An etching of Billingsgate by James McNeill Whistler, executed in 1859; it shows something of the animation of the docksides, with many boats engaged in trade upon the ever commercial Thames.
It has often been suggested that the East End is a creation of the nineteenth century; certainly the phrase itself was not invented until the 1880s. But in fact the East has always existed as a separate and distinct entity. The area of Tower Hamlets, Limehouse and Bow rests upon a separate strip of gravel, one of the Flood Plain gravels which were created at the time of the last glacial eruption some 15,000 years ago. Whether this longevity has played any part in creating the unique atmosphere of the East End is open to question, perhaps, but the symbolic importance of east versus west must not be ignored in any analysis of what became known in the late nineteenth century as “the abyss.” The Roman burials of Londinium, some of them within the very area now known as the East End, were so conducted that the heads of those interred were inclined towards the west; the same practice can be found in early Christian burial rituals, again in the territory of London, which suggests some profound affinity. It seems also to have been an instinctive one, part of a territorial spirit that emerges in the earliest recorded periods of London’s history. Archaeological evidence suggests, for example, that the invading Saxons of the fifth and sixth centuries settled to the west of the River Walbrook while the defeated and demoralised Romano-British natives dwelled upon the east bank. This pattern of habitation has been consistent and profound.
There is one interesting and significant feature of the eastern area which suggests a living tradition stretching back beyond the time of the Romans. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was found evidence of a great “wall” running along the eastern portion of the Thames, down the river bank and along the Essex shores, to protect the land from the depredations of the tidal river; it was constituted of timber banks and earthworks. At the end of the wall in Essex, close to the area now known as Bradwell Waterside—which may plausibly be translated, even after two thousand years of transition, as Broad Wall—were discovered the earthworks of a Roman fortress as well as the ruins of a later chapel, St. Peter-on-the-Wall, which had become a barn. Other local antiquarians have also found small churches or chapels placed beside what might be called this great eastern wall. It is quite forgotten, save by a few local historians, but by keeping at bay the water, and by helping to drain the marshland of the eastern areas, it created the East End or London’s dark side. Every city must have one.
And where does the “East” begin? According to certain urban authorities the point of transition was marked by the Aldgate Pump, a stone fountain constructed beside the well at the confluence of Fenchurch Street and Leadenhall Street; the existing pump lies a few yards to the west of the original. Other antiquaries have argued that the real East End begins at the point where Whitechapel Road and Commercial Road meet. The taint of poverty, already apparent in the late medieval period, was in any case gradually extended. Stow observed that between 1550 and 1590 there was “a continual street or filthy strait passage with alleys of small tenements or cottages built … almost to Ratcliffe.” The road from the pump of Aldgate to the church at Whitechapel was by this date also lined with shops and tenements, while the adjoining field to the north was “pestered with cottages and alleys.” In similar manner there was “a continuous building of small and base tenements for the most part lately erected” from Bishopsgate to Shoreditch, and even beyond that there were mean buildings “a good flight shot” as far out as Kingsland and Tottenham. By the end of the sixteenth century the eastern portions of the city were being defined as “base” and “filthy,” their squalor and stench emerging despite proclamations and parliamentary Acts. The area of Spitalfields, laid out along more regular lines between 1660 and 1680, also soon acquired a reputation for poverty and overcrowding. The houses were small and narrow, while the streets themselves were often only fifteen feet wide. That sense of diminution, or of constriction, exists still. As the houses, so their inhabitants. A report of 1665 described the overcrowding created by “poor indigent and idle and loose persons.” So the “filthy cottages” of Stow’s report were being filled with “filthy” persons. It is the story of London.
The industries of the eastern neighbourhood gradually became filthy, too. Much of its trade and commerce came from the river, but in the course of the seventeenth century the region became steadily industrialised. In the vicinity of the Lea mills, malodorous manufactories were introduced. In 1614 a local court records that “The jury present Lancelot Gamblyn, lately of Stratford Langthorne, starchmaker, because by unlawful making of starch such a stink and ill favour continue and daily arise.” Less than fifty years later Sir William Petty was lamenting “the fumes, steams, and stinks of the whole Easterly Pyle,” and indeed for hundreds of years after that the “Easterly Pyle” became the home of what were known as “the stink industries”; all forms of corruption and noisomeness were fashioned there. It represented the focus for London’s fear of corruption and disease. Nor were these fears entirely ill-founded, either; demographic surveys revealed a remarkably high incidence of consumption and “fever” in the eastern reaches of London.
So the flight westward continued. From the seventeenth century onward the laying out of streets and squares moved inexorably in that direction; the wealthy and the well-born and the fashionable insisted upon dwelling in what Nash called “the respectable streets at the West end of the town.” The topographical divide, or rather the obsession with the West over the East, could be seen in minute particulars. When Jermyn Street was completed in the 1680s, the London Encyclopaedia observes that “the west end of the street was more fashionable than the east.” Another line of demarcation ran through Soho Square, where “every minute longitude east is equal to as many degrees of gentility minus,” as an American visitor put it, “or towards west, plus.” Of the newly fashioned Regent Street it was noted that “there are many squares on the eastern side of this thoroughfare, and some good streets, but rank and fashion appear to avoid them.”
It has been observed that the West End has the money, and the East End has the dirt; there is leisure to the West, and labour to the East. Yet in the early decades of the nineteenth century it was not singled out as being the most desperate source of poverty and violence. It was known principally as the centre of shipping, and of industry, and thus the home of the working poor. In fact the industry and the poverty steadily intensified; dye works and chemical works, manure factories and lamp-black factories, manufacturers of glue and of paraffin, producers of paint and bonemeal, all clustered in Bow and Old Ford and Stratford. The River Lea for centuries had been the site of industry, and of transport, but throughout the nineteenth century it was further exploited and degraded. A match factory on its banks lent the water a urinous taste and appearance, while the smell of the whole area became offensive. In all this, of course, we see the condition of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries being expanded and intensified; it is as if the process continued with a momentum of its own. The industrial districts of Canning Town, Silvertown and Beckton were created between the Lea and Barking Creek, Beckton becoming particularly well known for its sewage dispersal system. All the filth of London crept eastwards.
But then, at some point in the 1880s, it reached what might be called critical mass. It imploded. The East End became “the abyss” or “the nether world” of strange secrets and desires. It was the area of London into which more poor people were crammed than any other, and out of that congregation of poverty sprang reports of evil and immorality, of savagery and unnamed vice. In his essay “On Murder, Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” Thomas De Quincey apostrophised the area of the Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1812 as one of the “most chaotic” and “a most dangerous quarter,” a “perilous region” replete with “manifold ruffianism.” It is perhaps important that a writer should inscribe the East End in this manner, since its subsequent and lurid reputation was to a large extent established upon the work of journalists and novelists who felt almost obliged to conjure up visions of darkness and horror as a way of describing the shadow which London itself cast. And of course the defining sensation which for ever marked the “East End,” and created its public identity, was the series of murders ascribed to Jack the Ripper between the late summer and early autumn of 1888. The scale of the sudden and brutal killings effectively marked out the area as one of incomparable violence and depravity, but it was equally significant that the crimes should have been committed in the darkness of malodorous alleys. The fact that the killer was never captured seemed only to confirm the impression that the bloodshed was created by the foul streets themselves; that the East End was the true Ripper.
All the anxieties about the city in general then became attached to the East End in particular, as if in some peculiar sense it had become a microcosm of London’s own dark life. There were books written, the titles of which represented their themes—The Bitter Cry of Outcast London, The People of the Abyss, Ragged London, In Darkest London, The Nether World. In that last novel George Gissing provides a description of “the pest-stricken regions of East London, sweltering in sunshine which served only to reveal the intimacies of abomination; across miles of a city of the damned, such as thought never conceived before this age of ours; above streets, swarming with a nameless populace, cruelly exposed by the unwonted light of heaven.” This is a vision of the East End as the Inferno, the city as hell, and it is not one confined to the novelist. The autobiographical narrative of “John Martin, School Master and Poet” was partly set in the purlieus of nineteenth-century Limehouse. “A mind is needed—black, misanthropic in its view of things, used to fearful visions of the night, to look with comprehensive and unflinching eye upon these scenes of sickly horror and despair.”
When Jack London first wished to visit the East End in 1902 he had been told by the manager of Thomas Cook’s Cheapside branch that “We are not accustomed to taking travellers to the East End; we receive no call to take them there, and we know nothing whatsoever about the place at all.” They knew nothing about it, perhaps, and yet everyone knew of it. In Tales of Mean Streets (1894) Arthur Morrison declared that “There is no need to say in the East End of what. The East End is a vast city, as famous in its way as any the hand of man has made. But who knows the East End?”
The presence of 100,000 Jewish immigrants, in Whitechapel and in Spi-talfields, only served to emphasise the apparently “alien” quality of the neighbourhood. They served also to reinforce that other territorial myth which clung to the East End. Because it did indeed lie towards the east, it became associated with that larger “east” which lay beyond Christendom and which threatened the borders of Europe. The name given to the dispossessed children of the streets, “street-Arabs,” offers some confirmation of this diagnosis. The East End was in that sense the ultimate threat and the ultimate mystery. It represented the heart of darkness.
Yet there were some who came as missionaries into that darkness. As early as the 1860s men and women, impelled by religious or philanthropic motives, set up halls and chapels in the East End. The vicar of St. Jude’s in Whitechapel, Samuel Barnett, was instrumental in what was called “settlement work” where generally idealistic young men and women tried materially to assist the straitened or precarious lives of the East Enders. Arnold Toynbee declared in one of his lectures to the inhabitants of Bethnal Green: “You have to forgive us, for we have wronged you; we have sinned against you grievously … we will serve you, we will devote our lives to your service, and we cannot do more.” Partly as a result of his example, and his eloquence, various “missions” were established, among them Oxford House in Bethnal Green and St. Mildred’s House upon the Isle of Dogs. The tone of supplication in Toynbee’s remarks might also be construed as one of anxiety that those, who had been so grievously treated, might react against the “sinners” who betrayed them.
There was indeed much radical activity in the East End, with the members of the London Corresponding Society in the 1790s and the Chartists in the 1830s meeting in the mug houses and public houses of Whitechapel and elsewhere, in order to promote their revolutionary causes. A radically egalitarian and anti-authoritarian spirit has always been rising from the area, in terms of religious as well as political dissent (if in fact the two can be distinguished). In the eighteenth century the Ancient Deists of Hoxton espoused millennarian and generally levelling principles, and there is evidence of Ranters and Muggletonians, Quakers and Fifth Monarchy men, contributing to the general atmosphere of dissent. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the political ethic of the East End was dominated by “municipal socialism.” George Lansbury in particular became associated with the movement known as “Poplarism,” a variant of populism whereby in 1919 the local Labour Party in control of the borough set unemployment relief at a level higher than the central government permitted. There was a confrontation, and the councillors of Poplar were briefly imprisoned, but the central demands of Lansbury were eventually met.
It was a characteristic episode, in the sense that the East End never “rose up,” as the civic authorities feared. It was always considered a potent ground for insurrection, as Oswald Mosley and his followers demonstrated in the 1930s, but like the rest of London it was too large and too dispersed to create any kind of galvanic shock. A more important revolutionary influence came, in fact, from the immigrant population. The communist and anarchist movements among the German and Russian populations have borne significant witness to the effect of the East End upon human consciousness. There was the celebrated Anarchists Club in Jubilee Street, among whose members were Kropotkin and Malatesta; opposite the London Hospital along Whitechapel High Street, a hall accommodated the fifth congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party which ensured the preeminence of the Bolshevik Party. In a hostel in Fieldgate Street, Joseph Stalin was a welcome guest. Lenin visited Whitechapel on numerous occasions, and attended the Anarchists Club, while Trotsky and Litvinov were also frequent visitors to the area. The East End can in that sense be considered one of the primary sites of world communism.
No doubt the presence of political exiles from Europe is largely responsible for that eminence, but the prevailing atmosphere of the place may also have been suggestive. Blanchard Jerrold, in the 1870s, had remarked upon the fact that “the quaint, dirty, poverty-laden, stall-lined streets are here and there relieved by marts and warehouses and emporiums, in which rich men who employ the poorest labour, are found.” Already the startling contrast between the “rich” and the “poorest,” standing upon the same ground, is being revealed. The East End was also the image of the whole world, with “the German, the Jew, the Frenchman, the Lascar, the swarthy native of Spital-fields, the leering thin-handed thief … with endless swarms of ragged children.” International communism sprang from an international context.
But other visitors saw other realities. The Czechoslovakian playwright Karel Capek, observing the East End at first hand in the early twentieth century, suggested that in “this overwhelming quantity it no longer looks like an excess of human beings, but like a geological formation … it was piled up from soot and dust.” It is an impersonal force of dullness, the total aggregate of labour and suffering among the soot of ships and factories. It is a “geological formation,” perhaps, to the extent that the area itself seems to emanate waves of frustration and enervation. At the turn of the nineteenth century Mrs. Humphry Ward noticed the monotony of the East End in terms of “long lines of low houses—two storeys always, or two storeys and a basement—of the same yellowish brick, all begrimed by the same smoke, every doorknocker of the same pattern, every window-blind hung in the same way, and the same corner ‘public’ on either side, flaming in the hazy distance.” George Orwell noticed it, too, in 1933 when he complained that the territory between Whitechapel and Wapping was “quieter and drearier” than the equivalent poor areas of Paris.
This is a familiar refrain, but it tends to come from those upon the outside. The autobiographical reminiscences of East Enders themselves do not dwell upon monotony or hardship, but upon the sports and clubs and markets, the local shops and local “characters,” which comprised each neighbourhood. As one old resident of Poplar put it in a recent history of the area, The East End Then and Now, edited by W.G. Ramsey, “It never occurred to me that my brothers and sisters and I were underprivileged, for what you never have you never miss.” This is the experience of the East End, and of all other impoverished parts of London, for those who live in them; the apparent deprivation and monotony are never realised, because they do not touch the inner experience of those who are meant to be affected by them. Any emphasis upon the uniformity or tedium of the East End has in any case to be seriously modified by the constantly remarked “merriment” or “cheerfulness” of its inhabitants. There was “a valiant cheeriness full of strength,” Blanchard Jerrold remarked after reciting a litany of sorrowful mysteries to be found upon the eastern streets, “everywhere a readiness to laugh.” He also observed that “The man who has a ready wit will employ his basket, while the dull vendor remains with his arms crossed.”
Thus emerged the figure of the Cockney, once the native of all London but in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries identified more and more closely with the East End. This was the character heard by V.S. Pritchett with “whining vowels and ruined consonants” and “the hard-chinned look of indomitable character.” The creation of that chirpy and resourceful stereotype can in some measure be ascribed to another contrast with East End monotony, the music hall. The conditions of life in Whitechapel, Bethnal Green and elsewhere may have predisposed their inhabitants to violent delights; the penny gaffs and the brightly illuminated public houses are testimony to that, as well as the roughness and coarseness which were intimately associated with them. But it is also significant that the East End harboured more music halls than any other part of London—Gilbert’s in Whitechapel, the Eastern and the Apollo in Bethnal Green, the Cambridge in Shoreditch, Wilton’s in Wellclose Square, the Queen’s in Poplar, the Eagle in the Mile End Road, and of course the Empire in Hackney, are just the most prominent among a large number which became as characteristic of the East End as the sweatshops or the church missions. By the mid-nineteenth century, the area roughly inclusive of the present borough of Tower Hamlets harboured some 150 music halls. It is perhaps appropriate that Charles Morton, universally if inaccurately known as “Father of the Halls” because of his establishment of the Canterbury in 1851, was born in Bethnal Green. In one sense the eastern region of the city was simply reaffirming its ancient identity. It has been mentioned before that two of the earliest London theatres, the Theatre and the Curtain, had been erected in the sixteenth century upon the open ground of Shoreditch; the whole region outside the walls became a haven for popular entertainment of every kind, from tea-gardens to wrestling matches and bear-baiting. So the music halls of the East End represent another continuity within the area, equivalent to its poor housing and to its “stink industries.”
Yet in another sense the halls represented the extension and intensification of East End life in the nineteenth century. Many emerged and prospered in the 1850s—the Eagle Tea Gardens, the Effingham and Wilton’s are of that period—by including burletta performances as well as variety acts and orchestral music. Among those who played here were the “lions comiques,” Alfred Vance and George Leybourne, who sang such Cockney songs as “Slap Bang, Here We Are Again” and “Champagne Charlie.” Vance in particular was known for his “coster” songs written in a “flash” or Cockney dialect, among them “Costermonger Joe” and “The Chickaleary Cove” where humour and bravado are easily mingled. Such songs as these became the folk songs of the East End, animated by all the pathos and diversity of each neighbourhood, charged with the circumstances and realities of the entire area. They remain powerful because they are filled with a real sense of place, as tangible as Artillery Lane or Rotherhithe Tunnel. When Charles Coborn sang “Two Lovely Black Eyes” at the Paragon in Mile End, he recalled “parties of girls and lads of the coster fraternity, all of a row, arm in arm, shouting out my chorus at the top of their voices.” The identification of performer and audience was paramount, so that when Lively Lily Burnand sang about the housekeeping of the poor at the Queen’s in Poplar she was touching upon a familiar subject:
Don’t forget the ha’penny on the jam jar …
The landlord’s comin’ in the mornin’
An he’s so par-ti-cu-lar …
In this instance, it was the importance of earning the halfpenny on the return of the jam jar to the shop. The common elements of privation, and poverty, were lifted into another sphere where they became touched by universal comedy and pity; thus, for a moment at least, was misery transcended. It would not be too much to claim, in fact, that the halls provided a boisterous and necessary secular form of the Mass in which the audience were themselves identified and uplifted as members of a general community.
In early twentieth-century memoirs of the East End that life is recorded with what, in retrospect, looks like the precision of all lost things. Along Poplar High Street there were, Horace Thorogood wrote in East of Aldgate, once “little shops of various shapes and heights and sizes” interspersed with small houses “with polished brass numbers on the doors.” Here might be found “a parrot-cage shop, a musical instrument shop,” and, characteristically, “rows of little one-storeyed houses standing a few feet back from the pavement behind iron railings.” In Shadwell the children went barefoot and wore rags but “that was just Irish slovenliness, they never wanted for food.” In the East End, in the first decades of the twentieth century, the public houses “were open from early morning till half-past midnight” with gin at fourpence halfpenny a quartern and “beer a penny for a half-pint. Women would come in at seven in the morning and stay till three in the afternoon.” The East End was also famous for its markets—Rosemary Lane, Spitalfields, Chrisp Street, Watney Street—when the thoroughfares “swarmed with people, and at night flared with naphtha light … you could have walked on the people’s heads all the way from Commercial Road to Cable Street.”
A fierce and protective sense of identity marked out the East End in these decades. The inhabitants of Limehouse called the people to the west those “above the bridges,” and there was a great deal of “inbreeding” which sprang from territorial loyalties. One isolated corner of Poplar, beside the Leamouth Road, in the 1920s had a population “numbering about 200 men, women and children,” according to The East End Then and Now, who were “members of no more than six families, among whom the Lammings, the Scanlans and the Jeffries were the most numerous. These families tended to marry within their own circle … the community had its own school, two pubs and a small general store.” It was noticed, too, that the Chinese residents of Pennyfields married girls from Hoxton rather than those from Poplar. “Poplarites were against mixed marriages,” according to one observer in the 1930s. It might be surmised that since Hoxton is closer to the City, and to the rest of London, it has avoided that peculiar sense of territoriality or insularity.
When East Enders became more affluent, they moved out. The clerks of the nineteenth century, for example, took advantage of the burgeoning transport system to migrate into the more salubrious areas of Chingford or Forest Gate. The population of Middlesex grew 30.8 per cent in ten years; Wembley grew by 552 per cent and Harrow by 275 per cent. Only the poor remained in the old centres of the East End, their numbers increasing as their fate grew more desperate. This in turn established precisely the sense of separation and grievance which has not yet been dissipated.
The cost of labour, in human terms, was very high. The East End tended to wake up earlier than the rest of the city, and at dawn the area became a great plain of smoking chimneys. The factories kept on coming, in search of cheap labour, and by 1951 it contained almost 10 per cent of the city’s working population. In the early years of the twentieth century, Horace Thorogood came upon one East End “cottage” under a railway where he “found a family of six living in one upper room, the window of which had to be kept closed, otherwise sparks from the trains flew in and set light to the bedclothes.”
The effect of the Second World War surpassed those few disagreeable sparks, and great swathes of the East End were destroyed; approximately 19 per cent of the built areas of Stepney, Poplar and Bethnal Green were razed. Once more the East End was adversely affected by its industrial history; the German bombers sought out the ports, and the factory areas close to the Lea Valley, as well as using the inhabitants of the East End as an “example.” It suggests the importance of the East, in the whole process of the war, that the king and queen visited Poplar and Stepney immediately after the celebrations of VE Day in May 1945. It was, perhaps, one method of controlling or ascertaining the mood of a populace which since the nineteenth century had been considered mysterious.
Even as late as 1950 whole areas were still characterised only as “bomb-sites” where strange weeds grew and where children played. A temporary housing programme authorised the construction of Nissen huts and prefabricated single-storey dwellings, but many of these prefabs were still in use more than twenty years later. There were other schemes to house the residents of the East End, not least the “Greater London Plan” of Professor Abercrombie who wished to relocate many city dwellers in satellite towns beyond the newly established Green Belt. The proposal was to disperse a large number of residents from Hackney and Stepney and Bethnal Green, yet the whole history of London suggests that such exercises in civic engineering are only partially successful. An equivalent emphasis was placed on the rebuilding and replanning of the devastated East, as if its character might be thoroughly changed. But it is impossible to destroy three hundred years of human settlement.
For all the redevelopments of the East End in the 1950s and 1960s, you had only to turn a corner to encounter a row of terraced housing erected in the 1880s or the 1890s; there were still Georgian houses, as well as laid-out “estates” from the 1920s and the 1930s. The postwar East End was a palimpsest of its past. For those who cared to look for such things, there were the dark canals and the gasworks, old pathways and rusting bridges, all with the exhalation of forgetfulness and decay; there were patches of waste ground covered with weeds and litter, as well as deserted factories and steps seeming to lead nowhere. The old streets of tiny yellow-brick houses were still to be found, with their characteristic pattern of a small front parlour and a passage leading past it from the street door straight into the kitchen, which looked out upon a small yard; two small bedrooms above, and a cellar beneath. Along the Barking Road were scores of side-streets—Ladysmith Avenue, Kimberley Avenue, Mafeking Avenue, Macaulay Road, Thackeray Road and Dickens Road form one sequence—in which row upon row of suburban villas, albeit one grade higher than the terraces of Bethnal Green or Whitechapel, effortlessly retained into the 1960s the atmosphere of the late nineteenth century.
The borough of Hackney epitomises sprawl and heterogeneity. One account, evocatively titled A Journey Through Ruins: The Last Days of London, published in 1991, took Dalston Lane as its centre of enquiry; here the author, Patrick Wright, discovered “a street corner of forgotten municipal services” as a token of civic neglect. Yet its old energies remain, and “Dalston Lane is a jumble of residential, commercial and industrial activities” with factories, clothiers, shops and small businesses.
One of the most surprising aspects of the contemporary East End is the extent to which it has maintained its economic life in the equivalent of the nineteenth-century small workshop; a number of the main thoroughfares, from the Hackney Road to the Roman Road and Hoxton Street, are populated by store-front businesses ranging from television repairers to newsagents, upholsterers to fruiterers, cabinet-makers to money-exchangers. In the East, where historically land and property have been less valuable than in the West, the relics of lost decades linger and are commonly allowed to decay.
There are curious regions of the East End where other continuities may be glimpsed. In Walthamstow, just beyond the High Street to the east, some spectral image or atmosphere of the countryside suddenly pervades Church Hill; this is indeed a peculiar sensation since all the streets close to it, including the High Street, Markhouse Road and Coppermill Road, embody the characteristic patterns of the East End suburbs. Nevertheless the old presence of a once rural neighbourhood seems to issue from the territory itself. Many areas in that sense preserve their identity. There is a harshness about Barking, for example, which makes it dissimilar from Walthamstow; here a native population seems to have maintained its presence, with a kind of bleakness or hardness of attitude. The survival of part of the ancient abbey in no way diminishes that atmosphere, which is powerfully sustained by the presence of the old creek from which the majority of the population once earned their living. It remains a strangely isolated or self-communing neighbourhood, where the London accent seems peculiarly thick. In Pennyfields, where the Malays and Chinese dwelled more than a century before, there is now a large population of Vietnamese. Second-hand pornography is sold in Sclater Street, Shoreditch, in what has always been a red-light district. The market of Green Street, in East Ham, recalls the energy and spirit of medieval London itself. In fact the ancient mercantile life of the city has been reawakened (if indeed it ever really slept) in areas as diverse as West Ham and Stoke Newington, Spitalfields and Leytonstone.
A typical journey around an East End neighbourhood will disclose one or two Georgian houses with perhaps some large mid-Victorian establishments, now turned into council offices or social security centres; there will be remnants of late nineteenth-century housing together with council housing of the 1920s and 1930s; pubs and betting offices, together with the ubiquitous small general store and newsagent; mini-cab offices, as well as shops specialising in long-distance telephone calls to Africa or India; a variety of council blocks, the oldest estates alongside low-rise estates of the 1980s and the nineteen-storey tower blocks of the same period. There will be an open space, or a park. In some parts of the East, the arches beneath the innumerable railway bridges will be used for car-maintenance or for storage.
Yet there have of course been changes. Poplar High Street was a crowded thoroughfare, with a plethora of shops and stalls and grimy buildings on either side; now it is an open street bordered by five-storey council-house estates, pubs and shops of yellow brick. The sound of people thronging, buying and selling has now been replaced by the intermittent noise of traffic. Much of the East End has followed that example. Where there was once a collection of shops and houses in a variety of styles, there will now be a “block” of uniform texture and dimensions; as a substitute for rows upon rows of terraced houses, there are major roads. The altered neighbourhoods seem somehow lighter, perhaps because they have lost touch with their history. At the extreme western end of Poplar High Street, just beyond Pennyfields, Joseph Nightingale’s coffee rooms, with signs for steak and kidney or liver and bacon, used to adjoin the horseflesh shop of James McEwen which in turn was next to George Ablard the hairdresser; the buildings had different frontages and were of varying height. In recent years that corner has been taken up by three-storey red-brick council dwellings and a small thoroughfare, Saltwell Street, runs by it. The opium quarter of Limehouse is now represented by a Chinese take-away. Here was once a street known as Bickmore Street and an extant photograph, taken in 1890, shows crowds of children posed outside a number of bow-windowed shopfronts; in its place today stands part of a recreation ground.
It might be concluded that the clutter and clatter of life have gone from these areas, even if they exist elsewhere in the East End. It could also be suggested that the rebuilt or renovated neighbourhoods resemble those within other areas of London; the council estates of Poplar, for example, are not so very different from those of Southall or Greenford. So the aspiration towards civic contentment has led to a diminution of local identity. The greatest contrast of all, evinced in photographs taken from 1890 to 1990, lies in the diminution of people in the streets. The life of the East End has gone within. Whether the telephone or television has effected this change is not the question; the salient fact remains that the human life of the streets has greatly diminished in exuberance and in intensity. Yet it is important not to sentimentalise this transition. If the East seems a more denuded place, it is also a less impoverished one; if it is more remote, or less human, it is also healthier. No one would willingly exchange a council flat for a tenement slum, even if the slums were filled with a communal spirit. You cannot go back.