Characters

Tommy Flowers Header
The young German sat in the communication hut in Athens at the end of October 1941, and took out a complicated machine of wheels and cogs. Plugging in his coding machine, he began to transmit a message of around 4000 characters to a secret Army location in Vienna. Annoyingly, after a few minutes, he received an uncoded message back from the recipient asking for retransmission as his message had not been received correctly. He shook his head in frustration and with a degree of irritation began to transmit the entire message again forgetting, in doing so, to alter the key settings for the machine. It was the break the staff at the code breaking HQ at Bletchley Park in the UK had been waiting for. The details that needed to be broken were fed into Colossus, the huge electronic computer, designed and built by Tommy Flowers – one of the East End’s – and the world’s unsung heroes.

Tommy Flowers was born a few days before Christmas on 22nd December 1905 at 160, Abbott Road, Poplar. He was always a practical child – indeed, when told about the imminent arrival of a baby sister, he declared a preference for a box of Meccano!

Tommy Flowers

Tommy Flowers

His father was a bricklayer by trade, but young Tommy decided to pursue a career in Mechanical Engineering. He began a four year apprenticeship at Woolwich Arsenal, and subsequently enrolled in evening classes at the University of London where he obtained a degree in Electrical Engineering.

In 1926, Tommy Flowers joined the telecommunication branch of the General Post Office – the GPO – and he took up a post at their Dollis Hill Research Station in 1930. He was still just 25 years old.

The outbreak of the Second World War shocked the nation and in February 1941, Flowers’ Director, W Gordon Radley approached the studious young engineer, explaining that he had been contacted by Alan Turing, from the Government’s code-breaking Station X at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire. He explained that he had received a request for Flowers to build a decoder for the Bombe Machines that Turing had developed to help break the German’s Enigma Codes.

Looking at the problems Bletchley Park were having with their existing machine, Flowers proposed an electronic system – a massive machine using 1800 vacuum tubes (commonly referred to as valves) which took up a huge amount of space. Flowers christened his creation ‘Colossus’.

Previous versions had used only 150 valves, and some at Bletchley Park were sceptical about the use of valve technology at all. Famously, Flowers used much of his own funds to purchase his requirements for the new machine. It was reported that when he first told the military top brass it would take a year to build, they laughed at him and said ‘the war will be well and truly over by then – it’s not worth the effort’…

Alan-Turing

Alan-Turing

Colossus MK 1 proved that Flowers knew his craft. Whilst valves were prone to being notoriously temperamental and were constantly breaking down, Tommy Flowers recognised from his work as a GPO Engineer that things usually went wrong when machines were being continuously switched on and off. As a result, Colossus was left switched on in what Flowers described as a ‘stable environment’, and the problems that had plagued previous machines were averted.

By now, the Germans had begun to develop an updated and even more difficult coding machine, Lorenz, which pushed Colossus to its limits.

Undaunted, Flowers began work on a Mark 2 Colossus which came into service on 1st June 1944 and immediately provided vital information of Hitler’s thoughts prior to the D-Day landings that were planned for a few days later.

Tommy Flowers contribution to shortening WWII cannot be overstated. After the war, the government granted him £1000 (the payment of which did not even cover Flowers’ personal investment in purchasing the equipment he needed to build Colossus.) It is a testament to the character of the man that he shared the amount with his co-workers, keeping just £350 for himself – a decent sum for 1945 but a tiny amount for the man credited with building the first modern computer.

Perhaps ironically, Tommy Flowers applied for a bank loan to build another machine just like his prototypes, but was turned down as the bank refused to believe such a machine could be constructed. Adherence to the Official Secrets Act meant he could not tell the bank that he had already built several…

Colossus-Computer

The Colossus Computer

After years of being unable to discuss his work with the world, restrictions were finally lifted in the 1970’s and his story was able to be told. He was awarded an MBE and a Doctorate from Newcastle University. Many still consider this ‘too little, too late’.

Tommy Flowers eventually died of heart failure on 28th October 1998, leaving a wife, Eileen and two sons.

Des-O'Connor-header
The 43 year old singer walked on to rapturous applause, apparently unseen by the two comedians at the front of the stage. ‘That’ said Ernie Wise to his taller, bespectacled companion ‘is the best record Des has ever made’. ‘Why?’ Eric Morecambe said in reply, ‘Is there nothing on it?

Des O’Connor walked to between the comics with a smile on his face – and little wonder. He had been the butt of Eric and Ernie’s jokes for years, and it had helped to cement his position in British light entertainment. Often referred to as ‘Des – short for desperate’, or ‘Death O’Connor’ by these two stalwarts of British comedy, it kept this East End singer’s name in front of millions of TV viewers.

Des (his full name is Desmond Bernard O’Connor) was born on the 12th January 1932 in Stepney in the East End of London to father Harry O’Connor and mother Maude. During WW2 he was evacuated to Northampton (he even went on to play, briefly, as a professional footballer for Northampton Town) and worked for Church’s, the famous Northampton Shoe Makers before entering the Royal Air Force for a stint in National Service.

It was during his time in the RAF that Des was asked to take part in a talent contest, which he subsequently won. It was the start of a career in show business that continues to this day.

Des-O'Connor

Des O’Connor

For an eight year period, from 1963 to 1971, he hosted his own variety show on ITV which was closely followed by ‘Des O’Connor Entertains’ – a show that featured a wide variety of singing, dancing and comedy sketches.

His singing career has seen him record 36 albums, and he has had four singles that entered the top ten, including ‘I Pretend’ which reached number one with world-wide sales that exceeded 10 million records.

Ever popular on the stage as well as TV, Des has appeared over 1280 times at the London Palladium, (a British record) and recalls “They gave me a plaque to commemorate my first 1,000 solo performances there in 1972”

In addition to his performing career, Des has hosted a number of game shows and chat shows of his own. He presented a revival of ‘Take Your Pick’ from 1992 to 1998, and took over from Des Lynam as co-presenter (with Carol Vorderman) of the popular Channel 4 game show ‘Countdown’. He also co-hosted the light entertainment programme ‘Today with Des and Mel’ opposite Melanie Sykes, the pair famously ‘corpsing’ on stage when risqué double-entendres crept into the script.

Des has been married four times; the first in 1953 to Phyllis Gill, then Gillian Vaughan in 1960, Jay Rufer in 1985 and finally to Jodie Brooke Wilson who he married in September 2011. He has a total of five children between the four women, the last being a son Adam who was born in September 2004.

He was somewhat criticised in the press as being selfish for fathering his last child when he himself was 80 years old, but hit back, stating ‘I’ve had people saying I was selfish. But what’s selfish about that? How can you say to a woman you’ve been with for 15-odd years, ‘No, I’ve got four and we’re not having any more? That would be selfish’…

Des O'Conner with Eric Morecambe

Des O’Conner with Eric Morecambe

Des O’Connor has gone on to win a number of awards – in 2001 he was presented with a Special Recognition Award at the National TV Awards for his contribution to television and was appointed a CBE – Commander of the British Empire – in the Queen’s 2008 Birthday Honours List.

But, ironically, it is probably his work as a willing stooge working with Morecambe and Wise that Des is most fondly remembered. He has joked that it has got him cabs (‘provided I didn’t sing’) and he even had an opportunity to get his own back on the two comedians in the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special of 1975 – when he was revealed as a member of the Firing Squad at the end of the main sketch…

Farthing-Bundles-Header
The young blond girl in the queue shifted around to see how near she was to the arch. There were only three more children to go. The lady at the head of the queue was handing out small bundles wrapped in newspaper to each child that passed under the wooden arch in exchange for a single coin. The girl glanced down to look at the farthing she held tightly in her hand and looked up at the arch again. It bore the legend “Enter All Ye Children Small, None Can Come Who Are Too Tall” and she stepped forward, her hair just brushing the underside of the archway. She handed her coin to the lady who accepted it with a smile and gave the girl a loosely wrapped parcel of her own.

This practice of handing out the ‘Farthing Bundles’ to children started in 1905, (although the little arch was introduced in 1913) by Clara Ellen Grant.

Clara Ellen Grant

Clara Ellen Grant – The Bundle Lady of Bow

Born in 1867, Clara was one of nine children from a reasonably well to do family who grew up in Wiltshire village. She always wanted to teach, but initially, she began working with the Universities Mission in Central Africa. Following the death there of her fiancé, she returned to England, completed her teacher training at Salisbury Training College and moved to London. After a couple of teaching posts, Clara Grant became Head Teacher at the Devons Road Infant School on Bow Common, in the East End of London in 1900. The area already had a reputation for destitution, and Clara was shocked at the level of local poverty around her, particularly of the young children who attended the school.

As a highly motivated and determined Victorian Englishwoman, she felt duty bound to do something about the situation.

Clara set about looking at the whole structure of class room technique, eschewing the ‘children should be seen and not heard’ philosophy that had preceded her. She provided a hot breakfast for those children in her care – for many, the only hot meal of the day – and looked to her friends to help supply the infants with clothing and shoes. She even turned her home into a settlement house, which came to be known as the Fern Street Settlement, and which is still active to this day, providing pensioners with a day centre, a lunch club and a place for adult education classes. The Settlement also runs summer holiday camps for young people and gives out presents for children at Christmas.

But it is by her affectionately given nickname of the ‘Bundle Woman of Bow’ That Clara Grant may be best remembered.

Farthing-Bundles-Arch

The Farthing Bundles Arch

As Clara explained herself, “Farthing bundles are full of very human things such as children love. Tiny toys of wood, or tin, whole or broken, little balls, doll-less heads or head-less dolls, whistles, shells, beads, reels, marbles, fancy boxes, decorated pill boxes, scraps of patchwork, odds and ends of silk or wool, coloured paper for dressing up, cigarette cards and scraps.”

Children who had a farthing and could walk under the forty eight inch wooden arch, with its painted motto, exchanged their coin for a parcel. Sitting on the kerbstones by the side of the school, children would excitedly unwrap their bundle and compare the pencils, small toys, bits of string, note pads etc. contained within.

The practice of the Farthing Bundles proved so popular that children would often queue up from six forty five each Saturday morning, even though the bundles went on ‘sale’ at eight o’clock.

Clara Ellen Grant was awarded the OBE in 1949, but in October of that same year, she passed away. The practice she set in place of passing out bundles to underprivileged children continued until its demise in 1984, and in 1993, the school she had such an influence on was renamed the Clara Grant Primary School in her honour.

Rip-the-search-and-rescue-dog-header
The air raid on the East End had been particularly fierce that night, and as Air Raid Warden Mr E King made his way across the rubble of  what had once been a residential street on the outskirts of Poplar, he paused for a second. By his side stood Rip, a mixed terrier dog who stood stock still for a moment, nose and ears twitching, before heading unerringly towards a pile of still smoking bricks. Scrabbling his way over the broken masonry, Rip began scratching furiously at the shattered ruins and started to bark.

Rip-the-blitz-dog

Rip – The Blitz Dog

The Warden called over some colleagues and they began the delicate task of removing the bricks and mortar. Rip wagged his tail, waiting patiently while the men dug down, before barking excitedly as they carried a dust covered and unconscious child to safety. Rip, the original search and rescue dog had saved another life.

Rip had been an air raid victim himself. It was in 1940 that Mr King, seeing the small dog in the debris left by a previous air raid, had thrown him a few scraps of food. Rip gobbled them down, and cautiously walked across to the man in the ARP uniform. Expecting the dog to leave, ARP Warden King began to walk back to his post, ARP Station B132 in Southill Street, Poplar. To his surprise, the little dog tagged along and a mutual friendship sprang up. The remainder of the ARP Station were delighted and adopted Rip as their mascot.

It soon became apparent that Rip had a talent for locating people trapped in bomb damaged houses. With no formal training, Rip took to his new role instinctively and he became the ARP Service’s first Search and Rescue dog.

Rip-and-Mr-E-King

Rip with owner Mr E King

Rip the dog has been credited in prompting the authorities to train further Search and Rescue dogs as the war progressed.

In just twelve months between 1940 and 1941 Rip, the original rescue dog located over 100 victims of the Luftwaffe’s air raids.

At the end of the war, in 1945, Rip became a recipient of the Dickin Medal (often referred to as ‘The Animal’s Victoria Cross’). The citation that accompanied the medal read: “For locating many air raid victims during the blitz of 1940”.

He wore his medal on his collar until he died in October 1946. Rip is buried in the PDSA Cemetery in Ilford, Essex and his gravestone bears the inscription: “In memory of Rip, D.M., served with Civil Defence London. Awarded PDSA Dickin Medal July 1945. For bravery in locating victims trapped under blitzed buildings.”

Rip-dog-grave

The gravestone of Rip

His body was the first of twelve Dickin Medal winners to be buried in the cemetery.

As a footnote, Rip’s Dickin Medal was sold by auction in Bloomsbury, London in 2009. Many commentators, including medal specialists, Spink Auctioneers of London, expected the medal to fetch around £10,000. However, as the auction progressed, it became apparent that Rip’s heroics had added much to the value, and by the time the auction closed, the little dog’s Dickin Medal had sold for a record £24,250

Barbara Windsor Header
The young blonde actress looked about her bemusedly. The cold damp field didn’t look very Hollywood to her – even the mud had been painted green to look like grass and she was starting to sink slowly into it.

Although it was a bitterly cold February morning, all her co-actors were wearing nothing but bikinis and swimsuits and were being addressed by the director, Gerald Thomas, on the set of ‘Carry on Camping’.

Barbara Windsor in Carry on Camping

Barbara Windsor in Carry on Camping

‘Right love, we’ll attach some fishing line and a hook to your bra, and Bert, the props man will pull it off’

So with only Kenneth Williams and Hattie Jacques (and essential film crew) in front of her, a 32 year old Barbara Windsor created one of the most memorable comedy vignettes to have appeared in British film history.

Born Barbara Ann Deeks in August 1937 – in the London Hospital, in Whitechapel Road to parents John and Rose Deeks, Barbara’s family had both East End and Irish connections. Barbara’s paternal great-grandmother had fled from the terrible Irish potato famine and had settled in the East End, eventually finding employment as one of the infamous match girls.

Barbara Windsor was an only child, and her mother made no bones of the fact that she had been hoping for a boy. When John Deeks left to fight in the war, Barbara was evacuated to Blackpool.

Barbara was taken in by Florence and Ernest North, and Florence soon spotted some potential in young Barbara, writing a letter to Rose Deeks asking to be allowed to send her to Norbreck Dancing School with her own daughter Mary.

Once there, Barbara took to singing and dancing like a duck to water, and upon returning to London, her mother paid for elocution lessons and enrolled her in the Aida Foster Acting School in Golders Green. She made her stage debut at 13 and aged just 15 made her West End debut in the chorus of the musical ‘Love from Judy’, a role she continued for two years.

In 1954, aged 17, Barbara Windsor made her film debut in ‘The Belles of St Trinians’, before continuing her stage career with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in Stratford East, performing in ‘Fings Ain’t Wot They Use To Be’ and Littlewood’s film, ‘Sparrers Can’t Sing’.

It is probably for her career in the immensely successful ‘Carry On’ series of films that Barbara Windsor became a star. She recalls in her autobiography ‘All of Me – My Extraordinary Life‘ that she had an argument with co-star Kenneth Williams in her first film, where he accused her of fluffing her lines. In a scene which required him to wear a beard, she drew herself to her full four feet ten and a half inches and shouted out “Don’t you yell at me with Fenella Fielding’s minge hair stuck round your chops, I won’t stand for it”.

Kenneth Williams was said to have clapped his hands together and grinned, saying ‘Haaaah – isn’t she wonderful?’ They became lifelong friends.

Barbara Windsor went on to make nine Carry On films, although she is so memorable many people think she actually appeared in a lot more.

Barbara Windsor with Ronnie Knight and Reggie Kray

Barbara Windsor with Ronnie Knight and Reggie Kray

Barbara’s off stage life was complicated as that on screen, with a string of affairs, a total of five abortions (three before she was 21) and three marriages. She lost her virginity at 18 to a ‘flash Arab’. Her affair with her Carry On co-star Sid James has been well documented and she was also romantically linked to Bee Gee Maurice Gibb.

Her first marriage was to small time crook Ronnie Knight, and through him, she became associated with the Krays, initially going out with the twins older brother Charlie (who she described as looking ‘a bit like Steve McQueen’), before sleeping with Reggie Kray. She later married Stephen Hollings, an actor, in 1986 before their divorce in 1995, and is now married to former actor Scott Mitchell.

Barbara Windsor cemented her East End credentials when in 1994, she appeared as Peggy Mitchell in the long running BBC soap opera ‘Eastenders’, admitting when she joined the soap that she had been a ‘scared little lady’.

Barbara Windsor as Peggy Mitchell

Barbara Windsor as Peggy Mitchell

She continued to play a major part in the show, winning the British Soap Award for Best Actress honour in 1999 until a tearful farewell on the 10th September 2010 (although she did make a small comeback for one episode in 2013).

Her awards didn’t finish there however, as she was made an MBE in the 2000 New Years Honours List.

In 2012, Barbara Windsor became patron of the Amy Winehouse Foundation.

Charles-Jamrach-Header
People in the East End in 1857 were an impassive and stoical lot. The area along St George’s Street, formerly Ratcliffe Highway, was already infamous for the series of ghastly murders that had taken place there 45 years before (more here), but despite its notoriety, the two women peering at the jewellery in the pawnbrokers shop next door to Mr Charles Jamrach’s Menagerie had other things on their minds. Suddenly, one of the women noticed a strange reflection in the shop window, and turned. She stifled a scream and pulled her companion into the shop doorway, as a fully grown Bengal Tiger padded past them, carrying a small boy in its mouth…

Charles Jamrach was born in Hamburg, Germany in March 1815 where his father, Johann Gottlieb Jamrach, was chief of the Hamburg river police. As part of his job, Jamrach Senior would find himself having to board vessels on the busy waterway and he soon built up a reputation amongst the sailors for purchasing any exotic creatures they had brought back with them from their travels. He rapidly established himself as a dealer in birds and wild animals – and set up branches in the great ports of Antwerp and London.

Young Charles was fascinated by the myriad animals, birds and insects in his father’s shop and following his father’s death in 1840, Charles Jamrach moved to take over the London branch of the business, developing the existing premises into a bird shop and museum in St. George Street known as ‘Jamarch’s Animal Emporium’, a menagerie in Bett Street, and a warehouse in Old Gravel Lane, Southwark.

Jamrach's Menagerie

Jamrach’s Menagerie

The business thrived, partly due to Jamrach’s location, close to The London Docks and partly due to his ever expanding customer base – the London Zoological Gardens had been loaned an Elephant which he was confident they would buy, and following a devastating fire at P.T Barnum’s Circus in 1864, it was Jamrach’s Menagerie who was responsible in restocking it with animals.

A Mr John Edward Gray who was keeper of zoology at the British Museum also named a snail that had been forwarded to him by Charles Jamrach Amoria jamrachi in his honour.

A reporter visiting his premises wrote that “The museum includes tropical beetles glorious with shards of green and gold, and tropical butterflies like tropical blossoms, or costliest satin and velvet embroidered with creamy lace, and be-dropt with precious metals and precious stones”…

As one can imagine, Jamrach’s stock varied considerably, dependant as it was on the ships that were docking in London, but a contemporary article of the time shows the extent and prices of the animals on offer.

Zebras – £100 – £150 each
Camels – £20
Giraffes – £40
Ostriches – £80
Polar Bears – £25
Other Bears – £8 – £16
Leopards – £20
Lions – £100
Tigers – £300

On one fateful day in 1857, Charles Jamrach had just taken delivery of a large number of animals which had been brought in on ships arriving in London Docks from their voyage to the East Indies. The animals were taken to the Bett Street repository with Jamrach himself overseeing operations. To ensure that the fully grown Bengal tiger in one crate had no opportunity to maul his workmen, Jamrach instructed that the wooden crate containing the beast was placed with its barred opening facing the wall. However, the strength of the animal had been underestimated – and as another crate containing leopards was being unloaded, Jamrach and the workmen were horrified to hear a crash and to discover that the tiger had pushed out the back of the crate with its hind legs and was now prowling around the yard.

Jamrach and the Tiger

Jamrach and the Tiger

The tiger stalked its way into the street where a curious boy, around nine years of age, reached out to stroke the back of the strange creature that had appeared before him. In an instant, the tiger whirled and gripping the boy’s shoulder in his jaws, ran off down the street in the direction of the docks.

Jamrach dashed after the animal and upon catching up with it, grabbed the tiger by the loose skin of its neck and tried to wrestle it to the ground. He succeeded in tripping it by putting his own leg under the tiger’s hind quarters, but the animal would not relinquish its hold on the now terrified boy. It was not until his workmen arrived and dealt the animal several blows to the head, that the stunned animal finally let go of the child. Shaking itself free, the tiger then turned tail and headed back to the menagerie yard and the relative safety of an empty crate, where it was recaptured.

The event is commemorated by a statue that stands near the entrance to Tobacco Dock today.

The boy was taken to hospital but, astonishingly, found to be virtually unharmed save for a severe fright and a few scratches. Jamrach offered the boy’s father compensation of £50, but the father rejected the money and decided to bring a court action against him for damages.

At the trial the judge sympathised with Jamrach, saying that, instead of being made to pay, he ought to have been rewarded for saving the life of the boy, and perhaps that of a lot of other people.

Jamrach-Statue

The Boy and The Tiger Statue, Tobacco Dock

The judge, however, had to administer the law as he found it, and reminded Jamrach that he was responsible for any dangerous consequences brought about as a result of his business. He suggested, however, as there was not much hurt done to the boy, to put down the damages as low as possible. The court subsequently set a penalty of £300, of which £240 went to the lawyers as costs!

News of the tiger’s escape and notoriety soon got around, and within a few days of the end of the hearing, Jamrach was able to sell the animal to a Mr Edmonds, of Wombwell’s Menagerie for £300.

Charles Jamrach died in Bow on 6 September 1891, leaving two sons, Albert and William. The business continued for some time, but began running into difficulties during the First World War, and after his son Albert died in 1917, the firm finally closed its doors in 1919.

The final words are from an article written by a journalist in 1879 who had been invited to visit Jamrach’s Menagerie and who wrote “I have nothing further to state, except to assure my readers of naturalist tastes that, for whatever they want, from a hippopotamus to a humming-bird, Jamrach’s is the very place to go to”.

Doctor-Barnardo-Header
Almost everyone has heard of the name ‘Doctor Barnardo’, yet very few people actually know a great deal about the man and his work. Most people are aware of his involvement with the ‘Ragged Schools’ starting with his first in Hope Place, Limehouse in the East End of London.

Thomas Barnardo was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1845, the son of John Barnardo, and his wife, Abigail. He was one of 5 children (sadly one sibling died during childbirth). A devoutly religious man, and a member of the Plymouth Brethren, it was the young Thomas Barnardo’s initial wish to devote himself to evangelical Christian work in China.

Doctor Barnardo

Thomas Barnardo

With the help of his friends in Dublin he registered as a medical student in the prestigious London Hospital, and moved to the East End of London in 1866, settling into lodgings at 30 Coburn Street, Stepney – although he does not appear to have begun his studies until 1867.

Whilst he may have studied at the London Hospital, he never actually completed the course to earn his doctorate there. (Although he was widely and universally known as ‘Doctor’ Barnardo throughout his life, he never actually qualified as a doctor until he completed his studies and became a Licentiate and Fellow of The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh on 31st March 1876).

A few short months after he arrived in Stepney, an outbreak of cholera swept through the East End, which killed over three thousand people, and which left most families destitute and fragmented. At that time, London was a capital city that was struggling to cope with the effects of the Industrial Revolution. The population had increased by a huge amount and much of this increase was concentrated in the East End, where overcrowding, bad housing, unemployment, poverty and disease were already well established. Thousands of children ended up having to sleep on the streets and many others were forced to beg after being maimed in factories. (see The Match Girls)

Barnardo's-Stepney

Barnardo’s first Boys Home

Appalled by the situation Barnardo set up a Mission in Hope Place, Stepney, where poor children could get a basic education. On one particular occasion a young boy at the Mission, named Jim Jarvis, recounted a tale that Barnardo subsequently recorded in his book ‘Night and Day’…

One evening, the attendants at the Ragged School had met as usual, and at about half past nine o’clock, were separating to their homes. A little lad, whom we had noticed listening very attentively during the evening, was amongst the last to leave, and his steps were slow and unwilling.

‘Come, my lad, had you better get home? It’s very late. Mother will be coming for you.’
‘Please sir, let me stop! Please let me stay. I won’t do no harm’.
‘Your mother will wonder what kept you so late.’
‘I ain’t got no mother.’
‘Haven’t got a mother, boy? Where do you live?’
‘Don’t live nowhere.’
‘Well, but where did you sleep last night?’
‘Down in Whitechapel, sir, along the Haymarket in one of them carts as is filled with hay; and I met a chap and he telled me to come here to school, as perhaps you’d let me lie near the fire all night.’

Jim Jarvis took Thomas Barnardo around the Petticoat Lane area of the East End showing him children sleeping on roofs and in gutters. The experience affected Barnardo so deeply, that he decided to devote himself to helping destitute children.

He regularly went on forays into the slum district to find destitute boys, and was attacked and beaten on a number of occasions, suffering two broken ribs on one visit. Finally, in 1870, Barnardo opened his first ‘Ragged School for Boys’ at 18 Stepney Causeway, in the East End. Spaces in the school were limited, and on one evening, an 11-year old boy, named John Somers (who was nicknamed ‘Carrots’) was turned away because the shelter was full. He was found dead two days later from malnutrition and exposure. Barnardo was appalled and from then on the boys’ home bore a sign reading – ‘No Destitute Child Ever Refused Admission’.

Barnardo's Sign

Barnardo’s Sign

Eventually, Doctor Barnardo bought up a dozen properties in and around the East End, together with his Girls’ Village Home in Barkingside, which comprised a collection of cottages around a green housing 1,500 girls.

By the time a child left Barnardo’s they were able to make their own way in the world – the girls had been equipped with domestic skills and the boys had been taught a craft or trade.

As he approached his fiftieth birthday, Thomas Barnardo’s health was ailing as his workload began to take its toll. It became apparent that he had some sort of heart complaint – and he was instructed to take a period of absolute rest. However, he felt that he still had so much to do, and began working again at the same pace as before. By 1903, Barnardo was in significant difficulties and despite a number of periods of convalescence he died on 19th September, 1905

From the foundation of the first Barnardo’s home in 1870 to the date of Barnardo’s death, nearly 100,000 children had been rescued, trained and given a better life.

Much of Barnardo’s work and an example of just what a Ragged (or Free) school was like can be experienced by visiting the Ragged School Museum – housed in three canalside properties in Copperfield Road, E3.

The Tichborne Claimant
Fraudulent claims to riches are nothing new, but the strange case of Arthur Orton, who came to be known as the ‘Tichborne Claimant’ bears telling.

Arthur Orton was born in Wapping on the 20th March 1834, the son of George Orton, who, at that time was a butcher and seller of ships’ provisions, a trade in great demand in Wapping which was the centre of the East End Docks. Ships setting sail would visit George Orton’s store to stock up on goods and provisions prior to commencing their journeys overseas.

The young Arthur left his school early, not uncommon in those days, to help his father in the shop, and by the age of 15 he found himself as an apprentice to a Captain Brooks, master of the vessel ‘Ocean’.

The ‘Ocean’ set sail for South America, but shortly after reaching land, Arthur Orton deserted and fled to a small town in the Chilean countryside. He remained in Chile for around 18 months during which time he befriended a family called the Castro’s, before returning to London as an ordinary seaman…

Some 15 years later, in August 1865, a series of advertisements began to appear in a number of Australian newspapers requesting information on the fate of a Roger Charles Tichborne. The advertisements had been placed by his mother, Lady Tichborne following her sons disappearance from a vessel called the ‘Bella’ which had vanished in the seas off South America in 1854.

Roger Tichborne

Roger Tichborne

Lady Tichborne was staunch in her belief that her son was still alive, but the view was not shared by other members of the family, particularly Roger’s younger brother who, as the courts had formerly declared Roger dead, inherited both the Tichborne baronetcy and the family estates.

However, in 1866, a butcher and stockman for squatters in Wagga Wagga, Australia came forward claiming to be the missing Sir Roger. The butcher was known locally as ‘Thomas Castro’.

Extensive court proceedings followed, and contested ‘Castro’s’ claim, and evidence was presented to the court that in fact, the claimant was actually Arthur Orton who was attempting to secure for himself the title and riches of the Tichborne family. Jack Whicher, a detective from Scotland Yard had discovered that as soon as he had arrived in England prior to the court case, ‘Castro’ had visited the Wapping area and had started to enquire about the Orton family. This was seen by the courts as evidence that the claimant was indeed Arthur Orton, not Thomas Castro. However, Lady Tichborne, possibly out of grief or desire to see her eldest son again, recognised him as her son with absolute conviction.

Arthur Orton

Arthur Orton

We can only begin to wonder at the Baroness’ judgement as the claimant, far from being the slight and well educated individual that had left Britain was now an unrefined and grossly obese character who bore little resemblance to those who had known Roger Tichborne.

After a protracted court case, the verdict of the jury was that ‘Castro’ was indeed Arthur Orton and he was duly sentence to fourteen years imprisonment for perjury. He was eventually released in 1884 after serving ten years of his sentence. He continued to claim he was Roger Tichborne, but in 1895, the claimant allegedly confessed to being Arthur Orton. However, that confession was retracted almost immediately, and he finally died in 1898 in poverty.

Matt Munro
It is often said that you don’t miss something until it is gone. Those words apply so much to one of the East End’s greatest vocal performers – Matt Monro.

Born Terry Edward Parsons in Shoreditch on the first of December 1930, Matt was the youngest of five children. Tragedy hit the family in 1931 when Matt’s father, Fred, died from Tuberculosis. The strain of bringing up five children on her own proved too much for his mother Alice, who had a nervous breakdown and was admitted to a sanatorium just two years later.

The young Terry was taken into a foster home, but unsurprisingly, behaved badly. His mother eventually returned to care for him herself, but he continued to create problems for her. He moved from school to school and had his childhood further disrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War, where he became one of millions of children evacuated from the capital.
Matt Monro

Finally, aged 18, he began a term of National Service, serving as a mechanic with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers before becoming a tank driving instructor, and was posted overseas, to Hong Kong.

Gifted with a beautiful singing voice, he started to enter a number of talent contests on the radio in Hong Kong, and won several. He eventually became so successful that the talent show organisers banned him from taking part – but as a result, he was given his own radio show ‘Terry Parsons Sings’.

Upon his return to Britain in 1953, the young Terry tried to repeat his success overseas, but fame eluded him. Instead, he married his girlfriend Iris Jordan (who was pregnant with his son Mitchell) and took a series of driving jobs, initially as a lorry driver and then as a bus driver on the No 27 route from Highgate to Teddington.

Matt Munro

Matt Munro with Winifred Atwell and Alma Cogan

Terry eventually got his break in 1956 when he got a position as the featured vocalist with the BBC Show Band. He made a demo record which was heard by the hugely popular pianist Winifred Atwell, who effectively took him under her wing. Persuading her record label, Decca, to give him an audition, they took him on, and Winifred encouraged him to change his name.  Her father was Monro Atwell, and Matt came from a journalist friend of hers.

Matt Monro was born.

Beatles producer, George Martin asked Matt to perform on a Peter Sellers record (under the much less glamorous name of Fred Flange!) in the style of Frank Sinatra, and realised his potential. George Martin knew he was on to a winner and quickly signed him for the Parlaphone Record label.

Hit followed golden hit with favourites such as Portrait of My Love, Softly as I Leave You, and the James Bond Theme, From Russia with Love.

In 1966, Matt switched labels again, this time to Capitol Records, but his singles (with the notable exception of another film theme, Born Free) were not as successful.

He spent some time in the States, touring the cabaret circuit, before returning to Britain and working at the best nightclubs around – clubs like ‘The Talk of the Town’, and he became a regular on TV shows.

Unfortunately, the public were largely unaware of another, darker side to Matt Monro – he was a heavy social drinker and smoker. His GP noticed that his liver had become swollen and wrote in his own notes that at a conservative estimate, Matt Monro was drinking around half a bottle of whisky a day.  Whilst this seemed to have no effect on his public performances, it began to have a detrimental effect on his health and in 1976 he was admitted into the Priory for rehabilitation. This had little success and it wasn’t until another clinic, Galsworthy House, took on the case that they finally got Matt to give up the bottle.

However, by then the damage had been done – and in 1984 he was diagnosed with liver cancer. A transplant was ruled out when it was discovered that the cancer was too widespread, and Matt Monro said goodbye to the world on February 7th 1985 aged just 54.

Elephant-Man-Banner
Joseph Merrick
– who became known as ‘The Elephant Man‘, was not born in the East End, but his involvement with the London Hospital, Whitechapel and with Frederick Treves, one of its surgeons, made him inextricably linked to this part of London.

Joseph Carey Merrick was born in Leicester, Leicestershire, England in 1862 and lived until 1890. He began to develop severe abnormalities during the first month or two of his life, and these manifested themselves as thick, lumpy skin on his body, together with a huge bony lump on his forehead. His lips, feet and one of his arms became grossly enlarged, and following a fall during his childhood, Joseph developed a severe limp.
elephant man

When his mother died in 1873, and following rejection by his father who remarried two years later, Joseph left home. In late 1879, the 17 year old Joseph Merrick entered the Leicester Union Workhouse.

At the age of 21, Merrick himself contacted a showman called Sam Torr and suggested that Torr exhibit him as a freak. Torr, with a number of associates named Merrick ‘The Elephant Man’, and began touring the East Midlands with their sad cargo in tow.

Merrick then travelled to London where he met another showman called Tom Norman who exhibited him in a shop in Whitechapel Road, directly opposite the London Hospital. Incidentally, the shop stands to this day but now sells Indian saris…

Treves discovered Merrick on one of his sojourns outside the hospital and invited him to be examined and photographed. Merrick agreed, and ended up staying in an apartment in the hospital for the remainder of his life.

Treves would visit him daily and the pair developed quite a close friendship. Merrick also used to receive visits from members of London society, which included Alexandra, Princess of Wales.
Joseph Merrick

Despite his atrocious deformities, Joseph Merrick was an intelligent and sensitive human being, and some of that sensitivity shines through in the intricate model of a cathedral he constructed whilst in his apartment, and which remains in the London Hospital Museum to this day.

Merrick died on 11 April 1890, aged 27. The official recorded cause of death was asphyxia, although Treves, who dissected the body, discovered that Merrick had died of a dislocated neck. He said it was his belief that Merrick—who had to sleep sitting up, supported by cushions, because of the weight of his head—had been attempting to sleep lying down, to “be like other people”.