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A Biographical Sketch of East London

2013 January 2
by Lucinda Matthews-Jones

Beyond the Tower: A History of East London, by John Marriott, London: Yale University Press, 2011, xii + 421 pp., £25 (hardback), ISBN 9780300148800

Reviewed by Lucinda Matthews-Jones (Liverpool John Moores University)

L.M.Matthew-Jones@ljmu.ac.uk

In Beyond the Tower: A History of East London, John Marriott joins historians such as Gareth Stedman Jones, Judith Walkowitz and Seth Koven in offering readers a journey through the eastern districts of London.  Our fascination with the East End continues apace, it seems. Nineteenth-century social commentators, journalists, novelists and slum travellers began the trend of offering glimpses into the unknown East, which, for the purpose of his book, Marriott defines as ‘the area covered today by the boroughs of Tower Hamletts and Newham’ [p.6.]. Beyond the Tower is divided into twelve chapters which deal chronologically with the East End’s past. Of interest to Victorian historians will be the middle six chapters which examine modernisation, cholera, the myth of outcast London, migration, sweating and politics in the nineteenth century. Despite my own particular interest in the Victorians, I enjoyed reading the other chapters too. The first chapter provides an historical overview of the parish of Stepney from the medieval period to the 1700s while the final three chapters move into the twentieth century to explore recession, fascism, war, and the post-war period. The shared themes of many of the chapters are work, politics and housing. Marriott seeks to uncover the ‘historical forces which have shaped [the East End’s] creation, growth, demise and potential regeneration’. As such, Beyond the Tower can be understood as a history of the rise, fall and rise again of East London, a useful endeavour given the transformations brought about by the Olympic Games held in Stratford in 2012.

Marriott has spent thirty years researching and writing Beyond the Tower. The project has its origins in his 1985 doctoral thesis. This book crosses over with many of the books that Marriott has published in the meantime, including The Culture of Labourism: the East End between the wars (1991) and his edited collections, The Metropolitan Poor(1999) and Unknown London (2000). His latest contribution to East End history is rich with factual detail and for this reason provides a great introductory text to those new to the subject. As Yale University Press states, the book is aided by ‘copious maps, archive prints and photographs’ in order to recover the history of the East End and its people. Marriott’s book thus joins Roy Porter’s London: A Social History and Jerry White’s four London books as a visually rich account of London’s past.

Beyond the Tower is more like a biography of East London than a full on academic monograph. An academic readership might want more detailed analysis of the source material. For instance, the images that accompany the chapters are often under analysed in the body of the text, while lengthy quotes have a tendency to be left standing to speak for themselves. Similarly, there is very little engagement with the historiography beyond references to Gareth Stedman Jones and E. P. Thompson. Perhaps more surprisingly, some seminal works are not mentioned in the bibliography, including key writings by Seth Koven, Anna Davin and Ellen Ross. This is probably a deliberate choice, but it would have been useful for Marriott to have given his readers a clearer indication of where this book is positioned within the field of East London studies given that the field has a long and distinguished record. Marriott’s case studies are nonetheless rich and fascinating and reveal interesting insights into familiar and less familiar East End figures. For the nineteenth century alone we find not only the well-known Victorian names of James Greenwood, Andrew Mearns, Jack the Ripper, Henry Mayhew, George Simms and Patrick Colquhon making an appearance, but also lesser known figures such as Pierce Egan.

What marks Marriott’s study out from previous cultural histories of east London is his desire to ‘discover’ the East End. In many ways, he is attempting to free east London from the middle-class mythology that has dominated studies of this district of London. As he notes, ‘It may be tempting to explain [our] remarkable ignorance [of East London] by referring to the ways in which a distinct mythology had been created in the nineteenth century within which the East End was seen as a site of danger, depravity and destitution, and hence one to be avoided by gentle and respectable persons. There is something to this…but this can only be part of the picture, because…East London remained largely unknown’ (1-2). I think Marriott overstates past and present ignorance of East End life but he is certainly right to challenge the dominant narratives about that part of London that we have inherited from the Victorians. Marriott should, though, have looked beyond the parish of Stepney if he wished to properly debunk myths about the East End. Historians have long been attracted to studying Stepney and Bethnal Green because of the cultural and social significance attributed to them by nineteenth-century social investigators. Challenging received wisdom would have been better served by a wider view of East London in my opinion.

Marriott argues that east London was and remains unknown in part because of the tendency to overlook the East Ender him and herself. From the final section of chapter Six on ‘The Myth of Outcast London’ to the end of the book there is a sense that Marriott is attempting to recover the ‘voice’ of the east Londoner from middle-class social investigators and journalists. It is here that the book starts to pick up a more confident pace. Whether Marriott is successful at recovering the east Londoner’s voice is difficult to ascertain. He is still dependent on specific middle-class individuals and official papers to uncover East London and its people. This is something he acknowledges: ‘[N]o experiences were recorded in print by the poor themselves’ (171). To make up for this, he argues that Old Bailey papers, parliamentary select committee papers, novels, plays, and church papers reveal the ‘clues to rich and vibrant traditions’ in the East End (175-6). Yet the clues Marriott picks up on are largely from men, about men and about masculine spheres of work, politics and leisure. Women are not wholly absent. Clara Grant, Anna Besant and Henrietta Barnett (as Samuel Barnett’s wife and biographer) make an appearance, while several pages are given over to ‘working-class wives’ and working girls when he discusses food culture in East London (203-204). However, the impression gained from Beyond the Tower is that the East End throughout its history was largely a masculine site of work, leisure and social investigation. Similarly, by not attempting to enter working-class homes, Marriott’s project is left with the Victorian assumption that East London’s housing was always a problem in need of reform rather than fully understanding how the home could be an intimate site of sociability for the working classes.

These shortcomings reflect the biographical nature of Beyond the Tower. In taking such a broad sweep of East London’s history, Marriott has only been able to focus on ‘those moments of change’ (2) in East London’s history that he thinks really matter. Yet, as moments of change, they are also part of the nation’s received understanding of the East End of London. Without delving a little further into the social and cultural richness of east London, Marriott ultimately fails to add much that is new to our understanding of East End history.

Nonetheless, with later chapters on the recent regeneration of east London, Marriott’s book provides a very timely insight into the continuing significance of the East End in the cultural imagination. As we experience yet another moment of change in East London, it is useful to have an introductory book such as Marriott’s at our disposal.

Lucinda Matthews-Jones is a lecturer in Modern British History at Liverpool John Moores University. Her publications include ‘Lessons in Seeing: Art, Religion and Class in the East End of London, 1881–1898′, Journal of Victorian Culture (2011) and ‘St Francis and the Making of Settlement Masculinity, 1883-1914′ in Sean Brady and John Arnold’s edited collection, What is Masculinity (London, 2011). She is editor of contributions for the Journal of Victorian Culture online and has recently been appointed to the role Treasurer for the British Association of Victorian Studies.

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