Photographer David Hoffman lived in Whitechapel for fifteen years from 1970. Through this period he saw the area change as he lived in several different places, and he observed and documented the squatting movement at close hand. Some of his photographs and recollections are presented here as a major exhibition of his work opens this month at Gallery 46, 46 Ashfield Street, London E1 2AJ.
"I moved in there [Fieldgate Mansions] in 1973. There were lots of squats, I was quite involved with the squatting movement so we would go around generally opening places up. The council would board them up and move people out, and then we’d move in and take them over and put families in or friends in.
A friend of mine, Terry Fitzpatrick, was quite an important part of that – he started the Bengali Family Housing Association Group, I may have the name slightly wrong but it was something like that. And we were putting Bengali men with their families into squats as we opened them up. I mean there were no Bengali families at all in that area, there were a few along Old Montague Street when I first moved in, in some very shambolic buildings. But then more of them came over, brought their families, and Fieldgate became very Bengali.
[It was] very secular then, there was no mosque of course, and I mean the women would just be out on the street, chatting, no headscarves… and it’s become much more, well very, very dominated by the mosque now. It was much more integrated then. We’d have a cup of tea with them, chat about the problems with the building, kids would play outside, very much freer.
Before I moved in, it was pretty much all white. Not entirely Jewish by any means, probably 30-40 per cent Jewish by then. But there were Irish, there were Maltese. All sorts of people that had a crappy council tenement flat. The whole of that area was council. They were trying to decant everyone, they were trying to knock it down and build I don't know what. Lovely buildings, they were beautifully built, lovely brickwork.
They would come in with a council team, and they would put a sledgehammer through the lavatory or pour cement down it. Put a sledgehammer through the window, rip out the wiring. That’s what the council would do. They would move whoever was there out to some probably better, well it would have to be better place, and they would make sure it was really unoccupiable. And then we’d go in, take out the lavatories and put in new ones, take out the windows and put in new ones, rewire it. It was a lot of work. They wanted to keep it empty, so they could eventually have an empty place that they could demolish, and we just stopped that for about ten years and by then the demolition wasn't possible.
The east side, the block on the furthest east of Romford Street, was I think owned or sold, or given to or let to the hospital, so the whole of the east side was medical; nurses and students or doctors. But the block on the west side of Romford Street and the east side of Myrdle Street, they were Tower Hamlets, later became GLC and then they became [housing association], they were all fully squatted. When I left they were probably 50-60 per cent Bengali and the rest were students from London College of Furniture, there were jewellers, there were artists, there was a guy running a bicycle-repair shop in a basement.
Tower Hamlets, the council, was very discriminatory. It was a liberal council at the time, but they had this father and son policy or friends and family policy or something like that, but if you had no white grandfather, you were stuffed. And then they started moving Bengali families, well if you were a family they had to put you somewhere, but they were really shitty estates. I remember when they moved the first Bengali family into Clark Street, which was quite a reasonable estate, and the night before they were due to move in somebody daubed ‘No Paki’ about forty times in massive letters across the front of the house, nailed a pig's head to the door, I got pictures of that. And they were attacked. Presumably young Bengalis were attacked a lot. Of course then most of them were first-generation Bengalis here, and they were not big and strong so most of them were pretty easy prey for racists.
It led to one of the biggest mistakes of all I think, which was to put the Bengali families into ghettoes, to keep them together, because they felt safer together and they had less harassment. But it meant that there was not integration. I think the Bengali families themselves wanted to be near other Bengali families – language, food, culture, protection, all those reasons, very understandable. But it led to prevention of integration. Clark Street Estate became pretty much purely Bengali.
Fieldgate was very mixed and very open, until the mosque really came to its strength. I was there while they built it. The synagogue was still working, and there was a little temporary mosque in a Portakabin type thing, and this big open area, bombsite area, and they were raising money for the mosque and there were signs up saying we need this money that money. And then they started the building project, and we were pretty amazed at the size of it.
Over 1970–84 [Whitechapel] really changed, it was the period that it really changed its nature. It was the march of the City is how I saw it, because there were none of those big flash buildings. When I was first there we still had, I don’t think it was trading anymore, Gardiner’s Corner… I remember going down to look at the fire when it was blazing. I was standing the other side of the street by Aldgate East Station, and it was just too hot, we had to move away. And the sign outside the tube saying Aldgate East was melting, the plastic was buckling. I’m sure it was arson, the whole thing just went up. There was a lot of arson around then, around Butler’s Wharf, where the land was clearly more valuable without buildings on it, but they were all listed.
There were loads of empty sites. It had been pretty worthless, nobody wanted to live around here, there was no trade around here, no income, it was pretty much a wasteland. It was fairly busy but very, very derelict, very impoverished."
On Saturday 16th June at 12.30pm, a play written by Celeste from the Off the Wall Players was performed. The play was one of a number of events which took place during the Aldgate Festival (15th-17th June), marking the opening of a new public square located adjacent to St. Botolph’s Aldgate.
Celeste grew up in Wapping and has lived and worked in the East End for decades. She has been involved with many oral history projects documenting untold stories of East London people. The Survey of London caught up with her as she prepared for the performance to reflect on the connection between her work in the applied arts and local heritage.
Celeste overlooking Aldgate Square under construction (6 June 2018).
I'm really interested in women, space, visibility and community in the Aldgate/Whitechapel area and these concerns are central to the project. I want to triangulate history, the applied arts and culture. The driving force behind all my projects is firstly to make visible the invisible narratives, and secondly, I really believe in the strength of community and that, when applied art is done in the right way, it can really bridge a gap, helping with social cohesion. Thirdly, the projects are about supporting education...I'm a teacher by training but didactic teaching is not the only way to teach.
In a way, the distinction between Aldgate and Whitechapel seems to be more important now than it was in the past. Obviously back then you had your little local areas, but when I was growing up you mostly just had the East End. The boundary between Aldgate and Whitechapel was a bit more fluid. Because of where we are located, in an economic loop with the City, local identity straddles the East End. It's not so easy to make those internal lines of division because it’s defined so much by being the ‘other’. You cannot live in any of the East London areas and not be touched by the City. It's hard to talk about one without the other. The city is like a feeder. Even Whitechapel is a feeder. At some point most people in the East End have had a job in Whitechapel or Aldgate. I’ve had lots of different jobs around here. In the past, even though a lot of women worked from home elsewhere in the East End, they might do ‘piece work’ for a factory in Whitechapel, and travel back and forth once a week to deliver their work.
Looking north, Aldgate Square under construction (6 June 2018).
People talk about the decimation of communities after the collapse of the mining industry, but they don’t talk about the effects the closure of the Docks and the slowing of the rag trade had on the East End. It was different after that. I remember when things were closing down in the 1980s and 1990s. Two or three decades previous to that, work was more easily available in the East End, especially casual work. People would tell me that they’d go down to the Docks and get in line to be chosen for work that day and the supervisors would pick men out. They might have only arrived fairly recently, but they found some kind of work quickly. Nowadays it is really difficult. Although lots of people will have worked in the City at some point, or in Whitechapel or Aldgate, that ease of finding work is not there. It’s really changed the East End and who lives here.
Even when I was growing up, people talked like the rag trade was just the Huguenots, but in my lifetime the markets like Petticoat Lane and Whitechapel Market were vibrant, diverse places. Up until 1990s factories here would make clothes for the big fashion houses. I got a sample dress from Missoni at Whitechapel Market for £10 once. If you were an East Ender, you had the opportunity to better yourself and look good. That is much harder now.
19 Wentworth Street in 2016, copyright Tamara Stoll.
My [maternal or paternal] grandmother had a stall at Whitechapel Market. It was for much less specific group of people then. There used to be a leather market on Petticoat Lane and my grandfather was a skilled shoemaker and leather seller there. My dad had a [clothing] factory in Brick Lane, and a shop in Watney market.
My maternal grandmother moved here from Jamaica in the late 1950s. I think she lived in Old Montagu Street before she went back to the Caribbean to pick up her children and then came back to London again. She came by plane as she was from quite an affluent family. That's quite an unusual story. She didn’t come by ship. Her uncle came earlier in the late 1940s or early 1950s, also by plane, as did my mum who came in the 1960s. Because she was a young child, my grandmother had to pay for a Nanny to look after her on the journey from Jamaica to here.
I grew up in Wapping and when I was five, six, seven, I would go to visit people with my grandmother after church. These could be people in their eighties, and I remember them talking about how they were forcibly taken to work on ships at as young an age as eleven, arriving in the UK around that age too. This is the story of stowaways that is not really unknown. There are so many layers to migration. It’s amazing I remember these stories as I was so young at the time, but there were many people who would say the same thing.
I've been doing arts projects since I was a teenager...but as an adult I wrote a play called Saturday Soup. It was put on at the Brady Arts Centre and was written through a series of workshops with the local Caribbean community and based on the theme of relationships. We talked to people between the ages of 18-70. I like to work in an interactive way. When you're doing oral history, it's fully interactive. When I'm doing a straight play, I still like to have an interactive element, so, after a performance in January 2014, we had a Q&A and Caribbean food after. People participating said, “Oh I didn't know there were Caribbean people in the East End.” When I'd go to other areas of London and said I was from the East End, other black people would say, “Really?”, and say I didn't sound really East End or like a cockney. This interest in documenting untold stories eventually led to an oral history project called ‘Backyard – Reflections of Home and Belonging’ which collected stories of London’s Afro-Caribbean community in Tower Hamlets. The project was produced in collaboration with Nomad and Cultivaters.
Sample of Backyard's website.
I think the Survey of London’s Whitechapel project is important because public space and buildings are used by people, so you're immediately talking about issues such as community, social inclusion, social exclusion. In a way, by mapping human space you are mapping human nature. By focussing on space and buildings, you get to map everything about a place. If you start with one person, or even a group of people, you miss things. I suppose I think in quite a non-linear way, I like to see connections. For me, you can't map a space and a building without mapping the people.”
This year marked 40 years since the racist murder of Altab Ali, killed near the corner of Adler Street and Whitechapel Road in 1978. The murder is seen as the moment that mobilised the local Bengali community into political action. On Friday May 4th 2018 a commoration ceremony was held at the Shaheed Minaar in Altab Ali Park with speeches, poetry and the laying of a wreath.
Along with other speakers, Salam Jones, a local poet, photographer and carpenter wrote and performed this poem in memory of Altab Ali.
Who changed history
When he died in the community
When he died for the likes of you and me.
We all cried in protest about the bigotry
And marched 7000 all the way round to Downing St
He died not in vain, after all we Bangladeshis did gain
But knowing that she would never see her son again
Knowing that his blood streamed like the monsoon rain
His mothers tears couldn’t wash away her pain.
Altab was killed by three measly boys,
Out on the prowl with their steely toys
Oblivious to how much they would destroy
Robbing him of his joys without a single noise
With one swift move they used that knife.
With one fatal blow, they took his life.
At a time when racial hatred was very much rife.
And the East End was filled with trouble and strife.
As he fell to the floor, gasping for air like never before
He swore that he would see his mother’s face once more
Someone called the ambulance from the local store
But too little too late, Altab Ali was no more.
The whole of the East End was silent that night.
Stunned by the barbaric levels of violence that night
Stunned how easily Altab died without an equal fight
His death encouraged by politicians from the far right.
But that was the straw that gave the donkey a broken back
Wanting to remember him with more than a mere token plaque.
Bengalis were no longer willing to be victims of racist attacks
We started organising, demonstrating, and facing those packs
That was the death that became the catalyst for change
With his last breath, Altab freed us of our chains
We ventured out, and stood our ground, not backing down.
That’s when we Bangladeshis even dared to dream of a Banglatown.
The freedom we have today, we all should be thankful and pray
For the life and death of a man who died to pave the way
We should be grateful that despite his short life.
That was taken so sadly on this very spot with a knife
We as a borough have come together,
We as a community have vowed to never
Forget, and stand up and reject
The very hatred that took away our Bengali brother.
Anser Ullah writes, on this website, about the reaction of the Bengali community to the murder,
"For the Brick Lane Bengali community, who had been under constant attack from racists since early 1970s, the murder of Altab Ali, a leather factory worker, in 1978 was a turning point, especially for the Bengali youth. The murder led to their mobilisation and politicisation on an unprecedented scale. On 14 May 1978, 10,000 locals marched from the then St Mary’s Gardens (now Altab Ali Park) to a rally in Hyde Park, walking behind the coffin of Altab Ali in a show of unity and strength against racial violence. The group then walked to 10 Downing Street to hand over a petition to the Prime Minister calling for action to be taken against racist attacks."
Read the full account here https://surveyoflondon.org/map/feature/296/detail/
make:good have been commissioned by Tower Hamlets Council to design a series of wayfinding and public realm elements along Whitechapel Road. Over the last few months we have been running design workshops with local schools, the IDEA Store Whitechapel and also popping up along the market to speak to local people about what Whitechapel means to them. An important part of this project is to gather an understanding of the local history but also present day stories around people's individual experiences of the Whitechapel area.
Our approach has involved looking at the patterns and textures behind local landmarks, memories, stories and experiences that they have and we have invited people to combine and pull together these memories to develop a new visual language and a unique 'Patchwork Whitechapel'. This participatory process aligned very well not only with the Survey of London, mapping people's individual stories of places along Whitechapel, but also with Swanlea School GCSE class's theme of fragments.
On a sunny Friday afternoon in the bright top floor of the Whitechapel Gallery, 13 GCSE students delved into their memories and personal experiences of Whitechapel to create a collective patchwork Whitechapel made up of individual fragments, both of written stories and memories and also patterns and textures that represented the local area to them.
Looking at different photographic fragments of the local area and how they work together to make whole geometric shapes and patchworks, the workshop focused on each student dividing a hexagon into five unique fragments, inspired by the traditional Chinese puzzle of a tangram.
We began by filling these fragments with hand written stories and memories of the local area, asking the group "what makes your Whitechapel?" and "what do you think of when you imagine Whitechapel"? Students responded with a rich variety of memories and personal experiences ranging from sights, smells, sounds through to childhood memories and present-day rituals. We brought all the fragments together to make one whole hexagon of all the stories and then divided them again to locate them on the survey of London map. You can read these individual stories on the main map under Whitechapel Road.
Moving on to a more visual patchwork, students selected five different patterns and textures from a wide array of samples from the area; colourful scarves, slimy fish scales, rooftops of buildings, reflective windows,familiar brickwork, the list continued with over 50 different local patterns spread across the table.
"It was amazing to see how carefully selected and matched these fragment compositions were. The students gave a lot of thought to the colours, patterns and textures from the local area that meant something to them." Nataly, make:good
The result was a beautiful and vibrant patchwork, a unique collection of fragments, each representing a personal experience, memory or story, coming together to make one whole Patchwork Whitechapel which will be used in different elements along Whitechapel Road to help people find their way and introduce a new visual language to the area.
With each fragment, students described their choice with one line, explaining what it means to them. These came together to compose a collective poem which captures the essence of what Whitechapel means to this group of Swanlea students.
A few of the fragments that the students wrote are posted below, all of the comments can be seen on the Whitechapel Road purple strip on our main map.
We're delighted to welcome two energetic researchers to our team to further the Survey's work in the community. Nishat Alum and Tanha Quadi are both Whitechapel born, and have themselves witnessed and been part of the changes that the area has seen. They will primarily be involved in oral histories and working with local groups to access those experiences of Whitechapel that can be more difficult to uncover.
Nishat is passionate about local history and also works at Redbridge Archives, and can be seen here interviewing Mahera Ruby about growing up in Whitechapel.
Tanha is actively involved in local community initiatives, and has recently worked with Toynbee Hall on their archives project. Here she is speaking to people on Whitechapel Road about their experiences of the market, in a consultation exercise alongside design firm Make Good.
Watch this space for more work from Nishat and Tanha.
Bevis Marks Synagogue in the City of London has served London’s Sephardic Jewish community for more than three centuries. Members of the ‘Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue’, as it was known in the eighteenth century, tended to live to the east of the City in the parish of St Botolph’s Aldgate. Yet many Sephardic Jews of Spanish and Portuguese origin also took up residence in Whitechapel, still only a short walk away from the synagogue. The Survey’s research into the early development and inhabitation of Goodman’s Fields is beginning to uncover the strength of this community’s association with the area, enriching our understanding of the character of this once affluent pocket of Whitechapel.
Extract from John Rocque's 1746 map of London. Bevis Marks Synagogue is highlighted in orange. The Tenter Ground of Goodman's Fields to the east.
A recent excursion to Lisbon brought one of the Survey’s historians into contact with Carla Costa Vieira, a doctoral researcher based at Universidade Nove de Lisboa. Vieira is exploring archives in London and Lisbon in order to trace the Portuguese Jews, or ‘New Christians’, who escaped to England in the early decades of the eighteenth century to avoid persecution and punishment under Lisbon’s notorious Inquisition. The records of Bevis Marks have been an important reference point for Vieira in identifiying the men, women and children who travelled to London at this time. Her work is focused on the agents, networks and mercantile exchanges that enabled many Portuguese Jews to establish themselves as successful traders in London, and indeed Whitechapel, having migrated on one of the many ships leaving Lisbon’s busy colonial port. Assisted by the Methuen Treaty of Commerce of 1703, which granted English ships immunity from Portuguese laws, many escapees maintained close commercial links with Lisbon, entering into partnerships with English merchants in both cities to exploit the potential of trade with the West Indies and South America. However, many Sephardi refugees came to London with little and were at least initially reliant on Bevis Marks for charity, sometimes later establishing themselves as successful businessmen and notable community leaders.
Sixteenth-century Rua Nova dos Mercadores, Lisbon. This street was the centre of mercantile activity in Lisbon before the 1755 earthquake, which destroyed much of the city. Image: Society of Antiquaries, Kelmscott Manor.
The distinctive names of Sephardic families of Portuguese and Spanish descent are easily spotted in the Land Tax lists for eighteenth-century Goodman’s Fields. These lists show that a number of families lived in or operated their businesses from large houses that lined Mansell Street, Alie Street, Leman Street and Prescot Street. A directory published in 1800 indicates that this activity continued into the nineteenth century, with merchants with the surnames of Bensusan, Pariente and Fonseca holding premises on Prescot Street and Leman Street. Iberian merchants often assumed aliases to protect themselves from the threat of kidnapping: one name might be used for business and another for family life, and sometimes a mixture of the two.
Sketches of three Spanish-Portuguese Jewish families based in Goodman's Fields:
Abraham (also known as John or Jose) da Costa Villa Real escaped Lisbon with his family of seventeen in 1726. In Portugal, he had held the position of Comptroller General of the King’s armies. When he learned of his imminent arrest for practising as a Jew, Abraham used a fire in the city as cover to leave for England with an extraordinary sum of money, said to exceed £300,000, on one of the ships in his control. After settling in London, Abraham leased a property on the south side of Prescot Street, a 'spacious and regular built' street. One of ‘Chamber’s Rents’, his was one of about thirty terraced houses (now long demolished) inhabited by the upper and middle classes, particularly those connected to mercantilism. Abraham's sons married quickly and advantageously, cementing the position of the Villa Reals in London's Jewish society. One son, Jacob (or Gabriel de Villa Nova), a merchant, continued to live in the Goodman’s Fields area until his premature death in 1733. His house, possibly adjacent to his father’s on Prescot Street, was bequeathed to his widow and young son, Abraham, who, at the age of nineteen, was later described as ‘gent of Prescot Street’.
Extract from John Rocque's 1746 map of London showing the quality and open-ness of the streets and gardens of Goodman's Fields.
Abraham the Elder died a few years after his son in 1737, his own wife having apparently pre-deceased him. His will addresses three different young women who lived with him in Prescot Street. Leonor (or Judith), his granddaughter, whose father was a merchant then living in Portugal, and Luiza, 'single young woman', were gifted luxurious furniture and linen from the house, along with marriage portions and annual incomes. Rather than receiving a gift, a mixed-race enslaved girl named Izabell, of whom Abraham noted ‘I brought from Lisbon’, was gifted. The girl was given to her master's grandson, Abraham of Prescot Street. Izabell’s enslaved mother, Maria, had served the Villa Reals in Lisbon, although apparently was not taken to London like her daughter.
The patriarch of our second Sephardic family of note was Abraham Dias Fernandes (also known as Fernando Dias Fernandes or Miguel Vianna), also a resident of Goodman's Field's. He was a contemporary of Abraham da Costa Villa Real, and named as an executor in his will. The Dias family lived in Whitechapel from at least the 1720s and Abraham’s son Isaac Dias Fernandes (also known as Isaac Viana or Antonio Lopes Dias) lived on the east side of Mansell Street until at least 1742. Born in the late seventeenth century, Abraham Dias Fernandes originated from the Toledo area of Spain but moved his business to Portugal to increase his prospects. Having lived in Lisbon for five years, he fled the city in 1706 with his two sons, Isaac and Diogo, after having been condemned to wear penitential dress on account of suspicion that he was a practising Jew. His wife was burnt alive for the same 'crime'. Travelling via Spain and possibly the Netherlands, Abraham and his sons arrived in England with nothing, their goods having been confiscated in their absence and a death sentence issued. Despite these adversities, Abraham successfully established himself in the wool trade, especially shipping goods to Portugal for distribution to Brazil. The Dias Fernandes family continued to operate from various warehouses and houses in the Goodman’s Fields area until the end of the nineteenth century.
Lisbon before the 1755 earthquake, which destroyed much of the built fabric of the city. Etching by Matthaus Seutter from Georg Braun's 1598 engraving. Rossio Square and Estaus Palace highlighed in orange. This was the Inquisition's headquarters, and public executions were often performed here. This was likely the site of Mrs Abraham Dias Fernandes' death.
David Samuda was born in London in 1733 to a Portuguese refugee and physician, Abraham Samuda. Abraham had migrated from Lisbon to the Portsoken Ward of Aldgate sometime before 1723 and was almost certainly a kinsman of Isaac de Sequeira Samuda, the first Jewish Fellow of the Royal Society, who had also escaped from Lisbon to London in the first decades of the eighteenth century. Not straying far from the area settled in by his father, David occupied 72 Leman Street (now the site of the police station) from the 1760s until his death in 1804. He was also associated with a property in Alie Street. His mother, or stepmother, Esther, leased a house on Leman Street from the 1760s to the 1790s, first on the east side and then on the west, likely living in her son's property for some of that time. David used Goodman's Fields as a base for his mercantile business. He owned several ships implicated in trade with Jamaica, and his son, also David (b. 1766), later followed in his father's footsteps. Samuda & Co. ships carried goods such as sugar, rum, logwood, fustic and mahogany from Jamaica to London, and the younger David became a partner in a Jamaican plantation which owned several hundred enslaved people. Proof of the strong Jamaican-London connection is found in the elder David Samuda’s will; money was bequeathed to the poor of Bevis Marks Synagogue as well as the Portuguese Synagogues in Kingston and Spanish Town, Jamaica.
Doorway of No. 66 Leman Street, built 1760s and one of the last remaining fragments of the eighteenth-century development of the street. Extract of John Rocque's 1746 map of London.
These three brief sketches of Sephardic migration into Goodman's Fields suggest that there is much still to be discovered about how Whitechapel’s built environment was shaped by colonial trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and perhaps especially in relation to East London’s sugar-refining businesses.
 Edward Hatton, A New View of London, 1708, p. 65
 TNA, C11/1608/17. Also see Wills of Abraham da Costa Villa Real (TNA, PROB 11/683/393) and Jacob da Costa Villa Real (TNA, PROB 11/659/372).
 Richard Barnett, 'Diplomatic Aspects of the Sephardic Influx from Portugal in the Early Eighteenth Century' in Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England, Vol 25, 1973, pp. 210-221
 Carla Costa Vieira, 'Observing the Skies of Lisbon: Isaac de Sequeira Samuda, an Estrangeirado in the Royal Society' in The Royal Society Journal, Vol 68, 2014, pp. 135-149
 Will of David Samuda (TNA, PROB 11/1412/83). Also see Eli Faber, Jews, Slaves and the Slave Trade: Setting the Record Straight, 2000, p. 311-12.
Last December it was announced that the Whitechapel Bell Foundry would close in May 2017, and this year has witnessed its closure and the end of what has been a remarkable story. Business cards claim the bell foundry as ‘Britain’s oldest manufacturing company’ and ‘the world’s most famous bell foundry’ – the first not readily contradicted, the second unverifiable but plausible. The business, principally the making of church bells, had operated continuously in Whitechapel since at least the 1570s. It had been on its present site with the existing house and office buildings since the mid 1740s. Derek Kendall's wintry photographs of the bell foundry in 2010 provide an insight into its historic buildings and the preservation of traditional craftsmanship until its closure. If you would like to read the Survey's full account, please click here to find the draft text.
On Christmas Eve 1872, a reporter from the London Evening Standard rambled through the streets of East London. His observations of the hurried preparations for Christmas commenced in Wapping and the area around Cable Street, then moved up through Commercial Road onto Whitechapel Road with its bustling market.
The newspaper report began with the reflection that: “the great duty and pleasure of Christmas is to buy the dinner for Christmas day.” It continued: “It is in the streets that the lower classes are to be found on Christmas Eve, and the region from Whitechapel Road to the river may be taken typical of the whole district…Upon Christmas Eve the majority of those who frequent the pawn-shops [of the Highway] do so to obtain money, but upon the Saturday pre-ceding, and indeed during the week before Christmas, up to the very evening before, the movement has been the other way. Articles of clothing, little pieces of furniture, and ornaments have been redeemed with a view of making house and person look their best upon the festival. But we must not linger here, for the Whitechapel Road is our goal: here we shall see the real Christmas Eve work at its height. We cross the Commercial Road broad, well-lighted, and with good shops of all kinds…On now through more narrow lanes, and then out into the Whitechapel Road. Here is indeed a contrast to anything we have seen before, a scene of bustle and noise, of amusement and business, of general good temper, such as it does one good to see.”
'Whitechapel Shops' by Joseph Pennell, c.1899. It actually depicts Aldgate High Street. Illustration from Walter Besant's 'East London' (London: 1901), p.190.
Aware of its wide readership, the report outlined that: “Whitechapel Road is well known in the East; it is its Regent Street and Oxford Street rolled into one…Still, well known as the road is in its own quarter of the town, there are existent Englishmen who have not seen it, and for their information I may describe it as a road of great length and considerably wider from house to house than any thoroughfare I know of in London. Upon the south side the pavement is wide, and towards the western end occupied by costermongers’ trucks and stands, but at the eastern end it affords in its desertion and darkness a singular contrast to the bustle and activity of the north side of the road. Here the footway is perhaps fifty feet wide, and along its whole length, with their backs to the road, are an unbroken line of stalls, carts, trucks, and erections of itinerant vendors. The walk between this row of stalls and the shops was so crowded with people that it was difficult to make one’s way, impossible to walk fast. It resembled a French scene more than an English one, and might, with a little stretch of the imagination, have been taken for a Parisian Boulevard during the fair at the end of the year."
Extract from Ordnance Survey map of 1873.
"Here was the great market of the East End, here was shopping going on in full force. The variety of the contents of these stalls was wonderful. Here was a bower of evergreens, holly, and mistletoe; next to it a truck with oranges, then fish, then piles of vegetables, cabbages, parsnips and turnips. Then came stalls of toys, drums and whistles, of dolls, paper lanterns, and gilt gingerbread, stalls of toys at four a penny, choose where you will; men selling twelve articles, among which was a gold wedding ring, for a penny; men with yards of songs; stalls with looking glasses, stalls belonging to butchers and furniture shops on the other side of the path, which had spread across and formed an island dependent on the parent establishment; tin-ware stalls, second-hand boot stalls, stalls where you shoot for nuts, and stalls where you could turn a wheel for toys….Here were booths with hardware, with baskets and with brushes, and covered stalls with bonnet and cap flowers, with ribbons and neckties, and brightly coloured paper flowers for mantel pieces and vases. Here were men with trucks of rusty locks and keys, jacks for roasting at a penny, and toasting forks and scones for six candles at the same price."
"Here, too, were creature comforts for present use, baked potatoes, hot pies, and shell fish cooked and raw. Prominent among them was an erection belonging to a vender of bloaters, but he had so completely lined it with fish, hanging in regular lines tail downwards, that it sparkled in the light until it looked like a scene from the icicle palace of King Frost in a Christmas pantomime. Imagine all these stalls, multiply them by fifty, mix them up together confusedly illuminate them by petroleum gaslights, surround them with a busy, amused, anxious throng, some purchasers, some lookers-on, put children’s faces peering everywhere, and add the shouting of countless costermongers, and the picture is complete…"
Petticoat Lane, Christmas shoppers. Image from the Illustrated London News, Dec 1949.
"The drizzling rain thinned the crowd a little early in the evening, but at about nine o’clock it held up, and the pavement was soon crowded again. There are many men here, but the women are in the ascendancy, and feel upon their own ground, as may be judged by the following remarks, which I heard, with variation countless times, “Where is your father, Eliza? What a man that is! I hav’n’t bin five minutes in the shop, and there he’s gone again, just staring about, you know…We hav’n’t settled yet which piece of beef we’re going to have for tomorrow….”
The Children's Ward of the London Hospital at Christmas. Image from The Graphic, 30 Jan 1886.
"It is not every one, however, who can afford to buy joints of meat. Here and there among the busy merry crowd hang thin women in worn clothes…They are the shadows upon the scene…Some of the children’s faces too, must be looked upon as shadows, pale, worn, and preternaturally old, looking with eager eyes at the toys, the bright dolls, and shining knickknacks…Most of us like to see snow upon the ground on Christmas day, but it is a pleasure well worth giving up when we consider that what is pleasure to us is exquisite pain to thousands of these famished and ill-clad little ones.” 
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.