London East End innovators and inventors

We all know that the East End has produced more than its share of innovators and inventors. Wown the centuries, this small corner of London has produced dozens of people who have shaped not just Britain but the world.

Now, as part of the Story of London 20101, a hands-on arts workshop celebrates the lives and inventions of four very special residents of the East End – Mohandas Gandhi, James Cook, Edith Cavell and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. And to really bring the characters to life, East Enders are invited on a series of free walks: to see where our four lived and how they are remembered with Blue Plaques2 4. But what links such a disparate quartet together? Each is very different yet each in their way changed the way we do things forever.

Mohandas Gandhi

By the 1930s, Britain’s hold on Empire and especially India, was increasingly shaky. It had become obvious to many, though not to most of the Government in London, that ‘the jewel in its crown’ would have to be handed back. So Mohandas Gandhi, the man who had brought the British military machine to a halt through non-cooperation, non-violence and civil disobedience, was invited to London for the Second Round Table Conference. The Indian National Congress, with 15m members and 70m or more followers, was the party campaigning for independence from Britain, and Gandhi was its unofficial though undoubted leader.

Gandhi would come to London of course, but he refused to be billeted in a posh West End hotel. Lylie Valentine helped out at Kingsley Hall in Bromley-by-Bow in the 1920s and 30s. She remembers: “He would only come if he could live with the working class, so he was to stay at Kingsley Hall. When he arrived, I think all the people in East London waited outside to see him.
“Besides doing his work with the Government, he spent a lot of time with us. He visited the Nursery School and all the children called him Uncle Gandhi. At six o’clock each morning, after his prayers, he took his walk along the canal, talking to workmen on the way…. There was something about him that always lives with the people.”

When Richard Attenborough filmed Gandhi with Ben Kingsley, he would painstakingly recreate newsreel footage of Gandhi meeting a local Pearly King and Queen outside Kingsley Hall. He would spend the final three months of 1931 living in the East End, at one point meeting Charlie Chaplin.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Most engineers would be happy to have one publicly recognised icon, but the magnificently named Isambard Kingdom Brunel seems to be everywhere in the energy and enterprise of Victorian Britain. He built the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, the longest bridge in the world at its 1864 construction (and dozens more), Paddington Station and the Great Western Railway. Then, as he set his sights on conquering transatlantic passenger travel, he constructed the world’s first propeller-driven ocean-going iron ship (the SS Great Britain was also the largest ship ever built).

There is no doubting his ambition then, but for East Enders his legacy lies in an earlier achievement less obviously spectacular, but just as important. The recently revived East London Line dives beneath the Thames and through the Thames Tunnel – the first tunnel to be successfully driven beneath a navigable river. That was made possible by the development of the tunnelling shield, a revolutionary piece of engineering developed by his father Marc Brunel and Lord Thomas Cochrane.

Edith Cavell

As Cavell famously asserted: “Patriotism is not enough … I cannot stop while there are lives to be saved.” It was an unflinching attitude that would transform Cavell from a nurse at the Royal London Hospital, who could not have expected to be remembered almost a century after her death, into an iconic figure. There are statues and memorials to Cavell around the world – several in London alone. The Homerton Hospital has a wing named for her, there is the Edith Cavell Hospital in Peterborough, a monument next to Trafalgar Square and others at Norwich and Peterbrough cathedrals.

Cavell’s heroism lay in using her work as a nurse in German-occupied Belgium to smuggle injured British soldiers to safety. It was bravery bordering on the reckless. The Germans could hardly fail to notice that injured men entering the hospital were not leaving again, especially as Cavell had, by early 1915, moved some 200 servicemen to neutral Holland, and was careless about covering her tracks. Cavell’s work was part of a far-larger network, and 27 people were put on trial by the Germans: the charge was treason. On 12 October 1915, the 49-year-old British nurse was shot along with four Belgian men. The British Government declined to intercede. Only later did it emerge that Cavell, as well as being an angel of mercy, was also working as a British spy.

Captain James Cook

Like all of our four, James Cook was an adopted East Ender, but his trade couldn’t have been more integral to this part of London. The popular myth that Cook discovered Australia is just that. Europeans had sighted it before and, of course, a cynic might remark that the Aboriginal population of the ‘Great Southern Land’ were already aware it was there. But Cook’s career was an extraordinary one. Having got to the age of 27 in the Merchant Navy in his native Yorkshire and begun working his way up through the ranks, Cook started all over again. Moving down to Wapping, he joined the Royal Navy, working his way to Master and Commander. Cook married Elizabeth, the daughter of Samuel Batts, landlord of the Bell Inn in Wapping, and attended St Paul’s Church in Shadwell.

By the time of death at 50 – killed in a fight with Hawaiians during his third exploratory voyage in the Pacific in 1779 –  had proven that Australia was a continent, circumnavigated New Zealand, mapped Newfoundland and searched for the Northwest Passage. And despite the fact that Cook had spent most of his married life at sea, he had also fathered six children. His widow Elizabeth would, tragically, outlive them all.

Four disparate characters then, each of whom came to the East End and then, in their own ways, changed the world. The workshop, on Tuesday 5 October at 12pm, is organised by local social enterprise the Change Community Project3. All the family are welcome, and you will learn how to make polystyrene statues as you learn about the lives of Ghandi, Cook, Cavel and Brunel. You will be able to view original photographs from the Tower Hamlets Local Library and History Archive and listen to the personal stories captured by local archivists. Find out full details below.


  • 1The Story of London 2010 runs from 1-10 October with a theme of innovation and the future. It will celebrate London’s history as a place of invention and ideas, and explore how the city will change and develop as it faces the challenges of the 21st century and beyond. Find out more at
  • 2Walks are on Tuesday 5 and Saturday 9 October. You have a choice of 11am at  Bow Church DLR station, or 2pm on the same days from Whitechapel Tube Station).
  • 3 Change Community Project is a social enterprise established in 2007 to promote education in Arts and crafts, cultural and community welfare, Finance and IT. The Change Community Project Innovators and Inventors project is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and is part of the Story of London Festival 2010. Local Schools will be able to access free talks about the project by calling Change on 0208 555 0770. Visit for more information.
  • 4 London City Steps, based at St Margaret’s House in Bethnal Green, is a social enterprise run by volunteers and funded partly by proceeds from the National Lottery. They aim to ‘mix the dynamism of London’s young people, with London’s fascinating history to give you walks with a difference’. All profits are used to train and employ disadvantaged young people from London’s poorest boroughs.2

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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