Last night BBC1 broadcast the documentary “The Last Whites Of The East End”, focusing on the London Borough of Newham where I’ve lived for the last few years. The central premise of the documentary was “…the decline of the traditional cockney in a borough with the lowest white British population of anywhere in the country”. Pre-broadcast coverage had been eagerly picked up by right leaning tabloids in the UK and by right-wing websites across Europe and the US as that premise rather neatly fits into a common narrative where white natives are characterised as an oppressed minority.
Ahead of its broadcast this build-up had me feeling somewhat queasy; the current political climate in the UK – with regard to the recent London mayoral elections and the upcoming referendum on EU membership – is one where debate has been largely reduced to scaring the electorate into submission. With the country’s economy far from stable, many people’s employment fragile and earnings flat, fear is both an effective and simultaneously highly volatile campaigning tactic. And into the midst of that came “The Last Whites Of The East End”.
Speaking ahead of broadcast, the documentary’s producer Kelly Close (of Brighton-based independent production company Lambent Productions) said “I hope that our film goes some way to liberate and question some unheard voices [..] and also to discuss the complexities and ironies of the exodus of the white British from this iconic place that is so much a part of their identity.”
Complexities and ironies. Let’s start there.
Newham, East London and “The East End”.
The idea that Newham is in somehow iconic, is wrapped up in the complexities of what consists of the “East End”. The notion of the East End itself – and that of the associated cockney identity, Dick Whittington and the sound of the Bow Bells – is one that people seem to believe can be somehow moved about to suit a narrative. Yet, it is one which is very specifically located; the bells that were supposed to draw Whittington back to 14th Century London came from the church of St Mary-le-Bow on Cheapside. At that point in history right through to the middle of the 19th century, all of what makes up modern day Newham was fields.
The dividing line between the East End and East London are really set by the historic boundaries of London that existed right up until the re-organization of the city’s government in 1965 and largely established by the London Building Act in 1844. That bill set out to “regulate activities that might threaten public health” and pushed any such industries to east of the River Lea. Largely rural at this point, the arrival of the District Line a decade later and the arrival of heavy industry and expansion of the docks saw a huge expansion in population of what is now Newham growing from 13,000 in 1831 to over 450,000 by 1931. That reorganisation of London’s government in 1965 saw the merger of the Essex County Borough’s of East Ham and West Ham to form the new London Borough of Newham, with a population at that point plummeting; 200,000 down from that peak in the 1930’s.
If we’re to see Newham as iconic, then that status is one which is wedded to a notion based on a mythology certainly not based on any historical basis in fact.
Authenticity and East London
“The Last Whites Of The East End” does therefore try to enforce upon Newham an identity that it decided that it should have, rather than the one it possesses. Visually it cherry-picked elements supportive of this narrative – I doubt Nathan’s on Barking Road has appeared more on TV in its history than in the last few weeks – focused on Upton Park, West Ham United and referencing the club’s impending move to somehow symbolise a significant point on the presupposed “white flight” from the area. Whilst the documentary didn’t directly suggest causality between a cultural shift in Newham and West Ham United leaving the Boleyn Ground, that inference was certainly present. That this represented a somehow authentic “East End”. The surrounding and thriving mercantile district that is Green Street was dismissed in vox pop as being “like Baghdad” by contrast.
When the vox pop referenced the closing of pubs being a direct effect of immigration – and not say by the closure of the Boleyn Ground itself for example – edited on top was an image of a derelict building. I imagine that the producers believed it to be a former pub. It isn’t, it was the Tate Institute in Silvertown, built just across the road from his – still active – sugar works by Sir Henry Tate in the late 19th century for the benefit (and betterment) of his workers. In that is where we can start to get to those aforementioned ironies.
Whilst Newham doesn’t fit the “East End” that the producers and I suspect the country at large figures it is part of, it does have an equally compelling and historically accurate character which in part helps unpick the complexities of why some here feel threatened by changing demographics of the borough.
The Valid and Invalid voices of Newham
The historical origins of Newham can be simply be summarised as being the place where London outsourced its “foul trades” to. A two minute walk from my house and you find the building that once housed the factory that made the adhesive “Gloy”. It located here because the area also housed large-scale facilities for horse slaughter. Take a short walk away from the water skiing in the Royal Docks under the flyover to the south and today you’ll find a plant rendering animal carcasses for pet food right next to a petrochemicals plant. 5 minutes beyond that you’ll find the site of the Brunner Mond TNT factory that exploded in 1917 killing 73 local residents.
Walk back towards the Tate Institute and you’ll pass the former locations of heavy industries from ship repair, manufacturing of fertilizer (using bird guano imported by ship from South America) and marmalade. You’ll see the Tate and Lyle’s plants still churning out granulated sugar and golden syrup. Even though the borough now has the developments at Stratford – centered upon the Olympic Park – to stand as a signifier for the future, that is built on a site that previously a housed a massive facility for train manufacture and maintenance. Newham has dirt under its fingernails.
Those – like me – who are new to the borough since the end of the mass employment brought about by these heavy industries lack the connection that a diminishing part of local population has to that heritage. Everything that arrives once that heritage becomes enshrined in a mythology is somehow unauthentic, invalid and unwanted. When amidst the impending threat posed to jobs in London’s Docks by containerization in the late 1960’s, whose flag did a significant proportion of dockers rally to? Those warning of the dangers of immigration.
Conformation Bias & “The Last Whites Of The East End”
I’ve gone the long way around the houses to get there, but in summary Newham has had a history of being asked to take on all the jobs that the rest of London couldn’t really stomach. It did the hard, dirty and dangerous things and all it got in reward was the sack. It’s no wonder that for the gradually diminishing community that can count connection to that past has brittle feelings to anything that threatens anything that remains of rag bag of traditions and mythologies. For those beyond that community itself, documentaries like “Last Whites Of The East End” do little but pander to our own preceding views, whether that be supportive or dismissive of the what some of the voices cited as the effects of the borough’s changing face.
A short walk from the sad wreck of the Tate Institute, in what once was St Mark’s Church now houses the “Brick Lane Music Hall“, where coach parties can enjoy a “Cockney Sing-Song (Matinee performance with afternoon tea)” and for rest of this month a “St George’s Day Show” and it holds UK Coach Awards “Britain’s Friendliest Venue” accolade. Whatever I might think about the merits of Newham as the last bastion of the East End, seems there are plenty of eager show-goers that seem to disagree.