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All Londoners have a different idea of where the East End is, so let's start by being clear. To the west, the border is the City of London, to the south the River Thames, to the east the A102M motorway and the River Lea and to the north, Victoria Park and Hackney Road. North of that line is Hackney and rumour has it that there are people there who support Arsenal1 and, Tottenham Hotspur2. These are not East-Enders, to whom the one true god is Paolo di Canio3.
The East End suffered greatly in the bombing of the Second World War. Particularly in 1940, endless bombing raids aimed at the docks, factories and the City4 steadily obliterated much of this part of London. This engendered in the local population a, by now, mythical spirit of defiance and togetherness which the town planners of the 1950s and 1960s did their best to dissipate and destroy with desolate housing schemes. Many families that were not persuaded to leave for suburban estates after the war have since left of their own accord for the greener fields of Essex.
The East End – a Locality Guide
Once a graveyard for Roman London, the old Spitalfields fruit and vegetable market is no more. The market buildings are currently used to house and showcase many interesting enterprises, with a daily market, especially lively on a Sunday. Recently graduated fashion and furniture design students have their stalls here, alongside organic food stalls and second-hand records It is Trendy.
There is a splendid Hawksmoor5 church, and a few intact early Georgian streets that originally housed London's initial wave of Huguenot immigrants in the 18th Century. This area has always been one of London's first stops for immigrants, as can now be exemplified by the Brick Lane mosque. This building was formerly a synagogue, and before that a Catholic church, having started its useful life as a Protestant church for the Huguenots.
Brick Lane is the vibrant centre of the large Bangladeshi population in this part of London, plus an overflow of designers and students from Spitalfields and a few remaining Jewish concerns, such as a 24 hour bakery. Brick Lane is, on Sundays, a street market - an extension of Petticoat Lane, but selling even tattier stuff. There was a pet market until a few years ago, and there is still a bike market6. On side streets the desperate and homeless sell their last bits and pieces.
South of Spitalfields is Whitechapel. Dominating the area is the enormous London Hospital and the surrounding 'rag' trade - the shops, workshops and factories making and selling clothing.
Places of interest include the very old Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which still makes bells, the East London Mosque and the London Furniture College, the Tube Station7 and the Whitechapel Art Gallery. There is a street market open every day opposite the Hospital, at one end of which is a new, small and very odd restaurant in a purpose-built modern building on the pavement that used to be a public convenience.
Aldgate has two claims to fame, a one way system that receives a daily mention on morning traffic reports and Middlesex Street, better known, but not officially, as Petticoat Lane. This is a vast Sunday morning street market where stall-holders who pretend to be Cockneys, but actually live in Chigwell, sell tons of rubbish to customers who pretend to be Londoners, but probably come from 'Sahf' (south) London - another place altogether.
The Salvation Army and Dr Barnados both have their roots here, born of poverty, unemployment and squalor. Jack the Ripper preyed on prostitutes in the alleys and back-streets. The Elephant Man, too, lived thereabouts.
Whitechapel, Stepney and Wapping were the centre of the fascist movement in the 1930s, with rabble-rousing rallies led by Oswald Mosley and his blackshirts. It is curious that the East End can espouse both the Socialism and Pacifism of Lansbury at the same time as Anarchism at Sidney Street and the National Socialism of Mosley. There remains a small relic of the anarchist movement in a small bookshop in an alley near the Whitechapel Gallery and the leftovers of fascism can be seen selling their broadsheets at the end of Brick Lane on Sundays.
South of Whitechapel is Wapping. Next to the Tower of London is St Katherine's Dock surrounded by a hotel, touristy shops, restaurants, offices and full of expensive-looking yachts. All the way along the river from St Katherine's to Limehouse are new flats, some built in the old warehouses and some newly built to resemble warehouses. Worthy of note are a group of Georgian houses at Wapping Pierhead on the river, and a part of Wapping High Street - not a High Street at all, there are no shops - that still has the old warehouses and will be familiar to most fans of British television, as it seems to be used in just about every TV series and film when dark and menacing street scenes are required. The disappointing but very old Prospect of Whitby pub is here, on the riverside. There are a few old churches, including a Hawksmoor masterpiece, several of which remain bombed out.
The East London Line of the London Underground crosses the river at Wapping through a recently restored tunnel originally built by Brunel8. You can just glimpse the entrance from the train before it takes you to the strange places 'sahf' of the river.
Along The Highway9 is a notable White Elephant. The attractive Tobacco Dock shopping mall, now echoingly bereft of shops, was built some 15 years ago to attract Covent Garden10 types to the area but never did.
Pronounced 'Befnal' Green, the accent is noticeably London, and residents seem long established. There is no real heart to the area, perhaps because, as in Stepney, large numbers were moved out wholesale during and after the Second World War. Bethnal Green Road has a subdued street market on weekdays. On a Sunday, there is a flower market11 on Columbia Road. The core of the market is good fun, and very crowded, the shops along it, and in the side streets and yards, have been beamed in from Camden Lock12 and are, perhaps, becoming a little earnest. During the week, it is curiously dead. Hackney Road, to the north, has some remnants of the furniture trade, especially reproduction furniture, that used to dominate the area. Somewhere nearby there is the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood.
East of Wapping, along the river, is Limehouse. Within living memory, Limehouse was London's Chinatown, but little of that remains now. There were several docks along the river here and many dens of iniquity. Much flattened during the war, there is little now left which is of interest. A very few old houses and a pub remain on the riverside, in Narrow Street. Here Lord Snowdon had his 'pad' when entertaining Princess Margaret in the 1960s, and David Owen13 did all his liberal democrat politicking in a Georgian house next to The Grapes pub. Near the river, and around Limehouse Basin are the new apartment blocks of Docklands, and just to the north of Commercial Road, there is a 'model' council estate, built post-war, and still looking good.
The remaining 'true' East Enders, 'Cockneys' if you like, are found these days in Bow, Mile-End, Poplar, Stepney and Bethnal Green. A definition would be something about close-knit but extended families that all live and work in the East End. There are few 'Cockney' families left living in Stepney, and most of them would, as would their neighbours in Bethnal Green, claim to be related in one way or another to the gangster Kray Twins, or, at least, to someone who knew them. But, where is Stepney? There is Stepney Way, a tiny Stepney Green, and a church, and, well, not much else, just post-war public housing with a few streets of Victorian terraces. Oh, and a City Farm!
Bordered to the north by Victoria Park and a canal, and containing the fine Georgian terraces around Tredegar Square, Mile End could almost become respectable. Happily, it never will. The acres of public housing and the raffish Roman Road will see to that. Running up to Old Ford in Bow, the Roman Road daily market, especially busy on a Saturday, is best known for its brand name clothing, either surplus production, last year's lines or straightforward disappearances from the sweatshops of Whitechapel (cabbages). Roman Road is the East End at its best. Loud, tatty, a totally mixed community.
For reasons known only to someone in the council, a bridge has just been built over the Mile End Road, on the top of which is... a brand new park!
Isle of Dogs
A story could be told at this juncture, of King Henry VIII hunting here, and his dogs escaping and running wild in packs, but it is probably apocryphal, so it had better not be mentioned. The Isle of Dogs contained the main London Docks until the 1939 - 1945 war, when the area was severely pummelled. Although the docks continued operation right up to the 1980s, they have been well and truly dwarfed now by office developments. This is London Docklands. When the development started in the 1980s there was much talk of mixed developments, the Billingsgate Fish market was brought here, factories and houses were going to be built. All that was overwhelmed in the 1990s by office developments, the largest of which, Canary Wharf, is the highest building in London with two almost equally tall towers nearing completion next to it. Few architectural risks have been taken with the exception of the splendid new tube station at Canary Wharf, and only token attempts at housing, shops and factory units. As a result, the area is a desert at night and on the weekends. The one redeeming feature is the dinky little railway which runs at some height through the buildings, and makes an interesting ride.
To the north of Docklands, Poplar retains its working class character. Its eastern flank is marked by an urban motorway and the River Lea. Once, this river marked the boundary of London, and all 'noxious' industry was relegated to its eastern bank. Thus there were tanning plants, rendering plants, soap factories, match factories, paint and dye manufacturers along its length. Poplar itself housed much shipping-related business; the warehouses, shipwrights, tool makers, shipchandlers and others providing employment to the locals, and to some extent they still do. This is no Silicon Valley.
Poplar residents used to work in the docks, and were thus much involved in strikes and workers' rights issues. Much of what might be called the Labour Movement - as opposed to academic Socialism - originated in areas such as this. In 1927 the entire Poplar council was jailed when they instigated a rates strike, refusing to collect rates (taxes) to be spent across London rather than in support of the local unemployed.
You can't miss Bow Church, it sits right in the middle of the main road, traffic flowing around it. A true Cockney is born within the sound of Bow Bells. Both this church and the much older and prettier St Mary le Bow church in The City claim to be the centre of this folk legend. If it were the City church, then numbers of true Cockneys would be tiny. This Bow Church makes more sense.
To the south of Bow is Bromley-by-Bow, dominated by a large hospital and given over almost entirely to public housing. For some reason, a little of Bromley slips over the other side of the motorway and includes the same house on a canal that was built for the TV programme Big Brother.
To the north of the church are the new 'loft' dwellers of the converted Bryant and May match factory. This was the site of early stirrings of the suffragette movement, with the match-girls going on strike in the 1880s.
The Real East End
So, there you have it, the East End. No longer full of chirpy Cockneys, no longer a place to leave your front door open to your neighbours, and nothing to do with TV soaps. Even so, it is still a place full of life, full of street markets and noise, full of activity. A cultural desert perhaps, and certainly not nice to look at, but it still belongs to its people. Now many-tongued and multicultural, its heart beats on.