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Ray Newton, Historian Of Shadwell

June 19, 2019
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 ran the local history trust with Madge Darby who was his counterpart in Wapping. Between the pair of them they were able to enjoy specialist conversations that traced niceties of historical detail, especially concerning the boundary between their adjoining Thames-side parishes.

“Madge would tell you that the Prospect …” Ray began, referring to the ancient Prospect of Whitby riverside pub by its familiar name, “Madge would 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 on 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

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Dean Armond permalink
    June 19, 2019

    Absolutely fascinating article!

  2. Anne Scott permalink
    June 19, 2019

    I really enjoy these stories about local people and learning about their lives. Thank you for taking the time to talk to them.

  3. Geoff Fisher permalink
    June 23, 2019

    Great stuff!
    Name of book?

  4. Marcia Howard permalink
    June 23, 2019

    What an interesting story, and determination

  5. May 6, 2024

    Ray Newton died 30th April 2024. Rest In Peace, Ray.

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