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Category: East End politicians

Stepney by Samantha Bird

MAGNIS AD MAIORA runs the legend beneath the coat of arms of the London Borough of Stepney – ‘from great things to greater’ for those of us unlucky (or lucky) enough to not have studied Latin at school. But how far did the borough achieve such aspirations? Did life get better over the course of the first half of the 20th century? Looking at the lot of Stepney dwellers around the turn of the century it could scarcely have got much worse.

St Dunstans Church, Stepney

St Dunstans Church, Stepney

Those, and many others are the questions posed in Dr Samantha Bird’s excellent new book on the area*, “the first single volume history of Stepney in modern times”, in which she draws her historical line from the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 to the Festival of Britain in 1951. The tricky thing with the East End, though, is where do you draw your geographic boundaries? This isn’t the historical village of Stepney, rather the borough which emerged from the 1899 London Government Act, and bordered to the west by the City, to the north by Bethnal Green, to the east by Poplar and south by the Thames. This Stepney includes “the parishes of Mile End Old Town and St George’s in the East; the districts of Limehouse and the Whitechapel Boards of Works, with the Tower of London and the Liberties thereof”. This new Stepney, which tried to fashion administrable cohesion from an area which had sprawled noisomely over the Middlesex countryside in the previous century or so, was a triumph of Victorian political tidiness: with 20 wards, 60 councillors, and three parliamentary constituencies: Limehouse, Mile End and Whitechapel.

The one thing that hadn’t changed, since the time of Samuel Pepys, was the poverty of the people. According to tax records in Pepys’s day, “half of the residents of the East of London were classified as poor”. Since medieval times, the area east of the City wall had been seen as London’s backyard, and like many of our backyards, there was a lot dumped out there. So workshops, shipyards, bakeries, mills and distilleries poured forth their filth and stenches alongside the allotments and market gardens. As for the people, they were little regarded. In 1845, the railway speculators drove their new line out from Fenchurch Street to Tilbury. No consideration was shown to the East Enders who lived nearby (those whose homes weren’t demolished). The tracks ran so close that people had to keep their windows closed as the trains passed “lest their bedding catch fire from the sparks”.

But fast forward to the end of the Victorian era, past the Houndsditch Murders and Churchill’s grandstanding at the Sidney Street Siege – and how did this new borough cope with the 20th century? Certain themes emerge over and over again. The East End had coalesced as a series of slums as the old fields of Middlesex were covered with increasingly dense housing. And poor housing was to dominate the politics of Stepney throughout the first half of the century. There were those made homeless by the Zeppelin air raids of the Great War, and the paucity of homes for heroes in the years after. With Poplarism there was the emergence of a whole political movement centred on the inequities of housing policy. And in World War 2, huge numbers of Stepney dwellers were bombed out, killed or displaced by enemy action. Once war was over the decisions were huge, and partial rebuilding sat alongside relocation to the New Towns of Essex.

Along the way, Bird examines how a unique admixture of cultures created the political life of Stepney. In particular, between the wars, an alliance between Irish and Jewish dwellers, united in politics of the broad left and in a loathing of fascism, generated plenty of volunteers to fight fascists on the streets of Stepney and on the fields of Spain.

The tail end of our period is the Festival of Britain, and the bright new era of housing that promised. The Lansbury Estate was to be merely the first of the new, planned developments – and it of course bore the name of the hero of Poplarism – but it was criticised by many for its limited ambition and cautious architecture. The Government might have tried to sell 1951 as the dawn of a brave new world, but to many East Enders it must have seemed like the end of theirs, as Stepney’s decline in population and industrial base accelerated. The Abercrombie Plan for London seemed to be more a plan to move everybody out of London. But the findings that emerged from the Mass Observation programme of surveys during the latter days of the War yielded some simple but (to us now) obvious facts. Stepney dwellers wanted to live in houses not flats; they wanted to have gardens not communal spaces; and they wanted to stay where they were.

Dr Bird manages that trickiest of juggling acts – turning an academic work (Stepney began life as her PhD thesis) into a compelling read. The academic provenance is there on every page, in the many hundreds of footnotes, the reliance on primary sources and the inclusion of a proper index (which is rarer than you might expect!). But the pages are choc-a-bloc with characters and facts from Stepney’s history. So we discover that the famous slogan “They shall not pass”, which was to become ubiquitous during the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, was first given voice by Arthur Foley Winnington-Ingram, the Bishop of London, in his 1918 Easter sermon. That the Great War was still having ripples two decades later, with the death of 18 schoolchildren during the destruction of Upper North Street School during a zeppelin raid having huge bearing on the decision to evacuate children during the early days of World War 2. And we read of local priest, John Groser, taking direct action to feed local people during the Blitz: “Breaking into an official food store to feed the homeless”. Nothing had changed too much. For much of their history, the people of Stepney simply had to look after themselves.

* Stepney: profile of a London borough from the outbreak of the First World War to the Festival of Britain, 1914-1951, by Dr Samantha L Bird; ISBN 978-1-4438-3506-0; WWW.CSP.CO

SEE ALSO

Lansbury versus Morrison: the battle over Poplarism

Zeppelin strikes: the East End at war

Peter the Painter: the Sidney Street Siege

Strikes in East End of London in the 1920s

First World War London strike

Workers on strike in First World War London

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lansbury v Morrison, the battle over Poplarism

AS WE saw last week, the huge upsurge in industrial unrest in the East End was contained but not quelled by the outbreak of the First World War. In the first years of the 20th century the Labour movement and the unions had gained power and started to exert it, with increasing representation on local councils and the beginnings of a parliamentary presence.

A newspaper cartoon mocking Lansbury's famed goodness

A newspaper cartoon mocking Lansbury's famed goodness

Though most Labour MPs elected in the 1910 General Election were for constituencies in Scotland, Wales and the industrial heartlands of northern England, there were dots of red in London too: Woolwich and West Ham and, amid the sea of East End Liberals, there was George Lansbury in Bow and Bromley, replacing the longstanding Tory incumbent.

 

Alongside was the Great Unrest of the pre-War years, with a series of organised and wildcat strikes all over Britain, and with a concentration in the East End. The dockers at the East and West India Docks knew they wielded power far beyond their numbers, able to choke off a huge part of Britain’s imports and exports simply by walking out. Strikes continued in smaller number during the war, and women – now working in industry for the first time – downed tools as they sought to solidify job security and pay.

But the Christmas election of 1918 (the votes were cast on 14 December but, in those far-off and more relaxed days, the count didn’t begin until the 28th) saw a step change for Labour, being the first held since the Representation of the People Act. The law did more than the three preceding Reform Acts put together and swelled the electorate from 7.5m to over 20m, though women between 21 and 30 wouldn’t qualify until 1929. And you no longer needed to own property to vote: this was the first election in which ‘paupers’ had the ballot. With Poplarism’s coming battle over ‘poor relief’ the move would seem hugely significant.

George Lansbury would lead that movement, though he had lost his Bow and Bromley seat in the 1912 election (many voters turned away by his support for the Suffragettes) and he would be beaten by the Conservatives again in 1918. But Labour MPs rose from 42 to 57 and 1918 and, more important maybe, Labour was starting to control London councils. Herbert Morrison had built the London Labour Party into an efficient electoral machine (his grandson Peter Mandelson would appear as a similarly shrewd operator for the party 80 years later). Labour now controlled half the 28 borough councils in London and, crucially, they held the town halls and thus had a hand on the rates. Lansbury was no longer an MP but he was Mayor of Poplar – a far more powerful role as it transpired.

Herbert Morrison, implacable enemy of Lansbury

Herbert Morrison, implacable enemy of Lansbury

Lansbury and Morrison had much in common. Lansbury had been a pacifist during the First World War, while Morrison had been a member of the No Conscription Fellowship. It was a hugely unpopular stance, as most working people swallowed their doubts and got behind the flag. Morrison even declared himself a conscientious objector, despite the fact that his partial blindness would have excused him military service in any event; he did his bit by working as a farm labourer. The pair were deeply moral men and willing to suffer for their beliefs … as would become obvious as the twenties wore on. But there were deep divisions between them.

While Morrison was desperate to move Labour from the party of coal-begrimed northern men in order to court the middle class vote, Lansbury saw 1918 as Labour’s first chance to help its core supporters, saying: “Labour councillors must be different from those we have displaced, or why displace them?”

And how different they were. Poplar began to enact a welfare state in microcosm – some on the Right saw it as a mini-revolution. The councillors spent money: cutting infant mortality, building council houses, restoring libraries, fixing the roads and the housing stock, and thus putting (mainly) men back to work after the War. A 4s (20p) bonus was paid to all council workers who joined a union, and by 1920 the Council was paying a minimum wage of £4 a week to every employee, up from £1 and 10shillings (£1.50). Equal pay for women, extraordinary at the time, saw them get a wage rise of 70 per cent.

The biggest fight was on unemployment though, and here modernity came up against legislation that seemed out of the Middle Ages. The Poor Law saw unemployed people sent to the workhouses, which were paid for by a common pool raised from all London boroughs (they wouldn’t eventually be scrapped until the 1930s), but Labour councillors preferred to pay the unwaged ‘outdoor relief’ (effectively, the dole). This money came direct from the individual borough and was raised through the property rates.

The rates system was bizarre, with rates based on rent values. It meant that a poor borough like Poplar, with low rents, had to charge a much higher rate to produce the same amount raised by low rates in rich boroughs such as Chelsea. Having been stung once, the council then had to put the money into a central pot for all the London boroughs, from which were paid the London County Council, the Metropolitan Police, the Water Board and others. Effectively, the poorest were contributing the most.


View Lansbury and Morrison in a larger map

Poplar’s ambitious schemes had to be paid for, and the councillors decided to withhold the part of the rate that had gone to pay for the Met and the rest: the plan was to force a change by the Government to a fairer system. Morrison was furious, seeing the left of the party derailing his attempts to woo the middle class vote. And the Tory government was intransigent, summoning 30 Poplar councillors to the High Court in July 1921. They marched there at the head of 2000 supporters from the East End. The banners they carried bore the legend ‘Poplar Borough Council, marching to the High Court and possibly to prison, to secure the equalisation of rates for poor boroughs’. Nobody could argue with the clarity of its message, even if what wasn’t the snappiest. The banners were an accurate prediction of what would happen within weeks.

Labour and Morrison refused to back the rebels and the Councillors were sent jail. Poplar council meetings now had to be held in Brixton prison, with female councillors being driven down from Holloway. The government feared that revolution was in the air and bent – within six weeks the councillors were out. 2000 people crowded into Bow Baths to welcome them home, with another 2000 outside in the Roman Road. That weekend a huge demonstration was held in Victoria Park. The biggest victory though was that Lansbury et al had changed the future of welfare. Outdoor relief would now be controlled by the Ministry of Health, and Poplar’s external funding went from £50,000 to £300,000. Poplar and Clement Attlee’s Stepney borough now paid relief at twice the level of the dole. Many thousands had been lifted, if not from poverty, from desperation.

With thanks to A People’s History of London by Lindsey German & John Rees

 

 

George Lansbury speaks

Strikes in the East End of London during World War 1

1910 strike picture

Police strike in 1910

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1912 – a year of strikes in the East End of London

Coal strikes, docks lying idle, garment workers walking out in their thousands … why was 1912 such a particularly bitter year for labour disputes?

In truth, the battles between labour and capital of a century ago had been coming for decades. In 1870, Britain had been the industrial powerhouse of the world, making some 32 per cent of the goods manufactured on the planet. Having your industrial revolution before everyone else and a worldwide empire to plunder for raw materials (and to export to) does confer certain economic advantages. But by Edwardian times, this small collection of islands was being dwarfed by the new industrialised nations. Now the USA was making 36 per cent of world goods, Germany 16 per cent. Britain, meanwhile had slumped to just 14 per cent.

And it was worse than it looked. The figures betrayed a major decline in Britain’s industrial base. While the US and Germany were investing heavily in their industry, British firms failed to invest, squeezing the last drops from antique machinery and buildings. Meanwhile, bosses were struggling to keep ageing factories and pits in some sort of profit by holding down wages; for years, working people had seen their real wage steadily decrease. And what bright spots there were in the Balance of Payment figures came from the UK’s increased reliance on banking and financial services. Although the clothes and customs may have changed, much about 1912 London seems strangely familiar to a viewer from 2012.

And though we can pin many of the disputes down to 1912, in truth this was an entire age of confrontation – the years described by historians today as ‘The Great Unrest’. Britons had been battling for years for social and economic reform. That would come, but only in the wake of the mass bloodletting of World War I. For now, many of the reforms anticipated after another wave of strikes in the late 19th century (including the Bryant and May matchgirls’ strike of 1888, and the Great Dock Strike a year later) simply hadn’t come.

The Fabians and the emerging Labour movement may have pushed hard, but trade unions were still piecemeal, craft societies. They might have power in their own factory or warehouse, but concerted national action was something else. The union movement had suffered a body blow with the Taff Vale judgement in 1901, which ruled that unions were legally liable for damages incurred during strikes.

In June 1911, National Seamen’s and Firemen’s Union, pushing for a wage rise, called on the transport workers for help. That summer, Britain’s major ports and railways were brought to a halt. In South Wales, even the schoolkids came out on strike and, remarkably, some policemen. Liverpool had its own general strike, as companies could not move goods without a permit from the strike committee. But across the UK, the strikes were quickly over, settled locally as ever. German anarchist Rudolf Rocker, who had settled in Whitechapel, became convinced that what was needed was concerted national action.

In 1912 the opportunity came. The miners struck for four weeks, and the East End docks were brought to a halt for two months. And as summer approached, a strike started among West End tailors for better piece rates. On 2 May, the Times reported 7000-8000 workers at one strike meeting. Enter Rocker, who had spent years trying to entice the Jewish garment workers of Whitechapel to properly unionise. The East Enders had long been seen as scabs – indeed they were already taking up the work not being done by the striking West End tailors. But on 8 May, Rocker spoke before 8000 at a hall in Whitechapel, with 3000 in the street outside. A vote was taken, and two days later 13,000 workers walked out – it was the biggest East End strike since 1889.

Rocker, the arch organiser, was already seeing the bigger picture. He moved to organise joint meetings and demonstrations between dockers and tailors. The aim was not simply to scare the bosses and the government, but to build solidarity between the two communities. Three weeks later the tailors (both West End and East) had won shorter hours, no piecework and better sanitary conditions – and the factories became closed shops. The strike was won.

Now attention turned to the dockers, many of them now starving. Whitechapel tailoring families took in some 300 dockers’ children – mistrust between trades, or between Jews and Gentiles was put aside. The dispute had echoes of the 1889 London Dock Strike. During that conflict, the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers’ Union had been swiftly formed to coordinate the previously wildcat strike action, with Ben Tillett as its general secretary. Then, in 1912, Tillett folded his union, along with the National Union of Dock Labourers and the National Sailors’ and Firemen’s Union, into the National Transport Workers’ Federation. And with dockers and tailors working together, it seemed the age of big union organisation was upon the East End. But again the dispute simply petered out.

Seeds had been sown though. Mass unionisation would come, and so would the great labour disputes of the 1920s – most notably the General Strike of 1926. And a relationship between the dockers and garment workers had also been formed. For historian Bill Fishman, an eyewitness at the Battle of Cable Street 24 years later, the union of disparate groups there had its roots in that 1912 linkup, saying: “It was moving to me to see bearded Jews and Irish dockers side by side as comrades.” Some stories, it seems, take decades to play out.

The Cable Street riot of 1919

Rioting on Cable Street. And unemployed East Enders taking out their frustrations on the immigrants they believed had taken their jobs. But it wasn’t 1936, and it wasn’t Oswald Mosley and his BUF attacking the local Jewish population. 17 years earlier, Cable Street had been the scene of a riot against Asian, Arab and Black people working on the docks and owning local businesses.

The Great War was to have been the one to end all wars, and the soldiers returning from the hell of the trenches would be coming home to a land ‘fit for heroes’. But ex-servicemen trying to slip back into Civvy Street in the East End after demob found Britain and its labour market in chaos. The mobilisation of (mainly) men for the war effort had been enormous, and had taken place over several years. But within weeks of the war ending, six million service men were returned to a country barely equipped to take them.

There had already been a chronic shortage of housing before the war began. By its end, Britain’s manpower and economic muscle had been employed on the fields of Belgium and France for four years and little construction had been done. Britain now lacked 600,000 of the homes she needed, and the housing stock in poorer areas such as Wapping, often little better than slums to start with, was crumbling.

Many of the soldiers were kept for months in camps, waiting for demob. Tensions boiled over with violence and minor mutinies. A government in terror of Bolshevism saw the risk of not only the working classes revolting but the army turning its weapons on its own masters. Former soldiers and sailors meanwhile were returning to the cities to find their jobs long gone.

Jacob Green had fought from almost the start of the war, seeing the hell of the Somme and counting himself fortunate to live to see the Armistice, but returning to Wapping was a salutary experience. ‘I had worked as a bricklayer but I returned to find my job taken by another. There was precious little building going on mind you, and little to be gained by going from firm to firm. I found some work as a labourer … and on lower wages then five years before! Did I really expect my firm to keep my job open? It never occurred to me that it would be otherwise.’

Many worked on the docks or in the merchant navy – a hand to mouth existence of casual employment at the best of times. And these were not the best. During the war years, the company owners had brought in migrant labour from Britain’s Empire to fill the breach. To the delight of the employers, they could pay lower wages, and use the competition for jobs to drive down pay further still.

In 1919, just months after the Armistice, there were ‘race riots’ in the East End of London, in Liverpool, Swansea, Cardiff, Newport, Barry, Glasgow, Salford, Hull and on Tyneside. The white working classes of Britain’s major seaports blamed immigrants (many of whom had in fact been born in the United Kingdom) for undercutting their wages and taking their jobs. The Black and Asian seamen meanwhile were fighting furiously for parity of pay, as they found themselves working alongside white sailors for less money. And with a colour bar in place, supported by the union, Black sailors would always be second in line to a white man going for the same job.

The government of David Lloyd George, fearful of revolution and with a surplus working population on its hands took a craven way out. Black and Asian families, many of them born in Britain, were offered financial inducements to go ‘home’ or to resettle elsewhere in the Empire. With its actions, the Liberal government exported resentment overseas against Britain and arguably sowed the seeds of the independence movements that would flourish in the inter- and postwar years, and eventually see the end of the Commonwealth.

Back in Britain, a succession of weak and shortlived administrations fought vainly against the impending Great Depression – though the great collapse happened in 1929-32, it’s clear that most of Britain was in recession from the end of the First World War until the late 1930s. Emergency measures, such as coming off the gold standard, were one answer. Another was a shameful ‘reclassification’ of black British sailors as ‘alien’ workers in 1925. Now there were limits both on the jobs they could take and their freedom to move around the country in search of work.

The policy was not only callous, it was ineffective. Jobs did not magically reappear, and for areas such as Wapping and Shadwell the post-War slump would never really end. Another war would come along before that. History, meanwhile, would balefully repeat itself. Some among the new generation of East Enders would find an outlet for their frustrations in the uniform of the British Union of Fascists, the promise of order, and the warped charisma of its leader. And in 1936, ‘incomers’ would again get the blame for a nation’s economic ills.

Clouds of Glory … the life of Bryan Magee

We like to pigeonhole people. But with Hoxton boy Bryan Magee it’s a tricky one. If you’d turned on the telly in the 1960s and 70s you might have known him as a current affairs reporter on ITV. Turn on Radio 3 and you would have him down as a critic of the arts on BBC Radio 3. At one time he taught philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford. From 1974 to 1983 he was Labour MP for Leyton … then a Social Democrat. He is now a full-time author. And his latest book (his twentieth) taps into the roots from where all these personas came – the streets of 1930s Hoxton.

Many readers will have got accustomed to the gentrification of their part of the East End. Wapping, Spitalfields, Limehouse and the Isle of Dogs have all seen themselves reinvented as fashionable quarters of inner London. Hoxton is no exception – now becoming a centre for artists and designers, and seeing rocketing property prices. Yet within living memory it was one of London’s most notorious slums. ‘Hoxton is the leading criminal quarter of London, and indeed of all England,’ wrote Charles Booth at the turn of the twentieth century.

It remained a byword for its combination of poverty and crime until the Second World War. This was the world the young Bryan grew up observing at street level, from the door of the family shop: men’s and boy’s outfitters, EJ Magee. But the keen eye he was later to turn to journalism observed other, rather less respectable, trade going on. Hoxton was London’s busiest market for stolen goods, the centre of the pickpocket trade, and home to a razor gang that terrorised racecourses all over southern England. Its main thoroughfare, Hoxton Street, was one of the East End’s best known street markets, but it was also known as the roughest street in Britain.

Magee’s recall of the 1930s is as good as any diary or film. As he says: ‘I was all the time avid for something, and I did not know what, so I wanted to absorb everything’. He recalls ‘Wingo: the dollar tailor’ and having his curiosity satisfied on discovering that a dollar meant five shillings (25p). He remembers every detail of childhood street games and songs. And he encounters anti-Semitism for the first time when his friend Davy Franks is called ‘Jewboy’ by bigger kids.

‘What did they do that for?’ asks a puzzled Bryan.
‘Coz I’m a Jew.’
‘What’s a Jew?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘How d’you know you are one then?’
‘Coz my mum and dad said so.’

Even as a child, Magee was to get a first-hand view of the extremist politics of the thirties. Hoxton was a favourite meeting place and rallying ground for the Blackshirts, and Bryan would stand at the back of the rallies, excited and appalled by what he was hearing. In his later career he would interview Mosley and quiz him about his methods of whipping up a crowd.

Everyone played in the street, turfed out by mothers sick of kids under their feet, and everywhere became a playground. Watching the steam trains at Liverpool Street, playing marbles, swapping cigarette cards, and pinching from the stalls in Hoxton Market.

This world would last only until World War II. On 2 September 1939, the day before war broke out, Bryan’s anxious parents evacuated him to live with his grandparents, in the Sussex village of Worth. It was to be the beginning of a long journey. He won a place at Christ’s Hospital School, then military service, followed by a scholarship to Oxford.

Returning, he was to find that first the Blitz and then slum clearance had ripped the heart from the place. But a new Hoxton emerged towards the end of the twentieth century. The swimming bath and public library used by the young Magee was now a rehearsal room for the English National Opera. And the market place where he observed the pickpockets (and more honest traders) was now home to the campus of a new university.

All was changed beyond recognition from the pre-War ‘garden of Eden’ he remembered, but it was still there inside. ‘I was not invariably happy, and I didn’t think of it as a paradise. I had the kind of innocence from not knowing anything else. There is a small part of me that has never left it, and that lives in it still.’

Clouds of Glory, A Hoxton Childhood by Bryan Magee, published by Jonathan Cape, £17.99 hardback, ISBN 0224069799

The Brick Lane bombing

THE targeting of Brick Lane may have a twisted logic for Saturday’s bombers.
If there’s one area that has shown the ability of Londoners to welcome and absorb incoming cultures it’s Spitalfields, as wave after wave of immigrants have settled in the area and each added their unique ingredients to the strong cultural mix of the East End.
But if there’s one lesson the politicians of hate haven’t learned from history, it’s that centuries of attacks against the Irish, Huguenots, Jews and now Bangladeshis don’t drive people away, they just make them stronger.
Even before immigration began in earnest, the area had a reputation for religious and cultural diversity – and it was always a haven for refugees and free-thinkers.
In 1675, when there were 1,300 new buildings crammed onto the old market gardens, it was seen as a centre of non-conformity, as citizens resisted the authority of the established Church of England. In fact the first Baptist church in England had been built there in 1612.
And organised opposition to incomers is nothing new. Back in the early 1700s, there had been protests in the streets of Spitalfields as the newly built-up area was settled by Huguenots, refugees from religious persecution in the Low Countries.

Fine weaving skills
They had come, under the protection of the English crown, bringing with them their skills of fine silk-weaving to settle around Fournier and Elder Streets. Many locals resented their new ways, but soon the incomers were bringing wealth and jobs to the area, as Spitalfields became famous for fine cloths.
Then, in 1780, Lord George Gordon played on Protestant fears of Rome to stoke up the Gordon Riots. Many Irish people had settled on the eastern fringes of the City, looking for work and escaping religious persecution, poverty and starvation back in their home country.
On June 2, Roman Catholic chapels in Spitalfields were burned to the ground and the mob made for Downing Street. Most of them never got there, having sacked Langdale’s Brewery in Holborn and poisoned themselves as they gorged on alcohol. Their eccentric leader was arrested for treason and saw out his years in prison.
For many East Enders, their proudest defence against the forces of fascism came in the wake of the Jewish immigration of the late 1800s.
The Jews had come in their thousands, escaping the pogroms of Russia and Eastern Europe. Jewishness is an essential ingredient in the rich recipe that is today’s East End, whether it be the humour, the numerous charitable schools and settlements the incomers established, or the world-famous Brick Lane Beigel Shop.
But for some, richness, newness and diversity is itself a threat. In the 1930s Oswald Mosley, another rabble-rouser who pitched for people’s fears, led his Blackshirts on provocative marches around Brick Lane and Club Row.
The fascist challenge culminated in the Battle of Cable Street, on October 5, 1936, when East Enders decided once and for all that the racists would not pass.
The Blackshirts were broken, as was their leader, who had marched his troops up the hill and down again – and achieved nothing. He drifted from influence, a forlorn and half-forgotten figure.

Back in the 1970s, Brick Lane was changing again. Most of the Jewish population had moved on, and their place was taken by a new wave of refugees, Bangladeshis – many fleeing the war that led to the secession of the new Bangladesh from Pakistan.
Walk along Brick Lane today and you will see that some mosques carry a Star Of David above the door – testament to their previous lives as synagogues and the capacity of the area to welcome and absorb new religions and cultures.
On Brick Lane though, the Sunday morning market was a magnet for the new fascists of the National Front and, later, the British Movement and British National Party to hand out their literature of race hate.
But, just like in the 1930s, a new wave of defiance rose to meet them.
The late seventies saw the birth of the Anti Nazi League, Rock Against Racism and the anti-racist movement that eventually forced them off the streets.
The last ten years have demonstrated just how good the East End is at absorbing new religions, cultures and ideas – and how much the area gains from it.
As for the fascists – they’ve yet to learn the lessons
of history.

The recent nail bomb attack on Brick Lane confirms the activity of far right neo-Nazi groups in Tower Hamlets.
Although race hate incidents seem to have subsided recently, the East End is not without its fair share of race- related violence.
The British National Party (BNP), which hit the headlines in 1993 when it secured a council by-election victory in Millwall ward, is believed to be a major player in creating racial tension.
Anti-fascist magazine Searchlight gave us details of the BNP’s history and the origins of other organisations focused against Asians, blacks, Jews and other ethnic minorities.
“Formed in 1982, the BNP spent much of the 1980s in the shadow of the National Front (NF),” said the magazine.
“The BNP’s Millwall victory was achieved after several years of activity. “Campaigning under the slogan Rights for Whites, the BNP successfully galvanised electoral support with a public that had become disillusioned with the main political parties.
“However, the election victory was secured at a heavy local cost. The Rights for Whites campaign, launched in 1990 heralded a massive increase in racial violence throughout east London. While BNP members were personally responsible for only a fraction of these incidents, their political activity and direct scapegoating, coupled with equally racist national media contributed to an atmosphere of racial tension.”
“It was also in the early nineties that the Nazi group Combat 18 emerged out of the BNP’s stewarding group.”
“The 1,500 strong BNP now accepts that the majority of British people totally refute Nazi and anti-Semitic ideas.
“But the party is playing with words rather than substance and as night follows day, Nazism, and violence follow the BNP.”

Bolingbroke the East End radical

The East End has long been a home for outsiders, radicals and dissenters. As a maritime gateway to the world, it was often the first port of call for new ideas, practices and philosophies brought from Europe and beyond.

And with its position just outside the City walls it was also a home for Englishmen and women whose views clashed with King and parliament.

Henry St John Bolingbroke, who made his home in Spital Square when it was a country retreat at the extreme north-east of London, was a font of ideas, political ambition and energy.

A mass of contradictions, he was a man of God and a philosopher, but also famed for his fondness for women and drink. A staunch supporter of the ruling monarchy of Queen Anne and her successor George I, he managed to sandwich his backing for the Old Pretender (James III of England and VIII of Scotland) in between.

Bolingbroke was born in 1678 and after his studies at Eton and Oxford – and the customary ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe which moneyed young men of the day used as their finishing school – he returned to London in 1700 with his mind set on women and politics.

He married the daughter of Sir Henry Winchcomb in 1700. But even by the double standards of the day, Bolingbroke’s infidelity was too much to ignore, and the couple soon separated.

Bolingbroke entered parliament in 1701, and soon he was becoming as renowned for his oratory as he had been for his high living. He joined the Tory Party and by 1704 was secretary of state for war.

At 30, his meteoric political career was suddenly halted. The Whigs came to power and Bolingbroke announced his intention to retire from the exhausting business of parliament and devote himself to study.

In truth, he was as active politically as ever, but now operating behind the scenes, using his enormous influence as Queen Anne’s favourite counsellor. The Whigs fell in 1710 and Bolingbroke was made foreign secretary, moving to the House of Lords in 1712 as Viscount Bolingbroke.

He was increasingly mistrusted despite – or, perhaps, because of – his brilliant way with words. He was a master of intrigue, not only whispering in the ear of Queen Anne, but using the London Tory clubs and writers such as the great satirist Jonathan Swift (author of Gulliver’s Travels) to swing public opinion in favour of his policies.

So skilful was his manipulation of parliament, though, that he managed to conclude the Peace of Utrecht in
1713 – the Anglo-French-Spanish treaty which established the first balance of power between the ever-warring nations – against enormous public opposition.

The opposing Whigs were furious. Bolingbroke had been chipping away at their power by pushing the Conformity and Schism acts through parliament, and they bitterly accused him of wheeling, dealing and intrigue.

In truth, the wheel of fortune was turning again for the great schemer. Henry foresaw a pro-Whig Hanoverian succeeding the now-ailing Anne and he began negotiations with the Old Pretender, replacing senior Whig army officers with Tories.
Events overtook him. Anne died suddenly in 1714, George I came to the throne and impeached Bolingbroke for treason, and Henry fled to France where he helped plan James’ Jacobite rebellion. At the same time, he augmented his fortune by marrying the rich widow of the Marquis de Vilette.

But whose side was he on? James dismissed him as an English spy and, in 1723, he slipped the new king a hefty bribe and bought himself a pardon.
Back in Spitalfields, Henry continued to influence from the shadows. He began a new political periodical, The Craftsman, from which he sniped at the government of Robert Walpole.

In later years, Bolingbroke accepted that his political influence was over, and his writings became increasingly preoccupied with religion. He argued strongly the existence of a god, and used philosophy and reasoning to prove it. But he was a furious opponent of organised religion and dismissive of the notion of God as a bearded heavenly figure.
As he had been mistrusted by the political establishment, now he was at odds with that of the Church. But the young dissolute died in comfortable and pious old age at his chateau in France in 1751.

Further reading: see Bolingbroke’s correspondence (ed by Gilbert Parke, 1798); biographies by Charles Petrie (1937) and H T Dickenson (1970);
J P Hart’s ‘Viscount Bolingbroke: Tory Humanist’ (1965);
I Kramnick’s ‘Bolingbroke
and His Circle’ (1968).

Horatio Bottomley of Bethnal Green


Horatio Bottomley was one of those larger than life characters who seemed to populate Victorian and Edwardian London. A man of enormous energy and intellect, he was a talented speaker and writer, a popular MP and a creative businessman. He was also the most relentless swindler of his day, and three times a bankrupt.

Bottomley was born in Bethnal Green on 23 March, 1860. His father seems to have disappeared the scene almost immediately and luckless Horatio was left entirely alone when his mother died.
East End orphanage

Placed in an East End orphanage, he was then cast out onto the London streets – and his own wits – at age 14. He first took a job as an office boy in a City firm, moving on to a company of legal shorthand writers.

Bottomley was a bright lad and had learned to live on his wits; the quick learner became a partner in the company, and began to soak up an impressive legal knowledge from his time spent taking shorthand in the courts. Company law was his especial interest – though his speciality would be how to circumvent it.
Horatio Bottomley’s first swindles

In 1885 Horatio left to set up his own company, a printing and publishing concern. It was to set a pattern for his entrepreneurial ventures over the next four decades. Bottomley was terrific at raising money, good at ripping it off, but useless at controlling his own finances or escaping detection.

When the first of his bankruptcy writs duly rolled in (there were to be 66 more over the years), the authorities started to investigate his failure to pay interest due to investors who had collectively poured £250,000 into the firm.
Bottomley’s Australian swindles

During their digging, the City authorities discovered that £85,000 had disappeared from the company. But Bottomley, ace confidence man that he was, managed to talk his way out of any charges – and persuaded the court to revoke the bankruptcy order.


An emboldened Horatio now turned his attention to raising money through stock issues on the new gold mining companies in Western Australia. It was a classic scam: the promise of untapped riches in an exotic and far corner of the planet appealed to gullible and greedy London investors. And crucially, Kalgoorlie and Boulder were so far away that nobody could actually check whether there really were any goldmines.

From 1893 to 1903 Bottomley launched about 50 mining and finance companies with a nominal capital of £25 million – and racked up a personal fortune of £3 million.
Bottomley becomes an MP

Typically, Bottomley now overreached himself, turning his attention to the promotion of British stock. It was too close to home, and in 1908 he was charged with conspiracy to defraud, when it was revealed his Trust had issued 10 million shares in excess of its stated capital. Remarkably, the very chaos of the Trust’s affairs saved him – so confused were the books that the auditors decided they would never unravel them. It was a second extraordinary escape from justice.

Meanwhile, Horatio had embarked on a parallel career, being elected MP for South Hackney in 1906. That career had to go when he was declared bankrupt in 1909, and had to resign his seat.
Bottomley and Lord Northcliffe

Bottomley turned his undoubted gifts of persuasion to the national cause during the First World War. He became active as a speaker on recruiting drives, and would regularly pack halls for his patriotic speeches. He even managed to earn a fairly honest penny, when newspaper magnate Lord Northcliffe commissioned him to write a weekly article in his Sunday Pictorial newspaper. Bottomley’s fee £7,800 a year, an astonishing sum at the time.

But even here Bottomley was lining his own pockets. He founded the John Bull Victory Bond Club in 1918, and £900,000 in subscriptions duly rolled in; Bottomley swindled much of it to spend on high living, with horse racing and a string of mistresses his expensive hobbies. The club went bust and Bottomley called in the receiver in 1921.
Bottomley becomes a bankrupt

It was one fix he couldn’t talk his way out of. Later that year he was charged with fraud and sentenced to seven years imprisonment. Back outside in 1927, Bottomley raised cash for a new newspaper: it quickly folded and he found himself bankrupt again.

Decline and humiliation swiftly followed. One of his girlfriends got him a stage appearance at the Windmill Theatre, where he rambled incoherently about ‘the old days’ until the audience booed him off. The broken Bottomley collapsed and was carried off. Another bankruptcy followed in 1930 and by 1933 he was destitute, and relying on the charity of his few remaining friends. He died in 1933.