Swanley History Group – August 2015 meeting
Where exactly was the Old East End of London? During his lecture at our August meeting Ian Porter described this area as being East from the City to the River Lee and North to Victoria Park. In medieval times it was fields (as in Spitalfields). From Tudor times onwards it was known for industries that did not smell as sweet as a green pasture – Aldgate was the centre for butchery and slaughter houses and there were breweries and tanneries to add to the mix. Bells, including Big Ben, were cast in the Foundry in Whitechapel and the area was well known for the weaving of silk. A constant influx of people made it their home – Huguenauts and Jews escaping from religious persecution and Irish people from the potato famines. The building of the Commercial docks in the eighteenth century and then the coming of the railways and stations brought more work, more people but fewer places to live.
No re-housing or benefits of any kind were available and diseases such as cholera were endemic. The comment made in a Charles Booth Survey of ‘A slightly dodgy place’ was quite an understatement! To help alleviate the suffering in the East End,
Dr. Barnardo founded his home for children, James Booth started the Salvation Army, and Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Garrett were instrumental in the provision of care for the sick. A priority for people of the East End was finding the means to pay for funeral insurance – they greatly feared being buried in an unmarked grave.
Women had a particularly tough time and Ian described some of the onerous jobs they did, in terrible conditions, to feed their families and to try to stay out of the Workhouse. Being a ‘mud lark’ was far from jolly and many turned to prostitution with it’s inherent risks – including meeting the so called Jack the Ripper. Baby farming was common – the worst British serial killer is not Dr Shipman but a woman called Amelia Dyer who murdered at least 400 babies left in her care.
We were then taken on an ‘armchair walk’ starting at Wapping where we visited sites of execution, the oldest railway arches in the world, a strip of grass that still provides ‘grazing rights’, pubs, churches and markets, a good advertisement for Ian’s guided tours – more details of which can be found on www.londontownwalks.com
Christina Tyler, Programme Organiser