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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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the trebor storyDoncaster Butterscotch. Treacle Jacks. Licorice Flaps. Grannies Chest Tablets. Fudge Fancy Boxes. These are some of the names which decorate the end papers of this handsome book. Okay, to our 21C ears I’ve chosen some slightly risqué examples, but they represent a handful of the 400-plus product lines produced by London confectionery company Trebor in the 1930s, when it was at the height of its powers. Today, just seven remain. They are market-leaders, it must be said, which is probably why they were hoovered up by Kraft* in the 2010 takeover of Cadbury which in its turn had swallowed Trebor itself in 1989.

The Trebor Story, by Matthew Crampton relates the 82 year history of this independent British sweet giant which was founded by four East London small-business entrepreneurs in 1907. Two were grocers, one a sweet salesman and one a sugar boiler: a perfect commercial pick n mix, if you will.

And so it proved. We learn how from these humble beginnings in London’s East End, Trebor grew to several plants in the area and then nationwide, employing thousands of staff and a huge fleet of brightly liveried trucks and vans (Trebor got motorised very early). Trebor spread its wings, opening factories in all around the Empire and Commonwealth, winning myriad export awards along the way. We share the vicissitudes of two World Wars, the Depression and perhaps most challenging of all – sweet rationing!

By mid-Century, the founders had retired and the next generation – notably John and Ian Marks, sons of one of the founders, chain-smoking Sydney Marks. But we also meet a remarkable group of talented businessmen and women whose expertise in sales, production, export and finance fuelled Trebor’s upward trajectory. These include the formidable Hilda Clark, who joined the company’s Forest Gate plant as a teenager in 1918, opened and ran the new Chesterfield manufacturing and distribution operation during the war and right up until her retirement in 1963, when the company gave her a car as a leaving present, an unheard of gesture hitherto.

This book has dozens of wonderful anecdotes such as these. Matthew Crampton has assembled a massively rich variety of pictures, photographs and documents. He has interviewed many employees and former employees going back many years. He has done much research. And remarkably, in best Ben Schott fashion, he has not only laid out the whole book himself, but done it with panache and skill that most large established publishers would struggle to match.

So. A lovely story, steeped in the most powerful nostalgia, with a sad ending. But an absolute  joy to read.

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A typical spread. Lots of images, text and graphics beautifully laid out and balanced.

And finally. Trebor stands for Robert backwards, after founding partner Robert Robertson, right? Well, not quite. While the company was quite happy to perpetuate this myth, Trebor was named after the premises they moved into, Trebor Terrace, after the row’s builder, one Robert Cooper. So just a coincidence. Robertson & Woodcock, as the company was officially known, took on the moniker Trebor almost by a process of osmosis.

* Kraft has now decided to call its international snack division Mondelez. No kidding. With a crappy logo to match. On a par with Diageo, but better than Consignia, I suppose.

The Trebor Story (146 pp)  by Matthew Crampton is published by Muddler Books, officially priced at £18 but available for less. The author tweets as @Trebor_Story and has a nice try-before-you-buy web site here.

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the sugar girlsI noted last weekend that The Sugar Girls had deservedly made the Sunday Times top 10 for non-fiction. This gave me the poke I needed to knuckle down and read it. So this weekend gone I did just that: it is a very easy read, for reasons I hope I can make clear.

“Sugar Girls” is what eastenders and the girls themselves called the female factory workers at Tate & Lyle’s massive sugar refinery and syrup factory plants in Silvertown. The young ladies themselves were fiercely proud to be known as such. This book follows the stories of four of them – steadfast Ethel, gadabout Gladys, determined Lilian and tragic Joan (names you barely hear nowadays), their families, colleagues and bosses over an approximate 10 year period starting at the back end of World War II.

Historians of the period tend to focus on austerity, rationing, the foundation of the NHS, nationalisation, and so on. In The Sugar Girls, these things are barely mentioned, if at all. Why? Because the book is a collective memoir of four women whose day-to-day priorities were getting to and from work, keeping their family together and securing and keeping a boyfriend or husband at a time when most men were returning from war or going on National Service. That is how these now elderly ladies remember the period. (Lovers of historical trivia will enjoy, as I did, the origin of Tate and Lyle’s sugarcube man).

It would be so easy for the authors to have fallen into the trap of presenting the East End stereotype, but they succeed brilliantly in avoiding this. While our heroines do love a sing-song and a knees-up, these and similar phrases are never employed; nor can I recall a single example of Cockney rhyming slang. Nonetheless, there is no shortage of unsavoury and unpleasant characters in our story, and certainly the locals are hard nuts, evidenced by several rather brutal sugar girl fights and occasional bouts of domestic violence.

Most people in this industrial part of town were dirt poor. But the massive Tate & Lyle had a reputation of paying well, and looking out for its workers’ welfare. Although unionised, there didn’t seem to be much friction between staff and management during the period. But terms of service and certain working conditions from our perspective today seem positively archaic. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that you could drink alcohol at the recreation club during lunch, but I was genuinely surprised that in certain departments, women workers were obliged to leave the company on getting married – pregnancy didn’t even enter into it (inevitably, though, pregnancy looms large in our story).

Although the authors – or perhaps their subjects –  have suppressed some of the more jagged edges of post-War, industrial East London, there is plenty of hardship and heartbreak in this story, believe me. But overall, they have emphasised the positive, the funny and the uplifting. Do have the tissues close at hand when you get to the final chapter for the wrap-up of this remarkable, warm-hearted story of our mothers’ and grandmothers’ generation.

My only criticism of this book has nothing to to do with beautifully-told story, but is rather about production: Sugar Girls lacks photographs, even though there are plenty available if you go to the Sugar Girls website. I do hope some of these may be included in subsequent editions, but if you haven’t read it yet, I do recommend you check out the pictures before or during your reading of this wonderful book.

The Sugar Girls (340 pp) by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi is published in paperback by HarperCollins, 2012, and with a cover price of £6.99 although available for less.

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I was contacted today via Twitter by a blogger whose site is called Songs from the Howling Sea. This is an unorthodox and off-the-wall take on both the folklore and hard history of the East End, exclusively via original music and video clips, with a guaranteed weekly post; it really is unique, fun, engaging. I’ve therefore added it to our blog roll.

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