Oral histories are a core part of our work on the Whitechapel project. Our interviewees have come from all walks of life and from the many communities that make up Whitechapel past and present. They have also ranged widely in age, from 30-something to 99. But what all the interviewees had in common, until recently, was that they all, even if no longer in Whitechapel, still live in or near London. Many old Whitechapel-ites, however, have roamed rather further than Newbury Park or Edgware, and last month one of the Survey historians met four who now live 2,000 miles away, in Israel.
A world away from 1980s Whitechapel...the beach at Haifa where the interview with Jack and Gwen White was conducted.
David Shaffer (b. 1947) left Whitechapel when he married at 21 but then spent nearly 40 years in the US before 'making Aliyah' to Jerusalem in 2005. Gloria Spielman (b. 1963) has lived near Tel Aviv since 1988, though her mother Sophie still lives in Vallance Road and has been in the news recently, fighting to save her home there. Jack White (b. 1925) and Gwen White (b 1930) also moved, to Karmiel in northern Israel, in the 1980s. Interesting lives, a world away from the East End, but these interviews, conducted in balmy November weather in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, were all about Whitechapel. Or were they?
The project's map follows the 'official' borders of Whitechapel, as defined by the old parish of St Mary Matfelon, or the London borough as it was up to 1900. But Whitechapel as understood by those who grew up there is a much more elastic entity. Strictly speaking, none of the interviews grew up in 'Whitechapel'. David Shaffer grew up around Thrawl Street, off Brick Lane, what is technically Spitalfields, to the north of Whitechapel. Jack White lived in Jubilee Street, just to the east of Whitechapel, in Stepney. But they both thought of it as Whitechapel. By contrast Gwen White did not think of where she lived, in Wellclose Square, to the south, as Whitechapel, at all. Yet the west side, where she recalled the faded grandeur of 18th-century houses (once the Danish embassy) and the tiny cottages of Harad's Place (now just a railed pathway next to Shapla Primary School), is 'official' Whitechapel. One thing that is certainly emerging from our interviews and contributions to the Whitechapel map is that identification of 'place' is just as mutable and variable as any other kind of identity - cultural, religious, racial or national.
Last week, two events in Whitechapel drew attention to recent initiatives seeking to archive Somali and Muslim history in London's East End. Although independent of each other and with differing approaches to the archival process, projects by Numbi Arts and the East London Mosque are ensuring African and Asian inflected histories of Whitechapel are brought to light and documented. The Survey was invited to participate in both events as a supporter and a brief report follows.
On 22nd November 2017 the East London Mosque Archives' strongroom was inaugurated. The new strongroom provides a stable and securely managed environment for records ranging from the London Mosque Fund Minute Book (from 1911) to photographs of the mosque's pre-fab building on Fieldgate Street in the 1970s. The opening itself was symbolically important, celebrating the first such Muslim archive in the UK. The evening was led by Sufia Alam of the Maryam Centre who has told some of her own Whitechapel story on the Survey's website here and here. Many trustees were in attendance, some of whom have served the mosque for decades and can remember the former building on Commercial Road. Summaries of the lives of Sulaiman Jetha, Haji Taslim and Hajja Mariam Ali (née Josephine Mary Morgan) can be read here.
Photo credit: @ELMarchives
Londoner and British Muslim, Mayor Sadiq Khan formally opened the strongroom with a speech that included the commendation that, "familiarity with our history helps us understand our present...only by chronicling our history can we benefit from the knowledge and wisdom of those that have gone before us." His visit was marked by a commemorative plaque which will be installed outside the strongroom. Other presentations were made by Mayor John Biggs of Tower Hamlets, Dr Valerie Johnson of The National Archives, and Rushanara Ali, MP for Bethal Green and Bow. Shahed Saleem, Senior Research Fellow at the Survey of London Whitechapel, was honoured with an award for his contribution to the ELM Archives project.
Photo credit: @MayorofLondon
The following day, at London Metropolitan Archives, Abira Hussein led a workshop which focussed on what an archive does and explored ideas of collective memory. She also presented documents relating to the lives of Somali seamen living in East London. The theme was expanded on by Paul Dudman of the Refugee Council Archive (UEL), who considered the issue of forced displacement in the context of the Somalian civil war. With a strong tradition of oral history, British-Somalian heritage is not always easily located in archives and Dudman noted that where "memories of refugees are 'moving', digitalised oral history archives can be seen as 'a project of human rights'".
Afterwards, participants gathered in Spitalfields to begin a ‘Hido Raac’ (walk) south through Whitechapel. This was led by Hudda Khaireh and Kinsi Abdulleh of Numbi Arts, however everyone in attedance was invited to share their knowledge, which led to some unusual connections. As the group walked by the former Jewish Soup Kitchen at Brune Street, we learned that Somali soup kitchens once proliferated in the East End, at Calcutta House we stopped to consider the flow of trade between Africa, Asia and the UK during the colonial nineteenth-century, and at St Botolph's Aldgate we heard recent stories of tragic loss in the Somalian community, some of whom had drawn on the charitable services provided at the church.
The day was covered by journalist Hana Bihi for London Live. You can view her audio-visual report featuring Abira and Kinsi here.
The Survey of London would like to share a self-guided walk around the eastern portion of the Royal London Hospital’s estate, bounded roughly by Whitechapel Road north, Cavell Street east, Commercial Road south, and New Road west. Download our route map and guide for a fuller introduction to the history of the hospital and its estate: Guide to a walking tour of the Royal London Hospital Estate
Date and Time: Friday 14th July, 2017 - Friday 14th July, 2017
In July 2017 we collaborated with the Whitechapel Gallery and artist Sara Heywood in a workshop with the London Enterprise Academy, a local school situated on Commercial Road.
Around 15 students from years 7 to 9 took part, and engaged in activities where they could think about and describe their experiences and memories of Whitechapel.
They drew views of Whitechapel on the windows of the gallery learning space, and identified objects in the local area. Students also created overlay drawings of current and historical maps of the area, so they could see how the fabric and use of buildings and streets has changed over time.
The students described their school building, what they like about it and how they use it. The building was built in the 1980s, named Aneurin Bevan House and used by the NHS. That building had replaced the King's Hall which was built as a Temperance Hall then converted to Cinema in the early twentieth century.
During the summer of 2016 Rehan Jamil was commissioned by the Survey of London to produce a set of photographic portraits of people at home in Whitechapel. The resulting portraits feature people from a variety of backgrounds in their private spaces and were exhibited at the Aldgate Coffee House, 68 Whitechapel High Street, E1 7PL from June to September 2017.
Rehan found people for the project via friends, family and work colleagues mostly using Whatsapp and occasionally asking people in the street. Rehan would like to thank all those who have participated in the project for allowing him into their homes and sharing their personal spaces. Rehan lives in the East End of London and describes himself as a documentary photographer who is primarily concerned with communities in transition.
Anjali Chakrabarty, Whitechapel Road - 'I love living here, I use to work in a school close by. I went on a Silver Surfer course and now I use the computer to talk to my mother in Bangladesh'
Keith Harrington, Booth House, Whitechapel Road - 'We have a roof garden, it's nice up there'
Farid Khan, Cephas Street - 'The school and hospital are close by. There are local people I know and traditional shops for special ingredients here.'
Tobaris Ali, Cannon Street Road - 'I arrived in 1965 and became a volunteer at the mosque in 1976. It is a good area, good for education - I have grandchildren now and education is important.'
The Rahman family, Vallance Road - 'It is very nice to live within the community, everything is literally in walking distance but also very expensive and overcrowded.'
Alex Rhys-Taylor, Brune Street - 'It is a priviledge to live in Whitechapel, a part of London where local history and everyday life hold answers to some of the most pressing issues of our age.'
Tigs, Myrdle Court - ' I have lived in Myrdle Court for nine years and it's a special place. There is a sense of community in the building that is rare in London.'
Umer Farooq, Cable Street - 'It is a ground floor flat, so I have a garden which is really nice.'
Alan Green, Victoria Park Sq - 'I have lived here for almost twenty years now. My Dad grew up in the area before the Second World War, so it has been rather like coming home although it has changed a lot since then. I love the diversity and the real sense of pride in our history of welcoming and supporting immigrants from across the world.'
Suparna Roy Barman, Mansell Street - 'I feel at home in Whitechapel, I feel I have everything here so I can stay at home and experience everything. The city is on my door step and it is a creative area - art and culture are important to me.'
In 1708 Brasenose College, Oxford, purchased the advowson or patronage of the parish of St Mary Matfelon, Whitechapel, from the parish of Stepney. This was confirmed by Act of Parliament in 1710 and gave the College the right to appoint Whitechapel’s rector when vacancies arose. This was controversial, unwelcome to many in Whitechapel. The right was given up in 1864. As a result of this link there is a map of the parish of Whitechapel at Brasenose College Archives (reference B 14.1/44). It is a beautiful thing, painted and drawn on vellum and in an excellent state of preservation, its colours still vivid.
It shows the parish shaded green and extending from Wentworth Street and Montague Street in the north across Whitechapel Street, Goodmans Fields and Rosemary Lane to Well Close, which is depicted as enclosed by what were probably timber palings with a pump in its south-east corner.
There is greater detail to the south as far as ‘The River of Thames’ in the L-shaped area that was known as Wapping-Whitechapel. This separated from Whitechapel in 1694 to become the parish of St John Wapping.
A splendid cartouche (top right), bracketed by cornucopias, titles the map as ‘A Ground Plot of the Parifh of St Mary Matfellon: Alias White-chappel And also ye Hamblet of Wapping Showing the true Buttings & Boundings of the Said Hamblet’.
This focus of attention suggests that the map might have been prepared with the separation in prospect. It can be no earlier than 1673 as the parish church of ‘St Marie White Chappel’ is depicted with a transept, a feature it lacked before the rebuilding completed in that year that gave it a cruciform or cross-axial plan.
The Survey of London and Brasenose College Archives would welcome any observations about the more precise dating of this map.
With thanks to The Principal and Fellows of Brasenose College
Date and Time: 8 p.m., Saturday 1st July, 2017 - Saturday 1st July, 2017
A guided walk across Whitechapel, exploring in its history plus Art Night installations
8-10pm (meet in Altab Ali Park)
Join the Survey of London on a guided walk through Whitechapel’s rich and diverse history along with selected Art Night installations, a festival of all night outdoor art with the Whitechapel Gallery (http://www.artnight.london). Learn about the artworks en route, as well as Whitechapel's places of worship, immigration, social and industrial history and hear personal memories drawn from the Survey's oral histories. Visit sites of former German sugar refineries, the first Lutheran Church, the park where St Mary Matfelon, the white chapel, once stood, the East London Mosque, former workhouses, see how textile industries have given way to new industries, the Royal London Hospital and the variety of buildings across its estate, amongst other diverse and fascinating places.
The tour will feature the following Art Night commissions: Benedict Drew at the Whitechapel Gallery, Güneş Terkol at The Cass & Middlesex Street Estate, Lawrence Lek at The White Chapel Building, Do Ho Suh in Commercial Street.
On Saturday 3rd June we held a fascinating workshop on personal and family histories of Whitechapel at the Tower Hamlets Archives on Bancroft Road. The event was attended by a range of people who represented diverse strands of Whitechapel’s history. Here’s a quick summary of some of the stories we listened to, to give you a flavour of the day:
Sufia Alam opened the session by narrating the story of how her father settled first in Princelet Street in the 1960s, before moving to Yorkshire with his young family. Her uncle remained in the East End, and Sufia and her family would spend summers in Whitechapel where they felt a great connection with the place and the Bangladeshi community living there. After her marriage Sufia moved back to East London and has spent the last 20 years working in local womens’ organisations, including the Jagonari Centre, and she is now the manager of the East London Mosques’s Maryam Centre from where she continues to run programmes for local women.
Another participant, Jackie, grew up on Petticoat Lane in the 1950s and reminisced about how the lanterns on the market stalls were lit up as night fell, as well as eating a lot of smoked salmon. She remembered there were many shoe shops on the street as well as a grocers which was very well known, Mossi Marks, located on the corner of Wentworth Street and Toynbee Street.
Eleanor Leverington has memories of a happy childhood in Whitechapel before moving later in life further east. Her mother Pat, who also spoke at the event, migrated to the East End from Ireland in 1950. Reflecting back over many years, she felt that Whitechapel has provided a fulfilling home for her and her five children. Meanwhile Denis cast his mind back to his early years growing up on Anglesea Street and attending the well-known Brady Boys' Club.
Also a long-standing resident of the area, Stanley Meinchick and his wife’s wedding was the last to be held at the New Road Synagogue in 1973, he remembered that it was such a small synagogue that they had to walk down the aisle one behind the other.
Rosemarie Wayland recalled a visit to the home in Old Montague Street of the first Bengali girl to arrive in her class, around 1960. She remembers the girl's mother giving her Jacob's Cream Crackers with strawberry jam, to make her feel at home with "English food", which disappointed Rosemarie whose mouth was watering at the smell of the spicy food the woman was cooking.
Tony Wetjen, spoke about his research into the history of his family, who settled in Whitechapel after arriving from Germany several generations ago. His was one of many families who arrived to work in the sugar refining industry locally. He uncovered the mystery of his Norweigan-sounding surname which he found had been adopted during the First World War to deflect anti-German feeling. As he pointed out, it was a strategy adopted by our own Royal Family when they changed their name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to the more English (and manageable) Windsor.
We are collating the many memories shared, and linking them to sites in Whitechapel to be put onto our map. We are always on the look-out for more, so do contribute yours, either online or simply send us an email.
John Earl, doyen among historians of theatres, remembers recording the derelict remains of the Whitechapel Pavilion in 1961:
It was a dauntingly complex task, as to my (then) untrained eye, it appeared to be an impenetrable forest of heavy timbers, movable platforms and hoisting gear, looking like the combined wreckage of half a dozen windmills! I started by chalking an individual number on every stage joist in an attempt to provide myself with a simple skeleton on which to hang the more complicated details. Richard Southern's explanations enabled me to allocate names to the various pieces of apparatus, correcting my guesses. (‘Stage basement’ for example was, I learned, an imprecise way of naming a space with three distinct levels). He also gave me a brilliant introduction to the workings of a traditional wood stage and to the theatric purposes each part fulfilled.
The attached sketch attempts to give a summary view of the entire substage.
It is set at the first level below the stage, with the proscenium wall at the top and the back wall of the stage house at the bottom. In the terminology of the traditional wood stage, this is the ‘mezzanine’, from which level, all the substage machinery was worked by an army of stage hands. In the centre, the heavily outlined rectangle is the ‘cellar’, deeper by about 7ft below the mezzanine floor. Housed in the cellar are a variety of vertically movable platforms designed to move pieces of scenery and complete set pieces.
It may be observed at this point that not all of this apparatus will have resulted from one build. A wood stage had the great advantage that it could be adapted at short notice by the stage carpenter to meet the demands of a particular production. The substage, as seen, represents a particular moment in its active life.
There are five fast rise or ‘star’ traps for the sudden appearance (or disappearance) of individual performers (clowns, etc) through the stage floor. The three traps nearest to the audience are ‘two post’ traps, rather primitive and capable of causing serious injury to an inexpert user. Upstage of these are two of the more advanced and marginally safer ‘four post’ traps. In both types, the performer stood on a box-like counter-weighted platform with his (usually his) head touching the centre of a ’star' of leather-hinged wood segments. Beefy stage hands pulled suddenly (but with split second timing) on the lines supporting the box, shooting him through the star. In an instant, it closed behind him, leaving no visible aperture in the stage surface.
Farther upstage is a row of ’sloats’, designed to hold scenic flats, to be slid up through the stage floor. Next comes a grave trap which, as the name suggests, can provide a rectangular sinking in the stage (‘Alas, poor Yorick’). Finally, a short bridge and a long bridge, to carry heavy set pieces, with or without chorus members, up through (and, when required, a bit above) the stage. These bridges were operated from whopping great drum and shaft mechanisms on the mezzanine.
In order to get all these vertical movements to pass through the stage, its joists, counter-intuitively, have to span from side to side, the long span rather than the more obvious short span. This makes it possible to have removable sections ‘(sliders’) in the stage floor, which are held level position by paddle levers at the ends. When these are released, the slider drops on to runners on the sides of the joists and are then winched off to left and right.
The survey of the Pavilion stage was important at the time because it seemed to be the first time that anything of the kind had been done, however imperfectly. Since then, we have learned of complete surviving complexes at, for example, Her Majesty’s theatre in London, the Citizens in Glasgow and, most importantly, the Tyne theatre in Newcastle, which has been restored to full working order twice (once after a dreadfully destructive fire) by Dr David Wilmore. Nevertheless, the loss of the archaeological evidence of the Pavilion is much to be regretted.
I can have enjoyable fantasies about witnessing an elaborate pantomime transformation scene from the mezzanine of a Victorian theatre. The place is seething with stage hands, dressers and flimsily clad chorus girls climbing on to the bridges, while the stage is shuddering, having been temporarily robbed of rigidity by the drawing off of the sliders. Orders must be observed to the letter and to the very second, but there can be no shouting, however energetically the orchestra plays. Add naked gas flames to the mix…
Between 29 - 31 March 2017, an international conference entitled ‘Unsettled – Urban Routines, Temporalities and Contestations’ was hosted by the Technical University, Vienna, Austria. It aimed to explore conditions and conceptions of the unsettled. At this event Sarah Milne and Shahed Saleem presented their paper ‘A Kind of English: The East London Mosque and Whitechapel’s German Churches as Diasporic Religious Spaces’.
The paper explored the role of religious buildings for migrant communities in Whitechapel, considering how such groups created and connected to conceptions of ‘home’ through their places of worship. Two particular migrant groups were examined as they moved into and dispersed from Whitechapel. The analysis started with the German community (Deutsche Kolonie) in the East End, and its close links to the sugar refining industry in the nineteenth century. Sarah and Shahed then considered the Bangladeshi community who started to settle in large numbers from the 1970s.
Drawing on the Survey’s research into three local German churches (St George’s Lutheran, St Paul’s Reformed and St Boniface Catholic), Sarah and Shahed also interviewed Sigrid Werner, associated to St George’s, and Father Chris Dieckmann of St Boniface to further understand the churches’ funding, sociability, cultural and spatial practices over time.
Utilising research from Shahed’s forthcoming book The British Mosque, the paper then outlined the development of the East London Mosque (ELM) in the context of a growing working class Muslim community in East London. It suggested that there were many more barriers to integration for the first-generation Bengali migrants than for the Germans. It argued that the ELM in fact has served to unite different ethnicities under a pan-Islamic and transnational vision for the mosque. As the present-day Bengali community trickles out of Whitechapel, the mosque’s aspiration to move beyond the local and address regional and perhaps national Muslim needs finds expression organisationally as well as architecturally.
The conference itself thought seriously about the diverse manifestations of urban instability in a range of international situations both past and present. Presentations ranged from ‘Creeping Urban Apartheid’ in Tel Aviv to ‘Unsettling the Sociopolitical Order through Hip Hop Practices’ in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. There were many exciting conversations and propositions for active engagement in places all over the world as a result of the discussions.