When I lived in East London, I always felt it was one of those urban areas where events of historical importance seemed to have taken place on every street corner. I lived in Poplar, and there were murals, monuments and plaques everywhere. East London was the place of the Match Girls, George Lansbury, Jack the Ripper, Dock Strikes and the battles against the fascists in the 1930s and the 1990s.
John Marriott's new history of the area then is a must read for anyone who lives or works in the area. It is also a must read for anyone trying to understand the wider social development of London, and particular the lives and struggles of the ordinary inhabitants.
The poverty and grim lives of many of East London's inhabitants, led the area to be seen almost as a foreign country. In particular, Jack the Ripper's Whitechapel Murders led the press to paint a picture of "outcast London", but those who lived, worked and organised in the area knew that the reality was very different. Yes there was immense poverty, but the tabloid like descriptions of violence and poverty served to sell newspapers, but not educate readers to realities. Some, like William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, saw in East London,a foreign country;
"As there is a darkest Africa is there not also a darkest England? Civilisation, which can breed its own barbarians, does it not also breed its own pygmies?"
But Clara Grant, a teacher in a charity school in Bow, argued:
"novelists and journalists demand vice and squalor when they come down to write us up. The 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... 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."
Real life in East London was very different to the squalor depicted in the popular press. There was immense unemployment, something that has bedeviled the area since the early days of capitalism and continues today. But alongside the big employers, the Docks, the factories and the like, there have also been numerous smaller trades. The textile industry, in various forms, from the days of Huguenot immigrants to the sweatshops of the 1970s has been a central part of the local economy. One of the great strengths of this book is the way that Marriott demonstrates both continuity with the past, and the change. East London's industry is one part of this.
But at the heart of this book is struggle. The struggle of ordinary people to try and improve their lives. Some of this is criminal. Marriott deals with the criminal gangs of the 40s, 50s and 1960s. But some of it is more collective. Drawing on several books that I've already reviewed on this blog, Marriott looks at the history of the East End's Anarchists, Jewish Radicals and socialist movements. He sees them as mainly peripheral to wider politics, and downplays some of the larger achievements of the struggles in the area. For instance, Marriott argues that the Match Girls strike had far less of an impact than many have argued, "that it inspired the wave of industrial struggle that followed is unconvincing" he writes.
Certainly though, Marriott doesn't ignore these struggles, though he tends to imply that industrial militancy on the Docks or in the gas workers strikes of the late 1800s, had only shortlived impacts. Though he certainly acknowledges their importance in shaping the workers movement of the 20th century. Similarly, Marriott argues that the great anti-fascist mobilisation at Cable Street had little impact in stopping the BUF. That is probably true, but only if you ignore the wider impact of the mass protest, both in terms of the larger population and the people of East London themselves. That tens of thousands took to the streets is of more consequence than the fact that the police stopped the march. The march could not have proceeded, and the decision of the police was one made to prevent a far more bloody outcome.
Those who know more about such individual instances might find Marriott's book frustrating in places. Certainly however, I think it gives an excellent overview of the history of this important centre of the working class. Marriott doesn't give an inch to any criticisms of immigrants, arguing that they have played a central and important role in the areas economy, and the struggles of its people. The book finishes with the looming 2012 Olympics. The author doesn't see much benefit accruing from this international gala of corporate sponsorship for ordinary people. But that's in tone with the history of the area. Working people pushed aside and exploited by larger forces. Those changes, and the resistance, make this an interesting read that will bring to life much forgotten history.
Fishman - East End Jewish Radicals
Fishman - East End 1888
Piratin - Our Flag Stays Red
Branson - Poplarism 1919 - 1925
Wise - The Blackest Streets