Spectres of the Past on the East End Streets

I have no connection to London’s East End.

No Huguenot ancestors sewing lace in workshops in Fournier Street or Weavers Fields, or Jewish refugees sheltering from the pogroms in Aldgate or Bethnal Green, nor an O’Malley or Kelly jostling at the gates of the West India Docks praying for a day’s backbreaking work, or dipping matches into vats of poisonous phosphorus at Bryant & May, nor a grandparent standing on the roofs of Stepney warehouses confronting the Luftwaffe armed with just a stirrup pump and bucket of sand. No Sylhet chefs cooking up sag paneer in Brick Lane. Not even a hipster cousin running a tech start-up in Shoreditch, and living in a converted warehouse in Hoxton. Not a single Bourdillon, Aaronovitch, O’Malley, Ali or Smith in the family tree to be able to stake a claim to the East End.

As a child, my parents would no more have taken me to the East End as walk on the surface of Mars. The only time I recall was at some point in the 1970s when my father, driving us in his white Citroen, got lost and ended up on the fringes of Wapping. When my mother saw a sign for ‘the docks’ she solemnly instructed us to wind up the windows and lock the doors, for fear of some East End simian jumping onto the car, ripping off the rear-view mirror and stealing our sandwiches. London, for my parents, was Christmas shopping in Dickens & Jones or a squadron reunion at the Dorchester, but east of St Paul’s was the heart of darkness.

They were not alone in their murky view of the East End. For centuries, its foggy courtyards and crowded streets have been a place of myth, murder, and vice. These are the streets that summon up Sherlock Holmes’ opium dens, the murderous reign of Jack the Ripper, Jack London’s people of the abyss, and down-and-out Orwell ‘on the tramp’ in Poplar and Wapping, describing the ‘Chinamen, Chittagonian Lascars, Dravidians selling silk scarves, even a few Sikhs’. The story of the East End is the story of migration, from the Romans to the Romanians.

Since the days of Richard the Lionheart, the East End has been the area beyond the old Roman walls and the medieval city boundaries. This placed the multitudes who lived there metaphorically beyond respectability, redemption or hope. The historian and clergyman John Strype (1643–1737), the son of a Huguenot, was the first to call the East End a distinct part of London, the sum of its parts, rather than a collection of smaller hamlets. His 1720 ‘Survey of London’ names four areas: the City, Westminster, Southwark, and ‘that part beyond the Tower’.

‘That Part Beyond the Tower’ has uncertain boundaries. Is it the area covered by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets? This was created by 1960s planners from the ancient boroughs of Stepney, Poplar and Bethnal Green. But this leaves out the areas around the empty London docks (only dubbed ‘docklands’ by developers as late as 1971). Surely Rotherhithe, Millwall, Silvertown and Canning Town are part of the East End? In the absence of clear boundaries, perhaps the East End is a state of mind?

For all those who shunned the streets beyond the walls, there were more who were fascinated by them. A wave of Victorian philanthropists and altruists visited to do good among the poor. Here, the Salvation Army was born, and the Temperance crusaders marched. The best public schools ran ‘settlements’ whereby the sons of bankers and brokers could rub up against the sons and daughters of street vendors and stevedores. One such settlement run by Haileybury introduced a young man from Putney to the harsh realities of capitalism, and he decided to stay. Clement Attlee, returning from the First World War a wounded hero, dedicated himself to ‘social work’, then politics as Mayor of Stepney, and onwards to №10.

And then there were those whose interest was less altruistic. Millions of respectable Victorians went ‘slumming’ for fun. Slumming was poverty tourism, with day-trips to see the squalor and filth of Whitechapel and Shoreditch. Trips to the slums were advertised in the guide-books alongside the British Museum or Buckingham Palace.

West End gentlemen, known to the East End boys and girls as ‘mashers’, came to the East End for illicit drugs, sex of every variety, music halls and general revelry. It is no coincidence that the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper, usually depicted as an upper-class gent with a top hat, cloak and surgeon’s skills, conducted his killings among the sex workers of Whitechapel and Spitalfields. This west-to-east path was well trodden.

Whenever I am in the back of a black cab to or from the East End, I try to entice the cabbie into conversation. The true East End taxi driver lives in Essex now, and plays golf. But he has stories about the old East End of the 1970s and earlier, when the warehouses housed wares, not start-ups, and the streets of Shoreditch rang to the sound of fighting on a Saturday night, not scooter-riding, coffee-drinking, sockless hipsters.

Usually, the older cabbies talk about the Kray Twins, and here, for once, I have something to contribute. Not only do I know that they lived on Vallance Road, ate their bacon and eggs in Pellicci’s, and Reggie famously murdered Jack ‘the hat’ McVitie in the Blind Beggar, but also I have my very own Kray Twin anecdote. It is not as good as the ones told by the cabbies, whose fathers once boxed with the ‘twins’ at York Hall or whose uncles were nailed to the floor on the orders of The Firm.

But my anecdote is not too shabby: I have been on the same Isle of Wight ferry as Reggie in August 1982, when he was let out of prison to attend his mother’s funeral. I didn’t see him; they kept him inside the prison van on the deck, with a small army of prison guards. But he was there. This story usually gets a grunt of grudging approval. The reverence with which some people talk about the Krays, it is easy to forget that they were murderous psychopaths.

The East End is changing. Today the traditional working class and migrant communities are joined by the young, affluent apartment-dwellers. There are cranes everywhere. When Joseph Stalin came to London to attend the exiled congress of the Russian Social Democrat and Labour Party in 1907, he stayed in a ‘flop house’ in Fieldgate Street. Today, flats in the same building go for at least half a million. A four-bed house in Brick Lane goes for £800,000. Luxury property sits alongside crowded slums.

If you seek a metaphor for the two worlds living side by side, come to Patriot Square just off Cambridge Heath Road in Bethnal Green. Most of the square is social housing. But one side is the former Town Hall, now a luxurious hotel, complete with indoor pool, where suites go for hundreds a night. a stone’s throw away, on Brick Lane, where you can still grab a bagel with salt beef and pickles, you can also go to Cereal Killer, if you have money to burn, where a Frosties milkshake is £6.50.

But despite the coat of fresh paint, the old East End is still there: in the Stars of David above the eye-line of passers-by, in the Huguenot high windows, in the old signs for soup kitchens or pawn brokers or air-raid shelters, and in the ghosts of dockers, costermongers, tailors, washer-women, shopkeepers, fire watchers, and a million other spectres who haunt the streets. This is my real connection to the East End, not through bloodlines, but through the people’s bones and the people’s history, rising from the pavements like fog.

Paul Richards is a writer.

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