DIGGIN’ DEEPER – STEPNEY
Hi, it’s me. I’m me, you are you. No real introductions needed here but to say that I’m Ade, a budding London amateur historian, qualified Borough of Camden guide, and a developing walker of special interest walks. Please see the walks section for more info.
I’ve had this website since February but I had a busy summer teaching students English form overseas. It can be rewarding but nowhere as rewarding as passing on my enthusiasm for the backstreets of the place of my birth, and still my home, London Town. As I go about my research taking in every street, of every ward, of every borough in London (I will die doing this!), I’ll attempt to post a bit about the area I’ve visited. Some will hopefully be interesting, so may be dull, but it will be an honest account of my day trekking these streets of the ‘Smoke’. I’ve done loads already but haven’t been able to get it down on paper yet, so this going to be my first.
I would like to state that this ‘blog’ you’re reading is in no way supposed to be me informing you of historical facts etc. By the very nature of this, meaning that a day or two before writing, i ventured into the area pretty much for the first time or at least not the first time but as a researcher. It’s simply meant to be a diary of what I hope was an interesting day, in any given part of the city I visited, and if I find connections in the area, they will possibly became a new walk. If anyone knows what I don’t on a given part of town, any help is of course greatly received. Cheers
For those who don’t know her, let me introduce you to the delights of Stepney.
This walk was intended as research of the wards of St Dunstan’s and Stepney Green in Tower Hamlets, and also a look into some of the viable sites I’m looking into to do a walk of ‘Ism’s’ in the area. Bolshevism, Anarchism, Fascism, Zionism, and maybe a sprinkling of Philanthropism, with a slice of melted Stalinism thrown in. Check the walks info section for more or email if interested. By the way, I’ll be up and running on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter soon. I’ve put it off for far too long!
As a kid I remember my Dad driving us along the Mile End Rd in one of his many cool Citroens or Renaults he had, attempting to change gear with a Gauloises fag draped from his mouth, heading towards central London coming in from the East. I reckon he liked the French cars because the gear stick was next to the steering wheel, so it meant less work ! The reason I mentioned driving down the Mile End Rd was because that was what we did, we drove, didn’t stop anywhere. From Forest Gate to destination, bypassing everything. Pass Stratford, ta ta Mile End, nice to see you Stepney, maybe one day we’ll catch up Whitechapel. Growing up in the 70’s and 80’, at least from my perspective, these weren’t particular places of beauty. How I’ve gone full circle in my thought process, and dearly wish that some of the old places I’d ignored as a kid, still existed. Later in life, moving south of the river but still being an avid supporter of my childhood team, the world famous mighty Leyton Orient, known from Santiago to the Sinai, from Osaka to Oklahoma, from erm….Braintree to Basildon, I travelled from Brixton via tube, under the Mile End Rd, coming up for air at Stratford before burrowing again until Leyton. As with everyone else, we saw nothing of the communities, the history, the architecture of what was passing above us.
I dearly wish I could turn back the clock and get back into those missed places. I remember the derelict docks, a journey on the Woolwich ferry, stale old pubs with even staler punters, and the appalling trains of the 80’s on the Silvertown line.
Saturday 17th November – Stepney Green & St Dunstan’s ward
Getting off at Mile End tube and heading straight down the Eastern side of the Regents Canal, heading south, I was immediately surprised by how quiet it was. When I teach people from around the globe, they say they love London but it’s too noisy ! Of course the only part most of them see is around Trafalgar Square and Oxford st and the city is gauged by this standard. There was a strange mist (pollution) over London at 10am yesterday, creating a kind of eerie vibe by the waterside.
As my friends (oh joggers, how I love you. You make me feel like I walk everywhere in slow motion!) passed me by, I headed to one of the places I knew I would like to put into a new walk, the Ragged School Museum, on Copperfield St. Structurally from the canal side and from the front, very Dickensian. They appear to only be open a couple of days a week and that is during the week.
Opened by Thomas Barnardo, an Irishman appalled by the poverty seen around him in East London, and the lack of education and opportunities for the poor, in 1867 he opened a ragged ‘free school’ for the children of Mile End. The school was open for around 40 years by which time the Government had finally noticed that education should be available for everyone.
Check out the website : https://www.raggedschoolmuseum.org.uk/
Just after the solitary chimney (a sewage outlet to let out the whiff) a little bit further south and under the Fenchurch Street to Essex mainline, and I came to an amazing little building next to Salmon Lane Lock. This was the Lock House. As i passed, a middle aged lady was cleaning the forecourt of the property. Standing right outside her house, with camera in hand, I thought it appropriate to ask if she minds if I take a photo of her home.
She duly informed me that it was her son’s house, and he had bought it at a knock down price from an old fella who had let it fall into a terrible state of disrepair. She said it’s beautiful in the summer watching the barges saunter past and I was gobsmacked at how quiet it was down there but looking at my trusted OS map of the late 19th century, I see that it would have been hemmed in, in the 19th century by terraced housing. I stated that it must be worth a few quid now and packed myself off. It’s great to meet these people along the way, but I think to push too many questions and disrupt their day is wrong. I say my goodbyes and stroll on.
Up the steps of the Commercial Road Bridge just before getting to what is now called Limehouse Basin, but was originally the Regent’s Canal Dock, and onto the Commercial Road. A few seconds earlier, peace and serenity prevailed, but all that was lost in the blink of an eye as the reality that one is actually in inner London, and a very busy district at that, hit home !
Under the rail bridge where Limehouse station now sits (originally Stepney, Stepney Junction and Stepney East) you can easily notice a couple of large doors that at one time would have been the entrance / exit, now beautifully corroded with a particular Dickensian look about them.
A swift right and immediately I notice the fine rows of Victorian houses, all well kept. As much as I’m often dismayed by how little of pre-WW2 architecture exists (whether its the fault of the Luftwaffe or city planners), here I was amazed at how many original streets still stood proud. At the end of one small terrace just off the Commercial Rd and right before York Square, there is a tiny row of three or four houses that would not be out of place in a Cotswold village, apart from the fact your view consists of the Fenchurch railway viaduct only yards away!
So, into York Square and I was wowed by this conservation area. After taking in the peace of an early Saturday morning in this part of town, I realised that once again I’m a middle aged man who needs the loo every 10 mins and as I scoured the square and I noticed a beautiful old school pub on the corner, The Old Ship. I’d love to say it was to sample the atmosphere, but there was an ulterior motive for me visiting! But yet again, I was wowed. Not by the particular expensive decor, not by craft beer or bloody American artisan IPA beers, but just by the very ordinaryness of the place. It oozed ‘old London boozer’ to me. Apart from the Queen’s Head on the other side of the square, I could imagine this would have one of the hubs of the square and its surrounding streets, pre war and I’m sure it still is today. I got a pint and packet of nuts for under a fiver ! I’ll be back there soon. You can see many long closed pubs in this area that have been turned into housing, but there are still an abundance of them around here. I know this area was a fairly raucous area back in the day, and I can imagine a good pub crawl would have been had around here.
Standing on a road island in the middle of the Commercial Road is not everyone’s idea of a good day out but we get to notice buildings like these, Commercial Cars Taxi Co. A lone semi derelict Victorian building, until recently in a row of similar on either side. Not sure why this building has been given grace, but the picture i took could possibly the last time I see this building before it’s turned into faceless glass & steel ‘luxury flats’.
Off the main road and we come to the Half Moon young people’s theatre. A beautifully restored mid Victorian building built for the Board Of Works.
This is thing about making sure I walk every street in each borough I visit, I just never know what is around the corner. I’ve been doing this for around a year and a half mostly every Saturday, and I’ve covered maybe 5-10% of inner London. It’s just so exciting to know that I could be doing this until I die, probably before I finish. On a street with a rundown terrace ready for demolition, turn a corner and grand houses appear, opposite an ex pub, now a ‘luxury home’ under the arches of a mainline rail network. I absolutely love it !
One of the more well known parts of Stepney and it has a tube station named after it, is Stepney Green. The green is a thin stretch of greenery to the side of the main road and in between what was the old road and the new road. It’s lined on the ‘old side’ by some beautiful examples of Georgian housing and a few excellent Queen Anne style mansions.
Again, walking down the green in Autumn, with the leaves underfoot, cobbled roads and perfectly intact period homes, it just doesn’t feel like inner London. I’m under no illusions of the history of this area though. I’m not looking through the cliched ‘rose tinted’ contact lenses. I know thoroughly that this area has had incredible social problems over the years, and I’m sure that to this day, this is still the case for many. Opposite the beautiful Queen Anne style mansion sits a block of flats where the flat of Rudolf Rocker was once the hub of the Anarchist movement in London. This fella will be part of my future walk on the ‘Ism’s’ of East London.
The area that Stepney grew from in Medieval times, was around St Dunstan’s church. A lovely little church that stands in large grounds opposite another green space that again gives this area a real village feel for me.
Upon checking old maps I found that this now green area, was of course densely populated rows of terraced housing until the bombs fell in the war. It was after 1945 used to house people in prefabricated housing. There are some fantastic pictures of the area pre and post war on the amazing Britain from above website.
As stated before, the aspect I love most about this amazing city of ours is turn a corner and …boom, what’s that ? That’s strange, that’s interesting, that’s unusual….what is it, why is it here, who built that ? A fine example of this was when I decided that my time in Stepney was coming to an end. The sun was soon to be heading for a pint, and so I thought I better get back home, get the old maps out and start digging deeper about some of the fantastic places I’d seen today. I turned north and headed through a dull housing estate and happened to look towards the canal and noticed four or five large pipes sticking out of the ground. Upon closer inspection it turned out these were once part of the enormous Stepney Gas Works. Again checking Britain from above and Victorian Ordnance survey maps, one gets a better understanding of the size of these immense gas holders.
Again, if these were not here as a reminder, not many in the local community nor I would have had any idea that they once existed at all. It’s incredibly easy to forget that London was a heavily industrial city in Victorian days. By the way, there are excellent boards that give you information on the gas works.
And so finally, on my way to the tube station (I think that was the name of the pub!) I passed the little matter of Captain Cook’s now demolished for no reason house, a beautiful example of ghost advertising hoardings, a lovely old Synagogue, Arbour Square police station ( one many that gave bed & breakfast to the Krays), a rather fruity looking ex pub, the Artichoke (is an artichoke a vegetable or fruit?) just down the road from the infamous Sidney St siege, and the rather art Deco-ish looking theatre, the Troxy.
I’ve got so much to work on here. I’m gutted that after speeding up and down the Mile End Rd and Commercial Roads for years, that I never ventured into Stepney. I’m going to be back here in a week or so, as yet another part of my city tickles my fancy.
Thank you for ‘Stepneying’ into my life 🙂
Please check walks info as I start to get this thing off the ground hopefully by February. All walks are only a tenner to you Guv’.
I’ll be in touch……ta ta.
Take a stroll with Ade, a qualified London Borough Guide
‘Enthusing the enthusiastic’