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East London History

East London history East London is slowly beginning to shake off the ‘poor cousin’ mantle it has worn for the past 50 years or so, but how did it get from being a pride of the capital to being a depressed urban area.

Like other areas in the capital, the east had humble beginnings as rolling fields that surrounded the hub of Roman London. But the area soon saw development due to its proximity to the Thames.

In 1061, England was ruled by a Danish leader, King Cnut. With a Dane at the helm many of his fellow countrymen decided to settle in the area, but most lived beyond the walls of London close to the Thames on Hakon’s Island (the origins of the name Hackney) in the east. These were the beginnings of East London as we know it today.

While east London grew steadily outwards, the late 17th century saw a significant boost to the area. Bethnal Green expanded rapidly when permission was granted to build houses there for mariners and manufacturers, while successful merchants were building slightly larger homes for themselves in Hackney. But by the 1600s East London had not expanded much beyond these areas.

As the British Empire grew the docks became its heart, welcoming explorers and their finds from around the known world. Immigrants also used the ports to gain access to England, the first wave of these being Jews in 1653 and the French Protestant Huguenot silk weavers in 1685. The docks saw more Jewish people between 1870 and 1914, this time fleeing from anti-semitism and economic hardship.

This, together with the fact that London itself was expanding, meant East London grew beyond Bethnal Green towards Mile End and Canning Town in the 1800s.

In Victorian England, the boroughs of east London were some of the poorest in the capital. Shoreditch, Hackney and Bethnal Green all became London slums known for their brothels and their squalor. This was the time when Jack the Ripper, the world’s first serial killer, began his butchery of London prostitutes in Whitechapel.

The 1900s brought war to England and after World War I East London began to rebuild and prosper again. But then World War II hit England and hit East London particularly hard. Twenty five thousand bombs fell on the area over 57 consecutive nights which halted the area’s growth and left it spiralling into decline. Many families were moved to parts of Essex, while others left the area of their own accord to seek greener pastures. The mass departure and the damage to the main docks and factories meant East London was struggling to survive.

It was not until the 1980s that East London saw a revival, with the creation of Canary Wharf and the affordable property prices helping to attract people back to the area. East London is still riding this wave of this revival, as the area grows more and more popular with people across the social spectrum.


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