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Category: East End at war

Thomas Rainsborough, the Levellers and the English Civil War

Roundheads versus Cavaliers, Parliament versus Royalty. In the popular mind the English Civil War is a simple conflict of two clearly opposing factions, which will end with the beheading of one king — and unfold a decade later with the return of his son to the throne. But the series of battles that would play out during the First and Second English Civil Wars in the

Thomas Rainsborough

Thomas Rainsborough

1640s were anything but clear cut. And while the Parliamentarians were bitterly opposed to the high-handed rule Charles I they were almost equally divided among themselves. The bitter factional disputes would play out with the killing of Thomas Rainsborough on October 30, 1648. The sword that slew the Leveller leader was in the hand of a Cavalier soldier — but was it Oliver Cromwell himself who directed the blade?

The unveiling of a plaque by Tony Benn in St John’s Churchyard a week or two back is an attempt to bring Rainsborough back into the public consciousness. Benn, a hero of the left, and a thorn in the side of his own leaders (though it might be pushing it rather to equate Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan with Cromwell) could certainly identify with the satisfyingly awkward Rainsborough. He would certainly applaud the Levellers (who elected ‘agitators’ from among their ranks) and their attacks on the House of Lords and inherited power, as well as their demand for their ‘natural, God-given rights’.

Rainsborough had been born in 1610, the son of a prominent, though not an aristocratic family. He was the son of William Rainsborough, a Vice-Admiral in command of his own vessel in the Royal Navy, as well as a Member of Parliament and the King’s Ambassador to Morocco. For William’s exploits in battling white slavery in Morocco, he was offered an hereditary knighthood by Charles I in 1642, but turned it down (accepting a life peerage instead). It was a combination of the military with politics his sons (William Rainsborowe and Thomas) would follow.

Thomas proved himself to be a talented and flexible military man. He was already in the navy before the outbreak of the First Civil War in 1642, and during the conflict, as Parliament turned against the King, he was put in command of the Swallow and other English warships. By May 1645, he had transferred to the New Model Army, fighting at the Battle of Naseby (a devastating defeat for the Cavaliers), at Bristol, Berkeley Castle and the Siege of Droitwich.


Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell

In January 1647 became the MP for Droitwich. He was a voice for the Roundheads, but also a dissenter in their midst. Leaders of the Parliamentary side, Oliver Cromwell and his son-in-law, Henry Ireton wanted freedom from Royal tyranny but they certainly didn’t want communism, and Rainsborough’s espousal of the ideas of the Ranters and Levellers were altogether too revolutionary. The Ranters were a religious sect believing that God was in every creature: rejecting centralised organisation, they were seen as a threat not just to the established Church but to the fabric of society. The Levellers meanwhile argued that the king (or whoever should replace him) must be elected by all the people (well, men at least). Universal suffrage and the dismantling of the structures of society and government weren’t in Cromwell’s plan — in the latter years of the Commonwealth (1649-1660), he would became a king in all but name.

So Rainsborough’s addresses at the Levellers’ Putney Debates were concerning to his leaders such as Cromwell and Thomas Fairfax — especially when the soldier attempted to serve a copy of the Leveller tract Agreement of the People on his general, at the Corkbush Field rendezvous of 1647. Fairfax brushed him aside and arranged a transfer well away from the cockpit of London politics. The first plan was to put him back in the Navy as a Vice-Admiral, but his Leveller beliefs elicited a mutiny among his men. So Rainsborough was sent to assist the Roundhead cause at the Siege of Pontefract Castle. Again he found opposition, with the Parliamentary commander in Yorkshire, Sir Henry Cholmley, refusing to accept his authority. While the arguments continued, Thomas and his men were billeted in Doncaster, and it was there he met his death. Not on the field or at sea: four royalists had managed to get into the fortified billet and kidnap him. In the struggle, one ran through Rainsborough with his sword.

How had they got to him? The bitter suspicion was that Cromwell et al had arranged the killing. Certainly, without

King Charles I

King Charles I

Rainsborough, the Levellers’ influence waned during the Second Civil War. 3000 mourners paraded through London wearing the green ribbons and rosemary branches of the movement, but the impetus for a truly revolutionary England had gone. King Cromwell would soon ascend the throne. The whole story, if slightly buffed and beautified for modern eyes, can be seen in ‘The Devil’s Whore’, a movie released a few years back, starring Michael Fassbender as Rainsborough and Dominic West as Cromwell. Peter Capaldi plays Charles I, though without ‘Thick of It’ profanities.

Rainsborough’s remains lie somewhere in St John’s Churchyard — though until the unveiling of the plaque on May 12, you wouldn’t have found a clearly marked spot. The site, though lovely, is slightly surreal: a graveyard without stones, accompanying a tower without a church. The graveyard is neatly turfed over, while what remains of the old tombstones are serried along the walls of the plot. St John’s itself was lost to enemy bombing during World War 2: the husk was demolished and new apartments were built around the tower.



Dock deaths and the Poplar Hospital

Docklands hospital in Poplar

Poplar Hospital catered for the wounded from the East India Docks

THE NAME of the infirmary was tellingly blunt. The ‘Poplar Hospital for Accidents’ suggested that the East End of the 1800s was a dangerous place where bad things happened. And though it would become a refuge for East Enders suffering every kind of ailment, primarily it was created to cope with the constant stream of broken and shattered men carried from the East India Docks – the most dangerous place of all.

Dock work was inherently dangerous of course. The frequently half-cut dockers (cheap booze being one way to make a hellish job bearable) were manoeuvring large, heavy objects between moving ship and stable shore across narrow gangplanks, often slick with ice or other muck. They worked in a confusion of men and vehicles, alongside precipitous drops into the filthy Thames, with sharp grappling hooks being swung around with sometimes careless abandon. But a series of historical turns would make the job more dangerous still during the 1800s.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the Port of London was completely gridlocked, with ships taking days or weeks to be emptied, turned round and sent back to sea. The answer was to build a series of new, enclosed docks, increasing capacity while bringing down costs to the merchant companies, and thus of the goods they were importing. The West India Dock was built in 1802, the East India in 1803, London Docks in 1805 and half a dozen more would follow. The dock owners were now losing less stock through theft, with their well-protected docks, and so prices could come down further. It would lead to an economic boom for England and the beginnings of the great days of London retail. East End stores and market stalls were now selling imported fabrics, tea, coffee, rum, oranges and bananas, and East Enders could afford to buy them.

But with increased capacity came competition, as the dock owners cut prices to vie for business. That meant lower wages for the dockers, who were already on a daily rate or were being paid by the quantity they shifted throughout the day. And there was more competition for jobs, as new labour came in from the English countryside and from Ireland, forcing down wages further. Corners would be cut, and so accidents would happen.

The work itself was dangerous, dirty and tiring (and tired men had more accidents). Bags would burst, showering dockers with iodine, phosphate, asbestos, lead, cement or guano. A docker of more recent vintage, Bill Abbott, recalled the perils of working with inexperienced men, saying: “I’ve had chaps working with me down a ship’s hold that never handled a hook or done a job down a ship’s hold in their lives. On one occasion, put on sugar, and I gave him a hook…And said “now put your hook in there”, and I’m saying that, as he did so he went literally – bashed his hook right through the middle of me hand. I’ve still got a little hole there now. Almost pinned me hand to the bag of sugar.”

Bill got off lightly. Cargoes could fall from nets or slings as they were being winched to and fro. The busy river would roll ships around at the dock, casting men over the side, to be drowned or crushed between hull and dock. Within the holds of the ship, barrels and chests would be dislodged, crushing men beneath them. In the confused melee of river traffic, collisions occurred, despite the skills of the watermen and lightermen – even those experienced river pilots went over the side from time to time. On the dock itself, cranes, winches, tractors, locomotives and platform trucks all added to the accident count.

So in the early 1850s, a drive was launched. Money was raised by charitable donations and the former Custom House was purchased and transformed into the new Poplar Hospital in 1855. It was soon bursting at the seams and had to be expanded twice over the following years; at one point, it was estimated that a dozen new cases were being treated at the hospital every hour of the day and night, and the hospital bore a plaque “in grateful recognition of the splendid services rendered by the Hospital to the Staff of the London and India Dock Company, since the Hospital was established”.

Seventy years on, its role hadn’t changed. Poplar Borough Council published its Official Guide to the Metropolitan Borough of Poplar in 1927, and reported that: “Accidents in the Port of London, in the docks and shipping, amongst the factories and the engineering works, are of frequent occurrence, and often of the most terrible character … immediate attention to the injured is often a vital consideration.”

The injuries were horrific of course. Crushed limbs, severe lacerations, arms or legs often amputated by falling machinery or whipping ropes. And the Poplar Hospital, while a boon, was still severely limited in what it could do for patients. By the mid-1800s, anasthaesia was becoming established at least. In the early 19th century surgery had been an horrific affair, with pain relief consisting of biting on a strap of leather and a strong will. Unsurprisingly, many died of shock during their operations. One estimate put the post-operative death rate in London hospitals at over 90 per cent in the early 1800s. And it was a common saw that you were safer outside hospital than in. Infection was rife, with no understanding of what caused disease, let alone antibiotics to combat it. A docker might go in with a serious wound only to die from infections picked up in hospital. By the late 1800s, antibiotics had joined anasthaesia, and surgical techniques had improved, but survival rates were still pitifully low.

Times would change of course. The hospital suffered bomb damage in 1941 but wouldn’t close until 1975. In 1982 it was demolished to make way for new houses – the old Victorian buildings and limited space no longer suitable for the demands of modern medicine, though the people of Poplar would miss their local hospital. But by then of course, the docks were all but dead. Downriver, at Tilbury, the docks may still be dangerous places but the advent of health and safety awareness meant the carnage of the docks was history.

Strikes in the East End of London during World War 1

1910 strike picture

Police strike in 1910

The years before the First World War saw more strikes in the East End of London than ever before, and it was little wonder that unrest centred on this part of London. A centre for industry and imports, with a high proportion of poorly paid and casual workers, the East End suffered more than most from the driving down in wages and fall in living standards that beset Britain at the time. Great East End industrial conflicts of the late Victorian era, such as the 1887 match girls’ strike in Bow, and the dock strike of 1889, had been followed by ‘the Great Unrest’ – a series of crippling strikes in the years before 1914.

With the outbreak of war, East Enders buried many of their grievances beneath the patriotic fervour required to get through what would be the most terrible war yet for Europe. Regardless of the fact that most residents of Stepney or Shadwell had little idea and less interest in events in Sarajevo or Sinai, Londoners would pull together behind their boys … up to a point. In any case, strikes were officially banned: the TUC and the government had agreed on that. And with the Labour Party joining Lloyd George’s coalition government in 1916, there was no true opposition. But there were stresses. Wars are always meant to be over ‘by Christmas’ of course, but the conflict limped interminably on, and by 1917 Londoners were heartily sick of the endless casualties and the privations at home.

The shortage of manpower also had an inevitable effect on industry. Though women couldn’t do the heavy work on the East and West India Docks, they could replace men in the factories – munitions factories had mushroomed all over Bethnal Green, Stepney and Wapping – and it led to conflict on both sides. A series of unofficial strikes by men, protesting at the ‘dilution’ of the workforce by women), simply exaggerated the manpower shortage, and had the unexpected effect of forcing up piecework rates for the women. By the time the war ended in November 1918, London had even seen its first strike for equal pay by women working on the trams and buses – legislation wouldn’t arrive until the Equal Pay Act in 1970.

But perhaps the most alarming signal to any government is when the officers of national security start turning. There had been isolated mutinies within the British army, with enlisted men turning on their officers, but they tended to be summarily dealt with on the battlefield. More worrying was a demonstration called by the National Union of Police and Prison Officers on Tower Hill in August 1918. East End copper Tommy Thiel had been sacked for this union activities, and the vast majority of London bobbies downed truncheons in sympathy. A squad of 600 flying pickets ensured the strike stayed solid.

And there were other ways of protesting. With wages held down, a depressed wartime economy and strict rationing, East Enders were feeling severely pinched by 1918. Rent strikes became common (and would bleed into the Poplarism rate strikes of the 1920s): Londoners couldn’t avoid noticing that Russia’s role in the War had ended with a workers’ revolution, and many were sympathetic. For those female munitions workers, their reward at the close of hostilities in November 1918 was ‘thankyou and goodbye’. Many women saw their jobs disappear, while many others were given back to returning soldiers. And numerous soldiers returned to no job, no home and broken families. Their option was the Poor Law and the workhouse or begging on the streets of Whitechapel. The British Government scented revolt in the air, and became distinctly uneasy.

With the Armistice, the dam was broken, and four years of frustration came flooding through. Historian Walter Kendall argues that “the crisis British society faced between 1918 and 1920 was probably the most serious since the time of the Chartists”. The police union grew to 50,000 members, while mutinies in the army multiplied. Things came to a head in 1919, with Lloyd George’s misguided plans in for a British expeditionary force to the Russian port of Archangel. Not content with four years of exhausting conflict, Britain now planned to invade Russia and put down the Revolution. The scheme had to be abandoned when British soldiers declared solidarity with Russia and simply refused to embark. The Government backed down and demobilised the angry soldiers – more men would return to Civvy Street and no jobs.

Again in 1920 Lloyd George proposed military action against Russia (Poland and France had already invaded her western territories) and again the East End stepped in. In May that year, men at the East India Docks refused to load a ship called the Jolly George which was bound for Russia with a load of munitions for the Polish army. East End railwayman then stepped in, refusing to carry cargoes of weapons bound for the docks. And union members began to withhold their labour in pursuit of closed shops, forcing every employee to join the union.

There were some ironies though, and the enemy wasn’t always obvious. Black American writer Claude McKay was visiting London in these years, and spent time with Sylvia Pankhurst at the offices of her Women’s Dreadnought newspaper. There were some 60 sawmills in London, most of them out in the East End and most out on strike, and right opposite the Dreadnought’s 198 Bow Road office was one of London’s biggest. The union men told McKay indignantly that some of their fellows were still working. The part-owner of this home for scabs? None other than “George Lansbury, Labour member of parliament and managing editor of the Daily Herald…the strikers thought it would make an excellent story for the Dreadnought. So did I!”

Lansbury, of course, would do more than most to champion the cause of East End workers in the years to come. The 1920s would see East End dissent on an unprecedented scale.

Digging for victory in wartime London

As the price of fresh food goes through the roof, many East Enders are heading for the shed and digging out long forgotten trowels, spades, rakes and … what exactly do you call that thing with the hollowed-out triangle on the end. “Why not grow our own?” we think. And so we set off to create something as uniquely English as pie and mash or saucy seaside postcards – the kitchen garden.

There is history here of course. Watch any film purporting to depict East End working class life during World War II, and sooner the later the father of the house will roll up his shirt sleeves and head to the backyard with his spade. But all those Jack Warners and Stanley Holloways were only the onscreen versions of real East End dads. The destruction of the Blitz had an unexpected side effect: there weren’t just plants growing among the cracked concrete, the good people of Whitechapel, Stepney, Bow, Poplar and Bethnal Green were planting their own gardens in the rubble.

The Dig for Victory Campaign had been launched in xxxx by a Government terrified that Britain was about to run out of food. Rationing had been introduced in 1940 as German U-boats began to threaten merchant vessels bringing in essential foodstuffs. Britain, declared the Ministry of Agriculture, had to go self sufficient. The result was one of Britain’s most successful propaganda drives. Dig for Victory encouraged every man, woman and child to turn their garden, or even the grass verge in the street, to fruit and veg. By 1942, half of us were taking part and even the Royal Family had grubbed up the Buckingham Palace rose beds for onions (or at least they’d had a man do it for them).

David Cotterill was a Bethnal Green schoolboy when war broke out. He remembers the shock at hydrangeas and hyacinths making way for carrots and cauliflower. “Gardening wasn’t new. All these little terraced houses with front doors direct onto the pavement [David grew up near Columbia Road] had roses and beans in the back garden. People used to go behind the brewery and the milk carts, pick up the horse’s mess to put on the roses.” What was new was those precious flowers making way for utilitarian vegetables. “My mum wasn’t happy losing her flowers. I remember her saying we had to grow peas intead of sweet peas.”

Front gardens were dug up too, casting aside the strict hierarchy of the English garden. Angela Canty lived in slightly leafier Bow. “My parents had been very proud of having a front garden. It was a status symbol I suppose, in that they’d done quite well and moved out from Whitechapel before the war. But then all the gardens were getting planted with runners, carrots and lettuce … it looked very peculiar but you couldn’t live on the stuff you got from the shops.”

Of course, some crops needed a bit more space than you’ll find in a terraced garden. And so the public spaces of London were thrown over to the Dig for Victory campaign. David remembers allotments being laid out in Victoria Park, while the destruction of the German bombs opened up gap sites that were often swiftly planted up.

The campaign was a huge success and by 1944 the Ministry was no longer calling for more land to be planted up – rather it was looking for efficiencies in agriculture. The Government, with brilliant marketing and posters that still look good on a study wall today, had mobilised the innate keenness and love of the outdoors of Londoners. But, as so often in English history, Londoners’ gritty response to the call concealed an amateurishness on the part of the authorities. East Enders had long been keen gardeners – some historians have put it down to the Industrial Revolution and our early move away from the land. Perhaps all those pocket gardeners in Shoreditch, Wapping and the Isle of Dogs were subconsciously tapping in to the race memory of their great great grandparents back in the field of Essex, Yorkshire or Ireland.

Whatever the reason for our love of tilling and sowing, we’d been here before. The roots lay in one of the first mass conscriptions, for the Second Boer War in 1898. London recruiting sergeants were appalled at the physical specimens emerging from the tenements of Whitechapel. A 70-hour week in a sweatshop wasn’t conducive to good health of course, but nutritional scientists such as Boyd Orr petitioned the Government for a coherent food policy. Much of the enthusiasm for growing your own during the early years of the 20th century came from the lack of decent fresh fruit and veg to be had. That famed English love of roses (with many tons of manure freely provided by the thousands of London dray horses) was perhaps more about a craving for beauty in the heart of a very grubby city. And during World War I it became painfully obvious that rural England wasn’t providing enough to feed urban England. The allotment craze took off, and there were 1.5m of them by the end of the war. By 1936, the number had halved.

But, just in time, the people stepped into the breach. And of course, with rationing persisting well into the 1950s, there was still a compelling reason to grow your own. That withered as affluence grew in the sixties and seventies and more of us moved away from the land and towards the pre-prepared foods section of the supermarket. The seeds have always been there, lying dormant and waiting for the right climate perhaps. It’s hard to imagine another country’s national television broadcasting an hour of gardening programming at prime time on a Friday, as the BBC does with Gardeners’ World. A crop of other gardening programmes flourish across the schedules, there is Gardeners’ Question Time on Radio 4 and the Chelsea Flower Show seems to push major world events off the headlines come the summer. Meanwhile, gardening books fight with cookery books for pride of place in the best-seller lists – the English, it’s fair to say, love their gardens.

And that famous English amateurism? As we’re threatened with £1000 fines for using a hose, the Environment Agency reports that every day more than 3.3 billion litres of treated water – 20 per cent of the nation’s supply and 234 million litres a day more than a decade ago – are lost through leaking pipes in England and Wales. The water lost would meet the daily needs of 21.5 million people. East End gardeners may be forgiven for ruefully looking at their patch and thinking of the bonuses leaking into the bank accounts of Thames Water bosses. But it’s spring and the last frost is (hopefully) gone. So hosepipe ban notwithstanding, it could be time to scrape off those rusty tools and start digging for victory once again.

War hero Geoffrey Harold Woolley

It’s the stuff of Boys’ Own stories. A young officer, seeing his superior officers cut down by enemy fire and his own troops thinned by machine gun fire, defies overwhelming odds to hold the line against the Germans. Victory is impossible yet he shrugs off his fears and machine gun bullets to keep his men together until reinforcements arrive. Feted by his countrymen, he returns home to receive the highest military honour Britain can bestow – the Victoria Cross. What makes the story of East Ender Geoffrey Harold Woolley the more remarkable is that he wasn’t even a regular soldier – he became the first territorial to win the VC.

The horrors of the First World War are well documented. But even by the standards of the Great War, the Battle for Hill 60 was brutal. Sir John Denton Pinkstone French, chief of staff of the British Army during the conflict, described it as “the fiercest fight in which British troops have ever been engaged” and it was pivotal in the direction the war took on the Western Front.

Woolley was a peace-loving man, destined to be a vicar. He had been born in Bethnal Green on 14 May 1892, the son of the curate of St Matthew’s in Hackney. The Woolleys were an academic (and abundant) clan. Among Geoffrey’s ten siblings were Sir Leonard Woolley, one of the fathers of modern archeology and a friend of Lawrence of Arabia. Another was the ethnographer George Woolley. After grammar school (Parmiter’s in Approach Road, Bethnal Green) Geoffrey went up to Queen’s College, Oxford and seemed destined to follow his father into the Church.

But the Woolleys were cut from the cloth of muscular Victorian Christianity. Heroes of the Great War by GA Leask takes an unironically patriotic stance unfashionable today. Nonetheless it paints an interesting picture of 23-year-old Geoffrey as “British and unassuming to the core, and a typical specimen of muscular Christianity. He excels at cricket, tennis, and football, and played the greater game of war with all his heart and soul. Notwithstanding his deep religious principles and his connection with a clerical family, this young Briton waived his intentions of entering the Church from a sense of duty to his country.”

War is, of course, no game. Woolley, having laid aside his nascent career in the Church, was posted to the Western Front in April 1915 – just as the opposing forces cranked up to the bloody Second Battle of Ypres. On Woolley’s very first day in the trenches a hand grenade landed at his feet. Unfazed he picked it up and threw it back. But it was nothing compared to what would come – the assault on Hill 60 and the desperate attempt to hold it from the Germans.

It was a style of warfare that no longer exists. The town of Ypres in Belgium was held by the British, Canadian, French and Belgian armies, and lay at the heart of the Ypres Salient – a promontory jutting into enemy territory. Trenches were dug in on both sides. The nature of a salient is, of course, that it can gradually become surrounded and cut off, and also that it becomes a focus for fierce fighting. But to the south east of Ypres lay Hill 60, held by the Germans and offering them a perfect vantage point over the surrounding countryside. It was also a perfect seat for their big guns, and the British decided it had to be taken out.

The sappers spent months tunnelling into the hill, secreting hundreds of tons of high explosive, and at seven on the evening of Saturday 17 April the fuse was lit. The hill exploded and the Allies completed the job by raining shells down on the German positions. The British troops swarmed in to take the hill, but next came the tough part – holding it.

The Battle of Hill 60 was a descent into hell for both sides. Thousands of German reinforcements poured in, only to be mown down by British machine gun fire. Hand grenades rained into the British trenches, while Highland soldiers invaded the German trenches with fixed bayonets. The Germans in turn introduced the horror of gas for the first time, blinding and crippling many of the British troops.

At the heart of the fighting stood Woolley, as one by one his superior officers – first major, then captain, then lieutenant – were killed. Now the senior officer, he rallied his 150 or so men, at times standing on the lip of the trench, hurling grenades at the enemy. It was a reckless bravery, with a hint of madness to it. And when backup eventually came, with Hill 60 still in British hands, Woolley’s cadre had been reduced to just 20 – 14 territorials and six regular soldiers. Woolley was carried from the front suffering from gas poisoning, promoted to captain, and promptly suffered a nervous breakdown.

The Bethnal Green boy was indomitable though. In 1916 he returned to the Western Front and saw out the rest of the war before returning to Oxford to finish his theology studies. The war hero was ordained in December 1920 and went on to become a parish vicar in Monk Sherbourne, Hampshire. In January 1940, Woolley volunteered once again, resigning his post as chaplain at Harrow School to serve as Senior Chaplain in Algiers. The Second World War brought tragedy too, with his son (Spitfire pilot Rollo) dying in November 1942 in a fight over Tunis.

After the war Woolley returned to Harrow though resigned (rather ironically) as he was finding it increasingly difficult to scale the hill to his parish church of St Mary’s. He moved to the parish of West Grinstead (it was presumably flatter) and retired in 1958. Woolley died in 1968, bearing the VC, the Military Cross and the OBE.

Peter Kuenstler at Oxford House

View Peter Kuenstler at Oxford House in a larger map

By the time of Peter Kuenstler’s arrival a lot had changed since the pioneering days of the East End settlements. In the 1880s, social reformers such as Samuel Barnett had been attempting ‘missionary’ work into an East End largely ignored by the ruling classes*. Leading up to the war, it was becoming increasingly hard to recruit ‘settlers’ and maintain the ascetic approach to staffing Oxford House. The all-male rules were relaxed with the recruitment of a female cook and a matron. Some of the settlers now worked in the City, returning in the evenings to do voluntary work at the settlement.

Oxford House and Clutton-Brock

With the outbreak of World War II, the Head, Rev John Lewis (who had infuriated Council members by marrying and breaking the male celibate tradition) decided to follow the rest of the Bethnal Green evacuees and leave for the country. Oxford House was virtually shut down. As a ‘caretaking’ measure the Council agreed to appoint Guy Clutton-Brock as Head. Juggling the role with his job as head of the Probation Service, the new Head began to recruit from the ranks of Conscientious Objectors. These men had been exempted from military service on grounds of conscience, and threw their energies into serving their country in a different way.

Wartime work at Oxford House, Bethnal Green

Peter Kuenstler had been excused military service on condition that he continue his studies and did two nights a week fire watching. ‘This involved keeping awake armed with a bucket of sand and a bucket of water, in case incendiary bombs were dropped … I have never understood the logic of this’ he writes. ‘After the weekend in Bethnal Green I returned to my home in Hendon where I tried, in vain, to apply myself to vacation reading of Plato and Aristotle. After two weeks I gave up and went to Bethnal Green and pleaded with Guy Clutton-Brock to let me stay at the House for a few weeks. He explained there was nothing to do, the schools were closed, most of the families had been evacuated to the countryside.’

Oxford House and Webbe Boys Club

‘However in the end he agreed to take me on temporarily as a cleaner in the daytime and as an assistant at the Webbe Boys Club in the evenings.’ For this, Peter got pocket money of £1 a week. It was the beginning of an association that would last eight years. The residents of Bethnal Green lived in constant fear of air raids. Peter recalls heading for Bethnal Green in a Number 8 bus, the eastern sky orange, reflecting the burning buildings below. But though the streets were often a chaotic mess of fire engines, rubble and worse, the first reaction of the neighbours was to get ‘out in the streets asking where help was needed’.

Zeppeling raids and Oxford House

An unusual quandary arose for the Residents at the house. Neighbours would come around asking to shelter in the building from the bombs. Government policy was to advise the opposite – to stop large groups clustering together for fear of greater casualties. But people wanted to be together – the older ones even remembered sheltering in Oxford House from Zeppelin raids. The staff gave in and bussed in bunks for the people to sleep on. As well as a nightly shelter, the House was designated a Rest Centre. So, when their houses were hit and made uninhabitable, local families came in until more permanent housing could be found for them.

Oxford House and air raids

‘We often had to improvise to respond to new and extraordinary needs,’ Peter remembers. ‘I was sent off to visit every hardware shop I could find in order to buy chicken wire [to baffle bomb blasts].’ Luckily, because of the tradition of keeping hens in the backyard, there was plenty of it. The men found themselves rescuing furniture from bombed houses – it had to be liberally dosed with paraffin to kill off bugs. Peter took a 14 year old from a penniless family to the nearest clothiers to buy him a complete set of clothing – socks, pants and all, £14 the lot – so he could go to apply for his first job.

Leaving Oxford House, Bethnal Green

Fascinating, varied and ultimately exhausting work. By 1946 Peter was almost burnt out and decided to move on. He worked first on radio programmes for the BBC, then got a Research Fellowship in Youth Policies and Programmes at Bristol University. He was astonished: ‘several of my fellow applicants were academically qualified while I was not’. Perhaps eight years thinking on his feet in Bethnal Green was more useful than a paper qualification, as Peter himself acknowledges. ‘I had been given unparalleled field training in Youth and Community work. Most importantly I learnt unforgettable lessons from people like Guy Clutton-Brock and the hundreds of men, women and children I got to know at Oxford House.’

Cable Street – 74 years on

In 1936 a battle took place on the streets of the East End that was to focus the eyes of Britain on the growing threat of fascism in its midst.

A plaque on a wall in Dock Street tells the story. ‘The Battle of Cable Street: The people of East London rallied to Cable Street on 4 Ocotber 1936 and forced back the march of the fascist Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts through the streets of the East End … They shall not pass.’

And this Sunday, 8 October, there is a programme of events* to celebrate the 70th anniversary of that remarkable day. A procession, street theatre, exhibition, films, music, history and stalls (not to mention the Cable Street mural) combine to remind East Enders of why their stand mattered then … and matters just as much now.

Oswald Mosley had served in the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War, being invalided out of the forces following a plane crash in 1916. In 1918, at just 21, he became an MP, the youngest in the House of Commons, representing the Conservatives in Harrow. But Mosley was in a hurry, and with a disdain for what he saw as tired parties staffed with mediocre men. In 1926 he crossed the floor of the House, and was elected Labour MP for Smethwick. Appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in the second Labour administration of 1929 he swiftly resigned again – furious that his plan for dealing with mass unemployment were ignored by the party leadership.

The impatient Mosley now formed and headed his own party, the New Party. They were unsuccessful in the elections of 1931, and once again he moved on. In 1932, fired by visits to Europe and the examples of Hitler and Mussolini, he formed the British Union of Fascists (BUF). The platform was anti-corporatist (especially anti the banks), protectionist and anti-Communist. But Mosley was taking on much more than that from the continental fascists.

An increasingly anti-semitic tone coloured his speeches – Jews were cast as the villains of international big business and banking. And his speeches were protected by the ‘Blackshirts’ who would brutally break up any disturbance. Mosley’s links to the Nazis in Germany were close – he married Diana Mitford in Goebbels’ home in Germany in 1936, with Hitler a guest. The newly-weds were also negotiating with Hitler to broadcast radio transmissions from Germany to Britain.

Mosley’s public marches were becoming increasingly provocative too, and a planned parade through the Jewish heartland of the East End was to prove the final straw. Remarkably, the march was legal – Government had been strongly petitioned by local people and politicians to ban the parade through Cable Street but had refused. A mixture of locals, Communist, Socialist and Jewish groups (many from out of the area and to a total of an estimated 250,000) erected roadblocks to stop the BUF passing.

So began ‘The Battle of Cable Street’, with running battles between the anti-fascists and police, who were trying to force a path for the BUF. With the Blackshirts largely shielded behind police lines, relatively little fighting was to take place between the BUF and the protestors. Fenner Brockway, Secretary of the Independent Labour Party, was injured by a police horse and, realising the carnage that would ensue if the fascists were helped by the police into the heart of the area, telephoned the Home Office. Mosley was ordered to cancel his march and the BUF were rerouted towards Hyde Park.

It wasn’t the end of the fascists in the East End. The following week, the windows of every Jewish-owned shop in the Mile End Road were smashed. And in the March 1937 local elections the BUF polled 23 per cent of the vote in Bethnal Green; l0.3 per cent in Limehouse and 14.8 per cent in Shoreditch. “The size of their vote was a surprise even to those in touch with the East End,” reported The Observer on 7 March that year. Mosley was to continue to address rallies around London over the following years.

But with the 1936 Public Order Act had come the banning of civilians parading in military uniform. That had removed the Blackshirts focus … and perhaps their appeal. Oswald Mosley would be interned in 1940, and the BUF itself later banned. By now war had started and the East End was involved in the bigger fight against fascism.

London History: 100 faces of the East End by John Rennie is available now; £8.99; ISBN: 978-1-4116-6608-5 at A history of London and the people who made it. Pen pictures of Attlee, Captain Cook, Sir Walter Raleigh, Stalin, Gandhi, Lew Grade, Steve Marriott, Fu Manchu, Sylvia Pankhurst, Lionel Bart, The Tichborne Claimant, John Wesley, Terry Spinks, Joseph Conard and dozens more…

Zeppelin air raids on London

Everybody knows the hardships the East End endured during the Blitz bombing of the Second World War – Mile End was the victim of the first flying bomb of World War II.
But what many forget is the suffering inflicted during the First World War, when the threat came not from Goering’s Luftwaffe but the Zeppelins of the Kaiser.
The aims of the enemy were similar. Britain, a great maritime nation, was an island dependent on its mighty merchant fleet for much of its foodstuffs and trade.
By bombing London’s docks, the gateway to the UK, the Germans hoped to shatter the British economy, cut off her food supply and, vitally, break her spirit.
Bombing of civilian targets was a radical development in modern warfare but, in May 1915, the Kaiser gave the order to bomb Tower Hamlets.

On the night of May 31, the residents of the East End endured a new horror as a German Army Zeppelin LZ38, captained by Hauptmann Erich Linnarz, dropped explosive and incendiary bombs in a line from Leytonstone to Stepney.
In the absence of a visible enemy, frustrations and anger turned against German immigrants living in the East End. Many of them had fled to London for sanctuary from Eastern Europe and Germany in the decades previously.
Meanwhile, the air campaign went on. On August 17, the navy Zeppelin L10 bombed Walthamstow, Leytonstone and Wanstead. And on the night of October 13, Tower Hamlets suffered again as the Germans launched their heaviest raid yet.
Five navy Zeppelins set out to bomb the East End and the City. For the first time the infant Royal Flying Corps, the magnificent men who went on to become the RAF, launched a defence, attempting to intercept the deadly airships as they closed on the capital.
But it was to no avail. L11, 13, 14, 15 and 16 got through to their target with no loss. 71 people were killed in the devastation around Aldgate High Street and the Minories.
The papers reported growing anti-German tension on the streets. The first serious outbreak came outside Messrs Herman, the cabinetmakers in Dod Street.
A frostbitten young soldier, home from the front, was walking past the works when one of the hands, said to be a German, made “uncomplimentary remarks”.
The East End News takes up the story: “Some women standing about took up the cudgels. About 200 of them assembled round the works and prevented the workmen from loading. This was the beginning of the anti-German riots.”
But the flying corps was at last beginning to get the measure of this new enemy. Lieut. William Leefe Robinson was awarded the Victoria Cross when he became the first pilot to bring down a Zeppelin.
Many more were brought down by the corps’ new explosive bullet in the following months, and the Germans realised the day of their new warfare was already past. The Zeppelin was abandoned.

Women at war

The outbreak of hostilities in 1939 was when war really came home to the East End. Up till then, conflicts had largely been fought far away, with news of victory and defeat dribbling back slowly. Of course the East End had suffered privations, and air raids, during the First World War. But it was World War II when everyone became involved, whether they wanted to or not.

‘It had never occurred to me that I would even leave Bow … maybe I’d work in the City in a bank or something, but that’s as far afield as I thought I’d go,’ remembers Beryl Edwards. Within months of the outbreak of war, though, Beryl was helping hoist barrage balloons on a cold and windy RAF base in Norfolk; just the first of many postings to the airfields helping to protect Britain from the Luftwaffe.

As well as bringing war to the home front in terrifying fashion, with nightly air raids on the East End, World War II changed life forever for many East End women, and changed society for good in the process. A new book, Women at War: In Uniform by Carol Harris describes how the hostilities saw the greatest military mobilisation of women in British history. Many young women, some still in their teens like Beryl, were away from home for the first time. At first, their duties were strictly limited but, as war bit deep into the nation’s manpower, their jobs were expanded. Within a year of the start of war, women were working routinely under fire.

Many WAAFs (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force), such as Beryl, manned anti-aircraft guns in all-female (and later mixed) batteries. Women of the WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service and known as ‘Wrens’) maintained and repaired the ships of the Royal Navy and became involved in the top-secret planning for D-Day. Women had first entered the war zone in the First World War, and the units that had been formed then were rapidly re-established in time for the new conflict. The Army’s contingent, known as WAACs (Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps) were reformed as the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) in 1938. By 1945, this arm alone numbered over 190,000, including Second-Lieutenant Elizabeth Windsor, the future Queen Elizabeth II.

During World War I the women’s units had become the butt of ribald humour and worse. Tales spread of promiscuity, incompetence and ill-discipline; music hall comics and newspapers alike wondered whether women could cope with the pressure of war. The truth was rather different. Government inspections of female guard posts and batteries routinely found high levels of discipline, attention to detail and morale, with none of the problems of insubordination and bullying that were an occasional problem in men’s units.

And by World War II there was no question that women were doing dirty, difficult and often dangerous work. Enid Burns was a WAAF officer at RAF Norton during the early forties, in charge of three WAAF sites shielding Sheffield. ‘It is thanks to them that many Sheffielders and steelworks were saved from enemy bombers,’ she recalls. ‘They were a splendid lot of women, tough, brave, uncomplaining and cheerful, doing a very dangerous job, as the winder and steel hawser were lethal and many accidents occurred. We had a terrible fire in a hanger as a balloon was being repaired, and the hydrogen ignited. Many WAAF were badly burned.’

Beryl Edwards remembers well the privations of serving in the WAAF. ‘It was often cold and miserable – long shifts, a long way from home, and the uniform wasn’t the most flattering either! Often we would be woken from a few hours sleep to reposition the balloon, which had been blown out of position by a gale.’ For the male RAF officers and crew boozy evenings in the mess were an escape from the tensions of war and loss of one’s comrades. For young women like Beryl though, letting their hair down was more difficult: ‘We knew you didn’t have to throw off the shackles too much to be tarred with a bad reputation, so most of us were whiter than white,’ she laughs. But 60 years on, and long retired in the Essex countryside, Beryl wouldn’t have missed it for a moment. ‘It changed the lives of so many women, who might otherwise have thought only of marriage and children. And once we’d seen what we could do, there was no going back.’

Women at War: In Uniform by Carol Harris, published by Sutton Publishing,, ISBN 0750926333, £10.99

Boudicca and the fall of London

It was the seventh year of the reign of Emperor Nero, The year AD61. A brutal rebellion of Celtic tribesmen erupted in the newly conquered, but still unpacified Roman province of Britain.

The Iceni tribe of Norfolk were roused to fury when Roman soldiers forced their way into the palace of their Queen, Boudicca, flogged her for resisting the confiscation of Iceni property and then raped her two daughters.

The vengeance the native Britons wrought was terrible. Their home territory was Norfolk but they headed first for the Roman stronghold of Colchester and, having sacked and burned the city, turned south west towards Londinium.

For two millennia the exact route of Boudicca’s army was lost to historians. But the recent demolition of the Lefevre Estate in Bow brought many things to light. When the first phase was razed, beads, bracelets, rings and burials were found, all dating from Roman habitation. But the most significant find was the remnants of the old Roman London to Colchester road. Londinium had been linked to Camulodunum, or Colchester by the road which passed through Old Ford, and thence over the River Lea. The road had been built in 50 AD within seven years of Emperor Claudius’s invasion of Britain.

The Iceni were travelling down a spanking new road to London then. And there wasn’t much traffic to impede their progress – although important to the Romans, London wasn’t the capital it was to become. It certainly wasn’t adequately fortified, being a riverside trading centre, not a military one. Around this perfect crossing point of the Thames – neither too deep nor too narrow – were grouped warehouses, shops and taverns, the wattle huts of charcoal burners and swineherds, but no defending legions.

The Roman governor, Suetonius Paulinus, away fighting to the north, quickly accepted the impossibility of defending Londinium. Instead he regrouped his forces for an all-out confrontation with the indigenous tribes. The ferocity of the Britons was no match for the organisation and tactical sophistication of the Romans, and Boudicca took poison as her army fell.

And though she had destroyed the first London, another and greater city rose in its place. By the middle of the third century it was the administrative and financial as well as the commercial capital of the province. Its population was 30,000, and 50 years later that had doubled. The prosperous city had wide straight roads. Its buildings were solid and imposing, and post-Boudicca they were built in brick, stone and tile. Roman style, their walls were painted dark red, their roofs a lighter, salmon colour. Fountains splashed in the courtyards and grapevines grew against garden walls. The market gardens to the east of the city walls, now lying beneath Aldgate and the Minories, provided excellent fruit and vegetables, and the waters of the Fleet the Walbrook and the Thames ran clean.

The size, prosperity and longevity of that capital was confirmed by excavations in Tower Hamlets from the 1980s onwards. Archaeologists working at a dig in Prescot Street in E1 uncovered a total of 672 inhumations and 134 cremations – the largest single sample of Roman burials in London, and one of the largest known in the country. But this was just a part of a much larger cemetery, an area of 51 acres extending to the east of the town, south of the main road between London and Colchester. The archaeologists could only guess at its full extent, but estimate that it could have contained well over 100,000 dead, during its use from the first century AD to at least the end of the fourth century.

But by the end of the fourth century London had fallen again. The Empire was crumbling and Londonium with it. The Emperor Honorius withdrew his Legions and Saxon invaders began to encroach. In 457AD, the diminished Londinium received the British survivors of a battle fought in Kent against the Saxon chief, Hengist. And then London disappears – for a century and a half, there is no recorded mention of the city at all.