A Redemptive History of East London

By Lauren ElkinJune 16, 2012

Beyond the Tower by John Marriott

WHEN RIOTS EXPLODED IN NORTH LONDON last August, they quickly spread to the east, to some of the most impoverished areas in the city — Hackney, East Ham, Bethnal Green, Stratford. These are the names that scrolled across the BBC News ticker, below images of double-decker buses ablaze and hooded youths raiding local shops. The rioters used text messages to get the word out: on August 8th at 5:34 pm, (reported the Guardian), they called on all those who were “down for making money” to:

let them know we're about to go hard in east london tonight, yes tonight!! I don't care what ends you're from, we're personally inviting you to come and get it in. […] We need a minimum of 200 hungry people. We're not broke, but who says no to free stuff. Doesn't matter if the police arrive cos we'll just chase dem out because as you've seen on the news, they are NOT ON DIS TING. Finders keepers and we all look after each other so if you see someone getting grab by feds then make sure we help stamp out that fuking PIG. M.O.B money over bobbies =D broadcast this to everyone you know and let's get paid!!

Reread within the context of John Marriott’s compendious study, Beyond the Tower: A History of East London, the text messages that fueled the August riots sound less like a random explosion of long-bottled resentment and more like a typical expression of civil disobedience and self-interest, East London-style. If Marriott’s study suggests anything about the ethos of East Londoners over the centuries it is captured here: Finders keepers and we all look after each other.

Beyond the Tower excavates East London’s rich, multiethnic history, from Shakespeare’s first theatre to the looming 2012 Olympics, looking at French weavers, Victorian missionaries, Jewish sweatshop workers, the survivors of the Blitz, and the rise of the immigrant population. It examines the fluctuations in economics, politics, religious sentiments, and public opinion that shaped the cultural landscape we see today. Despite its vast scope, Beyond the Tower provides a nuanced account of East London’s “creation, growth, demise and potential regeneration.”

The expanse of parishes and docklands east of the Tower of London has historically been viewed as a hotbed of violence, poverty, and intolerance, yet its character and history is far more complicated. “A problem arises,” Marriott argues, “when spaces such as the West End and the East End come to be defined — often in relationship to one another — as mythical sites, and thus enter into the public imagination.” The East End of London has historically been seen as dangerous and poor, while West London has been perceived to be genteel and glamorous. But Marriott claims that these popular views are largely based on hearsay and exaggeration, and he endeavors to give a more nuanced account of the East. Attempting to answer the question “Where, what, and when is East London?” (first posed by Jack London in The People of the Abyss), Marriott charts the conditions and conflicts that have given East London area its checkered reputation.

East London, traditionally demarcated as the area east of the Tower of London, just outside the city gates, grew from a small border town to the “manufacturing and commercial heart of the metropolis” during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. According to Marriott, the population of the eastern suburbs rose to 140,000 by 1680, “fourteen times that of 120 years earlier, and ... more than double that of any other suburban area to the west, south or north.” Fearing plague and unrest, which tended to crop up when so many people lived in squalor, Elizabeth I attempted to curb further growth by forbidding all new construction within three miles of the city gates. Nevertheless, the population continued to grow. Marriott points out that this led to shoddy building practices which reinforced the slum-like environment: “[f]ew builders were willing to invest heavily in houses that could be razed to the ground if they were found to have infringed the proclamation; instead, they constructed or patched up cheap and wretched hovels, hidden from view in small courts and alleys.”

Marriott is careful to specify that whatever violence East London has seen, it has primarily been through these kinds of “work-based tensions” rather than religious or ethnic conflict. Poverty, overcrowding, and the inhuman working conditions brought about by the Industrial Revolution were other catalysts. When the Huguenots were barred from France by Louis XIV in 1685, many of them settled in East London, bringing their silk weaving skills with them. Weaving was the primary occupation in Whitechapel and Spitalfields, where weavers lived in dire conditions, their livelihoods dependent on fashion and steady prices. Native English weavers resented the foreign competition and the influx of foreign textiles, and riots frequently broke out. Weavers attempted to regulate prices amongst themselves and would go after anyone who didn’t comply. Civil disobedience was severely punished: in 1769, two weavers were put to death for destroying the loom and £100 worth of silk belonging to a master weaver who did not charge fair prices.

Resistance and riot have been an intrinsic part of East London’s heritage. A unique snapshot of civil unrest can be found in Marriott’s index under “riots”: anti-Irish, calico, dockers, Gordon (“London-wide” rather than “specifically East concern”) riverside, sawyers, weavers. Given the area’s geographic location on the eastern edge of seventeenth century London, it was the first port of call for immigrants and travelers bearing news of Protestant dissent in Germany. They joined a vast tide of migrants who were attracted to the towns locked just outside the city walls. Whitechapel and Spitalfields inflated as these workers plied their “illicit” trades, producing, according to one contemporary source Marriott cites, “counterfeit indigo, musk, saffron, cochineal, nutmegs, wax, steel and other Commodities; but they were but Bunglers at their Business.”

Marriott emphasizes the gap between the world’s view of East London and the way East Londoners viewed themselves. “It would seem,” wrote Clara Grant, an East London charity schoolteacher, in 1929, “that novelists and journalists demand vice and squalor when they come down to write us up. They expect evil and seem horribly disappointed if they discover we are not black at all, but only grey… a rich man, wishing to help our work, induced a big daily paper to send down a journalist to write us up. He said ‘it won’t do. You’re not black enough.’ I pointed out that I could not very well work up a murder or two, or put every child in rags and bare feet to rouse interest in us.”

To the rich in the West End, fears of the underclass were compounded in 1871 as the Commune raged in Paris. East London’s inhabitants were seen as “savages” who might be stirred to “similar feats of carnage, plunder, and incendiarism, should occasion serve,” as one anonymous source wrote in a guidebook called Wonderful London in 1878. The 1880s saw massive strikes at the docks, and the situation grew increasingly tense, the underprivileged seen as even more threatening because of their inherent “rootless volatility.” With nothing invested in the status quo, the poor in the East were the natural enemy of those in the West.

But Marriott shows a more complex vision of the East End; East Londoners worked hard to develop their community and were dedicated to self-betterment. The late nineteenth century saw the implementation of working man’s education groups, a lively music hall culture, the building of public libraries, and a “wholesome, regular and nourishing” food culture. Often, however, these initiatives were undertaken by wealthy Londoners who considered the poor to be as uncivilized as the colonial subjects in the far-flung corners of the empire.

Attempts at gentrifying East London — whether instigated by East Londoners themselves or by those who saw an opportunity to make a profit — have been revived in the last few decades; today the area is home to a range of newcomers, from the affluent (Spitalfields) to the hipsterly-minded (Dalston). Marriott touches briefly on gentrification, tracing it back to the mass unemployment brought by the closure of the docks in the seventies, and the Thatcher-era development of the Docklands, when the London Docklands Development Corporation was given a mandate to “do anything necessary to promote regeneration.” What began as a program to provide low-cost housing in the neighborhood quickly turned into an opportunity for local councils and corporate developers alike to “make a quick killing.” As young professionals moved in, eager to buy riverfront property with easy access to the city, the locals were priced out. The glossy buildings of Canary Wharf rose up above the low-income estates at their feet, “a shimmering monument to unfettered greed, or to the triumph of planning over adversity."

Marriott laments the fact that the “ancient” Brick Lane market has been “sanitized and transformed”; at one time it was “the place for cheap merchandise with no questions asked, or of people selling from blankets laid on the ground any items of little worth which they have acquired in the course of the week,” whereas now “the stallholders are now mostly reputable and closely monitored, their clientele mostly tourists.” At Spitalfields market, modernization is particularly in evidence; Marriott indicts corporate developers who turned the old market into a site of “bourgeois pleasure,” a “haven for trendy and expensive food, designer clothes and furniture stalls much frequented by day trippers.” Whether the clientele are tourists, day trippers, or native Londoners, the rehabilitation of historic sites like Spitalfields or Borough Market in South London turns everyone into tourists, locals included. The past has been repackaged and is for sale alongside fair trade coffee and the organic milk.

It’s wonderful that East London’s economy has been revitalized, but it has not done much for the neighborhood as a whole: it is still one of the poorest areas in England (Hackney is the second “most deprived place” in the nation; Tower Hamlets follows right behind, with Newham in sixth place). Although the redevelopment of East London brings more money into the local economy and provides employment in distribution, hotels, and catering, there is no job creation, Marriott points out, for those who were displaced with the closure of the docks and the manufacturing plants. Marriott does not sufficiently address what East London looks like today, nor does he look at current statistics regarding the neighborhood’s unemployment rates (his research ends in the 1990s). It would have been more satisfying had he provided a way of thinking about the impact of 1990s gentrification on contemporary East London.

It is also surprising that Marriott does not mention the August 2011 riots in his book, particularly given the study’s emphasis on the contrast between East London’s characterization in the media and the actual issues fueling the unrest there. In general, Marriott limits his discussion to historical matters that arose directly out of East London. Although the August riots were not strictly an East London phenomenon, it seems a shame not to comment on the event at all: the violence that took place last summer was part of a local tradition of turbulence and uprising. Perhaps the book’s production schedule was too tight.

With the arrival of the Olympics this year, East London will again be a site where we see drastically differing visions of Britain play out. The preparations have been legion, costing an estimated £11 billion (alarmists fear it will rise to £24 billion). The Olympics have generated numerous building projects in the east — the Olympic Stadium is situated in Stratford, Zaha Hadid designed the Aquatics Centre, Anish Kapoor contributed a swoopy large-scale work called Orbit which will double as a viewing platform (the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, called it a “super-sized mutant trombone”), and a shiny new shopping center, which advocates argue will create thousands of new jobs, has been installed. East London is putting its best foot forward — but it remains to be seen whether Olympics-mania will again leave behind those who, as one commentator put it in the Telegraph, have “fallen off the cliff-edge of a crumbling nation.” Marriott concludes that the future of East London is “anyone’s guess.”


Recommended Reading:

LARB Contributor

Lauren Elkin is the author of the novel Une Année à Venise (Editions Héloïse d'Ormesson) and The End of Oulipo? An Attempt to Exhaust a Movement (with Scott Esposito, forthcoming, Zer0 Books). Her essays have appeared in numerous publications including the Guardian, Bookforum, and the Daily Beast, and are forthcoming in n+1 and the TLS. She lives in Paris and London.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.