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Dash for water in 19th century East End of London

Over the last two weeks we looked at the dash to power the growing East End of the 19th century. But even more than heat and light, the one thing the new homes, factories, warehouses and docks needed was a regular supply of water — ideally clean, but failing that simply wet would do. Things began in civilised fashion, but a battle developed worthy of Jack Nicholson’s Chinatown. The water, and the war, got very murky indeed.

Abbey Mills Pumping station

Abbey Mills pumping station

In early modern London people were drawing their water from street pumps, as they had for centuries, and it created huge problems. You had to go to the pump and frequently the pump was broken. Joining a queue of several hundred others was time-consuming (and didn’t work at all if you needed water for your tannery or brewery. So the early companies developed a system of drawing water from the Thames by waterwheel, perhaps driven by real horse power, and then dribbled down via gravity and wooden pipes. Getting a sufficient angle of drop to supply every house that wanted water was impossible — and the system of wooden pipes, crudely lashed together, meant a huge amount of the water was wasted. The answer would be iron pipes (early experiments with stone proving unwieldy, expensive and leaky) and steam power to create a greater head of water.

The water companies, while boasting that their products would be ‘clear, sparkling and brilliant’, took a remarkably relaxed attitude when it wasn’t — presumably realistic about what could be achieved with water drawn direct from the Thames and delivered by simple gravity, without filtration to the thirsty people of London. Ralph Dodd, engineer and serial former of London water companies (he would launch and be ousted from no fewer than three, including the East London Water Works), wrote in 1805 that ‘Thames water being kept in wooden vessels, after a few months, often becomes apparently putrid and produces a disagreeable smell. But even when drunk in this state it never produces sickness; therefore it is evident no harm or ill occurs to persons whose resolution, notwithstanding its offensive smell, induces them to drink it.’

Engineer James Pitt of Coventry Street similarly testified in 1810 that the Chelsea Company’s water was ‘thicker’ and ‘considerably inferior’ to its rivals but that complaints were few and health problems were non-existent. This of course was more than 40 years before his observations of cholera outbreaks around the Broad Street pump in Soho led John Snow to put the facts together and surmise that dirty water posed serious threats to human health — but even the scientifically naive might have twigged that drinking water that was ‘thick’, ‘putrid’ and with a ‘disagreeable smell’ might be a problem. But no matter — there were pipes to be driven and houses to be served and nothing would stop the increasingly aggressive actions of the water companies.

By the turn of the 19th century London’s population was growing rapidly. In 1776 there were 700,000 of us, by 1801 957,000. And the biggest growth was in the new residential suburbs and the poorer areas around the booming Pool of London. Shadwell and Wapping got new docks in the decade after 1799, and as well as water for the factories and warehouses, the new inhabitants needed something reasonably safe to drink (the fact that for centuries people had hydrated themselves with beer and weakened ‘near beer’ suggested they knew only too well the dangers and unpleasantness of drinking untreated water). Stepney, Shoreditch, Spitalfields and Bethnal Green all required more piped water.

And Londoners had changed their habits. The early 19th cockney might appear somewhat malodorous to our 21st century noses, habituated to toothpaste, daily showers and the great smell of Lynx, but compared to their grandparents they were pristine. The Wapping docks were increasingly unloading new, cheap and easily washable cottons from the East — they needed to be washed and kept reasonably white. The WC, invented in the 16th century, was now becoming a feature of the posher East End homes, inhabited by the merchants, dockmasters and warehouse owners; some of them even had fixed baths. By 1809, such fripperies were sufficiently numerous for the East London Waterworks Co to set a system of fixed charges.

But in the meantime a land grab was underway. Geordie engineer Ralph Dodd had already founded and been ejected from the first two water companies he founded (the West Middlesex and the South London) when his partners found his enthusiasm and vision weren’t matched by expertise (or indeed any training). Undeterred Dodd pushed forward with his big project, the East London Waterworks Company. The original plan saw a reservoir at Old Ford on the Lea, sited to fill up with the action of the tide, and with water ‘after sufficiently settling and filter’d to be forced through iron pipes to a summit reservoir’.

The ace salesman Ralph quickly signed up Brick Lane brewers Truman, Hanbury and Co as a customer (he also pointed to the 15,000 unserved houses in Bethnal Green, Hackney, Bow, Stepney and Mile End). Until now, the water companies had stayed off each other’s patches, but the London Dock Company had waterworks at West Ham and Shadwell, and would be dwarfed by the new operation. Despite their opposition, the Bill to allow the new company became law, and it quickly bought out the LDC, paying £130,000 for the two works. To those was added a grand new works at Old Ford. By June 1809 12.5 miles of iron pipes had been laid, snaking out through Bishopsgate, Aldgate and Spitalfields and, crucially, encroaching on the turf of the existing New River Company (NRC).

Things began to get nasty. Water companies would find their mains unaccountably blocked, smashed or simply dug up as rival pipe was laid. There would be battles between workmen for the rival companies, each trying to get their mains in place. But customers weren’t even safe from their own suppliers. It was the ‘turncocks’ job to turn on the water to supply customers (usually at fixed times in the week). Many could be cheaply bribed to deliver more or less, or to cut off a competitor.

We’re frequently told today that competition delivers a good price to the customer and it worked — after a fashion. In February 1812, a Mr Leary was paying £10 a year for supply to his 20 houses in Curtain Road, Shoreditch, but informed the New River Company that the East London had offered a better deal. The NRC duly slashed its price to £8. But in 1813, the East London refused to supply houses unless their owners agreed to deal with them exclusively. And in 1815, it imperiously cut off four houses in Bethnal Green because the owner had changed to the New River for 14 tenements he owned in Whitechapel.

And shady practice went to the very top of the companies. Despite a ban on trading in the company’s shares (the trustees had prudently wished to avoid speculation and the creation of ‘bubbles’) the directors of the East London were indulging in it anyway by 1810, as well as paying themselves handsome dividends from their not-yet-profitable enterprise — these were men who could have made a fine career in banking a couple of hundred years later.

Water needed cleaning up. By the second half of the 19th century, new waterworks were being built above the tideway of the Thames and the Lea — it was apparent that drawing water from a site hard by the tanneries, breweries and effluent outpipes of Wapping and Blackwall was a health risk. Now water would be filtered effectively. And the Metropolis Water Act of 1902 set up municipal water boards, slashing prices (down to £5 a household in 1945) and making a reliable supply something East Enders simply took for granted. Hosepipe bans permitting, London had clean water on tap.

Further Reading: London’s Water Ways by John Graham-Leigh, published by Francis Boutle, ISBN 1903427029, £8.99



Whitechapel painter John Hoppner

John Hoppner self portrait

John Hoppner self portrait

He was a Whitechapel boy who rose to become George III’s favourite painter … so liked by the King that gossips suggested he was his illegitimate son. And yet today, John Hoppner is completely forgotten, while near contemporary Royal Academicians such as Reynolds, Stubbs, Gainsborough and Turner are still known to modern Britons. John Hoppner was born in Whitechapel on April 4, 1758, the son of German parents. Germans had been settling in London in increasing numbers since a German prince had been invited to become King of the recently created Great Britain in 1714. By now, George I’s great-grandson, George III was on the throne. He, unlike George’s I and II, had been born in England and spoke English as his first language. But through the Anglicisation of the House of Hanover was well underway, there was still a powerful German influence at the Court of St James. Until the reign of William IV, in 1830, the official Court Orchestra was still composed exclusively of German musicians. And many of the servants and attendants at Court were German too, Hoppner’s mother among them. The young John became a chorister at the Royal Chapel, though quickly moved towards painting rather than music. In 1775 he began his studies at the Royal Academy, taking the silver medal for life drawing and, in 1782, the gold medal for historical painting, with a rendering of King Lear. Ironic considering his patron, to paint a monarch

Lord Nelson by John Hoppner

Lord Nelson by John Hoppner

who goes mad in later life, but there were other concerns. Whisperers at the Court were wondering just why John was so popular with the King… was he his secret son? Irony again. For though George was astonishingly fecund — his Queen Charlotte would give birth to 15 children, including two future Kings of Great Britain — he was one of the few of his line who didn’t have mistresses or illegitimate children. His interest in John seems to have been simple kindness. Hoppner yearned to be a landscape painter. Reynolds was a powerful influence, with his painterly, windswept woodland scenes. But Hoppner, though good, was no Reynolds and — crucially — portraits were where the money and commissions were. A newly minted member of the gentry, a war hero, even a successful actress might pay to have their own likeness made, but wouldn’t pay for scenic landscapes. Even the popular Classical subjects, considered ‘high’ art by the cognoscenti, were rare, though he did produce the fare expected of a serious painter of the time — a Sleeping Venus, Cupid and Psyche, and Jupiter and Io. Critics are sniffy about aspects of Hoppner, the chief criticism being that he couldn’t actually draw very well. What he did have was a remarkable grasp of colouration, one lesson he had learned from Reynolds. And most important of all to the jobbing painter, he was supremely well connected — much business flowed from the Court. And so he

Frankland Sisters by John Hoppner

Frankland Sisters by John Hoppner

produced paintings of Lord Nelson, of the Prince of Wales, the Duke and Duchess of York, Sir Walter Scott and the Duke of Wellington. He also painted Peter Dollond, the great lensmaker and son of the Spitalfields’ Huguenot family, whose name lives on in the opticians chain Dollond and Aitchison. But while the German from Whitechapel had an impeccable pedigree for a servant of the King, he had an unfortunate impediment: his mother-in-law, Patience Wright. Born into a New York, vegetarian Quaker family, she had turned her hobby (moulding faces from dough, wax and putty to amuse her three children) into a job, winning commissions to sculpt portraits in tinted wax. In a surreal twist, her New York wax museum burned down, and she moved to England, where she became another favourite of George III. She created wax sculptures of the Royal Family and nobility and for a while the King tolerated her blunt speaking as an eccentricity. Her daughter Phoebe had married Hoppner and the family seemed comfortably ensconced in London society and the Court. But with George fighting a desperate battle to hold onto this American colonies, Patience’s loud support for American independence was winning her no friends. Rumour had it that she was a spy for the cause, sending information gleaned at Court on how the British were preparing for war. If she was a spy, she wasn’t a very discreet one, and she soon found herself cast aside. It must have been a painful embarrassment for Hoppner, steadily building his business at the Court. Worse still, he now had a rival, in Thomas Lawrence. Nine years younger than Hoppner, the prodigious Lawrence had won a commission to paint the Queen when he was

Peter Dollond by John Hoppner

Peter Dollond by John Hoppner

just 21, and soon became the new favourite of the Prince of Wales. Reputations can soar and dive quickly in the art world, and by the early years of the new century, the once-lauded Hoppner’s name was in serious decline: while critics had once praised his brilliant colouration, they now mocked his shaky draughtsmanship. His eclipse, almost certainly, was hastened by his increasing distance from the Court that had earlier made him rich. Lawrence, meanwhile, was now acknowledged as the greatest, and most famous portrait painter in England. Hoppner would die in 1810, at just 51 of liver disease, after years of ill health, leaving a wife and five children. Lawrence would live till 1830 … and become President of the Royal Academy

Hoppner's Miss Mary Jane Linwood

Hoppner’s Miss Mary Jane Linwood

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.



Bow dye

Bow Dye/east end life/27may13

Renaissance man, polymath, uomo universale — there are many ways to describe the remarkable Cornelis Jacobszoon Drebbel. He was a multi-talented Dutchman who came to London as a guest of James I to share his extraordinarily eclectic scientific knowlege. In the 1660s he had invented the first working submarine, he devised revolutionary microscopes and telescopes, invented an air conditiong system, the first working thermometer, even a chicken incubator — yet he would die almost penniless, the landlord of an East End pub. And among the eccentric and brilliant Cornelis’s grand plans and myriad inventions it was a happy accident, at a windowsill in Bow, that made his family’s fortune.

Drebbel had been born in Alkmaar, in what would become the Netherlands, in 1572, the son of a farmer. He could certainly read and write, and studied Latin, but he had no university education. The scientific genius that would emerge was of a more practical colour — Cornelis learned by experimentation, and he was tireless. Leaving school, he was sent to Haarlem as an apprentice to the famed engraver and painter Hendrick Goltzius and it was here his interest in chemistry was born. Goltzius was an enthusiastic experimenter in alchemy, that medieval mix of the scientific and the mystical, whose grail was the search for the Philosopher’s Stone, for the Elixir of Life, and for the elements that would turn base metals to gold.

Easy for our modern minds to dismiss such stuff as a naive belief in superstition and magic, but the alchemists were on to something. They knew that elements could, seemingly magically, transform themselves — water could freeze solid or boil into nothing, acids could eat strong metals. Alchemy, in fact, would set modern chemistry in motion. By the 1590s, Drebbel’s interests were expanding furiously. In 1600, his nascent studies in engineering saw him being employed by the burghers of Middelburg, in the southern Netherlands, to build their town a fountain. While there he met Hans Lippershey, who was working in the growing science of optics, making spectacles and telescopes — Drebbel eagerly learned his skills. He became obsessed with inventions: the old age of alchemy and mysticism was giving way to a new world of experiment and science.

And it was this that attracted the attention of James I, who had recently succeeded to the throne of England. This ‘wisest fool in Christendom’ perhaps also straddled the medieval and modern, being simultaneously an enthusiastic burner of witches and a fan of the new sciences. The Scottish king, a poet and scholar, and rather beleaguered in his new London court, was keen to gather the brightest of the age around him, and collected explorers, theologians, economists and alchemists around him at court. Drebbel was invited to join him in 1604. He settled, with wife and family, in the Middlesex village of Bow, and set to work impressing the king.

While at court he demonstrated his perpetual motion machine, which told the time, date and season. Its fame spread across Europe, and Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II invited Cornelis to Prague to demonstrate its (dubious) efficacy. He became famous for his invention, in 1621, of a microscope with two convex lenses. He wrote a seminal work on the nature of the chemical elements (the move from alchemy to chemistry again). And he was devising his own compounds, including mercury fulminate, which would become used in explosives in the years to come. He demonstrated an air-conditioned room to the king and his courtiers (it was so cold they had to swiftly depart). And, practical as ever, he invented a chicken incubator with a mercury thermostat to keep it at a constant temperature — setting a template for the development of modern, reliable thermometers.

But now Drebbel started on a new project. James was looking for new weapons for his growing navy — with the new Great Britain’s imperial expansion, the navy was becoming far more important than the land army. He would devise various bombs for James and his successor Charles I, but even more boldly, he was to make the first navigable submarine. Gravesend naval man William Bourne had drawn plans for such a craft in the 1570s, and in between 1620 and 1624, Drebbel drew on those plans to build three working models, each bigger than the last. The last of them had six oars and carried 16 passengers (including James, who thus became the first monarch to travel underwater). Thousands of Londoners lined the banks of the Thames, as the vessel travelled from Westminster to Greenwich and back, staying underwater for some three hours.

But how did he do it? Argument still rages as to how ‘submarine’ the craft was — it was perhaps more a semi-submersible. But many accounts of the day have Drebbel putting his alchemical knowledge into practice, burning potassium nitrate within the submarine to generate oxygen (and simultaneously absorb carbon dioxide build up). If so, he had anticipated the ‘rebreather’, invented by Fleuss in the 1870s, by 250 years.

And yet … with all his brilliant inventions, Drebbel was never able to secure the patronage and money he needed, and by the late 1620s was near poverty, running a London alehouse and drawing up plans (never implemented) for draining the Lincolnshire fens. He was still conducting his experiments though and so it was that, while developing a coloured liquid for one of his thermometers, he accidentally dripped a solution of aqua regia (nitro-hydrochloric acid) on his tin window sill. The resultant colour, was a brilliant scarlet, much brighter and longer lasting than the existing carmines used in fabric dying. Cornelis had just a few more years to live, but his daughters Anna and Catharina and sons-in-law Abraham and Johannes Sibertus Kuffler established a dye works in Bow, with the colour of ‘Bow Dye’ a closely guarded family secret. Nobody could prise it from them, and the brilliant scarlet of Bow Dye became the fashionable toast of Europe. Cornelis died almost penniless … but his descendants made their fortunes.


In Darkest London

Darkest London/east end history/8jul13/rennie

The job of a middle class female in Victorian London was straightforward. To marry, to bear children and to maintain unimpeachable standards of behaviour and sexual continence. Divorce (even when it became legal) meant banishment from society. An education? That was for men.

But the straitened, buttoned-up Britain of the latter 1800s didn’t just march to one beat. It was an industrial age that was creating huge poverty and slums just as it was making many very rich. A time of social ferment and new political ideas, with the fight for socialism and universal suffrage. And that created a new kind of woman. The feminist, educated, independent career woman appeared in the novels of Henry James, in the plays of Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw, in the suffragette movement — and in a battalion of independent-minded women who took on poverty and social injustice in the East End.

Margaret Harkness was a typical New Woman. She had been born at Upton-on-Severn in Worcestershire, on 28 February 1854, the daughter of a conservative clergyman. Her first decision, to train as a nurse, was challenging enough for her parents, though acceptable. Soon enough she would marry a wealthy man and settle into domesticity. To their horror, though, she made it clear she had no interest in marriage, deciding to stay single and work as a freelance journalist.

Her first works were rather dry histories on Egypt and Assyria, but by the early 1880s she had been captured by stories closer to home… though a million miles from the rural peace of the Malverns. She began writing for socialist paper Justice on the scandals of child poverty and malnourishment in the East End. And as a social reformer she was becoming increasingly involved, rather than simply observing and writing. She moved to the East End, into a little flat into the newly constructed Katherine Buildings, the first project of the East End Dwellings Company, which would move hundreds of East Enders out of slum tenements and into their vast red-brick blocks, the so-called ‘Red Cliffs of Stepney’.

The EEDC was unusual among the new ‘model dwellings’ companies in that it allowed casual and day workers (among the poorest and least secure of employees of course), and Margaret particularly wanted to observe and write about them. As so often with Victorian philanthropists working among the East End poor, there was a sense of missionary amid a foreign race, even a different species. The EEDC also, uniquely, eschewed strong-arm rent collection methods, instead copying the model of Octavia Hill, and so using female rent collectors. Katherine House had been named for one of the first of those, Catherine [sic] Potts. Catherine was Margaret’s second cousin, and another toff who had come to the East End, going to work with Toynbee Hall founders Samuel and Henrietta Barnett.

Catherine and her sister Beatrice (the future Beatrice Webb, who would go on to found the LSE and be instrumental in the establishment of the Fabian Society) became part of Margaret’s East End circle, along with Eleanor Marx and Annie Besant. Now the young journalist was becomingly increasingly politically engaged, joining the Social Democratic Federation and helped mediate in the 1889 East End Dock Strike.

But it was an experiment with her writing where Margaret made her mark. The ‘Condition of England’ novel was a genre in itself, with notable entrants such as North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell and Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil, or The Two Nations. And writers had drawn on their journalism to create them, famously Charles Dickens with Hard Times. But a woman living in the East End and novelising the scenes she saw around her was unique. And blurring the lines between journalism and fiction also let her create her own blend of socialism and feminism — her main concern, in truth, was the lot of East End women, and she tackled their social and sexual oppression head on in her first book A City Girl.

The eponymous heroine is young East End seamstress, Nelly Ambrose, seduced by a West End middle-class radical, Arthur Grant, treasurer in the local hospital for poor women and children. It caught the eye of Frederick Engels, who had seen at first hand the horror of the workers’ lot during his days as a young manager in a Manchester mill firm. He liked her novel, but criticised her inability to give it a socialist core. He famously went on to berate the East Enders for their lack of revolutionary fervour. ‘Nowhere in the civilised world are the working people less actively resistant, more passively submitting to fate, more bewildered than in the East End of London.’

Set in the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee (1887) Out of Work, a year later, describes poor carpenter, Joseph Coney, who comes to London from rural England to seek employment. He gets casual jobs at the East End Docks, is often hungry and unemployed, and laments: ‘I guess I ain’t wanted. There are too many of us poor folks, and not enough work for us to do.’ Finally, in perfect melodramatic Victorian style, he becomes alcoholic, destitute and returns home to expire on his mother’s tomb. Harkness reflected that in years to come, the ‘chain’ system of the casualised docks would be looked back on in horror.

In A Manchester Shirtmaker, Margaret moves the action to the horrors of the sweatshop, with its internecine battles between English, Irish and Jewish workers; and to the workhouse, appalling industrial accidents and inevitable death. True to form, the heroine poisons her baby with opium, is sent to the lunatic asylum and strangles herself to death.

But it is in her fourth, and most successful novel, In Darkest London, that Harkness really found her voice. She seems to have become disillusioned with socialism, and been attracted by the social activism of the Salvation Army. The novel follows the travails of Captain Lobe, as he works to bring relief to the ‘down-and-outs’ of the East End slums. The title references both Stanley’s famous travel narrative, In Darkest Africa and William Booth’s In Darkest London and the Way Out, which revealed the moral problems of poverty in England. Some of the colour in the book could only have come from a journalist ‘reporting’ from the scene:

“Whitechapel Road is ‘the most cosmopolitan place in London…a grinning Hottentot elbows his way through a crowd of long-eyed Jewesses. An Algerian merchant walks arm-in-arm with a native of Calcutta. A little Italian plays pitch-and-toss with a small Russian. A Polish Jew enjoys sauerkraut with a German Gentile. And among the foreigner lounges the East End loafer, monarch of all he surveys…it is amusing to see his British air of superiority. He is looked upon as scum by his own nation…he has a mind, although he does his best to destroy it by narcotics and stimulants.”

She wryly notes the morbid fascinations of the locals. There are echoes of Orwell, 50 years later, whose overwhelming impression of the East End was that very little of interest happened in a very grey world:

‘The only things in which East End people take much interest are murders and funerals. Their lives are so dull, nothing else sets their sluggish blood in motion. But a murder gives them two sensations. Was the person poisoned, or was his throat cut? Did the corpse turn black, or did it keep until the nails were put into the coffin?’

Margaret would leave the East End and travel the world, before dying in Italy in 1923, largely forgotten. The irony? In her 1880s and 90s heyday, those seminal novels would be published under the pseudonym ‘John Law’. A feminist and radical writer she may have been — but London still wasn’t ready for such works from a woman’s pen.



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…

10 historic East End theatres

View East End theatre map in a larger map

  • Britannia Theatre Hoxton
  • Hoxton Hall
  • The Theatre
  • Curtain Theatre
  • Royal Cambridge Music Hall
  • Red Lion Theatre
  • Goodman’s Fields Theatre
  • Half Moon Theatre
  • Garrick Theatre
  • Wilton’s Music Hall

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

Preview of Huguenots of Spitalfields Festival April 2013

WE’LL RUN a full review of what’s going to be happening, in East End Life in a week or so, and then here on In the meantime, here’s a full preview.

To celebrate the talents and contribution of the Huguenot community who settled in Spitalfields during the 17th century, we present a series of events as part of The Huguenots of

Huguenot Shoreditch and Spitalfields

Huguenot Shoreditch and Spitalfields

Spitalfields Festival. Find out more about their history, community and the major weaving industry that produced some of the finest silk work of the times. Events take place at various venues from 8 – 21 April 2013. Visit for the full programme.


From Worm to Wardrobe: Wearing Spitalfields Silk


Tuesday 9 April, 7.00pm

Huguenot silk weavers produced textiles worthy of any fashionable personage. But how much silk was needed to make a sack back or mantua, two of the fashionable dress shapes of the time? How long did it take to weave enough fabric? How much would it cost? This talk traces the process from silk filament to fashionable garment. Beatrice Behlen is Senior Curator of Fashion and Decorative Arts at the Museum of London. She previously worked as a curator at the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, Kensington Palace.

Tickets: £7, concs £5

Samuel Higgins, silk weaver, in his loom-shop at Gauber Street, Spitalfields. Drawing by D MacPherson for the Daily Graphic, 7 April 1899

Samuel Higgins, silk weaver, in his loom-shop at Gauber Street, Spitalfields. Drawing by D MacPherson for the Daily Graphic, 7 April 1899

Ireland as Paradise: Huguenot Military, Political and Economic Power


Wednesday 10 April, 7.00pm

Though small in numbers, the Huguenots who settled in Ireland were to have a big impact on the history and culture of Ireland. Playing an integral part in William of Orange’s Irish campaigns, most notably the Battle of the Boyne, they went on to create many communities around Ireland. Their impact on the social and economic landscape of this country is often over looked. This talk demonstrates the Huguenots military, political, economic and social legacy in Ireland from the linen trade to Gallic surnames.

Tickets: £7, concs £5

French Born, London Made: The Trades of the Huguenots


Thursday 11 April, 7.00pm

The influx of French Protestant immigrants to London in the late 17th century had an enduring influence on the capital’s economy and social life. London proved not only a refuge from religious persecution, but also a city of opportunity. This talk will examine the major Huguenot contribution to silk weaving, gunmaking, clock and watchmaking, goldsmithing and other historic London trades.

Tickets: £7, concs £5

Contemporary Tapestry at West Dean

Christ Church Spitalfields, the Huguenots' place of worship

Christ Church Spitalfields, the Huguenots' place of worship


Saturday 13 April, 2.30pm

Since the mid 1970s the Tapestry Studio at West Dean has been producing large scale tapestries woven to commission and has a history of working with artists such as Henry Moore, John Piper and Howard

Hodgkin, Adrian Berg, John Hubbard and Tracey Emin. This talk will cover all aspects of the Studio’s activities including the tapestries currently being woven for Stirling Castle and a collaborative project with Michael Brennand–Wood.

Tickets: £7, concs £5

Learn the Language of the Weavers: French Taster Sessions

Taster Session

Monday 15 April, 1.10pm – 1.50pm or 6.30pm – 7.10pm

To complement our events in The Huguenots of Spitalfields Festival we have created a French taster session for you to sample one of our fun and enjoyable French courses. If you enjoy this taster and would like to continue to learn French, you can enrol on one of our regular French courses. For more information about our range of language courses visit

Free admission

Advance booking recommended

The Huguenots’ Story


Monday 15 April, 7.00pm

Who were the 60,000 French Protestants that arrived in the South East of England in the 1680s? Where did they come from, who were their families? This talk paints a vivid profile of the Huguenots of Spitalfields from their French beginnings to new lives in East London, highlighting the family records produced by the Huguenots themselves as well as those by the Government, Anglican Church and from France.

Tickets: £7, concs £5


Disappearing Spitalfields


Wednesday 17 April, 7.30pm

The history of Spitalfields can be defined by change, but the changes currently taking place

The Brick Lane Mosque, once a Huguenot chapel

The Brick Lane Mosque, once a Huguenot chapel

are potentially far greater in scale and character than ever before. Is this, after 900 years, the end for Spitalfields as a distinct and independent entity? Architectural historian and Spitalfields resident Dan Cruickshank highlights the physical losses alongside the social and economic changes Spitalfields has experienced and considers the way in which these changes continue.

Tickets: £10, concs £8

Escaped tigers and white elephants … the Tobacco Dock story

IT SEEMED such a great idea. A prime chunk of derelict real estate, right at the epicentre of the coming Docklands boom. Just like in the Long Good

The Old Tobacco Dock, Wapping

The Old Tobacco Dock, Wapping

Friday: what could go wrong? As the rubble of the demolished docks was swept away, vast acres of new land were exposed to view. To the west lay Rupert Murdoch’s monstrous Fleet Street on Thames at Wapping. To the east, the glittering towers of Canary Wharf were just beginning to emerge from the Isle of Dogs clay – a bit like spring flowers after a particularly long and brutal economic winter.

Tobacco Dock was and is a beautiful building too. When they constructed docks in the early 19th century they built them to last. And of course, being bonded warehouses for the holding of valuable imported Virginia tobacco, the structures had to be secure, to stop the fragrant cargoes from going over the wall. The fashion of the late eighties was to no longer demolish the massive Georgian buildings of the old docks, but to repurpose them for a yuppified ‘Docklands’, with modern interiors being created within the old shells. Frequently, of course, new ‘faux’ warehouses would be built to fill in the gaps.

So the owners of Tobacco Dock, Lawrie Cohen and Brian Jackson, (working with gifted architect Terry Farrell, who who artfully reconstructed Charing Cross station) and surfing a retail boom,

Replica ships evoke memories of Tobacco Dock's past

Replica ships evoke memories of Tobacco Dock's past

must have looked at their Grade One listed purchase, to be transformed from Napoleonic warehouse to 1990s’ shopping centre and presumably thought: “What can go wrong?” And so they opened their doors, on 22 March 1989 … and nobody came.

If the building had had a colourful early life (we touch on Jamrach and his escaped tiger, as well as the Queen’s Tobacco Pipe below) the years leading up to launch had been beset with snags. The owners had swallowed the expensive necessity of preserving the essential elements of Sir John Rennie’s original design. The great architect of London Bridge, the London Docks and much more of the infrastructure of maritime and commercial London had rested his roofs on huge iron pillars, while the warehouse itself stood atop vast subterranean, arched brick vaults, built for the storing of the tobacco. Legend has it the elaborate brickwork was assembled by French prisoners taken during the Napoleonic Wars.

But planning permission seemed to go out of the window as the owners discovered that Rupert Murdoch had been given planning permission to knock down a section of the old dock, and use the land to expand the looming Fortress Wapping next door. The pair had just three months to match Murdoch’s bid, and were bailed out at the eleventh hour by builder Harry Neal, who came up with £500,000.

The shops that took the units in the new centre were very much of the 1980s. There was a Body Shop, a Next, a Monsoon and a Filofax shop – all Tobacco Dock lacked was an outlet selling jumbo mobile builders’ phones. But the traders who had counted on footfall from shoppers and tourists waited in vain. The Sunday Times nipped next door to get a story but that was about it. Amjal Chaudry, who took a unit to sell craftwork and jewellery told the paper in 1990 that he was seeing three or four people a day, taking £30 if he was lucky.

Charles Jamrach's Ratcliff Highway Shop

Charles Jamrach's Ratcliff Highway Shop

The problem? As property and retail experts will always say: it’s about location, location … oh and location. You could say the mall was a short walk from Tower Hill, but who was going to take that walk along the traffic and fume congested highway. It was hard to get to, as well. There was Wapping station on the East London Line and Shadwell on the recently opened DLR, but both were poorly connected, unlike today, with the Ginger Line Overground and the ever-expanding DLR. The owners built a multi-storey carpark opposite, but even that set new records for a London car park with no cars in it.

The centre found occasional uses – as a location for pop video shoots (among them Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s Messages), for a commercial for the Ford Ka, and for filming of BBC time-slip drama Ashes to Ashes five years ago.

The remarkable fact was that the complex didn’t close. The shops left, one by one, until by the late nineties there were only two businesses left: Frank & Stein’s and Henry’s Cafe Bar. In the mid-nineties a new plan was launched, to transform the Dock into a factory outlet complex. A bad omen perhaps was that this idea was floated by Gerald Ratner, the man who had destroyed his own jewellery company with a Russian Roulette approach to PR. And in 2000, Henry’s Cafe closed, leaving Frank & Stein’s as the only tenant. The owners were now forced to keep the complex open for another eight years, at which point the restaurant closed, and they could bar the gates for … the last time?

View of Tobacco Dock from the road

View of Tobacco Dock from the road

You can’t get in there now, though you can see the replicas of sailing vessels the Three Sisters and Sea Lark, and the statues of animals commemorating the adventures of Charles Jamrach, who ran a zoo/petshop on the Highway in Victorian times. The story, perhaps embroidered over time, has a tiger escaping and seizing a local boy in its mouth, with Jamrach heroically prising the lad from the beast’s jaws. Tiger and boy are here in statue form, gazing quizzically at each other. Perhaps they are wondering where everybody is? There is a bear too, another reminder of the eccentric menagerie. No expense was spared in making Tobacco Dock work – but to no avail.

With thanks to View From the Mirror’ a Taxi Driver’s London,