The Culture of Labourism: The East End between the Wars

The Culture of Labourism: The East End between the Wars

The Culture of Labourism: The East End between the Wars

The Culture of Labourism: The East End between the Wars

Excerpt

There is a place called Canning Town and further out, Silvertown, where the pleasant meadows are at their pleasantist; doubtless they were once slums and wretched enough. (William Morris News from nowhere , 1890.)

Some seventeen years ago I moved with my young family to West Ham from Ealing. Considerable though the distance was across the metropolis, I sensed that the cultural and historical boundaries we traversed were of far greater significance. Not that the destination was a familiar one. At the time West Ham was little more to me than a name, most directly associated with a football team that had a reputation for style and steadfast support in spite of limited success on the field. As a borough, it no longer existed. A rather strained merger with adjacent East Ham in 1965 had created the London Borough of Newham. But cultures and histories are not defined by administrative boundaries, and I soon recognised that in quite tangible ways something of West Ham survived in the indigenous population -- now rapidly declining and ageing -- and in the language.

Any romanticised impressions I may have had of the East End were quickly tempered if not dispelled by the striking images of endemic poverty and a sclerotic political culture. Protracted industrial decline since the 1920s, accelerated in the postwar period by the closure of the docks, had produced all the symptoms of a depressed inner-city area which, according to a government survey using a range of socioeconomic indicators, was the second most deprived urban borough in the country (Department of the Environment 1983). The south in particular was enveloped in a pall of neglect. Streets which once throbbed with dock and factory workers and their families were now deserted. To walk through Silvertown and Custom House was to walk through ghost towns.

Politically, the area was dominated by the Labour Party. For as long as anyone could remember the council had been overwhelmingly Labour, and all the MPS came from the ranks of the party. So secure was this control, I was told, that if a monkey in a red jacket was put up as a candidate it would . . .

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