East End of London in popular culture

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Gus Elen, The Coster's Mansion, 1899 sheet music

The East End of London in popular culture covers aspects of popular culture within the area of the East End of London. The area is roughly that covered by the modern London Borough of Tower Hamlets, and parts of the south of the London Borough of Hackney.[1]

The East End has been the subject of parliamentary commissions and other examinations of social conditions since the 19th century, as seen in Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor (1851)[2] and Charles Booth's Life and Labour of the People in London (1902).[3] Narrative accounts of experiences amongst the East End poor were also written by Jack London in The People of the Abyss (1903) and by George Orwell in parts of his novel Down and Out in Paris and London, recounting his own experiences in the 1930s. A further detailed study of Bethnal Green was carried out in the 1950s by sociologists Michael Young and Peter Willmott, in Family and Kinship in East London.[4]

Themes from these social investigations have been drawn out in fiction. Crime, poverty, vice, sexual transgression, drugs, class-conflict and multi-cultural encounters and fantasies involving Jewish, Chinese and Indian immigrants are major themes. Though the area has been productive of local writing talent, from the time of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) the idea of 'slumming it' in the 'forbidden' East End has held a fascination for a coterie of the literati.[5]

The image of the East Ender changed dramatically between the 19th century and the 20th. From the 1870s they were characterised in culture as often shiftless, untrustworthy and responsible for their own poverty.[4] However, many East Enders worked in lowly but respectable occupations such as carters, porters and costermongers. This later group particularly became the subject of music hall songs at the turn of the century, with performers such as Marie Lloyd, Gus Elen and Albert Chevalier establishing the image of the humorous East End Cockney and highlighting the conditions of ordinary workers.[6] This image, buoyed by close family and social links, and the community's fortitude in the Second World War, came to be represented in literature and film. However, with the rise of the Kray Twins, in the 1960s, the dark side of East End character returned, with a new emphasis on criminality and gangsterism.


The East End features in one of the earliest works in English, Geoffrey Chaucer's (1343–1400) The Prioress' Prologue and Tale (ca. 1390), which makes fun of the Prioress' Cockney accent: "After the scole of stratford atte bowe, For frenssh of parys was to hire unknowe".[7] Chaucer, himself lived for many years on the edge of the East End, in the gatehouse of Aldgate. The Isle of Dogs plays a central role in two Jacobean plays, with which Ben Jonson was associated. The Isle of Dogs (1597) was reported to the authorities as a "lewd plaie" full of seditious and "slanderous matter". The authors and cast were quickly arrested and the play suppressed.[8] This play was the root of the argument in which Jonson killed Gabriel Spencer in 1598, at Hoxton fields. Eastward Hoe (1605) was equally scandalous, and resulted in the arrest of the playwrights.[9]

Charles Dickens (1812–70), throughout his work, draws extensively on his experiences of poverty in London. His godfather had a sail making business in Limehouse, and he based the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters in Our Mutual Friend (1864–65) on a public house still standing there. The Red Bull, a now demolished inn situated in Whitechapel, features in his Pickwick Papers. On leaving it Sam Weller makes the sage remark that Whitechapel is "not a wery nice neighbourhood". Fagin in Dickens's Oliver Twist appears to be based on a notorious 'fence' named Ikey Solomon (1785–1850) who operated in 1820's Whitechapel.[10] Dickens was also a frequent visitor to the East End theatres and music halls of Hoxton, Shoreditch and Whitechapel, writing of his visits in his journals and his journalism.[11] A visit he made to an opium den in Bluegate Fields inspired certain scenes in his last, unfinished, novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870).[12][13]

Arthur Morrison, author of A Child of the Jago, an indictment of conditions in the Old Nichol

Arthur Morrison (1863–1945), who was a native East-Ender, wrote A Child of the Jago (1896) a fictional account of the extreme poverty encountered in the Old Nichol Street Rookery. Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) observed the practice of 'people of quality' visiting the many entertainments available in Whitechapel and sent his hedonistic hero Dorian Gray there to sample the delights on offer in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The experiences of the Jewish community in the East End inspired many works of fiction. Israel Zangwill (1864–1926), educated in Spitalfields, wrote the influential Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People (1892) and other novels on this subject. Another Jewish writer, Simon Blumenfeld (1907–2005) wrote plays and novels, such as Jew Boy (1935), informed by his years in Whitechapel.[14] Wolf Mankowitz, of Bethnal Green, was another Jewish writer from the area. His 1953 book A Kid for Two Farthings, set in the East End, was adapted for the cinema three years later. Alexander Baron (1917–1999) was born in Whitechapel and wrote of his wartime experiences in the Invasions of Italy and Normandy in the trilogy From The City From The Plough, There's no Home and The Human Kind. Later he wrote of the East End, including the Jewish gangster novel, King Dido and the Human Kind.[15]

Chinatown, Limehouse, also provided inspiration for novelists. Sax Rohmer (1883–1959) wrote fantasies set there, featuring many scenes in opium dens, introducing one of the 20th century's master villains, Fu Manchu, in a series of novels of which the first was The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu (1913). Thomas Burke (1886–1945) explored the same territory in Limehouse Nights (1916).

Playwrights have often located their work in the East End. During the 1950s and 1960s, much drama was inspired and encouraged by the work of Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop, based in the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Their new works explored the experiences and position of their local audience. Many productions transferred both to the West End and were made into films. In the 1970s and 1980s the Half Moon Theatre presented premières of European works and new works by London playwrights, such as Edward Bond and Steven Berkoff.

One contemporary manifestation exploring the 'collision of worlds' made possible by the East End is the school of psychogeography espoused most prominently by Peter Ackroyd (1949– ) in such novels as Hawksmoor (1985) and Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994) and Iain Sinclair (1943– ) in such novels as White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1987). A more realistic fictionalisation on the contemporary gentrification of the area, and the rise of the yuppie, is provided by Penelope Lively in Passing On (1989) and City of the Mind (1991) and by P. D. James in Original Sin (1994). Emblematic of the current worldwide clash of civilisations between West and East, of which the East End has historically been a microcosm, are Monica Ali's (1967– ) novel Brick Lane (2003), and Salman Rushdie's fantastic and controversial The Satanic Verses (1988) which also uses Brick Lane as a location.[16]


One of the earliest television portrayals of the East End was Dixon of Dock Green (1955–1976). In this programme, Sergeant George Dixon pounded the fictional beat of Dock Green, with a script by Ted Willis. The series arose from the film, The Blue Lamp (1950) that was based on the real life murder of a policeman based at Leman Street, Aldgate. The television series enjoyed considerable success. The script was based on research at Paddington Green Police Station and filmed at the BBC's Lime Grove Studios, in West London. The characterisation by the lead, Jack Warner, was held in such high regard that officers from Paddington Green bore the coffin at his funeral in 1981.[17]

EastEnders, a BBC soap opera broadcast since 1985, is set in the fictional London Borough of Walford. The programme is actually filmed at a purpose-built set at the Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, and the paradigms for the show are thought to lie beyond the East End, in Stratford and Walthamstow. In that, the programme does represent the diaspora of East Enders who have moved out of the district, and draws on the themes of family and social integration. The show rarely evidences changes occurring to east London, such as the Docklands development. [18] An earlier programme, Till Death Us Do Part (1965–1975) attempted to satirise the stereotypical attitudes of an East Ender, Alf Garnett, played by Warren Mitchell. The locale for this programme has been variously placed in Wapping and West Ham, with the principal character a supporter of West Ham United F.C.. The comedic theme of the programme was the interaction between members of the family, and the inability of the principal character to adapt to the rapid changes in his world. The piece inspired the hit American remake All in the Family,[19] among others.

One Canada Square, the 235 metre tower, was the tallest building in the United Kingdom from 1990 to 2010, has achieved an iconic status, and is located on the Isle of Dogs. It has appeared as a location in television, film and literature.[20]

Other shows set largely in the East End include Ripper Street, Penny Dreadful, Whitechapel, and Call the Midwife.


Film has also explored the issues and themes affecting the East End. Many early films were made in Hoxton, at Gainsborough Studios. With their association with German cinema realism, many of these were made in the streets around the studio.

In more modern films, gangsterism has featured. Sparrers Can't Sing (1962),[21] developed by Theatre Workshop, dealt with issues of change in the East End — a sailor comes home from the sea, to find his home redeveloped and his family moved to a new council block. The sets were often visited by local gangsters, the Krays, who actually made a cameo appearance in the film.[22] The The Long Good Friday (1980) develops the same themes of change, with a gangster seeking legitimacy in the redevelopment of Docklands. His brutality is only matched by that of the IRA.[23]

The theme of a return to find a changing society is also brought out in For Queen and Country (1989).[24] Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) again explores gangsterism, with change represented by amateur white collar criminals. Conflict arises between them and old firm criminals, immigrant gangsters and a group of less than honest friends, raised in the East End.[25]

Romantic encounters with a multi-cultural erotic frisson, set in Limehouse's Chinatown, are the theme of Broken Blossoms (1919), derived from a story in Thomas Burke's Limehouse Nights and Piccadilly (1929) starring Anna May Wong as an alluring Chinese nightclub performer.[26] Limehouse is also the scene of the Fu Manchu films — based on Sax Rohmer's novels. These began with some short British serials 1923–4 before the first American feature film The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu appeared in 1929, followed by many others.[27] [28]

Further multi-cultural encounters are featured in the film Brick Lane (2007) based on the novel by Monica Ali.[29] The East End is featured as the setting for the Hughes brothers' film From Hell (film) (2001) based on the Alan Moore graphic-novel of the same name, providing a modern interpretation of the Jack the Ripper murders.[30]

The East End also appears in the film Mary Poppins, when Jane and Michael flee from the bank, and wander into its slums, before going home safely with Bert, a chimney sweep.

The 2004 British comedy-crime drama Spivs features a group of East End "spivs" (British slang for a black marketeer).


Many music hall acts originated in the East End, including Marie Lloyd, Gus Elen and Albert Chevalier. From the middle of the 18th century, inhabitants of the area had begun to be characterised as shiftless, untrustworthy and responsible for their own poverty.[4] These performers, in particular, saw the many honest people fighting poverty in lowly professions and established the image of the humorous East End Cockney as a part of their stage persona.[6] There are only two surviving music halls in the area, Wilton's Music Hall and Hoxton Hall, but many of the songs survive in "pub songs"; communal singing in public houses with minimal accompaniment.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Newland, Paul (2008). The Cultural Construction of London's East End. Rodopi. 
  2. ^ Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor (London: Griffin, Bohn, and Company, Stationers' Hall Court) in Volume 1 (1861) Archived 22 March 2005 at the Wayback Machine. , Volume 2, Volume 3, and an additional Volume (1862) Archived 22 March 2005 at the Wayback Machine. all accessed 14 November 2007
  3. ^ Life and Labour of the People in London (London: Macmillan, 1902-1903) at The Charles Booth on-line archive accessed 10 November 2006
  4. ^ a b c Family and Kinship in East London Michael Young and Peter Willmott (1957) ISBN 978-0-14-020595-4
  5. ^ William Taylor (2001) This Bright Field: A Travel Book in One Place
  6. ^ a b Vaudeville, Old and New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America pp 351-2, Frank Cullen, Florence Hackman, Donald P. McNeilly (Routledge 2006) ISBN 0-415-93853-8 accessed 22 October 2007
  7. ^ Line 125. Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales accessed on 14 November 2006
  8. ^ Gurr, Andrew. The Shakespearean Stage, 1574-1642. (2nd ed.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992)
  9. ^ Chambers, E. K. The Elizabethan Stage. 4 Volumes, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1923; Vol. 3, pp. 254–6
  10. ^ Ed Glinert (2000) A Literary Guide to London: 256
  11. ^ Commercial Traveller Charles Dickens (1865)
  12. ^ Peter Ackroyd (1990) Dickens: 1046
  13. ^ A Curious Burial 11 January 1890 East London Observer – an account of the burial of Ah Sing, said to be the inspiration for the character of the opium seller. Accessed 22 July 2008
  14. ^ Simon Blumenfeld: Novelist, playwright, journalist and revolutionary 18 April 2005 (Obituary, The Guardian) accessed 17 November 2007
  15. ^ Alexander Baron: His novels of war and London caught the essential decency of mankind John Williams 8 December 1999, The Guardian; accessed 26 August 2008
  16. ^ Ed Glinert (2000) A Literary Guide to London: 244-262
  17. ^ Sydney-Smith, Susan Beyond Dixon of Dock Green: Early British Police Series pp 105-6 (I. B. Tauris, 2002) ISBN 1-86064-790-1
  18. ^ Newland, Paul (2008). The Cultural Construction of London's East End. Rodopi. 
  19. ^ All in the Family (1971-79) at the Internet Movie Database accessed 22 February 2008
  20. ^ Canary Wharf And Isle Of Dogs Movie Map (London Borough of Tower Hamlets - Investment & Business, unknown publication date) Accessed 2 August 2008.
  21. ^ Sparrows Can't Sing (1962) at the Internet Movie Database accessed 22 February 2008
  22. ^ Sparrers Can't Sing - film review accessed 5 May 2007
  23. ^ The Long Good Friday(1980) at the Internet Movie Database accessed 22 February 2008
  24. ^ For Queen and Country at the Internet Movie Database accessed 22 February 2008
  25. ^ Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) at the Internet Movie Database accessed 22 February 2008
  26. ^ Piccadilly (1929) at the Internet Movie Database accessed 22 February 2008
  27. ^ IMDb: Fu Manchu accessed 22 February 2008
  28. ^ Newland, Paul (2008). The Cultural Construction of London's East End. Rodopi. 
  29. ^ Brick Lane (2007) at the Internet Movie Database accessed 22 February 2008
  30. ^ From Hell (2001) at the Internet Movie Database accessed 15 March 2008

External links[edit]