Queen of the East End of London

This year, Elizabeth II reaches a milestone passed by just one British monarch before – only Queen Victoria has previously celebrated a Diamond Jubilee. Much of that of course has to do with a general increase in our longevity as a nation, and a disinclination these days to chop off the heads of our rulers.

The Queen though is a remarkably successful monarch. Even those disinclined to drape the house with Union Jacks grudgingly admit that – while her family have often disappointed – she has sailed through more popular than ever. Perhaps it’s those qualities of persistence and stoicism that impress – in many ways she exhibits the qualities that the British like to see in themselves.

But the Britain she rules, and the London in which she lives is an enormously different place to 60 years ago. While our current government is busy reintroducing austerity, it barely compares with life in an East End just emerging from World War II, and a year after the bold attempt to raise spirits with the Festival of Britain. Rationing was still in place and would be for a few years yet, but the East End docks were still thriving, with record imports and exports as London rebuilt after the devastation of the Blitz.

1952 was a different country to today – but already hugely changed from the pre-War years. So great was the demand that labour, both skilled and unskilled was now being recruited from Commonwealth countries. From conductors on the buses and Underground, to doctors and nurses in the new NHS, to university students, many Londoners had their first introduction to the new Londoners from the West Indies and the Indian subcontinent. It was the beginnings of a truly multicultural London. Along with the welcome of many came the resistance of a few. London saw race riots in Notting Hill in 1958, but also the first Sikh temple in the capital – built in Southall in 1959.

Today we face the threat of peak oil and the tough decision whether to go nuclear once more. In the fifties there were different energy crises, with a coal-fired London smog killing 4000 people in 1952. That first year of her reign also saw the last trams run in a London that increasingly saw the car as the future. In 1959, Britain’s first motorway, the M1 would open. While new estates were springing up across the East End and many perfectly serviceable terraces being razed, the East End was also scarred with bombsites – many wouldn’t be rebuilt upon until the seventies. And the inner London population, after two centuries of furious growth, was in decline, dropping from a pre-War peak of 4.5m to just 3.3m, as people began to move out to the new towns, such as Harlow and Basildon. The Royal Family endured their travails during the decade, with Princess Margaret calling off her marriage to Group Captain Peter Townsend in 1955.

We can only endure austerity for so long of course. And as London entered the 1960s, there was a palpable need for life, for brightness and colour. East End stars took centre stage. Chart stars The Small Faces exhibited the brash cockney confidence of the era, alongside photographers such as David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy, and Stepney film star Terence Stamp. There were new beginnings for the Royal Family too. Prince Andrew was born in 1960, and Edward in 1964. The less formal age saw the Royals became more open too. In 1962 a public gallery was opened at Buckingham Palace to display items from the Royal Collection. Royal visits became less formal too In 1962, for example, The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh paid an informal visit to the East End of London, visiting housing redevelopments in Bethnal Green and Stepney and meeting a local family in their new home.

By the 1970s, the decline of manufacturing in London continued apace, now outnumbered by service jobs, and the inner London population was down to 3m. The workforce on the docks had dropped below 10,000. A quarter of jobs were now in public services. Strikes, power cuts and the three-day week – the early seventies were at times grim in London. The Queen celebrated 25 years on the throne with the Silver Jubilee of 1977, and the birth of her first grandchild, Peter Phillips. Two years later she received the first female prime minister at Buckingham Palace, as Margaret Thatcher led the Tories back to power in 1979.

Inner London arguably reached a nadir in the early eighties. Tensions between the Metropolitan police and the West Indian community erupted into riots in Brixton in 1981. The IRA continued to bomb London, and the capital lost its direct government and leader, when Thatcher abolished the GLC (and with it Ken Livingstone’s job) in 1986. The population of the inner city was now down to 2.4m, but there were plans for a bright new future. The ‘Big Bang’ deregulation of the City led to a boom in financial services and banking, and many of the firms moved downriver to the gleaming new city rising in Canary Wharf. As manufacturing’s share of the London economy plummeted to 12 per cent, banking stepped up to fill the gap. In 1986, the Queen celebrated her 60th birthday and the decade saw her became a grandmother several times over, with the births of Zara Phillips, William and Harry, and Beatrice and Eugenie.

The 1990s saw a succession of anni horribili for the Queen, with the devastating fire at Windsor Castle in 1992 and the death of Diana in 1997. But there were happier times too: her golden wedding in 1997, and the official celebrations for the arrival of the new millennium at the end of 1999. Inner London was back on its feet. The population rose from 2.5m in 1991 to 2.7m at the end of the decade. After a rocky start, Canary Wharf began to grow, with a population of bankers and newspaper staffs (and some eye-wateringly expensive apartments). The DLR now connected an ‘Island’ that had been all but cut off from the rest of London. By the turn of the century, 29 per cent of Londoners were from a minority ethnic group.

The new century saw the milestone of the Golden Jubilee, but the joy of 2002 was marred by sadness. That year the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret both died. In 2003 Prince Edward and the Countess of Wessex had their first child and in 2005 Prince Charles would remarry, to Camilla Parker Bowles. By the end of decade there would be rioting on the streets of London – with Charles and Camilla’s car attacked by protestors. Into the new decade and the next king but one would marry – as William and Kate’s wedding brought Londoners onto the streets to celebrate.

The East End in 2012 finds itself in uncertain times – of austerity, cuts, few jobs and fears for the future. The golden new era promised by the financial boom that started in Canary Wharf a quarter of a century ago looks rather tarnished now. But the Elizabethan era that began 60 years ago is one constant in a time of continual change. And for many East Enders she represents a hope that will always outshine the gloom.

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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