As author Melanie McGrath candidly admits, the life of her grandmother, Jenny Fulcher, was nothing out of the ordinary. ‘It was the kind of life that could have belonged to a thousand women living in the mid years of the twentieth century in the East End of London. Except that it didn’t. It belonged to Jenny.’
But it is the normality of Jenny’s life that makes Silvertown*, such a compelling read. The book – part memoir, part novel – focuses on an ordinary life, lived throughout in the East End, and spanning all but a few years of the twentieth century. And through it all Jenny, unadventurous, passive, and more than a little bitter, experiences the vast changes wrought by two world wars, the developers, and the dispersal of the old East End communities.
Jenny begins her life as Jenny Page, born in 1903 in Poplar. Queen Victoria – the only monarch most of her subjects have ever known – has died two years earlier, ending an era and heralding a century of massive change. Jenny’s life would end in the time of the internet, the mobile phone, and tower blocks on Canary Wharf. But when it begins, horses still pull hackney cabs through unlit East End streets. That same year, Jack London was visiting and writing People of the Abyss.
The Fulchers are a poor family, living in a poor part of London. A couple of centuries before, Poplar had been thriving, rich even, as ships bearing tea, wool, sugar, whale meat and every other cargo imaginable, set down their loads, providing a good income for local dockers, traders, sailors and merchants. The Virginia Settlers set off for the New World from here. And the East India Company carved out two of the most impressive wharves the world has seen, in the shape of the East and West India Docks.
The Fulchers had come here centuries before. Huguenots, they were seeking shelter from persecution and a chance to make a living from their silk-weaving until they could return to the Low Countries. But like so many other immigrants to the East End, they never went back, gradually becoming part of the fabric of east London themselves.
By the time Jenny is born, Poplar has become filthy and overcrowded ‘a victim of its own success’. Those who can afford it have moved out to greener parts, far from the dock walls. The family, headed by mother Sarah and father Frenchie, so dubbed for his foreign surname, live in Ullin Street, between the Cut and the River Lea. His place of labour is the Thames Ironworks which, in the shape of the works’ football team, has just given birth to what will become West Ham United FC. It is a street like hundreds of others to the east of the City. A terrace quickly thrown up in the latter decades of the 1800s, and swiftly subdivided into flats for one, two, three or more families.
Melanie McGrath’s grandfather Len is also washed into the East End, but from a different direction. The Pages are poor agricultural labourers from the tiny hamlet of Corbet’s Tey, outside Upminster in Essex. Come the years before the Great War, the labourers are striking for better pay. But despite the encouragement of visiting Poplar politician George Lansbury, the strike doesn’t hold. Len’s father sees the new combine harvesters and threshing machines making life for his kind even harder, and the family board the train for Fenchurch Street and an easier life in London.
Like the Jews, Somalis, Liberians, Chinese, Russians and a hundred other groups and nationalities, the two families are East Enders because they had ‘to move from somewhere else’. Len and Jenny end up as a couple, an East End family – though not a very happy one.
There’s little pretence that poverty and happiness go hand in hand. The East Enders fight the home front of World War I with not enough food, and not enough coal to keep their homes warm. Meanwhile, English-born shopkeepers with German names are having their windows smashed. Jenny celebrates her 17th birthday by having her teeth pulled, and her excitement at her first job in a sweatshop is soon crushed by the conditions, the poor pay, and the fines and other swindling by the bosses.
She comes to the end of her life with her East End – which she has never had much of a good word to say for in the first place – largely taken apart. Bombs, demolition, hideous and clashing new developments … the docks are gone, as are the jobs, and most of the people.
‘So there she was, at ninety-one, a tiny woman with no teeth who had borne two children but had never seen a naked man; a woman who had been born in London but had never visited the Tower or St Paul’s; a woman who would not talk to her local shopkeeper in case she had to pronounce her name. But a woman whose strong sense of place is hard for me to imagine.’ Not a sad book, but a melancholy one. Melanie McGrath paints a picture of an East End and east London that, for most of us, is gone forever.
Silvertown by Melanie McGrath, published by Fourth Estate, ISBN 1841151432, £6.99 paperback.