Socialist Worker

The faces of London

As the BBC series, The Century That Made Us, hits our screens Michael Rosen looks at some ideas and people that shaped the capital

Issue No. 2008

illustration by Tim Sanders

illustration by Tim Sanders


We often describe people, ourselves included, in terms of what they do, know and think - nurse, right wing, roofer, gardening.

Sometimes I wonder about the things we don’t know, because our political outlook is as much created by the things we weren’t told as by the things we were. So the news last Sunday night from Gaza mentioned Israel “tightening its grip”, but didn’t mention that three Palestinians had been killed.

The deaths of US troops in Iraq also seem to have slipped off the screens. People in newsrooms have decided that some deaths need to be ignored. In fact, our knowledge of who died, where, when and how is one of the ways in which our attitudes are shaped.

I was reminded of this watching a couple of programmes on BBC 4 last week. The presenter, Dan Cruikshank, was doing his usual bits of wandering about in front of buildings.

This time though, instead of stroking a piece of Assyrian sculpture, he was in London. In the first programme, he was in Spitalfields, the patch of territory near Liverpool Street station.

He hopped in and out of the houses, investigating who had them built, who lived and worked in them, and why they looked the way they did.

It was like looking through a door into how work and class shapes the places we live in.

As you may know, in these particular streets, there are some 18th century houses. They were developed by Huguenots (French Protestants) who fled persecution. These Huguenots spotted a gap in rich people’s wants - clothes made of silk.

Using skills they brought with them, they developed houses which held hired silk weavers in the garrets, lavish living conditions in the middle floors, and offices and showrooms in the ground floors.

Cruikshank avoided the usual one-sided slavering over the beautiful objects created by and for the rich. He showed how when the tastes of the upper classes proved to be fickle, the first victims were the silk weavers.

He looked at the kinds of places where the weavers lived and he told the story of the weavers’ riots and the public hanging of their leaders outside the Salmon and Ball pub in Bethnal Green.

In Spital Square we looked at the huge church that towers over the area.

The Huguenots were religious but not in the way that the establishment liked. To remind them of what they should believe, this dominating church was built.

The Huguenots attended this mini-cathedral for births, marriages and deaths, but they did their weekly worship in their homemade chapels in their own backstreets. It was a fascinating glimpse into how the places we live in and walk through have all been made a certain way for a reason.

This programme was followed by a second that looked at how swathes of posh London, around Marylebone and Covent Garden were built off the back of prostitution. In the 18th century, one in eight women in London was earning a living through the sex industry.

Some of the brothel owners became rich enough to develop housing of their own. Harris’s Lists were guides to London’s prostitutes - in which Mrs This or Miss That was described in terms of what sexual services she could provide.

Thousands of well-off “respectable” men spent time and money with these women all around what is now London’s West End.

The painter, Joshua Reynolds, mostly known for flowery pictures of pampered people, went in for scenes from ancient Greek and Roman myths. One Greek goddess we were shown was modelled on a prostitute who Reynolds probably met in a house that is now a supermarket in London’s Chinatown.

Cruikshank’s general point was that the trade of sex and the whole sexual consciousness of the 18th century had become obscured and hidden under 19th century prudishness which had carried through to today.

I found myself thinking about the streets where I live. We rarely have any idea who actually built the places we live in, who they were intended for and how the money was earned by the people who lived in them.

My own house was part of an estate built by one of the world’s greatest rogues, Cecil Rhodes. He cheated the Matabele people of southern Africa out of their land while beavering away buying property back in London.

Meanwhile, down the road from me, where Hackney council are arranging to bulldoze part of an old theatre and a terrace of houses, an occupation is underway.

Not content with encouraging offshore landlords in to drive out tenants and shopkeepers, the council is trying to subsidise buy-to-rent tower blocks. It’s Nu-Lab “regeneration”. Everywhere you look, the great wheels of class, oiled by ideology, shape the places we live in and people fight back for the space to be useful and useable.


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Sat 8 Jul 2006, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 2008
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