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Syd Shelton’s East Enders

March 20, 2014
by the gentle author

Brick Lane 1978

Photographer Syd Shelton‘s enduring fascination with the East End was sparked by a childhood visit from Yorkshire with an uncle and aunt more than fifty years ago. “My cousin was was working in a mission somewhere off Bethnal Green Rd,” Syd recalled, “It was a scary part of London then and I remember my uncle looked out of the window every few minutes to check the wheels were still on his car!”

“The day I left college in 1968, I came down to London and I have worked here ever since, photographing continuously in Hackney and Tower Hamlets,” Syd admitted to me.

In the seventies, Syd became one of the founders of Rock Against Racism, using music as a force for social cohesion, and his photographs of this era include many affectionate images of racial harmony alongside a record of the culture of racism . “It was an exciting time when, after the death of Altab Ali, the Asian community stood up to be counted and the people of the East End became militant against the National Front,” he explained, “In 1981, I got a studio in the Kingsland Rd and I only gave it up recently because the rents became too expensive.”

Syd’s portraits of East Enders span four decades yet he did not set out consciously to document social change. “I never started this as a project, it’s only when I looked back that I realised I had taken swathes of pictures of people in the East End,” he explained, “So now I come back and spend a day on the streets each week to continue.”

“I say I am not a documentary photographer, because I like to talk to people before I take my picture to see what I can coax out of them,” he qualified,“Taking photos is what makes my heart beat.”

Bethnal Green 1980

Linda, Kingsland Rd 1981

Bethnal Green 1980

Bagger, Cambridge Heath Rd 1979

Columbia Rd 1978

Jubilee St, 1979

Petticoat Lane 1981

Brick Lane 1978

Aldgate East 1979

Brick Lane 1980

Hoxton 1979

Tower Hamlets 1981

Brick Lane 1976

Jubilee St 1977

Brick Lane 1978

School Cleaners’ Strike 1978

Petticoat Lane 1978

David Widgery, Limehouse 1981

Sisters, Bow 1984

Sisters, Tower Hamlets 1988

Bow Scrapyard 1984

Ridley Rd Market 1992

Ridley Rd Market 1992

Ridley Rd Market 1995

Whitechapel 2013

Shadwell 2013

Brick Lane 2013

Dalston Lane 2013

Bethnal Green 2013

Photographs copyright © Syd Shelton

You may also like to take a look at

Bandele “Tex” Ajetunmobi, Photographer

John Claridge’s East End

Phil Maxwell’s Brick Lane

17 Responses leave one →
  1. ROBERT GREEN permalink
    March 20, 2014

    The year’s pass by, and time’s change, along with the people, but is there really any progress being made ? and even if there is, who is benefiting from it ? to me, these photo’s serve only to illustrate a recurring theme that no one seems to have the answer to, (if there is one ?) I have lived in the East End through all the period’s depicted in these photo’s and some of these area’s have now changed dramatically in appearance, but have the many problem’s and disadvantages of the modern day equivalent of the people in these photo’s really changed that much ? maybe on the surface it can appear they have, but scratch a little beneath the surface, and I’m not so sure that anything meaningful has changed at all ?

  2. March 20, 2014

    Great work! ― And I am surprised: In those days it was the first time for me to be in London (1978). I saw all these fancy punk guys!

    And later there was the “Neue Deutsche Welle” with “Da Da Da” ― all the boys in the streets were singing it! (1982)

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  3. March 20, 2014

    Lovely studies of the real people of the East End, not many left now. I come down every two weeks and Im running a tour in May to show others what happens here. I love it.

  4. Susan Goldman permalink
    March 20, 2014

    A wonderful collection of photos. Thank you Gentle Author for another trip down memory lane.

  5. March 20, 2014

    Fantastic pictures,
    the 70/80s ones are hugely evocative of the era.
    Thanks very much

  6. March 20, 2014

    I don’t think there’s a single photograph in this collection that wouldn’t make a brilliant album cover.

  7. joan permalink
    March 20, 2014

    I was a teenager in Stepney in those days and remember well the atmosphere of those times. The National Front used to try to recruit outside our school (which being Catholic had a large number of Afro-Caribbean pupils). A number of us got involved in the Anti-Nazi league and Rock Against Racism, getting in trouble for doing a school assembly featuring the Tom Robinson Band’s ‘Winter of ’79 (it contained a swear word!). I had a particular soft spot for the TRB and especially remember going to see them at the Lewisham Odeon. I came home wearing a badge proclaiming ‘Gays Against the Nazis’ which almost gave my poor Irish Catholic father a heart attack. It’s a shame he isn’t alive now to see my teenage children give me similar grief with their doings!

    Joan

  8. Elam permalink
    March 20, 2014

    Intense and striking photos.
    Happy to know about this photographer now!

    Look forward to checking out more of his work. Had to show my mum these photos to see if she recognised anyone, and she did; the man in red on Ridley Road Market. Where is he now? In fact, whenever I see photos like these I wonder where the people are now and what would their reaction be if they came across their picture now.

  9. Gary Arber permalink
    March 20, 2014

    It was good to see the picture of Dr. David Widgery, he was an interesting man.
    I had to print a set of anti Christmas cards for him every year until his tragic death.
    His wife Juliet was in my shop a couple of weeks ago.
    If you can find any of his books they make an interesting read, sadly missed !
    Gary

  10. March 20, 2014

    What sad pictures these are. Everything looks so dirty shabby and might I say sordid.

    I’m Cockney grew up in London during the war and looking at these pictures taken so long after is saddening to see that nothing has been done to improve the inhabitants lot.

    There is no pride in any of these photographs they are just so depressing.

    Nevertheless I shall never lose my pride in being a Cockney of the mid/pre 50′s 20th century even after the many years I’ve lived in Australia, I’ve retained my English nationality; people of my era, though fading fast, had something to feel proud and to smile about, a smile is sadly lacking in any of these pictures and obviously for good reason.

  11. Joe permalink
    March 21, 2014

    Agreed with Brian on every point — these are fantastic pictures, full of character, personality and fighting spirit. But there is a danger of idealising the grim struggle — I lived and worked in the area for some years in the early 80s, and it was a tough tough rough place to survive in, with much sadness, bleakness and dysfunctionality in every day life. I look back on those years as having formed a deep resilience in me, and developing my respect for the struggler ( amongst whose ranks I counted myself in those days ) but easy and idyllic it was most certainly not.

  12. March 21, 2014

    These pictures were mostly taken across my teen years and I know some of the people in them. Life was not in black and white and grainy. Only in photographs. Life had high and lows and all kinds of colours. There was nothing sordid about, for example, the Bangladeshi community finding a voice and decided they would no longer be a punchbag for the NF. There was nothing shabby about the many community festivals we organised – or football leagues – or even our every day life. But these happier days are just not as well documented as the desolate streets around Brick Lane and tramps of Spitalfields Market.

  13. Joe permalink
    March 22, 2014

    I lived around East London and North East London for years, and experienced it from the bottom up — I worked in sweat shops and warehouses and I lived in run down squats and appalling flats, and I spent years with no home of my own, living on the charity and good will of friends.

    It made me a better, stronger, more sympathetic and dare I say, more humane person — but it broke me down first, and I saw much I’d rather forget.

    These are excellent pictures.

    I hope the people in them survive — and thrive.

  14. March 22, 2014

    Wonderful photographs!

  15. March 23, 2014

    “Taking photos is what makes my heart beat.” Wow!
    I personally love the strength of feeling behind the b/w portraits, which certainly mitigates the bleak surroundings. Dispiriting these sitters certainly aren’t. Liked too the unexpected framing of the David Widgery shot… which shoots me straight back in my now-hazy mind’s eye to his book, ‘Some Lives!’, a most realistic and humbling read.
    (I should add the above plug is only in lieu of an available book by photographer Syd Shelton!)

  16. Martin permalink
    October 25, 2014

    I grew up in Stepney in the 1970s and of course, times may have been hard, but my friends and I certainly weren’t frowning and grimacing all day long. Perhaps because we were common-or-garden, happy-go-lucky kids, growing up into teenagers (neither Bengalis nor skinheads), we were somehow deemed not photo-worthy. We were normal kids, having a normal, good time on our council estates. It wasn’t all bad and some of us have even lived to tell the tale!

  17. william Ball permalink
    August 31, 2015

    Loved the atmosphere these photos captured . I used to work in North London . I was born in 111 Culford Road N.1 . Caught the times . The optimism . The fight against oppression . Everyday life really good .

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