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Archive for October, 2017

A guest post by LH Member Roger Williams. 

Review:  The History of the Port of London — the Vast Emporium of All Nations
By Peter Stone

51FqDHqHplL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_It is flattering when a publisher asks out of the blue if you would care to write a book. That’s what happened to London Historian member Peter Stone, when his posts about the city on his The History of London website caught the eye of Pen & Sword History Press.

The subject he chose was the port of London because, he says, as a Londoner born in the East End, he wanted to know more about it, and there were few comprehensive books on the subject. The result is The History of the Port of London — the Vast Emporium of All Nations, a 250-page book with 16 photographs, half a dozen prints and a dozen clear, specially-drawn maps that tell the story of the port from Roman Londinium to DP World London Gateway.

Medieval London is particularly well researched. This was a time when wine was the biggest import, and the Vintners Company established a 400-year monopoly. Trade was wrapped up in rules and regulations, even stipulating where foreigners could stay ashore. In the early 12th Century crews of foreign ships, when approaching London Bridge, we learn, were required to sing the Kirie Eleison to show they were not pagan pirates.

Elizabethan times saw a great expansion is shipping. Legal quays were established along the City’s foreshore, which held a monopoly on the landing of imports for 250 years. Suffrance wharfs on the south bank were later added to handle the increased volume of cargo brought mainly by charter companies like the East India Company that held monopolies on trade in great swathes of the world.

The first wet dock was in Rotherhithe. Howland Wet Dock was initially designed to shelter ships en route to London, but it also served the whaling fleets, whose messy business was kept away from the city. By 1800 an estimated 8,500 vessels could be seen between six miles below London Bridge and two miles above it. Import and export docks were sorely needed and they developed with great rapidity –– London, West India, East India, St Katharine’s, the Surrey Docks complex and the Royal Docks. An aerial photograph from 1957 shows their enormous extent.

With quotations from Pepys to Millicent Rose, the book is good on social history, on the lives of all those involved in the docks that by 1900 supported 20,000 full-time jobs and half as many casual ones. Ben Tillett, the unions and the everyday lives of dock workers are evoked, and the role of the Port of London Authority fully explained. There is the development of the villages from the City to the Isle of Dogs, from the time when Stepney was a village with a dock at Ratcliffe to today, when everything has slipped way down the river. But Tilbury, it is heartening to read, is still active, exporting engines from Ford at a rate of two vessels a day and importing a quarter of a million vehicles a year. Petroleum, steel, timber and sugar are still important imports, while DP World London Gateway, which covers an area twice the size of the City of London, can handle the largest vessels in the world,

The story of London’s ports is the story of the city, and, with a final chapter that looks to the future, Peter Stone has given the port of London a fulsome and highly readable biography.


The History of the Port of London — the Vast Emporium of All Nations
by Peter Stone is published by Pen & Sword History with a cover price of £19.99.


Review by Roger Williams. His latest book is ‘Whitebait and the Thames Fisheries’, Bristol Book Publishing, £7

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A guest post by John Bennett.

On the anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street on 4 October 1936, this piece examines two different eras of the East End’s turbulent history which have sealed its reputation for challenging extremist right-wing ideologies: the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ in the 1930s and clashes with the National Front in the 1970s.

The ‘Battle of Cable Street’ in October 1936 showed the political loyalties of the East End tested considerably. Despite Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists extolling a protectionist view of multiculturalism, the privations of the recession of the 1930s had made the ideology popular in the area, even counting some Jews as supporters. Nonetheless, racially motivated violence against Jews had become common, particularly in Shoreditch and Hoxton. Mosley’s decision to march through the East End was understood to be a provocative flashpoint and East Enders of all creeds set up barriers around Cable Street to stop the procession. The result was messy: the BUF were redirected away from the east, but the disorder created by the creation of barriers led to pitched battles between protestors and police. It appears no fascists were actually involved in the disturbances but the protestors had won the day and the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ has since been seen as a successful of example of the people rising up against what they saw as a threat to the cohesiveness of their community.

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Battle of Cable Street memorial mural. 

The East End was at a low ebb in the 1970s. A major housing crisis in Tower Hamlets had been exacerbated in many people’s eyes by the large influx of Bengalis to the area following the civil war in Bangladesh. Accusations of housing queue-jumping and squatting only inflamed resentment of the newcomers. Far right groups such as the National Front found a willing audience in the area, bolstered by skinhead youth groups looking for an identity. Throughout the mid 1970s, violence against Asians and their property became commonplace, resulting in the racist murder of Altab Ali in Whitechapel in May 1978. This more than any other incident galvanised the Bengali community to take action, forming their own ‘vigilante groups’ to nip violence in the bud and campaign for police intervention which, on the face of it, had been severely lacking up to that point. Vandalism and physical attacks by NF supporters in Brick Lane in June 1978 (‘the battle of Brick Lane’, as the local press dubbed it) created a backlash by the Asian community to stymie the attacks as they happened, resulting in a stronger police presence and the street’s own police station.

Although fascist groups would once again raise their heads briefly in the early 1990s, the events of the late 1970s would see the subsequent rapid decline of right-wing activity in the East End, thanks to a more successful cohesion of community and law-enforcement and a more established Asian population.


John Bennett’s book Mob Town, A History of Crime and Disorder in the East End was published last month by Yale.

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