Tag Archives: East End

Ratcliffe as was (in the eyes of Walter Besant)

I work now in Ratcliffe, the hamlet that has disappeared really…sitting between Limehouse and Shadwell it was bombed heavily in the war, and then the building of Commercial Street and the Rotherhithe Tunnel, along with the new railway line and its thick arches destroyed most of the rest. I work now in the remains of an old mansion belonging to a sugar merchant, on the site where the church and school once stood before their remnants were torn down. There is not much else left.

It’s very different now, so it’s fascinating to read old descriptions of what was once there. These are from Walter Besant’s East London. I don’t much care for his view of the working  (or even lower) classes, but these are fascinating as glimpses of this part of the East End (and a bit of casual racism really…though perhaps more directed at sailors in general?):

The Church of St. George’s-in-the-East stands…beside the once infamous street called the Ratcliffe Highway….Portugal Jack and Italy Jack and Lascar Jack have always been very handy with their knives, while no one interfered and the police could only walk about in little companies of three and four. Within these houses, these windows, these doors, their fronts stained and discolored like a drunkard’s face, there lay men stark and dead… (72)

More on Ratcliffe:

It consists of mean and dirty streets–there is not a single street which is not mean and dirty; none of the houses are old; none are picturesque in the least; they are rickety, dirty, shabby, without one redeeming feature; there is a church but it is not stately…it is unlovely; there are “stairs” to the river and that are rickety, there are warehouses which contain nothing and are tumbling down; there are public houses which do not pretend to be bright and attractive–low-browed, dirty dens, which reek of bad beer and bad gin. Yet the place, when you linger in it and talk about it to the clergy and the ladies who work for it, it is full of interest. For it is a quarter entirely occupied by the hand-to-mouth laborer; the people live in tenements; it is thought luxury to have two rooms; there are eight thousand of them, three quarters being Irish; in the whole parish there is not a single person of what we call respectability, except two or three clergymen and half a dozen ladies; there are no good shops, there are no doctors or lawyers, there is not even a news vender, for nobody in Ratcliffe reads a newspaper. But the place swarms with humanity; the children play by thousands in the gutters; and on the door-steps the wives and mothers sit all day long and in all weathers, carrying on a perpetual parliament of grievance. (81-82)

Scan 23

There is still a Ratcliffe-Cross Street but it ends at Cable Street rather than stretching down to the river. It’s almost hard to believe now that enough people lived here to muster a side in the massive fights between Cable Street and Brook St residents — a street that used to be the center and heart of Ratcliffe and is no longer even on the map.

There is also a mention of the old heritage of the Dissenters in Ratcliffe in the physical form of Medland Hall, formerly a Dissenting Chapel and become what Besant called a free lodging house on the riverside at Ratcliffe. To be explored in a future post…


Morrison’s Child of the Jago

I am not sure why I loved Child of the Jago so much more than Tales of Mean Streets. That had artistry and skill and eschewed the spectacular and violent — I was worried that this novel focusing on the violence of the true slums (actually a rarity in East London contrary to popular legend) would edge us more into sensationalist territory which rarely fails to piss me off (especially after reading Burke). But it didn’t. A Child of the Jago

The novel itself works well, almost proto-noir of the kind with a heart like Crumley or Chandler. It is based on intensive research — while Morrison came from the working-class East End, it was very different from the streets and courts of the Old Nichol described here under a different name. He turned to Father Jay Sturt, who had established a parish there and figures large in the narrative (and some of his paternalism got a little annoying to be honest). Sturt himself had written about the place in Life in Darkest London (1881), The Social Problem and Its Solution (1893), and A Story of Shoreditch (1896). Hard to find, sadly. He helped Morrison meet the residents, and he visited homes, drank in pubs, listened to stories, learned to make match matchboxes, Morrison invited people to his home in Loughton and made recordings of how they spoke (at least I think I read that right — it is just possible given the date, so are those lying around somewhere? Can you imagine the treasure that would be?). Morrison himself notes that he set ‘traps’ of particularly bad incidents that he thought reviewers would call out as impossible — and made sure all of them were things that he could document actually happened.

jagoA square of two hundred and fifty yards or less–that was all there was of the Jago. But in that square the human population swarmed in thousands. Old Jago Street, New Jago Street, Half Jago street lay parallel, east and west: Jago Row at one end and Edge Lane at the other lay parallel also, stretching north and south, foul ways all. What was too vile for Kate Street, Seven Dials and Ratcliff Highway in its worst day, what was too useless, incapable and corrupt–all that teemed in the Old Jago. (45)

And he gives us a map! Along with descriptions of this place, you can only be glad it was torn down to become the London County Council’s Boundary Street Scheme:

Front doors were merely used as firewood in the Old Jago, and most had been burnt there many years ago. If perchance one could have been found still on its hinges, it stood ever open and probably would not shut. Thus at night the Jago doorways were a row of black holes, foul and forbidding.

Dicky Perrott entered his hole with caution, for anywhere in the passage and on the stairs, somebody might be lying drunk against whom it would be unsafe to stumble. (48)

It’s treads are missing, the rails gone from the sides, the interior cold and damp, grim and soul destroying. Morrison describes a world run by two families, the Ranns and the Learys, where no one is in work, where women pick up wealthy drunks and bring them home to the ‘cosh’ from their husband. Everyone else lives on various levels of hustle. At the top — the high mobsmen. There is much left unsaid, but a surprising amount actually said. You navigate this place alongside a tiny little boy named Dicky Perrot who questions none of it, dreams only of a piece of cake and knows well that to get it he must steal it. I was snared by this longing because of my own immense love of cake. I remember a time when I too wanted nothing more in the world than a piece of cake though I know it can’t compare. I have eaten today, and well. I ate yesterday and the day before. I can buy cake whenever I want. I am blessed.

As if the cake weren’t enough, when in trouble Dicky pours his troubles into the ears of Jerry Gullen’s donkey, his beloved Canary. He can’t trust anyone else with pain and tears and weakness. That too is something I know, though I know it can’t compare. I was never beaten by my father. I had places to be alone and cry.

So you cheer him on through his life of crime, celebrate his exploits, mourn his shreds of innocence and exploitation by the horrible Mr Weech, who later destroys any chance of honest work. You feel superior when the good Father has no idea at all what is going on and is confirmed in his prejudices. I like that this book takes him down a bit.  Too quickly you jump ahead in time and it ceases to be quite as good a story, but still an important one. It has memorable fight scenes of all descriptions and more evil and poverty and death and despair and occasional kindnesses than you could ever ask for.

All that, and in addition he makes fun of liberals and ‘missionaries’ who come slumming down to the East End:

Other young men, more fortunately circumstanced, with the educational varnish fresh and raw upon them, came from afar, equipped with a foreign mode of thought and a foreign ignorance of the world and the proportions of things, as Missionaries. Not without some anxiety to their parents, they plunged into the perilous depths of the East End , to struggle–for a fortnight–with its suffering and its brutishness. So they went among the tradesmen’s sons and the shopmen, who endured them as they endured the nominal subscription; and they came away with a certain relief, and with some misgiving as to what impression they had made, and what they had done to make it. But is was with knowledge and authority that they went back among tose who had doubted their personal safety in the dark region. The East End, they reported, was nothing like what it was said to be. you could see much worse places up West. The people were quite a decent sort, in their way: shocking Bounders, of course, but quite clean and quiet, and very comfortably dressed, with ties and collars and watches. (54)

A fortnight. Ha. I am only sad this shit still happens all the time, but people call it something else and go to Guatemala or Burkina Faso instead. There is none of that attitude here, which is why it is so good, and why it rings true the way many another story does not. I can’t really understand why Morrison has not won wider acclaim, perhaps I’ll read some London and refresh my memory as to whether this really is so much better. Because I think it probably is.


Olympic Park Apocalypse

Stratford station spits you out, once you find how you get out, into the mall. You strive to get out of that too. To find grass.
You are ordered to be in charge. You do not look like any of the people inhabiting these artistic depictions of their ideal person.

Olympic Park, Stratford

You find a theme park after the plague has destroyed humanity.

Olympic Park, Stratford

The architecture of overpriced (at any price) ‘luxury’ feels as apocalyptic, though this one is vaguely authochthonous.

Olympic Park, Stratford

You feel unreal. A two-dimensional drawing in architectural renderings. It is not pleasant.

Olympic Park, Stratford

Architectural renderings, however, would hold more life than the real Olympic Park on a warm and sunny bank holiday in Spring.

Olympic Park, Stratford

Olympic Park, Stratford

You cannot slide down this monumental absurdity charging extortionately for access to its top. Ah, public art.

I came here seeking public space. So what did work?

The cafe far away down the other side of the stadium. Made of containers (which I do quite love and have written about before), containing potential art and potential performance space — yet another of those pianos you can just walk up to and play, but these facilitate performance rather than opportunities for learning and practice which I might prefer seeing given how few kids have access to a piano at home.

No one was playing the piano, no one was in these ‘art’ spaces.

Olympic Park, Stratford

The bike shop seemed to be doing well however.

Olympic Park, Stratford

It was decently busy, but not what I expected for this kind of day. You have to search it out, if I hadn’t known it was there and wanted to visit, I don’t think we ever would have made it this far. The food and coffee were good, the cake quite nice, the feel of it comfortable if small. What I loved most was the space round the back, raised beds full of plants, the feeling of being in a garden and a little piece of breathing green in the middle of the city:

Olympic Park, Stratford

Olympic Park, Stratford

I loved these places for sitting and eating — the railroad ties were quite comfortable, the concrete somewhere to rest cups and plates and bags and books, also extra seating. I love good design.

Olympic Park, Stratford

After lunch we walked back, tried to get to the train station taking a direct route and avoiding the mall — it was not signed and it was not easy, at one point we realised we were on the wrong sidewalk curving down beneath the road we wished to travel and they didn’t bother creating a place where pedestrians could cross from one to the other. We followed two builders as they dodged round the car barriers and nimbly leaped the narrow depressing ditch full of rubbish between the two. Pedestrians enjoying a sunny day are not really the user group this park planned for somehow. Or else they decided all paths must go through the mall.

In no scenario there is the planner a winner.

This road was clearly not really meant for much pedestrian traffic, yet provided the best view of the owl-like aquatics centre and this look out into the wastelands of Stratford.


Olympic Park, Stratford

Olympic Park, Stratford

I rather liked the empty and open nature of it, but they could do so much more with this green space. Instead I imagine they will build more terrible buildings.

I thought I liked this bridge once, but from this view it felt uncomfortably like watching ants…

Olympic Park, Stratford

All in all this entire space makes you feel small, two-dimensional, shallow. I am not surprised it sat almost empty for the most part. Where they have done well is along the canal banks, which were beautiful and where possible it did invite people to sit and enjoy…though mostly on the grass. There were also some fabulous large wooden seats big enough to stretch out your legs and sit two to a seat. But not enough. Some of these small details were delightful, but not enough to make this space work as somewhere you would much like to just be.


St Anne’s, Limehouse

You can see the tower of St Anne’s, Limehouse from afar — it was built to be seen from the Thames with its great clock, as shown in Walter Besant’s East End:

St Anne's, Limehouse

but now you mostly see it as a wayfarer along the DLR:

St Anne's, Limehouse

Me, working here now, walking these streets to know them, I have seen it from many other angles because I know to look, always it comes into view between buildings. Here looking to the north from Ropemaker’s Fields alongside the basin, a rare open view:

St Anne's, Limehouse

Here looking to the west:

St Anne's, Limehouse

But reading the writings of its former Rector in Limehouse Through Five Centuries, it was extraordinary to see how it once stood tall above everything:


It is this grandeur that it has lost, that makes more sense of its occult status granted it by Iain Sinclair in Lud Heat:

The old maps present a skyline dominated by church towers; those horizons were differently punctured, so that the subservience of the grounded eye, and the division of the city by parish, was not disguised. Moving now on an eastern arc the churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor soon invade the consciousness, the charting instinct. Eight churches give us the enclosure, the shape of the fear; – built for early century optimism, erected over a fen of undisclosed horrors, white stones laid upon the mud and dust. In this air certain hungers were activated that have yet to be pacified; no turning back, as Yeats claims: “the stones once set up traffic with the enemy.”

In turn Peter Ackroyd used this as his inspiration for Hawksmoor, possibly my favourite of his books:

I make no Mencion that in each of my Churches I put a Signe so that he who sees the Fabrick may see also the Shaddowe of the Reality of which it is the Pattern or Figure. Thus, in the church of Lime-house, the nineteen Pillars in the Aisles will represent the Names of Baal-Berith, the seven Pillars of the Chappell will signify the Chapters of his Covenant. All those who wish to know more of this may take up Clavis Salomonis… (45)

Willing as I am to step into a world of dark imagination, St Anne’s eclipses these words really. I have been inside after an interview with the Rector, explored the wonderful crypt and its treasures. I love this church:

St Anne's, Limehouse

I find the tower most beautiful from below, with angles and corners and symmetry outlined against sky:

St Anne's, Limehouse

Most of all I think, I love the approach from Newell Street, when you feel you have truly escaped into the past. These are the seventeen steps the old Rector thought would discourage those in shabby dress, but I find them lovely.

St Anne's, Limehouse

The beautiful grounds stand as a oasis along Commercial Road, along with the pyramid of moss green, the center of Ackroyd and Sinclairs occult murmurings:

St Anne's, Limehouse

St Anne's, Limehouse

St Anne's, Limehouse

Rumours say it was meant to sit on one of St Anne’s corners, one of four pyramids to have been crafted and placed there. There is no way now that you can see the church as a whole as in this print:

St Anne's, Limehouse

Though perhaps it was never properly seen like this at all beyond the artists’s imagination. Nowadays, with Canary Wharf just along down the road, I have to really stretch to see this as a corner of evil, feel that perhaps the only ‘horrors’ were the lives of the exploited working classes. It now stands as escape, as retreat — perhaps more seductive now than ever.

St Anne's, Limehouse

St Anne's, Limehouse

Most of the gravestones have been picked up, moved to skirt the edges and surround the living with memories of the dead to make of this an open green space of the kind that now fill London. And London is most grateful for them in Fall.

St Anne's, Limehouse

St Anne's, Limehouse

And then again in Spring, when they fill with flowers:

Snowdrops, St Anne's


Tales of Mean Streets

Tales of Mean StreetsTales of Mean Streets  (1894) describes the contents exactly — the meanness not only of city and streets but also of characters and the poverty that confines them. These, I think, are stories written by a man who escaped such poverty and looks back on it only with relief that he managed to get out, and perhaps with a fear of falling back that erases generosity. There is none of the lurid and titillating violence and detail of Thomas Burke, nor yet any of the humour, pride and everyday mutual support seen in W. Pett Ridge. Just poverty, meanness, narrowness and desperation. In such depths of poverty these things exist, of course, in abundance. I hate when they are not balanced by the small things that still make lives bearable, humour above all, but I know that fear of poverty not just lying behind you but also lying in ahead and how it can shape your view of the world. These are tales of the working class by one of their own like those of Pett Ridge, and on the same subjects from Edwin Pugh, Somerset Maugham (whose work mostly infuriated me), and Richard Whiteing. All of whom together came to be seen as a new school of English fiction as stated by the introduction on Morrison’s life and work. I found another list of Victorian ‘slum fiction‘, which includes all of these titles and many more.

For a taste of daily life, a sense of the streets, Tales of Mean Streets is very good. The stories, too, are beautifully crafted. Always a hidden ugly little twist to make them stand out as far more than just descriptions of everyday life and struggle for survival. This is not surprising given the company Arthur Morrison kept — though that company was surprising. He worked for W.E. Henley, editor of the National Observer… who was on the crack team of writers forming his team? In addition to Morrison there was Rudyard Kipling, J.M. Barrie, Thomas Hardy, Charles Whibley, H.G. Wells, W.B. Yeats and H.D. Lowry.I can’t imagine them all just sitting in the pub after work, but I am enjoying the effort.

Morrison worked under Walter Besant on the newspaper at the People’s Palace in Mile End, which endears him to me immensely. He left to become a writer and journalist, wrote detective tales starring Martin Hewitt also published some tales of the supernatural in Cunning Murrrell (1900), and his more famous works, A Child of the Jago (1896), To London Town (1899), and Hole in the Wall (1902).

A street

This street is in the East End. 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? It is down through Cornhill and out beyond Leadenhall Street and Aldgate Pump, one will say: a shocking place, where he once went with a curate; an evil plexus of slums that hide human creeping things; where filthy men and women live on penn’orths of gin, where collars and clean shirts are decencies unknown, where every citizen wears a black eye, and none ever combs his hair. The East End is a place, says another, which is given over to the Unemployed. And the Unemployed is a race who token is a clay pipe, and whose enemy is soap: now and again it migrates bodily to Hyde Park with banners, and furnishes adjacent police courts with disorderly drunks. Still another knows the East End only as the place whence begging letters come; there are coal and blanket funds there, all perennially insolvent, and everybody always wants a day in the country (19).

Of this street there are about one hundred and fifty yards–on the same pattern all. It is not pretty to look at. A dingy little brick house house twenty feet high, with three square holes to carry the windows, and an oblong hole to carry the door, is not a pleasing object; and each side of this street is formed by two or three score of such houses in a row, with one front wall in common. And the effect is as of stables (20).

There follows a categorisation of who lives on such a street, not noisy, loud troublemakers marching to Hyde Park or factory girls living a little further out of the city, instead on this street are the people too proud to ask for charity, the men work in the docks or the gasworks, maybe the shipbuilding yards. Two families live in each house, possibly a lodger.

In a time before clocks and alarms for the common man, there is this (reminds me of EP Thompson writing about clocks and time):

Every morning at half-past five there is a curious demonstration. The street resounds with thunderous knockings, repeated on door after door, and acknowledged ever by a muffled shout from within. These signals are the work of the night-watchman or the early policeman or both… (21)

And then a description of the mayhem, the waves of male workers, school children, children carrying their fathers lunches down to the docks or gasworks, their return, the return of the men. Every day except Sunday.

Nobody laughs here–life is too serious a thing; nobody sings. There was once a woman who sang–a young wife from the country. But she bore children and her voice cracked. Then her man died, and she sang no more. (24)

And this:

Yet there are aspirations. There has lately come into the street a young man lodger who belongs to a Mutual Improvement Society. Membership in this society is regarded as a sort of learned degree, and at its meetings debates are held and papers smugly read by lamentably self-satisfied young men lodgers, whose only preparation for debating and writing is a fathomless ignorance. For ignorance is the inevitable portion of dwellers here: seeing nothing, reading nothing, and considering nothing.

Where in the East End lies this street? Everywhere. The hundred and fifty yards is only a link in a long and a mightily tangled chain–is only a turn in a tortuous maze. This street of the square holes is hundreds of miles long. That it is planned in short lengths is true, but there is no other way in the world that can more properly be called a single street, because of its dismal lack of accent, its sordid uniformity, its utter remoteness from delight. (28)

From this street all of the stories grow, as much as anything can grow in the environment so described. Everything stunted, petty, brutal mean. For many there is some compassion from the author — distinctly in contrast with lack of compassion and the hatred of anyone getting above themselves from the rest of the neighbourhood, which often hastens their brutal end.

The exception is the fallen woman — there are these terrible descriptions from a story of a streetcar to Bow Bridge (otherwise a fascinating little glimpse into early public transportation):

In the midst of the riot the decent woman sat silent and indifferent, her children on and about her knees. Further along, two women ate fish with their fingers and discoursed personalities in voices which ran strident through the uproar, as the odor of their snack asserted itself in the general fetor. And opposite the decent woman there sat a bonnetless drab, who said nothing, but looked at the decent woman’s children as a shoeless brat looks at the dolls in a toyshop window.

A man by the door vomited his liquor: whereat was more hilarity, and his neighbors, with many yaups, shoved further up the middle. But one of the little ones, standing before her mother, was pushed almost to falling; and the harlot, seeing her chance, snatched the child upon her knee. The child looked up, something in wonder, and smiled; and the woman leered as honestly as she might, saying a hoarse word or two. (62)

This is also noteworthy for use of one of my favourite words ‘stramash’, meaning fight. I always thought it was scottish, but perhaps was once as common down South?

‘The Red Cow Group’ describes an eager young anarchist (I am fairly certain police provocateur along the lines of The Secret Agent) willing to teach men how to make bombs and tell them where to put them but loathe to do anything himself —  he is demolished in the most satisfying way by a group of working class boozers.

There are the Nappers, who come into a little wealth and of course it goes to their heads and inspires a discourse on fashion and the East End’s class geographies:

Mrs. Napper went that very evening to the Grove at Stratford to buy silk and satin, green, red, and yellow–cutting her neighbors dead, right and left. And by the next morning tradesmen had sent circulars and samples of goods. Mrs. Napper was for taking a proper position in society, and a house in a fashionable part–Barking Road, for instance, or even East India Road, Poplar; but Bill would none of such foolishness. He wasn’t proud, and Canning Town was quite good enough for him. This much, though, he conceded: that the family should take a whole house of five rooms in the next street, instead of the two rooms and a cellule upstairs now rented (131).

There are stories that show the desperation of the great Dock Strike of 1889, the promise of boxing as one way of escape, the mix of the criminal and the decent, the explosiveness of violence and the pervasiveness of poverty. I wonder what it was exactly that brought Morrison back to to write these stories.


Limehouse Nights

Limehouse NightsThat I should find this so utterly vile surprised me, I’m not sure if the surprise came more for its intrinsic vileness or for my own reaction. As a lover of noir I’ve been trying to figure what separates this from the books I love because it is not its subjects or its violence, or the pulp aspect. It is partly the intensity of its racism; but at the same time I don’t believe writers should shrink from exposing that in all of its ugliness.

I realised it come down to the author’s stand. I realised what I love about noir is that the authors tend to write as though they share the same ground as their characters — and many of them do. They do not consider themselves above or below, but as capable of the evil as well as the vaguely heroic acts that may be committed in the face of shared cynicism. This makes glimpses of integrity brighter as the world grinds on and grinds down and they explore the dark places, but if there is any judgment it is hard earned on people’s actions, not skin colour or class position or an outdated set of morals.

This to me is noir at its best, the further a book departs from this, the less I like it. The constant treachery of women is, sadly, usually the biggest departure, but racism runs sexism a close second.

I wouldn’t call Limehouse Nights noir, it is a prurient telling of tales of exoticised others, an exercise in orientalism. The line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ seems clear, and they are there for our amusement even though it is written with a false jocularity that seemingly takes their side. It surprised me, published in 1916, that it should contain such open references to drug-use, rape, interracial sex, pimping, child kidnapping and rape. It physically sickened me that all of it should be so obviously written to titillate, the racial lines drawn only to make their transgression amongst the lowest and criminal classes more exciting. Soft violent porn for the white, middle-class lads at the expense of Limehouse’s population.

No wonder D.W. Griffiths of Birth of a Nation fame used a couple of these stories for his movie-making efforts (Broken Blossoms and Dream Streets).

I started reading it for its geography — misled terribly by the blurb which you can find at the end of this post — got through it a story at a time with distance in between, because I hate not finishing what I start and decided maybe I should try to understand a mentality that I won’t be coming back to.

It constantly refers to place, names streets like Pennyfields, Poplar High Street and Blackwall over and over again, it circles around the Blue Lantern Pub. Yet despite this attempt at ‘realism’, these places still remains the exoticised docks of  white imagination, and could be anywhere:

You know, perhaps, the East India Dock, which lies a little north of its big brother, the West India Dock: a place of savagely masculine character, evoking the brassy mood. By daytime a cold, nauseous light hangs about it; at night a devilish darkness settles upon it.

You know, perhaps, the fried-fish shops that punctuate every corner in the surrounding maze of streets, the “general” shops with their assorted rags, their broken iron, and their glum-faced basins of kitchen waste; and the lurid-seeming creatures that glide from nowhere into nothing–Arab, Lascar, Pacific Islander, Chinky, Hindoo, and so on, each carrying his own perfume. You know, too, the streets of plunging hoof and horn that cross and re-cross the waterways, the gaunt chimneys that stick their derisive tongues to the skies. You know the cobbly courts, the bestrewn alleys, through which at night gas-jets asthmatically splutter; and the mephitic glooms and silences of the dock-side. You know these things, and I need not attempt to illuminate them for you.
— The Father of Yoto

There are minds to which the repulsive–such as Poplar High Street–is supremely beautiful, and to whom anything frankly human is indelicate, if not ugly. You need, however, to be a futurist to discover ecstatic beauty in the torn wastes of tiles, the groupings of iron and stone, and the nightmare of chimney-stacks and gas-works.
–The Father of Yoto

For all that he names the streets, ultimately you have no sense of place, only the sex and violence that takes place there:

Hardly the place to which one would turn as to the city of his dreams; yet there are those who do. Hearts are broken by Blackwall Gardens. The pity and terror and wonder of first love burn in the blood and limbs of those who serve behind the counters of East India Dock Road or load up cargo boats at the landing-stages. Love-mad hands have buried knives in little white bosoms in Commercial Road, and songs are written by the moon across many a happy garret-window in Cable Street.
–The Cue

From Pennyfields he drifted over West India Dock Road, passed a house where a window seemed deliberately to wink at him, and so swung into that Causeway where the cold fatalism of the Orient meets the wistful dubiety of the West.
–Beryl, the Croucher and the Rest of England

Ah yes — where the cold fatalism of the Orient meets the wistful dubiety of the West. The people living in these generic dock streets are as typecast, as empty, as much evoked in our imaginations entirely for our amusement — this passage refers to a fourteen year old dance hall girl uncomfortably sexualised to the hilt:

From him she had inherited a love of all raw and simple things, all that was odorous of the flesh. She hated country solitudes, and she loved Poplar and the lights and the noise of people. She loved it for its blatant life. She loved the streets, the glamour, the diamond dusks, the dirt and the perfume…Every street was a sharp-flavoured adventure, and at night each had a little untranslatable message for her. Everywhere she built romances. She was a mandarin’s daughter in Pennyfields. She was a sailor’s wife in the Isle of Dogs. In the West India Dock Road she was a South Sea princess, decked with barbaric jewels and very terrible knives. She did not like western London: it wasn’t homey. She loved only the common joys of the flesh and the common joys of the heart; and these she found in Poplar.
–Gina of the Chinatown

She dies in childbirth at fifteen.

Not only are streets and people cut off (and happily so) from the rest of the city, but from the country and from nature itself, an island of unnatural connections and natural desires:

Beyond London, amid the spray of meadow and orchard, bird and bee were making carnival, but here one still gambled and waited to find a boat. Limehouse has no seasons. It has not even the divisions of day and night. Boats must sail at all hours at the will of the tide, and their swarthy crews are ever about. It has no means of marking the pomp of the year’s procession. Lusty spring may rustle in the hedgerows; golden-tasselled summer may move on the meadows. In Limehouse there are only more seamen or less seamen. Summer is a spell of stickiness, and winter a time of fog.
–The Paw

Over and over again it licks its lips at the thought of white women with Chinese and Indians and Africans — but mostly the Chinese because this is Chinatown after all. They are loose women because this class knows no better. He mocks their drudgery — more annoying because he has actually bothered to find out what it might consist of and this is one of the only places he describes it to the extent to which it is possible for him:

Pansy was in trouble, and wanted money, of which he had none, for he was a destitute Oriental. Often they had gone about together, and in his way he had loved her. The girls of this quarter have a penchant for coloured boys, based, perhaps, on the attraction of repulsion.

Pansy lived in Pekin Street. About her window the wires wove a network, and the beat of waters, as they slapped about the wharves, was day and night in her ears. At evenings there came to her the wail of the Pennyfields Orient, or the hysterical chortlings of an organ with music-hall ditties. She worked at Bennett’s Cocoa Rooms in East India Dock Road; and life for her, as for most of her class, was just a dark house in a dark street. From the morning’s flush to the subtle evening, she stood at steaming urns, breathing an air limp with the smell of food, and serving unhealthy eatables to cabmen, draymen, and, occasionally, a yellow or black or brown sailor.

She was not pretty. The curse of labour was on her face, and she carried no delicacies wherewith to veil her maidenhood. From dawn to dusk, from spring to spring, she had trodden the golden hours in this routine, and knew, yet scarcely felt, the slow sucking of her ripening powers. Twenty-one she was; yet life had never sung to her. Toil, and again toil, was all she knew–toil on a weakened body, improperly fed; for your work-girl of the East seldom knows how to nourish herself. Pansy lived, for the most part, on tea and sweets.
–Tai Fu and Pansy Greers

This gives too, one of his explanations for miscegenation I think — girls that can get no one else can, by virtue of their skin colour, snare a foreign sailor.

Written always from a comfortable point of superiority, Burke manages to deride many a remarkable achievement — in this case stripping everything away but the fact of a woman who speaks four languages to a greater or lesser extent, I wonder just how much in reality this interracial intercultural exchange took place? But this is not Burke’s point, instead these passages give you a sense of the slime crawling across his pages:

Poppy was fair in the eyes of a Chinaman; she was an anaemic slip of a girl, with coarse skin and mean mouth, a frightened manner and a defiant glance. She had scarce any friends, for she was known to be a copper’s nark; thus came the fear in her step and the challenge in her eyes. Often she had blown the gaff on the secret games of Chinatown, for she spoke Cantonese and a little Swahili and some Hindustani, and could rustle it with the best of them; and it was her skill and shrewdness in directing the law to useful enterprises, such as the raiding of wicked houses, that caused her to be known in all local stations and courts as the Chinese Poppy.

She lived in the tactfully narrow Poplar High Street, that curls its nasty length from Limehouse to Blackwall, and directly opposite her cottage was the loathly lodging of Sway Lim–one room, black and smelly with dirt–next the home of the sailors of Japan.

She was a bad girl, mean and treacherous; everybody knew that; but she was young and very pale; so that Sway Lim, wet-lipped, would gloat upon her from his window.
— The Sign of the Lamp

Of everything — and apparently people have some appreciation of his craft — I really liked only one sentence, and you cannot separate it from the vileness that comes before (or after):

And suddenly, on a bright Sunday, he lost her for all. She went from him to a yellow man in Pennyfields, leaving a derisive note of final farewell. The brutality of the blow got him like a knife on a wound. Something fouled within him, and for an hour or so he was stupid–a mere flabby Thing in a cotton suit.
–The Paw

Nor can he claim ignorance for the casual insulting racism of his language:

“Here–steady on, Chinky!” she cried, using the name which she knew would sting him to the soul. She was disconcerted and inclined to be cross, while half laughing. “Don’t take liberties, my son. Specially with me. You’re only a yellow rat, y’know.”
–The Cue

Nor can he be forgiven for the terrible end of the boy described below — betrayed by his own failings — and Burke’s inability to find a trace of empathy for his characters:

Now while the Captain remained drunk in his cabin, he kept with him for company the miserable, half-starved Chinky boy whom he had brought aboard. And it would make others sick if the full dark tale were told here of what the master of the Peacock did to that boy.
–The Bird

Nor does this phrase make any sense in describing that bright fourteen year old music hall singer that everyone loved until you start to vaguely think through the conflation of race and class and gender within others out there to amuse ‘us’:

She was as distinctive as a nigger in a snowstorm…
–Gina of the Chinatown

There is one curious tale that is also used to bring the aristocratic socialist and female reformer down a notch or two. A collection of  sentences from this story ‘The Kinght-Errant’:

Wherefore it was stupid, stupid, with that ostrich-like stupidity that distinguishes the descendants of noble families who have intermarried with their kind; I say it was stupid for Lady Dorothy Grandolin to choose this, of all places, for her first excursion into slum-land, in order to gather material for her great work: Why I am a Socialist: a Confession of Faith; Together with some Proposals for Ameliorating the Condition of the Very Poor; with Copious Appendices by the Fabian Society. Far better might she have fared in the Dials; in Lambeth; even in Hoxton. But no; it must be Limehouse–and at night. Really, one feels that she deserved all she got.

However, she was determined to do a book on the Very Poor; nothing would stop her. Her little soul blazed in a riot of fine fire for the cause. Yesterday, it was Auction; the day before it was Settlements; to-day, the Very Poor. And in papa’s drawing-room there was no doubt that the Very Poor was a toy to be played with very prettily; for it is the one success of these people that they can do things with an air.

For he was Ho Ling, fat and steamy; and he sidled to her out of the mist, threatening and shrinking, with that queer mixture of self-conceit and self-contempt which is the Chinese character…She had heard that the Chinese quarter offered splendid material for studies in squalor, as well as an atmosphere of the awful and romantic. Her first glances did not encourage her in this idea; for these streets and people are only awful and romantic to those who have awful and romantic minds. Lady Dorothy hadn’t. She had only awful manners.

She is robbed of her watch and a kiss by a pair of dim thieving brothers, one of whom falls in love with her and helps her escape by calling the cops on the other.

As this is a voyeuristic view of Chinatown, drugs are always part of the backdrop. This is from back in the day when cocaine was used medically — here poor little Gina is dying, and you couldn’t ask for a more cloying end:

“Mumdear… ask them for some more of that cocaine… cos… it… it hurts… so.”
–Gina of the Chinatown

It is opium that is used for pleasure, and Burke is clearly describing something he has seen (you are not sure about any of the rest):

Presently Lois swung herself from the lounge and began to “cook” for her boy. On a small table she spread the lay-out; lit the lamp; dug out the treacly hop from the toey and held it against the flame. It bubbled furiously, and the air was charged with a loathsome sweetness. Then, holding the bamboo pipe in one hand, she scraped the bowl with a yen-shi-gow, and kneaded the brown clot with the yen-hok. Slowly it changed colour as the poison gases escaped. Then she broke a piece in her finger, and dropped it into the bowl, and handed the stem to Batty. He puffed languorously, and thick blue smoke rolled from him.
–The Gorilla and the Girl

In this story she cooks it up in the Blue Lantern Pub for her boyfriend while her father looks on.

I’ll end with a passage that collects all of the ‘characters’ from these stories into the Blue Lantern:

All those who were well seen in Limehouse and Poplar were here, and the informed observer could recognise many memorable faces. Chuck Lightfoot and Battling Burrows were engaged in a comparatively peaceable game of fan-tan with Sway Lim and Quong Tart; at any rate the noise they were making could not have been heard beyond Custom House. Tai Ling and his Marigold were there, very merry, and Pansy Greers, with an escort from the Pool, attracted much attention in a dress which finished where it ought to have begun. Ding-Dong was there: Perce Sleep; Paris Pete; Polly the Pug; Jenny Jackson’s Provence Boys, so called because they frequented that café; the Chatwood Kid, from whom no safe could withhold its secrets; and, in fact, all the golden boys and naughty girls of the district were snatching their moment of solace. Old Foo Ah lolloped on a chair, slumbering in the heavy content of a kangaroo. That masculine lady, Tidal Basin Sal, sprawled on a shabby private-bar lounge with a little girl, whom she would alternately kiss and slap proprietorially. A nigger from the Polynesians made himself a nuisance to the air and the company; and on a table at the extreme end stood little Gina of the Chinatown, slightly drunk, and with clothing disarranged, singing that most thrilling and provocative of rag-times:

“You’re here and I’m here, So what do we care?”
–The Gorilla and the Girl

I believe that shall be the end of my forays into this kind of ‘literature’. But before I end, this is the blurb found on goodreads:

One of the most frankly and brutally realistic books that has appeared in our tongue in a long time. But Burke has cast a glamour over his pages that prevents his stories from being merely studies in the sordid and the morbid. Somehow he makes you feel that he has viewed life with pity and tenderness and loving comprehension.
— Bookman.

One of the worst blurbs I’ve read really, as though naming some streets were realism, or patting someone on the head for their appetites and watching with barely-if-at-all-repressed excitement at their descent into sexualised violence and death were tenderness and compassion.

thomas-burke-1-sizedAnd who was Thomas Burke? Someone cared enough to change wikipedia to reflect his complexities and his own falsified autobiographies, citing an article I shall have to go find (Witchard, Anne. “Thomas Burke, the ‘Laureate of Limehouse,”):

These romanticised tales of Burke’s early life were often accepted by the literary critics of the day and went largely unchallenged by his contemporaries. Although Burke’s later writing, including the book Son of London more accurately describes his youth in the suburbs, the majority of his autobiographies attest to his supposedly intimate knowledge of lower-class life.[15] These fabricated autobiographies enabled Burke to establish his authority as an expert on the Chinese in London, allowing him to create a persona that he used to market his fictional works on Limehouse. As Witchard notes, Burke, through his writing, positioned himself as a “seer” in an “occult process” of representing London’s sub-cultural ‘Others.’

I am rather fascinated at this mythological remaking of self and author, this forging of credentials. It is almost enough to make me want to read Son of London but life is short, and there are plenty of authors who have something worthwhile to say.


Poplar: From East India Dock Road to St Paul’s Way

Another walk through Poplar, away from the more historic High Street, beginning with East India Docks Rd and heading to St Paul’s Way. I love this village, suburb, piece of London though it is new to me. Turning right on Kerbey Street I passed the Salvation Army Hall (and the Salvation Army has been a fixture of East End life since it’s beginnings 150 years ago) and this pretty awesome ‘selfie post’:


The view to the south:


It saddens me, that everywhere Canary Wharf looms over you.

Makes me happy that there is still so much council housing, though how much is ‘genuinely affordable’ social housing I do not know. I still feel we know more now, can design better housing and community now, but I will defend this to the last until that commitment is made, is built.


Still, it is a relief to come to the open piece of green that is Bartlett Park after so much concrete — even though it is railed in — to find boys playing cricket and football fields and one last building left from earlier days covered over with vines (and seriously un-photogenic due to the street works taking place, so in possible violation of the dérive principle, it does not feature here).


But I wondered at the multi-storey towers, they appeared to be that cheap brand of luxury housing mushrooming along the rivers and canals so I couldn’t understand what they were doing there in all of their massive garishness and glass:


I shortly arrived here, and all of my wonderings were answered — I hadn’t realised I was approaching the Limehouse Cut. I get a little fucking angry, though, that these buildings should cut through and haughtily rise above our neighbourhoods, transforming the feel of the canals I love without providing the housing we so desperately need.


It is the shoddy arrogance of today’s wealth staring down in comfort, a sneer at inequality written across the horizon.

Despite this, the canal still has some of its old magic, in the form of old warehouses in brick and personal expression spray-painted across its walls:


Remnants of the past still linger on, making you positively nostalgic and I don’t want to be nostalgic. I want to look forward to our future and a better world, rather than back.


In spite of everything, a vibrant diversity still clings on to life here.


I got nostalgic again leaving this old brick for this shiny new school:


Researching its shininess further I found this from their website:

A major new programme to help children learn enterprise and employability skills will be launched at St Paul’s Way Trust School in January 2015.

A very generous grant from J P Morgan to the school, in association with St Paul’s Way Community Interest Company, will support students to develop their own business ideas, and turn their plans into real community enterprises. The grant will also support the school to develop a more comprehensive work experience programme, meaning that every student will have opportunities to learn about work which is tailored to their hopes for the future.

It chills me that they are offering a life geared towards work to our children, rather than inspiration and creativity to encourage a curiosity about our world and the knowledge of how to explore it in ways unlimited by the need to profit.


Obviously Canary Wharf looms over people’s lives in more ways than one.


Their estates that are being decanted.


Their churches and community centres:


I had begun this walk with the intention of finding Paper & Cup‘s St Paul’s Way Centre cafe, but realised I didn’t have time to stop, so I completed the loop back down to the Westferry DLR. It was nice to see Mile End Park, but it lies on the other side of the massive Burdett Road full of traffic and fumes, scary to cross.

I walked back down it, but didn’t have much heart for pictures. Only this little park full of crocuses and snowdrops and a lost section of row housing that reminds you that you are human:


Soon there will be daffodils.


Arriving in Poplar

I’m slowly getting to know Poplar. I love the fact that Tower Hamlets captures in its name the way it is a burrough of small villages, but even so it surprises you just how different each one feels. This despite the fact that they now run together, with no separation in the urban fabric, unless you perhaps count the enormous roads that break up the east end cruelly with snarling lines of traffic. Planners always put roads, interchanges, major arteries right down through the poorer neighbourhoods and here you can only imagine what used to be when you come across the small pockets of emptiness dead-ending into these thoroughfares.

But back to Poplar…exiting the DLR you can see The City in the distance, the original centre of banking might:


But its new cluster at Canary Wharf looms high above you to your left


Part of me responds to this landscape — my love of trains and altitude and contrasts between new buildings and old are all at work here. But it is only this little section that I find appealing, the rest is an uninspired towering of metal and glass with no distinction. I was once, after a long day spent on coaches and trains that were all severely delayed, trapped in Canary Wharf in the rain. If you don’t know it, it is almost impossible to escape on foot, and one of the most alienating landscapes I could imagine. But I will look at that later.


I failed to take a picture of the community centre and football fields — only later in the day did I learn how hard the community had to fight to get them and keep them. There is a long passage bringing you to Poplar High Street, full of the young students from Tower Hamlets College. I really like this high street:


But the church — St Matthias Old Church, was an even more wonderful surprise. You can see its spire from all of Poplar, walking down the high street you come to a turn off that carries you to the church itself, removes you from the city


It is beautiful here, you enter this green space and automatically take a great breath, relax your shoulders, smile:


Looking up the church itself I found its lovely website with a long and detailed history, just an excerpt:

St Matthias, Poplar is one of London’s most surprising buildings. Externally it is Victorian, but inside its stone-clad walls is a rare example of a mid-seventeeth century classical church which has survived in surprisingly unaltered form. It is the oldest building in Docklands.

Originally known as Poplar Chapel, it had two purposes: it served as a chapel for the inhabitants of the hamlets of Poplar and Blackwall, who had previously been obliged to travel several miles to the overcrowded parish church of St Dunstan’s, Stepney, and desired a more local place of worship; secondly, it served as the chapel for the East India Company, which had an almshouse and a dockyard hard by. It is their coat of arms that is carved upon the ceiling boss inside the church, and their history that is central to the story of the Poplar Chapel.


I love old churchyards, and it is nice that this one retains its gravestones where they lie. I found the one above curious, because it is all women, a grandmother and two little girls and no clear relationship between the first two and the last. There is a story here, of women’s lives in the mid 1800s, but no other hints.

More of the church, I may hate the East India Company, but I love what they have built:



Turning away from the church, however, you understand the psychological impact of Canary Wharf as it stares down at Poplar, inescapable in its looming over a landscape both more human and more natural.


I was more than happy to find that this was actually my destination, the church now known as St Matthias Community Centre, to talk to Sister Christine Frost who is even more of a treasure to Poplar than this place. She is part of South Poplar and Limehouse Action for Secure Housing (SPLASH) and knows everything there is to know, I think, about Poplar and the challenges it is facing.

Leaving St Matthias after a lovely discussion of struggle and future possibilities I went for a bit of a wander — after reading Ann Stafford’s book on the dock strike I wanted to find Shirbutt Street where Will Crooks was born. It was just around the corner, the new estate bearing his name sitting right on Poplar High Street:


Community garden plots fill much of the space around the estate’s edges, I cannot tell you how happy they made me…


On Will Crooks, a pivotal figure in the docker’s strike of 1889, and his talks at the gates of the East India Company:

He did not only talk about their grievances–a subject of which they never tired–he started them thinking about all the good things that they wanted, public libraries, technical institutes, even a tunnel under the Thames…Crooks’ College, Poplar people called these meetings, and Crooks’ College went on Sunday after Sunday, year after year, almost without interruption, even when Will was elected to the London County Council, served on the Board of Guardians, became Mayor of Poplar, and in 1903 was returned to Parliament as Labour M.P. for Woolwich (47-48).



Hale street remembers another key radical figure from Poplar, George Lansbury:


More about him in later posts, but I love this mural.


And a little further down you get a full sense of St Matthias and the open space here — and did I mention the public bowling green on the corner? I don’t think I did, but it made me happy too.


It’s a good comparison to this, the oldest drawing of the church


I continued down to East India Dock Road


To find the Queen Victoria’s Seamen’s Rest, another place I had heard a great deal about:


It’s history:

QVSR started life as the Seamen’s Mission of the Methodist Church in 1843. Known originally as the Wesleyan Seamen’s Mission, the aim was to minister to the spiritual needs and promote the social and morale welfare of seafarers and their families in the vicinity of the Port of London.

Over time a need arose for a meeting place of some kind in the new sailor town that had sprung up at Poplar. Right opposite the ‘seamen’s entrance’ of the local Board of Trade Office on the East India Dock Road in Jeremiah Street stood a small public house called The Magnet. In 1887, the license of The Magnet was withdrawn, providing the Mission an opportunity to rent the public house and it was transformed into a Seamen’s Rest.

What it once looked like:

And what it looks like now, expanded far beyond it’s humble beginnings though I am so glad they’ve kept the original lovely facade:


Continuing West you come to the Manor Arms:


I am almost certain that this was mentioned as one of the pubs where striking dockers were able to get breakfast, the Irish woman who owned it supporting the strike.

I turned left here, with only time for a quick circle. Again you feel Canary Wharf looking over you, on the right is a Catholic school dwarfed by corporate wealth (they have managed to make even the Catholic church look small).



Ann Stafford: A Match to Fire the Thames

In those last years of the 1800s it really did seem as if the Thames might catch fire. Ann Stafford, author of this book, wouldn’t have been entirely pleased perhaps, she consistently supports the cautious Ben Tillett as against the socialist dream of general strike and revolution. But this is a very readable story of the series of labour agitations (match girls, gasworkers and finally the dockers’ strike) that weaves together reporting from the time and is written much in the same style.

A telling, if poetic, sentence that shows Stafford’s distance from the class she is describing:

The Cholera epidemic of 1866 had startled West London into a shuddering awareness of her insanitary neighbour, East London, which coiled around her flank with its mass of ill-housed, half-starving people, breeding pestilence, many of them vicious and criminal, all dangerous, surely, to society (31).

There are lots of fascinating asides that I have made fairly listy for better or for worse…but it is similar in a way to the structure of the book, that flits around backgrounds before entering into the narrative of the strike itself. It remembers pubs that are no more, like the Blue Posts, which had ‘long been a favourite meeting places of the stevedores. They were welcome: big, well-muscled men with plenty of money to spend, you wouldn’t catch them sitting down four to a pint pot, the way the underpaid and undernourished dockers did’ (17).

Four to a pint pot, and their missus starving no doubt.

Here is more on the history of the Blue Posts:

In the eighteenth century the Blue Posts Tavern stood on the south side of Limehouse Causeway at its junction with Pennyfields and Back Lane. Soon after the West India Dock Road had been formed the establishment moved to a new building on the north-east side of that road, south of Back Lane. (fn. 6) The Blue Posts public house (No. 73) was a three-storey brick building of three bays. It was extended to the south-east (No. 75) in 1876 with a two-storey block giving a long street frontage. The Blue Posts, with the Railway Tavern and Jamaica Tavern, was well placed to serve labourers and others passing to and from the West India Docks. Charles W. Brown, son of the famous Charlie Brown (see below), displayed half of his father’s curio collection at the Blue Posts in the 1930s.

The Wade’s Arms is the pub most central to this story, however, at 15 Jeremiah Street, E14 (now partly Rigden Street), but it was demolished in 1944.

Almost every physical remnant of this period of labour history is gone.

Stafford doesn’t care about or question the thread of Empire that runs through this, the efforts to claim the rewards of the conquerors for the working men of the conquering race. There is, to me, a fairly incredible comparison between the dockers fighting for wages and the British soldiers under siege at Lucknow during the Indian uprising of 1857, John Burns in a rousing speech intertwined Empire with the struggle of labour:

I tell you, lads, we will no more surrender than the men in Lucknow surrendered. Now these men fought for a glory which was effervescent and ephemeral; but they nobly did their duty and stood up against a storm of shot and shell, disease and want, and all the miseries of that long siege. You, men, have to hold another citadel today. We are defending our Lucknow–the Lucknow of Labour. Too long have you been cooped up in the prison houses of poverty, suffering, privation and disease, and all the hardships of your lot. But courage! Relief is at hand. As our garrison in Lucknow, straining their eyes towards the horizon, saw the silver sheen of the bayonets of the relieving army, so from this parapet, I too see on the horizon a silver gleam–not the gleam of bayonets to be imbrued in the blood of a brother, but the silver sheen of the full round orb of the docker’s tanner. (quoted p 27)

And then there is this:

“I believe,” said Will Thorne, “that nowhere in the world have white men had to endure such terrible conditions as those under which the dockers work.” (40)

White men were not the only men to work the docks, but others don’t enter this story at all except in a single cringeworthy reference to all men pulling together in the very first pages. But there is a over and over that strong sense that dock work was the lowest possible work of all, these workers the lowest of all workers: “To have worked at the docks is sufficient to damn a man for any other work,” remarked Beatrice Webb (36). Margaret Harkness in her fictional account of the fall of a young man from the country, says the same — there is little to no hope of being fit for anything else after working there with its brutal conditions and starvation wages and odd hours.

All but Ben Tillett believed it impossible to organise them until they proved otherwise.

There’s some background on the dock companies —  4 dock companies ran 7 docks, and they were famously incompetent apparently — Victoria & Albert Dock at Tilbury, The East India and West India Docks,  the London Dock, St Katharine’s Dock, the Millwall Dock, and the Surrey Commercial Dock. They competed with other docks and other ports — primarily Liverpool and Southampton, especially after opening of the Suez Canal. Revenue at East &West India Docks fell from 4 1/2 percent in 1884 to 0 in 1887, London & St Katharine stood at 1 percent in 1888. This in spite of men fighting each other at their gates for the lowest possible wages, working only the hours needed and turned away for the rest. There is a great post on the ‘call-on’ here.

Stafford describes some of the docker’s living quarters, no different perhaps, from the rookeries of Saffron Hill and Bethnal Green, but surely much colder, damper being right alongside the river:

Only the poorest of the dockers, the casual laborers, lived near their work, in the narrow dark streets which ran between the river and Commercial Road. Some of the older houses tottering on the river bank had degenerated and were now let off room by room; they were often known as ‘rookeries,’ for not only did each room contain a family much too big for it, but at night the vary stairs served as perches for men and women who could not afford a room at all (39).

I enjoyed the book’s brief bios of the working class heroes of the strike — Will Crooks, born in Shirbut Street, Poplar — now the site of the Will Crooks Maternity and Child Welfare Crisis. He would speak just outside East India Dock gate every Sunday morning:

He did not only talk about their grievances–a subject of which they never tired–he started them thinking about all the good things that they wanted, public libraries, technical institutes, even a tunnel under the Thames…Crooks’ College, Poplar people called these meetings, and Crooks’ College went on Sunday after Sunday, year after year, almost without interruption, even when Will was elected to the London County Council, served on the Board of Guardians, became Mayor of Poplar, and in 1903 was returned to Parliament as Labour M.P. for Woolwich (47-48).

Ben Tillett (more about him in further posts, this book takes his side in almost all things but he is a complex man at best — they were all complex in the ways that race and class and gender intersected, often for the worst, in the work and speeches of everyone named here). Will Thorne — ‘In 1881, when times were difficult in Birmingham, he walked to London, and luckily for him he got a job at once at the Old Kent Road Gas Works…’ (51). John Burns. Annie Besant — the only woman to receive her own few pages of biography in here. But the best fragment is about Beatrice Webb, who shared the speaker’s platform at one event in Canning Town:

He [Tillett] says: “…neither I nor any of the other people on the platform appeared to have made a very satisfactory impression on our rather aristocratically prejudiced visitor. She was young, clever, much petted by the intellectuals of the older generation, undoubtedly sincere, anxious to help, but somewhat condescending.” On the other he appeared to her as “undoubtedly sincere, but rather dull.” (57)

There comes a mention of Eleanor Marx in passing,

But Mrs. Aveling–the daughter of Karl Marx–was a sad, foreign looking lady, unhappily married, so they said, to the professor who sometimes came down to speak on socialism at open air meetings (18).

She, and the beautiful wife of Mr Burns are mentioned a handful of times as running the union accounts, but they have little further role in this story. There is a brief mention of Clementina Black — my god, Miss Clementina Black! An amazing woman, one I must read of further. But there is a long chapter on the Match Girls strike, the low wages, the sweated labour, the ‘phossy jaw’ — bones eaten away by phosphorous. It hurts your heart.

They were fierce, these women. They worked in the old Bryant and May factory just down the road from where I lived in Bow when I first moved to London. A gated community of luxury apartments now, I had always wondered about that building.


Matchwomen at Bryant and May's factory shortly before their famous strike


They went on strike, simply walked out fed up and organised union and strike fund afterwards, and still they won. After this, the tram workers organised, meeting at midnight at  Pilgrim Hall in the New Kent Rd — the only time they could all get together being off shift. They demanded five journeys a day rather than six, and got their demands. Workers at the Beckton Gas Works organised, and won an eight hour day, with fewer retorts to fill and no reduction in wages without ever going on strike. This was led by Will Thorne, and he was present at the burst of discontent that would kick off the docker’s strike.

This fills the remainder of the book — the organising of the pickets, how the more charismatic John Burns came to lead it rather than Ben Tillett who had been organising there all along.

John Burns addressing a meeting during the strike of 1889. © National Maritime Museum, London
John Burns addressing a meeting during the strike of 1889.
© National Maritime Museum, London

The mass meetings on Tower Hill to report back on progress with negotiations at Dock House on Leadenhall Street. The move of the campaign from Tillett’s headquarters at Wroote Coffee House to The Wade’s Arms, the reorganisation of relief for thousands of men on strike (saved in the key last days of hunger and misery by thousands of pounds collected and sent from Australia). The brakes put on the strike, when more men wanted to join, such as the engineers from Westwood and Baillie of Millwall and were discouraged from doing so.

A description of Burns from the Star, August 27, highlighting that this is a manly man’s strike:

He carried a short, stout stick. His keen, strong eye, looking out from his strong rugged face and from beneath dark brows, glanced round the room with a searching look… There is something about Burns that gives you, the moment you see him, a great sense of power. It is partly perhaps the splendid physique–like a brawny blacksmith: it is partly the straight and fearless eyes; it is partly the easy and strong pose of an athlete, as he sits on the arm of a chair, with his Inverness cape thrown loosely back; it is partly the virile voice–slightly husky now, from over-speaking, but still deep and resonant and masculine (138).

There are other short notes I found of interest:

‘The once notorious Mahogany Bar in Ratcliffe Highway, since 1888 a Non-Conformist Mission Centre, provided 700-800 breakfasts daily and soup for wives and children at mid-day’ (140).

The outpouring of support, the women who cooked and raised money were tremendous. There is another mention of someone I know:

That mysterious figure, Miss Harkness, who had been constantly in touch with the Committee at The Wade’s Arms, came to him [Cardinal Manning], he says, “from the strikers.” Old Newman, his butler, was disinclined to admit her…But within half an hour, the persistent Miss Harkness had seen the Cardinal… (155)

And this on other unions from my side of the river:

The only trade of any great importance was the coal trade. The men of Clapham and Wandsworth struck on the persuasion of the North London men. The Brixton men seemed likely to join (154).

14,000 tickets were being handed out to men on strike by the men, an extraordinary logistical effort requiring immense resources. The role of the women running this cannot be underestimated though it does not appear here really.

Again from the Surrey side, the unexpected actions of Mr Henry Lafone, who ran Butler’s Wharf and allowed his own men on strike two shillings a day.

I’m not sure how to take Stafford’s description of the ‘No Work Manifesto’ — essentially calling for a general strike if the Dock Companies did not move towards an acceptable compromise. Stafford is clearly not in favour and saw this as the move that hardened the opposition and lost the support of the public. She describes with great favour the Conciliation Committee — the Bishop of London, the Lord Mayor, Cardinal Manning, Mr Sydney Buxton, M.P. for Poplar. This is not a committee I would trust particularly to negotiate on the behalf of working men, even though the shipowners and many men of wealth and business were on the side of the dockers at the end. I do think Stafford’s class identity consistently betrays her in the telling of this story both in its focus and in its view of strategy and acceptable goals. But there is nothing about her online, only that Stafford is a pseudonym and her real name was Ann Pedlar, this in spite of the fact she is the author of nine other books listed inside the cover. It’s as if no one cared about women writing histories of the unions, imagine that.

Back to the dockers though, I am looking forward to hearing this in their own words and there are multiple autobiographies, but to finish with Stafford’s account.

There was some last-minute negotiating, rushed conferences, lack of full consultation — so familiar, it is all so familiar. They reached a compromise finally, called it a victory though it was debatable how much exactly the dockers had won. Stafford writes:

This then, was the great achievement: unskilled men had learned how to combine, and as a result, the ‘New Unionism’ of 1889 laid the foundations of the Trade Unionism of today. Almost overnight the tiny Tea Operatives and General Labourers Union became the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers Union of Great Britain and Ireland, which was in time to become the Transport and General Workers Union with its Headquarters at Transport House (202).

[Stafford, Ann (1961) A Match to Fire the Thames. London: Hodder and Stoughton.]

More on the East End…




East End bibliography by Peter Marcan

I stumbled across an actual, physical copy of this wonderful–and very DIY and probably hand-typed in 1979 on an actual typewriter before being copied and bound– directory of the East End. In looking it up could only find references to it, nothing from it (or sadly more about its authors) online…I hope that’s not because I didn’t look hard enough! But I thought I would scan and post a small section of it, the one closest to my heart because I love literature and I really love lists, and an East End bibliography of literature in reference to a place I also love?

Nerd heaven.

This is a labour of love that I think desires to be released into a new, and digital and very shareable form. I hope I am not wrong. It will certainly lead me to seek out and read some of these books that I probably never otherwise would have found.

An East End directory : a guide to the East End of London with special reference to the published literature of the last two decades, compiled and edited by Peter Marcan ; with contributions by John Dixon and Agnes Valentine ; photography by Nancy Holzman.

The aim of this directory is to present something of the heritage of the East End of London, with special reference to articles, documents and books published on the subject over the last twenty years; to describe the work that goes on there – in some cases of national significance and to indicate sources of local information. It is hoped that this book will be of interest to those exploring the East End, to teachers interested in using local resources and to local inhabitants who may be unaware of their local background.

a) Adult Fiction
The following list describes a selection of novels set wholly or partly in the East End, ranging from the nineteenth century through to the present day. Items are arranged chronologically according to date of publication; where several items by one author are described the date of the earliest publication is used. The list is part of a much larger study of the subject.

Until 1880 the East End figured only briefly in fiction and then either
in historical novels or in works by journalists primarily interested in social investigation. Dickens, whose godfather lived in Limehouse, mention the East End in several non-fictional pieces in Sketches by Boz and the Uncommercial Traveller; there are brief mentions in some of the novels, Oliver Twist, Dombey and Son and Edwin Drood and above all in Our Mutual Friend.

The great period for East End setting was 1880-1914. It began with the novels of Walter Besant whose main concern was philanthropy and continued with John Law (religion and socialism) and James Adderley (religious missions). In the 1890’s a more naturalistic note was struck in several volumes of short stories and in the works of Arthur Morrison and Israel Zangwill. Thereafter fiction tended to concentrate on small groups in limited settings – as with Jacobs and the stories of Wapping river-men and with Morrison’s later, more genial stories.

After the war the local settings were maintained, Limehouse in particular finding favour in the works of Tomlinson, Burke and Rohmer. More recent novels have tended to concentrate on isolated themes – boxing; the Blitz; petty crime; the antique trade; and the declining Jewish influence. A few family chronicles have been produced and several historical novels. Examples of all these have been included.

William Harrison AINSWORTH wrote two novels dealing with the Tower. The Tower of London (1840) concerns the imprisonment and execution of Lady Jane Grey; and The Constable of the Tower (1861) the events following the death of Henry VIII, in particular the death of Sir Thomas Seymour. Both novels have much the same cast-list of warders, headsmen, etc.

KINGSLEY, Charles. Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet (1850, various editions). Kingsley’s novel is basically about Chartism and Muscular Christianity but it was occasioned by reports in 1848-9 of sweated labour in the East End. Chapter 21 describes a visit to ‘one of the most miserable slop-working nests in the East End’. The novel ends with one of the characters selling off her late husband’s estates and setting up a house for needlewomen in the East End.

MAYHEW, Augustus. Kitty Lamere; or a dark page of London Life (Blackwood 1855). Set among the weavers of Spitalfields the story tells of Kitty’s decline from poverty to destitution. The descriptions are observed in great detail and owe much to the author’s celebrated brother, Henry. This is the first novel, other than historical ones, to be set totally in the East End.

BESANT, Walter. All sorts and conditions of men; an impossible story (Chatto, 1882). The heiress of a Whitechapel brewery anonymously visits the place where her fortune has been made. She is appalled by the conditions and sets up as a seamstress in Stepney Green; and in the company of Harry Gosling, a dispossessed son of a Lord, she visits the surrounding areas and helps fund a Palace of Delights to bring entertainment to the poor. Harry’s title is restored to him at the same time as she is forced to reveal her true identity. They marry each other. This rather fanciful romance in fact marked the real beginning of interest in the East End. It is not without humour and is full of setpieces on local areas – Stepney Green, Mile End Road, Trinity Alms Houses. It was also prophetic in that the Palace of Delights was set up a few years later, as the Peoples Palace in Mile End, with Besant as a Director. Besant wrote several other novels with East End settings: The Children of Gibeon, 1886 (Hoxton); St Katherine’s by the Tower, 1891 (Eighteenth century); The Rebel Queen, 1893 (Jewish); The Master Craftsman, 1896 (Wapping) and The Alabaster Box, 1900 (settlement).

John LAW was the pseudonym of Margaret Harkness, a socialist and friend of Elinor Marx. She wrote several novels dealing with the conditions in the East End. A City Girl,1887; Out of Work (my review here), 1888; In Darkest London, 1890; and George Eastmont, Wanderer, 1905. None of the novels has much literary merit but they are valuable as social records, one of them actually being praised by Engels.’ They did not enjoy a wide circulation; one was published by an author’s co-operative and only one was ever reprinted and then under a different title and with the assistance of William Booth. All the novels are out of print and only available in the British Museum Reading Room. A short article on Miss Harkness is in preparation.

ZANGWILL, Israel. The Children of the Ghetto, (Heinemann, 1892
One of the great Jewish classics. The ghetto is situated between Whitechapel and Spitalfields. The central story of Esther is somewhat sentimental but around it are woven innumerable set-pieces about Jewish religious celebrations, discussions about the future of the Jews and political debates. It is written with considerable energy and colour and despite it’s great length is still worth reading. Only one other of Zangwill’s many novels deals with the East End; this is The Big Bow Mystery, ‘Heinemann, 1892 “- a send-up of the detective novel.

Father James ADDERLEY held various posts in local missions and wrote several novels, two of which are set in the East End; both reflect and anticipate the author’s own life. Stephen Remarx; the story of a venture in ethics (Ed. Arnold, 1893) concerns an Oxford Anglo-Catholic who converts an East End sinecure into a centre of social awareness. He moves on to Chelsea where the same message has a hostile reception; he is told to resign; he finally sets up a religious commune to further his beliefs. Paul Mercer; a story of repentence among millions (Ed. Arnold, 1897) deals with the conversion of Paul Mercer to Christianity and social concern; this is affected by a visit, told at length, to the East End. Both novels are naive but do show the genuine concern of the founders of the Missions.

MORRISON, Arthur. Tales of Mean Streets (Methuen, 1894 – review here) was one of the first and probably the best of the many collections of working-class short stories to be issued in the 1890’s. It gives a grim picture of the East End but also contains some of the endearing characters – in Morrison’s words, ‘cross-coves’ – about whom he was to write again. The Child of the Jago, (Methuen, 1896 – review here) is the classic novel of the East End; it is set in a group of tenements in Shoreditch and concerns the life of a boy and the impossibility of his escaping from the slums. The appalling conditions, drunkenness, violence, street brawls, and codes of honour are described in realistic detail. A more satirical note is adopted when dealing with the philanthropists but the general effect is gloomy. Fortunately it is a very short novel and makes a great impact; it is still worth reading. To London Town (Methuen, 1899) was regarded by Morrison as complimentary to Mean Streets and A Child of the Jago; it is set in and around Loughton; the proximity and lure of London provides a constant theme. The Hole in the Wall (Methuen 1902) is about a pub of that name situated on the river’s edge at Wapping; long after it has been burnt down and rebuilt the grandson of the original owner reflects on it’s history, it’s crusty customers and the local crimes. Morrison went on to write detective stories and tales of rural Essex. There are however a number of East End stories in his collections – Divers Vanities, (Methuen, 1905), Green Ginger, (Methuen, 1909) and Fiddle O’Drea
(Hutchinson, 1933).

NEVINSON, Henry W. Neighbours of Ours (Simpkin Marshall, 1895). Ten long stories set around Millenium buildings, in the East End. The narrator throughout is a small boy. The style is very realistic and the dialogue particularly good.

W.W. JACOBS was born in Wapping and between 1896 and 1926 wrote twelve volumes of short stories. Many are set in Wapping but the crusty endearing waterside characters soon take precedence over the setting which could as well be a Cornish fishing village as London’s dockside. There is great craft in the stories and Jacob’s admirers included Conrad and Waugh. A good introduction is provided in W.W. Jacobs Selected Short Stories; ed. H. Greene (Bodley Head, 1975).

ADCOCK, Arthur St. John. East End Idylls, (Bowden, 1897) Fourteen
stories with settings as diverse as Stratford, Dalston and Milwall.
The tone throughout is not moral but sympathetic and realistic.

ROHMER, Sax. In Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu series, extending from 1913 to the end of World War II, the Chinese Quarter of Limehouse is made out to be the headquarters of the Yellow Peril, ‘the greatest peril facing the White The descriptions of Limehouse do not ring true; the plots are derivative, ill-constructed and improbable; and the tone is racist. By the late 1930’s when the worst of the slums had been cleared even Rohmer was hard put to maintain the illusion of menace. The series is of interest only as the classic example of the fictional misrepresentation of the East End.

CANNAN, G. Mendel, a story of youth. (Fisher Unwin, 1916) Mendel Kuhler and his parents arrive in England from Austria and settle in
Gun Street, Whitechapel. Mendel eventually gets to a Polytechnic and becomes a famous artist. This is one of the better Jewish immigrant novels and well illustrates the favourite theme of escape from the East End to the West End.

Thomas BURKE wrote many volumes of fiction and non-fiction about Limehouse. His first collection of short stories Limehouse Nights; tales of Chinatown, (Grant Richards, 1917 – review here) is as good an introduction as any. He was not a resident of Limehouse and was at one time accused by residents of giving a jaundiced view of the area. The stories are indeed awkward amalgams of unlikely love and gratuitous violence; they are written in a florid knowing style.

TOMLINSON, H M. Once billed as the ‘Second Conrad’ on account of his preoccupation with the sea, adversity and human destiny, Tomlinson was born in the East End and several of his novels have local set-pieces usually concerned with the arrival or departure of ships. In Gallions Reach (Heinemann, 1927) the hero has just
killed his boss and seeks escape in the East End; he finally boards a ship bound for the Far East. All Our Yesterdays (Heinemann, 1930) is a chronicle stretching from 1900 to 1919; it begins with the launching of a battle-ship in Canning Town and contains several scenes in Limehouse. In All Hands (Heinemann, 1937) passengers from a ship recently docked in Limehouse explore St Annes, Limehouse Station, etc. The Day Before: a Romantic Chronicle (Heinemann, 1939) has one chapter devoted to agitations in the East End and Morning Light (Hodder, 1946), an historical novel about a child, has several scenes in Wapping. The story ‘The Lascar’s Walking-Stick’ (in Old Junk, Melrose, 1918) is set in Limehouse.

NOTT, Kathleen. Mile End (Hogarth Press, 1938) An old Jew, Moses Mendelssohn, has survived his wife and spends much time sitting in a graveyard staring at her tombstone. The novel recounts their
upbringing and their lives together and brings us up to the time when Moses imagines himself a prophet and poses difficulties for his daughter. The time-span is 1880 to 1914 and there are set-pieces – a concert at the People’s Palace, the Dock Strike and the exploitation of newly-arrived Jews in sweat-shops.

SHEARING, Joseph. Orange Blossoms (Beinemann, 1938) One of the stories in this collection – Blood and thunder; an old tale retold is a fictional account of the Ratcliffe Highway Murders.

ORTZEN, Len. Down Donkey Row (Cresset Press, 1938) The story of Bill Bailey, a street bookmaker, his brushes with the law, the coming-of-age of his son. There are set-pieces on street fights, fights over women, amateur boxing, hop-picking and local weddings. The setting is just off the Commercial Road. The novel ends with Donkey Row being demolished and the tenants rehoused in nearby flats.

JACOB, Naomi. Barren Metal (Hutchinson, 1944) Meyer Pardo, who arrives with his parents in 1880 in Whitechapel, spends his early youth working at home taking in tailoring. He opens his first shop in
New Oxford Street in 1913. The business expands and Meyer and his wife move to Maida Vale. But he overreaches himself in his love for money – the barren metal of the title. He is imprisoned and his wife returns to the East End to rebuild the business.

GOLDMAN, Willy, A Tent of Blue (Grey Walls Press, 1946) The modest life of Ben Blackman, his troubles with his wife, Lotte, and at
work in a sweat-shop. Eventually the sweat-shop is improved, Ben becomes secretary of the Union and Lotte wins a fur-coat.

BETH ZION, Rachel. Joshua of Whitechapel (Anscombe, 1948)
A post-war fantasy in which the Labour Government falls and is replaced by the Empire Unionist Party. Repressive action is taken against the Jews, in particular those in Whitechapel. Their leader, Joshua Falerson, the founder of the Shield of David Movement, is arrested, tried and publicly hanged from the arm of a cross erected in Tyburn.

KENT, Simon. Fleur-de-Lys Court (Heinemann, 1950) Fleur-de-Lys Court, near St. George’s, is like ‘a drop of pond-water darting with life’; the inhabitants are mostly Irish – which is rare in East End novels.

TILSLEY, Frank. Heaven and Herbert Common (Eyre, 1950) A very long interwar chronicle of a family and friends, centreing round
Herbert Common, a clerk who becomes office manager, and Jimmy Magnal, a stallholder who starts a chain of fashionable clothes shops. The setting is the Docklands, here called Copping Town (presumably an amalgam of Canning Town and Wapping).

CAMBERTON, Roland. Rain on the pavements (Lehmann, 1951) Set in Hackney between the Wars this novel tells of the education of David
Hirsch in various Jewish schools and colleges and of his attempts to become a poet.

Alexander BARON has written two novels set in the East End. Without Hope, farewell (Cape, 1952) is located in Hackney between 1928 and 1948 and covers the boyhood, Air-Force service and domestic troubles of Mark Strong. There are set-pieces on a Jewish Wedding and an anti-Jewish rally. King Dido (MacMillan, 1969) is a longer and more ambitious book. It is set in Rabbit Marsh, just off the Bethnal Green Road in the years preceding the First World War. Dido Peach, son of a rag-merchant, wards off and defeats a gang who operate a local protection racket. He finds the local people
turning to him and making him payments; he accepts them but only later, after his marriage to a girl unused to the slums, does he enforce them. He is eventually trapped between the old gang and the police. This is quite a well-thought out novel and throughout the social positions of the characters, more than anything else, determine their actions.

Wolf MANKOWITZ has written a number of books with East End settings. A Kid for Two Farthings (Deutsch, 1953) concerns Joe, a child from Fashion Street, his friendships with an amateur wrestler and a trouser-maker and his journey through the East End with a goat that he pretends is a unicorn. Make me an offer (Deutsch, 1953) a story about the antique trade, has several sections set in the East End. The Blue Arabian Nights; tales of a London Decade (Vallentine Mitchell, 1973) contains a story – A handful of earth set in Petticoat Lane.

MACKAY, Mercedes. Black Argosy (Putnam, 1954) The parallel lives of two Nigerians who come to London. Ben arrives legally, saves for his Law Exams and has reasonable prospects; Edun is a stowaway who is caught and sent to a rehabilitation centre in Stepney; he is eventually hanged for murder; Ben attends the trial.

FREEMAN, Gillian. The Liberty Man (Longmans, 1955) Signalman Derek Smith returns home on three weeks shore-leave and has an affair with a supply teacher from his sister’s school. Derek lives in the East End; the teacher in South Kensington. The class gulf between them is sympathetically explored; there is more on relationships than locality.

POOLE, Rober. London, E.l. (Seeker, 1961) Jimmy Wilson is the youngest of a family of nine; they live in a tenement in Whitechapel; his father has a barrow in Brick Lane and his mother takes in
washing. He gains a High School Scholarship which alienates him from his friends and only obtains for him a post of junior filing clerk. He volunteers for the Royal Navy. Throughout the novel is his infatuation for a half-caste girl whom he eventually assaults thus landing himself in prison. The novel is rather overwritten but it does deal quite well with Jimmy’s attempts to rise above his environment.

Most of the novels of Bernard KOPS make reference to the East End; two are set almost entirely in it. By the Waters of Whitechapel (Bodley Head, 1969) deals with the dwindling Jewish community and especially with the fortunes of Aubrey Field who is so dominated by his mother that even when he disposes of her he finds himself literally impersonating her. Settle down, Simon Katz
(Seeker, 1973) is about a typical ‘lovable rogue’, who by his confidence tricks gets himself into various, not too serious scrapes. The interest of the book is in the conflict between the old and new in Jewish life; this expresses itself in Katz’s resentment of his accountant son who has moved to Wembley and changed his surname to Kaye.

KEATH, Walter. Stack (Collins, 1971) Clifford Stack a former National Serviceman and road-digger hopes to win his way out of the East End by his talent for boxing. He begins a successful and promising career. After a particular triumph in the ring his opponent commits a foul that temporarily blinds him. His sight returns but he is not allowed to fight professionally. It was the only skill he had; he steals a car and crashes it.

Mervyn JONES’ Holding On (Quartet Books, 1973) is set in Canning Town from about 1900 to 1970 and tells of the life, times and family of Charlie Wheelwright, a stevedore. Unfortunately the story moves at a deadly pace and the style is flat, chatty and monotonous. The final chapter ‘The last thoughts of Charlie Wheelwright’ should be read for it’s unintentional humour

LITVINOFF, Emanuel. A Death out of Season (M. Joseph, 1973)
This is one of the better historical novels set in the East End.
It links the Houndsditch Murders with the Siege of Sidney Street. (His brilliant memoir of growing up  is Journey Through a Small Planet).

NORMAN, Frank. One of our own (Hodder, 1973) A family chronicle from the end of the second world war to about 1950. It is no masterpiece but is written with immense gusto and is very funny.

SEARLE. Chris. The Black Man of Shadwell (Writers and Readers Publishing Co-operative 1976) A black slave from Barbados comes with his owner to England. The ship docks at Wapping and the slave makes a bid for freedom. He gains the sympathy of the residents and is sheltered. Despite searches and rewards the owner has to return empty-handed. The ex-slave finds even greater freedom in acceptance by his fellow-workers.

DIBDIN, Michael. The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (Cape, 1978) One of the better reconstructions of the Jack the Ripper case. Anthology
Several short stories set in the East End are contained in:

KEATING, P.J. Working-class stories of the 1890’s.

There is another list of memoirs and some assorted non-fiction around the docks that I will try and get to in another post…