Stepney: Profile of a London Borough

Stepney: Profile of a London Borough from the Outbreak of the First World War to the Festival of Britain, 1914-1951
Samantha Bird
Cambridge Scholars Press 317pp £29.99

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There are few parts of London more redolent of history than Stepney.  Here can be found, intense and unforgettable, the gory misdeeds of ‘Jack the Ripper’, the Siege of Sidney Street, the rise and fall of the great docks, the anti-fascist Battle of Cable Street, the forging of the Labour Party, the flood of late 19th- and early 20th-century Jewish immigrants, the enduring of the Blitz, the election of England’s second Communist MP in 1945, the struggle for tenant’s rights, the work of the notorious rag-trade ‘sweatshops’, the idealism of the post-Second World War era and much more.  

Stepney is an iconic borough, typifying the myths and realities of the classic East End: here, one suspects, were the opium dens frequented by Sherlock Holmes, the terraced house occupied by the bloody-minded, working class bigot Alf Garnett - the anti-hero of Till Death Do Us Part – the source of the common sense that opened up the Underground stations as nightly make-do air raid shelters, the capacity to turn egalitarian dreams into something like reality, the home of the Cockney ‘sparrer’ and the ‘cheekie chappie’, the nylon-toting spiv as well as the archetypal good neighbour bearing the much needed bowl of sugar or the sustaining cup of tea.

Given all of this, it is surprising that no single volume history of Stepney has existed until now. The welcome publication of Samantha Bird’s fine book, however, has put that to rights.  Although the time encompassed is limited, from the outbreak of the Great War to the Festival of Britain, it seems exactly right to give the reader the true flavour and savour of Stepney as it struggled and fought its way into the second half of the 20th century.

One of the most powerful themes of the book is the rise of various working class movements, leading to the local success of the Labour and Communist parties and of organised trade unionism.  One early accommodation, and one that opened the way to the achievement of much-needed proletarian solidarity, took place in 1918, effectively between the two most important immigrant groups, the Catholic Irish and Jewish communities. The Irish were in effect ‘economic migrants’, but Jewish families were mostly fleeing persecution in Tsarist Russia and Poland, as well as seeking a better standard of living. So effective was this popular alliance against extortionist landlords, local fascists and harsh employers among others that from the general election of 1918, when all three of Stepney’s MPs were either Liberal, or Liberal and Conservative Coalition supporters, at the 1945 election the two victorious Labour candidates received on average 83.6 per cent of the popular vote and Phil Piratin, who gained the seat of Mile End for the Communist Party, won with 47.6 per cent.

This book is packed with information based on a great deal of research, ranging from an analysis of the official statistics to the reactions of ordinary people to the extraordinary events that confronted them in both peace and war.  Considerable personalities in addition to Phil Piratin bestride the scene: Clement Attlee, Sylvia Pankhurst and ,of course, many heroic, largely unsung, local activists like Oscar Tobin, Nina Masel and Edith Ramsay.  There are also many fascinating new angles, such as the impact of the local zeppelin raids during the Great War on evacuation policy 30 years later, the power of ordinary people to change housing policy or to open up the tube stations during the Blitz and the irresistible growth of Stepney’s labour movement.

Another vital piece in the jigsaw of the 20th-century history of London has now fallen into place thanks to Samantha Bird's exemplary book

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