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Tag: stepney

Peter Shore — Labour’s forgotten prophet

Governments and faces change, the decades roll by, but one thing is ever present in British politics … the ‘will we, won’t we’ stay in Europe. Forty something years ago it was President De Gaulle saying ‘non’ after years of British vacillation about joining. Today it’s party leaders saying ‘perhaps’ on a referendum, some day, maybe. Yet for three decades, an East End MP was warning of the perils of Europe.

 

Peter Shore

Peter Shore

Today his name is all but forgotten. Healey, Wilson, Jenkins, Foot and Benn — all still familiar names to anyone with a passing interest in the Labour governments of the sixties and seventies, before Margaret Thatcher banished the Red side of the house to a generation of oblivion. But Shore?

Yet Peter Shore was a mainstay of Labour cabinets and shadow cabinets over three decades and was in the running to become Labour leader after Jim Callaghan resigned. He was also, as many readers will recall, MP for the Stepney constituency (in its various guises) for 33 years, surviving general elections, boundary changes and — latterly — a brutal campaign to have him deselected. Yet he was never meant to be an MP at all.

Shore was born in Yarmouth in 1924, the son of a merchant navy captain, then educated at Quarry Bank grammar school in Liverpool. It was a solid middle class start — he would win a place at Cambridge — but the poverty he saw in pre-War Liverpool made a deep impact. After his war service in the RAF, he joined the Labour party, quickly establishing himself as one of the brightest minds, first heading up the party’s research department, then becoming responsible for party policy, from 1959.

Harold Wilson

Harold Wilson

Shore was to the left of Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, and his open wearing of CND badges around Labour HQ didn’t endear him to his boss. But when Gaitskell died, tragically, unexpectedly, in 1963, Harold Wilson became party leader and increasingly relied on Shore for ideas. And when Stepney MP Walter ‘Stoker’ Edwards (a Whitechapel docker and the first serving naval rating to be elected to parliament) announced his retirement, Shore was swiftly parachuted in to the safe Labour seat. Edwards, poignantly, would die on the day of the 1964 general election.

The intellectual Shore was a very different type of politician, but fiercely protective of British jobs. He supported nationalisation, prices and incomes policies, import controls and national planning. As trade secretary ten years later he would even oppose Freddie Laker’s Skytrain, arguing that it would undermine British Airways. “It is easy enough to put on a private bus service from Marble Arch to Westminster and make it pay, but one knows very well that this will be done only at the expense of London Transport,” he declared. He would later call the Thatcher government’s programme of privatisation “public asset stripping”.

Today, it seems impossibly controlling, but Shore believed there were huge dangers in liberating banks and multinational businesses from tight control. One Conservative journalist said that “Peter Shore was the only possible Labour party leader of whom a Conservative leader had cause to walk in fear”.

Denis Healey

Denis Healey

 

But it was for his opposition to the Common Market he is best remembered. The battle over ‘Europe’ creates some strange alliances, and historical positions shift. It was Tory prime minister Edward Heath who had taken Britain into Europe in 1972, while the Labour Party (at least below Cabinet/Shadow Cabinet level) were largely opposed. And so it was that in 1975, Stepney MP Peter Shore found himself on the ‘No’ side, campaigning to leave the Common Market alongside Tony Benn, Michael Foot and Barbara Castle, but with the tacit backing of much of the Labour membership. Also campaigning were ‘rivers of blood’ Tory veteran Enoch Powell (by now out of the Conservative Party and become an Ulster Unionist MP), the Communist Party and the National Front.

On the ‘Yes’ side meanwhile, were the Labour big guns of Harold Wilson, Denis Healey, Jim Callaghan and Roy Jenkins, plus most of the parliamentary Conservative Party … including its newly elected leader Margaret Thatcher.

He challenged, unsuccessfully for the Labour leadership — in the end it went to Michael Foot. But increasingly battles were fought closer to home, with the Stepney party fighting to deselect their MP — support for the Falklands War and opposition to unilateral nuclear disarmament were just two positions that enraged local activists. And having doggedly held his seat during Labour’s 18 wilderness years, Shore called it a day just as the party approached power once more. With the 1997 election nearing, the veteran MP — now in his seventies and wearied by repeated attempts to oust him from his seat — gave it up. The redrawn constituency was won by Labour’s Oona King.

There’s a strange postscript to Baron Shore of Stepney’s dogged fight against Europe (the concept rather than the place, that is). This year, Shore’s widow Liz, now 85, defected from the Labour party to stand for UKIP in Cornwall, alongside her daughter and son-in-law. The Shores are still battling Europe then … though not in a way the ‘lost prophet’ of the Labour party might have hoped.

The obituaries for Shore in 2001 were less than generous. He was described as “sticking intelligently to the wrong guns for as long as anyone can remember”; when he was made head of the short-lived Economic Affairs Department, that post was described by Tory Iain Macleod as “a mink-lined kennel for Wilson’s favourite poodle”; Denis Healey described him as “Harold’s lapdog”; even Wilson himself said he had over-promoted Shore and that he was “not up to it”. And one writer reminds us that, having jousted for the Labour leadership in the mid-seventies he was, just a few years later, voted “12th most effective backbencher”.

Enoch Powell

Enoch Powell

Perhaps the truth was that Shore was just too honest and never very good (or remotely interested) in playing the power game. One of the guns he stuck to was an immovable support for the Solidarnosc union (not universally popular in the Labour party). The passage of time, however, has a way of rewriting history. If Peter Shore wasn’t always right, the Stepney MP wasn’t entirely wrong either.

 

Stepney by Samantha Bird

MAGNIS AD MAIORA runs the legend beneath the coat of arms of the London Borough of Stepney – ‘from great things to greater’ for those of us unlucky (or lucky) enough to not have studied Latin at school. But how far did the borough achieve such aspirations? Did life get better over the course of the first half of the 20th century? Looking at the lot of Stepney dwellers around the turn of the century it could scarcely have got much worse.

St Dunstans Church, Stepney

St Dunstans Church, Stepney

Those, and many others are the questions posed in Dr Samantha Bird’s excellent new book on the area*, “the first single volume history of Stepney in modern times”, in which she draws her historical line from the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 to the Festival of Britain in 1951. The tricky thing with the East End, though, is where do you draw your geographic boundaries? This isn’t the historical village of Stepney, rather the borough which emerged from the 1899 London Government Act, and bordered to the west by the City, to the north by Bethnal Green, to the east by Poplar and south by the Thames. This Stepney includes “the parishes of Mile End Old Town and St George’s in the East; the districts of Limehouse and the Whitechapel Boards of Works, with the Tower of London and the Liberties thereof”. This new Stepney, which tried to fashion administrable cohesion from an area which had sprawled noisomely over the Middlesex countryside in the previous century or so, was a triumph of Victorian political tidiness: with 20 wards, 60 councillors, and three parliamentary constituencies: Limehouse, Mile End and Whitechapel.

The one thing that hadn’t changed, since the time of Samuel Pepys, was the poverty of the people. According to tax records in Pepys’s day, “half of the residents of the East of London were classified as poor”. Since medieval times, the area east of the City wall had been seen as London’s backyard, and like many of our backyards, there was a lot dumped out there. So workshops, shipyards, bakeries, mills and distilleries poured forth their filth and stenches alongside the allotments and market gardens. As for the people, they were little regarded. In 1845, the railway speculators drove their new line out from Fenchurch Street to Tilbury. No consideration was shown to the East Enders who lived nearby (those whose homes weren’t demolished). The tracks ran so close that people had to keep their windows closed as the trains passed “lest their bedding catch fire from the sparks”.

But fast forward to the end of the Victorian era, past the Houndsditch Murders and Churchill’s grandstanding at the Sidney Street Siege – and how did this new borough cope with the 20th century? Certain themes emerge over and over again. The East End had coalesced as a series of slums as the old fields of Middlesex were covered with increasingly dense housing. And poor housing was to dominate the politics of Stepney throughout the first half of the century. There were those made homeless by the Zeppelin air raids of the Great War, and the paucity of homes for heroes in the years after. With Poplarism there was the emergence of a whole political movement centred on the inequities of housing policy. And in World War 2, huge numbers of Stepney dwellers were bombed out, killed or displaced by enemy action. Once war was over the decisions were huge, and partial rebuilding sat alongside relocation to the New Towns of Essex.

Along the way, Bird examines how a unique admixture of cultures created the political life of Stepney. In particular, between the wars, an alliance between Irish and Jewish dwellers, united in politics of the broad left and in a loathing of fascism, generated plenty of volunteers to fight fascists on the streets of Stepney and on the fields of Spain.

The tail end of our period is the Festival of Britain, and the bright new era of housing that promised. The Lansbury Estate was to be merely the first of the new, planned developments – and it of course bore the name of the hero of Poplarism – but it was criticised by many for its limited ambition and cautious architecture. The Government might have tried to sell 1951 as the dawn of a brave new world, but to many East Enders it must have seemed like the end of theirs, as Stepney’s decline in population and industrial base accelerated. The Abercrombie Plan for London seemed to be more a plan to move everybody out of London. But the findings that emerged from the Mass Observation programme of surveys during the latter days of the War yielded some simple but (to us now) obvious facts. Stepney dwellers wanted to live in houses not flats; they wanted to have gardens not communal spaces; and they wanted to stay where they were.

Dr Bird manages that trickiest of juggling acts – turning an academic work (Stepney began life as her PhD thesis) into a compelling read. The academic provenance is there on every page, in the many hundreds of footnotes, the reliance on primary sources and the inclusion of a proper index (which is rarer than you might expect!). But the pages are choc-a-bloc with characters and facts from Stepney’s history. So we discover that the famous slogan “They shall not pass”, which was to become ubiquitous during the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, was first given voice by Arthur Foley Winnington-Ingram, the Bishop of London, in his 1918 Easter sermon. That the Great War was still having ripples two decades later, with the death of 18 schoolchildren during the destruction of Upper North Street School during a zeppelin raid having huge bearing on the decision to evacuate children during the early days of World War 2. And we read of local priest, John Groser, taking direct action to feed local people during the Blitz: “Breaking into an official food store to feed the homeless”. Nothing had changed too much. For much of their history, the people of Stepney simply had to look after themselves.

* Stepney: profile of a London borough from the outbreak of the First World War to the Festival of Britain, 1914-1951, by Dr Samantha L Bird; ISBN 978-1-4438-3506-0; WWW.CSP.CO

SEE ALSO

Lansbury versus Morrison: the battle over Poplarism

Zeppelin strikes: the East End at war

Peter the Painter: the Sidney Street Siege

Cosmo Lang, Bishop of Stepney, Archbishop of Canterbury

Cosmo Lang as archbishop of canterbury

Cosmo Lang as archbishop of canterbury

ARCHBISHOPS of Canterbury are swiftly forgotten after their reign is over (the odd Thomas A Becket aside). The cleric simply joins the dozens who have filled the role over a millennium and a half – and time rolls on.

But the colourfully monikered Cosmo Lang – prizes to anyone under pension age who had that name on the tip of their tongue – has re-emerged from ecclesiastical obscurity over the past couple of years. First he appeared in The King’s Speech, portrayed as a meddling fusspot by Derek Jacobi; trying to cut George VI’s speech therapist Lionel Logue out of his role in preparing the monarch for his coronation speech.

And earlier this year, revelations emerged that he had played a key role in engineering the removal of George’s dissolute older brother from the throne, having apparently decided that Edward VIII was morally unfit to lead the country. As history has steadily amassed the case against Edward – feckless and self obsessed, idle and casual about his official papers, cavalierly close to bringing down the monarchy, and a Nazi sympathiser – it may seem that Lang had a point. But he would be savagely derided in the press, and not for the first time. Controversy had dogged this serious minded son of the manse, but to his old parishioners in Stepney, Cosmo Lang was a very different, and much loved character.

When Lang was ‘called’ to be Bishop of Stepney in 1901, most of his flock were probably indifferent, if they even knew who he was. Of two million East Enders, most of them living in poverty or very near it: there would be a small minority attending a Church of England service on a Sunday morning. And the attitude towards the local vicar would generally be dismissive. East Enders had seen a lot of do-gooders, a lot of philanthropists, and heard a lot about God down the years, but hadn’t seen their housing or the health and welfare of their children increase to any great degree.

But Lang already knew the East End. Almost 20 years before, as a student at Oxford, he had heard a sermon by Samuel Augustus Barnett, Vicar of Whitechapel, and become an enthusiastic evangelist for the settlement movement, as Oxford students became educational ‘missionaries’ to Tower Hamlets. Barnett would soon found Toynbee Hall, and Lang would spend so much time working at the Commercial Street settlement that he was reprimanded for neglecting his degree by his tutors.

Two decades on, Lang would spentdhis early days as Bishop travelling around his new diocese, not in a chauffered car, but on buses and trams. He was horrified but not surprised by the poverty he saw still. Of course, clergymen were still seen as prissy do-gooders, liable to stiffen the atmosphere when they entered the public bar or the theatre. But it was a visit to the famed Wonderland boxing club in Whitechapel that won Lang a new sobriquet. Unbothered by the blood, sweat, betting and swearing, he climbed into the ring to referee a bout, being familiar with pugilism from his Oxford and Toynbee Hall days. The locals dubbed him ‘the fighting bishop’ and Lang – who wouldn’t pass up the chance to proselytise – gave an impromptu sermon. “I am on a fighting platform,” he declared. “And it’s good for the old church to take off its coat in a good cause and put on its gloves.”

For Lang was in a fight, as political as it was religious. Although he had been a Tory at Oxford, he was of a liberal hue and mixed easily with the East End’s political leaders, including Will Crooks and George Lansbury (even encouraging the latter back into church). In 1905, he and Lansbury joined the Central London Unemployed Body, set up by government to fight unemployment. He spoke out at Church congresses on how socialism was a growing force (not necessarily a welcome one to Lang) and how the Church should respond to it. And he became a tireless fundraiser for the East End, preaching in richer parishes around southern England and urging congregations to dig deep for the East London Church Fund. The money would go toward providing additional clergy and lay workers in the poorest parts of Stepney, Whitechapel, Poplar and the rest.

He was a rising star, but nobody could have anticipated how meteoric the rise would be. In 1909, at just 44, Lang was enthroned Archbishop of York, an extraordinary leap from the suffragan bishopric of Stepney. Popular wisdom had it that prime minister Herbert Asquith, irritated by political lobbying for the job, had deliberately irked the establishment by picking the youngest man he could find.

Lang took to his role, rather too well according to many. He became a confidant of George V, taking great delight in the vestments, rituals and trappings of his job, and was dubbed “more courtier than cleric”. Biographer Alan Wilkinson writes that, from being “the people’s prelate” he began to act as a “prince of the church”. And he seemed to have lost the popular touch. Speaking out against crude anti-German propaganda during the First World War, he was shocked at the pasting he got in the press. The stress had a dramatic effect. Lang suffered alopecia and pictures of the day show a boyish figure in his mid-forties transformed in just a few years into an elderly man.

By the time he was enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1928, Lang’s socially campaigning East End days were long gone. Retreating into his conservatism, he refused to take sides in the Spanish Civil War and supported appeasement of Hitler and his fascist allies. But it was for his role in the abdication crisis of 1936 that Lang became most vilified. Two days after Edward abdicated, Cosmo Lang put the boot into the departing King in a speech, saying: “From God he received a high and sacred trust. Yet by his own will he has … surrendered the trust … [because of ] a craving for private happiness … [which he sought] in a manner inconsistent with the Christian principles of marriage.” He then turned to the new King and his speech impediment, with: “He has brought it [the stammer] into full control, and to those who hear it it need cause no sort of embarrassment, for it causes none to him who speaks.”

A popular poem was soon doing the rounds, berating the self-important prelate:

My Lord Archbishop what a scold you are!
And when your man is down how bold you are!
In Christian charity how scant you are!
Oh! Old Lang Swine, how full of Cantuar! [neatly combining two puns, one on Lang’s signature as Archbishop, ‘Cosmo Cantuar’, the other referencing his Scottish birth].

When Lang retired in 1942, he had, in his almost unprecedented 33 years as a bishop travelled a long way from his radical roots. He died in 1945, collapsing on his way to catch a train at Kew Gardens station.

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.

Carry On’s Bernard Bresslaw

WHEN king-size actor Bernard Bresslaw collapsed and died in June 1993 generations of Carry On fans mourned the loss of a giant comic talent.
But his last role spoke volumes about the paradox of a well-read East End lad who could turn his hand to any role – yet was always cast as an amiable idiot.
Bresslaw was born in Stepney in 1934, the son of an impecunious tailor’s cutter, himself a descendant of Jewish Polish immigrants.
The young Bernie was a giant from birth, weighing in at 10lb 4oz and wearing size nine shoes before he hit his teens. The shoe size was a big disappointment to his mum – she wanted him to be a tap dancer. But Bresslaw had dreams of his own.
He could have followed his dad into the rag trade but instead was inspired by his English teacher, at Mile End’s Coopers School, to follow his dreams of acting.
He applied to the top actors’ school, RADA, was accepted, and swiftly showed his potential in the Academy’s performance of Christopher Fry’s Venus Observed, not only winning the Academy’s Emile Littler Award as Most Promising Actor but personal plaudits from the playwright himself.
Bernard graduated and went into a notoriously tough form of rep – playing RAF and Army camps, Borstals and mental hospitals.

It was a tough baptism into the business but one that stood him in good stead. He later said that the demands of keeping happy the demanding all-male houses – who would soon let you know if you weren’t up to scratch – was superb discipline and training for his later career.
“Like facing hostile fast bowling,” he laughed.
Bresslaw always prized his classical actor’s schooling but it was a different sort of training that set him up for his big break.
The Army Game ran from 1957 to 1962 becoming the BBC’s top sitcom. Bresslaw drew on his National Service years as a driver/clerk in the Royal Army Service Corps to create the role of gormless giant Private Popeye Popplewell.
Financial security, a spin-off film I Only Arsked and even a string of hits with pop singles followed – all with Bernie in character.
Bresslaw was a household name and his fame grew when, in 1965, he took on the first of 14 Carry On roles. Indian brave Little Heap in Carry On Cowboy, warrior Bungdit In in Carry On Up The Khyber, sinister butler Sockett in Carry On Screaming, Bresslaw played them all while pursuing his classical career in the theatre.
Roles in Two Gentlemen of Verona, Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream gave him artistic satisfaction in his work with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Young Vic and the Chichester Festival Theatre.
But the heavy workload drove him to exhaustion and a collapse at a 1992 showbiz dinner.
In the Eighties, virtual blindness threatened his career and his love of reading Racine, Milton and history. But a pioneering operation at Moorfields’ Hospital saved his sight and he was back on stage.
And it was there that the comic giant died – not as Bungdit In or Popeye but in the sort of role for which he craved recognition – waiting to go on stage as Grumio in the Taming of the Shrew at the open air theatre in Regent’s Park.