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Category: East End inventors

Dash for water in 19th century East End of London

Over the last two weeks we looked at the dash to power the growing East End of the 19th century. But even more than heat and light, the one thing the new homes, factories, warehouses and docks needed was a regular supply of water — ideally clean, but failing that simply wet would do. Things began in civilised fashion, but a battle developed worthy of Jack Nicholson’s Chinatown. The water, and the war, got very murky indeed.

Abbey Mills Pumping station

Abbey Mills pumping station

In early modern London people were drawing their water from street pumps, as they had for centuries, and it created huge problems. You had to go to the pump and frequently the pump was broken. Joining a queue of several hundred others was time-consuming (and didn’t work at all if you needed water for your tannery or brewery. So the early companies developed a system of drawing water from the Thames by waterwheel, perhaps driven by real horse power, and then dribbled down via gravity and wooden pipes. Getting a sufficient angle of drop to supply every house that wanted water was impossible — and the system of wooden pipes, crudely lashed together, meant a huge amount of the water was wasted. The answer would be iron pipes (early experiments with stone proving unwieldy, expensive and leaky) and steam power to create a greater head of water.

The water companies, while boasting that their products would be ‘clear, sparkling and brilliant’, took a remarkably relaxed attitude when it wasn’t — presumably realistic about what could be achieved with water drawn direct from the Thames and delivered by simple gravity, without filtration to the thirsty people of London. Ralph Dodd, engineer and serial former of London water companies (he would launch and be ousted from no fewer than three, including the East London Water Works), wrote in 1805 that ‘Thames water being kept in wooden vessels, after a few months, often becomes apparently putrid and produces a disagreeable smell. But even when drunk in this state it never produces sickness; therefore it is evident no harm or ill occurs to persons whose resolution, notwithstanding its offensive smell, induces them to drink it.’

Engineer James Pitt of Coventry Street similarly testified in 1810 that the Chelsea Company’s water was ‘thicker’ and ‘considerably inferior’ to its rivals but that complaints were few and health problems were non-existent. This of course was more than 40 years before his observations of cholera outbreaks around the Broad Street pump in Soho led John Snow to put the facts together and surmise that dirty water posed serious threats to human health — but even the scientifically naive might have twigged that drinking water that was ‘thick’, ‘putrid’ and with a ‘disagreeable smell’ might be a problem. But no matter — there were pipes to be driven and houses to be served and nothing would stop the increasingly aggressive actions of the water companies.

By the turn of the 19th century London’s population was growing rapidly. In 1776 there were 700,000 of us, by 1801 957,000. And the biggest growth was in the new residential suburbs and the poorer areas around the booming Pool of London. Shadwell and Wapping got new docks in the decade after 1799, and as well as water for the factories and warehouses, the new inhabitants needed something reasonably safe to drink (the fact that for centuries people had hydrated themselves with beer and weakened ‘near beer’ suggested they knew only too well the dangers and unpleasantness of drinking untreated water). Stepney, Shoreditch, Spitalfields and Bethnal Green all required more piped water.

And Londoners had changed their habits. The early 19th cockney might appear somewhat malodorous to our 21st century noses, habituated to toothpaste, daily showers and the great smell of Lynx, but compared to their grandparents they were pristine. The Wapping docks were increasingly unloading new, cheap and easily washable cottons from the East — they needed to be washed and kept reasonably white. The WC, invented in the 16th century, was now becoming a feature of the posher East End homes, inhabited by the merchants, dockmasters and warehouse owners; some of them even had fixed baths. By 1809, such fripperies were sufficiently numerous for the East London Waterworks Co to set a system of fixed charges.

But in the meantime a land grab was underway. Geordie engineer Ralph Dodd had already founded and been ejected from the first two water companies he founded (the West Middlesex and the South London) when his partners found his enthusiasm and vision weren’t matched by expertise (or indeed any training). Undeterred Dodd pushed forward with his big project, the East London Waterworks Company. The original plan saw a reservoir at Old Ford on the Lea, sited to fill up with the action of the tide, and with water ‘after sufficiently settling and filter’d to be forced through iron pipes to a summit reservoir’.

The ace salesman Ralph quickly signed up Brick Lane brewers Truman, Hanbury and Co as a customer (he also pointed to the 15,000 unserved houses in Bethnal Green, Hackney, Bow, Stepney and Mile End). Until now, the water companies had stayed off each other’s patches, but the London Dock Company had waterworks at West Ham and Shadwell, and would be dwarfed by the new operation. Despite their opposition, the Bill to allow the new company became law, and it quickly bought out the LDC, paying £130,000 for the two works. To those was added a grand new works at Old Ford. By June 1809 12.5 miles of iron pipes had been laid, snaking out through Bishopsgate, Aldgate and Spitalfields and, crucially, encroaching on the turf of the existing New River Company (NRC).

Things began to get nasty. Water companies would find their mains unaccountably blocked, smashed or simply dug up as rival pipe was laid. There would be battles between workmen for the rival companies, each trying to get their mains in place. But customers weren’t even safe from their own suppliers. It was the ‘turncocks’ job to turn on the water to supply customers (usually at fixed times in the week). Many could be cheaply bribed to deliver more or less, or to cut off a competitor.

We’re frequently told today that competition delivers a good price to the customer and it worked — after a fashion. In February 1812, a Mr Leary was paying £10 a year for supply to his 20 houses in Curtain Road, Shoreditch, but informed the New River Company that the East London had offered a better deal. The NRC duly slashed its price to £8. But in 1813, the East London refused to supply houses unless their owners agreed to deal with them exclusively. And in 1815, it imperiously cut off four houses in Bethnal Green because the owner had changed to the New River for 14 tenements he owned in Whitechapel.

And shady practice went to the very top of the companies. Despite a ban on trading in the company’s shares (the trustees had prudently wished to avoid speculation and the creation of ‘bubbles’) the directors of the East London were indulging in it anyway by 1810, as well as paying themselves handsome dividends from their not-yet-profitable enterprise — these were men who could have made a fine career in banking a couple of hundred years later.

Water needed cleaning up. By the second half of the 19th century, new waterworks were being built above the tideway of the Thames and the Lea — it was apparent that drawing water from a site hard by the tanneries, breweries and effluent outpipes of Wapping and Blackwall was a health risk. Now water would be filtered effectively. And the Metropolis Water Act of 1902 set up municipal water boards, slashing prices (down to £5 a household in 1945) and making a reliable supply something East Enders simply took for granted. Hosepipe bans permitting, London had clean water on tap.

Further Reading: London’s Water Ways by John Graham-Leigh, published by Francis Boutle, ISBN 1903427029, £8.99



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.

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.

William Caslon, typesetter

When William Caslon set up shop in the Minories in 1716, he had his work, and his future, cut out. The young Caslon, who had been born in Cradley, Worcestershire in 1692, was a skilled engraver and toolmaker. He made a living engraving Government marks on the locks of guns, and also turned his cutting skills to punch-cutting, making the hard metal punches used to make the moulds for type founding. The type-makers would then flow molten lead into Caslon’s moulds, to produce a single piece of type, ready for typesetting.

But London typesetters were held in low regard. English printing was behind its Continental counterparts, and most of the typefaces used in London presses came from Dutch typefounders. All this was to change in 1719, when a group of London printers and booksellers asked the young engraver to cut a font of ‘Arabic’ type, for a new Psalter and New Testament. Copies of this were to accompany the missionaries aboard the vessels flooding out of Wapping, on the trade routes to the Far East. The evangelistic bookmen hoped that they would be able to export Christianity about the merchant ships.

Dissatisfied with the dull Dutch typefaces on offer, Caslon soon took to cutting his own font designs. He began with the Dutch faces as his model, but refined them, making them more delicate and inventive. An excited Caslon went on to create a large number of ‘exotic’ typefaces.

Having added design to his punch-cutting skills, the enterprising Caslon soon realised that there was a business in the making. Craftsman, artist and businessman in one, he became the first great English type-founder. He set up his foundry in Chiswell Street, in the City, in 1720, and built a substantial country home in rural Bethnal Green.

The taste for Caslon spread to the United States, and Caslon was the typeface used for the Declaration of Independence in 1776, joining that other great export from the East End – the Liberty Bell. The family business, meanwhile, had passed from father to son, through four generations, all called, with a remarkable lack of imagination, William Caslon.

But typefaces, like any other design, go in and out of fashion, and by the early 1800s, the taste for Caslon had dropped off, in favour of newer typefaces, and in 1819, William Caslon IV sold the Chiswell Street business to Sheffield typefounders Stephenson Blake and Co. But around 1840, there was a revival of interest in the fonts. This was a burgeoning time for English print – with presses becoming more plentiful, printing cheaper, and an explosion in the number of pamphlets, newspapers, and cheap popular novels. Printers found that the Caslon faces, elegant, clear and easy on the eye, worked as well as they ever had, and better than most. George Bernard Shaw, went so far as to insist that Caslon be the only typeface used in his books.

Daniel Berkeley Updike was a Bostonian printer, typographer and typographic
historian of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He explained the popularity of Caslon’s types in the US. ‘While he modelled his letters on Dutch types, they were much better; for he introduced into his fonts a quality of interest, a variety of design, and a delicacy of modelling, which few Dutch types possessed. Dutch fonts were monotonous, but Caslon’s fonts were not so. His letters when analyzed, especially in the smaller sizes, are not perfect individually; but in their mass their effect is agreeable. That is, I think, their secret: a perfection of the whole, derived from harmonious but not necessarily perfect individual letterforms.’

The Caslon connection with typefounding disappeared for good when the other family foundry, HW Caslon & Co, having passed down through various members of the family until 1937, was itself sold to Stephenson Blake.

William Caslon has his local memorials – William Caslon House in Patriot Square and Caslon Place in Cudworth Street. But his true legacy is in his enduring typefaces. If you read books, magazines and newspapers, you will encounter a Caslon cut sooner rather than later.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

The 200th anniversary of the birth of Isambard Kingdom Brunel this week (9 April 2006)* marks one of the real pioneers of British industrial design. A multi-skilled engineer who built tunnels, bridges, steamships, railway trains and railway stations.

As well as a prodigious appetite for work, Brunel was a man who took risks, and alongside his spectacular successes were dramatic failures … sometimes with tragic consequences. The anniversary has particular significance for the East End of London. Brunel had worked on the Thames Tunnel, and during the 1850s he would launch the Great Eastern, the biggest ship ever, from the Isle of Dogs.

Brunel was born in Portsmouth the son of Sophia and Sir Marc Brunel, who had emigrated from France. The young Brunel was sent back to his father’s country to study, and at just 20 was made chief assistant engineer on his father’s Thames Tunnel project. The tunnelling shield, the first of its kind, supported the bore of the tunnel and allowed men to work inside. The technology forms the basis of tunnelling to this day.

It was unpleasant and dangerous work. The diggers were waist deep in foul water, there were two major floods, and several men were killed. On one occasion Isambard himself was almost drowned, and was never to fully recover. The tunnel took years to build, was a financial failure as a foot tunnel, and was then converted for use for the East London Line (Wapping-Rotherhithe).

Brunel had gained an extraordinary amount of engineering knowhow by his late twenties and began a prodigious career – one littered with ‘firsts’. In 1830, aged 24, he won the competition to design the Clifton Suspension Bridge at Bristol – it had the longest span of any bridge in the world. Brunel became a bridge specialist: the new railways and roads meant bigger and better bridges were being built. The Royal Albert Bridge over the Tamar followed, as did the Maidenheead Railway Bridge. It was another first – the widest and flattest brick arch bridge in the world. Brunel seemed able to work in any material, and on any project.

Aged 27, Brunel was chief engineer of the Great Western Railway. Again he went out on a limb, deciding the lines from Paddington should be broad gauge, which he argued offered greater comfort than the standard gauge – Brunel brushed aside the fact that every other railway was using the standard gauge pioneered by George Stephenson. His railway became an engineering monument that defied nature – with dramtic viaducts and tunnels making light work of any obstacle (Box Tunnel was the longest tunnel in the world). After Brunel’s death, though, the Great Western adopted standard gauge.

Some inventions never got off the ground, including the Atmospheric Railway, which was to use vacuum power to move trains through Devon. But Brunel looked ever forward, and even while he was wrestling with the demands of the railways, he was looking at transatlantic passenger travel. New ways of making steel and the advances in steam power meant this was now a reality, and the bold Brunel convinced his bosses at the GWR to build the Great Western, simultaneously. advertising the railway. Typically it was to be no normal ship.

At 72 metres in length, she was the biggest steamship ever. The Great Western eventually made 74 crossings to New York, cutting the journey time in half. He went on to build bigger and better ships, including the Great Britain and the Great Eastern. Launched in 1858, this vessel dwarfed the Great Western, being 700ft long and carrying 4000 passengers.

Thousands flocked to the Isle of Dogs to see the work in 1858. She was the pride of Britain but, just before completion things began to go wrong. Several men died during the final stages of her construction: it was rumoured that a riveter and his mate were entombed between her twin hulls. From then on, hollow knocking sounds were heard below decks at night, horrifying the supersititious workers.

The launch was a disaster. Chains took the strain of moving the 19,000-ton vessel but snapped, hurling workmen into the air. Brunel called a halt with a man was dead and four others badly hurt. It took four months to drag the Great Eastern inch by inch to the water. As the ship steamed into the Channel, the skipper allowed steam to build up and there was an explosion. Scalded seamen struggled to the deck. One flung himself overboard in agony only to be mangled in the ship’s huge wheel. Three more died before the day was out. Visitors to Millwall today can, at low tide, still see the launching ways and piles built for the Great Eastern.

The strain told, and Brunel died of a stroke in 1859, just days before the maiden voyage to New York. He was just 53. Yet in the BBC poll of ‘Great Britons’ in 2002, Brunel came second only to Winston Churchill. The reason is probably that in his risk taking he came up with so many firsts.The Great Eastern would never make money, yet it had an importance that Brunel could never have anticipated. It was the ship used to lay the transatlantic telegraph cable … putting Europe and America in telecommunications contact for the first time.

*Events take place all year. A complete programme of the events during the Brunel 200 celebration can be found online at

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.
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.
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.
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.

The Greathead Shield

Some ideas seem destined for success from the start – the internet, sliced bread and Velcro were ideas waiting to happen. Some looked doomed from the beginning – the Sinclair C5 and the helicopter ejector seat, among them. And some, like the videocassette and the hot water bottle just get left behind by changing technology or changing tastes.
A citywide grid of hydraulic power? Believe it or not, that was the plan for London in the 1800s – a good idea superseded by electricity. While a cramped omnibus shuttle beneath the Thames, which could transport just a dozen passengers in conditions of unbearable claustrophobia, unsurprisingly went in the dumper straightaway.

But London has a remarkable ability to repurpose its old buildings into new uses – The East End is littered with old mission houses, factories and warehouses now pressed into service as posh flats and offices. More interesting by far are two idiosyncratic structures – one at Tower Hill, another at Wapping – which are all that is left of the London Hydraulic Power Company and the Tower Subway.

Railway mania was gripping London in the mid-19th century, as companies sprung up and investors sunk their money into the ground. The infrastructure of a growing capital would be pegged to Underground railways. They were right of course – but just like dotcom madness and tulip fever, sometimes the eagerness to make money overrides commonsense. An 1868 Act of Parliament authorised a tunnel beneath the Thames between Tower Hill and Tooley Street on the South Bank. A crossing was much-needed, but after the Brunels’ gruelling experience with the Thames Tunnel, there was hardly a queue of bidders.
Step forward keen young South African James Henry Greathead, just 24 but with his own patented improvement on the Brunels’ tunnelling shield. The Greathead Shield worked too – the tunnel was finished in less than a year and the railway began running in August 1870. The service was slow, cramped and the carriages held just a dozen passengers, and the business went bust three months later.
It proved much more successful as a pedestrian tunnel, with a million Londoners passing through each year, and paying a ha’penny a time. The 1894 construction of Tower Bridge, however, just a couple of hundred yards to the east, and toll-free put paid to that though, as traffic collapsed. In 1897, the tunnel was sold for £3000 to another company whose time had come – the London Hydraulic Power Company.

London was a hive of industry, with cranes, lifts, theatre curtains and the hydraulic machinery of Tower Bridge, all needing energy. Steam power alone wasn’t really up to the job, but the city had plenty of water. Pumped straight out of the Thames and heated in winter to stop it freezing, the water was soon coursing through a 200-mile network tunnels fanning out from five power stations (including the Wapping Hydraulic Power Station) as far as Earls Court Exhibition Centre, Pentonville Road and Rotherhithe. Coal-fired steam engines powered the turbines, which in turn pumped the water around London, and the company connected south London with the City and Wapping using the Tower Subway, now hidden from the public forever.

Hydraulic power wasn’t the future, alas. From the turn of the new century, electricity began to take hold. Yet the company didn’t die. From 1923, steam was replaced by electric motors, but still water was pushed around London at 800 pounds per square inch. Remarkably, the system lasted until 1977, when the Wapping station was the last of the five to close.

Again, a new technology was waiting in the wings. The London Hydraulic Power Company had the statutory right to dig up the roads to maintain its network of pipes. This made it attractive to the first of a new breed of company ushered in by Margaret Thatcher’s deregulation of British industry. It’s hard to imagine these days, when every one of us carries a mobile, and there are dozens of phone providers to choose from, but back in the early 1980s, the only way to make a phone call was from a telephone attached to the wall and operated by BT.

Mercury was BT’s first competitor, and it snapped up the LHPC’s network of pipes, running its telecoms cables along them. The claustrophobic tunnel that had once housed the world’s first tube railway now became a tangled mass of wires. For a while, Mercury tilted at BT, and its distinctive blue-and-white phone boxes sprouted on London streets. In time, it too would disappear, subsumed back into parent company Cable and Wireless, now it forms part of the DNA of T-Mobile. The cables, of course, remain. The Wapping Hydraulic Power Station would reopen in time as the Wapping Project arts centre and restaurant. New tastes, new uses, but the structures remain.

The bright young engineer Greathead would go on to be one of the major architects of what would become the London Underground (as well as the Blackwall Tunnel) constructing large parts of the Metropolitan and Hammersmith railways and then the City and South London Railway. Now part of the Northern Line, it was the world’s first underground electric railway. He would die young, at just 52, his final work being on the Central London Railway (now the Central Line).

London East End innovators and inventors

We all know that the East End has produced more than its share of innovators and inventors. Wown the centuries, this small corner of London has produced dozens of people who have shaped not just Britain but the world.

Now, as part of the Story of London 20101, a hands-on arts workshop celebrates the lives and inventions of four very special residents of the East End – Mohandas Gandhi, James Cook, Edith Cavell and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. And to really bring the characters to life, East Enders are invited on a series of free walks: to see where our four lived and how they are remembered with Blue Plaques2 4. But what links such a disparate quartet together? Each is very different yet each in their way changed the way we do things forever.

Mohandas Gandhi

By the 1930s, Britain’s hold on Empire and especially India, was increasingly shaky. It had become obvious to many, though not to most of the Government in London, that ‘the jewel in its crown’ would have to be handed back. So Mohandas Gandhi, the man who had brought the British military machine to a halt through non-cooperation, non-violence and civil disobedience, was invited to London for the Second Round Table Conference. The Indian National Congress, with 15m members and 70m or more followers, was the party campaigning for independence from Britain, and Gandhi was its unofficial though undoubted leader.

Gandhi would come to London of course, but he refused to be billeted in a posh West End hotel. Lylie Valentine helped out at Kingsley Hall in Bromley-by-Bow in the 1920s and 30s. She remembers: “He would only come if he could live with the working class, so he was to stay at Kingsley Hall. When he arrived, I think all the people in East London waited outside to see him.
“Besides doing his work with the Government, he spent a lot of time with us. He visited the Nursery School and all the children called him Uncle Gandhi. At six o’clock each morning, after his prayers, he took his walk along the canal, talking to workmen on the way…. There was something about him that always lives with the people.”

When Richard Attenborough filmed Gandhi with Ben Kingsley, he would painstakingly recreate newsreel footage of Gandhi meeting a local Pearly King and Queen outside Kingsley Hall. He would spend the final three months of 1931 living in the East End, at one point meeting Charlie Chaplin.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Most engineers would be happy to have one publicly recognised icon, but the magnificently named Isambard Kingdom Brunel seems to be everywhere in the energy and enterprise of Victorian Britain. He built the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, the longest bridge in the world at its 1864 construction (and dozens more), Paddington Station and the Great Western Railway. Then, as he set his sights on conquering transatlantic passenger travel, he constructed the world’s first propeller-driven ocean-going iron ship (the SS Great Britain was also the largest ship ever built).

There is no doubting his ambition then, but for East Enders his legacy lies in an earlier achievement less obviously spectacular, but just as important. The recently revived East London Line dives beneath the Thames and through the Thames Tunnel – the first tunnel to be successfully driven beneath a navigable river. That was made possible by the development of the tunnelling shield, a revolutionary piece of engineering developed by his father Marc Brunel and Lord Thomas Cochrane.

Edith Cavell

As Cavell famously asserted: “Patriotism is not enough … I cannot stop while there are lives to be saved.” It was an unflinching attitude that would transform Cavell from a nurse at the Royal London Hospital, who could not have expected to be remembered almost a century after her death, into an iconic figure. There are statues and memorials to Cavell around the world – several in London alone. The Homerton Hospital has a wing named for her, there is the Edith Cavell Hospital in Peterborough, a monument next to Trafalgar Square and others at Norwich and Peterbrough cathedrals.

Cavell’s heroism lay in using her work as a nurse in German-occupied Belgium to smuggle injured British soldiers to safety. It was bravery bordering on the reckless. The Germans could hardly fail to notice that injured men entering the hospital were not leaving again, especially as Cavell had, by early 1915, moved some 200 servicemen to neutral Holland, and was careless about covering her tracks. Cavell’s work was part of a far-larger network, and 27 people were put on trial by the Germans: the charge was treason. On 12 October 1915, the 49-year-old British nurse was shot along with four Belgian men. The British Government declined to intercede. Only later did it emerge that Cavell, as well as being an angel of mercy, was also working as a British spy.

Captain James Cook

Like all of our four, James Cook was an adopted East Ender, but his trade couldn’t have been more integral to this part of London. The popular myth that Cook discovered Australia is just that. Europeans had sighted it before and, of course, a cynic might remark that the Aboriginal population of the ‘Great Southern Land’ were already aware it was there. But Cook’s career was an extraordinary one. Having got to the age of 27 in the Merchant Navy in his native Yorkshire and begun working his way up through the ranks, Cook started all over again. Moving down to Wapping, he joined the Royal Navy, working his way to Master and Commander. Cook married Elizabeth, the daughter of Samuel Batts, landlord of the Bell Inn in Wapping, and attended St Paul’s Church in Shadwell.

By the time of death at 50 – killed in a fight with Hawaiians during his third exploratory voyage in the Pacific in 1779 –  had proven that Australia was a continent, circumnavigated New Zealand, mapped Newfoundland and searched for the Northwest Passage. And despite the fact that Cook had spent most of his married life at sea, he had also fathered six children. His widow Elizabeth would, tragically, outlive them all.

Four disparate characters then, each of whom came to the East End and then, in their own ways, changed the world. The workshop, on Tuesday 5 October at 12pm, is organised by local social enterprise the Change Community Project3. All the family are welcome, and you will learn how to make polystyrene statues as you learn about the lives of Ghandi, Cook, Cavel and Brunel. You will be able to view original photographs from the Tower Hamlets Local Library and History Archive and listen to the personal stories captured by local archivists. Find out full details below.


  • 1The Story of London 2010 runs from 1-10 October with a theme of innovation and the future. It will celebrate London’s history as a place of invention and ideas, and explore how the city will change and develop as it faces the challenges of the 21st century and beyond. Find out more at
  • 2Walks are on Tuesday 5 and Saturday 9 October. You have a choice of 11am at  Bow Church DLR station, or 2pm on the same days from Whitechapel Tube Station).
  • 3 Change Community Project is a social enterprise established in 2007 to promote education in Arts and crafts, cultural and community welfare, Finance and IT. The Change Community Project Innovators and Inventors project is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and is part of the Story of London Festival 2010. Local Schools will be able to access free talks about the project by calling Change on 0208 555 0770. Visit for more information.
  • 4 London City Steps, based at St Margaret’s House in Bethnal Green, is a social enterprise run by volunteers and funded partly by proceeds from the National Lottery. They aim to ‘mix the dynamism of London’s young people, with London’s fascinating history to give you walks with a difference’. All profits are used to train and employ disadvantaged young people from London’s poorest boroughs.2