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.
This week, I tell the story of Angela Burdett-Coutts, heiress of an enormous fortune, East End philanthropist and cradle snatcher.
“Angela knew that many of the suitors lining up were only after one thing, well that and the other thing, her money. So she decided to stay single and instead help those around her.”
Watch the video and enjoy the London song ‘Roll Baby, Roll’.
To kick things off, Ruairidh Anderson tells the tale of Charlie Brown, famous landlord of the Railway Tavern in Limehouse, who assembled a pub full of wonders.
“Over the years, after being thrown around on the waves, seaman would flock to this pub and along with their bizarre and exotic venereal diseases, would bring treasures and trophies from travels around the globe.”
Watch the video and enjoy the London song inspired by this tale ‘Here Comes Charlie Brown!’
Charlie Brown of Limehouse
In the late 1800’s a retired boxer named Charlie Brown bought a pub out in Limehouse in Tower Hamlets. Pretty soon word spread amongst the docks via the sailors and the stevedores, that this place was a pub to be at because the landlord could tell a joke and a story with the best of them.
Over the years that followed, after being thrown around on the high seas, sailors would flock to this pub and along with their bizarre and exotic venereal diseases, they brought with them treasures and trophies from their travels around the globe. An 800 year old Chinese antique, a Ming vase, sharks teeth, a two headed calf were just some of the things that ended up being displayed in Charlie Brown’s Railway Tavern.
Over time this establishment developed a reputation as a museum. Socialites, royalty, celebrities and the common man, would stream into this place and see objects that they had never seen before. Items from far beyond the reaches of the Thames. When he died in 1932, Charlie Brown had the largest funeral of the early 20th century. 16,000 people turned up to see this man off. The ‘Uncrowned King of Limehouse’ laid to rest.
Today Charlie Brown is remembered thanks to a roundabout named in his honour in Ilford.
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.
Here’s ‘When The Lion Roars’ in memory of one of London’s finest social activists, Frederick Charrington. Some would say he was mad, others would claim he was a saint. Whichever way you look at it Charrington was certainly an interesting character and one passionate individual.
The family name can be found all over the East End of London but Frederick broke the family mould and in doing so cemented a place in London history. Play London song above, view video for story.
So everybody’s heard of Jack the Ripper right but what about Spring-Heeled Jack? He’s an East End character a lot more mysterious. So much so he inspired this London song, ‘Spring-Heeled Jack’.
Play song above, view video for story.
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.
To mark the centenary of London’s bloodiest shootout I give you London song no. 31 ‘Hide & Seek’. A fracas that involved hundreds of policemen, the Scotch Guard, some scared revolutionaries and Winston Churchill himself has resulted in a free MP3.
Play song above, view video for story.