Author Jane Cox’s ‘Old East Enders’ stops at 1800—with no Jack the Ripper
PUBLISHED: 12:00 18 December 2013
The past comes alive when Jane Cox drives through London’s ancient East End—the “debris” of today vanishes from her windscreen.
Nothing less than 200 years old will do for this retired archivist-turned-author whose latest book, ‘Old East Enders’, is out this week.
Her home is stocked with old books and ancient London street maps going back to the 18th century with the country villages of Stepney and Mile End and showing Bethnal Green when it really was green and cows grazed along the Hackney Road.
“The past is more alive to me than the present,” the 71-year-old admits. “I can see it when I drive through Whitechapel—the old St Mary’s church where Altab Ali Park is today, the old village green, the ducking pond, the dog pound, the watch-house and the turnpike. All the debris of modern living disappears.”
But her latest work goes back much further, cherry-picking its way to the Bronze Age, long before Roman legions marched through Whitechapel.
"People always think when you mention the East End that you’re talking about Jack the Ripper and old music halls—but there really was an East End before the Whitechapel Murders"
“It’s an account of seven-and-a-half square miles of the East End, from prehistoric times when rhinos probably roamed Bethnal Green,” she explains.
“I stop, however, around 1800AD when the London Docks were built. It doesn’t interest me after that.”
East End life existed well before London itself, she contends. The City was only created when the Romans landed and needed a place to dock on the tidal Thames.
“There was a prehistoric settlement in Old Ford by the River Lea, with an Iron Age cattle market,” Jane points out. “Archaeologists have found many cow bones where Lefevre Walk is today.”
Jane launched her book at a talk at Bethnal Green’s Rich Mix arts centre, signing copies for dedicated followers who came to marvel at her collection of street maps of the old East End going back to Georgian times.
Her family had been in the East End since the 17th century.
“I used to listen to my mother’s stories when I was a child about the East End,” she recalls. “But it became apparent when I was at Queen Mary College how much the history of the East End had been neglected.”
So she set about correcting the imbalance, but hastily avoids the 19th and 20th centuries, largely because of Jack the Ripper who she has never forgiven for stealing the spotlight away from the real East End story.
“Working at the National Archive as I did puts you right off Ripperology, I can tell you.
“The nuts that used to come in researching Jack the Ripper—‘there really was an East End before the Whitechapel Murders’, I would say.
“People always think when you mention the East End that you’re talking about the Ripper and old music halls.
“I nearly call the book ‘Before Jack the Ripper’, but that would have only confused people!”
There is a big gap in her research lasting hundreds of years, when the Dark Ages descended as the Roman legions returned home to save the empire, taking their writing, law and order with them.
Nothing much is recorded about the East End after that until the year 1000. It was a leap year, starting on a Monday. Ethelred was king of Saxon England.
“A tax list by the king raising funds to build ships to fight the Danes is the first reference to Stepney by name,” Jane tells you. “The list mentions ‘Stibbon Hythe’—that’s Saxon for Stepney.
“But then, of course, things are recorded with a vengeance 86 years on, in the Doomsday Book of 1086 after the Normans invaded.”
It’s down hill for researches from then on, with more archive documents than you can shake a medieval stick at.
Her favourite document is Elizabethan Sir Arthur Throckmorton’s diary she found in Canterbury Cathedral’s library. Sir Arthur was Walter Raleigh’s brother-in-law who lived in “a very big, posh house” at Mile End Old Town, where the East London Mosque is today.
“His diary talks about his wife’s post-natal depression and he’s worried she won’t lay with him,” Jane enthuses.
“Sir Arthur keeps having funny turns, taking pills and spending a fortune with his physician and the apothecary, paying his doctors as much in a day as his tithes to Stepney parish church in a year.
“He was magnificently rich, old money from the landed gentry, the aristocracy, going way back.”
His doctor was also rich by the end of the day.
Throckmorton would spend 15gns (£15.75) on a dress for his wife when a house in Wapping would cost £3, her research found. It highlights the stark contrast and the gap between the Elizabethan rich and the East End’s poor.
Old East Enders, by Jane Cox, £25 (History Press).