Tag Archives: East End

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…

Journey Through a Small Planet

3339202Emanuel Litvinoff (1972)

Another exploration of the East End, and so much a better one. This is beautifully written, candid, and by one of the young men who for Harkness probably ‘looked as most young men of his class look, until one has time to recognise their individuality’ (39). Written about a period a just a little later than Harkness to be sure, this opens a window onto the thoughts and dreams and intense individuality seething behind what to middle class eyes apparently looks all the same. How could we all look the same?

Until I was sixteen I lived in the East London borough of Bethnal Green, in a small street that is now just a name on a map. Almost every house in it has gone and it exists, if at all, only in the pages of this book. It was a part of a district populated by persecuted Jews from the Russian empire and transformed into a crowded East European ghetto full of synagogues, backroom factories and little grocery stores reeking of pickled herring, garlic sausage and onion bread. The vitality compressed into that one square mile of overcrowded slums generated explosive tensions. We were all dreamers, each convinced it was his destiny to grow rich, or famous, or change the world into a marvellous place of freedom and justice. No wonder so many of us were haunted by bitterness, failure, despair (9).

He returns to it as a much older man, finds it completely changed, can no longer see himself in the tenement room he grew up in. Who cannot identify with his sense of loss?

I felt indescribably bereaved, a ghost haunting the irrecoverable past (10).

and so he began writing this…

So much resonated, it is a wonderful coming of age story of a smart kid facing a very hard life — and facing the blossoming panic in his stomach that he is trapped in a working poverty for the rest of it. There is love and friendship and violence, along with a couple of evocative sections on what it means to live in a packed tenement block full of Jewish immigrant families, the closeness of the world:

In as close a community as ours, each newcomer added a new complexity, changing us all a little and sometimes even influencing the whole pattern of our fate. For Mendel Shaffer, the arrival of Kramer’s sister, Freda, was momentous (52).

And I loved this passage so evocative of the streets — and one of the things that changes over time as customs and culture and people change, one of the things that is lost forever once it is lost, and that we can only find again through the pages of books:

A further disagreeable surprise awaited. The Welfare Officer chose to deliver me to my new lodgings in person. Even blindfolded, I’d have known where we were by the smell of the different streets — reek of rotten fruit: Spitalfields; scent of tobacco warehouses: Commercial Street; the suffocating airless stench of the Cambridge Picture Palace; Hanbury Street and the pungency of beer from Charrington’s brewery. Then Brick Lane with half the women from our street jostling among the market stalls (115).

I’m looking forward to his fiction.


Margaret Harkness: Out of Work

margaret harkness, out of workJohn Law (really Margaret Harkness, 1888)

Spoiler alert — and the biggest spoiler perhaps is that as fiction this book is actually, and so sadly, really terrible. Except for the accidental hilarity of some of the prose. Stolid, worthy, and yet also raising all of my class hackles. And I mean ALL of them. But she’s a Victorian woman living on her own in the East End and writing about it, which makes her interesting.

margaret harknessThe excellent introduction from Bernadette Kirwan gives what background we have on Margaret Harkness, a distant cousin of Beatrice Webb Potter, born in 1854, her father a rector from Upton-on-Severn in Worcerstershire. She moved to London in 1877 and trained as a nurse, but soon changed to a literary career, writing articles for various publications and three novels of East End life of which this is one. The first was A City Girl, criticised by Engels for not being realistic enough and portraying the working classes as too passive. The third, Captain Laboe: a story of the Salvation Army. She was also a member of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), and Beatrice Webb Potter noted her utopian ideals and impatience with theory, making this a fraught political relationship. It could not have been too much of a surprise when she later moved closer to the Salvation Army and then dropped out of political organising (and our view) completely.

The novel opens in a Wesleyan Chapel, and this strange thread of religion continues through the book — highly descriptive and very judgmental, yet I don’t think the judgment is quite the same as my own nor altogether negative. What I loved about this book are the details that are surely drawn from her observations (mostly after her own judgments have been expunged), like this verse from the service:

God, the offended God, most high.
Ambassadors to rebels sends
His messengers His place supply,
And Jesus begs us to be friends.
While the wicked are confounded.Doomed to flames and woe unbounded,
Call me with Thy saints surrounded,
O God of love! (9)

I couldn’t make that kind of terrifying religious view up. Nor this other kind of view of Whitechapel streets from a middle-class perspective:

They went through back streets, full of trucks covered with unwholesome looking fishes, fishes whose names are unknown in polite society, whose huge heads and minute bodies are only appreciated in Whitechapel. Tubs of pickled cucumbers stood on moveable tables, and by these were stalls covered with cockles, pigs’ feet, and large tins of eel broth. The inhabitants of the slums were holding a Sunday picnic, indulging in dainty East End dishes,which they bought at low price, and washed down with draughts from a neighboring public house.

“Hokey-pokey! who’ll buy it?” cried a man. He was wheeling a tin down the middle of the road, a tin full of ice, cut in squares and wrapt in paper. The ragged boys and girls flocked round him, for they enjoyed ice-cream more than sour cucumbers, and hokey-pokey seldom made its appearance on week-days, but always came on Sundays to furnish a dessert to the picnic, an “end-up” to the out-door repast. How the dirty little feet danced! How the grimy little hands clapped! (21).

Ice-cream called hokey-pokey! There is also this splendid view of their lodger, Mr Cohen’s shop. He is a barber, dentist and purveyor of cosmetics, and beneath the bust of Gladstone hangs this verse which he wrote himself (and I can’t help but think somewhere there must have been a barber just like this one, who did in fact write this fabulous verse):

Heads of great men all remind us
We can make our heads sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Headprints on the sands of time (33).

The home of the protagonists is a mark of their status — one that keeps the mother aloof even from other church people. Mrs. Elwin keeps a tidy house of up to twelve lodgers and one maid servant for them all, whose sad life is spent dreaming of aristocrats in romance, even though her own ‘short stout figure seemed made to carry buckets’ (27).  Again, the house seems to be one Harkness has seen (or a composite thereof). It’s decorated with wax flowers, oil paintings of Mrs Elwin and her dead husband facing each other, and most astonishingly, the skeleton of a dead cat on top of the bookshelf.  The best mouser she’d ever had. A later description of it also offers a taste of the diversity of the East End at the time, the way that so many different kinds of people lived alongside each other (though immigration as a problem runs throughout the commentary given by open-air speakers and reported conversations, along with the need to send people ‘back where they come from’). This is Mrs. Elwin to a man from the church she wants to marry her daughter Polly:

I’ve often asked myself whatever would become of us…I’ve had so many Jews here at once, that one of my rooms has been made into a synagogue without my knowing it. I’ve had six Mohammedans standing their feet in tubs of water at the back, because they couldn’t say their prayers till they’d done their heathen habits. I’ve had black men, what have run up and downstairs in nothing but their night shirts. I’ve civilised many of em…. (147)

In her descriptions, Margaret Harkness certainly provides a number of details on the geographies of class and status:

People who live in Shoreditch, or St-George’s-in-the-East, are apt to be confounded with their poorer neighbours by the uninitiated, although the initiated know that there is a greater distance between a dressmaker and a charwoman than between a countess and the wife of a successful merchant (42).

And the Methodist ‘heroine’ Polly Elwin dreams only of a little house in Hackney with regular visits from the butchers. Harkness later describes her: ‘Natures like hers are incapable of deep feeling; they always love their fellow-creatures in a qualified manner. They vacillate from pillar to post; and stay longest at the point where they discover their own interest’ (151).

It’s clear that Harkness can see no humour, no promise, no real dreams in the people she describes. Of one of the regular open-air speakers from the Mile End waste near the People’s Palace (what’s left of it incorporated into Queen Mary University where I’m now working), she writes:

That man had a very barren mental history. He was one of the many people crushed out by our present competitive system…His crude, narrow ideas were fast crystallising…His brain was losing its power of gathering from fresh sources, beginning to exercise itself upon the small stores of knowledge stowed away in its cells. Personal experiences had made him bitter (59).

This after describing a tiny room he inhabits with his wife and baby daughter, with walls blackened by smoke and smuts blackening the face of his wife and his only reading the torn pages of books he has rescued from rubbish. To her they are very less than human, even as she acknowledges it is environment that has made them that way (the man above could have been a judge she says, if only things were different).

The hero — whose quest for work gives the title, the moral and the bulk of social commentary to the novel, is a young man named Joseph Coney (‘he looked as most young men of his class look, until one has time to recognise their individuality’ (39)).  Describing Jos’s descent from recently arrived country carpenter looking for work and renting a room from the Elwins to his forced move to a common lodging house, to his first fatal taste of gin to the doss house to the workhouse, there’s stuff like this:

It is commonly supposed that men of his class feel a sort of general spooniness, mixed with a good deal of animalism, for their sweethearts (106).

I’m not even sure what that means, this book is full of stereotyped visions of the working classes with some checks given by the reality she observes, but not very many. Class permeates this book and how she sees things. There’s more of the city when Jos heads down on his first day to work at the docks — a position so low it is impossible to return from it, a last hope for the money needed to stay alive:

Half-past six o’clock the following morning found Jos at Fenchurch Street station. Half-past six is an unpleasant hour in that part of the city. The streets look greasy. There are not enough people about to enliven the houses. Shops have shutters up; untidy girls are scrubbing doorsteps; no one is there, except men on their way to work, old women going to market, and that scum of the populace who sleep in any hole they can, and live in any way they may; bleating sheep and lowing cattle are being driven along by butchers; yawning policemen are talking over a suicide here, a murder there; lean dogs are acting as scavengers, ragged children are seeking breakfast in dust heaps and gutters. The damp morning air is adding to the unpleasant smells in the atmosphere.

Little wonder that public houses entice customers! (126-127)

Her descriptions of the doss house and all of its characters, including Squirrel, a little ‘foreign’ girl who takes care of Jos, seem drawn from observation, as does that of the workhouse. Jose is set to break granite and he can’t do it, instead injuring himself as a splinter of stone injures his eye and seals his fate. Polly marries her Methodist class leader while Jos walks home to his village and dies of starvation on top of his mother’s grave. Squirrel jumps into the Thames, unable to bear London without Jos. It is one hell of a morality tale.

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