My previous walk explored the rural areas of Georgian era Stepney Green, Mile End and Whitechapel. This walk adds in Shadwell and St. George-in-the-East, densely inhabited areas in that period, housing sailors, dock-workers and shipping clerks in contrast to the upper management and sea captains of Mile End and Stepney Green. It moves forward into the nineteenth century when the area suffered great poverty, overpopulation and the excesses of gin, beer, opium, dodgy lodgings and lewd women. Post-Dickens, the East End has been tainted with a wide brush and a narrow view of disease, degeneration and deprivation which spread eastwards like a rash and at any moment threatened to turn west again.
Yet, the area exudes a rich history of non-conformists, radical protests and nationalistic conflict; Bryant & May’s striking Matchgirls’ and Sylvia Pankhurst’s ELFs marched here, Sidney Street Siege and Battle of Cable Street invoked the first nationalistic conflict here when Boadicea met the Romans. Due to the Docks, vice festered in the forms of bootlegging, prostitution and opium smoking which arrived with Chinese sailors, but soon found clandestine favour among every level of London society, rich and poor. Charles Dickens (Edwin Drood), Oscar Wilde (Dorian Gray) and numerous journalists visited and wrote about opium dens in Bluegate Fields, [Gilman, 2004, pp.118-125]. Two articles, written in 1868 and 1883, give explicit directions to an infamous den, run by opium-master Chi Ki. What better challenge on a frosty Tuesday morning than hunting down Edwin Drood’s opium den? And so the walk begins in the Bluegate Fields section of Cable Street, also known as Tiger Den, ‘on account of the number of ferocious she creatures in petticoats that lurk and lair there’ [London Society, 1868].
The walk continues the length of Cable Street and focuses on the shadier side of its nautical and nationalist history. The pragmatically named Cable Street is one of several Rope Walks in the area in which ropes were twisted to make ships cables, resulting in very long and straight road layouts (a ship’s cable is approximately 600 feet long (10 fathoms), 10 cables make a nautical mile). Today Cable Street is much longer, absorbing the eastern stretches previously known as Bluegate Fields, Knock Fergus and Back Lane. The starting point is two schools named Bluegate Fields adjacent to Twine Court, a curious name choice given the Victorian connotations.
Comparing maps and reports from 1830 to 1900, there were frequent changes in the streets and buildings, although not, it seems, in character. In 1883, James Greenwood describes the location of Chi Ki’s abode ‘as in the very heart of the Bay, and from end to end it presents an unbroken scene of vice and depravity of the most hideous sort. Almost every house is one of ‘ill fame.’ [Greenwood, 1883]. Greenwood’s associate gave short directions via seven public houses and the Rehoboth (dissenters’) Chapel (1841) that ironically indicated the way to Chi Ki’s den. These were perhaps the easiest landmarks to direct by but also show a curious intimacy with Shadwell’s drinking places. Unfortunately, most, if not all, of these public houses have been demolished and several are absent from period directories, rendering the directions useless today. The easier landmark by which to gauge the den’s location is the Rehoboth chapel, accessed through an inscribed archway. It seems most likely that the access road was Dellow/Victoria Road, [Gilman, 2004, p.119] originally Blue Gate Fields. The chapel would have been situated on the alley that became Lowood Road during the 1896 redevelopment of the area, following the 1875 Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act, [Yelling, 35].
Charles Booth’s notebook of 1898-99 describes the general area consisting of public houses, low lodging houses, courts, single storey hovels, drunks and prostitutes. Booth’s investigator, George Duckworth, notes Dellow Street being greatly changed due to demolition and ejection of its tenants. He recommends the new development is labelled purple (mixed prosperity), though the rest of the area remains dark blue or black (very poor / semi-criminal), and ‘vicious’ [Duckworth, 1899, pp.201-05]. Between the 1896 tenements on Lowood Road stands a small, white, pitched building called The Lodge. Its incongruous appearance among its towering neighbours suggests it could be the chapel, but subsequent map research suggests that was demolished with the rest of the plot by 1890. The oldest buildings of Booth’s day are gone too, replaced by inter-war blocks, still arranged in courts, with a shabbiness that suggests a degree of deprivation still. It is somewhat disappointing that the grotesque building reputed to have been graced by the Prince of Wales is no more, however it is illuminating to tread in the footsteps of Wilde and Dickens.
Adjacent to this estate stands St George’s Town Hall (1860), the park (1875) and church (1726) of St. George-in-the-East, a Hawksmoor design. The park is a striking contrast with its Victorian surroundings, an unlikely description from 1896 extolls ‘always bright and neat and full of people enjoying the seats, the grass, the flowers and the air’ [London Gardens Online]. To create the park, the tombstones were moved and now line every available wall. Remnants of a bombed chapel and a mortuary which became a Nature Study Museum (1904-WW11) provide curious objects for further study.
Exiting through the west gate of the Town Hall passes the bold mural commemorating the Battle of Cable Street in 1936. Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Facists intended to lead his far-right ‘Blackshirts’ army in a march from Royal Mint Lane down Cable Street, in a reportedly deliberate attempt to incite chaos in a mostly foreign area. The local community of communists, Jews, Irish, dock-workers and trade unionists came together to blockade the walk leading to violent fighting, while women showered police with missiles thrown from tenement windows. Although the government had allowed Mosely’s marches, it resulted in the 1936 Public Order Act which banned the wearing of military-style uniform by political groups [Palmer, 2000 pp.133-36].
Above: Footage from the Battle of Cable Street, 1936.
Most of Victorian Cable Street has been demolished, on the North side runs the Docklands Light Railway, opened 1987. On the South side, sufficient buildings survive to indicate the nature of its architecture in the 1800s, Georgian terraces of 3½ story buildings with passageways to courtyards beyond. Marked blue (poor) and purple (mixed) on Booth’s map, today these terraces are a blend of houses and discreet apartment conversions, marketed to city professionals. Modern apartment blocks are similarly high-brow, but the ghosts of the past linger in the run-down nature of twentieth century flats that intersperse with the very old and very new.
At the crossroad with Cannon Road Street is the staking and burial site of seaman John Williams, the suspect for the 1811 Ratcliffe Highway Murders. [Palmer, 2000, pp.53-55]. Taking a diversion south towards the old Ratcliffe Highway, the west of the street holds more uninviting, post-war flats, the east side suitably shabby Victorian buildings, derelict-looking, some with period shutters behind windows and original shop fronts. These properties appear to change hands frequently judging by the permanency of estate agent sign battens on the walls.
Right onto The Highway, a very short distance along is Betts Road, the location of an encounter with a real life tiger! Rev. Harry Jones describes St. George’s as ‘the central market of the world for lions, bears, tigers, elephants, monkeys, and parrots’. The tiger, recently docked from the East Indies, escaped its cage and made a protest of its own by seizing a young boy and disappearing up Bett’s Street with its prey, the tiger merchant giving chase. Although the boy was surprisingly unharmed, the next owner made great money advertising it as ‘the tiger that swallowed the child’ [Jamrach, 1879]. Bett’s Street, redeveloped into flats, no longer reaches Cable Street, instead it diverts around the old Swedish colony, now Swedenborg Gardens (after their ambassador), which was one of the better off areas (pink) on Booth’s map. The presence of an estate regeneration office suggests otherwise today, homes are a mish-mash of high and low apartment blocks and bungalows. The Swedish Church has gone, but the gardens remain and the road turns back to Cable St along what was Denmark Street, now Crowder Road.
Little else catches the eye on Cable Street but on crossing Fletcher Street, attention is caught by another old chapel down the street. This is the mission room and infant school of the adjacent St. Pauls Church for Seaman (today a Primary School) on the east side of Wellclose Square. Access to most of the old square, marked as blue (poor) Almshouses by Booth, is blocked off. The return to Cable street is via the enticingly romantic-looking Graces Alley, not likely to be the description given to it in the 1800s, especially as it houses Wilton’s Music Hall (c.1850), the oldest surviving in London. According to Booth’s map this area was a complex for destitute sailors, including assembly hall, home and hospital, although 200 years previously, Wellclose Square was the home of sea captains and wealthy merchants [Wiltons]. The public buildings on Ensign Street (formerly Well Street) still retain some of that early prestige. The alley reconnects with Cable Street concluding the walk at the junction with Dock Road and Leman Street where the road becomes Royal Mint Street, better known as criminal Rosemary Lane and its dubious rag market.
There were no Tigers spotted here today, human or feline, and I shared both my guiding authors’ disappointments at not finding an Oriental gentleman in rich, Eastern garb. In fact, I encountered no Chinese, but then I encountered hardly anyone at all in this once throbbing area. Multiple nineteenth century reports of Cable Street describe it as, day and night, thronging with drunken, savage-looking sailors of every nationality and its Tigress prostitutes, but on a Tuesday morning in 2016, the greatest danger to be faced were the cyclists whizzing down the Cycle Superhighway.
1746 John Roque Survey of London
c.1830 Smith’s New Map of London
1859 James Reynold’s Map of London
1868 Edward Weller, Map of London
1898-9 Charles Booth Maps Descriptive of London Poverty
Digitalised maps of London can be found here.
Sander L. Gilman and Zhou Xun, eds. Smoke: A Global History of Smoking (London: Reaktion Books, 2004).
‘East London Opium Smokers’ London Society, July 1868.
James Greenwood, ‘An Opium Smoke in Tiger Bay’, In Strange Company: Being the Experiences of a Roving Correspondent (London: Vizetelly & Co, 1883)
J.A. Yelling, Slums and Slum Clearance in Victorian London (Abingdon: Routledge,  2007).
George H. Duckworth’s Notebook: Police and Publican District 7 [Mile End Old Town and Spitalfields], District 8 [Aldgate, St George’s in the East, Shadwell], District 9 [Bethnal Green, North and South], District 10 [Bethnal Green East], District 11 [Poplar and Limehouse] (1898-99), BOOTH/B/350.
Mrs. Basil Holmes cited in ‘St George’s-in-the-East Churchyard’, London Gardens Online, London Parks and Gardens Trust,
<www.londongardensonline.org.uk/gardens-online-record.asp?ID=THM041#> [accessed 29 November 2016].
Alan Palmer, The East End: Four Centuries of London Life, (London: John Murray  2000).
Rev. Harry Jones, ‘East and West London, Being Notes of Common Life and Pastoral Work in Saint James’s, Westminster and in Saint Georges’-in-the-East’ (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1875).
Charles Jamrach, ‘My Struggle with a Tiger’, The Boy’s Own Paper, Vol I, No. 3, February 1879.
‘History’, Heritage, Wilton’s Music Hall, <www. wiltons.org.uk/heritage/history> [accessed 29 November 2016].
Glinert, Ed London Compendium: A Street-by-street Exploration of the Hidden Metropolis, (London: Penguin Books, 2003).
Humphreys, Rob, The Rough Guide to London, (London: Rough Guides, 2001).
Marriott, John, Beyond the Tower: A History of East London, (Princeton: Yale UP, 2011).
Derek Morris, Mile End Old Town 1740-1780, The East London History Society,  2007.
Morris, Derek, Whitechapel, 1600-1800, The East London History Society, 2011.
Photiadou, Artemis, From Slums to Homes: Samuel Barnett and The East End Dwellings Company (London: Toynbee Hall, 2014).
All photographs are taken by the author except where stated. Further photographs can be found here.