Skip to content

Syd Shelton’s East End

July 2, 2020
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

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

13 Responses leave one →
  1. July 2, 2020

    These are Amazing Pictures. A Hard Time.❤?✌

  2. Ron Wilkinson permalink
    July 2, 2020

    I love the kids with the dog. Lots of stories, lots of faces. Thanks for the pictures.

  3. Ruth permalink
    July 2, 2020

    These are sublime. Such good images.

  4. July 2, 2020

    Fantastic photos. The essential human dignity of all these people-the skins, the punks, the old ladies, the young protesting against injustice-comes over strong and clear.

    I was thinking about Rock Against Racism recently (a big and wonderful thing in my youth) and wishing we could find a way of reviving it. We need it more than ever.

    Thanks Syd and thanks GA.

  5. Pauline Taylor permalink
    July 2, 2020

    Photography at its best and a timely reminder of where racism, and all that it leads to, will take us if we allow indoctrination to win. I particularly enjoyed the photos of Petticoat Lane where I was taken as part of one of my tours of London with a friend of my mother’s. It came as a great culture shock to a teenager who had grown up in a very quiet remote part of a rural village, and I have never forgotten that first visit to the East End as I had never before seen people who obviously lived in such poverty, and the noise and the tat that was being sold made such a lasting impression, as did the litter which you can see also in these photos.

    It wasn’t until I realized that my grandfather had been born in Whitecross Street and that his parents had been married in Hoxton that I began to see the East End in a different light and to appreciate the wealth of history to be found there. Half of me, it dawned on me, is a Londoner through and through since at least the 16th century and I am now very proud of all those ancestors, the well off and the not so well off, as they I think must have made me what I am. Someone who appreciates what people from all over the world have contributed to the rich fabric of our society and to the wealth of the nation. We forget that at our peril which brings me, very neatly, back to where I started with the horrors of racism. Thank you for the photographs Syd and to you too GA for such a reminder which is much needed by some at the moment.

  6. July 2, 2020

    Stunning! These portraits CHURN with intriguing stories, mysteries, provocations, cries and
    whispers. I’m almost afraid to know the stories here……there is such an edge of tragedy. Yet, the photographer makes us feel care and concern; even for the most insolent youth or battered aging face. And “Linda, 1981” left me totally sputtering. “Silent but deadly”, an urban goddess, capable of divine havoc.

    What an amazing group of photos!
    Many thanks, GA.
    Stay safe, all.

  7. paul loften permalink
    July 2, 2020

    Oh but the photos are just one aspect of the East End perhaps aiming to show how seedy and down at heel it was in parts. Anyone who lived there and can recall the dustman’s strike and the horror of rats running everywhere piles of rubbish on street corners. Stoke Newington Commons was turned into a huge rubbish tip and the residents had enough of it all. They turned against Labour in their thousands and then came Thatcher . The majority of people were not as depicted in the photos and it needs to be said. The left expected people to love living in squalor and so we got Margaret Thatcher. I saw a photo of David Widgery I knew him, not that well, just a bit from conversations whilst selling the SocialistWorker in Ridley road. He was a character all right !

  8. moyra peralta permalink
    July 2, 2020

    Lovely, strong portraits… particularly respond to the one of Widgery – and the Aldgate East young man.

  9. Claire D permalink
    July 2, 2020

    Some of these photographs are quite frightening I think, visceral. Things are different now, we have moved on.

  10. David Cox permalink
    July 3, 2020

    Great folio of photos….thanx again for for incredible efforts and devotion to your site

  11. July 3, 2020

    Wonderful photographs from master Syd Shelton.

  12. Ian Silverton permalink
    July 4, 2020

    What a shock these pictures are to me taken in the 197080s of where we used to live,still poor people it’s just not right,never ever new that nothing had ever changed for the better,whatever happened to the the Local MPs they always voted in come what may,for years still do we reckon sad site sorry just cannot believe nothing change for the better,left in the middle 1960s, for pastures new,looking at this makes makes it right for me not the people left behind. Stay safe,and let’s see some updated pictures make life better alround.

  13. July 15, 2020

    The East End as I saw it in the late 70s and early 80s … Wonderful Pics!

    Love & Peace

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS