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Category: East End eccentrics

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.


Charles I’s pirate – John Mucknell

WHEN TODD STEVENS set off for a shallow shore dive off Scilly one winter’s day, he had high hopes. Previous expeditions had yielded gold coins, 17th century guns and an anchor. It was all a legacy of the Scilly Isles unique geographic position. Sitting some 20 miles off the toe of Cornwall, the archipelago controlled the western approaches to northern Europe and south

Author and diver Todd Stevens

Author and diver Todd Stevens

to the Mediterranean. Ships must pass the islands on their way east to the East Indies and west to the Caribbean. Unsurprisingly, pirates had settled on Scilly as the perfect base from which to plunder the growing sea trade of England, France, Spain and the Dutch – indeed the disgruntled Dutch would declare war on the islands in 1651, a war which would not officially end until 1986.

Todd, a transplanted cockney who has made Scilly his home (the West Ham cap, proudly worn, is evidence of his East End roots), was in for a much bigger find though. Fighting against the powerful current, he cleared the sand to find the skeleton of a huge vessel. And in doing so, he was led to the story of one of British maritime history’s most unlikely ‘heroes’. Could this be the wreck of the John, an East Indiaman turned pirate vessel, famously lost off Scilly during the English Civil War? The story of Mucknell and Todd’s search for the truth, is told in Stevens’ fascinating new book*.

Drunk, violent and unpredictable, East India Company captain John Mucknell was disloyal to his employers and to the rule of law, stealing his own ship and turning to piracy. Yet Mucknell ended his days as Sir John, a Vice Admiral in Charles I’s own fleet of pirates, and his widow received a royal pension. Mucknell was a Stepney lad, not high-born but certainly of respectable family. The Mucknells were Catholic and worshipped at St Dunstan’s: John had been baptised in the church in the year of his birth, 1608. And he had spent his entire working life as a servant of the East India Company.

Todd Stevens, magging off the coast of Scilly

Todd Stevens, magging off the coast of Scilly

By the 1640s, Mucknell was an established and trusted captain, but he was also a loose cannon. England was in the throes of the Civil War. A loyal Royalist, John was violently at odds with the Puritanical Roundheads and would express his opinions loudly and drunkenly about the inns of Stepney. The Company received reports of his erratic and sometimes paranoid behaviour, but nonetheless in 1643 were to give their man a plum posting: charge of the new John, a state-of-the-art vessel, lighter, lower and fleeter than its predecessors, and carrying 44 guns. They had made a huge mistake.

Mucknell hatched an elaborate plan (though much of the detail seems to have got lost in a fog of rum). The ship was bound for Surat, in Gujarat, India. The East India Company planned that Mucknell would be bringing back a cargo of spices and silks, and there were agents aboard to buy and sell goods. En route, the skipper was charged with picking up a wealthy Portuguese ambassador. But John had other ideas. He had already instructed wife Elizabeth to head for the Royalist stronghold of Bristol, where he would meet her once he had stolen the ship.

Things swiftly deteriorated on the John, and Stevens convincingly argues that Mucknell engineered discord. There were drunken fights and the crew split between loyalists to the Company and those wanting to join Mucknell and rob the ship and its passengers. Mucknell attempted to cast anyone in opposition as ‘a Roundhead’ though its unclear how much his fight was ideological and how much for monetary gain. Within weeks of setting off from Wapping, Mucknell had lost the

John Mucknell's protector, the Prince of Wales, would later reign as Charles II

John Mucknell's protector, the Prince of Wales, would later reign as Charles II

rest of his fleet, before marooning passengers and many of the crew on the small isle of Johanna, off the coast of Mozambique. He then fled back to Bristol, picked up Elizabeth and headed to the Scillies. It was 1643, and the long and bloody English Civil War had another eight years to run.

There are reports of pirates operating out of Scilly since the 11th century. When Mucknell arrived, at the helm of an impressive new 44-gunner, he was immediately able to dominate, and form the rag-bag ‘navy’ into a fighting force. They were unpredictable; there was little honour among thieves and when Naval ships came out to challenge the pirates it was frequently every man for himself. But in the midst of Civil War, the pirate Mucknell found himself enjoying unlikely protection. King Charles was only too happy to see the Puritans get a bloody nose, and he issued letters of marque, authorising Mucknell to attack and rob ships. The pirate was now a privateer, licensed by his monarch. The dissolute merchant mariner, who had no real battle experience, now found himself elevated to Vice Admiral. And the Prince of Wales, the future Charles II, knighted him.

So although he was attacking ships of the English Navy, our man was doing so as Vice Admiral Sir John Mucknell, and he was about to get a powerful ally. Prince Rupert of the Rhine was the archetypal Cavalier, a dashing young man, a born soldier and overall commander of the Royalist forces by his mid-twenties. He had no maritime experience but was put in charge of the pirate fleet operating out of Scilly, and for the next years he would inflict defeat after defeat on the Navy, ransacking East India Company ships, and picking off any foreign vessels that came too close. The Scilly pirates had a vast area of control, operating as far west and south as the Azores, and so controlling the Atlantic sea routes. At his side was Sir John Mucknell.

There were reverses, and after one bloody skirmish Mucknell retreated to Wexford in Ireland to regroup. But by 1651, as the war reached its denouement, he was back, operating out of Scilly. And it was on one of those forays into the Atlantic, off the Azores isle of Terceira, that our man disappears from history. With eight years of bloody piracy behind him, the end seems to have been more mundane, as Rupert’s flagship The Constant Reformation, simply took on water and sunk, taking 300 souls with it. Documentation is scant of course, but there is no record of Mucknell taking another posting after that date.

Are these the ship's cannon from the long-lost ship John?

Are these the ship's cannon from the long-lost ship John?

Did John perish alongside those 300 in the sinking of The Constant Reformation? Or was he saved alongside Prince Rupert (who would go on to live into his sixties and become head of the King’s Navy after the interregnum). Certainly by 1660 he was dead. In that year, we find his wife Elizabeth petitioning the new king, Charles II “for her husband’s pension of £200 a year, for service, granted in 1645, which was five and a half years in arrears when he died”. Basic maths might suggest that Mucknell had been lost in the battle off Terceira. Elizabeth had been “driven from her habitations at Poplar and Bristol, her goods seized and she forced to fly beyond the seas.”
For centuries Mucknell and the John were lost to history. But Todd’s explorations kick the whole story off again, and this year English Heritage announced plans to dive the wreck. The story of the King’s Pirate is not done yet.

* Pirate John Mucknell and the Hunt for the Wreck of the John by Todd Stevens. AuthorHouse Publishing. ISBN 978-1467001588. Order details at
View The King’s pirate in a larger map

Oscar Eckenstein, mountaineering pioneer and pal of Aleister Crowley

eckenstein front row second left

NO OBITUARY notice seems to have appeared when Oscar Eckenstein died in 1921. No mentions in the press, no plaudits from his fellows in the British mountaineering fraternity, and no reminiscences of daring climbs or brilliant innovations. Yet this East Ender is one of the most curious figures in London history. The son of a Jewish socialist, revolutionised the sport of mountaineering, taking it from the hands of the enthusiastic gentlemen amateur climbers who were scaling (and dying upon) the peaks of Europe and Asia, and setting the foundations for the professional sport it is today. The clues for his omission from history lie in that London East End provenance, a rich vein of anti-semitism among the toffs who dominated climbing, and a fruitful climbing partnership with Aleister Crowley: an extraordinary character dubbed in turn ‘The Great Beast’, ‘the wickedest man in England’ and (when the popular press was getting particularly excited) ‘the wickedest man in the world’.

It certainly took a man with a strong nerve to climb mountains with Crowley. But then Oscar Johannes Ludwig Eckenstein was no shrinking violet. The Londoner had scaled his first peak at just 13 and swiftly made enemies with his unflinching criticism of Victorian climbing styles. When he encountered Crowley on a climb in the Lake District in the 1890s, the two outsiders immediately took to each other. Crowley was fascinated by the older Eckenstein and his curious history. In an era of effete Victorian climbers, who would be led to the peak by trained guides, Eckenstein demanded that climbers should rely on their own wits and skill, even climbing alone. The accepted ‘rule’ was that all climbers should be roped together; Eckenstein was an early advocate of unroped climbing. Oscar’s physical strength appealed to the macho Crowley. Years later in his autobiography, he praised the Londoner’s gymnastic strength, his ability to do one-armed pull-ups. Oscar Eckenstein it was, said Crowley, ‘who trained me to follow the trail’. Crowley, a pansexual, drug-taking, mystic and magician, liked nothing better than to irk the establishment (though he was himself an upper class Cambridge graduate) and he would have been delighted by the discomfort that the Jewish Londoner caused the members of the pukka Alpine Club. He quotes novelist and climber Morley Roberts calling Eckenstein ‘a dirty East End Jew’ after a climb in Zermatt.

Eckenstein, for his part, wasn’t scared by Crowley’s reputation, though he thought his dabbling with ‘magick’ a nonsense. He was also unfazed by criticism. He may have been ‘insufferably arrogant’ (according to yet another climber) but he was a considerable figure. He had his own remarkable history. As well as holding down a full-time job as a railway engineer (‘years ahead of the times in thought and scientific invention of devices for the betterment of railroading’, according to fellow engineer HW Hillhouse) this Jewish Londoner was a superb athlete, expert musician (with a talent for the bagpipes), amateur carpenter and a graduate in chemistry. Oscar was a long way from the London East End oik the gentlemen of the Alpine Club painted him to be.

And most of all, of course, the Londoner was a superb climber. He had taken the practice of bouldering (where climbers scale boulders without the aid of ropes) from a fun pastime to an essential way for climbers to build their skills. He was also developing the art of balance climbing, where climbers had to become keenly aware of their position and balance on the face, rather than brutally hauling themselves upward. He was tirelessly innovative. In the late 19th century the typical ice axe was some 130cm long; Eckenstein designed a shorter, lighter axe of 85cm, which could be used single handed. He invented the modern crampon, which allowed the climber’s boots to bite into the ice, giving mobility and allowing climbers to scale steeper faces. He even redesigned the boots themselves.

There were the climbs themselves. History tells us that the Londoner was on the teams that made of the first ascent of the Stecknadelhorn in Switzerland in 1887 and Monte Brouillard in Italy in 1906. An attempt on the Baltoro glacier in Pakistan in 1882 ended in disarray when Oscar fell out with team leader Sir Martin Conway (a loathed mainstay of the Alpine Club) but he was back as leader of the first serious attempt to scale K2 (second only to Everest) in 1902. Crowley was alongside. The younger man was in awe of the London East Ender’s honesty and character, and in one passage of his autobiography, Crowley explains how Eckenstein conspired to write himself out of climbing history. ‘He was probably the best all-round man in England, but his achievements were little known because of his almost fanatical objection to publicity. He hated self-advertising quacks like the principal members of the Alpine Club with an intensity which, legitimate as it was, was almost overdone. His detestation of every kind of humbug and false pretence was an overmastering passion. I have never met any man who upheld the highest moral ideals with such unflinching candour.’

Late in life, Oscar would settle down, marrying Margery Edwards in 1918. Eckenstein was 58, and the couple settled in the tiny village of Oving in Buckinghamshire, a world away from the Jewish East End of London where he had grown up. Soon afterwards he fell ill with consumption, and he died in 1921. He left no children, and his widow remarried. One of the few tributes left to history came from his friend JP Farrar, writing in the Alpine Journal a full two years later. “I went to see (E) as he lay dying, one summer day two years ago, at the little hill town of Oving. His lungs had gone, he could only gasp; but his eye was as clear as ever, as dauntless as it had ever been in disadvantages of race, often of poverty, dying a brave man – wrapped up to the very end in his beloved mountains.” Among the rolling hills of Buckinghamshire, the East End climber could still summon memories of the Alps and of K2.

Henry Mayhew’s dodgy statistics on London

Just how drunk were Victorian East Enders? Did button makers quaff more pints in a day than opticians? Did bookbinders sink more gin than drapers? Hard statistics to collate and crunch you might think, but it didn’t stop the inexhaustible Henry Mayhew, who would die penniless in near obscurity, but whose ‘London Labour and the London Poor’ is still read today.

These days, data journalism is one of the buzz words in publishing, so Mayhew (writing in the 1850s) was arguably 150 years ahead of the game.The problem was that despite a forensic obsession with compiling statistics, Henry didn’t really know what he was doing, being a far better journalist than statistician. But along the way his endless writings about the East End, and especially the East End docks, yielded fascinating colour and detail.

Henry Mayhew comes down to us today as a social researcher and journalist, but he was much more than that – a larger than life man with a remarkable history before he took up his pen. One of 17 children of Joshua Mayhew, he went to Westminster School before heading to Wapping to run away to sea. After several years as a midshipman with the East India Company he returned to London, becoming first a trainee solicitor and then a freelance journalist. Mayhew rarely stood still, moving quickly from job to job (and at one point combining managing a West End theatre with his freelance jobs. His fleetness of foot proved handy when it came to escaping his creditors – a pattern that continued his whole life.

Mayhew found himself at the heart of much pioneering Victorian journalism. In 1842 he co-founded Punch magazine. A year later he was at the heart of the new Illustrated London News. Henry’s stock in trade was a sort of stats-based reportage. He would sail enthusiastically forth into the streets of the East End, his long-suffering wife Jane at his side as a copytaker, and seek out ordinary working people, recording their stories and observations on their (often miserable) lives.

His inability to avoid extrapolating from the facts they gave him generated his famously imaginative statistics. So, finding himself outside a Whitechapel theatre, talking to the sandwich vendor plying his trade there, he set off on one of his sallies. “This man calculated that in the saloons [and] concert rooms … at Limehouse, Mile End, Bethnal Green Road and elsewhere there might be … 70 sandwich sellers in all.” Now Henry extrapolates that the spending on ham sandwiches on the East End streets is “£1820 yearly, or 436,800 sandwiches.” There is much much more, as he goes on to calculate the cost per vendor of setting up in the ham sarnie trade: “2s for a basket, 2d for mustard, 6d for a knife and fork…” and so on, and on, and on.

Mayhew is scathing about official government statistics, with some justification. He believes they have got the number of street children wrong (he is almost certainly right) and attempts to calculate it himself from the returns from workhouses, hospitals and gaols. He tuts over their estimate of the number of London dustmen (so called because they collected coal ash or ‘dust’ in those days) and ups their figure from 254 to 1800, doing a back calculation from the number of London houses and an estimate of how much coal each domicile would burn each year.

And it was the coal trade that led Henry to his calculations on booze. Interviewing the coal whippers, heavers and backers down on the docks of Wapping, he is stunned by the amount they drank. One, who turns out to be “a good Latin and Greek scholar”, asserts: “If I have anything like a heavy day’s work, I consider three pints of porter a necessity.” Another states that: “Of my £1 wages, I need to spend at least 12s (60p) on liquor.” Gathering the other coal men together, Mayhew discovers the reasons. This was hot and thirsty work, the dust got into your throat, and there was precious little chance to slake your thirst if you were on a shift all day. Breaks were few, and there was no fresh water to be had.

This of course got Mayhew thinking: which trade drank the most? So emerged one of his most entertaining (if scientifically questionable) pieces of research, as he questioned an enormous number of East Enders about their drinking. He then collated figures for each trade, rating each for an average level of drunkenness. This, compiled from Metropolitan Police figures which were themselves rather dodgy, said that one person in 114 had an ‘above average level of drunkenness’. It’s hard to pin down what their ‘average level of drunkenness’ was however.

Henry picked up the figures and ran with them regardless. The least drunk East Enders were servants (only 1 in 586 was drunker than the average: unsurprising perhaps as it might lose you your living). Clergymen and grocers were also surprisingly abstemious, as were clockmakers, carvers and gilders – their work perhaps requiring a precision that would be destroyed by strong drink – or perhaps more prosaically it was simply solitary in its nature and they didn’t get out much.

Certainly it was the jobs where men did heavy work in gangs where boozing was at its worst – and perhaps that hasn’t changed so much. Irongmongers, bricklayers, millers and carpenters were very fond of a drink. But almost as soon as we conjure up a convincing argument, so it collapses. Surveyors, hatters and opticians were also notably thirsty (one in every 22.3 of the latter being drunker than your average cockney). Worryingly too, one in 68 doctors were above the average, one in 28.7 cab drivers and one in 11.8 surveyors. But the drunkest East Enders of all? Button makers, with one individual in every 7.2 being a heavier than average drinker. These days Tower Hamlets has no button makers and there seem to be East End pubs closing every day – now there’s a statistical correlation Mayhew could have fun with.

Frederick Charrington

Frederick Charrington had everything going for him. He was young, tall, good-looking and, best of all, he stood to come into millions as heir to one of the great brewing families of the East End.
But Fred was no idle son of the rich, he also had a conscience and it was this that would change the course of his life forever.
Charrington was born in the East End, baptised at St Dunstan’s, Stepney and raised in 3 Tredegar Place, later re-numbered 87 Bow Road. He was sent to the posh Marlborough public school but returned to the family home in the East End and it was here, as a young man, that the extraordinary coincidence occurred that would lead Fred to renounce his millions and work for the poor.
Passing the Rising Sun pub in Cambridge Heath Road, Bethnal Green, Charrington saw a sight within, all too common in the Victorian East End. A woman with her three children in tow begged her husband for money, the drunken spouse hit his wife and Fred, unable to ignore any injustice, rushed in to pull the man off. He paused in horror. There, above the door was the name of the pub’s proprietors . . . Charrington.
He renounced the family millions and dedicated his life to helping the fallen and the falling and to fighting the “evils” that dragged them down – alcohol, poverty and prostitution.
Charrington would parade up and down outside the East End gin palaces, wearing a sandwich board which carried the dire warning “The wages of sin is death”.

He kept watch on the numerous brothels, noting down the comings and goings in his little black book, later handing on the details to the constabulary.
Needless to say, Fred’s public spiritedness was not always welcome and he received many batterings from the prostitutes’ pimps.
And on one unfortunate occasion, the madame of an East End brothel was so distracted by the news that Charrington was approaching with his little black book that she rushed inside her house, had a heart attack and promptly died.
On Sundays Fred would lead his temperance brass band through Stepney and Wapping, stopping to tempt converts at the many pubs along the way – many of them bearing that name Charrington above their door. The throng would grow along the way, and by the end would contain a large number of good-natured and noisy drunks, who found “Uncle Fred’s” regular weekend procession great sport.
Many mocked Charrington, and his opposition to music halls made him appear as one of those grim Victorian philanthropists for whom any entertainment was morally suspect. But he left his monument and one that did immense good for generations of East Enders.
Charrington, having renounced riches, campaigned vigorously to raise cash and build the Great Assembly Hall in Mile End Road. The mission, opened in 1886, fed the poor bodies with bread and cocoa and their souls with evangelistic religion. Before the phrase was ever coined, the mission was a centre of social work and, in 1910, provided Christmas dinner for 850 families.
Fred died in 1936, one of the last survivors of the great Victorian philanthropists. And just a few years later his mission would be gone too – burned down in the fires of the Blitz.

Jack Broughton – cockney boxer

Jack Broughton … boxer

Lennox Lewis’s triumphant defence of his world heavyweight title, and the emergence of East End Olympic hero Audley Harrison, confirm one thing – unfashionable and controversial though boxing may be in many quarters, the East End retains an extraordinary enthusiasm for the sweet science.
And that’s an enthusiasm only matched by our capacity for producing championship fighters.
But if Lennox thought his points win was an epic battle, he has a Wapping waterman to thank for it being such a relatively brief contest. And the well-protected Audley has the same fellow to thank for the first moves to body protection for pugilists.
In the mid-1700s boxing was a brutal sport. Rules were few, bouts open-ended, and physical protection non-existent. The winner was the last man standing and the loser often paid with serious physical or mental damage… or even death.
This was a problem for Jack Broughton. Jack, the third heavyweight boxing champion of all England, augmented his waterman’s wages with bare-knuckle street fighting, but increasingly trained and managed a stable of fighters.
Modern boxers talk about leaving the fight in the gym due to over-training; Broughton’s boys often couldn’t make the fight because they had beaten one another so badly in the gym.
But rigorous training was needed to produce a bare-knuckle fighter capable of going dozens of rounds, so Jack set to thinking. His solution was to invent mufflers, the earliest boxing gloves, which made their first appearance in his Hanway Street gym in 1743.
Brutal prize fights
And Jack, having invested time and money in training promising young fighters and crowd favourites, saw the problem in their careers being curtailed by injury and death in the brutal prize fights so, at the same time, he devised his own set of competition rules.
The London Prize Ring rules were boxing’s first, and pre-dated the more famous Queens- bury Rules by a century or so.
It would be a mistake to think that Jack had gone soft – in a handbill published during the 1740s, he described boxing as simply the most successful method of beating a man deaf, dumb, lame and blind.
But his ideas proved so effective in prolonging the careers of fighters that the rules he prepared in 1743 remained in effect until 1838.
In their new form, they were the benchmark for fighting until the last bare-knuckle championship bout in 1889. After 1889, gloves became the rule, so Broughton’s ideas persist to this day.
The rules were as follows: no hitting below the belt; no hitting an opponent who was down; wrestling only allowed above the waist; fights to be contested in rounds, with a 30-second rest period in between; rounds to be over with a knockdown; and fights over after a rest period if a fighter couldn’t toe the mark or come up to scratch.
This mark was a square of a yard chalked in the middle of a stage which boxers had to approach at the start of each new round.
The rules were sponsored by Jack’s patron, William Augustus, the Third Duke of Cumberland. Augustus was to become known as Butcher Cumberland for his merciless slaughter of Jacobite Scots at the Battle of Culloden in 1745. The Duke also had a taste for bloody sports, wagering huge amounts on Jack’s successful fights.
As a sideline, Jack began to teach sparring with mufflers to the young relatives of the Duke of Cumberland. But the pair fell out after Broughton was beaten by Jack Slack in 1750.
The Butcher lost £10,000 on the fight and his interest in pugilism soon afterwards.
He may have fallen from favour with Cumberland, but Jack enjoyed a long and comfortable retirement. When he died in 1789, a wealthy 85 year old, he was still a national hero, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Charlie Brown’s Pub

IT is a familiar landmark to East Enders driving back from Essex, and anyone taking the M11 up to Stansted will have passed over it. But where did the Charlie Brown’s roundabout, one of London’s busiest intersections, get its unusual name?
The roundabout was
certainly not christened after the hero of the Peanuts
cartoon, but after a larger-than-life Limehouse man, who was just as famous in the 19th century as Snoopy’s master was 100 years later. Yet how did the bland and featureless junction come to be connected with one of the East End’s most colourful characters?
The story begins in the 1890s when Charlie Brown, a former boxer, took over the ownership of the Railway Tavern.
The Limehouse pub stood on the corner of Garford Street and the East India Dock Road and it was a popular watering hole for the sailors and dockers who made up most of Limehouse’s
population at the time.
Even among his noisy and outspoken clientele – many of whom were colourful characters with tales to tell – Charlie managed to stand out.
In fact, he was such a loud and extrovert landlord that he managed to stamp his
personality on the pub itself.
As Charlie’s reputation grew, so did the contents of the pub. Sailors would return from their travels with mementoes from every corner of the globe and bring them back to a delighted guv’nor, who would hang them on the wall of the tavern.

And as the collection grew, its fame spread throughout the capital. People would make the trip down to infamous Limehouse, which in the early 1900s was synonymous with Chinatown, white slaving and opium dens, just to view his map of the world.
In June 1932 Charlie Brown died and the ‘uncrowned king of Limehouse’ was laid in state in the pub that had been his palace.
His funeral procession was fit for a king too as 16,000
people went to Bow Cemetery to say goodbye to Charlie.
Charlie Brown’s legacy was a lucrative one, and both his children ran pubs. His
daughter Esther kept the
existing hostelry, while Charlie Brown Jr was the landlord of the Blue Posts, directly
opposite the Railway Hotel.
Both of them erected signs saying that their pubs were the genuine Charlie Brown’s.
In 1938 Charlie Jr gave up on the East End to move to leafier Woodford, taking the name with him of course. The new Charlie Brown’s lay at the end of the Southend to London road which was to become the A127.
But in 1972 the road that had given the pub its reason for being also became the cause of its demise, when the road
intersection was extended and the pub was demolished.
Young Charlie had salvaged many of the famous
mementoes from his dad’s pub, and legend has it they passed on to the Greyhound pub in Harlow, though there is no trace of them today.
By a weird coincidence, it was transport that created and destroyed the original Charlie Brown’s too. The Railway Hotel had been built to serve the old London and Blackwall Railway in the 1800s.
Despite the rebirth of the line, when the Docklands Light Railway was built in 1989,
the Railway Tavern stood
in the way of the Commercial Road extension and so was demolished.
Today, all that remains of the world-famous character, three pubs and a confusion of names is a traffic blackspot on the fringes of London.

Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green

He gave his name to one of the most famous, or infamous, pubs in Britain, and is now a byword for the East End, even for people who have never been here. But who exactly was the Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green?
The story itself is shrouded in legend, and set in a Bethnal Green vastly different from the chaotic and overcrowded slum it became in the 19th century.
Bethnal Green is first mentioned in an Eighth Century deed. One Mathilda le Vayre of Stepney is listed as having a home in ‘Blithehall’, and making a grant of the house’s courtyard.
By the Middle Ages, however, Bethnal Green was rather isolated from London, a quiet little village and rather grand. There were manor houses and mansions in the surrounding countryside and cottages cluster- ed around the green itself.
In the 1200s, one of those manor houses belonged to Simon de Montford – the young lord who is today remembered by Montford House, a red-brick block of flats on the north side of Victoria Park Square.
His story, and how he went from landed gentry to poor beggar, became hugely popular in early Tudor times, and was given a new lease of life by Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, which was published in 1765.
Simon was a soldier in the service of the king, and fought at the Battle of Evesham, in the West Country, in 1265. According to the legend, he fell at the battle and was found wandering, blinded, by a nobleman’s daughter. She nursed the wounded soldier back to health, they fell in love and were married.
In time a daughter arrived, but although Besse was beautiful she couldn’t find a husband – the problem being her father. Besse was courted by four suitors; a rich gentleman, a knight, a London merchant and the son of an innkeeper.

Most of them withdrew their suit when they met Montford to ask for the old soldier’s consent to the marriage.
Montford’s reduced circum-stances were related through a popular song of the time:
“My father, shee said, is soone to be seene
The siely, blind beggar of Bednall-green,
That daylye sits begging for charitie,
He is the good father of pretty Besse.
Hie makrs and his tokens are knowen very well;
He alwayes is led with a dogg and a bell;
A seely old man, God knoweth, is he,
Yet he is the father of pretty Besse.”
In a predictably medieval twist, the courtly knight was the only man who could see past the seeming lack of a decent dowry to the woman he loved.
He received his reward, as the couple received a dowry of £3,000, plus £100 for Besse’s wedding dress. The benefactor? Grandfather Henry, who was still a rich man.
The legend persisted. Samuel Pepys visited fashionable Bethnal Green to stay with his friend, Sir William Ryder; Ryder’s house occupied the very same spot as the Montford mansion. The great diarist records the occasion on June 26, 1663:
“By coach to Bednall-green, to Sir W Ryder’s to dinner. A fine merry walk with the ladies alone after dinner in the garden; the greatest quantity of strawberries I ever saw, and good. This very house was built by the Blind Beggar of Bednall-green, so much talked of and sang in ballads.”
By 1690, the Bethnal Green beadle bore the badge of the Blind Beggar on his ceremonial staff. And in the 18th century every pub in the area bore the image of the beggar on their signs. Even Kirby’s Castle, a lunatic asylum, was dubbed the Blind Beggar’s House in 1727.
Kirby’s Castle was demolished to make way for post-War redevelopment, Montford’s House is buried in mystery, and today only one pub bears the sign of the Blind Beggar.
But Besse is remembered in Besse Street, the mayor bears an image of Simon and Besse on the borough’s ceremonial badge and, most famous of all, in 1966, the Kray twins and the unfortunate George Cornell sealed the Blind Beggar in the nation’s folklore forever.
With thanks to London’s East End: Life and Traditions, by Jane Cox, Phoenix Illustrated, ISBN 1-85799-956-8, £9.99.