Author Article by John Marriott: Uncovering the real history of East London

John Marriott

From Jewish clothing merchants to Bangladeshi curry houses, ancient docks to the 2012 Olympics, the area of East London has always played a crucial role in the city’s history. This fascinating area of London is now the subject of a new book, Beyond the Tower: A History of East London by John Marriott. Here the author discusses the importance of looking beyond East London’s many clichés, in uncovering the rich history of this fascinating and ‘vital site of multiculturalism’.

Article by John Marriott

In approximately a year’s time, the eyes of the world will be on East London. Much to the surprise of many, the area was chosen as the site for the 2012 Olympics, and already tracts of derelict land have been transformed by the construction of impressive new sporting venues.

The bid’s success owed much to the claim that the Olympics would not only breath new life into deprived London boroughs but would leave a legacy to ensure that there was less chance of returning to the old days of poverty and neglect. That the boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Newham which comprise the contemporary East End are among the most deprived in the country is not in doubt; whether the Olympics will significantly mitigate the social problems attendant on unemployment, lack of housing and educational underachievement, however, is.

Whatever the outcome, it is perhaps a timely moment to pause and reflect on the nature of East London by looking back at its history.

East London is both the best and least understood area of London if not of the country as a whole. For most, the East End conjures up a rather odd mix of images. To the outsider it is a working-class area, made up largely of unskilled and unemployed workers living in mean streets, and speaking in barely intelligible versions of the English language. The nostalgic see East End life as an endless round of barrel organs, pearly kings and queens, jellied eels, benign grandmothers, rhyming slang, cockneys with hearts of gold, extended families, good neighbours and enthusiastic responses to all things royal. The long-running soap opera, EastEnders, which has defined East London for a new generation, may have dispensed with the quainter trappings but enough survives in its emphasis on community and family values to resonate with people having different memories of the past. Pessimists, on the other hand, point to the persistence of fascist currents, prostitution, lawlessness, violence, suspicion of strangers, endemic poverty, chronic overcrowding, racial conflict, and dirt in the street and on the faces of children.

These contradictory images derive from fragments of a half-remembered past handed down from generation to generation. There is little awareness of a historical narrative, only a profound sense of loss amongst an indigenous population that fondly recalls a golden age when we could walk the streets in perfect safety and leave doors unlocked. Tales of episodes and events come to stand for a history. Thus the East End was Chinese opium dens in Limehouse, Jewish tailors in Whitechapel, strikes of dock workers, rowdy but good natured music halls, slums eradicated by clearance schemes, postwar migrations eastwards to new estates in Essex, that archangel of retribution, Jack the Ripper, fortitude during the blitz, sing songs in pubs, day trips to Southend, the battle of Cable Street, momentary triumphs of West Ham Football Club, Oxbridge residents of Toynbee Hall, and colourful Petticoat Lane, the origins of which are lost in time.

Petticoat Lane Market

Petticoat Lane Market, as it looks today

Such a picture, however, captures little of what East London is, and nothing at all of its historical significance. It is true that when compared with London as a whole, the history of the East End is rather short, and yet it was created early in the eighteenth century at precisely that moment when London embarked on a journey which would lead to its role as a great world metropolis. So closely tied were the timings of these historical transformations that it is tempting to impute a direct relationship between them. And for good reason, for it was during this period that East London emerged as the manufacturing and commercial heart of the metropolis.

Therein were located not only the workshops that provided products such as clothing, furniture and footwear which satiated the ever increasing demands of wealthy Londoners for such accessories, and the massive gas, chemical, engineering and munitions plants that helped serve the needs of an advanced industrial and imperial nation, but also an extensive communications infrastructure of river, rail and dock which became a gateway between England and the world through which passed an endless stream of raw materials, manufactured goods and human cargoes.

Petticoat Lane

Petticoat Lane in the 1890s. The market derives its name from the secondhand clothes sold there from as early as the sixteenth century. Held each Sunday along Middlesex Street, it continues to attract large crowds.

From the outset East London expanded because migrant labour from other parts of the country was attracted by the promise of employment – gainful and otherwise – and thus came to be seen as a place of refuge for displaced persons; with the opening up of trading links with empire, this expansion was augmented by foreign migrants and refugees. So great was this movement of people that East London became, and remains, an epicentre of diasporic communities, a vital site of multiculturalism.

These migrant communities, located beyond the reach of City authorities, fostered traditions of political and cultural descent. England’s nascent theatrical culture, embodied in the first playhouses, The Theatre and The Curtain, was located here, so too were important traditions of struggle such as silk weavers’ riots against deteriorating conditions of the eighteenth century, and the ascent of the labour movement in the early twentieth century.

For nearly forty years my home was East London. Beyond the Tower is an attempt to recover the extraordinarily rich and vibrant history of its people, and to persuade developers that this is a history which must not be obliterated by the tender mercies of planners and large mechanical diggers. It is a modest token of my gratitude to neighbouring East Enders who I held in respect and affection.

Beyond the Tower

Beyond the Tower

John Marriott is Professor in History at the Raphael Samuel History Centre, University of East London, and author of The Culture of Labourism: The East End between the Wars (1991) and The Other Empire: Metropolis, India and Progress in the Colonial Imagination (2003). Beyond the Tower: A History of East London is available now from Yale University Press.

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