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Defend the East End’s radical tradition of immigration and struggle

This article is over 12 years, 8 months old
Historian and writer Louise Raw looks at the history of one of London’s most radical areas
Issue 2267

In the 1880s, east London became known as the East End. It is an area that has long housed some of the greatest poverty in the capital.

It became the butt of music hall jokes and a byword for what was seen as “disreputable poverty”.

One journal noted, “A shabby man from Paddington, St Marylebone or Battersea might pass muster as one of the respectable poor.

“But the same man coming from Bethnal Green, Shadwell or Wapping was an ‘East Ender’, the box of…bug powder must be reached for, and the spoons locked up.”

Historians have portrayed the East End as a brutal place with dark, dangerous streets filled with people almost sub‑human in their ignorance.

But evidence exists of a much richer political and intellectual life among the working class, and strong traditions of solidarity.

Oral and unpublished accounts show us men and women with a thirst for knowledge and a clear-eyed understanding of their political place within the capitalist system.

In the East End, radical traditions flourished—enriched by the area’s vibrant immigrant communities.

At the end of the 17th century, Huguenot weavers fleeing religious persecution in France settled around Spitalfields.

Irish families were the 19th century’s largest-scale migrants, driven by English oppression and starvation.

There were frequent tensions between the existing population and the newcomers.


Karl Marx was among those who saw that as the English workers’ “betters” looked down upon him, he in turn felt superior to his Irish neighbour.

But these divisions were constantly overcome.

The Huguenots’ reading clubs alarmed authorities—with some justification as they frequently grew into political organisations.

The “Spitalfield Riots” of 1769 in defence of weavers’ livelihoods were brutally put down. John Doyle, an Irish weaver, and John Valline, a Huguenot, were hanged.

The Irish brought with them traditions of political resistance and a defiance of British authority that became the building blocks of the modern labour movement.

The 1889 London Dock Strike is often credited with beginning the move towards general trade unions and an independent Labour Party.

My research found an earlier beginning—in 1888 when Bryant and May’s largely Irish matchwomen “struck the light” with their successful strike.

The East End’s history of radical migration and history continued. Jewish immigrants fleeing Eastern European persecution, and German and Russian radicals avoiding arrest, came to the East End.


In 1912 Sylvia Pankhurst broke from an increasingly right-leaning Women’s Social and Political Union.

She based her breakaway East London Suffragette Federation in a baker’s shop in Bow.

But in 1936 community tensions rose dramatically to the surface. Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF), dressed in Blackshirt uniforms, planned to march on 4 October.

In a deliberate attempt at intimidation, the route was planned through the East End’s Jewish communities.

Despite protests, the Conservative government would not ban the march.

When the day came, the Metropolitan Police oversaw—some would say protected—the fascists.

They reckoned without the valiant resistance of local socialist, Irish, Jewish, anarchist and communist groups—as well as hundreds of thousands of East Enders.

Anti-fascists filled the streets, chanting “They Shall Not Pass”—a slogan from the battle against fascism in Spain.

At Aldgate a tram driver deliberately stalled and abandoned his vehicle, blocking the fascists’ route.

At Cable Street, in Whitechapel, a lorry was overturned and a make-shift barricade constructed. Shop workers, families, dockers and passers-by joined it.

Women in nearby houses aimed home-made missiles, including the contents of chamber pots, at police.

Despite the Met’s strenuous efforts, the barricade could not be broken. Eventually Mosley and his Blackshirts had to turn tail and retreat, utterly defeated by the people of the East End.

Louise Raw is the author of Striking a Light: the Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History, Continuum Press, £16.99

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