The East End 1911 by Jill Napier

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”.

George Sims. Photograph by Ellis and Waller. Public Domain.

George Sims. Photograph by Ellis and Waller. Public Domain.

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.


Lecture: Indian Seafarers – Connecting Histories by Georgie Wemyss

The Port of London Study Group  was delighted to welcome visiting speaker Georgie Wemyss of the Centre for Research on Migration, Refugees and Belonging of the University of East London.
Georgia’s talk was entitled ‘Indian Seafarers: Connecting Histories’, her attempt to link the movement of Indian sub-continent seafarers over the last 400 years to London and elsewhere in the world.

While some great discovery voyages are widely commemorated, such as the 400th anniversary of the voyage to Jamestown in 2006, others are passed over when they involve aspects of trade and colonialism that we no longer wish to celebrate or even talk about. Hence the silence that accompanied another anniversary the same year, the founding of the East India Company. Not discussing its role may result in ‘a bundle of silences’ and the risk that the original function of the London Docks will be forgotten, including the role played by seamen employed by the company from modern-day Bangladesh, mainly from the district of Sylhet, known as lascars.

Lascars at the Royal Albert Dock in London. PLA Magazine 1936. CC BY-SA 4.0

Lascars at the Royal Albert Dock in London. PLA Magazine 1936. CC BY-SA 4.0

Numbers of lascar and other non-British sailors were limited to 25% of a ship’s crew from the 1660’s and no lascars were allowed to settle in England; the EIC had to repatriate them to India. However, there are records to indicate that some did remain in London and after 1806, when the East India Docks opened, around 1,000 were arriving annually in London. By 1855 and the advent of steamships these numbers reached 4,000 annually. They lodged in the areas of Poplar and Limehouse, close to the East India Docks in lodging houses with Malay and Chinese seamen. Their position in London was not legal but they were supported by mission charities, the EIC and P&O and were probably largely ignored.

Lascars were employed on naval ships during World War 1 and some were killed in action and are listed with their fellow British sailors on the memorial stone in Trinity Square Gardens. 50,000 Bengali seamen were on British ships in WW2 while 3 million Bengalis died of starvation during the war as food was diverted from there to support food supplies to Britain.
Although lascars worked with white British seamen, their working conditions, food, accommodation and pay were deeply unequal and a strike to improve their situation in 1939 resulted in imprisonment for the ringleaders to try and put down the industrial action. Conditions and pay did improve by 1946 but inequalities remained. A recent find of crew photos from different shipping lines provides a record of lascar seamen in the first half of the century.

After the War many Bangladeshi seamen and other new migrants from Bangladesh moved to the mill towns of the North of England to work in the cotton mills. As these closed, some returned to London to set up restaurants and other businesses.  Bangladeshi women were often alone in Bangladesh while their menfolk were away at sea or left to cope alone if they had been killed in action, and their role is less known.  However, the movement and settlement of lascars in other port cities, like New York, are the subject of several published studies.

If you are interested in finding out more about Georgie Wemyss’s work you can download many of her papers from her Academia page at (registration with the site is required, but is free of charge).

Exhibition: Lansbury Micro Museum – New Horizons 1950s – 1980s

A Victoria and Albert Museum special exhibition is taking place at the Lansbury Micro Museum, looking at the development of a neighbourhood built on a 30 acre site following both pre-war neglect and bomb damage.  It was custom designed to coincide with the 1951 Festival of Britain. an included 500 homes, 2 schools, 2 churches and a new market were proposed for the 30-acre site which had suffered from extensive bomb damage and years of pre-war neglect. Here’s an excerpt from the New Horizons web page:

We are pleased to announce that the next instalment of the exhibition series Neighbourhood Number Nine launches at the end of this month at the Lansbury Micro Museum. The exhibition New Horizons 1950s – 1980s considers the changing nature of the Lansbury neighbourhood over four tumultuous decades in the East End, addressing the impacts of industrial modernisation, declining docklands and the strategic relocation of communities to New Towns outside of London. The opening of the exhibition will be celebrated with a walking tour, panel discussion and drinks reception on Saturday 25 February 2017.

Container Cargoes, Royal Victoria Docks 1964.  Source: Museum of London via Lansbury Micro Museum.

Container Cargoes, Royal Victoria Docks 1964. Source: Museum of London via Lansbury Micro Museum.

The first exhibition at our Micro Museum in Poplar focused on the founding ideals of the Lansbury Estate and the role it played as a ‘model’ neighbourhood during the Festival of Britain in 1951. Its aims were to reveal the original aspirations for the area in the aftermath of the Second World War and explore the ongoing significance of the Estate as a microcosm of planning ideas for London.

The exhibition New Horizons 1950s – 1980s takes this exploration further, investigating how dramatic changes in local industry, population and transport links shaped the neighbourhood in the decades after the Festival closed. The display reveals how the fortunes of the local community were influenced by a complex web of political and planning ideologies – reaching far beyond the boundaries of the estate itself.

See much more about the exhibition, together with directions, opening hours and contact details, on the New Horizons web page at:

The Lansbury Micro Museum website, with details about the project and its aims, is at:


Robert Milligan: Founder Of The West India Docks And Slave Owner by Ian McBrayne

Robert Milligan by Sir Richard Westmacott

Robert Milligan by Sir Richard Westmacott. Source: Public Monuments and Sculpture Association

Outside the Museum of London Docklands, where our group meets, is a statue of Robert Milligan, a merchant who was the driving force behind the creation of the West India Docks.  The siting of the statue gives rise to some embarrassment because of Milligan’s ownership of slaves on his plantations in Jamaica.  Ian has been delving deeper into Milligan’s life, and on Monday he shared his findings with us.

Milligan was born in 1746, the son of a Dumfries innkeeper.  It is possible he was brought up by relatives in Jamaica, more likely that he went there as a young man around 1768.  He owned two sugar plantations, worked by a total of over 500 slaves, but whether he inherited them or bought them is unknown.

Milligan was a founder member of the Kingston Chamber of Commerce, which later became the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce and still operates today.  This is an early example of Milligan’s public service; he was a prolific contributor, but always to causes which furthered his interests and those of his kind.  While in Jamaica, he was a partner in the firm of Dick and Milligan, probably slave factors who bought slaves from arriving ships and sold them on to plantation owners on the island.

He is recorded as the father of two children by a mixed-race woman called Mary Slaughter.  She was probably one of his slaves, but the relationship does not seem to have been close enough for him to emancipate her and her children.  In 1779 he left Jamaica to live in London, and two years later married a Scottish woman called Jean Dunbar.  At this time he was living in the City, where he became partner in two merchant firms, Milligan and Allen and Milligan and Mitchell.  He was almost certainly trading in sugar and rum, possibly partly from his own plantations, which remained in his possession until his death.

Golden Vale, Jamaica by James Hakewill. Source: Wikisource

Golden Vale, Jamaica by James Hakewill. Source: A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica, on Wikisource

By the late 1780s, Milligan was very active in the London-based Society of West India Planters and Merchants.  The Society survives today as a charitable institution, the West India Committee, but then it was a key focus for opposition to plans to abolish the slave trade.  He appears to have had a significant reputation as a man with knowledge of Jamaica: in 1795 he was called in to advise the Government on the handling of a rebellion by escaped slaves on the island, and in 1807 he gave evidence to a Parliamentary Committee on trade with the West Indies.

As the 18th century ended, London’s West India merchants were increasingly concerned about the time taken to load and unload ships on the river and the massive pilferage taking place.  In consultation with East End magistrate Patrick Colquhoun, Milligan and the Society were instrumental in establishing the Thames River Police, the country’s first recognised police force and now Thames Division of the Metropolitan Police.  Milligan and the Society also promoted the Parliamentary Bill which enabled the creation of the West India Docks.  The foundation stone was laid in 1800 and the docks were opened in August 1802.

Rosslyn House by William Henry Prior. Source: The Underground Map (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Rosslyn House by William Henry Prior. Source: The Underground Map (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In 1805, Milligan bought Rosslyn House, a substantial villa in Hampstead, and three years later added the equally grand Cotswold House in North Cerney, Gloucestershire.  He was now at the peak of his career: famous, admired, wealthy and comfortable.  But in 1809 he died, and was buried in Hampstead churchyard beneath a tombstone bearing a very luke-warm epitaph from his family.  He and Jean had eight children.  One of the five boys fought at Waterloo; two others died young on a trip to Jamaica.  The eldest daughter married Thomas Hughan MP, another anti-abolitionist.  When slavery was abolished in Jamaica in the 1830s, the man who then owned Milligan’s plantations received over £10,000 in compensation.

The statue on West India Quay was put up in 1813 by Milligan’s fellow directors in the West India Dock Company, with a plaque inscribed with fulsome praise for his role in the docks.  It was made by the noted sculptor Richard Westmacott.  It originally stood inside the Hibbert Gate, the main access to the import dock, but as trade in the docks increased it became an obstruction, and in 1875 it was moved to stand on the central pier of the main dock gates.  In 1943, that pier was pulled down, again to help the flow of traffic, and the statue went into store.  In 1997, it was re-erected in its present position.

We know little of Milligan’s character.  His deeds do not endear themselves to modern sensibilities.  But he was a man of his times and earned his place in history.  Our group felt that the historic interest justified the continuing display of his statue in such a prominent position.


Why London’s Docks Were Built by Tony Keen

In yesterday’s presentation Tony talked us through the story of why the London dock networks were built.  It is a story of vibrant commercial success.  In the decades prior to the 17th Century London extended only a little beyond the Tower of London, and ships sailing upriver along the tidal Thames travelled into the Pool of London to unload their cargoes.  London’s role in world trade changed, however, with the growing success of the Honourable East India Company, and later the development of the West Indian and American colonies.

Legal Quays in 1757, by Louis Peter Boitard

The Legal Quays in 1757, by Louis Peter Boitard showing a chaotic scene with a wall of masts at the right and the Tower of London in the background. Sourced from Wikipedia

As London became in important port during the 18th century, the river began to become very overcrowded.  Matters were aggravated by the Legal Quays, 20 checkpoints established in the 16th Century where, by law, all foreign cargoes were offloaded and checked.  Ships waiting their turn could wait for months to unload their wares, further blocking the river as they were moored wherever space could be found.  River piracy became a problem, and theft on the wharves themselves was rife.  Commercially, any cargo of rum from the West Indies that had not been cleared within 30 days could be seized by Customs officers, meaning that all profits from such a cargo could be lost.  The problems were compounded by the use of the river as a rubbish tip, a recipient of all the city’s waste, which caused the riverbed to rise, impeding the navigation of deep-hulled vessels.  The entire situation was commercially unviable.  London’s problems as a port peaked in the early 19th century.

In 1796 the government responded to the situation by setting up committees to investigate the situation and make recommendations.  The result was the the 1799 West India Dock Act.  The original plan was to build the new dock at Wapping, but this was associated with a number of difficulties, including the demolition of over 1000 homes.  Instead, it was decided to establish it instead on a horse-shoe shaped bend in the river:  the Isle of Dogs.   Closer to the river’s mouth, and with a deeper channel, it was also free of housing, so was a perfect choice.  A custom-made port environment was created, with extensive warehousing, a private police force.  Ironically, the Pool of London remained congested because the West India Dock Company had been given a 20 year monopoly to the West India Docks, and other cargoes still had to go through the usual channels.  As a result, other docks followed swiftly.

William Ranwell's painting of St Katherine's Dock under construction in 1828. Sourced from the PortCities website.

William Ranwell’s painting of St Katherine’s Dock under construction in 1828. Sourced from the PortCities website.

In 1801 the London Dock Company built docks in Wapping, also provided with a trade monopoly.  These followed by another dock network established by the East India Company in 1806, and the St Katharine’s Dock Company was opened in 1828, located between the Tower of London and the London Docks.  The designers of St Katherine’s had failed to take into account advances in shipbuilding, and the dock was unable to handle the new larger steam ships that were to become the future of ship building for the next new decades.  The Royal Victoria Dock opened in 1855, for the first time built with the new steamship advances in mind, followed by the Royal Albert Dock in 1880, and Tilbury Dock in 1886.  The creation of the docks required engineering experts and large numbers of both skilled and unskilled workers, and provided ongoing employment for both London and immigrant labour, the latter mainly from rural areas and Ireland.

In 1909 all of London’s docks all of the docks were nationalized, including the Surrey Commercial Docks on the south of the river in Rotherhithe, and came under the the control of the newly established Port of London Authority (PLA).


Tony’s presentation was inspired by the Museum of London Pocket History “Why Were London’s Docks Built?” which can be downloaded  as a PDF from the Museum of London website.

New exhibition at the Museum of London – Tunnel: The Archaeology of Crossrail

The Museum of London Docklands is hosting Tunnel: The Archaeology of Crossrail from February 10th to September 3rd.  Entry is free of charge.

Archaeology beginning at the Bedlam burial ground. Crossrail website.

Archaeology beginning at the Bedlam burial ground. Crossrail website.

The most complete range of archaeological objects unearthed by Crossrail, Europe’s largest infrastructure project, will go on display alongside the story of this great feat of engineering in a major new exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands next year. It will open 10 February 2017.

The construction of London’s newest railway, which will be known as the Elizabeth line when services begin in 2018, has given archaeologists a unique chance to explore some of the city’s most historically important sites. Since work began in 2009, the project has undertaken one of the most extensive archaeological programmes ever in the UK, with over 10,000 artefacts shining a light on almost every important period of the Capital’s history.

The wide variety of items on display will explore 8,000 years of human history, revealing the stories of Londoners ranging from Mesolithic tool makers and inhabitants of Roman Londinium to those affected by the Great Plague of 1665.

To find out more see the Museum of London website.


The River Thames: Geology and Early Settlement by Anne Tickell

The Thames Basin. Geological Map of Great Britain 1904 by Horace B Woodward. Public Domain.

The Thames Basin. Geological Map of Great Britain 1904 by Horace B Woodward. Public Domain.

Yesterday Anne talked to us about the geology and early settlement along the river Thames, providing insights into the early development of the Thames Basin and the first communities in London.

The Thames lies within a chalk trough with North Downs to the south and the Chiltern Hills to the north.

During the Cretaceous period Britain was still connected to Europe, Greenland and North America  by 60 metres of impermeable Gault Clays sat on Paleozoic mud and sandstones.  Above these clays were some greensand and a bed of white chalk about 200 metres thick.  London was still under warm tropical seas 50-60 million years ago and when the waters receded they left rich deposits of London Clay.  This clay supports most of the deep foundations and tunnels under London.

The origin of the Thames river system was much further north, almost opposite the Rhine.  The impact of the southerly movement of the last Ace Age 110,000 years to 11,000 years ago had the effect of pushing the course of the river to its present position in the south of England.

The river wore down through layers of chalk and some of the London Clay, leaving gravel terraces on its margins.  The chalk and clay formed an artesian basin with water trapped under the clay.  Keeping the water table in the right place is a balancing act.  It was high until, in the 1960s, we took too much out of the basin.  The waters in the basin have been allowed to rise again, but not to its natural limits or London’s tunnels and tubes would all be underwater.

Roman wall, Tower Hill

Roman wall, Tower Hill

The Romans chose their crossing point near modern London bridge as it was relatively shallow and fordable.  There were also fairly solid shale deposits on both shores at this point and a small amount of high land on the south (present day Southwark) so a  pontoon bridge could be stretched across the water supported both sides of the river.   Most of the south of the river was marshy and under water so it took much longer to develop and originally it was full of gardens and pleasure activities, then small piecemeal factories and industries. and not till the building of the City Hall was any Government involvement.  This was followed by the construction of the Festival Hall which lead the way to the South Bank Complex.

The river gouges out the outer bends where it is easier for boats to land, so Richmond, Teddington, Twickenham, The City and Westminster, for instance, are all on the outer bends while the inner areas of the bend tend to benefit from fertility and therefore saw the establishment of large public gardens such as the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, Richmond Park and Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea.  The Docks manipulated the Thames by running canals and docks through the loops  – West India Docks, London Docks, Surrey Docks and, largest of all the London dock networks, the Royal Docks.

The Thames mouth has always been managed to prevent flooding but the shore line still varies and development has not extended there in the same way as the rest of the Thames except for the large power stations and Tilbury docks.  It is still awaiting further development.