June 1911 saw the Coronation of George V and Queen Mary and Alexander Baron imagined the impact of the event in his novel about the East End (King Dido, published 1969):
“The great breweries of the Whitechapel Rd. put up their chains of electric lights…schoolchildren had a week’s holiday…families tramped up West to see the sights or crowded on to penny buses…even the old folk in the workhouse got an egg for breakfast”.
From June to September temperatures reached 100 degrees in the shade and a long hot summer of industrial and civil unrest accompanied it. Dockers and railway workers in London came out on strike in solidarity and sympathy with those in Liverpool and South Wales. Schoolchildren went on strike and 40,000 women demonstrated for women’s suffrage on the streets of London. Thousands of troops waited in readiness in London to deal with discontent.
The census taken on 2nd April showed that 1% of the population owned 70% of the nation’s wealth. The top 5 occupations were domestic service followed in order by agriculture, coal mining, building and cotton manufacture. 5% of children aged 10 – 14 years worked to help their families survive. A much fuller set of census questions makes a much more detailed look at contemporary lives possible for the first time – including the lives of people in the East End.
Contemporary resources also add to the picture – and in some cases, photographic evidence really gives us just that – an image. Like all sources, however, these should be treated with some caution. Middle class commentators – and these were the educated and the informers – were fascinated by life in the East End. It was so very alien and different from their own – but these people obviously had agendas and interests of their own to investigate and promote. Some interesting examples are:
George Sims was a playwright, poet and journalist. He made money from three volumes of investigative journalism. His illustrated articles on all aspects of “ London Life” were published in 1902/3.
Maude Pember Reeves was a Fabian Socialist and feminist, a New Zealander married to a high ranking civil servant, who was intent on exploding the myths about poverty among the working classes. Her book “Round About a Pound a Week” (1903) used information from working class women to demonstrate the daily struggle to survive on very little.
Jack London was an American journalist who went undercover to discover the lives of the homeless and destitute. Stepping off the train at Stepney he mixed with slum dwellers and wandered the streets to doss houses and workhouses. He published his account together with some 86 photographs as “People of the Abyss” in 1903.
Horace Warner was the son of a wealthy wallpaper manufacturer, and a Sunday School teacher in Spitalfields with the Bedford Institute. His dignified photographs provide us with first hand images of East End children: their homes, the streets in which they lived, their work and such amusements as they had.
From these sources, amongst others, it is possible to form a picture of the East End at the beginning of the 20th Century – to look at housing and homelessness, the day to day business of surviving, at the work of women and children and at employment (regular, casual and sweated) or the lack of it. It should be noted that this was the year that the Liberal Government under Asquith fought hard for unemployment benefit against Balfour and the Conservatives and finally got it in November of that year.
One of the key events of 1911 – now often forgotten – took place on 3rd January at the very beginning of the year. The Siege of Sidney Street reveals interesting aspects of the condition of the East End – issues surrounding immigration, tensions and lawlessness as well as the role of London – especially East London – as a refuge and a base for radical activity. The besieged premises at 100 Sidney Street accommodated a collection of recent immigrants in premises rented out as a lodging house, but owned by a very respectable landlord resident in Hove. A young Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, arrived to take charge of the police siege in person and ordered in the troops. Sight seers crowded roof tops nearby and Pathe news produced one of its earliest ever news reels to record the event.
No wonder then – as the editorial of the East London Observer lamented a week later – there was no likelihood that the streets of the Stepney and the East End would play host to any part of the forthcoming Coronation Processions.