The Birth of the East Ender: Neighborhood and Local Identity in Interwar East London

By Lammers, Benjamin J. | Journal of Social History, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

The Birth of the East Ender: Neighborhood and Local Identity in Interwar East London


Lammers, Benjamin J., Journal of Social History


The East End of London plays a unique role in the British national imagination. An area redolent with historical and cultural associations, from Jack the Ripper to the Krays, from The People of the Abyss to EastEnders, the East End is Britain's most famous urban neighborhood. William Fishman, the area's most noted historian, has claimed that the East End "has a uniqueness of character which transcends period and generation." David Feldman and Gareth Stedman Jones, referring to the phenomenal success of EastEnders, have called it "the favoured setting for the national fantasy of everyday life." (1) The central place of the East End in British culture can be traced back to the late nineteenth century, when social explorers often chose East London as the ideal locale for their investigations into the lives of the working classes. (2) These explorers presented the East End, despite its geographical proximity to the centers of national wealth and power, as remarkably distant from the norms of British society. The East End was "outcast London," the "Abyss," a place of shocking economic deprivation and criminality. In contemporary British culture, however, the East End has taken on a new significance. The East End is now one of the great symbols of authentic working-class life, the heartland of that quintessentially working-class figure, the Cockney. (3) The "decline" of the British working class has been mourned since at least the 1950s, and the East End has become the primary locale for the romanticization of working-class life that pines for the "good old days" before a variety of transformations, both economic and demographic, began to remake the face of urban Britain. (4) But what in particular is being celebrated in these salutes to working-class life? In 1979 William Fishman bemoaned the loss of "the little streets and their ancient communities," (5) and community is perhaps the key term for appreciating this Cockney ostalgie. The communal spirit of working-class life is the central feature of the world that is increasingly seen as lost. (6) The East End has come to symbolize this rich urban culture of the working classes before the Second World War, and this is a powerful theme in the autobiographies and memoirs of the area's former residents. In the words of former East Ender Sid Berg, "on an evening, a summer evening ... when it was very warm, we'd sit on in the garden on the ground ... and neighbors and friends would walk by, come in for a cup of tea or whatever.... Now, these days ... you don't see that anymore. And I think that, you know, we've lost a lot." (7)

This strong sense of community is seen as a crucial component of the Cockney spirit, which allowed members of the working classes to overcome their poverty, their poor living conditions and, eventually, even the bombing campaigns of the Luftwaffe. As Ron Barnes says of his street in Bethnal Green: "There was poverty there all right. There was violence too. There was sickness and distress. There was hatred and malice. There were bugs, fleas, dirt and dampness. But the people who lived there overcame them all with their natural love and communal instinct. I don't think such closeness and sense of duty to your neighbour will ever be seen in London again." (8) In the view of East Ender Louis Heren, this communal spirit was the great contribution of London's working-class culture: "Cockneys had something to offer, the ability to live peacefully and happily in a crowded urban environment. Its passing will be regretted one of these days." (9)

For historians of the Jewish East End, the primacy of "community" in discussions of the East End has presented something of a conundrum. If it is assumed that the East End was characterized by a rich communal culture, a key question to ask would be to what degree Jewish East Enders were part of that culture, of that community. Discussion of this issue has generally focused on the issue of anti-Semitism, trying to discover how prevalent anti-Semitic attitudes were in East London and to what degree these attitudes impacted the lives of Jewish East Enders. …

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