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Tag: Bow

From Bow to Biennale – artists of the East London Group

HOW could it be that an art movement that took London by storm in the 1920s and 30s – propelling house painters, navvies and painters to international success – could simply disappear? Surely the East London Group should be as celebrated as the Bloomsbury artists, namechecked by critics and young painters?

David Buckman's From Bow to Biennale

David Buckman's From Bow to Biennale

Yet as dramatically as it arose, the grouping was gone. The movement depended on the energy and drive of charismatic leader, John Cooper,and his tragically early death saw the end of his dream.


The roots of the movement lay in the slow and steady growth of adult education in London over the previous decades – itself building on the piecemeal establishment of universal education for the working classes over the previous century. Following the Elementary Education Act of 1870 and the Education (London) Act of 1903, young East Enders were no longer going into work illiterate and innumerate. Many had their appetite for education awakened, and it was they – working under impossibly difficult conditions, squeezing in adult learning alongside jobs and families – who would form the core the East London Group.

In 1924, the Bethnal Green Men’s Institute Art Club held its first exhibition at the Bethnal Green Museum. The space had been opened as a branch of the South Kensington (now the Victoria and Albert) Museum in 1872 – it’s now the Museum of Childhood. It proved a marvellous catalyst: both inspiring local artists and providing a venue for exposition of their work. The Institute librarian, AK Sabin, wrote in his introduction to the catalogue (the first of several he would pen) that the Bethnal Green group had been started “little more than a year ago by a warehouseman, a house decorator, three deck hands waiting for a ship, and a haddock smoker”. The wonder was that these East Enders, amid family commitments, working long hours

Albert Turpin painted Baroness Coutt's white elephant not long before demolition

Columbia Market, 1955, by Albert Turpin

and jostling for piecework, were able to fit in instruction two nights study a week after a hard day at work, paying for their own materials from their sparse wages. Soon, the group numbered 30 or more active members, and that first show featured 88 works by 15 members. Only one of their number would go on to join the later East London Group: George Board, who showed seven watercolours. But more important was the interest the show sparked. Among the crowds at the 1925 Bethnal Green show were the young Harold and Walter Steggles. The brothers would go on to be key members of the later East London Group.

The Steggles boys showed an eye for commerce that was foreign to the more high-minded Sabin. He refused to put prices in his catalogue, believing that “the reflection this pursuit of artistic expression makes upon the artist himself – the new background it brings

Post Office Wireless Station Rugy, by East London Group leader John Cooper, 1935

Post Office Wireless Station Rugy, by John Cooper, 1935

into his life – is the most urgent and important thing”. Harold Steggles however thought pricing more likely to put money in the pocket of the artist, and all the later East London Group catalogues would feature prices. Significantly, those shows they would garner commercial as well as critical success, being shown in West End galleries and around the world.

East London Group artists Harold and Walter Steggles

Harold and Walter Steggles in 1928

But by now there was an even more significant shift. Percy Wagstaff, in charge of the classes at Wolverley Street School, in Bethnal Green Road, had recruited the charismatic and inexhaustible (for now at least) John Cooper. Cooper had walked into Civvy Street after service in the Great War, and invested his demob pay in three years’ study at the Slade School of Fine Art, leaving in 1922. “Having no money, I had to get teaching, and taught in East London in the evenings,” he explained to collector Sir Michael Sadler years later. Cooper immediately shook up the teaching and the group had an instant triumph. In this 1927 programme notes, Sabin excitedly reported that group member Archibald Hattemore had had his picture An Interior

Walter Steggles painting of the wharf that once served the Bryant and May match factory in Fairfield Road, Bow

Brymay Wharf by Walter Steggles

bought by the National Gallery of British Arts (now Tate Britain). Hattemore’s story was tailormade for the popular press. He was the “navvy artist”, too broke to buy a canvas and so rendering his picture on calico. Apart from his few months’ study at the Institute, Archibald was entirely self-taught. With a wife and three children, and a weekly wage of only £2 and 14 shillings for his job at the Metropolitan Water Board, just getting the time and materials together to paint was a struggle. When Cooper saw the work he was stunned; other critics declared it to have “a Velasquez touch”. But for Hattemore aesthetics had to go hand in hand with commerce. When Cooper told him he wanted to show his picture more widely, Hattemore’s response was sanguine. “They tell me it is a great honour. I hope it will mean a way out for me. It will… if somebody buys the picture!” The Duveen Fund promptly did and Hattemore was on his way.

And others swiftly followed. The 1927 exhibition was covered extensively by the Daily Chronicle, with headlines including “Workmen as artists” and “Window cleaner’s work in East End show”. The window cleaner was Albert Turpin, a prolific painter who would later go on to be mayor of Bethnal Green. There was basketmaker Henry Silk and his paintings of Zeppelins. Spanish Onions was a still life by Bow engine driver EH Hawthorn, while Victoria Park park-keeper, C Warren took time off from “chivvying small boys about” to commit details of park life to canvas. There was RH James, stone deaf and who hadn’t picked up a brush until he was 58. His father, grandfather and three uncles had all been drowned at sea, and that had, unsurprisingly, put RH off a life on the ocean wave. Ironically, many of his paintings were seascapes. And BR Swinnerton had executed a “very homely little picture”, The Place I Love showing his wife and child at the hearth. He declared that he would never attempt such as scene again as “the rogues won’t keep still!”

Demolition of Bow Brewery by Elwin Hawthorne shown at Lefevre Galleries 1931

Bow Brewery by Elwin Hawthorne

The Institute had been begun in 1920 with an instruction to Sabin to “make good” within three years or it would be shut down.The classes far exceeded merely making good. Sir Percy Harris was tasked with delivering a report on progress ten years on, and described it with a new home (albeit a rather grim building) at 229 Bethnal Green Road. Bedecking the facade was a banner, made by member J Cordwell, proclaiming that it was “The house of 2000 men”. Cooper’s energy and ideas had fired an extraordinary growth in membership. “My idea is to stimulate and direct these talented men…they have an abundance of strong individuality and fine fresh pictorial ideas…I don’t fritter away this energy…in drawing common objects.” So there were the odd still lives (those onions for instance) but Cooper was increasingly forcing his students out of the classroom, to paint the East End in all its grit, grime and reality.

William Finch taught at the Institute at the time (he went on to become a famed art teacher and only died in 2003) and painted a vivid pen

Almshouses at Mile End by East London Group's Elwin Hawthorne, shown at Lefevre Gallery in 1935

Elwin Hawthorne, Almshouses at Mile End

portrait of those days. “My Bethnal Green gang produced good and varied paintings. It was a varied bunch and tough – a formerly well-known professional boxer, a cooper, a London street busker, a market trader, an injured window cleaner.” John Cooper went further. Arriving at Bow he soon concluded that he had the raw material to begin a whole new school of art. All he had to do was get the members “to stop painting film stars…and to paint what was all about them, say a dingy bedroom”. He dragged his students away from “copying bad pictures” and winnowed out the less talented or committed men. And in 1929, Cooper made a decisive shift, renaming the artists ‘The East London Group’ and signing a contract with West End gallery Alex, Reid & Lefevre to host the annual show. It meant greater exposure for his crew, and increased sales.

Over a few short years, Cooper wrought an astonishing change. From a lively evening class in Bethnal Green, by 1936 East London Group members were being exhibited at the Venice Biennale, among the most prestigious showcases on the international art scene. Alongside such luminaries as Barbara Hepworth, Sir Alfred Gilbert and Duncan Grant were Elwin Hawthorne with Una Via Di Londra and WJ Steggles, with Scena Prosso Chichester. John Cooper didn’t exhibit his own work, but he had the satisfaction of knowing that “two raw amateurs he

Core members of the East London Group of artists, including Bray, Hawthorne Cooper and Parker

Elwin Hawthorne, Phyllis Bray, John Cooper, Brynhild Parker at Lefevre Galleries 1932

had welcomed into his Bow evening classes a dozen years before were reckoned good enough to show alongside the best in British art.” Cooper’s work ethic was legendary, teaching all around London and increasingly moving into mosaic work. He encouraged his students to exhibit more widely, and in December 1935 came another milestone for the group. Cooper’s assistant and then wife, Phyllis Bray, was asked to create three large murals for the New People’s Palace in Mile End.

But even as the Group found further success there were signs of decline and dissolution. The eighth annual Lefevre show in 1936 would prove to be the last, amid fears that the grouping might be becoming stale. And amid the usual praise in the press that year were murmurings of dissent, with the Morning Post critic believing that “its members were hysterically overpraised in the beginning”. There is always a critical backlash of course, and the work of WJ Steggles, Brynhild Parker and Phyllis Bray was still garnering commercial and critical success, but there were other cracks appearing too.

The marriage of Cooper and Bray was swiftly unravelling (in part prompted by an attachment Phyllis formed to an architect during her People’s Palace work),and by September 1936, the two fiery personalities were living apart in Bow. It of course made teaching together difficult. And with the outbreak of war, Cooper’s situation declined. Teaching hours had been cut, and he was now struggling financially. Things improved with a job at the Air Ministry drawing aircraft, but the already emotionally volatile artist was rocked further when his flat

Bethnal Green's Salmon and Ball pub, by East London Group artist Albert Turpin

Bethnal Green's Salmon and Ball pub, by Albert Turpin

was bombed in an air raid. Cooper had to leave his Ministry job, citing “a long breakdown”. At least part of the reason, according to his doctors, was overwork, and he returned to his native Yorkshire to recuperate. His health declined, and John Cooper died in his sleep at Leeds Infirmary in February 1943. He was just 48 years old. The death of Cooper undermined the possibility of any revival in the East London Group after the war. The group possessed huge talents, but relied heavily on

The-Guardian Angels by Elwin Hawthorne shown at Lefevre Galleries in 1931

Guardian Angels Church, Mile End, by Elwin Hawthorne

the energy and drive of Cooper to make things happen – without him the engine was gone.

From Bow to Biennale: Artists of the East London Group by David Buckman. Published by Francis Boutle, £25

Photos of Roman Road, Bow and Bethnal Green

Spend enough time in Roman Road and you’ll see one of the Photo Friends, camera in hand and looking for another glimpse of Bow to immortalise in film … or nowadays on memory card. Don Archer, Ken Claisse, John Curtis, Jim Hardiman, Mireya Saavedra,

Emily Shepherd and Pam Tesner are the Friends. Veterans of the East End (the youngest member 50, the oldest in the mid-eighties) and most of them have lived and worked in Bethnal Green or Bow all their lives. And this month Oxford House in Bethnal Green offers the rest of us a chance to see the work they’ve been doing – a visual journal of a vanishing East End that they’ve been patiently compiling over the years.


Roman Road, Bow in the 1960s

Roman Road, Bow in the 1960s

Though it’s all come together rather well, the starting point of the collection was the sort of happy accident that often sparks off creative work. Photography tutor to the group, Sarah Ainslie, takes up the story. “When we began, one of the members had black and white photos they’d taken in the 1960s, so we used these as a basis for a project, focusing on the shops and square of Roman Road.” First the members photographed exteriors of all the shops down to Grove Road, a lively, gaudy mix of grocers, fast food emporia, estate agents and the rest … all the elements of a living high street. But shops are as much about the people who own and work in them as the products they sell. So the group interviewed the shop owners, and dug in to their family history. Visitors to the exhibition will see the exterior shots of the shops, placed together to form long collages of the street.

The run of images tell a story of a street sometimes in decline, but in a process of constant change, and with small business owners at its core, battling to keep one of the East End’s oldest and best loved ‘market streets’ in business.

The second focus of the exhibition follows in the footsteps of almost-forgotten East End painter Noel GibsonGibson, a self-taught Scottish artist, lived in the area during the 1960s and documented a slice of London that was changing so quickly that “sometimes I’d go back to capture a detail and find the street had disappeared!”. Even in some of the 1960s photographs, one sees the odd boarded-up shop. A neat run of Victorian terracing is suddenly interrupted by a block of 1970s concrete – the work of the Friends in documenting the Roman then and now perfectly reflects the constant and sometimes violent change in the architectural fabric of the Roman. Many of the buildings needed to go, many more were casually discarded by the developers.

A cache of Noel’s paintings were bought by Tower Hamlets Council a few decades bac, the plan being to hang them inmunicipal buildings. And this year, the Friends were invited by Tower Hamlets Local History and Archives to find the locations that Noel had painted in the 1960s and photograph them for their collection. You’ll see the new photos alongside copies of the paintings.

Noel Gibson painting of Hessel Street, Stepney

Noel Gibson painting of Hessel Street, Stepney

The street wasn’t always called Roman Road of course. Older members of the group could remember when it was still called Green Street. Before that it had been called Drift Street. But in the 1950s, the local council, enthusiastically grabbed hold of evidence that the old Roman Road from Colchester to London had passed nearby, and rebranded the thoroughfare. Now, just as Petticoat Lane became ‘the Lane’, Roman Road became simply ‘the Roman’ to all East Enders; it also became the place to go for clothes and shoes for those who didn’t fancy shelling out at West End prices.

The history, if questionable on some of the detail, is broadly sound. The Romans did come this way (or very nearby). The modern A12 trunk road, named in 1922, is laid along the route of the original Roman road from Camulodunum to Londinium: even if logic and tradition didn’t suggest the route, archeological digs (and roadworks) down the decades have uncovered evidence of the old Roman stonework of the road, sometimes in remarkably good order for a thoroughfare 2000 years old. The A12 takes a very un-Roman 90-degree turn as it hits the east side of Victoria Park, before heading south to the Blackwall Tunnel Approach.

For most of its history it would have continued south-west, across the Old Ford (where extensive evidence of Roman occupation was found in recent years) and along the route of ‘Green Street’ into the City. Archeologists have uncovered evidence of a late Roman settlement at Old Ford dating from the fourth and fifth centuries CE. And excavations in 2002–3 discovered a substantial ‘ribbon’ development along the line of the road, surrounded by fields. Near the river there was evidence for a cluster of wooden buildings dominated by a large open-ended barn. Large amounts of cattle bone were also discovered, suggesting butchery to supply the London market.

But it’s the Roman’s more recent history that’s charted here, and in many ways it has been a sad decline over the past half century. Street markets all over London struggle and the Roman is no exception. Market days are fewer, and stalls are sparser. Shops are occupied though, and owners seem determined to keep the Roman in business. After 2000 years it’s not ready to disappear quite yet.

* Roman Road, Today and Yesterday is at Oxford House, Derbyshire St, E2 6HG, 1 December until 2 January, with a private view on 6 December. Opening times are Monday to Friday, 9am to 10pm; Saturday and Sunday, 10.30am to 1.30pm. Thanks go Tower Hamlets and Gateway Housing’s Betty May Gray Charity for their funding of the project, and to Four Corners for funding and giving the group the space and support to work.

* There is an excellent gallery of Noel Gibson’s paintings online at the BBC website.

View Roman Road photos in a larger map

Strikes in East End of London in the 1920s

First World War London strike

Workers on strike in First World War London

The years before the First World War saw more strikes in the East End of London than ever before, and it was little wonder that unrest centred on this part of London. A centre for industry and imports, with a high proportion of poorly paid and casual workers, the East End suffered more than most from the driving down in wages and fall in living standards that beset Britain at the time. Great East End industrial conflicts of the late Victorian era, such as the 1887 match girls’ strike in Bow, and the dock strike of 1889, had been followed by ‘the Great Unrest’ – a series of crippling strikes in the years before 1914.


With the outbreak of war, East Enders buried many of their grievances beneath the patriotic fervour required to get through what would be the most terrible war yet for Europe. Regardless of the fact that most residents of Stepney or Shadwell had little idea and less interest in events in Sarajevo or Sinai, Londoners would pull together behind their boys … up to a point. In any case, strikes were officially banned: the TUC and the government had agreed on that. And with the Labour Party joining Lloyd George’s coalition government in 1916, there was no true opposition. But there were stresses. Wars are always meant to be over ‘by Christmas’ of course, but the conflict limped interminably on, and by 1917 Londoners were heartily sick of the endless casualties and the privations at home.

The shortage of manpower also had an inevitable effect on industry. Though women couldn’t do the heavy work on the East and West India Docks, they could replace men in the factories – munitions factories had mushroomed all over Bethnal Green, Stepney and Wapping – and it led to conflict on both sides. A series of unofficial strikes by men, protesting at the ‘dilution’ of the workforce by women), simply exaggerated the manpower shortage, and had the unexpected effect of forcing up piecework rates for the women. By the time the war ended in November 1918, London had even seen its first strike for equal pay by women working on the trams and buses – legislation wouldn’t arrive until the Equal Pay Act in 1970.

But perhaps the most alarming signal to any government is when the officers of national security start turning. There had been isolated mutinies within the British army, with enlisted men turning on their officers, but they tended to be summarily dealt with on the battlefield. More worrying was a demonstration called by the National Union of Police and Prison Officers on Tower Hill in August 1918. East End copper Tommy Thiel had been sacked for this union activities, and the vast majority of London bobbies downed truncheons in sympathy. A squad of 600 flying pickets ensured the strike stayed solid.

And there were other ways of protesting. With wages held down, a depressed wartime economy and strict rationing, East Enders were feeling severely pinched by 1918. Rent strikes became common (and would bleed into the Poplarism rate strikes of the 1920s): Londoners couldn’t avoid noticing that Russia’s role in the War had ended with a workers’ revolution, and many were sympathetic. For those female munitions workers, their reward at the close of hostilities in November 1918 was ‘thankyou and goodbye’. Many women saw their jobs disappear, while many others were given back to returning soldiers. And numerous soldiers returned to no job, no home and broken families. Their option was the Poor Law and the workhouse or begging on the streets of Whitechapel. The British Government scented revolt in the air, and became distinctly uneasy.

With the Armistice, the dam was broken, and four years of frustration came flooding through. Historian Walter Kendall argues that “the crisis British society faced between 1918 and 1920 was probably the most serious since the time of the Chartists”. The police union grew to 50,000 members, while mutinies in the army multiplied. Things came to a head in 1919, with Lloyd George’s misguided plans in for a British expeditionary force to the Russian port of Archangel. Not content with four years of exhausting conflict, Britain now planned to invade Russia and put down the Revolution. The scheme had to be abandoned when British soldiers declared solidarity with Russia and simply refused to embark. The Government backed down and demobilised the angry soldiers – more men would return to Civvy Street and no jobs.

Again in 1920 Lloyd George proposed military action against Russia (Poland and France had already invaded her western territories) and again the East End stepped in. In May that year, men at the East India Docks refused to load a ship called the Jolly George which was bound for Russia with a load of munitions for the Polish army. East End railwayman then stepped in, refusing to carry cargoes of weapons bound for the docks. And union members began to withhold their labour in pursuit of closed shops, forcing every employee to join the union.

There were some ironies though, and the enemy wasn’t always obvious. Black American writer Claude McKay was visiting London in these years, and spent time with Sylvia Pankhurst at the offices of her Women’s Dreadnought newspaper. There were some 60 sawmills in London, most of them out in the East End and most out on strike, and right opposite the Dreadnought’s 198 Bow Road office was one of London’s biggest. The union men told McKay indignantly that some of their fellows were still working. The part-owner of this home for scabs? None other than “George Lansbury, Labour member of parliament and managing editor of the Daily Herald…the strikers thought it would make an excellent story for the Dreadnought. So did I!”

Lansbury, of course, would do more than most to champion the cause of East End workers in the years to come. The 1920s would see East End dissent on an unprecedented scale.

Frederick Charrington

Frederick Charrington had everything going for him. He was young, tall, good-looking and, best of all, he stood to come into millions as heir to one of the great brewing families of the East End.
But Fred was no idle son of the rich, he also had a conscience and it was this that would change the course of his life forever.
Charrington was born in the East End, baptised at St Dunstan’s, Stepney and raised in 3 Tredegar Place, later re-numbered 87 Bow Road. He was sent to the posh Marlborough public school but returned to the family home in the East End and it was here, as a young man, that the extraordinary coincidence occurred that would lead Fred to renounce his millions and work for the poor.
Passing the Rising Sun pub in Cambridge Heath Road, Bethnal Green, Charrington saw a sight within, all too common in the Victorian East End. A woman with her three children in tow begged her husband for money, the drunken spouse hit his wife and Fred, unable to ignore any injustice, rushed in to pull the man off. He paused in horror. There, above the door was the name of the pub’s proprietors . . . Charrington.
He renounced the family millions and dedicated his life to helping the fallen and the falling and to fighting the “evils” that dragged them down – alcohol, poverty and prostitution.
Charrington would parade up and down outside the East End gin palaces, wearing a sandwich board which carried the dire warning “The wages of sin is death”.

He kept watch on the numerous brothels, noting down the comings and goings in his little black book, later handing on the details to the constabulary.
Needless to say, Fred’s public spiritedness was not always welcome and he received many batterings from the prostitutes’ pimps.
And on one unfortunate occasion, the madame of an East End brothel was so distracted by the news that Charrington was approaching with his little black book that she rushed inside her house, had a heart attack and promptly died.
On Sundays Fred would lead his temperance brass band through Stepney and Wapping, stopping to tempt converts at the many pubs along the way – many of them bearing that name Charrington above their door. The throng would grow along the way, and by the end would contain a large number of good-natured and noisy drunks, who found “Uncle Fred’s” regular weekend procession great sport.
Many mocked Charrington, and his opposition to music halls made him appear as one of those grim Victorian philanthropists for whom any entertainment was morally suspect. But he left his monument and one that did immense good for generations of East Enders.
Charrington, having renounced riches, campaigned vigorously to raise cash and build the Great Assembly Hall in Mile End Road. The mission, opened in 1886, fed the poor bodies with bread and cocoa and their souls with evangelistic religion. Before the phrase was ever coined, the mission was a centre of social work and, in 1910, provided Christmas dinner for 850 families.
Fred died in 1936, one of the last survivors of the great Victorian philanthropists. And just a few years later his mission would be gone too – burned down in the fires of the Blitz.