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A Small Star in the East – The Remarkable Story of Nathaniel and Sarah Heckford


Dr Nathaniel Heckford (I842-71)

Charles Dickens was a great chronicler of London life and towards the end of his life wrote a series of sketches that were published in the book, The Uncommercial Traveller. One of the stories involves Dickens in a quite depressed mood visiting Ratcliff and Stepney, here are a few extracts from the story.

The borders of Ratcliff and Stepney, eastward of London, and giving on the impure river, were the scene of this uncompromising dance of death, upon a drizzling November day. A squalid maze of streets, courts, and alleys of miserable houses let out in single rooms. A wilderness of dirt, rags, and hunger. A mud-desert, chiefly inhabited by a tribe from whom employment has departed, or to whom it comes but fitfully and rarely. They are not skilled mechanics in any wise. They are but labourers,–dock-labourers, water-side labourers, coal-porters, ballast-heavers, such-like hewers of wood and drawers of water.childrens_hospital_from_london_a_pilgrimage_

Women in a children’s hospital by Gustave Doré from London: A Pilgrimage 1872

Dickens visits a number of people in their homes and notices that poverty and lack of work was bringing people to the edge of destitution. However, his journey takes him to Ratcliff where he come across an institution that brightens his mood.

Down by the river’s bank in Ratcliff, I was turning upward by a side-street, therefore, to regain the railway, when my eyes rested on the inscription across the road, ‘East London Children’s Hospital.’ I could scarcely have seen an inscription better suited to my frame of mind; and I went across and went straight in.

I found the children’s hospital established in an old sail-loft or storehouse, of the roughest nature, and on the simplest means. There were trap-doors in the floors, where goods had been hoisted up and down; heavy feet and heavy weights had started every knot in the well-trodden planking: inconvenient bulks and beams and awkward staircases perplexed my passage through the wards. But I found it airy, sweet, and clean. In its seven and thirty beds I saw but little beauty; for starvation in the second or third generation takes a pinched look: but I saw the sufferings both of infancy and childhood tenderly assuaged; I heard the little patients answering to pet playful names, the light touch of a delicate lady laid bare the wasted sticks of arms for me to pity; and the claw-like little hands, as she did so, twined themselves lovingly around her wedding-ring.

A gentleman and lady, a young husband and wife, have bought and fitted up this building for its present noble use, and have quietly settled themselves in it as its medical officers and directors. Both have had considerable practical experience of medicine and surgery; he as house-surgeon of a great London hospital; she as a very earnest student, tested by severe examination, and also as a nurse of the sick poor during the prevalence of cholera.

With every qualification to lure them away, with youth and accomplishments and tastes and habits that can have no response in any breast near them, close begirt by every repulsive circumstance inseparable from such a neighbourhood, there they dwell. They live in the hospital itself, and their rooms are on its first floor.

The dispenser of medicines (attracted to them not by self-interest, but by their own magnetism and that of their cause) sleeps in a recess in the dining-room, and has his washing apparatus in the sideboard. Their contented manner of making the best of the things around them, I found so pleasantly inseparable from their usefulness!


‘Turn him out, Ratcliff.’ Men are packed into the half open door lit by the interior of the home. Illustration from Blanchard Jerrold and Gustave Dore, ‘London, a Pilgrimage’, published in 1872.

When this hospital was first opened, in January of the present year, the people could not possibly conceive but that somebody paid for the services rendered there; and were disposed to claim them as a right, and to find fault if out of temper. They soon came to understand the case better, and have much increased in gratitude.

Insufficient food and unwholesome living are the main causes of disease among these small patients. So nourishment, cleanliness, and ventilation are the main remedies. Discharged patients are looked after, and invited to come and dine now and then; so are certain famishing creatures who were never patients. Both the lady and the gentleman are well acquainted, not only with the histories of the patients and their families, but with the characters and circumstances of great numbers of their neighbours–of these they keep a register.

An affecting play was acted in Paris years ago, called ‘The Children’s Doctor.’ As I parted from my children’s doctor, now in question, I saw in his easy black necktie, in his loose buttoned black frock-coat, in his pensive face, in the flow of his dark hair, in his eyelashes, in the very turn of his moustache, the exact realisation of the Paris artist’s ideal as it was presented on the stage. But no romancer that I know of has had the boldness to prefigure the life and home of this young husband and young wife in the Children’s Hospital in the east of London.

The husband and wife in question were Nathaniel and Sarah Heckford and their largely unknown story is one of sacrifice and commitment to the children of the 19th century East End.

In 1866, Nathaniel Heckford was working as a surgeon and doctor at the London Hospital. When the cholera epidemic developed he volunteered to help a friend, Dr Woodman, who was in charge of the Wapping District Cholera Hospital. It was there he met his future wife, Sarah who was a student of medicine who had gone to the hospital as a volunteer nurse .

In 1867, Sarah was married to Mr Heckford and most people thought that Nathaniel who had won gold medals for surgery and medicine in his student days would begin a career of a consulting surgeon in the West End. However, he believed that he would use his talents in the East End to help to deal with some of the area’s health problems. Both Nathaniel and Sarah decided to start a Children’s Hospital, eventually they found premises in two old warehouses at Ratcliff Cross, close to the river.

Initially the hospital had ten beds for children and was called the ” East London Hospital for Children and Dispensary for Women ” and in January 1868, on the first anniversary of  their wedding day, the hospital was opened.

Demand was high with large numbers of ” in ” and ” out ” patients, the hospital became the first in London to admit children under two years old.

The article by Charles Dickens bought in badly needed funds which enabled the hospital to expand its number of beds and staff. However the success of the hospital was tainted by the realisation that Nathaniel had consumption, with time now limited, plans were developed to hand the hospital over to a committee and provide funds for a new purpose-built hospital . Nathaniel’s health deteriorated and he was ordered abroad to recuperate, the couple realising they were living on borrowed time decided to come back to England to finalise plans for the new hospital. Eventually Nathaniel succumbed to the disease and died in 1871 aged only 29 years of age.


East London Hospital for Children about 1900

Nathaniel may have died but his dream carried on and in the summer of 1875, the foundation stone of the new hospital was laid and in autumn of the following year the new building was finished and the tablet placed in the hall. It said

In Memory of

Nathaniel Heckford, M.D., M.R.C.S.

Born in Calcutta, April, 1842

Died 14th December, 1871

Aged 29

He Founded this Institution

At His Own Cost

In a Warehouse at Ratcliff Cross

January 28, 1868

He Lived For It

And Died

A Few Days After The Site

Of This Building was

Purchased by the

Committee of Management of the


The new hospital in Shadwell was called the East London Hospital for Children The original 180 beds were later in 1881 increased by the addition of a further floor. This voluntary hospital continued to thrive and gradually acquired an international reputation. In 1932 the name was changed to the Princess Elizabeth of York Hospital for Children and later in 1942 this hospital was amalgamated with the Queen’s Hospital, Hackney Road, to form the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children.

lady trader

This is not quite the end of the story, the remarkable Sarah Heckford may have come from a wealthy background and been inconvenienced by some disabilities from  a childhood disease but she still travelled alone to India and Italy, before in 1880 travelling alone by horseback across the Transvaal of South Africa and became an itinerant trader facing considerable dangers which she wrote down about in the her book, A Lady Trader in the Transvaal. In more recent times, her incredible life has been  she has been the subject of other essays and books  including a biography by Vivien Allen.

Although the exploits of the Heckfords have largely been forgotten, in the area near to Ratcliff Cross stairs  is Heckford Street that is named after the couple.

Many thanks to local writer, Alfred Gardner who bought this story to my attention.

American writer Ernie Pyle in Docklands – 1941


Ernie Pyle

Recently I came across the book, Ernie Pyle in England and began to read his recollections of visiting London and a number of other cities in late 1940 and early 1941.

Although virtually unknown in the UK, Ernie Pyle was a Pulitzer Prize–winning American journalist known for his columns in the Scripps Howard newspaper chain. From 1935 to  1945, he was a roving correspondent  covering many of the areas of action including North Africa, Europe, and the Pacific. He was killed in combat on Iejima during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.

In the war,  he enjoyed a  large following in some 300 newspapers and was among the best-known American war correspondents.  Part of his popularity was his laid back and whimsical informal style  and his empathy with the people and places he visited.


In the following two pieces you can get a taste of his style as he travels around the heavily bombed dockland areas in 1941.


London, January  1941

This is the way the people of London are. Last night I was standing in the dimly lighted office of the marshal of a big air-raid shelter in the East End.
A bareheaded man with a mustache, a muffler and a heavy overcoat was sitting in a chair tilted against the wall. I hadn’t noticed him until he spoke.
“Have you been around Wapping?” he asked.
Wapping is a poor, crime-heavy, conglomerate, notorious section of London. Also it has been terrifically bombed, as has all of London’s waterfront.
“No, I haven’t,” I said, “but it’s one place I’d like to see.”
“Well,” said the man, “I’m a policeman and tomorrow’s my day off. I’d like nothing better than to show you around Wapping if you would care for me to.”
Would I care for it! To get around Wapping with a policeman as a private guide— you can’t beat that if you’re out to see London. I jumped at the chance.

So Mr  Ian Rubin, London bobby, and I walked six miles around Wapping. We did back alleys and dark places, burned warehouses and wrecked churches, block after block of empty flats. We did Wapping with a finetooth comb. And so I’m in a position to say that as far as Wapping is concerned there almost isn’t any Wapping any more.
Wapping is one part of the big borough of Stepney. Today its population is a mere few hundred. The entire ward was compulsorily evacuated in that first awful week of the blitz. They put people on boats and took them down the Thames. Those who have come back are mostly men.
In normal times Wapping would be a swarming, noisy mass of humanity, a population as dense as in our Lower East Side in New York. Today I walked block after block and met only half a dozen people. There was no sound in the streets. The place was dead. It was like a graveyard.

We walked into the big inner courtyard of a square of tenement flats. Rear balconies on each floor formed the walls of a square. The windows were all out; the walls were cracked; abandoned household belongings lay where they had been thrown. In the balconies above, no faces peeped over the railings. There was no sound, no movement, no life in the whole block. It was the terrible silence of that Wapping courtyard that got me.

Policeman Rubin and I walked on. We went into the station of a demolition squad— the men who pull down dangerous walls before turning over the general job of demolition to others. These are brave men. Five of them, in workmen’s clothes, were sitting before a crackling fireplace. There was nothing for them to do today— but there might be any time. They were very friendly, but I could barely understand their Cockney speech. One of them asked me if it was possible to write a letter to San Francisco. One of his fellow workers answered for me. “Sure, you dummy,” he said. “You can write anywhere you want.” Everyone of these men had been bombed out of his flat, one of them three times. Their wives have been evacuated, but they stayed on to work— a part of London’s great civilian army.

We stood now in a vacant lot where until last September there had been a five-story block of flats. It was fully occupied when a bomb hit. On the wall of a building across the alley you can still see the handprints of a man who was blown from his flat and smashed to death against the wall. We stood amid the wreckage of a church, in which Policeman Rubin himself had toiled all night helping to reach a mother superior who had been buried in the debris. She was dead when they found her.

We went to see the Church of St. John of Wapping, well known to American tourists. Only the steeple was left, and it was being torn down for safety’s sake.
We passed a pub where in the old days pirates and smugglers used to gather from the ends of the world to sell their illicit goods. It has been boarded up since September. We passed an undamaged warehouse, where big sacks of East Indian spice were being loaded onto drays, and the smell was sweet and wonderful. ,

We came to a street sign that said, “Danger. Unexploded Bomb.” So we walked around it. Policeman Rubin showed me where a time bomb fell at the edge of a school. They couldn’t get it out, so it lay there nine days before blowing the school to smithereens. The wreckage of the school still lay there in a heap.


I saw firemen damping down the inside of a warehouse in which a small new blaze had sprung up after months of smoldering. I saw great mounds of burned newsprint paper, and other mounds of scorched hemp. I saw half walls with great steel girders hanging, twisted by explosion and fire. But I saw whole warehouses, too; for Hitler didn’t get them all. We wandered back and forth through dead, empty streets, and looked at hundreds of ground floor apartments where rubble-covered furniture stood just as it had been left. The owners probably will never come back for it. We walked for another hour, Policeman Rubin and I, and then suddenly we came upon a small store with the wallboard front and little show-window center which are today the badge of a bombed establishment that’s still doing business. And when I saw that window it dawned on me that in a solid hour of walking this was the first open store window I had seen. Every other doorway and window in an entire hour of walking through the heart of a city district was a doorway or a window into a room that no longer held human beings or goods.

That is the way in Wapping today. There will have to be a new Wapping when this is all over.



January, 1941

We got on a bus, a friend and myself, to see more of London’s devastated East End, where the poor people live, London buses are double-deckers, and you can smoke on the top deck, so we sat up there. You don’t just pay a flat fare in London. The conductor comes around and sells you a ticket to wherever you want to go. But we weren’t sure just where we
wanted to go, not knowing London well.

“I think we’d like to go around the Isle of Dogs,” I told the conductor. So he told us where to change buses.

While waiting for the second bus we bought four apples (thirty cents) and ate them. This second bus took us only a short way, and we had to get off and walk two blocks, for the street had been blown up. A big group of men in workmen’s clothes stood waiting for the next bus.

“Is this where we get a bus to the Isle of Dogs?” we asked.

One little stoop-shouldered fellow with yellow teeth and a frazzled coat said, “Just where do you want to go?”

We said we didn’t know. He laughed and said, “Well, this bus will take us there.”

So we all got on, and after a while a big man who was with the little fellow moved back and said he and the little fellow were going to walk through a tunnel under the Thames and would we like to get off and go with them. We said, “Sure.”

It was a foot tunnel, not big enough for cars. These two men work on barges carrying freight up and down the Thames. They leave home one morning and don’t return until the next afternoon. They were carrying tin lunch boxes now. The big fellow had been to New York six times, before the first World War, working on ships. He told us about it as we walked through the tunnel.

At the other end we came out into what is known as Greenwich. The two men walked us past Greenwich College, which is very old. We stopped before some iron gates and peered through them at some far domes.

“Now that there,” said the little fellow, “that’s the fymous pynted awl.”

“The what?” I said.

“The pynted awl,” he said. “You know, doncha, the fymous pynted awl— the pynted ceilin’, you know.”

And then I realized he was saying “painted hall.” So we looked appreciatively.

“All American tourists knows it,” he said. “The artist he lyed on his back in a ‘ammock for twenty years pyntin’ that ceilin*, and when he got through he found a mistyke in it and he went cracked worryin’ about it.
Nobody else to this d’y has ever been ayble to find the mistyke. You tell the Americans the bombs heynt touched the pynted awl.”

We came to the little fellow’s corner, so we shook hands and said good-bye. The big fellow got on a double decked trolley with us, and do you know that this cockney, a complete stranger, insisted on paying our fare and him as poor as a church mouse! He said people had been nice to him in New York. But that was twenty-five years ago.

After a while we said good-bye to him and got on another bus. It took us down into Blackwall Tunnel, back under the Thames. Then we got out and walked down into the neighborhood of the great West India docks. They won’t let you onto the docks, but we could peep through.

It was raining now and very cold, and it was getting dark. We walked amid wreckage and rubble and great buildings that stood, wounded and empty. It was ghostlike and fearsome in the wet dusk. Poor, pitiful East End! True, Londoners say the slums should have been knocked down long ago, but this is a grievous way to go about it.

The Great Freeze of 1895


Frozen Limehouse 1895

 Now the cold weather has arrived, the Island is exposed to the cold gusts of wind off the river. However for all the discomfort of the present, it is nothing compared with some of the major problems of the past. The Great Freeze of 1895 is a prime example .

Recently I came across the above picture of a frozen Limehouse in 1895, it seems quite picturesque to the modern viewer but the arctic conditions had tragic consequences to many people especially in the East End.
Newspapers of the time were quick to point out that the cold spell  was causing serious problems.

London, February 12. There is no abatement of the abnormally cold weather which has prevailed in northern Europe for the last week. The Upper Thames is frozen over, and huge blocks of ice breaking away from the mass are floating down, the river, causing much damage to the smaller shipping craft. Water traffic is consequently at a complete standstill. Many cases of death from cold and exposure are reported, the privation and distress in the east end of the city being particularly severe. The cold is so intense that birds are found frozen to death on the branches of the trees, and thousands are perishing. The severe weather has also directly caused considerable mortality, a number of deaths from exposure having been reported among postmen, omnibus drivers, cabmen, and labourers.


Dr Joseph Murie 1895 (National Maritime Museum)

The cold weather stopped workers from working in the docks where ships were frozen in. If the worker did not work they did not get paid and the arctic conditions lasted so long, people were so desperate they turned to charities for help. Another newspaper visited a Salvation army in Whitechapel.

The Salvation Army food depot in Whitechapel Road, for instance, is crowded, mostly by women and children, in the afternoon. Practically all these women are working women, charwomen and so on said Commissioner Cadman, and the frost has deprived them of their work. They come here to get a half-penny or a penny meaL and we let them. That single picture in the Salvation hostel brought home most vividly the struggle for sheer existence which is going on but some figures which Mr Wynne Baxter, the coroner for East London, put at the disposal of a member of the Chronicle staff, indicate that many are falling in the struggle. His district covers that bleak portion of the metropolis running from Poplar up through Stepney, Wapping, Bow, and St George in the-East to WhitechapeL Last week he attended about sixty inquests, while in the same week last year the number was only thirty-two. The only meaning to be put on this tremendous contrast is that the frost is responsible for the doubling of the death-rate. In the coroners’ districts for North-east London and North London the number of inquests has also gone up almost as alarmingly. Have people died directly and simply from cold ? it may be asked. Many cases might be given as a melancholy answer to it, but two that have come under Mr Wynne Baxter’s attention daring the past few days may suffice. An old woman living in St. George’s- in-the- East went out in the morning to fetch some perquisites, bundles of waste paper or something else was in the habit of getting. She was found, not having got very far, seated in the street, where the cold had killed her. Perhaps that is putting the tragedy in fewer words than a medical man would, but they really represent what happened. Another old woman was found dead in bed — such a bed ! — in a two roomed house in Poplar, where she and her husband lived. She had been suffering from bronchitis, and he was lying ill in the other room. Neither room had a fireplace, and the door of one opened directly into the street. She was killed by the cold without question, and how could it be otherwise ? Such reading is not pleasant, but it is good for us all to know what is happening.


Rotherhithe 1895 ( Southwark Library Collection)

Even fighting a fire in the London Docks was made almost impossible by the conditions.

During the late frost, after attending a fire at the London Docks, involving the-loss of some £60,000 or £80,000, those of the firemen who proceeded homeward, at 9 o’clock in the morning, along Commercial Road, presented a most remarkable appearance. In a large number of cases their helmets were frozen to their heads, and icicles nearly six inches in length hung from them and also from the men’s coats; This, however, was not surprising, considering the circumstances in which they had carried on their arduous labours. So intense was the cold, indeed, that when an engine stopped working for a few moments the water froze in the hose. As the water was thrown out of the nozzles the ice formed round the end of the metal until there were complete rings of ice several inches long on the end of the nozzles, through which the water passed. When two men held the same ‘ branch ‘ they froze together as they stood, and yet close to the fire the heat was so intense, that it was impossible to face it for any length of time. The water as it ran out on to the ground froze instantly, and the firemen soon became completely encased in sheets of ice, which froze on their uniforms, hair, and beards. The ladders  became perfect pictures, being covered with long lines of ice. The ruins of the fire presented a most picturesque appearance. Enormous icicles were hanging from the roofs, while the walls were entirely covered with a pure white frost. The hanging cranes and lamp-posts had been converted into pillars of ice, which, however, were a constant source of danger to the men employed near the scene, owing to the liability of the ice to break away and fall in large quantities. The telegraph and telephone wires which led into the ruined warehouses, but which were broken down, were also covered with thick ice and frost.

0015 24.tif

The Frozen Thames at Greenwich: 1895. British School ( Museum of London)

It was not just Britain that suffered, the United States and Eastern Europe were badly affected. Eventually things got back to normal but the full cost both in human lives and deprivation will never be known. Extremely cold winters have caused havoc since 1895, but the scenes of massive ice floes on the Thames have never really been repeated.


Greenwich Reach – W Hudson (National Maritime Museum)

Searching for the Mercer Maidens of Stepney


Mercer Maiden in St Dunstan’s Church, Stepney

When I was asked by local writer Alfred Gardner if I would like to search for maidens in Stepney, I was not sure it was the type of thing I should get involved with.

However after some explanation  it seemed like a good idea, for we would be looking for Mercer Maidens and unearthing some of the connections between an ancient City of London Company, an ancient Church, a Convent and a local pub.

The Mercers’ Company origins go back to the 14th century when it was a trade guild for those who bought and sold textiles and fabrics. Many in the guild were wealthy merchants who were granted a royal charter in 1394.

One of the most famous early members of the Mercers’ was Richard Whittington who made a vast fortune from the trade. He was also one of the early benefactors using his money to provide schools and hospitals.

Other famous Mercers include William Caxton, Thomas More, Sir Thomas Gresham and John Dee.

In the 16th and 17th century the company became less involved in the buying and selling of textiles , but began to use its vast wealth for other business enterprises including funding expeditions all over the world. It also began to accumulate property in the City of London and a large area of Covent Garden was left to the company in the 16th Century by Lady Joan Bradbury.

It was with the accumulation of property that the Mercer Maiden became familiar in London streets. Although no one know the origin of the Mercer Maiden, it featured on the company seal from as early as 1425 and the company made the decision that the maid’s head would be displayed on its properties from the 15th century. Although featured on official documents, property and letterheads over the centuries, it was not until 1911 it would be featured as an actual coat of arms. Because of this the Maiden is often dressed in the fashion of the times she is created rather than one standard look.

The Mercers’ presence in Stepney goes back to the 16th century when it was quite a wealthy area and Jon Colet a Mercer inherited a substantial estate from his father and founded St Paul’s School. Other charitable concerns in the area were the Lady Mico’s Almshouses.

In the 19th century, the Mercers’ surveyor George Smith built a number of properties in Stepney that were let to ‘respectable tenants’ and gained a reputation of keeping the properties well maintained.


Former Lady Micos Almhouses ,also known as Mercer Cottages

And it is at Lady Micos  Almhouses our search begins:


Lady Mico was the widow of Sir Samuel Mico, a wealthy mercer, she left £1500 in her will to found an almshouse in Stepney. The Almhouses were built in 1691 and have been managed by the Mercer’s ever since. In 1976 it was decided that new accommodation was needed so a modern Lady Mico’s Almshouses was rebuilt on the corner of Alyward Street and West Arbour street.


New Lady Mico Almhouses on Alyward Street

Over the road from the old Almhouses is St Dunstan’s Church, one of the oldest in East London dating from 952 AD, it is within the church that we find the stain glass window with a strangely modern looking Mercer Maiden, looking a bit like a Hollywood film star. The windows were designed and fitted in the 1950s.



St Dunstan’s Church

Alfred Gardner was bought up in Stepney and entertained me with many stories of 1950s and 1960s life in the area, as we travelled around the streets of Stepney.


Adelina Grove

lindley st

Lindley Street

johnson st

Johnson Street


Sisters of Mercy Convent in Hardinge Street,


Five Maidens  all in a row – One on the Convent and four on Coburg Dwellings, in Hardinge Street,


485 Commercial Road,


577 Commercial Road

76 and 78

76 and 78 White Horse Lane

mercer arms

Former Mercers’ Arms public house in Jubilee Street,

This Maiden was the source of some confusion, there are two former Mercer Arms, this one that closed as a pub in 1915 and the other one in Belgrave Street that closed in 2006.

sutton rd

Sutton Street depot, Sutton Street,

Hopefully we managed to track down all the Mercer Maidens in Stepney, but there are many other all over London especially in Covent Garden and the City. There is also one much further afield as I discovered in the summer when I visited Swanage Town Hall whose frontage had previously been part of the façade of the Mercers’ Hall in Cheapside.


Town Hall Swanage (Mercer Maiden just above the door)

Alfred Gardner’s  book East End Story has just been republished, you can find further details here

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – The Battle of Stepney 1911

stepney2 (2)

Recently Eric Pemberton very kindly sent me some his Postcard collection, one of the highlights of the collection is a series of postcards about The Battle of Stepney or the Siege of Sidney Street as it is more commonly known.

The background to the siege was the murder of three policeman in a bungled robbery in Houndsditch in December 1910  by a gang of Anarchists. Many of the gang were arrested, however a few weeks later the police were informed that the leader of the gang called Peter the Painter and some other members of the gang were holed up at 100 Sidney Street.

The rest of the story is told by an intrepid Daily Chronicle reporter who managed to get to the frontline of the siege.



 For four hours, writes a Daily Chronicle representative, I have been under fire in London, in the second decade of the twentieth century. I have seen a fierce battle between soldiers, police and anarchists. I have seen two desperate men hold a house in East London against the sustained fire of rifles, shot-guns, and revolvers. I have seen the house fired by its frenzied occupants, and when their fort was burnt down, their bodies brought out. I have seen a Home Secretary. two Chief Commissioners, and a General directing operations.  I have heard the z-z-z-zip of bullets and the barking of Browning revolvers. I have seen terror-stricken women and children flying for shelter, for all the world as if the city was being sacked. And the picture will long dwell in my memory.

All East London was aflame with the news before it was daylight. At Aldgate excited groups were asking for information when I passed down the streets at eight o’clock. There were stories of firing at the police, and of officers having been killed, but all that was really known was that great squads of police had been marching down the Mile End-road ever since the small hours. In their track I followed until Sidney-street was reached. There, long lines of police were keeping back the crowds which were gazing with awe-stricken faces down the streets which led to the scene. In Sidney-street there is a block of new buildings let out as flats. It is bounded on the other three sides by Lindley-street, Richardson-street, and Hawkin Street. That part of the block which faces Sidney-street is known as “Charles Martin’s Mansions.” It was made up of houses of three storeys and an attic. And the whole was surrounded by the police. Every exit was barred, every earth was stopped. Opposite was a row of small shops, and every one of these was closely shuttered. About four doors to the west, on the opposite side of the street, was a shoeing forge belonging to Messrs. Mann, Crossman and Paulin, and behind this was a high building used as a bottling store by the same firm.

In the raw twilight of the winter’s morning the scene looked impressibly dreary and depressing. A strict watch was being kept on everybody who passed down the adjacent streets, and every now and then a passer-by would be stopped, and in some cases searched, if there was anything about him to cause suspicion. Making my way down Lindley-street, I found that a regular siege was going on at a house—No. 100, Sidney Street—which was one of the houses known as Charles Martin’s Mansions. Every now and again there would come the sound of firing, but the street in front of the Anarchists was quite clear, of people.

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TROOPS OPEN FIRE. This had gone on for some time, when the measured tramp of soldiers was heard coming down Oxford-street from the Tower. It was a squad of the Scots Guards—all of them picked shots under the command of Lieutenant Ross. This added to the seriousness of the affair, as it was evident that the authorities realised that they had desperate men to deal with. One of the police, Sergeant Lesson, had been shot in an attempt to enter the house, and no more risks was to be taken. A word of command rang out, and the soldiers took up their positions at each end of the block which faces Sidney-street. Half a dozen others were sent up into the top floor of the bottling store already mentioned, from which they could get a view of the fort. Those in the street kneeled so as to get a truer aim. One of them seized aboard bearing a “Daily Chronicle” contents bill—which was standing outside a newsagent’s shop—upon which to kneel.


Then began a sustained fire upon the house. It went on hour after hour until it seemed as if the house must be full of lead. And every now and again there would come the bark of a repeating revolver from the besieged in answer. By this time the winter sun had struggled through the clouds and lit up the scene with watery brightness. Mr Sydney Holland came up with Major Wodehouse to look at the strange sight, and soon after there came a dozen policemen, armed with shot guns, which had been lent by Mr Blanch, of Gracechurch Street. These had cartridges charged with buckshot.

At this time I managed to got across Sidney-Street, during a lull in the firing, into  the shoeing forge, which was right in front of the besieged house. Over our heads were passing the bullets from the bottling stores, and every now and then a spent bullet would drop. Inside I found a little group of plainclothes men, who had been watching since eight o’clock on Monday morning. With them were the farriers and the horses waiting to be shod, but nothing much was done in this way. so long as the tiring lasted. Weary and tired after their 24 hours vigil, the officers were watching for any signs of an attempt to break out of the house. Every now and again there would be a puff of smoke and a spit of flame from the house, and then a rattle of shots and a splintering glass would tell of the reply. During all the hours of the sustained fusillade neither of the houses on each side of the murderers’ citadel was hit.

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MR CHURCHILL ARRIVES. Soon after the fight began a motor-cab came up. In it was the Home Secretary, with Sir Melville Macnaghten and Sir Nott Bower, as well as his private secretary. The little group took up their stand at the corner of Lindley-Street and Sidney-street, and they were joined by Mr Harry Lawson, M.P.

Chief Inspector Seaton came across to the yard in which we were standing and asked for one of the bullets which had fallen among us, and took it across to show the Home Secretary. Then Mr Churchill took charge of the siege operations. He stood out in the street, although the bullets were flying wildly up and down. He motioned the line backward, and took four or five of the Scots Guards a few yards nearer the house and directed their fire. He walked across to Lindley-street and had a consultation with, the Chief Commissioners of the City and the Metropolitan Police. As a result of this consultation one of the Guardsmen, was sent over into the yard in which we were standing, and he began to fire in at the ground floor windows of the house.


All this time Mr Churchill, who had lighted a cigar, was watching the scene. Now and then he would give an order, telling this line to advance or that to retire. Noticing the side door of our yard to be open, he shouted, ‘ Close that door, or you will be shot.” At this time smoke had begun to come out of the second floor window of the house, and the officers tightened their hold on their revolvers. – “The house is on fire, and they will bolt now.” Seeing this, Mr Churchill sent two policemen with shot guns to join us in our frontal attack, and through the partly opened door, those took careful aim at the windows on the ground floor. That their aim was a true one was shown by the flying splinters and the crash of glass, of which there was soon none left whole in the sashes. And all the while there had been intermittent firing from the ground-floor window.

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Slowly the flames began to get a hold of the house, and dense black smoke began to pour out of the top windows. There were shouts in the distance and the clanging of the bells of the Fire engines. But Mr Churchill waved his hand, and they stopped some distance away. For the first time since fire engines were invented there was seen the spectacle of a Fire raging unchecked and with no attempt to stop it. Soon the flames were pouring out through the roof, and there was a crash of tiles into the street. Even in the broad daylight the flames shone with sinister brightness, and it became evident that no one would be long alive if he stayed longer in that roaring furnace. Would our quarry make a last desperate bolt for liberty? Everyone was on the alert among our little band who were in the van of the attack. Then we were joined by Mr Churchill, the two Chief Commissioners, Superintendent Quin, Chief Inspector MacCarthy, and Superintendent Mulvaney, who came across the street and took up their position with us in the yard or the shoeing forge. The Guardsman who was with us knelt to fire, and Mr Churchill stooped down and directed his aim. “Fire at the door,” he said, and the bullet crashed across the street at point-blank range, and a shower of splinters showed that it had found its mark. Then Mr Churchill motioned to one of the policemen with a shot gun to come forward, and he too fired two more shots into the ground-floor windows. By this time the house itself was a roaring mass of flame from top to bottom.

There was a consultation between the little group of whom Mr Churchill was one. “Let us make a rush,” said one of the plain clothes men. “No ” said the Home Secretary, “we want no more loss of life.” Then he gave orders to open wide the doors of the yard, so that those inside could take uninterrupted aim should there be a bolt down the street. At this time a Maxim gun from the Tower came up, but Mr Churchill ordered it out of action. And indeed by this time It became quite certain that there was nothing left with the breath of life in it in the Inferno, which was roaring and fuming only a few yards away. About this time two single shots rang out from the back of the burning house. “That is the end of them,” said someone, “they have saved those last two for themselves.” It may be so. But we shall never know the truth of what went on inside that doomed house during those early morning hours! All we know is that two of the most desperate criminals ever known in the history of crime had fought for half a winter’s day against a thousand police and soldiers. And they must have had enough ammunition in their possession to kill half London, for they were firing for five solid hours. So it was all over, the police broke in the door, and the fire engines dashed up and began to play on the blazing ruins. Mr Churchill made sure that there was no one alive inside and then he left the scene. After he had gone, two guns from the Royal Horse Artillery at Woolwich came up, but as they were not wanted they passed through the street and went away.

Other posts you may find interesting

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – Victoria Park

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – Seamens Missions

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

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