Skip to content

Wonderful London’s East End

March 17, 2023
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 At night, the buttresses of vegetables are withdrawn into shelter.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

You may also like to take a look at

Wonderful London

Sights Of Wonderful London

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Andy permalink
    March 17, 2023

    What wonderful pictures because they are true and still Tower Hamlets has the highest child poverty rate in the country, namely 61%.
    A shocking betrayal of this Government and Council.

  2. Adrienne Rowe permalink
    March 17, 2023

    The schoolhouse in Wapping is in Scandrett Street. It was converted some years ago into very expensive houses. My friend and her husband bought the end house in the girl’s section. It had a very small garden at ground level but the roof garden was wonderful with spectacular views. Unfortunately when work started on converting the church next door into luxury flats the pile driver caused such vibrations that it fractured the whole side elevation of my friends house. Luckily it was covered by insurance but took many months to sort out.

  3. Winnie permalink
    March 17, 2023

    These are marvellous. The policeman leading children safely across a road…in the days when
    policing was very different to now.
    My husbands late father would tell us when he was at school he had bare feet from early springtime until Autumn and we would think he was exaggerating until we saw a photo of him at school sitting crossed legged with all the other boys who also were (mostly) barefoot. And this was in Scotland in the 1920’s.
    It is very sad and shocking to think that Tower Hamlets still has such a high rate of child poverty. It is truly painful to think that so many children are deprived when things could be very different with better systems in place. The thought of them going hungry and being cold or distressed over housing and other turmoils is dreadful. And we are in 2023. How long before
    we all live in a just and fair society? We seem to be going backwards.

  4. March 17, 2023

    These are an amazing set of images. Many of these places I know very well and it’s fascinating to see how they looked in the 1920s, when both of my late parents were born. I always find shops fascinating because we shop so differently now. I remember my parents warning me about Petticoat Lane much later on. The not so roaring twenties were difficult times for so many. Thanks GA for this fascinating window to the past.

  5. March 17, 2023

    Wonderful insights into a long-gone era. One has to wonder if this had been a better time. One thing is for sure: the children, as you can see, always had fabulous and great moments! (And also trust in police officers!)

    Love & Peace

  6. Marcia Howard permalink
    March 18, 2023

    More amazing images! Especially interested in Crosby Hall which I know from later tears in Chelsea. Thank you

Leave a Reply

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

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS