Tuesday, 11 August 2015

An East End of London safe for Tourists.

Any trip to the East End used to be a trip back in time - not any more. Between the local councils slum clearances, Hitler's Blitz and the current redevelopments of Docklands and beyond there isn't so much history left.

How about starting with Wilton's Music Hall?

Wilton's is on the 'World Monuements Fund' as one of the world's '100 most endangered sites'.

About 10 years ago, a friend took me to Wilton's to see 'John Gay's 18th century 'Beggar's Opera'.......performed completely in Zulu by a South African  company!

I did actually enjoy it a lot but the real treat was sitting rather precariously in Wilton's which seemed to be falling apart all around us.

Wilton's started life in the 1700's as a pub and after several fires and rebuilds added music and then theatre to the mix until by 1850 John Wilton bought it and expended it into a proper 'Music Hall' with gold leaf, scarlet curtains, a balcony and stage.

London's Music Halls provided raucous, riotous and sometimes very political entertainment to the working classes from 1850 until about the 1930's.

Wilton's didn't last so long, by the 1880's it had turned into a Methodist Chapel and in 1889 it became a soup kitchen for the 100,000 dockers who were on strike for "The Silver Orb of the Dockers Tanner" - a 'tanner' was two and a half old pence an hour or about one new pence in today's money.

In the 1930's the whole area had become a slum and much of it was bombed flat in the war. Somehow Wilton's survived all this largely intact and became a rag warehouse until the Greater London Council preserved it, like a time capsule from the mid 19th century.

Since then the theatre has run on a 'hope and a prayer', with every available penny going into propping up the collapsing building.

When I was there we sat on the balcony and the whole time I thought it would collapse on us!

Wilton's was shut when we were there this time but there are tours as well as performances.

Then we headed down to Wapping Wall - a line of early 19th century dock warehouses which line the river.

The whole history of London is the river - it was the first place where you could cross it...just. The bridges, the ferries, the docks.

All transport was water based and the city grew up along the river banks. As the ships got bigger, the docks got higher and then moved east as technological development made each previous docks redundant.

Later when we drove further east we crossed The Royal Albert and Royal Victoria Docks which were built in 1880 and run as far as the eye can see. They are so big that London City Airport runs alongside one of the docks only.

Wapping is old and the docks have been decaying for the last hundred years or so until regeneration meant that the wharves and docks were taken over as flats for the rich.

We were there to take a look at the river and at the historic pubs. This is 'The Town of Ramsgate' which claims to be Londonst oldest pub - well maybe it is, maybe not.

If you squeeze along the side of the pub (turn right at the blue sign) you are at 'Wapping Old Steps'.

Now these are really old but when we were there the tide was in and even though it was going out, it was too high for us to go down.

This was 'Execution Dock', where those who some called criminals were killed. Most of these poor souls were people we would see as victims of the extreme poverty that surrounded this area like a London fog.
Some were hung, some were tied to posts so that they would be covered by the tides which are very strong and fast here.
Most notably, this is where Pirates were executed and it may not be a coincidence that while most executions were carried out in public, here at The Old Wapping Steps no one could see what was happening.
Pirates were popular back then.
Captain Kidd is the most famous Pirate killed here and is commemorated by a pub close by;

Nowadays the Lightermen and Watermen of the Thames have largely been replaced by tourist boats. All the same that looks fun;

The long gone Dockers would marvel at how their old workplaces have been turned into luxury flats for the wealthiest people of the world.

All cleaned up now, no more soot and smells;

We headed on to 'The Prospect of Whitby', which is very old but perhaps not quite as old as it looks and yes, the pub sign is hanging on a ships spar;

It's been a pub since 1520 although it used to be known as 'The Pelican', like the Pelican Steps that run down to the river next to it.

It soon became notorious as a place for thieves and villains to hang out and turned into 'The Devils Tavern'. It was renamed 'The Prospect of Whitby' after a fire and the name (like 'The Town of Ramsgate') is from the name of a ship that used to dock there.

The prices are outrageous; the most expensive round I've ever bought. Even worse, I was starting to hurt by this time and there was nowhere to sit - they really want people for meals these days.

Check out the pewter counter top which is a rare survival from the 18th century while the round post is a ships mast.

The stone floor is genuine 1500's and what feet have those stones seen?

The pub was a favourite venue for cock fighting and boxing matches - perhaps the first international matches took place here.

The Bar really is built out of old ships timbers and barrels;

And genuine ships parts are everywhere;

I may be grumbling about the pub (If I were you I'd nip in when its full, have a quick look around and have a drink somewhere else) it is incredible. This is the view from the waterside;

In the 18th Century, this was the drinking place of Judge Jeffries, a murderous Judge who never really cared too much about whether those he hung were innocent or guilty. 'The Hanging Judge', as he was known, is most famous for presiding over 'The Bloody Assizes' where hundreds were hung after a failed rebellion.

The noose, hanging over the waterside stands as the only memorial to Jeffries brutality;

It didn't end so well for him - one day the mob came after him for revenge and he fled from 'The Prospect of Whitby, ran along the street to 'The Town of Ramsgate' where he was found disguised in dirty seamen's clothes. Screaming for his life he successfully pleaded to be taken to The Tower of London where he was held until his death.....from kidney failure.

We passed a couple of undeveloped wharves but most are now acceptable for the rich; those that remain have been bought up. All that's left are a few reminders of a whole way of life;

So what happened to Docklands?

Who got all the money?

Where are the skeletons buried?


Neil Harris
(a don't stop till you drop production)

Home:  helpmesortoutstpeters.blogspot.com
Contact me: neilwithpromisestokeep@gmail.com

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