The border referred to is the Lea River. West of it: Middlesex; East of it: Essex. This major tributary joins the Thames with an elaborate final meander on the East shoulder of the Isle of Dogs. It has been termed The Border for centuries by locals, commentators and writers alike, not least of them Dickens. The border areas include Plaistow, East Ham, West Ham, Canning Town, Silvertown. And Stratford, home of London2012, and the raison d’etre of this book.
The author lived in the general area for much of the 1990s and 2000s. The first sentence of the book is: “This is not a history book, though there is a lot of history in it.” A perfect summary. There is a lot of history but the author, one feels, is covering his back a little because much of it is a very personal memoir, but no need, for it is most definitely none the worse for that. Some of the history involves incidents and people which are almost common knowledge to the London historian (Dr Dodd; the 1917 Silvertown disaster). But most I would say is not. The main story of the area, and that which takes up most of the narrative, is about industrialisation and consequent urbanisation. Factories, industries, workers, slum housing. We learn about 19C industrialists such as the men who created Silvertown, the home of Tate & Lyle and dozens of noisesome and distinctly less benevolent businesses; businesses which provided domestic goods for every home in Britain and the colonies along with industrial essentials for the wider world (notably electric cable: I had never heard of gutta percha before – massive). Grim, unsanitary, dangerous living and working conditions along with high unemployment characterise this area from the coming of the docks and railways right through to the post-WWII era – living memory. All of this is well researched and described with plenty of contemporary newspaper, survey, report and history writings cited and frequently quoted, often at length. (I like how Over The Border has its footnotes on the actual page rather than at the back.)
The more modern parts of our story are told with a weary and regretful cynicism, albeit with humour. I very much enjoyed learning about the post-war rejuvenation of the now legendary Theatre Royal Stratford, led by Joan Littlewood and a company of optimistic, leftist actor-producers who always had to be one step ahead of creditors and inspectors. The making in 1969 of the critically-acclaimed independent movie Bronco Bullfrog, about the tribulations of a local teenage couple. The scenery of much of the location work, the author notes, has mostly disappeared or been transformed as to be unrecognisable, a mere 40 years on.
The replacement in the post-war decades of whole streets of terraced housing and small shops by modern concrete shopping centres, blocks of flats, new trunk roads, etc; dead pubs; how the 60s ignored – and were ignored by – the local citizenry; and now the wholesale transformation of Stratford by the Olympic Park and Westfield, both of which the author looks over with a distinctly jaundiced eye. At the beginning and end of the book and occasionally elsewhere, Fraser is accompanied in the pub or on his explorations by his drinking buddy and literal fellow-traveller “Angry Bob”, in a Cassandra role. Angry Bob also provides – on behalf of the author – comic relief and swearing. Both men are more mellow and philosophical by the end of the story, largely because they had both escaped the region some years previously.
Over the Border is an excellent introduction to the to the history of the “other East End”, and most enjoyable to read: informative, opinionated and pacy. Neil Fraser has succeeded in taking much very grim subject matter and making it palatable, without trivialising any aspect of it. There is an excellent section of historical and contemporary pictures the latter of which are mostly by the author himself. He may make the “not a history book” claim, but my only criticism is that the volume would definitely benefit from a nice index.
Over the Border: The Other East End, 394pp, by Neil Fraser is published in paperback by Function Books with a cover price of £9.99, although available for less.
I’d also like to mention that London Borough of Newham has a fine collection of historical images on its website, here.