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Tower Hamlets 1888
Originally published in the "East London Record ", no.2 (1979)

The 1978 Tower Hamlets Annual Local History Lecture at the Central Library, Bancroft Road, was delivered by William Fishman, Senior Research Fellow & Tutor in Politics at Queen Mary College. In 1888 international attention had been focused on the area by two dramatic and often described events - the Match Girls Strike In Bow and the Jack the Ripper murders in Whitechapel. William Fishman, therefore, chose to describe the background of conditions in the area at the time, as evoked by two contemporary novelists - John Mackay and Margaret Harkness - and the local press. The following is an abridged text of the lecture.

One may ask why 1888? A reasonable question. My choice rests on a year in which the repercussion of events within Tower Hamlets would extend well beyond the frontiers of London's East End. One could claim that it was an 'annus mirabilis' of happenings, some of which are particularly relevant to today - 90 years on.

It was that year that the Jewish immigration problem first broke surface. In those very same parishes, where racial violence prevails today, political agitators were already mouthing the same rhetoric derived from the lowest common denominator - the irrational fears and hatred festering in the mind of the slum dweller. With local unemployment and housing shortages, then, as now, a major pressure gauge, 1888 was the year of opportunity both for political demagogues flying the anti-alien kite and the new style social investigator.

The old scapegoat, the Jew, was available in all his vulnerability. The great patriot, imperialist author Arnold White, writing en route for South Africa in the mail steamer Athenian had the previous year directed (under the stirring title 'England for the English') a broadside through the Times: 'Will you permit me to fire a parting shot at the pauper foreigner? He is successfully colonising Great Britain under the nose of H.M. Government'. [1]

Our local press took up the cry with a vengeance. We read The East End News of February 21st, 1888, quoting an interview with Captain Colomb, M.P. for Bow & Bromley (then quite outside the Jewish ghetto) who stated 'I object to England with its overcrowded population, being made a human ashpit for the refuse population of the world'. The East London Advertiser kept a watchful and critical eye on the 'alien invasion' throughout the year, sniping continuously and lamenting that the local poor were hard driven with high rents and the competition of foreign Jews (30th June, 1888) and later (6th October) 'Notwithstanding all the outcry about the immigration of foreign paupers the cry is "Still they Come"', ad nauseum, backed up outside by fierce warnings and rumblings in the national press.

The novelist John Law (i.e. Margaret Harkness) that year reveals the isolation of the East End Immigrant Jew, with anti-alien sentiments being expressed by the enlightened of working folk. In Out of Work the radical carpenter vents his spleen on them furriners 'They'll go to hell'. And his wife echoes: 'Why should they come here I'd like to know? London ain't what it used to be; it's just like a foreign city. The food ain't English; the talk ain't English. Why should all them foreigners come here to take our food out of our mouths, and live on victuals we wouldn't give to pigs?' [2]

Even the politically conscious female radical labour master forcibly maintains 'No, I never take on a foreigner. It's bad enough for us English and I won't help to make it worse by giving work to a Jewess!' The ELA editorial of 3rd March, 1888, posited local attitudes 'The swarm of foreign Jews, who have invaded the East London labour market, are chiefly responsible for the sweating system and the grave evils which are flowing from it - the brunt of the hardship involved (falling) with tenfold severity upon the English men and women'.

Anti-alienism at local and national level voiced attitudes which were early accepted by government. By 10th February, 1888, the appointment of a Select Committee of Enquiry was agreed upon in Parliament. That year two committees met to investigate what was, in effect, the Foreign Jewish question: a House of Commons Select Committee on Alien Immigration met between 27th July and the 8th August, and a House of Lords Select Committee on the Sweating System reporting after 11th August. Both, in effect, vindicated the East End Jew, but local anti-alienism went on unabated. The Whitechapel murders provided the setting and the opportunity for a minor outbreak of Judophobia. After the third 'Ripper' murder on the 16th September, the Editor of the East London Observer under the heading: 'A Riot against the Jews' records:

On Saturday in several quarters of East London the crowds who assembled in the streets began to assume a very threatening attitude towards the Hebrew population of the District. It was repeatedly asserted that no Englishman could have perpetrated such a horrible crime as that of Hanbury Street, and that it must have been done by a JEW - and forthwith the crowds began to threaten and abuse such of the unfortunate Hebrews as they found in the streets. Happily the presence of a large number of police prevented a riot actualiy taking place.

In the last context, those of us who often traverse Brick Lane from Bethnal Green to Whitechapel will know what this is about - of course, the new victims nowadays being the Bangladeshi.

That year gave ultimate definition to Tower Hamlets as a grand repository of the poor and dispossessed. Two little-known, but perceptive writers, who embarked on a voyage of exploration into our area were John Mackay, and the sometime friend of Eleanor Marx, Margaret Harkness, and they gave on the spot and, in my view, unrivalled description and evaluation of East End life.

Ninety years ago the young Anglo-German Mackay, who had taken to walking the streets of Whitechapel, observed an Empire of Hunger:

The East End of London is the hell of poverty. Like one enormous, black, motionless, giant kraken, the poverty of London lies there in lurking silence and encircles with its mighty tentacles the life and wealth of the City and of the West End. [3]

Parish guardian statistics, compared with previous years, are terrifying. The East End News reports near the end of the year (13 November, 1888) that the total known mean number of paupers in London in 1887-8 was 108,638 compared with 104,431 the year before. In East London at the beginning of December 1888 official pauper numbers parish by parish were:

Whitechapel 1,503 (Indoor Poor)
St. George's 1,164 (plus 333 Lunatics)
Poplar 3,956 (2,192 Indoor and 1,764 Outdoor Poor)
Mile End 1,842 (1,340 Indoor and 502 Outdoor Poor) [4]

Thus the army of paupers, living precariously on the margin of existence was mobilised - a dangerous concentration which engendered a sense of grand peur - the great fear - as much among the respectable working class (i.e. the regularly employed) as among the more affluent middle class inhabitants of the West End. It could be argued that to portray the East End as merely a sink of pauperism is a gross distortion. This is true. Nevertheless, according to the cold, scientific evidence (his words!) of Charles Booth, based on the years 1887-1888, 35% of the total population of Tower Hamlets, i.e. 35% of 456,877 souls, lived on or below the margin of subsistence. Another 20% wavered on the brink and it was this overwhelming proportion of poverty that provided the qualifying image of the area as a 'city of dreadful night'. It was perhaps the more impressionistic approach of a number of middleclass observers, who laboured earnestly in vineyard, that the horrifying picture was reinforced.

Margaret Harkness - socialist, feminist and novelist -was one of these. Tower Hamlets 1888 is brought to life for us in a series of brilliant vignettes portrayed in her remarkable novels (written significantly under the pseudonym John Law): Out of Work (published 1888) and Captain Lobe: or In Darkest London (1889). She certainly must have lodged in East London from her description of minor streets which were very familiar to me as a boy.

Her revelation of the degradation of women is striking. In the predatory climate engendered by casual 'laissez-faire' women appeared to be the most vulnerable. The affliction of labour in constant competition for work bore heaviest on East End women. Observing a group of girls applying for work in a local factory Harkness notes:

A more miserable set of girls it would be difficult to find anywhere. They had only just escaped the Board School, but many of them had faces wise with wickedness, and eyes out of which all traces of maidenhood had vanished ... "the universal adjective" fell from their lips as a term of endearment, whilst the foulest names were given to girls they did not like, also blows and kicks by way of emphasis. [5]

They were offered work at 5d. a day - 'enough to buy bread with'. As new recruits to the vast reservoir of the labourless, they had no alternative but to accept. 'It's no good to talk to the girls about combination, they're so down-trodden and mean-spirited. It's work, work, work with them from the time they get up till they go to bed, except on Sundays'. At the lowest level it could be an unrewarding struggle for life. As a child the girl would be 'mother' to a large ever-increasing brood, should her own be out charing or 'taking to the laundry' to augment her man's meagre income (if not already unemployed!). She faced continual hazards; possibly an incestuous attack by father or brother, a constant beating by drunken parent, perhaps the only relief by taking to the streets. Innocence always short-lived - here the story of man's inhumanity to woman is most blatant. Harkness reiterated that the overwhelming pressure was the need to eat. 'Virtue is easy enough when a woman has plenty to eat, and a character to keep, but it's quite different when a girl is starving'. Yet mutual aid, the poor helping the poor in adversity, was never absent, it is still endemic in East End life.

They're good to one another, they are. You'd be surprised to see what they'll do to help a girl that's ill, and how they'll put themselves about to buy crape when a girl is dead and has to be buried. (6)

The suffering of a lifetime could be compensated by the prospect of a 'correct burial'. For the poor, the ultimate horror went beyond dying. It was the threat of a pauper's grave which, in its cold anonymity, evidenced society's final rejection of their human identity. Harkness recalls an old woman who only accepts alms to ensure that her dying daughter 'met the Almighty like a lady. I've got a smashin' dress, in which she made her first communion, to lay her out in. I'd like to think as she'd stand before the Almighty in a pair of white silk stockings!'.

Like today, Tower Hamlets 1888 was faced with the problem of housing its citizens - but much more so. Far less East Enders then could claim a permanent roof over their heads. That year we were already an over-congested ghetto of displaced labour, when housing was at a premium. Hence the recent expansion of lodging, or temporary, doss houses which added an even less salubrious dimension to the image of East London.

The most horrific conditions were attributed to these catering for the casual poor. At their best they were free of criminals, prostitutes and vermin. The majority located in Spitalfields, St. George's and the Dock area were not. Harkness describes a typical cheap 'doss' priced at 4d. single for the night. A gloomy, decaying two-storeyed house is divided into 'dormitories' i.e. rooms 'full of small iron bedsteads covered with a grey blanket. They were arranged in two rows against the walls, and were so close together that it was impossible to move between them'. Downstairs in the main kitchen, whilst a gambling session is in full play:

Men and women stood cooking their supper; emptying into tins and saucepans bits of meat, scraps of bread and cold potatoes they had begged, stolen or picked up during the day. Hungry children held plates for the savoury masses, and received blows and kicks from their parents when they came too near the fire, or interfered with the cooking arrangements.

Crouching on the floor, gnawing a bone was a hungry man. His face was sodden with drink. He had swollen features, palsied hands and trembling feet. He had probably begun his life in this Christian country as a homeless boy in the streets and most likely close his days in the casual ward of some workhouse.


"Rattle his bones over the stones
He's only a pauper, who nobody owns!"

The lodgers threw him scraps, and laughed to see him tearing his food to pieces, devouring it like a dog on the ground. [7]

This probably exemplified a more respectable establishment. Others served as a rendez-vous for the underground - thieves' kitchens where only the Salvationist slum lassie could enter without fear, and no policeman dare venture alone. Harkness notes one where 'A clergyman found his way in one Sunday evening. He was stripped, in order that the men might see if he was a detective. Finding all his linen marked with the same name and nothing in his pockets, they kicked him out naked, advising him never to come there again unless he was plentifully supplied with soup tickets!'.

For the homeless 'armies of despairs' - and they were in their hundreds here - there were two legal alternatives for survival - a charitable institution, like the Salvation Army, or the ultimate humiliation conferred on both genuine unemployed and pauper alike - the hated Bastille - the workhouse.

Here is an 1888 description of the Whitechapel workhouse, a model of its kind, recalling the clinical inhumanity of a labour camp. [8]

Ringing the workhouse bell, they enter into a forecourt of neat flower beds, closely shaven grass plots, smooth paths, and trees which had been pruned until their branches had reached the legitimate amount of foliage. The Bastille stretched further than the eye could see, and seemed a standing rebuke to its poverty-stricken surroundings, for it was clean ... not a spot on it, not a stain, nothing to show a trace of sympathy with the misery and sin of the people who lived in this neighbourhood.

The Whitechapel Union is a model workhouse; that is to say it is the Poor Law Incarnate in stone and brickwork. The men are not allowed to smoke in it, not even when they are in their dotage; the young women never taste tea, and the old ones may not indulge in a cup during the long afternoons, only at half past six o'clock morning and night, when they receive a small hunch of bread with butter scraped over the surface, and a mug of meat beverage which is so dear to their hearts as well as their stomachs. The young people never go out, never see a visitor, and the old only get one holiday in the month. Then the aged paupers may be seen skipping like lambkins outside the doors of the Bastille, while they jabber to their friends and relatives. A little gruel morning and night, meat twice a week, that is the food of grown-up people, seasoned with hard work and prison discipline. Doubtless this Bastille offers no premium to idle and improvident habits, but what shall we say of the woman, or man, maimed by misfortune, who must come there or die in the street?

The master was proud to report that his House was run on Samuel Smiles' precepts of self help. 'We grind our own corn, we make our own clothes, boots and coffins; in fact meat, grain and clothes stuff are all that we take from the outside public'. This was borne out by a visit to the labour rooms, where the able-bodied worked on their dull, monotonous tasks without respite.

Tailors squatted on tables, bootmakers cobbled and patched, men plaited mats; each pauper had his task, and each knew that the morrow would bring the same work, that as surely as the sun rises and sets, his task would be the same tomorrow as it was at that moment. Six o'clock would set him free for tea, but after that he would be handed over to an instructor until bed-time.

The Whitechapel Union allows no man to remain idle from the time he gets up until he goes to bed again. A sodden look has settled on the faces of the older men and they apparently thought little of what they were doing ... not a voice was to be heard in the workshops, the men did not whistle or sing; they looked like schoolboys in disgrace rather than free born English citizens.

It was no wonder that, after the freedom of the streets, for the chirpy East Ender this was Hell incarnate. Jack London was probably right when he later deduced that fear of the Bastille was one of the principal causes of suicide among the local working class. Even now the wounds it inflicted remain em bedded in folk memory.

Under the comparative benevolence of the Welfare State there are still many old folk, raised in the shadow of the 'Union' who, though in need of extra cash to make ends meet, would rather do without than apply for supplementary benefit which, in their mythology, is equated with the hated parish relief.

Yet again it would be quite wrong to suggest that the East End was a sombre mass of unmitigated misery. The culture of poverty, gloomy and precarious as it was, was not devoid of relief, expressed in rituals of uninhibited joy and the devil with the consequences. What most social investigators failed to perceive was the resilience and humour which sustained most cockneys in adversity. Both Booths identified their fun-making with fecklessness. Litterateurs with more catholic perception caught glimpses of the reality. MacKay's monotony of human suffering in the Jago and Brick Lane is quickly transformed by the bright lights and gaiety of the Whitechapel Road - 'the greatest public pleasure-ground of the East End accessible to all'.

Large music halls with broad lobbies and high stories and galleries are located there, and small hidden penny gaffs, in which there is little to see on account of the tobacco smoke and little to hear on account of the noise. .... There is the medicine man with his wizard oil which cures all ills - no matter how taken, internally or externally - as well as the shooting stand, whose waving kerosene oil flames make the gaslights unnecessary. There we meet the powerful man and the mermaid, the cabinet of wax figures and the famous dog with the lion's claws - his forefeet have been split; all that is to be seen for a penny. [9]

Harkness etches in, in greater detail, a host of pleasures afforded by the ever popular 'gaff and contributes a rare picture of the more deleterious gin-palace cum dance hall. Local murder and mayhem are always available to provide extra entertainment: 'a murder gives them (East Enders) two sensations.... Was the person poisoned or was his throat cut?' 'Did the corpse turn black or did it keep till the nails were put in the coffin?' [10] Violence, the norm, ever present above and beneath the surface ready to erupt. And when it did, in extremis, as in the 'Ripper' murders of that year, it created a folk legend which persists to this day.

Individuals had their hour of glory. Youth's a stuff will not endure, and the young were fully cognisant of its advantages however short-lived. Both the East London Observer and Advertiser constantly complain in their Editorials of the young mobsters jostling or accosting Sunday churchgoers (especially young women) during their weekly monkey parade between Grove Road and Bow Church.

For the poor lass of Mile End or Bethnal Green 'keeping company' with her man was a public display of a successful catch: the few heady days when, with pride, she could show off her prize, until the prison house of marriage and childbearing closed in. Even then there was temporary escape to the nearby Victoria Park on Sundays to be uplifted by the home-spun socialist or itinerant preacher, or the 'cockney' countryside, Wanstead Flats and Epping Forest, where Arthur Morrison records, on Whit Mondays:

You may howl at large.. the public houses are always with you; shows, shies, swings, merry-go-rounds, fried fish stalls, donkeys are packed closer than on Hampstead Heath; the ladies tormentors are larger, and their contents smell worse than at any other fair. Also, you may be drunk and disorderly without being locked up, - for the stations won't hold everybody, - and when all else has palled, you may set fire to the turf. [11]

At the corner of the street was the locus of freedom - the pub - offering nightly its ritual joy session - amidst the brash glitter and warm camaraderie of the bar; while, within walking distance, was the Paragon music hall, near the Charrington Brewery, the Pavilion Theatre by Vallance Road (its proprietor, Mr. Abrahams, was that very summer inviting local traders to invest in the new Queen's Music Hall, in Poplar!), where one could burst out in a euphoria of collective maudlin or the ribald chorus of a popular song. Always good for a belly laugh, the East End cockney was, as Pearl Binder rightly notes, 'adept at snatching wit from want'.

Much of this was lost on outsiders - reformers, 'explorers', philanthropists alike. Even the more astute like Jack London, Beatrice Webb, Charles Booth and the founder of the Salvation Army heard what they wanted to hear, saw what they wanted to see. The culture of poverty evolves its own responses towards the stranger. For the poorest of East Enders, daily engaged in the struggle for life, and razor-sharp in seizing on any advantage for survival, caught on to their 'game' and played along with it.

by William Fishman


[1] Times 13 July 1887.

[2] John Law Out of work (1888) p. 63-4.

[3] J.H. Mackay The anarchists (Boston 1891) p. 152.

[4] East London Advertiser 1 December 1888.

[5] John Law Captain Lobe : or in darkest London (1889) p. 103-4.

[6] Ibid p. 108.

[7] John Law Out of work (1888) p. 110-1.

[8] John Law Captain Lobe (1889) p. 196-7.

[9] J.H. Mackay The anarchists (Boston 1891) p. 171-2.

[10] John Law Captain Lobe (1889) p. 10.

[11] Arthur Morrison 'Lizerunt' in National Observer 22 July 1893. Reprinted in Tales of Mean Streets (1894).

Reprinted with permission of David Rich, Tower Hamlets History On Line.

Related pages:
  Tower Hamlets
       Victorian London: Tower Hamlets 1888 
  William Fishman
       Ripper Media: East End 1888 

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