From Jewish merchants to Bangladeshi curry houses, ancient docks to the 2012 Olympics, East London has always played a crucial role in the city’s history. Last year Yale published John Marriott’s Beyond the Tower: A History of East London (out now in paperback) which immediately received universal acclaim. In this extract, Marriott discusses the importance of looking beyond East London’s many clichés, in uncovering the rich history of this fascinating, multicultural area.
Extract from the Introduction of Beyond the Tower: A History of East London by John Marriott
In the summer of 1902 the twenty-six-year-old Jack London set off for East London. Best remembered for adventure stories such as White Fang and Call of the Wild, London was also an accomplished journalist who reported on a range of social and political issues. Now in the immediate aftermath of the death of Queen Victoria he was on a quest to explore the East End disguised as a vagrant American sailor. But first he had to find it. Friends were of little help; they claimed to know nothing of the place, gestured vaguely to the east and recommended he approach the police. Not wishing to involve the authorities, London resisted the suggestion but then made a decision – which was greeted with universal relief – to seek guidance from the Cheapside branch of the renowned travel agents Thomas Cook & Son. Here, however, he met the same ignorance; never having received a request to take travellers to the East End, Cook’s stated that they knew nothing whatsoever about the place. London responded with characteristic disbelief:
But O Cook, O Thomas Cook & Son, path-finders and trail-clearers, living sign-posts to all the world, and bestowers of first aid to bewildered travellers – unhesitatingly and instantly, with ease and celerity, could send me to Darkest Africa or Innermost Thibet, but to the East End of London, barely a stone’s throw distant from Ludgate Circus, you know not the way!
The fable is a good one, and well told, but it does touch on an important truth, namely, that at the end of the Victorian era when the metropolis stood as a great world and imperial city, the whole of East London was in the minds of many middle-class inhabitants as remote and inaccessible as the far corners of the empire. It may be tempting to explain this remarkable ignorance by referring to the ways in which a distinct mythology had been created in the nineteenth century within which the East End was seen as a site of danger, depravity and destitution, and hence one to be avoided by genteel and respectable persons. There is something to this (and later we shall have reason to return to the origins and nature of this mythology), but this can be only part of the picture, because despite the modern impulses of the twentieth century which blew away the cobwebs of Victorianism, and developed new forms of social scientific research and mass communication, East London remained largely unknown.
Beyond the Tower is an attempt to answer the question that must have been uppermost in the mind of Jack London as he made his way to Thomas Cook: ‘Where, what and when is East London?’ In so doing we shall make many careful journeys through its streets, and meet thousands of its inhabitants. We shall learn how it was built and rebuilt, why people lived there, why people moved, and how they laboured; we will listen to those who recorded their thoughts on East London from within and without; and we will consider how it stood in relation to other areas of London, to Britain, and to the empire. The first journey, like so many others, begins with history, for history is, and will remain, our most trusted guide.
Beyond the Tower seeks to provide a history of East London since its emergence as a distinct area of the metropolis in the eighteenth century to its postwar decline and potential regeneration. It would be impossible in a single volume to write a truly comprehensive account, and so I have focused on those moments of change which have held a particular significance for the metropolis or indeed the nation as a whole.
The stories are fascinating, full of larger-than-life characters who have entered into English folklore, and historical episodes which reveal the vivid experiences of people at the lower levels of metropolitan life. But apart from this, why study East London in the first place? Arguably, it is one of the best- and least-known parts of England. For most the East End conjures up a rather odd mix of contradictory images. To the outsider East London remains 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 optimistic and sentimental look back to a golden age when East End life was an endless round of barrel organs, pearly kings and queens, jellied eels, donkey carts, 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 older memories. 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.
The popular sense of East London’s history is equally replete with fragments of a half-remembered past, much of which is handed down from generation to generation as part of a common folklore. There is no overall narrative of historical development, only a profound sense of loss amongst an indigenous population which fondly recalls an 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, dockworker strikes, 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.
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 brief, and yet East London was created 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 with good reason, for it was during this period that East London emerged as the manufacturing and commercial heart of the metropolis. The workshops of Whitechapel and Spitalfields 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 of Poplar and West Ham helped serve the needs of an advanced industrial and imperial nation; but also an extensive communications infrastructure of river, rail and dock became a gateway between England and the world through which passed an endless stream of raw materials, manufactured goods and human cargoes.
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 it 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. I teach at the University of East London, where the student body comprises people of 120 nationalities. I live in Manor Park on the outer fringes of the East London of the nineteenth century. Opposite is a superstore owned and run by Gujurati Hindus which sells the cheapest rice and spices in the area, while a little further down the Romford Road is the Turkish Istanbul, good for fresh fruit and vegetables at any time of the day or night. My hair is cut by Iraqi Kurds, my car fixed by Sikhs; take-away meals are provided by a Pakistani shop, most of my domestic repairs are done by Polish builders, and internet facilities are offered by Somalis. Within 150 metres of my house are a Nigerian Episcopal church, a Bangladeshi mosque, a Tamil mandir, a Sikh gurdwara and a Baptist community centre. This is so typical an experience for anyone living in East London that it is easy to take it for granted; it is only when we venture out into the provinces that the thought of the world in East London comes to mind.
Politically, culturally and socially East London has also played a major part in the history of the metropolis and nation. Sport, in particular those working-class pursuits of soccer, speedway, darts and boxing, has always featured, and created a host of stars from James Parrott, who in 1770 reputedly ran the first four-minute mile, to David Beckham, the golden boy of English soccer. Because of what were considered the problems of chronic poverty, East London attracted many of the outstanding social reformers who were to lay the foundations of social reform and the welfare state. Samuel Barnett, William Booth, William Beveridge, Thomas Barnardo, Thomas Fowell Buxton, Frederick Charrington, Richard Tawney, George Peabody and Clement Attlee all devoted many years of their lives to helping the poor of the area. As a centre of political and religious dissent from the seventeenth century, East London fostered the thinking and careers of many outstanding figures including William Penn, who left for Delaware in 1682 and whose 1701 Charter of Privileges was marked in 1751 by the casting of the Liberty Bell at the world-renowned Whitechapel Bell Foundry, Jeremy Bentham, Mary Wollstonecraft, Annie Besant, Charles Bradlaugh, Sylvia Pankhurst, Will Thorne, Keir Hardie and George Lansbury, as well as the extraordinary political culture that gave rise to Jewish anarchists, headed by Rudolph Rocker, and provided temporary refuge for revolutionaries such as Lenin and Stalin.
Our understanding of East London is hampered also by a geographical uncertainty arising from endless disputes on where its boundaries are to be drawn. There is nothing new in such speculation. In Life and Labour of the People of London, the classic work of social investigation undertaken in the closing stages of the nineteenth century, Charles Booth adhered to the administrative boundaries of the London County Council in taking East London to be the area stretching from the course of the ancient City wall in the west to the River Lea in the east. Within this broad area he distinguished the ‘inner ring’ of East London which included Shoreditch, Bethnal Green, Whitechapel, St George’s-in-the-East, Wapping, Shadwell, Ratcliff, and the western portions of Mile End.
Thirteen years later, when further work had revealed a more complex picture of demographic change, the boundaries used by Booth were more fluid, for he now defined the ‘outer East London’ of Stepney, Bethnal Green and Poplar as the ‘true East End of London’. Here was an area, he proceeded, that lay ‘beyond those districts that usually go by that name’, and he went further in referring to what was unmistakably the new borough of West Ham situated over the Lea in Essex as a quarter rapidly forming, equally populous and no less poor. The district differs for the better in many ways both from the old East End of the past and the new one that is coming into being. It contains a solid English industrial population endowed with a noticeable vigour and independence of character. It is almost altogether poor in the sense that among the residents none are rich, and that the middle class are leaving, but except in a few special parts it is in no way poverty stricken.
It was at this time that Walter Besant, the most popular writer on London, published East London. Attracted to the idea that London was not a city but an extraordinary collection of overgrown villages, he spread the boundaries widely. According to his rough-and-ready calculations, East London was simply the area east of Bishopsgate Street and north of the Thames, and included the ‘densely populated suburb, lying east of the River Lea’ and the ‘aggregation of crowded towns … formed by the once rural villages of Hackney, Stoke Newington, Clapton, Old Ford, Stepney, Bow and Stratford’. Later, in an imaginative move which for many overstretched the conventional mapping of London, he claimed that the ‘suburbs of East London’ included Chigwell, Chingford, Theydon Bois, and villages surrounding Epping Forest.
Half a century later Robert Sinclair, a writer of novels, social commentary and film scripts, also thought expansively. For him East London comprised the boroughs of Stepney, Poplar, Bethnal Green, Hackney, Shoreditch, West Ham, East Ham, Walthamstow, Leyton, Wanstead, Ilford, Barking and Dagenham. These boundaries, he reasoned, form neither a notional area to suit his convenience, nor municipal divisions, but rather define a distinct industrial geography with common social and cultural problems. Such speculation and the ever-increasing boundaries to which it seemed to give rise created rather more problems than it solved. Sensitive to these problems, Millicent Rose’s fine study of the East End advised us from the outset that ‘no term in London phraseology is more inaccurately used’. Those frequenting the fashionable and journalistic life of London have for many years secluded themselves in the far west of the city and have little knowledge of other parts of London; for them, as for Cook’s, the East End is an unknown area somewhere to the east of where they reside. Thus, for example, when royalty visits Bermondsey, press and radio broadcasts report mistakenly that their highnesses have spent the day in the East End. To address this sorry state of affairs, Rose reinstated the importance of the ancient physical boundaries: East London is bounded to the south by the Thames, to the east by the Lea, to the west by Aldgate and the lines of the City wall, and to the north by Clapton Common within which the boroughs of Stepney, Poplar, Bethnal Green and Hackney were included.
There are of course no definitive answers to this conundrum, and no doubt it will continue to animate conversations, but for the purposes of Beyond the Tower, I choose to consider East London as the area covered today by the boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Newham. In doing so, I offer my apologies to those readers in Hackney, Barking and Dagenham, even Waltham Forest, who cherish an identity with East London. These areas are mentioned, but only in passing. Although Tower Hamlets and Newham may have different timelines, they are united – and simultaneously distinguished from their neighbours – by a shared history of industrial development and demographic change forged from the crucible of the Thames, the City and the empire.
After years of decline and neglect we have witnessed the mixed benefits of Docklands regeneration, and are now poised for two other massive programmes. East London will be part of the government’s Thames Gateway regeneration scheme, which is the largest in Europe and over the next twenty years will transform the Thameside areas through provision of a new communications infrastructure and thousands of houses. Furthermore, the London Olympics of 2012 will take place around Stratford. It is perhaps too early to say precisely what impact these schemes will have, but their combined influence on the built environment, economy and cultural landscape will be considerable. All we can hope for is that any such change is mindful of the rich history of East London, and treats it with respect.
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 in paperback from Yale.