In the opening of The Go-Between (1953), the novelist L.P. Hartley wrote famously: “The past is a foreign country…”. The phrase has been overused to the point of proverb, but it returned to mind recently when working on the history of an East End London family in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
This family resided for more than 150 years near the Thames in Stepney, Ratcliff and Shadwell, working on the dockside as labourers and coopers and selling fruit and vegetables in the local markets. Occasionally someone branched out into a new profession such as ‘cabinet-making’ or ventured north to the environs of Bethnal Green, but seldom for long.
Yet, despite the family’s deep roots and very evident sense of rootedness in Stepney, finding them in the records and understanding the context of their lives often proved a significant challenge. And, it’s a challenge that is common to other parts of the capital.
One of the principal tests in researching this part of London is that today it looks nothing like it did pre-WW2. Many of the streets in which Victorian Londoners lived and worked simply no longer exist. Give or take the odd surviving landmark such as St. Dunstan’s Church (built in the 15th century), the 20th century decline of Thames trade, the Blitz and slum clearance initiatives of the 1960s, have cumulatively rendered Stepney and its neighbouring districts unrecognisable. The Victorians who navigated its highways and byways, its wharves and markets in the nineteenth century occupied a terrain that is literally and figuratively “a foreign country.”
Ways of mapping
As the excellent BBC2 series The Secret History of our Streets recently highlighted, there are a few tools available to help us overcome this, to ‘map’ and understand the geographical context of London lives. The ‘Poverty Maps‘, produced by Victorian social reformer Charles Booth between 1886 and 1903, are a fascinating and incredibly valuable source of information. They describe the socio-economic condition of each one of London’s streets according to a detailed colour key. By comparing present day maps to other contemporaneous maps, such as Reynold’s Map of East London (1882), we can also locate streets that have over time completely disappeared.
Understanding the terminology
The unfamiliarity of Victorian London is not helped by the fact that terms used in the records can be very confusing. The same names may be used in different contexts to indicate a parish registration district or borough, and the boundaries of these units themselves also changed over time as London expanded. Stepney and Bethnal Green, for example, were part of Middlesex before they were incorporated into the county of London in 1889.
Of course the challenges of researching East London ancestors are not just geographical. Some are associated with the general problems of carrying out research in a densely populated metropolis. Simply, there are many more variables to contend with in a city than in a rural community. The Victorian East End is especially challenging given that during the nineteenth century it contained some of the poorest and most overcrowded neighbourhoods in the capital. Life expectancy was lower than in other parts of the city and infant mortality more common. To boot, the population was relatively transient and the area was a traditional magnet for immigrants arriving in the capital – from Huguenots in the eighteenth century to Eastern European Jews in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Some of the most atmospheric sources of information about Victorian East London are early photographs. It can be useful to consult these to get a feel for the world beyond the records. The missionary John Galt took an amazing collection of photographs of Poverty in East London, some of which you can see here. The Museum of London, the British Library and the Guidhall also have some fascinating online collections.
Here are some other useful sources of information for researching London ancestors:
- Archives in London and the M25 area
- British History Online
- London Lives
- Dictionary of Victorian London
- London Street Name Changes