This is the eighth article in the ‘Whose Streets?’ feature. Articles in this series focus on different street localities and are accompanied by a StoryMap (a free tool developed by Northwestern University Knight Lab). Each StoryMap appears after the article and pioneers an experimental form of spatial history-telling, taking you onto the city streets of the past
A BBC TV series called The Secret History of Our Streets, first broadcast in 2012, investigated several inner-London streets in districts like Bermondsey, Bethnal Green and Islington. One episode focused on Portland Road, Notting Hill showed the action of gentrification as an agent of dramatic change. Interviewed by the BBC, one former resident of that street remembers other Londoners viewing him and his neighbours as outsiders – ‘the lowest of the low’. Lined with run-down houses in multiple occupation, between 1960 and 2010 Portland Road became first the home of bohemians, later to an international banking set.
Individual streets like Portland Road have a political relationship to larger portions of a city and to whole cities or city regions. Their fortunes are part of large-scale contested histories. While not themselves apolitical, public history projects in the media like The Secret History of Our Streets can tend to depoliticise the streets whose stories they tell. They put individual streets into a national narrative ideally characterised by fairness, inclusivity and neighbourliness.
As a spatial literary scholar, I am interested in the tales people tell of city lives. These can be in forms we recognise as ‘literature’ – like novels, poems and stage plays – or in other forms, including memoir and documentary. The account of Portland Road in The Secret History of Our Streets is, at least in part, a literary artefact: a book of the series, co-authored by its director, tells the same captivating stories of social change in somewhat different words.
Notting Hill and its neighbours in inner-west and north-west London such as Kilburn, have become settings for novelists like Martin Amis, Michael Moorcock and Zadie Smith. Outer-London areas have attracted less literary coverage. One telling example of a neglected neighbourhood is the London Borough of Newham (earlier the Boroughs of West Ham and East Ham). This district encompasses the flatlands north of the Thames between the Rivers Lea (to the west) and Roding (to the east), south of Epping Forest’s gravel rises. Stratford occupies the north-west corner of this zone, acting as a junction point between outer London and the East End ‘proper’, traditionally understood to lie beyond Bow Bridge to the west. The inner East End has attracted literary attention from novelists including Margaret Harkness, Arthur Morrison, Simon Blumenfeld and Monica Ali.
Surveying London ‘slum’ novels between the 1830s and the 1960s, I was struck by their narrow geographical range. Maureen Duffy’s 1962 autobiographical novel That’s How It Was, offers a memorable and sensitive rendering of Newham. Narrating the period just after the First World War, this was precise and poetic. Duffy’s protagonist Paddy initially lives in ‘Ghant Square’, Stratford, identifiable with the actual Chant Square, still a street today.
Paddy begins her childhood to the east of this area, in Duffy’s text one of: ‘Jewish tailors, kosher cooking smells, rabbis with long curls, every nation under the sun’. Stratford– where Paddy’s family live crowded into a tiny, terraced house– on the other hand, ‘belongs to the English’. These working-class inhabitants, newly Londoners, are the children of others who gathered round ‘the railway in search of work, drawn in from labourers’ cottages or who moved from agricultural villages in Essex to workman’s dwellings and industrial misery in the city’. Statements such ‘belongs to the English’ and ‘every nation under the sun’ invite interpretation as a form of free indirect discourse: they indicate the echoing of words used by Paddy’s family members which she grows up hearing. Latent within them is a far-right politics which, as Daniel Frost’s ‘Whose Streets?’ piece underscores, would come to mark relations between and within London districts over the decades following the publication of That’s How It Was.
The buried meanings of outer East London are political as much as they are social. Since the mid-nineteenth century, many low-paid London workers have lived in the area now known as Newham. Throughout the same period, noxious outflows. During the early twentieth century, the metropolitan sewage of London, plus smaller quantities generated by Essex suburbs to the north, emptied via the borough of West Ham.
The former borough of West Ham contains deep personal associations for me as a place where ancestors lived and worked for most of the twentieth century. During January 2021, a necessary visit to family in London left me in a Newham hotel self-isolating for several days. This was near London City Airport and the former Royal Docks, the ExCel exhibition centre standing dark and silent nearby. Expanses once used for gasworks and sewage plants in that zone, contrast starkly with the crowded Victorian streets of Newham districts like East Ham, to the north. A 1973 Victoria County History of Essex volume covering West Ham repeatedly emphasizes the poverty of the area and the struggles of inhabitants and local government. Like Duffy’s novel from a decade earlier, the writers suggest that Newham’s long era of pain is over in the times of the welfare state.
The twenty-first century has presented arguments for a great Newham revival as part of a putative London-wide renaissance. These sentiments were stirred rhetorically by the UK’s current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, during his spell as elected Mayor of London (2008–16). Its markers on the ground include the park left from the 2012 London Olympics, the nearby Westfield shopping centre and the Stratford International railway station. But Newham’s inequality has become more and more pronounced – the era of pain far from banished.
Reading a novelist like Duffy alongside historical contexts and on-the-ground fieldwork is one method of letting contested urban politics at street and district level emerge. The neglected individual histories of streets like Chant Square deserve to emerge, instead of being subsumed in a flattened narrative of urban improvement, public health and civic accord.
For optimal viewing please view the enlarged version of this StoryMap by following this link.
Jason Finch is Associate Professor, English Language and Literature, at Åbo Akademi University in Finland. Between the 1890s and the 1970s, his great-grandfather William Finch (1880–1958) and his grandfather Len Finch (1908–2001) successively worked for the builder’s merchant Young & Marten of Romford Road, Stratford E15.