Tag Archives: Limehouse

Dr Barnardo of Stepney

IMG_2956Dr Barnardo has been both lionized and accused of a great deal over the decades, subject to innuendo, accusation and lawsuits while he was still alive, and a continuing source of interest to academics and historians. Because, quite frankly, he is fascinating, possibly terrible, and had a lasting impact on philanthropy in general, but more importantly a life-changing impact upon tens of thousands of poor children.

I never knew quite how many: 28,000 children alone he sent off to Canada (how many more did he send to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, the territories of white Commonwealth?), at one point in time he was legal guardian to 87 middle and upperclass children, and in charge of 8,000 more. Many thousands more passed through his homes and shelters and villages. It is mind boggling.

Mostly that such a small island country should have had so many children in desperate need —  and this book seems to follow Dr Barnardo in never once asking why that should be.

Mostly that one man should have been allowed this kind of power over tens of thousands of children.

dr-barnardoSo much has been written about Barnardo around subjects of Victorian philanthropy and slumming, sex, his use of photography, the role of missionaries in the East End.  I used to teach a really interesting chapter from Seth Koven’s Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London, which I really need to reread in its entirety.

This is a very different kind of book, written by his secretary for the last seven years of his life — he knew him well, looked up to him, and shared his world view for the most part. It developed from several papers written by him in reply to requests as to what sort of man Barnardo was. I could imagine he did field a lot of those requests.

Above all reading it, it is hard to believe it was finished in 1942. It belongs entirely to an earlier age almost as far removed from WWI as it is from WWII — but in that gives more of a window to Dr Barnardo through the lens of the period he lived in.

The introduction from Christopher Fry is the same, he writes:

Almost as soon as he set foot in London he began to draw out from their dark holes-and-corners a race of wild, unloved, and outcast children, a race which had skulked and suffered there for generations while the life of the city went on around them. (7)

I almost threw the book against the wall. Another race? What, are they dead that they do not form part of London’s life? They must have been a ubiquitous presence, these children, shaping the city and people’s experience of it as hard as they might have tried not to see them.

Dr Barnardo – a secretary’s impressions

But back to Dr Barnardo —  born in Dublin 1845, he came to London in 1866 to study medicine with a goal of becoming a medical missionary to China. For some reason (I don’t even think Williams is indulging in irony here) he didn’t get on so well with his fellow students. They all thought him a bit odd, a “queer fellow” and always preaching.

His first year in London saw a great cholera outbreak, which he celebrated for turning people’s eyes toward the Lord. Williams writes:

He had personally undertaken the circulation of Bibles in East London, and in three months he had sold in the open streets, in public-houses and in market-places thirty thousand copies of the Scriptures. (65)

Whatever else he was, he was a man to be reckoned with. One who put selling bibles over more useful interventions. On one occasion he had two ribs broken when he was beaten after trying to sell bibles in the wrong place to the wrong people. It didn’t stop him. Williams writes:

As soon as I entered the Doctor’s room, I realized that I was in the presence of a man of commanding personality. He was short of stature, only five feet five inches in height, sturdily built, with a very fine head and shoulders. One could not fail to notice the firm chin, and the keen grey eyes that seemed to have the power of reading one’s thoughts. His massive forehead also arrested attention, and gave some indication of the marvelous brain behind it. He was quick and alert in his movements, and bore an unmistakable air of authority. (15)

The working conditions under him will be familiar to anyone who knows similarly driven people in the charity field, but with much less regulation.

That was my first impression of Dr Barnardo–a man who wanted half-an-hour’s work done in twenty minutes. (16)

It is a portrait of a man who pushes himself harder than he pushes his staff, beginning early in the morning in Surbiton trying to deal with a level of correspondence that I cannot honestly imagine —  ‘where an amanuensis attended him daily, so that he could get a certain amount of work done before leaving for Stepney.’ Once at work he sat at two large tables in L-configuration covered with baskets of letters, and worked late into the night, often midnight or beyond, dictating letters. But this is after his work back in Stepney, where:

A special staff of clerks used to come on duty each evening, and to enable the Doctor to continue his dictation without interruption, and to avoid delay in transcription, pages of shorthand notes would be rushed up to the typing room by a waiting messenger as fast as they were taken down from the Doctor’s lips… (26)

Williams writes of His ‘magnetic personality’ (32), that ‘he seemed to cast a spell over those who worked with him’ (33) and this (again, this sounds so familiar):

There were times when I got very tired of these long hours, but I was always conscious of the fact that however much the Doctor required of his staff, he was giving far more himself, and I was loath to complain. (33)

Beyond all question, Dr Barnardo was an autocrat. He knew it, and acknowledged it, but hoped he was “a benevolent autocrat.” (35)

He was also often quite deaf. Not that those things are necessarily connected, but he doesn’t strike me as a great listener.

There’s a nice awkward section about the women who worked for him as well, a little kindly misogyny thrown in:

Dr Barnardo employed a large number of women; some in administrative work; a number as clerks; others as superintendents, nurses, cottage mothers, etc. No one could have won the wholehearted devotion of these women helpers more than he did, or have made fuller use of their abilities. Some had a record of many years service, and he valued their help; yet he frequently declared in his humorous way that being “a poor ignorant male, a stupid common-sense kind of creature,” women completely mystified him, and he found them utterly inexplicable. (37-38)

Ah, women and the ways that they operate without common sense. He was inexplicably married — for convenience and to further the work really, his wife rarely appears in these pages. There are, of course, rumours of pedophilia, but at least at the last stage of his life, it honestly seems hard to see how he could have managed it surrounded by such a beehive of workers waiting upon his direction at all hours.

A missionary to East London instead of China

Reading this you get a sense of East London as foreign and in need of Christian redemption as the furthest reaches of what Europeans held (wrongly) as the civilised world. He became involved in the Ragged Schools in 1866, and Williams describes what he states is the well-known story of how Dr Barnardo came into his work through his encounter with his first ‘street arab’. (There is so much to be unpacked in that term alone). The little boy asked him if he could stay over night as he had nowhere else to go. Barnardo, so the story goes, didn’t believe there were homeless children — so he bribed Jim Jarvis with coffee and place to sleep to show him where other children hid away to sleep. Bob’s your uncle, the Dr Barnardo we know today began to emerge.

He just happened to be at a dinner with Lord Shaftesbury soon afterwards — he convinced him to come along and see for himself the state of these children, and they agreed something must be done.

Dr Barnardo’s rescue operation started in a donkey stable, moved to Bale Street and expanded to Hope Place in Stepney. In 1870 he expanded to Stepney Causeway — and although the building was demolished, Williams states that the door now sits in entrance hall of Barnardo Headquarters. I wonder if it’s still there?

No.10 Stepney Causeway
No.10 Stepney Causeway

Describing the early days, Barnardo wrote:

“Many a happy hour was spent in whitewashing walls and ceilings, scrubbing floors, and otherwise putting the place into a suitable condition for the reception of my first family. Then I spent two whole nights upon the streets of London, cast my net upon the ‘right side of the ship,’ and brought to shore twenty-five homeless lads all willing and eager to accept such help as I could give them.” (74)

His language is, of course highly biblical. Williams describes his forays, and again you think to yourself, he might as well have been on a mission in China given how they describe these neighbourhoods in their own city — resulting from desperate poverty and inequality and exploitation.

It was customary for him to sally forth at midnight, clad in great coat and top hat, and carrying a dark lantern, to take his way through filthy, loathsome slums; down alleys where a policeman stood at the entrance and warned wayfarers not to proceed; into the communal kitchens of the common lodging-houses with which London abounded at that time, and where thieves, rogues and vagabonds of every kind gathered. (76)

It seems a waste of a policeman honestly. Still, the one nice thing about this book is that it allows some sense of resistance, and the irrepressible humour and bravery of the children themselves to occasionally peek through:

As a rule the help the Doctor offered was thankfully accepted, but it was not always so. Sometimes he found it difficult to persuade a homeless youngster, in spite of the sufferings and hardships of a street life, to yield up the freedom to which he had become accustomed, and which he had come to prize. (78)

East London – Dr Barnardo’s hunting grounds

His descriptions of East London and its people are quite infuriating:

We learn that people were ignorant and untaught. The streets were only dimly lit at night-time by feeble, flickering gas lamps, and were indescribably filthy. The gutters were filled with fetid water, and decaying cabbage leaves, potato parings and other refuse damned the gratings. The gin shops kept open until all hours of the night. (80)

And here is how he saw its inhabitants — wild animals seeking their own. As if people had multiple options, as though poverty were their choice.

A more unsavoury, ignorant and generally repellent rookery it would be hard to find. Street traders had made the street, with its many courts and alleys, their chosen home. The successful thief, resting in ill-gotten plenty, was neighbour to the luckless adventurer whom disease and famine had driven into his last earthly retreat, to die unheeded and unpitied by the great world without. Birds of a feather flocked together in this degraded colony. When a choked water pipe leading from the roof of a building was examined, it was found to be blocked up with empty purses which had been tossed on to the roof…People herded there whose chance of getting their daily bread each morning was more precarious than that of wild animals who picked up their sustenance in the open country. The lowest depths of all we seen in the precocious depravity of the juvenile population. (80)

It’s almost amusing then, when Dr Barnardo — recognising that lodging houses held many children — did not last one night when he himself attempted to stay in one as ‘research’. He dressed as a tramp, and one of ‘his boys’ took him to one, where he was apparently bitten so badly by insects it was three weeks before he was fit to be seen. It is reminiscent of Mary Higgs’ research, but she was hardier and much more thorough.

A little more on the subject though — Williams tells of the time (this is highly anecdotal as you might imagine) Barnardo was trying to rescue messenger boys (their souls really I believe) from a lodging house in Drury lane (and no, that’s not the East End, he really got around). He found out that they were relapsing because girls from the neighbouring lodging house were paying a bribe to the deputy to allow them in three nights a week for carousing. Dr Barnardo put a stop to that by convincing the boys it was immoral, and even to move into other lodgings. He of course blamed the dissoluteness of women — I can come up with a few rather more likely explanations, most of which involve pimps.

Anyway, on his return to original house to check after the souls of the boys, the girls found him there alone in the kitchen and beat him up. You almost rejoice that he was house-bound for a month. He writes:

“To anyone who may smile at this recital of my timidity I would say, ‘Have you ever been thrashed by a woman?’ For, if not, let me remark that few things can be more humbling and fear-begetting than a vigorous chastisement administered by female hands before an approving female audience. (85)

I agree with that statement, but he definitely needed some chastising.

From Stepney he expanded on an ever growing scale. Again the funny Victorian notions of sex and propriety emerge

When the Doctor began his work of rescue on behalf of destitute children, being a young unmarried man he confined his operations to boys (93)

But he soon opened a Village Home for Girls at Barkingside, a number of youth’s labour homes beginning in 1881 (training ‘camps’, probably most problematic). He started a boarding out system, first instituted 1886, where children were sent into the country to live with families until they were 12 or 13, then brought back to London to begin apprenticeships/training. Again, looking at the scale of these operations, the heart quails. For every child given to a good home, I feel fear even at this late date for those children put into the complete power of strangers.

The Uses and Abuses of Empire

Even before this he had begun to send children to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa — it was 1882 when the first party of 51 boys sailed to Canada.

Everything is here: the power of the wealthy to control the bodies and the futures of the poor, the role of the colonies to soak up those the ruling classes did not want to help or even look at, the land stolen from indigenous peoples in order to provide these children a new start and a new hope based on their citizenship and the colour of their skin. Those children sent into uncertain futures, entirely at the mercy of their new families.

Just to recap: 28,000 boys in total sent by Dr Barnardo to Canada. The book mentions in passing the many other societies then started up to do the same thing, but not as rigorously or as well.

A different kind of migrant crisis. It hurts my heart.

They had to do some work to set the ground to justify all of this, and it is hardly surprising that they did not look too closely at the causes of poverty. The book mentions that children were bought and sold and traded, beaten, made to work, to beg after being made as pitiful and hopeless looking as possible, to thieve… They needed saving. Having read multiple other accounts of poverty, I don’t doubt many did, but it is curious to me why it was able to take this form.

Also curious, though I suppose Victorian morality makes it less curious, is that nowhere is there any mention of sex work even when talking about the buying and borrowing of children, where others like Flora Tristan note that sexual exploitation was often the primary motive.

Speaking of Flora Tristan, who described gin palaces in great fury, it is also curious that Dr Barnardo managed to buy what he describes as one of the most notorious Gin Palaces and Music Halls in Limehouse — the Edinburgh Castle. Dr Barnardo wrote of it:

Here was a powerful force for evil, with seductive charms that some of us can scarcely estimate the force of. I remember well coming to the old place when around the wall, in the intervals between each window, were niches, and in every niche was an indecent statue. On the platform or stage in front a number of girls engaged in dances. In the middle of the room was a bar for the sale of drink. There was a door that led out to the tea-gardens, where all kinds of evil practices went on. Almost every one of the houses overlooking this place were houses of evil character. There were one or two exceptions, bit nearly all were full of persons of infamous life. (90)

They turned it into a hall, churchly entertainment centre, and held ‘waif suppers’ there, you can read a lot more on The Children’s Homes website.

Edinburgh Castle site, Limehouse, c.1896.
Edinburgh Castle site, Limehouse, c.1896.

Stepney Causeway, and his provision for children

I liked the descriptions of what his complex on Stepney Causeway was once like, it is all long gone now of course and I think probably better so.

A large building had been erected in Bower Street, which runs parallel to Stepney Causeway, and this building was linked up by a bridge with the Causeway premises. The Doctor’s Board Room was situated on the first floor of the Bower Street building, and had a fine bay-window overlooking a large paved yard. This yard, with a small extension under a couple of railway arches, was the only playground for four hundred boys…They played cricket and football within its narrow confines, with special rules to fit the circumstances.

It was in the yard at Stepney that they went through their daily physical exercises and drill under the supervision of a retired army instructor. It was there that the Medical Officer would sometimes conduct an open-air inspection of eyes, ears and teeth; and if a boy in the Hospital passed away, the little funeral cortege would cross the yard on its way to the chapel where the funeral service would be held. (28)

At the top of the building was a photographic studio where every child was photographed on admission and again on leaving. Some striking contrasts were obtained in this way. (30)

Those photographs — definitely one of the things that most got him into trouble. That and his habit of taking children from their parents and families with impunity. There was one lawsuit as he sent many of these children to Canada. It is tan ugly side to this work, and his world view that seemed to hold axiomatic that poverty was the fault of the parents, and he had to save children from both. This book recounts only stories of criminal, abusive and gin-sodden relations who would pawn the good clothes given to their children (though boots or bread, a hard choice) for whom there might have been a case the child needed to be removed for their own wellbeing. Yet clearly many more must have simply been poor and desperate. There is little to no thought to conditions or opportunities for these families as a whole. Much of me revolts in an enormous ‘how dare he’.

The enormous and ugly class prejudice is most obvious when Williams discusses Barnardo’s guardianship over boys who were not poor. He writes:

There was one special feature of the Doctor’s work which impressed me very much. He was frequently approached by parents or guardians of young people of the middle and upper classes for advice and assistance in difficult cases; boys and girls addicted to dishonest habits or tainted by the bad example of servants, or who, through lack of proper management, had become uncontrollable and defiant.

Never the bad example of upper class parents, or abuse or alienation, oh no. He blames servants. It’s quite extraordinary.

There is, finally, a quaint sentimentality that pervades all, this will give you a sense of it:

Children turned to him instinctively as though they understood his love…”Boys and girls have always been fond of me,” he wrote on one occasion, “and I need not say I have always been very fond of them. I don’t quite know what it is that makes children so attractive to me; but although I have had many who have been crippled and sadly deformed, and some who have been afflicted with dreadful disorders, I think I may say of a truth I have never seen a really ugly child!” (47)

There are several stories of helping crippled children that have a polished and well practiced air to them, which is quite distasteful. There are many stories of his relationships, but then you read this:

In his later years Dr Barnardo had nearly eight thousand children in his charge, and one could not help being deeply impressed by the personal interest he took in each member of his great family. (50)

and you have to question them. I confess after reading this I am less interested in the character of Dr Barnardo himself, or the charges often raised against him. Instead I question the position he was allowed to fill, the sentimentality and prejudice that made it possible, the sources of the conditions that justified a means that would never be acceptable today. This is vastly different than the work of say Father Potter, who also took in boys and helped raise them. As always for us now suspicions are raised, but in his case it is also clear why it was that he could not see a boy asleep in the street and not give him a home. That makes sense to me without being in a position to much judge any ulterior motives (and I like to hope there were not) — unlike the wholesale removal of tens of thousands of children from either the streets or their own homes and families. Their repatriation across the world to further build empire.

There is so much to think about here, and the impact this one man alone and the organisations he set into motion were able to inflict on so many kids. Never even imagined here are the gaps left in the community, the holes in the hearts and the homes left by those children as they were shipped off abroad. The trauma of those events. The ways they facilitated the maintenance of an illusion of a prosperous society and eradicated the elements that might call this illusion to account, while also consolidating the empire.

How dare they, I think again.

[Williams, A. E. (1953) Barnardo of Stepney: The Father of Nobody’s Children. Liverpool: Guild Books.]

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Debord & Jorn in Limehouse — and the best single objection to planning you will ever read

In 1955, the London Times published this piece of garbage:

London’s Chinatown is threatened with extinction. That labyrinth of squalid streets, mysterious passages, and shuttered hovels a mile or two east of Aldgate pump is doomed. The planners have been told to go ahead. By the end of the year much of Pennyfields will have been demolished to make room for blocks of flats. After that, it is only a question of time before the rest of it will vanish like an opium smoker’s dream.

Tenacious as the type of Oriental who jumps ship and settles within the purlieus of London’s Docklands is, he is helpless under the New Order. Whatever he and his compatriots may feel, they cannot hope to frustrate the designs of the modern builder. The series of rabbit warrens, from which a Chinese head was once wont to pop out with disconcerting suddenness, must give place to neat and tidy dwellings fitted with “h. and c.” and a sanitation calculated to make the old time denizens of London’s Chinatown shudder.

For it has never been the dwelling place of the Mandarin, much less the hiding place of the communist plotter. But it has been, and still is, the home-from-home of the Chinese Common Man, who, sick of the sea, had found the precarious existence to be derived from gambling, catering for his fellows, or pandering to curious visitors much to his liking. (49)
–anonymous, “Limehouse Nights in the 1930s: Chinatown of Romance and Fable Receives its Death Blow from the Planners.” London Times, August 31, 1955

In response, Bernstein, Debord, and Wolman write in Potlatch no. 23 (October 13, 1955):

We protest against such moral ideas in town-planning, ideas which must obviously make England more boring than it has in recent years already become.

***

Anyway, it is inconvenient that this Chinese quarter of London should be destroyed before we have the opportunity to visit it and carry out certain psychogeographical experiments we are at present undertaking.

Finally, if modernization appears to you, as it does to us, to be historically necessary, we would counsel you to carry your enthusiasm into areas more urgently in need of it, that is to say, to your political and moral institutions. (52)

Bam. I almost like them again.

3621776_0bcc87ccIn McKenzie Wark’s The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International, he describes their brief stay in Limehouse, in the building that formerly housed the British Sailor’s Society. A building on Newell Street, one of my favourite streets in all of London, and this building one I have puzzled over after noticing the plaque. Wark quotes a 2008 property advert that describes what it has become — and then goes on to describe what it once was:

“Newell Street, London, E14 7HR. £1,250,000: A beautiful Grade 2 listed house formerly headquarters of The British Sailors Society. Built circa 1802 for one of Horatio Nelson’s captains, the property retains many naval features including one of London’s only Victorian swimming pools, originally built to teach sailors to swim. The property is laid out over three floors and consists: large entrance hallway, drawing room, conservatory, four bedrooms, two bathrooms, studio room, sauna, private garden and two parking spaces. The property has also been used for filming, including Beginner’s Luck and Dead Cool and has been graced by stars such as Rosanna Arquette, Liz Smith, and Julie Delpy.”1

It’s easier to sell a property with a story, but beneath these stories lie others. The ad neglects to mention that the same address formerly housed the homeless, or that it was once disgraced by the anti-celebrities of the Situationist International. In preparation for the 1960 London conference, Debord and Jorn embarked on a dérive of the city looking for a suitable venue. They settled on this hall in the Lime-house district, mythologized by Charles Dickens as a seedy warren of opium dens. (253-254)

It’s so much more than that of course, I don’t much care for Edwin Drood, but I quite love knowing more about this little piece of it.

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Father John Groser, Rebel Priest of the East End

groserbookThis book uncovers for me some of the contributions of certain priests of the Church of England to the struggle for a better world here and now. It is a tradition I knew very little of, being more familiar with Liberation Theology such as that written by Gustavo Gutierrez and Camilo Torres, learned through the words and practice of some of the people I respect most in the world like Leonardo Vilchis and Don Toñito.  So I was happy to find this, a booklet Manifesto of the Catholic Crusade in the early 1920s by Father Conrad Noël:

if you would destroy the kept Press and fight for freedom of expression; if you would destroy the Capitalist Parliament and build a People’s Republic; if you would abolish classes, artificial distinctions, snobbery; if, while you know the most deadly tyrants are not kings but financiers, speculators, captains of industry, you would also, with St Thomas of Canterbury, destroy that nest of flunkeys, the Court; if, while you measure swords with the New Plutocracy, you are ashamed of that ancient fraud which calls itself the old Aristocracy…We offer you nothing–nothing but adventure, risks, battle, perhaps ruin; with the love and loyalty of comrades and the peace of God which passeth understanding.’ (15 – William Purcell ‘Birth of a Rebel’)

Father John Groser gave it to William Purcell telling him it was ‘a bit unbalanced, but still pretty splendid, don’t you think?’ (14). Father John was himself entirely splendid I think — how else could such a volume as this exist, written in sections by various colleagues and friends and a few pages from his son to keep alive his history and legacy and the vitality of his praxis? No activist could ask for a better tribute to their life’s work.

This form means this book is full of not only of struggle and theology, Marxism and Christianity, but also delightful glimpses into the character of the man, as well as the East End’s past and its life during two world wars. This is one of my favourite stories, of a church I hope to know better soon, and comes from Rev. Denys Giddey, Groser’s last curate at St George’s:

One evening in the blitz a small bomb dropped in the Rectory garden, which had at one time been part of the churchyard. We found that the explosion had disturbed some human remains. Father John went off to get a spade and told me to fetch a prayer book. I was then required, in the light of search-lights and various explosions, to read the Committal as he re-interred the remains. (56 – Kenneth Brill ‘Of Lawful Authority’)

I love the note that Groser takes it as understood that senior police officers see their duty as protection of property above all else. Then there are these splendid words — Charles Dalmon’s hymn for St George’s Day:

God is the only landlord
To whom our rents are due,
He made the Earth for all men
And not for just a few.
The four parts of Creation,
Earth, Water, Air and Fire,
God made and blessed and stationed
For every man’s desire. (79 – ‘Parish Priest’ – Kenneth Brill)

He was only ever parish priest in Stepney — Christ Church on Watney Street to be exact, though it no longer stands. It was destroyed early on by German bombs in WWII — I think it is hard for us now to imagine lives touched by not just one but two such great catastrophes — Father John was a chaplain on the front lines in WWI and this is part of what radicalised him and brought him to the East End in the first place.

This sentence is so reminiscent of Arthur Morrison’s opening to Mean Streets, but here these streets are transformed — the power of struggle certainly but I will allow religion as well:

Few, however, can take part in the Eucharist without a pang of regret for the ugly building, in an ugly street, in an ugly society, within which Groser ensured for them a vision of transcendent spiritual and material beauty which they are unlikely to enjoy again in its full glory this side of the grave. (96 – Brill, Parish Priest)

All of these things are grand, like his friendship with George Lansbury, his support for the docker’s strike, multiple arrests and police beatings. I’ll probably write more about those. It still surprised me to find him president of the Stepney Tenants Defense League. It began in 1938 when he gave space in vicarage for young solicitors and law students to interview & advise tenants, and clearly just snowballed from there as these things do. In May 1939 the League issued a broadsheet titled:

PERSONAL APPEAL FROM FATHER GROSER

In the nine months of our development we are able to say that we have beaten back the Landlords who have for years sucked the lifeblood of the people of Stepney. Your organisation has not only given the lead to the people of Stepney but also to the whole country. Our aim is to continue to wage the war against high rents and bad housing conditions. As well as your demand from the organisation the protection it offers, your organisation demands from you an understanding of the enormous problems that face it in it its fight.

There are 4 points on what tenants should do:

(i) Persuade neighbours to join the League and attend Meetings.
(ii) Set up committees in your streets and blocks of Buildings.
(iii) Bring in loans and donations for a thousand pounds to fight back against the powerful Landlords’organisation and to retain what has already been won.
(iv) Remember the struggles of the tenants in Brady Street and Langdale Mansions and the other strike centres are the struggles of every one of us. (101 – The World His Parish – Brill)

The League announced Tenants’ Week, gave a public showing of the film Tenants in Revolt (need to find that), and did a charabanc (charabanc!) outing to Hastings.

What did they do that we didn’t do in LA so many decades later? And we thought we were inventing it all (I know already how silly that sounds, but we didn’t really know what we were doing — I guess there aren’t so many ways to do it). I look back on my years of doing this same work and I am both thrilled to be part of this movement that stretches back over years and simultaneously dismayed that it fucking stretches back over so many years. The League even organised a fund tenants could pay rent into while on strike. Groser held thousands of pounds in this capacity. We are still doing this same thing and it makes me both happy and sad. It does emphasise to me, however, that until housing ceases to be a commodity that people profit from and instead becomes homes to be lived in and treasured, there will be tenant organisers just like us another hundred years from now.

Still, I am proud reading the events of Tuesday, 20th June 1939, when tenants of Alexandra Buildings on Commercial Street (45-55) ‘built barricades of tables, doors and sofas at each entrance and a “drawbridge” to resist the bailiffs. Six were arrested for obstructing and assaulting the police.’ They held pickets at the landlord’s offices while both the Mayor & Bishop of Stepney, Rabbi Brodie and Father Groser argued the tenant’s case inside with landlord 2 hours. Bringing politicians, priests, rabbis together to pressure slumlords to do the right thing? Shit, we did that too — but no such barricades sadly, and no drawbridge. That was a stroke of genius. The article in the next day’s Daily Herald stated Landlord Tarnspolsk agreed to stop evictions and negotiate. The barricades came down again.

Then war came, changing everything for a few years. Slowly Groser moved away from the League. But not from his politics.

Another favourite story is of the time Groser recited the following poem of G.D.H. Cole when preaching evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral. The verger conducted him to the steps of pulpit carrying a staff and bowed to him, Groser surprised him by bowing back, then said:

For I tell you one thing success cannot stomach the sight of,
And that’s failure, the sort that you can’t get away from or write off.
But that shabbily, shamblingly, haunts you and cringes for pence,
Am I wrong thus far, though I cause you offence?

Headlines in the Daily Herald the following day: ‘Means Test Denounced in St. Paul’s Pulpit’ (105 – The World his Parish)

In 1951, Groser helped to found the Stepney Colored People’s Association. In the article he wrote for their first newsletter in 1952 talking about how Stepney has ‘always been one of the most cosmopolitan areas of London, perhaps that is one of the reasons why it is such an interesting place to live in.’ and that it had ‘always provided a haven for foreigners and seamen…’ (107)

groserbecket1949you thought he couldn’t get much better, and then you find out he performed as Archbishop Becket in the 1949 film of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, directed by George Hoellering. I have to hunt that down. So he knew T.S. Eliot, John dos Passos, a few others.

He understood faith, and how Marxists have their share:

‘I believe that God has made the world for that sort of life in the world [a free and equal society], and man will not rest till he attains to it. But it is to me an act of faith which is in accord with my philosophy. It is equally an act of faith on the part of the Community Party. (From ‘Methods of Change.’ A lecture to Watford Deanery School of Religious Study, October 1934, quoted in ‘Socialist Because Christian’ – David Platt)

I enjoyed the point of view of his colleagues writing in the 1960s as though the battle is almost over, as though Keynes solved it all and we were well on our way to utopia. They look back on Father John’s more fiery days as a period over and done. Still, if only all Christians felt this way:

This incarnational doctrine leads to the necessity of the Christian’s identification of himself with human beings in need. In the 1920s and 1930s this led inevitably to participation in the class struggle. (167 – Platt)

There are more wonderful quotes, like these from the 1932 Manifesto of the Christ Church Campaign for Socialism:

“We believe that the principal duty of the Church is to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, a Kingdom of perfection, a Kingdom of love, justice, comradeship, beauty, and all that we know as good.”

The first stage in the programme is the establishment of a classless and democratic Socialist State in this country. The second step is ‘the establishment of a World Cooperative Commonwealth of ‘Socialist States’.(176 – Platt)

Can you imagine? Yet this is written as though we are on our way to achieving this, as though it is nothing very radical. This chapter on Father John’s Socialism by his son-in-law David Platt is almost as eye-opening as Angela Davis’s first autobiography where she knows the revolution is just around the corner. What I wouldn’t give to feel that just once, just a little touch of it.

You can tell that he worked with people, knew people. He argued strongly for the need for a transformation of rank and file through struggle and religion:

Sacrifice and cooperation are required when men are no longer driven by fear of unemployment and insecurity and not likely to suffer from their own sins and mistakes as before. Those who fear the development of too much centralisation of power need to be reminded that decentralisation is only possible if there is a sufficient number of people who are able and willing to accept responsibility below. A voluntary and peaceful transition from one order of society to another demands the active participation of all or at least of a sufficient number of people in every area of life to carry conviction and a following. It demands a readiness to surrender voluntarily rights which stand in the way, and a voluntary acceptance of sacrifice and responsibility by people willing a common objective. (‘The Vision of the Church’s Work’. Lecture to C.E.Y.C. Conference in Oxford, September 1950. 181 – Platt)

I shall end this with his denunciation of capitalists, a position I’d like to see more from the church as we still tighten our belts and continue dealing with their crisis: Father John could not be more clear that

their economic position so binds them that they are unable to do that which is necessary to make the Kingdom of God possible for them as for other men…It is these people who are in the position of control in international affairs, and it is the same interest that dictates there…when their economic position is threatened, their loyalty to the Kingdom of God becomes secondary, because to their consciousness the economic factor is the one most important thing in their lives. (‘The Vicar’s Letter’ in Christ church Monthly, December 1935, quoted Platt 185).

There is so much more left unsaid, and a few things to follow up as well, as always: Look up Ethel Upton, social science student from LSE working in Stepney and at St Katharine’s. Find Father John’s own book Politics and Persons. Find Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole, a novel that examines the horrors of the Means Test Father John spent his life campaigning against. More about the Stepney Colored People’s Association. So much.

If you want more right away, look at the wonderful page from St-George-in-the-East, packed as usual with facts and links.

And more on London’s East End from myself…

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Royal Victoria Docks, Old and New

I picked up East End and Docklands in the library on something of a whim, because the photographs are amazing, and show the docklands as I never knew them, though 1990 still doesn’t seem that far away. Until I count the decades. I am now eager to find Fishman’s Streets of East London.

Scan 37

It’s been in my stack of books to read and evacuate from this room before I must, and the parallel of poverty and decay swept away before regeneration and a shiny but far less interesting wealth is not at all lost on me.

This bank holiday weekend facing a broken boiler, days behind and stretching miserably ahead without hot water, we decided to take up a deal and escape to a cheap hotel off of the old Royal Victoria Dock. I took this picture:
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Reviewing the book before sending it back to the library I found this:

Scan 38
Inside the Royal Victoria Dock, looking west. It opened for business in 1855 on land acquired at little more than the going agricultural rate. By 1860 it was leading double the tonnage of the London Docks: now grass and weeds grow in the crevices of the once thriving jetty (54).

Granted they are facing a different direction, but the differences are still clear. An astonishing transformation.

As we walked down along the old docks to the Ramada, we passed this grouping of buildings I was fascinated by, that also found parallels in these old pictures:

Royal Victoria Docks

Royal Victoria Docks

The old Spillers Millenium Mills Building, I can’t quite figure out the angles here, but this is the same building:

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They get more interesting as you walk:

Royal Victoria Docks

I quite love the armadillo.

Royal Victoria Docks

Royal Victoria Docks

Royal Victoria Docks

A final pairing of pictures, though this one I took of Limehouse is from last year:

Limehouse

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The major employers today seem to be the miserable jobs in the hotels and the ExCel centre — which has created a most depressing and dead riverfront area with nowhere to sit, enjoy, discuss, daydream, stare at the river and think.

Royal Victoria Docks

Royal Victoria Docks

Funny that we call that regeneration, it was very reminiscent of the almost empty wasteland of the Olympic Park we had just left in Stratford. Except there the tiny handful of people on the grass did seem to be enjoying themselves and here they seemed more passed out really. Though I could be wrong.

The text in here gives a very good background to the docks and riverside, the development and decay and the struggle over their redevelopment. Of course it did not go uncontested, and who doesn’t love old protest posters:

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But they did not stop the cranes, this is one of the more extraordinary pictures I’ve seen I think. I would guess that today in the East End there are just as many of these bastards, but not with an unobstructed view like this.

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And to end on a happy note, a memory of the better days in Poplar. If only Ed Milliband had carved this message into stone and meant it.

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St Anne’s, Limehouse

You can see the tower of St Anne’s, Limehouse from afar — it was built to be seen from the Thames with its great clock, as shown in Walter Besant’s East End:

St Anne's, Limehouse

but now you mostly see it as a wayfarer along the DLR:

St Anne's, Limehouse

Me, working here now, walking these streets to know them, I have seen it from many other angles because I know to look, always it comes into view between buildings. Here looking to the north from Ropemaker’s Fields alongside the basin, a rare open view:

St Anne's, Limehouse

Here looking to the west:

St Anne's, Limehouse

But reading the writings of its former Rector in Limehouse Through Five Centuries, it was extraordinary to see how it once stood tall above everything:

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It is this grandeur that it has lost, that makes more sense of its occult status granted it by Iain Sinclair in Lud Heat:

The old maps present a skyline dominated by church towers; those horizons were differently punctured, so that the subservience of the grounded eye, and the division of the city by parish, was not disguised. Moving now on an eastern arc the churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor soon invade the consciousness, the charting instinct. Eight churches give us the enclosure, the shape of the fear; – built for early century optimism, erected over a fen of undisclosed horrors, white stones laid upon the mud and dust. In this air certain hungers were activated that have yet to be pacified; no turning back, as Yeats claims: “the stones once set up traffic with the enemy.”

In turn Peter Ackroyd used this as his inspiration for Hawksmoor, possibly my favourite of his books:

I make no Mencion that in each of my Churches I put a Signe so that he who sees the Fabrick may see also the Shaddowe of the Reality of which it is the Pattern or Figure. Thus, in the church of Lime-house, the nineteen Pillars in the Aisles will represent the Names of Baal-Berith, the seven Pillars of the Chappell will signify the Chapters of his Covenant. All those who wish to know more of this may take up Clavis Salomonis… (45)

Willing as I am to step into a world of dark imagination, St Anne’s eclipses these words really. I have been inside after an interview with the Rector, explored the wonderful crypt and its treasures. I love this church:

St Anne's, Limehouse

I find the tower most beautiful from below, with angles and corners and symmetry outlined against sky:

St Anne's, Limehouse

Most of all I think, I love the approach from Newell Street, when you feel you have truly escaped into the past. These are the seventeen steps the old Rector thought would discourage those in shabby dress, but I find them lovely.

St Anne's, Limehouse

The beautiful grounds stand as a oasis along Commercial Road, along with the pyramid of moss green, the center of Ackroyd and Sinclairs occult murmurings:

St Anne's, Limehouse

St Anne's, Limehouse

St Anne's, Limehouse

Rumours say it was meant to sit on one of St Anne’s corners, one of four pyramids to have been crafted and placed there. There is no way now that you can see the church as a whole as in this print:

St Anne's, Limehouse

Though perhaps it was never properly seen like this at all beyond the artists’s imagination. Nowadays, with Canary Wharf just along down the road, I have to really stretch to see this as a corner of evil, feel that perhaps the only ‘horrors’ were the lives of the exploited working classes. It now stands as escape, as retreat — perhaps more seductive now than ever.

St Anne's, Limehouse

St Anne's, Limehouse

Most of the gravestones have been picked up, moved to skirt the edges and surround the living with memories of the dead to make of this an open green space of the kind that now fill London. And London is most grateful for them in Fall.

St Anne's, Limehouse

St Anne's, Limehouse

And then again in Spring, when they fill with flowers:

Snowdrops, St Anne's

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Limehouse Through Five Centuries

This is quite a wonderful and curious little history of Limehouse written by J.G. Birch, rector of St Anne’s Limehouse (one of my favourite Hawksmoor churches), in 1935. It is written part for the love of curious fact and part to takes issue with how Limehouse has been described by others — Burke’s titillating and orientalist descriptions in Limehouse Nights, or Walter Besant’s ‘sweeping assertion concerning the whole riverside population of East London: “thieves all–to a man.”‘ I just finished Besant’s East End, and it is indeed infuriating.

The Thames from Limehouse Bridge

This on the other hand, while no modern or definitive history by any stretch, is still full of details (perhaps too many details of great men and their exploits) and tantalising glimpses to be followed up perhaps. Like this one, about a brief uprising:

In 1697 there were some stormy times on the Limehouse quaysides, and news was brought to the Admiralty that “the mob in Limehouse intended to rise to demand the seamen’s pay.” History does not record how far Lord Lucas was successful in dealing with the situation and so we can only wonder what Mr John Coltman of Three Colt Street, who imported currants from France in the Zante frigate, thought about it all and what strenuous work Mr. Robert Hamlington, the constable, was called upon to do (25).

I rather fancy having a look for this dagger, and l rather hope it is one of the objects that have just come on display at the National Maritime Museum as a special exhibit of Trinity House:

In 1632 William Geere left the Dagger House, to pay £5 among the poorest merchant seamen’s widows annually on Michaelmas Day, and those who are curious about the tragic story which gave the house in Three Colt Street (since rebuilt) the name and sign it still bears, the Dagger House, must be content to know that there is a tradition that one brother killed another (presumably ancestors of the Geeres) in the house which formerly stood there, and to know that the dagger which used to hang outside it is still preserved at Trinity House on Tower Hill (29-30).

I love this look at transport, almost more for the knowledge that Commercial Road was so busy in 1935 — the level of traffic it bears today feels entirely modern and is truly terrible, I don’t know if it is comforting to think of it just the same almost one hundred years ago.

We find that the hamlet was linked to the city of London, not as now by Commercial Road (which was only completed in 1810). but by the famous Ratcliff Highway, and where now roars the ceaseless traffic from Dockland to the City along Commercial Road (and perhaps no thoroughfare in the world bears a heavier stream) then ran Rose Lane! (51-52)

Sad to think it once was full of roses.

This is a splendid quote from Christopher Wren, damning the practices of churches in which they rented seating — there have been some improvements, there is no doubt:

A church should not be so filled with pews but that the poor may have room to stand and sit in the alleys, for to them equally is the Gospel preached. It were to be wished that there were to be no pews but benches, but there is no stemming the tide of profit and the advantage of pewkeepers, especially since by pews in the chapel of ease the minister is chiefly supported. (58-59)

And I quite love this author, who condemns these old practices and wrestles with his church and its design — though I am not sure I agree with this entirely.

…and yet not from the very first has Limehouse Church really been felt to be, as it should be, the church of the poorest of its parishioners as truly as of the more wealthy residents. Possibly the great flight of seventeen stone steps to the church door has contributed towards disappointing the hopes of Christopher Wren and proved something of a stumbling-block to less prosperous parishioners. The indifferently clad like a less conspicuous approach. (59)

He rounds this off with nice note at the end on changes in Limehouse — namely his relief at the end of the old tradition that the Rector drive to to the church in a carriage and pair, even though the rectory stood only a couple hundred yards away

‘We think this strange Victorian custom certainly did not survive the 1880s. “Rectors,” said an old pew-opener, bewailing the degenerate days of 1887– “Rectors are more of a working class nowadays.” What an unintentional compliment! (152)

There is, as you would imagine, a good history of the church, yet sadly none of the fascinating speculation on Hawksmoor and all of his occult leanings. The foundation stone for St Anne’s was laid in 1712 and completed in 1724. Apparently there is a legend that because Hawksmoor was building St Anne’s Limehouse at the same time as St George’s-in-the-east and Spitalfields, and St George’s Bloomsbury that the drawings for the latter and for Limehouse were mixed up.

St Anne's Limehouse

There is sadly, nothing at all about the pyramid. I had forgotten that there was a fire — sad, but these old prints are quite wonderful.

Burning of St Anne's, Limehouse

There is a mention of Dickens of course, writing Our Mutual Friend, setting Rogue Riderhood near Limehouse Hole (just a memory even then), drinking at the Grapes which still stands and was the model for the ‘The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters’, though the Harbour Master’s house was pulled down in 1923.

Harbor Master's House, Limehouse

But my favourite things of all, the best things I’ve read in a very long time, are these excerpts from the master of the workhouse’s diaries:

October 7th, 1833Two of our boys, the younger Brown and Mafflin, refused to work this morning, because I did not let them out yesterday, and now they are on the top of the dead house, and will not come down. Mafflin could not have got there without assistance as he had got the log on.

October 22nd, 1833The boy Mafflin having done no work yesterday had no supper, and directly after, about half a dozen of the boys mounted upon the slates, and began singing as loud as they could, as if in bravado. Being dark I could not tell who they were, except that Stiles and Mafflin were the leaders.

October 28th, 1833 — Stiles and Mafflin were keeping up a fine game, on the roofs, all yesterday morning. In the afternoon not being able to bear it any longer I caught Mafflin, gave him a rope’s end, and locked him up; the other was afterwards more quiet.

November 7th.– Mafflin and Blackburn went away over the wall again yesterday; theyw ere on the roof of the Laundry in the evening during prayer time, but I have not seen them since. (106)

Mafflin has all of my respect and admiration, and I shall raise a toast to him the next time I am able.

Near the end is this extraordinary picture of the area from this time, when the church was the tallest thing for miles. Now it is dwarfed by buildings that have been developed all around it, you catch glimpses of it here and there. How different this whole place must have felt… (this wouldn’t scan properly for some reason, so a picture with my shadow was the best I could do)

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Limehouse Nights

Limehouse NightsThat I should find this so utterly vile surprised me, I’m not sure if the surprise came more for its intrinsic vileness or for my own reaction. As a lover of noir I’ve been trying to figure what separates this from the books I love because it is not its subjects or its violence, or the pulp aspect. It is partly the intensity of its racism; but at the same time I don’t believe writers should shrink from exposing that in all of its ugliness.

I realised it come down to the author’s stand. I realised what I love about noir is that the authors tend to write as though they share the same ground as their characters — and many of them do. They do not consider themselves above or below, but as capable of the evil as well as the vaguely heroic acts that may be committed in the face of shared cynicism. This makes glimpses of integrity brighter as the world grinds on and grinds down and they explore the dark places, but if there is any judgment it is hard earned on people’s actions, not skin colour or class position or an outdated set of morals.

This to me is noir at its best, the further a book departs from this, the less I like it. The constant treachery of women is, sadly, usually the biggest departure, but racism runs sexism a close second.

I wouldn’t call Limehouse Nights noir, it is a prurient telling of tales of exoticised others, an exercise in orientalism. The line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ seems clear, and they are there for our amusement even though it is written with a false jocularity that seemingly takes their side. It surprised me, published in 1916, that it should contain such open references to drug-use, rape, interracial sex, pimping, child kidnapping and rape. It physically sickened me that all of it should be so obviously written to titillate, the racial lines drawn only to make their transgression amongst the lowest and criminal classes more exciting. Soft violent porn for the white, middle-class lads at the expense of Limehouse’s population.

No wonder D.W. Griffiths of Birth of a Nation fame used a couple of these stories for his movie-making efforts (Broken Blossoms and Dream Streets).

I started reading it for its geography — misled terribly by the blurb which you can find at the end of this post — got through it a story at a time with distance in between, because I hate not finishing what I start and decided maybe I should try to understand a mentality that I won’t be coming back to.

It constantly refers to place, names streets like Pennyfields, Poplar High Street and Blackwall over and over again, it circles around the Blue Lantern Pub. Yet despite this attempt at ‘realism’, these places still remains the exoticised docks of  white imagination, and could be anywhere:

You know, perhaps, the East India Dock, which lies a little north of its big brother, the West India Dock: a place of savagely masculine character, evoking the brassy mood. By daytime a cold, nauseous light hangs about it; at night a devilish darkness settles upon it.

You know, perhaps, the fried-fish shops that punctuate every corner in the surrounding maze of streets, the “general” shops with their assorted rags, their broken iron, and their glum-faced basins of kitchen waste; and the lurid-seeming creatures that glide from nowhere into nothing–Arab, Lascar, Pacific Islander, Chinky, Hindoo, and so on, each carrying his own perfume. You know, too, the streets of plunging hoof and horn that cross and re-cross the waterways, the gaunt chimneys that stick their derisive tongues to the skies. You know the cobbly courts, the bestrewn alleys, through which at night gas-jets asthmatically splutter; and the mephitic glooms and silences of the dock-side. You know these things, and I need not attempt to illuminate them for you.
— The Father of Yoto

There are minds to which the repulsive–such as Poplar High Street–is supremely beautiful, and to whom anything frankly human is indelicate, if not ugly. You need, however, to be a futurist to discover ecstatic beauty in the torn wastes of tiles, the groupings of iron and stone, and the nightmare of chimney-stacks and gas-works.
–The Father of Yoto

For all that he names the streets, ultimately you have no sense of place, only the sex and violence that takes place there:

Hardly the place to which one would turn as to the city of his dreams; yet there are those who do. Hearts are broken by Blackwall Gardens. The pity and terror and wonder of first love burn in the blood and limbs of those who serve behind the counters of East India Dock Road or load up cargo boats at the landing-stages. Love-mad hands have buried knives in little white bosoms in Commercial Road, and songs are written by the moon across many a happy garret-window in Cable Street.
–The Cue

From Pennyfields he drifted over West India Dock Road, passed a house where a window seemed deliberately to wink at him, and so swung into that Causeway where the cold fatalism of the Orient meets the wistful dubiety of the West.
–Beryl, the Croucher and the Rest of England

Ah yes — where the cold fatalism of the Orient meets the wistful dubiety of the West. The people living in these generic dock streets are as typecast, as empty, as much evoked in our imaginations entirely for our amusement — this passage refers to a fourteen year old dance hall girl uncomfortably sexualised to the hilt:

From him she had inherited a love of all raw and simple things, all that was odorous of the flesh. She hated country solitudes, and she loved Poplar and the lights and the noise of people. She loved it for its blatant life. She loved the streets, the glamour, the diamond dusks, the dirt and the perfume…Every street was a sharp-flavoured adventure, and at night each had a little untranslatable message for her. Everywhere she built romances. She was a mandarin’s daughter in Pennyfields. She was a sailor’s wife in the Isle of Dogs. In the West India Dock Road she was a South Sea princess, decked with barbaric jewels and very terrible knives. She did not like western London: it wasn’t homey. She loved only the common joys of the flesh and the common joys of the heart; and these she found in Poplar.
–Gina of the Chinatown

She dies in childbirth at fifteen.

Not only are streets and people cut off (and happily so) from the rest of the city, but from the country and from nature itself, an island of unnatural connections and natural desires:

Beyond London, amid the spray of meadow and orchard, bird and bee were making carnival, but here one still gambled and waited to find a boat. Limehouse has no seasons. It has not even the divisions of day and night. Boats must sail at all hours at the will of the tide, and their swarthy crews are ever about. It has no means of marking the pomp of the year’s procession. Lusty spring may rustle in the hedgerows; golden-tasselled summer may move on the meadows. In Limehouse there are only more seamen or less seamen. Summer is a spell of stickiness, and winter a time of fog.
–The Paw

Over and over again it licks its lips at the thought of white women with Chinese and Indians and Africans — but mostly the Chinese because this is Chinatown after all. They are loose women because this class knows no better. He mocks their drudgery — more annoying because he has actually bothered to find out what it might consist of and this is one of the only places he describes it to the extent to which it is possible for him:

Pansy was in trouble, and wanted money, of which he had none, for he was a destitute Oriental. Often they had gone about together, and in his way he had loved her. The girls of this quarter have a penchant for coloured boys, based, perhaps, on the attraction of repulsion.

Pansy lived in Pekin Street. About her window the wires wove a network, and the beat of waters, as they slapped about the wharves, was day and night in her ears. At evenings there came to her the wail of the Pennyfields Orient, or the hysterical chortlings of an organ with music-hall ditties. She worked at Bennett’s Cocoa Rooms in East India Dock Road; and life for her, as for most of her class, was just a dark house in a dark street. From the morning’s flush to the subtle evening, she stood at steaming urns, breathing an air limp with the smell of food, and serving unhealthy eatables to cabmen, draymen, and, occasionally, a yellow or black or brown sailor.

She was not pretty. The curse of labour was on her face, and she carried no delicacies wherewith to veil her maidenhood. From dawn to dusk, from spring to spring, she had trodden the golden hours in this routine, and knew, yet scarcely felt, the slow sucking of her ripening powers. Twenty-one she was; yet life had never sung to her. Toil, and again toil, was all she knew–toil on a weakened body, improperly fed; for your work-girl of the East seldom knows how to nourish herself. Pansy lived, for the most part, on tea and sweets.
–Tai Fu and Pansy Greers

This gives too, one of his explanations for miscegenation I think — girls that can get no one else can, by virtue of their skin colour, snare a foreign sailor.

Written always from a comfortable point of superiority, Burke manages to deride many a remarkable achievement — in this case stripping everything away but the fact of a woman who speaks four languages to a greater or lesser extent, I wonder just how much in reality this interracial intercultural exchange took place? But this is not Burke’s point, instead these passages give you a sense of the slime crawling across his pages:

Poppy was fair in the eyes of a Chinaman; she was an anaemic slip of a girl, with coarse skin and mean mouth, a frightened manner and a defiant glance. She had scarce any friends, for she was known to be a copper’s nark; thus came the fear in her step and the challenge in her eyes. Often she had blown the gaff on the secret games of Chinatown, for she spoke Cantonese and a little Swahili and some Hindustani, and could rustle it with the best of them; and it was her skill and shrewdness in directing the law to useful enterprises, such as the raiding of wicked houses, that caused her to be known in all local stations and courts as the Chinese Poppy.

She lived in the tactfully narrow Poplar High Street, that curls its nasty length from Limehouse to Blackwall, and directly opposite her cottage was the loathly lodging of Sway Lim–one room, black and smelly with dirt–next the home of the sailors of Japan.

She was a bad girl, mean and treacherous; everybody knew that; but she was young and very pale; so that Sway Lim, wet-lipped, would gloat upon her from his window.
— The Sign of the Lamp

Of everything — and apparently people have some appreciation of his craft — I really liked only one sentence, and you cannot separate it from the vileness that comes before (or after):

And suddenly, on a bright Sunday, he lost her for all. She went from him to a yellow man in Pennyfields, leaving a derisive note of final farewell. The brutality of the blow got him like a knife on a wound. Something fouled within him, and for an hour or so he was stupid–a mere flabby Thing in a cotton suit.
–The Paw

Nor can he claim ignorance for the casual insulting racism of his language:

“Here–steady on, Chinky!” she cried, using the name which she knew would sting him to the soul. She was disconcerted and inclined to be cross, while half laughing. “Don’t take liberties, my son. Specially with me. You’re only a yellow rat, y’know.”
–The Cue

Nor can he be forgiven for the terrible end of the boy described below — betrayed by his own failings — and Burke’s inability to find a trace of empathy for his characters:

Now while the Captain remained drunk in his cabin, he kept with him for company the miserable, half-starved Chinky boy whom he had brought aboard. And it would make others sick if the full dark tale were told here of what the master of the Peacock did to that boy.
–The Bird

Nor does this phrase make any sense in describing that bright fourteen year old music hall singer that everyone loved until you start to vaguely think through the conflation of race and class and gender within others out there to amuse ‘us’:

She was as distinctive as a nigger in a snowstorm…
–Gina of the Chinatown

There is one curious tale that is also used to bring the aristocratic socialist and female reformer down a notch or two. A collection of  sentences from this story ‘The Kinght-Errant’:

Wherefore it was stupid, stupid, with that ostrich-like stupidity that distinguishes the descendants of noble families who have intermarried with their kind; I say it was stupid for Lady Dorothy Grandolin to choose this, of all places, for her first excursion into slum-land, in order to gather material for her great work: Why I am a Socialist: a Confession of Faith; Together with some Proposals for Ameliorating the Condition of the Very Poor; with Copious Appendices by the Fabian Society. Far better might she have fared in the Dials; in Lambeth; even in Hoxton. But no; it must be Limehouse–and at night. Really, one feels that she deserved all she got.

However, she was determined to do a book on the Very Poor; nothing would stop her. Her little soul blazed in a riot of fine fire for the cause. Yesterday, it was Auction; the day before it was Settlements; to-day, the Very Poor. And in papa’s drawing-room there was no doubt that the Very Poor was a toy to be played with very prettily; for it is the one success of these people that they can do things with an air.

For he was Ho Ling, fat and steamy; and he sidled to her out of the mist, threatening and shrinking, with that queer mixture of self-conceit and self-contempt which is the Chinese character…She had heard that the Chinese quarter offered splendid material for studies in squalor, as well as an atmosphere of the awful and romantic. Her first glances did not encourage her in this idea; for these streets and people are only awful and romantic to those who have awful and romantic minds. Lady Dorothy hadn’t. She had only awful manners.

She is robbed of her watch and a kiss by a pair of dim thieving brothers, one of whom falls in love with her and helps her escape by calling the cops on the other.

As this is a voyeuristic view of Chinatown, drugs are always part of the backdrop. This is from back in the day when cocaine was used medically — here poor little Gina is dying, and you couldn’t ask for a more cloying end:

“Mumdear… ask them for some more of that cocaine… cos… it… it hurts… so.”
–Gina of the Chinatown

It is opium that is used for pleasure, and Burke is clearly describing something he has seen (you are not sure about any of the rest):

Presently Lois swung herself from the lounge and began to “cook” for her boy. On a small table she spread the lay-out; lit the lamp; dug out the treacly hop from the toey and held it against the flame. It bubbled furiously, and the air was charged with a loathsome sweetness. Then, holding the bamboo pipe in one hand, she scraped the bowl with a yen-shi-gow, and kneaded the brown clot with the yen-hok. Slowly it changed colour as the poison gases escaped. Then she broke a piece in her finger, and dropped it into the bowl, and handed the stem to Batty. He puffed languorously, and thick blue smoke rolled from him.
–The Gorilla and the Girl

In this story she cooks it up in the Blue Lantern Pub for her boyfriend while her father looks on.

I’ll end with a passage that collects all of the ‘characters’ from these stories into the Blue Lantern:

All those who were well seen in Limehouse and Poplar were here, and the informed observer could recognise many memorable faces. Chuck Lightfoot and Battling Burrows were engaged in a comparatively peaceable game of fan-tan with Sway Lim and Quong Tart; at any rate the noise they were making could not have been heard beyond Custom House. Tai Ling and his Marigold were there, very merry, and Pansy Greers, with an escort from the Pool, attracted much attention in a dress which finished where it ought to have begun. Ding-Dong was there: Perce Sleep; Paris Pete; Polly the Pug; Jenny Jackson’s Provence Boys, so called because they frequented that café; the Chatwood Kid, from whom no safe could withhold its secrets; and, in fact, all the golden boys and naughty girls of the district were snatching their moment of solace. Old Foo Ah lolloped on a chair, slumbering in the heavy content of a kangaroo. That masculine lady, Tidal Basin Sal, sprawled on a shabby private-bar lounge with a little girl, whom she would alternately kiss and slap proprietorially. A nigger from the Polynesians made himself a nuisance to the air and the company; and on a table at the extreme end stood little Gina of the Chinatown, slightly drunk, and with clothing disarranged, singing that most thrilling and provocative of rag-times:

“You’re here and I’m here, So what do we care?”
–The Gorilla and the Girl

I believe that shall be the end of my forays into this kind of ‘literature’. But before I end, this is the blurb found on goodreads:

One of the most frankly and brutally realistic books that has appeared in our tongue in a long time. But Burke has cast a glamour over his pages that prevents his stories from being merely studies in the sordid and the morbid. Somehow he makes you feel that he has viewed life with pity and tenderness and loving comprehension.
— Bookman.

One of the worst blurbs I’ve read really, as though naming some streets were realism, or patting someone on the head for their appetites and watching with barely-if-at-all-repressed excitement at their descent into sexualised violence and death were tenderness and compassion.

thomas-burke-1-sizedAnd who was Thomas Burke? Someone cared enough to change wikipedia to reflect his complexities and his own falsified autobiographies, citing an article I shall have to go find (Witchard, Anne. “Thomas Burke, the ‘Laureate of Limehouse,”):

These romanticised tales of Burke’s early life were often accepted by the literary critics of the day and went largely unchallenged by his contemporaries. Although Burke’s later writing, including the book Son of London more accurately describes his youth in the suburbs, the majority of his autobiographies attest to his supposedly intimate knowledge of lower-class life.[15] These fabricated autobiographies enabled Burke to establish his authority as an expert on the Chinese in London, allowing him to create a persona that he used to market his fictional works on Limehouse. As Witchard notes, Burke, through his writing, positioned himself as a “seer” in an “occult process” of representing London’s sub-cultural ‘Others.’

I am rather fascinated at this mythological remaking of self and author, this forging of credentials. It is almost enough to make me want to read Son of London but life is short, and there are plenty of authors who have something worthwhile to say.

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Three Colt St to the West India Docks, Limehouse

Not quite an every-day walk this in my new tradition, because it was very cold and marvelously foggy, and Limehouse isn’t at all ordinary I don’t think, even when it tries.

It’s not at all surprising to me that it has gentrified the way it has, because those old warehouse buildings are beautiful. This whole area along the Thames breathes a history now picturesque, as the poverty suffered by the dockers who once lived and worked here has been erased by a succession of Labour governments since the turn of the century.

Memories of old pubs fill this area  — as they do the memories of the handful of men who frequent the old boozers still remaining and mourn what was.
Three Colt Lane Angel

There is, however, to my knowledge only one remnant of wall with an awesome door that goes nowhere.

Limehouse

Limehouse

I love this street

Limehouse

And mourn arriving at the fortressed luxury that has been built all along the river…I seek a metaphor and fail.

Limehouse

It is best when the mist hides them…

Limehouse

Limehouse

Limehouse

But there is no doubt to what I prefer:

Limehouse

Limehouse

Turning back to head East again, there is the old under the looming weight and wealth of the new:

Limehouse

West India Docks

West India Docks

West India Docks

West India Docks

West India Docks

West India Docks

The West India Docks…I have strong feelings about this place, but I will save them. The museum is good, I visited the floor on slavery and couldn’t do anything else after, it is most powerful. Then you come out and the restaurant is called Rum and Sugar. You stare at the wealth of Canary Wharf — the latest form of global exploitation and destruction — and you despair.

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Cleaning Regent’s Canal

We were all hoping for treasure I think. Things lost in the thick black muck; its smell still permeates my room from the pile of clothes in the corner. A bad day to run out of laundry detergent. Worth it, though, canals are a national treasure. The year I lived in Bow I could always escape down to the Regent’s Canal. It felt like, no it was, a bit of the wild running through the city. I still cross the river from South London to walk there sometimes.

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Not as wild as the Thames, I love the river for being the only London place you can feel the world open out the way the desert does. Space. Power. Nature being bigger than we are, which I miss so much in a city where you can’t see the stars. Of course this requires standing on a bridge. I do love bridges, but cold. You can escape down to the bits of beach you can find, but my heart hurts at the kinds of development running along the banks these days.

We built canals, these beautiful threads of water that open up the city but also tie it together in ways so different from streets, that provide homes for so many creatures other than ourselves, that represent such enormous collective effort and advances in engineering. I love all of that. Especially this bit of the Regents Canal not yet ruined by developers. The Canal River and Trust had funds to drain a section of it, fix up the walls. Not to clean it though. Unemployment as it is, people should have been paid well to do this hard work that improves the canals for all of us who love them as well as their wildlife.

With our society’s priorities all wrong, the massive effort to clean the canal while it sat drained depended on volunteers under the direction of the brilliant Lower Regents Coalition (with a shout out to Katie and Alfie from Moo Canoes who were there til the end, and run days when you can canoe for free if you do some litter picking). They provided the kit. The Canal & River Trust are filling in the canal today, so it was the last chance to get the rubbish out, we fanned out:

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We pulled out materials dumped by builders, numerous prams and assorted metal ‘things’ and horrible sections of shag carpet and cans upon cans and bottles and plastic bags. We wrestled them all from the mud that clung to them fiercely, and with tired muscles piled them high on the canal banks.

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I wanted to have been the one who found the old second world war ordinance or the rotting rifle or the goblets or the animal skull. But I didn’t mind so terribly that I wasn’t. I got to enjoy other people’s discoveries:

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The end of the day was loading up what seemed like endless truck runs from bank to barge:

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Because it was the last day, the push was intense to get as much as we could, and I was a bit ashamed of myself that I had to leave before we were quite done because it’s those last few loads that really counted. The last cold fighting with rubbish in the darkness, all that collecting of boots and gloves and washing them down and the things that keep you from the mulled wine and hot mince pies that were our reward.

I was exhausted even without deserving the honour of that last push, but I recognised the justice of the friendly laughing from the canal workers repairing the banks as a few of us left off before they stopped working. They had started before us, did this every day.

Still, it left me with a bit of a high as I made my way back to Brixton. I thought buying a special little something for supper from Marks & Spencers with a dirty face (all over filthy really) and smelling like the canal might be another highlight of the day, but honestly, the hot shower was one of the best I have ever enjoyed.

Days like this, spent with people like this, make me feel so good.

Postscript: Walking on my way to do some work it’s clear they’re still working on the canal. Also, walking? Oof. I won’t say it’s age but shit, I think it might be age.

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