Tag Archives: The East India Company

The Darker Side of East London

 

I went on another walk last Sunday, this was one called The Dark Side of the Green. The tour guide was David Charnick of charnowalks.co.uk who is an extremely knowledgeable person. I’d recommend him as a tour guide for this reason.

 

This building was previously Bethnal Green Police Station
This building was previously Bethnal Green Police Station

The walk was around Bethnal Green, hence the “Green” in the title. The “Dark Side” is in the title because all of the places we stopped at were associated with crime in one way or another. Villains who played a part in the tour were Arthur Harding, The London Burkers, The Krays, Benjamin Russen, Ginger Marks and Valline and Doyle. You need to do the tour to find out about them all, but trust me, I learned a lot.

The church where Reggie Kray married Frances Shea
The church where Reggie Kray married Frances Shea

For those of you who don’t know, Bethnal Green is an area in East London, in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Even though I live East, I’ve always had a perception that East London is poorer than the rest of London (a guy I used to go out with used to say he always knew when he hit East London because the houses were closer together and the gardens were smaller) and that the crime rate is higher. To be fair, the bit about the crime rate being higher is not accurate. The crime rate varies a bit across the whole of London, depending upon the resources being thrown at it.

This was where the Krays went to school
This was where the Krays went to school

I can’t absolutely prove what I’m about to say, but I suspect the reason that East London has always seemed to have a crime association has something to do with the docks, which are (were) all over the east side of the London, being nearer to the Thames estuary. All of those goods, some very high value, being imported and unloaded in East London were just ripe for the picking. Which explains why the likes of the East India Company built high walls around their docks and armed convoys took the goods into the City.

The tour was not close enough to the river (by which I mean the Thames) to cover the things I am about to write, but a woman who was quite notorious in the 17th century was Damaris or Damarose Page.

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Page started working as a teenage prostitute, went to court for bigamy in 1653 and was acquitted. She was also charged with murder for an abortion that went wrong, and was convicted of manslaughter, but she escaped execution because she was pregnant at the time. It seems that the morals of the day prohibited execution of pregnant women. Page’s fortunes improved as the East End became more prosperous, and business must have been good because she became one of the famous prostitutes (bawds, as they tended to be called in those days) of her time. Samuel Pepys described her as, “the great bawd of the seamen.” She may well have been the inspiration behind Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders.

Another bad’un with an East End association because of his apprenticeship to a butcher in Whitechapel is Dick Turpin. Dick was an Essex boy and got himself into a gang when he was in his 20s. (Nothing really changes, does it?) He graduated from his part in poaching and selling the proceeds to robbery. It seems the gang was quite successful for about five years, but then one of them started singing like a canary to the fuzz and the remaining gang members split. (Ok, there weren’t any police then, but the story sounds so much better that way.)

Turpin carried on his life of crime and graduated to stealing horses, which was lucrative until you got caught, because it was punishable by death. Turpin was eventually arrested in 1738 and tried in York. He was found guilty and executed on 7 April 1739.

Finally, there’s someone infamous in the whole of London, not just the East End,
Jack the Ripper. Jack is believed to be the killer of five prostitutes in the Whitechapel area of London, although there are some who believe he killed more than this and some that don’t think all five are down to Jack. Theories abound as to who Jack really was, from the writer Lewis Carroll to Sir William Withey Gull (Queen Victoria’s physician) to the Duke of Clarence, and many more besides.

Clearly I wasn’t around in the 17th and 18th centuries (no, seriously, I am NOT that old) so I don’t have photographs of the people mentioned, so I’ve included the ones I took on the walk.

It’s one of those mysteries that I’d really like to get to the bottom of, but I honestly don’t think that will happen. Scientists thought they’d cracked it with DNA but then, earlier this year; it turned out there had been an error in the processing.  Still, maybe it will feature in a future novel…

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© Susan Shirley 2014