Subscribe in a reader

OR ... get the weekly East End History newsletter

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner



Tag: limehouse

Limehouse seafarer Christopher Newport

King James I was a tough man to impress. Brighter than your average king, he was fluent in half a dozen languages, a student of science and an accomplished statesman. He commissioned what was to become the essential translation of the Bible, wrote poetry to his wife, treatises against tobacco and essays on the rights and duties of monarchs. He survived constant illness, numerous assassination attempts and the gunpowder plot. Yet even this tough Scottish Protestant had his soft spot – and canny Limehouse seafarer Christopher Newport knew where to find it.

Appearing at court one day in 1605, fresh from his adventures in the New World, Newport bowed low to his king and presented his gifts. Nothing so predictable as precious stones, gold or spices for this sovereign – the London captain pulled back a carpet to reveal a wild boar and two baby crocodiles. The stern Calvinist monarch broke into a smile of delight, and Christopher’s career as a privateer was secure for one more voyage at least.

The British Empire, as it would become, was founded on a mix of adventure, whim, ambition and pure plunder. And the men who set out from Wapping and Limehouse to conquer the globe were a curious hybrid too – part naval officer and part pirate. Francis Drake, Sir John Hawkins and Newport himself would lead the ships which would settle the Americas, return with bounty from the New World and push the limits of navigation while fighting the Spanish, England’s principal enemy during the 16th and early 17th centuries. The darker side to the trade was that they were little more than pirates – plundering Spanish ships for their cargoes and killing their crews. And, with the push into Africa, many became slavers too. To the privateers, any cargo, human or otherwise, was fair game.

Monarchs such as James, who had imperial and trade ambitions, but could hardly afford to fulfill them with a standing navy, geared their policy upon the ruthless energy of men such as Newport, who could grow rich themselves while delivering bounty, new lands and delightful gifts to their patrons. It was this early modern version of a public-private partnership that built the Empire, and it would be used time and again.

In 1606, James was wrestling with a problem. European seafarers had discovered a huge continent on the other side of the globe, and there was a frantic dash to beat the Spanish, the French and the Dutch in setting up colonies. The London Stock Exchange didn’t exist yet, but City and East End merchants would happily buy shares in a company that promised unimaginable riches from the New World. The first joint stock company had been launched in London in 1555, with the Muscovy Company seeking the northeast passage to China. James chartered The Virginia Company to make good Britain’s shaky foothold on the American mainland, and within a year ships set sail for the New World.

Already in his forties, Newport had a 20-year career of raiding Spanish freighters in the Caribbean. The proceeds from these missions were shared with the London merchants who funded them. It may be no surprise to realise that the modern Stock Exchange was founded on piracy. Newport had captained privateer vessels including the Golden Dragon, the Margaret and the Little John, and in August 1592 landed the largest English plunder of the 16th century, when he captured the Portuguese Madre de Deus off the Azores. Gems, silks and 500 tons of spices would be unloaded at Wapping later that year.

It made the Limehouse man the perfect skipper of this risky new venture. At 120 tons, the Susan Constant was the largest of three ships that set sail for the new colony of Virginia in December 1606, but it was still just 35 metres in length. On 26 April 1607 Newport landed at Chesapeake Bay. It had been an unusually long and troublesome crossing. Captain John Smith had caused dissent and near mutiny on the voyage, and Newport had planned to have him summarily executed when they made land. Opening his sealed orders, he was dismayed to read that Smith was to be leader of the new colony. Sparing the troublesome captain, Newport headed inland with his crew and the 110 colonists (all male).

So the party established Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America, with Smith as its leader. It was a poor site, set in the midst of swamplands and the settlers – largely English farmers – had no idea what to cultivate. Hunting was poor and the starving and diseased settlers became dependent on the supply ships which Newport ran back and forth over the following years. There would be countless setbacks. On one voyage, Newport was forced to beach his storm-lashed ship on what would become Bermuda. The resourceful East End sea captain had now founded not one but two British territories.

Somehow though, with Smith emerging as an inspired and inspiring leader, able to negotiate and trade with the Indians, Jamestown survived. And on Newport’s last trip, he brought the key to the colony’s survival. John Rolfe was a brilliant agriculturalist who would develop the new, sweeter types of tobacco on which Virginia would grow rich. It must have been an ironic victory for his tobacco-loathing king. Newport would find new horizons, meanwhile. He died on an East India Company expedition to Java in 1617.

The end of Chinatown in Limehouse

The Chinese community in Limehouse reached its peak just after the First World War. Though previous estimates put the numbers at around 3,000, they are now thought to have numbered no more than 300.

But the London newspapers were working overtime with scare stories about what was (by more reasoned accounts) a peaceable community. In 1922 the Empire News warned that ‘mothers would be well advised to keep their daughters as far away as they can from Chinese laundries and other places where the yellow men congregate.’

And it was with the supposed seduction of innocent white girls that the papers got most excited. The fiction of Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde and especially Sax Rohmer had been rich with young upper class girls in Limehouse opium dens, sunken-eyed and with a ghostly pallor, their healthy glow sucked from them by dissipation and opium.
Drugs and the East End docks

In First World War London there was a new threat. Nightclubs had first opened in London just before the War, but with the onset of hostilities licensing was tightened up, forcing them underground (often literally). At the same time, the first limits on licensed premises came in – there was a new morality in the air. Cocaine, previously associated with the upper classes, became more widely available (and cheaper), and the Army became worried that servicemen would take to the drug. The drugs were arriving in Britain through the docks, most of all the East End docks.

The stories hit the front pages in November 1918, when actress Billie Carleton was found, the morning after the Victory Ball at the Albert Hall, dead in her bed. Her maid found a gold box containing cocaine on her bedside table. The drug had been supplied by her boyfriend, who had in turn bought the drugs from a Scottish woman named Ada and her Chinese husband Lau Ping You. The likelihood is that it wasn’t the cocaine that killed Carleton, but that she choked after taking medication.

The Yellow Peril and Brilliant Chang

There were calls in Parliament for the deportation of all Chinese and the Pictorial News ran a series of pieces on the East End’s ‘yellow peril’ – the trail soon led back to Brilliant Chang. The Limehouse marine contractor had by now progressed to running a Regent Street restaurant where, according to the paper ‘he dispensed Chinese delicacies and the drugs and vices of the Orient.’ The paper wrote that Chang ‘demanded payment for his drugs in kind’ and advised that women ‘who retained sufficient decency and pride of race’ turn down ‘this fellow with lips thin and cruel tightly drawn across even yellow teeth’.

In 1919, there were riots in Limehouse, as readers of the penny press took the law into their own hands. The courts started hitting the Chinese hard too. A typical sentence for opium possession was now hard labour then deportation; some were even deported for gambling on the popular game of puck-apu.
Cocaine raids in Limehouse

In 1922, Freda Kempton, a nightclub dancer and major user of cocaine, visited Chang’s restaurant. Later that day, she went into convulsions and died. At her inquest, Chang was portrayed as a magnet for susceptible white women. The ‘short, elegant, self-confident figure who dressed in fur-collared coats and grey suede shoes’ was hauled in. The police couldn’t connect him to Kempton’s death, but his Limehouse warehouse was raided and a quantity of cocaine found. Before jailing him for 18 months, the Recorder of London told him ‘It is you and men like you who are corrupting the womanhood of this country.’

On release, Chang was taken from Wormwood Scrubs to Fenchurch Street Station, then to the Royal Albert Docks and put on a ship. He was seen off ‘by unhappy girls, with dope-sunken eyes and pallid cheeks’. Chang wasn’t seen in Limehouse again, and the legend grew. He had jumped ship in Port Said, set up a drug business in Zurich, died blind and penniless in Shanghai.

In the atmosphere of hysteria, nobody was going to complain about the razing of Chinatown. The local council decided to clear the ‘slum area’ in 1934 (while leaving numerous worse slums standing). Limehouse Causeway was widened and the shops, restaurants and clubs swept away.

Further reading: The Underworld by Duncan Campbell, BBC Books, 1994, ISBN 0563367938; Dope Girls by Marek Kohn, Granta 2003, ISBN 1862076189
See also http://eastlondonhistory.com/fu%20manchu.htm

Charlie Brown’s Pub

IT is a familiar landmark to East Enders driving back from Essex, and anyone taking the M11 up to Stansted will have passed over it. But where did the Charlie Brown’s roundabout, one of London’s busiest intersections, get its unusual name?
The roundabout was
certainly not christened after the hero of the Peanuts
cartoon, but after a larger-than-life Limehouse man, who was just as famous in the 19th century as Snoopy’s master was 100 years later. Yet how did the bland and featureless junction come to be connected with one of the East End’s most colourful characters?
The story begins in the 1890s when Charlie Brown, a former boxer, took over the ownership of the Railway Tavern.
The Limehouse pub stood on the corner of Garford Street and the East India Dock Road and it was a popular watering hole for the sailors and dockers who made up most of Limehouse’s
population at the time.
Even among his noisy and outspoken clientele – many of whom were colourful characters with tales to tell – Charlie managed to stand out.
In fact, he was such a loud and extrovert landlord that he managed to stamp his
personality on the pub itself.
As Charlie’s reputation grew, so did the contents of the pub. Sailors would return from their travels with mementoes from every corner of the globe and bring them back to a delighted guv’nor, who would hang them on the wall of the tavern.

And as the collection grew, its fame spread throughout the capital. People would make the trip down to infamous Limehouse, which in the early 1900s was synonymous with Chinatown, white slaving and opium dens, just to view his map of the world.
In June 1932 Charlie Brown died and the ‘uncrowned king of Limehouse’ was laid in state in the pub that had been his palace.
His funeral procession was fit for a king too as 16,000
people went to Bow Cemetery to say goodbye to Charlie.
Charlie Brown’s legacy was a lucrative one, and both his children ran pubs. His
daughter Esther kept the
existing hostelry, while Charlie Brown Jr was the landlord of the Blue Posts, directly
opposite the Railway Hotel.
Both of them erected signs saying that their pubs were the genuine Charlie Brown’s.
In 1938 Charlie Jr gave up on the East End to move to leafier Woodford, taking the name with him of course. The new Charlie Brown’s lay at the end of the Southend to London road which was to become the A127.
But in 1972 the road that had given the pub its reason for being also became the cause of its demise, when the road
intersection was extended and the pub was demolished.
Young Charlie had salvaged many of the famous
mementoes from his dad’s pub, and legend has it they passed on to the Greyhound pub in Harlow, though there is no trace of them today.
By a weird coincidence, it was transport that created and destroyed the original Charlie Brown’s too. The Railway Hotel had been built to serve the old London and Blackwall Railway in the 1800s.
Despite the rebirth of the line, when the Docklands Light Railway was built in 1989,
the Railway Tavern stood
in the way of the Commercial Road extension and so was demolished.
Today, all that remains of the world-famous character, three pubs and a confusion of names is a traffic blackspot on the fringes of London.

Brilliant Chang in Limehouse

The trial of Limehouse restauranteur Brilliant Chang in 1924 was greeted by the press as a battle won in the war against the London drugs trade. But the jailing and deportation of the man known to his mother as Chan Nan said as much about hysteria and xenophobia in twenties London.

Chan Nan had been born in Canton in 1887, scion of an affluent merchant family. In the early years of the twentieth century, Chan boarded a ship for London, pursuing his trade as a marine contractor from the East End then the capital’s Chinatown.

There were various Chinese communities spread around the dock area, founded by ‘Lascar’ seamen who had crewed boats from China – often carrying tea to Britain – and then been stranded with no return passage. From 1854 many lived at the ‘Oriental Quarters’ by the river in Shadwell, near the present day Wapping tube station.

By 1890, there were two settled communities in the East End. Shanghai Chinese were settled round Pennyfields, Amony Place and Ming Street (between the present Westferry and Poplar DLR stations). And Chinese from southern China and Canton lived around Gill Street and Limehouse Causeway. By 1911, the whole are had been dubbed Chinatown.

The communities were settled, integrated and rather small. Chinese sailors were now serving in the Royal and Merchant Navies and (because the immigrants were almost exclusively male) there was much intermarriage with English women. At Pennyfields there was a Christian Mission for Chinese and a Confucian temple. In 1891, historian Walter Besant estimated the community at less than 100 people, but the London press seemed determined to whip up hysteria against ‘the yellow peril’.

There were measured voices, such as novelist Arnold Bennet, who visited Limehouse Chinatown in April 1925 and observed: ‘On the whole a rather flat night. Still we saw the facts. We saw no vice whatever. The Inspector of Police gave the Chinese an exceedingly good character.’ But for every Bennett there were a handful of writers such as Thomas Burke and Arthur Henry Ward, who wrote lurid tales of the Chinese community, with the emphasis placed on opium dens, gambling and ‘unholy things’ in the shadows.

Arthur Ward, under this pen name Sax Rohmer, probably did more damage than most, with his fictional character, the evil genius Fu Manchu.

“Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government—which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.”

Arthur Ward’s creation managed to incarnate all the vague fears that Londoners had of crime, foreigners, drugs and a mysterious ‘Mr Big’. Interestingly, in his work as a reporter for the Daily Sketch in 1911, Ward had been set the task to find one ‘Mr King’, supposedly the kingpin for all East End crime. He never did, and the likelihood is that Mr King never existed.

Arthur Conan Doyle had done his share too, with Sherlock Holmes delving into the abyss of the East End docks and finding young toffs slumming it in the opium dens of Limehouse. Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray’s dissolution was shown by his frequenting of Limehouse drug houses, and even Hollywood got in on the act, with epic director DW Griffith visting to research his movie Broken Blossoms.

Much was made of the Chinese fondness for gambling and opium, and certainly a (largely male) community had to find some ways to pass the time after a long day’s work. Sitting uncomfortably with the moralistic disapproval was the fact that it was the British who had introduced opium to China, as an export good, even going to war with China to maintain their deadly trade with the infamous opium wars.

The English sailors and dockers, meanwhile, were more likely to be swilling booze in the hundreds of pubs that were open for business 24 hours a day around the docks – yet though drinking met disapproval, nobody suggested deporting the drunks or smashing their communities. That’s exactly what was to happen to the Limehouse Chinese – and the trial of Brilliant Chang would give the authorities focus and ammunition.