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Ray Newton, Historian Of Shadwell

August 14, 2014
by the gentle author

Ray Newton at the churchyard gate of St Paul’s Shadwell

You do not meet many people who can say they come from Shadwell these days, not in the way that Ray Newton can when he tells you his family have been there since at least 1820 – which is only as far he chooses to probe, yet more than sufficient to claim Shadwell as his place of origin.

Ray has dedicated himself to learning the history of Shadwell and, for the past thirty years, he has run the local history trust with Madge Darby who is his counterpart in Wapping. Between the pair of them they are able to enjoy specialist conversations that trace niceties of historical detail, especially concerning the boundary between their adjoining Thames-side parishes. “Madge will tell you that the Prospect …” Ray began, referring to the ancient Prospect of Whitby riverside pub by its familiar name, “Madge will tell you that the Prospect is in Wapping because, since the early nineteenth century when the Docks were built, the Wapping people have said that you have to cross water to get to Wapping – yet prior to that the Prospect was in Shadwell.”

In confirmation of this assertion, Ray took me round the back of St Paul’s Church in Shadwell and gestured significantly towards a blank wall before turning one hundred and eighty degrees to indicate a route crossing the Basin towards the Thames. “This used to be Fox’s Path, from the Highway down to the Prospect,” he informed me, “it was raised on stilts across the marshes that were here before the Docks.”

Thus Ray’s thesis about the shifting boundary of Shadwell and Wapping was proven, though it left me with an unfulfillable yearning to cross Fox’s Path upon the long-gone stilts over the marshes and down to the Prospect of Whitby.

“My father, Thomas Newton, was born in 1904 in Cornwall St off Watney St Market but he lived his early life in Juniper St, which was swarming with hundreds of children then. Although it was a big family, my grandfather John Newton had a good job, he was a foreman in a cold store at Bankside, so my father got educated and he could read and write letters for people in Juniper St.

We were lucky because my dad had a secure job and even in the thirties, when there were no jobs, he worked. At twelve years old, my father left school and went to work with my grandfather at the cold store, and his brothers worked there with him too. When he was fourteen, he went to Broad St Boys’ Club in the Highway that was run by the son of Bombardier Billy Wells (the man who wielded the hammer on the gong at the start of  J. Arthur Rank films) and, at eighteen years old, my father became a professional boxer. He fought against Raymond Perrier, the Champion of France, and beat him and he topped the bill in the twenties. He fought all over the East End but, because he was boxer not a fighter, he had trouble with his eye and he had to have an operation. After that, he couldn’t box anymore so he became a manager and ran a gym in Davenport St above the Roebuck.

My mother, Maria Edgecombe, was born in Gravesend. Her mother was a farmer’s daughter who married my grandfather, who was a waterman who came from Shadwell and worked for the Tilbury Dock Company. When it was taken over by the Port of London Authority, he moved out and worked on the Pierhead and they lived in Cable St, where my mother met my father and they had three boys and a girl. On my dad’s side, they were all dockers and on my mother’s side they all worked for the Port of London Authority. They were different people, because in the docks it was all casual labour whereas the Port of London Authority was regular employment. It was very hard work in the docks but I never met anyone that didn’t love working there. The docks could find a job for anyone.

When the War came, my dad was still working in the cold store and it was a reserved occupation. He joined the Home Guard and his job was to guard the London Dock and the King Edward VII Memorial Park which was the entrance to the Rotherhithe Tunnel – and he was given five rounds of ammunition. I remember him in his uniform because I was born just before the War.

My father was always into everything sporty and boxing was his life so, when his father died, he become a bookmaker and set himself up as a turf accountant and gave up the docks. Next, he decided to be a publican and bought a pub on the Highway opposite Free Trade Wharf called the Cock but, while I was doing National Service, he became ill. At fifty-one, he was told he had lung cancer and had five years to live, and he died at fifty-six. He was a lad but he wasn’t a criminal. He was a hard man and he could fight anyone just like that, yet he was also very generous. He was into everything, he organised dances and sold tickets.

We had a boxing gym in the cellar of the pub and he gave away all the equipment to the St Georges Boxing Club in the church crypt – where they produced a world champion, Terry Marsh. I didn’t want him to give it away because I thought they’d damage it but he said to me, ‘You don’t know what it’s like to have no money.’

At twenty-three years old, I took over the pub and I was a publican right on the docks, serving seamen and dockers. So you had to be a little hard – but I’m not. During the days, it was dockers, lightermen and ships’ captains but at nights, and at weekends, local families came. We had a piano player and everyone knew the words, they had competitions – one song in the Saloon Bar then one in the Public Bar. In the Saloon, you could charge what you pleased but in the Public Bar the drinks’ prices were set. Ships’ officers, customs’ men and the management of Free Trade Wharf went into the Saloon and dockers and lightermen went in the Public Bar – they never met, that was the class system.

I ran the pub until it was pulled down to make way for the widening of the Highway and I was rehoused in Gordon House, where I still live today. After the pub came down, I worked for my elder brother – he was a bookmaker – in his betting shops, but it wasn’t me. When he decided to sell the shop in Walthamstow, I stayed 0n and worked for the new people – for the company which became City Tote.

Yet I realised I didn’t want to do this for the rest of my life so, at thirty-two, I decided to get an education and, after the shop closed at night, I used to go to evening classes. I enrolled for a basic English class and the teacher said, ‘Write something down so I can look at it,’ and when he saw it he said, ‘This ain’t your class but if you help me with teaching the other students, I’ll mark your essay each week.’ So I got a year of personal tuition.

Then I was doing my homework in the betting shop one day, when two young men who were different from the other punters asked what I was doing. I said, ‘I’m doing O levels.’ They were lecturers and they said, ‘We’ll help you with your O levels if you’ll teach us gambling.’ After I did my O levels and A levels, I realised that if I don’t go to university, I’d be disappointed for the rest of my life, so I went to Middlesex Polytechnic and did a four year degree in Social Sciences. While I was a student, I was working as an Adult Literacy volunteer and after I got my degree I became a lecturer in Social Sciences at West Ham College, but the most rewarding thing I did was teaching partially blind people.

After thirty-six years of teaching, I retired and for the past ten years I’ve had an allotment in Cable St Gardens, and I’m secretary of the History of Wapping Trust. I used to teach a Local History class and one day Madge Darby came along, there’s nothing about Wapping she didn’t know. We published over twenty books. We never set out to make money, it is a thing we did for love.

Once upon a time, we were all in the same boat, we all went to the same school, we all went to the same pub, we all had the same doctor and everybody knew everybody. Now nobody knows anybody. I think I was lucky because I worked in a pub at twenty-three and I met the full range of people, and it got me interested in local history.”

Ray upon the steps overlooking Shadwell Basin

Ray shows the stone plaque in the churchyard wall of St Paul’s Shadwell, placed after it was shored up when Shadwell Basin was being excavated between 1828-32 and the church began to slide downhill

Ray pointed out these early nineteenth century doors facing the Highway, in the side of the Vestry at St Paul’s Shadwell, which were once the entrance to Shadwell’s first Fire Station

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Madge Darby, Historian Of Wapping

10 Responses leave one →
  1. August 14, 2014

    Ray had a hard and varied life, great that he went back to school and then studied. An interesting report! Valerie

  2. ROBERT GREEN permalink
    August 14, 2014

    MYTH BUSTER, living proof that there are no barrier’s to being a decent person regardless of your background and personal circumstance’s, thoroughly heart warming story.

  3. Pauline Taylor permalink
    August 14, 2014

    I found this site GA through your article about Madge Darby which was a real stroke of good fortune!! I have so much family history in Wapping and the surrounding areas where my lot were mostly shipwrights, mariners and publicans so I am really interested in this story, it brings it all to life in a very vivid way. I think my friend may have met Ray when she was planning a Dickens walk around the area, she certainly met someone with a great deal of knowledge as he tried to help her to locate a ‘family’ pub in Wapping High Street for me.

    Thank you GA and Ray for yet another fascinating story.

  4. Kate Heren permalink
    August 14, 2014

    My grandmother Beatrice Keller (born in 1891) worked as a cook for the Port of London Authority. My sister sill has a saucepan, part of a set given her as a wedding present, stamped POA. After she married my grandfather Philip Heren, a printer or compositor at The Times, she lived in Shadwell and ran a coffee shop (I think we would call it a cafe today) for the dockworkers called the City of London Dining Rooms. My grandfather died aged only 32, and she brought up her three children there. Philip’s younger brother Uncle Lou lived with them because he was blinded in he First World War in 1917 (aged, I think, 17). Lou had a job at the Treasury and went there every day, and we still have a set of beautiful black dominoes with big raised dots which blinded soldiers we given. My late father Louis Heren was the youngest and remembered opening a drawer and seeing a lot of guns – headed for the IRA? He kept his mouth shut. He started work as a messenger at The Times aged 15, and managed to get a job as a reporter after writing adverts for the paper. He said some people treated you like a piece of dirt on their shoe if you opened your mouth and they heard the Cockney accent. He volunteered for the army in 1939, got commissioned (there weren’t enough middle class officer material soldiers) and after the war became a foreign correspondent, ending up as Deputy Editor. The Shadwell he knew had mostly been destroyed in the bombing during the war. We lived in Hampstead, a world away. How I wish I’d known about Ray’s Local History group – dad would have been able to contribute so much and it would have been a link to his lost past.

  5. August 14, 2014

    An interesting and varied life. And he proves that intellect isn’t the preserve of the chattering classes 😉

  6. Anna Davin permalink
    August 18, 2014

    Ray’s memories and research and the photos are wonderful.

    On comments:
    Bombadier Billy Wells: the late Stan Shipley published his life and times in 1993.
    Louis Heren: see huis memoir, Growing Up Poor in London (1973).

  7. Sue Rockall permalink
    June 6, 2015

    My grandfather served in the London Fire Brigade from about 1925 and my mother was born in Shadwell Fire Station in 1928. This must have been the building in Glamis Road, which was demolished in the 1960s, ie the second fire station in Shadwell.

    I’d love to discover more about its history and also where I might find photographs of the building or fire crew. I’d be very grateful for any information or advice.

  8. Tony Lloyd permalink
    August 6, 2015

    I was born in Wapping in Jan 1936 and both my parents were from Wapping too. We lived in Riverside Mansions for a while before moving to Diggon St near Arbour Sq. for a while. Sometime before the war we moved to Peabody Buildings, as it was known, in Glamis Place just off The Highway!
    My father Harry Lloyd was a docker working at Middleton & St Brides Wharf in Wapping Lane before and during the war until he sadlydied in 1945 just 3 months after my sister Shirley was born.
    My mum, Edith Lloyd, and I were evacuated to Abertillery, S.Wales during the Blitz which I remember quite vividly! It was a close community in those days and I have very fond memories of friends and neighbours, mainly I think that we were all ” in the same boat ” as it was. People looked after each other a lot more in those days!!
    I went to Nicholas Gibson school just around the corner before I found myself, much to my surprise, moving to Raines Foundation Grammar school in Arbour Square in 1947 ! phew !!
    Although I’m now approaching my 80th birthday I would love to hear from anyone who similar recollections of families etc from that background, if you do please let me know.

  9. Ian Dunn permalink
    April 5, 2016

    I have recently found out my Grandad was a Fireman at Shadwell how can I find out if he did
    Many thanks

  10. Tanya Wren permalink
    June 24, 2019

    My grandmother lived in Shadwell at 1 Dock Cottages at the beginning of last century. Her father was a dock policeman at that time. I’m amazed the cottages have been preserved (right beside the church).

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