Guide to East London

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London's "Unknown" East End

500 years ago, the East End was no more than green fields through which an old Roman road from Colchester to the City of London passed. The landscape would have been dominated by the old Roman wall and the Norman St. Paul's Cathedral, which was some 180 feet taller than the present one.

Another main "road" into London was the Thames, and, in 1520, London's reputedly oldest riverside pub opened to serve thirsty seamen. First known as the Devil's Tavern, now the Prospect of Whitby, it was a meeting place for sailors from all over the world for some four hundred years.

Inland from the docks and warehouses, in the 1600s, the unpleasant, smelly and dirty trades (slaughter houses, fish farms, breweries and factories) were being established. This happened on the east side of London because the dominant west winds kept the smells away from what was to become the rich, fashionable and aristocratic West End.

Changes in political conditions abroad have been reflected with the successive waves of immigrants arriving off boats in London's docks beginning with the Jews in 1653 and the French Protestant Huguenot silk weavers in 1685. Between 1870 and 1914 thousands of Jewish settlers from Poland, Romania and Russia who fled to England to escape appalling economic conditions as well as virulent anti-semitism and Tsarist pogroms. By the 1930s the Jews had established themselves in Stepney, Whitechapel and Hackney, many being tradespeople working in Cabinet making, the fur trade and tailoring. Evidence of the carpentry trade can be found in Cheshire Street, formerly Hare Street, where the Carpenters Arms public house still remains.

The Jewish East End has gone: it's moved out to the lusher suburbs of North London. The kosher butchers are now halal butchers. The synagogues have had minarets added to them and have become mosques. Ugandan Asians, Bangladeshis and Somalis have taken their place, adding their culture to the area.

The London Docks began in the small area between London Bridge and the Tower of London. With the expansion of trade and empire in the late 1700 and 1800 period the docks grew in size and so did the labour force required to service this industry. The newly built housing however became overcrowded and deteriorated into slum conditions and poverty.

People lived their squalid lives against a background of immorality, drunkeness, crime and violence. Robbery and assault were commonplace and the streets ruled by gangs. The streets were most unpleasant places, the many alleyways were unlit at night and prostitutes and brothels were common place. In an attempt to overcome these problems William Booth, founded the Salvation Army in Whitechapel. His success was at best limited because 50 years later, Jack London the American author still described the East End as 'outcast London'. In 1889 George Gissing in the 'The Nether World' described it as 'the city of the damned'.

Opened in Whitechapel Road in 1750, the London Hospital is the largest general hospital in the country. Early engravings show it appearing as a stately home looking over the neighbouring countryside. One of its first surgeons was a Huguenot refugee, Gabriel Risoliere, but it was another well known East End figure, taking a medical degree who has become a household name. Thomas Barnardo, a Dubliner, drawn to charitable work was appointed superintendent of a ragged (free) school. In December 1870 he opened his first Childrens' Home at 18 Stepney Causeway under the patronage of Lord Shaftesbury. He died in 1905 through overwork, having rescued and trained 60,000 destitute children and assisted 250,000 more in want.

Directly opposite the hospital, at 123 Whitechapel Road, a man suffering severe disfigurement named Joseph Merrick had been exhibited as a freak. Consulting Surgeon Frederick Treves, horrified at this exploitation took the 'Elephant Man' under the protection of the hospital until he died in 1890.

The Whitechapel Murders in 1888 and the Siege of Sydney Street have created a vision of darkest London with criminality and the East End becoming synonymous. This image has been reinforced by pre-war detective novels by Edgar Wallace and the fictitious character of Sherlock Holmes created by Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle. Films made about Jack the Ripper invariably show him luring victims down dark fog-filled narrow alley; the Elephant Man was filmed in black and white. Limehouse, London's original China Town, was the setting for Arthur Henry Ward's evil genious, Fu Manchu, who threatened to unleash the 'yellow peril' on the outside world.

Bow, was the headquarters of the suffragette movement and in Fairfield Road, 1,500 match girls walked out on strike at Bryant & May's factory. On 23 June 1888 Annie Besant published an article called 'White Slavery in London' publicising the Company's profits and the appauling working conditions. The girls won an increase in wages. Later that year, workers based at the Beckton Gas Works successfully struck to achieve an eight hour day. The Dock Strike came the following year, the committee headquarters being at the Wade's Arms, Jeremiah Street, Poplar. Strike leaders included Tom Mann, John Burns, and Ben Tillett. Karl Marx's daughter, Eleanor was the committee's secretary.

In 1892, the first Labour Party Member of Parliament, Keir Hardie, was elected from West Ham (South). Prior to the October Soviet Revolution, Russian Bolsheviks including Lenin had visited the East End frequently. The 5th Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, forerunner to the Bolshevik Party, took place in Fulbourne Street, opposite the London Hospital in May 1907.

Stalin stayed at the Tower House in Fieldgate Street (picture - left), close to the Whitechapel Bell Foundary where the thirteen ton 'Big Ben' of the Houses of Parliament and America's Liberty Bell were cast.

The Siege of Sidney Street, E1 on 3 January 1911 was one of the most famous incidents in East End history. The robbery of Harris' Jewellery Shop in Houndsditch by a Russian Anarchist group intending to raise funds went seriously wrong. The gang dispersed to lodgings in the surrounding streets, one of which was 100 Sidney Street. Two of the gang members, Fritz Svaars and 'Josef' died in the house when it burned down in the much publicised shoot out with the police and military. A third member Peter Piatkov, nicknamed 'Peter the Painter' miraculously escaped.

The Poplar Rate Strike in 1921 resulted in 30 Borough Councillors,led by George Lansbury being imprisoned for six weeks. The publicity severely embarrassed the government into equalising the rate burden for funding the London Council Council. Before the Second World War the East End was an area of great economic hardship and social deprivation. Housing remained a major problem the whole area was overcrowded with families living in slum conditions and unemployment was rife. Sir Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts stirred tensions resulting in the Battle of Cable Street.

The Docks and City areas were severely bombed during the Second World War destroying much of the old Victorian London. Ship containerisation caused the docks to close in 1969 causing very high unemployment. The notorious Kray twins, who controlled the East End underworld rather like feudal lords, ruling their 'manor' are not forgotten by East Enders, as a new campaign is soon to be launched to free Reggie Kray from imprisonment.

The area has been revived since the 1980s with the emergence nearby of a new financial centre headed by the Canary Wharf development. Government plans to make Stratford an International Rail Terminus are still subject to finance, but success will increase the speed of change in East London.

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