London’s East End has always had a dark side. On the surface, we think of it as a tight-knit community inhabited by chirpy Cockney barrow boys and flower girls, playfully peppering their sales patter with rhyming slang. But beneath that is a more sinister tale: one of overcrowding, poverty, violent crime, grimy industry and social unrest. This is the East End that emerged in the Victorian Age and that lingers still in the popular imagination.
East London has always been the poor relation of the West End. From the earliest times, it attracted trade and industry, thanks to its proximity to both The Thames and the River Lea. In particular, ‘dirty’ industries like tanning and tallow works clustered in the east, downwind and outside the city walls where ‘noxious’ trades were banned.
Despite this, the area remained a relatively pleasant place to live and work. That is, until the Victorian age…
As the British Empire expanded under Queen Victoria, so did trade and heavy industry. In 1827, the new St Katherine Docks opened, and with it, the need for large numbers of dock workers. There was no shortage in the East End. Alongside a swelling local population, the area had long attracted immigrants fleeing political unrest and religious persecution: most notably, Jews and French Huguenots in the 17th century. Between 1870 and 1914 they were joined by thousands of Jewish settlers from Poland, Romania and Russia who fled to England to escape Tsarist pogroms.
The elegant Huguenot houses of Spitalfields were divided up into tiny, inadequate dwellings, and even newly-built housing soon became over-crowded and run down. Wages were pitiful, thanks to unscrupulous employment practices such as casual labour and piecework. Disease was rife: in 1866, a cholera epidemic swept the East End, killing 3,000 people.
Those who could claw their way above the poverty line soon moved out – aided by the arrival of the railways – leaving behind the highest concentration of the poor and underprivileged anywhere in London. When social reformer Charles Booth produced his extensive survey of the living conditions of the poor in 1887, he concluded that 13% of the East End population was chronically poor and, of those, “a part must be considered separately, as the class for whom decent life is not imaginable.”
No wonder then, that crime, immorality, drunkenness and violence were so rife. Gangs, prostitutes and robbers roamed the unlit alleys that, by the late 19th century, had become known as ‘The Abyss’.
Perhaps the area’s darkest moment came in the late summer and early autumn of 1888, when Jack the Ripper carried out a series of grisly murders on Whitechapel prostitutes. He was never caught.
Despite – of perhaps because of – the misery, the local ‘Cockneys’ (as East End dwellers became known) developed an indomitable spirit and a reputation for humour. Nowhere is this more evident than in the playful distortion of the English language known as Cockney Rhyming Slang. The ‘secret’ language is thought to have originated in the 1840s among street traders (costermongers) as a means of concealing their often dodgy dealings from the newly-formed police force – while having a laugh at their expense. Whatever its origins, phrases like ‘have a butcher’s’ (butcher’s hook = look), ‘telling porkies’ (porkies = pork pies = lies) and ‘on my tod’ (Tod Sloan = alone or own) have given our language a rich legacy that lasts to this day.