East End Memories


Bethnal Green Seal showing the Blind Beggar  
London Borough Map showing Bethnal Green

I was born in Bethnal Green on 7th. October, 1943 in the front bedroom of 11 Royston Street. I was supposed to be born in the country, but circumstances came to pass that did not allow this to happen. As a result, I was born a cockney, and despite all efforts to educate and change me, I remain one. Being from Bethnal Green and being a cockney may not seem like much to those born elsewhere. However, ask an Irishman why he is proud of where he is born or someone from Brooklyn or The Bronx the same question. They will most likely get a faraway look in their eye and drift off to some magic place in their imagination and utter something or other that you are not likely to understand or, if you did, would not agree with. It is the same with the East End of London. Those born there are proud of this accomplishment despite having nothing to do with it. And I for one am doubly proud to come from Bethnal Green.

I am told that the name Bethnal Green comes from the earliest name for the area, which is Blythenhale or Blithehale. The name means happy, blithe (Blyth, Blithe) and angle, nook or corner. The area was marshland and forest (Bishopswood) until the 16th. Century. It is thought that the first clearing was made next to St. Winifred’s well at the northern end of the Green. With the passage of time, the name became Bethen Hall Green, which then became Beth'n 'all Green, and then in the 19th Century, it became Bethnal Green. The Green is the area now occupied by Bethnal Green Library.

The people of Bethnal Green have always had a reputation for going their own way and standing up for their rights.  The first recorded examples of this appeared in 1292 when the citizens defended their traditional right to hunt within the woods of the Bishop in Stepney and in 1561 when they reaffirmed their right to shoot with bows in the common fields of Stepney and Bethnal Green.

Bethnal Green is associated with a Tudor ballad, The beggar’s daughter of Bednall Greene. This is a long poem that tells the story of Henry, son and heir of Simon de Montfort who was blinded in the Battle of Eversham in 1265. Apparently, he escaped the king by dressing as a beggar. He survived by begging and obviously saved his money. Later he attended his daughter’s wedding and gave a huge dowry to her betrothed. His true identity was revealed at the wedding. The ballad enjoyed great success and it can be found here (Copyright © www.barryoneoff.co.uk) for those wishing to read it. The blind beggar is seen on the Common Seal of the borough of Bethnal Green and the Blind Beggar pub on Whitechapel Road, just across the border with Stepney, is said to be the site of his begging.

In the late 17th. century, the owners of the houses surrounding the Green purchased the land so as to avoid others building on it. A trust was set up to maintain the area and rent from its use was used to help the poor. One of the main houses on the Green was Bethnal House, which was later leased and became an asylum. This area now houses the Bethnal Green Library and the park area before it is referred to as the Barmy Park by older residents.

The citizens of Bethnal Green have always enjoyed gaming and between 1590 and 1780 bowling was very popular.  However, their other gaming activities included more rougher persuits and including whipping a cock on Shrove Tuesday in 1656, dog-fighting, hunting ducks, for which the weavers bred a special small spaniel called a splasher and chasing bullocks.  Apparently a subscription was raised to pay drovers on their way to Smithfield Market for a bullock, which was maddened with prods and peas in its ears and driven through the most populated part of the parish.  In 1816 the rector of the church saved two bullocks, which had taken refuge in the churchyard, but a certain Joseph Merceron, as magistrate, refused to stop the practice and declared that in his youth, he was first in the chase.  The chief amusements in 1861 were said to be dogfights, rat matches, and drawing the badger, although few badgers could be found in the parish.  Dog- and cockfighting in 1896 seems to have been a popular feature of the bird fair.

Bethnal Green has always been associated with a large immigrant population. The Huguenots settled into the area from Spitalfields from about 1800 and moved into Globe Town, which is the area east of the Green and would have included where I was born. They were refugees from France having come to England earlier to escape religious persecution. They were weavers and operated some 20,000 looms in their own homes by 1831. The decline in the silk trade occurred with the relaxation on French imports and many turned to boot, furniture and clothing production. The Huguenots did not construct buildings or roads and so there are few reminders of their presence were it not for Weaver’s Field, a large green space to the west of Bethnal Green Road.

In 1836 Bethnal Green village consisted of about 289 houses, a public house, a brewery and a factory on the east side of Cambridge Heath Road and 401 houses and seven public houses on the west side. Obviously the population enjoyed a drink. By 1861 there were some Irish and foreign-born people in Bethnal Green and they represented 0.7% of the population at the time. This rose to 6.1% by 1911. Most were poor Jews from Germany, Poland and Russia. They spread into Bethnal Green from Spitalfields and Whitechapel and tended to concentrate in one area and so gave the impression of being present in greater numbers than they actually were. By 1899, Jews formed 95% of the population of Brick Lane, but less than 5% of the total population of Bethnal Green. Lew Grade and Bernard Delfont came from Russia in 1912 and settled in the northern part of Brick Lane. Yiddish was the language of this area.

At the start of the 20th. Century, Bethnal Green was one of the poorest slums in London. The infamous Jack the Ripper walked and terrorized the streets of the western end of the area and in neighbouring Whitechapel. As Bethnal Green grew, overcrowding became common. In 1901, there were 170 people to an acre. Since people were poor, they could not afford larger homes and, as they needed to be close to their work, overcrowding became increasingly common in the area. As a result of the subsequent things that follow overcrowding, the average death rate increased. However, when new homes were built, they often used billy sweet, a mortar including street dirt which never dried out. These homes were often below street level with little street distance between them. Many houses were soon condemned. In 1891, one surveyed area of 730 houses revealed 43 empty houses with 5,719 living there with almost half living in one-roomed dwellings. At this time, most people worked as labourers, hawkers, furniture makers, shoemakers, washerwomen, sawyers and costermongers. There were many criminals in the area. It was said that of the people housed in one particular street, 64 people had been in prison. Some areas were notorious for the number of rival gangs living there.

By 1948, the Jewish population was decreasing due to their movement into other areas of London. In 1954, just prior to the influx of the next wave of immigrants, there was little political or criminal violence in Bethnal Green. Between 1931 and 1955 nearly 40,000 residents of Bethnal Green were relocated into London County Council homes in Essex and later into Buckinghamshire. This caused a breakup of the social order and a contraction of privately rented housing. These conditions contributed to outrageous rents and the development of the slum lord along with an increase in criminal behavior. The Kray Twins came to prominence at this time and held sway in the area for a while.

The East End continues to be a haven for immigrants. The mid to late 1950s saw the next wave of immigrants arrive. This time they came from the Commonwealth. Their numbers have risen dramatically over the last fifty years. In 2001, the census revealed the population of Bethnal Green to be 17,590 with the largest ethnic group being of Bangladeshi descent and making up 41.4% of the population. White British constituted 37.2% of the area’s population at this time. Followers of Islam were now at 50.1% and Christians at 33.8%.

Bethnal Green suffered greatly during World War II. An estimated 80 tons of bombs were dropped on Bethnal Green damaging over 21,000 houses: of these 2,233 were destroyed and 893 were rendered uninhabitable. A total of 555 people were killed and another 400 seriously injured. When King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were urged to leave London during the bombing of London they refused, with the Queen saying that they would never be able to look the people of the East End in the face again if they were to leave. Many unexploded bombs were found in the area, the last of which was uncovered in May 2007. However the worst wartime disaster did not occur at the hands of the Axis powers, but as a result of the sound of an anti-aircraft battery coming from Victoria Park. At that time, Bethnal Green Tube Station was used as an air raid shelter. On 3rd. March, 1943 at 8.27 P.M., the streets were wet from rain. Apparently, a woman slipped while descending to the tracks, causing a number of people to fall. This resulted in the death of 173 people. The results of the official investigation were not made known until 1946. This was the worse civilian disaster of the war and is commemorated by a plaque at the entrance to the tube station.



Top: left, World War One Memorial; right, War Memorial at the Library

Bottom: left, Cyprus Street Memorial; right, Civilian Disaster Remembrance Plaque


Over the years, poor old Bethnal Green has never enjoyed a good reputation. Although it provided a sanctuary to those seeking freedom from religious persecution and those seeking a better life for their families and themselves, it has also provided a haven for criminals and political unrest. Today, police and ambulance sirens can be heard blaring out as they rush around the area with monotonous regularity. Despite this, life goes on. People meet, they get married, they have children, their children go to school, they grow up and the circle continues. The markets still flourish on Bethnal Green Road, as well as on Roman Road. The flower market is still open for business on Sunday morning. The trolleybuses are gone and the bus numbers and routes may have changed, but the buses still run and one can still get around the city by bus. Sadly, all of the cinemas are gone and many of the pubs have become theme pubs or else have become restaurants, however the museum and the parks are still open and are free to the public. The Club Row Dog Market may have been closed down by the R.S.P.C.A., but the Brick Lane market still exists. Although a few pie ‘n’ mash shops are still open and the fish ‘n’ chip shops are still frying tonight, although under different management, the old smells of salt beef, pickled herring and freshly baked bagels from the one-time busy restaurants and shops are now be a thing of the past. However, they have been replaced by the delicious and exotic scents of Eastern herbs and mixes, which also cause the mouth to water. And so, as the French say, it would seem that the more things change, the more things stay the same. What better way to describe the life of Bethnal Green?

Bethnal Green Underground


Around Bethnal Green

Top Row, from left to right: Underground Station, Street sign, Area map & Museum Gardens

Middle Row, from left to right: Mendoza plaque, Salmon & Ball Sign & Library

Bottom Row, from left to right: Tobacconist, Public House, St. John's Church & Bethnal Green Gardens 


Kelly's Eel & Pie Shop, Roman Road


Town Hall Bethnal Green - now closed and to be converted into luxury flats


The London Buddhist Centre, former fire station


Regent Canal


Bethnal Green Hospitals

Top: left, Children's Hospital, Hackney Road; right, Bethnal Green Hospital

Bottom: The London Chest Hosptial


Bethnal Green Churches

Top: left, St. John's; right, The Red Church (St. James')

Bottom: left, St. Peter's; middle, Bethnal Green Mission; right, ruined church on the Roman Road

Jewish Bethnal Green
French Bethnal Green
Bangladeshi Bethnal Green
Bethnal Green Public Houses
Flats - Old & New


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Copyright© 2010 - : Charles S. P. Jenkins