Over the Border – The Real East End

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.

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7 thoughts on “Over the Border – The Real East End

  1. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    July 18, 2012 at 10:06

    Mangling communities Neil, seems to have developed into a trade.
    The Byker district of Newcastle was never one that would have had estate agents positively orgasmic, most of the housing was, in any case, local authority. The small number of private houses tended to be owned by people who at the time would have been described as Bohemian, none of the local residents would have understood this term. Streets of terraced houses running from the high street towards the river, all with backyards and outside toilets.
    The area had, like those mining towns and villages, what is now described as a strong sense of community, again the local people would not have understood this description. What they did have was a common bond, people with similar interests, low paid work, poor education and health care best described as noblesse oblige. They were, if you like, comfortable in their skin, in it together, family ties were strong, they looked after their elderly, the thought of being reimbursed for this would have horrified them.
    Then along came a group of cavemen waving a banner with the word regeneration written on it, trailing behind was an architect with the name Ralph Erskine written on the label tied to him. In an effort to justify the numbers on the invoice he would send them he was chanting Functionalist Romantic not only would the residents not understand this, they would have thought that he was the new turn down at the club.
    And so it came to pass, the wrecking ball boogie was heard four miles away, pulverising brick and common bond, for ever. The spanking new Byker wall generated many willy-waving points for the cavemen, a new, cold dawn for the people. Shame on you, cavemen.

    It took the efforts of a Norwegian, Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, to highlight the drama.

  2. Wormstir@gmail.com'
    July 18, 2012 at 18:04

    This book looks great, I find the ‘new’ east end east of the Lea fascinating, especially areas like Romford that contain what’s left of the ‘true’ cockney Eastenders. There was a monumentally depressing documentary on telly the other week about Deptford being destroyed by the planners

  3. neil.fraser77@ntlworld.com'
    July 19, 2012 at 19:53

    Thanks for the comments. Malty; sadly you are right, though it is nothing new. One irony in Stratford is that they knocked down a whole section of streets including Angel Lane which was a local shopping street and market, to make way for a shopping centre in the 1970s. They are now prettifying this plot of land that the shopping centre is on and the glossy document that outlines the plans for nearly 100 pages talks of the idea of reintroducing an area of open air ‘streets’. You couldn’t make it up. Thanks for adding the link. Looks interesting, more so because I am also a big photography fan.
    Worm: I’m hoping to do a follow up to this book if the response is OK. I didn’t have time to talk to local people because of a really tight deadline so this is what I am going to start doing and I expect I will end up visiting places like Romford, Dagenham and elsewhere in Essex. Lot of ex-pats out in Oz and Canada too. Haven’t seen the documentary about Deptford. Sounds a sadly familiar story

    • Gaw
      July 19, 2012 at 20:32

      Hi Neil, great post and sounds like a great book. In case you missed it, there was a wonderful documentary on Radio 4 yesterday on Romford market. A fantastic bit of radio. I was in the car and didn’t catch all of it but here it is on the iPlayer:


      • neil.fraser77@ntlworld.com'
        July 19, 2012 at 23:36

        Cheers. Will give this a listen

  4. terrybuchanan1@googlemail.com'
    August 9, 2012 at 15:21

    I new Stratford and the surrounding area very well, having been born in Plaistow and going to schools there. My mum worked in the stocking repair shop in Angel Lane and repaired the nylons for people like Diana Dors, I had to call Joan Littlewood, miss Joan. I worked in the Council Architect’s offices. At lunchtime we would play a game of snooker in the tin hut next to the mortuary
    or go to ‘the hump’ along angel lane and get a full course meal for 1/10p. It was a bit ramshackle and on one visit I ended up to my knees through rotten floorboards. We were bombed out of Marcus Street during one of the early air raids and evacuated to Canvey Island, on our return after the war we shared a house in Clova Road with a family of strangers with no door to seperate the accommodation. I assisted the surveyor on the survey for Ronan Point and I remember the architects discussing the building of tower blocks, originally called ‘point blocks’. They had been on a visit to Scandinavia to see the new method of fabricated construction, nine storeys was as much as they dared in the beginning but then decided to take a risk on eleven storeys. The one thing that has really disappointed me about the current olympics is that Ron Pickering, my physical education teacher, olympic trainer, broadcaster, and
    athletics guru, was not given his recognition. Stratford was his back yard from which he turned us bombed site kids into respectful adults.

    • terrybuchanan1@googlemail.com'
      August 9, 2012 at 15:24

      Sorry, knew, good editors are hard to find.

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