Conveniently adjacent to the £1,000 a week furnished floating homes in the new womb of journalism, Canary Wharf, and within touching distance of the engine of our ‘booming economy’, the money men of the priapic Shard, lies an area of London that neither journalism nor money appears willing or able to penetrate. It was originally known colloquially as the ‘Rookery’, both because of the noisy, overcrowded, nesting habit of that bird, and its propensity to steal that which it could not obtain by any other means…
The marshy areas to the East of the walled City of London were the least desirable to live in, and it was this ‘least desirable’ area that displaced agricultural workers built ramshackle homes as they flocked to London looking for work in Tudor times. As they managed to put money in their pockets, they moved on to healthier districts. After the Great Fire of London, dangerous trades such as the manufacture of gunpowder, and the tanning industry were shipped outside of the City Walls – to the East End. A new wave of immigrants gratefully took up the jobs on offer. When the Huguenot weavers arrived, they brought with them the habit of reading books, and an early ‘moral panic’ ensued.
The ‘halfpenny press’, the forerunners of modern journalism were quick to condemn these incomers as a threat to ‘decent society’.
[The] invention about 1880 of the term ‘East End’ was rapidly taken up by the new halfpenny press, and in the pulpit and the music hall … A shabby man from Paddington, St Marylebone or Battersea might pass muster as one of the respectable poor. But the same man coming from Bethnal Green, Shadwell or Wapping was an ‘East Ender’, the box of Keating’s bug powder must be reached for, and the spoons locked up. In the long run this cruel stigma came to do good. It was a final incentive to the poorest to get out of the ‘East End’ at all costs, and it became a concentrated reminder to the public conscience that nothing to be found in the ‘East End’ should be tolerated in a Christian country.
This Christian fear of the unhealthy, heathen, undisciplined inhabitants of the East End led ultimately to the creation of Barnardos, the Salvation Army, and Toynbee Hall – the progenitor of the socialist and trade union movements. Fear that those who clung to a precarious existence in the East End would somehow ‘infect’ the good citizens of Britain has been a constant refrain in the British press. ‘They’, whether unwashed agricultural workers, Jewish, Huguenot, or Bangladeshi, must be tamed, domesticated, before ‘everyone’ started behaving like ‘that’. The East End has been seen as a constantly evolving pot of potentially infectious evil that attracted the attentions of religious doctors, then medical doctors, then social doctors, and inevitably ‘political’ doctors.
The 19th century journalist Henry Mayhew was one of the few who penetrated the East End and actually did more than lament; in 1851 he wrote:
Roads were unmade, often mere alleys, houses small and without foundations, subdivided and often around unpaved courts. An almost total lack of drainage and sewerage was made worse by the ponds formed by the excavation of brick earth. Pigs and cows in back yards, noxious trades like boiling tripe, melting tallow, or preparing cat’s meat, and slaughter houses, dustheaps, and ‘lakes of putrefying night soil’ added to the filth…
A series of articles that led to the Artisan and Labourers Dwellings Improvement Act 1875 which cleared the slums that Mayhew referred to and built the slums which today’s collection of displaced ‘potentially infectious evil ones’ live in – the Bangladeshi’s.
The ‘Bollinger Bolsheviks’ have always seen the East End as a happy hunting ground. From George Lansbury, ‘heroically’ jailed in 1921 for refusing to hand over that part of the locally collected council tax which belonged to ‘higher’ authorities – like the education budget or provision for the fire service – on the grounds that the poor and unemployed of the area had more need of the money for food, an act which resulted in 30 members of the council being jailed, and council meetings actually taking place in Brixton Prison since that was where the quorum was…to the city analyst John Biggs whose claim to fame was building the Olympic Park for the 2012 ‘legacy games’ extravaganza for visiting potentates in an area where housing stock is still described as ‘slum’.
It seems the city money men can see opportunities for development, and the journalists can look across the road and see opportunities for headlines – ‘Mayor’s office searched amid fraud inquiry’ – ‘Scotland Yard has drawn up a “robust” policing plan for Tower Hamlets, which has a history of allegations of election crime’. Nothing much changes in Tower Hamlets.
Just the ethnicity of the inhabitants, and the nature of the ‘moral panic’ they create.
When the Bangladeshi’s move on, as they will, as did the Jews and the Hugenots, and the weavers and agricultural workers, by their own efforts, without the aid of the money in the city or the excitable wails of the journalists, I wonder who will settle next in the area and what will be our fear of their behaviour?