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Category: East End explorers

Thomas Neale: the man who invented Shadwell

THOMAS NEALE was very much a man of the late 1600s. A master of a dozen fields, who could move effortlessly between jobs, he was an MP for 30 years, the Master of the Mint, and set up the first properly organised postal service in the United States. He was also the proud bearer of one of the many arcane posts in the gift of the monarch. As Groom Porter to Charles II he was the king’s gambling tsar, charged with settling disputes at gaming tables and closing down gambling houses; he even developed a fairer and truer die to outsmart gambling cheats.

Thomas Neale

Thomas Neale

By the end of his short life (he lived from 1641 to 1699), this remarkable man had burned through two fortunes (one courtesy of his wife, the richest woman in England) and he died penniless. But as a young man, he was responsible for transforming a benighted and boggy stretch of East End waterfront into a thriving commercial concern. Neale, almost forgotten today, should be as lauded as more celebrated developers such as William Cubitt, who at least got a slice of the Isle of Dogs named after him. For it was Neale who gave us Shadwell.

Until the 17th century, the area that would become Shadwell was bleak marshland. That began to change with an Act of Parliament in the 1660s that authorised the reclamation of 130 acres of Wapping Marsh. Until then, the sole function of the wasteland had been to flood with the rising of the Thames, and then drain water back to power the mills at Ratcliff. And as late as 1615, the riverside from Ratcliff up to Wapping was undeveloped, save for a few houses to the north (one of which, on the site of King Edward VII Memorial Park, was obviously of some importance, having a brewhouse and an orchard attached).

It was land that nobody had bothered too much about in the preceding centuries, but the rise in trade and shipping in the 1600s would change all that. The maritime adventures of the previous century had transformed England from a minor country off the coast of Europe into a genuine seapower, as Willoughby, Frobisher et al set sail from from Ratcliff. Britain’s trading routes had developed alongside, with the Port of London growing in step. In 1615 there were just ten ships of more than 200 tons in the Port; by 1640 that number had grown to 100. First Deptford, then Blackwall and Ratcliff had been developed, now eyes turned to the moribund waste of Shadwell.

Shadwell Basin

Shadwell Basin

For three centuries the land had been in the ownership of the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s – nobody was quite sure how, as Shadwell lay within the territory of the Manor of Stepney, but for 300 years it had fallen to St Paul’s to maintain the river walls and ditches. The land had been taken from the Church under Cromwell’s Commonwealth, but with the restoration of the monarchy it passed back to the Cathedral, and to their surprise, they found themselves in charge of a valuable piece of real estate.

Enter Thomas Neale, once again, for among his many other jobs he was lessee of the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s. He also already knew the area, as along with friends he had speculatively invested in East India trade and the development of the Ratcliff riverfront. Neale now began a huge programme of draining, reclaiming and laying out roads. It was a skill he would later apply to the development of Seven Dials in Covent Garden (despite the variant spelling, Neal Street is named after our man). He built a waterworks and a mill, with housing fanning out behind the newly developed waterfront. As the shipping business arrived so did the ancillary businesses develop, with ropemakers, breweries, bakies, tanneries, chandlers, smiths and the dozen other businesses of the working port. He even built Shadwell’s own church (it was now a parish) in St Paul’s Shadwell.

isaac newton

isaac newton

All of this was done while Neale was still in his twenties and he had an even more colourful career ahead of him. From 1678 until his death he was Master of the Mint, succeeded by another Stuart polymath, Sir Isaac Newton. Newton apparently complained that the Mint he inherited was a nest of “idlers and jobbers”. He was in charge of a mining company, and set up another to recover treasure from the many wrecks that littered the floors of the world’s oceans. Whatever Neale did, there was one common theme: speculation, and the love of a punt on a scheme that could make him very rich. Him or his patrons – it was Neale who was behind the notorious lottery-loans that poured cash into William and Mary’s Exchequer, boldly labelled “a profitable adventure to the fortunate, and can be unfortunate to none”.

Unfortunately there is no such thing as a sure thing when it comes to speculation and Neale’s difficulty seemed to be not so much raising cash, as holding onto it. Perhaps it was too much time spent around gambling joints as the Groom Porter, perhaps one grand scheme too many, but by 1694, Neale was struggling financially. Fortuitously he would marry the richest widow in England, and became known about London as ‘Golden Neale’. Alas, it wasn’t to last. He died penniless, having blown another fortune, just five years later.

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.

Limehouse seafarer Christopher Newport

King James I was a tough man to impress. Brighter than your average king, he was fluent in half a dozen languages, a student of science and an accomplished statesman. He commissioned what was to become the essential translation of the Bible, wrote poetry to his wife, treatises against tobacco and essays on the rights and duties of monarchs. He survived constant illness, numerous assassination attempts and the gunpowder plot. Yet even this tough Scottish Protestant had his soft spot – and canny Limehouse seafarer Christopher Newport knew where to find it.

Appearing at court one day in 1605, fresh from his adventures in the New World, Newport bowed low to his king and presented his gifts. Nothing so predictable as precious stones, gold or spices for this sovereign – the London captain pulled back a carpet to reveal a wild boar and two baby crocodiles. The stern Calvinist monarch broke into a smile of delight, and Christopher’s career as a privateer was secure for one more voyage at least.

The British Empire, as it would become, was founded on a mix of adventure, whim, ambition and pure plunder. And the men who set out from Wapping and Limehouse to conquer the globe were a curious hybrid too – part naval officer and part pirate. Francis Drake, Sir John Hawkins and Newport himself would lead the ships which would settle the Americas, return with bounty from the New World and push the limits of navigation while fighting the Spanish, England’s principal enemy during the 16th and early 17th centuries. The darker side to the trade was that they were little more than pirates – plundering Spanish ships for their cargoes and killing their crews. And, with the push into Africa, many became slavers too. To the privateers, any cargo, human or otherwise, was fair game.

Monarchs such as James, who had imperial and trade ambitions, but could hardly afford to fulfill them with a standing navy, geared their policy upon the ruthless energy of men such as Newport, who could grow rich themselves while delivering bounty, new lands and delightful gifts to their patrons. It was this early modern version of a public-private partnership that built the Empire, and it would be used time and again.

In 1606, James was wrestling with a problem. European seafarers had discovered a huge continent on the other side of the globe, and there was a frantic dash to beat the Spanish, the French and the Dutch in setting up colonies. The London Stock Exchange didn’t exist yet, but City and East End merchants would happily buy shares in a company that promised unimaginable riches from the New World. The first joint stock company had been launched in London in 1555, with the Muscovy Company seeking the northeast passage to China. James chartered The Virginia Company to make good Britain’s shaky foothold on the American mainland, and within a year ships set sail for the New World.

Already in his forties, Newport had a 20-year career of raiding Spanish freighters in the Caribbean. The proceeds from these missions were shared with the London merchants who funded them. It may be no surprise to realise that the modern Stock Exchange was founded on piracy. Newport had captained privateer vessels including the Golden Dragon, the Margaret and the Little John, and in August 1592 landed the largest English plunder of the 16th century, when he captured the Portuguese Madre de Deus off the Azores. Gems, silks and 500 tons of spices would be unloaded at Wapping later that year.

It made the Limehouse man the perfect skipper of this risky new venture. At 120 tons, the Susan Constant was the largest of three ships that set sail for the new colony of Virginia in December 1606, but it was still just 35 metres in length. On 26 April 1607 Newport landed at Chesapeake Bay. It had been an unusually long and troublesome crossing. Captain John Smith had caused dissent and near mutiny on the voyage, and Newport had planned to have him summarily executed when they made land. Opening his sealed orders, he was dismayed to read that Smith was to be leader of the new colony. Sparing the troublesome captain, Newport headed inland with his crew and the 110 colonists (all male).

So the party established Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America, with Smith as its leader. It was a poor site, set in the midst of swamplands and the settlers – largely English farmers – had no idea what to cultivate. Hunting was poor and the starving and diseased settlers became dependent on the supply ships which Newport ran back and forth over the following years. There would be countless setbacks. On one voyage, Newport was forced to beach his storm-lashed ship on what would become Bermuda. The resourceful East End sea captain had now founded not one but two British territories.

Somehow though, with Smith emerging as an inspired and inspiring leader, able to negotiate and trade with the Indians, Jamestown survived. And on Newport’s last trip, he brought the key to the colony’s survival. John Rolfe was a brilliant agriculturalist who would develop the new, sweeter types of tobacco on which Virginia would grow rich. It must have been an ironic victory for his tobacco-loathing king. Newport would find new horizons, meanwhile. He died on an East India Company expedition to Java in 1617.