Magazine article The Spectator

Wealth of Experience

Magazine article The Spectator

Wealth of Experience

Article excerpt

Beyond the Tower: A History of East London

by John Marriott

Yale, £25, pp. 384,

ISBN 9780300148800

In 1902 Jack London determined to travel to East London. He relates in People of the Abyss how he approached Thomas Cook & Son, but was disappointed to find that though a travel agent unhesitatingly and instantly, with ease and celerity, could send me to Darkest Africa or Innermost Tibet, but to the East of London, barely a stone's distant from Ludgate Circus, [they] know not the way.

For many of the late Victorian middle class the East End was as mysteriously exotic a place as the furthest reaches of the Empire.

In contrast to any bemused Thomas Cook operator, John Marriott's new history of the East End, Beyond the Tower, is an expert guide to the area. The author gives an authoritative overview of East London's history that is scholarly and lucid, handling complex economic and demographic issues with impressive clarity. It underplays the narrative drama of famous events, such as the strike of match girls at the Bryant and May factory or the Cable Street riots, but is not overly dry; the narrative is enriched by descriptions of the vivid personalities and vital culture of East Enders. The book should join Patrick Wright's A Journey Through Ruins and the Young Foundation's The New East End: Kinship, Race and Conflict as required reading for those wishing to understand the area.

The story starts in the 17th century with what can readily be recognised as the ribbon development of spec-developers along arterial roads. The hostility towards this proto-sprawl was expressed in terms remarkably redolent of contemporary debate, as the countryside became 'incroched vpon by building of filthy Cottages. . .'

In the 18th century prosperous and gentrified inhabitants became refugees from the effects of growing industrialisation.

Docks and sweatshops dominated 19th century East London, as it was blighted by cholera epidemics and overcrowding.

The 20th century saw the terminal decline of the area's industries, political extremism (about 80 per cent of Mosley's BUF were recruited from the East End), the Blitz, mass emigration to Essex suburbia and mass immigration from the commonwealth. The next few decades will see changes, wrought by the Olympic site and the Thames Gateway redevelopment, which will be no less radical than those experienced in the past. Marriott is gloomy about the prospects.

Despite these immense changes, what is most striking about the narrative of East End history are the recurring themes that echo through the centuries, and indeed resonate today. …

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