London East End – Oranges and Lemons

IMG_29622.JPGHere comes a candle to light you to bed
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!

This English nursery rhyme is part of the famous novel 1984 by George Orwell. It is also a depiction of historical life in the East End of London, both known for Jack the Ripper’s murders and Charles Dicken’s stories, where I have lived during the past year. Much has been written about it and I definitely do by no means claim to be an expert on the history or the present of the area, but I wanted to give the interested reader a glimpse into what I learned about the neighbourhood during my all too short time there.

The East End of London was long since known as the poorest neighbourhoods of London. While there is no clear-cut definition of the area, it encompasses mainly parts of South Hackney and the Borough of Tower Hamlets, which includes Bromley-by-Bow and Bethnal Green, the two areas, where I have lived in London. Today, the East End is rapidly gentrifying, and has become famous for its hip bars, vintage stores, markets and clubs.

As the Economist puts it very nicely:

The frontier of where you can buy a cocktail in a jam jar is moving like German tanks through the Ardennes: from Shoreditch to Dalston; Brixton to Peckham; Bethnal Green to Hackney Wick.

The rapid pace of the gentrification has to do with the deregulated housing policies, which make it easy to up prices in incredibly short amounts of time. This has led to the fact that the former Western parts of London are now too expensive for folks like me (students, people in their early working years, artists and the like) who are chased to the Eastern parts, where they, in turn, chase out parts of the traditional occupants.
The Telegraph published a piece in 2014 , warning of the dullification of London, which is to become like Geneva and Paris:

you can play a nostalgic little game where you remind yourself what groups London’s inner neighbourhoods were known for 20 years ago. Hampstead: intellectuals; Islington: media trendies; Camden: bohemians, goths and punks; Fulham: thick poshos who couldn’t afford Chelsea; Notting Hill: cool kids; Chelsea: rich people. Now, every single one of these is just rich people.

Historically, the East End of London was much different, and therefore maybe sheltered for a little while from the onrolling wave of gentrification.
The rhyme, mentioned above, lists different churches in the East End together with the story of a person who is executed because they owed a quarter penny (farthing), which was rather common practice in historical poor areas to eliminate petty criminality (which was basically a survival mechanism) in its seeds through draconian punishments. Here is the whole poem:

“Oranges and lemons”, say the bells of St. Clement’s
“You owe me five farthings”, say the bells of St. Martin’s
“When will you pay me?” say the bells of Old Bailey
“When I grow rich”, say the bells of Shoreditch
“When will that be?” say the bells of Stepney
“I do not know”, says the great bell of Bow
Here comes a candle to light you to bed
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!
Chip chop chip chop – The last man’s dead.

The East End was the incarnation of the brutality of poverty and the lack of social service regulation in industrializing Great Britain. Through waves of immigration (most recently and still very obvious in Bethnal Green, immigration from Bangladesh in the 20th century), there was an abundance of labour, turning the borough into an industrial forefront, especially for the textile industry. Names such as “Weaver’s field” for a park in Bethnal Green remind of that history.The terrible conditions of lacking social provision, overcrowdedness and exploitation led to the Spitalfields Riots in 1769. This did, however, not help to improve the conditions apart from the formation of several charities that provided social services instead of the state, but it led to the fact of the East End being at the forefront of the development of the European socialist movement, the British labour party as well as the suffragette movement. In an article from 1871, the author describes the conditions in Bethnal Green as such:

Opposite Columbia Market, on the Crabtree road, there are streets, lanes, waste spots, and back-yards in a most wretched condition, dilapidated, houses, whose shattered doors and windows bear all the appearance of having been once bombarded, and are now tumbling to unmistakable ruin.

It would appear that neither fire-warnings nor fore-warnings make much impression upon some people; and though they escape with difficulty once or twice, they are still ready for some petty advantage to risk their lives again.

Today, Columbia Market is a beautiful flower market on weekends. Bricklane and Old Bethnal Green Road, which are mentioned in the article as in “ruinous condition” breath hipness. Especially Brick Lane is known as a tourist attraction with its vintage stores, coffee shops and Saturday flea market and street food. A Cereal Store/Café with highly overpriced ‘personalized’ mixtures of cereal as well as a cat café, where you can sit among strolling cats while drinking your coffee, are perhaps the best examples for a gentrified neighbourhood.

During the second World War, the East End was particularly targeted, due to its industrial nature. Moreover, in a broadcast of Lord HawHaw, a pro-nazi English-language radio broadcasts, the speaker said:

Hardest of all, the Luftwaffe will smash Stepney. I know the East End! Those dirty Jews and Cockneys will run like rabbits into their holes.

At the entrance of the Bethnal Green tube station today a plaque and statue reminds of a civilian disaster during which the people running for shelter were killed.  The BBC TV show ‘Call the Midwife’ gives an account of the post-war East End, still stricken by poverty and the leftovers of industrial perverse pauperism, such as the slavery of work houses, epidemias and overpopulation (the apartments in the show are exactly like the council housing I lived in, but host much more residents). IMG_2972

The history of the East End is fascinating and, in my opinion, gives a better insight into modernizing London than the centre with its numerous sights and attractions. Even though I was part of a harmful short-term gentrifying crowd that gives realtors more room to raise prices to even loftier heights and even though it is not hard to imagine the dullification of London, which the Telegraph mentions soon encompassing also the East End, I admit that I loved living in the East End of London and learning a tiny little bit about its human and inhumane past and present.

Here comes a candle to light you to bed
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!


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