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Category: East End book reviews

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

From Bow to Biennale – artists of the East London Group

HOW could it be that an art movement that took London by storm in the 1920s and 30s – propelling house painters, navvies and painters to international success – could simply disappear? Surely the East London Group should be as celebrated as the Bloomsbury artists, namechecked by critics and young painters?

David Buckman's From Bow to Biennale

David Buckman's From Bow to Biennale

Yet as dramatically as it arose, the grouping was gone. The movement depended on the energy and drive of charismatic leader, John Cooper,and his tragically early death saw the end of his dream.

 

The roots of the movement lay in the slow and steady growth of adult education in London over the previous decades – itself building on the piecemeal establishment of universal education for the working classes over the previous century. Following the Elementary Education Act of 1870 and the Education (London) Act of 1903, young East Enders were no longer going into work illiterate and innumerate. Many had their appetite for education awakened, and it was they – working under impossibly difficult conditions, squeezing in adult learning alongside jobs and families – who would form the core the East London Group.

In 1924, the Bethnal Green Men’s Institute Art Club held its first exhibition at the Bethnal Green Museum. The space had been opened as a branch of the South Kensington (now the Victoria and Albert) Museum in 1872 – it’s now the Museum of Childhood. It proved a marvellous catalyst: both inspiring local artists and providing a venue for exposition of their work. The Institute librarian, AK Sabin, wrote in his introduction to the catalogue (the first of several he would pen) that the Bethnal Green group had been started “little more than a year ago by a warehouseman, a house decorator, three deck hands waiting for a ship, and a haddock smoker”. The wonder was that these East Enders, amid family commitments, working long hours

Albert Turpin painted Baroness Coutt's white elephant not long before demolition

Columbia Market, 1955, by Albert Turpin

and jostling for piecework, were able to fit in instruction two nights study a week after a hard day at work, paying for their own materials from their sparse wages. Soon, the group numbered 30 or more active members, and that first show featured 88 works by 15 members. Only one of their number would go on to join the later East London Group: George Board, who showed seven watercolours. But more important was the interest the show sparked. Among the crowds at the 1925 Bethnal Green show were the young Harold and Walter Steggles. The brothers would go on to be key members of the later East London Group.

The Steggles boys showed an eye for commerce that was foreign to the more high-minded Sabin. He refused to put prices in his catalogue, believing that “the reflection this pursuit of artistic expression makes upon the artist himself – the new background it brings

Post Office Wireless Station Rugy, by East London Group leader John Cooper, 1935

Post Office Wireless Station Rugy, by John Cooper, 1935

into his life – is the most urgent and important thing”. Harold Steggles however thought pricing more likely to put money in the pocket of the artist, and all the later East London Group catalogues would feature prices. Significantly, those shows they would garner commercial as well as critical success, being shown in West End galleries and around the world.

East London Group artists Harold and Walter Steggles

Harold and Walter Steggles in 1928

But by now there was an even more significant shift. Percy Wagstaff, in charge of the classes at Wolverley Street School, in Bethnal Green Road, had recruited the charismatic and inexhaustible (for now at least) John Cooper. Cooper had walked into Civvy Street after service in the Great War, and invested his demob pay in three years’ study at the Slade School of Fine Art, leaving in 1922. “Having no money, I had to get teaching, and taught in East London in the evenings,” he explained to collector Sir Michael Sadler years later. Cooper immediately shook up the teaching and the group had an instant triumph. In this 1927 programme notes, Sabin excitedly reported that group member Archibald Hattemore had had his picture An Interior

Walter Steggles painting of the wharf that once served the Bryant and May match factory in Fairfield Road, Bow

Brymay Wharf by Walter Steggles

bought by the National Gallery of British Arts (now Tate Britain). Hattemore’s story was tailormade for the popular press. He was the “navvy artist”, too broke to buy a canvas and so rendering his picture on calico. Apart from his few months’ study at the Institute, Archibald was entirely self-taught. With a wife and three children, and a weekly wage of only £2 and 14 shillings for his job at the Metropolitan Water Board, just getting the time and materials together to paint was a struggle. When Cooper saw the work he was stunned; other critics declared it to have “a Velasquez touch”. But for Hattemore aesthetics had to go hand in hand with commerce. When Cooper told him he wanted to show his picture more widely, Hattemore’s response was sanguine. “They tell me it is a great honour. I hope it will mean a way out for me. It will… if somebody buys the picture!” The Duveen Fund promptly did and Hattemore was on his way.

And others swiftly followed. The 1927 exhibition was covered extensively by the Daily Chronicle, with headlines including “Workmen as artists” and “Window cleaner’s work in East End show”. The window cleaner was Albert Turpin, a prolific painter who would later go on to be mayor of Bethnal Green. There was basketmaker Henry Silk and his paintings of Zeppelins. Spanish Onions was a still life by Bow engine driver EH Hawthorn, while Victoria Park park-keeper, C Warren took time off from “chivvying small boys about” to commit details of park life to canvas. There was RH James, stone deaf and who hadn’t picked up a brush until he was 58. His father, grandfather and three uncles had all been drowned at sea, and that had, unsurprisingly, put RH off a life on the ocean wave. Ironically, many of his paintings were seascapes. And BR Swinnerton had executed a “very homely little picture”, The Place I Love showing his wife and child at the hearth. He declared that he would never attempt such as scene again as “the rogues won’t keep still!”

Demolition of Bow Brewery by Elwin Hawthorne shown at Lefevre Galleries 1931

Bow Brewery by Elwin Hawthorne

The Institute had been begun in 1920 with an instruction to Sabin to “make good” within three years or it would be shut down.The classes far exceeded merely making good. Sir Percy Harris was tasked with delivering a report on progress ten years on, and described it with a new home (albeit a rather grim building) at 229 Bethnal Green Road. Bedecking the facade was a banner, made by member J Cordwell, proclaiming that it was “The house of 2000 men”. Cooper’s energy and ideas had fired an extraordinary growth in membership. “My idea is to stimulate and direct these talented men…they have an abundance of strong individuality and fine fresh pictorial ideas…I don’t fritter away this energy…in drawing common objects.” So there were the odd still lives (those onions for instance) but Cooper was increasingly forcing his students out of the classroom, to paint the East End in all its grit, grime and reality.

William Finch taught at the Institute at the time (he went on to become a famed art teacher and only died in 2003) and painted a vivid pen

Almshouses at Mile End by East London Group's Elwin Hawthorne, shown at Lefevre Gallery in 1935

Elwin Hawthorne, Almshouses at Mile End

portrait of those days. “My Bethnal Green gang produced good and varied paintings. It was a varied bunch and tough – a formerly well-known professional boxer, a cooper, a London street busker, a market trader, an injured window cleaner.” John Cooper went further. Arriving at Bow he soon concluded that he had the raw material to begin a whole new school of art. All he had to do was get the members “to stop painting film stars…and to paint what was all about them, say a dingy bedroom”. He dragged his students away from “copying bad pictures” and winnowed out the less talented or committed men. And in 1929, Cooper made a decisive shift, renaming the artists ‘The East London Group’ and signing a contract with West End gallery Alex, Reid & Lefevre to host the annual show. It meant greater exposure for his crew, and increased sales.

Over a few short years, Cooper wrought an astonishing change. From a lively evening class in Bethnal Green, by 1936 East London Group members were being exhibited at the Venice Biennale, among the most prestigious showcases on the international art scene. Alongside such luminaries as Barbara Hepworth, Sir Alfred Gilbert and Duncan Grant were Elwin Hawthorne with Una Via Di Londra and WJ Steggles, with Scena Prosso Chichester. John Cooper didn’t exhibit his own work, but he had the satisfaction of knowing that “two raw amateurs he

Core members of the East London Group of artists, including Bray, Hawthorne Cooper and Parker

Elwin Hawthorne, Phyllis Bray, John Cooper, Brynhild Parker at Lefevre Galleries 1932

had welcomed into his Bow evening classes a dozen years before were reckoned good enough to show alongside the best in British art.” Cooper’s work ethic was legendary, teaching all around London and increasingly moving into mosaic work. He encouraged his students to exhibit more widely, and in December 1935 came another milestone for the group. Cooper’s assistant and then wife, Phyllis Bray, was asked to create three large murals for the New People’s Palace in Mile End.

But even as the Group found further success there were signs of decline and dissolution. The eighth annual Lefevre show in 1936 would prove to be the last, amid fears that the grouping might be becoming stale. And amid the usual praise in the press that year were murmurings of dissent, with the Morning Post critic believing that “its members were hysterically overpraised in the beginning”. There is always a critical backlash of course, and the work of WJ Steggles, Brynhild Parker and Phyllis Bray was still garnering commercial and critical success, but there were other cracks appearing too.

The marriage of Cooper and Bray was swiftly unravelling (in part prompted by an attachment Phyllis formed to an architect during her People’s Palace work),and by September 1936, the two fiery personalities were living apart in Bow. It of course made teaching together difficult. And with the outbreak of war, Cooper’s situation declined. Teaching hours had been cut, and he was now struggling financially. Things improved with a job at the Air Ministry drawing aircraft, but the already emotionally volatile artist was rocked further when his flat

Bethnal Green's Salmon and Ball pub, by East London Group artist Albert Turpin

Bethnal Green's Salmon and Ball pub, by Albert Turpin

was bombed in an air raid. Cooper had to leave his Ministry job, citing “a long breakdown”. At least part of the reason, according to his doctors, was overwork, and he returned to his native Yorkshire to recuperate. His health declined, and John Cooper died in his sleep at Leeds Infirmary in February 1943. He was just 48 years old. The death of Cooper undermined the possibility of any revival in the East London Group after the war. The group possessed huge talents, but relied heavily on

The-Guardian Angels by Elwin Hawthorne shown at Lefevre Galleries in 1931

Guardian Angels Church, Mile End, by Elwin Hawthorne

the energy and drive of Cooper to make things happen – without him the engine was gone.

From Bow to Biennale: Artists of the East London Group by David Buckman. Published by Francis Boutle, £25

Tales from the Two Puddings

IN 1962, exactly 50 years before Stratford became the sporting centre of the world, Eddie Johnson and family took on the Two Puddings pub in Stratford. It didn’t augur well. Eddie was less than happy about leaving a solid job on the Docks. Chuck in the fact he had never pulled a pint and that his new boozer was colloquially known as the Butcher’s Shop (courtesy of white-tiled walls to facilitate the hosing off of spilled blood each morning) and it might have proved a brief tenancy.

Cover of Eddie Johnson's Tales from the Two Puddings

Tales from the Two Puddings

Eddie, remembering those far-off days in conversation with Robert Elms at the Bishopsgate Institute last week, also remembers that he immediately felt he’d made a mistake. All the more remarkable that he remained landlord for almost 40 years. “I loved it on the docks: we didn’t make a lot of money but we could do more or less as we wanted.” Just as important to Eddie, he was becoming increasingly immersed in the left-wing politics of the time. Working as a tally clerk (the men tasked with checking the quantities of cargoes moving on and off the ships) he aroused the instinctive mistrust of legendary union organiser Jack Dash and his men. Of course, the tally clerks got their share of the contents of ‘accidentally’ broken cases to take home too, and Eddie soon became a trusted colleague, co-opted onto Dash’s strike committee. He was also being groomed to take over the dockers’ Distress Fund, a cause dear to his heart. Eddie had been politicised young, when George Lansbury visited his school (Smeed Road Infants in Bow) to speak to the pupils.

But with two young sons to provide for, wife Shirley was after something a little more secure for the family. Now Eddie was and is no soft touch. A streetwise East Ender, born in Limehouse and raised in Old Ford, he had done his National Service in the Royal Military Police. Back on Civvy Street, he ruefully recalls that he became: “a bit of a hooligan, getting drunk and fighting in dance halls”. It culminated in a near fatal stab wound to the stomach. During his convalescence he met and fell in love with Shirley, who steered him to safer pursuits. But even Eddie, a tall and imposing figure in his eighties and not a man to mess with in his early thirties, wondered what he’d let himself in for as he stood behind the bar the morning after his first Friday night in 1962.

Back in the docks voracious reader Eddie (favourites Orwell, Camus, Tolstoy and Hemingway among others) had been rubbing shoulders with surprisingly well-read dockers who casually namechecked Congreve, Kafka, Byron and Proust. In the Puddings, he was more likely to be leaping over the bar to nip drunken trouble in the bud with a couple of gentle digs. The older Johnson is sanguine about the violence (“it’s the bit I find depressing even now”) and indulges in none of the glorification of the East End gang scene that non-combatants too often fall prey to.

All the same violence and crime were unavoidable elements of East End life, with the Krays becoming occasional visitors. “I liked them,” says Eddie. “Especially Reggie, who was more the affable and easier to talk to of the pair”. Eddie was touched for protection money by the brothers, but swallowed hard and told Ronnie he could protect himself. The twins, to his relief, politely moved on. Meanwhile, on Monday nights at the Kentucky Club in Whitechapel (where Eddie was always stood a drink by the ever-charming brothers) other non-payers were being sorted out behind the scenes with a cement-encased shovel.

Of course there were all sorts of reasons that kept Eddie behind the bar until the turn of the millennium – and only then was he forced out by the machinations of the brewery. Top of the list was the music. The Johnsons had taken over the Puddings primarily to host music nights run by Eddie’s brother Kenny. The pub saw gigs by some of the biggest names in British music: the Who, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, the Kinks and the Nashville Teens to name just a few, while the disco upstairs pulled in more punters (including Harry Redknapp who met his future wife there). One day Rod Stewart would be downstairs checking out the bands; another would see a young Van Morrison popping in after a Them gig and confiding to Eddie that he hoped one day to be famous.

Most bizarre of all, on the evening of 30 July 1966, a few hours after England had won the World Cup Final at Wembley, who should walk into the pub, order a pint, and quietly drink by himself whilst leaning against the bar but Jack Charlton. Eddie takes up the story, saying: “Norman was one of my most trusted barmen and never told a lie… [but he was] struck dumb and felt too shy to congratulate him on England’s victory!”

Under Elms’s enthusiastic probing, Eddie regales the packed Bishopsgate audience with anecdotes spanning 50 years, though the Radio London presenter would probably admit that Johnson pretty much interviews himself. There is sadness in the stories of course: Shirley has passed away, and so has the third of their four sons, Eugene. And many of the characters who people the memoir have gone, with Eddie musing that “Every other month seems to bring a dreaded invitation to yet another funeral.” But even there is humour. As the coffin of Jackie Bowers (“a friend and one of the best barmen the Puddings ever had”) rolls slowly towards the furnace, ‘Fire’ by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown began blaring from the crematorium speakers. An echo from the sixties heyday of the Two Puddings.

Call the Midwife … an unlikely hit?

By John Rennie

WHEN WE originally wrote about Call the Midwife a few years ago, it seemed likely that Jennifer Worth’s book would join the ranks of hundreds of other East End memoirs – if better written and more entertaining than most of them. Little likelihood, it seemed then, that Worth (who retained her East End links long after she’d moved out of London, through

Jennifer Worth, author of Call the Midwife

Jennifer Worth, author of Call the Midwife

membership of the East London History Society). The book was actually a classic ‘sleeper’, selling steadily in local East End bookshops (and increasingly on Amazon of course) for years before the BBC picked it up.

It was an unlikely, though profitable autumn in her life, and as so often it happened by chance. As we wrote when reporting on Jennifer’s death: “She was in her sixties before she embarked on the career that gave her fame. Husband Philip recalls her leafing through a magazine on midwifery and chancing upon an article by midwife, Terri Coates: who argued that somebody should do for midwives what novelist James Herriot had done for vets. “Why not?” thought Jenny and began to pour her memories onto the page. Call the Midwife (2002) and Shadows of the Workhouse (2005) were steady rather than meteoric sellers at first. It was only when they were reissued in 2007 and 2008 that they really took off. A follow-up in 2009, Farewell to the East End was another hit, and TV would soon come calling.”

There are things to cherish about the TV series (Miranda Hart does a superb balancing act between comedy and drama) and the sugar is usually well complemented by a hefty dose of reality: lest we get too sentimental about how great the old East End was, we’re brought back to earth by illness, death and misery, no bad thing! There are things which work less well – in your writer’s opinion, a little Vanessa Redgrave in deathlessly

Call the Midwife

Call the Midwife

serious voice-over mode goes a long way – but it’s a terrific reminder of the struggles into the early days of healthcare in the Welfare State, as we used to call it. So don’t stop there. It’s all in Worth’s excellent writing. Take a look at her other books: you won’t be disappointed.

 

Lost London by Richard Guard

It’s one of the great myths – that London is a city of historic buildings. And people come from across the Atlantic and around the world to marvel at and photograph the history that lies all around us. In fact, as Richard Guard points out in his new book*, most of our capital isn’t very old at all.

Londoners can claim a lineage that stretches back to Roman times. And there were probably some unfortunate Brythonic tribes living here before that, evicted from their marshy plain by the invading legions. But you’ll look in vain for a colosseum, amphitheatre or Parthenon to mark those 400 years of Roman rule. All we have are tiny sections of their city wall, and the remaining fragment of the London Stone (from which all distances in Britain were once measured).

There’s little left of medieval London either. Many churches claim foundations from the 10th century, but most are later rebuildings. Indeed the oldest existing building lies within Tower Hamlets – the White Tower, the original Tower of London, built 19 years after the Norman invasion by William the Conqueror.

But with two millennia of history behind us, it means that all around (and beneath our feet) lie the ghosts of the old London. More has been lost than remains, and Guard painstakingly describes our lost buildings and quarters – taking a detour into lost trades, hobbies and modes of speech – and even unearthing a lost island.

The East End is well represented – so much has been torn down and rebuilt down the centuries. The old city was a fragile tinderbox, and the Great Fire of 1666 destroyed 90 per cent of it. That great chronicler of the conflagration, Samuel Pepys, penned much of his diary from the countryside of Bethnal Green, where he and his family had fled from the fire. And the new buildings that rose up after the fire were mostly flattened during the Blitz – among the terrible loss of life in World War II, the East End lost a huge number of homes, factories and dock buildings.

The remnants of rural Middlesex and the market gardens that surrounded the hamlets of Bow, Bethnal Green, Poplar and Stepney in the early 1800s had already been sliced up by the new railways, and infilled with cheap back-to-back housing when London’s greatest writer came along. Dickens wrote with bitterness and sentiment of the rookeries, drinking dens and thieves kitchens of the East End – he had spent many happy childhood hours in Limehouse with his uncle Christopher Huffam. But most of what he wrote of in the middle of the 19th century was destroyed, if not by the Luftwaffe then by post-war town planners.

Ratcliffe Highway was a Roman road connecting the village of Red Cliff (or Ratcliffe) to the City. By the 1600s, the village had completely disappeared within dock developments and there is no place of that name today. But so notorious did the road become for drunkenness, prostitution and crime (it lay at the heart of the docks after all) that even the name was excised from history. It was first renamed St George’s Street and then, in 1937, it became The Highway. Certainly little obvious vice remains there today – but there’s little colour either.

Equally notorious was St Bethlehem’s Hospital, or Bedlam, where once the well-to-do would come and pay to see the ‘lunatics’. The grounds of the hospital, opened in 1329, now lie beneath Liverpool Street station. Opposite is Bishopsgate, now simply a road, but once one of the original eight gates to the City and just along from its neighbour, Aldgate. Here, the Holy Trinity convent stood on Minories for more than 900 years. Founded in 1108 by Queen Matilda, it was home to the Poor Clares or Sister Minoresses (hence Minories), and managed to survive the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the Great Fire. Rebuilt in 1706, it only finally disappeared under the onslaught of German bombs during World War II.

Petticoat Lane has a long history, being home to the Rag Fair, at which secondhand clothes were bought and sold. So frantic did the trading become that dozens of police constables were regularly stationed at the fair to keep control. In London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Mayhew wrote: “The passion of the Irish drove them to resort to cuffs, kicks and blows, which the Jews … were not slack in returning.” The authorities eventually moved the market into the Old Clothes Exchange in Phil’s Building, Houndsditch, in 1843.

A mile or so away, in Wapping, was Execution Dock. Here, for 400 years from the time of Henry VI, condemned pirates would meet their fate. As another great East End chronicler, John Stow, would relate, their bodies remained hanging: “till three tides had overflowed them”. Nothing remains of the dock, though it’s been placed close to the present day Wapping tube station.

The East End has had many great theatres. In Victorian times the East matched the West End for the number of its playhouses, though the entertainment was frequently more raucous and earthy. But few performances can have had as dramatic an effect as the staging of the satire A Vision of the Golden Rump at the Goodman’s Fields Theatre in Whitechapel in 1737. So outraged was prime minister Robert Walpole at the play’s mockery of him and of George II, that he pushed through the Theatrical Licensing Act the same year, banning any play criticising Government or Crown. The theatre would soon be forced to close, and no trace remains.

But perhaps one of the saddest losses is that of Shoreditch’s Peerless Pool, the forerunner of all London lidos. In the 17th century it had been a favourite haunt for duck hunters (hard to imagine people shooting game on the fringes of the East End today) but it gained a reputation for fatal accidents. Indeed, John Stow called it “the perilous pool”, as so many young men had drowned in it. In 1752, jeweller William Kemp spent a small fortune converting it into a gravel-bottomed swimming pool and filled it with water to a depth of five feet. Charging a shilling, he attracted wealthy City dwellers, who would undress in marble changing rooms and then swim beneath the shade of the trees. In the hard winters of the time, they would skate upon its frozen surface. Alas the pool is no more, disappearing beneath new streets in the 1840s.

*Lost London – an A to Z of forgotten landmarks and lost traditions, by Richard Guard. Published by Michael O’Mara Books, £9.99; www.mombooks.com

Lost London by Richard Guard

It’s one of the great myths – that London is a city of historic buildings. And people come from across the Atlantic and around the world to marvel at and photograph the history that lies all around us. In fact, as Richard Guard points out in his new book*, most of our capital isn’t very old at all.

Londoners can claim a lineage that stretches back to Roman times. And there were probably some unfortunate Brythonic tribes living here before that, evicted from their marshy plain by the invading legions. But you’ll look in vain for a colosseum, amphitheatre or Parthenon to mark those 400 years of Roman rule. All we have are tiny sections of their city wall, and the remaining fragment of the London Stone (from which all distances in Britain were once measured).

There’s little left of medieval London either. Many churches claim foundations from the 10th century, but most are later rebuildings. Indeed the oldest existing building lies within Tower Hamlets – the White Tower, the original Tower of London, built 19 years after the Norman invasion by William the Conqueror.

But with two millennia of history behind us, it means that all around (and beneath our feet) lie the ghosts of the old London. More has been lost than remains, and Guard painstakingly describes our lost buildings and quarters – taking a detour into lost trades, hobbies and modes of speech – and even unearthing a lost island.

The East End is well represented – so much has been torn down and rebuilt down the centuries. The old city was a fragile tinderbox, and the Great Fire of 1666 destroyed 90 per cent of it. That great chronicler of the conflagration, Samuel Pepys, penned much of his diary from the countryside of Bethnal Green, where he and his family had fled from the fire. And the new buildings that rose up after the fire were mostly flattened during the Blitz – among the terrible loss of life in World War II, the East End lost a huge number of homes, factories and dock buildings.

The remnants of rural Middlesex and the market gardens that surrounded the hamlets of Bow, Bethnal Green, Poplar and Stepney in the early 1800s had already been sliced up by the new railways, and infilled with cheap back-to-back housing when London’s greatest writer came along. Dickens wrote with bitterness and sentiment of the rookeries, drinking dens and thieves kitchens of the East End – he had spent many happy childhood hours in Limehouse with his uncle Christopher Huffam. But most of what he wrote of in the middle of the 19th century was destroyed, if not by the Luftwaffe then by post-war town planners.

Ratcliffe Highway was a Roman road connecting the village of Red Cliff (or Ratcliffe) to the City. By the 1600s, the village had completely disappeared within dock developments and there is no place of that name today. But so notorious did the road become for drunkenness, prostitution and crime (it lay at the heart of the docks after all) that even the name was excised from history. It was first renamed St George’s Street and then, in 1937, it became The Highway. Certainly little obvious vice remains there today – but there’s little colour either.

Equally notorious was St Bethlehem’s Hospital, or Bedlam, where once the well-to-do would come and pay to see the ‘lunatics’. The grounds of the hospital, opened in 1329, now lie beneath Liverpool Street station. Opposite is Bishopsgate, now simply a road, but once one of the original eight gates to the City and just along from its neighbour, Aldgate. Here, the Holy Trinity convent stood on Minories for more than 900 years. Founded in 1108 by Queen Matilda, it was home to the Poor Clares or Sister Minoresses (hence Minories), and managed to survive the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the Great Fire. Rebuilt in 1706, it only finally disappeared under the onslaught of German bombs during World War II.

Petticoat Lane has a long history, being home to the Rag Fair, at which secondhand clothes were bought and sold. So frantic did the trading become that dozens of police constables were regularly stationed at the fair to keep control. In London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Mayhew wrote: “The passion of the Irish drove them to resort to cuffs, kicks and blows, which the Jews … were not slack in returning.” The authorities eventually moved the market into the Old Clothes Exchange in Phil’s Building, Houndsditch, in 1843.

A mile or so away, in Wapping, was Execution Dock. Here, for 400 years from the time of Henry VI, condemned pirates would meet their fate. As another great East End chronicler, John Stow, would relate, their bodies remained hanging: “till three tides had overflowed them”. Nothing remains of the dock, though it’s been placed close to the present day Wapping tube station.

The East End has had many great theatres. In Victorian times the East matched the West End for the number of its playhouses, though the entertainment was frequently more raucous and earthy. But few performances can have had as dramatic an effect as the staging of the satire A Vision of the Golden Rump at the Goodman’s Fields Theatre in Whitechapel in 1737. So outraged was prime minister Robert Walpole at the play’s mockery of him and of George II, that he pushed through the Theatrical Licensing Act the same year, banning any play criticising Government or Crown. The theatre would soon be forced to close, and no trace remains.

But perhaps one of the saddest losses is that of Shoreditch’s Peerless Pool, the forerunner of all London lidos. In the 17th century it had been a favourite haunt for duck hunters (hard to imagine people shooting game on the fringes of the East End today) but it gained a reputation for fatal accidents. Indeed, John Stow called it “the perilous pool”, as so many young men had drowned in it. In 1752, jeweller William Kemp spent a small fortune converting it into a gravel-bottomed swimming pool and filled it with water to a depth of five feet. Charging a shilling, he attracted wealthy City dwellers, who would undress in marble changing rooms and then swim beneath the shade of the trees. In the hard winters of the time, they would skate upon its frozen surface. Alas the pool is no more, disappearing beneath new streets in the 1840s.

*Lost London – an A to Z of forgotten landmarks and lost traditions, by Richard Guard. Published by Michael O’Mara Books, £9.99; www.mombooks.com

Call the Midwife – Jennifer Lee on the Isle of Dogs

TWO thirty in the morning, and midwife Jennifer Lee wondered what on earth she was doing .

Only three hours sleep after a 17-hour day, and she was struggling to get her pushbike from the bicycle shed in the freezing rain. But around the corner onto the East India Dock Road and into the Isle of Dogs, another expectant mother awaited.

Jennifer had got used to shocks in her short time in E14. She arrived in the East End as a young trainee midwife. Searching for her new employer, the Midwives of St Raymund Nonnatus, she found herself walking through the narrow unlit streets of the Island, surrounded by bombsites and dirty grey buildings. When she asked directions she found the locals spoke an unfamiliar language: ‘Vat’s veir arse,’ said the helpful local woman she asked for directions, leaving her none the wiser.

And within the house in Leyland Street she found, rather than the small private maternity hospital she had been expecting, a dirty red brick Victorian convent, housing a community of eccentric nuns. In her marvellous new book*, Jennifer evokes the people, places and customs that made up the East End of the 1950s.
Poplar and Isle of Dogs in the 1950s

They said then that it took seven years of practice to make a good midwife. But with the dozens of call-outs – families of seven or more were not uncommon, and one of Jennifer’s charges was on child number 25 – she packed a career’s worth of experience into her first months. And within weeks she was beginning to understand the local dialect too.

All this was in the few years before the Pill changed everything, giving women control over conception for the first time. But there was much else about the Poplar and Isle of Dogs of the 1950s that would shock people today; living conditions for one.

East End slums and tenements

Back in the 1850s the tenements were the place to live. Built to replace mud-floored hovels, they kept out the rain and a family of 12 could squeeze into their two or three rooms. By the 1950s they were at the foot of the Docklands housing ladder. They accommodated the poorest families – who tended to be also the biggest families. And as well as teeming with kids, the tenements ran with fleas, lice, ticks, crabs, mice, rats and cockroaches. Little surprise that the nurses spent much of their time visiting these new slums.

For many of those in terraced houses things weren’t much better. In the wake of the Blitz, the already crowded East End was packed to bursting, as houses and tenements were further subdivided to accommodate everyone. Fifty per cent of Poplar babies were born in these overcrowded homes, most of them with no inside toilets or hot running water. Water often had to be carried in and boiled up in a copper for the midwife’s use. Babies were born by gaslight, lamplight, even electric light might pack up mid-delivery as the meter ran out.

During the fifties, Jennifer spent much of her spare time walking around the East End. Stepney came as a huge shock. ‘It was simply appalling. The slums were worse than I could ever imagine. I could not believe it was the same area as Poplar only three miles away where, although poor, badly housed and overcrowded, the people were happy cheerful and neighbourly. In Poplar, everyone would call out to a nurse … in Stepney, no-one spoke to me at all.’
A disappeared East End of London

Around Cable Street, Graces Alley, Dock Street, Sanders Street, Backhouse Lane and Leman Street the atmosphere was menacing. Streetwalkers and their ponces and pimps prowled streets of roofless houses; slated for demolition 20 years before, the poorest families were still living in them.

This is a disappeared East End. Where mothers raised ten kids, while their daily lives were spent in a ceaseless round of washing, mangling clothes dry and trying to keep two or three small rooms clean and free of bugs. Where fathers worked 14-hour days on the docks and were expected to make themselves scarce when childbirth was imminent. This, remember, is what the East End was like when our present Queen began her reign.

There are desperately sad stories here, but tales of great hope too. Of ordinary people living, giving birth and building their families despite enormous hardship and poor sanitation. And of midwives delivering superb care in the toughest conditions.
*Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth, ISBN 1872560105, 14.99 plus 1.75 p&p. Published by Merton Books, PO Box 279, Twickenham, TW1 4XQ; tel 020 8892 4949.

Capital Disasters by John Withington

Disasters in the East End of London

Should you fall into the trap of thinking the world is getting worse – and impending doom just around the corner – a new book* on the history of London will prove strangely reassuring. London and the East End have been buffeted by death, disease and disaster for all its two millennia, yet are still somehow in business.

Invaders have famously, of course, not set foot on British soil since 1066 (shortly before William the Conqueror built his castle on Tower Hill). Modern Londoners should be thankful; most of the city’s early troubles came as a result of invasion (or rebellion against the invaders).
Romans in Londinium

In AD61 just 10 years after the Romans had set up Londinium, Boudicca, queen of the Iceni, descended on the town. In retribution for the rape and murder of her people, the warrior queen sacked and burned London. By 367, London was a far outpost of the dissolving Roman empire, and the pillaging Saxons overran the city, leaving loaded with plunder. During the fifth century, the Romans gave Britain up as a bad job and London fell into decline.

By the ninth century, people were retreating back inside the old city walls, hiding from a new and terrifying enemy. The Vikings wreaked havoc by turning on each other as soon as they invaded London, with internecine battles between the Danes and Norwegians seeing the first London Bridge pulled into the river, the city burned and hundreds killed.

William the Conqueror in London

The coming of William I didn’t begin auspiciously for Londoners. At his Westminster Abbey coronation the cheering of the crowds was misinterpreted by the Norman soldiers; they rushed out, set fire to houses and hacked down the ‘rebels’. But for the next 900 years at least, Londoners wouldn’t have to worry about invaders … disaster would arrive from within.

Margaret Thatcher should have learned the lesson of the first poll tax, in 1377. So hated was the tax, levied to finance the 100 Years War (which still had more than half a century to go) that Londoners rose up in revolt. Wat Tyler’s Kentish rebels went to Blackheath to await a meeting with the 14-year-old King Richard II, while Jack Straw’s Essex contingent camped out at Mile End.
Peasants revolt on Tower Hill

The rebellion quickly got out of hand. The mob seized the King’s Treasurer, Robert Hales, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury and summarily executed the pair on Tower Hill, the traditional site for the King and Parliament’s dispatching of enemies of the Crown. Such a challenge couldn’t go unanswered, and Richard dealt ruthlessly with the rebels. Agreeing to meet them for negotiations at Smithfield, young Richard had Tyler brutally killed before scattering the mob.

In 1780 came the most disastrous riot in London’s history. Anti-Catholic rioters burned houses and chapels in Stepney before moving on to the City itself, their figurehead a rising (though certifiably insane) MP named Lord George Gordon. As mobs are, this one was indiscriminate in its victims. French Huguenots who had settled in Spitalfields to escape Catholic persecution in Europe found themselves under attack. In Houndsditch, Jewish householders thought it politic to erect notices saying ‘this house is true Protestant.’
German LZ38 Zeppelin bombs East End

Then, in bright moonlight, just before midnight on 31 May 1915, 849 years of immunity from enemy attack ended at the hands of a terrifying new enemy. A German LZ38 Zeppelin flew over the docks and the East End. Inadequate blackout precautions meant the Zeppelin captain easily found Commercial Road and headed for the docks, dropping 120 small bombs, 90 of them incendiaries. Seven were killed but little other damage was done.

These largely forgotten air raids hit the East End hard. Upper North Street School in Poplar was hit, with 15 children killed. Bombs fell near the London Hospital and around Aldgate. An unwelcome side effect was revenge attacks on the Jews, Germans and other Europeans who had made their homes in the East End … many immigrants changed their names to appear more English.

As if riots and air raids weren’t enough to contend with, East Enders have had to face fire, death by water, wild weather, plague, cholera and smog. And there are fascinating details on terrorist attacks on London, a full century before the modern Irish troubles.

Capital Disasters by John Withington, Sutton Publishing, ISBN 0750933178, £25 hardcover

Clouds of Glory … the life of Bryan Magee

We like to pigeonhole people. But with Hoxton boy Bryan Magee it’s a tricky one. If you’d turned on the telly in the 1960s and 70s you might have known him as a current affairs reporter on ITV. Turn on Radio 3 and you would have him down as a critic of the arts on BBC Radio 3. At one time he taught philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford. From 1974 to 1983 he was Labour MP for Leyton … then a Social Democrat. He is now a full-time author. And his latest book (his twentieth) taps into the roots from where all these personas came – the streets of 1930s Hoxton.

Many readers will have got accustomed to the gentrification of their part of the East End. Wapping, Spitalfields, Limehouse and the Isle of Dogs have all seen themselves reinvented as fashionable quarters of inner London. Hoxton is no exception – now becoming a centre for artists and designers, and seeing rocketing property prices. Yet within living memory it was one of London’s most notorious slums. ‘Hoxton is the leading criminal quarter of London, and indeed of all England,’ wrote Charles Booth at the turn of the twentieth century.

It remained a byword for its combination of poverty and crime until the Second World War. This was the world the young Bryan grew up observing at street level, from the door of the family shop: men’s and boy’s outfitters, EJ Magee. But the keen eye he was later to turn to journalism observed other, rather less respectable, trade going on. Hoxton was London’s busiest market for stolen goods, the centre of the pickpocket trade, and home to a razor gang that terrorised racecourses all over southern England. Its main thoroughfare, Hoxton Street, was one of the East End’s best known street markets, but it was also known as the roughest street in Britain.

Magee’s recall of the 1930s is as good as any diary or film. As he says: ‘I was all the time avid for something, and I did not know what, so I wanted to absorb everything’. He recalls ‘Wingo: the dollar tailor’ and having his curiosity satisfied on discovering that a dollar meant five shillings (25p). He remembers every detail of childhood street games and songs. And he encounters anti-Semitism for the first time when his friend Davy Franks is called ‘Jewboy’ by bigger kids.

‘What did they do that for?’ asks a puzzled Bryan.
‘Coz I’m a Jew.’
‘What’s a Jew?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘How d’you know you are one then?’
‘Coz my mum and dad said so.’

Even as a child, Magee was to get a first-hand view of the extremist politics of the thirties. Hoxton was a favourite meeting place and rallying ground for the Blackshirts, and Bryan would stand at the back of the rallies, excited and appalled by what he was hearing. In his later career he would interview Mosley and quiz him about his methods of whipping up a crowd.

Everyone played in the street, turfed out by mothers sick of kids under their feet, and everywhere became a playground. Watching the steam trains at Liverpool Street, playing marbles, swapping cigarette cards, and pinching from the stalls in Hoxton Market.

This world would last only until World War II. On 2 September 1939, the day before war broke out, Bryan’s anxious parents evacuated him to live with his grandparents, in the Sussex village of Worth. It was to be the beginning of a long journey. He won a place at Christ’s Hospital School, then military service, followed by a scholarship to Oxford.

Returning, he was to find that first the Blitz and then slum clearance had ripped the heart from the place. But a new Hoxton emerged towards the end of the twentieth century. The swimming bath and public library used by the young Magee was now a rehearsal room for the English National Opera. And the market place where he observed the pickpockets (and more honest traders) was now home to the campus of a new university.

All was changed beyond recognition from the pre-War ‘garden of Eden’ he remembered, but it was still there inside. ‘I was not invariably happy, and I didn’t think of it as a paradise. I had the kind of innocence from not knowing anything else. There is a small part of me that has never left it, and that lives in it still.’

Clouds of Glory, A Hoxton Childhood by Bryan Magee, published by Jonathan Cape, £17.99 hardback, ISBN 0224069799

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, www.suttonpublishing.co.uk, ISBN 0750926333, £10.99