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Mile End London – A History

8 min read
Mile End London – A History

We start our journey here in Mile End. The area takes its name from a milestone placed to mark the point one mile east of the boundary of the City of London at Aldgate. Although long gone, the milestone would have stood near Stepney Green underground station.

One thing that will become clear on our travels is that you are never far from living history. Buildings and traditions continue to shape their surroundings, even if their original purpose has long since been usurped or forgotten. A fine example is Queen Mary University of London. The site’s story begins with Barber Beaumont, a colourful character in London at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

The young Beaumont was a talented artist but made his fortune in insurance, from the foundation of the County Fire Office. He went on to found the Provident Life Institute and Bank of Savings, one of the first friendly societies. These encouraged working people to save money and were the forerunners of today’s building societies. Returning to London after the Napoleonic Wars, his attentions turned to philanthropy. Determined to bring culture to east London, he built a museum, concert hall and library – the Eastern Athanaeum.

However, Beaumont’s real legacy was the trust fund he left on his death in 1841. This was to be used to build a home for higher education in east London. Over 40 years later his vision became reality with the opening of the People’s Palace by Queen Victoria in 1887. The site included a technical college, gymnasium, swimming pool, library, concert hall and winter gardens. Thousands of east Londoners came to witness the Queen open the People’s Palace. Thousands more would come to hear the lectures given at the People’s Palace and Queen’s Hall. In 1931 the Palace was destroyed by fire, leaving just smouldering embers where the Queen’s Hall had stood. An appeal for funds was started and in 1937 King George VI laid the foundation stone for the new building. One of the few remaining elements of the People’s Palace is the Victorian Octagon. Once a library, its design based upon the reading room of the British Museum, it is now a central part of the university. After a recent restoration it was brought back to its original glory and makes an unusual venue for any event.

Victorian philanthropy did much to shape east London. Philanthropists were concerned not only with the physical well being of the masses, but also their spiritual and cultural development. The Columbia Street market was intended to be a sustainable project, creating jobs and housing for the people of the area. Whitechapel Library and Art Gallery were created to expand the horizons and outlooks of their visitors. Both still intact today they have adapted to changing times and needs.

The Columbia Road flower market has become an east London treasure, busy and bustling every Sunday morning. However, it wasn’t intended to be quite like this. Angela Burdett, granddaughter of Thomas Coutts (a founder of Coutts Bank) was left an endowment of two million pounds, making her the wealthiest woman in England. Instead of accepting one of the many marriage offers she received, she embraced philanthropy. Causes from cotton gins for Nigeria to a statue of Greyfriars Bobby in Edinburgh benefited from her largesse.

Her main concern though was to provide sustainable endowments and to that end in 1864 she donated £20,000 for the building of Columbia Market. Unfortunately the market was never profitable and it closed in 1886, its buildings converted into warehouses and workshops. The street market remained, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that a rebirth began. A growing interest in gardening has fuelled the continuing success of the market. Visit on any Sunday and the street is filled with the vibrant colours of the flowers on sale. Coffee shops and boutiques line the nearby streets.

The former Whitechapel Library was built with funds donated from the hugely successful newspaper publisher John Passmore Edwards. Edwards was approached by the passionate social reformer Cannon Samuel Augustus Barnett as someone who could facilitate his vision of a library and art gallery. The building they created received a warm entry in Pevsner’s Architectural Guides, and inside it was to influence generations of east Londoners. Famous visitors included the First World War poet Isaac Rosenberg, painter Mark Gertler and novelist Esther Kreitman. The library was closed in August 2005, superseded by the new ‘Ideas Store’ further down the high street. The Library is being combined with the adjacent Whitechapel Gallery, increasing the exhibition and teaching space, continuing the philanthropist’s intentions to bring art and culture to east London.

Another intriguing inheritance of Whitechapel is the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, established in 1570, during the reign of Elizabeth I. It is the oldest manufacturing company in Britain, continually manufacturing bells and associated equipment for over 400 years. During its illustrious history it has forged many famous bells, including the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia which rang out from the tower of the Independence Hall to summon citizens to the first reading of the Declaration of Independence, and Big Ben, the bell of the Houses of Parliament, which at 13.5 tonnes is the largest bell to have been cast there.

A much less salubrious side of Whitechapel is one that has become entwined in the myths and legends of London, that of Jack the Ripper. The murders began in Whitechapel during the latter half of 1888. The victims were casual prostitutes. They were strangled, their throats cut and bodies mutilated. The unsolved mystery of Jack the Ripper has lived on in the imaginations of authors and has fascinated generations of historians. Much has been written and speculated about it. However despite many theories, the identity of the serial killer has never been uncovered. Today you can book a tour of the area, to experience first hand the locations where these grisly events were committed.

From Whitechapel we continue along Whitechapel Road to Brick Lane and Spitalfields. Spitalfields Market is undergoing a cosmopolitan transformation and is home to restaurants and market stalls selling artisan jewellery and designer clothes. It began as a market in the field adjoining the Priory and Hospital of St Mary Spital (one of medieval England’s largest hospitals). In 1682 John Balch, a silk thrower, was granted a Royal Charter allowing him to hold a market in the area every Thursday and Saturday.

The market quickly established itself and was soon a centre for selling home grown produce. Work to create the structure which today covers the market began in 1876 when a former market porter, Robert Horner, bought a short lease for the premises. The market continued to grow and expand, but became too big for the area and in 1991 the produce market moved to Leyton.

Excavations on the site after the move revealed an even earlier history. Romans placed their cemeteries outside of the city boundaries and London (or Londinium as it was then known) was no different. Spitalfields would have been within this area. In the late 1990s a stunning find was unearthed: a Roman sarcophagus, containing a high status, silk clad Roman lady, buried with her jet accessories.

The population of east London has continued to shift and change, creating a vibrant history. Each new influx bringing with it new customs, tastes, trades and traditions, the influence of which can still be glimpsed today. The Huguenots fled from persecution in France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. They settled in Spitalfields, bringing with them their skills in weaving and textiles. They chose this area because of its location, outside the bounds of the city, and the jurisdiction of the city guilds and their restrictive legislation. At the end of the nineteenth century the area once again became home to those escaping unrest when 150,000 Jewish refugees fleeing the pogroms in Europe settled there. Evidence of the Jewish influence can still be experienced at the world famous Beigal Bakery on Brick Lane. The thoroughfare now buzzes with its renowned Bangladeshi restaurants, the spicy scents and aromas of curries perfuming the air.

Further to the east we come to Docklands. Now a hub of financial activity and glass towers, in years gone by it was the gateway to the known world, bustling with trade. Big ships coming up the Thames with their exotic cargoes. One of the best known of the old docks is St. Katharines Dock. Now home to luxury watercraft and well appointed apartments, it started as a sacred site.

In 1148, Matilda of Boulogne established a hospital, starting a long association between it and the Queens of England. However, despite many years of royal patronage, the hospital came upon hard times, ravaged by fire, storms and riots. In 1827 the hospital was torn down and the docks built. Shipping and trade has played an important role in the history of east London. Many of its residents would have worked in the docks, some may have settled there from foreign lands.

One famous group of settlers formed London’s first China Town in Limehouse. Between the 1880s and 1930s, Limehouse became synonymous with its Chinese residents. Much of the area’s reputation at the time came from authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sax Rohmer’s evil Fu Manchu, creating an atmosphere of mystery and danger. It was to Limehouse that Oscar Wild’s eternally youthful Dorian Gray came in search of opium.

And so we come to the edge of east London. William the Conqueror made his mark on the landscape of east London, with a monument that has become an iconic emblem of the capital and recognised around the world. The Tower of London was built to cement William’s hold on England. Early defences on the south east corner of the Roman city walls developed into what is now called the White Tower (so named after being whitewashed in 1270).

The name ‘ Tower of London’ is perhaps a bit of misleading, as it is actually a collection of towers, each with its own unique history. Its sturdy walls have housed inmates such as Sir Walter Raleigh and Guy Fawkes, have witnessed grisly murders and even housed a zoo, established in 1235 with a gift of three leopards from the Holy Roman Emperor to Henry III. Around 150 people still live within the Tower’s walls, mainly the Yeoman Guards (Beefeaters) and their families. Over 2.1 million visitors passed through its gates in 2005, but tourism is not a new development in its history, in fact as early as the 1590s people were paying for tours.

Visitors to the Tower in the latter part of the nineteenth century would have been able to take advantage of a rather novel form of transport. The Tower Subway was only the second underwater tunnel to be constructed in the world (Brunel’s Thames Tunnel, now home to the East London Line, took the glory of being the first) and ran from Tower Hill on the north side of the river to Vine Lane on the south bank. The tunnel was the world’s first underground railway and shuttled its passengers from one end to another in just 70 seconds. But its uniqueness did not counter its inherent problems. Although very quick, the train was small and cramped. In his Dictionary of London Charles Dickens commented on the lack of head room. The Italian writer Edmondo De Amicis was more forthcoming in his description: ‘in the water beneath, in the obscure depths of the river, is where suicides meet death, and that over your head vessels are passing, and that if a crack should open in the wall you would not even have time to recommend your soul to God.’ The tunnel lasted three months before it was closed and re-fitted as a foot tunnel, a much more successful venture, with over 20,000 people a week using it, until it was overtaken by the opening of Tower Bridge in 1894. Today the tunnel transports cable television lines across the river.

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