Little changes immediately for contemporary visitors as they head east from the City towards Shoreditch and Whitechapel. High property prices carry across what was originally the jurisdiction’s outer wall – and there are swanky bars to match the upmarket clientele.
Gone are the days when to leave the City, and venture east, meant putting your life into your own hands.
Blanchard Jerrold, the Victorian journalist who I’ve been recounting views from London in recent weeks described “quaint, dirty, poverty laden, stall-lined streets” surrounded by warehouses and emporiums. Labourers worked for low wages, while rich businessmen profited:
“It is an ancient neighbourhood, as some of the overhanging houses proclaim; and it remains a picturesque one, with the infinitely various lines and contrivances of the shops and stalls, and gaudy inns and public houses; the overhanging clothes, the mounds of vegetables, the piles of hardware, the confused heaps of fish, all about to catch the pence of the bonnets dishevelled women, the heavy navvies, and the shoeless children.”
The East London that Jerrold wrote about in his 1872 publication London: A pilgrimage was a multicultural place, with nationalities including Germans, Frenchmen and Lascars. “Jewish butchers lounge – fat and content in their doorways,” he note.
For these “poorest of London districts the men, women and children appear, on entering to have abandoned all hope,” said Jerrold. And he added that “there is a desperate ferocious levity in the air…”. It was a far cry from the wealthy parts of the city: “The West End Londoner is completely in a strange land as any traveller from the Continent,” Jerrold wrote.
Trip to the East
In an attempt to discover more about life in the East, Jerrold set off on a police escorted tour from Fleet Street, leaving behind “familiar London” in a matter of minutes. On his way to Smithfield, his first stop, he passes “black and grim” houses and “groups of gossiping or quarrelling men block the road.”
Outside the night refuge he is visiting there is a “crowd of tattered and tired out creatures”. Once inside, the superintendent makes the “waifs and strays of London life” take a bath, they are given a “regulation lump of bread” and are shown to “dormitories set out like barracks” which are heated by a stove. Women and children have their own sleeping space and guests are found conducting a range of activities, such as reading and sewing.
Jerrold is touched by what he sees:
“I have paced these dormitories early and late, and have been with strong men who have burst into tears, as their eyes have fallen upon the rows of sleeping mothers, some with two – some with three infants huddled to their sides for warmth, or folded into their poor arms. Young and old are here – houseless, and with babes to carry forth to-morrow into the east wind and sleet. This story is told by the coughs that crackle like a distant running fire of musketry – all over the establishment.”
But Jerrold can’t understand why there wasn’t an employment agency in the refuge. He points out that many would be happy to work to earn their keep.
Jerrold’s party arrives at Whitechapel police station and finds there are already people locked-up in the cells. They then wander into people’s homes and give the impression that they feel threatened, noting residents “crowd upon us, with imploring or threating eyes from under the rags hanging over the kitchen fire.” The area stank of “opium fumes” and women were found to keep white mice as pets.
It was, according to Jerrold, a dangerous place, where visitors’ shirts could be ripped off (earlier in his visit account he had advocated wearing “rough clothes”). “Police smile when we wonder what would become of a lonely wanderer who should find himself in these regions unprotected,” he wrote to justify what he believed what necessary protection from Scotland Yard.
After visiting a “certain thieves’ public-house” (“the landlord of which is one of the most considerable receivers of stolen goods in the country”) and being offered a pint of gin, Jerrod left Whitechapel at 2am. It had, according to his account, been quite an adventure.
Places of entertainment
Standards were rising in entertainment places in the East End at the time Jerrold was writing, influenced by the plusher venues of the West End. Yet so-called “penny gaffs” (often purely shabby rooms at the back of pubs and “where juvenile Poverty meets juvenile crime”) were still very much in existence, as Jerrold’s account shows:
“We elbowed our way into one, that was the foulest, dingiest place of public entertainment I can conceive: and I have seen, I think the worst, in many places. The narrow passages were blocked by sharp-eyed thieves, who could tell the policeman at a glance through the thin disguise of private clothes.
“The odour – the atmosphere – to begin with, is indescribable. The rows of brazen young faces are terrible to look upon. It is impossible to be angry with their sauciness, or to resent the leers and grimaces that are directed upon us as unwelcome intruders. Some have the aspect of wild cats. The lynx at bay, has not a crueller glance than some I caught from almost baby faces.”
And entertainment also took place on the streets. “The barrel organ is the opera of the street-folk: and Punch is their national comedy theatre,” wrote Jerrold. He saw “women leaning out of the windows – pleasurably stirred, for an instant, in that long disease, their life – and the children trooping and dancing round the swarthy player!”.
Contrast with the West
Jerrold’s experiences of the East London and the docks stand in stark contrast to the West End, of which he considered Hyde Park Corner to be its centre. While on one side of the capital, residents were scraping by and trying to earn a living in whatever way they could, here he found those who didn’t need to work.
People went to garden parties for a “talk and tea in the charming grounds of Lambeth Palace”, while Jerrold noted that Christies “has become a fashionable institution”. And the “picturesque of St James and Regent’s Parks, and of Kensington Gardens, is not to be matched by any capital with which I am familiar”. He summed up things by saying “London under green leaves presents, in short, to the foreigner a constant source of wonder and delight….”
Jerrold was a big fan of galleries, noting that the “lover of art can have no greater treat than that which is spread for him in Trafalgar Square.” While later in the day, he advocated the opera which he said was “the amusement that delights the largest number of the cultivated in London….”
Back to reality
By account of Jerrold’s travels (and that of other 19th century urban explorers, such as Charles Booth), the East End used to be an extremely miserable place. Yet it would be wrong to look at areas that have gentrified and think the “progress” is representative of East London as a whole. As you venture today further east, living conditions and the prosperity dwindles (as various surveys have pointed out in recent years). Tower Hamlets, as a borough, is one of the poorest in London.
What always continues to amaze me however is how this whole swathe of London was once completely poverty-ridden. The key question is how far the wave of gentrification we have already seen in places like Spitalfields and Shoreditch will spread east in the years to come?