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Travelling Roads Through Time

May 4, 2020
by Gillian Tindall

Today is distinguished historian Gillian Tindall‘s birthday and I publish her latest piece, considering how the lockdown is bringing us closer to Londoners of the past

Travelling pedlar by Marcellus Laroon

Since late March, our urban landscape has been given back. I do not just mean the quiet of the London streets, emptied of noisy, polluting traffic, nor the aeroplane-free skies above, nor yet the trees unfolding their leaves, nor even the birds – though the pleasure they are taking in a spring of exceptional peace is clear for all to hear.

No, what I have in mind is the way these streets, so complex and varied in pattern compared with the streets of newer cities, are given back to us by their emptiness in the shapes they had long ago. As we walk down the middle of roads or hail someone from one corner to the opposite one because we can hear each other again, we are not just re-adopting the habits of previous generations. Restricted to expeditions on foot, we are also experiencing the basic geography of the townscape – following a curve where an unmade way once took a detour round some great man’s gates – going downhill because a little ahead, now far beneath the pavement, is a buried river – taking a road that is especially broad because, a thousand years ago, it was the way out of London to Harwich and the Continent.

The East End districts – Spitalfields, Whitechapel,Bethnal Green, Stepney, Limehouse, Bow and the rest – have such a reputation for gritty urbanness that many people are not aware how recent this is. Yet the borough name Tower Hamlets gives a clue. Till well into the nineteenth century much of this was fields and market gardens, interspersed with small villages. For over seven hundred years, wealthy merchants had country houses there – weekend retreats, like those in Sussex, Hampshire or Bedfordshire today. Thomas Cromwell, when not plotting darker things at the City premises he had taken from the Austin Friars, acted in his Stepney house as a local squire. A neighbour was Lord Darcy, who was to lose his head after leading a failed uprising against the King.

Two hundred years later, neighbourly relations were more peaceful. It was then well-to-do sea-captains and those who grew wealthy from international trading companies who built houses in the pastures and gardens along the Mile End Rd. Being outside the official jurisdiction of the City of London, the area also became a haven for people of minority faiths, such as Non-Conformity and Judaism. The oldest Jewish burial ground in Britain, a Sephardi one, is still there off the Mile End Rd, and Bevis Marks – the first grand new synagogue – was opened in the City in 1701.

Yet – at this point – let us narrow our picture down to a handful of obscure people, who are significant only because they typify a mass of others – which is perhaps true, in a larger sense, of almost all of us.

In the decades after Bevis Marks opened, individuals whose various Sephardi family names were Joel, Beavis and Montague, established themselves in the rural outskirts of the City, in Shoreditch and Bethnal Green. Arriving from no one knows from where, over a century before the major influx of Polish-Russian Jews, they quietly made whatever compromises were necessary in their new homeland. They got married in the churches of St Leonard or St Matthew and even had the odd child baptised, probably to ensure their presence on the parish lists in times of hardship. Yet they knew who they were and never ate pork.

One was a pedlar, Solomon Joel, in those days when travelling pedlars were the main source for all sorts of necessary odds and ends, from needles to pepper, mouse-traps to bonny-blue-ribbons. In 1810, Solomon had a son to whom he gave his own name but the boy preferred to be known by the more English ‘Godfrey’. He too was a pedlar or hawker, as they were beginning to be known in towns, and specialised in selling sponges to the stables of the wealthy.

They lived near St Leonards Church, Shoreditch, in a narrow street of small houses that had been built on open ground in recent decades, but there was still a big market-garden just along the road and open country near at hand. Further east along the Mile End Road there was a fringe of elegant terrace-houses but the muddy back lanes full of hawthorn and blackberry bushes were largely untouched.

Not for much longer, however. In his twenties Godfrey married Ann Beavis and a new generation were born. By then a huge transformation had taken place. Once the Napoleonic wars were over, London expanded at a rate never seen before. Stepney was quickly filled up with new terraces. The older streets of Shoreditch such as Old Nichol St, where respectable Huguenot weavers had once had their homes, became a by-word for over-crowding. Bethnal Green still had cottage gardens and pig-styes but became a place where criminals from central London went to ground and slum landlords made fortunes.

Yet as in developing slums all over the world, many people simply pursued more or less respectable lives and kept away from trouble. This appears to have been true of the Joels and the Montagues, living in the same crowded district when a Montague son married Esther, a Joel daughter, in 1876. The couple’s eldest child, another Esther, was born only four months later, but that was commonplace among working people and they went on to have fourteen more children of whom all but one survived.

This Esther was my husband’s grandmother. While she was a child the family moved out, leaving ‘the Nichol’ whose reputation would be further exaggerated in Arthur Harrison’s sensational fantasy Child of the Jago, and travelled the Mile End Rd as far as the rural villages of Ilford and Chadwell. As a teenager, Esther found employment as a servant and was courted by a farm-labourer-turned-road-builder with aspirations to become a police constable. Although she could barely read, she shared his ambition for a better life – and the rest, as they say, is history.

I look today at my grandsons and think: the blood of the Nichol is in your veins too. You with your energies and your good looks might have become pedlars. You could have walked these roads and alleys that are now again revealed to us in their essential shape. You could have talked someone into buying a new mouse-trap or ribbons, as a present for a girl, or a painted plate, like the one we have in our kitchen today.

It was a long-ago gift to Ann Beavis, when she was a girl and there were fields still towards Bow.

Ann & Solomon Joel lived in Shoreditch near St Leonard’s Church in the mid-nineteenth century. Joel gave Ann the plate in the photograph above as a gift before they married.

Esther Joel married into to the Montague family in 1876 and they moved out to rural Essex

Gillian Tindall’s latest book The Pulse Glass & The Beat of Other Hearts is published by Chatto & Windus

You may like to read these other stories by Gillian Tindall

Wenceslaus Hollar at Old St Paul’s

The Plagues of Old London

The Bones of Old London

Memories of Ship Tavern Passage

Gillian Tindall’s Wartime Memories

At Captain Cook’s House in Mile End

In Stepney, 1963

Stepney’s Lost Mansions

Where The White Chapel Once Stood

The Old South Bank

Leonard Fenton, Actor

In Old Deptford

Lifesaving in Limehouse

From Bedlam To Liverpool St

Smithfield’s Bloody Past

The Tunnel Through Time


7 Responses leave one →
  1. Jill Wilson permalink
    May 4, 2020

    Another great contribution from Gillian (as always!)

    I’d love to be able to walk the streets of London without all the traffic and noise, to really feel and appreciate the history and hidden geography of the city. I have always loved the fact that the street plans of London are so random, and it is fascinating to wonder why they have developed the way they have.

    Instead I have to make do with our local woods (admittedly very beautiful at the moment) and the village of Limpsfield in Surrey. Spookily enough I think of Gillian every time I go past the Manor House where she was at school and which featured in her book Three Houses, Many Lives – another very good read.

    Keep up the good work Gillian, and have a very happy birthday – and stay safe!

  2. paul loften permalink
    May 4, 2020

    Thank you both Gillian and the GA for this interesting history of early Jewish immigrants to London. It has to be said that their history when compared to the lives of those Jewish people who remained in Europe, was relatively uneventful. Although I should think if you asked their descendants today they would be quite satisfied with that.

  3. May 4, 2020

    I’m honoured to share a Birthday with such a wonderful writer. May the Fourth be with us.

  4. Gillian Tindall permalink
    May 4, 2020

    May the Fourth be with us indeed! With very best wishes to David Harrison.
    Gillian Tindall

  5. May 12, 2020

    These are Wonderful Pictures. Thank You So Much!!???????

  6. Stuart Beavis permalink
    July 14, 2020

    I have just found this story. I have an interest in the origin of Beavis families from central London. My Beavis ancestors lived in this area and I have found other Beavis families in the same general area, but I cannot find links to connect them. My earliest traceable Beavis ancestor was John Beavis who was born in about 1741 (from his death notice stating he was 68 when he died in 1809). One of the families I have discovered goes back to John Beavis, born in about 1755, who lived in the Liberty of Norton Folgate. He was a Loom Maker and I believe he might be the grandfather of Ann Beavis in your story, through his son Charles. I have developed a tree of some of his descendants in which I have Esther Joel’s mother-in-law as Esther Beavis, sister of Ann Beavis, and married to George Montague. It is apparent from the names, both surnames and first names that there was a strong Jewish connection, but I was surprised to read that you have grouped the Beavis name in the Jewish group. I have never thought there was a Jewish connection to any Beavis names that I have encountered in my research and as you intimated in your story the Jewish people appear to have had their children baptised into the Church of England. Do you have any documentation that shows that Beavis family members were in fact of Jewish stock? I had been looking for a Huguenot link. I would be very interested in finding information about any Beavis’s you may have encountered in central London in your research. My email address may be ascertained through “Spitalfields Life”. If not, perhaps I could reach you through “Spitalfields Life”?
    Regards, Stuart Beavis.

  7. Karol Settergren permalink
    July 27, 2022

    For Stuart Beavis, We may have a piece of your family history as we own a Wm Beavis tall clock. I would like to share this information with you but unsure how to make contact.

    Karol Settergren
    Rochester Hills MI

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