Continuing to chronicle the history of the Olympic borough of Newham in song, this week, I explore the underbelly of the Royal Docks.
“Employment was largely concentrated on the docks, the largest of which was Newham’s Royal Docks. Not just the greatest in Britain but the largest enclosed docks in the world. And of the employees that worked on the docks an estimated 30% were criminals…”
Watch the video and enjoy the London song inspired by this tale, ‘The Thames’.
The Royal Docks
Central to life in London over the centuries and indeed the very reason of its very existence, lies in that great body of water known as the Thames. Over the years the river has supplied the city’s population with food; oysters, fish, salmon right into the 1800’s when strangely enough, this food group seemed to disappear around the same time that the Thames was being utilised as one giant toilet.
Its currents have brought with it, trade; exotic goods, treasures, spices and with it, employment. Employment that was largely concentrated on the docks, the largest of which is found in the Borough of Newham and named The Royal Docks. An area that isn’t just the greatest in the United Kingdom, but is recognised as the largest enclosed docks in the entire world.
As trade boomed in the 18th Century the demand being placed upon the Thames riverside was enormous. Ships and boats could be laid up for months on end waiting to get unloaded, and of course this presented too much of a temptation for some members of the London community.
Of the estimated 30,000 docks employees 11,000 of them were recognised to be engaged in criminal activity. There were ‘Scuffle Hunters’ – men who would organise mass brawls on crowded and badly managed quays. In a madness that followed, these rogues would make their escape, stealing goods and hopping from boat to boat across to the other side of the Thames.
‘Mudlarks’ would hang around the base of stationary vessels collecting anything that fell off. ‘Monkey Suckers’ were teenage boys who hadn’t yet developed a taste of alcohol. These youngsters were employed to siphon off gallons of wine, brandy or whatever they could find. It was a great job for a junior unless they suffered what was common to many, and allow the fumes to overcome them, waking up in jail.
There was even a tale of three dockers leaving the site one evening. When apprehended, they were found to be only two men. The third a pig carcass dressed up in a shabby suit and hat.
So whilst you may be doing the right thing in keeping the clientele of Battersea dogs and Cats home to a minimum whilst also employing a universal rule of survival of the fittest. Just remember that you are only one in a long line of many who see the Thames as an opportunity to think outside the box.
This week, the tale of Epping Forest’s mysterious suicide pool .
“Scandinavia, famous the world over for beautiful blondes, the Northern lights and suicide. No one knows why but I’m sure Ikea has something to do with it. But this area doesn’t hold the monopoly on self-extermination. There’s also a place deep in the heart of Waltham Forest.”
Watch the video and enjoy the London song inspired by this tale, ‘The Call Of Her Song.’
Epping Forest Suicide Pool
Scandinavia. Famous the world over for the Northern Lights, beautiful blondes and suicide. No one really knows exactly why this proclivity, but I can certainly confirm that after spending more than 15 minutes in IKEA I’m rather close to the edge. And that’s before I catch a glimpse of their sweating meatballs. Add to this experience a soundtrack by ABBA and well, you get the general point. But there’s also a hidden spot in deep in the London Borough of Waltham Forest closely connected with suicide.
300 years ago a young couple began a dangerous and passionate affair. Then cared little for the opinions of those around them who forbade the relationship, and used to meet up in Epping Forest by a beautiful forest pool.
One day the girl’s father followed his daughter and on discovering her intentions, beat her to death in an uncontrollable rage. Her lover on discovering her lifeless body was so torn, so distraught, that he killed himself on the very same spot.
From that moment onwards there were no birds, no wildlife, no fish and the pool turned dank, evil, malignant. It became the scene of mysterious tragedies as a course of which it was named The Suicide Pool. People known to have no inclination towards self-harm have been discovered lifeless at the unsettling spot and even held beneath its waters. These ‘accidents’ include a woman in 1887 and a servant girl Emma Morgan, discovered with her infant child.
In 1959 in an effort to quash all silly superstition, Essex countryside magazine ran a campaign to try and locate the evil pool, but its exact location has been long forgotten. It remains to this day, deep within the heart of Epping Forest.
In this latest ‘Folk Olympics’ instalment, Ruairidh Anderson pens the song ‘Shed Leaves & Fading Steps’ as he begins the journey through the Borough of Waltham Forest with a trip to a forgotten plague pit.
“Many would like to claim they live in the city’s worst areas, but only the residents of Walthamstow can truly state that they reside in London’s original dumping ground.”
Plague Pits History
Londoners can be a pretty miserable, stand-offish bunch. Yes I know about the Blitz, digging each other out after yet another enemy onslaught. But trying to drag out discussion during your daily commute is like trying to wrestle the buffet table off John Prescott. Pretty damn near impossible. But perhaps we shouldn’t be too hasty. Perhaps we shouldn’t judge. Perhaps over the centuries Londoners have had to share more than just polite discourse.
The great plague that arrive via the docks in 1664, killed off around 20% of London’s population. And despite following medical advice for staving off the disease by dangling a toad on a leather string, or balancing mercury in a walnut shell, graves was soon in short supply.
The official Government solution was to drive 6 miles north-east of Charing Cross and dump these decomposing corpses into a spot that no one really cared about about, thus creating a mass plague pit.
Today this area is one of London’s major centres. Its original relevance to the city itself is long forgotten but hints can still be found. A common alleyway leads to a graveyard of St Mary’s Church, part of the area that originally took in these bodies. Its name is ‘Vinegar Alley’. It received this title as vinegar was used by the survivors to dab around the graves in order to ward off the disease.
Whilst many can say they live in the city’s worst areas, only the residents of Walthamstow can lay claim to living in London’s original dumping ground.
In week three of our folk tales from the five London Boroughs, Ruairidh Anderson tells the story of Jamrach’s Menagerie, a taste of the exotic on the Ratcliffe Highway.
‘Whether you like animals best up close, behind bars or in between two slices of bread with a touch of brown sauce, the story of Jamrach’s Menagerie has something for everyone.’
Watch the video and enjoy the inspired song ‘A Stone’s Throw’.
The English love their animals. Wild or domesticated, little or large, cats or dogs, it really doesn’t matter. Sting with his Irish wolfhounds, Liz Taylor with her White Maltese, the Queen with Prince Philip. But whether you love them or hate them, want them behind bars or up close, or prefer them best between two slices of white bread and a touch of brown sauce, this next story about Jamrach’s Menagerie has something for everyone.
Mr Jamrach was head of the River Police in Hamburg and during his daily job he would board vessels to inspect them for customs. It was during this time that he discovered the lucrative trade that could be made exporting wild exotic animals. Being a lover of animals himself and of a fast buck, he entered the trade and developed a family business.
His son Charles left Hamburg and set up shop here on the Ratcliffe Highway in Tower Hamlets and amongst his customers were Royalty, HG Wells, Baden Powell and his shop is referenced in books by Mark Twain and Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit.
Now thanks to lax animal laws of the day you could buy a Sumatran rhino, tigers lions, zebras, all here in London’s East End. Everything except koalas because they never survived the journey.
Orders flew in from all over the globe; New York, Paris and Tehran. Over time Charles developed a reputation as someone who not only could communicate with, but have power over, the animal kingdom. Although this didn’t stop a customer from having his clothes ripped off by an irate monkey or a python from escaping and making its home in Victoria park, feeding on swans and ducks before being eventually captured.
There is still a statue found to this day at Tobacco Dock which is testament to the most fantastic tale of all. One day during a routine delivery on the docks, and male Bengal tiger escaped from its cage and wandered down Commercial Street. A young boy having seen such a sight before, wandered over to the great cat to give it a pat on the head. He received a pat back and was knocked unconscious and carried off in the jaws of this great beast.
Charles Jamrach witnessed this and gave chase, jumping onto the back of this tiger and wrestling with it until the boy was released. And what of the boys grateful parents? Why they turned around and sued Jamrach for £300.
Below you will find a collection of London songs inspired by its history. From June 2010 -June 2011 I began to showcase the Old East End of London. For a year I posted weekly videos telling factual tales and then wrote and released a song inspired by the same story. These instalments are all laid out below, London songs are free to download.
To celebrate the Easter Weekend here’s a London song in memory of an old East End tradition continued to this day at the ‘Widow’s Son’ pub in Bow.
Play song above, view video for story.
Inspired by the worst slum in East End London’s history Old Nichol, here’s the song, ‘Home’. You may love your neighbourhood, you may hate your neighbourhood but I’m pretty sure no matter where you live it’s a shade better than Old Nichol, the East End’s worst area.
Play London song above, view video for story.
This song ‘Mile End Road’ is a salute to the stages of yesteryear on Mile End Road, East London. Everyone enjoys a night out at the theatre. But what about one that could include getting hit in the head by a dead cat?
Take a peek into a London history and step into an East End Penny Gaff.
View video for London story, play song above.
Just a little bit of black humour for you. May I present my latest London song inspired by a life on the end of a rope, ‘The Marshall’s Dance’. One great way for Eastenders to relax and unwind during their non-working hours, was to attend an execution.
Hope you enjoy this East End insight as much as they did.
Play song above, view video for story.
We’ve all got our gripes about the NHS but things could be a lot worse. This ‘London song a week’ entry No.25 was inspired by the silent giant that sits on Whitechapel High Street, The London Royal Hospital and it’s secrets within. Enjoy the song ‘Then & The Now’.
Play song above, view video for story.