Monday, 17 October 2016

History of Bethnal Green Road

Bethnal Green Road

The place-name Blithehale or Blythenhale, the earliest form of Bethnal Green, is derived from the Anglo-Saxon ‘healh’ (angle, nook, or corner’) and blithe (‘happy, blithe’), or from a personal name Blith. Over time, the name became Bethan Hall Green, which, because of local pronunciation as Beth’n ‘all Green, had by the 19th century changed to Bethnal Green.

The Bethnal Green Road, which we see today, is approximately one mile long, from Bethnal Green Tube Station in the East to Shoreditch High Street in the West. At first glance it might look a pretty nondescript sort of place, filled with ordinary shops, supermarkets, cafes and restaurants, as well as a street market, which has been in existence for around 200 years at least.

The ‘original street market’ in Bethnal Green flourished during the 18th Century. In 1833, the Bethnal Green Road Market was chiefly for fruit and vegetables, with the Costermonger replacing the weaver as the quintessential figure of Bethnal Green. By 1901, there were 136 stalls on Bethnal Green Road, open 7 days a week.

The local council issued licenses for 222 stalls in 1930-1, for Bethnal Green Road. By 1959 stalls were choking not just the main road but the side streets as well, and the council attempted to relocate Bethnal Green Road Market, but with little success. By 1986 there had been many shop closures but district shopping centres remained in Bethnal Green Road and weekday markets, mostly for food, remained.

The street market is now recognised as a major local shopping area and an important social meeting place for the community. The market now sells a wide range of items from clothes to fruit and vegetables and is open 7 days a week.

Bethnal Green Road was made by an Act of Parliament in1756 on the line of a bridleway. The western section was called Church Street after the church was built in 1743 but entry to Shoreditch was only through a narrow passageway until the Act of 1756. By 1872 the western approach was again inadequate, since it was the main route from the developing Victoria Park district to the City and Finsbury. Replacing the 18th-century road with a 60-ft. wide road farther south was also seen as a means of clearing slums in south-western Bethnal Green. The Metropolitan Board of Works obtained an Act in 1872 and opened the new road, called Bethnal Green Road throughout, in 1879.

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There are three churches associated with Bethnal Green Road, the first being St John on Bethnal Green, which although it isn’t exactly on Bethnal Green Road, is the most predominating of the three churches. St John’s actually sits on the corner of Cambridge Heath Road and Roman Road, by Bethnal Green tube station and faces directly down Bethnal Green Road. It is an early 19th-century church, constructed 1826–8 to the design of the architect Sir John Soane.

Although the exterior of the Church is quite imposing, I find the interior very minimalistic and dismal, with no stained glass windows, ornate carvings or warmth of any kind.

Bethnal Green Road’s second church is Saint James the Great, which was constructed between 1840 and 1844 and designed by E. Blore in an Early English style. A former prime minister, Clement Attlee, who did much social work in this area as a younger man, was at one time associated with the church, which was also known locally as 'The Red Church'. This name referred to the colour of its brickwork rather than to the political affiliation of its congregation.

Some time during the 1800s one early vicar decided to offer the poor people of his parish the opportunity to be wed in Saint James for a fee of just 7 pence, which needless to say caused rowdy scenes as young couples flocked there. So popular was this offer that many had to get married in batches. This same vicar also raised a great deal of funds, founded a dispensary, a visiting society and a Sunday School.

On 19th April 1965 Reginald Kray married Frances Shea in St James the Great Church. It was the East End's wedding of the year. Many famous sports personalities and show business celebrities attended the ceremony and David Bailey was the photographer. Two years after the wedding the church was again used for the bride's funeral after she had committed suicide. There were ten black limousines for the mourners and many wreaths, including three from Reggie Kray and one from his twin brother, Ronnie, who was on the run from the police at the time.

In 1983 the church was converted for residential use.

The last of the three churches is Saint Matthew’s, which is nor actually on Bethnal Green Road, but in Saint Matthews Row, which is a side street, directly off Bethnal Green Road.

St Matthew’s, Bethnal Green, is perhaps one of London’s more remarkable churches. It has a very colourful history, drawing in a number of diverse characters, starting with the staggeringly corrupt churchwarden Joseph Merceron.

London was growing fast at the end of the 18th century with businesses springing up, buildings rising up around the fringes of the City and a whole new system of local government growing up to police and tax the new citizens. Money was flooding into London and Merceron’s parents wanted him to be a businessman, which he did indeed try for a while.

Merceron started as a lowly clerk in a lottery office but quickly worked his way up to positions where he had power over money, especially other people’s. Local government was based on the church parishes and Joseph, a slick and persuasive public speaker, won many friends and supporters at St Matthew’s church vestry meetings.

The parishioners voted the plausible Merceron into place as churchwarden, with control over funds for the needy, and of the lucrative licences for public houses. This was the start he had been looking for. He shamelessly granted licences to his friends, for a reasonable fee, of course, and a great many more were simply put into his own name. In his position as treasurer of the poor rate his abuses were even more breathtaking; cutting rates or increasing them, depending on whether the ratepayer was a friend or enemy, and at the same time pocketing a sizeable cut for himself.

By this time Merceron was now also a magistrate, and lost no time in turning this to his advantage as well.

The dissoluteness of morals was to be very apparent in the decades to come. On Sundays in the mid-18th century, there were often several hundred locals attending bear and bull baiting contests in the field next to the church, rather more than there were inside. On one occasion, a terrified bull ran into church during the morning service. And with the new hospitals’ demands for bodies for dissection, it became a constant battle to stop the bodysnatchers or ‘resurrection men’ targeting the churchyard for fresh supplies. In 1754, a watch house was built, and a reward of two guineas given for anyone catching a bodysnatcher. The watchmen were paid 10 shillings and 6 pence a week and given a blunderbuss with which to shoot the miscreants, though they had to sound a rattle first. The churchwardens hold the right to this day!

By this time Joseph Merceron had became Churchwarden and proceeded to line his pockets from the parish – he was jailed for 18 months in 1818 for stealing £1000 from public funds, which is the equivalent of £77,600 today. This was a suspiciously lenient sentence at a time when men were hanged for far less. But his spell inside was just a hiccup in his successful criminal career. Upon his release Merceron took back his old duties, fleecing the parish until his death in 1861.

Although charged with keeping the peace, he positively encouraged bull and bear-baiting in the churchyard as well as receiving money from resurrection men whom he would turn a blind eye to as long as the money paid to him was enough and would let them raid the freshly dug graves.

Merceron, meanwhile, made sure he greased enough palms to ensure he wasn’t bothered by the authorities. With so many “friends” benefiting from his patronage, and in his pocket, Merceron seemed untouchable and Bethnal Green was seen as his personal kingdom. He thought he couldn’t go wrong, and that was when Joseph pushed his luck too far.

While incarcerated, his prime enemy, the vicar of St Matthew’s, mysteriously left the parish, probably scared off by the magistrate’s henchmen, leaving Merceron a clear field upon his release. Once he was out it was business as usual and Merceron even took up his old official duties, without any further interference from the authorities.

Escaping the gibbet or the transportation ship, Joseph Merceron died a prosperous 75 in his Bethnal Green kingdom. Merceron even left a few mementos of a lifetime of embezzlement and crookedness. Merceron Houses, Globe Road and Merceron Street, E1 bear his name. His followers and hangers-on, left an ironic testament mourning the man they hailed a hero. They buried him in his own churchyard, St Matthew’s, Bethnal Green, remembered, almost like a Saint by the parish he had spent so much time defrauding.

The next ‘villain’ of the piece was a man named Stewart Duckworth Headlam, born 12 January 1847 died 18 November 1924. Headlam was a priest of the Church of England who was involved in frequent controversy in the final decades of the nineteenth century. Headlam was a pioneer and publicist of Christian Socialism, on which he wrote a pamphlet for the Fabian Society. He is noted for his role as the founder and warden of the Guild of St Matthew and for helping Oscar Wilde to obtain bail from prison at the time of his trials.

Headlam’s  parental home was strictly evangelical, though not narrow or severe, but Headlam rejected with horror the doctrine of eternal punishment. Headlam attended Eton College. There he was influenced by a teacher, William Johnson, who was a disciple of the Christian Socialism of Maurice and Kingsley.

When he attended Cambridge University, Headlam was taught by the Professor of Moral Theology, F. D. Maurice, the primary influence in his life. Headlam came to agree with Maurice that God's Kingdom on earth would replace a "competitive, unjust society with a co-operative and egalitarian social order."

Maurice’s teaching and example shaped Headlam’s life, starting with his decision to be ordained. Years later, Headlam told colleagues in the Fabian Society: that he had been delivered from "the belief that a large proportion of the human race are doomed to endless misery" by Maurice’s teachings Maurice instilled a "Christian humanism" in Headlam. In his Fabian Society Tract on "Christian Socialism," Headlam wrote, "I learnt the principles and was familiar with the title of ‘Christian Socialism’ from Maurice and Kingsley."

In January 1878, Headlam married, but the marriage was dissolved in a very short time after he discovered that his wife was a lesbian. Later in 1878, Headlam was dismissed from St Matthew’s. His socialism was only one of Headlam’s conflicts with authorities. The immediate cause of his dismissal was "a lecture in praise of the theatre and music halls that concluded with "above all don’t let us speak with scorn of the ladies who dance on the stage."

Given the fact Headlam that "could never keep a job", it was fortunate that his father and grandfather were underwriters in Liverpool. From them, he inherited private means on which to live when unemployed.

Headlam was left with no prospect for employment, apart from the odd job here and there. After years of conflict with and dismissals by his ecclesiastical superiors, Headlam was vindicated at the end of his life.

In October 1924, during his terminal illness, Headlam received a letter from Randall Davidson the Archbishop of Canterbury, which read as follows:

My dear Headlam,

I hear a report that you are unwell. I hope that it is not serious and work
can go on, for I fear that your absence in some circles, educational and other,
would be bad for ‘affairs’ in the country. You, at least, whatever be said
about the rest of us, have been consistent in your devotion to the cause or
causes for which you care. God keep and bless you.

Most truly yours, Randall Cantaur.

Headlam immediately replied with a "heartfelt letter of thanks". He later commented, "Now I feel I can say that I have won."

Within a month, more heart attacks led to Headlam’s death at his home, "Wavertree", Peter's Road, St Margaret's-on-Thames, Middlesex, on 18 November 1924.
His funeral was held at All Souls in St Margarets and he was buried at East Sheen Cemetery on 24 November.

In 1859, the interior of the church was gutted by fire, and the building was refurbished and reopened in 1861. Then, in 1940, enemy bombing left St Matthew’s without a roof. A temporary church was built within the walls, and the permanently repaired church was then re-consecrated on 15 July 1961.

Next on the list of villains is undoubtedly the Krays; Saint Matthew’s church was the venue for a succession of lavish, old-style East End funerals, as hundreds gathered to say goodbye, in turn, to Ronnie, Charlie and Reggie Kray, and ‘Firm’ member Tony Lambrianou.

· · ·

Until the 18th century, Bethnal Green hadn’t needed a church of its own. The little hamlet was the only development in the countryside east of the City walls. It became a fashionable place to live – Samuel Pepys fled to the Bethnal Green mansion of his friend William Ryder to escape the Great Fire. But the city had been slowly encroaching, with Spitalfields becoming a centre for brick-making in the late 1500s, which is how nearby Brick Lane got its name. Towards the end of the 17th century there was a huge influx of Huguenots and a consequent boom in the weaving industry, which saw a massive population explosion in the area.

As the population of the area grew, so did the need for transportation, both to and from Bethnal Green. In 1688 two coachmen petitioned, apparently unsuccessfully, for permission to run a service from London to Bethnal Green. In 1838 the nearest omnibus service ran from Mile End gate. In 1856 eighteen omnibuses ran between Chelsea and Bethnal Green. There were 274 buses a day along Bethnal Green Road by 1870 and by 1882 forty eight a day along Green Street, which is really a continuation of Bethnal Green Road on the St John’s Church side of Bethnal Green Road.

The London General Omnibus Co. ran a motorbus from Victoria station to Old Ford along Bethnal Green Road and Green Street in 1911 and by 1930 buses ran on the same routes as trams. The Empress Omnibus garage was built at Cambridge Heath in 1925 and a coach station in Knottisford Street in 1936. In 1939 the London Passenger Transport Board introduced trolleybuses along Cambridge, Hackney, and Grove roads. Although less frequent, motorbuses ran along the same routes in 1958 as in 1938. Services had been reduced by 1987, when 6,070 people travelled to work from Globe Town neighbourhood and 10,230 from Bethnal Green neighbourhood; they used ten bus services within the former borough, along Hackney, Cambridge Heath, Bethnal Green, and Roman roads.

· · ·

Another famous institution on Bethnal Green Road, is a small café, with large chrome letters above the facia, proclaiming E Pellicci.

In the late 1880s an Italian immigrant named Primo Pellicci came to England to find work. He decided to settle in Bethnal Green as he had heard that rooms were cheap there. He got a job in a café, washing up, cooking, clearing dishes, anything he could lay his hands to, and one day in 1900 the café’s owner decided to move on and sold the café to Primo.

By this time Primo had married and set up home in the small flat above the café. It was here that his wife Elide brought up their seven children single-handedly, whilst running the cafe below to keep the family after her husband’s death in 1931. Elide is the E. Pellicci whose initial is still emblazoned in chrome upon the primrose-hued vitroglass fascia and her portrait still remains, she and her husband counterbalance each other eternally on either side of the serving hatch in the cafe.

During WWII all male members of the Pellicci family who were of a certain age were interned in a camp on the Isle of Mann. Fortunately, an outcry in Parliament led to the gradual release of internees, including the Pelliccis. What an absolute disgrace this was, to imprison people who had been born in this country, just because they were of Italian descent.

After the death of Primo Pellicci, the eldest son, Nevio took the reigns along with his sister Maria, who was always known as Mary, and who did the cooking, while his mother reigned supreme as the family matriarch, sometimes behind the counter, taking the money or pouring the tea, but always there, on site.

Nevio ran the cafe until his death in 2008, superseded as head of the family business today by his wife Maria who possesses a natural authority and charisma that makes her a worthy successor to Elide.

During the many years the café has been open, it attracted a huge variety of customers, from (yes you guessed it) the Krays, who used to eat and meet there on a regular basis, to films stars, boxers and celebrities from around the world, but it was the ordinary people of Bethnal Green who helped the most to keep this super establishment running all those years. When I was a young boy at school I used to go in there almost every day to spend the money my mother had given me for school dinners and eat something simple like egg, chips and beans, which I thought far more delicious than that stodgy meat pudding, boiled potatoes and over-cooked cabbage we were served up with in the school canteen. It wasn’t just the food that my friends and I went in there for, it was Nevio and the wonderful staff, cousins etcetera, who made us feel like grown-ups for that precious hour or so.

Pellicci’s has now become so famous, it is a Cathedral of East End traditions and taste, and has featured in many documentaries, films and TV productions. Nevio’s son, Nevio Junior, now runs it along with his mother Maria.

· · ·

If you head west along Bethnal Green Road, past Pellicci’s in the direction of Shoreditch High Street. You would firstly come to Vallance Road, where the Krays lived (last mention of them, I promise). The next street of great significance is Brick Lane, where they sell everything from Beigels with smoked salmon and cream cheese, to clothing, artwork and of course about 100 restaurants selling fabulous Indian food.

Having passed Brick Lane you would then come to Club Row on the right hand side of the road; it is a road, which leads to Arnold Circus, which in turn was built upon the site of the infamous Old Nichol, which was London’s most notorious slum. There is still an Old Nichol Street running across there.

Club Row was at one time one of the major street markets in London, but one with a difference, for its speciality was live animals. Its traditions dated back centuries to the Huguenots. These Protestant settlers from France and the Low Countries first settled in Spitalfields in 1685, bringing their skills as silk weavers with them. The fiercely closed shop of the Guild Companies forced them to work outside the historic walls of the City, and so they settled in Spitalfields, building the fine weavers’ houses that still stand today, in Princelet Street, Folgate Street and the rest.

But rich and poor alike, the newcomers had two great loves: flowers and songbirds. These may have seemed unlikely interests in the urban stew of Stuart, Georgian and then Victorian London, but the interest endured. One early Victorian writer, describing the area in the dying days of the East End silk trade, describes his passage past the weavers’ little workrooms, “machinery clattering, the chirp of a songbird from every window”. Songbirds and flowers must have provided a little colour and music in such a grim landscape.

Over time Club Row merged into parts of the Brick Lane market as well, and grew as markets, and Sunday was when everything came to life. On the one day of rest people would come out to see what exotic delights had been shipped in that week.

Some thirty years later, the Nichol was at last headed for demolition, with the Boundary Estate rising in its place, but the market was still going strong. One of the finest visual chroniclers of the mass of larks, thrushes, canaries, pigeons and parrots was Scots photographer John Galt, who had arrived in the East End in 1890, as a full-time missionary at the Tent Street Mission in Bethnal Green. Galt had come to London to work for a West End tailor and, being sent down to pick up cloth and finished pieces from the Spitalfields sweatshops had been horrified by what he saw. He first picked up his camera to document the appalling poverty of Whitechapel and Spitalfields but soon became fascinated by the endless little cages that stretched the length of Club Row. By now, dogs and cats had joined the caged birds.

By now Sclater Street, which runs from Bethnal Green Road and into Brick Lane itself, had also encompassed the Club Row Market for animals. Club Row Market was London’s one and only live animal market. Dogs, cats, birds, chickens, snakes, gerbils, guinea pigs, even monkeys and lion cubs could be found there. If one wandered down Club Row market any Sunday they would hear a cacophony of yowling and yapping dogs long before they arrived at the actual market, where they would be confronted by dogs of every breed, size, colour and temperament and above them, row upon row of cages, containing birds from all around the globe.

Most of the more exotic animals disappeared from the market at the outbreak of WWII, but it soon picked up again after the war had ended. The writer Kaye Webb and her husband, the cartoonist Ronald Searle, headed to Club Row in 1953 to research their book ‘Looking at London and People Worth Meeting’ published by the News Chronicle newspaper. The pair found the oddity of Club Row market, and Webb’s words (alongside Searle’s illustrations) paint the scene beautifully.

“A cacophony of whimpers, yaps, yelps and just plain barking will guide you to the spot where Bethnal Green Rd branches off to Sclater St. There you may find them – the unclaimed pets of a hundred homes: new-born litters of puppies tumbling over each other in children’s cots (the most popular form of window display); “mixed bags” of less lively youngsters huddling docilely together in laundry baskets; lively-looking sheepdogs, greyhounds and bulldogs straining at the ends of leashes and furry little faces peering incongruously from the jackets of hawkers, who often look as if they’d be happier in the boxing ring.”

There were dealers, certainly, but sometimes it was just an ordinary punter with one animal to sell, as Bernard Protheroe, who grew up in Bethnal Green in the 1940s, remembers: “People with their animals just stood there, their dog on a lead, chickens in a cage or cats in a box. Probably their stray at home had had youngsters and they wanted to earn some money by selling them.”

For local children a visit to Club Row was indeed a special day out. East London children were still amongst the poorest in the country; too poor in most cases to even visit a zoo. The closest these poor kids got to animals was to see them in a Tarzan film at the local Saturday morning ‘pictures’ If they were very lucky their parents might manage to cobble enough money together to buy them a puppy or a kitten for Christmas or a birthday.

The Club Row market finally closed in 1983, as laws came in to prevent the street sale of live animals. Colourful it may have been, campaigners rightly or wrongly worried about the welfare of many of the creatures on sale – especially those flown from afar to be sold from tiny cages on an East End street. I am sure that many a young Eastender’s Christmas was ruined by this law, which in my opinion could have easily amended to cover larger cages and better treatment in general.

· · ·

After passing Club Row on your right and Sclater Street on your left, the next port of call is Shoreditch High St Station; not that the station itself has any historical significance, in fact it was only completed in 2010.

Shoreditch High St Station stands upon the site of the old Bishopsgate Goods-yard, which was finally demolished in the summer of 2003, when a ten-acre railway city became a very large pile of rubble, and an empty space was to be found where once stood three tiers of stations, twenty-three tracks, hydraulic lifts to heave locomotives between the three levels, engineering workshops, offices, its own dedicated police station, and over one hundred brick and steel arches.

Almost where the station entrance stands today, there was once, not many years ago, a long atmospheric archway/tunnel, known locally as the Wheler Street arches.  The arched tunnel ran beneath the Bishopsgate Goods Yard, from Bethnal Green Road, through to Commercial Street, Spitalfields. The only survivors of the complex are its perimeter wall and grade II-listed Braithwaite Viaduct built in 1839.

A fire in 1964 wrecked the superstructure buildings and, in the thirty-nine years that followed, the area was home only to a coach park, a car-breaking business and a wilderness of vegetation. But, from 1998, a regeneration scheme saw the arrival of football pitches, tennis courts, a swimming pool, a night club, a performance and exhibition space, artists’ studios, a go-kart track and large Sunday market. These were, in turn, supplanted by the arrival of the new Shoreditch High St Station in 2010 and the Boxpark outdoor shopping mall for designer brands in 2011.

The Wheler Street tunnel has a murky and poignant history and was one of the largest of East London’s informal doss-houses in the eighteen-eighties and nineties. The pavement on the western side of Wheler Street would fill up with those with nowhere else to sleep, while the police ignored them as they patrolled the eastern pavement. From 5am, dockers and porters began to pass on their way to work, and some would throw coins and even their lunches to the neediest-looking children.

Open air preaching by various evangelical groups focused on Wheler St, nearby Sclater St and Bethnal Green Rd on Sunday morning market days. Miss Annie Macpherson took her followers, a portable harmonium and hymn books and began loudly singing beneath the arches. The arches were also, at this time, the site of a child labour market, which was not illegal at this time; where boys and girls would huddle together for warmth while they waited to be hired by the day, or even the hour.

When the complex first came into being in the late 1830s, it obliterated medieval streets and courts. Peering through a magnifying glass at a map of the area in 1746, we learn that the Bishopsgate Goods Yard’s construction eradicated such tiny thoroughfares as Peacock Yard, Buttermilk Alley, Farthing St, Swan Yard, and Cock Hill, which was, believe it or not, adjacent to Balls Alley

The Bishopsgate Goods Yard’s station was an industrial age megalithic monument that brought massive disruption, upheaval, noise, filth and crime into the area. So why should anyone mourn its destruction? The answer is that a wonderful corner of London, full of character and darkly beautiful; awesome even, with its own peculiar personality was lost for ever. To pulverise this was an act of Philistinism, and it gave a powerful indication of how London was to change in the coming years.

The Goods Yard’s history is not the sort of tale that would ever be served up in a consultation document for planners and developers. This is not the kind of history that would have held sway over our Culture Secretary at the time, or the plebeian Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, who described the yard as “a load of old crap”. The Corporation of London, London Underground, Railtrack and the planning departments of Hackney and Tower Hamlets; not one of these bodies lifted a finger to help; between them they brought about the destruction of the Bishopsgate Goods Yard, and in its turn the Wheler Street Arch.

There are of course many more stories and pieces of history centred around Bethnal Green Road, but I am afraid it would probably take a whole book to cover all of them. This is just one chapter of my book on London’s streets; I hope you have enjoyed it.

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