With the East End about to host the Olympic Games, Neil Fraser’s new book Over the Border: The Other East End tells the story of this overlooked but in fact vitally important area of London. In an exclusive guest post for The Dabbler, the author looks at what ‘legacy’ – that favourite Olympic committee buzzword – really means…
One of the interesting things that I discovered when researching the history of Newham is that for a large part it is a history of things that are no longer there – either no longer there in their original context, such as the Royal Docks in Silvertown, or physically lost to time, like practically all of historical Plaistow. It is a history of what has been taken away. Much of the forest that once existed was cut down between the 11th and 13th centuries to make way for intensive farming, as practised by the landowners who proceeded to enclose it and thus take away commons access. The dissolution saw the demise and obliteration of West Ham Abbey. Industrialisation then saw the marshland that once stretched across the bottom of Newham built over and practically all of the agricultural land was then built upon to house the workers who had migrated here to work in the docks, the railways and the industries that came to dominate the area.
Gone is Angel Lane (above), the bustling street and market so beloved of Joan Littlewood and the gang at Theatre Royal. It was pulled down in the early seventies, along with surrounding terraced streets to make way for the shopping centre that is still there. The shopping centre stands in the middle of a plot of land surrounded by Stratford High Street and Great Eastern Avenue, and has now been rebranded ‘The Island’. The extensive document detailing its facelift refers, with no sense of irony, to future plans to reinstate streets – much like the ones they tore down. The residents of those streets are of course long gone, along with many others after the post-war slum clearances – to Tower blocks or further east into Essex. One such tower block, Ronan Point, in Canning Town, disappeared in 1986, demolished along with nine others. But this was fifteen years after a report into the collapse of a corner of said tower block, that killed four people, highlighted the now obvious structural dangers. Residents would put pennies against the wall and watch them disappear through the crack in the floor and into the flat below.
Gone the forest that led up to the gate that gave Forest Gate its name. Gone too numerous small cinemas and more recently numerous old pubs, a list of those fallen at the hands of enemy fire from the cut-price-booze supermarkets. Long ago in West Ham, and other parts of London, girls disappeared into thin air, never to be found, despite the attentions of journalist and social reformer William Stead, who himself later disappeared under the ocean waves along with hundreds of other people on the Titanic. Less well known than that Hollywood favourite are the 650 souls who perished in the sewage infested Thames when the Princess Alice sank in 1878.
When those responsible for the 2012 Olympic Games talk of legacy they completely miss the point, for the real legacy of the East End is the collective memory of the people who live there and the memories that have been handed down to them. The essence of Newham is the strong sense of community that exists in each area and has survived despite continual change. Anywhere can endure the loss of bricks and mortar, fields and factories even, but if the sense of community disappears then all that’s left is a soulless place with no history worth speaking of.
Over The Border: The Other East End by Neil Fraser (Function Books, £9.99) is now available in paperback.