East End

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When you approach Wapping Police Station from Wapping High Street, the modest building looks fairly innocuous. Almost dwarfed by the buildings of Aberdeen Wharf on the right and St John’s Wharf on the left, it is perhaps difficult to imagine that this is the birthplace of the oldest police force in the world.

In the East End of eighteenth century London, importers were losing £500,000 of goods (that is a staggering £46 million at today’s rates) each year to theft. Estimates are not available for the theft of exports…

A way was sought to prevent or at the very least reduce the level of crime, and a proposal was put forward in 1797 to create a body of men who could patrol the Thames by John Harriot, an Essex Justice of the Peace. Following his plans being put before the West India Merchants and Planters Committees, funding was obtained and the creation of the Marine Police began on 2nd July 1798 in the building that still houses the Marine Support Unit of the Metropolitan Police.

An initial force of around 50 river officers were trained and armed. They needed to be. It was estimated that almost 11,000 of the 33.000 people who worked the river trades were known criminals. The reaction to the new force was understandably hostile as the river thieves found that were losing an easy living.


Wapping Police Museum

A riot took place outside the station when around 2,000 men arrived with every intention of torching the place with the magistrates and some police officers inside. Whilst Harriot was able (and brave enough) to successfully disperse the riot, one of his officers, Gabriel Franks, was shot and died later in hospital. He became the first recorded police death.

The government became convinced of the benefits of the Marine Force (particularly after receiving letters confirming that the deterrent of a regular, patrolling force was working) and in July 1800 moved the force from private to public control. The force flourished, and became well established in the East End. In 1811, it was a Marine Police Force Officer who was first on the scene of the dreadful Ratcliffe Highway Murders. Eventually in 1839, the control of the Marine Force (together with other independent law enforcement groups like the Bow Street Runners) passed to the newly formed Metropolitan Police Force.

Nowadays, the station is home to the Marine Police Unit who continue to patrol the Thames – but the building also houses the wonderful Thames River Police Museum. This is to be found in what used to be the old carpenters workshop, and gives a fascinating glimpse into the origins of the world’s oldest police force.

Visits can be made to the Museum, on a strictly appointment only basis, and the request must be made in writing. Tours are run by two retired members of the River Police who guide you around the various exhibits, and upon entering the museum visitors are confronted with a wide range of historical artefacts. Many models exist of the type of vessels that they’ve used in the past, together with old nautical uniforms, weapons, trophies and such like.


Wapping Police Museum Exhibits

One item that takes pride of place is the ensign of the ill-fated paddle steamer Princess Alice. This steamer, returning from an evening trip to Gravesend on 3rd September 1878 was struck by the coal carrier Bywell Castle and split in two. She sank within four minutes and over 650 people perished in the cold and polluted water of the Thames.

It was recommended at the enquiry into the Princess Alice disaster that the Thames Division should have steam launches to enable them to respond quicker to emergencies rather than the rowing boats that had been previously used…





Should you wish to visit the museum, please send your enquiries to:

Thames Police Museum
Wapping Police Station
Wapping High Street
Wapping, London, E1W 2NE

And enclose a stamped self-addressed envelope.

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 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

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 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.”


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

Match Girls
Social deprivation was nothing new in the East End of London in the mid 1800’s, but it would be hard to imagine nowadays the plight of the Match Girls at Bryant and May’s factory in Worship Street, Bow.

William Bryant and Francis May (who were both Quakers) had originally imported red-phosphorus based safety matches from John Edvard Lundström, in Sweden, in 1850. However, as demand increased Bryant and May bought Lundström’s UK patent, building their new safety match factory in Bow.

They continued to use red phosphorus throughout 1855, but the product was much more expensive than the alternative – white phosphorus-based matches. Bryant and May found a ready solution in the East End – and began the use of child labour. At its height, the factory was to employ around 3000 East End children, predominantly girls.

The match girls, some as young as 13, worked from 6.30am until 7pm, with just two breaks, standing all the time, often eating any lunch at their workbenches, breathing fumes as they dined. In the factory, those girls known as “mixers,” “dippers,” and “boxers” were most exposed to the heated fumes containing this compound.

Phossy Jaw

Phosphorus Necrosis or ‘Phossy Jaw’

However, the long hours were often just the start of the match girls’ misery. Many were struck down with a terrible disease – phosphorus necrosis – known by the colloquial term of ‘Phossy Jaw’. Those girls who suffered with phossy jaw would begin experiencing agonising toothaches and a swelling of the gums. Over a period of time, the jaw bone would begin to abscess.

The bones of the jaw would start to glow a greenish-white colour in the dark, and the decaying bone tissue would eventually rot away. The accompanying open wounds would run, giving off a foul-smelling discharge. Finally, in its advanced stages, the disease would lead to serious brain damage and death.

The exploitation of the girls came to the attention of a journalist and social activist called Annie Besant, together with her friend Herbert Burrows, who, following the disclosure that Bryant and May’s shareholders were receiving dividends of 20%, whist the girls were paid around 4 – 8 shillings a week (20 – 40p), published an article in her weekly paper ‘The Link’ on 23rd June 1888.

Annie Besant

Annie Besant

After questioning several of the young girls at the factory, her shocking article likened the Bow factory to a “prison-house” and described the match girls as “white wage slaves” – “undersized”, “helpless” and “oppressed”.

She wrote – “Do you know that girls are used to carrying boxes on their heads until the hair is rubbed off and the young heads are bald at fifteen years of age? Country clergymen with shares in Bryant and May’s, draw down on your knee your fifteen year old daughter; pass your hand tenderly over the silky beauty of the black, shining tresses”.

Bryant and May reacted angrily to the accusations and tried to insist that each member of their workforce sign a prepared declaration contradicting the article. The girls refused and as a result, one of their number was dismissed on what was seen to be a spurious and made up charge.

By the end of that day – around half of the workforce, some 1500 women and girls – refused to work. Whilst the management attempted to backpedal and reinstate the sacked worker, the girls demanded other changes to their working conditions, particularly in relation to the unfair fines which were deducted from their wages.

By the 6th July 1888, the entire factory stopped work and a group of around 200 girls descended on the Fleet Street offices of Annie Besant and her newspaper. Annie Besant’s initial reaction was one of shock and dismay that so many of the women and girls were now effectively out of work with little or no means of support.


A newspaper cutting highlighting the issues

She helped the girls to coordinate a strike fund, and a number of other newspapers collected donations from readers. Prominent members of the Fabian Society including George Bernard Shaw, Sidney Webb and Graham Wallas became involved in the distribution of the cash collected.

The Member of Parliament, Charles Bradlaugh, spoke in the house on behalf of the girls’ plight, and a number of the match-girls travelled to the House of Commons to meet a group of MPs and increase the publicity and pressure on Bryant and May.

Finally, the factory owner William Bryant, concerned about the poor publicity, formulated a meeting on the 16th July 1888 where it was agreed that a number of the girls’ grievances, such as fines, unfair deductions and penalties and the creation of a separate dining area where meals could be taken without the danger of contamination from the phosphorus, would be met.

Besant and others continued to campaign against the use of white phosphorus in matches, and in an effort to try and combat the situation, the Salvation Army opened up its own match factory in the Bow district, using less toxic red phosphorus and paying better wages. However, the continued high cost of red phosphorus compared to white phosphorus caused its downfall and The Salvation Army match factory finally closed, ironically being taken over by Bryant and May, on 26 November 1901.


The Bryant and May factory in Bow

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…

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.

Walk a short distance from Spitalfields Market on a Sunday between 9am and 3pm, and you will stumble upon another world famous East End Market – and one of London’s oldest – Petticoat Lane.  Originally called Peticote Lane, the area around Petticoat Lane was decimated by the Great Plague of 1665, when London lost a fifth of its entire population.

The existing market has been operating in its current location from the mid 1700’s and was named after the Petticoats and Lace that were sold in the area by the Huguenot weavers who had populated Spitalfields after fleeing their native France. Another interpretation of the name is that unscrupulous traders would “steal your petticoat from you at one end of the market and sell it back to you at the other end…”!

Petticoat Lane Market was not formally recognised as a trading area until an Act of Parliament was passed in 1936 but its relationship for being populated by ne’er do wells and fraudsters made it unpopular with the authorities and a popular way of disrupting the market was for emergency vehicles such as police cars and fire engines to be driven from one end of Petticoat Lane to the other with sirens blaring and bells ringing!

Nowadays, the market has a more salubrious reputation, selling items such as leather jackets at the Aldgate East end, whilst the rest of the market is largely given over to bargain clothing. A large selection of fashion items are always on sale with many end of season lines being made available at knock down prices at almost a thousand stalls.

Other items such as bric-a-brac, electrical good and shoes are also readily available, and whilst many visit the market for the items sold on the stalls, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the lane itself is lined with shops selling a huge range of highly coloured African and Asian fabrics.


So, where exactly is ‘Petticoat Lane’? The sign at the top of the article is a bit of a misnomer as due to the prudishness of the Victorians, Petticoat Lane was renamed Middlesex Street in 1846 – the thought of a lane being named after ladies undergarments was deemed far too racy!

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