Subscribe in a reader

OR ... get the weekly East End History newsletter

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner



Stepney by Samantha Bird

MAGNIS AD MAIORA runs the legend beneath the coat of arms of the London Borough of Stepney – ‘from great things to greater’ for those of us unlucky (or lucky) enough to not have studied Latin at school. But how far did the borough achieve such aspirations? Did life get better over the course of the first half of the 20th century? Looking at the lot of Stepney dwellers around the turn of the century it could scarcely have got much worse.

St Dunstans Church, Stepney

St Dunstans Church, Stepney

Those, and many others are the questions posed in Dr Samantha Bird’s excellent new book on the area*, “the first single volume history of Stepney in modern times”, in which she draws her historical line from the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 to the Festival of Britain in 1951. The tricky thing with the East End, though, is where do you draw your geographic boundaries? This isn’t the historical village of Stepney, rather the borough which emerged from the 1899 London Government Act, and bordered to the west by the City, to the north by Bethnal Green, to the east by Poplar and south by the Thames. This Stepney includes “the parishes of Mile End Old Town and St George’s in the East; the districts of Limehouse and the Whitechapel Boards of Works, with the Tower of London and the Liberties thereof”. This new Stepney, which tried to fashion administrable cohesion from an area which had sprawled noisomely over the Middlesex countryside in the previous century or so, was a triumph of Victorian political tidiness: with 20 wards, 60 councillors, and three parliamentary constituencies: Limehouse, Mile End and Whitechapel.

The one thing that hadn’t changed, since the time of Samuel Pepys, was the poverty of the people. According to tax records in Pepys’s day, “half of the residents of the East of London were classified as poor”. Since medieval times, the area east of the City wall had been seen as London’s backyard, and like many of our backyards, there was a lot dumped out there. So workshops, shipyards, bakeries, mills and distilleries poured forth their filth and stenches alongside the allotments and market gardens. As for the people, they were little regarded. In 1845, the railway speculators drove their new line out from Fenchurch Street to Tilbury. No consideration was shown to the East Enders who lived nearby (those whose homes weren’t demolished). The tracks ran so close that people had to keep their windows closed as the trains passed “lest their bedding catch fire from the sparks”.

But fast forward to the end of the Victorian era, past the Houndsditch Murders and Churchill’s grandstanding at the Sidney Street Siege – and how did this new borough cope with the 20th century? Certain themes emerge over and over again. The East End had coalesced as a series of slums as the old fields of Middlesex were covered with increasingly dense housing. And poor housing was to dominate the politics of Stepney throughout the first half of the century. There were those made homeless by the Zeppelin air raids of the Great War, and the paucity of homes for heroes in the years after. With Poplarism there was the emergence of a whole political movement centred on the inequities of housing policy. And in World War 2, huge numbers of Stepney dwellers were bombed out, killed or displaced by enemy action. Once war was over the decisions were huge, and partial rebuilding sat alongside relocation to the New Towns of Essex.

Along the way, Bird examines how a unique admixture of cultures created the political life of Stepney. In particular, between the wars, an alliance between Irish and Jewish dwellers, united in politics of the broad left and in a loathing of fascism, generated plenty of volunteers to fight fascists on the streets of Stepney and on the fields of Spain.

The tail end of our period is the Festival of Britain, and the bright new era of housing that promised. The Lansbury Estate was to be merely the first of the new, planned developments – and it of course bore the name of the hero of Poplarism – but it was criticised by many for its limited ambition and cautious architecture. The Government might have tried to sell 1951 as the dawn of a brave new world, but to many East Enders it must have seemed like the end of theirs, as Stepney’s decline in population and industrial base accelerated. The Abercrombie Plan for London seemed to be more a plan to move everybody out of London. But the findings that emerged from the Mass Observation programme of surveys during the latter days of the War yielded some simple but (to us now) obvious facts. Stepney dwellers wanted to live in houses not flats; they wanted to have gardens not communal spaces; and they wanted to stay where they were.

Dr Bird manages that trickiest of juggling acts – turning an academic work (Stepney began life as her PhD thesis) into a compelling read. The academic provenance is there on every page, in the many hundreds of footnotes, the reliance on primary sources and the inclusion of a proper index (which is rarer than you might expect!). But the pages are choc-a-bloc with characters and facts from Stepney’s history. So we discover that the famous slogan “They shall not pass”, which was to become ubiquitous during the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, was first given voice by Arthur Foley Winnington-Ingram, the Bishop of London, in his 1918 Easter sermon. That the Great War was still having ripples two decades later, with the death of 18 schoolchildren during the destruction of Upper North Street School during a zeppelin raid having huge bearing on the decision to evacuate children during the early days of World War 2. And we read of local priest, John Groser, taking direct action to feed local people during the Blitz: “Breaking into an official food store to feed the homeless”. Nothing had changed too much. For much of their history, the people of Stepney simply had to look after themselves.

* Stepney: profile of a London borough from the outbreak of the First World War to the Festival of Britain, 1914-1951, by Dr Samantha L Bird; ISBN 978-1-4438-3506-0; WWW.CSP.CO

SEE ALSO

Lansbury versus Morrison: the battle over Poplarism

Zeppelin strikes: the East End at war

Peter the Painter: the Sidney Street Siege

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>