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Category: East End writers

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


Lansbury versus Morrison: the battle over Poplarism

Zeppelin strikes: the East End at war

Peter the Painter: the Sidney Street Siege

Ten great films of London past … a random collection

London has often looked at its best when film directors have used its bleak and ruined beauty, and in a raft of post-World War II movies, bombsites and often ill-conceived redevelopments featured large. We look at a random selection of ten of the best.

The two young stars of Hue and Cry

Joan Dowling and Harry Fowler in Hue and Cry


Hue and Cry

Shot almost entirely on location, Charles Crichton’s 1947 movie is a triumphant example that forgotten British spirit, making do with what you’ve got. This was a very austere post-War London. Buildings in bombed-out ruin? They’ll make superb backdrops for a film that never goes near a studio. Inexperienced juvenile cast? Just let the camera run and capture their spirit. A standout scene is the little kid miming dive bombers and dogfights. Amid all this you have sterling performances from villainous Jack Warner (an East Ender of course) and Alastair Sim.


Bronco Bullfrog

And just 23 years later we return to an East End that still hasn’t been rebuilt after the war. Anyone growing up in the 1970s remembers the gap sites and the boredom. Director Barney Platts-Mills grabbed a bunch of teenagers from a youth group in Stratford, gave them the bare bones of a script and let the camera run. The tedium, petty crime and pointless, tragic rebellions of the bunch are played out in black and white against an E15 that looks more Communist Bloc Bucharest than the new Olympia. The Swinging Sixties have swung by leaving these kids untouched. If they look miserable now then it’s a good job they don’t know what the 1970s are going to be like. We venerated this movie as a suedehead template in the late seventies, though viewing the clothes now I’m not quite sure why.


Broken Blossoms
Political correctness was a long way off when DW Griffith adapted Thomas Burke’s book in 1919. Burke was an enthusiastic chronicler, alongside Sax Rohmer, of the supposed ‘yellow peril’, which stigmatised the Chinese in London (mainly in Limehouse) as opium toting fiends, itching to corrupt young white girls and sell them into prostitution. Limehouse’s China Town would disappear within a few years, as racial persecution was writ into law and the area was cleared. But Griffith did make some attempts at verisimilitude, scouting East End locations. And in Donald Crisp, who plays Battling Burrows, the father of heroine Lilian Gish, we have a real, genuine East Ender, born in Bow.


Sparrers Can’t Sing

Possibly the only time you’ll see a writing credit on a major motion picture for Blakey off On the Buses. Stephen Lewis penned this as part of his work with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop (Stratford again). Full of proper Londoners, such as Barbara Windsor and the unfairly forgotten James Booth. Great locations around Bethnal Green, real al fresco pub action (lots of toothless singalongs) and the Krays were on set. Retitled Sparrows Can’t Sing for the American market, though it really needed subtitles.


A Clockwork Orange

Still hard to watch this without feeling queasy. For most of my youth this was a movie of myth,talked about but never seen, as director Stanley Kubrick withdrew it from distribution after a series of supposed ‘copycat’ violent attacks in the early seventies. Thus it wasn’t officially broadcast until after the director’s death in 1999. Largely filmed on location in Thamesmead, a south-east London new town development out of Woolwich that never quite lived up to its Venice on the Thames billing. If you think A Clockwork Orange is scary, spend an afternoon in SE28. No don’t.


Passport to Pimlico

Bombsites, lovely bombsites … where would the British film industry have been without them. A very English fantasy of devolving from the UK, as kids discover an old parchment in a crater which proves that Pimlico is in truth a possession of Burgundy. Cue withholding of taxes and the quaffing of fine wines replacing bitter in the boozer. Margaret Rutherford (Balham Born) is superb as is Manor Park’s own Stanley Holloway. And it’s still funny.


The Lavender Hill Mob

A masterpiece of English restraint in the writing. Stanley Holloway (again) to Alec Guinness as a criminal plan begins to take shape. “By Jove, Holland it’s a good job we’re both honest men.” Guinness: “It is indeed Pendlebury”. But of course they’re not and they recruit two cockney crooks: Alfie Bass (Bethnal Green born and bred) and Sid James (actually South African) to smuggle the gold Eiffel Towers through customs. Does crime pay? Of course not; we are English after all.

A Kid for Two Farthings

You got to have a dream … or how you going to make a dream come true? Unfortunately the dream of Joe, kicking around Whitechapel in Carol Reed’s beautiful slice of 1955 Technicolor, is to own a unicorn. And of course, with the East End full of those wise to a quick buck, he finds someone to sell him one. A beautiful and poignant tale of broken dreams and growing up. This was adapted by East End polymath Wolf Mankewitz from his own novel. A great cast with Diana Dors, Irene Handl and Sydney Taffler, and David Kossoff draws deep on his East End Jewish background for his portrayal of Mr Kandinsky.


It Always Rains On Sunday

1947 film adaptation of Arthur LaBern’s novel, and some would argue the dawn of the British New Wave of cinema – which the press quickly dubbed ‘Kitchen Sink Drama’. It does retain some of the gloss of the studio (this was an Ealing movie) through its stars. Googie Withers (later on TV in Within These Walls) was a bona fide star and even playing drab and downbeat she looks amazing. And Jack Warner is on hand as the copper (but of course). A real attempt at showing the boredom and drudgery of a Bethnal Green which had been bleak before the war but was now bleak with bombsites. You’d have thought we would have wanted cheering up and distraction after six years of conflict but no … this was the best-selling movie at the box office in the UK in 1948.


The Blue Lamp

Evening all. Jack Warner of Bow makes a third appearance in this 1950 Dearden and Balcon movie from Ted Willis’s script. Hard to believe now that this was considered near cinema verite at the time, with location shots around Paddington Green and the White City, and a decent old-fashioned copper coming up against the harsh new London of guns and careless violence (delivered by Dirk Bogarde). A corny Ealing ending (Hue and Cry style) where the ordinary decent villains of London band together to catch George Dixon’s killer (unlikely we think). Gave birth to Dixon of Dock Green, which featured a copper hero even older than TJ Hooker.

Call the Midwife … an unlikely hit?

By John Rennie

WHEN WE originally wrote about Call the Midwife a few years ago, it seemed likely that Jennifer Worth’s book would join the ranks of hundreds of other East End memoirs – if better written and more entertaining than most of them. Little likelihood, it seemed then, that Worth (who retained her East End links long after she’d moved out of London, through

Jennifer Worth, author of Call the Midwife

Jennifer Worth, author of Call the Midwife

membership of the East London History Society). The book was actually a classic ‘sleeper’, selling steadily in local East End bookshops (and increasingly on Amazon of course) for years before the BBC picked it up.

It was an unlikely, though profitable autumn in her life, and as so often it happened by chance. As we wrote when reporting on Jennifer’s death: “She was in her sixties before she embarked on the career that gave her fame. Husband Philip recalls her leafing through a magazine on midwifery and chancing upon an article by midwife, Terri Coates: who argued that somebody should do for midwives what novelist James Herriot had done for vets. “Why not?” thought Jenny and began to pour her memories onto the page. Call the Midwife (2002) and Shadows of the Workhouse (2005) were steady rather than meteoric sellers at first. It was only when they were reissued in 2007 and 2008 that they really took off. A follow-up in 2009, Farewell to the East End was another hit, and TV would soon come calling.”

There are things to cherish about the TV series (Miranda Hart does a superb balancing act between comedy and drama) and the sugar is usually well complemented by a hefty dose of reality: lest we get too sentimental about how great the old East End was, we’re brought back to earth by illness, death and misery, no bad thing! There are things which work less well – in your writer’s opinion, a little Vanessa Redgrave in deathlessly

Call the Midwife

Call the Midwife

serious voice-over mode goes a long way – but it’s a terrific reminder of the struggles into the early days of healthcare in the Welfare State, as we used to call it. So don’t stop there. It’s all in Worth’s excellent writing. Take a look at her other books: you won’t be disappointed.


Henry Mayhew’s dodgy statistics on London

Just how drunk were Victorian East Enders? Did button makers quaff more pints in a day than opticians? Did bookbinders sink more gin than drapers? Hard statistics to collate and crunch you might think, but it didn’t stop the inexhaustible Henry Mayhew, who would die penniless in near obscurity, but whose ‘London Labour and the London Poor’ is still read today.

These days, data journalism is one of the buzz words in publishing, so Mayhew (writing in the 1850s) was arguably 150 years ahead of the game.The problem was that despite a forensic obsession with compiling statistics, Henry didn’t really know what he was doing, being a far better journalist than statistician. But along the way his endless writings about the East End, and especially the East End docks, yielded fascinating colour and detail.

Henry Mayhew comes down to us today as a social researcher and journalist, but he was much more than that – a larger than life man with a remarkable history before he took up his pen. One of 17 children of Joshua Mayhew, he went to Westminster School before heading to Wapping to run away to sea. After several years as a midshipman with the East India Company he returned to London, becoming first a trainee solicitor and then a freelance journalist. Mayhew rarely stood still, moving quickly from job to job (and at one point combining managing a West End theatre with his freelance jobs. His fleetness of foot proved handy when it came to escaping his creditors – a pattern that continued his whole life.

Mayhew found himself at the heart of much pioneering Victorian journalism. In 1842 he co-founded Punch magazine. A year later he was at the heart of the new Illustrated London News. Henry’s stock in trade was a sort of stats-based reportage. He would sail enthusiastically forth into the streets of the East End, his long-suffering wife Jane at his side as a copytaker, and seek out ordinary working people, recording their stories and observations on their (often miserable) lives.

His inability to avoid extrapolating from the facts they gave him generated his famously imaginative statistics. So, finding himself outside a Whitechapel theatre, talking to the sandwich vendor plying his trade there, he set off on one of his sallies. “This man calculated that in the saloons [and] concert rooms … at Limehouse, Mile End, Bethnal Green Road and elsewhere there might be … 70 sandwich sellers in all.” Now Henry extrapolates that the spending on ham sandwiches on the East End streets is “£1820 yearly, or 436,800 sandwiches.” There is much much more, as he goes on to calculate the cost per vendor of setting up in the ham sarnie trade: “2s for a basket, 2d for mustard, 6d for a knife and fork…” and so on, and on, and on.

Mayhew is scathing about official government statistics, with some justification. He believes they have got the number of street children wrong (he is almost certainly right) and attempts to calculate it himself from the returns from workhouses, hospitals and gaols. He tuts over their estimate of the number of London dustmen (so called because they collected coal ash or ‘dust’ in those days) and ups their figure from 254 to 1800, doing a back calculation from the number of London houses and an estimate of how much coal each domicile would burn each year.

And it was the coal trade that led Henry to his calculations on booze. Interviewing the coal whippers, heavers and backers down on the docks of Wapping, he is stunned by the amount they drank. One, who turns out to be “a good Latin and Greek scholar”, asserts: “If I have anything like a heavy day’s work, I consider three pints of porter a necessity.” Another states that: “Of my £1 wages, I need to spend at least 12s (60p) on liquor.” Gathering the other coal men together, Mayhew discovers the reasons. This was hot and thirsty work, the dust got into your throat, and there was precious little chance to slake your thirst if you were on a shift all day. Breaks were few, and there was no fresh water to be had.

This of course got Mayhew thinking: which trade drank the most? So emerged one of his most entertaining (if scientifically questionable) pieces of research, as he questioned an enormous number of East Enders about their drinking. He then collated figures for each trade, rating each for an average level of drunkenness. This, compiled from Metropolitan Police figures which were themselves rather dodgy, said that one person in 114 had an ‘above average level of drunkenness’. It’s hard to pin down what their ‘average level of drunkenness’ was however.

Henry picked up the figures and ran with them regardless. The least drunk East Enders were servants (only 1 in 586 was drunker than the average: unsurprising perhaps as it might lose you your living). Clergymen and grocers were also surprisingly abstemious, as were clockmakers, carvers and gilders – their work perhaps requiring a precision that would be destroyed by strong drink – or perhaps more prosaically it was simply solitary in its nature and they didn’t get out much.

Certainly it was the jobs where men did heavy work in gangs where boozing was at its worst – and perhaps that hasn’t changed so much. Irongmongers, bricklayers, millers and carpenters were very fond of a drink. But almost as soon as we conjure up a convincing argument, so it collapses. Surveyors, hatters and opticians were also notably thirsty (one in every 22.3 of the latter being drunker than your average cockney). Worryingly too, one in 68 doctors were above the average, one in 28.7 cab drivers and one in 11.8 surveyors. But the drunkest East Enders of all? Button makers, with one individual in every 7.2 being a heavier than average drinker. These days Tower Hamlets has no button makers and there seem to be East End pubs closing every day – now there’s a statistical correlation Mayhew could have fun with.

Fleet Street moves to the East End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fleet Street, Wapping and News International

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gilda O’Neill obituary

The sudden death of Gilda O’Neill at 59 has robbed the East End of a unique figure. Social historian, novelist and advocate for change, Gilda didn’t just write about the East End, she lived it.

O’Neill first hit the bookshelves in 1990 with a social history about hop picking, drawing on the memories of her mother and her own as a child of the 1950s, taken down to Kent in the dying days of the annual hopping expeditions. Pull No More Bines is a terrific book – there is no risk of a dry history here. O’Neill realised early, and never forgot, that whether you’re writing memoirs or fiction, it’s all about people and their stories. And the subtitle of that first book set the benchmark. ‘Memories of a Vanished Way of Life’ recognised that the East End these people loved had all but gone, with East Enders dispersed to Dagenham, to Basildon and beyond.
Gilda Griffiths was born and raised in Bethnal Green and Bow, leaving school at 15. Her family read like East Enders straight from central casting: one grandmother had a pie and mash shop, her grandfather was a tug skipper on the Thames, her great-uncle was the minder for a gambling den. Gilda did what lots of young East Enders did in the 1960s, she headed into the City for a succession of bar and office jobs. Then, like lots of young East Enders, she married young – to John O’Neill in 1971 after the pair had only been going out together a week . A son and daughter soon followed and hers might have been the story of a thousand other young women from the East End.

Except there was always an intelligence, a questioning and a demand for more. She enrolled at East London Poly and then the Open University. Her ‘Educating Rita’ experience made her realise a couple of things. First that she wanted to write. Second that she didn’t need to look anywhere for her material but back at home. Her parents Tom and Dolly had moved out of the East End to Dagenham by now, and Gilda became fascinated by the way the East End was being steadily pulled to pieces by policy makers. The East End wasn’t a collection of streets and buildings after all – it was a huge network of communities.

Pull No More Bines was a personal story as well as a social history. A Night Out with the Girls: Women Having a Good Time followed in 1993, then My East End: Memories of Life in Cockney London (1999). The comment by one happy reader about Our Street: East End Life in the Second World War (2003), says it all. ‘Real history about real people – not a load of dates and politics but first hand accounts of how people actually lived/survived through the second world war.’ The ironically titled Good Old Days: Crime, Murder and Mayhem in Victorian London came in 2006 and East End Tales in 2008.

Gilda’s workrate was formidable, as alongside the histories she began writing novels. The material was the same – an East End that was just out of sight, just about to be lost forever. They became hugely popular, with the writer turning out a book a year. A growing readership would devour The Lights of London, Playing Around or Getting There and impatiently wait for the next. The critics weren’t always kind. With shamelessly heart tugging cover photos of 1950s East End urchins – all basin cuts, bobs and cheeky smiles – and with the author’s name gold, embossed and larger than the title, O’Neill was never going to be a darling of the London Review of Books or the Booker Judges.

But, as her commissioning editor, Lorraine Gamman, wrote in an obituary this week, those people didn’t get it. Those who did were ‘the women who read Gilda in big print, or listened to her on audio books and wrote five-star reviews on Amazon, or the taxi drivers who heard and loved her contributions to the Danny Baker or Robert Elms radio shows.’

Those who dismissed the books as simply historical soap opera were missing the truth behind them. The Flanagans, Lovells and Tanners of ‘Rough Justice’ may be fictional families, but the men are casual dock workers, the Spanish Civil War and the threat of fascism in the East End is the backdrop. The historical details – large and small – are beautifully observed, as O’Neill drew on her background as a writer of East End histories, and of her own life. This may be fiction, but it’s no less true.

By now she had moved back to the East End, to a Limehouse much changed and gentrified since the 1950s and was doing her best to encourage others to stretch their wings. She spoke movingly at the Skills for Life Conference in 2008 on how her confidence had been crushed by teachers and career advisers. She became involved in the National Year of Reading with her message that ‘everybody has a story’ and that the policy makers should be listening to learners, not lecturing them. ‘Everyone has a story to tell,’ said Gilda.

And in her story, the personal and the general are never really separated. One of O’Neill’s most popular histories is an immaculately researched trawl through centuries of history, from the Romans, to the ‘stink industries’, through the Huguenots to the Bengalis of today. But its title ‘My East End’ makes it clear – it’s about the people who live here now. And so we get Gilda’s interviews with local pensioners, precious snippets of social history gathered before they are lost.

The East End of the early 1900s through to the 1950s (when an infant Gilda enters the story) was a time of poverty, when luck, juggling and mutual aid could just about get families from one payday to the next. People seemed to live in each others’ houses, especially the kids. It’s not a rose-tinted world. If there is happiness, laughter and a lot of love, there is also crime, drunkeness, violence, unemployment and early death. Throughout, O’Neill turns a sympathetic eye, seeming to say that people are good, but they often do bad things. Perhaps the element that the critics dismissed as sentiment and sugar was something else entirely – affection and kindness.

• Gilda O’Neill, writer, born 25 May 1951; died 24 September 2010

[boxout, can lose if too many words]

Gilda O’Neill’s books

Non fiction
Pull No More Bines: Hop-Picking: Memories of a Vanished Way of Life (1990)
A Night Out with the Girls: Women Having a Good Time (1993)
My East End: Memories of Life in Cockney London (1999)
Our Street: East End Life in the Second World War (2003)
The Good Old Days: Crime, Murder and Mayhem in Victorian London (2006)
East End Tales (2008)

The Cockney Girl (1992)
Whitechapel Girl (1993)
The Bells of Bow (1994)
Just Around the Corner (1995)
Cissie Flowers (1996)
Dream On (1997)
The Lights of London (1998)
Playing Around (2000)
Getting There (2001)
The Belts and Bow (2001)
The Sins of Their Fathers (2002)
Make Us Traitors (2003)
Of Woman Born (2005)
Rough Justice (2007)
Secrets of the Heart (2008)

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.

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

Israel Zangwill

Jewish immigration to the East End produced a melting pot of businessmen, entrepreneurs, writers, artists and musicians.
Among them was one writer who was unique – he not only grew up in the East End of East European Jews, he took it as the subject of his work. And in doing so he brought the story of the mass immigration to a much wider audience.
Israel Zangwill was born in 1864 at 10 Ebenezer Square, Stoney Lane, in the City of London – growing up in the streets off Brick Lane, living first in Fashion Street and then in Princes Street.
Israel’s father was a poor peddlar from the tiny country of Latvia, later to be swallowed up by the USSR.
Israel was to make his fame by turning out a series of popular novels on the theme of immigrant Jews – in successive years publishing Children of the Ghetto (1892), Ghetto Tragedies and The King of Schnorrers.
How he came from being the son of an impoverished immigrant to a popular and successful writer was a testament to the self-improvement ethic of the incoming Jews.
Triple honours
Israel became a pupil at the Jews Free School in Bell Lane, Spitalfields, and then became a teacher.
While still teaching he set aside his evenings to study for a degree at London University, eventually passing with triple honours.

And the energetic Zangwill was not content with work and study. While teaching in Bell Lane he was working on his first book, Motza Kleis, or Matzo Balls.
This lively account of market days in Spitalfields brought him an enthusiastic and loyal audience – and Zangwill never looked back.
Novels and plays followed, all richly observed slices of East End life. One of his most popular works was The Big Bow Mystery.
A huge cast of characters knock against each other trying to solve the mystery behind the strange death of Oliver Constance, one of the most prolific orators of his day.
Zangwill had a great flair for storytelling but, more than that, the mystery is a thoughtful satire of Victorian England, set “in London’s picturesque Bow district”.
But Israel’s interests in the history and future of his people had long been leading him beyond simply writing fiction.
He became a leading member of the Order of Ancient Maccabeans, a Zionist society established in 1891.
The Zionist movement was working toward the establishment of a Jewish homeland, a dream that became a reality with the birth of the nation of Israel in 1948.
And When Zionist leader Theodor Herzl visited London in 1896 he met Israel to discuss the plans for that state. Argentina and Uruguay were two of the venues proposed for the new homeland, as well as the eventual Israel of the Holy Land.
Defiant gesture
Zangwill attended the First Zionist Congress, supporting Herzl’s Uganda Territory plan. It was rejected, and a defiant Zangwill led the “Territorial-ists” out of the Zionist organization in 1905.
He swiftly established the Jewish Territorialists Organi-zation (ITO) whose object was to acquire a Jewish homeland where possible.
Following the securing of the Balfour declaration, named after the British political leader backing Jewish calls for a solution to the Arab Question and the forming of a Jewish state, the ITO fell into decline and by 1925 it was officially dissolved.
Zangwill was never to see the setting up of modern Israel. He died in 1926 in Preston, having laid much of the groundwork for his dream of a homeland – a future for the displaced Jews of Europe.
But a visit back to his books paints a rich picture of those people in the century before – and of the lives they lived in their long journey from eastern Europe on their way to the new Promised Land.