A People's History

John Marriott, Beyond the Tower: A History Of East London

Yale University Press, 384pp, £25.00, ISBN 9780300148800

reviewed by Richard Sharpe

East London was built in waves of expansion from the early 17th century, almost always a location of the working class. John Marriott’s well-researched and well-written history of East London is not only a labour of love but also a life’s work ('over thirty years in the making’). Marriot draws from a wealth of archival resources to bring to life the area’s rich social history.

The magnificent Christ Church, Spitalfields, designed by Nicholas Hawkesmoor, was built after 1710 as an Anglican church slap bang in the middle of the area then populated by dissenting non-Anglican Huguenots, mostly weavers who had fled France when the Catholic majority indulged in a little early ‘ethnic cleansing.’ The Huguenots were silk weavers: the Quakers brewers. These are just two of the many groups - including Jews, Bangladeshis and Irish - who contributed to the building of the East End.

The labour and lives of men and women is central to this history. We see people working in weaving, in the ever growing docks, in ship building, in the small trades of cabinet making, in the chemical industries and more. Small-scale production dominated for a long time: small workshops in which the fierce competition for jobs lowered wages and the conditions of employment. We also see the dockers fighting for employment, standing at the gates of the dock trying to get the attention of the employers in order to get a day’s work.

We see, through Marriott’s work, the Pool of London in the early part of this book, crammed with shipping between what is now Tower Bridge and the old London Bridge bringing spices, silks, coffee, tobacco, wood, sugar, tallow, wheat and coal to the City. The cramped conditions of the Pool forced the growth of docks further east all the way beyond the Isle of Dogs, pulling the eastern fringe of London further from its centre.

The East End was not just a location for small scale and skilled production. As the wave of expansion moved east, larger and larger enterprises employed more and more people. Around 1900 the Eastern Locomotive Works at Stratford in West Ham employed 7,000, the Thames Iron Works in Canning Town 6,000, Siemens in Woolwich 7,000, Woolwich Arsenal 70,000, Beckton Gas Works 10,000. And finally, from 1929, the mighty Ford plant at Dagenham employing 15,000 in a reconstruction of Ford’s plant on the River Rouge in Detroit: raw materials in and cars out the other end.

The turning point from small manufacturing to large scale employment was in the late 19th century. It also saw the rise of the sweated labour process: chasing to the bottom conditions and wages. The east London ship building industry collapsed in the 1870s; silk weaving moved out of London to cheaper locations in Essex and Cambridgeshire and was subject to mechanisation. This period was when West Ham was developed with its thousands of labourers. This concentration of labourers gave birth to a new unionism where workers used their muscle to win concessions from employers in terms of the length of the working day, wages and working conditions. It also gave birth to independent labour political representation. Writing of West Ham, Marriott says: ‘In 1851 its population was 19,000; in all respects it was a fairly typical parish with its share of wealth and poverty. And yet by the end of the century it had emerged as the industrial heart of the metropolis with a population of over a quarter of a million.’ Its growth dragged people further east, out of the slums of the original East End of Bethnal Green, Stepney, Mile End and Poplar.

These workers needed a different type of politics: they formed one in the independent labour party. Keir Hardie wrote in his manifesto when campaigning in West Ham, '[labour] had nothing to hope for from either the Liberal or Conservative parties, and therefore a new party had become a necessity. Unless the working men formed a party belonging to neither the Liberals nor to the Tories it must continue to be the plaything of parties in the future as it had in the past.’

This, later, was the working class which beat back the Fascist marchers in the battle of Cable Street in 1936 and from 1940 onwards endured the Blitz of Fascist bombing. The first bombs fell on 7 September 1940. At first, for some it was thrilling, never having seen such clouds of aircraft in the sky. Soon it became more than people could cope with; as an American author wrote only a week into the Blitz ‘there are no longer such things as good nights: there are only bad nights, worse nights and better nights. Hardly anyone has slept at all in the past week.’

In the reconstruction after the second world war under labour-controlled local authorities a new East End was built. The East End of the tower block, of the attempts by town planners and architects to recreate the communities they thought they could reform by concrete and open spaces. In these areas the white working class lived increasingly being mixed with the flood of new immigrates from the old Empire. New cooking smells mixed with the traditional aroma of 'English' food. And then another East End was built on the ruins of the docks. An East End of Universities, the University of East London where Marriott worked; the East End of the creative industries with fashion and software production; the East End of entertainment with EastEnders; and the East End of the City of London Airport and the Docklands Light Railway.

The East End has to benefit from, or suffer from, two huge regeneration projects: the Olympic legacy and the Thames Gateway. How the Olympic legacy plays out remains to be seen: but the furious pace of construction and the obliteration of some social amenities such as playing fields on Hackney Marshes and allotments are part of the price that Eastenders pay for this attention. The Thames Gateway scheme is the largest urban regeneration scheme seen in the UK. It aims to revive both sides of the Thames which used to be thriving with industry: among them armaments, engineering, shipbuilding, telegraph cable production and motor car assembly.

Among this live the people of the East End, an area of vast ethnic diversity and some of the highest levels of poverty in Western Europe. These people form the primary focus of Marriott’s study: their history, he explains, ‘is a vital one which cannot be allowed to vanish under fleets of mechanical diggers.’