Beyond the Tower: A History of East Londonby John Marriott
From Jewish clothing merchants to Bangladeshi curry houses, ancient docks to the 2012 Olympics, the area east of the City has always played a crucial role in London's history. The East End, as it has been known, was the home to Shakespeare's first theater and to the early stirrings of a mass labor movement; it has also traditionally been seen as a place of darkness
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From Jewish clothing merchants to Bangladeshi curry houses, ancient docks to the 2012 Olympics, the area east of the City has always played a crucial role in London's history. The East End, as it has been known, was the home to Shakespeare's first theater and to the early stirrings of a mass labor movement; it has also traditionally been seen as a place of darkness and despair, where Jack the Ripper committed his gruesome murders, and cholera and poverty stalked the Victorian streets.
In this beautifully illustrated history of this iconic district, John Marriott draws on twenty-five years of research into the subject to present an authoritative and endlessly fascinating account. With the aid of copious maps, archive prints and photographs, and the words of East Londoners from seventeenth-century silk weavers to Cockneys during the Blitz, he explores the relationship between the East End and the rest of London, and challenges many of the myths that surround the area.
“East London’s turbulent story as an area always culturally and economically on the fringe (and for centuries beyond legislative reach thanks to the city wall) is mapped out in frequently fascinating detail in this rather good history…..John Marriott convincingly suggests that the east’s identity has always been distorted by its mythologies.”—Claire Allfree, Metro (London)
“….. [Marriott] is at his most perceptive and sympathetic in his accounts of the struggles of the working people in the East End and its age-old role as the nursery of the waves of immigrants who have enriched British society: Huguenot weavers, Jews from Germany, Poland and Russia, the ‘lascars’ and Chinese of the Docks, and in more recent years, refugees from the former colonies of the British Empire, especially India.”—Tim Knox, Country Life
"Erudite but readable, this history of East London in its mutinous variety traces the flow of change in glorious detail."—Boyd Tonkin, The Independent
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BEYOND THE TOWERA HISTORY OF EAST LONDON
By JOHN MARRIOTT
YALE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2011 John Marriott
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Parish of Stepney to 1700
As the seventeenth century opened, roughly 200,000 people lived in London, making it by far the largest city in the realm. The continuities with the past were powerful. John Stow, whose Survey of London was first published in 1598 and set the standard for all subsequent accounts, looked back on a city little different from that recorded by William Fitzstephen some four hundred years earlier. It was geographically and symbolically divided between the City of London, bounded by ancient walls and inhabited by merchants, traders, financiers and craftsmen, and the City of Westminster, the ancient seat of the Court, government and established religion. Between them ran The Strand, which closely followed the course of the Thames through a right-angled bend. Across the river the lowly settlement of Southwark was just beginning to take shape.
London was in many respects a large country town. Its houses were constructed of wood; many had gardens, and there were green fields and farms close by. None was far removed from the Thames. Livestock were driven through the streets, and smaller animals and fowl were kept in back yards to supplement family diets. The network of streets had been laid down haphazardly in mediaeval times; most were narrow, ill-paved and ill-lit, more suited to the wheelbarrow and the pedestrian than the large cart. Water and refuse presented seemingly intractable problems. Since few adequate defences had been constructed, land by the Thames was subject to flooding. Natural supplies were the only source of water for human consumption. There was no effective means of disposing of refuse, human and otherwise; instead offensive laystalls (rubbish heaps) and cesspits pock-marked the landscape. For the time being, London was still small enough to be grasped as a totality in the imagination of someone like Stow who was prepared to take the trouble to walk the length and breadth of its streets.
To the east was the parish of Stepney (or Stybbanhythe, later Stebunheath), a populous area stretching from the Tower and the City wall to the River Lea on the border with Essex. Over the next century Stepney was to become a commercial and manufacturing centre of such importance that contemporary observers referred to it less as the place eastwards of London than as East London itself. The events which led to the incorporation of the parish into the space of the metropolis are where the story begins.
He spake evil English
Stepney had ancient origins. Founded as a manorial estate by the Normans, it attracted institutions which were clearly unwanted by City authorities in their back yard, and which have survived only in the names of districts. Spitalfields (literally, hospital fields) derived from a priory founded by Walter Brune and his wife Rosia in 1197, which provided for the needs of sick and poor travellers until its dissolution in 1534, at which time it was found to have 180 beds. The site was subsequently occupied by 'many fair Houses builded, for Receipt and Lodging of worshipful and honourable persons'. Nearby, in 1247 a wealthy City merchant, Simon Fitzmary, donated a parcel of land outside the City wall to the monks of St Mary of Bethlehem on which they built a priory. For the next 750 years, on different sites around London, what became the Royal Hospital of Bethlem (more popularly, Bedlam) incarcerated, treated callously and later provided care for those suffering from mental disorders.
The Manor of Stepney was held by London bishops until 1550, when it was confiscated by Henry VIII during his campaign to dissolve the monasteries, and given to Lord Wentworth. The last incumbent was 'bloody' Bishop Bonner, who had supported Henry's break with Rome, but under Mary was reconciled to Catholicism, and gained a reputation as a ruthless persecutor of Protestant dissent. The Wentworth family retained possession until 1720; then, after a brief period, use was granted to Sir George Colebrooke, and was held by his descendants until the abolition of the manorial system in 1926. With its fine mansions and pleasant countryside offering recreation to a wealthy elite, the manor was in many respects typical of those found in pre-modern England. It was a favoured retreat of many notable Londoners. In addition to the long line of London bishops who occupied the manor house, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas More, Sir Henry Colet and his son John, Sir Martin Frobisher, William Penn, Sir William Ryder, Sir William Burrough and Sir John Cass lived in Stepney. John Stow, writing somewhat nostalgically at the end of the sixteenth century about an age in the history of the city that was rapidly disappearing, suggested that the parish had an even wider appeal among the general populace:
I find also that in the moneth of May, the Citizens of London of all estates ... had their seuerall mayings, and did fetch in Maypoles, with diuerse warlike shewes, with good Archers, Morice dauncers, and other deuices, for pastime all the day long; and toward the Euening they had stage playes, and Bonefiers in the streetes: of these Mayings, we reade in the raigne of Henry the sixt, that the Aldermen and Shiriffes of London being on May-day at the Bishop of Londons wood in the parish of Stebunheath, and hauing there a worshipfull dinner for themselues and other commers ...
Hunting had long taken place in that part of the bishop's wood later occupied by Victoria Park and its surrounds. When in 1292 the bishop attempted to enclose it for his own private parties, he provoked a mass protest among Londoners. A petition successfully submitted to the king claimed that from time immemorial citizens had hunted in the woods for 'hares, foxies, conies, and other beasts'. As late as the nineteenth century, these popular hunting rights continued to be asserted symbolically on Easter Monday by chasing a stag on foot through the countryside.
During the Tudor period, many local popular recreations took on distinctly militaristic aspects. Tournaments were staged in the neighbourhood of Bishop's Hall and Mile End Green, while practice sessions at archery butts in Shoreditch and Stepney Green created such skilled archers that Henry VIII established the order of Knights of Prince Arthur's Round Table with responsibility for organizing annual pageants at which the 'Knights' staged mock battles. And at Mile End Green in 1539, London's citizen army mustered before marching to Westminster for review before Henry. It must have been an impressive occasion, as Richard Grafton recalled:
euery Alderman in order of battaile with his ward came into the common field at Mile Ende, and then all the Gonnes seuered themselves into one place, the Pykes into another, and the Bowmen in another, and likewise the Bilmen, and there rynged and snayled, which was a goodly sight to behold: for all the fields from white Chappell toe Myle ende, and from Bednall Greene to Ratclyffe, and to Stepney were all couered with harnesse, men and weapons, and in especiall the battaile of Pykes seemed like a great Forest.
The reference made by Stow to the enactment of stage plays was no aside, for at the time of his survey, Stepney and neighbouring Shoreditch were at the vital heart of English theatre during its formative period. Since mediaeval times a large variety of dramatic productions, including miracle and mystery plays, mummings, pageants, dances and jigs, had been performed by strolling players in towns and the countryside wherever a suitable site could be found. Most of the productions were ephemeral, had little status and were therefore rarely published. During the late Elizabethan age, however, the work of a handful of entrepreneurs, proprietors, actors and playwrights led to the brilliant flowering of a new cultural form even though there were few at the time who recognized the significance of the moment. Theatre became increasingly professional, secular and cosmopolitan. Classical drama was revived, tragedies made their appearance, and there was a considerable appetite for straight history, all of which was staged with comic interludes.
Beyond the reach of City censorship and taxation, and yet close enough to attract audiences, Stepney and Shoreditch were well situated to host such entertainment. The staging of plays in the courtyards of inns had long been established but in 1567 John Brayne, a grocer, opened what was arguably the first purpose-built theatre with a stage and galleries at the Red Lion in Whitechapel. It was designed to provide a venue for touring companies, and had some commercial success, but within a year had closed down. Undeterred, Brayne teamed up with his brother-in-law, the tragic actor Richard Burbage, to finance the building of a new theatre. Constructed on the site of the Holywell Priory, Shoreditch, in 1576, and named simply The Theatre, it accommodated a permanent company of players, and enjoyed such an immediate success that in the following year Burbage built another theatre The Curtain nearby.
Drama had always provided space for dissent, and productions at the new public theatres were no exception. The Theatre soon attracted the notice of City authorities. A letter from the Lord Mayor dated 12 April 1580 informed the Lord Chancellor that 'great disorder' had been committed at The Theatre on Sunday last, and that it was his
duty to inform him that the players of plays, used at the Theatre and other such places, and tumblers and such like, were a very superfluous sort of men, and of such faculty as the laws had disallowed; that the exercise of the plays was not only of great hindrance to the service of God, but also a great corruption of youth, with unchaste and wicked manners, the occasion of much incontinence, practices of many frays, quarrels and other disorders, within the City. He therefore begged that order might be taken to prevent such plays, not only within the City, but also in the liberties.
The Lord Mayor did not have to wait long. Early in 1581 Brayne and Burbage were charged in the Middlesex Quarter Sessions that on 'divers occasions' they
brought together and maintained unlawful assemblies of the people to hear and see certain colloquies or interludes called playes ... at a certain place called The Theatre ... By reason of which unlawful assembling of the people great affrays assaults tumults and quasi-insurrections and divers other misdeeds and enormities have been then and there done and perpetrated by very many ill-disposed persons to the great disturbance of the peace of the Lady the Queen.
The charges were exaggerated but only slightly. One remarkable eyewitness account provides us with a rare glimpse of the audience at these early theatres. The Venetian Ambassador, Foscarini, often attended productions, perhaps to gauge the popular mood of the English. On a visit to The Curtain, he was accompanied by a Florentine, Antima Galli, who reported:
He often goes to the plays in these parts. Among others, he went the other day to a playhouse called the Curtain, which is beyond his house. It is an infamous place in which no good citizen or gentleman would show his face. And what is worse, in order not to pay a royal, or a scudo, to go in one of the little rooms, not even to sit in the degrees that are there, he insisted on standing in the middle down below among the gang of porters and carters, giving as his excuse that he was hard of hearing as if he could have understood the language anyway.
That evening the Ambassador faced a near riot. He was invited by the players to announce the next performance a choice that proved so unpopular that the audience, thinking he was a Spaniard, turned on him and drove him out.
In the ensuing years, outbreaks of the plague were used conveniently to justify restrictions on stage productions in and around the City, but the Lord Mayor and his lieutenants were well aware that Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, together with large sections of the population, took delight in the theatre, and so an uneasy compromise was reached allowing productions at certain times of the week 'without danger of infection'. One notable playwright and actor joined the company when he arrived in London in 1592, and thus it was that many of the plays of William Shakespeare, including Henry VI, The Comedy of Errors, and Romeo and Juliet, had their premieres on the stages of The Theatre and The Curtain. At this seeming high point in the history of British theatre the attacks from City authorities intensified, no doubt prompted by the unprecedented popularity of the various venues. A petition against a theatre that had been converted from a private house in Blackfriars was submitted by constables to the Lord Mayor in 1596 and provides a wonderful insight into the nature of their concerns. The petitioners declared that
there was daily such a resort of people and such a multitude of coaches (many of them Hackney coaches bringing people of all sorts), that at times the streets could not contain them, they clogged up Ludgate Hill also, so that they endangered one another, broke down stalls, threw down goods, and the inhabitants were unable to get to their houses or bring in their provisions, the tradesmen to utter their wares, or passengers to get to the common water stairs without danger of life and limb; quarrels and effusion of blood had followed, and other dangers might be occasioned by the broils, plots and practices of such an unruly multitude.
In 1595 the Lord Mayor requested the magistrates of Surrey and Middlesex to suppress plays on the Bankside in Southwark because of recent increases in crime. Two years later The Theatre and The Curtain were singled out in another letter. When combined with the refusal of the landlord to extend the lease on The Theatre, the suppression led to its forcible closure. Legend has it that when it was demolished the timbers of The Theatre were carried across the Thames and used to build the Globe Theatre in Southwark. In June 1600 the Privy Council ordered that the only theatres allowed to continue were the recently built Globe at Bankside and the Fortune at Golden Lane on the eastern edge of the City; despite this The Curtain survived until 1610.
The appearance of Protestant dissent in the early sixteenth century represented another vital strand of Stepney's resistance to the established order. England was a Catholic country, with levels of church attendance as high as anywhere in Europe. There were, however, significant and mounting undercurrents of disaffection with the conduct of priests. At a time when most in the country lived meagre lives, lavish expenditure on ritual and ornamentation, the corrupt practice of selling indulgences to pardon past sins, and the unwarranted interference of ecclesiastical law into people's lives created deep resentment. This dissent gained momentum when the German monk Martin Luther launched his revolt against the Papacy. Lutheran religious tracts and ideas soon reached across the Channel at first a trickle and then a flood carried by the considerable trade between England and Germany and the Low Countries. Unsurprisingly, therefore, southern and eastern ports were among the first to be exposed to dissent, and throughout the century the powerhouse of Protestantism was located in the south-east.
From the outset, Stepney was responsive to the stirrings of reform. Leading Christian humanists including Richard Fox and John Colet found enthusiastic audiences amongst parish congregations before moving on to bigger things. Others paid a high price for their beliefs. In 1540 William Jerome, who had been appointed vicar of St Dunstan's, Stepney, three years earlier, was burned at Smithfield as a Lutheran. And Edward Underhill, known as the 'hot gospeller' for the fervour of his Protestant ballads during his time at Limehouse, was imprisoned by Mary, and later fled Stepney to avoid further persecution.
At this early stage the desire for separation from the Catholic Church was hardly a movement, let alone a revolution. Lutherans, Anabaptists, Puritans, Seekers, Independents, Brownists and Barrowists were among many sects that eventually unified, albeit uneasily, into the concerted resistance which brought about the Reformation. Such internal schisms, however, did not seem to allay the fears of civil and religious authorities, who did what they could to persecute dissent in its various manifestations. As part of the oath taken by every freeman of the City was the requirement that 'ye shall know no gatherings, conventicles nor conspiracies made against the Kings Peace'. Beyond the City, the riverside areas of Stepney attracted attention for they offered a degree of refuge and, more importantly, were the first ports of call for continental emigrants seeking to spread the message of religious dissent. The ideas of Luther and Calvin in particular found fertile soil in the Stepney hamlets, where congregations grew rapidly during the reign of Mary.
Excerpted from BEYOND THE TOWER by JOHN MARRIOTT Copyright © 2011 by John Marriott. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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John Marriott is emeritus professor of history at the Raphael Samuel History Centre, University of East London.
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