East End 1888: A Year in a London Borough among the Labouring Poor 
by William Fishman.
Duckworth, 343 pp., £18.95, June 1988, 0 7156 2174 2
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I do not see how Professor Fishman could do more than he has done to convince us that he was there in 1888, qualified as only an eyewitness can be to guide us 1988ers through the streets of Tower Hamlets as they were, and are, to him. We can walk with him downwind and eastwards from the Mansion House and are soon slowed by the all-pervading smell of poverty and filth as we traverse streets with the same names – Great Alie Street, Flower and Dean Street, Bethnal Green Road. Can he be right when he says of the crowds around us that the men and women stepping through the midden are too poor to afford underclothes? Can this angular man see where we can’t among the organ-grinders, the kerb acrobats and the fire-swallowers? He reads out a letter to the Times which refers to an event of November 1888:

A little before two o’clock on the afternoon of Wednesday the 17th a poorly but respectably dressed old man, cleanly in appearance and with well-blacked shoes, staggered into the premises of the People’s Palace, dying of starvation. Too weak to coherently explain his condition, he was led into the office and supplied by the clerks then in attendance with a basin of soup and some bread, which, however, his famished stomach refused to retain for a moment. He was then placed in a cab and conveyed to the London Hospital, where he lingered for about an hour and died; the coroner’s jury subsequently returned a verdict of ‘Death from starvation’.

Who are we to dispute with a coroner, or doubt that eastwards of the City the daily problem is the problem of survival?

We have crossed over into Darkest London. It has been brought home to us that there are heathens here as lost as any in Darkest Africa and in as much need of the ‘lassies’ of the Salvation Army or of the Medical Missions set up in this bricks-and-mortar jungle. But the plainer, less metaphorical meaning is the more obvious. Speculative builders have covered every possible square foot of ground with rentable buildings crammed so close together that, especially in the alleys where so many people exist, it is dark, even in the daytime. Tailors and other outworkers have to squeeze up near to the window to save both their sight and the expense of artificial lighting. Night is dreadful night. There are so few streetlamps that people hurry from one pool of light to another. The first of Jack the Ripper’s murders in the dark, cobbled alleyways is in August 1888 and a month or so after that Queen Victoria is wiring the Marquis of Salisbury from Balmoral: ‘All these courts must be lit, and our detectives improved. They are not what they should be.’ After that, the number of streetlamps is increased and Sir Charles Warren, the Police Commissioner, forced to resign.

The extra streetlamps do nothing for the insides of the buildings, where people are even more on top of each other than they are outside in the streets. This is not what Victorian family life is supposed to be. Beatrice Webb in My Apprenticeship writes that even people employed in ordinary work ‘could chaff each other about having babies by their father and brother ... a gruesome example of the effect of debased social environment on personal character and family life ... The violation of little children was another not infrequent result ... sexual promiscuity, and even sexual perversion, are almost unavoidable among men and women of average character and intelligence crowded into one-room tenements of slum areas, and it is the realisation of the moral deterioration involved, more than any physical discomfort, that lends the note of exasperated bitterness characteristic of the working-class representative of these chronically destitute urban districts.’

If we make a really early start, we can get a sense of what the threat of starvation will do by watching the hundreds upon hundreds of men who are waiting in a cage by the dock-gates for the few casual jobs that are handed out in the morning. Six hundred men rush to the bars of the cage nearest the foreman when he appears, and fight with each other to catch his eye. Coats, flesh and even ears are torn off in the mêlée. Out of the six hundred, perhaps twenty are engaged. A man might get nothing day after day until his strength has gone. The phenomenal fog of the second week of January, which stops all navigation on the river, is a killer for the men who have to wait for money for food until the fog lifts.

Starvation is not the only goad. Standing high and gaunt above the houses where people live are the Workhouses of Bethnal Green, Mile End, Whitechapel, Ratcliff St George’s, Spitalfields. This is where people can go for relief if they are starving or homeless. The casual ward is the last refuge for people who are not in the House for good. On admittance, the hungry man, after being forced to strip naked and wash in a common bath, is locked up in a tiny cell with no furniture, where he is given the regulation supper of ½ lb of gruel and 8 oz of bread. In the morning he has to pay for it by staying in the cell and breaking up a half ton of granite with a hammer or picking four pounds of oakum. It is very hard work on very little food, and if he cannot complete it in one day, he is kept in his solitary cell, with a correspondingly heavier load of work imposed on him on each of the following days. A man or woman has to be desperate indeed to present himself to such a Bastille. It could be better to die under a railway arch.

Fishman is a guide without compare, drawing on his knowledge of Tower Hamlets from his own childhood and his father’s, and that of the many older people he has consulted throughout a life of devotion to the East End, and digging out every conceivable document which refers to his year. He has nevertheless managed to compress his story into the 12 months and, without straining, get it all ready for his particular centenary. As a piece of social history it is highly successful. But is it more than that? Does it also throw light on 1988? This is a question to which Fishman gives only an oblique answer, and not many people (besides him?) know enough about Tower Hamlets in 1988 to be able to make any very precise comparison between the two years for all the subjects he tackles. If in 2088 anyone does it for 1988 as well as 1888, he or she will find less information about the middle year unless Fishman gets very busy very soon.

What I take to be his answer is in two parts. Of course there has been an improvement, even a massive one. Modern students of poverty are able to show how much of it there still is, and how grievous it still is for people on very low wages, for single-parent families locked away not in towering Workhouses but in crumbling tower blocks, for invalids and the long-term sick, for the long-term unemployed, for many old people, especially the very old living on their own. But the poverty being measured is relative poverty. The standard of comparison is with the average incomes of our period. It is not absolute poverty of the kind that Charles Booth found in 1888. The poverty line then was a subsistence below which people could barely stay alive. People do not starve to death now, and, miserable though the level may be, they can get Income Support rather than having to break up stones for a bowl of gruel. We may be in a pessimistic age, and yet who could be so blinkered, after reading this book, as to deny that in terms of food consumption and other sheer material conditions Tower Hamlets (or any inner-city area) is a better place than it was?

But it would be a dull book – which it is not – if that was all Fishman was saying, or implying. Without elaborating on any general analyses, which would take him very far beyond the bounds of his chosen territory, he clearly attributes the misery he depicts to the economic philosophy that was predominant. He quotes John Law, with implicit approval, when Law referred to the ‘ranks of the great army’ of unemployed that ‘goes marching on heedless of stragglers, whose commander-in-chief is laisser-faire, upon whose banners “Grab who can” and “Let the devil take the hindmost”, are written in large letters ... drink and crime follow close on the steps of laisser-faire’s army.’ Fishman does not need to labour the point.

But the chief question he raises, if again implicitly, is where the reforming spirit which was also so evident in 1888 is going to come from now. 1888 was both a year of misery and a year of hope. Fishman’s saints are Dr Barnardo, rescuer of countless homeless children; the Rev. Samuel Barnett, founder of Toynbee Hall and much else; Frederick Charrington, the brewer’s heir who was the flail of vice and corruption; and General William Booth, who opened the first-ever Salvation Army Hostel in Tower Hamlets in 1888. They were more than preachers: they were practical reformers. The founding fathers and mothers of the Socialist movement were also active in the borough, led by the marvellous Annie Besant, a compelling media person long before television, who drove a dog-cart through the length and breadth of the East End, recognisable to everyone, a glamorous figure who always wore a bright red ribbon in her hair. A woman, a socialist, an atheist, and an advocate of birth control, who had walked out on her parson husband, and was attacked by every parson and minister in East London as a Scarlet Woman, she more than anyone else helped the Bryant and May matchgirls of Bow to win the first great strike of the century on the part of unskilled workers. She also triumphed by coming top of the poll in the election for Tower Hamlets member to the London School Board on 26 November. She and her fellows made education free and introduced free school dinners. There was more to her than a bright red ribbon in her hair. She was a reformer of education as well as unions. The Fishman of 1988 would not necessarily have to compare her with Thatcher – no red ribbons there – but he would have to ask where on the left are the modern equivalents of Annie Besant, Ben Tillett, Bernard Shaw – or Dr Barnardo, for that matter.

One of the main problems for a modern Annie Besant to tackle is broadly the same as what the real Annie Besant had to deal with in 1888. By that year the Jewish settlement had consolidated itself in Tower Hamlets, fed by the influx from the persecutions of Eastern Europe and Russia. Charles Booth, in his Life and Labour of the People of London, confirmed that by 1888 ‘the newcomers have gradually replaced the English population in whole districts which were formerly outside the Jewish quarter. Formerly in Whitechapel, Commercial Street roughly divided the Jewish haunts of Petticoat Lane and Goulston Street from the rougher English quarter lying in the East. Now the Jews have flowed across that line ... many streets and lanes and alleys have fallen before them; they fill whole blocks of model dwellings; they have introduced new trades as well as new habits and they live and crowd together and work and meet their fate independent of the great stream of London life ringing around them.’ In 1888 Booth recorded 45,000 of them in the borough.

The new settlers looked after themselves to a large extent, especially in their Chevras (or mutual aid and religious associations), named after the town or district in Poland or Russia from which the emigrants originated. But they were made unwelcome by the people around them, blamed for sweating in East End industries, and threatened with expulsion by popular anti-semitic speakers and politicians. The cry was ‘England for the English’. Physical attacks on Jews were common.

The newest newcomers, from Bangladesh, are occupying much the same ground as that described by Booth. It is all happening again, with the same rank prejudice being displayed, the same exotic shops and dress, a strange language in the streets, the same brimming vitality, the same poverty, at any rate by the standards of 1988, and the same extended families as the principal means of mutual support. At another time of prosperity for middle-class London, the East End is no longer a city without bathrooms, but is still a working-class city within the whole, and within it is yet another submerged class. The poor are again divided against each other. But where, sighs Fishman, is the woman with the ribbon in her hair?

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