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Category: East End industries

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.

Dock deaths and the Poplar Hospital

Docklands hospital in Poplar

Poplar Hospital catered for the wounded from the East India Docks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strikes in the East End of London during World War 1

1910 strike picture

Police strike in 1910

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fleet Street moves to the East End

The second half of the 19th century was a great age for the press, as taxes on publications and newsprint were removed, new printing techniques made big print runs possible, and pioneering editors such as the pacificist WT Stead reinvented their trade. And as the 20th century approached, a new breed of entrepreneurial owners would push the industry to new heights.

In 1896, Alfred Harmsworth launched the Daily Mail, costing a halfpenny against the penny cover price of its rivals. The Mail was fiercely imperialist, backing the Government in the Boer War (to the horror of Stead) and earning a reputation for putting patriotism above objectivity. The power of the press was such that many people blamed Harmsworth for Britain’s entry into the First World War (he had been predicting war with ‘The Hun’ since the turn of the century). ‘The most unscrupulous man in Britain,’ railed Lloyd George – before inviting him into his cabinet. But, adding popular features and crisp, concise writing into the mix, the Mail was a huge success.

In 1900 Sir Arthur Pearson founded the Daily Express, which moved its sights from court, war and hard news reporting, bringing in gossip, sports and features for women. And in 1903, Harmsworth launched the Daily Mirror, which replaced illustrations with photographs. Popular mass journalism had been born.

Over the following years, many more papers followed: The Daily Sketch in 1909, the Daily Herald in 1911 (the first national paper of the Labour movement), the Sunday Pictorial (Sunday Mirror) in 1915, Sunday Express in 1918, the Daily Worker and News Chronicle in 1930.

Alongside them, London had three paid-for evening papers, each of them hitting the streets in several editions each day. Its unimaginable today, but in an age before radio and TV, let alone the instant information of the internet, the paper was your only source of information. People would wait on East End corners for the latest edition of The Star (born 1888), The Evening News (1881) or The Evening Standard (1827) to get the racing results from the courses around the country. And scandal was never far away. Journalists from The Star were accused of sensationalising the Whitechapel Murders in 1888 and even inventing the name of Jack the Ripper.

The 1950s and 60s were a peak for Fleet Street, with a dominant Daily Mirror (by now transformed into a Labour, working class title) battling the Mail and the Express for readers, and readerships for ‘the qualities’ steadily climbing. In the 60s, the Daily Express sold an astonishing 6m copies a day (against a tenth of that today) and had foreign correspondents dotted around the globe. The Daily Mirror, meanwhile, was selling 5m copies against 1.2m today.

But things were about to change dramatically. Along with huge readerships the papers had accrued huge staffs. Proprietors began to look at new print technologies as a way of cutting costs, particularly a move from the old, labour intensive hot metal style of typesetting and printing. In 1968, Rupert Murdoch bought the News of the World and added the Sun in 1969.

It was a baleful end for a paper that had started as the Daily Herald before being unsuccessfully reinvented by Mirror Group in the early Sixties. The remnant of a paper once edited by Hamilton Fyfe, Charles Lapworth and George Lansbury would now feature Page 3 girls and greet the sinking of the Belgrano with the headline ‘Gotcha!’. Murdoch added the Times and Sunday Times to his News International portfolio in 1981. Long battles with the unions ensued, with lockouts, papers shut down for months at a time, and a state of simmering war between journalists and printers (who could stop the presses at any time).

Fleet Street needed to change but change was brutal when it came. Under the guise of launching a new Sunday paper, Murdoch moved his titles to Wapping over a dramatic weekend in 1986. The aim, with the complicit assistance of the Tory government was to break the unions and, in a violent replay of the Miners Strike of the two years before, that was exactly what they did.

‘The Dirty Digger’, as Private Eye gleefully dubbed him, declared that Fleet Street had ‘three times the number of jobs at five times the level of wages’ as other countries. He also knew the new Atex typesetting technology could remove typesetters at a stroke, and neuter their powerful unions. Murdoch, who as a student at Oxford was so left wing he was dubbed ‘Red Rupe’, devised a military style plan to smash the print unions and make printing profitable.

Police officers would hold back the pickets each night, and Wapping residents (who often couldn’t get to their own front doors) would find themselves in a warzone. Just over a year later the pickets admitted defeat – News International hadn’t lost a single night of printing, and the industury was changed forever.

Many of the other papers may not have liked Murdoch’s approach, but they quickly followed his lead. The papers left their old Fleet Street homes, with editorial office upstairs and presses below, for the East End.

1 Canada Square, previously derided as the most obvious landmark of a white elephant Docklands, became home to the Telegraph, the Mirror, the People and the Independent. The Mail, along with its Evening Standard, would head in the opposite direction, to Kensington, and the Express to the south side of Blackfriars Bridge. The Telegraph and Express papers, meanwhile, would be printed at Westferry on the Isle of Dogs.

Fleet Street had moved to the East End. Meanwhile the printers and compositors, many of them East Enders themselves, found themselves out of jobs – most would never work in newspapers again. 301 years after the Daily Courant first hit the London streets, we stand at the other end of the newspaper revolution, with dwindling sales and the reputation of newspapers and their proprietors (and their friends in police and Parliament) lower than ever. As the owners of News International lurch through their daily crises, East Enders may be wondering how much longer they’ll have the Murdochs as neighbours.

Fleet Street, Wapping and News International

The recent murky goings-on at Wapping have seen the closure of one national newspaper and the unravelling of a newspaper empire that controversially moved to Tower Hamlets a quarter of a century ago. The overnight flit of News International to Wapping back in 1986 was just the start as half of ‘Fleet Street’ – liberated from living upstairs from the printing presses – moved to Tower Hamlets over the following years.

As ever, in the 300-year history of London’s national newspapers, the shift was as much about changing laws, changing technology and changing political alliances as anything else.

Walk along Fleet Street in the 1960s you would have passed the offices of the Daily Express, the Daily Mail in its Carmelite House office, the ‘Black Lubyanka’ of Sir Owen Williams’ magnificent Daily Express building, the Daily Telegraph. The Mirror had its offices in Fetter Lane and then on High Holborn just north of Fleet Street, while the Sun (reinvented from the wreckage of the Daily Herald) lay on Bouverie Street just to the south of the street. The Times was in Printing House Square just off the Grays Inn Road.

Throw in the associated Sunday papers, the London offices of dozens of regional papers, magazines and news agencies, and Fleet Street was – by the high point of newspaper circulations in the 1960s, abuzz with the clatter of typewriters, the thunder of the printing presses and the chinking of drained pint glasses as hundreds of journalists rubbed shoulders with lawyers in legendary hostelries around the street, such as the Cheshire Cheese and the Stab in the Back.

Today, with only the London offices of DC Thomson on Fleet Street (think the Sunday Post, the People’s Friend and the Beano) the road is almost exclusively associated with the law. The Inns of Court lie north and south of the street, the Royal Courts of Justice just west in the Strand. It’s an association that goes back many centuries, to long before newspapers and printing.

Fleet Street began as the road joining London’s two cities – the seat of government at Westminster and the home of commerce in the City of London. It thus became the perfect home for the law, drawing up documents for both Crown and the City livery companies, and in their turn an army of scribes grew up, drawing up papers for the lawyers. In 1476, a City liveryman, William Caxton returned from Bruges with a new invention, the printing press. Setting up business in Westminster, he produced the first printed editions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (penned just up the road in Aldgate), as well as verses from the Bible, chivalric romances and histories of England and Rome.

His apprentice Wynkyn de Worde kicked off printing in Fleet Street in 1500, setting up a shop near Shoe Lane. The new process was fast and allowed multiple copies of documents. It suddenly became affordable to reproduce and distribute a book or pamphlet and – in a process that has been repeated down the centuries – hundreds of scribes suddenly found themselves made redundant by new technology, lumbered with superb skills that nobody required anymore.

But for many years the freedom of the press to print news was strictly curtailed. The Crown, and its select group of lawmakers and enforcers, the Star Chamber, looked at a medium that could quickly spread information and rumour and thus encourage dissent and organisation among the people, and shuddered. That’s why the first newspaper to be printed in England didn’t roll off the presses in London but in Amsterdam, around 1620. The laws were relaxed with the scrapping of the Star Chamber in 1641, just in time for one of the most tumultuous periods in English history. The Civil War fuelled a huge demand for news – previously, ordinary people might have waited weeks for an incomplete story of what had occurred at the Battles of Marston Moor or Newbury, to trickle down to them.

By the late 1600s, Fleet Street had the London Gazette and in 1702 its first newspaper – the Daily Courant. By the 1720s there were a dozen London papers and two dozen more in the provinces. and by the early 1800s 52 papers in London (and 100 or so other periodicals) among them The Daily Universal Register, launched in 1785 and quickly to be renamed as The Times. That the growth was still quite slow was down to economics. Paper was still expensive, but it was the Stamp Duty on papers that was really holding the industry back.

It didn’t stop John Browne Bell launching the first newspaper aimed directly at a newly literate working class – improvements in mass education had created a whole new market, eager for scandal and gossip. The News of the World hit the streets for the first time on 1 October 1843, priced at 3d (1.5p). In 1855 the last tax on papers was scrapped (taxes on advertisements had been abolished two years before). It opened the way for cheap, mass-produced papers, funded by a boom in advertising. In September that year, the Daily Telegraph launched as London’s first one penny morning paper. In 1861, duty on the newsprint itself was scrapped and – while Charles Dickens and his fellows enjoyed a boom time for authors and journalism – a whole new era of Fleet Street was about to be born.

William Addis, inventor of the toothbrush

They are called Eureka moments, as chance and inspiration combine to create something great. Archimedes, the man whose overflowing bath led to his principle for discerning the volume of objects must top the list of course. And Einstein has to be right up there. Observing the clock tower in Bern, the German genius suddenly realised that time could move at different speeds in different places, and thus relativity was born.

But, with no disrespect to the scientists, East Ender William Addis’s invention probably tops them all. For the simple device he developed is not only used by every one of us, twice a day, it has prevented pain, illness, misery and early death. Addis was the father of modern oral hygiene and the company he founded is in business to this day. But it came from an unlikely source.

In 1780, the unfortunate Addis was arrested on the streets of Spitalfields and charged with causing a riot. At 46, William was already a successful businessman, a stationer and rag merchant, supplying finished paper to the book trade. The rags he harvested would be pulped down and remade into new sheets of paper – nothing went to waste.

William’s clients, the London booksellers of the 18th century, also sold patent medicines and supplies for pharmacists. It seems curious today, but is maybe no odder than barbers also being surgeons or American pharmacies also being ‘soda fountains’. Or, for that matter, modern London bookstores also doubling as coffee shops.

As he languished in his Newgate gaol cell, William struggled to clean his teeth with the traditional combination of a rag with salt and soot. If only he could get in between the teeth, he could do a much better job. Spying a broom, Addis got an idea. He picked a small animal bone from his plate and drilled small holes in it, pestered a guard to get him some bristles and – eureka – the toothbrush was born.

Timing is all of course, and this was an idea happening at just the right moment. Refined sugar, unknown in London in medieval times, was now being consumed in industrial quantities as supplies came back from the West Indies. Georgian Londoners had rotten teeth but effective dental repairs were a century away, with the only option painful extraction (by those barber surgeons again). Addis, however, added prevention to the mix.

Back at liberty, the entrepreneurial William realised that his new ‘tooth brush’ could be a winner. He produced a small number of the products, fashioned from animal bone and horsehair and offered them to his contacts in the book trade. They quickly sold and soon a toothbrush became a fashionable thing to have in Georgian London.

It was a hard thing to patent, and other manufacturers soon copied William’s bright idea, but it didn’t stop the company growing, and William growing rich. By 1840, the company was run by his son (also called William). Rather than a central ‘manufactory’, the Addis company used a system that was widespread in the East End of the time, piecework, with the women of Spitalfields and Whitechapel producing the brushes in their own homes. The system was also the basis for the matchmaking business, weaving, laundry and many more trades. The women would be paid by how much they produced, invariably having to buy their own tools and materials up front. And if the goods weren’t up to scratch – the company wouldn’t pay.

A brutal system in the days before unions and the legal protection they afforded workers – but the Addises grew very wealthy. By 1840, William Jr was employing 60 workers in an increasingly sophisticated production involving 53 separate processes, and producing four different models: Gents, Ladies, Child’s and Tom Thumb. William would use badger hair for the poshest brushes, but imported hog, pig or boar hair for the rest, mostly from Russia, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and France.

Most of us wouldn’t fancy brushing our teeth with a mixture of bone and hair, but an American invention was to change everything. On 28 February 1935, and after dozens of failed experiments, Wallace Hume Carothers, the head of organic chemistry at DuPont in Delaware, came up with the molten polymer the company would market as Nylon. Carothers, tragically, would kill himself a couple of years later, wracked by depression and convinced his work was useless.

But the Addis company, now marketing its wares as Wisdom Toothbrushes, was quick to see the potential of nylon. Agreeing a deal with the UK licensee, ICI, they produced the first synthetic brushes and launched a huge newspaper campaign. The new brush was more expensive than the competition at 2 shillings (10p) but the timing was perfect. It was 1940 and British housewives were being told to waste nothing – animal bones were going into soups and stews or simply being boiled off by butchers and slaughterhouses, their marrow making nutritious stock. A shortage of bone thus worked in the favour of the Addises and their new nylon brushes.

By the 1960s, Wisdom had moved out to Suffolk and a new factory, and the last Addis left the firm in 1996, bringing more than 200 years of history to a close. But the legacy is clear – a product as ubiquitous and essential as any, the toothbrush is repeatedly voted the one object Britons could not live without. For William Addis, his unfortunate incarceration in a London prison was not just the happy accident that made his fortune, it was one that changed the world.

The glassmakers of Ratcliff

As you sip from your glass, read by the light of your window or crunch your way across a pavement carpeted with former car windows, you might reflect that glass is cheap, glass is everywhere. But it wasn’t always so. The unlikely alchemy which transforms sand into crystal, opacity to transparency, was once a secret closely guarded.

Travel back a few centuries and even amid the protectionist guilds of the City London – those who sought to exclude outsiders from becoming fishmongers, tallow-makers, chandlers and the rest – glass was special, an almost magical process guarded jealously by the aristocracy. The secret had travelled down the centuries and across Europe from the glass makers of Murano and Burano, in the Venice Lagoon to London where – amid its finest exponents – were the glassmakers of Ratcliff.

‘Bowles’s Manufactory’ and its ‘Glass Houses’ first appear on maps of the East End in the 1790s, as part of a detailed plan of the area drawn by William Fraser of the Shadwell Waterworks. Ratcliff had, in 1794, been almost totally destroyed by fire – the worst conflagration in London since the Great Fire in 1666 and not matched again until the bombs of the Blitz a century and a half later. Fraser, the sort of man to whom historians say prayers of thanks, was an assiduous type who set to carefully describing Ratcliff in painstaking detail.

John Bowles had started his glassworks at the Bear Garden Bankside in Southwark in the 1670s after splitting with his partner the Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham was a sharp business brain as well as a toff, though his claim that he had discovered the art of making looking-glass plates (mirrors in other words) and previously a secret only of the Venetians was questionable. Glassmaking was tricky certainly. It was hard to get heat and process consistently right, with medieval glass generally knobbly and translucent rather than transparent, but there were already a select few who had the art. Certainly though, anybody who could make glass good enough for mirrors could make a lot of money, and Buckingham managed to obtain a patent, or monopoly, in 1663, from Charles II.

In 1768 though, Buckingham’s double dealings saw him proclaimed traitor, lodged in the Tower of London and stripped of his patent. But the secret was (at least partially) out. The Duke gave the whole business to his apprentice John Dawson, with the money behind a six-acre factory coming from John Bowles. Within a year or two Dawson had mysteriously disappeared from the business, and Bowles relocated from cramped Bankside to the expanding hamlet of Ratcliff. It gave good access to the Thames, where the silica, sodium carbonate and limestone arrived on barges, and from whose wharves the finished glass was despatched to Europe, and it gave room to build. Equally important, Ratcliff already had a tradition of glassmaking, stretching back decades. Perhaps here Bowles found the skilled men he needed to make his Crown Ratcliff pieces.

Back in 1621 in Broad Street, Ratcliff, Abraham Bigoe had won his own patent from James I to produce glass. In 1680, the Bigoe family sold up and left for Stourbridge. Bowles appears to have taken over the works and, razing them to the ground, started from scratch. He leased the stretch of Ratcliff between Love Lane (then called Cut Throat Lane), the eastern boundary of Sun Tavern Fields and Schoolhouse Lane. It was a huge operation, with new brick workshops and storehouses, a house, stables, gardens and orchards. Nearly a century later the works was going strong, producing its ‘crown glass’ – window-glass which bettered the former supply from Normandy. Bowles was making glass for the windows of coaches for portraits and for the new fashion of sash windows, which were replacing the old lattice casements with their diamond-shaped panes. For decades, the glass was made with a crown embossed in the centre of each plate. Some say there are windows in some old houses in Ratcliff in which the figure can still be faintly traced.

The secret was jealously guarded. Of course we have our secret formulas today. The makers of Coca Cola and KFC earnestly talk of secret recipes containing dozens of ingredients, of only a handful of the cognoscenti knowing the whole truth, and those few always choosing, Royal Family style, to travel separately, lest the whole crew be lost at once. The Bowles family, meanwhile, bought all their raw ingredients from the Continent. Sodium carbonate of the quality they needed could only be obtained (so they believed or claimed) from the burnt ashes of a Spanish weed called “barilla”. It may have been hocus pocus and hype – but it certainly made their process hard to copy. It also made them rich.

But every family business runs out of steam in the end it seems. The Bowleses managed to keep the business for five generations. The story ends in 1794, the year of the Ratcliff Fire. Family firms, like the Royal Family, always need an heir and a spare, but that year the company was inherited by a minor, far too young to run the business and certainly too young to rebuild after the fire. The Bowleses were now extraordinarily wealthy but they seem to have simply decided enough was enough at this point – and simply shut the family firm.

Brunel and the Great Eastern

Tens of thousands of people flocked to the Isle of Dogs to see the biggest ship in the world being built.
She was the pride of Britain until, just before completion in the 1850s things began to go horribly wrong.
Because so much money had been poured into building the gigantic Great Eastern, cuts were made and risks taken. Several men died during the final stages of her construction. It was rumoured they included a riveter and his mate entombed between her twin hulls.
From then on, thoughts of the two trapped workmen made many of the crew nervous. Hollow knocking sounds were heard below decks at night and the ship was dogged by ill-fortune throughout her life.
It was a complete turnaround from the fortune that smiled on the ship when she was first designed by the golden boy of Victorian engineering, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Brunel had already built a tunnel under the Thames, constructed railways and designed the Clifton suspension bridge. Everything in his working life was big. Even his railway stations, like Paddington, were the size of cathedrals.
But he went a feat too far in creating an enormous steamship which could carry her own coals on a voyage to Australia and back. He needed a partner to bring the idea to reality and, in choosing John Scott Russell who owned a shipyard at Millwall, he chose the wrong man.
Russell was a braggart who could not live up to promises he made to Brunel. He failed, for instance, to find suitable land on which to build the huge ship.
As a result she was built in a far from ideal spot and had to be launched sideways into the Thames at Millwall.

The launching was a disaster. Huge crowds turned out on the appointed day when Miss Hope, daughter of a shipping company director, smashed a bottle of Champagne against the hull.
Chains took the strain of moving the 19,000-ton vessel but could not cope. They snapped, hurling workmen into the air. Brunel called a halt but, by then, one man was dead and four others badly hurt.
The launching ceremony was postponed with the ship having moved only four feet.
It took four months to drag the Great Eastern inch by tortuous inch to the water. By now the national press was hooting with derision and Brunel became ill with worry.
Even when the ship steamed out into the Channel, disaster was at hand. The skipper allowed too much steam to build up and there was an explosion.
Scalded seamen groped their way up on deck. One flung himself overboard in agony only to be mangled in the ship’s paddlewheel. Three more died before the day was out.
The Great Eastern limped back to port, her splendid Victorian fittings ripped to shreds, and did not re-emerge for a year.
Brunel died a broken man aged only 53 and, although the Great Eastern lived on for 30 years, she seemed jinxed.
She lost money as a transatlantic passenger steamer and was converted to the ignominious job of laying ocean cables.
Brunel’s dream, of using her on the Australia run, was never realised and eventually she was broken up for scrap.
Not much remains today of the Great Eastern apart from photos and souvenirs.
But visitors to Millwall today can, at low tide, still see the launching ways and piles that were built for Britain’s ill-starred queen of the seas.
For further reading: The Big Ship by Patrick Beaver; Brunel and his World by John Pudney.

Bow Pottery


Wedgewood, Meissen, Delft – all are world famous names in the world of pottery.
But 250 years ago it was Bow pottery that was drawing the eyes of the world, and all thanks to a young Irish painter who settled in the East End.
Thomas Frye had been born in Dublin in 1710 and, having won acclaim in his native Ireland as a painter,came to London in 1734.
One of his first coups as a portraitist was his commission to paint the Prince of Wales, for the Saddlers’ Company. Among the other specialities of the multi-talented artist were miniature painting, mezzotint, engraving and enamel work.
But Frye was also a keen inventor and his love of art and love of discovery came together when he devised a method of producing porcelain, the beautiful translucent china pottery as popular in the eighteenth century as it is today.
Porcelain may have been popular at the time but there were two big problems. First it was very fragile and second, with all the pieces coming from abroad, it was very expensive.
Solution
Frye had a solution. As a result of his experiments with china clay he discovered a method of making porcelain out of bone ash. This not only produced a porcelain of brilliant whiteness and luminescence but one of extraordinary durability.
The second solution was obvious – he would set up a factory in London to manufacture his new china.
In 1744, Frye and his partner, Edward Heylen took out a patent for the production of artificial soft-paste porcelain. The inventors and manufacturers of porcelain in England called their product “New Canton”, a nod to the pottery from the Far East with which they hoped to compete.


The next step was to set up a factory. Frye had attracted the interest of the rich and powerful Peers family. They owned huge tracts of land across Bromley, Bow and Stratford. They were also directors of the all-powerful East India Company, mainstay of Britain’s overseas trade at the time, and whose great ships unloaded their imported wares on the Isle of Dogs, near the mouth of Bow Creek.
The Court Book of 1744 shows that Edward Heylen acquired a property on the London side of the River Lea, at Bow. On 7 July 1749, an insurance policy was taken out for the new works.
Backing
And, with the backing of the Peers family, the china factory was set up near Bow Bridge in 1749, with Fry running the operation. The Bow Porcelain Manufactory of New Canton was ready to start work.
Business was good. By 1750, Frye and Heylen were in partnership with John Wetherby and John Crowther, who owned a wholesale pottery business at St Katherine by the Tower.
Frye’s work was down to earth from the word go, concentrating on “the more ordinary sorts of ware for common use”. That didn’t please the purists. One expert has described Bow porcelain as “a peasant art which appeals to an unacademic sense of beauty rather than taste.”
Still, what do experts know. Very soon the demand was so great that another factory was opened, this time on the Stratford side of the River Lea.
Died
But despite his success Frye was still toiling long hours in the factory furnaces as well as designing new lines. Eventually the long hours and gruelling work took their toll. Frye died in 1762, at the age of just 52, and is buried in Hornsey Churchyard.
The work went on, but without his driving force and energy, quality slipped. Their was another 13 years of production at Bow, but towards the end products were underfired and lacked their earlier translucence and in 1776 the works closed.
Frye’s legacy remains. His processes changed pottery forever and one of his daughters went on to work for Wedgewood.
And the fact you will still find Bow porcelain today – tough enough to last 250 years – is testament to Frye’s vision.
Further reading: Bow Porcelain, Adams and Redstone (Faber and Faber.)


Dollond & Aitchison in Spitalfields



Today their name is famous as half of one of Britain’s biggest firms of opticians. But centuries ago, Spitalfields family the Dollonds were famed for their precision optical pieces, counted Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington as personal customers, managed to prove Isaac Newton wrong on a point of science, and were involved in a complex row over secrecy and patents.

John Dollond was born into a family of Huguenot immigrants in 1706, and first joined the family business, silk weaving. But in his spare time he worked on his hobbies of optics and astronomy. But it was not until the 1750s that Dollond, already approaching the end of his life, made his name. By now he was running a small optical workshop in Vine Street, Spitalfields, with his son Peter.

In 1747, scientist Isaac Newton had stirred up a controversy when he had stated that chromatic aberrations in lenses couldn’t be corrected. It meant that scientists, soldiers and especially sailors would have to put up with the colour distortions that made their precision spyglasses rather less precise.

The East End has produced its fair share of innovators, inventors, builders and engineers. But it’s a fair bet none of them has provided so much seaside fun as the ingenious Eugenius Birch.
Eugenius was born in Gloucester Terrace, Shoreditch on 20 June 1818 to grain dealer John and wife Susanne.
From an early age Eugenius was fascinated with the mechanical advances of his age – early Victorian England saw the march of steamships, the railways and the canals that began to criss-cross the country. Living in the East End he was at the heart of this burgeoning transport network. He watched enthralled as the Regent’s Canal was cut inland from the Limehouse Basin, and watched the early steamships emerge from East End shipyards.


So inspired was he that when still a boy he submitted a model of a railway carriage to the Greenwich Railway Company. Cleverly, he had put the wheels under the carriages and not on the sides, freeing more room for the passengers. And at just 16 Eugenius was employed at Bligh’s engineering works in Limehouse, and then joined the mechanic’s Institute.
In 1837, the 19-year-old Eugenius received a silver Isis Medal from the Society of Arts for his drawing of a marine steam engine. And he showed a rare gift for draftsmanship too – in 1838 he received a silver medal for his drawings and description of Huddert’s rope machinery.
In 1845 Birch went into partnership with his elder brother. Like the other great engineers of the day they didn’t specialise in one area. Soon they were at work building railways, viaducts and bridges, including the Kelham and Stockwith bridges in Nottinghamshire.
And like a good Victorian, he took his work out into the Empire, getting involved in the building of the Calcutta-Delhi railway line in India.
But it is for a seemingly trivial branch of his work that Eugenius Birch found fame among the Victorian engineer-inventors. His 14 seaside piers around the coasts of England and Wales were to give delight long after many of his bridges had been demolished and his rail lines terminated
‘The seaside’ was becoming hugely fashionable in Victorian Britain. People became convinced of the health-giving qualities of a brisk ozone-filled breeze and a dip in salt water. The aristocracy and ordinary East Enders alike took the new rail lines to the coast to escape the smog of London. When a group of Margate businessmen decided to raise the profile of their resort by building a pier in 1853, they handed an open commission to Birch. He brought two innovations to the project. First he imported the Indian styles and decorations he’d absorbed from his time on the sub-continent. But more crucially, he introduced the startling innovation of screw piles.
Previously the supporting piles of piers had been wooden posts hammered into the seabed, and usually supporting a flimsy ‘chain pier’, a kind of suspension bridge in effect. But Birch fitted screw blades to the bottom of iron piles and simply screwed them into the ground. So strong was this foundation that Margate Pier survived right up to January 1978 when severe storms finally broke it. Even attempts to bomb the remains failed and the pier head still juts defiantly out of the water several hundred metres off shore.
More commissions followed –Blackpool North, Aberystwyth, Deal, Homsea, Lytham, Plymouth, New Brighton, Eastbourne, Scarborough, Weston-Super-Mare Birnbeck, Hastings and Bournemouth – and the most famous of them all, the West Pier at Brighton.
It took a few years for the significance of Eugenius Birch’s innovation to be appreciated, but once it did seaside piers and Birch became very fashionable. It was now possible to build piers that were not just safe and long-lasting, but which could take many more day-trippers. From 1862 to 1872, 18 new pleasure piers were built. Piers were now a must for a seaside resort, and most were built using screw piling.
Brighton West Pier, with its oriental octagonal kiosks and the long ornate lines of seats was widely admired, and much copied. Today of course, it’s a tumbledown wreck, and was shut down in 1975. But the piles he drove into the seabed still stand, resisting corrosion from the sea and the wind.
It would be unfair to remember Birch just for his piers. He designed the Devon and Somerset railway, Exmouth Docks, Ilfracombe harbour, and West Surrey waterworks. He also produced beautiful watercolours during his travels in Italy, Egypt and Nubia. But for generations of East Enders who have taken the sea air at Brighton and Margate, his pleasure piers remain his crowning monument.