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In Stepney, 1963

Contributing writer Gillian Tindall’s memoir of her first visits to Stepney in 1963 is accompanied by photographs of the East End taken at the same time by her husband Richard Lansdown, published here for the first time. Gillian’s account of post-war demolition and ‘relocation’ of residents is strangely familiar as history appears to be repeating itself in the redevelopment and ‘decanting’ of our own time.

Old Montague St

The number of people who actually remember the Blitz that struck the East End between 1940 and 1944 is fast diminishing, yet everyone has heard of it. Today, it is generally assumed that the acres and acres of undistinguished post-war flats that are now the dominant architecture of much of the East End are the result of post-Blitz rebuilding. In fact, the truth is rather different

It was twenty years after the worst of the Blitz that I first got to know Whitechapel and Stepney, Tower Hamlets’ ancient heartlands. It was 1963, the summer after the coldest winter for a century and so long ago that I can almost see – separate from my present self – the girl that I was then. She wears a checked cotton dress she made herself on a sewing machine and her plait of hair is pinned up. She is walking rapidly round the area with a pack of index cards from the Stepney Old People’s Welfare Association in a small basket. In her flat sandals, she is exploring the East End for the first time.

In those days, a pungent scent of hops from Charringtons’ Anchor Brewery enveloped a  stretch of the Mile End Rd, and sometimes a  dray cart pulled by huge shire horses rolled sonorously past and turned in at the great gates. The jingling harness and the rhythmic clopping of heavy, whiskered hooves, were an assertion of a long tradition that in only a few years would become extinct, but the girl who was me did not know that. Nor could she guess that the small shops in Whitechapel with Jewish names over the doors, selling kosher meat or Fancy Trimmings or jellied eels, were in their final years too. You do not know much when you are young.

I was employed by the Welfare Association, on a casual basis, to find out how many of several thousand old ladies on their books, and a smaller number of old gentlemen, were still at their recorded addresses, and how well – or not –  they were managing. Their children, I learnt from conversations with them, had usually moved to London’s northern suburbs, or to Dagenham or Basildon – or had been ‘relocated’ more recently under The Greater London Plan. The old people’s cards mostly showed birth-dates in the 1880s, some even in the 1870s.  Some had been widowed ever since the War of 1914-18, and one or two were even old enough to have lost sons in that war. Often, when I was invited into their houses, the mantlepieces in their front rooms were dressed with the bobbled chenille runners of the Victorian age, with symmetric ornaments at each end – a décor almost extinct today but commemorated in the two china dogs that are the symbol of Spitalfields Life Books.

Some of them would try to detain me with sagas of ancient achievements or griefs, to which I listened with a guilty awareness that I had many more names to visit in the next two hours. Today, how much I would like to have these garrulous old people back, even for one afternoon! They spoke of happy times past, of ‘nice shops’ and good markets and celebrations for forgotten victories and jubilees, of synagogues and Baptist Sunday schools, a world of neighbourliness which they perceived as dispersed and lost. To prolong the chat they would offer me very strong tea, to which very sweet, tinned milk was automatically added. Then I would be taken to see the place in the cracked wall of the kitchen or the upstairs bedroom where “you can see the daylight through it, darlin’, can’t you?”, and the privy in the backyard with the perennially leaking roof - “It isn’t very nice, you see, ‘specially when it rains. My husband, he could have fixed that, but now I’m on me owney-oh…”

I would assure them that the Old People’s Welfare would try to do something about these things. It took me a while to discover the extent to which the forces of bureaucracy were preventing such simple, ad hoc improvements from being carried out. Not long before, Stepney Council had  specifically refused a landlord permission to make good minor damage to three houses in White Horse Rd, near Stepney Green. ‘The carrying out of  substantial works of repair to this old and obsolete type of property would seriously prejudice the Council planning proposals for the redevelopment for residential purposes of this part of Stepney and Poplar Reconstruction Area.’

These post-war plans were not dreamed up by individual Councils. The Greater London Plan was imposed by the London County Council (the fore-runner of the Greater London Council), but the local authorities had adopted its assumptions with blinkered enthusiasm. As early as 1946, warning local voices had been raised, especially about the way the envisaged Brave New Stepney of high-rise blocks set in ‘green spaces’ did not seem to allow any place for the small businesses that had long been the life-blood of the East End. The truth was that Labour thinking in those years had an aversion to small businesses. And so carried away were the Council by the prospect of reducing the borough’s population substantially by moving half of them out of London (a key element of the Plan) that the views of the inhabitants themselves counted for little. An early, enthusiastic description of the Plan in a popular illustrated magazine shocks the reader of today by its Stalinist disregard for the population’s own preferences:

‘A New East End for London… will create a new and better London, of town planning on scientific lines… [It] will make a clean sweep of two-thirds of Stepney and one-third of the neighbouring borough of Poplar… More than 1,960 acres will be transformed… 3 ½ miles long and 1 1/2  miles wide.’

I noticed that among all the old people I visited, whether in snug little houses that only need the roof mended and a bathroom added to the back or in multi-occupied, once-elegant terraces or in serviceable Victorian tenements, the refrain was “Oh, it’s all coming down round here, dear.” I could tell that though they were acquiescent about the change, believing it to be in some way inevitable, they felt hurt at a profound, inarticulate level by what was being done. It became clear to me that something terrible was happening, a social assault that went far beyond any rational response to the Blitz.

It was true that to the east of  St Dunstan’s church, in the ancient heart of Stepney, the war had left a scene of devastation. The bombs arrived here in battalions, aiming at the gasholders and the docks, although the church itself was hardly touched. But why, over twenty years later, was the place still a wilderness reminiscent of Ypres just after World War I? On what must once have been a street corner, the remains of a shoe-shop stood, apparently untouched since it was set alight by an  incendiary bomb in 1940. Burnt shoes still littered the dank interior of the shop, among other rain-sodden rubbish.

On the west side of the church, running towards Jubilee St, there was still whole grid of streets standing, solid, liveable homes, many of which seemed hardly touched by bomb-blast – indeed the London County Council’s own contemporary maps of bomb-damage show that to have been the case. But not long after I first walked those streets they had almost all been boarded up. Other streets were already being supplanted by long fences of corrugated iron, with just the occasional public house left isolated on a corner without anyone to go to it. Here, I was told, was where a ‘green space’ was arbitrarily planned. Yet it could have been sited to the east of the church without destroying a whole neighbourhood, reducing to worthlessness in the eyes of the dispossessed inhabitants what had been the fabric of their existence.  All coming down – people’s memories, the meaning of their lives.

The Welfare Association’s annual report for that year had lots to report on gifts, fuel grants, outings, chiropody and meals-on-wheels but – perhaps diplomatically – on the subject of ‘relocation’ it had little to say.

Walking back up Stepney Green, an ancient curving route with trees and grass down the centre of it, a few runs of substantial old houses were still standing. I dreaded that, next time I came past, the iron screens would have taken over here too. In fact, this did not happen. Stepney Green itself was saved in the nick of time and rehabilitated.  Unknown to me in that summer of 1963, a rebellious Conservation movement was beginning to grind into action. Post-war doctrines about the State knowing what was best for its citizens were at last being questioned, on the political Left as well as the Right. The ‘slum-clearing’ obsession, fixated on the need to destroy the architecture of the past in order to eradicate the poverty of that past, as if the streets themselves were somehow the source of urban ills, was at last perceived to be false. On the contrary, when whole districts were laid waste, crime and vandalism increased.  By the seventies articles in illustrated magazines were not about a future of radiant towers but had titles such as ‘An Indictment of Bad Planning’.  As the distinguished commentator Ian Nairn put it, the East End had not been destroyed so much by the War but had been ‘broken on the planners’ wheel’.

Today, it lives again in another form. The synagogues and Baptist chapels have been replaced by mosques, the Kosher butchers by Halal butchers. Whitechapel market is full of sarees and bright scarves. The Welfare Association is no longer in the same headquarters under the same name, but survives as Tower Hamlets Friends & Neighbours. We can at least be grateful for what has been saved – or re-born.

Old Montague St

Fruit Stall in Bow

Jubilee St

Jubilee St

Jubilee St

Jubilee St

Off Mile End Rd


Artillery Lane

Cheshire St

Bombsite at Club Row

Club Row Animal Market

Photographs copyright © Richard Lansdown

Gillian Tindall’s The Tunnel Through Time, A New Route For An Old Journey is out now as a Vintage paperback

You may also like to read these other stories by Gillian Tindall

Stepney’s Lost Mansions

Where The White Chapel Once Stood

The Old South Bank

Leonard Fenton, Actor

In Old Deptford

Lifesaving in Limehouse

From Bedlam To Liverpool St

Smithfield’s Bloody Past

The Tunnel Through Time

This post first appeared on Spitalfields Life | In The Midst Of Life I Woke To, please read the originial post: here

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In Stepney, 1963


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