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Geoff Barkway

Geoff Barkway
by John Rennie
Geoffrey Barkway, who died on 8 June at the age of 84, was another of those ordinary men who did extraordinary things during World War II. An east London boy with a passion for locomotives, he was to make his mark in a very different form of transport.

When Staff Sergeant Geoff Barkway piloted his Horsa glider in to land at Pegasus Bridge, he was taking part in “the greatest feat of flying of the second world war” by Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory. And yet, Geoff and his five fellow pilots were snootily dismissed by another senior RAF man who opined: “The idea that semi-skilled personnel be entrusted with piloting these troop carriers is fantastic. Their operation is equivalent to force-landing the largest-sized aircraft without engine aid – there is no higher test of piloting skill.”

Geoff would play a crucial role in the enormously complex operation that was D-Day. Holding the two canal bridges was crucial in the wake of the landings. Allied troops would be able to prevent German tanks reaching and attacking the beaches. Intelligence had also discovered that the bridges had been prepared for demolition, potentially cutting off an exit from the beaches and penning the Allied forces in.

It was precision flying, getting direct to the bridges in a way that conventional aircraft simply couldn’t – and in total silence. Yet Geoff’s background was a long way from that of the conventional RAF pilot. Born in east London, the young Geoff had a passion for locos, and left his studies at Leyton Technical College for a job as an apprentice turner and fitter with the LNER (London and North Eastern Railway). With war looming, Barkway signed up for the Territorial Army (Royal Signals) in February 1939. Later that year he swapped to the railways arm of the RE.

But Barkway was after more action, and in 1942 answered the call for trainee glider pilots. “I banged in my application … I had never been in a plane but reckoned I might as well give it a try!” recalled Geoff.

None of the new boys knew what they were being trained for, and D-Day was still two years away. It was an unusual mix – rigorous infantry work, learning to fly powered aircraft then moving on to gliders. Geoff won his wings in April 1943 and was moved to the Horsa troop. If your image of a glider is the gossamer craft piloted by Steve McQueen in the Thomas Crown Affair, think again. The Horsas were hulks: 88ft wingspans, 1550lb and a payload of 29 soldiers or crewed jeep and trailer. The crews dubbed them ‘flying coffins’.

Operation Deadstick demanded the tyro pilots descend from a height of 6000ft over the Channel, seven miles from target, at a steeper than usual angle, aided only by compass and stopwatch, with no ground markers to help them, and in darkness. They had to land within yards of the bridges, and hope the German sentries wouldn’t hear them. Deadstick was an unprecedented mix of expert trigonometry, piloting, bravery … and no little luck. “Precision was everything,” remembered Geoff, years later. “Peter [co-pilot/navigator Staff Sgt Peter Boyle] navigated using stopwatch, map and clipboard. He had to time the moves to the split second. It was up to me to fly the plane. We were too busy making sure we were on the right heading at the right speed to worry about the danger.”

The Halifax towing aircraft released their charges over Cabourg on the Normandy coast. Barkway and Boyle took a right-angled turn starboard and swooped toward their target. To make the job harder, the heavy payload saw the craft descending at 100mph rather than the usual 60mph. One of the gliders went off course, landing miles away, and took no part in the landing, but the rest landed in the space of minutes next to the two bridges over the River Orne. At the last minute, Geoff had to swerve to avoid the glider in front and buried his craft’s nose into the riverbank, was thrown through the cockpit window, into a pond and knocked out. Coming round, Geoff revived the concussed Boyle, and the pair put their infantry skills to use, transforming from airmen to soldiers as they attached the bridge. Barkway was shot in the arm and evacuated to Portsmouth; gangrene had set in and his right arm was amputated.

The job was done and the bridges taken, and an announcement was made that all the pilots would win the Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM). To the surpise of his mates, Geoff’s name was missing. The modest Barkway made no protest, but it emerged that there had been an administrative error, Geoff’s award going to another glider pilot of similar name, who had not flown on Deadstick. The wrong was quickly righted, though too late for Barkway to receive his medal with his pals at Buckingham Palace.

Invalided out of the forces in 1945, Geoff married Eileen and the couple had two sons and two daughters. He returned to a safer form of transport, getting an Engineering degree then serving 30 years with London Transport, helping develop the Victoria Line. In latter years he worked as a consultant on New York and Singapore’s underground railways. The prosthetic arm, meanwhile, served as a useful prop for humour. It would periodically fall off – once when he was riding his bike, to the horror of a passing woman, once remaining on the platform clutching his briefcase as he leapt onto a train.

Commemorative reunions, after-dinner speaking and a lifelong friendship with Peter Boyle were the happy legacy of those dangerous days. The east London lad will be remembered as one of the true heroes of World War II.

London From The Air

Centuries of change

Centuries of change, building and rebuilding have shaped the East End, its buildings and the routes of its streets.

It’s a wealth of detail that we, at pavement level or behind the wheels of our cars, rarely get to see. Occasionally, circling for landing on a Heathrow-bound plane, we take an unplanned trip over the City and have fun picking out the sites, but all too briefly.

A fascinating book of photographs of London by day, by night but always from the air puts that right. And in the process it provides striking insights into the collision of old and new that is the East End.

London From The Air* does so by bringing together the superb aerial photographs of Jason Hawkes and a text by Felix Barker. Barker has written a host of books on London’s past, including London: 2000 Years of a City and its People and The History of London in Maps (both with Peter Jackson).

Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf

While Hawkes happily points his camera at whatever grabs him, Barker is left with the painstaking detective work of identifying historically interesting streets and buildings. “Much time has had to be spent with the magnifying glass and Ordnance Survey maps,” admits Barker.

“Local history libraries have been badgered to identify perplexing buildings. Anyone who prides himself on knowing his London can have a good game spotting some of the more obscure places.”

A spectacular panorama of the Isle of Dogs displays not just the massive developments of Canary Wharf, but how a surprisingly large part of the Island is made up of the greenery of Mudchute and Millwall Park.

Another picture peers down at a Canary Wharf lit by the orange glow of the sunset. This north part of the Isle of Dogs is revealed to be more water than land, and No 1 Canada Square seems to be floating in the middle of the flood.

A shot of Whitechapel draws the eye irresistibly to the bullseye-like helicopter landing pad of the London Hospital. And then the huge sprawl of the hospital itself becomes clear, dwarfing the buildings around it.

A picture from above Mile End looks back to London, revealing Mile End Road carving its way from Essex into the heart of the City. The main route in to town for two millennia, it is now bathed in a haze of petrol fumes.

The Tower of London is revealed not so much as London’s premier tourist attraction but as the great fortress it once was – the Tower’s immaculately preserved buildings squat behind the massive defending walls and moat.

At first the pictures appear more like patterns – beautiful jumbles of shape and colour as modern grid-like street systems butt up against ancient curving routes like the Highway. Then it becomes addictive to peer deeper into the pictures. What is that green space tucked away in Wapping? Is that line the route of a disused railway?

Students of London history won’t stop at the East End of course. Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye, St Pauls, Westminster Abbey and many more are spectacularly shown from above.

But just as striking are the unexpected gems. The enormous Jewish cemetery at East Ham appears as thousand upon thousand of neatly arrayed playing cards. The endless terraces of Ilford are aligned with a military precision reflecting the Imperial street names of Khartoum, Madras and Bengal. And shots down the river, through the Thames Barrier, the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge and beyond into Essex, have a bleak and misty beauty.

• London From The Air (photographs by Jason Hawkes, text by Felix Barker). Ebury Press, hardback £25.

The cockney photographers

Forty years ago, Swinging London was yet to swing. Everything was in black and white and, in class-bound Britain, fashion photographers were trades-men – polite, smart, seen but not heard.

A new breed of snappers changed all that – Terry O’Neill, Brian Duffy, David Bailey and Terence Donovan.

Bailey and Donovan, two kids from the East End, became probably the most celebrated photographers of glamourous women the Sixties produced. But while both moved in the glitzy fashion world of New York, Milan and Paris, they constantly returned to and celebrated their East End pasts.

Both men started their careers in the West End studio of the doyen of fashion photographers – John French.
They were a blast of fresh air, sweeping away the genteel atmosphere of the Forties and Fifties. Brian Duffy remarked on the culture shock the three were to the business. “Before 1960, a fashion photographer was tall, thin and camp. But we three are different: short, fat and heterosexual!”

Stepney actor Terence Stamp

And they were working class. A decade before they would probably have had to conceal their roots – in the Sixties they could celebrate them. In between fashion shoots for Vogue, and portraits of the characters that made Sixties Britain a creative and artistic powerhouse – pictures in the show include Julie Christie, Francis Bacon, Peter Blake and that other East End boy, Terence Stamp – Donovan was continually returning to Stepney.

The idea of leaving the city he loved for a home in the country alarmed him. “What do I do with it?” he demanded. “I don’t want to take a picture of it, and I don’t want to walk in it.” So he would come back to Stepney each Sunday to see his aunts and uncles, and to revisit the sites of his youth. Taking his camera and travelling alone round the streets of his childhood – marking the bombsites, the docks, the cobbled streets and the characters of an East End that was soon to disappear as the developers moved in.

National service in Singapore

Bailey was doing the same. His early attempts to snap his East End surroundings, on a battered box Brownie, had been a failure. He’d got his first decent camera when he was on National Service in Singapore. And by the Sixties he was at the top of his trade, having broken free of the career path he dreaded. “If you came from the East End there were only three things you could become – a boxer, a car thief, or maybe a musician,” he joked later.

Donovan, too, was grateful he’d broken through the horizons of his childhood, continually surprised he wasn’t “down at Tate and Lyle’s loading sugar”. And in the Sixties, in between fashion shoots of his muse Jean Shrimpton, of Twiggy, of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, Bailey too would often return to Tower Hamlets with his camera.

It became business as well as pleasure. His set of pictures for the Sunday Times in 1968, East End Faces, was a technicolor record of local life, pubs, clubs and kid boxers – among them a youthful “Johnny” (later to become John H) Stracey.

Reggie Kray’s wedding photos

Most famously of all, Bailey became a wedding photographer for the day, doing the honours at Reggie Kray’s wedding to Frances Shea in Bethnal Green.
The worldwide fashion shoots for the likes of Vogue go on to this day for Bailey. Donovan was still photographing the world’s most beautiful women in couture’s most expensive clothes until his death in 1996. The East End they continually recorded is, sadly, largely gone.

“It was a kind of innocence,” says Bailey. “But it’s all gone now. My regret is not taking more pictures at the time.”

The Hannah Brown murder, 1837

View Hannah Brown murder in a larger map

Any piece of detective work is a jigsaw puzzle – finding which bits fit and which don’t, carefully sifting and experimenting until the big picture emerges. In the case of the unfortunate Hannah Brown, however, it was literally true. A series of horrifying discoveries around London, in the early weeks of 1837, had the whole of London horrified and fascinated by one of the capital’s grisliest murder mysteries.

The men working on the Regent’s Canal in Stepney were used to oddities being washed into the lock gates. Often it was some bounty that had fallen overboard from a goods-laden tug headed up to Birmingham and the Midlands – a barrel of brandy, a sack of coal or a bolt of linen. Occasionally it was something far worse. So it was that in early January that year, the crew clearing the Ben Jonson Locks (behind the Ragged School Museum and close to what is now the junction of Ben Jonson Road, Rhodeswell Road and Copperfield Road) fished a human head from the water. A modern-day detective would have quickly established that it hadn’t been in the water for long, being still recognisable as that of a woman in middle age.

The only problem was that in 1837 the science of policing was in its infancy, and the newly formed Metropolitan Police didn’t yet have a detective branch (formed in 1829, the Met wouldn’t get a ‘CID’ until 1841). It was left to a sharp-eyed doctor to put two and two together.

A few weeks before, on 28 December, a bricklayer named Bond had been working a few miles west, on a new row of houses, Canterbury Villas, on the Edgware Road. Returning to his lodgings in Kilburn on that icy winter’s day, Mr Bond had to traverse the Regent’s Canal – where his eye alighted on a coarse wrapping of sack. The orrified builder noted that from the hessian there oozed a pool of now-frozen blood.

The police were called, to unveil a torso from which both head and legs had been crudely hacked. An inquest was organised and held – in the curious manner of the day – at the White Lion Inn on the Edgware Road. The facts were clear, if incomplete, and the coroner duly noted that the torso was that of “a woman of around 50”. The jury returned a verdict of “wilful murder against some person or persons unknown.”

A few weeks later, in the East End, Dr Girdwood, the district surgeon of Stepney, was puzzling over his severed head. He recalled the gruesome finding in Westminster and wondered whether there could be a connection. Calling his Paddington colleague, he asked for the torso to be exhumed. The untidiness of the murderer’s knife-work made it easy for the doctor to announce that the two body parts were a match. Still the story was incomplete though. Girdwood placed the head in preserving spirits and waited.

The gruesome set would be completed on 2 February. Down in Camberwell, labourer James Page had taken work cutting back willow branches around a culvert. Stepping over the ditch, he noticed a wrapping of sackcloth in the water, from which protuded a human foot. The police arrived, opened the wrapping and revealed two human legs. Rushed to Girdwood for examination, the limbs proved to be the final pieces in the puzzle. Police now had a body but no killer.

The case had filled the London papers however. And on 20 March, a Mr Gay of Goodge Street came to the Paddington churchwarden, asking for permission to inspect the body. Gay had been searching fruitlessly for his sister, Hannah Brown, who had disappeared just before Christmas.

Now the puzzle raced quickly to a conclusion. If the identity of victims sometimes took time to be revealed, the identity of their killers was usually more obvious. The constables of the Met always looked first to family members, friends and lovers; it soon emerged that Hannah had left her lodgings on Christmas Eve, telling friends she was to marry a James Greenacre of Camberwell.

Greenacre proved elusive but was finally tracked down on 24 March, to the lodgings in the Kennington Road he shared with Sarah Gale, his common law wife. In the hallway were packed trunks; in Greenacre’s pocket were tickets for a passage to America. The police searched the trunks, to find items belonging to Hannah.

Justice was swift. Just three weeks later, the pair were standing in the dock at the Old Bailey. Greenacre’s defence was non existent. He first claimed not to have known Hannah, then said she had disappeared. Gale, standing alongside her lover, became similarly confused in her defence, as she was accused of being an accessory after the fact. Today, trials last for months. That of Greenacre and Gale was over in two days, the judge summed up in a few minutes, and the jury took a quarter of an hour to reach their verdict of guilty.

Greenacre was hanged on the 2nd of May, 1837. By then, Gale had been transported to Australia – from where she would never return.

Map of locations in the Hannah Brown murder:

Matthew Arnold in London’s East End

Matthew Arnold in London’s East End

The Victorians loved their poetry, the longer, the more epic, the better. Tennyson and Browning fulfiled the need for lengthy verses – which father could recite to his attentive family on drawing room evenings – dealing with the great subjects of love, death and the lost golden age of England.

But the third of Victorian poetry’s “Big Three” dealt with much more mundane, though no less important, themes – the misery and poverty he found as inspector of schools in the Bethnal Green of the 1850s.

Matthew Arnold in Bethnal Green

Matthew Arnold was born into a life of solid respectability and educational excellence. He was the son of the renowned headmaster of Rugby public school, Dr Thomas Arnold.

Arnold senior was passionately absorbed in educational reform, and his work was the model for the novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Matthew was to continue his father’s work, but not as a teacher to the sons of the rich. Like many mid-Victorians, the righteous Arnold felt that he had a mission to bring the improving medicine of education to the poor.
Schooling was the key to the working classes dragging themselves into ‘respectability’. And where in more need of education and respectability than London’s East End.

Arnold becomes school inspector

In 1851, he became an inspector of schools in Bethnal Green and his experiences provided fuel for his poetry. In 1867, he penned the poem East London. In it, he describes a summer walk through Bethnal Green and Spitalfields.

Twas August and the fierce sun overhead
Smote on the squalid streets of Bethnal Green
And the pale weaver, through his windows seen, In Spitalfields, looked thrice dispirited.”

All poets have their big themes. Arnold wrote movingly on nature, the city and how men and nature were often crushed by the hustle and bustle of East End life.
In A Summer Night, Arnold describes the men and women he sees as he goes about his day’s work in Bethnal Green.

“For most men in a brazen prison live
Where in the sun’s hot eye,
With heads bent o’er their toil, they languidly
Their lives to some unmeaning taskwork give.”

Bancroft Road Local History Museum

Arnold also set down his thoughts in a long series of letters to Rosella Pitman, the headmistress of Bethnal Green’s Abbey Street School and sister of Isaac Pitman, the inventor of shorthand. This insight into Victorian thinking can be read at the local history museum in Bancroft Road, Bethnal Green.
Arnold’s literary reputation was sealed when he was named Professor of Poetry at Oxford University in 1857. But he never forgot the work and squalor of the East End that was the inspiration for his greatest poetry.

What lies beneath … the East End of London

What lies beneath … East End of London

London, with its two millennia of history, shows only its most recent past on the surface. Dig down a few feet and layer upon layer of buildings are uncovered. It’s an excavation job that the Museum of London and its predecessors have been doing for years – unearthing around 1,000 sites in Greater London. And Tower Hamlets, with its centuries of development as a port and borough hard by the old City walls, has more to reveal than most.

More than 70 historical digs pepper the borough. Most of them are clustered around Aldgate to the west – that’s unsurprising, because for the greater part of our history, Bow, Bromley, Stepney and Mile End were wild countryside. But they lie as far east along the river as the Limehouse Link’s meeting with The Highway – where a 1989 dig recovered many prehistoric ‘worked’ flints and located the remains of a c.18th century factory that produced Limehouse porcelain. This dig revealed the successive layers of industry too, also uncovering older brick buildings engaged in pickling and lime burning.

Roman quarry in Armagh Road

And in the north of the borough, a cluster of digs around Bow reveal treasures from the Roman occupation and later. A 1990 dig in Armagh Road not only uncovered a Roman quarry, supplying the rock for the invaders’ excellent roads, but evidence of ploughsoil – so farming was going on as well.

Many of the digs around the City walls reveal the grim legacy of the waves of plague that hit London from the Middle Ages onward. Digs in Artillery Lane revealed medieval plague pits, though interestingly there were also signs of Roman burials – so the same graveyards had been in use for many centuries.

Indeed, the piling on of layers of use and development can make the archaeologist’s job a brain-bending puzzle. A dig in Back Church Lane, E1, in 1988 revealed traces of Roman features, but the Roman strata had been much damaged by a post-medieval cemetery and more modern buildings. Adding to the confusion, the line of a Roman road cuts across the modern street plan.

Tudor garden in Stepney

Of course the plague and pestilence of medieval Aldgate began to drive people out to the countryside of Stepney and beyond. For those who could afford it, the answer was to build a manor house in what was then the Essex countryside. A dig in Butcher Row, E14, in 1975, revealed not just an ancient chalk-and-flint boundary wall, but three later buildings on top of it. These c17th century buildings were revealed by the remnants of their gravel yards. In another part of the site the archaeologists had to be even more clever – traces of Tudor garden soil betrayed the fact that homes had stood beneath the 18th and 19th century warehouses.

Peeling back the layers on the Butcher Row site reveals a microcosm of how Tower Hamlets has changed – agriculture, supplanted by grand homes, replaced in turn by industry. Perhaps in 500 years, archaeologists will be digging beneath the foundations of Wapping’s luxury flats and finding that wharves and warehouses once stood here.

Some of those Tower Hamlets digs

72a Armagh Rd, E3: 1990 excavation revealing early Roman gravelling, probably for construction of London to Colchester road.
37-39 Artillery Lane, E1: 1976 dig revealed remains of a plague pit.
East Tenter St, Scarborough St, E1: 1988 dig revealed shallow Roman deposits, eight burials (three in chalk) and fragments of a mortared flint structure which may have been part of a mausoleum.
36-44 Gower’s Walk, E1: 1989 dig revealed sandy layer beneath garden soil, dated to 16th century. Structures included a basement, well and cesspit. Also a small part of Dissenters’ burial ground.
Hooper St, E1: 1988 dig revealed extensive Roman cemetery lying alongside a road or track. Numerous burials of adults and children. Goods found included hobnail shoes, shale bracelets, glass beads and a possible jewelled casket. Also half of an inscribed gravestone.
Morville St, E3: Excavation in 1972-73 unearthed a ditch, burial pit and shallow gullies contain Roman pottery of the 1st or 2nd centuries.
Priscilla Rd, E3: 1977 observations recorded a flat-bottomed pit cut into gravel. Above was a layer of ploughsoil.
For more information read ‘Archaeology in Greater London 1965-90: a guide to records of excavation by the Museum of London, edited by Thompson, Westman and Dyson, ISBN 0-904818-80-2

Annals of London

The Annals of London by John Rennie

London is nearly 2,000 years old, growing from a Roman walled settlement to one of the world’s greatest cities. And not a year has passed in those two millennia without the emergence of epoch-making characters and events.

History books normally concentrate on those great men and women, and those turbulent events.But an astonishingly ambitious volume puts London right at the heart of the story, charting events year by year over the past 1,000 of those years – and the East End has a starring role.

The story of the modern London really begins in Tower Hamlets, with William I fortifying the city in 1067 and then building the stone structure in 1078.On to 1101 and we see how traffic was already starting to come in to the City – the evidence being the building of Bow Bridge across the River Lea, by Queen Matilda. In that year too, the Tower held its first prisoner, the Bishop of Durham,who also became the first man to escape from the Tower of London.

The East End’s long association with holy orders is first noted in 1108, when the Augustinians founded Holy Trinity Priory near Aldgate. The buildings were to burn down in 1133. 1235 sees the establishment of the first London zoo, with leopards and polar bears housed at the Tower of London. And in 1247, the notorious lunatic asylum of St Mary Bethlehem, or Bedlam, was instituted on the later site of Liverpool Street station.

In 1374, Geoffrey Chaucer, one of the greatest writers in the English language, set up home above the Aldgate, and in 1380 we read the first recorded settlements on the Isle of Dogs, with the establishment of a chapel on the old ‘Stepney Marsh’. In 1448 we see an early danger of living on the Island, the whole area being submerged when the embankment was breached.

1576 sees the opening of the first London playhouse, the Theatre at Shoreditch. And in 1614 we see the East India Company – which shaped the fortunes of the East End as much as any – taking over a new ten-acre site at Blackwall. So began the modern London docks.In 1684, Spitalfields Market opened for business.

Then, in 1711, the East End received a rash of new churches in response to a Government Act addressing the lack of places of worship in the east. Christ Church Spitalfields, St Anne’s Limehouse and St George inthe East all date from this time.

In 1780, religious ntolerance reared its head in the East End, with the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots. On a happier note, in the same year William Addis set himself up as a ‘stationer and rag merchant’ at 64 Whitechapel High Street. Addis was to invent the first toothbrush, made of bone and horsehair, giving East Enders relief from the scourge of tooth decay resulting from their consumptionof the new delicacy – sugar. The company still bears Addis’s name.

And interspersing all these seminal events we read of more mundane matters. The constant attempts of the authorities to contain the nuisance and noise of the East End brothels and alehouses, via a series of laws over the centuries – none of which worked. The continual attempts to curtail the anti-social behaviour of the tanners, weavers, spurriers and other guild workers as they go about their trade with scant concern for the comfort, safety or well-being of their neighbours.

And we read of thestrange freaks of nature – the first sighting of Halley’s Comet in 1446 which “served only to confirm a general air of unease and foreboding”, the once a century freezing over of the Thames, and the blazing summers bringing plague and pestilence. And, least expected of all, the East End being hit by a hurricane in 1703.

The Annals of London by John Richardson; published by Cassell and Co; price £30.

East End Story by Alfred Gardner

East End Story by Alfred Gardner

ONE evening, in the long hot summer of 1959, the young Alfred Gardner was walking home along the Commercial Road. Noticing a woman stretched on the pavement, he ran to a phone box to call an ambulance, only to be beaten to it by an older Eurasian man.

Chance encounters often spark friendships, and this was to be the start of a camaraderie spanning 37 years. There are hundreds of books – published and unpublished – giving first-hand accounts of life in the East End. Alfred Gardner’s new book works because he focuses not on himself, but the extraordinary characters and situations that he and his new pal, David Upson, encountered together over the years.

They were an unlikely mix. Alf, in his late teens, had never journeyed too far from his childhood patch of Stepney. Dave, in his early thirties, had had an extraordinary life already. For Alf, World War II meant vague memories of returning from evacuation in Hartlepool in 1944 to a Stepney now under threat from Germany’s V1 and V2 rockets. But two years earlier, Dave had faced even greater dangers.

Prospect of Whitby

His idyllic Rangoon childhood ended on 21 December 1941 when the Japanese air force began bombing, killing more than 2,000 people. Two days later, Rangoon was nearly empty. 400,000 civilians fled, among them David and his mother, onboard a ship for Calcutta. And in 1943, the 15-year-old bluffed his way into Burma’s tiny navy. Recruit 538 was nowhere near the requisite 18 years, but took up smoking and drinking to appear older.

Nearly 20 years later, sitting in the bars of the Prospect of Whitby, The Grapes, the Town of Ramsgate and Rotherhithe’s Mayflower, all pubs with the river at their back door, the younger man soaked up tales of the sea and travel. Dave, meanwhile, was intrigued by Alf’s insider’s take on his new home. They compared notes on ER Braithwaite’s slice-of-life East End novel To Sir With Love which had just appeared. Dave was impressed. Alf, who had been a pupil at St George’s in the East School when Braithwaite had taught there, was less so, and was appalled at the unsympathetic portrayal of his old school.

Dan Farson’s Waterman’s Arms

As they wander the streets, pubs and clubs of the East End and Greenwich, a fascinating cast of characters emerges. There are exotics such as Red Boots Danny; the reforming East End cleric Father Joe Williamson. At Dan Farson’s Waterman’s Arms they rub shoulders with celebrities, noticing Clint Eastwood enjoying a quiet drink at the bar. And Dave, the sociable heavy drinker seems to know everyone. His friend watches amazed as men, women, old and young spring forward to shake his hand and greet him. Alf, meanwhile, usually on nothing more than a half of bitter, pushes himself into the background. With his photographic memory, he is the camera documenting their travels.

Alf quickly realises the reasons for his new friend’s popularity. He introduces Terri, a young girl from Birmingham who has been forced into prostitution. Dave buys her a meal and finds her a room with an old friend while she gets her life back together. Later he is to receive a beating from Terri’s pimp for his pains.

Wapping old and new

It is only one of many kindnesses to friends and strangers. But there is sadness too. Watching the river during a mid-sixties day in the pub, Dave remembers with nostalgia his days at sea. And observing the bustling river traffic, he warns Alf that soon all the ships will be gone. ‘Impossible’, thinks his friend.

After Dave’s death in September 1996, Alf makes a sentimental journey through Wapping, the walk that the two friends often took. Starting at Tower Bridge, he strolls down St Katharine’s Way and on to Shadwell Park. Much of Wapping has changed out of recognition, the old wharfs replaced by new apartments and penthouses. He stops by Old Aberdeen Wharf to view Rotherhithe opposite. Just as Dave had predicted, the ships are gone, just a few rusty barges clank together.

An East End story by Alfred Gardner, £5.95, is now available from Eastside Bookshop, Whitechapel; Ragged School Museum, Copperfield Road, Bow; Tower Hamlets Local History Library, Bancroft Road and WH Smith Stratford and East Ham. Or order by post from 2 Folly Wall, London E14 3YH (please ensure you also enclose £1.05 to cover p&p). All profits from sale of the book go to St Joseph’s Hospice in Hackney. The limited edition of 1,000 copies will raise around £3,000 for the hospice.

America and the East End of London

East End of London to the USA

We are always hearing how much of an influence the United States has on the way we live. From nylons and chewing gum, through to rock ‘n’ roll, rap and McDonald’s, the American way of life is here to stay. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that much of what made America great not only started in the UK, but right here in the East End.

The story starts back on December 19, 1606 when 105 souls set sail from Blackwall Stairs, aboard the ships Discovery, Godspeed and Susan Constant. The voyage was led by Captain John Smith, who is remembered as the lover of Pocohontas.

On April 26, 1607, the three craft made land in what is now Virginia. Only 38 of the settlers survived the harsh first six months in their new home, among them hardy Cockney settler John Laydon. His daughter, Virginia, became the first child born of a Protestant wedding in the territory.

Mayflower leaves Wapping for Virginia

During the 18th Century, the trickle of settlers became a flood. The famed Mayflower set sail from Wapping Stairs with a complement of East Enders, including Stephen Hopkins, whose wedding on February 19, 1617 is listed in the parish register of St Mary’s in Whitechapel.

William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, left for the New World in 1667. He had been born on Tower Hill in 1644 and was just the first of many East Enders who went on to make their political mark on America – among them two presidents. If you ever visit Virginia, you will find a town called Shadwell, and the name is no coincidence. In 1735, Jane Rogers, christened in St Paul’s in Shadwell, set sail with her parents to the New World. There she met and married Peter Jefferson. On their land, named Shadwell in honour of Jane’s birthplace, they raised ten children, among them Thomas Jefferson, one the greatest ever US presidents who drafted the Declaration of Independence.

John Quincy Adams of London

Nowadays, you have to be born in the USA to rise to the rank of president. But John Quincy Adams, the country’s sixth president, was East End born and bred. And, in 1797, he was wed in All Hallows by the Tower, the same church where Pennsylvania founder Penn had been baptised more than a century before.
But if the men who sailed to settle in America quickly battled for independence from the motherland, they didn’t forget their roots.

The settlers didn’t get their independence until 1776, but 15 years before they decided they needed a rallying symbol. The Liberty Bell, with its inscription “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” was commissioned from the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 1751. The bell still hangs in the Philadelphia State House steeple today.
The East End influence continued, as the New World welcomed bold, adventurous settlers into the next century.

Jacob Adler leaves Brick Lane

Jacob Adler left Brick Lane for New York in 1885. He had started in the East End, with a 600-seat Yiddish theatre specially built for him – the building still stands in Princelet Street. But 17 people were crushed to death during a performance, and the heartbroken Adler fled Britain, and he went on to become one of the greatest stars of the American stage.

When he died in 1926, 500,000 people came to see him lying in state in New York. But through his successful career, Jacob never forgot the East End, returning frequently to play at the Standard Theatre in Shoreditch, and the Pavilion in Whitechapel Road.
As Adler said: “My tenderest, most youthful memories of my life are bound with London.”

In 1905, the Saperstein family left Flower and Dean Walk in Whitechapel for Chicago. In 1927, Abe Saperstein, who had left Brick Lane as a five-year-old, founded the Harlem Globetrotters, the most famous basketball team ever to strut the planet. So when Americans celebrate Independence Day with a ring on that Liberty Bell, remember where it all began…

For more information, see “East End, the American Connection”, produced by Bethnal Green City Challenge. Or contact the British American Arts Association, 116 Commercial Street, Whitechapel, on 0171 247 5385.

London The Biography by Peter Ackroyd

London writer Peter Ackroyd has long had an interest in East End characters and locations – his novels Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem and Hawksmoor each use fascinating, factionalised accounts of real events in East End history. And his string of biographies include those of famed Londoners Charles Dickens and William Blake.

But Ackroyd’s new work is possibly his most ambitious yet – a biography of the town of London itself. This vast, sprawling work, running to 800 pages, treats the metropolis as an organic, growing thing, and for fans of East End history there are tales to keep you coming back over and over again.

Tower Hamlets and stink industries

Particular chapters will fascinate Tower Hamlets readers. The section on the history of the East End is entitled The Stinking Pile and charts the historical poor-relation status of the regions east of the River Walbrook.

The area was poor in terms of its people anyway, if not in its industries. The factories that generated wealth for London at the same time as they despoiled its eastern reaches were appearing surprisingly early. A Lea Mills court in 1614 recorded the appearance of “Launcelot Gamblyn, lately of Stratford Langthorne, starchmaker, because of unlawful making of starch such a stink and ill favour continue and daily arise”.

We see the gradual overfilling of Tower Hamlets until, in the 1880s, the East End implodes. From being merely dirty, noisy and overcrowded, it becomes the abyss, a nether world. The west had long been talking about the East End with horror, as a foreign country. In 1812, we see Thomas De Quincy talking of Limehouse as a strange and frightening world, as he writes about the Ratcliffe Highway Murders.

Jack London in London

And yet, by the early twentieth century, it was still a mystery to most outsiders. When Call of the Wild author Jack London visited London in 1902, and wanted to pay a visit to Tower Hamlets, he went into Thomas Cook in Cheapside.

The startled office manager informed London: “We are not accustomed to taking travellers to the East End; we receive no call to take them there, and we know nothing whatsoever about the place.”

London might have found the Klondike more accessible. Still he found his way there, and went on to describe East Enders as The People of the Abyss.
As Ackroyd observes: “The West End has the money, and the East End has the dirt; there is leisure to the West and labour to the East.”

Cockney slang from Middle Ages

We see a split between the speech of the West and the East as early as the Middle Ages. East Enders shared their East Saxon-derived dialect with the people of Essex and would ‘walk down the strate’, while westerners spoke the West Saxon dialect of the Court and would use the ‘strete’.

Ackroyd unearths a mine of colourful cockney witticisms and put-downs, though some would now sound more at home in the Fast Show’s music hall skits than on any East End street. Have a banana, what a shocking bad hat, has your mother sold her mangle?, and who put a turd in the boy’s mouth – a conversation stopper from the fifteenth century. Ackroyd sees much of the cockney character defined in its speech. The great essayist, William Hazlitt, had a rather jaundiced view of East Enders’ manner of talking.

Cockneys, booze, suicide & prostitution

“Your true cockney is your only true leveller,” he wrote in 1826. “Everything is vulgarised in his mind. Nothing dwells long enough on it to produce an interest … He has no respect for himself and still less (if possible) for you. He cares little about his own advantage, if he can only make a jest out of yours. Every feeling comes to him through a medium of levity and impertinence.”

There are fascinating chapters on a host of London’s character traits – on the history of drink, the history of suicide, the history of silence and the history of light, as the town ages from the time of the Druids to the dawn of the twenty-first century.

We read of East Enders as traders, gamblers, merchants, soldiers, prostitutes, politicians and nobles. It all builds into an enthralling biography of a complex and often-contradictory character… London.

London The Biography by Peter Ackroyd; published by Chatto and Windus; ISBN 1-856-19716-6; £25.