Skip to content

Syd Shelton’s East End

May 24, 2024
by the gentle author

Tickets are available for The Gentle Author’s Tour of Spitalfields on Saturday 25th May


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

12 Responses leave one →
  1. May 24, 2024

    Impressive photos from the time when I first came to England. Little has changed — protest against the Nazis and against racism is once again necessary and the order of the day…

    Love & Peace

  2. Andy permalink
    May 24, 2024

    I love these because they are so evocative.
    The old lady with the tiled fireplace was just like our home in Milward street Whitechapel .
    Yes I remember the violence well .

  3. May 24, 2024

    A brilliant series of documentary photographs. I believe the one in a Bow scrapyard appeared in ‘A Day in the Life of London’ a beautiful book in which photographers were commissioned to photograph the capital at various times of the day. Thanks again GE for this excellent post.

  4. Richard Cleaver permalink
    May 24, 2024

    Simple, yet with such depth and presence throughout. Exceptional work.

  5. Marcia Howard permalink
    May 24, 2024

    Amazing images. Life in the Raw. Thank you so much for sharing.

  6. Mark permalink
    May 24, 2024

    Tough, hard, radical, poverty stricken, pride infused, sub cultures abounded. The London I mixed in during the late seventies and eighties. T.v. progs like The Sweeney made it pretty glamourous to us country bumpkins.
    Supa snaps.

  7. May 24, 2024

    Was there cause for dancing here? Apparently so — “Opening soon! – Farr’s School Of Dancing”.
    These photos put me under their spell — I could imagine the engaging Linda on the dancefloor, lost in thought and twirling while those languid boys from Hoxton look on. They are too cool for dancing, but expert at striking poses. The older folks gather, sitting on folding chairs, all around the dance floor. The sisters from Bow murmur, recalling long-ago dance frocks, and boys they once both dated. A thousand years ago. The names of the boys come easily, stored so carefully in both sisters’ memories. The pomp and uproar of the Royal Wedding…….the churning turmoil of street protests…….a solitary figure sits in their familiar chair, a mirror reflecting the outer world………
    Stories unspool.

    An incredible array of photos. The stuff of life.

  8. Cherub permalink
    May 24, 2024

    The school cleaners reminded me of my late mother. She got a job cleaning a local primary, then a High School after my dad was made redundant as a miner in 1969. It was hard heavy work at times, but she enjoyed the cameraderie of the other ladies and stayed until she retired in 1980. Sadly, she passed away within a year of retiring as she’d been diagnosed with a progressive condition. School cleaners were always fighting for better pay, I think my mother got about 10 pounds a week to start and it was only about 15 pounds when she retired. She was highly respected by a lot of the teachers who attended her funeral with the Headmaster and Headmistress.

  9. John Venes permalink
    May 24, 2024

    I was born in Bethnal Green and stayed until I got married and had to move out as there was no place to live.
    It’s interesting to see these photos but please don’t portray us as some kind of
    sub culture.

  10. Mark permalink
    May 25, 2024

    Sub cultures?
    Punks skins, rastas etc.
    That’s what we were.

  11. John Venes permalink
    May 25, 2024

    You may have been. You miss my point. Not all of us were

  12. Curt permalink
    June 12, 2024

    The person in the Aldgate East 1979 photo is Roi Pearce one of the lead singers of the 4 Skins.

Leave a Reply

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

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS