwellers, united in politics of the broad left and in a loathing of fascism, generated plenty of volunteers to fight fascists on the streets of Stepney and on the fields of Spain.

The tail end of our period is the Festival of Britain, and the bright new era of housing that promised. The Lansbury Estate was to be merely the first of the new, planned developments – and it of course bore the name of the hero of Poplarism – but it was criticised by many for its limited ambition and cautious architecture. The Government might have tried to sell 1951 as the dawn of a brave new world, but to many East Enders it must have seemed like the end of theirs, as Stepney’s decline in population and industrial base accelerated. The Abercrombie Plan for London seemed to be more a plan to move everybody out of London. But the findings that emerged from the Mass Observation programme of surveys during the latter days of the War yielded some simple but (to us now) obvious facts. Stepney dwellers wanted to live in houses not flats; they wanted to have gardens not communal spaces; and they wanted to stay where they were.

Dr Bird manages that trickiest of juggling acts – turning an academic work (Stepney began life as her PhD thesis) into a compelling read. The academic provenance is there on every page, in the many hundreds of footnotes, the reliance on primary sources and the inclusion of a proper index (which is rarer than you might expect!). But the pages are choc-a-bloc with characters and facts from Stepney’s history. So we discover that the famous slogan “They shall not pass”, which was to become ubiquitous during the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, was first given voice by Arthur Foley Winnington-Ingram, the Bishop of London, in his 1918 Easter sermon. That the Great War was still having ripples two decades later, with the death of 18 schoolchildren during the destruction of Upper North Street School during a zeppelin raid having huge bearing on the decision to evacuate children during the early days of World War 2. And we read of local priest, John Groser, taking direct action to feed local people during the Blitz: “Breaking into an official food store to feed the homeless”. Nothing had changed too much. For much of their history, the people of Stepney simply had to look after themselves.

* Stepney: profile of a London borough from the outbreak of the First World War to the Festival of Britain, 1914-1951, by Dr Samantha L Bird; ISBN 978-1-4438-3506-0; WWW.CSP.CO

SEE ALSO

Lansbury versus Morrison: the battle over Poplarism

Zeppelin strikes: the East End at war

Peter the Painter: the Sidney Street Siege

Preview of Huguenots of Spitalfields Festival April 2013

WE’LL RUN a full review of what’s going to be happening, in East End Life in a week or so, and then here on eastlondonhistory.com. In the meantime, here’s a full preview.

To celebrate the talents and contribution of the Huguenot community who settled in Spitalfields during the 17th century, we present a series of events as part of The Huguenots of

Huguenot Shoreditch and Spitalfields

Huguenot Shoreditch and Spitalfields

Spitalfields Festival. Find out more about their history, community and the major weaving industry that produced some of the finest silk work of the times. Events take place at various venues from 8 – 21 April 2013. Visit www.huguenotsofspitalfields.org for the full programme.

 

From Worm to Wardrobe: Wearing Spitalfields Silk

Talk

Tuesday 9 April, 7.00pm

Huguenot silk weavers produced textiles worthy of any fashionable personage. But how much silk was needed to make a sack back or mantua, two of the fashionable dress shapes of the time? How long did it take to weave enough fabric? How much would it cost? This talk traces the process from silk filament to fashionable garment. Beatrice Behlen is Senior Curator of Fashion and Decorative Arts at the Museum of London. She previously worked as a curator at the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, Kensington Palace.

Tickets: £7, concs £5

Samuel Higgins, silk weaver, in his loom-shop at Gauber Street, Spitalfields. Drawing by D MacPherson for the Daily Graphic, 7 April 1899

Samuel Higgins, silk weaver, in his loom-shop at Gauber Street, Spitalfields. Drawing by D MacPherson for the Daily Graphic, 7 April 1899

Ireland as Paradise: Huguenot Military, Political and Economic Power

Talk

Wednesday 10 April, 7.00pm

Though small in numbers, the Huguenots who settled in Ireland were to have a big impact on the history and culture of Ireland. Playing an integral part in William of Orange’s Irish campaigns, most notably the Battle of the Boyne, they went on to create many communities around Ireland. Their impact on the social and economic landscape of this country is often over looked. This talk demonstrates the Huguenots military, political, economic and social legacy in Ireland from the linen trade to Gallic surnames.

Tickets: £7, concs £5

French Born, London Made: The Trades of the Huguenots

Talk

Thursday 11 April, 7.00pm

The influx of French Protestant immigrants to London in the late 17th century had an enduring influence on the capital’s economy and social life. London proved not only a refuge from religious persecution, but also a city of opportunity. This talk will examine the major Huguenot contribution to silk weaving, gunmaking, clock and watchmaking, goldsmithing and other historic London trades.

Tickets: £7, concs £5

Contemporary Tapestry at West Dean

Christ Church Spitalfields, the Huguenots' place of worship

Christ Church Spitalfields, the Huguenots' place of worship

Talk

Saturday 13 April, 2.30pm

Since the mid 1970s the Tapestry Studio at West Dean has been producing large scale tapestries woven to commission and has a history of working with artists such as Henry Moore, John Piper and Howard

Hodgkin, Adrian Berg, John Hubbard and Tracey Emin. This talk will cover all aspects of the Studio’s activities including the tapestries currently being woven for Stirling Castle and a collaborative project with Michael Brennand–Wood.

Tickets: £7, concs £5

Learn the Language of the Weavers: French Taster Sessions

Taster Session

Monday 15 April, 1.10pm – 1.50pm or 6.30pm – 7.10pm

To complement our events in The Huguenots of Spitalfields Festival we have created a French taster session for you to sample one of our fun and enjoyable French courses. If you enjoy this taster and would like to continue to learn French, you can enrol on one of our regular French courses. For more information about our range of language courses visit www.bishopsgate.org.uk/courses

Free admission

Advance booking recommended

The Huguenots’ Story

Talk

Monday 15 April, 7.00pm

Who were the 60,000 French Protestants that arrived in the South East of England in the 1680s? Where did they come from, who were their families? This talk paints a vivid profile of the Huguenots of Spitalfields from their French beginnings to new lives in East London, highlighting the family records produced by the Huguenots themselves as well as those by the Government, Anglican Church and from France.

Tickets: £7, concs £5

 

Disappearing Spitalfields

Talk

Wednesday 17 April, 7.30pm

The history of Spitalfields can be defined by change, but the changes currently taking place

The Brick Lane Mosque, once a Huguenot chapel

The Brick Lane Mosque, once a Huguenot chapel

are potentially far greater in scale and character than ever before. Is this, after 900 years, the end for Spitalfields as a distinct and independent entity? Architectural historian and Spitalfields resident Dan Cruickshank highlights the physical losses alongside the social and economic changes Spitalfields has experienced and considers the way in which these changes continue.

Tickets: £10, concs £8

Escaped tigers and white elephants … the Tobacco Dock story

IT SEEMED such a great idea. A prime chunk of derelict real estate, right at the epicentre of the coming Docklands boom. Just like in the Long Good

The Old Tobacco Dock, Wapping

The Old Tobacco Dock, Wapping

Friday: what could go wrong? As the rubble of the demolished docks was swept away, vast acres of new land were exposed to view. To the west lay Rupert Murdoch’s monstrous Fleet Street on Thames at Wapping. To the east, the glittering towers of Canary Wharf were just beginning to emerge from the Isle of Dogs clay – a bit like spring flowers after a particularly long and brutal economic winter.

Tobacco Dock was and is a beautiful building too. When they constructed docks in the early 19th century they built them to last. And of course, being bonded warehouses for the holding of valuable imported Virginia tobacco, the structures had to be secure, to stop the fragrant cargoes from going over the wall. The fashion of the late eighties was to no longer demolish the massive Georgian buildings of the old docks, but to repurpose them for a yuppified ‘Docklands’, with modern interiors being created within the old shells. Frequently, of course, new ‘faux’ warehouses would be built to fill in the gaps.

So the owners of Tobacco Dock, Lawrie Cohen and Brian Jackson, (working with gifted architect Terry Farrell, who who artfully reconstructed Charing Cross station) and surfing a retail boom,

Replica ships evoke memories of Tobacco Dock's past

Replica ships evoke memories of Tobacco Dock's past

must have looked at their Grade One listed purchase, to be transformed from Napoleonic warehouse to 1990s’ shopping centre and presumably thought: “What can go wrong?” And so they opened their doors, on 22 March 1989 … and nobody came.

If the building had had a colourful early life (we touch on Jamrach and his escaped tiger, as well as the Queen’s Tobacco Pipe below) the years leading up to launch had been beset with snags. The owners had swallowed the expensive necessity of preserving the essential elements of Sir John Rennie’s original design. The great architect of London Bridge, the London Docks and much more of the infrastructure of maritime and commercial London had rested his roofs on huge iron pillars, while the warehouse itself stood atop vast subterranean, arched brick vaults, built for the storing of the tobacco. Legend has it the elaborate brickwork was assembled by French prisoners taken during the Napoleonic Wars.

But planning permission seemed to go out of the window as the owners discovered that Rupert Murdoch had been given planning permission to knock down a section of the old dock, and use the land to expand the looming Fortress Wapping next door. The pair had just three months to match Murdoch’s bid, and were bailed out at the eleventh hour by builder Harry Neal, who came up with £500,000.

The shops that took the units in the new centre were very much of the 1980s. There was a Body Shop, a Next, a Monsoon and a Filofax shop – all Tobacco Dock lacked was an outlet selling jumbo mobile builders’ phones. But the traders who had counted on footfall from shoppers and tourists waited in vain. The Sunday Times nipped next door to get a story but that was about it. Amjal Chaudry, who took a unit to sell craftwork and jewellery told the paper in 1990 that he was seeing three or four people a day, taking £30 if he was lucky.

Charles Jamrach's Ratcliff Highway Shop

Charles Jamrach's Ratcliff Highway Shop

The problem? As property and retail experts will always say: it’s about location, location … oh and location. You could say the mall was a short walk from Tower Hill, but who was going to take that walk along the traffic and fume congested highway. It was hard to get to, as well. There was Wapping station on the East London Line and Shadwell on the recently opened DLR, but both were poorly connected, unlike today, with the Ginger Line Overground and the ever-expanding DLR. The owners built a multi-storey carpark opposite, but even that set new records for a London car park with no cars in it.

The centre found occasional uses – as a location for pop video shoots (among them Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s Messages), for a commercial for the Ford Ka, and for filming of BBC time-slip drama Ashes to Ashes five years ago.

The remarkable fact was that the complex didn’t close. The shops left, one by one, until by the late nineties there were only two businesses left: Frank & Stein’s and Henry’s Cafe Bar. In the mid-nineties a new plan was launched, to transform the Dock into a factory outlet complex. A bad omen perhaps was that this idea was floated by Gerald Ratner, the man who had destroyed his own jewellery company with a Russian Roulette approach to PR. And in 2000, Henry’s Cafe closed, leaving Frank & Stein’s as the only tenant. The owners were now forced to keep the complex open for another eight years, at which point the restaurant closed, and they could bar the gates for … the last time?

View of Tobacco Dock from the road

View of Tobacco Dock from the road

You can’t get in there now, though you can see the replicas of sailing vessels the Three Sisters and Sea Lark, and the statues of animals commemorating the adventures of Charles Jamrach, who ran a zoo/petshop on the Highway in Victorian times. The story, perhaps embroidered over time, has a tiger escaping and seizing a local boy in its mouth, with Jamrach heroically prising the lad from the beast’s jaws. Tiger and boy are here in statue form, gazing quizzically at each other. Perhaps they are wondering where everybody is? There is a bear too, another reminder of the eccentric menagerie. No expense was spared in making Tobacco Dock work – but to no avail.

With thanks to View From the Mirror’ a Taxi Driver’s London,

East End Back Passages

When a man is tired of London he should be glad he doesn’t live in Croydon. No, not the words of Samuel Johnson, but another man of letters, the BAFTA-winning animator and screenwriter Alan Gilbey, who in his spare time runs East End walks that aim to amuse, entertain and explain that “ordinary working-class people can be much more than the geezers and gangsters in all those myths”.

Gilbert and George pop up in Gilbey's Back Passages

Gilbert and George pop up in Gilbey's Back Passages

It’s a subject close to his heart. East End born and bred (and still here) Gilbey despairs at and mocks the received idea of cockneydom. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Gilbey reserves a special measure of loathing for the BBC’s EastEnders, and its cast bizarrely free of Bangladeshi or Black people, but overloaded with bald white psychopaths and which has “as much to do with life as it’s lived today as Gerry Anderson’s Space 1999”.

A decade ago, Gilbey and his pal Steve Wells decided to offer an alternative to the conventional Blue Badge guided tours. So were born the East End Backpassage tours, a mix of comedy, irreverence, mythbusting and an enormous amount of useful factual content. They began with the Backpassages of Spitalfields “a tale of two cities starring weavers, match girls and a notorious Jack (but not the one you’re thinking of). Spitalfields has risen from neglect to high fashion in the last 20 years, but the pair go much further back, uncovering numerous histories around Brick Lane. There’s a Sunday tour down Columbia Road and the flower market, an explorers’ guide to Whitchapel (enter the Krays, Stalin and Michael Jackson purloining the Elephant Man, as well as the site of London’s missing mountain).

The pair transport you down to Wapping, now London’s quietest urban village but once a frontier town: there are tales of pirates and escaped tigers, riots in churches and the Battle of Cable Street. And over to Shoreditch, London’s first Theatreland (and soon to get its original Shakespeare theatre back as reported just this week), its earliest council estate and its silliest haircut. This is Nathan Barley country, so alongside Little Hanoi and A Child of the Jago, you’ll find the birthplace of the Shoreditch Twat [note to sub: not sure we can say this in East End Life, so you might change to T***!]. These are walks like no other, boasts Alan. Indeed – one of them’s on a train. So if you’re not tired of life but simply tired of walking, join the trip on the DLR, a speedy trip through the remnants of the world’s largest port, London’s new financial district and the old Isle of Dogs. Newcomers, Alan suggests, might like to sit at the front and pretend to be the driver.

Now Gilbey has transformed the material for his walks into print form. Modestly he talks of his references as “some books Alan bought and copied stuff out of”. Actually of course, this is the Tommy Cooper approach: the jesting is underpinned by an enormous amount of meticulous hard work and research. It probably helps that Alan was born here and has “never managed to escape” but every joke conceals a truth. One of the best sections is Bollocks But True [sub: as above on profanity!], where we learn, inter alia, that oysters were once the food of the poor, being plentiful in the Thames estuary back in ye day. A century ago “their shells littered the streets of East London on Saturday night and Sunday mornings like the salad out of today’s kebabs”. Eels were delicious, and nutritious “and could double as a handy belt”. Pie and mash was originally eel pie and mash, as brown meat was too expensive. The East End once had the largest school in the world in Gun Street, Spitalfields. Among the alumni of the Jews Free School, established in 1732, were comic Bud Flanagan, band leader Joe Loss, and Morris ‘Two Gun’ Cohen, who served in the Chinese Army under Chiang Kai-Shek. At any time, the school had around 4230 pupils.

And among the odd facts are some deeper truths. Old cockneys will tell you that in the old East End nobody ever locked their front doors. According to Arthur Harding, who featured in these pages a few weeks back and knew a bit about thieving, that was true. But only because nobody had anything worth nicking. In fact, East End crime rates in the 1930s were far higher than today, but house breaking was a waste of time, so villains turned their eyes and fingers elsewhere. As for the number of boozers around the East End (140 in Wapping alone at one point) it wasn’t just that the East Enders liked their booze. After all, everybody likes their booze, whatever the postal district, though life may need a little more softening round the edges if work means hauling crates on the docks or working 12-hour shifts, six days a week in a factory. More to the point though, with your whole family living and sleeping in one room (and possibly another family at the other end of the room) people needed somewhere bigger and brighter to escape to. Small wonder that the pubs and gin palaces of the Victorian era became quite so elaborate. Palaces indeed with their intricate woodwork, flock wallpaper and glistening brasswork. These were possibly the flashest places a hardworking East Ender ever got to see.

Much of the old East End lives on only in the linguistic appendix that is the name. Houndsditch is no longer a part of the London Wall from which to fling your dead mutt (the ditch eventually filling up with hounds); that practice has been in abeyance since the Middle Ages, but the name lives on. Spitalfields was so called because these were once the fields attached to the hospital: no fields now. Bishopsgate was, of course, the gate through which the Bishop entered the City and Petticoat Lane was called thus because of the quantity of schmutter sold there. And to doubly confuse visitors it’s not even called Petticoat Lane, but Middlesex Street, so don’t go looking for it on a map. Gilbey notes that the Lane is “the only market I know where traders often pretend their goods are stolen in the hope you won’t notice they’re crap”.

Even Dirty Dick’s pub isn’t dirty anymore (health and safety you see). But here a marvellous confusion of East End facts possible and fanciful collide. Was this the inspiration for Charles Dickens, chronicler and patron of East End taverns. The great journalist and walker of East End streets would have known the Bishopsgate boozer, and also the story behind it. Nathaniel (Dick) Bentley was a City ironmonger so devastated by the death of his fiancee on the eve of their wedding that he left the nuptial feast on the table and never cleaned his house or shop again. He became so famously filthy that, when he died in 1809, an enterprising publican bought up the cobwebbed contents of his dead-cat-infested house and displayed them here, so creating the first Victorian theme pub. A far cry from the gleaming gin palaces of later years, but more pertinently, a spookily similar story to that of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. Did Dickens cop the idea from here?

There is more – much much more. There are laughs on every page, but Gilbey is unsparing too. The myths of both left and right are demolished. No, Mosley “did not pass” down Cable Street that day in 1936. But he did march unopposed the following Saturday through Mile End. The British Union of Fascists or BUF, meanwhile, went the way of most movements of the far right, where splinter groups splinter once again, until the resulting movement can meet in a phone box. Brilliantly, the rump of the declining BUF called themselves the British Union Movement, or BUM – probably not a name with which to take on the world. And as he strolls around Shoreditch, so transformed these days from dowdiness to achingly fashionable, he notices the stickers posted by a street artist, pointing out that ‘Shoreditch’ is an anagram of ‘sod the rich’. There are “a lot more rich to sod round here these days”, muses Alan. And points out the shameful statistic that more children live below the poverty line in Tower Hamlets than anywhere else in Britain. No, he’s not Dr Johnson but a more successful writer in some ways. After all, Boswell’s pal never won a Bafta.

East End Backpassages, an explorer’s guide by Alan Gilbey. Published by Quartet Books. www.quartetbooks.co.uk. £10

From Bow to Biennale – artists of the East London Group

HOW could it be that an art movement that took London by storm in the 1920s and 30s – propelling house painters, navvies and painters to international success – could simply disappear? Surely the East London Group should be as celebrated as the Bloomsbury artists, namechecked by critics and young painters?

David Buckman's From Bow to Biennale

David Buckman's From Bow to Biennale

Yet as dramatically as it arose, the grouping was gone. The movement depended on the energy and drive of charismatic leader, John Cooper,and his tragically early death saw the end of his dream.

 

The roots of the movement lay in the slow and steady growth of adult education in London over the previous decades – itself building on the piecemeal establishment of universal education for the working classes over the previous century. Following the Elementary Education Act of 1870 and the Education (London) Act of 1903, young East Enders were no longer going into work illiterate and innumerate. Many had their appetite for education awakened, and it was they – working under impossibly difficult conditions, squeezing in adult learning alongside jobs and families – who would form the core the East London Group.

In 1924, the Bethnal Green Men’s Institute Art Club held its first exhibition at the Bethnal Green Museum. The space had been opened as a branch of the South Kensington (now the Victoria and Albert) Museum in 1872 – it’s now the Museum of Childhood. It proved a marvellous catalyst: both inspiring local artists and providing a venue for exposition of their work. The Institute librarian, AK Sabin, wrote in his introduction to the catalogue (the first of several he would pen) that the Bethnal Green group had been started “little more than a year ago by a warehouseman, a house decorator, three deck hands waiting for a ship, and a haddock smoker”. The wonder was that these East Enders, amid family commitments, working long hours

Albert Turpin painted Baroness Coutt's white elephant not long before demolition

Columbia Market, 1955, by Albert Turpin

and jostling for piecework, were able to fit in instruction two nights study a week after a hard day at work, paying for their own materials from their sparse wages. Soon, the group numbered 30 or more active members, and that first show featured 88 works by 15 members. Only one of their number would go on to join the later East London Group: George Board, who showed seven watercolours. But more important was the interest the show sparked. Among the crowds at the 1925 Bethnal Green show were the young Harold and Walter Steggles. The brothers would go on to be key members of the later East London Group.

The Steggles boys showed an eye for commerce that was foreign to the more high-minded Sabin. He refused to put prices in his catalogue, believing that “the reflection this pursuit of artistic expression makes upon the artist himself – the new background it brings

Post Office Wireless Station Rugy, by East London Group leader John Cooper, 1935

Post Office Wireless Station Rugy, by John Cooper, 1935

into his life – is the most urgent and important thing”. Harold Steggles however thought pricing more likely to put money in the pocket of the artist, and all the later East London Group catalogues would feature prices. Significantly, those shows they would garner commercial as well as critical success, being shown in West End galleries and around the world.

East London Group artists Harold and Walter Steggles

Harold and Walter Steggles in 1928

But by now there was an even more significant shift. Percy Wagstaff, in charge of the classes at Wolverley Street School, in Bethnal Green Road, had recruited the charismatic and inexhaustible (for now at least) John Cooper. Cooper had walked into Civvy Street after service in the Great War, and invested his demob pay in three years’ study at the Slade School of Fine Art, leaving in 1922. “Having no money, I had to get teaching, and taught in East London in the evenings,” he explained to collector Sir Michael Sadler years later. Cooper immediately shook up the teaching and the group had an instant triumph. In this 1927 programme notes, Sabin excitedly reported that group member Archibald Hattemore had had his picture An Interior

Walter Steggles painting of the wharf that once served the Bryant and May match factory in Fairfield Road, Bow

Brymay Wharf by Walter Steggles

bought by the National Gallery of British Arts (now Tate Britain). Hattemore’s story was tailormade for the popular press. He was the “navvy artist”, too broke to buy a canvas and so rendering his picture on calico. Apart from his few months’ study at the Institute, Archibald was entirely self-taught. With a wife and three children, and a weekly wage of only £2 and 14 shillings for his job at the Metropolitan Water Board, just getting the time and materials together to paint was a struggle. When Cooper saw the work he was stunned; other critics declared it to have “a Velasquez touch”. But for Hattemore aesthetics had to go hand in hand with commerce. When Cooper told him he wanted to show his picture more widely, Hattemore’s response was sanguine. “They tell me it is a great honour. I hope it will mean a way out for me. It will… if somebody buys the picture!” The Duveen Fund promptly did and Hattemore was on his way.

And others swiftly followed. The 1927 exhibition was covered extensively by the Daily Chronicle, with headlines including “Workmen as artists” and “Window cleaner’s work in East End show”. The window cleaner was Albert Turpin, a prolific painter who would later go on to be mayor of Bethnal Green. There was basketmaker Henry Silk and his paintings of Zeppelins. Spanish Onions was a still life by Bow engine driver EH Hawthorn, while Victoria Park park-keeper, C Warren took time off from “chivvying small boys about” to commit details of park life to canvas. There was RH James, stone deaf and who hadn’t picked up a brush until he was 58. His father, grandfather and three uncles had all been drowned at sea, and that had, unsurprisingly, put RH off a life on the ocean wave. Ironically, many of his paintings were seascapes. And BR Swinnerton had executed a “very homely little picture”, The Place I Love showing his wife and child at the hearth. He declared that he would never attempt such as scene again as “the rogues won’t keep still!”

Demolition of Bow Brewery by Elwin Hawthorne shown at Lefevre Galleries 1931

Bow Brewery by Elwin Hawthorne

The Institute had been begun in 1920 with an instruction to Sabin to “make good” within three years or it would be shut down.The classes far exceeded merely making good. Sir Percy Harris was tasked with delivering a report on progress ten years on, and described it with a new home (albeit a rather grim building) at 229 Bethnal Green Road. Bedecking the facade was a banner, made by member J Cordwell, proclaiming that it was “The house of 2000 men”. Cooper’s energy and ideas had fired an extraordinary growth in membership. “My idea is to stimulate and direct these talented men…they have an abundance of strong individuality and fine fresh pictorial ideas…I don’t fritter away this energy…in drawing common objects.” So there were the odd still lives (those onions for instance) but Cooper was increasingly forcing his students out of the classroom, to paint the East End in all its grit, grime and reality.

William Finch taught at the Institute at the time (he went on to become a famed art teacher and only died in 2003) and painted a vivid pen

Almshouses at Mile End by East London Group's Elwin Hawthorne, shown at Lefevre Gallery in 1935

Elwin Hawthorne, Almshouses at Mile End

portrait of those days. “My Bethnal Green gang produced good and varied paintings. It was a varied bunch and tough – a formerly well-known professional boxer, a cooper, a London street busker, a market trader, an injured window cleaner.” John Cooper went further. Arriving at Bow he soon concluded that he had the raw material to begin a whole new school of art. All he had to do was get the members “to stop painting film stars…and to paint what was all about them, say a dingy bedroom”. He dragged his students away from “copying bad pictures” and winnowed out the less talented or committed men. And in 1929, Cooper made a decisive shift, renaming the artists ‘The East London Group’ and signing a contract with West End gallery Alex, Reid & Lefevre to host the annual show. It meant greater exposure for his crew, and increased sales.

Over a few short years, Cooper wrought an astonishing change. From a lively evening class in Bethnal Green, by 1936 East London Group members were being exhibited at the Venice Biennale, among the most prestigious showcases on the international art scene. Alongside such luminaries as Barbara Hepworth, Sir Alfred Gilbert and Duncan Grant were Elwin Hawthorne with Una Via Di Londra and WJ Steggles, with Scena Prosso Chichester. John Cooper didn’t exhibit his own work, but he had the satisfaction of knowing that “two raw amateurs he

Core members of the East London Group of artists, including Bray, Hawthorne Cooper and Parker

Elwin Hawthorne, Phyllis Bray, John Cooper, Brynhild Parker at Lefevre Galleries 1932

had welcomed into his Bow evening classes a dozen years before were reckoned good enough to show alongside the best in British art.” Cooper’s work ethic was legendary, teaching all around London and increasingly moving into mosaic work. He encouraged his students to exhibit more widely, and in December 1935 came another milestone for the group. Cooper’s assistant and then wife, Phyllis Bray, was asked to create three large murals for the New People’s Palace in Mile End.

But even as the Group found further success there were signs of decline and dissolution. The eighth annual Lefevre show in 1936 would prove to be the last, amid fears that the grouping might be becoming stale. And amid the usual praise in the press that year were murmurings of dissent, with the Morning Post critic believing that “its members were hysterically overpraised in the beginning”. There is always a critical backlash of course, and the work of WJ Steggles, Brynhild Parker and Phyllis Bray was still garnering commercial and critical success, but there were other cracks appearing too.

The marriage of Cooper and Bray was swiftly unravelling (in part prompted by an attachment Phyllis formed to an architect during her People’s Palace work),and by September 1936, the two fiery personalities were living apart in Bow. It of course made teaching together difficult. And with the outbreak of war, Cooper’s situation declined. Teaching hours had been cut, and he was now struggling financially. Things improved with a job at the Air Ministry drawing aircraft, but the already emotionally volatile artist was rocked further when his flat

Bethnal Green's Salmon and Ball pub, by East London Group artist Albert Turpin

Bethnal Green's Salmon and Ball pub, by Albert Turpin

was bombed in an air raid. Cooper had to leave his Ministry job, citing “a long breakdown”. At least part of the reason, according to his doctors, was overwork, and he returned to his native Yorkshire to recuperate. His health declined, and John Cooper died in his sleep at Leeds Infirmary in February 1943. He was just 48 years old. The death of Cooper undermined the possibility of any revival in the East London Group after the war. The group possessed huge talents, but relied heavily on

The-Guardian Angels by Elwin Hawthorne shown at Lefevre Galleries in 1931

Guardian Angels Church, Mile End, by Elwin Hawthorne

the energy and drive of Cooper to make things happen – without him the engine was gone.

From Bow to Biennale: Artists of the East London Group by David Buckman. Published by Francis Boutle, £25