Abram Beame – mayor of New York


Abram Beame, mayor of New York by John Rennie

Abram Beame – mayor of New York

Many East Enders have moved on and out, and very many have gone on to greatness. But Abraham Beame, who died earlier this year, is surely unique. Beame left London, and ended up mayor of New York City.

Abraham David Beame was the son of Polish Jews who, like hundreds of thousands of others were fleeing persecution in Czarist Russia. And like many others escaping the pogroms, the Beames ended up in Whitechapel.

Abraham Beame in Whitechapel
Abraham was born on March 20th, 1906. His father, Philip Birnbaum, a socialist, went on to New York. Meanwhile, his wife, Esther Goldfarb stayed in the East End to recover from the birth. She also changed the family name to the more Anglicised Beame.
If Whitechapel had been tough on the immigrants it was good preparation for their arrival in New York, where they settled into the bustling, crowded and poor Lower East Side.

From Whitechapel to New York
The Beames saw the way out as being hard work and education. And like many an immigrant before him he went on to achieve top marks at school, while holding down evening and weekend jobs, including labouring in a paper mill and working shifts at his dad’s restaurant.


He was a born money man, winning perfect scores in his accountancy exams, before going on to teach the subject at high school and university.

He came to politics late, and was an unlikely mayor of New York. At 67 years of age, only 5ft2in tall, this self-made working class cockney was in stark contrast to the Ivy League educated career politicians who normally inhabited the office. While his rivals were at home in the upper class suburbs of New York and New England, Abraham would be calling on all friends back in the working class district of Queens, many of whom had accompanied the Beame family on the long ocean crossing from the East End to Ellis Island.

Beame as New York Mayor

When Beame entered office he inherited a $1.5billion budget deficit. The extraordinary debt had come to a head as other crises hit the city and the nation, including the Watergate investigation, protests against the disastrous war in Vietnam, terrorist bombings in New York and a city wide power failure that resulted in violence and lootings. It looked like the great city was set for collapse.

His period in office also coincided with the horrific serial killings perpetrated by the so-called “Son of Sam” (killer David Berkowitz). Beame found himself pilloried by the media for the mounting debt, though he had inherited 15 years of municipal mismanagement. At the peak of the New York City financial crisis, Beame threw out pleas for aid to New York state governor Hugh Carey and US president Gerald Ford – all were refused.

Saving New York from bankruptcy
But Beame’s financial and business sense started to pay off. He hammered out emergency plans, programs and stopgaps as well as securing state and federal loans from the heads of the state and the nation, but it didn’t make him popular. Rises in income tax, subway and bus fares were painful medicine, and cuts of city employees, wage freezes and the implementation of college tuition fees only made him less so. And Beame left office in 1978 after the election of Ed Koch with a $200 million surplus, having entered office with the city facing bankruptcy.

Abraham retired from politics but remained active in business, banking, charity and education. But the stresses and strains of public life had taken their toll. The former mayor suffered from heart troubles for a decade, including heart attacks in 1991, and in July last year. After undergoing a second major heart surgery in December of 2000, Beame fell into increasingly frail health and died on 10 February 2001.


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Tower Hill Beach


Tower Hill Beach by John Rennie


Summer’s here, and that means East Enders will be preparing for their summer holidays. Ibiza, Florida, the West Indies, there’s no limit to the travel destinations these days, as people take advantage of cheap flights to follow the sun.

A generation or two back it was different of course. Then it would be Margate, Clacton or Southend, and you took pot luck with the English weather.

But from the early 1930s, there was a holiday destination much closer to home. A sandy beach and – if it was a fine day – you could be there in ten minutes. But who ever heard of a beach at Tower Hill?

River Thames and Tower Bridge

We’ve all seen the Thames at low tide. But crossing Tower Bridge and looking down at the silted mudbanks exposed by the receding water, it’s unlikely you’ve ever fancied sunbathing down there.

But the Tower Hill Improvement Trust thought it was a marvellous idea, and one of the most bizarre ventures in recent East End history came to fruition in 1934.

The Trust knew that even weekend and bank holiday trips to the seaside were a luxury beyond many East End families.

So, in 1934, they brought in bargeloads of sand, and heaped them atop the muddy banks. More than 1500 tons of the stuff created a beach for 500 people between St Katharine’s Steps and the Tower.

King George V opens Tower Hill Beach

The Lieutenant of the Tower of London opened Tower Beach to the public on 23 July 1934. King George V decreed that the beach was to be used by the children of London and that they should be given ‘free access forever’.

It was an instant beach for East End children and they responded accordingly. It was a huge hit. Between 1934 and 1939 over half a million people used the beach. Many visitors came from the East End, particularly from Stepney and Poplar.

The children built sand castles and swam in the ‘sea’ while their parents lounged in the sun – there were even rowing boats for hire – a trip under Tower Bridge and back again would cost 3d (just over 1p). It was only for five and a half hours each day though, at high tide the beach disappeared.

The beach closed for the first time during the Second World War. So many children had been evacuated from the borough that it wasn’t thought worth opening it.

With the cessation of war the Tower Beach opened again – amazingly it was only finally closed down in 1971.

Local lad Colin Jackson used to sneak on to the recently closed Tower Beach as a schoolboy in the early seventies. For him and his pals it wasn’t about sunbathing, but a much older East End tradition – mudlarking.

Museum of London

‘We used to go down there and go mud-larking and treasuring. At home I’ve got bits of old junk that we found, I’ve still got them now to this day. We used to go clay pipe hunting,’ he remembered.

As an adult he revisited the beach at an open day hosted by the Museum of London. ‘

“There was all these guides from the Museum of London teaching the kids about the years that different clay pipes come from,” he said.

“Then they gave them all rubber gloves and told them to go looking in the little puddles and under rocks'”.

So many thousands of the little clay (tobacco) pipes were tossed into the Thames over the centuries that such a search would turn up examples to this day.

The beach was eventually closed because the river was considered too polluted and unsafe for bathing.

In fact the eddies and riptides of the river here meant that it had never been a good idea for kids to go swimming – though Tower Beach never had any problems.

And ironically in the early seventies, the river was probably about to become the cleanest it had been for 1000 years … as river trade almost completely disappeared.

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Lost rivers of London


Lost Rivers of London by John Rennie


The City of London wouldn’t be here at all if it weren’t for the River Thames. And the reason that the East End is more than just a collection of country hamlets is because of its history as a river gateway to the City, as people and produce poured into London from around the world over the last two millennia.

But the Thames isn’t the only river in the history of Tower Hamlets. Once there were other watercourses, now buried beneath the industrial and residential development of the East End, but all of which played their part in its past.
Until the dissolution of the monasteries by King Henry VIII in the 16th century, the Abbey of St Mary Graces stood at Tower Hill, not far from the subsequent site of the Royal Mint.

Old maps of the abbey show a river running down each side of what was then
called Nightingall Lane – now renamed Thomas More Street. Some sources suggest that the river rose at what is now Royal Mint Street. But Kenneth Reid, writing in the archives of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society back in 1954, makes a more realistic claim that it followed a course from Wellclose Square, which fits in better with the contours of the land.

Wapping’s Crashe Mill

It was possibly on this river that Wapping’s Crashe Mills stood. This watermill is
recorded in 1233 as belonging to the Priory of Holy Trinity, Aldgate, and was a tidemill, most likely providing power for the milling of grain.


The unromantically named Black Ditch appears on Horwood’s map of the parish boundaries of London, which appeared in 1799. The river apparently rose at Rhodeswell Road in Stepney, and headed east as far as Bromley-by-Bow before looping back in an arc across what is now the start of the East India Dock Road. It then fed into the Thames at the easternmost end of Narrow Street.

Veitch’s plan for the Sewerage of the Metropolis, which appeared in 1851, shows the Black Ditch as now being an underground watercourse, little more than a sewer. And Joseph Bazalgette’s massive programme of underground waterworks for the City in the mid- and late-1800s enclosed many ancient streams and rivers in pipes, and transformed them into waste and outflow sewers.

The lost River Walbrook

Strange to think that, hundreds of years ago, there were major rivers feeding into the Thames from the banks of the City. The Walbrook – which gives its name to the existing City ward – was fed by one tributary which rose just to the east of Aldgate and another which appeared by the side of Shoreditch High Street.

The Walbrook gave into the Thames between Southwark and London Bridges, but began to be choked with rubbish during Roman times. It was excavated, canalised and used for traffic up to medieval times. It was finally covered over in 1440 at the instigation of Robert Large, Lord Mayor of London.

The untamed River Lea

Before its canalisation, the River Lea was a far more sprawling waterway, and one of its major tributaries was Hackney Brook. Now completely lost, Hackney Brook rose at two points near the Holloway Road, crossed Mare Street – known as Merestret back in 1443 – and flowed down to Hackney Wick before meeting the Lea a little way to the south. The Hackney Brook was no minor stream. The Report on the Public Bridges of Middlesex, published in 1825, described the brook flooding to 100ft in width at Hackney Wick Bridge.

All these rivers are now hidden, but they still flow along their ancient courses. Nowadays, they are only seen when torrential rain causes flooding, but they are there just the same, forming a large part of the Victorian sewer system that still serves London.

Further reading: The Lost Rivers of London, Nicholas Barton, published by QPD.


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Bedlam Hospital, Bishopsgate


Bedlam Hospital, Bishopsgate by John Rennie
TODAY, mental illness is treated as just that – an illness to be treated. But an understanding of its causes, and the treatments for it, is a recent development – if we go back just 100 years, the sick were treated as a danger, to be incarcerated. Go back to the Middle Ages and the ill were possessed by demons.
The treatment of mental patients was often brutal, and nowhere more so than in the most notorious ‘hospital’ of them all, whose very name passed into the language as a byword for the chaos associated with mental illness.
Pastoral
Bethlehem Royal Hospital was founded in 1247 by the Bishopsgate Sheriff, Simon Fitz Mary, as the Priory of St Mary Bethlehem. Today, the site is in the heart of the City of London – Liverpool Street Station occupies the space. But back in the 13th century it would have stood on the edge of open farmland.
Like many abbeys, convents and friaries, whose religious interns led a less cloistered and isolated life than those in the monasteries, the priory conducted pastoral work among the people of London. The hospitals, such as they were, were based in the religious houses, and by 1327 there are records of a hospital at Bethlehem.


Early on the priory catered for general complaints but, in 1346, the Mayor and Corporation of the City took over stewardship of the hospital and, in 1377, Bethlehem began to look after ‘distracted’ patients.
Treatment was rudimentary to say the least. Patients were kept chained to the wall in leg irons. When they became restless or violent they were whipped or ducked in water.
In 1547, the priory was finally dissolved, the Corporation bought the site from the King, and Bethlehem was officially re-classified as a ‘lunatic asylum’.
The definition of a hospital or asylum was a loose one. Little or no distinction was made between criminals, beggars and the insane – all were considered idle in an age when hard work was the road to redemption, hence the whippings and beatings handed out to the lunatics.
The mother of the painter JMW Turner, known for his seascapes, was one of the unfortunate inmates of Bedlam – like many others, she was committed there for “mental instability” and never left it alive.
Shame
So, as the insane were considered a badge of shame upon a decent family – and to enable the West End gentry to tuck away their unfortunate offspring in an asylum on the wrong side of town – a grotesque sideshow grew up at Bethlehem.
From the early 1600s, visitors had been allowed in to view the inmates. Soon a trip to Bethlehem, or ‘Bedlam’ as it became known for short, was one of the great treats of a Londoner’s leisure time, like a trip to the theatre or, more accurately, the zoo.
100,000 people a year were paying to see the patients, who were placed in cages on the hospital’s galleries. Much later, Charles Dickens imagined the scenes in his piece “A Curious Dance Round a Curious Tree” in the magazine “Household Words”:
“Bethlehem Hospital was ‘a dry walk for loiterers’, and a show; when lunatics were chained, naked, in rows of cages that flanked a promenade, and were jeered at through iron bars by London loungers.’
By the time Dickens wrote those words, in 1852, things had changed, at least slightly, for the better. The porphyria of George III had increased the sympathy of the public for the mentally ill and, in 1770, the hospital bowed to pressure. It reluctantly foresook the tuppeny entrance fees being paid by the 100,000 visitors who ‘tended to disturb the tranquillity of the patients’, and shut its doors to the public. The warders even stopped using whips.
By now, the expanded hospital had moved to Moorfields, then to Lambeth, and on to Surrey. Today, the Bethlehem Royal Hospital is in Beckenham.


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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.


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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.


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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.”

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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…

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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.

Posted in East End at war | 3 Comments

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.

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