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Battleship Potemkin and a sanctuary in Stepney Green


The year 1917 is etched into the minds of most of us as the date of the Russian Revolution. But a dozen years before, a first revolution had been brutally crushed by the Tsar’s soldiers and police.

Like so much of the revolutionary politics of a hundred years ago, there were countless East End connections to the uprising. This year marks the centenary of the most famous event of the 1905 Revolution, the mutiny aboard the Battleship Potemkin … whose leader then sought sanctuary in Stepney Green.

Georgi Gapon and the Assembly
of Russian workers

At the turn of the 20th century, the lot of workers the world over was hard, dangerous and badly rewarded. In Russia, factory hands typically worked an 11-hour day, with 10 hours on a Saturday. Modern concepts of health and safety were a distant dream and the nascent trades unions were savagely crushed by factory owners, the army and the police. Somehow though, a priest named Father Georgi Gapon had managed to recruit more than 9000 members to his Assembly of Russian Workers.

1904 was to prove the tipping point. Russia was not only despotically but incompetently run. Food and essential goods were often in short supply and that year saw roaring inflation, with shop prices rising and real wages dropping by some 20 per cent. So when four members of Gapon’s union were sacked at the Putilov Iron Works, the workers were easy to rouse. Over the following days more than 110,000 St Petersburg workers came out on strike.

Cossack massacre at the Winter Palace

Gapon went to Tsar Nicholas II with a plan for peace, but the Tsar ignored the demands for shorter hours and an end to the costly Russo-Japanese War, and instead ordered out the guns. When a procession of workers reached the Winter Palace they were fired on by Cossacks and Police. 100 died and 300 were injured.

Bloody Sunday was the catalyst for the 1905 Revolution.
All over Russia, people came out in a strike that knew no class boundaries. While the railwaymen paralysed the country, lawyers, doctors and engineers were organizing to demand a representative assembly, a democratic parliament.


Battleship Potemkin mutiny, June 1905

Any despotic government needs the armed forces to keep the people in line, but things were about to get a lot worse for the Tsar. In June 1905, the crew of the Battleship Potemkin, patrolling the Black Sea, protested against their ration of rotting meat. Their captain peremptorily ordered that they should be shot. At this point occurred one of the turning points in modern Russian history.

As the firing squad appeared, Torpedo Quartermaster Afanasy Matushenko, a political activist and member of the Social Democrats, shouted: ‘Don’t shoot your own comrades — you can’t kill your own shipmates.’ There were shouts to ‘seize the ship’, and some of the men stormed the armoury. Within half an hour, seven officers had been killed and thrown overboard, and Matushenko ordered the ship to Odessa, with a People’s Committee established to run the ship.

Massacre on the Odessa Steps and Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin

Meanwhile a rising in Odessa itself went unnoticed by the Potemkin crew amidst the noise of refueling the ship. That night, Odessa was a city in riot, with 6,000 people killed by soldiers and looters. This was the bloody day immortalized in Eisenstein’s 1925 movie Battleship Potemkin. A political polemic, commissioned by the (by now) ruling Communists as a 20th anniversary reminder of the Tsar’s brutality, it was nonetheless a ground-breaking piece of cinema. The famed scene showing the massacre on the Odessa Steps was to change the way directors framed scenes and used the movie camera.

Lying off Odessa, the Potemkin saw off a flotilla of Russian warships before the mutiny eventually ran out of steam. The crew dispersed, many were arrested, and ringleader Matushenko went on the run. He sought shelter in Romania, France and Switzerland before fetching up in Europe’s safest haven … London.

Matsushekno at Dunstan House, Stepney

Stepping ashore in Wapping, Matushenko made for 33 Dunstan House in Stepney Green. This meeting point for anarchists and revolutionaries was the home of both Kropotkin and Rudolf Rocker, both of whom had fled persecution on the Continent.

Rocker was a popular leader and speaker in the East End, setting up a social club in Jubilee Street, Mile End, with a library and reading room. In 1912 Rocker too was to lead a mutiny … the garment and dock strikes of that year. Rocker also bitterly argued against both sides in the First World War. His punishment was to be imprisonment and then being deported to Holland.

Harsh though Rocker’s persecution was, Britain appeared a paragon of liberal thinking compared to Mother Russia. Matsushenko was determined to return to Russia and the revolution that he was sure would come. In 1906 he was back in southern Russia helping organize anarchist activity. Caught by the Tsarist authorities, he was hanged with other anarchists in 1907.


The murder of Leon Beron


The murder of Leon Beron

When the battered body of Leon Beron was discovered on Clapham Common on New Year’s Day 1911, it was to set in motion the most notorious murder trial of the day.
And it was to provide a day in court for some of the
East End’s most colourful characters… and least reliable witnesses.
The case also dragged in the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, allegations of spying and sinister implications with the recent Sidney Street siege and the Houndsditch Murders.
Slum landlord
Beron wasn’t universally loved – as a slum landlord he was unlikely to be. He owned nine decaying houses in Russell Court, Stepney, which provided him with 10 shillings (50p) a week, enough to pay his own two shillings rent on 133 Jubilee Street, Stepney, and provide the one and sixpence a day for his meals
at the Warsaw Kosher Restaurant at 32 Osborn Street, Whitechapel.
It was at the Warsaw that Beron began to be seen in the company of Steinie Morrison, in December 1910. Morrison was another Russian Jew, who had arrived in England in 1898. Where he arrived from wasn’t certain – he claimed to be Australian and also used the pseudonyms Alexander Petro-pavloff, Morris Stein and Moses Tagger. What was certain was that he was a professional thief, who had already served five sentences for burglary.


Prompt arrest
Beron was found in gorse bushes on the Common, his head staved in by a blunt instrument, his legs neatly crossed, his wallet emptied, and a curious ‘S’ mark carved into each cheek. They were, observed the police surgeon, “like the f holes on a violin”.
It took the police just seven days to pick up Morrison, arresting him as he tucked into his breakfast at Cohen’s Restaurant, in Fieldgate Street.
They had quickly discovered that he had been working at Lavender Hill, so might know the Common well. They also discovered that on the morning of New Year’s Day, Morrison, using yet another pseudonym of Banman, had lodged a revolver and 45 bullets at the left luggage office of St Mary’s Railway Station, in Whitechapel.
They also discovered that he had moved in with a Lambeth prostitute, Florrie Dellow,
on January 1 – after telling his Newark Street landlady that he was off to Paris.
All very suspicious, but also all circumstantial evidence.
The defence and prosecution witnesses were as unreliable as each other. Beron’s brother Solomon attempted to physically attack defence counsel Edward Abinger when he implied he might have had something to do with Leon’s death.
Unreliable evidence
Meanwhile, 16-year-old Janie Brodski backed Morrison’s alibi – that he had spent the night at the Shoreditch Empire watching Harry Champion and Harry Lauder. She claimed that she and her sister had paid on the door for seats in the stalls at a shilling each.
Unfortunately, the theatre manager confirmed that the seat prices had been raised to 1s 6d (71/2p) for the night, and had all been sold out days in advance.
Add in the unreliable and conflicting evidence of a number of cab drivers placing Morrison at the murder scene (by now his photo and offers of a reward had appeared in the newspapers) and it is difficult to see how any court could reasonably convict him.
Abinger attempted to cloud the waters further. He implied that Beron was a police informant who had been assassinated for grassing on the anarchists responsible for the Houndsditch Murders and the Sidney Street siege. The ‘S’ marks stood for the Polish word ‘spiccan’ or spy, he suggested.
The policeman in charge, DI Wensley, scoffed at the theory, and the jury took 35 minutes to find Morrison guilty of murder. The judge had no option but to pass the death sentence, saying: “May the Lord have mercy on your soul.”
“I decline such mercy!” shouted Morrison. “I do not believe there is a God.”
The Court of Appeal upheld the conviction but the Home Secretary was not so sure. Churchill commuted Morrison’s sentence to life.
Ironically, it was a decision the prisoner himself would not accept. He repeatedly appealed to be put to death and, on January 24, 1921, weakened by a series of hunger strikes, he died in Parkhurst Prison.


Oliver writer Lionel Bart

Oliver writer Lionel Bart
by John Rennie
Lionel Bart’s music ranged from his greatest success, Oliver!, and musicals like Lock Up Your Daughters and Blitz. His songs such as Living Doll, Rock With The Cavemen and Little White Bull gave chart hits to British rock’n’roll stars like Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele. It was a curious hybrid – but it had its roots in East End soil.

Bart was born Lionel Begleiter in Whitechapel in 1930, the 11th child of a Jewish tailor, and it was his childhood that formed his songs. “Oliver! was a strange marriage of the Jewish music of my barmitzvah and the street cries of my childhood,” he recalled. “Fagin’s music was like a Jewish mother hen clucking away!”

It was a colourful background, but one Bart was fond of embellishing still further. Many of his friends talked of his constant rewriting of his childhood, a habit which drove the ghostwriters of his biography to despair.
Certainly, although he never learned to read or write music, there were early signs of musical ability. Aged six, one of the young Lionel’s teachers told his father that the lad was a musical genius, and his proud dad bought him a violin. Lionel soon got bored with the discipline required and dropped his lessons.

At 16, he decided his artistic future lay with painting, and won a scholarship to St Martin’s School of Art. That didn’t last either, though. He was expelled for “mischievousness”, but didn’t regret leaving the lonely life of the artist in his garret. “I like a good mob working around me,” he explained, an esprit de corps that would be fulfilled in the huge musical productions that were to make his name.

One thing he did acquire during his studies was that name. His bus journey from Whitechapel to the West End every day took him past Barts Hospital, and Begleiter reinvented himself as Bart.

After National Service, Bart set up in business with his RAF pal, John Gorman. With a borrowed £50, they started a printing firm in Hackney. But business was never Bart’s forte – this was the man who later sold the million-spinning smash hit Oliver! for a paltry £15,000, and poured in £80,000 of his own cash in 1965 in a vain bid to save the flop musical Twang!!

Tommy Steele and Soho’s 2 I’s

Anyway, music was changing, with big bands giving way to rock’n’roll, and Bart was spending time up West, mixing with young hopefuls like Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard in Soho’s 2 I’s coffee bar. At the same time as he was producing his first stage show, Wally Pone of Soho, which debuted at the Theatre Workshop in Stratford, he was banging out the hits for Britain’s answers to Elvis. It came easily. He claimed to have written Living Doll in six minutes on a Sunday morning – about twice as long as Cliff took to sing it!

But what came easy, went easy too. Bart was hugely generous with his cash, a legacy, he reckoned, of his gambling father. “There were endless arguments about money,” he said. “I hated money and had no respect for it. My attitude was to spend it as I got it.”

By 1972, Bart was bankrupt, with debts of £73,000, and a huge drink problem. What cash hadn’t been ripped off by casual acquaintances had been poured into unsuccessful stage shows. Often, his pals saw the warning signs in his shows long before he could. His friend Noel Coward, on reading the script of his Quasimodo, remarked: “Brilliant dear boy. But were you on drugs when you wrote it?”

But towards the end of his life, attending Alcoholics Anonymous, and with a percentage of the profits from the stage revival of Oliver!, Bart was reconstructing his life. And Cameron Mackintosh, the producer of that revival, made one of the most telling quotes on Bart’s death. “Of all the people in this business who have had ups and downs, Lionel is the least bitter man I’ve ever come across. He regrets it, but he’s never been sour, never vindictive.”

London History: 100 faces of the East End by John Rennie

London History: 100 faces of the East End by John Rennie is available now; £8.99; ISBN: 978-1-4116-6608-5 at http://www.lulu.com/content/324701. A history of London and the people who made it. Pen pictures of Attlee, Captain Cook, Sir Walter Raleigh, Stalin, Gandhi, Lew Grade, Steve Marriott, Fu Manchu, Sylvia Pankhurst, Lionel Bart, The Tichborne Claimant, John Wesley, Terry Spinks, Joseph Conard and dozens more…

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: http://tinyurl.com/38htuxu


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