Story of East London Advertiser, 1866-2008

ONE century and four decades of reporting the news of London’s vibrant East End made 2006 a special year for the East London Advertiser, now celebrating more than 140 years of publishing. We began life as the grandly-titled Tower Hamlets Independent and East End Local Advertiser in the days before the County of London was even set up, when the hamlets around the Tower of London were all part of the old Middlesex county

By Mike Brooke

ONE century and four decades of reporting the news of London's vibrant East End made 2006 a special year for the East London Advertiser, now celebrating more than 140 years of publishing.

We began life as the grandly-titled Tower Hamlets Independent and East End Local Advertiser in the days before the County of London was even set up, when the hamlets around the Tower of London were all part of the old Middlesex county.

London was already expanding eastward along the Thames, with the building of Brunel's now-world heritage masterpiece Thames tunnel at Wapping, opened two decades before in 1843.

Each district was its own municipality with its own Board of Guardians, like Limehouse, Mile End Old Town, Bromley-by-Bow, Bethnal Green, Whitechapel and St George's-in-the-East, looking after parish interests including the local workhouse.

They came under division boards of works for essential utilities like gas and water, regulating the mains suppliers such as the Gas, Light & Coke Company.

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It was another 22 years before an act of Parliament in 1888 set up the London County Council, in a new metropolis carved out of Middlesex on the north side of the Thames and Surrey on the south side, ironically the year of Jack the Ripper's Whitechapel Murders.

London was growing and expanding, continually spreading outward, swallowing up more and more towns and villages like Poplar, Bromley and Bethnal Green, adding new suburbs further out as it grew.

It was in this period of expansion that Tower Bridge, now the most recognisable iconic symbol of London, was opened in 1894 to relieve London Bridge of its horse-drawn traffic congestion.

The growth in population as the urban metropolis mushroomed led to 28 Metropolitan boroughs being established in 1900, like Stepney, Bethnal Green and Poplar, it what is now recognised as Inner London, from the River Lea in the east to Hammersmith in the west, Stoke Newington in the north to Camberwell and Crystal Palace in the south.

The name 'Whitechapel' by that time was quietly being dropped with its recent 'Ripper' memories, under pressure from the wealthy merchants and maritime traders of along the Thames adopting the name Stepney taken from a more 'middle class' parish.

Our first edition on November 17, 1866, reported the typhus epidemic sweeping the parish of Bethnal Green and the fight by environmentalists of the day to save the new Victoria Park from the gas companies' encroaching on "our only remaining green space."

Our editorial spoke of "the want which has been long felt especially in the Hamlet of Mile End Old Town for a local paper solely devoted to the interests of the ratepayers, especially its justice and impartiality."

The paper promised its early readers to campaign on the issues of the day: Parliamentary reform, rates reform (council tax forerunner) and preservation of open spaces for the people. Nothing changes, it seems.

The big stories down the decades included the 1888 Whitechapel Murders, when Jack the Ripper was on the loose targeting prostitutes in the streets of Whitechapel and Spitalfields.

We ran 9,000 words on the inquest of one of his victims, Annie Chapman, found slain in a passageway in Hanbury-street, off Commercial-street, such was the public fascination in the gruesome atrocities. That year also saw the matchmakers' strike at Bryant & May's factory in Bow.

We covered all the big events of the day, from the opening of Tower Bridge in 1994 to the death of Queen Victoria in 1901.

The paper was the voice of social justice, highlighting the plight in Edwardian London of a Mile End bakery worker in 1905, for example, who was 'worked to death' on slave wages. The inquest returned a verdict of death due to overwork.

The Advertiser was on the scene when Russian anarchists led by the infamous 'Peter the Painter' shot dead three police detectives in a shoot-out in Houndsditch that led to the infamous 'Siege of Sidney Street' in Mile End Old Town two weeks later.

We were there in 1917 to record the first atrocity against civilians in the Great War when German bombers targeting the Millwall Docks dropped their bombs on Upper North Street Elementary school in Poplar, killing 18 children "like a flash out of the sunny summer skies, hurling tiny victims into eternity."

We saw the great rates strike of 1921 when 30 Poplar borough councillors led by George Lansbury went to prison rather than level the same high London County precept rates on the East End's poor as the wealthier boroughs like Westminster.

We reported the docks brought to a standstill during the 1926 General Strike, with clashes in East India Dock Road between dockers and the troops brought in to unload the ships.

We were there 10 years later when Mosley's fascist Blackshirts tried to march through the predominantly Jewish garment district of Whitechapel in 1936 and were stopped by the crowds at Gardiner's Corner.

The blackshirts switched tactics and tried marching through Cable-street instead.

But the crowds got wind of it and barricaded the narrow thoroughfare through Dockland, aided by Irish dockers who overturned a lorry to block the fascist march. The battle that followed involved a mass of 200,000 angry protesters determined that 'they shall not pass.'

The Blackshirts retreated and the humiliation of the 'Battle of Cable Street' marked the beginning of the decline of fascism in Britain in the volatile period of 'The Depression' years.

The Advertiser was a vital link in the six years of the Second World War that soon engulfed Europe, for the second time in a generation, when the East End and the especially the London Docks along the Thames were devastated by nightly air raids in the Blitz.

There were tragedies to record, despite heavy wartime press censorship, like the 173 men, women and children crushed to death in March, 1943, in a stampede at the unfinished Bethnal Green Tube station being used as an air-raid shelter. Most were suffocated in just 90 seconds, falling over one another on the narrow staircase that should have led to safety under ground.

The nightly air raids had stopped, but new rocket guns being test-fired in Victoria Park caused panic in the streets which turned into a mad dash for the shelter.

More civilian tragedy was to follow before the end of the war, most of which we could not report because of wartime press censorship. Many stories only emerged in the weeks after the War ended in Europe in April 1945.

That's when we reported on the first German 'doodlebug' flying bomb to hit London, which destroyed a row of houses in Grove-road, Mile End, killing six civilians including a six-month-old baby boy and his teenage mum.

Months later, the V2 rocket bombs began their reign of terror over London.

The last V2 on London smashed down on Hughes Mansions in Vallance-road, Whitechapel, in the spring of 1945. The five storey block collapsed like a pack of cards, killing 130 people, mostly women and children.

Respite came just eight weeks later with Victory in Europe and the East End came out to celebrate with street parties on VE Day on a bright day in May, 1945.

The post-war years saw rejuvenation and mass slum clearance and bombsite redevelopment.

The newly-crowned Queen Elizabeth II toured the East End to meet her people the day after her coronation in June, 1953. The adoring crowds lining the route through Bethnal Green, Bow, Mile End and Whitechapel mobbed her.

We were there to record the news that affected people's lives in the years since, including the 1969 Old Bailey trial of the Krays who ruled the East End's underworld in the 1950s and 60s with their ruthless empire of terror.

The Krays' downfall came with the callous murder of petty criminal George Cornell in the Blind Beggar pub in Whitechapel, in front of a bar full of witnesses.

The Kray twins Ronnie and Reggie, who grew up in Vallance-road, Whitechapel, ended up in the dock at the Old Bailey in 1969 along with older brother Charlie, receiving jail sentences of 30 years. They died in prison before the end of the 20th century.

The 1980s saw mass industrial unrest in the print industry when press baron Rupert Murdock moved his newspapers, The Times, The Sun, News of the World and The Sunday Times out of their traditional home around Fleet Street and opened his new printworks in the old London Docks at Wapping.

Printworkers fiercely resisted the move which also brought in new technology in the industry. It led to clashes in 1986 involving riot police and mounted police charging at demonstrators besieging what became known as 'Fortress Wapping.'

We celebrated our centenary in November, 1966, then continued reporting past the Millennium and into the 21st century, marking our 140th birthday in November, 2006.

Today, we report weekly on the issues of the day that matter to East Enders as the campaigning newspaper we set out to be in 1866.

The East London Advertiser reached the top of its 142-year publishing history in June, 2008, when the media industry voted us Britain's local Newspaper of the Year.

We continue as the East End's campaigning Voice of the East End since 1866.

Mike Brooke