The Whitechapel melting pot. Immigration, pauperism and ideology in the heart of East London.

In stark contrast to the exclusive Mayfair area I covered in my previous posts, I have now decided to write about the far poorer Whitechapel district which is located in London's East End. The specific, post-industrial character of this part of the capital can be attributed to both geographical and historical reasons. The city was originally encircled by a continuous wall, and accessed via 7 gates, positioned at various locations. The land east of Aldgate was for a very long time physically separated from West London by open peat bogs known as Moorfields. These remained undeveloped until 1812 due to the difficulty of building on the marshy soil. This redundant space on the map helped to shape two economically opposite areas of the metropolis, the poor, working-class east and the aristocratic, rich west. The East End is known for its extremely turbulent history, the main driving force being immigration. An influx of new residents began in the 16th century, consisting mainly of impoverished farmers from northern England. Later, Huguenots, Germans and Irish also began to settle in the area, followed by Ashkenazi Jews and Bengalis. This rapid growth led to overpopulation and in turn, the creation of a poverty stricken slum, which was at its worst during Victorian times. Pauperism and ethnic diversity created a fertile breeding ground for the development of intense political activism, which is another important aspect in the creation of the East End's history.

The boundaries of the East End marked on the modern map of London. (Google Maps)

One of the main reasons why the industrial district was established in East London was the direction of the winds blowing in the city. Most of them follow the Thames current and blow from west to east towards the sea. This meant the fumes from the factories located just outside Aldgate would drift away from residential areas without making the lives of the Londoners so unpleasant. Consequently, the location soon became home to the more noxious trades. Breweries, slaughterhouses, metallurgical plants, urea processing tanneries, fulling mills removing fats from cloth, and soap manufacturers cooking bones to obtain raw materials. The Whitechapel Bell Foundry which made the famous Big Ben opened in 1570 and was one of the first factories in the area. Due to the fire hazard, companies producing gunpowder and firearms were also moved to the east. Another reason for the relocation of many businesses was a general lack of space within the capital. After the Great Fire of 1666 some workshops were simply too small to meet the demand for goods, and as such had no choice but to move. An additional benefit to being outside the city walls was that they also determined the boundaries of London law, so the factories were not restricted by any provisos, standards or official ordinances.

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry established in 1570 on Whitechapel Road.
This Victorian warehouse on Commercial Road is now the headquarters of the international business school HULT.
A building on Commercial Road formerly owned by a firearms company founded in 1637. Guns were tested on its premises before being released to the market.

The continuous increase in the capital's population led to settlement in the Whitechapel area as early as Elizabethan times (1558-1603). The first settlers were the aforementioned English farmers, who found employment in the surrounding factories. At the beginning of the 17th century the first wave of foreign immigration began with the French Huguenots, who were welcomed with open arms by the government thanks to their desirable qualifications. In addition to their excellent silk weaving skills, they also had a good knowledge of banking, trade and military training techniques. However, despite their merits, they were still considered outcasts by English society. Industries within the city walls were still members of long established guilds who set the market prices and defended the rights of manufacturers. As immigrants Huguenots had no right to join guilds or work in the capital. Therefore, they settled just outside Aldgate, joining the colony of British farmers. Despite the Huguenots' beneficial effect on the economy, and official approval of the government, they did not elicit enthusiasm among their new neighbours. They were accused by locals of stealing their jobs, and as a consequence lowering the minimum wage and increasing rent prices. Their customs and language were considered unfavourable to public order and morality. Soon after, fuelled by the British sugar industries increased import of cane from foreign colonies, further immigrants began to flow into the Whitechapel area. As Germans knew the secrets of sucrose production, refineries in East London began to almost exclusively employ workers of German origin.

Huguenot refugees arriving at Dover in 1685. Engraving from the 18th century. (Hulton Archive)
An engraving depicting the elegant Huguenots leaving after mass from the Protestant church. On the other side of the street you can see the misery and crudeness of the native Londoners. William Hogarth, 1738.

In the 18th century another minority began to appear in the area, this time from Ireland. The first Irish arrived in England in the hope of stable employment in the construction and service of London docks. The second wave of immigrants was caused by the Great Potato Famine in 1845-49, which forced thousands of people to escape starvation straight into the over-populated East End. The Irish men worked mainly in ports, and their women in local factories, most often for the Bryant & May company producing matches. Victorian England looked unfavourably upon the poverty-stricken Irish. Most of the newcomers were forced by circumstance to live in the slums of Whitechapel, which in time grew into a city within a city, full of hastily built shacks. The area was known for its widespread immorality and violence, and thus given a wide berth by other Londoners.

Irish workers at the docks. (The Irish Times)
Women at work in the Bryant & May match factory, around 1905. (Fulltable)
Bryant & May match factory in the Bow district. (Historic England)

In the second half of the 19th century, the overcrowded Whitechapel district experienced a whole new wave of immigration. This time in the form of Jewish refugees fleeing the repression in eastern Europe. In 1881 Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, and looking for a scapegoat the press helped to fuel the already anti-semitic feelings of the Russian public. This led to the blaming and subsequent massacre of Jews in Kiev and Odessa at the hands of the Russians. The tightening of anti-Jewish law in Russia, and then a further massacre in Chisinau in 1903, meant that only eight years later, there were over 106,000 Jews of Russian and Polish descent living in England. By 1914 90% of this diaspora lived on the streets of Whitechapel, mainly working in the production of cigars and cigarettes. Before long the area began to turn into an immigrant ghetto. Along with this immigration came bold new ideas - trade unions, socialism and Zionism. This mixture of ideology, poverty and exploitation in the London factories soon began to stir up a hornet's nest. In 1858, the first general strike of Jewish workers in London took place. Their forwardness in standing up for their rights, religion and culture meant that the Jews did not gain the trust of the general public and were often accused of subversive activities. The situation of the Jewish community in the East End deteriorated considerably in the 1930s, when Oswald Mosley created the British Union of Fascists.

Jewish refugees from Russia arriving in England in 1882. (
Jews at Petticoat Lane market around 1900. (Our Migration Story)

The last large group of immigrants to move to East London were Muslim Bengalis. They began to arrive in the capital in the 17th century on the ships of the East India Company, mostly as slaves. However, the first big wave didn't appear until the 1970s, when Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan. Bengalis moved to London in their thousands, creating a thriving Muslim community in Whitechapel. The modern ‘Banglatown’ is centred around Brick Lane and replaced the former Jewish diaspora. Bengalis now account for over 40% of the entire population of the district. The East London Mosque on Whitechapel Road forms the heart of the local community. The second most significant place for London Bengalis is Altab Ali Park, named after a local clothing factory worker originally from Bangladesh, who was murdered in a racially motivated attack by three London teenagers on May 4, 1978.

Children of Bengali immigrants playing on Parfett Street in Whitechapel, 1986. (Wikipedia)
A demonstration by London Bengalis in memory of the murdered Altab Ali. (CrimethIncer)
Bengali clothing stores on Whitechapel Road.
East London Mosque on Whitechapel Road.

Another important factor that helped shape the character of Whitechapel was poverty. Due to the district being located outside the walls of London it attracted both the poor, and also those who wished to avoid justice. The quarter became an enticing place to live for thieves, forgers, debtors, former prisoners, beggars and prostitutes. The numerous factories and construction of docks on the River Thames encouraged unskilled labourers to settle outside the official boundaries of the capital in return for the promise of low-paid, but certain employment. Unfortunately, because of the surplus of willing hands this resulted in exploitation, and wages being reduced to a minimum. Both the docks and other heavy industry in East London became notorious for hiring children. The conditions within the factories were inhumane, and to lower production costs workers were paid for piecework at starvation rates rather than a set daily wage. The ubiquitous poverty and overwhelming misery soon forced hundreds of women into prostitution. In October 1888, the metropolitan police estimated that over 1200 prostitutes were employed in 62 brothels in the Whitechapel area.

The Blackwall Buildings erected in 1890 were mainly inhabited by prostitutes working in Whitechapel. The estate was demolished in 1969. (Pinterest)
Children sleeping on Mulberry Street in Whitechapel, 1890. (Wikimedia Commons)
Children earning their living washing laundry on the streets of the East End. (Daily Mail)

By the 1840s overpopulation and unsanitary conditions in the district had reached a critical state. Although Whitechapel Road was kept in relatively good order, it had dozens of narrow, dirty alleys branching off it, such as Thrawl Street and Dorset Street. By 1860 Inkhorn Court had become densely inhabited by Irish immigrants, with several families often sharing one room. The Tewkesbury Buildings were in turn the dingy home of the Dutch Jews. The areas were so heavily populated that over a hundred English families lived on just one street alone at George Yard, which consisted mainly of thieves, professional beggars, rag and bone merchants, dock workers and the unemployed. The Jewish minority was an independent community supporting each other through their misery, and holding fast to their religious beliefs, even despite considerable prejudice against them.

Dorset Street in 1902. (Wikipedia)
Inhabitants of Whitechapel Alley. (BBC America)

Excessive filth on the streets and limited access to running water led to numerous epidemics that repeatedly haunted Whitechapel. In 1866 cholera in East London killed over 3,000 people, which left hundreds facing starvation as they lost their only working family members. Thousands of children were orphaned and forced to beg in the streets or seek employment in factories. Many youngsters formed gangs, which gave them a better chance of surviving in the brutal world of the slums. It wasn't until the horrific murders committed in 1888 by Jack the Ripper that the press and the public in general began to take an interest in an area they had previously never given thought to. The social reformers and charitable societies stepped in to organise field kitchens, supply residents with medicines and look after homeless children. These acts were however, merely a drop in the ocean.

A group of men waiting for meals supplied by the Salvation Army around 1902. (Daily Mail)
Whitechapel slums in 1935. (Probert Encyclopaedia Photo Library)

At the beginning of the 20th century Whitechapel became a breeding ground for organised crime. During an unsuccessful attempt to rob a jeweller's the leader of a group of Latvian burglars was shot by an officer and in turn three policemen lost their lives. In January 1911 the ensuing investigation led to the capture and detention of all but two of the gang members, who were known to be hiding in a house on Sidney Street. After the area had been evacuated a six hour stand-off began, which resulted in the police requesting the assistance of the army. The then Home Secretary Winston Churchill took it upon himself to take command of the operation which caused a media storm and a discussion about overuse of his power. The gunfight led to the property catching fire and the death of both criminals in what later became known as the infamous siege of Sidney Street. In the 1930s Jack 'Spot' Comer was another famous gangster operating in the Whitechapel quarter. He was the son of a Jewish immigrant from Lodz who grew up in the slums, living at Fieldgate Mansions. At the age of seven, Jack joined his first Jewish gang which constantly fought against Irish Catholics living on the other side of Myrdle Street. In the post-war period, Comer became one of the founders of the 43 Group, which led a regular street war with the far-right Union Movement militia. Another gang terrorising the area were the Russian Jews known as Bessarabian Tigers, who controlled the race tracks in Camden and extorted money from illegal bookmakers. The mafia's leader was the legendary Alfie Solomon, whose life was shrouded in mystery.

Winston Churchill during the siege of Sidney Street in January 1911. (Wikipedia)
Jack Comer in the 1950s. (Daily Mirror)
A drawing of Alfie Solomon. (Listverse)

The conditions prevailing in East London proved to be exceptionally fertile ground for anarchism, socialism and communism. The exploited factory workers and those living on the margins of society were quickly drawn to these new political theories that promised a marked improvement to their lives. This led to strikes, social unrest and bloody riots between opposing groups, immigrant gangs, and the police, who tried unsuccessfully to control the increasing chaos. A wave of radicalism came crashing into the East End with German and Russian dissidents fleeing prosecution in their home countries. Rudolf Rocker was a German anarchist who came to London in 1895. Shocked by the appalling living conditions of the local Jews, he began circulating his opinions among the members of the community. He learned Yiddish in order to start a local Jewish newspaper and more easily spread his propaganda. Among London Russians, the torchbearer for anarchism was Peter Kropotkin, who convicted in Russia for subversive activity, escaped to England from prison in St. Petersburg. The East End was also visited by Leon Trotsky, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, who all spoke at a conference organised by the Russian Labour Party in 1907.

Vladimir Lenin talking with the writer Maxim Gorki and Joseph Stalin during the conference of the Russian Labour Party in London, 1907. (Russia Beyond)
Rudolf Rocker (
Peter Kropotkin (after: Sarah J. Young)

The founding of the British Union of Fascists in 1932 by Oswald Mosley completed the radicalisation of East London. The clash of a vibrant Jewish community with the Nazi ideology soon led to inevitable conflict. On October 4 in 1936, a riot broke out on Cable Street between fascists, those who opposed their demonstration, and the police, who's duty was to ensure a peaceful march. United against their common enemy, local Jews, Irish, socialists, communists and anarchists tried to prevent thousands of Black Shirts passing through the streets of Whitechapel. More than 20,000 anti-fascists, 3,000 members of the Mosley party and 7,000 police officers took part in the riots. 175 people were injured, and another 150 were arrested. Eventually, their demonstration was halted and redirected towards Hyde Park.

British politician Oswald Mosley salutes members of the British Union of Fascists. (The Irish Times)
Riots on Cable Street in 1936. (Time Magazine)
A mural on Cable Street commemorating the 1936 riots.

The Whitechapel quarter remained a neglected and extremely poor district until the middle of the 20th century. It suffered severely during the Luftwaffe air raids on London in World War II. Since then the reputation of the area has been improved somewhat due to the reconstruction of many streets. As a result of the demolition of the Victorian slums in the 1950s and the economic problems in the post-war capital, a large number of cheap social housing blocks were built in their place. The gradual closure of London docks, budget cuts in national railways and the bankruptcy or relocation of many factories caused a long period of recession in the East End. Today's Whitechapel remains a centre of political activism, in particular of the anti-authoritarian, and anti-war tendencies. The socialist Fabian Society established in 1884, which gave birth to the modern British Labour Party continues to this day. The anarchist publisher's Freedom Press founded in 1886 by Charlotte Wilson is still in operation near Aldgate. More recently ALARM! (All London Anarchist Revolutionary Mob) has been formed in the area. Today's East London is also a popular and vibrant location for alternative artists, film makers and musicians, as well as numerous students and social activists.

Commercial Road in Whitechapel.
The anarchist Freedom Press in Angel Alley, Whitechapel.
Buildings off Brick Lane.


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