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Category: London’s immigrant communities

Whitechapel to Sierra Leone

Number 212 Whitechapel High Street is an unremarkable stretch of London street today — though doubtless home to good works as the site of the Methodist Church’s Whitechapel Mission. But two centuries ago, it was one of the linchpins of a much more ambiguous charitable institution… and it has a pivotal role in the history of London.

Whitechapel Mission logo

Whitechapel Mission logo with dove of peace

For this was the site of the White Raven tavern, and it was from here that the controversial Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor disbursed its funds, and launched a plan to resettle the ever-growing non-white population of London back in Africa. It’s a period in London history that’s uncomfortable to recall today… but part of London history it is.

The image of London as a white city before the large-scale immigrations of the 20th century is, of course, a myth. While those living in rural England would likely never have seen a Black, Asian or Chinese face, the story in the port cities of England, in London, Liverpool and Bristol, was different.

The Old Whitechapel Methodist Mission building

The Old Whitechapel Methodist Mission building

One of the major reasons was slavery, with many Black people being brought to London as servants, but there were also Black seaman who had signed up on British ships and found themselves settled, or marooned in London, alongside ‘Lascars’, as Asian seamen were known. And after 1776, many Black soldiers who had fought on England’s losing side in the American War of Independence, ended up back in London — refugees from retribution by the victors. Many suffered prejudice: though the word racism had not yet been coined a Black sailor seeking employment in London was unlikely to have much luck, and so many found themselves destitute.

And so it was that a group of London worthies established the Committee in in 1786 to help. But almost immediately they met suspicion from their beneficiaries — and little wonder. Among the founders of the committee were Thomas Beddington: a philanthropist, an abolitionist… but also a trader with the West Indies and a slaver. Alongside George Peters, the Governor of the Bank of England, there was John Julius Angerstein. Another self-professed philanthropist, Angerstein had grown so rich on his slaving estates in Grenada that he could stock his Pall Mall home with the finest collection of art in London. When he died, it would form the nucleus of the new National Gallery’s catalogue. And there was General Robert Melvill, Governor of the slave colony of Grenada.

Whitechapel Mission today

Whitechapel Mission today

Samuel Hoare, a Quaker and one of the founders of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was aboard too, as was Granville Sharp, who would become one of the most tireless campaigners for the rights of slaves in the celebrated Jonathan Strong case, but it was hardly surprising that many were sceptical about the motives of men so bound up in profiting from slavery.

Initially the alms distributed at the White Raven were for the relief of the Lascars, and then the Committee identified 250 ‘Blacks in Distress’, just 35 of them from the East Indies, the others originating from Africa and the West Indies. 100 of those said they had been in the Royal Navy before being washed up in London. Significant funds were raised, and distributed from the door of the White Raven, but the Committee soon had grander plans. Rather than trying to settle Black people in Wapping, Whitechapel and the City, how about finding a new home for them back in Africa?

London historians argue about the motives of the men. Were they trying in some small way to right the injustice of the countless million slaves who had been taken from Africa over the centuries? Or simply trying a little proto-ethnic cleansing of the streets of London, returning them to their once exclusively white status? And certainly Britain’s earliest attempts to resettle displaced Black people were less than successful. After the American Civil War, large numbers of freed slaves, and those who had fought on the losing side were offered the chance to resettle by the British authorities — in Nova Scotia. Not surprisingly perhaps, this experiment in a cold and unhospitable corner of America largely failed. The Committee, at their Whitechapel meetings, now set their eyes on a new state in Africa — Sierra Leone.

It’s a testament to how bad things must have been in London that any signed up to travel at all. The invitation, after being taken from Africa by force, transported halfway around the world in chains, and marooned in a foreign land, was to be uprooted once more, for a strange country most of them would never have seen (many of them would never have seen Africa at all, let alone Sierra Leone). to leave London and travel back to a part of Africa most of them had never seen. And yet, in October 1786, barges left London’s Wapping en route to three ships off Deptford (and thence to Africa). There were several hundred men, women and children aboard (they would be followed by another fleet from Portsmouth the following year).

Each signed an agreement that they would remain British subjects, and enjoy the protection of the Royal Navy, and each was handed a paper granted them citizenship of Sierra Leone. And in May 1787 they landed in ‘the Province of Freedom’ and set about building the new capital of Granville Town, named after Mr Sharp. The result was perhaps sadly predictable — disease and attacks from the local people cut a swathe through the colonists. But still they came.

The Committee continued meeting at Whitechapel’s White Raven in any event, and soon mutated into the Sierra Leone Company. The new colony, with its new capital Freetown, continued to welcome new settlers, including hundreds from the ill-conceived Nova Scotia experiment, and still they struggled. The new Africans found that their ‘protection’ from the British Government was a double-edged sword, with British companies holding trading rights for the colony, and their own ventures unable to thrive. The Sierra Leone Company refused to let the settlers have freehold of the land: the ‘freed’ Black settlers were still working for a company in far-off London. And the brave new world conceived in an East End pub was beginning to look horribly familiar.

Cigar makers of the East End of London

The trading vessels that set off for the New World, for Asia, and for the West and East Indies from the 16th century onward, brought back a number of goods, without which it’s impossible to imagine the London of today. No morning tea or coffee? No sugar with which to sweeten it? And where would Londoners be without the potato… a London without chip shops is a baleful prospect. But none of the new crops that came into Wapping seemed to catch on quite so quickly as tobacco. victorian caricatureThe first bales are said to have been landed from Virginia in 1586, and the first pipe of the stuff is supposed to have been smoked at the Pied Bull pub in Islington (though presumably somebody must have stopped for a smoke en route from Wapping to north London). Less than 30 years later there were some 7000 tobacconists in London, and despite the attempts of the tobacco-hating James I to tax the stuff out of existence (he described it as “a custome loathesome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine” in his famed 1604 essay A Counterblaste To Tobacco), Londoners couldn’t get enough. Literally. James had his ministers limit the Virginia planters to exports of no more than 100lb of the stuff a year. Just like modern governments, the monarch expressed a loathing of the drug while happily pocketing the excise duty. By the middle of the 1600s the health benefits of the weed were being proclaimed (a brilliant fiction that persisted into the middle of the 20th century), with Spitalfields apothecaries selling tobacco and prescribing it as a protection during the Great Plague that carried off around 100,000 of the estimated 460,000 Londoners in 1665. And despite the miserable failure of tobacco as a medicine, Londoners kept smoking, munching and sniffing the stuff (with chewing tobacco and snuff just as popular as pipe tobacco). Wapping, Whitechapel and Spitalfields tobacconists in the 1700s were identified by the large wooden figure of a black Indian (native American) with a crown and kilt of tobacco leaves. So lucrative was the trade that top artists were employed to produce cards and shop bills, with the young Hogarth turning his brush to tobacco adverts. As the centuries wore on the fashions changed. By the 19th century cigars and, increasingly cigarettes, were gaining popularity in London. The size of the trade is evidenced by the construction of Tobacco Dock at Wapping. And the great quantity of unrefined tobacco now being brought in to the Pool of London from Virginia and elsewhere was matched by the vigorous attempts of gangs such as the River Pirates and Heavy Horsemen  (not to mention many working on the docks) to liberate the stuff. So a bonded warehouse, with tight security needed to be built. The warehouses were part of the massive London Docks, begun on the marshes of Wapping in 1801 by John Rennie and opened four years later. And alongside grew up the East End cigar and cigarette industry. The East End has a plethora of trades that have come and gone. Lace-making, brewing, tanning and a host of other stink industries are now (largely) history, but the tobacco industry is almost forgotten. Maurice Zeegen, writing in 2003 of his own family firm, charted a fascinating and largely forgotten group of East End incomers, who made the business their own. “After the Huguenots [who settled in numbers after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, in 1598] and before the East European Jews [who arrived en masse from the late 19th century] the Spitalfields area was settled by significant numbers of poor Jews from, predominantly, Amsterdam. They were known as ‘Chuts’, thought to be a take on the sound of the immigrants’ word for ‘good’ in Dutch.” tobacco dock And while the Huguenots were renowned for their lace-making skills, and the 19th century arrivals would be (to a large degree) employed in the garment trades, the profession pursued by many of these people was cigar-making. Many small workshops and factories were established in Bethnal Green, Whitechapel and Spitalfields, among them was the cigar factory of Zeegen Brothers, situated in Chicksand Street, off Brick Lane. Maurice, great-grandson of one of the founders of the factory, writes of his family business surviving into the 1920s before being absorbed into the Godfrey Phillips cigarette company [itself also founded by a Dutch family], based in Jerome Street, Whitechapel. The 1911 History of the County of Middlesex (the area east of the City wall, in those days, belonging to the now defunct county) suggested that the tobacco industry was still a huge employer in what is now the East End. “The manufacture of tobacco is carried on very largely in East London and Hackney, which contain 76 factories for the production of tobacco, cigars, cigarettes, and snuff. In all London there are about 180 factories in this trade, and in the whole of England, the metropolis included, there are about four hundred and thirty, so that in the number of its tobacco factories East London occupies a conspicuous position.” The number of factories (some major operations such as the Carreras works in Camden, which would eventually relocate to Basildon in Essex, others small workshops with a handful of employees) was remarkable enough. But there were numerous small workshops too, employing pieceworkers to treat the tobacco, roll cigars and produce pipe and plug tobacco. The tobacco industry in the East End was thus very like its natural counterpart, the matchmaking industry, where for every giant Fairfield works (Bryant and May’s factory in Bow’s Fairfield Road, which is now the Bow Quarter, but was once the largest ‘manufactory’ in Europe) there were thousands making phosphorous matches in tiny workshops (even in their own homes), and suffering the horror of ‘phossy jaw’ as a result. The raw tobacco would be ‘liquored’ and ‘stripped’, then the leaf handed over to ‘stovers,’ who first placed it on a steam-pan to separate the fibres, and then on a fire-pan to make it fit for keeping and to improve its smoking quality. The final process was that of ‘cooling,’ where a current of cold air is passed through it to drive off the moisture. The cigars the East Enders made were known, reasonably enough, as ‘British cigars’ in the late 19th and early 20th century, and the quality — if variable — was often surprisingly good. Cuban cigars were the acme of smoking excellence of course, but were expensive. Reports of the time compare the best of the East End cigars as ‘infinitely superior’ to the fake Havanas flooding into the London Docks from Belgium and, by the early 1900s, Mexico. The huge cottage industry began to falter under the attack of cheap imports from the Americas and, in the early 20th century, from the new fashion for Egyptian cigarettes, as cigar smoking declined. Ironically it was the massive popularity of smoking in the 20th century that saw off the small East End firms. Adoption of the drug was driven by the big corporations who could afford to advertise their products and drive cigarettes from a minority pursuit to a habit pursued by most adults. Now it was all about the brand, and the East End cigarette factories died off one by one.     Cigar makers of the East End/east end life/9sep13   pics: the Jerome St factory; Tobacco dock; victorian caricature;

St Patrick’s Day … London Irish historical connections

I REALISED as I looked around my Essex classroom 40-odd years ago that pretty much all of us came from somewhere else. The name were Jewish, Welsh, Scots or Irish: even digging back a couple of generations, my own provenance was a good mongrel mix of Lowland Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cheshire and Norfolk. And of course most of us Essex people – from Romford, Ongar and Brentwood – had come from London a generation or so back. East Enders escaping the dirt and bombs of Charlton, Poplar and Tottenham for decent indoor plumbing and a front and back garden in Basildon or a suburban semi in Upminster.

But by far the biggest group was the Irish. Not surprising when you consider that that the occupants of the Emerald Isle had largely decamped during the mid-nineteenth century, seeking escape from poverty and famine and finding work in building the roads, railways and housing estates of a mushrooming London. Our city was built by the Irish (and they’d been coming for centuries before of course) but the English have always had an ambivalent, at times violently hostile attitude … no matter how much Irish blood runs in our veins. Dip into the DNA of most Londoners and you’ll find a bit of Cork, Kerry or Cavan in there. St Patrick’s Day is an excuse for Londoners to drink too much Guinness and paint the

John Lydon, No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs

John Lydon, No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs

town green. But let’s take a look at ten historic London-Irish connections that go beyond the blarney.

  1. In 1736 there are violent riots in Spitalfields, as locals turn on the Irish incomers, who differ in dress and culture and speak Gaelic.
  2. 1780: The Gordon Riots. The Irish had been settling in the East End for generations and there was a substantial population at the East End of Cable Street, which became known as Knockfergus. The eccentric MP, Lord George Gordon, instigated anti-Catholic riots in 1780, and it led to violent attacks on the homes of Irish Londoners there. By the time the smoke cleared on the Gordon Riots, 700 were dead.
  3. Huguenots would also settle in Spitalfields and, like the Irish, would be feared and attacked by some of the locals. In their case it was because they brought superior silk weaving skills which put the locals out of work. The Huguenots were Protestants of course, who would left the Low Countries to flee persecution after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. But many of their number would be encouraged to settle in the Irish ‘colonies’, in an echo fo the Scots Planters, who took looted Irish land. The roots of religious conflict between England and Ireland go deep, and are often very tangled.
  4. In the late 19th century, hysteria about revolution was running high in London, with genuine fear that the the overthrown of Crown and State was being plotted. The fears weren’t entirely without foundation of course. Most of the hysteria was directed at immigrants from Eastern Europe, who were bringing new socialist ideas with them, and from Ireland – from where Popish plotting against the Crown was suspected.
  5. Edmund Spenser, born in 1582 in West Smithfield. Spenser was a man of his time, combining a political role with his genius as a poet – he gave us The Fairie Queene of course. But the sublime beauty of his writing was matched by a brutally pragmatic approach to ‘The Irish Problem’. In his time as an administrator in Ireland, Spenser advocated a de facto genocide against the Irish people, in his pamphlet A View of the Present State of Ireland.
  6. In 1822, Sir Robert Peel became Home Secretary and proposed a new Metropolitan police force for London, basing it on the Royal Irish Constabulary he had founded eight years before (the first force to bear the nickname ‘Peelers’).
  7. 1912: A year of mass strikes in the East End and around Britain. For the first time, there was a union between the garment workers (largely Jewish) and the dockers (largely Irish) though the strike would peter out with little solid achieved.
  8. 1936: For Bill Fishman, an eyewitness at the Battle of Cable Street 24 years after the above dispute, 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.
  9. 19 Princelet Street, the East End’s Museum of Diversity. The Irish take their place alongside the Jews, Huguenots and others. And with the first-ever Jesuit Pope now being enthroned, it’s interesting to reflect just how dangerous it was for the followers of Ignatius Loyola (and Catholics generally) during certain periods of the East End’s past.
  10. No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish. London-Irishman John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) famously took this as the title of his memoir, citing this as a sign commonly seen in guesthouses in London in the 1950s. Debate than raged about how common (if at all) such signs actually were, but certainly Irish labourers arriving from Cork and looking for board would find some doors slammed in their faces. And if you were black…

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

Bengalis in London’s East End

It was a baptism such as happened in City and East End churches thousands of times each year, if rather grander than most, as the Lord Mayor of London was in attendance. The year was 1616 and the venue St Dionis Church, the only extraordinary thing was that the child was Bengali and his given name of ‘Peter’ had been personally selected by King James I as his ‘Christian’ name.

The changing ethnic mix of Lodon and the East End is often presented as a simple, linear process. Huguenots arrive in the late middle ages, followed by the Irish and then the Jews in the 19th century. Enter the late 20th century and the Bengalis and Somalis come. History, thankfully, isn’t that tidy, though the major arrivals often accompany seismic historical change. So, William I’s invasion of England brought Jews to settle in London, and the East India Company’s economic annexing of India from the early 1600s brought Bengalis to London. A new book, Bengalis in London’s East End*, weaves the disparate strands of Bengali life in London back together, and the pattern that emerges is more complex still.

Bengalis seem to have been in the East End even before the East India Company got going. There is even evidence that Bengalis were on the early Company ships that headed out to India to establish stations and factories. Many of them were probably returning to a subcontinent they had never seen, the children of Bengalis who had settled in Portugal following Portugal’s own, earlier, expeditions to India. In 1607, the first East India Ships out of Wapping were recruiting crew and up stepped four ‘Indians’ – Marcus, John Mendis, John Rodrigoe and John Taro. An English first name (frequently John) followed by a Hispanic surname was common for these ‘Portuguese Lascars’.

As the decades wore on, more and more Bengalis settled in the East End. Some, of course, were slaves, many of them ‘earning’ their freedom, many of them escaping. Owners would post notices offering rewards for the return of their ‘property’, rather as people today would post a bill for a missing cat. Many more were Bengali seamen settled in London as free men, perhaps sending for their families or more likely setting up home with local women. Conditions were frequently appalling and the East India Company in 1782 records lascars arriving at its Leadenhall Street offices ‘reduced to great distress and applying to us for relief’. Charities sprung up, and as early as 1786 there was a ‘Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor’.

Increasingly the men were housed in barracks or hostels – although the numbers grew there didn’t seem to be Banglatowns to match the Chinatowns of Limehouse and the other port cities. The East End does seem to have been more welcoming than many ports though. Seaman Sona Miah describes coming to London in 1937, having jumped shipped at Glasgow, because ‘London very good … people were respect coloured people’.

The historical links between London and Sylhet are beautifully outlined in words and pictures – you’ll discover as much about the East India Company as you’ll ever need to know – and the writers entertainingly depart from the historical timeline into social history. A trip down Brick Lane today confirms the incredible vibrancy and colour of Bengali dying and textiles, but the authors confirm it goes back centuries. Daniel Defoe was one of many grey-clad Englishmen who protested at the shocking colours and fabrics that arrived from India including the ‘diaphonous muslins of Bengal’ which ‘cost little pay and are tawdery gay’.

Meanwhile, the massive offices constructed in the East End by tea merchants such as Lipton’s (whose warehouse dominated the corner of Bethanl Green Road and Shoreditch High Street before it was bombed in World War II), Brooke Bond (on Whitechapel High Street), Kearly and Tonge and many others bore testament not just to the British love of a brew but to the movement back and forth between Bengal and London of goods and people. The Bengali city of Kolkata (Calcutta in post-partition India) is today a city of 15m people. Extraordinary to think that it was founded by English sailor Job Charnock as a village back in 1687. It soon became a port for the East India Company, and by the 1850s would be dispatching tons of the fragrant teas of Darejeeling, Assam and Chittagong to London.

There are some lovely anecdotes too. The authors note what was (possibly at least) the serving of the first curry in Britain, in 1809. Provincial administrator Robert Lindsay had distinguished himself in Sylhet first by antagonising the local people with his tax-collecting activities and then dealing with an angry mob by taking refuge in the local mosque and shooting a holy man. Returning to England he might have hoped to forget the past, but it was reawakened by a visit from Syed Ullah, one of the holy man’s followers. A potentially uncomfortable encounter seems to have gone rather well, with Ullah returning to Lindsay’s home to cook curry for the company.

Back in the Indian subcontinent, Britain’s often bloody and brutal rule reached a conclusion of sorts in 1971. Having suffered brutal subjugations in the aftermath of the 1857 rebellion against British rule, the terrible famine in 1943 that cost some 3m lives, and then the 1947 partitioning of Bengal between India and Pakistan, East Pakistan successfully fought for its independence in 1970-71, emerging as Bangladesh. In the years before and after independence, Bengalis arrived in the East End in greater numbers, and so was born the modern Bengali East End, centred around Brick Lane. East Enders of all colours and creeds would do well to remember it’s about a lot more than just curry though.

The immaculately researched and constructed Bengalis in London’s East End charts this long and usually buried history. My only complaint was the frustrating message ‘not yet available’ when I searched for the title on Amazon. It’s a huge oversight that must quickly be rectified. For anyone wanting to understand one of the strongest cultural threads in the fabric that is modern Britain, this book is an essential, combining good scholarly research, assiduously sourced material and a hugely entertaining read. And that shouldn’t be limited to those of us who can pick it up from the bookshops of the East End.

*Bengalis in London’s East End by Ansar Ahmed Ullah and John Eversley, published by Swadhinata Trust, ISBN 9780956574503.

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.

The end of Chinatown in Limehouse

The Chinese community in Limehouse reached its peak just after the First World War. Though previous estimates put the numbers at around 3,000, they are now thought to have numbered no more than 300.

But the London newspapers were working overtime with scare stories about what was (by more reasoned accounts) a peaceable community. In 1922 the Empire News warned that ‘mothers would be well advised to keep their daughters as far away as they can from Chinese laundries and other places where the yellow men congregate.’

And it was with the supposed seduction of innocent white girls that the papers got most excited. The fiction of Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde and especially Sax Rohmer had been rich with young upper class girls in Limehouse opium dens, sunken-eyed and with a ghostly pallor, their healthy glow sucked from them by dissipation and opium.
Drugs and the East End docks

In First World War London there was a new threat. Nightclubs had first opened in London just before the War, but with the onset of hostilities licensing was tightened up, forcing them underground (often literally). At the same time, the first limits on licensed premises came in – there was a new morality in the air. Cocaine, previously associated with the upper classes, became more widely available (and cheaper), and the Army became worried that servicemen would take to the drug. The drugs were arriving in Britain through the docks, most of all the East End docks.

The stories hit the front pages in November 1918, when actress Billie Carleton was found, the morning after the Victory Ball at the Albert Hall, dead in her bed. Her maid found a gold box containing cocaine on her bedside table. The drug had been supplied by her boyfriend, who had in turn bought the drugs from a Scottish woman named Ada and her Chinese husband Lau Ping You. The likelihood is that it wasn’t the cocaine that killed Carleton, but that she choked after taking medication.

The Yellow Peril and Brilliant Chang

There were calls in Parliament for the deportation of all Chinese and the Pictorial News ran a series of pieces on the East End’s ‘yellow peril’ – the trail soon led back to Brilliant Chang. The Limehouse marine contractor had by now progressed to running a Regent Street restaurant where, according to the paper ‘he dispensed Chinese delicacies and the drugs and vices of the Orient.’ The paper wrote that Chang ‘demanded payment for his drugs in kind’ and advised that women ‘who retained sufficient decency and pride of race’ turn down ‘this fellow with lips thin and cruel tightly drawn across even yellow teeth’.

In 1919, there were riots in Limehouse, as readers of the penny press took the law into their own hands. The courts started hitting the Chinese hard too. A typical sentence for opium possession was now hard labour then deportation; some were even deported for gambling on the popular game of puck-apu.
Cocaine raids in Limehouse

In 1922, Freda Kempton, a nightclub dancer and major user of cocaine, visited Chang’s restaurant. Later that day, she went into convulsions and died. At her inquest, Chang was portrayed as a magnet for susceptible white women. The ‘short, elegant, self-confident figure who dressed in fur-collared coats and grey suede shoes’ was hauled in. The police couldn’t connect him to Kempton’s death, but his Limehouse warehouse was raided and a quantity of cocaine found. Before jailing him for 18 months, the Recorder of London told him ‘It is you and men like you who are corrupting the womanhood of this country.’

On release, Chang was taken from Wormwood Scrubs to Fenchurch Street Station, then to the Royal Albert Docks and put on a ship. He was seen off ‘by unhappy girls, with dope-sunken eyes and pallid cheeks’. Chang wasn’t seen in Limehouse again, and the legend grew. He had jumped ship in Port Said, set up a drug business in Zurich, died blind and penniless in Shanghai.

In the atmosphere of hysteria, nobody was going to complain about the razing of Chinatown. The local council decided to clear the ‘slum area’ in 1934 (while leaving numerous worse slums standing). Limehouse Causeway was widened and the shops, restaurants and clubs swept away.

Further reading: The Underworld by Duncan Campbell, BBC Books, 1994, ISBN 0563367938; Dope Girls by Marek Kohn, Granta 2003, ISBN 1862076189
See also

Cable Street – 74 years on

In 1936 a battle took place on the streets of the East End that was to focus the eyes of Britain on the growing threat of fascism in its midst.

A plaque on a wall in Dock Street tells the story. ‘The Battle of Cable Street: The people of East London rallied to Cable Street on 4 Ocotber 1936 and forced back the march of the fascist Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts through the streets of the East End … They shall not pass.’

And this Sunday, 8 October, there is a programme of events* to celebrate the 70th anniversary of that remarkable day. A procession, street theatre, exhibition, films, music, history and stalls (not to mention the Cable Street mural) combine to remind East Enders of why their stand mattered then … and matters just as much now.

Oswald Mosley had served in the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War, being invalided out of the forces following a plane crash in 1916. In 1918, at just 21, he became an MP, the youngest in the House of Commons, representing the Conservatives in Harrow. But Mosley was in a hurry, and with a disdain for what he saw as tired parties staffed with mediocre men. In 1926 he crossed the floor of the House, and was elected Labour MP for Smethwick. Appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in the second Labour administration of 1929 he swiftly resigned again – furious that his plan for dealing with mass unemployment were ignored by the party leadership.

The impatient Mosley now formed and headed his own party, the New Party. They were unsuccessful in the elections of 1931, and once again he moved on. In 1932, fired by visits to Europe and the examples of Hitler and Mussolini, he formed the British Union of Fascists (BUF). The platform was anti-corporatist (especially anti the banks), protectionist and anti-Communist. But Mosley was taking on much more than that from the continental fascists.

An increasingly anti-semitic tone coloured his speeches – Jews were cast as the villains of international big business and banking. And his speeches were protected by the ‘Blackshirts’ who would brutally break up any disturbance. Mosley’s links to the Nazis in Germany were close – he married Diana Mitford in Goebbels’ home in Germany in 1936, with Hitler a guest. The newly-weds were also negotiating with Hitler to broadcast radio transmissions from Germany to Britain.

Mosley’s public marches were becoming increasingly provocative too, and a planned parade through the Jewish heartland of the East End was to prove the final straw. Remarkably, the march was legal – Government had been strongly petitioned by local people and politicians to ban the parade through Cable Street but had refused. A mixture of locals, Communist, Socialist and Jewish groups (many from out of the area and to a total of an estimated 250,000) erected roadblocks to stop the BUF passing.

So began ‘The Battle of Cable Street’, with running battles between the anti-fascists and police, who were trying to force a path for the BUF. With the Blackshirts largely shielded behind police lines, relatively little fighting was to take place between the BUF and the protestors. Fenner Brockway, Secretary of the Independent Labour Party, was injured by a police horse and, realising the carnage that would ensue if the fascists were helped by the police into the heart of the area, telephoned the Home Office. Mosley was ordered to cancel his march and the BUF were rerouted towards Hyde Park.

It wasn’t the end of the fascists in the East End. The following week, the windows of every Jewish-owned shop in the Mile End Road were smashed. And in the March 1937 local elections the BUF polled 23 per cent of the vote in Bethnal Green; l0.3 per cent in Limehouse and 14.8 per cent in Shoreditch. “The size of their vote was a surprise even to those in touch with the East End,” reported The Observer on 7 March that year. Mosley was to continue to address rallies around London over the following years.

But with the 1936 Public Order Act had come the banning of civilians parading in military uniform. That had removed the Blackshirts focus … and perhaps their appeal. Oswald Mosley would be interned in 1940, and the BUF itself later banned. By now war had started and the East End was involved in the bigger fight against fascism.

London History: 100 faces of the East End by John Rennie is available now; £8.99; ISBN: 978-1-4116-6608-5 at A history of London and the people who made it. Pen pictures of Attlee, Captain Cook, Sir Walter Raleigh, Stalin, Gandhi, Lew Grade, Steve Marriott, Fu Manchu, Sylvia Pankhurst, Lionel Bart, The Tichborne Claimant, John Wesley, Terry Spinks, Joseph Conard and dozens more…

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.”

History of Brick Lane

Back in April 1999, Brick Lane was the second target in a bomb campaign targeting minorities in London. A week earlier Brixton, with a large Black community had been targeted. A week later, a Soho gay pub, the Admiral Duncan, in Old Compton Street, was to be hit with tragic consequences, dozens were injured and three died.

At first the police and local people thought fascist terrorists were involved, and indeed Combat 18 claimed responsibility. The eventual culprit, David Copeland, certainly had a grudge against minorities, but turned out to have been working alone. But why did he target Brick Lane?
Brick Lane a Roman burial ground

For centuries this area has been the home of immigrants, outsiders and dissidents. Brick Lane was originally the home of the dead. For centuries it was a Roman burial ground, positioned deliberately outside the walls of the City of London. This outsider status starts to seem more significant as the centuries progress.

Bricks and tiles began to be made here in the late 16th century … hence the name. By 1603, a quarter of a century after the trade started, John Stow called its buildings as ‘filthy cottages’. A rector of Christ Church described it as ‘a land of blood and beer’. This has always been a poor area.

In 1675, when 1,300 new buildings squeezed onto the old market gardens, Brick Lane was seen as a centre of non-conformity, as citizens resisted the authority of the established Anglican Church. And in 1612, Britain’s first Baptist chapel was built here.
Silk weavers and Huguenots

There was continual immigration and continual protest. The early eighteenth century saw protests in the Spitalfields streets, the existing residents complaining as the newly built-up area was used to house Huguenots, refugees from religious persecution in the modern Holland and Belgium.

The weavers came to settle around Fournier and Elder Streets and soon drove the existing weavers out of business. Protest as they might, the locals couldn’t argue with the quality of the incomers’ work … they had been invited in by the Crown for just that reason. Spitalfields became famous for fine cloths and the area became wealthy, with an affluent middle class.
Irish in Spitalfields

The Irish were the next big wave of immigrants to Spitalfields. Lord George Gordon stoked up Protestant panic about the influence of Rome to stoke up the Gordon Riots in 1780. Many Irish immigrants had moved into the eastern edges of the City, looking for work and escaping persecution back in Ireland, as well as starvation and poverty.

On June 2, 1780, mobs burned Roman Catholic chapels in Spitalfields and Gordon’s motley crew made for Downing Street. Most of them never got that far. They were waylaid at Langdale’s Brewery in Holborn. Many drank so deeply they died in the streets of alcohol poisoning. Gordon was arrested for treason and saw out his years in prison … though he lived there in some comfort.

Brick Lane got an unfortunate notoriety in the 1880s with Jack the Ripper and the Whitechapel Murders. A series of killings that have never been solved, and exercise the public imagination all the more for that.
Jewish immigration to Spitalfields

The cultural mix turned again with the massive Jewish immigration of the late 1800s. Escaping the pogroms of Eastern Europe, they alighted at Wapping and headed for the cheapest part of London, Brick Lane. This was the community that gave birth to larger than life figures such as Jack Cohen, Lionel Bart, Steven Berkoff, Bernard Delfont Abraham Beame and Lew Grade to name a few.

In the 1930s British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley led his Blackshirts on marches around Brick Lane and Club Row. The challenge culminated in the Battle of Cable Street, on October 5, 1936.
From Jewish Brick Lane to Banglatown

The Jewish community has dispersed once more, leaving a few remnants such as Tubby Isaacs cockle stall and the world-famous Brick Lane Beigel Shop. And by the 1970s, Brick Lane was changing again. The Jewish population was replaced by a new wave of refugees, Bangladeshis – many fleeing the war that led to the secession of the new Bangladesh from Pakistan.

Brick Lane again became a target for fascists, with the National Front and then the BNP marching through the area. But fascist marchers come and go, and elicit little support from outside their own numbers.

On Brick Lane today you will notice that some of the mosques carry a Star Of David above the door: synagogues converted to new use. Some of them were even Protestant churches before that. Brick Lane (or Banglatown) adapts, absorbs and goes on.