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Category: Royalty and the East End of London

Thomas Rainsborough, the Levellers and the English Civil War

Roundheads versus Cavaliers, Parliament versus Royalty. In the popular mind the English Civil War is a simple conflict of two clearly opposing factions, which will end with the beheading of one king — and unfold a decade later with the return of his son to the throne. But the series of battles that would play out during the First and Second English Civil Wars in the

Thomas Rainsborough

Thomas Rainsborough

1640s were anything but clear cut. And while the Parliamentarians were bitterly opposed to the high-handed rule Charles I they were almost equally divided among themselves. The bitter factional disputes would play out with the killing of Thomas Rainsborough on October 30, 1648. The sword that slew the Leveller leader was in the hand of a Cavalier soldier — but was it Oliver Cromwell himself who directed the blade?

The unveiling of a plaque by Tony Benn in St John’s Churchyard a week or two back is an attempt to bring Rainsborough back into the public consciousness. Benn, a hero of the left, and a thorn in the side of his own leaders (though it might be pushing it rather to equate Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan with Cromwell) could certainly identify with the satisfyingly awkward Rainsborough. He would certainly applaud the Levellers (who elected ‘agitators’ from among their ranks) and their attacks on the House of Lords and inherited power, as well as their demand for their ‘natural, God-given rights’.

Rainsborough had been born in 1610, the son of a prominent, though not an aristocratic family. He was the son of William Rainsborough, a Vice-Admiral in command of his own vessel in the Royal Navy, as well as a Member of Parliament and the King’s Ambassador to Morocco. For William’s exploits in battling white slavery in Morocco, he was offered an hereditary knighthood by Charles I in 1642, but turned it down (accepting a life peerage instead). It was a combination of the military with politics his sons (William Rainsborowe and Thomas) would follow.

Thomas proved himself to be a talented and flexible military man. He was already in the navy before the outbreak of the First Civil War in 1642, and during the conflict, as Parliament turned against the King, he was put in command of the Swallow and other English warships. By May 1645, he had transferred to the New Model Army, fighting at the Battle of Naseby (a devastating defeat for the Cavaliers), at Bristol, Berkeley Castle and the Siege of Droitwich.


Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell

In January 1647 became the MP for Droitwich. He was a voice for the Roundheads, but also a dissenter in their midst. Leaders of the Parliamentary side, Oliver Cromwell and his son-in-law, Henry Ireton wanted freedom from Royal tyranny but they certainly didn’t want communism, and Rainsborough’s espousal of the ideas of the Ranters and Levellers were altogether too revolutionary. The Ranters were a religious sect believing that God was in every creature: rejecting centralised organisation, they were seen as a threat not just to the established Church but to the fabric of society. The Levellers meanwhile argued that the king (or whoever should replace him) must be elected by all the people (well, men at least). Universal suffrage and the dismantling of the structures of society and government weren’t in Cromwell’s plan — in the latter years of the Commonwealth (1649-1660), he would became a king in all but name.

So Rainsborough’s addresses at the Levellers’ Putney Debates were concerning to his leaders such as Cromwell and Thomas Fairfax — especially when the soldier attempted to serve a copy of the Leveller tract Agreement of the People on his general, at the Corkbush Field rendezvous of 1647. Fairfax brushed him aside and arranged a transfer well away from the cockpit of London politics. The first plan was to put him back in the Navy as a Vice-Admiral, but his Leveller beliefs elicited a mutiny among his men. So Rainsborough was sent to assist the Roundhead cause at the Siege of Pontefract Castle. Again he found opposition, with the Parliamentary commander in Yorkshire, Sir Henry Cholmley, refusing to accept his authority. While the arguments continued, Thomas and his men were billeted in Doncaster, and it was there he met his death. Not on the field or at sea: four royalists had managed to get into the fortified billet and kidnap him. In the struggle, one ran through Rainsborough with his sword.

How had they got to him? The bitter suspicion was that Cromwell et al had arranged the killing. Certainly, without

King Charles I

King Charles I

Rainsborough, the Levellers’ influence waned during the Second Civil War. 3000 mourners paraded through London wearing the green ribbons and rosemary branches of the movement, but the impetus for a truly revolutionary England had gone. King Cromwell would soon ascend the throne. The whole story, if slightly buffed and beautified for modern eyes, can be seen in ‘The Devil’s Whore’, a movie released a few years back, starring Michael Fassbender as Rainsborough and Dominic West as Cromwell. Peter Capaldi plays Charles I, though without ‘Thick of It’ profanities.

Rainsborough’s remains lie somewhere in St John’s Churchyard — though until the unveiling of the plaque on May 12, you wouldn’t have found a clearly marked spot. The site, though lovely, is slightly surreal: a graveyard without stones, accompanying a tower without a church. The graveyard is neatly turfed over, while what remains of the old tombstones are serried along the walls of the plot. St John’s itself was lost to enemy bombing during World War 2: the husk was demolished and new apartments were built around the tower.



Execution Dock, Wapping

DURING MOST of London’s history, murderers, thieves and other miscreants received swift justice. An open-topped cart to Tyburn, and a swift drop from the gallows was the judicial response to a bewildering variety of crimes, some of them minor to modern eyes. But for

Roque's 1760 map of Execution Dock, Wapping, London

Roque's 1760 map of Execution Dock, Wapping, London

four centuries, the East End had its own answer to Tyburn Tree. The hamlets east of the City were the maritime hub of London, from where English ships travelled the globe, to return with their cargo or booty. Appropriate then that criminals on the high seas would meet their end at Wapping’s Execution Dock.

The Dock had its roots in the huge expansion of English naval power during the mid-1300s, fuelled by the military ambitions of one of England’s longest-lived kings, Edward III. The monarch, who reigned from 1327 to 1377, developed his country into one of Europe’s great powers, resisting the might of France and Spain. Key to this was a powerful navy and, with England isolated by water, pirates were not just a threat to the economy and English trade, they threatened the very security of the realm.

So stern measures were developed to counter the activities of the privateers, whose number had only increased with the rise in English seapower. After the Battle of Sluys in 1340, Edward established the High Court of Admiralty to deal specifically with piracy and spoil (goods purloined from enemy ships in time of war). From the late 1500s, the admiralty court would sit at the Old Bailey, home also to the Central Criminal Court, but its victims would take a different

Hanging of a pirate at Execution Dock, Wapping

Hanging of a pirate at Execution Dock, Wapping

route to the gibbet. Most ‘inshore’ prisoners would be housed at Newgate (just next to Old Bailey) but their maritime counterparts would more likely be incarcerated at Marshalsea Prison, on the south bank of the Thames. (East End chronicler Charles Dickens was traumatised as a child by his father’s spending time in Marshalsea for debt). The guilty men (and occasional women) would be brought on an open cart from Southwark, across London Bridge, past the Tower of London and to Wapping.

But if you had to go, better to go in style perhaps. The prisoner would be flanked in his carriage by the hangman on one side and a chaplain on the other – victim, damnation and salvation all in one small cart. And the wagon would be preceded by the Marshal (the sentencing judge) on horseback with a silver oar clasped in hand. En route to the gallows, the condemned were even allowed to stop for a final quart of beer at the Turk’s Head Inn, which stood at 30 Wapping High Street until it was destroyed by enemy bombs during the Blitz. This final drink was a small act of humanity common to many British cities. The Last Drop Tavern in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, next to the city’s main gallows, offered a similar service to Auld Reekie’s miscreants.

There would always be a good crowd too – Londoners always loved a public execution – and not just in the streets. The gibbet was erected at the low water line, recognising the fact that his crimes had been committed at sea. And within yards of the gallows, dozens of little boats would be bobbing, packed with onlookers keen to get a good view of the hanging. The deaths were

Madame Tussaud's grisly take on Execution Dock, Wapping

Madame Tussaud's grisly take on Execution Dock, Wapping

brutal even by the standards of public execution. Early on of course, the victim was hoisted up and left to choke. But even after ‘the drop’ was brought in, breaking the neck and causing immediate death, the maritime felons had it rougher. A shorter rope was used, meaning they would still dangle and suffocate. Especially popular was ‘the marshal’s dance’, as the hanged thrashed arms and legs furiously around in their death throes.

The humiliations didn’t end there. Many victims of the rope would pay for a decent funeral if they had the means. In latter years, with the advent of the bodysnatchers and burkers, some would pay friends to ensure their corpses weren’t purloined for dissection (which had been allowed since Henry VIII’s time and was the norm by the 1700s). And at least at Tyburn they cut you down quickly after you’d been dispatched. But at Wapping, the corpses were left until three high tides had risen and washed over their heads. The worst offenders would then be cut down, coated with pitch to preserve them for as long as possible, and hung

Prospect of Whitby, Wapping High Street, London

Prospect of Whitby, Wapping High Street, London

‘pour decourager des autres’ down river at Blackwall Point or across at Rotherhithe’s Cuckold’s Point, down at Tilbury Point or at Woolwich. Incoming crews would be warned off piracy by the site of a rotting, crow-pecked corpse – and there were famous names, such as Captain Kidd.

The last hangings at Wapping were in 1830 and in 1834 the Admiralty Court was wound up, its powers transferred to the Central Criminal Court. How many unfortunates had been dispatched down the centuries? It’s impossible to be sure, but between 1735 and 1830 there were 78 confirmed hangings and six ‘probables’. The enthusiasm of the Crown for killing pirates was
without limit it seems. But there were exceptions. Certain privateers sailed just close enough to the wind to be of use to the monarch, and even commanded naval vessels – Raleigh and Drake spring to mind. Though it was a dangerous game and both ended up on the gallows. Others of those managed to escape the gibbet and die in their beds. And it’s one such – John Mucknell, a rough Stepney lad who rose to be a knight of the realm, who we discover next week.
An entertaining if historically questionable take on the Captain Kidd story. Charles Laughton could never be accused of underplaying his role … but what is Tower Bridge doing in a movie set in the 17th century!



View Execution Dock in a larger map

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.

Queen of the East End of London

This year, Elizabeth II reaches a milestone passed by just one British monarch before – only Queen Victoria has previously celebrated a Diamond Jubilee. Much of that of course has to do with a general increase in our longevity as a nation, and a disinclination these days to chop off the heads of our rulers.

The Queen though is a remarkably successful monarch. Even those disinclined to drape the house with Union Jacks grudgingly admit that – while her family have often disappointed – she has sailed through more popular than ever. Perhaps it’s those qualities of persistence and stoicism that impress – in many ways she exhibits the qualities that the British like to see in themselves.

But the Britain she rules, and the London in which she lives is an enormously different place to 60 years ago. While our current government is busy reintroducing austerity, it barely compares with life in an East End just emerging from World War II, and a year after the bold attempt to raise spirits with the Festival of Britain. Rationing was still in place and would be for a few years yet, but the East End docks were still thriving, with record imports and exports as London rebuilt after the devastation of the Blitz.

1952 was a different country to today – but already hugely changed from the pre-War years. So great was the demand that labour, both skilled and unskilled was now being recruited from Commonwealth countries. From conductors on the buses and Underground, to doctors and nurses in the new NHS, to university students, many Londoners had their first introduction to the new Londoners from the West Indies and the Indian subcontinent. It was the beginnings of a truly multicultural London. Along with the welcome of many came the resistance of a few. London saw race riots in Notting Hill in 1958, but also the first Sikh temple in the capital – built in Southall in 1959.

Today we face the threat of peak oil and the tough decision whether to go nuclear once more. In the fifties there were different energy crises, with a coal-fired London smog killing 4000 people in 1952. That first year of her reign also saw the last trams run in a London that increasingly saw the car as the future. In 1959, Britain’s first motorway, the M1 would open. While new estates were springing up across the East End and many perfectly serviceable terraces being razed, the East End was also scarred with bombsites – many wouldn’t be rebuilt upon until the seventies. And the inner London population, after two centuries of furious growth, was in decline, dropping from a pre-War peak of 4.5m to just 3.3m, as people began to move out to the new towns, such as Harlow and Basildon. The Royal Family endured their travails during the decade, with Princess Margaret calling off her marriage to Group Captain Peter Townsend in 1955.

We can only endure austerity for so long of course. And as London entered the 1960s, there was a palpable need for life, for brightness and colour. East End stars took centre stage. Chart stars The Small Faces exhibited the brash cockney confidence of the era, alongside photographers such as David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy, and Stepney film star Terence Stamp. There were new beginnings for the Royal Family too. Prince Andrew was born in 1960, and Edward in 1964. The less formal age saw the Royals became more open too. In 1962 a public gallery was opened at Buckingham Palace to display items from the Royal Collection. Royal visits became less formal too In 1962, for example, The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh paid an informal visit to the East End of London, visiting housing redevelopments in Bethnal Green and Stepney and meeting a local family in their new home.

By the 1970s, the decline of manufacturing in London continued apace, now outnumbered by service jobs, and the inner London population was down to 3m. The workforce on the docks had dropped below 10,000. A quarter of jobs were now in public services. Strikes, power cuts and the three-day week – the early seventies were at times grim in London. The Queen celebrated 25 years on the throne with the Silver Jubilee of 1977, and the birth of her first grandchild, Peter Phillips. Two years later she received the first female prime minister at Buckingham Palace, as Margaret Thatcher led the Tories back to power in 1979.

Inner London arguably reached a nadir in the early eighties. Tensions between the Metropolitan police and the West Indian community erupted into riots in Brixton in 1981. The IRA continued to bomb London, and the capital lost its direct government and leader, when Thatcher abolished the GLC (and with it Ken Livingstone’s job) in 1986. The population of the inner city was now down to 2.4m, but there were plans for a bright new future. The ‘Big Bang’ deregulation of the City led to a boom in financial services and banking, and many of the firms moved downriver to the gleaming new city rising in Canary Wharf. As manufacturing’s share of the London economy plummeted to 12 per cent, banking stepped up to fill the gap. In 1986, the Queen celebrated her 60th birthday and the decade saw her became a grandmother several times over, with the births of Zara Phillips, William and Harry, and Beatrice and Eugenie.

The 1990s saw a succession of anni horribili for the Queen, with the devastating fire at Windsor Castle in 1992 and the death of Diana in 1997. But there were happier times too: her golden wedding in 1997, and the official celebrations for the arrival of the new millennium at the end of 1999. Inner London was back on its feet. The population rose from 2.5m in 1991 to 2.7m at the end of the decade. After a rocky start, Canary Wharf began to grow, with a population of bankers and newspaper staffs (and some eye-wateringly expensive apartments). The DLR now connected an ‘Island’ that had been all but cut off from the rest of London. By the turn of the century, 29 per cent of Londoners were from a minority ethnic group.

The new century saw the milestone of the Golden Jubilee, but the joy of 2002 was marred by sadness. That year the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret both died. In 2003 Prince Edward and the Countess of Wessex had their first child and in 2005 Prince Charles would remarry, to Camilla Parker Bowles. By the end of decade there would be rioting on the streets of London – with Charles and Camilla’s car attacked by protestors. Into the new decade and the next king but one would marry – as William and Kate’s wedding brought Londoners onto the streets to celebrate.

The East End in 2012 finds itself in uncertain times – of austerity, cuts, few jobs and fears for the future. The golden new era promised by the financial boom that started in Canary Wharf a quarter of a century ago looks rather tarnished now. But the Elizabethan era that began 60 years ago is one constant in a time of continual change. And for many East Enders she represents a hope that will always outshine the gloom.

The Beefeaters at the Tower of London

The chief warder raises the pewter punchbowl and, with the words ‘May you never die a yeoman warder’ welcomes another new recruit to the centuries-old ranks of the Beefeaters. For arcane ritual, curious titles and elaborate ceremony, there are not many places on earth to beat the Tower of London.

The Tower gave the sprinkling of Middlesex villages around its walls the collective name of ‘the tower hamlets’ and hence the borough’s name to this day. But why beefeaters? It’s all part of the strange mixture of palace, prison and pantomime that is the Tower of London.

Yeoman Warders at the Tower of London

The select band of beefeaters (there are 36 yeoman warders at the Tower, plus the yeoman gaoler and the chief yeoman warder) have to be a special sort: part soldier, part tour guide and ever-mindful of the solemn history of the Tower of London. There’s plenty of ceremonial to master, including the nightly Ceremony of the Keys, 900 years of history to learn and they are, should you be deceived by the colourful uniforms, all hardened professional servicemen.

There’s no shortage of men putting themselves forward for the job … but most are turned away. Even to apply for a position as a Yeoman Warder, the men have to have 19 years of service with good conduct as a senior non-commissioned offer from the Army, RAF, Royal Marines or Royal Navy. So the typical Warder is a sergeant-major, retiring in their late forties from active service.

Bloodsoaked past of Tower of London

The typical sergeant-major character comes in pretty handy with the tour guide side of the job too. Dealing all day with tourists, questions and recounting grisly tales of the Tower’s bloodsoaked past is a basic part of the job. The gallows humour, boundless self confidence and loud voice that comes from years of knocking soldiers into shape on the parade ground must come in handy.

Of course officially you’re not a Beefeater but a ‘Yeoman Warder of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London and Member of the Sovereign’s Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary’. The Beefeater nickname arose from jealousy at the special privileges this elite guard enjoyed through the ages.

Ann Boleyn and the Bloody Tower

At a time when meat was an expensive luxury, rarely seen by the common people, the Yeomanry always got their ration. And in Georgian times they were still munching their way through extraordinary quantities of flesh. In 1813, the daily ration for the 30 men on duty was 18lb of mutton, 16lb of veal, and of course beef … 24lb of it.

The new Warders have to do a ‘knowledge’ of the Tower similar to that demanded of black cab drivers. Where was Ann Boleyn beheaded? (The usual answer is just below her chin)? Why is the Bloody Tower so called? What happened to the Princes in the Tower? All these and hundreds more are asked of Beefeaters every day.

German spies in Tower of London

The Warders get two uniforms, the ceremonial red-and-gold worn for state occasions, such as when the monarch visits the Tower, and the everyday blue ‘undress’ uniform. They and their families get a grace-and-favour residence at the Tower (the tidy little houses faces Tower Green) though they must own a home elsewhere so they have somewhere to go when they retire.

It is many centuries since the Tower of London was a royal palace (it was first established by William the Conqueror to secure his hold on London and the Thames of course). And it’s a long time since it was a prison, though interestingly it has been pressed back into service during times of threat to the nation.

During both World Wars, German spies were held and then executed at the Tower. The Government, recognising the propaganda value, felt that executions at this symbolic spot would have the greatest impact in Britain and Germany.

Queen’s House, Tower of London

But the Warders consider their role far more than mere symbol. Having sworn an oath of allegiance (and oath that dates back to 1337) they still take the nightly Ceremony of the Keys seriously. A Yeoman Warder hands over the prison keys to the Queen’s House within the Tower, and this most ancient of English palaces is safe for another night.

Prince Charles and Bishopsgate

PRINCE CHARLES’s entry into the debate over Bishopsgate goods yard last week will strike a chord with many Londoners nervously eyeing the encroachment of City office blocks into the East End.

The Prince issued an impassioned plea, arguing for the saving of the yard from demolition.

The irony is that, despite the old goods yard sprawling over an area the size of 20 football pitches, many East Enders will hardly know it’s there.

Bishopsgate is a legacy of an era when railway was the future, and the railway barons didn’t just build big … but gargantuan. And it was part of a trio of termini in the area who never quite lived up to their billing. Bishopsgate, Broad Street and Liverpool Street were the three great stations jostling for space on the eastern edge of the City. Today only Liverpool Street remains.

In the mid-1800s, London was undergoing massive redevelopment and expansion. Existing housing was demolished wholesale to bring the new railway lines into the capital, and they in turn brought in more people, new Londoners swelling the city even more. Spitalfields was no exception, and from 1839 an enormous site, 10 acres at the north of Brick Lane, was set aside for London’s second railway terminus, following Euston to the north.

The oldest part was the Braithwaite Viaduct, whose listed arches Prince Charles is now fighting so hard to save. The area is slated for demolition and redevelopment. And the plan is that it will make way for the East London Line extension and office building.

Almost from its beginning, Bishopsgate struggled to find sufficient business to be profitable. And by the time much of the building was destroyed by fire in 1964, only a small part of the station was still being used.

Unwelcome competition was soon to arrive in the shape of Broad Street. The station was built in 1865 as the North London Railway terminus. The idea was that Broad Street would be the starting point for goods from the docks, en route to the Midlands.

But even before the building was finished the Victorian developers (who were stronger on ambition than planning) realized that with one goods station already struggling in the area, a second wasn’t such a bright idea. Broad Street was swiftly converted to passenger traffic. And in 1900, it was second only to Euston and Liverpool Street in passenger numbers. Liverpool Street, however, was Broad Street’s downfall. The numbers never stacked up and the station shut in 1950. It slowly rotted until eventual demolition in 1984. Now the Broadgate development stands on the site.

In fact the main problem of the East London termini was always their proximity to and competition with other stations. Liverpool Street station was to survive, but it wasn’t plain sailing. In 1862, the newly formed Great Eastern Railway began looking for a site for a new City station, to extend from its existing terminus at Shoreditch. They chose the site of the notorious Bethlehem Hospital (Bedlam). The problem they had was that there already a terminus a mile down the road. So, in Victorian style, the bosses decided that their new station had to be bigger, fancier and more ornate than Fenchurch Street.

It was certainly that. It opened in 1874 and by 1891 it was extended to have more platforms than any other station in the world – until that title was taken by Victoria Station in 1908. But the size of the station, and its number of platforms, was out of proportion to the region it served, and Liverpool Street struggled, lost money, and went into long-term decline. In the winter of 1944, Labour MP Tom Driberg described it as ‘almost completely squalid’, though Poet Laureate John Betjeman called it ‘ the most picturesque and interesting of London termini’.

So now, after forty years of partial use by small businesses, sports pitches and entertainment spaces, Bishopsgate faces demolition at last. Ken Livingstone, London Underground, Railtrack and the Corporation of London all support the move. But the Prince of Wales has one supporter. English Heritage argues that the East London Line could be run on tracks atop the existing goods yard – the very use for which it was originally built. Back to index