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Wonderful East End

September 10, 2014
by the gentle author

It is my pleasure to publish these evocative pictures of the East End (with some occasionally facetious original captions) selected from the popular magazine Wonderful London edited by St John Adcock and produced by The Fleetway House in the nineteen-twenties. Most photographers were not credited – though many were distinguished talents of the day, including East End photographer William Whiffin (1879-1957).

Boys are often seen without boots or stockings, and football barefoot under such conditions has grave risks from glass or old tin cans, but there are many urchins who would rather run about barefoot.

When this narrow little dwelling in St John’s Hill, Shadwell, was first built in 1753, its inhabitants could walk in a few minutes to the meadows round Stepney or, venture further afield, to hear the cuckoo in the orchards of Poplar.

Middlesex St is still known by its old name of Petticoat Lane. Some of the goods on offer at amazingly low prices on a Sunday morning are not above suspicion of being stolen, and you may buy a watch at one end of the street and see it for sale again by the time you reach reach the other.

A vanished theatre on the borders of Hoxton, just before demolition, photographed by William Whiffin. In 1838, a tea garden by the name of ‘the Eagle Tavern’ was put up in Shepherdess Walk in the City Rd near the ‘Shepherd & Shepherdess,’ a similar establishment founded at the beginning of the same century. Melodramas such as ‘The Lights ‘O London’ and entertainments like ‘The Secrets of the Harem,’ were also given. In 1882, General Booth turned the place into a Meeting Hall for his Salvation Army. There is little suggestion of the pastoral about Shepherdess Walk now.

In the East End and all over the poorer parts of London, a strange kind of establishment, half booth, half shop, is common and particularly popular with greengrocers. Old packing cases are the foundation of a slope of fruit which begins unpleasantly near the level of the pavement and ends in the recess behind the dingy awning. At night, the buttresses of vegetables are withdrawn into shelter.

Old shop front in Bow photographed by William Whiffin. Pawnbroking, once as decorous as banking, has fallen from the high estate in the vicinity of Lombard St. Now, combined instead with the sale of secondhand jewellery, furniture and hundred other commodities, it is apt to seek the corners of the meaner streets.

A water tank covered by a plank in a backyard among the slums is an unlikely place for a stage, but an undaunted admirer of that great Cockney humorist, Charlie Chaplin, is holding his audience with an imitation of  the well-known  gestures with which the famous comic actor indicates the care-free-though-down-and-out view of life which he has immortalised.

Old shop front in Poplar photographed by William Whiffin

An old charity school for girl and boy down at Wapping founded in 1704. The present building dates from 1760 and the school is supported by voluntary subscriptions. The school provided for the ‘putting out of apprentices’ and for clothing the pupils.

The hunt for bargains in Shoreditch.  A glamour surrounds the rickety coster’s barrow which supports a few dozens of books. But, to tell the truth, the organisation of the big shops is now so efficient that the chances of finding anything good at these open air book markets may have long odds laid against it.

The landsman’s conception of a sailing vessel, with all its complex of standing and running rigging that serves mast and sail with ordered efficiency, is apt for a shock when he sees a Thames barge by a dockside. The endless coils and loops of rope of different thickness, the length of chain and the litter of brooms, buckets, fenders and pieces of canvas, seem to be in the most insuperable confusion.

Gloom and grime in Chinatown.  Pennyfields runs from West India Dock Rd to Poplar High St. A Chinese restaurant on the corner and a few Chinese and European clothes are all that is to be seen in the daytime.

The gem of Cornhill, Birches, where it stood for two hundred years. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the brothers Adam erected its beautiful shop front. Within were old bills of fare printed on satin, a silver tureen fashioned to the likeness of a turtle and many other curious odd-flavoured things. Birches have catered for the inspired feasting of the City Companies and Guilds for two centuries but now this shop has moved to Old Broad St and, instead of Adam, we are to have Art Nouveau ferro-concrete.

It is doubtful if the Borough Council of Poplar had any notion, when they supplied the district with water carts, that the supplementary use pictured in this photograph by William Whiffin would be made of them. Given a complacent driver, there is no reason why these children should not go on for miles.

Grime and gloom in St George’s St photographed by William Whiffin. St George’s St used to be the famous Ratcliff Highway and runs from East Smithfield to Shadwell High St. It is a maritime street and contains various establishments, religious and otherwise, which cater for the sailor.

River Lea at Bow Bridge photographed by William Whiffin. On the right are Bow flour mills, while to the left, beyond the bridge, a large brewery is seen.

A view of Curtain Rd photographed by William Whiffin, famed for its cabinet makers. It runs from Worship St – a turning to the left when walking along Norton Folgate towards Shoreditch High St – to Old St. Curtain Rd got its name from a curtain wall, once part of the outworks of the city’s fortifications.

Fish porters of Billingsgate gathered around consignments lately arrived from the coast. At one time, smacks brought all the fish sold in the market and were unloaded at Billingsgate Wharf, said to be the oldest in London.

Crosby Hall as it stood in Bishopsgate. Alderman Sir John Crosby, a wealthy grocer, got the lease of some ground off Bishopsgate in 1466 from Alice Ashfield, Prioress of St Helen’s, at a rent of eleven pounds, six shillings and eightpence per annum, and built Crosby Hall there. It came into the possession of Sir Thomas More around 1518 and by 1638 it was in the hands of the East India Company, but in 1910 it was taken down and re-erected in Cheyne Walk.

Whatever their relations with the Constable may come to be in later life, the children of the East End, in their early days, are quite willing to use his protection at wide street crossings.

There is no more important work in the great cities than the amelioration of the slum child’s lot. Many East End children have never been beyond their own disease-ridden courts and dingy streets that form their playground.

Photographs courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

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15 Responses leave one →
  1. September 10, 2014

    This is always a wonderful read & viewing. But I enjoyed these pictures so much. I just had to tell you. Thank you.

  2. September 10, 2014

    Very evocative photos of the streets of East London as they were. Valerie

  3. September 10, 2014

    Some amazing views into a long gone period — was it a better time…? One thing is certain: Kids had always fabulous and great moments!

    Love & Peace

  4. September 10, 2014

    Wonderful photos. Thank you for sharing them. I can just imagine those original captions being read out in clipped posh accents and being sniggered over. The scorn for the fruit and veg shop is hilarious when you think that’s how fruit and veg has always generally been displayed. The author of that particular gem obviously never had to go and buy his own food!

  5. September 10, 2014

    What amazing pictures. And what brilliant commentary

  6. Peter Holford permalink
    September 10, 2014

    Fabulous pictures and some bemusing captions. I wonder what was so wrong about children following a water cart driven by a ‘complacent driver’.

    The greengrocer’s shop with the wares sloping down onto the pavement upon wooden crates was still a method that was going strong in the 1960s in Lower Richmond Road, Putney. It was a method that obviously worked!

  7. September 10, 2014

    Thank you!

  8. Stewart permalink
    September 10, 2014

    Really lovely to see these images. My long gone Gran received the full run of Wonderful London in the 1920s and it was leafing through those tattered copies as a child through the late 60s / early 70s that began my obsession with London and its history. When I was a bit older I was slightly dismayed to find that the capitol was much changed, but I’ve spent many an hour seeking out surviving buildings and features that were shown in the original magazines. I managed to get bound volumes of Wonderful London a few years back – and still find myself flicking through them. Many thanks!!

  9. Molasses permalink
    September 10, 2014

    Life was a challenge for the working class at this period – an illness could incur a high debt, and there were other social ills such as upward mobility, lack of education, work conditions.

    It is understandable for creation of a more equitable society championed by social campaigners in the first half of last century (and prior) – lets hope we do not regress.

  10. HHGeek permalink
    September 10, 2014

    Brilliant stuff. Pennyfields is probably the only place that still bears even a vague resemblance to these images.

  11. Pauline Taylor permalink
    September 10, 2014

    Evocative pictures and very ‘of their time’ captions. However poor some of these people may have been I bet that, despite not having shoes or stockings, many of those children had so much more fun and knew how to enjoy themselves more than many children do now.

    I was amused by the costermonger’s barrow with books on it. My grandfather still had his costermonger’s barrow, in the 1940s and 1950s, which my parents and I inherited, perhaps if I still had it now I could put it outside my shop with books on it!! That would be a talking point.

    Thank you again for helping me to understand the East End in which my grandparents lived.

  12. Rhona Wyer permalink
    September 10, 2014

    Lovely collection of photographs which show London as somewhere all sorts of people managed to live. Rich and poor used to live here side by side until so recently until gentrified by government policy and rich immigrants, so all is gone now and forever. I was surprised there was no mention of Richard III regarding Crosby Hall which, although moved, was one of his London homes.

  13. John Ford permalink
    January 30, 2015

    These photographs help me to visualise the description of East London provided by my father who is now in his ninety sixth year. He has very clear memories of being a raggedly dressed child in the nineteen twenties. His stories do much to destroy the myth that children had much more fun and were happy in their play. Life was incredibly hard with little to celebrate or be joyous of.

  14. ian silverton permalink
    August 11, 2015

    Looking at all these old pictures,of times gone by,in which we lived,makes me wonder how we all got through it,hungry/poor/cold. Dont think it what i for one want to look at anymore,but thanks for putting them up.

  15. April 25, 2018

    “Old shop front in Bow” is in fact the pawbrokers at the corner of Preston’s Rd (left) and Poplar High St on the right (sing says just “High St”).

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