All posts tagged Culture

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…

Brady Street Jewish Cemetery Title
If you had asked anyone in the East End where Brady Street Jewish Cemetery was in the late 1800s, they would have stared at you blankly. Unsurprising really, as the thoroughfare now known as Brady Street was then known as North Street, and some years before that, Ducking Pond Lane.

A short stroll away from bustling Whitechapel Tube Station, Brady Street is a nondescript aside off the Whitechapel Road, but behind a high brick wall on the western side of the road hides a quiet and calm cemetery – part of the strong Jewish influence that had come to dominate Spitalfields and the surrounding areas.

Yiddish signs were already an everyday sight in the Victorian East End – theatre posters and newspapers of the time carried the language and Jewish culture began to permeate the already ancient buildings. By the turn of the century, for example, there were 15 kosher butchers in Wentworth Street alone.

A number of smaller synagogues called ‘chevras’ had been built in the area and these provided welfare to the Jewish community as well as being a place of worship. It became obvious therefore, that the Jewish people in the area needed somewhere to bury their dead.

Old Map of Brady Street Cemetery

Map showing the ‘Jews Burial Ground’ in North Street

Brady Street Jewish Cemetery (It was marked as the much brasher ‘Jews Burial Ground’ in maps of the day) was originally leased by the New Synagogue at the end of May 1761 – The freehold transferring to them when they bought it in 1795.

When the cemetery became full in the 1790s, the decision was made to place a four foot layer of fresh earth over the central part of the site, creating a flat topped mound, called the ‘Strangers Ground’ which was used for subsequent burials. Because of the additional layer, the headstones are placed back to back to identify the ‘occupants’ of the graves.

Eventually, the site was given notice that burials should discontinue from the beginning of February 1856. The closure date was extended a number of times, but the cemetery eventually closed on 31st May 1858.

However, in 1980, the local council began proceeding to apply for a compulsory purchase order so the site could be redeveloped. As the law stands, any cemetery that has had no internments for 100 years can have its occupants removed and the land reclaimed for commercial use.

Victor Rothschild's Tomb

Victor Rothschild’s Tomb

In order to protect the cemetery from this fate, a one off internment took place in 1990; that of the third Baron, Nathaniel Mayer Victor Rothschild, who was buried by his ancestor Nathan Mayer Rothschild – founder of the British branch of the Rothschild banking dynasty. As a result of this action, the site cannot be developed until at least 2090.

Access to the cemetery is limited, but you can still see into one corner by peering through the ivy covered wrought iron gateway near its entrance.

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.

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.

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