Mrs Atticus and I had some friends around for dinner on Sunday, and we got to chatting about how marvellous East London is. In fact, we couldn’t quite believe how fast the whole area around Stratford, Silvertown and the Docklands has developed, especially of late, and this got us thinking back over the history of our local neighbourhood.
The history of East London is firmly and inextricably intertwined with immigration, going back as far as memory itself. Travellers would come up the Thames and settle in East London, while the more established families who had successfully built up their wealth over successive generations tended to occupy West London. The expansion of the British empire only added to this impetus, but you have to go way back before the Victorian era to find the start; the heart of Roman Londinium was in fact very close to the existing Tower of London, bisected by what is now Bishopsgate running through the City of London and bordered by Aldgate to the east. So really, when you think about it, East London is the heart of London…
The explosion of international trade that came with the discovery of new worlds and the expansion of the empire made the Thames busier than ever. St Katherine’s docks were opened in around 1870 to help cater for the increase in demand, but there were docks dotted all over East London and with the docks came the need for ship workers, dock hands, cart horses and all the support services that go with them – from pubs and eateries to blacksmiths and markets, the already overcrowded East End just got busier. Jews, Russians, French, Polish and Romanians added their names to those already living in East London, and the idea of tensions caused by immigrants is nothing new, in spite of the long history that immigration has in London, and the central role it has played in helping to shape the diverse culture and thriving metropolis that is our capital city.
Unfortunately, while the growth in trade benefited the wealthy and the Exchequer alike, it did not bring prosperity to the workers themselves. Unprotected by labour laws, their fortunes were often left to their masters, some of whom took a very real and genuine interest in the welfare of their workers and their families, but the majority of whom simply abused their positions to get away with paying as little as possible, for as much work as possible, and in the worst conditions. Disease was rife, housing conditions were terrible and gangs ruled the streets with protection rackets, crime, prostitution and highway robbery.
Perhaps the best illustration of the seedy depths to which East London had fallen was when Jack the Ripper carried out his grisly murders, in the late 1880’s. Operating around Spitalfields and Whitechapel, Jack the Ripper targeted prostitutes and literally gutted them, cutting out their insides after violently raping them. He became famous in his own right, partly for the grisly nature of his crimes, and partly for never getting caught. Unfortunately, these events did nothing to shine a positive light on the East End of London, and 1888 was quite possibly the East End’s darkest hour.