I thought it might be a good idea to start a little weekly look back at East London life past and possibly present, to recall and remember a rich and radical past of the place that I call my home.
I’m not an East Ender originally (but then again who is) of course, but nevertheless after almost 30 years I'm one now.
So here we go then a glimpse of a radical past.
Many of the riotous protests that fired up the early days of the English Revolution in London were led by sailors; at the time the country was beginning to take on its dominant place in world maritime history and as a naval power, and of course London became an important merchant dock.
In East London, Wapping and Shadwell grew in size and came to be very squalidly crowded with not only dockers, but sailors who worked the navel, privateer and merchant ships, many having been pressed-ganged into service following a drunken night-out in some local tavern or other; just imaging the area then, does it not conjure up thoughts of what it must have been like back then, sordid and dirty tavens, the brothels and lodging houses without the triple A’s. Nothing like today's residents and inhabitants made up of the rich and famous celebrities who live in the converted warehousing, but of course there is still a working class community resident but now dwindling?”
So back to the thread of this post; the conditions for the sailors were absolutely atrocious, terrible and lethal to say the least, many ships being sunk by war or weather, such was this hard life, made worse especially in the Navy by the years you could be waiting to get paid. Sailors often waited so long for wages they had to steal and loot just to survive.
In the 1620s and 30s there were several sailors riots down Wapping way over pay and conditions. In 1626 for example, sailors from the Cadiz expedition, which was basically an ill-equipped, mismanaged mess in the opening wars against Spain, mutinied in the London Docks over pay arrears. They attacked the grand home of William Russell, Treasuring the money of the Navy, breaking down his great gates; which in turn Russell sent for the City Militia for protection. The end came when he was able to talk the sailors into going home, indeed he was lucky.
Nonpayment and arrears of wages were still the cause and condition leading to many more such disturbances in Wapping over the years and even the wives of sailors had their own riot, crying out “this comes of your not paying our husbands”.
So wives in support of their men in dispute is not such a new thing after all.
Wapping shipwrights were another group that had grievances to vent, they had a reputation as being defiant (a good thing) of authority; on Mayday 1617 local apprentices rioted, beating up the local Sheriff and chasing him away from his home.
History tells us that Wapping and Shadwell remained the haunts of sailors for centuries, its lodging houses were overwhelmingly filled with men and sailors of the sea and their wives and sweethearts into the 19th century. As late as the 1930s sailors (in the main from Africa, India and Pakistan) lodged in the western part of Cable Street, an area long infamous’ for brothels and rowdiness. A 1950s wave of polemic and controversial public debate about prostitution and bad housing led to the demolition of much of the area. Its inhabitants, mainly Pakistanis and Indians, relocated to Brick Lane and Spitalfields, swelling the then small Asian population there.
So I hope this has given the reader a small but informative glimpse into an ocean of history by our class and social grouping forefathers struggles to change their lives, improve living standards and working towards a radical overthrow of the social conditions they lived under, for it is true, Eastenders have always been ready to stand together and kick up a fuss, that was seen when they supported the 500 printers sacked by Rupert Murdoch in 1986, it was evident when 162 cyclists some of us Eastenders were arrested and held all night on buses on the opening night of the Olympics last year, long may that struggle continue until we win that new day!”