Wednesday, July 18, 2012

'History in the Pub IV: Eastenders' at the Bell Pub, 17th July 2012

The Bell Pub (in diorama form)

‘History in the Pub’ is the fourth in a series of events put on by the lovely people at London Historians, a club that organises visits, talks and social events for people interested in the history of London.  I’ve managed to attend every one of these evenings, even stepping up myself to give a brief talk about bizarre Georgian erotic performances during an open-mic session. Over the course of these evenings I’ve heard talks about subjects like the Gordon Riots and escapes from the Tower of London, songs about colourful characters from the East End and seen demonstrations of early wax cylinder music players.  I take to this stuff like a duck to water.

This evening’s theme was East End history, the speakers were Neil Fraser, author of ‘Over the Border: the Other East End’ and Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi, authors of ‘The Sugar Girls’.  Providing a musical interlude was Fiona-Jane Weston, a cabaret artist with an upcoming London-themed musical show 'Loving London: The Cabaret Capital'.  The compere was Matt Brown, editor of the popular (and excellent) Londonist website.

I consider myself fairly on-the-ball about the history of London, but the further I stray from Zones 1 and 2, the less I tend to know.  As far as the East End goes, I’m pretty up on Spitalfields, Whitechapel and Bethnal Green’s history, but further east than that?  “Here be dragons.”  Compared to the City and Westminster, the history of the further out parts of London is relatively calm.  Many of these places were once country manor houses with a small village surrounding them, but as the population of London exploded in the 18th and 19thcenturies the rural calm was swept away to be replaced by industrial suburbia.  The recent history of areas like Newham, Barking and Dagenham is that of the working class, of factories and docks, of the economic and physical hardships they suffered.  Historians can fall into an all too familiar trap of concentrating too much on royalty and the wealthy, ignoring the common man and woman.  This is a myopic view of history, and this is why examining the historical geography of these places is important.

First up was Neil Fraser, talking about Plaistow.  This is very much a grey area for me – a place I know only as a distant marker on the District Line.  It’s the kind of place you wake up at having fallen asleep on a tube train – mumbling “w-where the hell am I?”  Well, it’s in the London Borough of Newham, it's generally residential, contains several large council estates and was named the “6th most deprived borough in the UK” in 2007.  From the pictures Mr Fraser showed us, it doesn’t look like the most inviting of places. 

R0ws of quickly thrown up 1950s and 60s brick boxes dot the landscape, which seems to sit under a perpetual slate-grey Victorian sky.  It looks, quite frankly, very grim - it’s hard to believe these were once verdant pastures.  As Fraser put it, “London obliterated Plaistow Village”.  The way he phrases it makes you envisage London as a giant, unstoppable steamroller, flattening everything in its path – and  in many ways that’s not too far from the truth.  For a period the rural landowners tried to fight against this urban tide, and Fraser tells us a fairly humorous anecdote of a small and chaotic clash with police.  The landowners didn’t want their new, working-class neighbours to have a carnival day, where there’d be donkey races and gurning competitions and so on.  The police were called in to quell this gathering, and the situation seems to have degenerated into a chaotic milieu of police beatings with people trying to race donkeys in the middle of it.  One thing I thought was notable about this was that afterwards there was a complete blanket denial of police brutality during this riot – some things never change.

It's an entertaining tale, but it's easily the high point of this talk.  I’ve always held that the best thing a lecturer can do is speak interestingly about something interesting.  This might not always be possible, but you can easily get away with talking interestingly about something boring, or even talking boringly about something interesting.  What you should never do is talk boringly about something that’s boring.  That, unfortunately, is the area that Fraser finds himself in.  Plaistow seems to be an area that inspires little enthusiasm, even from someone that’s written a book about it (among other things).  A telling moment is when he talks about the Black Lion pub and says there are lots of interesting stories about it.  “But I don’t have time to tell you them.”  Oh.  Oh well.

 Next up was Fiona-Jane Weston singing about the history of London.  Her show covers Roman London up until the present day – and we were treated to a few songs from this catalogue.  Firstly she told us the story of her (very interesting) life.  She’s travelled around the world, living in ChinaAustralia, going to Yale University and has settled here.   Her performance tonight was entertaining, but a little bit technically marred.  Throughout the night the microphone was acting up, and both the volume of that and the pre-recorded soundtrack were quite low.  Despite this, we got a nice taste of her sharp lyrical talents, with the highlight a jaunty song about the ghost of Anne Boleyn haunting Henry VIII.  I was particularly taken with the lyric where Henry couldn’t tell which of his dead wives were haunting him, as she was carrying her head under her arm.  If nothing else it’s a nice, authentically London feeling to be sitting in an East End pub listening to someone sing bawdy and happy songs.

The last speakers, Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi, rank among the best I've seen at these nights.  They’ve recently released a book called ‘The Sugar Girls’ about the experiences of young women working in the Tate and Lyle sugar factories during WW2.  It’s perhaps not the most immediately arresting sounding subject, but proves to be a fascinating microcosm of both progressive gender politics and of conscientious treatment of workers. 

They begin by outlining the formation of the Tate & Lyle corporation.  The business began as two corporations in an intense rivalry.  The owners: Henry Tate and Abram Lyle – two men who despised each other so much that they not only refused to talk to each other, not only to never to share a train carriage – but  to the extent that they never even met in person, which is faintly impressive if you think about it.  Mr Lyle in particular seems like a particularly joyless individual, being pro-temperance to such an extent that he said he’d rather see his son brought home dead than drunk. The two had twin factories in the docks of East London, and once the two founders had died it was realised that this rivalry between the companies was causing them both financial harm – so they merged into the company we know today.  

‘The Sugar Girls’ was the nickname given to the young workers at these factories over the course of the war.  With London going through the Blitz, rationing underway and  Britain’s men off to war, thousands of girls left school at the age of fourteen to work in the factories of the East End.  And the most popular and well-regarded factories to work at were the Tate and Lyle sugar refineries.

The picture that Barrett and Calvi paint is less that of an indentured workforce, and more of a dynamic, feminine, supportive community.  The bosses of the factories were particularly progressive in their treatment of the workforce, giving them accommodation if their houses had been destroyed, holidays to the seaside if they were feeling stressed or over-worked, e free medical checkups, facilities including a barbers and even a bar on site.  This treatment seems to have fostered intense loyalty among their employees, loyalty that lasts to this day.

Even though the Tate and Lyle factories were under the same roof, the girls were encouraged to view themselves as either a Tate girl, or a Lyle girl, wearing a blue or a green uniform respectively.  This sense of competition was supported by events like the ‘Inter-Refinery Shield’, a sports day where the girls would compete against each other for the trophy.  The notion of this workforce as a miniature community within the East End is very compelling, romance was common among the workers, to the extent that the factories were known as ‘the knocking shop’; inter-company marriages were recorded and celebrated in the company magazine.

It all seems very rosy – even though this is all going on to the backdrop of London being bombarded by German bombs.  There is a slight undercurrent that maybe things weren’t quite utopian, mention is made of girl’s fingers bleeding from working so fast, or the deafening noise of the machines forcing them to learn to lipread, but on the whole people seem to have nothing but positive things to say about their time there – with interview subjects describing it as “the happiest time of their life”. 

It is glimpses into a past that I never knew existed that I like about these ‘History in the Pub’ nights.  Without them, I might never have learnt about this community and this fairly unique example of how to treat a workforce fairly and with dignity.  It is also one of the few historical talks that I've seen elicit an "awwwww'" reaction of sweetness from a largely academic audience.

Aside from the speakers, the attendees and organisers are as friendly as ever.  The quiz, is, as usual, devilishly difficult, yet even though my team frequently gets maybe 3 or 4 out of 10, it’s a great way to learn interesting bits of trivia about London.  I’ve run past the shelters in Victoria Park countless times, and had never realised that they were once part of old London Bridge!  I always look forward to these nights, and wish they were more frequent.  Big thank-yous to the Mike Paterson and the rest of the organisers for what is consistently a fascinating evening.

One day soon I will sign up and be an official 'London Historian', I promise!

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