By John Rennie (johnrennie@gmail.com)

East London History

Jack Dash and Jah Wobble, Stalin and Bernard Bresslaw: the cast of characters inhabiting the pages of eastlondonhistory.com is as enormous as it is diverse. Fitting really for a website whose brief is to cover the history of the East End of London – all of it, from when the Romans arrived to the present day.

The website evolved from the weekly history pieces I have been writing for the last 17 years for East End Life, the Tower Hamlets council newspaper. Back in the 1990s, research involved endless hours in the local history library at Mile End, scrolling through microfiche and poring over dusty century-old copies of the East London Advertiser. Today, most of the research is done online followed up with interviews with any experts or witnesses still living.

But it is with Web 2.0 (or is it 3.0?) that the online aspect has got really interesting. Increasingly, people are approaching me with stories through Twitter (as well as comments on the site of course).  And the ability to build stories through pictures, film clips, mapping and the rest add new dimensions to the stories on the site.

So what’s missing? Far more involvement with local people. We get gratifyingly large amounts of traffic, sometimes exceeding 1000 visits a day, much of it is from the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. This is unsurprising: many people have their roots in the East End. As pogroms and poverty drove millions of Jews west from eastern Europe in the last decades of the 19th century, many settled briefly in the East End before heading for New York. There had always been Irish immigration, but that accelerated during the 1800s as London mushroomed in size and hundreds of thousands of Irish arrived to work on constructing the homes and the railways. I get a steady stream of enquiries from the great-great-grandchildren of those people, hunting down family connections in Whitechapel. The Jewish and Irish connections alone are huge and (lucky for me) have a big overlap with the radical-political history of the area.

Poverty map of Old Nichol slum, East End of London, 1889
Poverty map of Old Nichol slum, East End of London, 1889

The Victorian establishment had a profound fear of the ‘stew’, the ‘abyss’ of the East End: a netherworld of drunkenness, prostitution and inadequate hygiene. More importantly, they feared that this was where revolution would begin – and they had a point. Read the London newspapers from the 1850s onwards and you see a trickle of stories worrying about Irish Republicans secreting themselves in the East End and plotting to assassinate the Queen. Next the yellow press turns its attention to Jews, fleeing from pogroms in Eastern Europe and bringing Communism with them (although Marx was already here, ensconced in slightly more salubrious Soho). Similarly, I get a trickle of emails from Australians, some of whose antecedents were transported in the 19th century and – less romantically – many more of whom emigrated in the decades after the Second World War.

I get a gratifyingly large number of kind emails of the ‘Thank you! I always wondered about that’ variety, alongside ones accusing me of being a Communist, a Fascist, a racist and a ‘nigger lover’ (on at least one occasion). Some people have assumed I am Jewish, which I’m not, while others have accused me of being anti-semitic. I had a piece spiked by East End Life as being too sympathetic to Oswald Mosley – a man for whom I have no liking at all, but whose journey to the Dark Side I had tried to discuss in a balanced way. And I’ve rightly been taken to task when I get my facts wrong – which I do, all too often. The thing that strikes me over and over, is that everyone to whom I speak has their own view of what the East End is: and they’re often at odds with each other.

The great thing about the East End of course is that it changes constantly. My earliest memories of Aldgate and Spitalfields are as a teenager up from Essex, wandering Petticoat Lane in search of Ben Shermans, Levi StaPrest and Desmond Dekker records. A few years later I watched from a safe distance as the Anti-Nazi League confronted the National Front in Club Row and Brick Lane. In those days Shoreditch was a ghost town except on Sunday mornings. Seeing it today, transformed into the fashionable art quarter of London and the hub of the capital’s new media businesses, is startling, and in many ways welcome. I certainly get many story ideas (usually starting off as questions about the area) from these new East Enders. And Shoreditch alone has its own excellent chronicler in the Gentle Author of spitalfieldslife.com.

Bryant & May match factory in Bow (now Bow Quarter)
Bryant & May match factory in Bow (now Bow Quarter)

Back then, in the 1970s, bombsites were still common; even in the 1990s, there were huge numbers of derelict buildings. It was at the beginning of that decade that I got a job on the East London Advertiser and moved into one of those abandoned buildings, the old Bryant and May factory in Fairfield Road in Bow. Once the biggest factory in Europe, a remnant of when the East End did industry, it had been ‘repurposed’ as ‘Manhattan loft-style living’. Rather than making matchboxes, the new East Enders – searching for bits of London that were still cheap and finding them east of Aldgate – were now living in them.  In the 20 years since, the dramatic depopulation of the East End since the War has reversed. Between the 2001 and 2011 Censuses, the population of Tower Hamlets rose from below 200,000 to a quarter of a million. There are lots more people here from all over the world … and they’ve got great stories about where they came from and how they’re fitting in.

The frustration for me is the thousands of histories we don’t get. As well as the Irish and Jews, we occasionally touch on the Bangladeshi and West Indian history of Tower Hamlets. But what about those several dozen other language groups tucked away in corners of Stepney, Bow and the Isle of Dogs? I’m intrigued by the 31,550 people who identified themselves as ‘Other White’ in the 2011 Census (nearly trebled over 10 years). Eastern Europeans?  What about the ‘Other Asians[s]’ whose number has more than doubled?  Many of the newcomers don’t speak English, let alone read the Council newspaper or log onto a website called eastlondonhistory.com.

Some of the most interesting histories we’ve covered come from immigrants hitting up against the ingrained racism of society, including the racism of some of the East Enders they moved in alongside (just go back a couple of hundred years to the Gordon Riots). So what is the experience of these new East Enders and how are they adapting to life in the East End which they’re helping to recreate? In an ideal world,it wouldn’t be eastlondonhistory.com but East London Histories, and as well as the fascinating stuff about our maritime and industrial past there would be far more local people writing the stories – their stories. So Tweet me (@londonhistory).

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