Last “whites” of the East End

So, after a great NUJ meeting with a brilliantly ethnic diverse turn-out, I turn on the TV and the BBC is showing “Last Whites of the East End“. Despite being fully aware it would annoy me, I watched it. I’ve been trying to think of something to blog about, so here’s another blog about history.

According to the programme, “white British” people are leaving the East London and it’s the end of the “good old East End”. This needs serious unpicking.

What does “white British” mean in the context of the East End? White is not an ethnicity, it’s an invention of white supremacists to disguise inequality amongst people of pale skin by defining them in opposition to those of darker hues.

The “white” population of the East End is one that has only become British in the last century. The defining feature of the area is that immigration – it’s been the part of London (originally, outside London) where new arrivals to the country first settled.

French Huguenots were the first to begin creating the East End as we know it at the end of the 17th/early 18th centuries. 20,000 or so are thought to have settled in Spitalfields – the wealthier amongst them building large houses you can still see in the area. The poorer working people amongst them established the region as a centre for silk weaving.

A steady trickle of Irish people over the following centuries came to work on the farms to the east of the City of London. From 1800 onwards, the development of London’s docks provided new employment for the Irish, as well as increasing numbers of Russians, Poles and other Eastern Europeans.

An Gorta Mór (Ireland’s Great Hunger) massively  increased the Irish population of London and on the ever-expanding docks. Many thousands settled in the East End, with Irish women starting to fill the emerging factories of the area – most notably the Bryant and May match factory.

Victorian Britain was far from welcoming to the new migrants and much of the slum housing in the area was overloaded with a shanty town gradually spreading from Spitalfields. It was known – and feared – as an area of violence, crime and vice.

Thousands of Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe fled pogroms and persecution to join the East End shanty town melting pot from 1880 to 1914. They, like the Huguenots before them, bolstered the textile industry – one now typified by sweatshops. The Jack the Ripper attacks of 1888 became the nadir of the reputation of the East End (though the growing anarchist movement of the early 20th Century came close).

One building has typifies the changes and how each group has had its own minority religion – Brick Lane Mosque. And, then as now, minority religions were often feared as a threat to “British” values. And, when they first arrived, most spoke foreign languages – French, Irish and Yiddish – and only gradually adopted the language of their new homeland (though Yiddish is still spoken amongst the Orthodox Jewish population of Hackney, is mór an trua é, but Irish is almost completely gone outside lessons in the remaining Irish centres).

One thing was common to all groups – once people earned enough money, they moved out of the area. But, not all of them made enough money and, instead, they created a community – Cockney Londoners. A mix of English, French, Irish, Jewish and the other groups from the docks.

Cockneys first and then, gradually, British. In a way, they assimilated, but they did so by changing the UK, spawning mass unions and becoming key to empowering the working class across the country.

The “white British” people who are now a minority in the East End are the descendants of these waves of immigration, with their strange languages and religions. They’re no different from the new waves of immigration, with their strange languages and religions, except for the colour of their skin. The fact that some of them are leaving for a “better life” elsewhere just means they’re following the same pathways out of the East End as many thousands before them. It’s nothing new.

To learn more about this history, I can’t recommend David Rosenberg’s East End Walks highly enough.


Author: Donnacha DeLong

Originally from Dublin, Ireland, Donnacha DeLong is an NUJ activist, journalist and online communications consultant with more than 20 years' professional experience.

3 thoughts on “Last “whites” of the East End”

  1. I’m sure they feel thoroughly ashamed after your smug history lesson.

    I felt sorry for these people. They fought Hitler and survived the Nazis only to be exterminated by greedy capitalists and their Guardian reading allies on the left. Big business desperate for cheap labour and a government eager to smash that troublesome collective bargaining power that had been fought so hard for.

    So, sorry they annoyed you. I’m guessing you don’t live anywhere like Newham and couldn’t give a second thought about the working class and how they’ve been neutered. Most Guardian luvvies up on Hampstead don’t – even though they talk the talk.

    1. Did you actually read the blog? Clearly haven’t read much of my other stuff. I’m an Irish economic migrant living in Tottenham, a thoroughly working class area of London. This is a criticism of a TV programme, not the people badly represented by a badly researched piece of tabloid television. I’m also an active trade unionist, so I know all about the attacks on collective bargaining power – which you’d know if you looked at the rest of my blog.

      Greedy capitalists are nothing new for the east end – whether it was the rich Huguenots who had workers in their attics, the shipping companies who exploited the dockers or the Bryant and May match company or the sweatshop owners who employed the Jewish immigrants.

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