THE CRIMES of Victorian London seem as popular as ever, with Ripper Street and Sherlock Holmes, and even Dr Who getting in on the act of late. But it was in Edwardian Whitechapel that gang war was to really explode – most famously in the vicious turf wars between Isaac
Bogard and Arthur Harding. Many of the accounts we receive are apocryphal, as underworld figures become semi-legendary and grow in the mythology.
But with Arthur Harding we have a rich seam of first-person evidence to mine. For not only was this career-criminal surprisingly long-lived (born in 1885, three years before the Whitechapel Murders, he lived until 1981); he committed that life to paper. And so began a fortuitous sequence of events.
Harding, by now in his eighties, had an extraordinary life to draw upon as he sat down to write in the late sixties. He also had, it seems, almost perfect recall. His memoir My Apprenticeship to Crime was unflinching in its depiction of a brutal and dirt-poor childhood. He sent a copy both to the Cambridge Institute of Criminology and to his local MP, Stan Newens (then the Labour member for Epping). Newens was both an East Ender and a history graduate and he loved what he read. “It was four o clock the next morning before I could tear myself away and retire to my bed,” Newens wrote later. “I was totally hooked”.Newens passed the manuscript on to his friend Raphael Samuel who, crucially, was not only fascinated by East End history (his family had been Jewish immigrants to London) but by “history from below”. The Marxist historian had eschewed conventional academic histories with his endeavours at the History Workshop and at Ruskin College, encouraging ordinary working people to compile their own stories. Samuel was transfixed by Harding’s story of pickpocketing, protection, razor attacks and rubbing shoulders with the Blackshirts. And over a six-year period in the 1970s, sat down with Arthur to tirelessly and patiently commit his story to tape.
The result was the remarkable East End Underworld: chapters in the life of Arthur Harding, which would be published in 1981 (Harding got to read the finished work just before he died). The story is compelling, if not always pretty. Arthur is born in the Jago to a mother crippled by a runaway milk float and shackled to a father (Flash Harry) who is either idle or drunk, and frequently violent. His mother is forced to support the family with piecework, making matchboxes at Bryant and May in Fairfield Road (now the Bow Quarter) and Arthur is mainly raised by big sister Harriet (nicknamed ‘Mighty’). Meals are hit and miss, with Arthur often begging passers-by for food.
The family move to Hoxton (“about the worst bloody place they could have gone to”, according to Arthur). With the family of six now sharing one room, Arthur frees up space by sleeping rough. He is eventually rescued by a policeman who delivers the filthy, starving boy to Barnardos. The next three years are “the happiest of his young life” and provide Arthur’s daily bread and education. How do you escape such a grim existence? Arthur tries on several occasions to join the army, but each time is deemed either too young or too unfit. In 1900 he finally succeeds (he is still only 14 but the army, desperate for troops to fight in the Boer War, are less picky this time). To Arthur’s fury, his father refuses to let him go … the little bit of money the boy brings in is crucial to the family budget. Arthur becomes increasingly sucked into a life of crime.
All young villains served an apprenticeship. He is first nabbed at 14, then arrested at 15 for helping the colourfully named ‘One-Eyed’ Charlie pinch a bail of rags – that offence earning him 12 months hard labour.
In the hands of Samuel, the story becomes a compelling mix of first-person narrative and historical background. Harding’s detail on the Jago is superb – from the Shoreditch Hat Shop located strategically next to the Royal Standard Theatre in Norton Folgate (“owned by a German…He must have made a packet, all the comedians used to buy their hats there”) to the Jane Shore pub in Shoreditch High Street (“where my dad worked, for 2s (10p) daily from 6am to midnight”).
Harding is a less than loveable character at times. He divides the populus into Jews, non-Jews and Half Jews; his criminal rival Isaac Bogard is referred to throughout as “the Coon” (not just offensive but inaccurate); and his stock in trade is to pre-empt any trouble in the pub by smashing a glass into the face of any potential challenger. His criminal pragmatism is perfectly illustrated as he talks about the famous ‘Vendettas’ for which he was eventually jailed. He recalls: “Alf Simpson…wasn’t a thief but a hooligan, stabbing people and all that sort of thing. He didn’t make any money at it, it was just terrorism, the instinct of the savage.” Over the following decades, Harding will mature from vicious young criminal to elder statesman and a pal of the Krays. He will even become an (almost) respectable businessman.
Next week: Fit-ups, prison and respectability
About Raphael Samuel
Raphael Elkin Samuel was born in London on Boxing Day 1934. Although described as “one of the most outstanding, original intellectuals of his generation” and graduating from Balliol College, Oxford he avoided academic advancement, pouring his energies into the History Workshop at Ruskin College. His mature students, largely trade unionists, produced collections such as Village Life and Labour and Miners, Quarrymen and Saltworkers. A Communist who left the party following the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, Raphael retained a lifelong fascination with the successes and failures of the Left, in later years writing Theatres of the Left and The Lost World of Communism. He only took a university post in the last years of his life, at the new centre for the study of community in the East End, based at the University of East London: it was renamed the Raphael Samuel Centre after his death in 1996, and is now a partnership between UEL, Birkbeck and the Bishopsgate Institute. You can find more details, and access Samuel’s archive, at /www.raphael-samuel.org.uk. There is a digitised version of Harding’s memoir at http://www.bishopsgate.org.uk/content/1413/My-Apprenticeship-to-Crime (Arthur’s wallpaper-bound original is at the Bishopsgate Institute) and of East End Underworld at http://tinyurl.com/arzsu7r .