Bethnal Green boss’s crimes unearthed in author’s book talk
PUBLISHED: 09:15 15 May 2017 | UPDATED: 09:29 15 May 2017
The legacy of a corrupt 19th century magistrate’s crimes against the East End’s poorest was exposed in a book talk at the Wanstead Tap.
Julian Woodford’s The Boss of Bethnal Green was the focus of a talk at the Forest Gate pub in Winchelsea Road, where the historian explained how chancing upon a reference to one Joseph Merceron 12 years ago led him down a path of intrigue.
While reading Roy Porter’s London: A Social History, he saw Merceron’s Bethnal Green described as “a law unto itself”, only to come across another reference to the devious developer later that day at the National Archives, leading him to “rashly promise” friends he’d write a book on a man so overlooked by history that no known portrait of him exists.
“I’d been hunting around for something to do and a story to write about,” he said. “It looked as though a lot of people had tried and nobody had gotten to the bottom of it.”
From there, Julian uncovered the sordid history of a second-generation Huguenot, whose greed grew working in his dad’s pawn shop – now Cinnamon restaurant in Brick Lane – morphing into a monetary obsession that led him to govern illicit trade across the eastern rump of Middlesex while stealing government aid for the poor.
“He was very definitely running what could only be described as organised crime,” he said. “It was rather like the mafia – his hands were never on the trigger and his hands were never dirty.”
History enthusiasts at the talk on Thursday last week heard how Merceron’s hold over pubs, brothels and breweries meant business owners would queue up to secure cheaper property rates in return for re-election.
“Rather like a scene from The Godfather, everyone would queue up at his office on a Saturday and beg for relief on the rates,” he said. “He would grant that knowing he was giving them a favour for when it was time to vote.”
Julian said his book shows how Merceron’s crooked behaviour secured Bethnal Green’s reputation as a place of neglect, disease and poverty.
The Boss of Bethnal Green can be bought from Newham Bookshop in Barking Road, Upton Park.