Victorian journalists reporting on the East End of London

Poor, struggling and
sneered at

THE only constant thing about the East End of London is that things are always changing. New faces, new languages, foods, trades and customs – ships rolling in and out importing goods and ideas from all over the world.

Until the late 1800s the changes went largely unreported. The rest of London usually tried to ignore ‘the stinking pile’ that lay to the east, dismissing it as the home of dirty industry, crime, immorality and strange foreign ways.

But with the rise of cheap printing, affordable newspapers and journals and almost universal literacy, came far more first person reports of what the East End was like. To some of the writers visiting Tower Hamlets was a shock, and their pieces have the sense of missionaries visiting darkest Africa.

Oliveira Martins visited the docks in 1894, and took the fashionable line of seeing moral chaos in the hard slog of the dockers. ‘Work at the docks is the last refuge for the shipwrecked of society. A Dante in our times would place scenes of this kind in the last circle of his Inferno. There hovers in the air an atmosphere of vice. One breathes the full acrid fume of miserable dirtiness. One sees the foul rags and tatters of civilized life.’

Martins saw the East End as a sink of society, where those who had fallen far would invariably end up. ‘The multitude of pariahs come from every part; there are sons of the soil whose arms the unkind earth rejects; there are town lads who have gone under in the strife of unseemly competition; there are bankrupt shopkeepers, workmen out of employ, old soldiers, clerks.’

It’s a highly coloured view, and not helped by the fact that see seemed to see East Enders as another race – in fact were they quite human? She observed ‘a dense multitude of drunken vagabonds from the quarters of the East End, like repulsive savages, with downcast eyes, scarred flesh, ragged clouts [clothes]’.

And what were they working for? The censorious writer had no doubt. ‘In the hope of earning some pence at carrying loads in order afterwards to spend the money in making beasts of themselves in the gin palace in the Commercial Road.’ Well if work was that bad, they probably needed a little light relief.

Mrs ET Cook wrote in 1902 as if she were visiting another planet. To modern readers there was also a nasty tinge of racism to her words. ‘The Jews who foregather in Whitechapel are mostly of Polish, Russian or German extraction. Their talk … sounds like a strange German lingo, whined through the nose. They crowd, in their numbers, into dirty tenement houses, in yet dirtier streets, streets in which they barter, buy and sell 2with all the instinct and indomitable energy of their race. Only recently Lord Rothschild said it was the business of the nation “first to humanise it, then to Anglicise it”. It certainly wants humanising.’

Jack London watched East End street kids dancing to the organ grinder’s music in 1903. To him, their joyful innocence made the fall that was to come all the more harsh. ‘It is fascinating to watch them, the new born, the next generation, swaying and stepping, weaving rhythms never taught in dancing school … But there is a pied piper of London town who steals them away. They all disappear. You may look for them in vain among the generation of grown ups. Here you will find stunted forms, ugly faces, and blunt and stolid minds. Grace, beauty, imagination … all are gone.

‘Sometimes you see a woman, not necessarily old, but twisted and deformed out of all womanhood, bloated and drunken, lift her draggled skirts and execute a few grotesque and lumbering steps up on the pavement. It is a hint that she was once of those children.’

Percy Shelley had a brutal take on the metropolis. ‘Hell is a city much like London,’ the poet averred. Visiting writers seemed to agree.

Next week … Not so bad after all. How the 19th century journalists found inspiration and beauty in the East End.

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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