East End of London in popular culture

East End of London in popular culture

The East End of London in popular culture covers aspects of popular culture within the area of the East End of London. The area is roughly that covered by the modern London Borough of Tower Hamlets, and parts of the south of the London Borough of Hackney.

The East End has been the subject of parliamentary commissions and other examinations of social conditions since the 19th century, as seen in Henry Mayhew's "London Labour and the London Poor" (1851) [Henry Mayhew, "London Labour and the London Poor" (London: Griffin, Bohn, and Company, Stationers' Hall Court) in [http://nils.lib.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A4000.01.0140 Volume 1 (1861)] , [http://nils.lib.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A4000.01.0141 Volume 2] , [http://nils.lib.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A4000.01.0142 Volume 3] , and an [http://nils.lib.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A4000.01.0143 additional Volume (1862)] all accessed 14 November 2007] and Charles Booth's "Life and Labour of the People in London" (1902)."Life and Labour of the People in London" (London: Macmillan, 1902-1903) [http://booth.lse.ac.uk/ at] The Charles Booth on-line archive accessed 10 November 2006] Narrative accounts of experiences amongst the East End poor were also written by Jack London in "The People of the Abyss" (1903) and by George Orwell in parts of his novel "Down and Out in Paris and London", recounting his own experiences in the 1930s. A further detailed study of Bethnal Green was carried out in the 1950s by sociologists Michael Young and Peter Willmott, in "Family and Kinship in East London"."Family and Kinship in East London" Michael Young and Peter Willmott (1957) ISBN 978-0140205954]

Themes from these social investigations have been drawn out in fiction. Crime, poverty, vice, sexual transgression, drugs, class-conflict and multi-cultural encounters and fantasies involving Jewish, Chinese and Indian immigrants are major themes. Though the area has been productive of local writing talent, from the time of Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (1891) the idea of 'slumming it' in the 'forbidden' East End has held a fascination for a coterie of the literati. William Taylor (2001) "This Bright Field: A Travel Book in One Place"]

The image of the East Ender changed dramatically between the 19th century and the 20th. From the 1870s they were characterised in culture as often shiftless, untrustworthy and responsible for their own poverty. However, many East Enders worked in lowly but respectable occupations such as carters, porters and costermongers. This later group particularly became the subject of music hall songs at the turn of the century, with performers such as Marie Lloyd, Gus Elen and Albert Chevalier establishing the image of the humorous East End Cockney and highlighting the conditions of ordinary workers. [http://books.google.com/books?id=XFnfnKg6BcAC&pg=PA351&lpg=PA351&dq=%22gus+elen%22&source=web&ots=5svEnNz8A-&sig=N1coxv6YYj5jafbpSFvtDhbaFLQ#PPA352,M1 "Vaudeville, Old and New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America" pp 351-2, Frank Cullen, Florence Hackman, Donald P. McNeilly (Routledge 2006)] ISBN 0415938538 accessed 22 October 2007] This image, buoyed by close family and social links, and the community's fortitude in the Second World War, came to be represented in literature and film. However, with the rise of the Kray Twins, in the 1960s, the dark side of East End character returned, with a new emphasis on criminality and gangsterism.


The East End features in one of the earliest works in English, Geoffrey Chaucer's (1343–1400) "The Prioress' Prologue and Tale" (ca. 1390), which makes fun of the Prioress' Cockney accent: "After the scole of stratford atte bowe, For frenssh of parys was to hire unknowe". [ [http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/CT-prolog-para.html Line 125. Chaucer: "The Canterbury Tales"] accessed on 14 November 2006] Chaucer, himself lived for many years on the edge of the East End, in the gatehouse of Aldgate. The Isle of Dogs plays a central role in two Jacobean plays, with which Ben Jonson was associated. "The Isle of Dogs" (1597) was reported to the authorities as a "lewd plaie" full of seditious and "slanderous matter". The authors and cast were quickly arrested and the play suppressed. [Gurr, Andrew. "The Shakespearean Stage, 1574-1642". (2nd ed.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992)] This play was the root of the argument in which Johnson killed Gabriel Spencer in 1598, at Hoxton fields. "Eastward Hoe" (1605) was equally scandalous, and resulted in the arrest of the playwrights. [Chambers, E. K. "The Elizabethan Stage." 4 Volumes, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1923; Vol. 3, pp. 254–6]

Charles Dickens (1812–70), throughout his work, draws extensively on his experiences of poverty in London. His godfather had a sail making business in Limehouse, and he based the "Six Jolly Fellowship Porters" in "Our Mutual Friend" (1864–65) on a public house still standing there. The Red Bull, a now demolished inn situated in Whitechapel, features in his "Pickwick Papers". On leaving it Sam Weller makes the sage remark that Whitechapel is "not a wery nice neighbourhood". Fagin in Dickens's "Oliver Twist" appears to be based on a notorious 'fence' named Ikey Solomon (1785–1850) who operated in 1820's Whitechapel. [Ed Glinert (2000) "A Literary Guide to London": 256] Dickens was also a frequent visitor to the East End theatres and music halls of Hoxton, Shoreditch and Whitechapel, writing of his visits in his journals and his journalism. ["Commercial Traveller" Charles Dickens (1865)] A visit he made to an opium den in Bluegate Fields inspired certain scenes in his last, unfinished, novel "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" (1870). [Peter Ackroyd (1990) "Dickens": 1046] [ [http://www.mernick.co.uk/thhol/curiousburial.html "A Curious Burial"] 11 January 1890 "East London Observer" – an account of the burial of Ah Sing, said to be the inspiration for the character of the opium seller. Accessed 22 July 2008]

Arthur Morrison (1863–1945), who was a native East-Ender, wrote "A Child of the Jago" (1896) a fictional account of the extreme poverty encountered in the Old Nichol Street Rookery. Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) observed the practice of 'people of quality' visiting the many entertainments available in Whitechapel and sent his hedonistic hero Dorian Gray there to sample the delights on offer in his novel "The Picture of Dorian Gray".

The experiences of the Jewish community in the East End inspired many works of fiction. Israel Zangwill (1864–1926), educated in Spitalfields, wrote the influential "Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People" (1892) and other novels on this subject. Another Jewish writer, Simon Blumenfeld (1907–2005) wrote plays and novels, such as "Jew Boy" (1935), informed by his years in Whitechapel. [ [http://www.guardian.co.uk/obituaries/story/0,,1461996,00.html "Simon Blumenfeld: Novelist, playwright, journalist and revolutionary"] 18 April 2005 (Obituary, "The Guardian") accessed 17 November 2007] Wolf Mankowitz, of Bethnal Green, was another Jewish writer from the area. His 1953 book "A Kid for Two Farthings", set in the East End, was adapted for the cinema three years later. Alexander Baron (1917–1999) was born in Whitechapel and wrote of his wartime experiences in the Invasions of Italy and Normandy in the trilogy "From The City From The Plough", "There's no Home" and "The Human Kind". Later he wrote of the East End, including the Jewish gangster novel, "King Dido" and the "Human Kind". [ [http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/1999/dec/08/guardianobituaries2 "Alexander Baron: His novels of war and London caught the essential decency of mankind"] John Williams December 8 1999, "The Guardian"; accessed 26 August [2008] ]

Chinatown, Limehouse, also provided inspiration for novelists. Sax Rohmer (1883–1959) wrote fantasies set there, featuring many scenes in opium dens, introducing one of the 20th century's master villains, Fu Manchu, in a series of novels of which the first was "The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu" (1913). Thomas Burke (1886–1945) explored the same territory in "Limehouse Nights" (1916).

Playwrights have often located their work in the East End. During the 1950s and 1960s, much drama was inspired and encouraged by the work of Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop, based in the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. Their new works explored the experiences and position of their local audience. Many productions transferred both to the West End and were made into films. In the 1970s and 1980s the Half Moon Theatre presented premières of European works and new works by London playwrights, such as Edward Bond and Stephen Berkoff.

One contemporary manifestation exploring the 'collision of worlds' made possible by the East End is the school of psychogeography espoused most prominently by Peter Ackroyd (1949– ) in such novels as "Hawksmoor" (1985) and "Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem" (1994) and Iain Sinclair (1943– ) in such novels as "White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings" (1987). A more realistic fictionalisation on the contemporary gentrification of the area, and the rise of the yuppie, is provided by Penelope Lively in "Passing On" (1989) and "City of the Mind" (1991) and by P. D. James in "Original Sin" (1994). Emblematic of the current world-wide clash of civilisations between West and East, of which the East End has historically been a microcosm, are Monica Ali's (1967– ) novel "Brick Lane" (2003), and Salman Rushdie's fantastic and controversial "The Satanic Verses" (1988) which also uses Brick Lane as a location.Ed Glinert (2000) "A Literary Guide to London": 244-262]


One of the earliest television portrayals of the East End was "Dixon of Dock Green" (1955–1976). In this programme, Sergeant George Dixon pounded the fictional beat of Dock Green, with a script by Ted Willis. The series arose from the film, "The Blue Lamp" (1950) that was based on the real life murder of a policeman based at Leman Street, Aldgate. The television series enjoyed considerable success. The script was based on research at Paddington Green Police Station and filmed at the BBC's Lime Grove Studios, in West London. The characterisation by the lead, Jack Warner, was held in such high regard that officers from Paddington Green bore the coffin at his funeral in 1981. [Sydney-Smith, Susan "Beyond Dixon of Dock Green: Early British Police Series" pp 105-6 (I. B. Tauris, 2002) ISBN 1860647901]

"EastEnders", a BBC soap opera broadcast since 1985, is set in the fictional London Borough of Walford. The programme is actually filmed at a purpose-built set at the Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, and the paradigms for the show are thought to lie beyond the East End, in Stratford and Walthamstow. In that, the programme does represent the diaspora of East Enders who have moved out of the district, and draws on the themes of family and social integration. An earlier programme, "Til Death Us Do Part" (1965–1975) attempted to satirise the stereotypical attitudes of an East Ender, Alf Garnett, played by Warren Mitchell. The locale for this programme has been variously placed in Wapping and West Ham, with the principal character a supporter of West Ham United F.C.. The comedic theme of the programme was the interaction between members of the family, and the inability of the principal character to adapt to the rapid changes in his world. The piece inspired the hit American remake "All in the Family", [imdb title|title=All in the Family (1971-79)|id=0066626 accessed 22 February 2008] among others.

One Canada Square, currently the tallest building in the United Kingdom has achieved an iconic status, and is located on the Isle of Dogs. It has appeared as a location in television, film and literature. [http://static.visitlondon.com/assets/maps/movie_maps/canary_wharf_movie_map.pdf "Canary Wharf And Isle Of Dogs Movie Map"] (London Borough of Tower Hamlets - Investment & Business, unknown publication date) Accessed 2 August 2008.]


Film has also explored the issues and themes affecting the East End. Many early films were made in Hoxton, at Gainsborough Studios. With their association with German cinema realism, many of these were made in the streets around the studio.

In more modern films, gangsterism has featured. "Sparrers Can't Sing" (1962), [imdb title|id=0057521|title=Sparrows Can't Sing (1962) accessed 22 February 2008] developed by Theatre Workshop, dealt with issues of change in the East End — a sailor comes home from the sea, to find his home redeveloped and his family moved to a new council block. The sets were often visited by local gangsters, the Krays, who actually made a cameo appearance in the film. [ [http://www.jamesbooth.org/reviews/sparrows_cant_sing.htm "Sparrers Can't Sing - film review"] accessed 5 May 2007] The "The Long Good Friday" (1980) develops the same themes of change, with a gangster seeking legitimacy in the redevelopment of Docklands. His brutality is only matched by that of the IRA. [imdb title|id=0081070|title=The Long Good Friday(1980) accessed 22 February 2008]

The theme of a return to find a changing society is also brought out in "For Queen and Country" (1989). [imdb title|id=0097373|title=For Queen and Country accessed 22 February 2008] "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" (1998) again explores gangsterism, with change represented by amateur white collar criminals. Conflict arises between them and old firm criminals, immigrant gangsters and a group of less than honest friends, raised in the East End. [imdb title|id=0120735|title=Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) accessed 22 February 2008]

Romantic encounters with a multi-cultural erotic frisson, set in Limehouse's Chinatown, are the theme of "Broken Blossoms" (1919), derived from a story in Thomas Burke's "Limehouse Nights" and "Piccadilly" (1929) starring Anna May Wong as an alluring Chinese nightclub performer. [imdb title|id=0020269|title=Piccadilly (1929) accessed 22 February 2008] Limehouse is also the scene of the Fu Manchu films — based on Sax Rohmer's novels. These began with some short British serials 1923–4 before the first American feature film "The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu" appeared in 1929, followed by many others. [ [http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0026693/ IMDb: Fu Manchu] accessed 22 February 2008]

Further multi-cultural encounters are featured in the film "Brick Lane" (2007) based on the novel by Monica Ali. [imdb title|id=0940585|title=Brick Lane (2007) accessed 22 February 2008] The East End is featured as the setting for the Hughes brothers' film "From Hell (film)" (2001) based on the Alan Moore graphic-novel of the same name, providing a modern interpretation of the "Jack the Ripper" murders. [imdb title|id=0940585|title=From Hell (2001) accessed 15 March 2008]


Many music hall acts originated in the East End, including Marie Lloyd, Gus Elen and Albert Chevalier. From the middle of the 18th century, inhabitants of the area had begun to be characterised as shiftless, untrustworthy and responsible for their own poverty. These performers, in particular, saw the many honest people fighting poverty in lowly professions and established the image of the humorous East End Cockney as a part of their stage persona. There are only two surviving music halls in the area, Wilton's Music Hall and Hoxton Hall, but many of the songs survive in "pub songs"; communal singing in public houses with minimal accompaniment.

ee also

*Jack the Ripper in fiction
*Music hall songs


External links

* [http://www.eastendfilmsociety.co.uk/ East End Film Society]
* [http://www.jewisheastend.com/london.html Jewish East End of London]

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