The Capital of Crime,Controversy and Corruption

There is more history and mystery in the East End of London than in almost any other place in England. According to author Ed Glinert in his book, East End Chronicles, “The East End is a bizarre world with its own codes, rules and symbols.” And yet, this quirky, often seamy and bizarre area that sits alongside the Thames River is also neighbor to London as capital, tourist destination, home of Royalty and seat of the powers that rule.

The  information concerning the geographic boundaries of the East End of London is, apparently, frequently incorrect. Glinert states that: “ This is the East End: Bethnel Green, Blackwall, Bow, Bromley-by-Bow, Cubbitt Town, Globe Town, Limehouse, Mile End, Millwall, Old Ford, Ratcliff, Shadwell, Spitalfields, Stepney, Wapping and Whitechapel.”

Now that we know where we are talking about, let’s dive into what we are talking about with  a very brief history lesson and discover why this infamous region became such a hotbed of intrigue, crime and murder.

A Brief Background.

Tower Hill is a stretch of flat land on the western reaches of the Thames River and then gives way to the City of London. The ancient tribes of London thought that the hill was holy as did the Romans who later decreed that nothing could be built there. A ring of monasteries was constructed in this area including Holy Trinity Aldgate where the East End’s first murder took place and later in 1888, the infamous Jack the Ripper made his mark. More on good old Jack later!

map of East EndCredit: mapcarta

In 1666 London was burnt in a massive fire and architect Christopher Wren, along with the Royal Society, looked east wishing secretly to build a New Jerusalem, capital of a Protestant world free of Popery. While not all their plans went as wished, he did succeed in creating a London that was viewed as the world’s greatest city. Also, interestingly enough the new London that he created was not just a mish mash of this and that but carefully calculated using mathematics based on empirical science from the Old Testament and the sacred geometry of the Kabbalah.

The immigrants who flooded into London were not always given a warm welcome and they tended to settle in their own areas and lived by their own codes of conduct while retaining their own language and religious beliefs.  French Huguenots arrived in droves in the 17th century and between 1870 and 1914 they were joined by thousands of Jewish settlers from Poland, Romania and Russia who fled to England to escape Tsarist pogroms. The ship crews were a swarthy bunch looking for a good time fuelled on booze after months at sea and this region of London took on a flavour of debauchery all its own. Crime was rampant and groups with names like Monkey Suckers, Heavy Horsemen and Mudlarks ensured that whole communities were raised on crime and saw it as a normal way of life.

The industrial revolution saw a rise in manufacturing and created jobs for thousands who moved to the city from the country. However, the East End got stuck with the dirty, smelly industries like tanning and tallow making and money from the clean industries of the West End didn’t trickle down to the poorest of the poor in the East End. Poor paying jobs and slum dwelling were just two of the main reasons that the East End wallowed for centuries.

A history of the East End with all its lows and almost non existent highs (until the 2012 Olympic Games cleanup)  encompasses 400 years or more. In this blog I will concentrate on the crime, the people, the way of life in this region and its slow climb towards a better future.

fogCredit: wikimediaMovies and tv shows create the evil and sinister personality of the East End with murky gas lights, foggy, narrow back streets and filthy hovels housing multiple poverty stricken families ridden with disease. Throw in the clip clop of  horses' hooves, add in the eerie clanging of ships rigging, bodies of human and animals corpses in the dirty Thames River along with the cloying smell of sewage and the atmosphere is complete. Oh, and don't forget the ever present stench of fear!

Welcome to the East End of London.

A Different View

My East End A History Of Cockney London
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Gilda O'Neill grew up in the East End of London and her account of life there shows us a brighter, different side where friends, family and community counted.

Petticoat Lane 1903

Jack Be Nimble, Jack Kill Quick

Bucks RowCredit: Wikipedia CommonsIf asked about the most famous and infamous murderer in history, Jack the Ripper's name comes to the forefront. In 1888 he is credited with killing five females and while there may have been other murders that he did commit, these five are a certainty. He was daring and adept with a knife and used it to slash throats, disembowel and often took body parts as in the case when he removed a kidney.  The case has never been solved though Ripperologists have spent years looking into possible perpetrators including doctors and madmen in a list that totals over 176 possibles. However, over time files have been lost, thrown out or stolen as souvenirs. In days gone by when police file rooms got too full, boxes of material were just dumped and the WWII blitz apparently destroyed many police files too. Over the decades theories that included, court physicians, Freemasons,  and occult organizations have been put forward. In 1962 the public were excited by an idea that the Ripper was Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale (wayward son of King Edward VII) who was helped by his coachman, a theory put forward by French author Phillippe Jullien in his book Edouard VII.

To this day, the identity of Jack The Ripper remains a mystery.

ten bellsCredit: wikimedia


Spring-heeled Jack: However, there was another Jack on the loose in the East End and in other parts of England and, as bizarre as it sounds, he has been seen for two centuries. In 1837, about 50 years before Jack the Ripper did his roaming and ripping, another creature was on the loose terrorizing London. The man was described as "a tall, thin man with red glowing eyes, large pointy ears and a nose spit white and blue flames, and jump some twenty feet into the air to vault the railings of a cemetery." He was given the name Spring-heeled Jack and over time he attacked men and women, tore off clothing, ripped stomachs, terrified coachmen and spat white and blue gas into faces. He had claws on the ends of his fingers and wore a tight fitting garment, a helmet and a black cloak.

JackCredit: Wikipedia

By the 1870's Spring-heeled Jack had made appearances throughout the country including the most notable at the Aldershot barracks in 1877 when he was fired upon by a soldier but got away. In 1986 a travelling salesman said that a man who made unhuman leaps passed him on the road and slapped him on the cheek. In 2012 a family were travelling home by taxi from Stoneligh around 10 pm when they saw a dark figure with no features " run across the road in front of them, before climbing over a 15 ft (4.6 m) roadside bank in seconds."

So who was he? Some say he comes from the paranormal, others say that he was created by aristocrats bent on a little fun, while others say the legend grew to become the bogeyman, created to frighten children into behaving while others thing that he was an occult creation. Obviously his longevity means that there must have been copycat Spring-heeled Jack incidents. He became the subject of books, plays and the stuff of penny-dreadfulls, from 188o-1904.

The KraysCredit: WikipediaThe Krays:  Nothing says crime like The Krays. These two twin brothers go down in the annals of crime history as two of the most notorious and vicious and, with good reason. Our look at these depraved brothers, Ronnie and Reg starts in the 1950's when the moral compass of the East End took a nosedive. The do-gooders who had tried to lift up the people and the state of the East End had passed on and there was nobody to take their place, or was there? A hero was needed, somebody who understood the history, the landscape, the whole East End ideology. The end result was not just one but two 'heroic' figures. Enter the Krays who lorded over the East End like royalty. They created their own rules, killed at will and at their upscale nightclubs rubbed shoulders with singers, stars, royals and rockers.

 They grew up in a family surrounded by 'borderline' parents, aunts, cousins, and uncles; had little schooling and by the time they were teenagers they were feared boxers, a sport enjoyed by the lower classes. They continued to fight their way into a fearsome reputation and gangs like theirs didn't back off or step down. At 19 they were called up to enlist in the army, the real outside world was calling but they left after hearing how they had to clean their boots and lay out their kit. "We don't care for it here. We're off to see out Mum."

The Krays became top dogs of the London underworld through aggression, killing and violence and by the 1960's they boys had acquired about 30 venues where they demanded protection money, called "the milk run." Their crimes extended to high jacking trucks, parking scams at Heathrow airport, trading National Service exemption certificates and protection rackets. By the mid 1960's Ronnie was planning a gangland federation in London uniting all criminal groups with himself as leader and they even had meetings with the American Mafia in 1964. Their killing sprees are the stuff of legends; they didn't hold back and more than a few bodies ended up in the sea or in cement coffins never to be found.

In 1968 they were brought in by Scotland Yard and a year later they were sentenced to serve thirty years. Ronnie Kray died in 1995 and Reg was released in 2000 because he was dying but even from prison the had a hand in the underworld organizing beatings and intimidation. Ronnie's funeral was attended by four kingpins of the London underworld who carried his coffin and six plumed horses pulled the hearse. The days of the Krays were over.

Scare Yourself Silly!

JACK THE RIPPER: The Theories and the Facts of the Whitechapel Murders
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The Terrible Two!

Survival in the Depths of Hell

Sharks, Scammers and Scoundrels

Even within the degredation that best describes East End London, there was a hierarchy amongst the workers no matter what job they did. The machinists and the skilled Huguenots were at the top of the feeding chain and most others fell below.  There were prostitutes at every corner and in 1888 a survey found that in Whitechapel there were 233 common lodging houses accommodating an astounding 8,530 people and sixty-two brothels. 1200 prostitutes plied their trade while many more may have had to resort to the trade on a part-time basis when they were desperate.

Others were more creative and there was no end of sharks and scammers just waiting to rope in a sucker.

Rag and Bone ManCredit: wikipediaThere were four jobs that hit rock bottom:

  • the pure picker spent his days picking up dog excrement in the streets.
  • the rag and bone man flung a bag over his shoulder and poked through trash with a stick to try and find a piece of metal to sell or a piece of bone to sell to a fertilizer manufacturer.
  • the midden man surely had one of the worst jobs and he ran from house to house collecting buckets of human excrement.
  • the tosher had one of the dirtiest tasks of all; he and his crew of three or four went to the sewer openings and, with seven foot sticks with an iron hoe on the end, had to pick through the muck in hopes of finding a cast off or lost piece or jewellery or a coin.  Despite their most undistinguished job they maintained a sense of dignity by wearing long velveteen coats with large pockets. They worked in groups, not to protect themselves from rival gangs but to fend off the huge rats they encountered.

It would seem that if you couldn't find a job, you created one. The beak hunters stole chickens, bouncers robbed shops, bug hunters robbed drunks and buttoners suckered fools into playing card games they could not win. There were also others scammers who had unusual names including abbessess who ran whore houses, dragsmen who robbed carriages and those who "flew the blue pigeon' or stole lead from roofs.

Two children washingCredit: spitalfields life

Easy End Blitz

Rising from the Ashes...again

Keep Calm

The Germans targeted the East End of London with its docks and railways as it was a shipping centre. Starting on 7 September 1940, London was bombed by the Luftwaffe for 57 consecutive nights hitting day and night. The Germans bombed historical landmarks, abbeys, whole streets, and even Buckingham Palace took a hit along with thousands of East End homes. Over 40,000 people died during the Blitz and about half of these killed were in the East End. The stiff upper lip mentality of the Brits shone through as they dealt with death and destruction day in and day out. 

Children in the BlitzCredit: wikipedia commons

The damage presented a problem but also a possible solution to the issue of East End slum dwellings. We can fast forward through all the council issues and designer trials and tribulations and sum up the housing result in two words: Not Successful.

Houses and History Gone: The East End may had had its problems but there was a spirit and personality in the windy streets, corner pub and row houses that lay cheek to jowl and invited friendly chats at the front door or over the back wall. But the city planners decided that redevelopment was better than rehabilitation and historic houses, Georgian homes, music halls, old pubs, and streets went under the wrecker’s ball, many with important historic significance.

Council HousesCredit: Wikipedia

The ‘Streets in the Sky’ effort was the final result of schemes and plans that never took into account what the East End residents wanted. What did they know after all? The result was hundreds of a gray, dark high rise slabs with no schools, medical facilities or shops nearby. These were based – loosely – on Le Corbusier’s Unite d’habitation in Marseilles which did offer the extras like a pool on the roof, laundry facilities, sports areas and coloured awnings. Did any of these extras make it to England? No!

The sense of community was gone. No longer could neighbours keep an eye out for their friends or homes when they were living in the sky. Crime, vandalism, and racism became common, workplaces were far from homes and local councils didn’t accept any responsibility for safety or upkeep. Once they lost interest in a council estate they moved on to a new venture. They stopped repair work and moved problem families into estates that were replete with blowing garbage, vandals, dead end streets, shoddy shops, blight, and brutality.

Another issue was that communal green space didn’t work; people had enjoyed their postage stamp lawns and their flowers out front. The housing towers and the communal spaces may have sounded good on paper and in the council meetings but they never worked and were the target of gangs and the thugs who roamed with dogs and ‘took over’ at will. 

The East End dweller was also offered a pre-fab house that popped up between lunch and dinner. It was utilitarian metallic white with one or two bedrooms, a living room, small kitchen and bathroom with hot water. Initially they were made from pieces of damaged aircraft but later were mass produced in factories and not very well at that. Of course, over time these temporary dwellings fell apart.

In 1968 the Ronan Point tragedy ended the high rise era. The building, a twenty-two story tower blew up from a gas leak and collapsed killing five people. Later tests found a plethora of construction flaws including the fact that the joints within the structure had been filled with newspaper. Dubious connections between local politicians and developers soon came to light and an obvious effort to build cheap and fast.


canaryCredit: wikimedia

However, better days were ahead in the 1980's with the London Docklands Development Corporation that encouraged new housing and business development. The famous Canary Wharf helped to jumpstart the regeneration of much of the East End.

Today, housing and business establishments have sprung up and the 2012 Olympics located in the East End, like many former Olympic venues, will see regrowth and a fresh look. So far this regrowth has included or will include the East End Tech City, an urban park with restored wetlands, a new university, 3600 apartments along with five new communities. Future sporting events will also take place at the Olympic Park including the 2015 European Hockey Championships and the NEC Wheelchair Tennis Masters between 2014 and 2015 while various resident sports clubs will use the venue on an ongoing basis.

The East End of London has a history that reaches back through the ages. It is an area that has seen countless ups and downs, has risen from the ashes twice over and, thanks to the people who live there and love to live there, it endures with a special flabour all its own. It is, after all,  the East End!