In an attempt to transform my memories of the last years of the 19th and the early years of the 20th century, I should begin with the very first episode in my not very eventful life.
I was born in 1887 in White Horse Lane, Stepney, I started school in 1892 at Trafalgar Square School, and remained there until 1901 when I was 14. When I first began to read, I practised by reading the white enamel letters on the window of our shop (my father was in business as the local builder and decorator). Those letters were "Welsbach Incandescent Gas Light" a "modern" invention - an asbestos sheath suspended over the gas jet; it gave a wonderful white light, a blessing after those awful "fish-tail" burners.
A sight not unusual in those days was a lone policeman pushing a stretcher (mounted on wheels) with its burden just a drunk, generally a man, but some times a woman. They were securely strapped down and were taken away to Arbour Square Police Station, followed by the usual rabble of urchins many bare-footed, and all of them ill-clad. Yes, drunkenness was unfortunately the rule, rather than the exception. There was very little work done especially on Mondays. Beer was fourpence a pot (quart) and that was the usual order, a pot consumed in the "four-ale bar", with sawdust floors and the ghastly spitoon. The ferocious "pot man" at the behest of his boss would pitch the argumentative drunk out into the road. The public houses were shut only for about five hours in the night.
At the corner of White Horse Lane and Mile End Road stood the Lycett Chapel, a rather large building afterwards used as a warehouse and demolished in 1971. Around 1894 the interior was completely gutted by fire but the walls were left standing. We were all evacuated to neighbouring houses on the opposite side of the road, but not before I was shocked and terrified when the flames burst through the tall stained glass windows. Our shop was only two doors away, and the firemen had to play their hoses on to our carpenter's shop and the stack of timber, to prevent the spread of the conflagration. Also adjoining the Chapel was Spills & Co., makers of tarpaulins and oilskins, and other highly combustible goods which was another hazard for the firemen.
The fire brigade was "modern" having a steam pump and brass funnel, and drawn by a pair of good class horses provided by Charles Webster of Whitechapel, a famous firm. There were no warning bells except the stentorian voices of the firemen themselves; the engine swaying from side to side and the galloping horses were a wonderful sight. Fires were frequent; Durells timber yard, a vast area by the Regent's Canal, was gutted completely, twice in my boyhood. The escape ladder had to be pushed along in the upright position; there was no conveyance as is the case today. It was a precarious operation, the long heavy ladder, swaying from side to side, and almost beyond the capacity of the one fireman, but he had plenty of volunteers in the shape of any man passing by, and crowds of kids, myself included.
As for the buses, the London General Omnibus Co. used a pair of horses and the driver was perched up on the "dickey", high up, well wrapped up and strapped in. The bus was open topped, and the seats were provided with oilskin aprons for wet weather, but they were usually on the floor being walked on. They started from the "Royal Hotel" at the corner of Burdett Road and ran to Shepherds Bush in West London. The bus stables (not garages as now) were in Bow Common Lane. There were also several "pirate" buses, as any two men could hire one and ply where they liked. It was no uncommon thing that, having taken our fares, we could be politely told "all off" because, say we were proceeding westward, the conductor spotted a bus load of passengers anxious to travel east, and that was that. We had no claim, indeed so far as my memory goes we had no tickets either, but that playful era did not last long.
The mail coach too, was an institution familiar to us all. It left St. Martins Le Grand, the main Post Office in London, en route for Colchester, passing without fail at exactly 10 o'clock p.m. the top of White Horse Lane; we could see the sorting going on. The driver perched up on high, and the man blowing a fanfare. One could set one's watch by this, as it never failed 10 o'clock precisely. Four spanking horses and a great pace too.
A long line of hay carts from all over Essex concentrated on, and constituted the Whitechapel Hay Market. They stood in parallel lines from Whitechapel Church to Gardiner's Corner, and when the homeward trek was started the drivers were usually asleep in the wagons and horses quite unguided took them safely home.
The trams (horse drawn) started from Stratford and ran to Aldgate. There was something comfortable and cosy about those old "juggemauts"; there was no hurry, if you were in a hurry, you just got off and walked. The driver sat on a stool enveloped in oil skins or rugs to suit the current weather. In his mouth a horn whistle was continually in use as the horse and carts found the going easier on the "lines". When a cart broke down it certainly caused pandemonium. The tram had to be got off the line and around the wreck; a rare job it was too, the tram wheels being so small and having to run over cobbles. Usually horses, driver and conductor, and a score of idlers pushed and shoved and swore, that was part of life and accepted; no one asked for a bonus or payment, but it was not unknown for the odd tot or two to be distributed to the volunteers, anonymously.
After the overhead wire, and before the middle or conductor system, a method was adopted known as "studs". They were set about two yards apart between the rails, and the tram picked up sufficient current to get it to the next one. Unfortunately, the iron horse shoes of the horse also picked up the current with disasterous results. It was a common sight to see great big horses performing a sort of tango or "two step", so that was that, out went the "studs".
At the tram terminus at Stratford Church, and of course the stables, there was a pub called the "King of Prussia". When the 1914 War broke out, there was a great outcry about this obnoxious name, and it had to be altered to "King Edward VII"; and it still is.
Around 1898 a start was made on the new extension of the District Railway from Whitechapel to Bow Road, and the whole job was done by Navvy with pick and shovel - no bulldozers then. It was a sight to see - long line of wagons of the "Tumbril" type, waiting to be loaded and away to the tip - "Beer and Brawn" then.
Between Mile End Gate and the famous music hall known as the "Paragon" there was the area known as "The Waste". On here was an open market, with itinerant traders of all types, - baked chestnut barrow, hot baked potatoes, the toffee maker, the old clothes man, the negro sword swallower, "jellied eels", cheap jack crockery, the whole lot was just one confusion, illuminated at night by countless flaring "Naphtha" lamps which frequently conked out, and released a cloud of paraffin vapour over all and sundry. In one spot were rolls of sheet lead belonging to the builders merchant shop. I often wonder how long sheet lead would lay safe without protection on that spot today. The same stretch of pavement contained also the ancient almshouses of Trinity House, the Great Assembly Hall, and the ancient weatherboarded hostelry "The Vine Tavern", the only pub in the Mile End Road, which was literally true, - it was actually in the road, isolated and alone. It disappeared just prior to the Sidney Street Battle.
I was one of the crowd who saw this famous fiasco. I remember the soldiers lying prone in the roadway, taking pot-shots, the battery of artillery in the road outside Smiths Paint Factory on the corner, and Winston Churchill bobbing in and out of that gateway. The guns (artillery) were silver unlimbered. Sidney Street was the aftermath of murder in Houndsditch. A policeman had heard a strange hissing noise on the premises of a jeweller: it turned out to be the first acetylene torch used in crime. This constable and several others were shot dead, and the miscreants took refuge in the block of flats in Sidney Street.
I saw the pageantry and procession of the visit of Queen Victoria to the People's Palace, we had a fine view of this cavalcade from the front windows of our house, that was in 1897. It was a wonderful institution, then a place of learning and culture, a beautiful winter garden, and yet, inconceivable as it may sound, it housed a circus, a huge marquee on the space in front of that majestic building. I have a vivid picture in my mind of that spectacle. A lady dressed in immaculate male evening suit, complete with top hat and a silver cane, dancing on the back of a lovely piebald horse, as it galloped round and round that magic circle. Also a large swimming bath where incidentally we kids were taught to swim from school. Our instructor used to begin the lesson with the ominous words - you will swim or else, and we did.
Mr. Brennan, a great athlete and a real gentleman, was in charge of the famous gymnasium. I was a pupil in his class (1904),and had the idea to learn boxing. One instructor was Dick Burge the notorious boxer and owner of the Blackfriars Ring, the acme of sporting clubs at that time. We were lined up and fitted with boxing gloves, and one at a time faced Dick Burge who not only looked like, but could punch like a bull. I remember standing in front of him and adopting the usual pugalistic stance and he suggested I try a left hook. I don't know what happened to the left hook but Dick Burge with the gentleness of a hospital nurse was giving me a glass of water, and telling me I was not at all bad, the understatement of all time.
An annual event which caused great excitment was the Fairlop Boat. A fully rigged fishing-smack, was mounted on a lorry, and pulled by four horses. The real crew were wearing their oilskins, water boots and a red woollen hat with a bobble on the top and a tassle down the back. This "cruised" from Shadwell to the Fairlop pub and back, and collections were made for charity and probably for the odd barrel or two for the express use of the crew who, at the end of the "voyage" showed traces of having "spliced the main brace".
In the '90's Sir Thomas Lipton's Shamrock, and the American Columbia competed for the America Cup, in the famous yacht race. This took place annually for four or five years, but Shamrock never won it at all. The Paragon music hall had an arrangement outside, with a green light for Shamrock and red for Columbia, and as the race progressed the lights were moved forward or back according to their position. Messages from the race were registered by ocean telegraph as wireless was not known or certainly was not in operation. And the people, kids as well, would cheer when the green was ahead, and moan when vice versa.
The Pavilion Theatre in the Whitechapel Road staged some great drama and plays. The principal resident artists were Ashley Page and Marion Denvel, I recall "Jack Tar" a wonderful play about the Navy, and of course the immortal "Tommy Atkins". The transformation scenes of the pantomimes were out of this world. The aroma of cigar smoke, and oranges have never failed to take me back to my boyhood and Xmas pantomimes. Then there was "The Wonderland" in the Whitechapel Road the home of a great music hall artist, Bessie Wentworth, and later the venue of boxing (shades of Pedler Palmer and "Kid" Berg).
We were blessed with indulgent parents especially our Dad, who, although engrossed in his rapidly expanding business, saw to it that we were in on everything that was going forward. We were in the first traffic (in the family "Waggonette") that went through the new Blackwall Tunnel, when it was opened in 1897, and in the first train that ran from Bow Road to Whitechapel, on the new extension of the District Railway at the turn of the century.
Early in 1901 my father's business was expanded, and we moved round into Mile End Road, into premises and space with six cottages, carpenter's shop and extensive stables and stores. I left school in December of that year and after a month's freedom started work at eight bob a week. Store Keeper, runner of errands, stable boy, clerk, painter - indeed just a "dogs-body" in Dad's business, but for all this I still contrived to keep pigeons, and a goat and an air gun and a dog. The old Dad was a tolerant employer, but I certainly earned my eight bob a week - or did I? Reckon I earned it if only for getting up to let the men in at 6.30 in the mornings. In 1904, I was articled to a very large joinery works to extend my training, I already had a fair grip of the carpenters job in our own joiners shop under the watchful eye, and the vitriolic tongue of my grand-father - a joiner of the old school, and anyway, I was a full blown joiner by 1911.
by C.A. Brown
Reprinted with permission of David Rich, Tower Hamlets History On Line.