My Family in Limehouse
It is my pleasure to welcome Kate Griffin as guest writer for the next seven days, celebrating the publication of her first novel Kitty Peck & The Music Hall Murders by Faber & Faber – a murder mystery set in the world of East End music hall in the eighteen-eighties. Kate’s family originate from Limehouse and she works today at the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in Spitalfields. And thus I leave you in her safe hands until my return on Monday 15th July.
In St Anne St, Limehouse
Both my grandmother and my grandfather on my mum’s side of the family were born in Limehouse. To be precise, Hannah and Timo (as we always called my grandfather, Michael) were born in St Anne St, in the brooding shadow of Hawksmoor’s great pale church which bears more than a passing resemblance to Christ Church, Spitalfields.
Born in the final decade of the nineteenth century, they were both children of immigrant families. My grandfather’s side – the Kellys – were surprisingly jolly refugees from the Irish potato famine while my grandmother’s side – the Becks – admitted to Irish and Scottish antecedents, although given the name I sometimes wonder if there was a German/Jewish lineage too?
Any delusions of grandeur I ever harboured about my family – on my mum’s side at least – were firmly dispelled a decade or so ago when a distant Beck cousin discovered this photograph of the residents of St Anne St taken about 1909. The smiling faces and bold postures presented to the camera cannot hide the fact that these people were poor.
In ‘Down in Limehouse,’ a highly moralised account of life in and around the Docks published in 1925, the Rev George H. Mitchell wrote, “Slums of the worst possible kind are here – back alleys and dead ends, wherein whole families are herded together in less space than is given to tramps of the road roosted together in a common lodging house.”
I am not sure if conditions in St Anne St were quite that grim, but my family were definitely lodgers like every other person in the photograph. In the front row to the right, dressed in a severe black dress and sitting (you might almost say “enthroned”) my Kelly great-grandmother, Kit, is clearly the queen of the street. While over to the right, just visible in the crowd, you can make out the faded, sad-eyed, exhausted face of great-granny Beck. It is no surprise she looks defeated, because even though she was probably in her mid-forties when the photograph was taken, her life had been almost unbearably hard.
My great-grandfather Beck was employed as a regular in the docks. In his late thirties, he developed what was probably throat cancer and was no longer able to work. Family lore has it that a friend persuaded him that if he died, a pension would be provided for his widow and children. In pain and aware that his condition was incurable, my great-grandfather killed himself – comforted by the knowledge that his family would be provided for.
He was wrong. Faced with no other options, in the closing days of Queen Victoria’s reign, my tiny great-granny (women are not tall in my family, I am only four foot ten inches and she was even smaller) queued at the docks for casual work every morning alongside men who were twice her size and half her age. No wonder she looks like a shadowy wraith in the photograph – she was literally wearing away.
It is an odd thing, but when I remember the stories told to me by my grandparents about their childhood in St Anne St, tales from the Kelly side of the street seem to be full of fun and laughter. Unsurprisingly, my grandmother Hannah’s memories were darker. I have never liked New Year. I have always had the instinctive feeling that there is something dark and dangerous about it – and I think that is entirely down to her. While most grannies tell children tales of youthful escapades, mine had a taste for the gothic. “My sister and me used to lie in our bed in the attic,” she told me once, “and we’d pull the blanket tight up over our heads because we didn’t like to hear fog horns out on the Thames. The worst time was New Year. At the stroke of midnight, every ship in the docks would sound its horns or sirens. It seemed to go on for ever – a horrible, mournful wailing sound it was, coming up from the river like a monster rising up from the water to get us.” I think of that story without fail every New Year’s Eve.
Today, London’s Chinatown is in Soho but Chinatown was in Limehouse at the end of the nineteenth century. The Docks were where the world arrived in London and sometimes ‘the world’ stayed.
When Hannah looked after me as child and I was being particularly fractious, she often warned me that she would send “the men with the pigtails and fingernails after me.” This was a disturbing reference to the Chinese men she remembered from the streets of her own childhood.
There is more than an echo of my grandmother’s memories of the Chinese in Limehouse in my book ‘Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Murders,’ but recently when I visited the Bishopsgate Institute to research further, I became fascinated by their collection of books, pamphlets and memoirs relating to the area and its immigrant communities.
In’ Limehouse Through the Centuries,’ Rev John Godfrey Birch (another vicar on an improving mission) wrote, “On any day of the week one may meet strangers whose home address is in any corner of the seven seas – Lascars with slipshod gait, Malays and Chinese, turbanned Indians, full-blooded Africans, Scandinavians and West Indians and curious composite creatures in frock coats and fezzes or dungarees and umbrellas. To thousands and thousands of foreigners the word London means West India Dock Rd.”
Among the many incomers from all parts of the globe, my grandmother was fascinated by the Chinese people. “They always used to walk in single file down the street,” she told me, “All dressed in long dark coats, and some of them had plaits all the way down their backs. They didn’t look at us and they didn’t speak a word. Sometimes they carried bundles on poles balanced across their shoulders. Us kids were scared of them.”
I do not believe my grandmother was racist – the friends she made throughout her life proved that – but I think she responded to the Chinese presence in Limehouse with an innocent child’s love of the mysterious. Yet racism does play a part in this story, because many Limehouse commentators whose work is preserved the Bishopsgate archive display a jaw-dropping tone of casual distaste and mistrust.
Rev Mitchell wrote that opium dens were “raided periodically, while Chinamen stealthily carry on their Oriental orgies behind closed doors.”And if that is not enough, he adds, in a sensational passage guaranteed to thrill the socks off the most devout campaigner for social reform – “Every house in what is known as Pennyfields and Limehouse Causeway is either a gambling hell or a drug and opium depot. Chinatown is the seat of the white slave traffic, the home of Oriental vice and the rendezvous for the international trade of deadly drugs. There are streets too where every house is a standing menace to morals and where, also, the sacrilegious rites of Oriental black magic are practised.”
If that all sounds enticingly melodramatic to you, you are in good company because Rev Mitchell’s lurid accounts are the finely-laundered cousins of the gaudy, thrilling fictions by the likes of Sax Rohmer, Thomas Burke and even Conan Doyle.
Chinese Limehouse lives on in the popular imagination as the shadowy lair of Rohmer’s evil genius Fu Manchu. This is how Rohmer imagined his arch-villain, “Tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan… one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present. Imagine that awful being and you have a mental picture of Dr Fu Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.” Reprinted today, Rohmer’s Fu Manchu books are still ripping yarns, although hopefully these days the enlightened reader will recognise their unequivocal racial stereotypes.
Thomas Burke’s more complex ‘Limehouse Nights,’ published to instant notoriety in 1916 with its pioneering theme of inter-racial love, was an evocative portrayal of dangerous glamour of Stepney (not a phrase you get to write very often!). At the prompting of Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffiths paid £1,000 for the film rights to ‘Limehouse Nights.’ The foggy back streets, musty opium dens and Fan Tan gambling parlours of Burke’s world – the stomping ground of ringletted Cockney waifs and mysterious Chinamen – were so vividly portrayed in ‘Broken Blossoms,’ Griffiths’screen adaptation of the book starring Lillian Gish, that it set the iconic template for how Limehouse would be viewed in literature and through the lens. And even the recent, blisteringly successful, Sherlock, pays homage.
Look again at that photo of the residents of St Anne St back in 1909. They are untouched by the romance and glitter of Limehouse seen through the prism of Hollywood, but I do find it curiously satisfying to know my own family walked the streets that inspired such an enduring genre. As Karl Brown writes in ‘Adventures with D.W. Griffiths,’ “The whole English-reading world knew every dark and dangerous alley of Limehouse as well as they knew their way to the corner grocery.”
It still does.
The Kelly family lived at number 8 St Anne St, Limehouse
Kate Griffin’s forebears - the Beck family in St Anne St, 1938
St Anne St today
St Anne’s, Limehouse
‘Broken Blossoms,’ D.W. Griffith’s ‘adaptation of ‘Limehouse Nights.’
Myrna Loy and Boris Karloff in “The Mask of Fu Manchu”
You may also like to read these other Limehouse stories