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Recently I was contacted by Sharlene Jones-Martin from Brisbane in Australia regarding her great grandfather Ernest Edward Loades who was born in Poplar in 1890 and spent much of his early years there.
When Ernest was eighty in the early 1970s, he wrote about his eventful life which started from humble beginnings in Poplar before he worked in service to some members of the aristocracy before leaving the UK for the sake of his health to live in Australia. Sharlene, very kindly sent me a copy of his memories and I was fascinated by his story and will produce a few excerpts over the next few weeks.
Crisp Street 1900s
The late 1890s was a time of overcrowding and considerable hardship in the East End and Ernest memories are not one’s of an idyllic childhood. The following account tells of his time at school which provides evidence of how the school system was still very Victorian in outlook which relied rather too much on corporal punishment to instil discipline. I have used some pictures from the period to give some idea of the type of environment that Ernest was bought up in.
By the time I was ready for school the family had grown to five, but the two elder brothers had not neglected my preschool training, so much so that the day I went to school at North Street, Poplar, the old maid who was the head teacher took me, and three other victims to our classroom. She introduced us to the teacher as “four more new brats”.
Young as I was I didn’t quite like being called a brat, but I did not know how soon I was going to score a point in retaliation. Whilst the headmistress was still there, the teacher started to ask questions -“Do you know how to count? Do you know your A.B.C.? “My answer caused such a look of surprise I can still see it. I said” Yes, and backwards too, can you?” and started off – Z.Y.X. etc.
Owing to the fact that the family continued to grow, we frequently had to move to larger houses, causing changes to schools, but in spite of this, the whole family were all fairly smart as regards general education.
Although some members of the family would have benefited by going to higher sources of education, the economics of the family prevented this. As soon as we were able to leave school and earn a few shillings to add to the family income we all did. But this did not deter my eldest brother from continuing his education by attending night school. When he finally obtained a regular job, with the Post Office as telegraph messenger, he continued to go to classes organised by the P.O. After years of study and passing step by step to higher positions he reached the top of the tree, first class sorter in the Registered Mail Office in the General Post Office in London.
My own schooling was a little disjointed, but I always managed to get good marks. Living in the days when education was mostly injected by the cane, in the hands of some of the greatest sadists that ever lived, this was something of an achievement.
Of course there were some men that even today I still remember with high regard, notably the teacher at the Manual Training Centre. Here was a man absolutely dedicated to his work who would go out of his way to help a backward lad or one who showed extra ability.
Poplar High Street 1890
One school head master had been dealt a severe blow when his only son, a brilliant scholar died of consumption. After the boy’s death, he took his spite out on the boys at the school. He would wield the cane for anything he could devise a reason.
I wonder to this day how any boy attending that school could still have faith in religion, when after morning prayers- a shortened form of C of E morning prayers – when the Head was the loudest in the prayers, intoned in the most pious manner, could, if the lad reading the “lesson of the day” – a full chapter of the Bible- made the slightest mistake, tell him to wait, then take him outside and lay the stick on hard and heavy. It got so bad that boys had to be conscripted to read the lesson.
But even he was not as bad as another head of a school in one of the poorest districts in London that we lived in for a short while. This teacher was the brute of all brutes. All the children attending this school came from really poor homes and were poorly clad and suffering from malnutrition, but that was nothing to this sadistic swine.
He would come down to the playgrounds and at the blast of his whistle would make all the scholars run round the grounds. Some of the kids were weak for want of food and could not run at the speed that he considered right, so he used to lash them with his stick driving them like cattle. The hovels where some of the children lived were dirty and lousy, and also a state of malnutrition has been has been proved as a good place for breeding lice.
Somebody complained to this sadist that their children were bringing home lice that could only come from the school. This was something he was really going to enjoy. He went from class to class inspecting the heads and clothes of the pupils. I can only write about what happened in my class but, for a classic in sadism I have never heard its equal.
He made us all take our coats off and he made a thorough search to see if we were clean or not. Those that showed any sign of a louse were sent out to clean themselves. So far so good. Nobody could complain about that. But about an hour later he came into the classroom well equipped with canes and punishment book and ordered all boys that he had previously sent out, to line up in front of the class.
Now this sadist had his own special way of administering punishment. He would measure the exact distance he stood away from his victim and balancing himself on his toes he would with one stroke bring down the cane. He was dealing out eight strokes each to these children and his eyes were shining with glee.
The children in the desks were all crying and so was the poor teacher. One lad whose only clothes were a pair of oversized trousers tied up with a piece of rope and an old overcoat, no shirt and only the remains of a pair of boots, whose name I cannot remember but should have received a medal, faced the brute, held out his hand and never flinched as this apology of a man tried his hardest to make him break.
The look of contempt on his victim’s face- he so enjoyed making his victims scream with pain. After this lad had received his ration of really severe strokes he held out his hand again. His persecutor looked at him in surprise then said, ” Do you want some more?” Without turning his eyes away the boy said. “If you think I deserve any more, carry on” and it was not the lads eyes that dropped.
I always think that that lad was the bravest person I have ever known. Here he was at the mercy of an unprincipled brute and although suffering agony he proved that even he, the sadist, could not break his spirit.
On another occasion he thrashed a sick lad till he fainted. The next day the father came to the school yanked the sadistic swine away from his desk grabbed the cane and gave him the thrashing of his life. The poor father was arrested and because he was too poor to pay the fine he was sent to jail for six weeks.
The people in the neighbourhood all threw in their shillings, tanners or any other coin they could afford to keep the man’s family. In addition any food or clothing or any other help they could give was given. This gesture alone should have been enough for the authorities to take action against this man but nothing was done and although I escaped real brutal treatment from this man, I was a very pleased lad when we moved away from this neighbourhood and back to civilisation.
Over the last few years, Isle of Dogs Life has featured a number of local initiatives that have contributed greatly to the local community and beyond. Behind these projects are a large number of volunteers that work tirelessly in the background to make the Island and surrounding areas a great place to live and work.
It is always nice when these people are recognised for their work and recently I have heard of two award ceremonies where local people’s work have been recognised and celebrated.
At the end of November, the Canary Wharf Group announced the winners of its fourth annual ‘Community Champions’ Awards which recognised and celebrated the voluntary work of eight individuals and two couples who have been champions of their local community.
The award recipients were Susan Blinman; Derrick and Lilian Cutler; Peter Fordham; Raymond and Janice Fortune; Janet Foster; Eileen Groves; Buddy Penn; Fr Tom Pyke; Gloria Thienel and Remmie Williams. Each person was presented with a framed certificate, along with £250 to donate to a community organisation of their choice.
Another award winner was Kids Matter who recently won an award in the Best Replicable Project category at the recently held CFF Awards. Kids Matter is a local charity working to strengthen families in East London which is partly run by local mum and church leader Fuzz Dix and her husband Ed.
Sunday was a bright, sunny if a little chilly morning and it was time to turn my back on the road works and building sites on Marsh Wall and head for the wide open spaces of the countryside. Fortunately when you live on the Isle of Dogs, the countryside is not far away, in fact it is only a short walk down the Island to Mudchute Farm.
Mudchute Park & Farm is one of the largest inner City Farms in Europe with a wonderful collection of British rare breeds and currently home to over 100 animals and fowl. Set in 32 acres of countryside in the heart of East London, Mudchute is a community charity, with a working farm, stables and a wide range of education activities.
The Park and Farm are a great example of community action, in the 1970s, the Island community fought against plans to build a high rise estate on the land. The success of the campaign against these plans led to the creation of the Mudchute Association which was formed to preserve and develop the area. Since then it has become a well-known London attraction loved by adults and children alike.
One of the ironies of the site is that the hills and mounds were formed in the 19th century by the waste matter dredged up by the construction of Millwall Dock. This foul-smelling mud put off any prospective developers of the land and it remained derelict for much of the 20th century. Another irony was that the mud was actually full of minerals and nutrients and provided ideal growing conditions for the many allotments that were built on the site.
Once inside the gates of the Park and Farm you are transported into another world of sheep grazing in the fields, donkeys, goats, llamas and pigs.
But that is not all, the Park and Farm is proud of its roots in East London and you can even enjoy some mussels and jellied eels.
A visit to the Park and Farm is a pleasant way to get away from stresses of Christmas shopping and crowded trains. You can wander around the fields and look at the beehives, visit the old Ack Ack gun which was stationed in the park in the Second World War, let the kids have a go on the merry go round and enjoy a warm drink at the wonderful café whilst watching the horses in the stables.
Not surprisingly, the Park and Farm is very popular with families but is free and open to everyone who enjoys some peace and quiet away from the urban jungle.
If you are looking for a Christmas treat, the Park and Farm is having a special Christmas Open day on the 9th December between 11am and 4 pm with a Santa’s Grotto, Kid’s craft workshops, Donkey rides, Fairground rides, Cream teas and plenty of food and drink options.
The Park and Farm are also selling Christmas Trees from 3ft to 10ft with proceeds going to the Mudchute charity.
If you have never been to Mudchute Park and Farm, it is well worth a visit at any time of the year and is one of the best and most enjoyable open spaces on the Island.
If you would like more information about Mudchute Park and Farm, visit their website here
This weekend, there will be a large number of events related to Remembrance Day around the country and especially London where the Cenotaph will be focus of attention on Sunday.
In 2014, a War Memorial Plaque was unveiled in Island Gardens, to remembers all those from the Isle of Dogs who died in two World Wars, it was particularly poignant considering it was on the centenary of the start of the First World War.
This year, there will be a short Remembrance Ceremony at Island Gardens on Friday the 10th November, it will include contributions from the Friends of Island Gardens, Cubitt Town School and George Green School Choir.
10.55 Welcome from Friends of Island Gardens
10.58 Last Post – Bugler
11.00 Two Minutes Silence
11.02 Reveille – Bugler
Laying of Wreaths
Cubitt Town School – Poem
George Green School Choir will sing the first three verses of “Oh Valiant Hearts”
A hymn remembering the fallen of the First World War
Many thanks to Eric Pemberton for sending in the information.
Regular contributor, L Katiyo over the weekend enjoyed the many delights of the Blackheath firework display that can be often seen from the Island.
The Island does not have a major bonfire display and the Blackheath display is one of the largest in London attracting crowds of over 100,000 people.
Most of the firework displays in London are well organised and family friendly which can be enjoyed by everyone.
Blackheath has a long of celebrating Bonfire Night, a newspaper report from 1885 illustrates Lewisham, Blackheath and the surrounding area really enjoyed the parade of the ‘ Lewisham Bonfire Boys’.
On Wednesday, the Lewisham Bonfire Boys held their annual carnival in celebration of Guy Fawkes Day. At 6 o’clock a procession has formed outside the Lewisham-road station of the London, Chatham, and Dover Railway and with bands and banners flying, the bonfire boys started on their perambulation of the principal thoroughfares of Lewisham, Lee, Blackheath, Greenwich, and Catford. The cavalcade, which was about half-a-mile in length, included many vehicles illuminate with coloured fires and a large number of mounted men attired in fancy costumes. The characters were, of a most varied description. The houses and shops along the line of route were all brightly illuminated with coloured fires and Chinese lanterns. The streets were thronged with people, and the motley procession must have been witnessed by some 40,000 or 50,000 persons.
Regular readers will know that Eric Pemberton often sends in pieces of local history which often throws a light on the more unusual aspects of history. His latest document is very topical considering it is nearly Guy Fawkes Night.
As many people will know Guy Fawkes Night originates from the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 which was a failed attempt by a group of English Catholics to assassinate the Protestant King James I of England and replace him with a Catholic head of state.
Anti-Catholic sentiment was strong in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with constant fears of a Catholic rebellion. One way that parliament sought to prevent the country from being taken over was to pass the ‘ Act for preventing Dangers which may happen from Popish Recusants’ (1673) which became better known as the Test Act.
The Test Acts were religious tests for public office and imposed severe restrictions on Roman Catholics, the principle was that only people taking communion in the established Church of England would be eligible for public employment. The oath for the Test Act of 1673 was:
I do declare that I do believe that there is not any transubstantiation in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, or in the elements of the bread and wine, at or after the consecration thereof by any person whatsoever.
Of course, no Catholic would agree with such an oath and therefore they would not be eligible for public office.
The sacrament had to be taken within three months after being admitted to office, and after the communion they were given a sacrament certificate signed by the minister and churchwarden of the parish and witnessed by two witnesses.
It is one of these sacrament certificates that Eric has sent in, the certificates were also known as a Certificate of the Lord’s Supper and in this particular case was in the name of John Wildman who attended the Parish Church of St. Mary, Whitechapel on the 5th day of April 1812. The certificate was signed by Daniel Mathias, Minister and Wm.Cooke, Churchwarden. Witnessed by John Flood and Thos. Barnes. Written on the certificate is sworn in Court 17th April 1812. At the top of the certificate is a Five Shilling Revenue Stamp.
Although the information on the certificate is quite limited, these certificates were produced in large numbers and are sometimes of interest to those looking into family histories and you can occasionally find the signatures of famous people of the time.
This particular certificate of 1812 is quite late because the Test Acts were abolished in 1828.
Many thanks to Eric for sending in this fascinating item.
Recently I was contacted by Gerard Gilbertson who has written a short history of his Grandfather John F. Gilbertson who was Mayor of Poplar between 1938 and 1939. John F. Gilbertson was born and lived on the Isle of Dogs and spent many years working for the local community. Although the work of John F. Gilbertson has largely been forgotten, the following piece by Gerard reminds us that in the darkest times for the area, many men and women worked tirelessly for their local community.
For whatever reasons, in recent years Mayors of Tower Hamlets have often been in the headlines. Many of their policies, and personalities, have been somewhat contentious and have aroused interest and comment way outside the confines of the East End. It is an interesting experience to look back at some earlier Mayors (e.g. of the former Poplar Council)) to note what their concerns and policies were in times immeasurably different to modern ones. I often wonder when seeing certain views over the Isle of Dogs from high up in the tower blocks of Canary Wharf (for example in Lord Sugar’s “The Apprentice -You’re Fired!” programmes), how many of the participants have any idea whatsoever of what life there used to be like.
One of these earlier Mayors of Poplar was my Grandfather, John F. Gilbertson, who was in office at the time of the outbreak of World War II. When he was elected on November 9th 1938, few could imagine the horrors of the coming war in what was certainly one of the area’s darkest times, or the changes it would bring for Britain as a whole and for the Isle of Dogs in particular.
His speech of acceptance after being elected was generously reported in the local press. The London Shipping Chronicle (an edition of the East End News), for example, published a long article on November 11th 1938 reviewing his speech, as well as dwelling on the successful work of the retiring Mayor Mrs. E. Lambert.
Then, as now, nearly 80 years later, the provision of modern and affordable housing was a major problem , but – in the words of the Chronicle – the new Mayor pointed out the comprehensive adoption of “ legislation into municipal affairs that was 20 years in front of other people’s” since the Poplar Borough Council became Labour-dominated. It continued that “the Labour Council found that its predecessors had built one house in about 25 years. In a few years, the Labour Council built houses and flats and he could say from observation that the Council houses and flats in Poplar were second to none”. He added that “people were taken out of hovels, and put in decent accommodation”.
Mayor Gilbertson was well qualified from personal experience to talk about poor housing, for he had been born in 1882 in the Elizabeth Cottages, a small block of four slum houses, often flooded at high tide, and prone to disease, which by the 1880’s backed onto a coconut fibre works along the Westferry Road . They were demolished at long last in 1933-4 and the site was buried under the new Westferry Estate built by the LCC.
Source (British History online)
Elizabeth Cottages on the edge of the Barnfield Estate on the Westferry Road. Much of the area shown on this map from 1871 is now under the Westferry Estate built in 1933-35.The cooperage shown here became the coconut fibre manufactory.
Moreover, in approximately 1901, John Gilbertson moved with his parents to Crew(s) Street, one of the three near-identical Thames-side streets close to Kingsbridge which were coloured “black” in Booth’s poverty map of 1897 – black being the category “ lowest class, vicious, semi-criminal”. These streets exemplified Booth’s comment elsewhere that the poorest were always to be found closest to the River. Not until after his marriage to Margaret Rose Gilbertson (née Stamp) did he reside in better housing at the western end of Mellish Street, and from ca 1911 in Havannah Street.
Coconut fibre manufactory yard in Elizabeth Place next to Elizabeth Cottages, 1885 (Isle of Dogs History/Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive)
In his acceptance speech, the new Mayor also praised the work of those members of the Council who had been Members of the old Board of Guardians, for they had helped bring about major reforms and improvements on a wide social level: “When he was a boy children went to school without boots and stockings. They did not see that today”. He was also proud of Poplar’s record in laying down many miles of modern street surfaces of tarmac. (The stabilizing of road surfaces by using tar was , incidentally, invented in Millwall way back in 1834 by Cassel’s Lava Stone Works, see entry on Wikipedia). However, cobblestone surfaces were still the norm in the 1920’s and ‘30s, as is shown in most street photos of the Isle in that era. The arrival of motorized traffic in the early years of the century gave a boost to an improved tarmacadam process introduced by Edgar Hooley.
Westferry Road 1901, Chapel House Street on right, looking north – road gang repairing road with large cobblestone blocks. Asphalting was still a fairly rare event worthy of note even in the 1930s. (Photo Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive)
One of the very first tasks Mayor Gilbertson had to tackle was the move of the Council offices from the old Town Hall to the new one in Bow Road. This move and official opening took place barely a month into his period of office. It is difficult to imagine the administrative and personnel /staffing difficulties of such a move at the very start of one’s period of office! The opening ceremony was attended by, among others, the Labour MP George Lansbury who himself had been Mayor of Poplar more than once.
Former Poplar council offices in Poplar High Street ca 2010. (built 1870)(Wiki)
…and the new Town Hall in the Bow Road opened in 1938 (THLHLA ca 1965).
The ceremonial opening of the new Poplar Town Hall in Bow Road, December 3rd 1938. The recently elected Mayor John F.Gilbertson is in the centre, his wife Rose Gilbertson the Mayoress with a large bouquet is on his left, with MP and former Poplar Mayor George Lansbury on extreme left of photo. (Enlargement from THLHLA photo)
Less than a year after John Gilbertson became Mayor, war was declared on Germany in early September 1939. The initial worries, panic even, that flooded the country were accompanied by the first massive evacuations of children from major cities into the countryside in an attempt to save them from the dangers of enemy bombing. Although the “real” Blitz on London’s East End did not occur until the autumn of 1940, Poplar children were already evacuated in large numbers towards the end of 1939 to places like Wells in the west country. The “Wells Journal” of October 13th 1939 carried an article headlined “The evacuees in Wells – Letter of thanks from the Mayor of Poplar”. The wording of this Mayor-to- Mayor letter reads as follows:
(Wells Journal, 13th October 1939)
Isle of Dogs evacuees in Wells, Somerset in 1939 Photo (Island History Trust/ Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive)
The national edition of the “Daily Herald” of just a few weeks later in January 1940 carried a large article claiming that East End children evacuated to Oxford “..all like being up at Oxford” and carrying a large photo of Clement Attlee (the Labour MP for neighbouring Stepney) visiting them in their temporary homes. The paper also gave information on the larger number of extra trains being laid on for parents of evacuees to visit their off-spring.
After handing over his position as Mayor to Mrs. E. Lambert towards the end of 1939, John Gilbertson continued to serve on Poplar Council through the war years, but shortly afterwards became ill. He stepped back from his duties on the Council for several months, returned briefly in April 1947, but died on June 10th 1947. The naming of Gilbertson House in Mellish Street after its construction in 1948-50 was Poplar’s tribute to its former Mayor. This building is still occupied and in good condition.
Gilbertson House towards the western end of Mellish Street.(Own photo, 2012)
Dog and Anderson shelter during WW2 in back garden somewhere in Havannah Street (Photo Island History Trust/ Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive)
John Gilbertson was in office in momentous times, on the cusp of a very dark period for Poplar and particularly the Isle of Dogs. His Mayorship covered the inauguration of the new Town Hall, the increasing political and military tensions on an international level, the declaration of the second world war, the first bombing attacks on London, the first call-ups for active duty in the armed forces, the wide-spread construction of Anderson bomb shelters, the compilation of the historic 1939 Register, the first mass evacuations of children to safer homes outside the cities, and a host of other wartime measures.
If one combines the management of the effects of these events with his many, many years of leading activity in the Labour Party and the Trade Union movement, it can indeed be said that he served Poplar and its citizens well. He rose from extremely impoverished circumstances to positions of great responsibility, ability, and trust. He was indeed a great, if little-known, Mayor.
John Francis Gilbertson was a dry dock worker in the Millwall docks. He was on the executive of the Dry Dock Workers’ Union for some 18 years before its amalgamation with the General and Municipal Workers Union. He represented Cubitt Town as a Labour Councillor from 1933 and was elected Mayor of Poplar in 1938. He was Treasurer of the local Labour party, and of the Poplar Trades Council. He was a school manager for the Isle of Dogs Group of Schools. He was a close associate of the MP and former Mayor George Lansbury in many of these political activities. From 1911 until he died in 1947 he lived with his family at 46 Havannah Street on the Isle of Dogs opposite St Luke’s church.(IHT)
Many thanks to Gerard Gilbertson for sharing his family history with our readers and reminding us of a man who served the Island community for many years.