Subscribe in a reader

OR ... get the weekly East End History newsletter

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner



Category: East End philanthropy

Toynbee Hall, Baron de Coubertin and the London Olympics

If the young Pierre de Coubertin were to stroll around the London Olympics site today he’d doubtless be amazed, and slightly baffled, as to how the seed of an idea had flowered. He would certainly be impressed at the competition between all classes of men and women taking place on and in the multifarious tracks, fields, courts, ranges and pools of east London. And he would probably be delighted that for the first time it was happening here.

For it was in the East End that his ideas for an Olympic Games first began to come together. In Whitechapel’s Toynbee Hall, itself a social experiment in bridging the gap between haves and have-nots, to the mutual benefit of both, the French de Coubertin began to embrace a very English idea. Healthy minds and healthy bodies would be cultivated together, to the greater good of society. The roots of Coubertin’s idea lay in a crisis of confidence for the French nation, and the young Baron’s mission was to find a means of rebuilding France’s morale.

In June 1886, Coubertin was on what we would today call a fact-finding tour. The aristocratic 23-year-old had turned his back on the expected military career to tackle social issues and fight for educational reform in France. His country had been humiliatingly trounced in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1 and Coubertin, along with many of his countrymen saw a lack of physical fitness, teamwork, leadership and moral courage as being at the root of the problem.

Coubertin’s first call had been to the English public schools. Eton, Harrow and Rugby were producing young men who spent almost as much time on football, rugby, tennis, fencing or fives as on Latin and Algebra:some people remarked scornfully that exercising the body seemed much more important than stretching the mind at times, with intellect being rather mistrusted. Nonetheless, these were the boys who would go on to form the officer class of the British Army, and Pierre was impressed.

But then, at Toynbee Hall, he found the young scions of the upper and the upper middle classes doing something rather unexpected. Rather than viewing the working classes as people to drive their carriages or till the fields of their estates, the young Oxbridge graduates were working with them: teaching them mathematics and English; running boxing, swimming and rowing clubs. The Toynbee ‘missionaries’ were practising that very Victorian brand of muscular Christianity, helping working class people to help themselves, and giving them skills which would lift them out of poverty.

Toynbee Hall had been founded by Samuel and Henrietta Barnett in 1884, in memory of their friend Arnold Toynbee, a young Oxford historian who had devoted his time to working with the poor of Whitechapel until his untimely death at the age of 31. The idea of ‘two nations’ was a powerful strain in late Victorian thinking, and the Barnetts saw the only way to cure the stubborn poverty of the East End was to get rich and poor working together. The rich would bring their skills, helping to draw out the latent talents of the working classes. In the process, the Oxbridge men would learn valuable social lessons and a divided England would be brought together.

The idea quickly spread, with other ‘settlements’ spring up in London and around the globe. Many of the residents of Toynbee Hall would go on to become major 20th century figures in social reform – Clement Attlee and William Beveridge to name just two. Coubertin was enthralled by what he saw, saying: “Many links across the classes were developed and many friendships formed. Beliefs have joined these different men who fight for the same cause.”

Crucial to Coubertin’s nascent idea was a union of sport and culture – he expressed pleasant surprise at the high-brow books workers were borrowing from the library. And he believed in starting the job young, noting with approval the trips the graduates would lead into the countryside, with teams of children playing sports and learning about the flora and fauna they encountered.

Courbertin made other visits during his time in England, famously to the Much Wenlock Games in 1890. The Shropshire event was unusual in bringing a number of sports together, and had itself been modelled after the ancient Olympic Games. And there had been other ‘Olympics’, including Liverpool’s Grand Olympic Festival, held each year between 1862 and 1867. Pierre could even have looked to his own country: Revolutionary France held L’Olympiade de la Republique annually from 1796-8. By 1896, the Baron was ready to launch his own version, with the first modern Olympiad taking place in Greece.

A century later, the Olympics is a massive global phenomenon. De Coubertin’s social experiment unknowingly anticipated our modern thirst for sport as spectacle and event, and receptacle for ever greater quantities of cash. To the motto of ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ some sceptics might add ‘Ever more expensive’. And the Baron might have wondered how his dream of rich and poor working together sat with the spectacle of ‘Games Lanes’: IOC members speeding in their limousines past the hoi polloi stuck in traffic jams. The Barnetts, meanwhile, would be astonished where their proto-version of ‘we’re all in this together’ has led.

But Whitechapel, as much as Athens and Much Wenlock, takes its proud place in the history of the modern Games. Without Toynbee Hall and its muscular missionaries, there would be no London 2012.

Peter Kuenstler at Oxford House

View Peter Kuenstler at Oxford House in a larger map

By the time of Peter Kuenstler’s arrival a lot had changed since the pioneering days of the East End settlements. In the 1880s, social reformers such as Samuel Barnett had been attempting ‘missionary’ work into an East End largely ignored by the ruling classes*. Leading up to the war, it was becoming increasingly hard to recruit ‘settlers’ and maintain the ascetic approach to staffing Oxford House. The all-male rules were relaxed with the recruitment of a female cook and a matron. Some of the settlers now worked in the City, returning in the evenings to do voluntary work at the settlement.

Oxford House and Clutton-Brock

With the outbreak of World War II, the Head, Rev John Lewis (who had infuriated Council members by marrying and breaking the male celibate tradition) decided to follow the rest of the Bethnal Green evacuees and leave for the country. Oxford House was virtually shut down. As a ‘caretaking’ measure the Council agreed to appoint Guy Clutton-Brock as Head. Juggling the role with his job as head of the Probation Service, the new Head began to recruit from the ranks of Conscientious Objectors. These men had been exempted from military service on grounds of conscience, and threw their energies into serving their country in a different way.

Wartime work at Oxford House, Bethnal Green

Peter Kuenstler had been excused military service on condition that he continue his studies and did two nights a week fire watching. ‘This involved keeping awake armed with a bucket of sand and a bucket of water, in case incendiary bombs were dropped … I have never understood the logic of this’ he writes. ‘After the weekend in Bethnal Green I returned to my home in Hendon where I tried, in vain, to apply myself to vacation reading of Plato and Aristotle. After two weeks I gave up and went to Bethnal Green and pleaded with Guy Clutton-Brock to let me stay at the House for a few weeks. He explained there was nothing to do, the schools were closed, most of the families had been evacuated to the countryside.’

Oxford House and Webbe Boys Club

‘However in the end he agreed to take me on temporarily as a cleaner in the daytime and as an assistant at the Webbe Boys Club in the evenings.’ For this, Peter got pocket money of £1 a week. It was the beginning of an association that would last eight years. The residents of Bethnal Green lived in constant fear of air raids. Peter recalls heading for Bethnal Green in a Number 8 bus, the eastern sky orange, reflecting the burning buildings below. But though the streets were often a chaotic mess of fire engines, rubble and worse, the first reaction of the neighbours was to get ‘out in the streets asking where help was needed’.

Zeppeling raids and Oxford House

An unusual quandary arose for the Residents at the house. Neighbours would come around asking to shelter in the building from the bombs. Government policy was to advise the opposite – to stop large groups clustering together for fear of greater casualties. But people wanted to be together – the older ones even remembered sheltering in Oxford House from Zeppelin raids. The staff gave in and bussed in bunks for the people to sleep on. As well as a nightly shelter, the House was designated a Rest Centre. So, when their houses were hit and made uninhabitable, local families came in until more permanent housing could be found for them.

Oxford House and air raids

‘We often had to improvise to respond to new and extraordinary needs,’ Peter remembers. ‘I was sent off to visit every hardware shop I could find in order to buy chicken wire [to baffle bomb blasts].’ Luckily, because of the tradition of keeping hens in the backyard, there was plenty of it. The men found themselves rescuing furniture from bombed houses – it had to be liberally dosed with paraffin to kill off bugs. Peter took a 14 year old from a penniless family to the nearest clothiers to buy him a complete set of clothing – socks, pants and all, £14 the lot – so he could go to apply for his first job.

Leaving Oxford House, Bethnal Green

Fascinating, varied and ultimately exhausting work. By 1946 Peter was almost burnt out and decided to move on. He worked first on radio programmes for the BBC, then got a Research Fellowship in Youth Policies and Programmes at Bristol University. He was astonished: ‘several of my fellow applicants were academically qualified while I was not’. Perhaps eight years thinking on his feet in Bethnal Green was more useful than a paper qualification, as Peter himself acknowledges. ‘I had been given unparalleled field training in Youth and Community work. Most importantly I learnt unforgettable lessons from people like Guy Clutton-Brock and the hundreds of men, women and children I got to know at Oxford House.’

Frederick Charrington

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

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

A Child of the Jago – Arthur Morrison and the Old Nichol

ARTHUR Morrison became famous as a chronicler of the East End. It wasn’t always a picture that went down well with his fellow historians.

Many criticised his seminal Children of the Jago, first published in 1896, for sensationalising and dramatising the violence and criminal activities of the Old Nichol, that chunk of Shoreditch that Morrison fictionalised as ‘the Jago’. Morrison himself argued that, horrific though the scenes were – in one chapter a woman thrusts a broken bottle into a rival’s face – he had in fact underplayed the violence of an East End he knew very well.

For Morrison was, unlike the majority of his critics, an East Ender himself – though he frequently muddied the waters about his own background. His birth certificate shows he was born at 14 John Street, Poplar on 1 November 1863, the son of an engine fitter. Nothing further is known until 1886 when, at the age of 23, his signature appears on a cash receipt in respect of a month’s salary. At that point he was Clerk to the Beaumont Trustees, the charity that ran the People’s Palace in Mile End.

Morrison became sub editor of the house paper, the Palace Journal, where he penned weekly studies called Cockney Corners. But as the idealistic dream that was the People’s Palace began to collapse in a welter of financial disarray and infighting, Morrison launched into writing for magazines.

By the early 1890s he was a full-time journalist and on the way to being a successful writer of fiction – a talent he also applied to his own life. By now he was saying that he was born in Kent, the son of a ‘professional man’, and the product of a private school. His time at the People’s Palace he now more grandly described as his being ‘the secretary of an old Charity Trust’ or as a ‘civil servant’.

Ironically, his journalism and fiction drew heavily on those East End roots he was trying to bury. It led to an interesting juggling act when critics doubted the realism of his East End books, as he stressed his first-hand knowledge of the area, playing up the People’s Palace connection while covering up his humble roots.

In October 1891 his article A Street appeared in Macmillan’s Magazine. Morrison captured the essence of the East End life he remembered. Rather than the violence and melodrama usually served up in East End fiction of the day, he focused on ‘the deadly monotony and respectability of the mean streets’. The style was melancholy, despairing and terse: ‘a shocking place … an evil growth of slums which hide human creeping things, where foul men and women live on penn’orths of gin … our street is not a place like this’.

A series of short stories grew out of the article. Published in National Observer throughout 1893, they were collected together as Tales of Mean Streets. He then began work on his next London novel To London Town, but events made him put it aside to begin a more pressing work.

Invited to visit the Old Nichol by the local vicar, Morrison was shocked to find an East End that lay just a mile or so from his childhood home, but which was far worse than anything he had seen. The violence and squalor that had previously been absent from his work filled A Child of the Jago*.

Morrison decided to ‘tell the story of a boy who, but for his environment, would have become a good citizen’. Even today, it’s a superbly readable book – violent, grim but compelling reading. Its language may be dated but the pace doesn’t flag until the predictably bleak ending.

The prolific Morrison was meanwhile churning out journalism and hugely successful detective stories. One series featured Martin Hewitt, a deliberately low-key, realistic, working-class, and frankly dull answer to Sherlock Holmes. His other ‘hero’ was Horace Dorrington – a strikingly amoral detective, who employed theft, blackmail, fraud and murder in his work.

But by the early 1900s Morrison was becoming more interested in his great hobby – collecting the Japanese prints he found in shops during his tours of Wapping and Poplar. And at 50 he retired to Essex, devoting his time to the collection of art.

By the time he died in 1945 he was wealthy but obscure. The books which had entertained and shocked were 50 years old and out of print. On his death, his wife Elizabeth obeyed his wished and dispersed his art collection, sold his library and burnt his personal notebooks and papers. Only the original manuscript of A Child of the Jago, presented to Bethnal Green Library in 1936, escaped the flames.

*For the story of the demolition of the Old Nichol, see East End Life 26 November 2001.
A Child of the Jago is currently in print, published by Academy Chicago Publications, ISBN 0897333926, £10.99. It’s also available as an audiocassette on Assembled Stories, ISBN 1860154417, £14.99.

Coutts – from Columbia Market to Canary Wharf

When Coutts moved into Canary Wharf Tower recently, the posh people’s bank was simply renewing its aquaintance with the East End of London.
For, a century ago, long before the Queen’s bankers had to worry about the size of Fergie’s overdraft, one of their number was spreading the family cash in a different fashion – by helping the Tower Hamlets poor.
Angela Burdett-Coutts had everything going for her and no need to lift a finger. In 1837, at the age of just 23 she inherited a vast fortune from grandfather Thomas Coutts, the banker, and promptly became one of the world’s richest women and the object of many keen suitors.
The Victorian era is infamous for the obscene gap between the hugely wealthy and the desperately poor. But for every exploitative factory owner or businessman there was a philanthropist, desperately trying to improve the lot of the working man, woman and child.
Coutts Bank and charity

Angela ignored the offers of marriage and the comfortable life that awaited her and threw herself into her religious faith and using her cash to fight for social reform and education for the poor. She didn’t turn her back on the family firm though. With amazing energy she not only threw herself into setting up charities, projects for housing the poor, childcare schemes, fighting for work for women – she also took a keen interest in the running of Coutts Bank, becoming a sharp businesswoman and a key part of the family firm.
London poverty in 19th century

The East End of the nineteenth century may have been the hub of the British Empire’s trade but many of its people lived in terrible poverty. Coutts set about making things better.
She supplied funds to build the church of St John’s in Vincent Street, Limehouse, later to become Halley Street. She set up a sewing school in Brown’s Lane, Spitalfields and women came to learn sewing skills.
Many East End women were driven into prostitution by poverty. Charles Dickens became a firm friend of Angela and helped her to set up a house of rescue for young prostitutes.
He later marked her philanthropic works for Londoners by dedicating his novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, to Coutts.
Not all her work was so successful. A big problem for working people was getting affordable fresh food. London markets had to pay tolls, which racked up the price of the goods on sale.
Building of Columbia Market, 1886

£20,000 paid for the building of the Columbia Market, in Bethnal Green. It had room for 400 stalls but the market never made money. Various schemes were tried, including a go at running it as a fish market, but in 1886 the market shut.
A revolutionary figure, Angela was recognised for her energy and works. She was the first female “freeman” of the City and the first woman made a peer in her own right.
When Baroness Burdett-Coutts died in 1906 she left a lasting mark on the East End, with huge schemes like the building of model tenements in Columbia Square, Bethnal Green, and with her name – which lives on in Angela Street, Baroness Road and Burdett Road.
Further Reading: The Tower Hamlets Connection, Harold Finch, Tower Hamlets Libraries and Stepney Books; Made of Gold, D Orton, Hamish Hamilton; Lady Unknown, E Healey, Sidgwick and Jackson.

Charles Booth in the East End


The Victorian philanthropists came to their calling by a number of routes. Often it was religious piety that led them to descend into the abyss of the East End, and to help the people there lead ‘better’ lives. The young men who staffed the university missions such as Oxford House were encouraged by tutors who saw growing evidence of ‘two nations’ – and urged their students to do their bit to bring them back together. And often they were the scions of rich families – the likes of Frederick Charrington and Angela Burdett-Coutts – who in their different ways were trying to give back a small part of the millions their family firms had made from London.

Charles Booth was slightly different. He would probably have rejected the term ‘philanthropist’ altogether, being rather sceptical of do-gooders. He wasn’t a pious man: by the time he undertook the mammoth work that would chart the state of London’s poor he had no religious faith left. And he had no political axe to grind, resisting attempts by the major political parties to recruit him.

Booth’s mammoth work, the Life and Labour of the People in London, was published in a number of volumes between 1889 and 1903. Booth had no intention of publishing such an epic: he wryly commented that ‘I cursed every minute I gave to it.’ But a chance conversation altered the course of his life, and saw a rich businessman spending month after month in the East End, studying the lives of the people there.

For Booth hadn’t been an academic (though he was to be given credit for helping to invent the discipline of social science). Born in Liverpool in 1840, the son of a corn merchant, he was an unremarkable scholar, shining only in mathematics. At 16 he was apprenticed to the shipping company of Lamport and Holt; by 22, Charles had been orphaned and lost the woman he loved, Antonia Prange.


The Booths had inherited sizeable sums from their parents, and industrious Charles joined older brother Alfred in a business importing and exporting skins and leather; all the while still working for Lamport and Holt. Charles soon became the dominant partner in the company, and was renowned for the extraordinary thoroughness of his methods. He made his financial mistakes early and determined that he would do his homework. He learned from the bottom: visiting the leatherworks, inspecting the skins, while simultaneously gaining a mastery of the books. Booth was as at home in a tannery as in the accounts office.

Booth quickly saw the potential of steam power, though he refused to set up in opposition to his former employer. In any case, his sister was now married to Alfred Holt. So, with meticulous planning, he devised trade routes across the Atlantic, avoiding those of Lamport and Holt. Then, persuading Alfred and sister Emily to invest their money in the construction of two steamships, he set up a service to Brazil. On the maiden voyage, Charles was aboard – with his characteristic thoroughness he had mastered the workings of the ship’s engines and also had an encyclopaedic (and necessary) knowledge of the South American postal system. In years to come he would see how bicycles, cars and their tyres would create a huge demand for rubber from the Brazilian plantations. Building a harbour in Manaus, he would be there to make the trade happen … and profit from it.

If an astute businessman, he wasn’t a ruthless one. In an 1880 letter to his brother he gives clues to his way of dealing, scorning the American practice of a deal being ‘to get the better of the men we sell to’. Booth argued that ‘it is not our interest to get the better of the men we buy from sell to, but to do the best we can for each, subject to a moderate remuneration for ourselves, and to give our chief attention to getting the utmost value out of the goods we deal in’. A fair share for everyone in fact. A flirtation with party politics, campaigning as a Liberal parliamentary candidate in Liverpool, opened his eyes. The squalor of Toxteth was horrific, but Booth could see neither Liberals nor Tories doing much to cure it. Neither religion nor politics seemed to be bringing the nation together.

But by the mid 1870s, Booth and his new wife Mary were living in London. It was a comfortable life in Bloomsbury and Westminster, yet only a few miles from the greatest slum in Europe … the East End of London. Within just a few years, Booth was to venture east of Aldgate to see for himself, and his real work was to begin.

In the 1870s, the exhausted Charles Booth returned from a rest cure in Switzerland – it was the first break the shipping magnate had taken in a decade and a half, and came at the insistence of his new wife, Mary Macaulay.

Mary also insisted the couple settle in London – she had found life in Booth’s hometown of Liverpool horribly dreary. But their new life in the capital, if sociable, was far from an empty round of parties and genteel pursuits. Mary’s uncle was the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, and the Booths circle of friends included Beatrice Potter (who would become Beatrice Webb and co-found the New Statesman magazine). Another was Octavia Hill: one of the prime movers behind the idea of council housing she also fought for green, open spaces for working people – a campaign that was to lead to the birth of the National Trust. And Canon Samuel Barnett was to make a profound mark on the East End, as the founder of the first university settlement – Whitechapel’s Toynbee Hall.

This then was an energetic, creative, intellectual and radical circle. From disparate backgrounds, they all agreed that the lot of the working East Ender was not a happy one. But unlike so many Victorians, they didn’t blame the working person for their own misery. They were more interested in practical solutions than pieties. As early as 1868, Booth had written:

‘The words “Give us this day our daily bread” have not much meaning to us; do we ever think what they mean to the poor? I am constantly impressed with the different aspect of our life compared to that of those who live on daily wages, from day to day, from hand to mouth. Some of my friends will say “You mean the difference between the thrifty and the unthrifty” but I do not think I do.’

In the era of Samuel Smiles, self-help and the workhouse, this was pretty radical stuff, and Booth get directly involved by signing up to help the Lord Mayor of London’s Relief Fund, analysing census returns But even Booth was sceptical when he first read a report by the Social Democratic Foundation, published in 1885, which argued that a quarter of the population of London lived in extreme poverty. Henry Hyndman of the Foundation records a visit from Booth, writing in his autobiography that ‘in his opinion we had grossly overstated the case’, and that he himself would ‘be undertaking an inquiry into the condtion of workers in London’. Charles had already grown frustrated by how unreliable the Census figures had proved to be. The punctilious Booth, as ever, wanted facts, figures … proof. His quest was to take nearly 20 years!

The inquiry was split into three parts: poverty, industry and religious influences. ‘Poverty’ took data from the School Board Visitors, recording levels of poverty and the types of jobs among the families that had caused it. There were special studies into subjects such as the trades associated with poverty, housing, population movements, the Jewish community and education. ‘Industry’ investigated every imaginable trade in London: from cricketers to wigmakers, to establish wage levels and conditions of employment. And there were ‘the unoccupied classes’: Booth amassed a wealth of stories on the workhouses and asylums, and on pauperism and its causes. ‘Religious influences’ took in the Church, philanthropy, local government and policing.

It was a huge task, and the most visible fruit were the famous maps of London, which were coloured street by street to show the varying levels of poverty and wealth. The first appeared in 1889 and they were revised a decade later. A series of investigators accompanied bobbies on the beats around the streets of London, with Booth adding invaluable new data to his interviews.

It seems an extraordinarily detailed and punctilious task to our eyes and it took over the author’s life. Even Booth remarked ‘Never I should think has a book been the occasion of so much bad language on the part of its author – I cursed every minute I gave to it!’ One problem, with a work so groundbreaking and original, was knowing where to stop. Nobody had done anything like this before.

But the timing and importance of the work cannot be overstated. Britain was seeing an upsurge in Radicalism that would change politics forever. The Fabian Society, which would lay the foundations for the Labour Party, had been founded in 1884. Among its stalwarts were figures such as Annie Besant, The Webbs, Emmeline Pankhurst and HG Wells, all of whom were to make their mark on the East End. Booth’s report was to help fuel the demands for social change … here after all was the proof that change was needed.

Booth was now a respected thinker as well as a successful businessman. He resisted attempts to get him into party politics (having moved by now from the Liberals to the Conservatives). He had served on the 1893 Royal Commission on the Aged Poor, became a Privy Councillor in 1904, and in 1907 served with Beatrice Webb on the Royal Commission on the Poor Law. In 1908, he started arguing for old age pensions, and the Liberal government passed the Old Age Pensions Act in 1908. He was made a fellow of the Royal Society and given honorary degrees by Cambridge, Liverpool and Oxford.

It was 1912, and the energetic Booth was 72, before he handed over the chairmanship of his shipping line to his nephew … though in 1915 an ailing Charles Booth returned to the company to assist the war effort. He died the following year.

Our thanks go the excellent Charles Booth Online Archive.


Boundary Estate


It occupies the north-east corner of Tower Hamlets, a Victorian development of grand scale and imposing construction. Extraordinary then that the Boundary Estate was the realisation of the dream of one man – a tireless local vicar, determined to rid London of its most squalid and infamous slum.

Like so many East End slums this area hard by the walls of the City had seen much better days, before unplanned and uncontrolled building turned the rural hamlet around St Leonard’s Church into a byword for crime and disease. It was originally part of the garden of the nunnery of St John the Baptist, Holywell. But in the 18th century the rapidly growing East End population was exerting pressure on space, and the land was turned over to housing. You can still see the origins of this new building at 74 Swanfield Street, the last remaining weaver’s house in the area.

But even as Swanfield Street was laid out, the East End’s great days as a weaving centre was behind it, with cheaper fabrics being produced on the Continent. And soon the new houses were subdivided, with each room home to small workshops and ‘manufactories’, where East Enders scraped a living making matches, matchboxes, clothes pegs, shoes and cheap clothes.

By the mid-1800s the area, bounded by Virginia Road to the north, Mount Street on the east, Boundary Street to the west, and Old Nichol Street to the south, was famous as the worst slum in London. Friars Mount, as it was more poetically known, was now infamous as ‘the Old Nichol’.


The inhabitants were the poorest of the East End’s homeworkers, and their miserable plight was graphically described in the Illustrated London News of 24 October 1863. “The limits of a single article would be insufficient to give any detailed description of even a day’s visit. There is nothing picturesque in such misery. It is but one painful and monotonous round of vice, filth and poverty, huddled in dark cellars, ruined garrets, bare and blackened rooms, reeking with disease and death, and without the means, even if there were the inclination, for the most ordinary observations of decency and cleanliness.’

So notorious had the Old Nichol become that it grasped the attention of two influential outsiders. The first was the Revd Osborne Jay, who accepted the living of the parish in December 1886. It was to be a cheerless Christmas in the area Charles Booth named the most poverty-stricken in London. 5,700 souls were crammed into the tiny area. Crime was rife; street fights between the rival gangs were a regular event; the death rate was 40 per 1,000, twice as high as the rest of Bethnal Green and four times that of London as a whole; and one child in four died before his or her first birthday.

The Revd Jay realised that simply preaching from his pulpit wouldn’t change things– most of his lost souls never strayed through the doors of his church. Instead he began to work on the streets, a cheerful and charismatic presence. Within ten years he had raised £25,000 to build a new church, social club, gym and lodging house in Old Nichol Street. But he wasn’t content in ministering to his parishioners’ social, physical and spiritual needs; he realised that nothing would really change until the Nichol was reduced to rubble and built anew. And in 1890, he persuaded the newly formed London County Council (LCC) to clear the slum and build new flats.

The second influential outsider was Arthur Morrison. Jay persuaded the writer to visit the area. The shocked writer poured his observations into the seminal A Child of the Jago. Victorians were horrified by the barely fictionalised account of a child’s struggle against poverty. So deep did it cut that when the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) opened the rebuilt estate in 1900, he mentioned Morrison’s book, saying: “Few indeed will forget this site who had read Mr Morrison’s A Child of the Jago.”

The irony was that by the time Morrison wrote his account, the Nichol was already half-demolished. But a more bitter twist lay ahead for the inhabitants of this real-life ‘Jago’. The new flats comfortably housed 6,000 souls, and statistics from the LCC had recorded 5,666 previously squeezed into the rat’s nest of streets and alleys. Before, the widest road was only 28ft across; some of the ground floors of houses were below street level; many of the houses were built back-to-back; and the average room was home to 2.25 people (with 107 rooms housing five or more). Now there rose huge blocks of flats, sited round the circular park of Arnold Circus, with a bandstand provided for the residents and the blocks named after Thames beauty spots.

But they weren’t the same 6,000 people as before. It was the ‘industrious poor’ who were rewarded with the new flats. Meanwhile, the residents of the Nichol were swept further into Dalston or Bethnal Green … creating more overcrowding and new slums.
With thanks to Walks Through History – Exploring the East End by Rosemary Taylor.


Hannah Billig – Angel of Cable Street


Hannah Billig - Angel of Cable Street

To her neighbours and patients she was the Angel of Cable Street. But the life of Hannah Billig was an extraordinary story that took her from Russia to Calcutta and Israel – while keeping a lifetime’s dedication to the people of the East End.

The story started one October day in 1901 when Barnet and Millie Billig, Jewish refugees from persecution in Russia, had a child at their adopted home, 41 Hanbury Street. The Billigs were poor but, like so many who settled in the Jewish community around Brick Lane, immediately set to bettering themselves.


Jewish Maternity Hospital

Barnet worked all hours as a newsagent and then hand-making cigarettes and cigars, while Millie slaved over the cooking, cleaning and washing for her husband and six children.
And the kids had to work hard too. There was no playing in the streets like the other children of the neighbourhood, Hannah and her siblings were encouraged to sit and diligently study in their library-like front room.

The Billig parents got their reward when four of the youngsters became doctors – an especial achievement for Hannah in the 1920s when women were expected to marry and keep house. But her ambitions didn’t end with qualifying as a doctor, Hannah wanted to put something back into the community that had raised her. Her chance came with a job at the Jewish Maternity Hospital in Whitechapel’s Underwood Street.


Billig’s Watney Street practice

Hannah’s big step came with setting up her own practice in Watney Street. She still lived with her parents in Burdett Road and, by word of mouth, she soon had a flood of patients from all over Wapping and Stepney. With no NHS you had to pay for your treatment in those days. Many poor simply didn’t bother to see the doctor – but Hannah would never turn the sick away, following her father by working endless hours. And like her father too, Hannah would encourage the children she saw, telling them to bring along their books so she could read aloud to them.

Blitz hits Wapping & George Cross

As war drew on even the Blitz couldn’t stop Hannah and her work, as she darted around, tending the sick, even as the bombs were dropping around her. On 13 March 1941 she was helping the injured at a blast in Orient Wharf, Wapping. Suddenly there was an explosion and Hannah was blown down the shelter steps. Picking herself up and shaking off the dust she bandaged up her sore ankle and set about pulling others out of the rubble.

After four hours toil she finally took a break – to discover her own ankle was broken. For her bravery Billig won the George Medal, the civilian’s equivalent of the Victoria Cross – the Angel of Cable Street had been born.

In 1942 the Angel spread her wings, signing up for the Indian Army Medical Corps as a Captain and tending the sick and wounded soldiers in Assam, as they retreated from the terrible battles in the jungles of Burma. Malaria and typhus were two of the new diseases Hannah had to contend with and there was worse to come. In 1944 a grain shortage forced thousands of starving peasants into Calcutta in desperate search of food.

Her tireless work with the hundreds of thousands of sick and starving mothers and babies earned Captain Billig, GC another honour – the MBE in the 1945 New Year’s Honours List. True to form the down to earth Hannah asked them to post the gong to her – she was too busy to collect it!

Billig back in Cable Street

Back in Cable Street the good work continued until she decided to retire, in 1964, to Israel.
Parties and dinners were held all over the East End in her honour, testament to the deep impression she had made on her home. Hannah with a new life awaiting her took a sad leave of the people she called “the salt of the earth”, and headed for a well-earned rest.

It didn’t last long though. The restless Hannah soon started working again in the Arab villages and Jewish settlements around her new home in Caesarea and for 20 more years worked tirelessly for her new patients and friends.
In 1987, aged 86, the Angel died peacefully, having made almost as much of a mark in her new home as back in Cable Street.
The words on her grave in Hadera Cemetery sum up her life: In loving memory of Hannah, who devoted her life to healing the sick in England and in Israel.

If you would like to know more, read “Hannah Billig, the Angel of Cable Street”, price £3 inc p+p. Send cheques payable to Rosemary Taylor to R Taylor, 5 Pusey House, Saracen St, E14 6HG. An exhibition of Hannah’s life and work is currently running at the Ragged School Museum, 46 Copperfield Road, E3.


Barber Beaumont and the People’s Palace


Barber Beaumount and the People's Palace by John Rennie

Barber Beaumont & People’s Palace

This summer, students of Queen Mary and Westfield College will gather at an imposing building on the Mile End Road to collect their degree certificates.
What most of them won’t know is that the building they are nervously gathered in boasts one of the longest and strangest histories of any in the East End.
Our story starts back in 1774, when Barber Beaumont was born in Marylebone. The young man showed talent as an artist and was enrolled in the Royal Academy School.
It was the beginning of a colourful and varied career. Beaumont’s speciality was miniature portraits and
he became the court painter to the Duke of Kent and the Duke of York.
But the talented artist gave up his painting, making his fortune from insurance after founding and running the County Fire Office.
Spurred on by his success, and by a philanthropic urge to help the poor of London, Beaumont then set up the Provident Life Institute and Bank of Savings. This was one of the first friendly societies, which encouraged working people to save money, and the forerunner of modern building societies.
Though a talented and prudent man, Beaumont was also a colourful character. He fought a duel in Hyde Park, and left the world of insurance to became a military commander during the Napoleonic Wars.


Returning to England, Beaumont set his mind again to philanthropic works.
He became determined to bring culture to the East End, by building a combined museum, concert hall and library. And so, the Eastern Athanaeum was born in Beaumont Square.
But his real legacy was a trust fund he endowed to build a home for higher education in east London. The money was re- leased on his death in 1841, but it was to be 40 years before his dream came to reality.
In 1887, Beaumont’s educational establishment, known as the People’s Palace, was opened by Queen Victoria. It was her first visit to the East End in four decades.
Built on the old Bancroft Hospital site, the plan was to include a technical college, gymnasium and swimming pool, library and concert hall.
Crowds for a queen
Aimed at the mind as well as the body, it would fulfil Beaumont’s dream of “the intellectual improvement and rational recreation and amusement for people living at the East End of London”.
Thousands turned out to watch the Queen in her rare outing east of the City. And thousands more eagerly attended the lectures and classes at the People’s Palace and Queen’s Hall.
But in 1931 disaster struck. Fire ravaged the Palace, the worst of it centred on the Queen’s Hall. Two-hundred and fifty firemen fought the blaze and two hours later the fire was out. Little had been saved and the Queen’s Hall lay in smouldering ruins.
The East End could have been downhearted, but local Labour MP George Lansbury put his usual positive spin on the disaster.
Broadcasting on the radio in 1936, he said: “We all felt a personal loss, but we were not dismayed. We knew that the goodwill that created our People’s Palace was not dead, that all classes of people would readily respond.”
And respond they did. An appeal for funds culminated in King George VI and his wife, the present Queen Mother, following in the footsteps of his great grandmother, Victoria.
On 13 February 1937, the King laid the foundation stone of a new People’s Palace.
But the dream was shortlived. After the war, the building had a new role to fulfil, when Queen Mary College took over the building.
Stand on the south side of Mile End Road and you will see the imposing building to this day, though the “People’s Palace” enscription has been sandblasted from its beautiful facade.
And every summer, groups of nervous graduates will gather within this building, the latest crop to benefit from Barber Beaumont’s dream of bringing education to the East End.


Matthew Arnold in London’s East End


Matthew Arnold in London’s East End

The Victorians loved their poetry, the longer, the more epic, the better. Tennyson and Browning fulfiled the need for lengthy verses – which father could recite to his attentive family on drawing room evenings – dealing with the great subjects of love, death and the lost golden age of England.

But the third of Victorian poetry’s “Big Three” dealt with much more mundane, though no less important, themes – the misery and poverty he found as inspector of schools in the Bethnal Green of the 1850s.

Matthew Arnold in Bethnal Green

Matthew Arnold was born into a life of solid respectability and educational excellence. He was the son of the renowned headmaster of Rugby public school, Dr Thomas Arnold.

Arnold senior was passionately absorbed in educational reform, and his work was the model for the novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Matthew was to continue his father’s work, but not as a teacher to the sons of the rich. Like many mid-Victorians, the righteous Arnold felt that he had a mission to bring the improving medicine of education to the poor.
Schooling was the key to the working classes dragging themselves into ‘respectability’. And where in more need of education and respectability than London’s East End.

Arnold becomes school inspector


In 1851, he became an inspector of schools in Bethnal Green and his experiences provided fuel for his poetry. In 1867, he penned the poem East London. In it, he describes a summer walk through Bethnal Green and Spitalfields.

Twas August and the fierce sun overhead
Smote on the squalid streets of Bethnal Green
And the pale weaver, through his windows seen, In Spitalfields, looked thrice dispirited.”

All poets have their big themes. Arnold wrote movingly on nature, the city and how men and nature were often crushed by the hustle and bustle of East End life.
In A Summer Night, Arnold describes the men and women he sees as he goes about his day’s work in Bethnal Green.

“For most men in a brazen prison live
Where in the sun’s hot eye,
With heads bent o’er their toil, they languidly
Their lives to some unmeaning taskwork give.”

Bancroft Road Local History Museum

Arnold also set down his thoughts in a long series of letters to Rosella Pitman, the headmistress of Bethnal Green’s Abbey Street School and sister of Isaac Pitman, the inventor of shorthand. This insight into Victorian thinking can be read at the local history museum in Bancroft Road, Bethnal Green.
Arnold’s literary reputation was sealed when he was named Professor of Poetry at Oxford University in 1857. But he never forgot the work and squalor of the East End that was the inspiration for his greatest poetry.