Too many of us spend our time shut away from the history of the East End: stuck inside our houses or offices, in cars, buses or underground. But getting out and walking around our streets is better than a trip to any museum. And there are so many famous places and events peppered around Tower Hamlets that a quick circuit around any part of the borough unearths a host of treasures.
Rosemary Taylor has been telling the history of the East End for years, in numerous books, articles, lectures and newsletters. Now, her new title, Walks through history: Exploring the East End* puts the onus on us to go out and explore for ourselves.
The 12 walks here will not only give you hours of healthy (and entirely free) entertainment – once you’ve completed them you’ll have a much clearer grasp of how the history of the East End meshes with the geography of the place.
Walk 1, like most of the perambulations here, begins and ends at a tube station. From Shadwell Underground (or DLR) you will reach Wapping tube. Within yards you will pass the St George’s Town Hall mural depicting the Battle of Cable Street, when local people routed the Blackshirts; then the former home of Dr Hannah Billig, the ‘Angel of Cable Street’. At the junction with Cannon Street Road you will pass the grisly spot where John Williams once lay buried. Accused of the 1811 Ratcliffe Murders, Williams was found dead in his prison cell and his body was paraded around Wapping. The vengeful mob seized it, drove a stake through his heart and, symbolically buried the corpse at the crossroads. In all, 25 historical hotspots lie along the way, taking in the ancient, medieval and maritime history of this crowded quarter.
Walk 2 puts flesh on the bones of that vanished curiosity, Chinese Limehouse. Fictionalised into infamy by the likes of Oscar Wilde, Sax Rohmer and even George Raft, you can view the real sites – those that haven’t been improved by the bulldozers and wrecking ball.
A walk round Poplar and the East India Dock Road charts the development of an area created by the new London docks. The East India Dock Road itself was built in 1805 (on land bought for £900) to link the new Blackwall dock to the Commercial Road. Next go to All Saints’ Church, the hub of the new parish created to serve the burgeoning numbers of dockworkers in 1823. Then you come to Poplar Baths, built originally in 1856 for workers who had no running water at home. A library, council offices, Coroner’s Court and mortuary were all to follow, along with a multitude of further churches, shops, theatres and pubs, all with stories attached.
Walk 4 takes you further into the old East India and Blackwall Docks themselves. There’s no maritime trade left now of course, but there’s plenty still to see. The waterways are still there of course; and though most of the warehouses have been demolished, the bridges, gates, pubs and many of the fine houses of the 19th century survive. No 1 Coldharbour was built in 1825 as a home for the dockmaster, by that great architect of the docks, Sir John Rennie. And No 3 Coldharbour is reputed to have been where Nelson stayed when he visited Blackwall.
Bromley St Leonard is one of the less-sung corners of the East End, but it has its history. Three Mills is home to the last surviving tide mills in London, while Kingsley Hall in Powis Road was home to Gandhi when he lived in London.
On to Bow, and you can visit the sites where the Pankhursts et al gave birth to the Suffragette movement, while a trip to the easternmost end of Bow Road reveals the hidden curiosity of a surviving 17th century corn chandler’s shop.
For retail early-1900s style, travel down to Whitechapel and you can see the curiosity of Wickham’s department store. It was the grandest store in the East End until it closed in 1969. But look again and you see Wickham’s was built in two halves, with a small shop in the middle. The little shop had been on the site since Mr Spiegelhalter had travelled from Germany in 1820 to set up his watchmaker business in Whitechapel. In 1927, the increasingly successful Wickhams wanted to expand, but the Spiegelhalter family stubbornly refused to sell out. The solution? Wickham’s had to build their new monolith in two parts – with the jewellers in the middle.
These are just a few of the hundreds of familiar and surprising sites to see on a dozen walks. So get a pair of stout shoes, set a few Sundays aside, and do your history.
Walks through history: Exploring the East End by Rosemary Taylor, published by Breedon Books, ISBN 1 85983 270 9, paperback, £9.99.