East London History – Your Gateway to the Past

A blog exploring the facts about the East End of London: discover the places, the people, and the stories. We have professionally researched articles telling the real history of East London, and we have many perceptions of the East End in Britain.

Historically, this has been one of the most impoverished areas of London but is also the hub of much of the city’s profits and industry.

This blog explores all there is to see heading East from the City of London. Please add East London History to your internet favourites.

Uncover East London’s Rich Heritage

Victorian Terrace. Coventry Road Ilford Essex.
Victorian Terrace. Coventry Road Ilford Essex.

Despite a complicated past, East Enders are rightfully proud of their heritage and history, much of which still survives despite significant changes.

Traditionally the home of the proper Londoner, the Cockney, this area of close communities now reflects the melting pot of nationalities and cultures that makes up our capital city.

Explore East London’s Landmarks

The East End sits outside the traditional Roman boundaries of the City of London. Initially composed of small villages and hamlets around a Roman road leading from London to Colchester in Essex, this was an area of green and open space compared to the city’s crowded streets.

It was rich in royal hunting grounds, palaces and small port settlements at one point. Still, as London grew and became more industrialised, the East End became a hub of small manufacturers, the home of various trades and the docklands centre of the region.

Docklands Cranes, Royal Victoria Dock, East London
Docklands Cranes, Royal Victoria Dock, East London

Its early industries were a mix of the unpleasant, the smelly and the downright dangerous. In basic terms, the area was used for toxic products and needed much space to manufacture.

Its position outside the city meant fumes wouldn’t affect the more affluent people who lived in the centre, and any issues with dangerous trades wouldn’t affect the city. So, early industry included tanning, rope making, lead making, slaughterhouses, fish farms, breweries, bone processing, tallow works and gunpowder production.

These were all pivotal trades to the success of London, but removing them to the outskirts meant that the great and the good didn’t have to smell the urine used in tanning or risk being blown up by a dodgy batch of gunpowder!

Unsurprisingly, London’s East End is situated on the city’s eastern side. Often ignored by tourists who clamour for the glamour of the West End, this area is steeped in history with exciting things to see and do.

The East End of London; An Introduction

It is also relatively quiet in tourist terms, making a great day out if you want some downtime. Home of the traditional Londoner, the Cockney, today’s East End is a melting pot of different cultures.

London Underground sign.
London Underground

So, what can we tell you about a whistle-stop tour? Yes, some of your preconceptions about the area are probably true. You can still buy jellied eels and pie and mash from traditional shops. Locals born within the sound of Bow Bells still qualify as Cockneys, and rhyming slang is not quite brown bread yet. You won’t meet the Eastenders cast as they don’t film in the area, but you may encounter some similar characters.

A Brief Guide To East London, The Place, The History

But, as any true crime lover will tell you, there is more than this to the area. London’s East End was home to one of the most notorious serial killers of all time, Jack the Ripper.

You can still walk through some of the narrow and constricting alleys he used. Although they may never be as dark, smoggy and, frankly, scary as they were in his day, they paint a good picture of what life was like in Victorian London.

If you visit the old piers and streets near the docks in the area, you’ll feel like you are stepping back in time. Used by Charles Dickens in so many of his novels, you’ll get a feel for what life was like for characters like the Artful Dodger and Fagin, who was thought to have been based on a local fence, Ikey Solomon.

East London Villains

Then, we have the Kray twins, the East End’s most famous gangsters, who brought a mix of glamour and fear to the area in the 1960s. The brothers were media darlings and socialised with celebrities and politicians. They also ruled the East End and terrorised people who got in their way. No visit to the area is complete without a trip to the Blind Beggar pub in Whitechapel, the site of one of their most outrageous murders when Ronnie Kray shot George Cornell.

Today’s East End is vibrant and buzzy and is probably the best place to experience the many different cultures that make up the population of London. It is THE place to have a curry in the capital! It also has some curious and famous markets, including Petticoat Lane, Spitalfields, Brick Lane, Columbia Road, Whitechapel and Roman Road. You’ll find plenty dotted around its back streets if you want to visit some authentic and untouristy pubs.

Museums and Art Galleries

East London Transport
East London Transport

The area is also rich in art galleries and museums. Over the last 30 years, it has become home to many artists, including Tracey Emin, and galleries like the White Cube, Whitechapel Gallery and Brick Lane Gallery are all worth a visit.

The flagship museum of the East End is the Young V&A Museum, but you can also see the Museum of the London Docklands and the former Geffrye Museum, now renamed Museum of The Home, if you venture out of the city.

The Dennis Severs’ House in Spitalfields gives a slice of old East End history. This museum recreates the home of Huguenot silk weavers in the 18th century and, for an extra thrill, is described by Time Out as “proper spooky”! If you want to see for yourself how East Enders used to party, try taking one of the weekly tours of Wilton’s Music Hall in Whitechapel.

East London Sport and Leisure

You can find green spaces in this urban area if you want downtime. Victoria Park, known as Vicky Park to locals, is a relaxing large park with plenty of activities for kids in the holidays and is home to various festivals. You can also walk some of the Lea Valley along the area’s canals.

London Olympics Stadium - East London

If you are a sports fan, try getting a ticket to West Ham, the leading football team of the East End. If you go to Stratford, you can also look at the Olympic Park, the site of the hugely successful 2012 Olympics.

Take a trip to the upper floors in John Lewis for a great overall view of the stadia and site. The Park is being landscaped and converted for leisure use, so if you time your visit right, you may also be able to walk or cycle around it.

The East End may be a real cultural mix now, but you’ll find that all its residents share a sense of community that you don’t find elsewhere in the capital. Traditionally a poor cousin to more affluent areas of London, East Enders are tight-knit and proud of their heritage.

If you’re lucky on your visit to London, you’ll get an East End cabbie in your black cab – there’s no better way to learn about the area than by chatting to a local!

The East End has always attracted refugees and immigrants

Many set foot in Britain for the first time at the local docks. In the 17th century, it became the home of many Huguenot refugees who fled from persecution in France. Weavers by trade, they worked in Spitalfields, the home of London’s master weavers.

Over time, as their skills died out and were replaced by industrial processes, the elegant homes of the Huguenots became slum housing for the ever-growing local East End population.

Brick Lane East End of London
Visit Brick Lane in London

Victorian industrialisation didn’t do much to improve the area, which developed a reputation for extreme poverty, gang rule, violence and crime. There were pockets of more affluent housing, but most residents struggled to get by.

The growth in manufacturing and trade during this period increased the number of job opportunities in the area, but an increase did not match the large influx of workers in housing.

Conditions were cramped, unhygienic and often dangerous. Its reputation was not much helped by the murdering spree of Jack the Ripper, who terrorised the East End and probably became the most notorious serial killer the country has ever known. Not that we knew who he was — his identity has never been proven despite centuries of speculation. By the end of the 19th century, the area took on an influx of Eastern European Jews and radicals.

People who could move out of the area did so, leaving only the poorest behind. Visitors of note included Stalin, Trotsky and Lenin, and the East End became the hub of many philanthropists looking to improve living and working conditions.

In the heart of the area, Bow became the headquarters of the Suffragette movement, and the Labour Party can trace many of its early roots back to this part of London. The area was also home to the first Barnardo Ragged Schools and Homes for Boys.

Post-War East London

It took until the end of the Second World War to completely eradicate the slum housing and improve living conditions. Much of the area was destroyed by German bombing raids.

The East End’s concentration of key manufacturing industries and its docks made this one of London’s most prominent targets in the war. Post-war conditions may have been better, but the area gained new notoriety in crime terms during the rule of the Kray twins.

London City Airport.
London City Airport.

These gangsters ruled the East End in the 1960s with a mixture of brutality and glamour that saw them feted as celebrities in the media and feared by many locals. Many of the traditional industries of the East End died out over time, but the area re-invented itself once again as a hub of London life in the 1980s.

Although the area still retains its roots, it is now also the financial centre of London. Canary Wharf is home to Britain’s banking and finance industry and now contains some of the capital’s largest and most impressive buildings.

What Towns Make Up East London?

East London is a diverse and vibrant area of London comprising seven boroughs: Barking and Dagenham, Hackney, Havering, Newham, Redbridge, Tower Hamlets, and Waltham Forest. Each borough has its unique character and offers something different to visitors.

Barking and Dagenham is the most easterly borough of London and is home to several parks and open spaces, including Hornchurch Country Park and Rippleside Park. The borough is also home to the historic Barking Abbey.

Hackney is a stylish and creative borough home to a thriving arts scene. The borough also has several markets, including the famous Columbia Road Flower Market.

Havering is a suburban borough home to several historical sites, including the Epping Forest Country Park and the Havering Museum. The borough is also home to the Lakeside Shopping Centre, one of the largest shopping centres in the UK.

Newham is a diverse borough home to several cultural attractions, including the Stratford Waterfront and the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The borough is also home to the London Stadium, home of West Ham United Football Club.

Redbridge is a leafy borough home to several parks and open spaces, including Wanstead Flats and Hainault Forest Country Park. The borough is also home to the Redbridge Museum and the Redbridge Stadium, home of Leyton Orient Football Club.

Tower Hamlets is a historic borough home to several landmarks, including the Tower of London and the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. The borough is also home to several mosques, including the East London Mosque, the largest mosque in the UK.

Waltham Forest is a suburban borough home to several parks and open spaces, including Walthamstow Wetlands and Walthamstow Forest. The borough is also home to the Walthamstow Market, one of the largest markets in London.

East London is a great place to live, work, and visit. With its diverse range of boroughs, there is something for everyone in East London.

About Malcolm Oakley – Blog Author

I grew up in the 1970s and early ’80s in Ilford, right on the fringe of London’s genuine East End and have been fascinated by the ever-changing history and landscape of the area.

Visitors and tourists to London may only ever explore the City centre, but for those that care to travel further east, a rich and rewarding travel adventure awaits. So much of London’s history owes a debt to the East End: colourful characters, famous architecture, and hidden treasures of changing life over the years.

Malcolm Oakley - Author East London History
Malcolm Oakley – Author East London History

So much of London’s history owes a debt to the East End: colourful characters, famous architecture, and hidden treasures of changing life over the years.

Author by Malcolm Oakley