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Review. The Boss of Bethnal Green: Joseph Merceron the Godfather of Regency London, by Julian Woodford.  

boss-of-bethnal-greenSometimes you have to wonder how someone as notorious as Joseph Merceron (1764 – 1839) can become all but forgotten to history. Well, it happens, because that is exactly the case here, until historian Julian Woodford stumbled across him while investigating something else, which is so often the way. It must be said that Merceron did catch the attention of radical historians Sidney and Beatrice Webb in the early 20C, but after that, what little there was, has been based almost entirely on the Webbs’ own research. But now Woodford, who has spent over a decade investigating the life and career of Merceron, has put him firmly in the spotlight. Joseph Merceron was singularly nasty local politician who exercised total control over the a large swathe of East London for half a century during which time Bethnal Green was – according to Roy Porter – “a law unto itself”. It can be argued that his “reign” is still being felt by the area two centuries later.

As his unusual name might suggest, Merceron was born of a proud Huguenot family made good, largely thanks to his father James, a former silk weaver who had become a well-off local rent collector and pawn broker, based in Brick Lane. Not the most noble of professions in an already poor area, you might think.

Whatever the sins of the father, Joseph put these in the shade. Of James’s children, Merceron junior took to the business to the manner born, collecting rents from the benighted local poor while still in his teens. Expanding this side of the business, he quickly expanded his intrests to property development, pub management and local politics. He became all-powerful locally through control of the parish vestry and control of the finances – virtually all the finances – of Bethnal Green by dint of being its Treasurer. There were few areas of local life that Merceron’s tentacles did not reach. He became a senior magistrate, notably the licensing Magistrate for pubs. Thereby he took care of his own and clients’ pubs, many of which descended into brothels, notably and controversially in Shadwell. Equally, if you weren’t a Merceron adherent, your pub would not get licensed. Similarly, he held a seat on the Commission of Sewers while simultaneously being a director in a water company. Conflict of interest clearly didn’t apply. In addition, Joseph sat on countless committees for this, that or the other. Whatever he didn’t control utterly, he at least influenced. Like organised criminals in the modern sense, he had placemen everywhere and, if things seemed in the balance, he could summon a mob of heavies in a trice.

When corruptly amassing eye-watering wealth, you need tame bankers. Merceron placed his and Bethnal Green’s money with Chatteris & Co, run by the Mainwaring family.  He backed William and George Mainwaring, father and so respectively, to be one of the MPs for Middlesex, thus ensuring a voice in Parliament.

When you find that Merceron defrauded members of his own family of an inheritance which was relative peanuts to him, one must conclude that his avarice was pathalogical, for he did not lead an extravagant lifestyle personally.

There has never been an individual as powerful on local government before or since, including Lutfur Rahman, whose reign in Tower Hamlets quite recently was thankfully quashed (it carried many Merceron hallmarks).

Apart from being a superb and informative read, the book is very nicely constructed. Beautifully designed and peppered with well-chosen photos, illustrations and portraits, all where they belong in relation to the text. Amazingly, no known portrait of Merceron exists, though likenesses of most of the other leading players are featured. Very good end notes, bibliography and index.

The Boss of Bethnal Green is a fascinating and impeccably-researched account. It is sensational without being sensationalist, which is what makes it such a gripping read. It’s everything an accessible history book should be and I commend it to you.


The Boss of Bethnal Green: Joseph Merceron the Godfather of Regency London, 396pp by Julian Woodford is published by Spitalfields Life Books, with a jacket price of £20. Out of stock at Amazon at time of writing, it’s available in Waterstone’s, other bookshops and directly from the publisher.

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A guest post by LH Member Wendy Forrest. 

The Landmark Trust recently invited London Historians to 13 Princelet Street, Spitalfields. Just outside the bounds of the City, the area has long been home to those living on its fringe, servicing lifestyles from which they were themselves largely excluded. Spitalfields has sheltered Hugenots fleeing religious persecution, the Irish forced out by famine, Jews escaping pogroms and Bangladeshis remaking their lives after a genocidal war of independence.

The desperate living conditions of most 19th and 20th century residents left the Georgian dwellings in need of their own rescue. Militant conservationists and artistic gentrifiers turned Princelet Street and its neighbours from slum to swank. But the area is now threatened by a new and devastating wave of speculative development. Plans for Bishopsgate Goodsyard would create a looming wall of glass towers, some over 40 storeys high. British Land propose to bulldoze historic Norton Folgate retaining just a few Potemkin facades. Princelet Street would stand but its neighbourhood would be destroyed.

The history of No 13 Princelet Street is intimately tied to that of its neighbours and the street is full of stories that reflect the changing fortunes of Spitalfields. The invitation from Landmark Trust prompted a look at the way the street was developed and at the events that shaped some of the most extraordinary houses in the street. The visit felt especially timely as this area, the largest collection of early Georgian terraced houses in London, may soon be changed beyond any possible restoration.

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The first houses on Princelet Street were built just after 1700 on land used for market gardening after the priory and hospital of Street Mary Spital were dissolved in 1539. Leonard Gurle moved to the area in the 1640s to create a nursery for fruit trees, jasmine, honeysuckle and lilacs and was so successful that he was made the King’s Gardener in 1677. Spitalfields was still horticultural when construction began on Princelet Street. The plot was known as Joyce Garden, part of an estate bought by Charles Wood and Simon Michell after some shady dealing and at least one Chancery case. These two gentlemen of Lincolns Inn were also involved in the new business of sewage. They won the right to construct a local sewer system, along what is now Hanbury and Wilkes Street, ensuring they benefitted from all neighbourhood development.

Shortly after Wood and Michell acquired the land, Parliament resolved urgent action to counter the spread of non-conformist Protestantism. Fifty new Anglican churches, financed by coal taxes, were planned to serve the ‘godless thousands’ outside the City. Spitalfields, where a thriving Hugenot community now lived alongside established dissenters, was an obvious early site for one of these Queen Anne churches. Hawksmoor was appointed surveyor and designed six of the twelve actually built. The land for Hawksmoor’s masterpiece, Christ Church Spitalfields, was sold to the Church Commissioners by Wood and Michell and was linked to the sewer serving Princelet Street. As intended, Christ Church towered above the neighbouring Hugenot chapels, as it still dwarfs the synagogues and mosques which some of these chapels became.

Wood and Michell sold a couple of plots on Princelet Street outright but then decided to parcel out the land on leases of no longer than 99 years. Development fell to speculative builders including several carpenters, a stonemason, a painter, a bricklayer and a blacksmith. Samuel Worrall, carpenter, was chief amongst these and lived at No 18 himself using the back yard, which also had access from Fournier Street, as a timber yard. Worrall was a significant figure in Georgian Spitalfields: carpenter at Christ Church, churchwarden of the parish, overseer of the poor and a trustee of the almshouses in Crispin Street. A Samuel Worrall, probably his son, later rose to become Master of the Masons Company.

The stately Georgian townhouses of Princelet Street are sometimes seen as typical of the houses in which silkweavers lived and worked. Certainly many were built or adapted for silk production with wide windowed lofts designed to illuminate the looms within. Spitalfields was the centre of the industry and by 1832 a parliamentary report noted 50,000 people in the weaver’s district of Spitalfields and Bethnal Green – half the population – entirely dependent on silk manufacture. But the houses of Princelet Street are hardly the average weavers’ lodgings. Most silk workers were poor and, as the industry declined in competition with foreign silks and Indian calicos, many desperately so.

George Godwin (London Shadows 1854) weaving as misery.

George Godwin (London Shadows 1854) weaving as misery.

The master weavers who lived in Princelet Street often put work out to as many as 200 journeymen and apprentices. Its likely that some of these houses would have been targeted during the periodic weavers riots, most intense during the 1760s, when silks were slashed on the loom by ‘cutters’ protesting poor rates of pay. Other early Princelet occupants included a weaver, a glover, a brewer, a cutler, a doctor, carpenters and clergymen who would also have been amongst the wealthiest in their respective trades. The local dominance of the textile industry is confirmed by the presence of weavers, a tailor, a needlemaker, a dyer, a knitter and silk brokers.

No 13 was built by a stone mason, Edward Buckingham and his first tenant was probably a tailor. Several early occupants had Hugenot names and local trade directories list silk merchants at this address. But by the second half of the 19th century Spitalfields silk was in decline and new trades arrived at No 13. By 1861 these included a poulterer and a mangler or washerwoman suggesting a dip in the fortunes of the tenants. The house was now multi-occupied, shared between four families by 1871. There were also new names: Guttenberg, a jeweller, and Levy, a boot ‘clicker’ who cut out leather for shoe uppers. By the time Peter Lerwill bought the house in 1984 decades of poverty and overcrowding had taken their toll. He took on a slum but one that retained its original plan, partitions and panelling. Lerwill left the restored house to the Landmark Trust in 2004.

13 Princelet Street.

13 Princelet Street

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No 19 was built by Samuel Worrall in 1719 and the first occupants were a silk weaving Hugenot family, the Ogiers, who were followed by a number of poorer weaving families and their looms. Later it became home to Polish and Irish immigrants and in the 1860s a synagogue was built into a garden extension. Israel Zangwill tells us ‘Its furniture was bare benches, a raised platform with a reading desk at the centre, and a wooden curtained ark at the end…The worshippers dropped in, mostly in their workaday garments and grime, and rumbled and roared and chorused the prayers with zeal which shook the windowpanes’. A secret room below the synagogue hosted anti-fascist meetings in the 1930s including preparations for the battle of Cable Street. Children from the Kindertransport found a first sanctuary there in the 1940s. In 1980 the attic was unlocked to reveal cabbalic writings and scattered texts in fifteen different languages, traces of the erudite caretaker who had disappeared suddenly and without trace over ten years earlier. This house is now the Museum of Immigration.

Number 19.

Number 19.

No 2, a three storey house with roof loft on the corner of Wilkes Street, was one of the last to be built by Samuel Worrall. Initially tenanted by a glover, it was soon home to Anna Maria Garthwaithe, one of the most celebrated designers of the 18th century. She lived in Princelet Street for 35 years creating flowered patterns for silk damasks and brocades, nearly a thousand of which are still held by the Victoria and Albert Museum. Anna Maria was a Lincolnshire vicar’s daughter and it was only when her father died that she was able to establish an independent life living with her widowed sister. At the age of 40, she came to Spitalfields to work directly with the highly skilled weavers who bought her designs. The house was later tenanted by the Goldsteins, the Venicoffs, the Marks, the Hellers and then by a number of Bengali families before it was restored in 1985.

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Number 2.

No 4 is a handsome double fronted house taken in 1724 by Benjamin Truman, third generation brewer responsible for a major expansion of the family firm. The Truman Brewery on Brick Lane was a major employer well into the 20th century and is still a local landmark. Ben Truman supplied beer to the Prince of Wales and was knighted by George III when he took the throne in 1760. Truman was painted by both Gainsborough and Romney and his portrait graced beer labels well into the 1970s. By the mid 18th century No 4 was also occupied by Hugenot weavers who added the characteristic loft. Today it trades on its history and is hired out as a location for photographs and films. The house can be seen in the scene where Sharon Stone ties Hugh Dancy to the bed in Basic Instinct 2 or where Rupert Pendry-Jones finds the victim of a Ripper copycat killing in a 2009 episode of Whitechapel.

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Number 4.

No 6 became London’s first Jewish theatre in 1886. Public funds were raised by a local butcher and Sir Samuel Montagu, Liberal MP for Whitechapel. This enabled Abraham Goldfaden, an actor-manager from Riga, to set up the Hebrew Dramatic Club. Jacob Adler, an actor who rose to great fame in New York, performed there after fleeing Odessa. A character in Israel Zangwill’s Children of the Ghetto claims the Jargon or Yiddish theatre is ‘the only real theatre in London’. In 1887, during a production of The Gypsy Girl, the firm alarm was raised in error and 17 people were killed in the rush to the exits. The theatre closed shortly after. It is not the street’s only link to the arts. Lionel Tertis, international viola player and professor at the Royal Academy of Music, lived at No 8, his father was the reader and circumciser at the synagogue at No 19.

As the Jews moved on, the Bengali community tenanted the Spitalfields slums. From the early 19th century Syleti men had travelled to Calcutta and found work crewing British ships, often in the sweltering boiler rooms. Some were marooned in London, some jumped ship. Their new London homes were close to the docks and a 1964 survey showed that the highest concentrations of Pakistanis in East London (Bangladesh was still East Pakistan) were in Princelet Street and old Montague Street. The 1971 Bangladesh genocide and War of Independence led to another great refugee influx and by 1971 there were 200 Bengalis occupying just sixteen addresses in Princelet Street. Living conditions were Victorian and Spitalfields was one of the most deprived and overcrowded wards in the country. The campaign for decent housing was led by the community itself through organisations like the Spitalfields Housing Co-operative which took over and improved twenty houses in Princelet Street in the 1970s and manages more than 600 local properties today.

Demolition and redevelopment threatened the whole area in the 1970s and the militant campaign to protect and restore Spitalfields was hard fought. No 13 Princelet Street is a wonderful example of what was saved. On 17 and 18 September The Landmark Trust are holding an Open Day and London Historians are warmly invited to attend. To find out more about developments in Spitalfields:

www.landmarktrust.org.uk for holiday lets and open day news
www.morelightmorepower.co.uk for the campaign for Bishopsgate Goodsyard
www.thespitalfieldstrust.com for plans for Norton Folgate
www.19princeletstreet.org.uk for visiting No 19 and the Museum of Immigration
www.princelet.co.uk interior details at 4 Princelet St for filmmakers and the curious
www.bishopsgate.org.uk for local history learning and research


More images of Princelet Street on our Flickr space.

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Exhibition: C.A.Mathew: Photographs of Spitalfields a Century Ago.

An on-the-tin title there. On Saturday 20th April 1912, Essex photographer C.A. Mathew unloaded his equipment at Liverpool Street Station and spent time taking pictures of the street scenes in Spitalfields. Nobody knows why or how many images he captured. But 21 of them have survived as prints in the Bishopsgate Institute. Some of them are in quite good nick; others somewhat less so. Recently they have been carefully scanned at ultra high resolution and digitally restored by local photographer Jeremy Freedman. The substantially enlarged versions on display are the basis of this remarkable exhibition.

The detail is so fine that you can clearly read text in shop windows and on advertising posters and the adverts on omnibuses. The cobbled streets strewn with horse manure. Ornate streetlamps and balconies. Children and parents, in their weekly best, walking to or from synagogue. In the biggest, wealthiest, most powerful and most populous city on the globe, these were its poor, if not its destitute. There is pride in those faces. And curiosity in those of the children. Who was this stranger with his contraption?

Horses and waggon wheels are ubiquitous, yet in a handful of years to disappear from this urban landscape forever. This was the generation that – unbeknownst to them – would be scythed on foreign battlefields imminently. And those too young to fight would have their turn a generation later.

This show is deeply evocative and real. You can smell and taste the past here. The pixels below can only hint at what you’ll experience by seeing the images in large scale. Do go.

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Crispin St, looking towards the Spitalfields Market. Bishopsgate Intitute/Jeremy Freedman.

Looking down Artillery Lane towards Artillery Passage. Bishopsgate Intitute/Jeremy Freedman.

Looking down Artillery Lane towards Artillery Passage. Bishopsgate Intitute/Jeremy Freedman.

Widegate St looking towards Artillery Passage. Bishopsgate Institute/Jeremy Freeman.

Widegate St looking towards Artillery Passage. Bishopsgate Institute/Jeremy Freeman.

The exhibition runs from 7 March – 27 April at Eleven Spitalfields Gallery, 11 Princelet Street. Weekends 12 – 6, weekdays by appointment. More here.

More pictures and thoughts by the Gentle Author at Spitalfields Life.

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Many people – with a little justification, I suppose – think that London Historians spend all their time in the pub. This post focuses on this side of our activities.

We have already covered History in the Pub: Tudor London in Part 1. After that, we did one in partnership with Wellcome Library entitled Sex and the City: the STDs of Old London, presented by Dr Lesley Hall.

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Ross MacFarlane introduces the talk.

History in the Pub.

Dr Lesley Hall from the Wellcome Library with Matt Brown of Londonist.

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During open mic session, LH Member Caroline Rance introduces her new book The Quack Doctor.

Our next History in the Pub addressed the topic of the London Street Poor and featured Professor Tim Hitchcock from University of Sussex, plus Simon Fowler (latterly National Archives) and David Thomas (National Archives).

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Tim Hitchcock

History in the Pub

David Thomas

The Coroner’s Inquest and the Petty Sessions.

Probably the best pub-based event we’ve done to date were historic re-enactments of the Georgian magistrate’s court. They were held upstairs at the George in the Strand. We presented actual cases from history, researched and scripted by historians from the University of Hertfordshire, led by Professor Owen Davies, and then presented by professional actors. A triumph! Our report, but here are a few pictures. I’m especially proud of this project.

The Petty Sessions

Picture: Patrick Loftus.

The Petty Sessions

Picture: Patrick Loftus

 

This is entirely my fault, but some people get confused between History in the Pub – an evening of talks normally held in Spitalfields – and Monthly Pub Meet, which happens every first Wednesday of every month in Victoria (at time of writing). The latter is simply a social occasion at which Members and non-Members alike are welcome. A lot of networking, collaboration, friend-making and drinking goes on. Typically, we’ll get up to 40 folks turn up for that. The full schedule for 2014 is here, although note, we’ll be doing January 8th rather than 1st, for commonsense reasons.

Here are some pictures.

History in the Pub

History in the Pub

History in the Pub

History in the Pub

History in the Pub

History in the Pub

Young Americans. History students from the USA visiting London with their Prof.

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Just a quicky to share some pictures of last night’s proceedings (so you can skip this if you’ve already seen them on our Facebook group). The fourth in our series of these events since late last year, this took a little while to arrange because we needed to get all the “acts” we wanted on a night that the pub was available (the Bell in Spitalfields is becoming increasingly in demand from small theatre groups and the like). So worth the wait, I think, for the full-house audience. The line-up was:
Neil Fraser, whose brand-new book Over the Border: The Other East End is about the East End beyond the Lea River, where Essex begins, told us some wonderful stories about Plaistow from when it was still a village. *
Fiona-Jane Weston, singer and actress, sang four historical London songs from her show Loving London, finishing with a beautiful rendition of A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.
Duncan Barrett and Nuela Calvi then spoke after the interval about their best-selling book The Sugar Girls **, the story of Tate & Lyle, based on first-hand accounts of ladies who worked there during World War II and the austerity years immediately afterwards. Fascinating stories, a lovely book.
The evening, as per, was run by our good friend Matt Brown of Londonist who also conducted the speed quiz, won by a team called – I think – the Hackney Tubeadors, something like that! Congratulations to them.

We wrapped it up with a very lively and interesting Q&A and open-mic, then repaired downstairs for drinks and chats. Every one of our speakers/singers stayed right till the end, we’re grateful to them all for a brilliant evening.

* I’ve just noticed that Duncan and Nuala have done a very nice precis of Neil’s presentation. (with much better pictures than mine). It’s times like this when I get a special tingle from the whole London Historians idea!
** The Sugar Girls. Our Review. Londonist Review.

Anyway, here are a few pictures from last night. Please keep an eye on our Events page for the next History in the Pub.

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Neil Fraser

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Fiona-Jane Weston. A bit grainy, sorry Fiona-Jane!

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Duncan Barrett, Matt Brown, Nuala Calvi… and Bella the dog.

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Full house again.

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Nuala Calvi

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Matt, Nuala, Duncan. Lively Q&A…

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… and great open-mic input from the floor.

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Following the great success of our inaugural, experimental History in the Pub on 21 September, we have decided to squeeze one in before the year draws to a close, and then put together a fabulous programme for 2012.

History in the Pub II is next Tuesday, 29 November, again upstairs at The Bell in Middlesex Street, Spitalfields. Best tubes are Aldgate, Aldgate East or Liverpool Street. 7 pm start, doors open at 6:30pm.

Once again Matt Brown will MC the evening and run the Speed Quiz while Ruairidh Anderson has kindly agreed to return to give us some more of his amazing anecdotes and ballads from the old East End. The other stars of the bill are Professor Tim Hitchcock who’ll tell us about 18C workhouses and history author Nigel Jones who will regale us with some strange tales from the Tower, based on his new book, An Epic History of the Tower of London.

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The evening’s prizes will be two signed books – one of each by Tim and Nigel; and a free annual membership subscription to London Historians.  Afterwards, like last time, we can continue drinking and socialising downstairs.

Entry is free for London Historians members, £3 for non-members. History in the Pub I was utterly over-subscribed. Please secure your place asap by emailing admin@londonhistorians.org. Not essential, but please put “HitP II” in the Subject line.

More (or strictly speaking, similar) info on our Events page, here.

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Uniform terraced town houses emerged in London immediately after the Great Fire. The government recognised both the urgency of regeneration for the thousands of now-homeless families, but also the requirement that this activity needed to be strictly regulated to eliminate the factors which contributed to the Fire in the first place. The Rebuilding Act of 1667 laid down the rules for domestic accommodation. Depending on the area and type of street, houses were specified as being of the First Sort (two storeys plus basement and garret), the Second Sort (three storeys plus basement and garret) and the Third Sort (four storeys plus basement and garret).

Projectors such as Nicholas Barbon and others set to work. Terraced housing proliferated through the late Stuart and Georgian periods, all complying with the Act. There are many of these rows of houses in London today, very fine examples to be found in Spitalfields and the Temple district (both areas untouched by the Fire), but elsewhere too. A good one is the Benjamin Franklin House in Charing Cross, recently covered.

Update: Good coverage on this and subsequent legislation by buildings sleuth Ellen Leslie, here.

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Specified dwellings of three sorts under the Rebuilding Act (1667). RIBA Library.

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This house of the Third Sort in Buckingham Street by Nicholas Barbon was brand new when Samuel Pepys lived in it between 1679 and 1688.

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