‘Isms & schisms’ of the East End. Political, philanthropic, and entrepreneurial movements of old Stepney.
The East End, a hotbed of politics & social reforms, industrialisation & philanthropism, capitalism, societal innovation and gangsterism. In this walk take a stroll with Ade around Whitechapel and Stepney, following in the footsteps of Stalin, Oswald Mosley, and Dr Barnardo, to name but a few. Here we dig deeper around some of the ‘isms’ that have long been a part of, and the heart of this historical part of East London.
We start off at the infamous Battle of Cable Street. A much discussed tale from the East End, of defiance by the large Jewish community of Stepneyl, back in the 1930’s, when the British Union of Fascists tried to march down these pavements, only to be held at bay and told to ‘clear awf’ in no uncertain terms.
Paying homage to the aforementioned Jewish community, we head north to Hessel Street. This was once the epicentre for Jewish life and trade. The street market bustled here with Kosher foods, tailoring and a good gossip all on offer for the day.
Here we will understand what the Jewish community did for the area, what the belief in Judaism really means, and how the community has changed completely.
The next couple of stops take us into the world of political ideologies that were big news in the late Victorian and WW2 periods, Anarchism and Stalinism. There was a large Anarchists club here in Stepney and the fact that Stalin stayed in a couple of addresses in the area, is also testament to the political vibe of the area in the Edwardian period.
Across the road was the Bolshevik congress registration centre, where Lenin, trotsky and Stalin would have registered for the congress in Hackney in 1907. It was held in a building above a row of shops just next to Whitechapel Tube station, which is also one of our stops.
Eastwards we head down the Mile End Road and cannot come to this area without a quick mention of two of the East Ends most infamous sons, the Kray Twins. We will stop at three licensed premises along this stretch of road to hear about a massive ‘off’ between the Kray’s and their rivals in the 50’s, The Watney Street gang, a murder at the Blind Beggar, and what the twins got up to at one of their clubs, The Kentucky Club which they bought on their rise to power.
In Sidney Street, we listen to the story of the notorious siege that took place here, the subsequent gun battle, and visit of a young Winston Churchill. Latvian Anarchists had returned to their hideout in Sidney Street after murdering three police officers in a botched raid in Houndsditch a few weeks before. Here a firefighter also lost his life.
Next stop we head back up onto the Mile End Road and an area once known as ‘The Waste’. The waste was larger in the past than today, and was East London’s Speakers Corner. Here political talks took place. The ones we are interested in here today will be about the famous Philanthropist, William Booth.
Booth started the Salvation Army from this spot and went on to be the writer of the ‘Poverty map’, a map showing parts of London in terms of financial stability or wealth. Here we will also hear about one of the founders of Zionism. Always in the news, Zionism is important to understand as it’s differences with Judaism often are clouded. It was here that Theodor Herzl, one of the main instigators of Zionism, held his rants on the Waste.
Anarchism rears its head again as we dart down the back streets, off the main road and head towards the flat of a man who could arguably be called the leader of Anarchism in the East End, Rudolf Rocker (of course there is no leader in Anarchism!). Among many interesting facts about Rocker was that he wrote for the Anarchist Jewish press in a bid to stop the influence of Marxism spreading amongst the community here, although he was not a Jew… complicated stuff !
A pleasant stroll through the ancient Stepney Green ( once part of the fields where Wat Tyler and his rebels met the King to discuss the poll tax in the 14th century), and we stop at two spots associated with the Philanthropist Dr Barnardo. It was just behind the ancient St Dunstan’s church where he set up his first of many children’s homes. Next to the canal and just a few minutes east is the ragged school (free school).
Here Barnardo, after seeing such poverty on the streets of the area decided that children from poor families should also have access to education. The school exists today as a museum.
Heading north towards our final destination, we come to the home of the gas industry. London was where the gas industry started, and on this spot was an immense gas works. Coal was bought from the North East by ship, then transferred up the canal from the Thames by barge and burnt here to cater for the local demand in the East End. These remnants remain in their original place to remind us of the area’s industrial past.
Our final stop on this walk takes us back onto the Mile End Road and to the People’s Palace. A beautiful theatre built adjacent to what now is the Queen’s Hall. The original Palace burnt down and this theatre was constructed in the mid 30’s. It was here that on an election win in the borough just after the finish of WW2, local MP and PM, Clement Attlee, stood next to and applauded an ‘out’ Communist. The Americans were none to pleased!
So, that concludes our little stroll through this amazing, historic and interesting part of the East End, and this fascinating city of ours. To be honest, there is enough material in Whitechapel and Stepney to do neverending walks, but this is just a taster of some of the more famous or infamous people who have trudged these streets of the capital.
Please drop me a line if any one of my walks on the walk information page of my website take your fancy. I hope to get all walks up and running in the new year.
Take it easy and hope to see you soon.
Take a stroll with Ade, a qualified London Borough Guide
‘Enthusing the enthusiastic’