Everything Happens in Cable St
Celebrating the seventy-fifty anniversary of the Battle of Cable St today, Cable St resident Roger Mills takes over as guest writer to present some of those featured in his new book Everything Happens in Cable St published this week.
When I told people I was writing a book about Cable Street, many assumed it would all be about the Battle of 1936 when the locals halted the march by Oswald Mosley and his blackshirts. Yet that only makes up part of my book Everything Happens in Cable St. It is an oral history, featuring interviews with some of the Battle veterans – but it is also about the creative and cultural life of the area, things that have taken place in the more recent past.
The portraits here by Spitalfields Life contributing photographer Jeremy Freedman taken on Cable St, feature some of those I spoke to – all from different walks of life and each one with a unique story to tell. I have lived along Cable Street for decades and, over the years, made contact with hundreds of people. I wanted to record their stories and their lives before they faded from memory.
Kim McGee was one of the Basement Writers who gathered in the vault-like rooms beneath the old St. George’s Town Hall in Cable St to share their poetry. Writers brought together by teacher Chris Searle in the nineteen seventies, after he was sacked for publishing his pupils’ poetry against the wishes of the governors and all the schoolchildren came out on strike in support.
“I was one of Chris Searle’s pupils. He inspired me. We would have lessons where he moved all the tables and chairs out of the way, and we’d sit scattered around the room. He would say, “Just call me Chris.” And we’d say, “Is that allowed?” I was one of the school strikers and I went on the march to Trafalgar Square. I only went so far because I was a bit nervous. I’m still in touch with Chris Searle, which is pretty good going after all those years. I do storytelling for children now, I read folk tales and rearrange them a bit and make puppets of the characters. For a basically shy person, you wouldn’t think I’d be up there doing it. It’s funny when you look back and think, “This is where I am and that’s where I was then.” I think that it’s due to having people who believed in you when you were a kid, giving you a respect you never imagined having.’
Ray Newton is secretary of the History of Wapping Trust, which over the years has produced a stream of local books and postcards. Ray was born in the part of Cable Street known as Shadwell.
“You knew everybody and most people worked locally. My dad was a docker and his father was a docker, and my mum’s family were lightermen, so I was brought up with the river. In this little area, you either worked in the docks or you were a carman, or you worked in a factory or something. I didn’t go to work the docks. In the nineteen fifties my dad bought a pub in the Highway. Most of the dockers and lightermen who used it had been in the First World War. They were very interesting people. That’s where I learnt all my local history. When my dad died, I became a publican at twenty-three years old. I did that for over eight years. The pub was demolished and my brother who had a betting shop asked me to be a manager. I did that, but I thought, “Well, I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life.” So I went to university and got a degree. I was about thirty-six, I suppose. I did teacher training and went to West Ham College to teach sixteen to nineteen-year-olds.”
Denise Jones married in her last year as a student at Brighton Art College, and she and husband Dan moved to London in 1967. ‘When we approached a local estate agent he was shocked, saying, “You don’t want to live there! Cable Street is a horrible place!”” she recalled.
Denise told me about the origin of Stepney Books in 1973, beginning as a Saturday stall in Whitechapel Market. Denise’s friend Celia Stubbs was amongst the volunteer staff and, while wandering along the row of stalls, she discovered one selling second-hand books and comics. Celia became entranced by stallholder Jim Wolveridge’s recollections of his East End upbringing and realised that there was a book there. Stepney Books became a small publisher and Jim’s book “Ain’t It Grand,” was released in 1976.
Early publications included “Victoria Park” by Charles Poulson, a history of the famous “lung for East London,” while “Under Oars” by Thames lighterman, Harry Harris, arrived via the author’s son as a copper-plate handwritten manuscript, written forty years earlier. It would probably have remained a family heirloom if not for Stepney Books. Others followed – “Children of the Green” by Doris M. Bailey, an autobiographical portrait of a Bethnal Green family between the wars – “Tough Annie,” which chronicled the life of Annie Barnes, a suffragette friend of Sylvia Pankhurst – and two autobiographies, ”Looking Back – A Docker’s Life “by Joe Bloomberg and “Memories of Old Poplar” by John Blake.
Denise is a local councillor and a past leader of Tower Hamlets Council.
Most people do not realise that the story of “To Sir, With Love” is set in Cable Street, based upon the true story of E. R. Braithwaite, who came from Guyana to teach in East London. Alf Gardner was one of the real-life pupils at the school where Braithwaite taught. Alf doesn’t think much of the book – or the film they made from it in the mid-sixties, starring Sidney Poitier and Lulu. He feels that neither the book or the film represent the school as it really was.
Alf remembers Cable Street’s “red-light” years in the nineteen fifties. Personally, I have always found it hard to equate the softly-spoken and slightly formal pensioner with the eighteen-year old thrill-seeker that he once was. Alf and his drinking pal, Dave visited such places as the scarily named “Black Door,” a wretched basement bar off Leman Street, with a clientele of razor-slashed members of the underworld – where, on one of their visits, a man at the bar produced a pistol, waving it around at the other customers.
In his self-published book “An East End Story,” Alf recalls his friend Dave’s attempts to impress a lady friend with tales of life on the wild side. When she asks Alf if it was as notorious as the scandal sheets made out, he replied, “Much worse”.
Alf wrote, “I explained that the area, like Soho, was a red-light district respectable women avoided day or night. Far from deterring Eileen, my deliberate discouraging description of Cable St seemed to arouse her interest more, giving me the impression that she was keen to visit some of the bars at the earliest opportunity.”
I talked to Director Frances Mayhew amongst the magnificent decrepitude of Wilton’s Music Hall. She stumbled across the building in 1997, while working as an intern for Broomhill Opera.
“It was completely boarded-up. We came in through the window and had a look around. Everyone fell in love with it. It was derelict, most of the original features had been ripped out and looted generations ago. I came back about six years later under the new Wilton’s Music Hall Trust, I saw the new electrics being put in and it got its first proper license since about 1880. The original pub was called the “Prince of Denmark” but it became known as the “Mahogany Bar” because of the wood in it. When John Wilton came here in the eighteen fifties, he bought up the four adjoining terraced houses with a vision to build a hall in the back yards. He knocked through the houses sideways, leftways, upways, downways – until it became this beautiful honeycombed building. You can get quite lost in it.”
“The bar is open, but because the building is so fragile I don’t think we could handle being super-popular at the moment. There’s something nice about this area in that you can find little hidden gems – you stumble across a bit of history that you wouldn’t see elsewhere. When people do come here they have quite a personal reaction. They get a feeling, or an atmosphere, or a vibe. We’d hate them not to feel that. They feel they’ve made a bit of a discovery and walked into a time warp.”
Alan Gilbey was one of Chris Searle’s school strikers and a Basement Writer. When I first met him there he did not speak much but would spend group meetings scratching brilliant cartoons onto a pad at a furious rate.
He later formed a theatre group “Controlled Attack” and also worked as a community drama worker on the Isle of Dogs. During this period, he took on the Battle of Cable Street, when “Shattersongs,” was performed by WOOF! Theatre Company at the Half Moon Theatre in Mile End in the late nineteen eighties. It used cabaret-style songs, comedy and semi-surreal imagery to represent not just the Battle but contemporary anti-fascist activity. Alan was particularly pleased that they managed to acquire a real lorry to represent the one turned over for use as a barricade in 1936.
Alan is now a screenwriter and script consultant, working in the world of animation, utilising his lifelong love of cartoons.
Dan Jones lives in Cable Street with his wife Denise. He was instrumental in setting up the Basement Youth Project in the late nineteen sixties and has fronted any number of community groups and campaigns.
Dan is also an artist. An entire wall in his house is taken up with one of his murals, painted on heavy wooden panels and bolted into the brickwork, depicting children in the playground of nearby St. Paul’s School. The rhymes they are chanting float in the air around them. Dan’s fascination with different cultures is reflected in his paintings, a trip to West Africa as a teenager is recalled in the colourful cloths and head-ties of women on market day, and vivid sketches of village life chart his trips to Bangladesh.
An equal amount of the pictures represent Dan’s lifelong association with the labour movement. He told me, “A lot of my larger work is screwed onto the wall in various trade union places. I made a large one for the National Union of Seamen depicting the 1966 seaman’s strike. Although I had imagined the faces of the seamen I’d painted on to it, when we took it out on a march people kept coming up claiming they’d worked with the crew members on it. Invented people became real in their minds!”
Maggie Pinhorn told me, “I grew up in the countryside but I always wanted to come to London. As soon as I could I left home and came to art school here at Central Saint Martin’s. From then on this was the place I wanted to be. I loved it.” Maggie studied theatre design but her real interest was in film. She worked on James Bond’s Japanese adventure, “You Only Live Twice,” the four-wheeled children’s fantasy “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” and – with perhaps fate playing a hand in directing Maggie eastwards – the big screen incarnation of telly comedy “Till Death Us Do Part,” the story of Wapping racist bigot, Alf Garnett.
But Maggie felt constrained in the art department, eager to create her own work and was happier collapsing onto mattresses in subterranean cinemas to watch experimental European films flickering through a haze of cigarette smoke. “I started Alternative Arts and produced a film in the early 1970s called “Dynamo,” made in basement strip clubs in Soho,” she told me – but she soon found herself working in a different sort of Basement.
“Dan Jones at the Basement Youth Project had got this idea about how these kids he was working with could make a film but he didn’t know how to go about it. I went and talked to him. I said, “Yeah, I’d be interested in doing that.”Firstly, I had to be checked out by the Inner London Education Authority to see that I was a suitable person.” she remembered, “That became increasingly useful later on – when I had to go down to Leman St Police station to bail out members of the cast, I could show I didn’t have a police record.” The subsequent forty-minute production “Tunde’s Film,”was co-directed by Maggie and local youth Tunde Ikoli.
These days, Alternative Arts is involved in a wide range of community activities.
In the late seventies Paul Butler’s interest in murals led him to contact Dave Binnington after reading an article about his work. “Then, one day,” Paul told me, “Dave called out of the blue, asking if I would be interested in a new project in Cable St.”
The Cable St Mural was an ambitious project, a huge depiction of the 1936 Battle of Cable St on the wall of St. George’s Town Hall. About the time that Paul arrived, much of Binnington’s original work was destroyed by right-wing vandals and he left the project. “I was left holding the proverbial baby.” said Paul.
He got in touch with two other artists, Ray Walker and Desmond Rochfort and, working as a team, they renovated what they could but largely redesigned the whole thing.“In some ways I relished it. It was a great opportunity. I was pretty inexperienced and I was probably biting off far more than I could chew. But in the end, I think I managed to chew it.” he said. Paul found the process stimulating if sometimes slightly unnerving, certainly in regards to the physical working conditions, “The scaffolding was very high. It didn’t half keep you fit, battling the wind, your paint flying off, splattering all over. We never used ladders, we used to go straight up the outside, grabbing hold of the scaffolding poles like a monkey. We all made a huge contribution towards the mural but none of us claimed ownership of it. We were extremely proud and extremely pleased with it. It was a fantastic time – a great moment in our lives.”
Roger Mills, writer, long-term Cable St resident, and author of Everything Happens in Cable St published this week by Five Leaves Publications.
Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman
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