The term ‘East End’, was a recent invention of the early 1880’s.  But it soon caught on and was enthusiastically embraced by the popular press who used it to create an image of the area as an area of poverty, crime and deprivation.  The East End is traditionally the area that is bound in the south by the Thames, the east by the River Lea, the west by the City of London and to the north by the borough border between Tower Hamlets and Hackney. Some of these books cover East London generally, so will include areas such as Hackney and Stratford.


The following books are eye-witness accounts of life in the East End during the days before gentrification started to change the area for ever.  For those of you who have been on any one of my East End walks, these are the books from which I frequently quote as they help bring to life an area that has changed out of all recognition.

An East End Family Memoir

Melanie McGrath writes about her grandparents Jenny and Len Page scraping a living in Poplar and then Silvertown before the first World War.  It charts the tough but vibrant way of life that was eventually lost forever with the decline of the docks in 1970s.


Cockney Life in the East End

Born in 1919 in Shadwell, Louis Heren’s father had been a printer on the Times and died when Louis was 4, leaving his mother to run the City of London Dining Rooms opposite the gate of London Docks.  The book traces Louis’ life starting as a messenger boy in Printing House Square and finally retiring in 1981 as both deputy editor and foreign editor of the Times.


MY EAST ENDGilda O’Neill
Memories of Life in Cockney London in the 1950s

Born in 1951 into a traditional East End family in Bethnal Green Gilda O’Neill describes the life of early post war London….home to poverty, violence and gangs, but also a great sense of community.



This is the book that gave rise to the immensely popular TV series….I could never get on with the series, but the book is a different matter.  It is not sugar-coated like the TV series but gives an unembroidered account of the terrible conditions for women and children, but also the strong community spirit, determination and sharp sense of humour of the East Enders.

Come on my Poplar walk and although the original convent no longer exists, there are still many traces of Jenny Worth’s Poplar.


The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum

This is not an eye-witness account but a detailed history of one small area of the East End and its redevelopment.  We now know it as the Boundary Estate at Arnold Circus in Shoreditch. This estate, one of the earliest social housing schemes built by a local authority (the newly formed LCC), replaced the ‘Old Nichol’ – even by East End standards a notorious slum – with a mortality rate twice that of neighbouring Bethnal Green. Nearly 6,000 people were crammed into 30 or so streets of rotting dwellings, many of which were owned by the Church!

For me this book brought to life, more than any other account, not only the sheer horror of poverty and deprivation of Victorian slums, but the greed of Victorian capitalism and the sometimes misguided philanthropy of the new social housing schemes.



Life and Traditions

Jane Cox is an historian whose family has lived in the East End since the 18c.  Her book recreates life in the East End over the last five centuries with anecdotes, folk tales, excerpts from contemporary diaries, court cases, newspapers and letters, as well as over 100 photos, paintings, maps and engravings.

This is one of my favourite books on the East End as it really paints a vivid picture of life of the ordinary people, with lots of wonderful illustrations, photos and maps.  It is one of the few histories that goes right back to Celtic origins – its first chapter entitled ‘Celtic Twilight to the Middle Ages’.  If you just want one history book buy this one.


A History of East London

This more academic book tells the story of East London from its humble beginnings outside the City walls to the redevelopment of the Docklands and the 2012 Olympics. It explores the relationship between the East End and the rest of London, and as hinted in its title, covers areas such as Hackney and Stratford , which lie outside the ‘East End’.

This is in my view one of the best general histories of East London, written in a very readable style, yet full of historical fact and well-researched information.  But it runs to over 350 pages of small type so only for those who like meaty tomes and have a real desire to study the history of East London in some depth.  I read it whilst attending a 6 week course on the East End of London at the Bishopsgate Institute (see below for current online courses) and it proved a very helpful background text book.


Four Centuries of London Life

Alan Palmer grew up on the fringes of east London and remembers it in the 1930s and 1940s.  He was a school master in north London for over 20 years and his clear style and level of detail reflect  that training. His history of the East End takes us back through four centuries of life in this great melting-pot, which was once the very centre of Empire trade. His particular emphasis is on the stories of the peoples and goods that have flowed both in and out of the area as well as ‘extremes’ of small deprived streets and grand Hawksmoor churches, of great social campaigners like George Lansbury and criminals like the Krays.

This lies somewhere between the previous two books. It is more of a traditional ‘history book’ than Jane Cox’s illustrated history, but less challenging that John Marriott’s.  It also concentrates much more on the social history aspect than John Marriott’s more all-encompassing history.


Three Hundred Years of Mystery and Mayhem

This book as its title suggests concentrates on the darker side of East End history, the unusual and arcane stories of its streets and people – from the mystics of Wellclose Square to the gory Radcliffe Highway murders, from Huguenot silk weavers to the horrors of the Black Death, from the heyday of the great docks to the gentrification of Spitalfields – revealing the underbelly of the city as never before.

Ed Glinert is first and foremost a journalist, but also a guide who specialises in guided walks (mainly of Manchester), so he knows about telling interesting stories.  As a result this book is much more of a fun and fascinating read than a straight history.  I use it a lot to source stories and snippets of history for my walks.


THE EAST ENDRichard Tames
An Illustrated A-Z Historical Guide

This is more of an encyclopaedia of East London and it covers a wider area than the traditional East End – such as sites in Hackney and Stratford.  Sites and themes are listed alphabetically.  It starts with Abbey Mills Pumping Station (the ‘Cathedral of Sewage’) and Abney Park Cemetery, and ends with Israel Zangwill – author of ‘Children of the Ghetto’ and the play ‘The Melting Pot’ and die Zeit – a Yiddish newspaper closed in 1950.

Richard Tames is a fellow blue badge guide and prolific author on London.  I find this book so useful as a reference for sites and themes that I cover on my walks.  It is full of fascinating background facts, but also ‘human interest’ stories and great old photos, maps and illustrations.  If you are missing exploring the streets of London (with or without me!), get this book and you can flip through it a do a virtual tour of the streets of East London.



A website that posts approx every week on an area of London.

Written by the anonymous ‘This Gentle Author’, this is a collection of lively pen portraits and short articles about the infinite variety of life in Spitalfields, both today and in the past – subjects such as street life, street art, markets, immigrant culture, pageants and parades, rituals and customs, traditional trades and old family businesses.  Subjects are as diverse as ‘Lost worlds of the Laundrette’ or ‘Shakespeare in Spitalfields.

The website is very well designed so you can search by theme, by date, or by word search.   You can sign up to a daily blog or just go to the website and start exploring!  Or you can buy the book ‘Spitalfields Life’ – by The Gentle Author best bought via the website.


A website that posts approx every week on an area of London.

The author’s father took photos of London from 1946 – 1954…these photos he uses as a base to explore the history of small areas of London and then shows how they have changed over time (going much further back than his father’s photos) with maps, old pictures and modern photos.




Celebrating 125 years in 2020 the Bishopsgate Institute was “erected for the benefit of the public” in 1894, with the motto “I never stop learning”. Their purpose has not changed.

At present the Institute’s Building on Bishopsgate is closed but they are offering on-line courses.  They are great quality and fantastic value.
e.g from Mar.1 for 5 Monday evenings (7.30 -9.00pm) -  ‘A short history of London’s East End (1880 -1970)’ The whole course costs only £67/or £50 concessions!


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