Capital Disasters by John Withington

Disasters in the East End of London

Should you fall into the trap of thinking the world is getting worse – and impending doom just around the corner – a new book* on the history of London will prove strangely reassuring. London and the East End have been buffeted by death, disease and disaster for all its two millennia, yet are still somehow in business.

Invaders have famously, of course, not set foot on British soil since 1066 (shortly before William the Conqueror built his castle on Tower Hill). Modern Londoners should be thankful; most of the city’s early troubles came as a result of invasion (or rebellion against the invaders).
Romans in Londinium

In AD61 just 10 years after the Romans had set up Londinium, Boudicca, queen of the Iceni, descended on the town. In retribution for the rape and murder of her people, the warrior queen sacked and burned London. By 367, London was a far outpost of the dissolving Roman empire, and the pillaging Saxons overran the city, leaving loaded with plunder. During the fifth century, the Romans gave Britain up as a bad job and London fell into decline.

By the ninth century, people were retreating back inside the old city walls, hiding from a new and terrifying enemy. The Vikings wreaked havoc by turning on each other as soon as they invaded London, with internecine battles between the Danes and Norwegians seeing the first London Bridge pulled into the river, the city burned and hundreds killed.

William the Conqueror in London

The coming of William I didn’t begin auspiciously for Londoners. At his Westminster Abbey coronation the cheering of the crowds was misinterpreted by the Norman soldiers; they rushed out, set fire to houses and hacked down the ‘rebels’. But for the next 900 years at least, Londoners wouldn’t have to worry about invaders … disaster would arrive from within.

Margaret Thatcher should have learned the lesson of the first poll tax, in 1377. So hated was the tax, levied to finance the 100 Years War (which still had more than half a century to go) that Londoners rose up in revolt. Wat Tyler’s Kentish rebels went to Blackheath to await a meeting with the 14-year-old King Richard II, while Jack Straw’s Essex contingent camped out at Mile End.
Peasants revolt on Tower Hill

The rebellion quickly got out of hand. The mob seized the King’s Treasurer, Robert Hales, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury and summarily executed the pair on Tower Hill, the traditional site for the King and Parliament’s dispatching of enemies of the Crown. Such a challenge couldn’t go unanswered, and Richard dealt ruthlessly with the rebels. Agreeing to meet them for negotiations at Smithfield, young Richard had Tyler brutally killed before scattering the mob.

In 1780 came the most disastrous riot in London’s history. Anti-Catholic rioters burned houses and chapels in Stepney before moving on to the City itself, their figurehead a rising (though certifiably insane) MP named Lord George Gordon. As mobs are, this one was indiscriminate in its victims. French Huguenots who had settled in Spitalfields to escape Catholic persecution in Europe found themselves under attack. In Houndsditch, Jewish householders thought it politic to erect notices saying ‘this house is true Protestant.’
German LZ38 Zeppelin bombs East End

Then, in bright moonlight, just before midnight on 31 May 1915, 849 years of immunity from enemy attack ended at the hands of a terrifying new enemy. A German LZ38 Zeppelin flew over the docks and the East End. Inadequate blackout precautions meant the Zeppelin captain easily found Commercial Road and headed for the docks, dropping 120 small bombs, 90 of them incendiaries. Seven were killed but little other damage was done.

These largely forgotten air raids hit the East End hard. Upper North Street School in Poplar was hit, with 15 children killed. Bombs fell near the London Hospital and around Aldgate. An unwelcome side effect was revenge attacks on the Jews, Germans and other Europeans who had made their homes in the East End … many immigrants changed their names to appear more English.

As if riots and air raids weren’t enough to contend with, East Enders have had to face fire, death by water, wild weather, plague, cholera and smog. And there are fascinating details on terrorist attacks on London, a full century before the modern Irish troubles.

Capital Disasters by John Withington, Sutton Publishing, ISBN 0750933178, £25 hardcover

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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