Subscribe in a reader

OR ... get the weekly East End History newsletter

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner



Category: Religion and the East End

William West — unwitting Jack the Ripper suspect

It was the end of a long day for William West as he left the offices of the Worker’s Friend newspaper in Whitechapel, with the street lamps barely penetrating the unlit Dutfield’s Yard.

Woolf Wess

Woolf Wess

A normal day for the young immigrant. But In those early hours of 30 September 1888 he would unwittingly find himself caught up in the Whitechapel Murders. We’ll never know for sure whether he stumbled across the body of Elizabeth Stride, the third victim of the serial killer who would become notorious as ‘Jack the Ripper’, or simply passed on oblivious, but West would be called as the first witness in the inquest of the unfortunate ‘Long Liz’. For West, a passionate socialist who would run like a thread through the Jewish workers’ movements of the late 19th and early 20th century, this had a double terror. The 27-year-old had arrived in Whitechapel in the late 1870s, fleeing the anti-Jewish pogroms in Lithuania, and bearing his birth name, Woolf Wess. Stumbling upon the victim of a murder would be horrific enough, but Woolf would have been well aware that many in the press and public alike were already trying to associate the Whitechapel Murders with the large Jewish community in Whitechapel, with increasingly hysterical theories of religious ritual killings. West was ‘the most modest of men’ according to that leading light of East End socialism Rudolf Rocker, but like so many of his fellows, he had undergone an extraordinary journey to end up in Whitechapel. He was born in Vilkmerge in Russia (now Ulkomar in Lithuania) in 1861, the son of a master baker, and was apprenticed at 12 to a shoemaker. At 20, he was working as a factory machinist in the Russian town of Dvinsk (now Daugavpils in Latvia) but desperately looking for a way to escape. A choice of horrors awaited: death in one of the pogroms sweeping Eastern Europe or military services in the Tsar’s army. So, in 1881 he was smuggled onto a boat to London.

Arbeter_Fraynd

Arbeter Fraynd newspaper

A skilled shoemaker, machinist and baker, he easily found work in Whitechapel, but was appalled by the conditions of work and the exploitation of his fellow immigrants. He was also a hard worker and a fast learner, quickly gaining fluent English, alongside Russian, German and Yiddish. He put his energies into organising and directing the men and women he worked among. In 1885, he co-founded the International Workingmen’s Educational Club in Berners Street (now Henriques Street), just south of the Commercial Road, and helped start the Arbeter Fraynd (Workers’ Friend), translating news and radical views into the Yiddish that was the everyday language of Jewish Whitechapel. Questioning at the inquest focused heavily on West’s movements, and the comings and goings at the newspaper and club, but he gave no mention of seeing Stride let alone stumbling across the body. The coroner wanted to know how many members the club had (70 or 80, working men of any nationality could join). He asked about its politics (it was political, a socialist club). How did members get involved? (they were seconded by other members). Did ‘low women’ frequent the area? (he had seen them on occasion). And William Wess (as he was called at the inquest) was questioned in minute detail about the topography of the club, the yard and their surroundings and about his own journey home (the few minutes walk to his lodgings on Cannon Street Road). West had nothing to fear in the end, and neither — soberingly — did the murderer. The killer was never brought to justice and it’s highly improbable we’ll ever know his true identity. The young socialist, duty done, would go on to be a lynchpin of East End radicalism. In 1889 he served as secretary of the strike committee during the East End tailors strike, alongside Charles Mowbray and John Turner. And in 1891, the increasingly popular orator set out on a speaking tour of England, alongside stalwarts of London socialism Kropotkin, Malatesta and Yanovsky. He became a skilled typesetter, working on the new Freedom newspaper, and drew on another of his talents, learned at his master baker father’s side, to set up a co-operative bakery in Brushfield Street, Spitalfields.

Old Dvinsk

Old Dvinsk

During the 1890s, Wess founded and became secretary of the East London Workers Unions; then served as secretary of the International Tailors, Machinists and Pressers’ Trade Union, and the United Ladies and Mantle Makers’ Association. Then, in the early 1900s, he seems to have stepped back from union work, taking a job as a book-keeper in a tobacco factory and sharing a house in Leyton with his friend Tom Keell (the manager of Freedom) and his wife Lillian. It all fell apart when William and Lillian ran off together and by 1906 they were back in Whitechapel, setting up the Arbeiter Fraint club in Jubilee Street. Lillian even tried to set up an Anarchist Society school in the area, but with little success. And in June 1906, William served on the tailors’ strike committee alongside Rudolf Rocker. To the end of his life, West remained enmeshed in the politics of the Left, joining the Labour party in the 1930s, while running the London Freedom Group. He died in May 1946 at 84. But one strange postscript remains. Years later, a ‘friend of a friend of West’ later reported that on that long ago night in 1888, the spooked printer had discovered Stride’s body, but moved it further away from the offices of the newspaper and the club, lest members be implicated in the killing. Truth — or yet another fantasy in the ever-murkier world of ‘Ripperology’? We’ll never know.

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…

Cosmo Lang, Bishop of Stepney, Archbishop of Canterbury

Cosmo Lang as archbishop of canterbury

Cosmo Lang as archbishop of canterbury

ARCHBISHOPS of Canterbury are swiftly forgotten after their reign is over (the odd Thomas A Becket aside). The cleric simply joins the dozens who have filled the role over a millennium and a half – and time rolls on.

But the colourfully monikered Cosmo Lang – prizes to anyone under pension age who had that name on the tip of their tongue – has re-emerged from ecclesiastical obscurity over the past couple of years. First he appeared in The King’s Speech, portrayed as a meddling fusspot by Derek Jacobi; trying to cut George VI’s speech therapist Lionel Logue out of his role in preparing the monarch for his coronation speech.

And earlier this year, revelations emerged that he had played a key role in engineering the removal of George’s dissolute older brother from the throne, having apparently decided that Edward VIII was morally unfit to lead the country. As history has steadily amassed the case against Edward – feckless and self obsessed, idle and casual about his official papers, cavalierly close to bringing down the monarchy, and a Nazi sympathiser – it may seem that Lang had a point. But he would be savagely derided in the press, and not for the first time. Controversy had dogged this serious minded son of the manse, but to his old parishioners in Stepney, Cosmo Lang was a very different, and much loved character.

When Lang was ‘called’ to be Bishop of Stepney in 1901, most of his flock were probably indifferent, if they even knew who he was. Of two million East Enders, most of them living in poverty or very near it: there would be a small minority attending a Church of England service on a Sunday morning. And the attitude towards the local vicar would generally be dismissive. East Enders had seen a lot of do-gooders, a lot of philanthropists, and heard a lot about God down the years, but hadn’t seen their housing or the health and welfare of their children increase to any great degree.

But Lang already knew the East End. Almost 20 years before, as a student at Oxford, he had heard a sermon by Samuel Augustus Barnett, Vicar of Whitechapel, and become an enthusiastic evangelist for the settlement movement, as Oxford students became educational ‘missionaries’ to Tower Hamlets. Barnett would soon found Toynbee Hall, and Lang would spend so much time working at the Commercial Street settlement that he was reprimanded for neglecting his degree by his tutors.

Two decades on, Lang would spentdhis early days as Bishop travelling around his new diocese, not in a chauffered car, but on buses and trams. He was horrified but not surprised by the poverty he saw still. Of course, clergymen were still seen as prissy do-gooders, liable to stiffen the atmosphere when they entered the public bar or the theatre. But it was a visit to the famed Wonderland boxing club in Whitechapel that won Lang a new sobriquet. Unbothered by the blood, sweat, betting and swearing, he climbed into the ring to referee a bout, being familiar with pugilism from his Oxford and Toynbee Hall days. The locals dubbed him ‘the fighting bishop’ and Lang – who wouldn’t pass up the chance to proselytise – gave an impromptu sermon. “I am on a fighting platform,” he declared. “And it’s good for the old church to take off its coat in a good cause and put on its gloves.”

For Lang was in a fight, as political as it was religious. Although he had been a Tory at Oxford, he was of a liberal hue and mixed easily with the East End’s political leaders, including Will Crooks and George Lansbury (even encouraging the latter back into church). In 1905, he and Lansbury joined the Central London Unemployed Body, set up by government to fight unemployment. He spoke out at Church congresses on how socialism was a growing force (not necessarily a welcome one to Lang) and how the Church should respond to it. And he became a tireless fundraiser for the East End, preaching in richer parishes around southern England and urging congregations to dig deep for the East London Church Fund. The money would go toward providing additional clergy and lay workers in the poorest parts of Stepney, Whitechapel, Poplar and the rest.

He was a rising star, but nobody could have anticipated how meteoric the rise would be. In 1909, at just 44, Lang was enthroned Archbishop of York, an extraordinary leap from the suffragan bishopric of Stepney. Popular wisdom had it that prime minister Herbert Asquith, irritated by political lobbying for the job, had deliberately irked the establishment by picking the youngest man he could find.

Lang took to his role, rather too well according to many. He became a confidant of George V, taking great delight in the vestments, rituals and trappings of his job, and was dubbed “more courtier than cleric”. Biographer Alan Wilkinson writes that, from being “the people’s prelate” he began to act as a “prince of the church”. And he seemed to have lost the popular touch. Speaking out against crude anti-German propaganda during the First World War, he was shocked at the pasting he got in the press. The stress had a dramatic effect. Lang suffered alopecia and pictures of the day show a boyish figure in his mid-forties transformed in just a few years into an elderly man.

By the time he was enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1928, Lang’s socially campaigning East End days were long gone. Retreating into his conservatism, he refused to take sides in the Spanish Civil War and supported appeasement of Hitler and his fascist allies. But it was for his role in the abdication crisis of 1936 that Lang became most vilified. Two days after Edward abdicated, Cosmo Lang put the boot into the departing King in a speech, saying: “From God he received a high and sacred trust. Yet by his own will he has … surrendered the trust … [because of ] a craving for private happiness … [which he sought] in a manner inconsistent with the Christian principles of marriage.” He then turned to the new King and his speech impediment, with: “He has brought it [the stammer] into full control, and to those who hear it it need cause no sort of embarrassment, for it causes none to him who speaks.”

A popular poem was soon doing the rounds, berating the self-important prelate:

My Lord Archbishop what a scold you are!
And when your man is down how bold you are!
In Christian charity how scant you are!
Oh! Old Lang Swine, how full of Cantuar! [neatly combining two puns, one on Lang’s signature as Archbishop, ‘Cosmo Cantuar’, the other referencing his Scottish birth].

When Lang retired in 1942, he had, in his almost unprecedented 33 years as a bishop travelled a long way from his radical roots. He died in 1945, collapsing on his way to catch a train at Kew Gardens station.

Peter Kuenstler at Oxford House

View Peter Kuenstler at Oxford House in a larger map

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

Oxford House and Clutton-Brock

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

Wartime work at Oxford House, Bethnal Green

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

Oxford House and Webbe Boys Club

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

Zeppeling raids and Oxford House

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

Oxford House and air raids

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

Leaving Oxford House, Bethnal Green

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

Frederick Charrington

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

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

Christ Church Spitalfields

Christ Church, Spitalfields was officially reopened last week after 30 years of restoration work, £10m spent, and a battle for its survival that started back in the fifties and sixties.

The brief for Nicholas Hawksmoor’s masterpiece in 1714 demanded that Christ Church should have an ‘awe-full majesty’. Two and a half centuries later the monolithic Spitalfields church was simply in an awful state, and came within a whisker of demolition. That Christ Church escaped the wrecking ball and emerged this week, refurbished, resplendent and ready for business is of massive credit to local people and architectural enthusiasts who were determined that the flower of Britain’s brief blossoming of Baroque architecture should not be lost.
Hawksmoor and Christopher Wren

Christ Church was to have been one of 50 new churches for London, themselves only part of a bigger plan – nothing less than the complete rebuilding of London itself. Its architect was Nicholas Hawksmoor, a figure now shrouded in mystery and myth, and a student of Sir Christopher Wren, who fancied himself the architect of the new London.

Hawksmoor had been born to a family of Nottinghamshire farmers, probably in 1661, just five years before the Great Fire would raze London to the ground. Precociously fascinated by architecture he arrived in London in the late 1670s to take up a post as a clerk with Wren, the Government’s Surveyor General. This would have been little more than a draughtsman’s job, realising the detail of the master’s grandiose plans, but Hawksmoor learned quickly, and was promoted quickly too.

New St Pauls Cathedral, 1680

During the 1680s, Hawksmoor worked on the new St Paul’s Cathedral, Chelsea Hospital, Hampton Court Palace and Greenwich Hospital. As well as needing reconstruction after the fire, London was growing fast, and it was an exciting time for an architect, with new ideas reaching England from the Continent. Men would travel to Italy and Greece to observe Classical architecture, incorporating the pillars and pediments of the Greek and Roman forms into their work.

Hawksmoor, who by the turn of the seventeenth century was working with the other star architect of the era, John Vanbrugh, was not immune to the trend. While working with Vanbrugh on Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace, the aspiring architect was also soaking up the lessons of the past. But without the financial means of many of his contemporaries, Hawksmoor gained his knowledge of the old forms from books, building a huge library of architectural drawings.
Pyramids and Temple of Solomon

Ironically he travelled broader and deeper than many of those who ventured abroad. He studied Graeco-Roman architecture, Palladio and the rest, but was disdainful of contemporaries who couldn’t move beyond the ‘rules’ of the ancient orders. The eclectic student brought in Egyptian forms, notes from the Pyramids and the Temple of Solomon. Decorations on his churches made reference to Freemasonry – fuelling the mythology that has fascinated the likes of novelist Peter Ackroyd.

Christopher Wren meanwhile, had seen the Great Fire as not so much a problem as an opportunity. The higgledy-piggledy streets of the mediaeval London had been burned, they could now be swept away for ever and a bold new plan of straight roads, clean lines and smoothly white stone buildings arise in their place. Though he was to be frustrated in this – the rebuilding of London was much more conservative than he had hoped – business was still good for the money-minded Wren.
Great Fire, Churches & Noncomformists

He had already completed the rebuilding of the 52 mediaeval churches of the City lost in the Great Fire when an Act of Parliament was passed in 1711, commissioning the building of 50 new churches in what were then the suburbs. Parliament was worried by the unruly organic growth of London. The East End in particular, with its transient population of immigrants and dissidents, worried Government and Church. East of the City was a home for religious non-conformists and freethinkers, and a possible bedding ground for revolution: what London needed was missionary work by the established Church of England.

In the event, only 12 of the new churches were built before the money ran out. Three were in the East End: Wapping’s St George in the East, Limehouse’s St Anne’s, and Christ Church – Hawksmoor’s masterpiece. With rounded arches, rather than the pointed Gothic style familiar from the mediaeval (and later Victorian) places of worship, it’s a departure for the London church. Huge, hewn from white stone, with imposing rounded columns standing free of the body of the church, this is a building that positively glows – all the more so since being freed of the grime and ill-conceived Victorian alterations that cloaked its beauty.
Friends of Christ Church

In 1956 the church was declared unsafe and was closed, gradually rotting during the sixties and seventies. But the same activists who helped save the houses of Spitalfields from threatened destruction in the 1970s started a movement to save the building. The Friends of Christ Church was formed in 1976. It was 20 years before a Lottery grant of £2.4m was secured to save the exterior, with further funds following in 2002 to save the inside of the church.

‘We hope the church now looks as Hawksmoor designed it,’ said Red Mason, the architect who worked on the project for some 30 years.

Charles Booth in the East End


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our thanks go the excellent Charles Booth Online Archive.


Amazing Grace … the John Newton story


Amazing Grace … the John Newton story

John Newton crossed the seas of the world many times in his career as merchant seaman and slave trader. But none of his journeys was so great as that he made from a foul-mouthed dealer in human flesh to humble minister of God.

It’s an extraordinary story that might be forgotten today had he not left the legacy of one our best-known and best-loved hymns. Composed to provide fresh material for his congregation on a Sunday morning, Amazing Grace was even more than a spiritually uplifting anthem, it was the story of Newton’s Life.

Newton was born in Wapping on 24 July,1725. He had a promising start. His father was commander of a merchant ship which sailed the Mediterranean, and his mother a devout Christian who taught John at home, hoping that one day he would enter the ministry. But his mother died when he was just seven years old and, at the age of 11, John was at sea himself. He made six voyages with his father before the elder Newton retired.

Pressganged into the Royal Navy

Then, in 1744, the hardened seaman joined the Royal Navy. It wasn’t his choice, he was press-ganged onto a man-of-war, HMS Harwich. Even his father’s knowing the admiral couldn’t get John released – England was about to go to war with France. Instead he got his son promoted, knowing that an officer would have a better time onboard, indeed would have a better chance of surviving the voyage.


But John found conditions intolerable and jumped ship at Plymouth. The unlucky Newton was quickly recaptured, publicly flogged and demoted from midshipman to common seaman. The crew was banned from showing him any kindness or even talking to him. Ahead of him loomed five years’ misery … if he survived.

Finally at his own request he was exchanged into service on a slave ship, which took him to the coast of Sierra Leone. But if he thought life would be better out of the Navy, he was wrong. He became the servant of a slave trader and was brutally abused. Falling ill, he was ridiculed by his master’s wife. And when he complained about his treatment, his returning master chained him on deck, day and night, rain and scorching sun, with a pint of rice for his daily meal.

Amazing Grace for John Newton

Early in 1748 he was rescued by a sea captain who had known John’s father. And Newton worked his way up to become captain of his own ship – trafficking in slaves. The early religious instruction from his mother was now a distant memory. Newton was a coarsened, foul-mouthed character by now, hardened by his trade and by the appalling treatment thrown at him by the fates. who had died when he was a child, he had long since given up any religious convictions.

However, on a homeward voyage, while he was attempting to steer the ship through a violent storm, he experienced what he was to refer to later as his “great deliverance.” He recorded in his journal that when all seemed lost and the ship would surely sink, he exclaimed, “Lord, have mercy upon us.”

And then he reflected that it was the first time in years that he had called on his Maker. Later in his cabin he reflected on what he had said and began to believe that God had addressed him through the storm and that grace had begun to work for him.

John Wesley and Methodism

For the rest of his life he saw 10 May 10, 1748 as the day of his conversion, a day of humiliation in which he subjected his will to a higher power. But it was a gradual epiphany. Newton continued in the slave trade for a while after his conversion, though making the concession that the slaves under his care should be treated humanely.

In 1750 he married Mary Catlett, and by 1755, after a serious illness, he had given up seafaring forever. During his days at seas, he had begun to educate himself, teaching himself Latin. Now Newton met and came to admire John Wesley, founder of Methodism. Inspired, he decided to become a minister and accepted the curacy of Olney, Buckinghamshire. Newton’s church became so crowded during services that it had to be enlarged. One of the draws were the hymns he composed with his friend, the poet William Cowper.

And as well as composing Amazing Grace, Newton left another legacy. MP William Wilberforce, confused about his future, arranged a secret meeting with Newton, who had been a father-figure to him in his youth. Newton persuaded him to stay in politics, and years later Wilberforce would be the driving force behind the abolition of slavery.

To find out more about John Newton, read the biography by his friend Richard Cecil, The Life of Newton, reprinted by Christian Focus Publications in March 1999, with additional notes by Marylynn Rouse.