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Booker T. Washington In Petticoat Lane

March 12, 2023
by the gentle author





Portrait by Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1895

Spokesman and leader of African American people in the USA, Booker T. Washington came to London in 1910 to study the living conditions of the poor on this side of the Atlantic by comparison with his own country. On arrival in London, his first destination was Petticoat Lane Market, as he described in his book The Man Farthest Down, The Struggle of European Toilers, written with the collaboration of sociologist Robert E. Park and published in 1912.


‘The first thing about London that impressed me was its size, the second was the wide division between the different elements in the population.

London is not only the largest city in the world, it is also the city in which the segregation of the classes has gone farthest. The West End, for example, is the home of the King and the Court. Here are the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, the British Museum, most of the historical monuments, the art galleries, and nearly everything that is interesting, refined, and beautiful in the lives of seven millions of people who make up the inhabitants of the city.

If you take a cab at Trafalgar Square, however, and ride eastward down the Strand through Fleet Street, where all the principal newspapers of London are published, past the Bank of England, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the interesting sights and scenes of the older part of the city, you come, all of a sudden, into a very different region, the centre of which is the famous Whitechapel.

The difference between the East End and the West End of London is that East London has no monuments, no banks, no hotels, theatres, art galleries; no history – nothing that is interesting and attractive but its poverty and its problems. Everything else is drab and commonplace.

It is, however, a mistake, as I soon learned, to assume that East London is a slum. It is, in fact, a city by itself, and a very remarkable city, for it has, including what you may call its suburbs, East Ham and West Ham, a population of something over two millions, made up for the most part of hard-working, thrifty labouring people. It has its dark places, also, but I visited several parts of London during my stay in the city which were considerably worse in every respect than anything I saw in the East End.

Nevertheless, it is said that more than one hundred thousand of the people in this part of the city, in spite of all the efforts that have been made to help them, are living on the verge of starvation. So poor and so helpless are these people that it was, at one time, seriously proposed to separate them from the rest of the population and set them off in a city by themselves, where they could live and work entirely under the direction of the state. It was proposed to put this hundred thousand of the very poor under the direction and care of the state because they were not able to take care of themselves, and because it was declared that all the service which they rendered the community could be performed by the remaining portion of the population in their leisure moments, so that they were, in fact, not a help but a hindrance to the life of the city as a whole.

I got my first view of one of the characteristic sights of the East End life at Middlesex Street, or Petticoat Lane, as it was formerly called. Petticoat Lane is in the centre of the Jewish quarter, and on Sunday morning there is a famous market in this street. On both sides of the thoroughfare, running northward from Whitechapel Road until they lose themselves in some of the side streets, one sees a double line of pushcarts, upon which every imaginable sort of ware, from wedding rings to eels in jelly, is exposed for sale. On both sides of these carts and in the middle of the street a motley throng of bargain-hunters are pushing their way through the crowds, stopping to look over the curious wares in the carts or to listen to the shrill cries of some hawker selling painkiller or some other sort of magic cure-all.

Nearly all of the merchants are Jews, but the majority of their customers belong to the tribes of the Gentiles. Among others I noticed a class of professional customers. They were evidently artisans of some sort or other who had come to pick out from the goods exposed for sale a plane or a saw or some other sort of second-hand tool, there were others searching for useful bits of old iron, bolts, brass, springs, keys, and other things of that sort which they would be able to turn to some use in their trades.

I spent an hour or more wandering through this street and the neighbouring lane into which this petty pushcart traffic had overflowed. Secondhand clothing, secondhand household articles, the waste meats of the Saturday market, all kinds of worn-out and cast-off articles which had been fished out of the junk heaps of the city or thrust out of the regular channels of trade, find here a ready market.

I think that the thing which impressed me most was not the poverty, which was evident enough, but the sombre tone of the crowd and the whole proceeding. It was not a happy crowd, there were no bright colours, and very little laughter. It was an ill-dressed crowd, made up of people who had long been accustomed to live, as it were, at second-hand and in close relations with the pawnbroker.

In the Southern States it would be hard to find a coloured man who did not make some change in his appearance on Sunday. The Negro labourer is never so poor that he forgets to put on a clean collar or a bright necktie or something out of the ordinary out of respect for the Sabbath. In the midst of this busy, pushing throng it was hard for me to remember that I was in England and that it was Sunday. Somehow or other I had got a very different notion of the English Sabbath.

Petticoat Lane is in the midst of the “sweating” district, where most of the cheap clothing in London is made. Through windows and open doors I could see the pale faces of the garment-makers bent over their work. There is much furniture made in this region, also, I understand. Looking down into some of the cellars as I passed, I saw men working at the lathes. Down at the end of the street was a barroom, which was doing a rushing business. The law in London is, as I understand, that travellers may be served at a public bar on Sunday, but not others. To be a traveller, a bona-fide traveller, you must have come from a distance of at least three miles. There were a great many travellers in Petticoat Lane on the Sunday morning that I was there.

This same morning I visited Bethnal Green, another and a quite different quarter of the East End. There are a number of these different quarters of the East End, like Stepney, Poplar, St. George’s in the East, and so forth. Each of these has its peculiar type of population and its own peculiar conditions. Whitechapel is Jewish, St. George’s in the East is Jewish at one end and Irish at the other, but Bethnal Green is English. For nearly half a mile along Bethnal Green Road I found another Sunday market in full swing, and it was, if anything, louder and more picturesque than the one in Petticoat Lane.

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning; the housewives of Bethnal Green were out on the street hunting bargains in meat and vegetables for the Sunday dinner. One of the most interesting groups I passed was crowded about a pushcart where three sturdy old women, shouting at the top of their lungs, were reeling off bolt after bolt of cheap cotton cloth to a crowd of women gathered about their cart.

At another point a man was “knocking down” at auction cheap cuts of frozen beef from Australia at prices ranging from 4 to 8 cents a pound. Another was selling fish, another crockery, and a third tinware, and so through the whole list of household staples.

The market on Bethnal Green Road extends across a street called Brick Lane and branches off again from that into other and narrower streets. In one of these there is a market exclusively for birds, and another for various sorts of fancy articles not of the first necessity. The interesting thing about all this traffic was that, although no one seemed to exercise any sort of control over it, somehow the different classes of trade had managed to organize themselves so that all the wares of one particular sort were displayed in one place and all the wares of another sort in another, everything in regular and systematic order. The streets were so busy and crowded that I wondered if there were any people left in that part of the town to attend the churches.

One of the marvels of London is the number of handsome and stately churches. One meets these beautiful edifices everywhere, not merely in the West End, where there is wealth sufficient to build and support them, but in the crowded streets of the business part of the city, where there are no longer any people to attend them. Even in the grimiest precincts of the East End, where all is dirt and squalor, one is likely to come unexpectedly upon one of these beautiful old churches, with its quiet churchyard and little space of green, recalling the time when the region, which is now crowded with endless rows of squalid city dwellings, was, perhaps, dotted with pleasant country villages. These churches are beautiful, but as far as I could see they were, for the most part, silent and empty. The masses of the people enjoy the green spaces outside, but do not as a rule, I fear, attend the services on the inside. They are too busy.

It is not because the churches are not making an effort to reach the people that the masses do not go to them. One has only to read the notices posted outside of any of the church buildings in regard to night schools, lectures, men’s clubs and women’s clubs, and many other organizations of various sorts, to know that there is much earnestness and effort on the part of the churches to reach down and help the people. The trouble seems to be that the people are not at the same time reaching up to the church. It is one of the results of the distance between the classes that rule and the classes that work. It is too far from Whitechapel to St. James’s Park.’

Petticoat Lane by Charles Chusseau-Flaviens, 1911. Photograph courtesy George Eastman House

Booker T. Washington speaking in Atlanta in 1895

Click here to read ‘The Man Farthest Down, The Struggle of European Toilers’

You may also like to take a look at

Dennis Anthony’s Petticoat Lane

Laurie Allen of Petticoat Lane

The Wax Sellers of Wentworth St

Fred the Chestnut Seller

Larry Goldstein, Toyseller & Taxi Driver

Rochelle Cole, Poulterer

C A Mathew’s Spitalfields

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Mark permalink
    March 12, 2023

    Very interesting article.
    The poverty remains although most of the white working class have been conned into moving to Essex.
    London, a great place to visit!

  2. Peter Holford permalink
    March 12, 2023

    Fascinating. An outsider with his experiences is somehow more adept at analysing what he sees. With his knowledge of American society it is a ready benchmark to analyse the East End. Some insights which I have not read before. It puts a bit of flesh on the lives of my ‘English’ Bethnal Green ancestors.

  3. Paul Huckett permalink
    March 12, 2023

    A most fascinating article . I haven’t read his book but I’ll seek out a copy and read it in full . Once again , I thank you .

  4. Marcia Howard permalink
    March 12, 2023

    This is an amazing piece of history. I would suggest that it’s also way before it’s time with the visit to London by Booker T. Washington, and the subsequent report of same, albeit in collaboration with sociologist Robert E. Park.

  5. March 13, 2023

    What an engaging writing style.

  6. Rick Armiger permalink
    March 15, 2023

    Perhaps your very best and most important posts

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