Throughout the latter half of the 19th century, the East End of London became the focus of a huge amount of press coverage that highlighted the horrific living conditions in the district.
This led to a huge movement that saw charities, philanthropic institutions and well-meaning individuals flock to the district intent on bringing relief to the poor and improving the social conditions.
The Jack the Ripper murders, of 1888, further highlighted these conditions, and they were jumped on by the socially-minded to highlight the need for change in the district.
FUNDS WERE NEEDED
Of course, charity needed money, and so the philanthropists went to work in ensuring that articles were published in the newspapers in order to prick the consciences of the wealthier citizens, with a view to encouraging them to contribute financially to the charitable organisations that were active in the area.
In turn, these articles portrayed the worst aspects of the worst enclaves of everyday life in the East End, and, in so doing, they conveyed the impression that the whole of the East End was a hotbed of vice, villainy, destitution and disease.
AN UNFAIR PORTRAYAL
It was this impression that stuck in the public consciousness, and, if the truth is told, it is this impression that still forms our imagery of the East End today.
In reality, it was only small pockets of the East End of London to which these descriptions applied. Indeed, large parts of the district were respectable and well-to-do and were inhabited by honest, heart-working residents, who were none too pleased about the way in which their neighbourhoods were tarred with the same brush that had portrayed the worst segments of East End society.
APPRAISING EAST LONDON
On Saturday, 4th May, 1895, The East London Observer, took issue with the way in which the area was depicted in the media:-
East of the Algate pump lies a land which, although often written about and investigated by both professionals and amateurs, is but little known for what it is in reality.
Often in the past, East London has been libelled with impunity, and it seems almost like slaying the slain to again refute exaggerated misstatements and calumnious representations in regard to the character of the East End and its people.
Yet literary men and “smart” journalists hard up for sensational “copy” continually pay us their unwelcome attentions.
TALES OF MEAN STREETS
Mr. Athur Morrison, whose short stories are so popular, has devoted his talents to depicting life in East London by means of “Tales in Mean Streets,” which productions Mr. T. P. O’Connor, M.P., whose personal acquaintance with the East End should have taught him better, has gushingly described as an “East End Apocalypse.”
Mr. Morrison’s characters are taken from the gutter, and “Billy Chope” can no more be truthfully advertised as a representative of the East End masses than the Piccadilly dude can be regarded as representative of West End society.
Mr. Morrison has been singularly successful in catching the vernacular of the low public-house and the factory – that is all; and his stories and his characters might have been drawn with equal effect from the Borough, Notting Hill, or Holloway.
This is the last unpleasant dose in a long course of disparaging treatment, and it can, therefore, be understood that any fair and impartial statement of what East London is can be enthusiastically appreciated.
DEFENDED BY THE REVEREND INGRAM
Such a statement – clear, concise, and moderate – was the sermon preached by the Rev. A. F. Winnington Ingram at St. Paul’s Cathedral on the occasion of the consecration of Bishop Browne.
Mr. Ingram, as the head of Oxford House, Bethnal Green, has had many opportunities of studying East End character, and unlike the professional philanthropists and charity-mongers, he does not draw dreadful pictures for the purpose of reaching the pockets of the sympathetic; but on the contrary, he gives East London its due.
He says:- “There are homes in East London to compare with any in the West; homes flowing with the milk of human kindness and the honey of home love. It is a libel on the district to ignore these bright witnesses shining out like stars on a dark night.”
To find such a tribute in high places, after the many extraordinary things that have been said in public and by the Press about the wholesale degradation and despair of East Londoners, is like coming unexpectedly across an oasis in the desert.
It deserves all the publicity which can be given to it.
THERE ARE CERTAINLY BLACKSPOTS
Of course, there are the black spots; misery and poverty exist as the consequence of drunkenness, idleness, dishonesty, and want of character, but we contend that these are the abnormal and not the general conditions of the East End, which is not wholly a land for the social castaways.
We have broad streets, good houses, and well-to-do folk.
The local government of most of our districts will compare more than favourably with that in many other parts of London.
GREAT EFFORTS BEING MADE
Further than that, there are elevating, ameliorative, and educative influences at work, and although the scum often comes to the top, the great effort which is being made to teach thrift, honesty, and self-respect is beginning to make itself felt.
Socially, there is no need to despair, but rather, good ground for congratulation.
Progress has been and is being made, and it would be a distinct compliment to East End character and enterprise if writers in search of “fetching” subjects would leave us severely alone.”