Much of the text has come from the excellent website Source: www.stgitehistory.org.uk
The streets running south off Commercial Road, between Cannon Street Road and Watney Street, were (from west to east), Rampart Street [formerly Little Turner Street], Richard Street, Jane Street, Anthony Street, Fenton Street, Buross Street, Hungerford Street, Planet Street [for a time Star Street] and Devonshire Street.
Anthony Street ran from Commercial Road [where a few yards survive – this section was previously Catherine Street, with Catherine Court on Jane Street] through to Cable Street. In 1885, the single death attributed to typhus was at no. 42.
As a teenager in the post-war years, the actor and playwright Steven Berkoff lived for a time in Anthony Street. His father Abraham (Al) had run a tailor’s shop in Leman Street, cutting lavish zoot suits for West Indian settlers, and supplying some of the Jewish East End boxers. The family’s move to the USA was unsuccessful, so they returned to two rooms and an outside WC, with chickens in the yard, in Anthony Street. He was a near-contemporary of the Harold Pinter at Raine’s School, then in Arbour Square.
Backchurch Lane (Church Lane until the 1860s), running south from Commercial Road to Cable Street, became the boundary between the parishes of St Mark Whitechapel and St John the Evangelist-in-the-East Grove (Golding Street).
Roque’s map of 1746 shows the area on the north west of Church Lane as a market garden. By the turn of the century the first edition of Horwood’s map shows an enclosed area of about half an acre, and the 1813/14 revision – right – marks it as a burial ground, with a small chapel on the northern edge, off White Horse Lane [later Commercial Road] marked for the first time on Greenwood’s map of 1824-26; the earliest dated headstone from excavations in the area is dated 1776. It was one of various private non-denominational burial grounds established as speculative ventures as parish churchyards became overcrowded and the population grew dramatically. It was acquired in the 1830s by Samuel Sheen, an undertaker who kept a public house opposite. He has planted it with trees and shrubs, which are sufficiently attractive, but the ground is saturated with human putrescence, wrote George Walker in Gatherings from Graveyards (1839). An 1838 pamphlet noted that Sheen charged between 8s. and 15s. for an adult interment – somewhat less than parish church burials, at least for non-parishioners.
The area became densely populated, with a mix of industrial and residential properties, with dangers to match.
Backchurch Lane was a place where entrepreneurs and men of science lived and worked.
From 1808 the Rahn family – who probably had Huguenot, and possibly Swiss Mennonite roots – held a lease on a warehouse and eight buildings in Church [Backchurch] Lane and six buildings in Rahns Court. George Rahn was a ship broker and merchant. As part-owner of the vessel Prince of Saxe Cobourg he was a respondent in an appeal from the Admirality Court to the Privy Council involving a bottomry bond (raising credit on the bottom or keel of the vessel to finance urgent mid-journey repairs). He was also a broker for the General Steam Navigation Company, which ran boats to Ostend and Rotterdam and onward travel to the Rhine towns (advertised in the first Bradshaw’s Guide of 1839). Concerned to reduce the risks of fire he became one of the proprietors of a patent fire-preventative plaster or cement, and on 30 May 1843 they presented a public petition offering to fireproof the new Houses of Parliament without profit – a bold public relations initiative, though it was not taken up.
William T. Henley (1813-82) was a significant pioneer of electrical engineering. Coming to London in 1830, he worked as a labourer at St Katharine’s Docks, spending his spare time inventing and developing telegraphic instruments. His business expanded into manufacturing and laying submarine cables, from premises in Clerkenwell. At one time he employed 2000 men and owning three cable-laying ships. He was a man of great imagination and self-confidence who lived frugally, but borrowed beyond his means to expand his business, and fell victim to recession; his business was re-constituted without him, as the W.T. Henley Telegraph & Cable Company. Alfred Hitchcock began work there as a technical clerk; it is now located in Belvedere, near Erith.
In 1833 there was a fire at Bowman’s sugar-house, between Backchurch Lane and Gower’s Walk.
The People’s Arcade was built at the top of Backchurch Lane around 1906 on the site of a former fish market, and was a centre of immigrant life and activity. When licensed in 1910, it had a seating capacity of 748. In 1918 it showed a Yiddish version of a silent film about the Russian Revolution, Di Royz fun Blut (The Rose of Blood); the film is presumed lost, but as one reviewer said, Theda Bara played a spy who wrecks hearts, railroad trains, slays one after another and concludes the fifth reel by blowing up the peace cabinet, which includes her husband.
In December 1911 it was renamed Premierland (‘Pree-mier-land’) and it incorporated a boxing ring, where many East End boxers began their careers, many of them Jewish (among them Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis at the opening match, and Jack ‘Kid’ Berg). In 1924 Victor Berliner [left] and Manny Lyttlestone presided over its most successful era. A 1920s boxing boom meant there were three or four shows a week. The crowds were a mix of Jewish and Irish immigrants and native cockneys: mostly men who worked as dockers, barrow boys or street traders at nearby Petticoat Lane. Some contestants were current or ex-professional boxers, and generally those who weren’t had at least boxed for boys’ clubs. As well as Lewis and Berg, Teddy Baldock, Kid Pattenden, Harry Mason, Nipper Pat Daly and Dick and Harry Corbett were big stars. Former fighter Jack Hart was the house referee for much of the period, mostly officiating from outside the ring.
Later, when most boxing venues had become grander in style and scale, it had become dilapidated, and a High Court case T.M. Fairclough & Sons v Berliner  1 Ch 60 determined that the owners of the property were entitled to relief. In due course it became a garage for Fairclough’s motor vehicles. In the 1960s, a New Premierland boxing venue was based at Poplar Baths; the old building later became a warehouse.
Lower Chapman Street is now Bigland Street. At the eastern end of the street a Board School was built in 1873. After closure, for a time it became an outpost of the University of Greenwich’s School of Earth Sciences, as ‘Walburgh House’, before becoming Darrul Ummah, an Islamic centre. On the corner of Walburgh Street, at no.18, was the Australian Arms pub, built some time before 1851 and in its later years a Courage’s house; it was burnt out in 1989, subsequently demolished and rebuilt as a supermarket, with flats over. The Chapman Arms was at 25 Lower Chapman Street, from the 1850s to the 1920s or later, and the Victoria Arms at 77. John Keil, who lived in the street, is named on the war memorial in St George’s Gardens. Gosling Gardens is a small park off Bigland Street.
In 1934 two 4-storey blocks of ‘philanthropic housing’ were built in the area. Chapman House on Bigland Street , next to the Congregational Church’s Coverdale & Ebenezer building, and in a more ‘progressive’ style, designed by Joseph Emberton, Turnour House, with 15 flats, on Walburgh Street – named after the Winterton family, who were significant local landowners. Also named for them is Winterton House, a tower block on Deancross Street, built in 1968. It was one of a pair with Gelston Point, off Watney Street. Luke House on TIllman Street is a 22-storey block of 1965.
In 1837 Henry Stephens, gentleman, of Marylebone and Ebenezer Nash of Buross Street, tallow chandler, were granted a patent for Certain Improvements in Manufacturing Colouring, and rendering certain Colour or Colours [more] applicable to Dyeing, Staining, and Writing – the word ‘more’ was added a few months later on advice, suggesting a difficulty of some kind. Stephens was presumably the inventor’s patron.
The Refiner’s Arms, originally numbered 23, then for a time 25 Cannon Street Road, and then 52 or 53 Buross Street, was extant before 1838 and finally closed around 1989 (but continued as a social club). Its 1870 landlord Edwin Barker was one of a number of publicans to go bankrupt. In the latter part of the 19th century it was the venue for St George’s Musical Union’s Friday evening entertainments. In 1892 the pub was also the venue for the formation of a local branch of the Costermongers’ Union (they had had a friendly society since 1850). The flashpoint for this was a prosecution, by Holborn Board of Works, under the 1817 Metropolitan Paving Act (commonly known as Michael Angelo Taylor’s Act), of a costermonger called Summers for setting up his stall in Farringdon Street, and the belief that the further similar prosecutions against street traders were imminent. Its membership was one-third Jewish.
In the coming years, together with cabmen, the union was active – particularly in the Bethnal Green area – in opposing restrictions on licensing, traffic (1902) and Sunday trading (1905). The chair at the formation meeting had been taken by Harry (Hananel) Marks whose election to Parliament in 1895 for St George-in-the-East – as a Conservative, narrowly defeating the Liberal John Williams Benn – was challenged on various grounds, including his support for the costermongers.
There was a synagogue in the street.
Cable Street, running from the Tower of London in the west to Ratcliff in the east, was originally the standard length of hemp rope, twisted into a cable, required for sailing ships; there were various rope walks in the area. In 1695 it was paved from the Windmill Inn to the junction with Church Street (Anne Steele was among some local residents who petitioned to be excused from the cost of this work).
At one time each part of the street bore different names: from west to east, Cable Street, Knockfergus (because of the many Irish residents), New Road, Back Lane [or Road], Bluegate Fields [at one time the present-day Dellow Street was also so-named], Sun Tavern Fields and Brook Street. In addition, some sections had addresses as St George’s Place, Allington Place, Bath Terrace, Chaurgur Row, Harper Place, Wellington Place and China Place. Chaurghur, or Chaur-Ghur, Row was an unusual name; the Edinburgh Review of 1870 included a long article on ‘London Topography and Street-nomenclature’ which comments The foreign element in the sea-faring population at the East-end, in the neighbourhood of the docks, is represented by Jamaica Street, Hong-Kong Terrace, Chaur-Ghur Row (lately altered to Cable Street), Chin-Chu Cottages, Bombay Street, and Norway Place; and an obscure thoroughfare in Shoreditch retains the enviable appellation of the ‘Land of Promise’; and it concludes with a call for the removal of pretentious, bombastic and pseudo-rural names – One, at least, of the evils of an overgrown capital will be removed, when necessity demands the complete revision of our modern street-nomenclature.
Cable Street was once a busier road than The Highway, until the latter was widened in recent times and the Limehouse Link tunnel constructed in 1993. It is now a one-way street and the route of ‘CS3’, one of the network of Cycle Super Highways created for the Olympics, and painted blue (rather than the conventional green) because they were sponsored by Barclay’s Bank. Along Cable Street cycles are separated from motor traffic, but elsewhere the lanes are narrow strips at the edge of busy roads, and fatal accidents have raised issues about their safety.
Wilton’s Music Hall, Grace’s Alley is the oldest surviving music hall in the country (and now a Grade II* listed building), it was built by John Wilton in 1858 in the back yard of five 1720s houses and incorporating his pub The Prince of Denmark Tavern (named for the Danish links with Wellclose Square) and its famous mahogany bar. Used for a wide variety of musical and dramatic events, it could seat up to 1,800 people, with its barley-sugar pillared galleries, and had been very successful, competing for a time with West End theatres. Performers such as Champagne Charlie would speed over from the West End to give a second performance here. Like other venues, it promoted ‘minstrel’ entertainments, with blacked-up performers, such as Thomas Duriah (‘Negro Delineator and End Man from the London Music Halls’) who performed here in 1865. But it finally failed in the 1870s, as purpose-built venues were established elsewhere.
Cannon Street Road
The oddly-named Cannon Street Road (often confused postally with Cannon Street in the City, where the railway station is) now runs north from The Highway to the Commercial Road. 19th century maps and documents show a variety of namings: some term the stretch between The Highway and Cable Street as ‘Cannon Street’, and everything north of it, up to Whitechapel Road, either ‘(The) New Road’ or ‘Cannon Street Road’.
In 1859 it became ‘Cannon Street Road’ (later including the stretch from The Highway to Cable Street) up to the Commercial Road, once this was developed, and ‘New Road’ beyond. (To add to the confusion, part of Cable Street was for a time termed ‘New Road’)
Like the rest of the area, the street has seen many changes, and the numbering of houses has altered more than once.
Jewish and Irish residents were increasingly moving into the street by the end of the nineteenth century. Cannon Street Road became the point at which the Jewish and Irish communties met and overlapped.
Chapman Place now includes Bigland Green Primary School.
North of the railway viaduct between Cannon Street Road and Watney Street ran Lower and Upper Chapman Streets [now Bigland Street and Chapman Street]. Miss Chapman, from the family whose local properties formed part of the Earl of Winterton’s estates, was a benefactor of Christ Church Watney Street. In between ran Chapel Street, which was presumably named for Andrew Reed’s Independent/Congregational chapel on Cannon Street Road (which became Trinity Episcopal Chapel in 1831), though there had also been a small ‘Free Chapel’ at 2 Lower Chapman Street.
South of the viaduct is Cornwall Street [formerly Upper (western part) and Lower (eastern part) Cornwall Street], with three blocks of flats – Newton House, Richard Neale House, and Maddox House. At the junction with Cannon Street Road, against the viaduct, is a small informal memorial garden.Tait Street
By 1868, Chapel Street was renamed Tait Street, after Bishop Tait, who, despite being distinctly unhelpful over the Ritualism Riots, had visited the area during cholera epidemics. The King and Queen public house was at 51 Tait Street. Confusingly, after portions of Walburgh Street, Tait Street and Tillman Street were closed in 1962 to enable LCC residential development, part of Walburgh Street was renamed Tait Street.
East Smithfield is now a busy and nondescript stretch of road (A1203) between The Highway and The Tower of London – on London Marathon and Triathlon routes – East Smithfield (derived from smooth-field) was once the name of the whole area between Aldgate and the Tower, and has a complex history. The area north of the Highway fell successively into the parishes of St Botolph Aldgate, St Mary Matfelon (Whitechapel), St Mark Whitechapel and St Paul Dock Street before becoming part of St George-in-the-East. South of The Highway, most of it (the St Katharine’s area) was part of the parish of St John Wapping and now is part of St Peter Wapping.
According to John Stow’s Survey of London (1598), the Saxon king Edgar granted the wasteland to the east of the city wall to a guild of 13 knights, on condition that each should accomplish three combats, one above the ground, one below the ground, and the third in the water; after this, at a certain day in East Smithfield, they should run with spears against all comers; all of which was gloriously performed; and the same day the King named it Knighten Guilde, and so bounded it from Ealdgate [Aldgate] to the place where the bars now are toward the east, &c. and again toward the south unto the river of Thames, and so into the water, and throw his speare; so that all East Smithfield, with the right part of the street that goeth by Dodding Pond into the Thames and also the hospital of St Katherin’s, with the mills that were founded in King Stephen’s daies, and the outward stone wall, and the new ditch of the Tower, are of the saide fee and liberbertie.
Edward the Confessor, and William II (Rufus) confirmed this ‘liberty’ (a building-free area defined by the distance an arrow could be fired from the Tower). By 1115, in the reign of Henry I, the wider liberty, or soke, fell to the priory church of Holy Trinity within Aldgate, founded in 1107 by his wife Queen Matilda (Edith) of Scotland, with the prior sitting as an Alderman of London. (A tussle resulted when Geoffrey de Mandeville, Constable of the Tower, used its garrison to defend his vineyard on land by the Tower.) In 1147, the priory built the Hospital of St Katharine under the patronage of Mathilda (Maud) of Boulogne, wife of king Stephen; ever since, the foundation has prayed daily for the repose of her soul. With further foundations by Eleanor (widow of Henry III) and Philippa (wife of Edward III) the area south of the present-day main road became the Precinct of St Katharine, holding a 15-day fair at Pentecost from 1229. From 1236 until their expulsion in 1290, Jews settled in the area, under the protection of the Tower garrison.
Meanwhile, in 1294 the Liberty of the Minories was created around the Minoresses of St Mary (of the Order of St Clare) – more details here – in the area which is now Tower Gateway DLR. The Liberty of Wellclose, around the Abbey of St Mary Grace, was also formed, and constituted in 1442 as a Precinct free from jurisdiction civil or ecclesiastical, except that of the Lord Chancellor. In 1686 all these areas were consolidated into the Liberties of the Tower of London. The peculiarties of jurisdiction remained: as late as 1831, James Elmes Topographical Dictionary of London and its environs (Whitaker, Treacher & Arnott) reports that in the liberty of East Smithfield a courtleet and court-baron are held, wherein pleas to the amount of forty shillings are held, nuisances presented, and of similar judicial acts. However, from 1855 the whole East Smithfield area fell under the administration of the local Magistrates’ Court.
In 1809 the Royal Mint moved from the Tower of London (where mechanized rolling mills and coining presses had been installed in the 17th century) to a site at the end of East Smithfield, in buildings designed by James Johnson and added to by Robert Smirke, a prolific architect who also designed the British Museum and a number of churches in classical style. The impetus for the move was in part the pressure on space at the Tower following the outbreak of war with France, but more particularly competition from a private mint in Birmingham opened by the entrepreneur Matthew Boulton (1728-1809), with steam-powered machines producing superior coinage and securing government contracts.
St Katharine’s Docks were built between 1824-28. From that point onwards, there were various attempts to upgrade the highways – for example, the 1817 East Smithfield Improvement Bill for altering, amending, and explaining two Acts of His present Majesty’s Reign, for widening and improving the Street leading from Tower Hill to the Street called Upper East Smithfield, in the county of Middlesex.
Progress was slow. Part of the brief of the 1840 Select Committee on Metropolis Improvement was to investigate (in the light of earlier reports) the opening of a spacious thoroughfare between the populous neighbourhood of Whitechapel and Spitalfields, and the docks and wharfs of the river Thames, by widening the northern and southern extremities of Leman-street, and by creating a new street from the northern side of Whitechapel to Spitalfields-church [originally called Spital Street, this became Commercial Street]. This scheme involved the widening of East Smithfield to improve access to the Docks, and of Dock Street as the main north-south access route. The area was riddled with courts and alleys with names such as Harebrain Court, Money Bag Alley, Hog Yard, Black Jack Alley, Black Dog Alley, Black Boy Alley and Holyday Court.
Fenton Street housed Stertzover synagogue.
Hessel Street [previously Morgan Street, leading into Patriot Street], and Amazon Street which runs off it, are named for the ‘Amazon of Stepney’. Phoebe Smith was born locally in 1713. Masquerading as a man – or so she claimed – she enlisted as a private in the 5th Regiment of Foot, probably to be near her lover Samuel Golding (though other accounts say it was her father’s scheme so that she could stay with him after her mother’s death). She fought in the West Indies and Gibraltar, and was wounded in the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745. At this point she revealed her secret to the regimental colonel’s wife – having previously told no-one, for you know sir, a drunken man and a child always tell the truth. But I told my story to the ground. I dug a hole that would hold a gallon and whispered it there. She then married Golding; they settled in Plymouth and had nine children. When he died, she moved to Brighton and married Thomas Hessel, a fisherman. After his death, she bought a donkey and sold fish and vegetables in local villages, and in old age toys, oranges and gingerbread near Brighton Pavilion. She wore a brown serge dress with a clean white apron, a black hooded cloak, bonnet and mob cap, and sported a large red handkerchief with white spots, and was widely-known for her stories. She was rescued from the workhouse when she was 95 by a pension of half a guinea a week from the Prince Regent, and lived to a great age.
From the turn of the 20th century Hessel Street became the site of the East End’s main Jewish market, open every day except Saturdays. The narrow street was filled with small shops and stalls. Chickens and other poultry were kept in cages; buyers selected one, which was killed according to kosher ritual and dressed while they shopped elsewhere (the archway, left, next to Carver’s shoe shop at 9 Hessel Street led to 25-40 Morgan Houses and also to the abbatoir area). There were also many wet fish stalls, and general shops, with pans and kettles hanging on strings, and bookmakers. Some described it as an ‘oriental’ scene, the last of the ghetto markets.
Hungerford Street was closed off in 1964. In 1889, as part of a series of local strikes, there was a rent strike, and a banner appeared across the street with the words As we are on strike – landlords need not call.
Jane Street ran from Lower Chapman Street to Commercial Road. In 1958 much of the street was subject to a compulsory purchase order under Part III of the 1957 Housing Act (to which there were objections – a few of the houses had been well-maintained).
Parallel with William Street to the south, also running west off Cannon Street Road, was John Street, off which was Marmaduke Court to the south (up against the railway viaduct), and Challis [formerly St George’s] Court to the north, also accessed from William Street. Marmaduke Place was off Langdale Street. Another court ran between Samuel and Grove Streets.
Pace Place remains, but there is now nothing left of Mary Street and Ann Street which ran between Upper and Lower Chapman Streets (and Little Ann Street the other side of Lower Chapman Street), nor of Duke Street at their eastern end, nor of the various local courts and alleys, including Albion Place and Friendly Place (north and south respectively off Chapel/Tait Street) and Victoria Place.
Running west from Cannon Street Road, Ponler Street was formerly William Street, it was renamed in the mid-19th century, probably for the Ponler family. For a while in the mid-1850s Joseph Platts and his wife and 8 children lived at 2 William Street (and later at Clarence Place, Stepney Green). Born in 1815, from 1837 he was engineer of the Steamboat Company of the Black Sea and then Chief Consulting Engineer to the Russian Imperial Admiralty at St Petersburg; a fluent Russian speaker, he was twice recipient of the Gold Medal with Riband of the Order of St Anne & Vladimir. The family left Odessa at the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1855. Letters relate to his claim for compensation for the destruction of the steam-powered flour mill which he and his father-in-law John Tandy ran at Kertch. Eventually he was offered £500 compensation ‘without prejudice’, for the loss of mill and his services as an interpreter. He returned to Russia, dying there in 1859 (buried at Smolensk Cemetery in St Petersburg).
Ratcliff Highway (later St George’s Street, now The Highway)
In the 18th century merchandise was brought to and from the City mainly on the river – Commercial Road was still fields, and the lane that led east from the Tower of London through Shadwell was narrow, though it bore the name Ratcliff Highway [part of it was later renamed St George’s Street, and now it is known simply as The Highway]. By the turn of the 19th century The Highway had acquired a mythological status across London – almost certainly exaggerated – as a centre of all kinds of criminal activity, drunkenness and wild behaviour. A BBC2 programme The Violent Highway (Blast Films, first screened on 16 May 2009) chronicled its past and present, with contributions filmed in and around the church by Baroness P.D. James [see below], the Rector and others. Its thesis was that, despite public perceptions, the local area is less violent now than in any period in its history. The Highway itself is today principally a traffic artery – allegedly the fourth busiest road in London. Here are some historic accounts, from various periods. Andy Jarosz’ website has an article about the street which includes Ratcliffe Highway sung by The Dubliners. In 2013 Dr Lucy Worsley’s BBC4 series ‘A Very British Murder’ began with an accurate account of the murders and their aftermath
Richard Street’s short remnant now forms the entrance to Mulberry School for Girls.
Royal Mint Street
Rosemary Lane is now Royal Mint Street. Rosemary Lane (originally Hog Lane, or Hoggestrete) was the continuation of what is now Cable Street, running from the junction with Dock Street and Leman Street towards the Tower of London. Rosemary Lane was renamed Royal Mint Street in 1850. In the same period, for prudish reasons, Petticoat Lane was renamed Middlesex Street. Both are best known for their street markets – the difference being that Rosemary Lane, as these extracts show, was primarily for second-hand trade, and is now long-gone.
A grant was recorded on 31 October 1631 to William Bawdrick and Roger Hunt of the King’s interest in certain tenements in Rosemary Lane. Middlesex, the lease of which was taken by Horatio Franchotti, an alien, but discovered and prosecuted for on His Majesty’s behalf.
Some claim that the poet Edmund Spenser (1552-99) was born between Rosemary Lane and East Smithfield. He attended Merchant Taylors’ School, founded in the City in 1561 by Richard Hills, master of the Company. Hills also endowed a group of cottages on the north side of Rosemary Lane as almshouses for fourteen elderly women, who were to receive 1s. 4d. per week, under his will, and £8. 15s. annually from the Company. Alderman Ratcliffe of the Company added the benefaction of one hundred loads of timber.
In 1720, John Strype’s Survey of London spoke of the small, nasty and beggarly streets around The Minories. Several works by, or attributed to, Daniel Defoe (1659-1731) mention the area. Colonel Jack had his Breeding near Goodman’s-fields and spent his youth rambling about Rosemary Lane and Ratcliff. After his nurse died, Jack and his companions lived for some years each winter in the glasshouse near Rosemary Lane; on one occasion they went to Rag Fair and bought two pairs of shoes and stockings for 5d., and went on to a boiling Cook’s in Rosemary Lane where they found cheap fare.
The Daily Gazetteer, 2 August 1736:
Late on Friday night, and early on Saturday morning, a great disturbance happen’d in Rosemary-lane, near Rag-fair, where upwards of 150 men assembled in a riotous manner with clubs, and other unlawful weapons, and oblig’d all the house-keepers in Rose-mary-lane, and the parts adjacent, to put lights in their windows, otherwise they would pull their houses down, which put the people in the greatest consternation; so that the whole place appear’d with lights at each window; and some few that had none, got their windows broke to pieces. The mob went from Rosemary-lane to Well-street by the Watch-house, and pull’d down the house of one Welden, a cook, at the sign of the Bull and Butcher, and broke the houshold goods all to pieces. By this time Clifford William Phillips, of Goodman’s-fields, and Richard Farmer, of Well-Close-square, Esqrs., two of his Majesty’s Justices of the Peace, had procured a party of Grenadiers from the Tower, with a Commanding Officer, in order to disperse the mob, but to no purpose, for they went from Well-street into Rag-Fair, and demolish’d the Queen’s Head, and a cook’s shop (the master of which is an Irish man) in Mill-yard, and a tavern hard by, kept by Irish people: From Rag-Fair they went to Church-lane, and demolish’d the White-Hart Ale-house, and from thence to White-Lion-street, and demolish’d the Gentleman and Porter, they being all houses where Irishmen used. The general cry was, while they were committing these outrages, Down with the wild Irish. Justice Phillips, and the commanding officers from the Tower, had their swords drawn, and desired the mob quietly to depart; but they could not disperse them till towards four o’clock on Saturday morning, when John Brundit, Edward Dudley, William Ormond, Robert Maccay, Thomas Batteroy, and Robert Page, were apprehended, and on Saturday night were committed to Newgate.
A Bowles’ print of 1795 is entitled High Change, Rag Fair. It depicts the City end of the market, near Wellclose Square. The term ‘high (ex)change’ was borrowed from the financial markets, to depict the period of maximum activity, when the male stallholders would take over from the women and children. The market traded every day except Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.
Henry Mayhew provides much valuable detail of social and economic conditions:
Rosemary-lane, which has in vain been re-christened Royal Mint-street, is from half to three-quarters of a mile long—that is, if we include only the portion which runs from the junction of Leman and Dock streets (near the London Docks) to Sparrow-corner, where it abuts on the Minories. Beyond the Leman-street termination of Rosemary-lane, and stretching on into Shadwell, are many streets of a similar character as regards the street and shop supply of articles to the poor; but as the old clothes trade is only occasionally carried on there, I shall here deal with Rosemary-lane proper.
This lane partakes of some of the characteristics of Petticoat-lane, but without its so strongly marked peculiarities. Rosemary-lane is wider and airier, the houses on each side are loftier (in several parts), and there is an approach to a gin palace, a thing unknown in Petticoat-lane: there is no room for such a structure there.
Rosemary-lane, like the quarter I have last described, has its off-streets, into which the traffic stretches. Some of these off-streets are narrower, dirtier, poorer in all respects than Rosemary-lane itself, which indeed can hardly be stigmatized as very dirty. These are Glasshouse-street, Russell-court, Hairbrine-court, Parson’s-court, Blue Anchor-yard (one of the poorest places and with a half-built look), Darby-street, Cartwright-street, Peter’s-court, Princes-street, Queen-street, and beyond these and in the direction of the Minories, Rosemary-lane becomes Sharp’s-buildings and Sparrow-corner. There are other small non-thoroughfare courts, sometimes called blind alleys, to which no name is attached, but which are very well known to the neighbourhood as Union-court, &c.; but as these are not scenes of street-traffic, although they may be the abodes of street-traffickers, they require no especial notice.
At 41 Royal Mint Street stood the warehouse of the United Sponge Company. A. Nunes-Vais traded as the United Sponge Company, importers and dealers in sponges, at 77 Minories (where Harold May / Marks / Marcuson also traded as the National Sponge Company), and together with May as importers and dealers in chamois leathers at 11 The Crescent, Minories. Henry Mayhew had commented, in 1851, this [sponge selling] is one of the street-trades which has long been in the hands of the Jews. In 1922 Nunes-Vais and May were among the ‘aliens’ granted exemption from s7 of the Aliens Restriction (Amendment) Act 1919 and permitted to change their trading names. In 1944 it was reported that in the long years of its existence the United Sponge Company has been able to establish extensive business connections in all countries of the Eastern Mediterranean for the regular supply of all varieties of sponges. It ceased trading in 1973 (together with the Universal Sponge Company, of the same address).
The Nunes-Vais (Nunez-Vaez) family were descended from 18th century rabbis of Marrano extraction in Leghorn.
The Royal Mint Street Goods Station was built on the site previously occupied by the London & Blackwall Railway Minories station. It closed in 1949 and Tower Hill DLR station now occupies this site.
Of the pubs along Rosemary Lane / Royal Mint Street, two buildings remain: Ieft – at no.47, the Crown and Seven Stars (known by this name from c1888, now the Artful Dodger – note the roofline inscription ‘Warehouse’, and the crest below); and right – the City of Carlisle at 61, rebuilt in the 1860s, but retaining a 1620 terracotta insert, and later known as The Dublin. Until its closure in 2013 it was a stylish French restaurant called ‘Rosemary Lane’.
Parallel to Cannon Street Road, to the west, were Umberston (also shown on maps as Amberston and Humberstone), Marman and Samuel Streets – a continuous, and fairly narrow, road. The Captain Cook public house was at 45 Umberston Street (formerly 26, or 27, or 28 Marman Street until this name went out of use).
In 1906 Joseph Diamond was charged at the Thames Police Court with intimidating three local ‘scab’ [anti-union] bakers, Jacob Cohen, Abraham Morris and Henry Slater, of Umberston Street and nearby Berner Street. Fireworks were thrown through the skylights into Slater’s shop in Umberston Street, windows were broken, and a large crowd (allegedly 2,000) gathered. The right-wing press seized on this incident as evidence of the stranglehold gained over local politics by the Progressive Party (allied to the national Liberal Party but with a Labour and socialist presence – Sidney Webb, founder of the Fabian Society, was a Progressive LCC councillor). The Liberty and Property Defence League’s journal Liberty Review commented When a political clique gets as firm a grip of power as the London ‘Progressives’ have now obtained, it is no easy matter to dislodge them. They can count on the votes of the officials and privileged workmen, whereas their opponents have no such addition to their ordinary party strength, and it curiously linked this incident with the LCC’s withdrawal, for financial reasons, of the winter service of the recently-started Thames riverboat service: a successful initiative but axed by their successors in power in 1907, the Municipal Reform Party, as a prime instance of ‘creeping municipal socialism’.
After the Second World War illegal gambling was concentrated in Spitalfields and Whitechapel; in 1966 there were two main clusters of clubs, around Hessel and Sander Streets, accounting for 48 out of 97 convictions (there was only one conviction in Poplar). Sander Street was also a notorious centre of prostitution.
On 1 January 1944 the Umberston Club in Umberston Street was raided by the police, under magistrate’s warrant. Later that month Will Thorne, Labour MP for Plaistow, asked a question in Parliament of the Home Secretary – misnaming the club and street as ‘Underwood’ – and was told that there had been 59 arrests. Percy Forrest was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment, Louis Samuel to three months with £12 costs (against which he appealed), and the charge against John Dorras was dropped. The other 56 were fined 6s. 8d. as ‘frequenters’, under the unrepealed sections of an Act of 1541.
Walburgh Street – the southern end of which was originally Pleasant Row – ran north-south under the viaduct from Cable Street to Lower Chapman Street. W.C. Hood’s St George’s Dye and Colour Works was at no. 20a.
Seaward Brothers was a long-established firm of wharfingers / carmen / general carriers. In 1835 a partnership between William Seaward and Ann Huckle, carmen, was dissolved. His sons Richard and Samuel, born in the 1820s, developed the business; by the 1880s they and their families were living in Croydon, Richard described as a wharfinger & wool-broker, and Samuel as a head carrier & wharfinger. In the 1890s they were the sole forwarding agents for the Aberdeen Steam Navigation and London and Edinburgh Shipping Companies, with Upper and Lower Wharves in Wapping, offices at Eastcheap and Queen Victoria Street in the City and premises at Great Hermitage Street, Wapping, as well as a carters’ yard in Walburgh Street, occupying part of the site of the former chapel burial ground (as did with Hasted & Sons’ cooperage, the rest becoming part of Raine’s School playground.
James O. Freedman in Finding the Words (Princeton 2007) tells how his father was born in 1898 in Walburgh Street, when his parents were en route from Lodz to the USA; he was fostered by a Christian family when his mother died suddenly and his devastated father went off to South Africa. They refused to give him up when his father made it to the USA, so a kidnap was arranged – the boy travelled to Philadelphia, aged seven, in the company of a Mrs Wolf.
In 1905 the British Esperanto Association was formed, and Philip Kalisky of Walburgh Street was Vice-President of the East London Esperanto Guild, and taught a weekly class at St George’s Street School on The Highway.
In the early years of the 20th century the shops and stalls of Watney Street [the southern end of which was formerly Charles Street], making up Watney Market, was one of the liveliest local markets in London: in 1902 there were over 100 shops and 100 stalls.
At no. 68 there was an early branch of Sainsbury’s (their first shop, in Drury Lane, opened in 1869): in 1881 John James Sainsbury took over his brother-in-law Edward Staples’ shop selling cheese and salt bacon to dockers and lightermen, many of them Irish (Mary Ann Staples, whose family had built up a chain of shops, married John James Sainsbury in 1869). They were in competition with Mike Drummond, a popular Irish shopkeeper at no.67, and (as later recalled by J.J.’s son John Benjamin) employed a jocular character called Husk to invite passers-by to try out their butter and other products. They bought a house behind the shop, at 21 Morris Street to conceal their deliveries – perhaps the first example of rear deliveries. When Mike Drummond retired in 1894, the Sainsburys bought his shop.
By 1928 the number of stalls had more than doubled, and Christ Church Watney Street joined with other local churches in opposing the renewal of licences for shops and stalls, because they were trading on Sundays. This was an issue for churches elsewhere in the parish – see here. But despite the illegality, licences continued to be issued. A compromise was attempted with the Shops (Sunday Trading Restriction) Act 1936 – superseded by the 1950 Shops Act – but this proved broadly unenforceable in heavily Jewish areas.
In 1939 the Ministry of Food required people to register for rationing (committing them to use a particular shop); the paperwork was complex, and William Guest, manager of Sainsbury’s in Watney Street, was inundated with customers who were unable to cope with it. He consulted the district supervisor, who referred it to the head office at Blackfriars; next day, Miss Potter and a group of clerical staff arrived by taxi, took several thousand ration books away and returned them the next day immaculately completed and with a complete card index system. Watney Street suffered in the blitz; an unexploded bomb fell on the Maypole Dairy next door to Sainsbury’s, who traded from a street stall for a time.
In 1956 the Watney Streeters – most of them dockers, descendants of an earlier Watney Street gang who defended their patch against rivals from Bethnal Green – were involved in brawls with the Kray twins and their associates. ‘Their’ pub was the Britannia, at 44 Morris Street, a few yards behind Watney Street: here Ronnie Kray bayonet-stabbed Terry Martin, a member of the gang, while the rest escaped through the back door. In retaliation they beat up Billy Jones, who ran a West End club, which in turn led to one of their leaders, Charlie, being ‘worked over’ by Bobby Ramsey at The Artichoke in Stepney Way. The Britannia was acquired by Belhaven in 1991 was closed in 2005.
By the 1960s Watney Market was in decline: people were moving away, and beginning to shop elsewhere. By the end of the decade only a handful of stalls was left.
Sites were cleared for redevelopment – housing and a new market – but it was slow in coming. Sainsbury’s – by then on the corner of Commercial Road – moved to Cambridge Heath Road. By 1979 there were only eighteen stalls left.
Twenty years on, the rebuilding is now more or less finished, and the area has been expensively landscaped, but much of its character has gone.
At the southern end of Watney Street was The Old House at Home pub at no.87, on the corner of Cornwall Street.
The only pub still existing recently in Watney Street is the modern Thomas Neale Free House at no.39.