Oral London histories

Kings and Queens, admirals and generals and captains of industry, wars and plagues. As celebrated kids’ author Michael Rosen acknowledges in his introduction to a priceless gem of a book about the East End, history used to be about the ‘big’ names (mostly men of course) who shaped events, and the big events (ideally cataclysmic) that they shaped.

Michael Rosen

Michael Rosen

There’s a problem of course … that kind of history tends to cut out the ordinary people, the poor and the dispossessed. But throughout the 20th century, and largely using the new recorded media, enterprising historians were recording the voices and stories of ordinary men and women.

The War on our Doorstep: London’s East End and how the Blitz Changed it Forever* is a beautiful collection of reminiscences drawn from the Museum of London’s oral history collection. Here, recorded in the latter years of the 20th century, are the authentic voices of those born in the 1890s (among others). There’s is a world of moonlight flits, shoeless children and gin at a penny a pop. It’s ancient history to many readers, though for some of us only a generation or two away.

One of the most striking inclusions is a map of the East End, circa 1920, showing the areas of London with and without electricity. The East End (and Bermondsey south of the river) stand out among a sea of switched-on areas, including the City, Greenwich and the Borough. They may have only been in the queue — nonetheless the contrast is striking. And this of course was the engine of London’s economy, the docks both north and south of the river. A point nicely summarised in Cicely Fox-Smith’s poem Nitrates, a classic of the 1920s.

...All alone I went a-walking by the London Docks one day,

For to see the ships discharging in the basins where they lay,

And the cargoes that I saw there, they were every sort of kind,

Every blessed brand of merchandise a man could bring to mind;

There were things in crates and boxes, there was stuff in bags and bales,

There were tea-chests wrapped in matting, there were Eastern-looking frails,

There were balks of teak and greenheart, there were stacks of spruce and pine,

There was cork, and frozen carcasses, and casks of Spanish wine,

There was rice and spice and coco-nuts, and rum enough was there

For to warm all London’s innards up and leave a drop to spare…

Riches indeed. Though most East Enders weren’t sharing in them. Around Stepney and Whitechapel, most families were crammed into once-grand houses that by the early years of the 20th century had been subdivided and sublet many times. For most East Enders, ‘home’ was a set of rooms rather than a building, and families tended to be loyal to their area rather than sentimental about houses. Henry Corke was a boy in Bethnal Green in the 1920s. He remembered: ‘When I was a younger boy, I couldn’t bear the thought of living in a house without any family. There was us, we only had two rooms. The woman upstairs had about seven or nine kids. There was an old couple downstairs. Was about 40 of us in there.’


And if rents were low, there were greater savings to be made by cramming extra people in. ‘Miss M’ recalled that: ‘We used to use the doors off the cupboards laid on chairs and made up as beds. Nobody complained: the superintendent didn’t mind because everybody was doing the same.’ For Vicki Green, there was comfort in numbers, in ‘a three-storey house, two rooms on each floor, my uncle and family on the ground floor, another uncle on the first floor, and another on the second. My dad and mum and three of us kids on the top. There were 14 children in the house and we grew up almost like brothers and sisters.’

For some of the kids, growing up in such poverty was horrific. Charles Lisle was raised at 5 Wilson Street. ‘If you went out in the kitchen in the dark you trod on hundreds of black beetles. Oh it was a terrible place.’ And Vicki Green had a terror of going two floors down to the communal toilet in the middle of the night, lit by candle. ‘One of my cousins put the candle on the seat, and set her nightdress alight!’ Of course everything had to be shared with so many in one building. Sinks were in the backyard, as would be the one tap; washing would be hung along the corridors of the houses. ‘A primitive life,’ reckoned Vicki.

But for Jack Miller, growing up in Spitalfields in the 1920s, there was poetry in it. ‘We lived in two rooms on the second floor. My brother and I used to sleep in the garret but I liked it because it overlooked the rooftops and the soaring steeple of Christ Church. I was always charmed because there would be a carolling of the bells and it would waft across the skyline. That and the chanting, because on Sunday there would be Hebrew classes in the Brick Lane Talmud Torah. They would be reciting in Hebrew and it would blend with the sound of the bells.’

The superintendent may not have minded, but then he had a hard job keeping track of comings and goings, especially with multiple subletting and the constant moonlight flits. ‘You’d pack up when you owed a few bob rent, put your things on an old barrow for tuppence or threepence which you’d hired, and you’d move to somewhere else,’ recalled Stan Rose.

Or if you were unlucky, the superintendent and his team got to you first. The marvellously named Hilda Bunyon recalled an old woman, sitting out on the street, where she’d been escorted by the superintendent. Now in would come ‘the brokers’. In top hats and tail coats they’d ‘open a window and throw out the bits and pieces, all out on the road. The men would try to sell these. Tuppence for a chair … and get the money back owing to them.’ Neighbours, sympathetic perhaps but keen on a bargain, would snap them up. The now homeless unfortunate, meanwhile, would have to fall on the sympathy of friends … that or the horror of the workhouse.



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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