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Memories of Poplar High Street – David Mitchell

blackwall stairs 1931

Ship off Blackwall Stairs 1930s ( Museum of London )

Recently I have come across a number of authors who have written books about Poplar and the Isle of Dogs. Today I would like to introduce you to another author David Mitchell whose book “A Boy from Nowhere ” is an account of his boyhood memories in the East End  especially around the docks.

David has very kindly sent me some of his memories of Poplar High Street and the Queen’s Theatre, in particular,  in this first part of his reminiscences David and his friends show some initiative to earn some extra pocket money which they spend  at the local cinema.

I wonder how many people recall Poplar High Street and the Queens Theatre before the war?  Saturdays was always the day we kids looked forward to.  It began with our little gang of boys and girls when we tried to make a few pennies by collecting drift wood washed up on the shore at the very historical Blackwall Stairs and chopping it up for firewood which we then sold at 1d per bundle.  But the supply was unreliable and so we had to find an alternative option to earn some money.


A street scene depicting Pennyfields Road, leading towards Poplar High Street. H. Doe.

St John Adcocks Wonderful London 1926/27

This opportunity came when the LCC, our saviour, announced that free disinfectant was to be given to the poor people of East London to encourage hygiene and cleanliness.  But the depot where the disinfectant was doled out was at the other end of Poplar High Street, near Limehouse and Chinatown – almost a mile away I would say.  That was a long trek for mothers and other older ladies to take and so we kids had the idea of establishing a ‘disinfectant service’.   We got up early every Saturday and we went round the houses and flats busily collecting empty bottles and making notes of our ‘customer’s’.  Our little wagon which was made from an old wet fish box with a plank of wood nailed to the bottom to which we nailed a small cross piece on the front part with a swivel bolt, then a small piece of wood to the rear and then we attached four wheels; this enabled us to guide the contraption. I must say it was an ingenious way to control the ‘vehicle’ but I am not sure now whose idea it really was. Anyway, our cart could take 24 normal size bottles (we charged a little extra for larger bottles).  I think there was another small piece of wood at the front which served as a rough kind of seat – this was for the ‘guider’.  Of course we all wanted to be guiders and not pushers but it usually happened that the bigger boys guided and we smaller ones pushed,

originalarapoff 1935

Street scene in Poplar, East London Children playing in a street in Poplar c. 1935. Arapoff (Museum of London)

Once loaded with our empties, off we went right to the top of Poplar High Street near to Chinatown and Limehouse – the High Street  was used initially to go from the West India Docks to the East India Docks and in it’s hey-day was a very busy street indeed. Many shops, cottages, old blocks of flats, pubs could be found there.  But when the bigger, wider, East India Dock Road was built in the 1800s so usage of the old High Street declined and was never the busy thoroughfare it once was.  Nevertheless, it was an important street and still contained the Poplar Library, the Mortuary, one side of the Recreation Ground, an old church school and other places of interest – including the old and renowned Queens Theatre and Music Hall in what I would term the lower part of the High Street.

poplar high st1920s

Poplar High Street 1930s

Our charge for this service was 1d per bottle, and so, after we had delivered our bottles to our customers we then shared out the money.  So that meant we had 2 shillings to share between us. So how much each child had was dependent on the number who assisted. But sometimes, if it was only four of us, we had a whole sixpence each. For kids who were jolly lucky to get ha’penny a week from our fathers, and nothing at all when he was out of work, that was indeed a lot of money in those days and people today would be amazed at what sixpence (2.5 new pence) could buy back then.

lgrand cinema

Grand Cinema 1920s

A little later in the morning we would usually go to the ‘tuppeny rush’ as we called it, i.e. the cinema or movies. Mostly we went to The Grand Cinema on the corner of Robin  Hood Lane and East India Dock Road, because The Pavilion, a little further along, was a little more posh and therefore more expensive. I think it was 3d to go in there as against 2d only at The Grand.  Before going in we would buy a bag of roasted peanuts and maybe an apple and an orange from the fruit lady – it depended, as always, on how much we had to spend.  There we would sit munching away watching our old favourites like Tom Mix and Buck Jones – these were our best known cowboys.  We called them “the Goodies” but the rustlers and bank robbers we called “the Baddies” and then there were a lot of comedies featuring Our Gang starring Alfalfa Switzer, (what terrific and very funny little actors they were),  the Keystone cops, Charlie Chaplin etc. There were a number of others too but I cannot now remember them.


Our Gang (Alfalfa Switzer on the right)

We boys all fell in love with dear little Shirley Temple when she began in films.  She was only a very tiny tot but was quite obviously a very talented child – one could see that from the beginning of her career when she was only 3-4 years of age. But we munched away and cheered our heroes too – it was a racket and quite deafening.  When the programme was over we trooped out but, my God! – what a mess we left behind us!  There were mountains of peanut shells, apple cores, orange peel, etc.  The cinema had to be ready for the adult afternoon performances and I expect the cleaners cursed us kids uphill and down dale for the work we had caused them.

David has written the story of his life in a book called A  BOY FROM NOWHERE – It is written in two volumes and can be purchased via Amazon, or from MELROSE BOOKS, ST THOMAS PLACE,  ELY. CAMBS.  Phone: 01353 646 608.
He has also written another, single book, account of  The East End called THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAMS but this is  presently only available on Amazon’s Kindle.
For further information  visit A Boy From Nowhere website click here

Memories of Poplar in the 40s and 50s – Coral Rutterford


Coral’s Grandfather on his Poplar Council cart

Recently I was contacted by Coral Rutterford  who now  lives  in New Zealand, she very kindly sent some of her memories of her early life in Poplar and Shadwell.

Coral lived with her family in 2 rooms in her grandparents rented house in Bright St, Poplar and about 1949 they moved to a block of flats in Watney St, Shadwell, About 2 years later they moved to St. Paul’s Cray, Kent. In 1964 Coral and her husband and baby son sailed on the P & O liner “:Oriana” to Auckland, NZ, it was an immigrant sailing with 2000 passengers wanting to settle in Freemantle, Melbourne and Sydney, then onto Auckland.


Oriana 1964

My grandfather was a dustman who worked for Poplar Borough Council and he drove a horse and cart and he used to bring it home and park outside each lunchtime. The horse would then receive his bag of oats or whatever horses eat for lunch. I used to love stroking his head and his muzzle was so soft.

Grandfather had a bad accident, he had picked up some French chalk that had spilled inside the high sided cart. He slipped and broke both arms and his kneecap was twisted. He suffered with the kneecap injury the rest of his life, one operation after the other, and he never returned to work again.

I attended Alton St. Primary School, Poplar, after the war ended, previously my mother, brother and myself travelled out of London to Staffordshire, Yorkshire, Co Durham  during wartime to escape the nightly bombing raids around the dock areas of the East End, I remember vividly sleeping in the Anderson shelter in the back yard amongst the rabbit hutches and chicken runs that Granddad had to help with supplying food for the family and to sell off some at Christmas time.

It was a happy time at Alton St, at playtime the kids all played together, all very friendly, with skipping ropes, 2 tennis balls playing up against the walls and a giant ring of kids all playing and singing “The Farmer wants a wife” At assembly each morning we sung with gusto the hymn “Jerusalem”  and did those feet in ancient times walk upon fields of green….. there was no fields at all in Poplar at that time.


Paulette Goddard; the film actress, visiting to the East End to distribute food parcels to children of the Hague-street school, Bethnal Green in 1948

Mr Mills was the Principal and he introduced country dancing and we all loved that and we put on a show for our parents and all feeling very proud to do so. Just before I left the school we had a surprise visitor who was a movie actress Paulette Goddard, who was once married to Charlie Chaplin who also came from the East End, she looked so beautiful in her white rabbit hooded long coat with gold sandals.It was the only school in London that each child received a large 20 pound weight box of goodies of tinned butter, a huge bar of chocolate which was so good as we had rationing for almost everything and confectionery was almost non-existent and other food stuffs that our mothers were grateful for.
I had the honour of accepting a parcel from Paulette on behalf of my class and a child from each class also  represented their classmates.

After passing my 11 plus exam I went to George Green’s Grammar School which was in East India Dock Rd at that time and the playing fields were in Millwall where we bussed weekly to play netball and hockey.

I used to walk through Chrisp St market on the way to Grammar school and the barrow people were friendly and would say hello and I used to buy a 1d – penny speck apple or pear and eat it on the way home, often I got a nice red apple with no specks.

Walking behind a lady one day who had bought live eels from a barrow and they were wrapped in newspaper. I saw them wriggle out into the gutter and slide into a drain, I bet she wasn’t too pleased when she got home.

queens theatre

Queen’s Theatre Poplar

Each Christmas we were treated to a Pantomime at the Queen’s Theatre, in Poplar and Billy “Uke” Scott was the star at one time. Often we would go to Music Hall and I loved seeing the performers singing and dancing and got to learn all the words of the old music hall ballads. “My old man said follow the van” and “For it was Mary, Mary” and the audience would sing along too, good old memories of days long ago when the folk were getting on with their lives after the war years.


1950’s Music Hall star Billy ‘Uke’ Scott

We moved from Poplar to Shadwell and I still attended grammar school and got a bus each day to ride along Commercial Rd  to East India Dock Rd.

I enjoyed walking Cable St and onto Leman St to visit “The Tower of London” in those days we just walked into the Tower area and I used to follow the Beefeaters around and listen to their telling of historic facts and I soaked it all up.

Nearby is  Middlesex St, or Petticoat Lane as it is commonly known for the Sunday market with stall holders lining the street and full of varied goods and often not of value for money. Fast talking barrow boys were entertaining and one had to be careful that during their banter they were only putting 10 apples in the bag but somehow they had counted 12 going into it. My mother  was approached by someone/ undercover police? who had been watching this and asked Mum to count her apples and was asked to testify in court.

Tales of Mean Streets – Arthur Morrison in Poplar


Arthur Morrison

Arthur Morrison is probably best known for his book, Children of the Jago published in 1896, this novel highlighted the notorious Old Nichol District of East London and made Morrison’s reputation as a ‘realist’ writer.

What is probably not generally known about Morrison is that he was born in John Street in Poplar in 1863 and spent much of his childhood in Grundy Street. His father was an engine fitter  who worked in the docks who died when Morrison was quite young, it is believed that his mother then ran a shop in Poplar. The reality of Morrison’s childhood is the subject of some debate due to the fact that when Morrison was older, he tried to hide his rather humble beginnings even to the extent of citing in census returns that he was born in Blackheath.

a child of

What he could not hide was the fact that  many of his stories included inside knowledge of the Poplar, Isle of Dogs and Wapping areas.

In Tales of Mean Streets there ia a short story called In Business about a Cubitt Town family that come into a small inheritance.

To come into money is an unusual feat in Cubitt Town; a feat, nevertheless, continually contemplated among possibilities by all Cubitt Towners; who find nothing else in the Sunday paper so refreshing as the paragraphs headed “Windfall for a Cabman” and “A Fortune for a Pauper,” and who cut them out to pin over the mantelpiece. The handsome coloring of such paragraphs was responsible for many bold flights of fancy in regard to Ted Munsey’s fortune: Cubitt Town, left to itself, being sterile soil for the imagination. Some said that the Munseys had come in for chests packed with bank notes, on the decease of one of Mrs. Munsey’s relations, of whom she was wont to hint. Others put it at a street full of houses, as being the higher ideal of wealth. A few, more romantically given, imagined vaguely of ancestral lands and halls, which Mrs. Munsey and her forbears had been “done out of” for many years by the lawyers. All which Mrs. Munsey, in her hour of triumph, was at little pains to discount, although, in simple fact, the fortune was no more than a legacy of a hundred pounds from Ted’s uncle, who had kept a public-house in Deptford.

In a magazine article in 1888 he relates about young love ‘On Blackwall Pier.’

Blackwall Pier! The name strikes the ear with that half-lost, time-agone familiarity which is the inseparable association of Vauxhall Gardens, the Barn at Highbury, and the Eagle Tavern. Blackwall is not as it was. Anyone you meet, from the grimy lounges at the pier-wall to the tradesman behind the most pretentious ‘front’ in High-street, Poplar, will give you the same words – ‘Ah! Blackwall isn’t what it was; Poplar isn’t as it used to be.’ The days looked back upon so regretfully by the local Jeremiahs are the days of East End Commercial prosperity and the days when there such a thing as a Blackwall whitebait dinner, the days of Albert Smith’s first novel, brightener of our youthful leisure. ‘There’s Blackwall!’ ejaculated Johnson, looking out through one of the glazed portholes that form the cabin windows, ‘many a prime dinner I have had at the Brunswick, after fourpenn’orth of rope on the rail. Do you like whitebait?’ The ‘four-penn’orth of rope on the rail,’ with a reference to which the mind of the respectable Mr. Ledbury was thus illuminated, is another departed glory of the district. Any number of indubitable specimens of the ‘oldest inhabitant’ genus are prepared to furnish the inquiring stranger with an extensive collection of things which are not facts dating from the era in which the Blackwall railway from Fenchurch-street was almost the only line of rails in the country, and when the window-less and roofless carriages were dragged to and fro by a rope from a stationary engine on a principle not unlike that of the cable-tramway on Highgate-hill at this moment.


The book To London Town charts the story of a young boy in Blackwall, many of the incidents in the novel are considered  autobiographical.

So Johnny explored the streets with wide eyes and a full heart. For here was London, where they made great things — ships and engines. There were places he fancied he recognised — great blank walls with masts behind them. But now the masts seemed fewer and shorter than in the old days: as in truth they were, for now more of the ships were steamships, filling greater space for half the show of mast. Then in other places he came on basins filled with none but sailing-ships, and here the masts were as tall and fine as ever, stayed with much cordage, and had their yards slung at a gallant slope, like the sword on Sir Walter Raleigh’s hip. And at Blackwall Stairs, looking across the river, stood an old, old house that Johnny stared at for minutes together: a month or two later he heard the tradition that Sir Walter Raleigh himself had lived there. It was first of a row of old waterside buildings, the newest of which had looked across, and almost fallen into, the river, when King George’s ships had anchored off Blackwall — and King Charles’s for that matter. There, too, stood the Artichoke Tavern, clean and white and wooden, a heap of gables and windows all out of perpendicular: a house widest and biggest everywhere at the top, and smallest at the ground floor; a house that seemed ready , to topple into the river at a push, so far did its walls and galleries overhang the water, and so slender were the piles that supported them.

The novel Hole in the Wall is centered around a pub in Wapping.

We walked first to the head of the stairs, where opened a wide picture of the Thames and all its traffic, and where the walls were plastered with a dozen little bills, each headed “Found Drowned,” and each with the tale of some nameless corpse under the heading.

“That’s my boat, Stevy,” said my grandfather, pointing to a little dinghy with a pair of sculls in her; “our boat, if you like, seeing as we’re pardners. Now you shall do which you like; walk along to the dock, where the sugar is, or come out in our boat.”

It was a hard choice to make. The glory and delight of the part ownership of a real boat dazzled me like another sun in the sky; but I had promised myself the docks and the sugar for such a long time. So we compromised; the docks to-day and the boat to-morrow.

Out in the street everybody seemed to know Grandfather Nat. Those who spoke with him commonly called him Captain Kemp, except a few old acquaintances to whom he was Captain Nat. Loafers and crimps gazed after him and nodded together; and small ship-chandlers gave him good morning from their shop-doors.

A hundred yards from the Hole in the Wall, at a turn, there was a swing bridge and a lock, such as we had by the old house in Blackwall. At the moment we came in hail the men were at the winch, and the bridge began to part in the middle; for a ship was about to change berth to the inner dock. “Come, Stevy,” said my grandfather, “we’ll take the lock ‘fore they open that. Not afraid if I’m with you, are you?”

No, I was not afraid with Grandfather Nat, and would not even be carried. Though the top of the lock was not two feet wide, and was knotted, broken and treacherous in surface and wholly unguarded on one side, where one looked plump down into the foul dock-water; and though on the other side there was but a slack chain strung through loose iron stanchions that staggered in their sockets. Grandfather Nat gripped me by the collar and walked me before him; but relief tempered my triumph when I was safe across; my feet never seemed to have twisted and slipped and stumbled so much before in so short a distance—perhaps because in that same distance I had never before recollected so many tales of men drowned in the docks by falling off just such locks, in fog, or by accidental slips.

A little farther along, and we came upon Ratcliff Highway. I saw the street then for the first time, and in truth it was very wonderful. I think there could never have been another street in this country at once so foul and so picturesque as Ratcliff Highway at the time I speak of. Much that I saw I could not understand, child as I was; and by so much the more was I pleased with it all, when perhaps I should have been shocked. From end to end of the Highway and beyond, and through all its tributaries and purlieus everything and everybody was for, by, and of, the sailor ashore; every house and shop was devoted to his convenience and inconvenience; in the Highway it seemed to me that every other house was a tavern, and in several places two stood together. There were shops full of slops, sou’westers, pilot-coats, sea-boots, tin pannikins, and canvas kit-bags like giants’ bolsters; and rows of big knives and daggers, often engraved with suggestive maxims. A flash of memory recalls the favourite: “Never draw me without cause, never sheathe me without honour.” I have since seen the words “cause” and “honour” put to uses less respectable.

In Morrison’s later writing career he moved away from stories of the East End and he created a series of books featuring the detective Martin Hewitt, after 1903 he virtually stopped writing fiction altogether and became an expert on Japanese Art and built up a sizeable collection that he later donated to the British Museum.

The slum fiction of Morrison and especially the Child of the Jago has not really stood the test of time mainly due to  his rather hard negative view of the human condition. Part of the reason for this harshness was perhaps that he wrote about the Child of the Jago from an outsiders point of view. The stories about the areas he knew intimately namely Poplar, Blackwall and Wapping were less harsh and portrayed some warmth for his characters.

An East End Story – An Interview with Alfred Gardner

east end story

Recently Fonthill Media have republished Alfred Gardner’s book An East End Story, this tale of friendship in the 1950s and 60s East End recalls some of the characters and places of the time. When it was first published in 2002 it quickly gained a reputation as an authentic account of an East End that was on the brink of enormous change.

Matthew Parris in the Spectator reviewed the book.

Reviewers talk of being ‘gripped’ by books. I was not so much gripped by A Tale of Friendship — an East End Story by Alfred Gardner as gently and consistently engaged. Without meaning to I read it from cover to cover, always curious to find out what happened next.

Recently I was fortunate to interview Alfred who has been an Isle of Dogs resident from the 1980s and ask him a few questions about the new version of his book.

I understand your family originally came from the East End, can you tell me a little bit about your background ?

My family were nearly all East Enders mainly from the Limehouse and Ratcliffe area who gradually moved a little north to live near St Dunstan’s Church in Stepney. It was in Stepney that my parents lived until the War but then my mother and my sisters were evacuated to Norfolk , Somerset then  Buckinghamshire where I was born.

In 1943 we returned to Stepney, but when the V1 and V2 rockets began to strike the East End in June 1944 (78 V1s and 19 V2s) we were evacuated to West Hartlepool.  After the War ended we came back to Stepney, and lived in our old one bedroom flat. In May 1947 we moved to a much older three bedroom  terrace house in Jane Street.

 At the end of the 50s, Stepney Council undertook a slum clearance programme which resulted in many local families being offered new housing in Poplar and Bow. In August 1960 my family moved to the Lansbury Estate in Poplar where I stayed until the early 1980s before settling on  the Isle of Dogs.

The main theme of your book East End Story is your friendship with David Upson, when did you first meet him?

I was about 18 and working in the clothing trade, late one night  I was coming home from evening classes, I was near the Lord Nelson pub in Commercial Road when I noticed a women lying motionless on the pavement. I  immediately raced towards the nearby phone box to phone an ambulance when a man suddenly appeared in front of me who went in the phone box and called the ambulance. I recognised the man, he was employed at a local handbag factory where several of my friends worked. After waiting for the ambulance and making sure the woman was alright, I got into a conversation with the man and we decided to go for a drink at a local pub. .

Although from very different backgrounds we had similar interests :  girls, enjoyed local pubs and having a good time. We also had an interest in working at sea, David had been a fisherman and worked in the Merchant Navy whilst I was determined to leave my life in the East End clothing factories by joining the Merchant Navy to fulfil my dream of travelling around the world.

In due course I did spend three months working on a P and O liner travelling to Australia, however I was desperate to get back to London and enjoy the “Swinging Sixties.”

When I got back I met up again with David and  we carried on with our friendship   which lasted until he passed away in 1996.


Postcard (Courtesy of Eric Pemberton)

Another theme of the book is describing an East End world that has all but disappeared  ? 

Looking back the  East End of that time, especially the riverside area of Wapping and Limehouse were very interesting areas. Especially in Dockside pubs such as the Prospect of Whitby, Charlie Brown’s and the Eastern Hotel it seemed that the whole world was coming to London . Therefore there was no need to travel  outside the area to the West End because all your entertainment was here. The Prospect always had an interesting mix of people ranging from film stars to the men who worked on the Thames, Because the pub was not too far from the  London Hospital it was very popular with the nurses and other medical staff.

We did go further afield at times, when Daniel Farson opened the Waterman’s Arms on the Isle of Dogs we went along to watch the old Music Hall acts, we also went in the City Arms pub which built up a reputation  for the Drag acts that appeared there. There were the more rougher areas we used to frequent near the West India Dock gates in Limehouse and the red light area in Cable Street but although fights were not unknown, if you kept a low profile you tended to be alright.

What inspired you to write the book ?

When David passed away in 1996, his sister Barbara asked me to go through his papers, I knew he kept a diary but was surprised by the amount of paperwork that he had accumulated especially from his life before he arrived in the UK.

I was determined to transcribe his papers into a readable form with the idea of sending the record of his war experiences to the Documents Department of The Imperial War Museum. I was also going to keep a copy for myself and a copy for Barbara.

Although quite difficult, I enjoyed the writing process and when I had finished my girlfriend Linda said why don’t you write a book about your friendship with David ?

Although I had done some writing in the past I realised a book was a different proposition but eventually working from the well-known adage “of writing about what you know about “ I began to write the book.

It took me about a year to write and then I was faced with sending the book to publishers. Although there was some interest, nobody wanted to publish the book, so I resolved to self-publish 1000 copies and sell them myself.

This I managed to do by selling to local bookshops, I also had bookstalls at East End fetes and Tower Hamlets Local History Library bought several copies for their book selling department. Another of my activities was asking East London newspapers to review the book.

It was hard work but gradually the book became quite well-known and I am still receiving requests for information from all over the world.

Unusually for a self-published author, you managed to get your original book reviewed in the Spectator, how did that come about?

Well part of my bookselling activities was delivering leaflets which advertised my book, one of the areas I leafleted was Limehouse.  Matthew Parris who lives in Limehouse, received one of the leaflets, he ordered a  copy of the book and enjoyed reading it and then told me he would  like to review it in the Spectator.

I was acquainted at this time, with another writer who had written a book about the area in the 1950s and I asked Matthew if he would read it. The author’s name was Jennifer Worth and the book was called Call the Midwife, Mathew enjoyed the book and decided to review the books together.

What are you working on at the moment

Other than promoting the book, I have been asked recently for some input into the new To Sir with Love stage play . I have just finished a film script about a notorious North London criminal from the 1950s which I hope will be picked up in the near future. I have also written a few short stories and I am hoping to begin work on a stage play script.

I am also keen to produce a booklet of the various articles which I wrote about the great Swedish Tenor Jussi Bjorling.

If you would like to buy a copy of the book An East End Story press here

Master of Suspense – Alfred Hitchcock in Limehouse


Alfred Hitchcock

Many people may be aware that Alfred Hitchcock was born in Leytonstone in 1899, however he moved from there when he was about six and then moved to Limehouse.


Salmon Lane 1900s

The Hitchcock’s moved from Leytonstone to 175 Salmon Lane and open a shop selling fresh fish, later Alfred’s father purchased 130 Salmon Lane and opened it as a fish and chip shop. It was above the shop at 175 Salmon Lane that the young Alfred lived, at this time Salmon Lane was home to one of London’s most bustling markets catering for the cosmopolitan population that lived in the area.

One of the problems of looking at Hitchcock’s  childhood is to separate fact and fiction, later in life Hitchcock would tell stories about his childhood which often exaggerated certain points. One of his most famous stories was that as a child he was sent to the local police station with a note which the policeman read and locked him a cell for a few minutes and then said “this is what we do with naughty boys”, from this Hitchcock  said he developed a life long fear of the police.

However he never makes clear where the police station was and his age changes in different interviews. He also gives the impression he was a solitary child, but although quite a bit younger than his siblings he came from quite a large extended family which he continued to visit  and socialise  with even after he became famous.


Howrah House Poplar

Hitchcock’s schooling is also difficult to unravel, there is no doubt he was taught at home, however there is evidence that he attended Howrah House in Poplar for a time. Howrah House was a convent run by the Faithful Companions of Jesus . It was essentially a Girls School, although boys were admitted occasionally. The house was previously the residence of shipping magnate, Duncan Dunbar who owned the Dunbar Wharf in Limehouse. Later Hitchcock attended the St. Ignatius College in Stamford Hill.

poplar eng

One fact we do know is true is that when he left school at 15 he enrolled in London County Council School of Engineering and Navigation which was located in the High Street Poplar. It is now part of Tower Hamlets College.

When asked why he went to the college he said his parents had asked him what he wanted to do when he left school and he had said ” like many boys I said I wanted to be an engineer, and my parents took me seriously. ”

He also said that lessons about  force, motion and electricity at the College was useful later when he started making films.


Henley’s Electric Cables

It was around this time that his father died and he decided to get a job, he quickly secured a position with Henley’s  a firm that specialised in insulated wires and cables  whose head office  was located  in Blomfield Street near Liverpool Street Station. Hitchcock stayed at Henley’s eventually working in the Advertising department for six years before getting his first job working in the film industry.

As someone who was famous for observing life and trying to found out what made people tick, there is no doubt that Hitchcock would have been have been aware of an East End  around him that was in turmoil. Industrial strikes, Women’s suffrage , anarchism and general unrest  were commonplace, if this was not enough the start of the First World War saw Zeppelin bombing raids.

Another influence on Hitchcock was his fascination with murders , other than Jack the Ripper, the cases of Dr Crippen and Adelaide Bartlett were followed closely.  Quite often he would travel to the Old Bailey to watch murder trials. Like many other Londoners he developed a macabre sense of humour when talking about gruesome murders.

The influence of these events on Hitchcock was shown in some of his early films, The Lodger was based on Jack the Ripper,  and The Man Who Knew Too Much  included events such as the Sidney Street siege  which in 1911 took place only about a mile away from Limehouse.

His film Blackmail released in 1929 is given the distinction of being the first British “talkie”.

When he went to live and work in America, Hitchcock became a celebrity and often painted his childhood as a little Dickensian, however the Hitchcock’s although not rich were certainly well off compared to many they lived amongst and Alfred as the youngest of the family was generally supported in his enterprises.

It is safe to say that he never forgot his roots although was often evasive about certain parts of his childhood. Towards the end of his career it was as if he had come full circle  when he came back to London in 1972 to film Frenzy, which was about a serial killer loose in London.

When he died in 1980 he was considered one of Britain’s greatest film directors and was widely acclaimed all over the world. Even over 30 years after his death there is still considerable interest in his work and of his origins in Leytonstone and Limehouse.

Thoughts of a Idle Fellow – Jerome K Jerome in Poplar

jerome k jerome

Perhaps one of the most popular books about the Thames is Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome, however It may be a surprise to many people to know that Jerome spent much of his childhood living in Poplar. His father had a business in Narrow Street in Limehouse and rented a house in Sussex Street (now Lindfield Street). Jerome was about four when he moved from the Midlands to live in Poplar. His initial memories were not particularly happy  being targeted by the local children.

My recollections are confused and crowded of those early days in Poplar. As I grew older I was allowed to wander about the streets a good deal by myself. My mother was against it, but my father argued that it was better for me. I had got to learn to take care of myself.

I have come to know my London well. Grim poverty lurks close to its fine thoroughfares, and there are sad, sordid streets within its wealthiest quarters. But about the East End of London there is a menace, a  haunting terror that is to be found nowhere else. The awful silence of its weary streets. The ashen faces, with their lifeless eyes that rise out of the shadows and are lost. It was these surroundings in which I passed my childhood that gave to me, I suppose, my melancholy, brooding disposition. I can see the humorous side of things and enjoy the fun when it comes; but look where I will, there seems to me always more sadness than joy in life. Of all this, at the time, I was of course, unconscious. The only trouble of which I was aware was that of being persecuted by the street boys. There would go up a savage shout if, by ill luck, I happened to be sighted. It was not so much the blows as the jeers and taunts that I fled from, spurred by mad terror. My mother explained to me that it was because I was a gentleman. Partly that reconciled me to it; and with experience I learned ways of doubling round corners and outstripping my pursuers; and when they were not actually in sight I could forget them. It was a life much like a hare must lead. But somehow he gets used to it, and there must be fine moments for him when he has outwitted all his enemies, and sits looking round him from his hillock, panting but proud.

As he grew older he loved to walk around the area and often had many adventures which included a meeting with Charles Dickens in the nearby Victoria Park. This was one adventure when he was walking near the East India Docks that would stay with him for the rest of his life.

There was a strange house I came upon one afternoon, down by the river. It was quite countrified; but how I got there I could never recollect. There was an old inn covered with wisteria. A two-horse ‘bus, painted yellow, was drawn up outside. The horses were feeding out of a trough, and the driver and conductor were drinking tea—of all things in the world—on a bench with a long table in front of it. It was the quaintest old house. A card was in the fanlight, over the front door, announcing “Apartments to let.” I was so interested that I concocted a story about having been sent by my mother; and asked to see the rooms. Two little old ladies answered me. All the time they kept close side by side, and both talked together. We went downstairs to a long low room that was below the ground on the side of the road, but had three windows on the other, almost level with the river. A very old gentleman with a wooden leg and a face the colour of mahogany rose up and shook me warmly by the hand. The old ladies called him Captain. I remember the furniture. I did not know much about such things then, but every room was beautiful. They showed me the two they had to let. In the bedroom was a girl on her knees, sweeping the carpet. I was only about ten at the time, so I don’t think sex could have entered into it. She seemed to me the loveliest thing I had ever seen. One of the old ladies—they were wonderfully alike—bent down and kissed her; and the other one shook her head and whispered something. The girl bent down lower over her sweeping, so that her curls fell and hid her face. I thanked them, and told them I would tell my mother, and let them know.

I was so busy wondering that I never noticed where I walked. It may have been for a few minutes, or it may have been for half an hour, till at last I came to the East India Dock gates. I never found the place again, though I often tried. But the curious thing is, that all my life I have dreamed about it: the quiet green with its great chestnut tree; the yellow ‘bus, waiting for its passengers; the two little old ladies who both opened the door to me; and the kneeling girl, her falling curls hiding her face.

If Jerome’s first impression of the East End was not favourable as he got older her returned more and more to find inspiration for his stories especially Paul Kelver his autobiographical novel.

They say a man always returns to his first love. I never cared for the West End: well-fed, well-dressed, uninteresting. The East, with its narrow silent streets, where mystery lurks; its noisome thoroughfares, teeming with fierce varied life, became again my favourite haunt. I discovered “John Ingerfield’s” wharf near to Wapping Old Stairs, and hard by the dingy railed-in churchyard where he and Anne lie buried. But more often my wanderings would lead me to the little drab house off the Burdett Road, where “Paul Kelver” lived his childhood.

Cockney Heritage Festival – Chrisp Street Market


For the last week or so the East End has had a large number of events to celebrate the Cockney Heritage Festival.

One of the events was a photo exhibition  at Chrisp Street Market by Tom Hurley celebrating a local landmark Ivy’s Café.

For all the events in the festival taking place it seemed that having an exhibition in the market was great way to illustrate the connection between Markets and Cockney heritage.

There is no doubt that the history of the Cockney and the Costermongers are intertwined . Costermongers (street traders) in London have existed since at least the 16th Century  but it was in the reign of Victoria that they became common in many London street markets.

The Costers developed their own culture  which included their own rhyming slang, a distrust of the police and the election of pearly kings and queens. Much of what we think of as Cockney culture originated from the Costers.

Chrisp1 Chrisp Street 1904

Chrisp Street Market gained a certain popularity  in the 1860s when many traders and costermongers migrated from Poplar High Street. It quickly gained a reputation as a genuine street market attracting customers from Poplar and especially the Isle of Dogs which  for years lacked its own shopping centre.


Chrisp Market 1900s

In an area devastated by bombing in the war and suffering the closure of the local railway station, Chrisp Street Market struggled post war and it was decided in the early 1950s to relocate the market in a purpose-built shopping precinct. This shopping precinct was built as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951,  it was one of the first purpose-built shopping areas in Britain bringing together shops, café, market stalls and flats  and was widely praised leading to the design being copied all over Britain.


Festival of Britain 1951

However by  the 1970s part of the market was showing signs of age and needed refurbishment which were carried out in the 1980s.

Tom Hurley used local people for his subject matter in  his exhibition of portraits taken in Ivy’s Cafe, a Chrisp Street market institution  for over 50 years run by the same family for over three generations.


The portraits illustrate that Chrisp Street Market is a bit of a rarity in London, that is a quite large market frequented mostly by local people. Walking around the market it still has lots of places for people to eat and drink or just sit around and talk to other people.

In a rapidly changing retail world, Chrisp Street Market is a reminder of the importance markets played in  the local community. Much of the importance was the social interaction with your friends and neighbours. It was this interaction that was at the centre of Cockney Life.

So although London is ever-changing whilst we have places like Chrisp Street Market a bit of the Cockney spirit lives on.



Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – Seamen’s Missions in East London

Once again many thanks to Eric Pemberton for his postcards about institutions that were organised in the 19th Century to cope with the large number of seaman arriving in the London Docks.

Seamen’s missions were often part of the outreach work of various Churches who tried  to provide support to sailors  all around the world.


While almost all the Missions founded for Seamen in  London have disappeared , one  institution still survives  and retains its original function after more than a century. This is the Queen Victoria Seamen’s Rest  (QVSR) which started life as the Wesleyan Seamen’s Mission of the Methodist Church in 1843.

The Methodists had also supported the work of the British and Foreign Sailors Society, however in 1890s they decided they needed to expand their services and build their own mission the Queen Victoria Seamans Rest in Jeremiah Street in Poplar.

As well as providing accommodation  it also provided educational and recreational facilities. Remarkably it still provides accommodation and other facilities for seamen, other forces personnel and homeless people in need.


Also in Poplar, on East India Dock Road was the Missions to Seamen Institute run by the Anglican ministry which opened in 1893. It contained a church, gymnasium, coffee bar and educational facilities.  The Institute closed in 1932 but the building still remains today.


One of the most famous Seamen missions  was  run by the British and Foreign Sailors Society in Limehouse nicknamed Jack’s Palace or Passmore Edwards Sailors Palace.

It was known for it’s superior accommodation which often was for officers, Once again the building is still there but is now a block of flats


Other Posts you may find interesting

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – The London Hospital

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards Poplar and East India Dock Road

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – Isle of Dogs 2

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – Isle of Dogs

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – Limehouse

Britain from Above – Limehouse, Blackwall and Poplar 1929,1931


West India Dock, Blackwall and Poplar. 1929

To follow up from the previous post about Britain from Above, I  thought I would look at some areas surrounding the Isle  of Dogs. If the Isle of Dogs has changed considerably, the same certainly could be said of Limehouse, Blackwall and Poplar. It is worth remembering that within 10 – 15 years many of these areas were devastated  by bombing which makes these pictures all the more important.


On one of the photographic flights Aerofilms spotted the famous Graf Zeppelin LZ – 127 flying over Limehouse in 1931. The Graf Zeppelin  127 was one of the most famous airships of its day going around the world in 1929 and flying over the Arctic in 1931.


Limehouse Basin in 1929

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A wider view of Limehouse with Narrow Street bottom right and St Anne’s Church at the top


Another view of Limehouse

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The Graf Zeppelin 127 over East India Dock , Orchard Place to the right.

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Another picture of the Zeppelin over East India Docks

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Blackwall and Canning Town 1929

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Poplar 1929

Previous Posts on this subject

Britain from Above – Isle of Dogs 1934

To go to the Britain from Above Website  press here

The Trudgen Stroke – The Sporting Legacy of John Trudgen


The Trudgen Stroke Part 1

Some of the great moments of last years Olympics were in the Aquatic Centre but how many people realize that one of the founding fathers of modern competitive swimming was born in Poplar.


The Trudgen Stroke Part 2

John Arthur Trudgen was born in Poplar in 1852, at the age of 11 he went with his parents to Buenos Aires in Argentina. John’s father was sent to Argentina by his employer Blyth and Co Engineers who were based on the Isle of Dogs.

Whilst he was in Argentina he would swim with the local children who used  a overarm swimming action rather than the more usual breaststroke.

When John returned to England in 1868, he developed the stroke he saw in Argentina to use in competitive swimming.

It is important to remember at this time Britain was the home of competitive swimming with many swimming clubs being formed and national championships being created.

In 1873 John Trudgen swam in a championship in Lambeth Baths and caused a sensation , a sports journalist R Watson writing in a sports paper the Swimming Record describes what happened.

 A surprising swimmer carried off the handicap we allude to Trudgen ; this individual swam with both arms entirely out of the water, an action peculiar to Indians. His time was very fast, particularly for one who appears to know but little of swimming, and should he become more finished in style, we shall expect to see him take a position almost second to none as a swimmer.

I question, indeed, if the swimming world ever saw a more peculiar stroke sustained throughout a 160 yards race. I have seen many fast exponents retain the action for some distance, but the great exertion compels them to desist, very much fatigued. In Trudgen, however, a totally opposite state of things existed ; for here we had a man swimming apparently easy, turning very badly, and when finished, appearing as though he could have gone at least another 80 yards at the same pace. His action reminds an observer of a style peculiar to the Indians ,both arms are thrown partly sideways, but very slovenly, and the head kept completely above water.

What Trudgen had done was to develop a version of the front crawl which gave him incredible speed over sprint distances and he soon dominated sprint races in many championships. John’s version of the crawl became quickly known as the “Trudgen” and quickly dominated the early years of competitive racing.

In 1875 Trudgen swimming for the Alliance Swimming club used his new stroke to win an English championship race at Edgbaston reservoir in 1875.

Many swimmers copied Trudgen but developed the stroke to get greater speed. The Trudgen stroke was also used in the sport of Water Polo.

Although the Trudgen was a major advance for competitive swimming , his achievements were overshadowed by the exploits of Captain Webb in 1875.

Captain Webb’s swim across the English channel was national and international headline news and his exploits dominated the swimming world rather than the competitive swimming scene.

In the years up to the first Olympic games the Trudgen stroke was being developed and dominated competitive swimming over the sprints and middle distances.

Trudgen himself faded from the racing scene and found work as a fitter and machinist in the Isle of Dogs and Woolwich Arsenal. It was in Woolwich that John Trudgen died a relatively forgotten man in 1902.

If the man himself was forgotten, his name was being used extensively in the Swimming World where his stroke was being constantly refined and dominating the early Olympic games.

Even when the stroke becomes overtaken by front crawl style,  in freestyle  the name of Trudgen is still used up to the present day.

John Trudgen’s role in the development of modern competitive swimming was recognised when he was chosen to be inducted in the International Swimming Hall of Fame  in 1974.

The citation records why:

John Trudgen

FOR THE RECORD: Introduced the “trudgen” stroke he picked up from South American Indians to England in 1875; the stroke was considered a breakthrough in modern swimming.

A few days apart, in the same month and year (August, 1875), Capt. Matthew Webb swam the English Channel (21 miles in 21 hours and 45 minutes) going all the way breaststroke, and John Trudgen of the Alliance Swimming Club of London won the English 100 yards Championships at the Edghaston Reservoir in 1 minute and 16 seconds. Trudgen swam with his own version of a stroke he picked up from the South American Indians. Ninety years later Roy Saari of the University of Southern California won more NCAA Championships than any swimmer in U.S. College history using a stroke called the Trudgen. While Trudgen won his English Championship at 100 yds., his stroke was considered too strenuous for distance. Twenty-five years later, the advent of the crawl stroke also considered too strenuous for distance, relegated the Trudgen to a middle distance and distance stroke. With sprinters using some version of Alick Wickham’s “crawl” everybody from 200 yds. and up used the Trudgen at least until Norman Ross, a triple Trudgen winner at the 1920 Olympics. After 1920 most winners used the crawl, but almost anything else that passes for freestyle is still called “The Trudgen” ( a sidestroke leg thrash that accommodates a turn onto the side with a breathing pause in the arm stroke).