Zone of Transition
A radical history walk around Spitalfields and Brick Lane
START: Christ Church, Commercial Street
“a land of beer and blood”.
The area this walk covers is one of the oldest inhabited parts of London’s East End, and one of the earliest areas outside the City Walls to be built up as the fringes of the City of London spread outward. Brick Lane’s origins go back some 2000 years, to an ancient roman cemetery at Lolesworth Field, Spitalfields. In 1576 this field was broken up for brick manufacture, hence the name of Brick Lane.
From the Middle Ages, the ‘Northeast Suburbs’, Spitalfields, Bishopsgate and Shoreditch, were well known for industry, which was able to establish here outside the overcrowded City; but also for poverty, disorder and crime. Outside the City walls, they fell outside the jurisdiction of City authorities, so criminals, outcasts, the poor and rebellious clustered here.
Map showing the Tower of London and the ‘Spital Field’, 1633
After 1500 Spitalfields underwent rapid urban growth. London expanded massively as large numbers of people flooded into the city: many dispossessed by rural enclosures, and deprived of the traditional welfare system by the Dissolution of the Monasteries under king Henry VII. In the City of London, trade was also expanding in many and varied directions, there were numerous jobs to be had, in both legitimate and illegitimate sectors. New rich classes were emerging, with new needs, requiring new services, and opening up exciting new chances to rob them. Neighbouring poor areas like Spitalfields absorbed many of these incomers.
In 1580 the population of east London was estimated to be 14,000. A third of these were in Whitechapel, and the rest in Stepney, which seems then to have included Spitalfields. Fifty years later in 1630, numbers had nearly quadrupled to 48,000. As land in the City and other central areas was redeveloped for commercial use and railways and new roads were built, working class people displaced from these neighbourhoods moved gradually eastward, joining refugees from rural ‘improvements’ and the persecuted from abroad.
John Stow’s Survey of London in 1603 referred to the building of “filthy cottages” to the north of Aldgate. At the end of the 16th Century there were already complaints about the numbers of lodging houses in the area. Spitalfields district was built up further around 1700.
The district between Aldgate and Brick Lane became a centre for homeless and drifting people – “idle, vagrant, loose and disorderly persons” – by the early 18th Century. The Brick Lane area especially remained associated with severe social problems: according to Mayhew, the lane and the streets running off it included not only lodging houses but also considerable numbers of brothels. Brick Lane, said the Rector of Christ Church in the 1880s, was “a land of beer and blood”.
[Partly because the area was known for housing breweries: The largest operator was Truman Hanbury & Buxton. This company’s brewery stood at 91 Brick Lane: T.H. & B. appear to have had a virtual monopoly of Spitalfields tied pubs east of Commercial Street, and gave their names to some of its central streets. Another major brewer was Mann Crossman & Paulin in Whitechapel Road, and further east where it became Mile End Road was Charrington & Co.
There were still some small, independent brewers, such as in nearby Spellman Street, into the late 19th century.]
Spitalfields housing was inevitably usually of low quality, overcrowded, run-down, often sub-divided, especially in the slums or ‘rookeries’.
But Spitalfields has also been described as City’s “first industrial suburb”. From medieval times the area’s major employer has been the clothing trade; but breweries have also been major employers since 17th century, and later residents formed a pool of cheap labour for the industries of the City and East End: especially in the docks, clothing, building, and furniture trades. Small workshops came to dominate employment here.
The relationship between the affluent City of London and the often poverty and misery- stricken residents over its eastern border in Spitalfields has dominated the area’s history. More than half the poor in Spitalfields worked for masters who resided in the City in 1816; today the local clothing trade depends on orders from West End fashion shops… The same old social and economic relations continue…
For similar reasons as those that led to the growth of industry and slums here, the area has always been home to large communities of migrants. Many foreigners in the middle ages could not legally live or work inside City walls (due to restrictions enforced by the authorities or the guilds), leading many to settle outside the City’s jurisdiction. Successive waves of migrants have made their homes here, and dominated the life of the area: usually, though not always, the poorest incomers, sometimes competing for the jobs of the native population, at other times deliberately hired to control wages in existing trades… Huguenot silkweavers, the Irish who were set to work undercutting them, Jewish refugees from late nineteenth‑century pogroms in east Europe, and Bengalis who have settled in the area since the 1950s. Almost always they have been dissenters, or identifiably apart in religion or race. In the last decade or two newer communities like the Somalis have added to the mix. Colin Ward described Spitalfields as an inner‑city ‘zone of transition’, a densely populated ‘service centre for the metropolis’ where wave after wave of immigrants had struggled to gain a foothold on the urban economy.
Disorder has often been a regular feature of life here; from the 16th century, when London archers & youth gathered to demolish fences erected by the richer citizens of the City and outlying villages to try & enclose traditional recreation grounds. The open fields here were also place of illicit sex, clandestine meetings, prostitution.Poverty, partly caused by periodic depressions in cloth trade (eg that of 1620-40), and other issues could lead to outbreaks of rebelliousness: sometimes aimed at their bosses and betters and sometimes at migrant workers seen as lowering wages or taking work away from ‘natives’.
These aspects of local life led Spitalfields and the majority of its inhabitants to be seen as a ‘problem’ by those in power and the better of classes of London. Their poverty, the way they lived and often their attitude to work, caused them to be generally labeled immoral; the poverty and crap housing they lived in was perceived to be their own fault; their tendency to drink, crime and riot made them a threat. The area has for centuries been subject to plans, redevelopment, demolition, the removal and re-ordering of its population; whether to bring order or better housing to the poor, or to move them out so as to take over the space they lived in, as more recently.
These then are some of the central themes of our walk: the relationship of the City and Spitalfields’ industry, and the poor workers employed by it; migration and new incoming communities; and living space, how people live together, especially their housing, its quality and but also pressure from their betters seeing them as a threat, and wanting to control their environment, or wanting the land they live on and trying to move them on.
Hawksmoor’s grandiose Christ Church, Spitalfields, built in the early 18th Century, was deliberately located here, at a time when Spitalfields’ population of transients, migrants and dissidents was starting to worry the authorities. The power of the state was inextricably bound up with the power of the official Anglican church, not least in the minds of those in charge of both. Not only were there growing numbers of non-anglicans in Spitalfields, like the Hugenot refugees, as well as other non-conformists, but the constantly flowing movements of the poor meant it was hard to impose religious discipline. In order to advertise the overweening authority of Anglicanism to the inhabitants, Christ Church was one of 50 new churches commissioned by an Act of parliament in 1711 (though only twelve got built, as the money ran out).
Homelessness was and still is, endemic in Spitalfields:
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the gardens behind the church, then much larger, were a popular crashpad for the local homeless, known as Itchy Park.
Jack London’s The People of the Abyss (1903) describes his visit to the gardens at three o’clock one afternoon:
“A chill, raw wind was blowing, and these creatures huddled there in their rags, sleeping for the most part, or trying to sleep. Here were a dozen women, ranging in age from twenty years to seventy. Next a babe, possibly of nine months, lying asleep, flat on the hard bench, with neither pillow nor covering, nor with anyone looking after it. Next half‑a‑dozen men, sleeping bolt upright or leaning against one another in their sleep… On another bench a woman trimming the frayed strips of her rags with a knife, and another woman, with thread and needle, sewing up rents.”
London notes that as the iron railings prevented people from sleeping there at night, the homeless were obliged to sleep by day.
A large homeless population still frequents the area, due to the Salvation army hostels and Providence Row hostel; and the gardens were still popular with the homeless in the 1980s, when they used to come into a sharp class conflict with the visitors to the classical music concerts taking place at the church:
“This is the derelict congregation of the crypt. Its members attend a hostel and soup kitchen famous from the days when the church yard was known as Itchy Park and that, for many of the post‑war years which the church above stood semi‑derelict, provided the only regular service offered here. Ignoring the ancient injunction on bidding them to ‘Commit no nuisance’, these time‑honoured figures stage a vile performance of their own. They hurl insults at the concert‑goers, begging money from them obscenely and urinating on their smart cars. My sleeve was taken by a man who dragged me through the hellish narrative of twenty‑two years spent in gaol, shuddering with horror at the deteriorated company into which he been released, this fellow declared his own outlaw ethic in words should be cut into the stone of Hawksmoor’s building: ‘I’ve never mugged. I’ve never robbed a working‑class home’. As he sank away towards the underworld of the crypt, we ascended hierarchical steps to hear music by Messaien and Hans Werner. The frisson was undeniable.” (Patrick White)
By the early 18th Century there were numbers of Irish people living in Spitalfields; frequently they were poor or destitute. The extreme poverty of the Irish locally was frequently noted. The radical Francis Place remarked in 1816 that the native poor of Spitalfields were better off than the Irish. Irish migrants were blamed for working for cheaper wages, especially in the building trades, and were on occasions attacked by ‘native’ workers. Irish workmen were being used for the building of Christ Church, and there were anti-Irish riots in Spitalfields in 1736:
“Tuesday 27 July 1736, the alarm was given by the Deputy Lieutenants of Tower Hamlets. They were barricaded inside the Angel and Crown tavern in Spitalfields, and calling desperately for reinforcements. Outside, the East End had erupted in violence. It was feeling against the Irish that triggered it. London was full of Irish workers. They flooded into the capital in search of jobs on building sites or out in the fields and, like all immigrants before and after them, they were accused of stealing English jobs. Within hours of the trouble starting, Walpole had informers mingling with the crowd, and sending back regular reports from public houses. ‘Some of [the crowd] told me,’ Joseph Bell scribbled hastily to his master, 6 there was such numbers of Irish who underwork them, they could not live and that there was an Irish man in the neighbourhood who employed numbers of them & they was determined to demolish him and drive the rest away.’ It turned out that the contractor for Shoreditch Church ‘had paid off his English labourers and imployed Irish because they worked cheaper.’ The same thing was happening in the weaving industry.
On the first night of the riots, Irish public houses were attacked. A squad of fifty soldiers under Major White, officer on duty at the Tower, found itself up against a crowd he estimated at 4,000. On Thursday, a boy called Thomas Larkin was shot dead in Brick Lane. The next night was even worse. Richard Button, a brewer’s assistant, ‘saw the mob coming down Bell Yard, with sticks and lighted links. One of them made a sort of speech directing the rest to go to Church Lane, to the Gentleman and Porter.’ The crowd was organised by now. These were no longer spontaneous demonstrations. Quite a few of the leaders had papers with lists of Irish pubs on them. ‘One of them was called Captain Tom the Barber, and was in a striped banjan. I would have taken notice of him ‘ Richard Button told the Old Bailey later, ‘but he turned away and would not let me see his face.’ The authorities were having to take ever stronger measures to deal with the situation. Clifford William Phillips, a Tower Hamlets magistrate, was woken by neighbours about ten o’clock, despatched a message to the Tower for help, and then set off towards the riot. ‘The street was very light,’ he recalled afterwards, ‘and I could see (at a distance) the mob beating against the shutters with their clubs and hear the glass. fly … 1 heard the hollowing at my house, and the cry in the street was Down with the Irish, Down with the Irish.’ As Richard Burton remembered, it was only the appearance of magistrate and soldiers that prevented worse violence. ‘Justice Phillips coming down, and the captain with his soldiers. they took some of [the crowd], and the rest made off immediately, and were gone as suddenly, as if a hole had been ready dug in the bottom of the street, and they had all dropped into it at once.”‘..
The Angel and Crown might have been on the corner of Whitechapel Road and Osborn Street.
There were further attacks on the Irish during the anti-Catholic phase of the Gordon riots in 1780 (in which many local weavers were said be involved).
Commercial Street: The Wicked Quarter Mile
For centuries there was a slum here, a “rookery” as they called them in the 19th Century: a notorious area of narrow alleys and dark yards; many of the buildings here were overcrowded, teeming with the poor; a good number were lodging houses, dosshouses, where the hungriest of the homeless scrounged a living, and of these most were identified by the police as haunts of criminals, thieves, prostitutes and other undesirables. A double bed would cost 8d, a single 4d and when the all the beds were taken a rope might be fixed down the middle of the room with residents sleeping against it back-to-back for 2d. Those without the money for their lodgings were evicted nightly.
Commercial Street was built in the 1840s, partly as a way of breaking up this dangerous area, filled with the poor & desperate. “Wide new roads” were built around this time throughout London, partly to improve traffic and trade, but also were driven through rookeries to “let in air, light, police, and most important of all, disturbing the inhabitants from their old haunts.” Commercial Street’s commercial value was exaggerated: for twenty years as it didn’t extend far enough northwards to be of much use as a highway; but this wasn’t its main aim. 1300 poor people were evicted here (with no right to rehousing in those days) and many of the most infamous areas knocked down… Each side of the new throughfare, tenement blocks were build by Model Dwelling Companies, (Rothschild Buildings and Lolesworth Buildings to the east, Wentworth and Brunswick Buildings and Davis Mansions to the west) sponsored by middle class housing reformers, built by pioneering Housing Associations like Peabody. Although an important motive for their construction was a desire to improve working class living conditions, and thus help stave off class violence and rebellion, and drag the immoral poor out of the gutter, in the long run the new Dwellings failed in their purpose. Rents were deliberately set high enough to make sure only most respectable of working class could afford it; certainly excluding the very poor who mainly inhabited the rookery.
More on the building of roads in the 19th century to deliberately socially cleanse the poor
Walk south down Commercial Street to Flower & Dean St or Lolesworth Close
But thirty years later Flower and Dean Street area, two streets south of here, was still a ‘rookery’, “the most menacing working class area of London”. The area between Wentworth Street and Spitalfields market was labelled the ‘Wicked Quarter Mile’, by outsiders of course. The 1870s saw a revived campaign of middle class reformers to demolish it, a huge propaganda war waged at portraying the inhabitants as immoral, ‘unsavoury characters’ crims, prostitutes etc. This was a time of great fear among the middle classes, after the Paris Commune rising, that the disorderly poor would, if not controlled/pacified by charity and coercion hand in hand, rise up and destroy them. Also that they were immoral, vice-ridden, responsible for their own poverty, etc and that if you put them in a different more moral and orderly environment, moral reform and improved social conditions would make them less shiftless, respectable, and less likely to riot and rebel. Many of the age’s greatest middle class reformers, celebrated pioneers in the development of housing associations, charity etc, acted partly from this fear. Repeated attempts of charity, police, religion, sanitary reform and coercion having constantly failed to control the Flower and Dean Street area, only demolition would do. But it took the Jack the Ripper murders to provide the push that led to the demolition of the “foulest enclaves” of Flower & Dean Street. Three of the ripper’s victims had lived lives of dire poverty in the street, and the media storm the killings roused focussed a spotlight on the area. The Four Per Cent Dwelling Company bought up the north-east side of the street and built Nathaniel Dwellings; on the north side of Wentworth Street, Stafford House was erected (thanks to the guilt-ridden landowners the Hendersons, in an attempt to banish the bad publicity the murders were spreading). Through the 1890s other blocks went up in the old rookery, between Lolesworth and Thrawl Streets.
Ironically 120 years and more later these model blocks had decayed themselves and become slums, and the same process would be repeated: plans were laid to scatter the residents and build new housing for a better class of inhabitant. Only this time the tenants resistance would change the outcome… We will return to this…
Walk across Commercial Street to White’s Row, and walk down to the corner of Tenterground.
The area immediately south of here, known as the Tenter Ground, between Wentworth Street on the south, Rose Lane (since disappeared under Commercial Street) on the east and Bell Lane on the west, was the last part of Spitalfields to be formed into streets. The bounding streets on the south, east and west were built up by the 1640’s and the northern boundary was formed into the south side of White’s Row in about 1650. The central plot of ground remained open, however, until the second decade of the nineteenth century, being a space where ‘tenters’ could be set up – frames to stretch dry newly woven cloth.
On 4th March 1702, Jack Sheppard was born somewhere here. Growing up poor, he spent some of his childhood in the local workhouse, later being apprenticed to a carpenter. He jacked this in to become a thief, but as the prison escaper extra-ordinaire of the 18th century, breaking out of the Clerkenwell New Prison, the Bridewell, and Newgate Prison, in various ingenious ways, he earned enduring fame in his short lifetime. For a hundred years after his death many working class people uninterested in the name of current monarchs and prime ministers could retell Jack’s story in detail.
In some ways Jack could be held to be symbolic of the disorderly nature of this area. Although his rebellion was individual, it chimes with the poor and rebellious Spitalfields folk of many centuries, resistant to authority, hostile to attempts to govern them. As another example, from two streets north of here: in 1763, after Cornelius Sanders was hanged for stealing £50 from her, a Mrs White’s house was attacked by a large crowd: “great numbers of people assembling, they at last grew so outrageous that a guard of soldiers was sent for to stop their proceedings; notwithstanding which, they forced open the door, pitched out all the salmon-tubs, most of the household furniture, piled them on a heap, and set fire to them, and, to prevent the guards from extinguishing the flames, pelted them off with stones, and would not disperse till the whole was consumed.” (Annual Register, 1763)
Walk down White’s Row To Crispin Street
Lewis Chauvet’s silk factory stood here in the 1760s, at no 39.
For centuries Silk Weaving was the dominant industry in Spitalfields and neighbouring areas like Bethnal Green.
Silkweavers were incorporated as a London City Company in 1629. But many foreigners or weavers from northern England or other areas were not allowed to join the Company, and had problems working or selling their work as they weren’t members… Spitalfields had a small-scale silk-weaving industry from the fifteenth century, based on early settlements of foreigners outside the City walls, which increased gradually as protestant refugees from Netherlands congregated here, especially during the Dutch Wars of independence from Spain in the 1580s-early 1600s.
In the early years weaving here was a cottage industry, with many independent workers labouring at home. This quickly developed into a situation with a smaller number of masters, who employed journeymen and a legally recognised number of apprentices to do the work. Numbers of workers, and training, in the Weavers Compnay were regulated by law and in the Company courts; later wages came to be a matter of dispute and the courts had to deal with this too.
Masters often sub-contracted out work to homeworkers, so that by the end of the 18th Century, many silkweavers were employed in their own homes, using patterns and silk provided by masters, and paid weekly. Later still there developed middlemen or factors, who bought woven silks at lowest prices and sold them to wholesale dealers. This led to lower wages for the weavers themselves.
Silk dyeing in the fourteenth century
Silk Weavers conducted a long-running battle with their employers in the 17th and 18th centuries, over wage levels, working conditions and increasing mechanisation in the industry. One early method of struggle was the ‘right of search’: a power won over centuries by journeymen weavers and eventually backed by law, to search out and in some cases destroy weaving work done by ‘outsiders’, usually those working below the agreed wage rates, or by weavers who hadn’t gone through proper apprenticeships, by foreigners etc. Silkweavers used it, however, at several points from 1616 to 1675, to block the introduction of the engine loom with its multiple shuttles. At this point the interests of masters and journeymen converged, for the engine loom was being used by total outsiders, and restriction on this technical innovation kept both wages and profits high. But tacit backing of workers violence by master-weavers was always a risky strategy: class conflict kept breaking through. And continued agitation to keep wages high gradually pushed masters seeking to drive profits and productivity up into increased mechanisation…
The journeymen weavers also had a history of support for radical groups, from the Leveller democrats of the English Civil War. through 1760s populist demagogue John Wilkes, to the extreme Chartists of the 1830s.
In 1675, in a three-day riot against machine looms, dozens of bands of weavers roamed the city, some clothed in green (a suspect colour politically, being associated with the Levellers), beating drums, waving flags & setting on the masters who used new engine looms, burning the looms in the streets. The Army suppressed the ‘insurrection’. As a result of the riots full mechanisation was delayed in the industry for a century.
After 1685, Hugenot refugees from France swelled the ranks of the weavers, in Spitalfields, West Bethnal Green and Norton Folgate. Some French co-religionists already there, and many of the migrants were clothworkers, eg weavers from Tours and Lyons. They brought new techniques, designs and materials, working top quality silks with high levels of skill; their methods, designs and materials spread from them to wider population here.
In 1697 there were further riots against imports on foreign silks, widely seen as undercutting prices for East London cloths. Again masters encouraged crowd violence. Weavers besieged parliament, marched on Lewisham’s silks mills to smash machine looms operating there; and attacked the HQ of the East India Company, major importer of silks from India. They also threatened the house of Joshua Childs, the East India Company’s dictator.
These disturbances and others in succeeding years led to protectionist measures being passed in parliament in 1700 to protect the industry from competition from foreign cloths.
In the 18th Century, silk and the wearing of it, was one of the most potent symbols of class divisions. According to Peter Linebaugh “it was the fabric of power and class command…”; he describes this century as ‘The Age of Silk’. A silk dress could cost £50 in materials alone (a huge sum then), but there was a great contrast of consumer and producer: “the ladies strolling in St James’s Park, adorned in cascades of silk contrived with cuffs, flounces and bows to capture the wandering eye…the gentlmen in their silk stockings and waistcoats, their brocaded jackets and silken knee-britches, bowing and scraping into lordly favour, awaiting the moment to give a command of battle or to sign a death warrant…” The producers were the thousands of men, women and children in the East End, “winding, throwing, dyeing, weaving, drawing, cutting, designing, stitching in hundreds of attics and garrets”. A proverb summed it up: “We are all Adam’s children, but silk makes the difference.”
Huge fluctuations in silk trade meant intermittent poverty for weavers, the whole area could be plunged into periodic depression and desperation. As a result crime was rife; Spitalfields was the home parish for 64 of the men and women hanged at Tyburn between 1709 and 1783; many were silkworkers, and overwhelmingly a larger proportion of those executed hailed from Spitalfields and Bethnal Green.
1719-20 saw another prolonged agitation, this time over imports of calico, dyed and patterned cloth from India, very fashionable then, which weavers widely perceived as causing reduced demand for silk (calico was quite a bit cheaper…) In June 1719, thousands assembled in Spitalfields and the Mint, and marched in protest over calico imports. Somewhat dodgily tactics included attacking any women walking in the City wearing calico.
Obviously this tactic is not without its, er, issues today, and one woman at least, did respond in print, denouncing “a gang of audacious rogues to come and fall on us on the streets, and tear the clothes off our backs, insult and abuse us, and tell us we shall not wear what they do not weave; is this to be allowed in a Nation of Liberty?” Class and gender relations tangled here in confused ways: the weavers were poor workers, the women targeted mostly middle to upper class; but male power and violence was clearly involved too. Hmmm. Discuss.
In 1720, weavers rallied in Old Palace Yard, Westminster, and more attacks on calico wearers followed. The protests of 1719-20 were successful, leading to a ban on calico. High import duties were also imposed on the importing of French made silks, the main competitor for Spitalfields cloth; this led however to a widespread trade in smuggled silks from France.
The weavers and their morals
Their penchant for violence in their economic interests was not the only attribute that earned the silkweavers denunciations from their ‘betters’. Being relatively highly paid, for the time, (at least when trade was good), if many silkweavers could subsist on three days work a week, they would. Spitalfields silkweavers were often attacked in print for their idleness and drunkenness. ‘Saint Monday’, taking Monday off (with a hangover, or just to carry on partying), was usually celebrated, and work in the week was often interupted by talking and tippling. And while Saturday morning was officially a work day, it was usually the day to get piece work together, take it to the master and get paid; another day involving much hanging about, chewing the fat and getting a few bevvies in. There were many weavers alehouses in the area: the Crown and Shuttle, the Mulberry Tree, the Three Jolly Weavers, the
Silk weaving, from Hogarth’s ‘Idle Apprentice’ series of etching. Hogarth’s series tells a moral tale of a lazy, unruly apprentice weaver who neglects his work, falls in with bad company and ends on the gallows.
Throwers Arms, the Dyers, the eight different pubs called Weavers Arms, and the three Robin Hood and Little John Inns.
If the politicians, journalists and other worthies who every so often express their disgust, thought that “the scandal of public drunkenness” was anything new… they should think again.
For centuries the life of all classes was steeped in alcohol; up to the eighteenth century public carousing was enjoyed pretty freely, and the English were famed for drink and violence. It was only really in Victorian times that the question of the inebriated state of the poor became the favourite subject for the chattering classes. There were three main reasons:
a – increasing overcrowding in cities, due to enclosure etc pushing people off the land…
b – the growing industrial Revolution: the need for more effective work discipline to force people to work in factories;
c – fear of the disorderly poor, dating from the 18th century mobs, but made more urgent by events like the French revolution: plebs could overthrow society if they weren’t kept in line/taught to respect authority, etc.
Growing campaigns for ‘moral reform’ was the result. Overall a population which sweated out its beer by performing long hours of hard, physical work appears to have held its drink well. However drunkenness was a common problem, especially at weekends and in the lowest districts. Given the moralistic nature of Victorian society this inevitably gave rise to considerable debate amongst the chattering classes. Often this was conducted through the columns of the newspapers, which had become obsessed with the condition of the underclass in what would now be described as ‘the inner cities’. The question as to whether people were poor because they drank, or drank because they were poor was well aired. In fact this debate pre-dated the Ripper murders by a few years. Early sociologists such as Charles Booth (who performed studies in the East End) had already investigated the subject. Booth had reached the unfashionable conclusion that it was the poor socio-economic conditions of the area that caused excessive drinking.
Whatever the cause, newspaper reports and court records of the time show a constant stream of offenders being dealt with by magistrates. A study of the penalties for being drunk and disorderly shows a full range of sentences, from fines to jail sentences with hard labour. Miscreants were frequently imprisoned because they could not afford to pay the fine.
Although the Calico Acts protected the silkweaving trade for a few decades, increased smuggling, gradual exporting of skills and methods to other parts of the country, slowly eroded the Spitalfields stranglehold on the industry. Sporadic flashes of aggro broke out. In 1739 a master weaver’s house in Spital Square was besieged by workers, who tried to destroy it – they were dispersed by guards.
But by the 1760s tensions between masters and workers had grown to eruption point. Dissatisfaction over pay among journeymen silkweavers was increasing; and 7,072 looms were out of employment, with a slump in the trade partly caused by smuggling (carried on to a greater extent than ever). In 1762, the journeymen wrote a Book of Prices, in which they recorded the piecework rates they were prepared to work for (an increase on current rates in most cases). They had the Book printed up and delivered to the masters – who rejected it. As a result two thousand weavers assembled and began to break up looms and destroy materials, and went on strike.
There followed a decade of struggle by weavers against their masters, with high levels of violence on both sides.
Tactics included stonings, sabotage, riots and ‘skimmingtons’ (mocking community humiliation of weavers working below agreed wage levels: offenders were mounted on an ass backwards & driven through the streets, to the accompaniment of ‘rough music’ played on pots and pans). The battle escalated to open warfare, involving the army, secret subversive groups of weavers, and ended in murder and execution.
In 1763 thousands of weavers took part in wage riots & machine smashings, armed with cutlasses and disguised, destroying looms. They broke open one of the master’s houses, destroyed his looms, cut to pieces much valuable silk, carried his effigy in a cart through the neighbourhood and afterwards burnt it, hung in chains from a gibbet. The military occupied parts of Spitalfields in response.
The following year, with the slump worsening, weavers petitioned Parliament to impose double duties upon all foreign wrought silks. This petition being rejected, crowds of weavers went to the House of Commons on 10 January 1764, ‘with drums beating and banners flying,’ to demand the total prohibition of foreign silks. This was the day of the opening of Parliament: its members were besieged by the weavers with tales of the great distress which had fallen upon them and their families. Parliament did pass some laws lowering the import duty on raw silk and prohibiting the importation of silk ribbons, stockings, and gloves, and dealers in foreign silks gave assurances they would reduce orders for foreign silks, and a contribution was made for the immediate relief of the sufferers. These actions appeased the weavers for a while, and the only violence committed was that of breaking the windows of some merchants who dealt in French silks.
In 1765, however, wage riots broke out again; at a time of high food prices & unemployment. In May 8000 weavers armed with bludgeons and pickaxes, besieged and attacked Bedford House in Bloomsbury three times, after the Duke engineered the defeat of a bill in the House of Lords designed to protect the silkweaving trade by placing high import duties on Italian silks. The 4th Duke of Bedford was a whig politician, in and out of various positions of power; leader at one time of a political faction nick-named the Bloomsbury Gang; his extensive interests in the East India Company, which was engaged in importing cheaper Indian textiles, also undercutting the weavers’ livelihoods, made him an even more hated target.
Continued rioting by the weavers all month in Spitalfields and elsewhere kept London in such a state of general alarm that troops were stationed in the area and in Moorfields, and the citizens enrolled themselves for military duty. As a result of the May riots an Act was passed in 1765 declaring it to be felony and punishable with death to break into any house or shop with intent maliciously to damage or destroy any silk goods in the process of manufacture.
In 1767 wage disputes broke out again: masters who had reduced piece rates had silk cut from their looms. At a hearing in the Weavers Court, in November that year, a case was heard, in which a number of journeymen demanded the 1762 prices from their Book be agreed. The Court agreed that some masters had caused trouble by reducing wages and ruled that they should abide by the Book. However this had little effect, and trouble carried on sporadically.
Trouble was also breaking out between groups of workers: single loom weavers and engine looms weavers were now at loggerheads. On 30 November 1767, “ a body of weavers, armed with rusty swords, pistols and other offensive weapons, assembled at a house on Saffron-hill, with an intent to destroy the work of an eminent weaver without much mischief.” On the authorities arresting and questioning some of them it turned out this was a dispute between hand loom weavers and machine loom users.
The events of 1762-7 however were merely a curtain raiser for 1768-69 though. The ‘Cutters’ Riots’ saw a prolonged struggle with bitter violence, rioting, threatening letters to employers, hundreds of raids on factories. Strikers in other trades joined in the mayhem. Crowds of weavers also forcibly set their own prices in the food markets, in defiance of high prices.
In the Summer of 1769, an attempt to cut wages by some masters led some journeymen to organise a levy on looms, to raise money to fund organised resistance. Secret clubs were formed, including one allegedly called the Bold Defiance, (or Conquering and Bold Defiance, or the Defiance Sloop), which attempted to levy a tax on anyone who owned or possessed a loom. They met at the Dolphin Tavern in Cock Lane, Bethnal Green. Their methods of fund-raising bordered, shall we say, on extortion, expressed in the delivery to silk weaving masters of Captain Swing style notes: ”Mr Hill, you are desired to send the full donation of all your looms to the Dolphin in Cock Lane. This from the conquering and bold Defiance to be levied four shillings per loom.”
Which brings us to Lewis Chauvet, a major silk boss, whose factory was here in Crispin Street: leading manufacturer of silk handkerchiefs, who had already been involved in bitter battles against striking weavers in Dublin. He forbade his workers to join the weavers’ clubs or to pay any levies, and organised a private guard on his looms. As a result, the cutters gathered in large numbers and tried to force Chauvet’s workers to pay up. Fights broke out and many people on both sides were badly hurt. Then, on the night of Thursday 17th August, the cutters assembled in gangs and went to the homes of Chauvet’s workers, cutting the silk out of more than fifty looms. Four nights later, on Monday 21st, they gathered in even greater numbers and cut the silk out of more than a hundred looms. Throughout the night the streets of Spitalfields resounded to the noise of pistols being fired in the air.
Chauvet’s response to this episode was to advertise a reward of £500 for information leading to the arrest of those responsible. But for several weeks the people of Spitalfields remained silent, either for fear of the cutters, or because they did not wish to give evidence that might send a man to the gallows.
This was going way too far for the authorities. On 30 Sept 1769, magistrates, Bow St Runners and troops raided the Bold Defiance’ HQ at the Dolphin Tavern, finding the cutters assembled, armed, and “receiving the contributions of terrified manufacturers.” A firefight started between the weavers and the soldiers and runners, which left two cutters and a soldier dead; four weavers were arrested.
As a result, two weavers, John Valloine & John Doyle, implicated by witnesses who claimed a reward from Chauvet, were convicted of murder and hanged on the 6th December 1769, despite an organised attempt to free them, and attacks on the men building the gallows with stones. Doyle and Valloine were hanged at corner of Bethnal Green Road and Cambridge Heath Road. After their execution the crowd tore down the gallows, rebuilt them in front of Chauvet’s factory/house here in Crispin Street, and 5,000 people gathered to smash the windows & burn his furniture. Two weeks later on December 20th, more cutters were executed: William Eastman, William Horsford and John Carmichael. Daniel Clarke, a silk pattern drawer and small employer was paid by Chauvet to give evidence against some of the hanged men. He had regularly tried to undercut agreed wage rates and had testified before against insurgent weavers.
Loom with a Jacquard pattern head. The cards with holes in to guide the loom into weaving particular patterns pre-figured early card-driven computers
Although the repression quietened things down for a year or so, these hangings still had a grim epitaph. On 16th April 1771, Daniel Clarke was spotted walking through Spitalfields streets, and chased by a crowd of mainly women and boys, including the widow of William Horsford, and finally stoned to death in the Hare Street Pond in Bethnal Green. In Spitalfields this was widely seen as community justice – the official ‘justices’ had to squash another open challenge. Two more weavers, Henry Stroud – William Eastman’s brother in law – and Robert Campbell were hanged in Hare Street on July 8th for Clarke’s ‘murder’. Witnesses had to be bribed to testify, and were attacked; Justice Wilmot, who arrested the two men, only just escaped the angry crowd, and a hundred soldiers had to be posted to ensure the hanging took place.
Although prices were fixed between masters and workers, nothing obliged the masters to keep to them. In 1773, further discontent broke out. Handbills circulated, addressed to weavers, coalheavers, porters and carmen (cartdrivers), to ‘Rise’ and petition the king. Silkweavers met at Moorfields on April 26th, incited by another handbill that read “Suffer yourselves no longer to be persecuted by a set of miscreants, whose way to Riches and power lays through your Families and by every attempt to starve and Enslave you…” Magistrates however met with them, and persuaded them to disperse, promising them a lasting deal. This materialised in the form of the Spitalfields Acts. The first Act, in 1773, laid down that wages for journeymen weavers were to be set, and maintained, at a reasonable level by the local Magistrates, (in Middlesex) or the Lord Mayor or Aldermen (in the City). Employers who broke the agreed rate would be fined £50; journeymen who demanded more would also be punished, and silk weavers were prohibited from having more than two apprentices at one time.
The Act of 1792 included those weavers who worked upon silk mixed with other materials, and that of 1811 extended the provisions to female weavers.
The Spitalfields Acts were renewed several times until 1824. Opinion at the time as to their effect on the local silk industry was sharply divided: in the 1810s/1820s they were the subject of a pamphlet war and verbal exchanges in the newspapers. Historians also disagree. On one hand wages were not reduced to starvation levels across the board, as had happened before. On the other it was claimed they had a negative effect on the weavers and industry; some manufacturers upped sticks and moved up north where they could pay cheaper wages. It did sometimes mean that some men would be working at full rates while others would have been laid off by masters unable, or unwilling, or who didn’t have enough work to pay the proper rate; a slump in the trade between 1785 and 1798 forced thousands of weavers completely out of work. Although things were better between 1798 and 1815, the post-War recession bit hard; at a public meeting held at the Mansion House on 26 November 1816, for the relief of the weavers, the secretary stated that two-thirds of them were without employment and without the means of support, that ‘some had deserted their houses in despair unable to endure the sight of their starving families, and many pined under languishing diseases brought on by the want of food and clothing.’
One major result at least between 1773 and 1824 seems to have been an end to weavers’ riots and cuttings… It is argued in pamphlets in the 1820s that the Spitalfields weavers were diverted from radical, reforming and revolutionary politics, especially in the 1790s and 1810s when other similar groups of workers were widely attracted to such ideas. For instance, no or few weavers were supposed to have taken place in the food riots of 1795… [Interestingly local anger may have also been diverted in 1795 by the opening of London’s first ever soup kitchen. Its founder, Patrick Colquhoun, had the stated aim of preventing the poor being attracted by revolutionary ideas at the time of the French Revolution & widespread radical activity; he was a clever theorist of controlling the troublesome workers with repression and paternalism hand in hand, and was also instrumental in forming the Thames River Police, an important forerunner of the Met.]
So if it is the case that some weavers were skint while others worked, the Acts may have worked to reduce militancy and split the weavers movement.
The division over the Acts can be seen then as a traditional split in ruling/employer attitudes to workers militancy: either pacify them and reduce trouble, or reduce their wages savagely regardless and repress any resistance. In the 1770s the paternal idea of a local state intervention to keep the peace in everyone ‘s interest prevailed, but in the harsher times of the laissez-faire 1820s they were an expensive anachronism. Manufacturers may have moved their business out to areas with less of a rebellious tradition in any case, however.
It is certain that Repeal of the Acts in 1824, under the ‘progressive’ Whig program of economic liberalisation, was very unpopular among weavers (an 11,000 strong petition was got up in 3 days against repeal, and there were demos at parliament) and resulted in widespread wage cuts and extreme poverty. The trade was sabotaged. But the fight had seemingly gone out of the weavers… Although there were some strikes, loom–cutting and window smashing, it was ineffective.
Repeal led to or coincided with terrible poverty in area: (see Buxton Street, below).
After 1830, the London silkweaving industry went into a terminal decline,. Although in 1831 there were still 17,000 looms in the East End, and some 50,000 people in Spitalfields, Mile End New Town and Bethnal Green were directly dependent on silk weaving, 30,000 were said to be unemployed here in the 1830s. The steam-powered loom gradually took over from handloom-weaving. Although some weavers migrated to other silk-working areas, most remained, many taking to casual work in spells of unemployment, especially on the docks. An 1837 Poor Law Report stated that ‘a considerable number of the weavers are fellowship porters and are employed in unloading vessels at London docks during seasons of distress.’ Many weavers worked half in and half out of the trade through the 1840s and 1850s, hopeful that the good times would return. But the fate of the industry was finally sealed by the Cobden free trade treaty with France in 1860, which allowed cheaper french silks in without duty. In the twenty years, the numbers dependent on the silk trade fell from 9,500 to 3,300. A deputation of silk weavers to the Board of Trade in 1866, stated that in the previous six years, their wage rates had been reduced by 20 per cent, and the price paid for weaving standard velvet had fallen front 4s. 3d. per yard in 1825 to 1s. 9d. per yard. A dwindling band of ageing workers remained in the trade, sharing out the limited work that continued to be available.
But the clothing trade has remained a major employer in the area, though today it has moved on from silkweaving, (through different branches of tailoring), to wholesaling and retailing clothing. Clothes are still made here, overwhelmingly in small workshops or people’s homes, for low pay, usually the province of migrant workers or their children. New communities moving into the area could be hired to work at lower rates than existing workers. The Irish were hired to work power looms to undercut the rebellious descendants of the hugenots…
Although the Spitalfields Acts said by historians to have kept weavers out of food riots during the various crises of the French/Napoleonic Wars, at the same time, reforming and radical groupings met in Spitalfields and had support in this area through the 1790s to the 1830s.
In the late 1790s, the various splinter groups variously called the United Britons, United Englishmen or the True Britons were active here. These groups emerged from the wreckage of the London Corresponding Society, a reforming organisation formed in 1792 among London artisans and workers. The LCS had campaigned for an extension of the vote for working men, but even this simple reform had scared the British government in the atmosphere following the French Revolution: they saw the shadow of the guillotine in even the most polite of working class organisation. The LCS became more radical as it faced increasing government repression, mass surveillance by Home Office spies, arrests, treason trials, and as laws were passed attacking freedom of expression and association and removing legal protection from detainees.
LCS Division 17 formed November 1792 met at the Black Swan, Brown’s Lane, Spitalfields; Brown’s Lane changed its name to Hanbury Street in 1876. The Black Swan was at 23 Hanbury Street until 1899, on the north side of the street.
Faced with massive repression, the failure of the LCS’ main tactics of the monster rally and gradual education, some frustrated radicals gave up on demands for reform, and decided that only a revolution by force would achieve any gains at all for the lower classes. By 1797, small fractions of the LCS were organising in secret, making links with like-minded groups in other cities (and in Ireland, which was ready to explode). Leading lights included former LCS Secretary Thomas Evans, and Dr Crossfield. The United Englishmen attempted to create grassroots divisions in late 1797, and local societies existed in Spitalfields and other parts of the East End. After a crackdown and some arrests in 1798, the underground groups revived in 1799, as part of a structure based on cells, centred on former soldier Colonel Despard, who had recently been released from detention. In the East End they effectively merged with the Sons of Liberty, another radical splinter group. The Seven Stars Pub was a Sons of Liberty/United Englishmen rendesvous in 1798-99. (possibly in Seven Star Yard, off Brick Lane). These groups attempted to plot an uprising, with support from disaffected soldiers, radical groups nationwide and irish republicans, culminating in an abortive insurrection in 1802, for which Despard and others were executed.
Later, during the economic slump that followed the end of the Napoleonic War, mass unemployment (as hundreds of thousands were suddenly demobbed from the army and navy, and the war economy collapsed), food shortages and high prices led to unrest all over the country. 1815 saw riots all year, including against the new ‘Corn Laws’, Acts of Parliament designed to guarantee maximum profits for the English landed aristocracy (who then dominated Parliament) by banning cheap imports of corn; in times of bad harvest this meant high bread prices. The government cracked down, sending in troops and passing new repressive laws. 45,000 people were said to be ‘in want’ in Spitalfields at this time; how many weavers were involved in the Corn Law riots and the battle of Spa Fields (where rioters looted gun shops) is not known… But local taverns again saw heated gatherings of the ultra-radicals, plotting insurrection and rebellion: some of them even veterans of the 1790s movement. The Golden Key Tavern, the Red Lion (possibly 92 Commercial Street?, on the east side, at entrance to modern Puma Court, then Red Lion Court) ), and the Spotted Dog, were all said in 1817/18 to be regular meeting places of the insurrectionary revolutionaries.
The National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC) had a Spitalfields and East End branch. The NUWC formed as an alliance of metropolitan radicals, mainly artisans, and campaigned for political reform, mainly through demanding the vote for working men.
Later, the East London Democratic Association, a ‘physical force’ Chartist organisation, was strong in Spitalfields, with alot of support among the silkweavers.
Walk west down Artillery Lane, then north up Gun Street, to the corner with Brushfield Street
Jewish immigration in Whitechapel and Spitalfields
In 1881 the assassination of the russian Tsar Alexander II, and the wave of anti-semitic pogroms that followed it, forced thousands of Russian Jews to leave Russia. The first wave of Jewish immigrants to Britain came after the May Laws of 1882, restricting Jewish trades and settlement. It was followed by a second wave 10 years later when the Jews were expelled from Moscow. Most landed in Britain having lost most of their possessions, or been robbed on the way, charged extortionate amounts to travel etc; they usually disembarked in St Katherine’s Dock, Wapping or Tilbury, and so gravitated to the poor parts of the East End. Between 1880 and 1905 Whitechapel and part of Spitalfields were transformed into a Jewish zone. Brick Lane became the main street of what was truly a ghetto, around old Montague Street, Chicksand Street, Booth Street, and Hanbury Street. By 1901 many streets around Brick Lane were 100 per cent Jewish, and in the western part of Spitalfields Jews also came to dominate life: in Wentworth St, 48 out of 85 shops were jewish run by the 1890s.
Anti-semitism has a long history, but large-scale Jewish migration into the area sparked a new and specific campaign against it. There was fierce anti-immigrant agitation; and not just from right-wingers. Central figures in this campaign included people like Major Evans-Gordon, the MP for Stepney, (whose speeches and writings are remarkably similar to those of Enoch Powell later), the Reverend Billing of Spitalfields, the local vicar; and Arnold White, but also from East End trade unions. An early rally against Jewish immigration produced a resolution to Parliament calling for bans on migrants, signed by 43 unions including the Dockers Union; pioneer socialist and much revered dockers leader Ben Tillet was outspokenly very anti-immigrant.
Much of the writing and speechmaking Invasion’ described them as being of inferior race of humanity, and tried to establish a causal link between the Jews and poverty, and the creation of social evils in the areas they inhabited. Arnold White’s symposium The Destitute Alien in Great Britain was published in 1892. Books like WH Wilkins’ ‘The Alien Invasion’ described them as being of inferior class, questioned whether they in fact brought Russian persecution upon themselves, and campaigned for strict immigration laws.
Locally the Jewish migrants, overcrowded like most new-coming communities into the worst housing, were blamed for the squalor, overcrowding and poverty they lived in; accusations repeated by other working class people barely escaped from a similar position, but most vehemently by those of the class that profited nicely from renting slums at over-inflated rents. The same accusations had been levelled at the Irish, wherever they had ‘colonised’, and were later repeated against West Indians in Brixton and Notting Hill in the 1950s and ’60s.
In 1901 Major Evans-Gordon and others formed the British Brothers’ League, basically a nationalist and racist organisation, to help build up anti-immigrant activity. Every Conservative candidate in Bethnal Green, Hoxton and Haggerston – districts where organised racism remained a major feature for decades – exploited anti-immigrant attitudes in elections from 1892 to 1906. This pressure paid off, contributing to the passing the first Aliens Act. restricting immigration, in 1905.
Local working class people from older communities often saw the Jews as direct competition in the daily struggle for jobs. The East End had long depended on casual, low paid work, where you might compete day by day to get work ahead of your neighbours. Others were ‘self-employed’ in precarious circumstances; for instance many of the incomers either were or became street pedlars, selling in the street, which was a direct threat to the livelihoods of the mostly irish costermongers (street-traders) of Spitalfields and Bethnal Green. many of these organized their own agitation against Jewish immigration; much as their ancestors had also been attacked in earlier centuries.
Anti-semitic traditions passed down to 1930s Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, strong in Bethnal Green, Shoreditch and parts of Stepney.
The local Irish population were ironically strongly anti-semitic, despite the story of the jews echoing their own experience in the area 100-150 years earlier. (the powerful influence of the Catholic Church in Irish communities would be a powerful factor, “the Jews killed Our Lord blah blah”…) This echo is a regular feature of life here: migrant communities struggle to gain foothold, provoking fear of difference and economic competition, but when they establish themselves, they often turn on the next migrants to arrive, who they see as threatening their own barely established hold. Many East End Irish were to become strong supporters of Oswald Mosley and his fascists; long-cockneyfied Irish descendants in more recent decades took a dim view of incoming Bangladeshis.
Facing such a hostile reaction, the migrant Jews tended to respond in one of three ways: religious isolationism, a turn to more orthodox judaism; working hard and attempting to assimilate; thirdly, to radicalism, trade unionism and ideas of class solidarity, usually across ‘religious’ lines.
Among Jews in Eastern Europe there was a long and powerful tradition of political radicalism and trade unionism, which art the time of the migrations was evolving into a strong socialist movement.
As a result, a lively and active socialist and trade unionist scene was to grow in the East End, especially in Whitechapel and Spitalfields. It was strongest in the trades where the majority of the migrant Jews worked – in the tailoring trades, and to a lesser extent in bootmaking and among the bakers.
East End tailors, 1913.
Like the silkweaving industry of old, the tailoring trade was subject to many fluctuations. Annually there were two seasons, busy time and slack time: in busy time tailors were overworked, denied breaks, working very long hours; in slack times, there was little or no work, resulting in great poverty and hunger. Pawnbrokers would be the only ones booming, and 100s of unemployed tailors would mill in the streets, waiting to hear about work, gossiping, discussing…
A core of jewish workers and intellectuals who arrived came with experience of involvement in populist and nihilist groups in Eastern Europe; many developed radical critiques of their religion as well as social and political theories. For other immigrants religion became more important in a strange and hostile land, giving sense of belonging etc: this was to lead to many divisions in Jewish political and social struggles over the decades.
In May 1876, the Hebrew Socialist Union was founded here in Gun Street, at no 40. (The current building at no 40 replaced the building they met in, which was demolished in 1976). The HSU’s founders included Aaron Lieberman, who had emigrated to London the year before, having been involved in populist and socialist politics in Russia, and Isaac Stone. The Union aimed to organise among the Jewish working class, spread socialism among Jews and non-Jews, and to support workers’ organisation and struggles; they held educational classes on philosophy, history, revolution, socialism. Although they organised Jewish workers separately from ‘native’ workers they were not separatist, and they did make a noble but ill-fated attempt to approach Irish workers locally, who were often very anti semitic. The HSU also promoted the formation of a tailors union in August 1876.
But the group was paralysed by constant doctrinal disputes; over whether small masters and peddlars were workers and should be allowed in to the HSU; but mostly over religion, assimilation and observance. Liebermann was very anti-religious, but many of the members combined some radical views with religious belief.
Hebrew Socialist Union pamphlet
As well as internal division, the Hebrew Socialist Union also faced hostility from the Anglo-Jewish establishment. Many Jews in established communities, which had more or less made themselves acceptable and respectable to British society, were worried or even opposed to the influx of poor Eastern Jews, especially with so many being of the radical persuasion; would the latent anti-semitism always present here be provoked and would they older more assimilated communities also become targets? The great and good among the more accepted Jews adopted a dual approach: charity towards the new migrants, but accompanied by pressure to settle down, work hard, integrate into ‘normal’ British life, and not make trouble. On the other hand they attacked the HSU in print, trying to discredit them by suggesting they weren’t Jewish, and found support for this among local bosses. Workers found to be HSU members were sacked. Rabbis denounced them, and the Jewish Chronicle accused them of being secret Christian missionaries. Union Meetings were infiltrated by religious jews incited by this, and degenerated into rowdy argument.
Partly as a result, and partly due to dissensions between the more intellectual Lithuanian socialists, and practical-minded workers (mainly from Galicia), both the HSU and its offshoot tailors’ union were shortlived; the HSU collapsed in September 1876, the tailors union split from its socialist founders but collapsed when the treasurer ran off with its funds.
Aaron Lieberman left for America, where he was to kill himself in 1880; but he had influenced the growing Jewish socialist movement in Russia, Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe through his writings in the journal Vperyod, which helped form Jewish socialist movements in those countries.
And brief as its life had been, the Hebrew Socialist Union had laid some foundations for the movements of Jewish radicals, socialists, anarchists, and trade unionists, which continued for decades. Jews formed the basis of East End tailors unions, the movements against sweating in the clothing trades, of the strong East End anarchist movement before World War 1, and later of the strong Jewish element among the Communist Party long into the 20th Century.
Walk west down Brushfield Street to the corner with Fort Street
29a Fort Street was the original editorial address of the Arbeter Fraint, or Workers Friend, a hugely influential and long-running Yiddish language newspaper based in the East End.
The Arbeter Fraint had its origins in the Poilishe Yidel, a socialist paper that was initially based nearby at 137 Commercial Street. First published in 1884, the group that grew up around the paper’s office was of fundamental importance in building the local Jewish radical tradition.
The Poilishe Yidel (meaning the little polish jew, which in itself was a dig an anglo-jewish establishment) was the first socialist paper in Yiddish, founded by Morris Winchevsky, who had arrived in London around 1879, and worked as a book-keeper in the City. He had met up with ex-members of the Hebrew Socialist Union, and took careful note of the religious problems that had dogged the HSU; he laid off from attacks on religion!
Winchevsky launched a socialist paper (sponsored by his mate E. Rabbinowitz) with a three-fold mission: to instruct and support Jewish people, to help the new Jewish migrant or‘greener’ practically (eg in seeking work), and to provide insight into world events, with a radical perspective.
The Yidel employed a strong use of religious language, using quotes directly from religuous texts as headings, etc. This reflected the background of Winchevsky (and several other jewish radical editors) in a religious training they had later rejected.
But this language of religion was also obviously a common point of reference with their audience, as well as often being powerful imagery in itself.
16 issues of the Poilishe Yidel appeared. Winchevsky had a distinctive style, alternating from pathos to bitter irony. The paper featured descriptions of immigrant life in the ‘stetl’ (the slang name for a community mostly populated by Jews); local, national and international news with political analysis and comment, correspondents from Leeds (the other main Jewish centre in the UK). Mainly though the Yidel contained didactic appraisals of life in the ghetto and suggestions for solutions. This included numerous articles on the subject of work – finding it, the pay, exploitation of ‘greeners’ (newly arrived naive Jews), problems with bosses and landlords… The paper continually advised Jews to get involved in the formation of trade unions.
Poilishe Yidel also kept a watch on anti-semitism in the press, meetings, encouraged Jewish workers to get tuition in Yiddish and English.
However, the group putting out the paper split in October 1884: initially this was caused by Winchevsky’s resentment of Rabbinowitz’s insertion of adverts, both religious and commercial, espeically an ad for the Liberal Jewish candidate (later local MP) Samuel Montagu. Under Rabbinowitz’s influence the paper was renamed ‘Zukunft’, went anti-socialist, concentrated on local affairs & ended in 1889…
Winchevsky, however, founded a new paper, the Arbeter Fraint, again published in Yiddish. Initially this was a non-partisan socialist paper, “open to all radicals… social democrats, collectivists, communists, and anarchists”.
This paper always held a global view of socialism, rejecting jewish nationalism along with anti-semitism, and advocating revolution… but Winchevsky remained committed to helping the Jewish poor.
It gathered a group of bright young Jewish writers: eg Benjamin Feigenbaum, (obsessed with debunking religion), wrote anti-religious satires. Evolving from the Yidel’s abstaining where religion was converned, the Arbeter Fraint began to attack on religion: constantly denigrating the Jews’ own ancient faith, sometimes through the parody of religious texts.
Initially the AF attacked trade unions as merely a sop to the workers, as there could be no real improvements under capitalism. Revolution was the only solution and was imminent… But fairly soon realities of conditions in the tailoring sweating trades forced them to concede to necessity, and from 1886 the paper helped the drive toward unionisation.
From a monthly, the paper went weekly in June 1886, and came under control of activists at the Berner Street International Workingmans Educational Club, off Commercial Road, Whitechapel, where it was based till the club closed in 1892.
Gradually the group hardened into a more anarchist position, and recruited several libertarian writers and poets. The group that published it were heavily involved in the agitation among tailoring workers that helped lead to the 1889 tailors strike, 6000 tailors struck for a reduction in hours, breaks, meals to be had off premises, government contractors to pay union rates, no home work at night after hours…120 workshops were closed down.
The strike was won after much agitation, but the master tailors started to break the subsequent agreements immediately.
We’ll return to Arbeter Fraint later
Dino’s café, on the corner of Brushfield Street/Crispin Street was apparently used as an impromptu shelter all night by the many homeless who frequented the area in the 1960s/70s, as it was open all hours for market workers; also mods used to gather here, as it was a hangout for speed dealers in the early ‘60s…
There was also a legendary homeless flame on Brushfield Street, somewhere behaind the market: a leak in a gas pipe possibly?), popularly remembered as the “Spitalfields Fire’, around which the homeless also used to gather. The legend claimed the flame had a charter, that it had burned forever…
People around a fire, Spitafields Market
Apparently there was a Jewish Co-operative Bakery established in Brushfield Street, in September 1894; Yanovsky and Wess of Arbeter Fraint were involved. We have no more info…
Walk down Brushfield Street to the entrance to Spitalfields Market
A regular market has been held on this spot for centuries. In earlier centuries it was a popular spot for selling off materials knocked off from work by dockers, shipyard workers and tailors.
Socking – flogging off tobacco lifted off the docks – was widely practised here… very similar to the selling of smuggled fags & baccy at Brick Lane in more recent times…
The 1880s saw the first attempt to close the market: it was opposed by locals and radicals, successfully. But in 1885 acres of ‘unused ‘land here which the Metropolitan Board (explain) had taken over, were beginning to be built on with warehouses. There was, according to the local Rector, some working‑class anger that new housing was not being built instead: some organised protest meetings took place.
The current Market building was built in 1890; the buildings were extended in 1928.
Fruit and veg market ended in 1980s, when the City of London relocated the market, selling the site to developers Spitalfields Development Group (SDG). Despite the building being partly listed, there have been several attempts to get it demolished, or partly, as the land’s worth a fortune esp with expansion of office blocks into Spitalfields since the 80s.
As an interim measure, while it honed plans for new office blocks, the developers Spitalfields Development Group (SDG) started a Sunday market at the site, with stalls offering everything from organic food to tarot readings. The irony is that the interim market was such a huge success that it was seized upon by opponents to City encroachment as a much better option for Spitalfields than more office blocks. Spitalfields Market Under Threat (Smut) is supported by organisations as disparate as the East London Mosque, the local Georgian house-owners’ association, the local community council and prominent individuals such as Sir Terence Conran, Tracey Emin and Gilbert and George. And the battle between it and the City, the Corporation of London and SDG grows ever more bitter. Smut took its campaign to the heart of the City where members unfurled a “Don’t Demolish Neighbourhood Assets” banner outside the Bank of England, where the Corporation of London was hosting a debate on East End regeneration.
Two-fifths of the market – built in 1890, listed and, therefore, protected – is now in the hands of Ballymore developers who are promising to preserve a reduced stall market in their new commercial development.
Ironically much of the support for the campaigns against demolishing the market is centred on newer occupants, buying in to cheap property prices but driving up land values… another case of one wave of gentrification resisting the one that follows them?
We’ll return to gentrification later on…
Walk across Commercial Street into Fournier Street, walk east, then north into Wilkes Street
Wilkes Street is named for John Wilkes, demagogue, rakish hellraiser, sometime reformer (and eventual pillar of the establishment), through the 1760s and 1770s, Wilkes served as a figurehead for a collection of varied and almost contradictory political and social urges – the national pressure for reform of the electoral franchise, the struggle for ‘liberty’ of the subject, the teeming resentments of the artisans and apprentices against their ‘betters’…
Wilkes had many allies in the City of London, among powerful merchants who combined genuine opposition to the corrupt political establishment with an eye for their own advancement. He tapped into widespread desires across the country for electoral reform, among a middle class frustrated by their exclusion from political representation.
But he could also excite a rowdy mob… Several times in the years from 1763 to 1772 his supporters thronged the city of London and terrified the ruling elite.
After Wilkes in 1763 criticised a royal speech in which King George III praised the Treaty of Paris ending the Seven Years’ War, he was charged with libel, in effect, accusing the King of lying. This got him locked up in the Tower of London and, when he fled into exile, he was declared an outlaw in 1764.
Wilkes returned from exile in February 1768, a move which was to spark a huge agitation across the capital. Wilkes petitioned for a royal pardon, an appeal that went unanswered, but he was left free by the authorities. Despite still technically being an outlaw, he attempted without success to win election to the House of Commons in Westminster; when that failed, he stood for election in Middlesex in late March. Accompanied by a great crowd from London, Wilkes attended the hustings in Brentford, and was duly elected as MP for Middlesex. This result, a slap in the face for the government, caused outbreaks of wild celebrating among elements of the ‘London Mobility’, who rejoiced in the streets, harassing householders (especially the well-to-do) into lighting up their houses ‘for Wilkes and Liberty’ (smashing windows of those who refused). Despite Wilkes appealing for calm, demonstrations and riots followed for nearly two months.
On 27 April 1768: John Wilkes was brought to the 3 Tuns Tavern in Wilkes Street by a crowd & spoke to a vast mob…
Within a couple of weeks he was in prison and the authorities were shooting his supporters at the ‘Massacre of St George’s Fields’.
The weavers seized on the popular figure of Wilkes at a time of fierce class struggle in their trade, and gave him mass support…
Like many another popular leader, Wilkes eventually made his peace with the establishment and ended up Mayor of London, and commanded troops against later rioters in 1780.
An anarchist group called ‘proletariat’ was said by a hostile press report to meet in Wilkes Street in 1891…
Walk down to Wilkes Street to Hanbury St: Stop at Christchurch Hall
Christchurch Hall, Hanbury Street, was used for many strike meetings and radical gatherings from the 1880s; including the famous striking matchgirls in 1888, anti-sweating rallies, by striking tailors during the massive strikes in 1889 and the 1890s, by anti-development campaigns in Brick Lane (1919); also by the local anarchists: the Arbeter Fraint group held public meetings and anti-religious balls here.
1891: An anarchist mantlemakers union briefly existed in Hanbury Street, possibly the same ‘Knights of Freedom’ said to have had a club in Hanbury Street in 1891… not sure where? But could have been at the Sugar Loaf pub…
Walk down to Brick Lane, across and down to eastern end of Hanbury Street
After the demise of the Berner Street anarchist club in November 1892, the Arbeter Fraint group, now completely anarchist, held its weekly meetings at the Sugar Loaf Public House, then no 187 Hanbury Street, somewhere at eastern end… In a building since demolished.
They met in in a large hall behind the bar. The pub atmosphere could be hostile: “there were always several drunks there, men and women, who used foul language and became abusive when they saw a foreigner.” Meetings were held on Friday nights, and the regular lectures were given sometimes in English, Yiddish, German or Russian! Speakers included Rudolf Rocker, John Turner, William Wess, Tcherkesov, and many more… The Sugar Loaf was home to the group right up until they established their own club again in Jubilee Street in Stepney in 1906.
According to Rocker the Arbeter Fraint group was overwhelmingly composed of workers, “sad and worn, they were sweatshop workers, badly paid, and half-starved. They sat crowded together on hard benches, and the badly lighted room made them seem paler than they really were. But they followed the speaker with rapt attention…”
The group in the early 1900s included Rudolf Rocker, the Mitcop sisters Millie and Rose, ‘Red’ Rose Robins, who like several other Arbeter Frainters worked as a tailor; and Judith Goodman, who always wore a wig as cossacks had torn all her hair out before she emigrated from Russia.
But increasingly the group was centred around Rudolf Rocker, who became a hugely influential figure in the East End, for a few short years. German, not in fact Jewish, Rocker was originally a socialist, who became an anarchist under the influence of Malatesta and Louise Michel after migrating to London. Moving to East London and got involved in the Sugar Loaf/Arbeter Fraint circle, learning Yiddish so as to immerse himself in the life of the Jewish community…
In 1905 Rocker was accused of being a German government spy and was called to answer the charge at a meeting of London-based anarchists in a large back room of a pub at the corner of Old Montague Street and Osborne Street – now called The Archers. The meeting ended in uproar but Rocker’s innocence was established.
The Arbeter Fraint Group were centrally involved in many tailors’ strikes, including a 3-week mass strike of June 1906. This emerged from a growing militancy, sparked by a masters lockout, led to mass walkouts and sympathy strikes. A strike committee was set up in a HQ in Independent Tailors & Garment workers Union office in Old Montague Street (since demolished). There was mass picketing, and scabs were kidnapped and released to their families on payment of a fine into the strike fund! But workers were driven gradually back to work by hardship, and though it was settled with concession on hours and abolition of piece work, the terms won were ambivalent, masters also forced concessions on the workers, and union membership suffered.
The effects of this strike were not totally reversed till the massive 1912 Tailors Strike, when East End tailors struck en masse in solidarity with a (mainly non-Jewish) West End strike, refusing to scab, inspired by a powerful Rocker speech at a meeting in Wonderland Theatre, Whitechapel. 13,000 Jewish tailors came out and made their own demands; this time Rocker and other Arbeter Frainters were on the strike committee. Demands were formulated for a 9 hour working day, payment by day work not piece work, higher wages, closed union shops, an end to bad conditions at work… Attempts to starve workers back by lockout failed, and the workers won all their demands – paving the way for an end to sweating and possibility of united tailors unions… Rocker and the AF group encouraged support for 1911 and 1912 dock strikes, and many Jewish workers took dockers children into homes in 1912… They made links that lasted years, bearing fruit into the 1930s and the battle of Cable Street…
The Jewish anarchist workers movement declined with World War 1; Rocker was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ for the duration of the war, and many Jews went back to Russia with the 1917 revolution… Many anarchists and syndicalists joined the Communist Party under the influence of the Soviet victory, others left the movement as Jews gradually moved to other areas of London.
Walk east down Hanbury Street to Greatorex Street, turn right, walk down Greatorex Street to Chicksand Street
In 1917, Isaac Glassman ran a coal depot in Chicksand Street. After the Russian Revolution, Poplar socialists Glassman & Edgar Lansbury allegedly stashed the Russian Crown Jewels (smuggled into Britain by Russian socialists) here, while they tried to flog them, to raise money for the socialist Daily Herald paper! But Edgar’s dad George Lansbury, then running the Herald, quashed the idea; the jewels eventually ended up in the US but it’s not clear what happened to the money…
Continue down Greatorex Street to Old Montague Street, turn right
Housing conditions for the working classes in Spitalfields were notoriously terrible for centuries. A 1837 outbreak of fever among silkweavers was blamed on their bad housing. The People of the Abyss damns the state of housing here… Little had changed by the 1970s. Local housing was overcrowded, especially in the privately rented tenements and terraces, but also in council flats; often there was no hot water, no heating, bad sanitation, no baths, no inside toilets… lots of bugs and damp.
Many houses were traditionally combined with workplaces, from the weavers through to the Jewish tailors who took piecework in their homes.
Spitalfields didn’t feature in the 1944 County of London Plan to improve housing, or get much rehousing post WW2, especially in the then Jewish areas. Spitalfields and St Mary’s Ward (south of Whitechapel Road, around Parfett Street) were two local wards left out of the post-war plan; much of the buildings there into the 1970s were hangovers from a century or more earlier.
From the building of Commercial Street to County of London Plan 1944, middle classes have always seen it as legit to force people out of an area when they didn’t fit the plan… This continues…
By the 1960s, locals, including the Jewish communities, were often moving on from this part of the East End. The more affluent Jewish often moved to Stamford Hill, Tottenham, Finchley, Golders Green etc… Those with less cash ended up rehoused in LCC/GLC housing, often in Becontree and Ilford estates (the LCC had managed to buy 1000 acres of Ilford land before WW2) .
Left unimproved by the bulldozing planners, Spitalfields and St Mary’s Ward where were cheap private rents were available for early Bengali immigrants moving into the area in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Many first moved into private housing as they couldn’t get into council housing; but private also was not easy – in 1966 a third of all ads for private housing specified ‘no coloureds’.
The earliest Bengali settlers were men, migrant workers; most crowded into a few houses in Settles Street (off Fieldgate Street), Princelet Street, Old Montague Street, Heneage Street, and Wilkes Street …
The men came first, arriving from the nineteen-fifties as guestworkers to help solve the labour shortage. Later, they sent for their wives and families, many leaving extreme poverty, natural disaster and war in Bangladesh. Spitalfields and Whitechapel again saw the growth of concentrated migrant communities, once again mainly poor and facing the same dynamics of racism and resistance, as well as an ongoing struggle between insularity and integration into the East End…
Their settlement followed patterns, overcrowding, multiple occupation houses and flats, in a bad state of repair, many buildings containing houses and workshops.
Spitalfields by the 1970s and 1980s had nearly the highest overcrowding, nearly highest unemployment levels, nearly highest percentage of unskilled and semi-skilled workers in London. The Bengali migrants were generally working in the clothing trade, having gradually taken over as the workforce where the older Jewish tailors moved on. As previously noted, the East End clothing trades relied heavily on proximity to West End, and a quick response to fashion and seasonal changes. Fast turnover was crucial to supply shops in the West End and further afield, as were low overheads: home workers represented a major cost saving for employers. Around 1989, 12 per cent of the Spitalfields population was working in the home.
There was little contact between Bengalis and the older white population (which was itself far from homogenous, encompassing not only British, but also the descendants of Irish, Maltese, and Jewish groups: many of who were considered ‘less than white’ and targeted for discrimination and racism for decades)
White people mainly lived in the best of local council housing, and mainly worked for the council or in service industries by the 1980s, while 2/3 of Bengalis were in clothing trades. But a quarter of white population were pensioners by the 70s. Many younger and more mobile whites had moved out of slums, taken housing further east or out in Essex. Much of the local Council housing was pre-war, and had no lifts, heating or bathrooms; even the more modern 60s stuff was at its worst (like some flats in the Chicksand Estate) badly designed. unheatable, damp, with warping timbers, and leaks…
Many white tenants wanted to leave, but others had long roots in area, felt a sense of community, and wanted to stay and fight for improvements. Some of their activities were based on racism, however; the age old local dynamic that the last community in are the scum of the earth and the descendants of the previous waves of migrants will give them hell, forgetting their own forbears’ experience (of course there were exceptions to this).
Some white tenants mounted resistance to Bengalis being rehoused in council flats. White tenants on the Holland Estate tried to prevent a Bengali Community school being resited in neighbouring Denning St; white tenants in Chicksand Estate tried to stop new houses in Davenant Street being built for Bengalis.
Both of these did go through in the end.
In 1974, mounting anger over housing conditions led to mass leaflettings and a mass meeting in the Montefiore Centre, which led to the creation of Spit Community Action Group. Discussions among the Bengali community around this time also led to the birth of Spitalfields Bengali Action Group.
Many tenants in old mansion blocks had to campaign to get rehoused. The blocks, often built as model dwellings to replace the rookery housing in the 19th century, and seen as prestigious enough in their day, had themselves fallen into decline.
In Brunswick Buildings, Petticoat Lane, walls were collapsing, postmen wouldn’t go in; the bin men couldn’t drive their cart in due to overparking from the array of Jags and Opels of businessmen working in nearby offices. The tenants fought for a council CPO and got themselves rehoused…
Similarly two years of campaigns at Pelham Buildings, Howard Buildings , Albert Family Dwellings (all off Deal Street and Buxton Street) by tenants action committees got people rehoused.
Often campaigns for rehousing in the same local area, or for modernisation of the existing blocks, was turned down; the council had longer term plans to sell land off for office developments, as at Brady Street Dwellings, which contained well built flats which could have been modernised.
Amidst the housing struggles, the Bengalis and other community groups united to resist plans to ghettoize them… especially vital for the Bengalis, as they tended to get left behind when white tenants were rehoused, or faced racist attacks and harassment when rehoused into council estates in other parts of the borough. Which often led to them fleeing back to the areas where the Bengali community clustered already, for self-defence, community, to avoid being isolated and attacked. Young Bengalis were in the forefront of the anti-ghetto movement. Ironically, given the isolation and hostility Bengalis faced when rehoused on overwhelmingly white estates, institutions like Tower Hamlets Council and the GLC were worried about areas or streets becoming exclusively Bengali.
Horace Cutler, leader of the GLC in the late 1970s, expressed “extreme disquiet” about proposals to rehouse Asian families together, rejecting “ absolutely the kind of social engineering which could result in all-Asian estates or blocks.
The complex struggle for better housing conditions and rehousing was further refracted by the emergence of squatting in the early-mid 1970s.
From 1969-70 onwards, right across London squatters were invading housing that had been left empty, often by over‑ambitious council development programmes that had backfired. Tower Hamlets was no exception. Although many of the early squatters were young, white and single, Bengali families were quick to join in. Some were homeless families who’d been rehoused on white estates, and had been punched and stoned back to E1 by systematic racist violence. Others were looking for places to squat to avoid this fate, as the council was offering them nothing through the waiting list, and they had exhausted the goodwill of friends and relatives who had been putting them up. These were some of the very first Bengali families to join their men in London.
The squatting began in Bromley Street, Aston Street, Whitehorse Lane, Belgrave Street in East Stepney, then Adelina Grove near Sidney Street, and Parfett Street, Myrdle Street and Fieldgate Mansions off Whitechapel Road. Students mixed in with Bengali families.
The cutting edge of the movement was an organisation which called itself the ‘Faceless Homeless’. They escalated the confrontation in 1974 by seizing a decanted council block in Bow called Sumner House, and held it despite everything the council could do.
Tower Hamlets Council accused squatters of ‘jumping the waiting list’. However, the council itself was sponsoring its own way of jumping the list: the Housing Ballot, where young couples ‘won’ a council house if their names were picked out of a Bingo drum. This ended any pretence that housing was being allocated according to need; if housing were allocated on the basis of need, Bengalis stood a chance, as they were living in the very worst housing. The Bingo Ballot was a thinly disguised way of giving white working‑class families, who weren’t living in the worst slums, a chance to beat Bengalis to rehousing.
Bengalis, living in desperate, overcrowded conditions, faced no priority for council housing, and so had to take action for themselves. In the summer of 1975, the first mass Bengali squat in Spitalfields opened up the empty houses of Old Montague Street, housing twenty‑two adults and 50 children. This kickstarted a rush of squatting in the area: empties in Varden Street and Nelson Street were taken over. And the more houses were squatted, the collective strength helped make everyone safer from individual eviction. Many of the homes had been recently vacated by tenants who had struggled collectively for rehousing.
A council attempt of a show of force against the Faceless Homeless in occupation of a block in Corfield Street, Bethnal Green, in 1975, where gangs were sent in to knock the block down with the squatters still inside, faced stout resistance, including the petrol‑bombing of the demolition equipment, and the Corfield Street squatters were given permanent rehousing as a Tenant Management Co‑operative in Wapping.
February 1976 saw the various Bengali squatted streets unite as the Bengali Housing Action Group, known as BHAG (bhag is also Bengali for ‘tiger’!) Largely a creation of Abbas Uddin, one of the organisers of the Bengali squats (and later the first Bengali Labour councillor), Terry Fitzpatrick, one of the Faceless Homeless, supported of the editorial collective of the magazine Race Today. At its peak BHAG was several hundred families strong, with a core of 150 in the four main squatted streets. Under BHAG’s auspices another block was taken, this time the recently emptied Pelham Buildings in the heart of Spitalfields. Bengali squatters controlled a large chunk of the housing at the heart of the council’s local development programme. They were in a strong position to demand terms for proper council rehousing for its membership.
Homes were rewired, replumbed, reglazed by the squatters. But many of the homes had degenerated into near- slum conditions, which was why they lay empty, and a lot were in a poor state. DIY utilities had their limits and dangers: one cable ran from the electricity board head to supply all 60 flats in Pelham Buildings. On a cold winter’s night, the outside insulation of that cable would be too hot to hold. Terry Fitzpatrick nearly had his head blown off trying to replace the main fuse after the London Electricity Board removed it.
BHAG also had to step in to take control of squats after profiteering by mini-gangsters and dodgy characters to charge rent for squats… With nowhere new to squat, and conditions getting worse, some of BHAG’s momentum was lost.
The editorial collective of Race Today which had helped set up BHAG had become increasingly distanced from it. Members were concerned that BHAG as a provider of housing would lose its political direction. For them, ‘all it could succeed in doing was recreating in a squalid ghetto block some of the feudal relations of the Asian village’. Race Today saw BHAG as ideally
“A body of people who would promote the independent organisation of the black working class to win, through a determined campaign, the physical, social space our community needed. We were not a group to make general moan about the neglect of the East End by the state’s welfare authorities.”
Race Today felt that BHAG’s membership needed to be built round political demands and not simply round those of the Bengali squatters which could be defused by GLC offers of rehousing on derelict estates.
The poor condition of many of the squats, even after DIY repairs, meant that the thrust of BHAG activity became more and more towards demanding council rehousing for the residents. A second generation of people asking to be moved out of the very same slum properties which tenants had fought to be rehoused from just a few years before. BHAG was learning from the experience of previous clearances in demanding local rehousing, while it used strength in numbers to negotiate, as the Faceless Homeless had.
In 1976 the Labour-run GLC Housing Committee had summarily dismissed the Bengalis squatters’ claims for rehousing. But the Tories who took over the GLC in 1977, came forward with a London‑wide amnesty for squatters ‑ guaranteeing them all rehousing. The GLC had realised how difficult it would be to evict several hundred Bengali families who had nowhere else to go, which would put massive pressure on Tower Hamlets Homeless Persons Unit and leave hundreds of houses would be left empty, open to more. Evicting then smashing up the houses was politically unpopular after Lambeth Council’s disastrous defeat trying just that, at St Agnes Place in 1977.
BHAG voted to endorse the amnesty helped register all the Bengali squatters it knew about. The GLC hired the Montefiore Centre for a whole day with a team of interpreters and the squatters poured through.
BHAG drew up a list of estates where their members would be safe from racist attack, and the new GLC in trying to arrange local rehousing.. Each estate was voted on by show of hands at a mass meeting and a list of 13 was given to the GLC with a guarantee from BHAG that no reasonable offer on any of those estates would be refused.
Walk west back down to Brick Lane, turn right and down to no 59 (mosque)
A symbol of the immigration in East End, and the religious changes migration has brought.
Built as a Hugenot protestant church, then taken over by Methodists, and later the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews. Ironically in the light of this last, in 1898 the former chapel became the Spitalfields Great Synagogue, and the self-styled ‘fortress’ of religious Orthodoxy of Anglo-Jewry. Since …. it has been a mosque, serving the Bengali community that now dominates the area.
Religion is often a double-edged sword for migrant communities. On the one hand it can act both as a comfort and a centre, binding people closer together in strange environment, allowing them to feel support and solidarity of people like themselves; and continuity with their life in the place they came from. But religion also often marks them out as different, ‘other’, alien; and is used to target them as outsiders, or even subversives, terrorists. The Irish and Catholicism, Jews and Judaism, Bangladeshis and Islam: the threat of the foreigner has commonly been bound up with their worshipping the wrong god(s), which continues today. The British Establishment has often attacked groups holding to a different religion as undermining social order (remember the building of Christ Church in Commercial Street); in response, being targeted can drive migrants, or their children, into more fundamental and radical forms of belief. While some younger or second generation migrants become influenced by the secular society around them; others take on even more hardline forms of worship than parents – both these processes are currently underway among the Bengalis to some extent.
Religion is also used as a means of control within migrant communities to reinforce traditional hierarchies in uncertain situations.
The radical Eastern European Jews seem to have been unique here, in that they already had, or rapidly developed, a strong overt secular strand within their ranks, which was expressed in provacative atheism and outrageous public rejection of the tenets of the Jewish faith.
Thus this building, as the Great Synagogue (Machzzke?’ Ha Dath), became a target for the strong Jewish anarchist and socialist anti-religious sentiment in the early 1900s. On one occasion this led to a riot. It was occasioned by the Anarchist balls, deliberately held on Yom Kippur, the most solemn of Jewish festivals, which even marginal Jews generally respect. Young political Jews flaunted their contempt for tradition by marching in column to the Synagogue, smoking or brandishing ham sandwiches as gestures of defiance and rejection of their creed. The service over, angry worshippers, sometimes in full regalia, would rush out and attacked the atheists with any weapon they could seize.
Walk Round corner to Princelet Street
In 1904, the annual skirmish between religious and anti-religious Jews erupted into a full‑scale riot. Round the corner at no 3 Princelet St (then called Princes St), in premises once used by Jacob Adler and his troupe for the first ever Yiddish theatre, the Socialists had established a Volkskuche (People’s Restaurant), which supplied cheap meals and was, therefore, heavily patronised. Come Yom Kippur, this became the focus for the Yom Kippur battle. The East London Observer reported what followed:
“Thousands of Jews were walking along the streets, when they were met by a body of Socialist Jews, who had driven a van containing food along the streets. All the Orthodox Jews were fasting and they at once resented this unseemly display. The Socialists being driven into their club responded by throwing glass bottles out of the windows. Several cases of minor injury occurred and the disorder thus started to spread quickly. Within half an hour the whole area round Princelet Street was in a state of great agitation. Excited groups of Orthodox Jews were parading the streets threatening the Socialists with dire penalties for their insults and stones were thrown at the home of prominent Socialists… It is alleged that the Socialists pelted a Synagogue which stands adjacent to their club, and that they had arranged a concert for the day of fasting – invitations to which they had sent to the principal Rabbis”.
The historian Rollin told a slightly different story:
“I was making my way towards the Club with a young woman comrade in Princelet Street, where a threatening crowd had gathered. As we approached some men in front sprang at the girl like tigers, threw her to the ground and started beating her, whilst I was hurled against the wall and pinned there. The Club members, hearing our cries, rushed to our defence and brought us in. The girl was torn and bleeding and laid semi-conscious on the floor … We sent a messenger begging help from the Anarchists, who were holding their ball in a hall at Rhondda Grove, Bow…”
This message brought Arbeter Frainter Sam Dreen and a score of young bloods to the rescue: they jumped a train to Gardiners Corner, and rushed up Brick Lane in time to relieve the beleaguered Socialists. They apparently beat off the invaders, as a large force of police arrived and quickly dispersed the crowd, arresting some men and boys in the process.
The magistrates attributed the cause of the disturbance to the so-called orthodox. Of the eight brought up for trial, two Socialists who declared that, being non-religious, they could not observe Yom Kippur, were summarily discharged; and the bench commented that it was deplorable ‘that a class of persons who for centuries had been distinguished as the victims of the fiercest persecutions should, when in the one free country of the world, turn upon those who disagreed with them on religious points, their own co-religionists, and stone and persecute them’.’
But Rollin suggests that there may have been another motive for the trouble: the Volkskuche prices, such as bread, a penny a piece, soup threepence a plate, sixpence for soup with meat, were half those charged by local private restaurateurs, who naturally resented this ‘unfair’ competition. Under the guise of protecting religion, the latter had prepared an attack on the Volkskuche on Yom Kippur, led by hired thugs.
Walk back to Brick Lane, turn right, walk up to Buxton Street
The repeal of the Spitalfields Acts (see above) led to or coincided with terrible poverty in this area : resulting in at least some collective social crime in response. In Autumn 1826, 500-600 strong groups met in Brickfield, Spicer St, (now Buxton St), to cook food stolen from shops en masse. They also ambushed animals going to Smithfield & Barnet markets & drove them to the marshes. The Horse Patrol were sent in to break up the party.
Walk up to Cheshire Street, and east down to the corner of Kerbela Street
Racism & racist attacks:
From the 1960s racist attacks against Bengalis in the East End began to mount: increasing in 1970 as the “skinhead era” arrived. The increase in attacks by young people, often from the area, against Pakistanis and Indians was a significant aspect of this new phenomenon.
Skins in Brick Lane, 1978
“Paki-bashing”; seems to have been first recorded on April 3 1970 when several daily papers mentioned attacks by skinheads on two Asian workers at the London Chest Hospital in Bethnal Green. On April 5 The Observer claimed that Tosir Ali was murdered on April 7, and Gulam Taslim documented 36 cases of racial attacks in this period. On April 26,1970 some 50 youngsters went on the rampage in Brick Lane and five Pakistanis were injured. It was in this year, as well, that the discussion of self-defence began, and mass meetings of the Asian community were held in different parts of Tower Hamlets. There were meetings with MPs and the police, and demands for action.
In Tower Hamlets at that time it was generally felt that little of this wave of racial harassment was directly attributable to extremist political groups.
But: there was a clear link to fascist/far right groups in the area, who had been active for decades in this part of the East End.
In the 1930s, Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists claimed 4,000 members in Bethnal Green. Mosley’s post-war fascist outfit, the Union Movement, used to meet in Kerbela Street, off Cheshire Street, in the late ‘40s.
Cheshire Street and Brick Lane later became a prime meeting point of the National Labour Party, which had formed an East London branch in a Cheshire Street pub in 1958. This NLP and later merged into the original British National Party in 1960. The BNP held regular meetings on this same spot and nearby locations in the Cheshire Street and Brick Lane district in the early 1960s, and their paper Combat was sold there and regularly featured East End issues.
This BNP was a constituent of the National Front in 1967, a merger of several rightwing groups into what was to become the largest far right organisation in Britain for decades.
Outside the National Front HQ, 1978
During 1976, National Front activity in the vicinity of Brick Lane increased, as the NF attempted to gain a base in East London; it based its tactics on provocative newspaper sales in Brick Lane, the heart of the Bengali area. “The National Front has been concentrating on utilising bands of white youths to give verbal support to Front members selling newspapers in the lane. An Advertiser reporter recently saw NF supporters swearing and spitting at Asians who walked past members selling papers near Bethnal Green.”
The NF later (from 1978) had its national HQ in Great Eastern Street, Shoreditch, only half a mile away from the multi-racial community around Brick Lane.
The more overtly nazi (though smaller) British Movement was also active in Bethnal Green and Hoxton).
The role of the National Front and the British Movement in the area exploited the widely held feelings of powerlessness and inability to effect change. They have entered into a vacuum left by the collapse of a strong socialist movement based on vision and principle, and by the weakness of organised religion, Jewish and Christian.
Both built upon the small but important tradition of fascism which has survived in the Bethnal Green and Shoreditch areas since the days of Mosley. They also organised the existing race hatred, enabling many disturbed and alienated young people to see the Asian community as scapegoats and victims.
Resistance to racism
In 1976 the Anti-Racist Committee of Asians in East London was set up as a broad-based body to draw attention to the inadequacy of the protection offered to Asian people by the police and the authorities. The great increase in racial attacks in the area had been catalogued by the Spitalfields Bengali Action Group. Attacks increased further with the killing of two students from the Middle East who were attending Queen Mary College in the East End.
On the day that John Kingsley Read of the National Party made his infamous “One down – a million to go” comments in Newham on the Chaggar murder, ARCAEL organised a mass meeting in the Naz Cinema in Brick Lane. The meeting was chaired by Mala Dhoride, and addressed by Darcus Howe of the Race Today Collective, Trevor Huddleston, then Bishop of Stepney, and Dan Jones, Secretary of Bethnal Green and Stepney Trades Council. It was followed by a 3,000 strong protest march to Leman Street Police Station demanding action to “keep blood off the streets’. Self defence patrols were developed by the local Bengalis with help from black newpaper Race Today. ARCAEL to some extent had taken the path of black self-organisation Race Today advocated, rejecting the older Bengali businessmen of the Bangladeshi Welfare Association, whose line was to trust police and appeal for help to government.
During this period, the Asian community and other anti-racist groups began to occupy the National Front selling site in Bethnal Green Road, an occupation which had been inspired by the comment by Chief Superintendent John Wallis at a public meeting of the Council of Citizens of Tower Hamlets that the only way for anti-racists to get rid of the National Front was for them to arrive earlier! When they followed his advice, they were removed by the police on the grounds that a reach of the peace was likely to occur.
From the police, local Bengalis largely experienced at best apathy, or actual collusion with racists. Cops would escort racists around, and basically tended to arrest any asian opposing racists…. Symbolically, a British Movement graffiti slogan had remained for some months on the outside wall of Bethnal Green Police Station.
The Bengali community self-defence groups had an effect: racial attacks calmed down for a while.
But in 1977, there were more racist attacks: gangs of white youth from neighbouring estates roaming Brick Lane targetting asians. In 1978 events stepped up: beginning with the murder of young Bengali clothing worker Altab Ali on May 4 in Adler Street, Whitechapel. This “triggered a massive wave of protest throughout East London”. 7000 marched in protest from here to Downing Street.
On June 11th (following considerable Press coverage of GLC plans for housing Bengalis in what were described as “ghettos”) 150 youths rampaged through the Brick Lane district, smashing windows, throwing bottles and lumps of concrete, and damaging shops and cars.
June 18, in response, saw an anti-racist march, organised by the Anti-Nazi League and the Bengali Youth Movement Against Racist Attacks (a short-lived alliance between three of the major Bengali youth organisations in Tower Hamlets, all of which had started in 1976) Some 4,000 people, black and white, took part in this march. But the following Sunday there were further violent incidents, many of the attacks by white racists taking place in side streets. However, during the whole period, many of the demonstrators against racial violence and other antiracists were themselves arrested: some 50 anti-racists and less than 10 National Front or British Movement supporters, were arrested.
On September 24, 1978, a large anti-racist demonstration was held in the East End to “defend Brick Lane” against the possibility that a National Front march might come close to the district. Some 2,000 anti-racists blocked the entrance to Brick Lane, although in fact the NF had gone via side streets to a meeting in Hoxton. During the course of the day, there was a good deal of criticism of the Anti-Nazi League who had organised the Brixton Carnival Against the Nazis in Brockwell Park, Brixton, drawing 100,000 people far from the action…
In the early 1980s, the National Front lost support as the tory government nicked their thunder… But locally a lot of good work was done to prevent racist attacks, though police activity seemed mainly aimed at defusing self-organised self-defence (never popular with the state). Local or national state support for Bengali political and cultural projects helped draw much of the community away from the self-organised militancy.
But racist grouping never went away. In the later 80s, from the various splinters that the NF fell apart into, a new British National Party began to emerge as the largest far right group. Through 1990-93, a renewed struggle over nazi papersales in Brick Lane, mainly organised by Anti-Fascist Action and its allies, saw stand-offs and pitched battles between fascists and anti-fascists; BNP papersellers were chased off; pubs used by fash before papersales – including The Sun pub- blockaded.
Meanwhile, the continuing tradition of Bengali youth mobilising for self-defence produced organisations such as Youth Connection, a young Bengali action group, in the early 1990s.
Although locally the racial attacks situation calmed down alot, hard right propaganda was still bearing fruit for Brick Lane in 1999: on 24 April that year, nazi sympathizer David Copeland planted a bomb here (a week after bombing Brixton), aiming at the multi-racial mix of the area, something he hated. Seven people were slightly hurt in his attempt to to kickstart a race war. A week later his bomb in a gay pub in Soho killed three people.
More recently control of social policy and the focus of welfare, housing etc, has again become an issue, as older white working class communities claim to see migrants as getting a better deal, bigger flats and so on. Also resentment of ‘middle class do-gooders’ from outside championing migrant communities against local white working class – not just an East End perception.
Leaving aside myths (and not a few white residents have thought Bengalis shouldn’t be getting anything), the extent to which outside ‘do-gooders’ have responded to migration by supporting Bengalis is open to question… Although since the 1970s, there has been a notable alliance of community leaders with Labour politicians, which has led to some dubious developments…
Some see it as not so much an individual competition for work, as a community competition for welfare, housing, cultural and social resources (or at least the perception of those, locally): not so much a case of ‘they’re taking our jobs’ as they’re taking our flats.
But you’d be hard pressed to deny that those on high who make social policy, have, for 160 years and more, used the East End as a laboratory for social experiment, from which national social policy especially on housing welfare, etc, has been often guided. As to how much the state either locally nationally, or the ‘middle class’ has taken side of foreigners against white working class – this is debateable. 1970s Bengalis would have laughed at this idea: but in recent decades some commentators have seen change, with the promotion of political measures and institutions that have consolidated rights of migrants while increasing sanctions against ‘white working class’ if they question it – to the extent that the political situation in the East End (as elsewhere, though to different extents?) is dominated by quote ”a political class, drawing power from its operation of state services and mobilised around the ideology of cultural tolerance and social and economic inclusiveness and with a mission to integrate subordinate culturally specific communities into a common national system.”
While this is matter of debate, its partly true that there is an exclusion of white working class… But it is in fact also partly mirrored by how the kind of community leaders, activists, organisations that have made alliances with local and national state and benefited most have done so by hierarchy and power relations firmly in place in the migrant communities, and pledging to keep order against unruly and politically or religiously subversive elements among their “own”…
Walk back west down Cheshire Street to Brick Lane, south to Quaker Street, west down here and across Commercial Street into Elder Street, down to Folgate Street, then west to Spital Square
Parallel to the housing struggles described above, other processes were at work in the area around buildings…
Conservation as gentrification: the Spitalfields Trust.
The Spitalfields Trust was founded as a campaigning group with a mission to preserve ‘18th century Spitalfields’; mostly large local houses threatened with demolition and development.
The trust themselves were well-connected, and media savvy:
“In early days this took form of art‑historical activism, of squats, activism, of squats, occupations, and sit‑ins undertaken by the trust’s members as they showed ‘greedy’ developers, bungling municipal authorities, and housing associations like Newlon that, still unaware of the vital distinction between ‘housing’ and true ‘houses’, planned to erect new buildings where listed (but decayed) eighteenth‑century houses still stood. In those days, the trust’s members kept their sleeping bags rolled in case another emergency came up. ‘Denied even a hot bath’ as Douglas Blain, the secretary of the trust, has put it, they developed the unlikely look of squatting hippies, communicating with Press through nearby telephone boxes, and applying the time honoured local tradition of the soup kitchen to themselves. John Betjeman came down to visit ‑people were invited to join him for drinks at home’ in a half‑demolished and squatted house. One of the most cherished photographs from this time shows the almost indistinguishable faces of Mark Girouard and Colin Amery staring out from within the padlocked wrought‑iron gates of a threatened school hall in Spital Square. This was certainly a ‘Top Person’s squat’,
Their squatting to preserve Georgian houses started in Elder St with two houses that Newlon Housing Trust planning to demolish for rented housing…
Their policy after occupying houses to prevent their demolition was to raise money to buy, restore and then sell on these old Georgian, houses.
“From these romantic beginnings the trust went on to bring credit facilities into an area that had been ‘red‑lined’ by banks and building societies. It emerged as a campaigning property company with charitable status, able to buy houses, and then to repair and resell them under covenants designed to ensure that they would be refurbished with a care for the minutest period detail.”
They published a newsletter with available houses, advising people to “go through the trust to avoid undesirable price competition”. Most of houses filled with middle or upper class, members or connections of the Trust, family, sympathisers etc, some as second homes. Anyone who bought or obtained a house stood to make huge profits, as prices rose astronomically.
The Trust’s vision was head-on incompatible with the struggles of Spitalfields residents, mainly Bengalis, for cheap housing and with the clothing trade that sustains them… The town houses would have been ideal for large Bengali families, who have always had a hard time getting social or even private housing big enough.
The Trust took some houses directly out of public ownership (helped by the council who gave them their houses in some streets, and refused to take over private houses which could have housed Bengali families, eg Tarn and Tarn houses, leaving them to be sold privately), some of which were already squatted (eg by BHAG) and some which were part of plans by residents to implement viable schemes for social housing.
Many of the houses had had clothing workshops in them, which the Trust obviously lost when restoring them to their ‘original use’, – ironically, as many had been weavers houses and had old weaving rooms in them, the multi-use housing/work of Bengali occupants had in fact been closer to ‘restoration’ in social terms than the Trust’s.
“The Spitalfields Trust resents the charge that it has merely reduced conservation to gentrification, claiming in its own defence that it has never evicted a tenant and that it has gone out of its way, when buying houses that were in ‘unsuitable’ industrial use for conversion back into private homes, to find alternative premises for displaced enterprises.’ “
The Trust did pay lip service to clothing trade, including buying some land to build workshop space to replace that lost in their restorations.
The process of the Trust and its allies taking over houses was accelerated by a recession in the clothing trade in the 1980s: more buildings with workshops became empty.
Influenced by the Spitalfields Trust’s success at rehabbing houses, developers who owned houses sold them off for huge profits, eg Tarn and Tarn, who owned 40 houses, were refused planning permission to knock them down and build an office block, so they sold them off for homes around 1981-82 (slowly, so as to maximise their take). All this led to huge price hike in prices.
This had also left any schemes trying to get social housing built up against it – facing huge increases in land values, making it harder to get things going. It hiked prices, which had a knock-on effect in neighbouring areas too…
“But if it takes conservationists, avant‑garde artists, gays, and other Bohemian or single‑minded types to put up with the years of chaotic living that are needed to re‑open dishevelled areas like Spitalfields, the estate agents and financiers are never far behind. Like the first loft dwellers in Manhattan, these early settlers are the pioneers of a larger revaluation they may detest and even manage to [deter?] for a bit, but that is soon enough sweeping over their cars. West of Commercial Street the sanitisation already looks complete. To the east in Fournier Street sensitively refurbished houses have been coming on to the market at prices approaching £500,000. In the late seventies the Spitalfields Trust may have had to hunt for eccentric willing to buy into a decayed immigrant area without such public amenities as parks or tolerable schools but, in reality, as hindsight would soon show, it was handing out personal fortunes to its chosen purchasers, and it is not surprising that questions have times been asked (and not just by frustrated would‑be purchasers) about the Trust’s way of selecting buyers.”
“As the anniversary meeting of the Trust was told by an early and now dissenting member, Raphael Samuel, the conservation of Georgian buildings and the total clearance of local ways of life turn out to be two sides of the same coin.”
Since the 1980s Tower Hamlets Council has been encouraging big business to move in and buy land for offices…
But Brick Lane and the streets around it have also seen a massive hipster and art influx since the 1990s, which have hugely changed the ethos of the area. (To some extent, this is one of the central nexuses of the colonisation of working class London, particularly a vast swathe of East London, a process of gentrification that is helping to create an unstable and febrile precariousness for the lives of many of us…)
“… in 2007, Tower Hamlets Council designated Brick Lane a tourist area, with the converted Truman Brewery and more recent retail activities marked out as part of its “creative and cultural focus”. The introduction of a new range of activities and actors to the wider area has led to the displacement of established businesses, such as those in Banglatown. The report vividly maps the turnover of shops within the same category (that is, changes from one kind of food offering to another). So along Brick Lane, a niche economy has come to the fore, with many of the restaurants now selling fusion foods or offering vegan options oriented to either the tourist market or a changing demographic that includes an expanding student population as well as middle-class consumers. Few of the traditional curry houses revamped their look or re-worked their menus to appeal to the latest trends.
Historically the upper floors of restaurants were places of work, but due to the demand for more housing and the lucrative residential market, Brick Lane has seen a huge increase in planning applications to change the class use of upper floors so they can become dwellings. The dramatic shifts in residential property prices accompanied by steep increases in housing rentals suggest that such alterations will further add to the influx of higher-income residents or Air B&B guests, accompanied by the dispersal of existing residents to suburbs in London’s more affordable peripheries.”
The Sunday Brick Lane market, once an early morning resort for cheap clothes, food, tools, junk and nicked goods, a vital resource for the subsistence economy for many across the city, has been transformed into a playground for trendy weekend jaunts by the toffee-nosed. The economy of the area – admittedly in decline by the 1990s – could have been regenerated for the benefit of the communities who lived in the area, but instead the concentration has been largely on replacing them.
This has increased the pressure on those less affluent folk who still live here; especially as council and housing associations collude to slowly remove social housing from the area and replace it with private housing to service the middle classes wanting a pad in trendy east End and prop up the tourist industry
It remains a zone of contention and transition, with many of the same old processes being enacted – the bulldozing of the rookeries to clear ‘unprofitable’ and sometimes troublesome residents is echoed in the demolition of council blocks to be replaced by developments called ‘Kensington’ and ‘Sloane’ Apartments. Names are a bit of a giveaway, eh…?
It is Ground Zero for Hipster projects, many of them vanity affairs like the Cereal Killer Café, often funded by inherited wealth. All of this in a backdrop of graffiti, which is everywhere in the area now, so that any wander round is jammed with tourist ticking off guidebook-marked ‘street art’. Brick Lane is not so much a land of beer and blood any more as a land of (spray) paint and cereal…
We’ll finish here. If you want to retire to a good pub, the Pride of Spitalfields in Heneage Street is worth a pint