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Tag: east end of london

From gas to electricity in the East End of London

Last week we looked at the ‘gas wars’ that intermittently flared across London as Victorian businessmen sought, Klondike-style, to stake their claim in a business that would pay off for generations to come. But even as the gaslights flickered on in the new terraces of Bow, Bethnal Green and Stepney, a new form of power was waiting to take its place. Just as the canals would swiftly be supplanted by the railways, so electricity would replace gas as the lighting of choice in the home. old-gasworks-at-dusk-haggerston-1675376

But in the early 1800s, another idea began to grasp the imagination of London entrepreneurs. This was a town built around a river — maybe the river could provide the energy it needed? The new docks and railways required huge amounts of power and during the 1800s the London Hydraulic Power Company (LHPC) began to supply it, with steam-driven power station forcing water at high-pressure all around the capital. It sounds like something from a modern steampunk novel, but by the mid-1800s, much of the dock and railway infrastructure of the East End was running on water power, with the liquid drawn straight from the Thames.

Many of the hydraulic power companies in other parts of Britain were also the providers of the new clean drinking water that cities were demanding — especially as the links between dirty water and cholera became clear. But the LHPC was purely a generating business, and by the late 1800s it had built a huge network of customers, fed by its nearly 200 miles of pipes.

The biggest users of these hydraulic power networks even had their own accumulator towers, where the power supplied to them (in the form of vast quantities of water) could be stored until needed. These tall brick structures replaced the earlier towers, some of which had been 90 metres high, and used a more efficient system of weights. When power was required, a controlled release of weights would push down on the water, generated the energy required to power cranes or train.

Once they were everywhere in the East End. Today, many of the buildings have been demolished and some are simply being allowed to rot. Head east of Tower Bridge, to the junction of Mansell Street and Royal Mint Street, and you’ll see a brick rectangle with faded lettering. Look harder and you may be able to discern ‘London Midland & Scottish Railway City Goods Station and Bonded Stores’. This was once the route of the London & Blackwall Railway, which ran from Minories to Blackwall and the London Docks, and the Minories accumulator tower lay on its route. Minories was a shortlived railway station, opening in 1814 and closing 14 years later when Fenchurch Street was built.

The London & Blackwall Railway is long gone too, eventually being subsumed into the larger LM&S (hence the lettering) and then into British Rail. But the route and the Victorian viaducts of the L&BR, long redundant, were pressed back into use by the new DLR from the late 1980s. Follow the old London & Blackwall Railway and you end up at Blackwall station (now on the DLR) and a rather better preserved example. Before the development of ‘Docklands’ in the 1980s, the area around Blackwall Way was dominated by the Poplar Dock Company, which boasted a complex network of railway goods sheds and a hydraulic power network. The only thing that remains of the development today is the accumulator tower and pump house, saved by commerce (the Victorians would probably approve). It’s now a Majestic Wine warehouse, so you can combine a little architectural history with restocking the drinks cabinet.

But perhaps the most impressive example of the great age of London hydraulic power is the sole LHPC power station to survive with all its machinery intact. You can pay a visit to this one too — and enjoy your lunch at the same time. The Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, on Wapping Wall, was opened by the LHPC in 1890, powered by steam when it opened and converting to electrical turbines in latter years. And from Wapping (and the LHPC’s other hydraulic stations at Pimlico, Rotherhithe, Blackfriars and the Regents Canal) ran an extraordinary 200 miles of pipework around the capital.

The company even bought the Tower Subway, which was first the conduit of a shortlived underground railway and then a foot tunnel beneath the Thames, before that too was forced out of business by the opening of the toll-free Tower Bridge in 1894. The tunnel was now used to run LHPC pipes. At its peak, the Wapping station was forcing water around London at 800 pounds per square inch, not just powering trains and cranes, but raising theatre curtains and even powering the dumb waiters at the Savoy. Remarkably, the system lasted until 1977, when the Wapping station was the last of the five to close.

That was the end of hydraulic power in London, though today it seems a remarkably green alternative to burning coal and gas — one thing London has plenty of, is water.

Map of sites mentioned:

London’s Lost Power Stations and Gasworks by Ben Pedroche, published by the History Press,, £14.99



Dash for water in 19th century East End of London

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

Abbey Mills Pumping station

Abbey Mills pumping station

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

150 years of the Tube

Londoners have always had a love-hate relationship with their Tube. Alfred Leete’s classic 1927 poster ‘The Lure of the Underground’ shows passengers being sucked magnetically from the London street into a Tube entrance (looking suspiciously Paris Metro-like). Leete  was one of numerous commercial artists that the railway companies serving London, marketing

Classic Tube poster

Lure of the Underground by Alfred Leete

themselves collectively as London Underground, drew on during the early years of the 20th century to promote trips to the Zoo, to the Cup Final, to the British Museum … or just to ride on the Tube.

The earliest of those railway companies, the Metropolitan Railway, which first took Londoners underground in January 1863, even changed the shape of London, building suburbs in its image and along its routes. In 1915,the publicity department of the company dreamed up the name ‘Metroland’ to describe the green fields and hills of Middlesex, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire, through which the new lines snaked. Between the wars, the Metropolitan set up a new company to develop housing, shops and new suburbs along the lines, and that countryside was soon peppered with hundreds of identikit semi-detached-lined streets. It was a peculiarly English vision: a sentimental, tamed and cosy view of where town met country. Of neatly swept streets, roses in every front garden, and father returning home from the Underground station, pipe in mouth and Evening News under his arm.

But modern passengers, squeezed into a London Overground carriage with on room to breathe (how can a new line fill up so quickly?) may have difficulty seeing London metro travel as a leisure activity. And for citizens of the Victorian East End,the construction of the Underground wasn’t remotely idyllic. Viewers of the quasi-historical BBC drama Ripper Street a couple of weeks ago were treated to a fairly accurate take of the East Enders experience during the construction of Whitechapel station in 1876. By the time the City & South London Railway (now part of the Northern Line) was built in 1890, tunnelling technology had progressed to allow deep tunnelling of ‘tubes’ through which the trains could pass. It was swiftly followed by the Waterloo and City Railway (now Line) in 1898 and the Central London Railway (Central Line) in 1900. Disruption at ground level was now relatively slight. But in the early days, all the railways were built by ‘cut and cover’, which was as brutal as it sounded. A railway line would be

London Underground map from 1908

London Underground map from 1908

scoured through the London streets, to below surface level, then a cover put over the top, with buildings atop that. Along the District Line as it snakes out from Whitechapel to Bow Road, houses, shops, offices and roadways sit just a few feet beneath the railway lines beneath.

The disruption was appalling, and the slums of the East End were frequently cleared with little thought as to where the residents would go. As with the clearing of the Jago at the turn of the 20th century, it usually meant their being squeezed into an even-more crowded and noisome rookery just down the road. And the engines, steam-powered in those days of course, had to release smoke and steam into the streets above at regular intervals. To East Enders, it must have seemed that a hell had been created in their midst and beneath their feet.

It wasn’t planned either. Early maps of the Underground show just how lopsided development was – a result of a rash of companies all competing for the best routes. It wasn’t until the early 1930s that an Act of Parliament brought all the lines and companies together under one transport board. So a 1908 map sees the centre of London and the East End poorly served, while the companies are driving ever further north and west, to Highgate, Golders Green and Kingsbury (with the ambitious Metropolitan eventually ending up in rural Amersham). And the East End’s first Underground line originated in similarly haphazard fashion. The Thames Tunnel, built by the Brunels between 1825 and 1843 was, famously, an engineering masterpiece but a financial disaster. But in 1869, the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway repositioned the failed foot-and-horse tunnel as a railway to link the docks at Rotherhithe with those at Wapping. The spacious tunnel had plenty of room to run trains through (and no need for new cut-and-cover construction of course). In 1876, the line was driven from Wapping to Shoreditch, running along the bottom of an old dock, with cover put over the top. From Shoreditch a line was run to the Great Eastern Railway at Liverpool Street. New stations were opened at

Classic Underground roundel sign at Westminster

Classic Underground roundel sign at Westminster Underground station

Shadwell and Whitechapel.

But the East London Line was marooned from the rest of the network by the inability of the District and Metropolitan Railways to join their services together in the eagerly awaited ‘inner circle’. City financiers and politicians watched with increasing frustration as the two big companies pushed further into the suburbs while leaving the City and West End underserved: the District Railway ended at Mansion House, while the Metropolitan frustratingly terminated at Aldgate, and no way to get between the two. So in 1874, a group of City men formed the Metropolitan Inner Circle Completion Railway Company and built a joint line to connect the two, with new stations at Cannon Street, Monument, Mark Lane, Tower of London, Aldgate East, St Mary’s and Whitechapel. From St Mary’s, the line curved down to join the East London Railway just south of Whitechapel. The East End was on the Tube map at last.

You see the slightly schizophrenic nature of the early Tube (part Metro system, part suburban railway) in the District Railway extension of a few years after. In 1902, it hooked up with the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway at Whitechapel. Now it ran trains all the way out to leafy Upminster, in the depths of the Essex countryside. The District even ran excursions out to East Enders favourite Southend-on-Sea, with passengers changing at Barking. And in 1946, it was joined by the Central Line. Driving out from its old terminus at Liverpool Street the line (recoloured red from its original blue) ran through Bethnal Green, joining the District at Mile End, before leaving the East End at Stratford. The furious pace of building would now slow, for a half century or so, before the Jubilee Line broke ground at Canary Wharf. And in 2010, the East London Line would be lost to the Underground once more, being subsumed into the new London Overground network.

Building the Metropolitan Railway in London

Building the Metropolitan Railway in London


Cut and cover construction building the Underground at Paddington

Cut and cover construction building the Underground at Paddington

Bromley by Bow’s history

Brambeley, Bromley Saint Leonard and latterly Bromley-by-Bow. The area that hugs the eastern edge of the East End south has had a number of names. But then its unique history among the Tower hamlets has forced a lot of changes on the area.

Until the 19th century the area was a mixture of farming and market gardening with industries along the River Lea such as calico bleaching, brewing, grain milling and distilling.

J Norris Brewer, writing in 1816, draws a picture of Bromley very different from the modern area. ‘Bromley (written Brambele, Brambelegh, Brembeley, in ancient records) adjoins the village of Stratford Bow on the south-east. This parish contains between four and five hundred acres of land, the greater portion of which is used for farming purposes. About sixty acres are occupied by nursery-men and market-gardeners.’

All that was to change in the middle years of the 19th century, when dozens of streets were laid out, and modern Bromley was born.

Bromley has a history quite independent of its neighbour Bow, which for many years was part of the parish of Stepney. Bromley came about in the eleventh century, with the founding of a Benedictine nunnery in the desolate marshlands east of the River Lea.

There had long been a religious order in the area. But the turn of the first millennium gave a new impetus to church building. Prior to that, conventional wisdom had it that the world was going to end in the year 1000AD. When it didn’t kings, councillors and churchmen alike – fired with a new confidence and optimism – set to building lasting monuments.

William, Bishop of London, gave permission for a nunnery dedicated to St Leonard. Work began during the reign of William I, with the new nunnery to provide a living for a prioress and nine nuns. Now a little hamlet grew up around the priory walls, based upon farming and providing services and provisions to the nuns. That was to give Bromley a unique status among East End hamlets; unlike all the other parishes and hamlets between the City and the River Lee, Bromley didn’t grow from the huge parish of Stepney – and that was to lead to problems in the years to come.

In the centuries before, this part of Middlesex had been a dangerous place – marshy, remote, and prone to the attentions of marauding Vikings sailing up the River Lea. But Norman rule had brought new peace to southern England, and the future Bromley, nestling by the river, with good farmland and plentiful supplies of fish, was a prime spot.

The nunnery was to shelter ‘women of gentle birth and education’ during the Middle Ages. St Leonard’s was seen as a place of quiet retreat and pleasant seclusion. Many nobles were buried here, including Earls of Hereford and Essex and a daughter of William, Earl of Henault. The nunnery wasn’t rich, and endowments from these families would help keep the order going.

One of the earliest records has the manor, and the lands on which the nunnery stood, owned by Geoffrey, Earl of Essex, who writes of ‘The half hide of land [about 60 acres] in Brambeley that William son of Wido gave them when he was made a canon there’. During the reign of Richard I the manor was held by Ralph Triket or Trichet, the King’s Chamberlain. The manor continued in the Triket family for years. The value and importance of ‘Brambeley’ lay in its position on the river Lea, a source of water power for the flour mills.

By the year 1292 the lordship of the manor had passed to the Prior and Canons of Holy Trinity, Aldgate. The clerics supervised the tilling of this fertile land, the draining of the marsh, the making and repair of river embankments, and the building of water-mills. Farm land was customarily granted or leased to tenant farmers, and a glimpse of mediaeval Bromley can be got from one of the Canons’ records of one of these leases.

‘…By the prior and the convent of Holy Trinity, London, to William le Norcis, of three acres at Brambeley in the field called ‘Edmunds field’ all the wall with the willows south of that field, a pond and ditch, a wall by Richard Tuthaits house extending to the Lea, a wood adjoining the three acres, and the [river] wall which was the way to the old mill; saving the way that was upon the first-named [river] wall to men going to St. Leonard’s church and returning, for ever, and the way for horses carrying grain to the mill of the said canons, and bringing it back when necessary; paying half a mare yearly. Other covenants are specified as to repairs, making and working floodgates for millponds &c.’

It is St Leonard’s that Geoffrey Chaucer refers to in his Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. The poet would visit Bromley from his home in Aldgate, and he used the nuns for material. He describes one of the pilgrims, Madame Eglantine, writing:
‘French she spake full fair and fetisley
After the school of Stratford-atte-Bow
For French of Paris was to her unknown.’

But the idyllic life of the priory at Bromley was soon to change. Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell and a hated prioress were to change everything.

The priory of St Leonard’s had been founded as a place of quiet rest, contemplation, and an undisturbed living for daughters of gentlefolk. But as the 16th century drew on, things were not well at Bromley. In 1533, Lady Sterkey, one of the nuns, wrote to Thomas Cromwell, the chief minister of Henry VIII, complaining at the prioress that Cromwell had foisted on them.

‘I beg your goodness to us and our house at St. Leonard’s, Stratford, for removing our supposed Prioress. Since our petition to the King we have been worse intreated than ever, for meat and drink and threatening words; and when we ask to have anything remedied, she bids us “Go to Cromwell and let him help us”.

The obnoxious Prioress was Sibilla Kirke. But worse was to come for the nuns. Eight years later, Henry had the monasteries and nunneries of England dissolved, releasing their riches to the Crown, and removing the perceived threat to his authority posed by the established Church. The hated Kirke was given £15 a year for life and permission to reside at the priory house – she stayed another 15 years. The nuns meanwhile were thrown out, receiving one pound apiece.

Until dissolution the lordship of the manor had still been held by Holy Trinity Priory, and at that point, the estate was valued at £108, one shilling and eleven pence per annum. The property was duly disbursed to Sir Ralph Sadler, and passed over the centuries back to the Crown, to a 17th century Prince of Wales, the trustees of the City of London, and eventually back into private hands.

The surviving chapel now became the parish church of Bromley. But this halfway house status, whereby St Mary’s had evolved into a parish church without strictly being one in ecclesiastical law, caused years of argument between the various lords of the manor, the leaseholders of the land and the Bishops of London.

When the ancient chapel finally became too derelict to serve as a place of worship in the 19th century, the authorities came up with an imaginative solution to the debate. The chapel was pulled down in 1842, but two small parts of its ancient walls were allowed to remain. Rather than a new consecration having to take place, the Episcopal authority simply ‘rebuilt’ St Mary’s, and a new parish church arose.

Sadly the new church didn’t last so long as the old chapel. It was
badly damaged by enemy bombs in World War II, and the building of the northern approach road to the Blackwall Tunnel finished the job. Now all that remains is part of the churchyard off Bromley High Street.

By the early 19th century Bromley was supporting a number of charitable institutions. A Sunday School for girls was teaching and clothing almost one hundred children. And just to the south of Bow Road stood two ranges of almshouses. Twelve of these had been built by the Drapers Company, in 1706. Another eight were for poor widows of Bromley and Stratford Bow. Nearby was another almshouse, for aged seamen or their widows.

But things were changing. A second manor in the parish, Bromley Hall, belonged to the Priory of Christ Church, in London. It too was dissolved and in 1799 ended up in the possession of one Joseph Foster. Foster was an eminent calico-printer. This was to lay the foundation for one of Bromley’s main industries in the years to come and was part of the swift change of the area from being largely agricultural to urban and industrial.

Industry needs water, and factories had always thrived along the Lea. Now the striking of the Limehouse Cut accelerated the process. The Cut was opened for traffic in 1770, linking the Thames and the Lea, and cutting out the circuitous navigation round the Isle of Dogs. In time, factories grew up, houses were thrown up to house the workers, and the waterways around Bromley became despoiled and polluted. In 1801 the population of Bromley was 1,684. By 1881 it had risen to 4,846, and by 1931 to 64,111.

When Sir John Jacob razed the old Priory House in the 1660s he had built a new manor house with ‘almost unlimited and unobstructed prospect over the Counties of Essex, Kent, Middlesex and Surrey, with the majestic Thames … a mansion that might vie with many of our most ancient country Halls’. By the mid-1800s Bromley was far from a rural idyll. And now the development of the area began in earnest, with haphazard old road layouts swept away, and linear terraces of yellow-brick raised in their place. Jacob’s manor was demolished, replaced by the school in Priory Street. In 1900 the area would join the rest of the East End, becoming part of Poplar Borough. And Bromley, frequently confused with the larger town in Kent, found itself renamed yet again. Lumped in with its neighbour it became Bromley-by-Bow.