Just before 7pm on the evening of Friday the 19 January 1917, with Britain firmly in the grip of WWI, the people of Silvertown were settling down to their evening meals. Suddenly, the winter’s night lit up and the howl and roar of an enormous explosion rent the East London sky apart. Debris was strewn across much of London: a gasholder across the river in Greenwich exploded, igniting over 7 million cubic feet of gas, and windows were reportedly blown out of the Savoy Hotel on the Strand. Red hot lumps of rubble fell from the sky and began to cause numerous fires in the surrounding areas. What on earth had happened?


The Silvertown explosion wrecked the docks

Silvertown is an area of London just to the south of the Royal Victoria Docks, on the far eastern fringes of the East End. It has long been an area of industry and was named after Samuel Winkworth Silver who established a factory there in the 1850’s and who went on to make some of the first of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephones there in the 1880’s.

As Silvertown just fell outside the boundary of the 1843 Metropolitan Building Act, many factories were built there that dealt with products that were unpleasant, noxious or even downright dangerous. Chemical factories abounded and manufactured or processed petroleum, caustic soda, creosote and even sulphuric acid. All this on the outskirts of the busiest metropolis on earth. Small terraced properties filled the gaps between the docks and these housed the factory workers.

As the First World War progressed, a caustic soda factory owned by Brunner, Mond and Co was ordered by the government to begin the manufacture of trinitrotoluene, commonly known as TNT, used in a wide range of munitions for the British troops fighting in the trenches. The company protested at the time, as the effects of handling TNT were well known. A large number of workers found that their skin would begin to turn yellow and they began to suffer from chest pains and nausea. However in September 1915 the company surrendered to growing government pressure and their factory began turning out TNT at the rate of nine tons a day…


A house wrecked in the Silvertown Explosion

On the evening of the 19 January, it seems that a fire broke out in the melt-pot room. Despite frantic efforts to put it out, some 50 tons of TNT ignited – with devastating consequences. The resultant explosion completely destroyed a large part of the factory and the properties in the surrounding streets, sending up a massive fireball and starting fires in the capital that could be seen as far away as Kent and Surrey. The sound of the blast was reportedly heard as far away as Norfolk. Flour mills on the southern side of the Royal Victoria Docks were flattened and other parts of the dock and warehouses were torn apart.

Those people who could, responded rapidly, but the unusual geography of this part of East London hampered rescue attempts. Seventy three people lost their lives and close to four hundred were injured, many seriously. Around seventy thousand buildings were damaged and the financial cost was estimated at £250,000 (an enormous amount at the time). Ironically, the death toll could have been so much more, given the level of devastation. Because of the time of day, many workers had left the factory, but had not yet retired for the night. This action may have saved hundreds as it was the upper floors of the properties that bore the brunt of the damage.­ A number of firemen lost their lives as their station was one of the properties brought crashing to the ground by the explosion.


Silvertown Fire Station after the explosion

The day following the explosion, the local authority took steps to oversee the rescue work and begin rebuilding their shattered community. Within two weeks, over 1700 men in the area were employed in repairing housing and as a result, by August of 1917, much of their work was complete.

An enquiry into the incident was set up and reached the conclusion that Silvertown was a totally unsuitable place to build a TNT manufacturing plant, and went on to criticise Brunner, Mond & Co for negligence in the running of the factory and for failure in looking after the welfare of their workers. The Government report remained secret until 1950…

The residents of Bethnal Green in the East End of London had become used to the ‘crump, crump, crump’ of the bombs being dropped on the capital by the Luftwaffe. The Blitz had been almost continuous during the winter of 1940 / 41 – indeed the city had once been hit for 57 consecutive nights, but now, as winter began to give way to spring in March 1943, things seemed to be a bit quieter. However, the population was on its guard, as the RAF had bombed Berlin a couple of nights before, and it was well known that Germany often responded with reprisal bombings soon afterwards…

The East End of London had been a target for German Bombing campaigns for a long time, in an attempt to disrupt the flow of materials and goods through the crucially important London Docks. As a result, people were becoming familiar with the air raid sirens and bombing raids that seemed to form a constant part of their everyday lives.


Bethnal Green Tube Station Entrance

Many families had built Anderson or Morrison Shelters in their own back gardens, but these prefabricated huts were often cramped and dark, and had poor ventilation, particularly when filled with a family of five or six people. As a result, many families used to head for the London Underground to sleep in the deep tunnels they provided. A sense of security prevailed, and a great community spirit grew on these excursions below the surface. Life went on, and some stations even boasted libraries.

Much of the Underground had been extended before the war, and new lines and stations were being added all the time. Bethnal Green Station was newly built as the Central Line had been extended from Liverpool Street in 1936. The outbreak of war had prevented further work from being carried out, so the station remained without tracks, but this made it ideal as a safe shelter from the bombing above.

On the evening of Wednesday, 3rd March, 1943, the weather was dreary and wet. London was still in the grips of a black-out, so lighting was limited. The local cinema had just finished its programme for the evening, and people were milling around outside, waiting to catch one of the buses that were still running. Suddenly, at 8.27pm, the air raid siren began its mournful wail, and people began making their way briskly to the entrance of Bethnal Green Tube Station and the safety it represented. A middle aged woman, carrying a bundle and holding a baby was at the head of the group of people descending the 19 steps to the station when she tripped and stumbled. An elderly man following her toppled over her prone body and a horrifying domino effect started to take place. At the same time, a strange and deafening sound filled the air (it turned out to be a secret anti-aircraft rocket battery being tested in the adjacent Victoria Park). People at the top of the stairs panicked and surged forwards, falling over each other, and in the matter of just 15 seconds the poorly lit, damp stairwell measuring just 10ft by 12ft was filled with over 300 people, being crushed to death by the weight of bodies.


Bethnal Green Tube Disaster Stairwell

People were quick to rush to help try and extricate the bodies from the crush. An off duty policeman, Thomas Penn tried his best to crawl over the bodies to assist, but he was hampered by the poor light given out by the single 25 watt bulb in the stairwell and fainted twice himself in his attempts.

By the time the bodies were removed from the stairway, 173 people were dead – 27 men, 84 women and perhaps most tragically, 62 children. An additional 62 people were taken to hospital with severe crush injuries.

The bodies were put onto carts and taken to the local mortuary at Whitechapel Hospital, and when that became overwhelmed by the numbers, St John’s, the local church opposite the tube station was used as a temporary resting place.

The government was concerned that the news of the disaster would have such a detrimental effect on morale, that they ordered that the location and precise number of casualties be kept secret, and that reporting the tragedy ‘would give the incident a disproportionate importance, and might encourage the enemy to make further nuisance raids.’

Perhaps the greatest tragedy was that there was no air raid that night, and the dreadful occurrence of the Bethnal Green Tube Disaster has made it infamous as the site of the worst civilian loss of life in World War Two…


Bethnal Green Tube Disaster Memorial Plaque

Opium Den in Limehouse
The area around Limehouse has long been associated with the original London ‘Chinatown’- and with it, the first and much exaggerated home of the East End opium dens. Limehouse was an established slum in the middle of the nineteenth century, and with its narrow buildings and foggy streets, it had a reputation for its sordid pubs, brothels, and opium dens. To an East Londoner or a visiting sailor, it was foreign enough for them to be able throw off the rigid manners of Victorian Britain.

In the East End, opium dens were usually associated with the Chinese, because it was invariably the Chinese who supplied the opium in the first place, as well as preparing it for visiting non-Chinese smokers. Chinese seamen who found themselves stranded in London were allowed to work in the East London docks with a large number involved in unloading China tea.

Originally, many of these Chinese sailors found lodgings at the ‘Oriental Quarters’ alongside the River Thames at Shadwell (very close to the present day location of Wapping Underground Station). These ‘Oriental Quarters’ were frequently run by English women who were able to speak Oriental languages, and who often went by names such as ‘Canton Kitty’ or ‘Chinese Emma’. Of these, ‘Chinese Emma’ was well known for running a Chinese gambling house, where card games would be played in the rooms downstairs whilst the first floor served as an opium den.

An East End Opium Den

An East End Opium Den

Most opium dens kept a supply of opium equipment, such as specialized pipes and lamps that were necessary to smoke the drug. The opium den customers would recline on beds and makeshift benches in order to hold the long opium pipes over oil lamps. In that way, the pipes would warm and that in turn would heat the drug until it vaporized, allowing the smoker to inhale the vapours.

However, it would appear that the reputation of Victorian London as a centre of opium smoking is rather unjustified and owes more to popular literary fiction of the time than actual historical fact.

The London press, along with popular British authors of the day, such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens succumbed to using London’s Limehouse district as a focal point for the opium-drenched exploits of their heroes and heroines. The books The Man with the Twisted Lip’ and The Picture of Dorian Gray both make reference to the opium dens in the East End, but there is little evidence to support the illusion that so many dens existed.

London’s Chinatown soon developed a reputation for opium-induced sordidness and debauchery – yet it would appear that the sole intent of this reputation was to titillate and shock British readers.

Gin Craze
It can hardly be overstated just how serious the effects of cheap alcohol and in particular, Gin, had on the East End of London. London was hit by what social historians call ‘The Gin Craze’ during the Eighteenth Century, and it was to spawn so many of the social problems we associate with the over-crowded, slum-ridden East End.

Gin was originally created in Holland, and only became a popular drink in England when Dutch-born William of Orange took the English throne in 1688. Distillation had been widespread throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, but it was fairly uncommon in England, compared to beer and ale production. However, in 1689, Parliament banned imports of French wines and spirits and at the same time it lifted the restrictions on spirit production in Britain. As a result, anyone who could pay the required duties could set up a distillery business. Distillers became not only producers, but also sellers and the cost of gin fell below the cost of beer and ale. Gin rapidly became the favourite alcoholic drink among the ‘inferior classes’.

For a few pennies, the poor of East London found a way of escaping from the cold, hunger and grinding poverty of their lives, by drinking their woes away. It was estimated that the average Londoner drank a staggering 112 pints of Gin a year – that is a pint of raw spirit every three days. It was estimated that by 1750, over 7 million gallons of Gin was being drunk a year compared to around 3 million gallons of ale…

Gin sellers would roam the streets pushing carts filled with cheap gin, and seedy gin shops would advertise: “Drunk for one penny, dead drunk for two, clean straw for nothing.” The straw was used to lie on while sleeping off a hangover.

Women, in particular, seemed to favour gin and often purchased it from Chemists as a medicinal drink. It was often mixed with warm water to ‘soothe the nerves’ and became known as Mother’s Ruin.

The effects were devastating. Gin was blamed for misery, rising crime, prostitution, madness, high death rates and falling birth rates. The Vice-Chamberlain of the time, Lord Hervey, commented that, “Drunkenness of the common people was universal, the whole town of London swarmed with drunken people from morning till night.”

In one notorious case, a woman named Judith Dufour collected her two-year-old child from the workhouse, strangled him, dumped the body in a ditch and sold the child’s new set of clothes for 1s and 4d to buy gin.

Gin Lane

‘Gin Lane’ by Hogarth


Finally, the government was forced to act. In 1729, they imposed an excise licence of £20 and levied a duty of two shillings per gallon. This almost suppressed the manufacture of good quality gin, but led to a greater increase in illegal distilling and the quantity of bad quality spirits being consumed continued to rise. In London, this led to a decline in the population, as people were literally drinking themselves to death.

As demands that something be done about the appalling situation grew in fervour, the Government introduced the 1736 Gin Act. This taxed retail sales at One Pound (20 shillings) a gallon and made selling gin without a £50 annual licence illegal. However, as a direct result, over the next seven years, only two licences were applied for and issued. Reputable sellers of Gin were put out of business, but bootleggers continued to thrive without control. The bootleggers’ gin, given such colourful names as ‘Ladies Delight’ and ‘Cuckold’s Comfort’, was often flavoured with turpentine rather than juniper, and in some cases was poisonous. There were even instances of it containing appalling ingredients such as sulphuric acid.

In 1751, the artist William Hogarth published his satirical print ‘Gin Lane’, (see picture) which depicts such disturbing scenes as a gin-crazed mother, legs covered in syphilitic sores, unwittingly dropping her baby to its death down some cellar stairs while she takes a pinch of snuff.

Fuelled by such powerful propaganda, the 1751 Gin Act was passed. This was finally more successful, as it served to lower the distillation licence fee and forced distillers to sell only to licensed retailers trading from respectable premises. A series of poor harvests caused a rise in food prices and a decline in wages, so the poor were less able to afford the spirit and by 1757, the Gin Craze was all but over…

Half hidden down a small pedestrian path called Graces Alley, a short way between Cable Street and The Highway is one of the East End’s gems and the world’s oldest surviving grand music hall – Wilton’s.

Unlike so many buildings in the East End that have been ‘gentrified’ over the years, the first time visitor to Wilton’s Music Hall would be mistaken in thinking that this is a crumbling relic of a bygone age.

Wilton’s was originally an alehouse from around 1743 and was renamed The Mahogany Bar in 1826 as the then landlord was the first to fit a magnificent mahogany bar and fittings into his pub. This was quite unprecedented in an East London pub of the time, and may well have set the scene for the traditional ‘Victorian’ look that we associate with public houses today. After about ten years, a concert room was built around the back of the pub and it became known as The Albion Saloon.  For the first time, it became legally entitled to put on full length productions.

The buildings that finally make up Wilton’s today comprise five terraced houses – and to the modern eye are extremely shabby, but there was a good reason for their appearance. The bar was kept as the public entrance, and the music hall was actually built in the area behind the existing frontage. This represented common practice at the time, for as you can imagine, ‘street frontage’ for music halls was extremely expensive.

Wilton’s Music Hall in its original form only lasted for around 30 years, before a fire forced its closure, but during its heyday, Champagne Charlie (George Laybourne) and George Ware, who wrote the music hall classic ‘The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery’ both performed here. A Methodist Mission eventually took over the tenancy and during the Great Dock Strike that hit the East End in 1889 served over 1000 hot meals a day in the soup kitchen that had been set up in the Mahogany Bar.

Wilton’s Music Hall remained in the hands of the Methodist Mission for almost seventy years until 1956, helping the poverty stricken East Enders through the trial and tribulations of The Blitz at the height of the Second World War.

As part of the enormous changes to the East End in the 1960’s, the building was earmarked for demolition as part of the slum clearance programme, and the Methodists were asked to leave. Fortunately, the plight of the building came to the attention of among others, Sir John Betjeman, Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers. They started a campaign to stop its demolition, and the building was finally purchased by the Greater London Council, gaining Grade II listing in 1971.

Regrettably, the years of neglect had taken their toll and the building itself was suffering from a considerable amount of structural damage and extensive decay. However, a concerted campaign of fundraising has led to its gradual restoration (although a lot of work has still to be done) and thanks to the efforts of the fundraising team, the public can still sit in the grand auditorium and experience for themselves first hand shows, history tours and special events that Wilton’s Music Hall puts on to this day.

Pie Mash and Liquor
Due to the extremes of poverty in the East End, an inexpensive form of a hot nutritional meal was welcome, and supplies of eels was plentiful, right through until the end of the 1800’s – indeed, eels were one of the few types of fish that could survive in the Thames, given the high levels of pollution at the time. Billingsgate Fish Market, a short distance along the Thames from the East End was the usual stopping point for the predominantly Dutch fishing vessels that would moor and land their catch.
Pie and Mash

The chopped eels were baked in a pie, and to make the meal larger, the inclusion of a cheap vegetable, in this case mashed potato, and a sauce (usually made from the water that had been used to cook the eels, and given some taste and colour by the addition of some chopped parsley) would form the basis of a nourishing and inexpensive meal.

Following the end of the Second World War, the supplies of eels rapidly declined – a trend that has continued to the present day (in fact a recent 2010 survey of eel traps along the Thames showed that only 50 eels were captured in the whole twelve months). As beef became more widely available with a growing supply from imports around the world, the nature of the pie changed, and it is likely that asking for Pie & Mash now will result in being served minced beef as a filling.

M Manze Pie and Mash Shop
The longest continuously open pie and mash shop in London is M. Manze, which opened in 1902 on Tower Bridge Road. As the family grew, so did the chain of pie and mash shops, but these have now shrunk back to just three shops including the original in Tower Bridge Road, together with ones in Peckham and Sutton.

Traditionally, pie and mash shops nearly all have white tile walls with mirrors (often heavily engraved), and marble floors, tables and work tops, all of which are easy to clean. They give the shops – (and you will find that they are hardly ever called restaurants) – a late Victorian appearance

The Battle of Cable Street

In late autumn 1936, an event took place in Cable Street, a nondescript road leading from Leman Street in the East End of London. As the rest of the world braced itself for the outbreak of the Second World War, the Battle of Cable Street in this part of the East End saw scenes of running battles and barricades erected to prevent a march through the area by the British Union of Fascists, led by Oswald Mosley.
Oswald Mosley

Sir Oswald Mosley, the 6th Baronet of Ancoats, was born on the 16th November 1896. He became Member of Parliament for Harrow from 1918 until 1924 and for Smethwick from 1926 to 1931. In 1932, following a disagreement with the then Labour Government’s unemployment policies, he resigned his position and formed the New Party which in turn merged with the British Union of Fascists.

Mosley spent a large part of his private fortune on the British Union of Fascists and tried, through close associations with Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler to set up a British speaking commercial radio station to broadcast propaganda from Germany.

Mosley had instituted a body of black uniformed paramilitary followers – nicknamed The Blackshirts. This corps of individuals served to oversee the BUF party meetings, and they were frequently involved in violent confrontations, particularly with Jewish and other immigrant groups.

The Battle of Cable Street took place on Sunday 4 October 1936, when Mosley led a march into this area of London, which had a high immigrant population. It led to a clash between the Metropolitan Police, who were overseeing the march, and anti-fascists, including local Jewish, socialist, anarchist, Irish and communist groups. The majority of both marchers and counter-protesters had travelled into the area for the purpose of causing as much disruption as possible.

Despite being aware that there was the strong likelihood for violence to break out, the government decided not to ban the march and sent in 6000 Police Officers in an attempt to prevent any disruption of the gathering. However, they were met by around 100,000 anti-fascist protesters.
Police at The Battle of Cable Street

The anti-fascist groups built roadblocks and barricades near the junction with Christian Street in an attempt to prevent the march from taking place. The demonstrators fought with improvised weapons such as sticks, rocks, and even chair legs, and the women in the houses along the street contributed to the riot by throwing rubbish, rotten vegetables and the contents of chamber pots at the police. After a series of running battles, Sir Philip Game, the Police Commissioner disallowed the march from going ahead and both Mosley and the BUF abandoned it to prevent further bloodshed.

The Battle of Cable Street Wall Plaque
Many demonstrators were arrested and while most were charged with the minor offence of obstructing police and fined £5, several of the ringleaders were found guilty of affray and sentenced to 3 months hard labour. The Battle of Cable Street was a major factor leading to the passage of the Public Order Act 1936, which required police consent for political marches and forbade the wearing of political uniforms in public.

One question often asked in the East End is ‘What is a Cockney’?

Well, a common definition of a cockney is a person who has been born within the sound of Bow bells. This has nothing to do with the suburb of Bow to the east of London but to the church of Saint Mary le Bow, Cheapside, in the City of London.

A study carried out in the Millennium Year 2000 tried to determine just how far the Bells of Bow could be heard, (given the noise levels of today would not have been so prevalent when the term was originally coined!)

The conclusion was that they would have been heard for six miles to the east, five miles to the north, three miles to the south, and four miles to the west. Today, that is an area that covers Bethnal Green, Whitechapel, Spitalfields, Stepney, Wapping, Limehouse, Poplar, Millwall, Hackney, Hoxton, Shoreditch, Bow, and Mile End, and even Bermondsey which is actually south of the River Thames.

One of the defining features of a being a Cockney, however, is use of the dialect known as Cockney Rhyming Slang.

No quite knows when Cockney rhyming slang originated in the East End of London, but it is thought to have started to be used from around 1840 onwards.

There is some thought that it came into being as an alternative form of dialect – a bit of a ‘code’ between the street traders and costermongers with unsuspecting customers being completely unaware of what was being said about them. Others believe that it may have been used by the criminal fraternity as a way of confusing the Police force of the time.

John Hotton produced a ‘Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant & Vulgar Words’ in 1859 which included, for the first time, a Glossary of Rhyming Slang – some of which are reproduced below. Try it out for yourself.




Adam and Eve


Almond rocks


Apple fritter

bitter (beer)

Apple peeling


Apple tart


Apples and pears


Aunty Lou


Barnet Fair


Beechams pill


Bees ‘n’ honey


Bernard Miles

piles (haemorrhoids)

Boat race




Bottle and glass


Bow & arrow


Box of toys


Brown bread


Bubble and squeak



talk (from rabbit and pork)

Burnt cinder


Butcher’ s hook


Cain & Able


Chalk Farm




China plate

mate (friend)

Coach ‘n’ badge

cadge (get money off)

Cock ‘n’ hen

ten or £10

Currant bun


Derby Kelly


Dicky Dirt


Dig in the grave


Dr. Crippen


Dog and bone


Donald Duck


Duke of Kent


Friar Tuck


Frog and toad


George Raft

daft (crazy)

Ginger beer


Gold watch


Ham and eggs


Hampstead Heath


Harry Lime


Heap of coke


Hen ‘n’ fox


Holy friar


Holy ghost


House to let


Jack ‘n’ Jill


Jam jar


Jam tart




Jim Skinner




Joe Blake


Kate Karney


Lemon squash


Linen draper


Loaf of bread


Max Miller


Mince pies


Mother Hubbard


Mutt and Jeff


Peckham Rye


Pig’s ear


Plates of meat


Pork pie


Pot ‘n’ pan

old man

Rabbit ‘n’ pork


Reads and writes


Reels of cotton


Rocking horse


Rory O’Moore


Rosie Lee


Salmon and trout


Saucepan lid

kid (child)

Sexton Blake


Joe Blake


Six to four


Skin ‘n’ blister


Sky rocket


Taters in the mould


Tea leaf


Tit for tat


Tom and Dick


Trouble and strife



Many people associate the East End with Pearly Kings & Queens.  The Pearlies developed from the ‘Coster Kings & Queens’, who originated in the 18th century. The ‘Costers’ in turn began life as ‘Costermongers’, London’s street traders, who have been around for over a 1000 years

The Costermongers have been an important feature of London life since the 11th century and for most of that time they were unlicensed and itinerant. Like some market traders of today, they would shout out to attract customers to view their wares – although, in doing so, they would often upset some of London’s better off society. The costermongers began to adopt an innovative method of attracting attention to themselves. Many would have a row of pearl buttons, each the size of a penny, sewn to their outside trouser seams from the ankle to the knee. Other went further with more pearl buttons on the flaps of their waistcoat and coat pockets and the front of their caps.


At that time, Victorian London was riddled with social problem. The poor or those too sick to work enjoyed no healthcare provision, and the welfare state was a long way off. For many, the Workhouse was the only way of food or lodgings, but it was considered the last resort among the poor as treatment was harsh and conditions almost as squalid as life on the street.

It was into this environment that Henry Croft enters the story….

Henry Croft was born in 1862 and raised in a Victorian workhouse orphanage in Somers Town Market, Chalton Street, King’s Cross.

Henry decided to go one better and decided to have a suit totally covered in pearl buttons. He then used to wear this to collect pennies and halfpennies to help out the children in the orphanage where he had been raised. He soon became a great attraction, and he was approached by many charitable organizations to help collect money for the poor, or disabled.

Pearly Kings and QueensThe costermongers had always had a tradition of organizing a whip-round for any of their number who had fallen on hard times, and Henry now asked them to help him with his charity work. They adopted the same style of costume, and as a result, the pearly monarchy and its tradition of raising money for charity began.

When Henry died in 1930, 400 pearly kings and queens attended his funeral in their costumes. There are fewer than that now, but the Original Pearly Kings and Queens Association still looks after Henry’s grave – a representation of a top hatted figure of Henry Croft that was originally situated  in the St Pancras & Islington Cemetery – until repeated vandalism caused its replacement…