Whitechapel was the scene of the infamous Jack the Ripper murders just two decades earlier
A three-mile stroll from St. Katharine Dock to Canary Wharf takes in some unexpected delights as the history of the East End is laid out along the Thames
The East End of London laps up against the moneyed walls of the City of London. The expression, East End, is both a geographic identifier and a state of mind; this part of London has at times been the most feared and the most fashionable district in London.
As long ago as 1903, author Jack London wrote The People of the Abyss, his first-hand account of living in Whitechapel, scene just two decades earlier of the infamous Jack the Ripper murders. Here was squalor and crime that we would now call Third World in scale. It took courage for the faint-hearted to enter this district of sweatshops, slaughterhouses and docks bringing the wealth of empire and world to London, then the world’s largest city.
In the Swinging ’60s, the evil of the East End was personified by the gangster Kray Twins, whose iron misrule made them mad, bad and dangerous to cross. Quietly, abandoned warehousing and dilapidated side streets saw the first wave of gentrification that would herald the arrival of completely new East Enders. Now, with precincts such as Shoreditch, Hoxton and Old Street, parts of the East End have become some of the most achingly fashionable districts in London. The young Bohos who live in what were once sweatshops congregate from all over to enjoy the fashionable vibe.
At the same time, the East End also laps up against Old Father Thames, and an exploration of this part of the East End now reveals an attractive strand of living that is miles away from the art crowd flooding Hoxton, or the down-at-heel that still gravitate to the Commercial Road. From St. Katharine Dock is a route barely three miles in length that takes the walker from the foot of the walls of a Norman castle to the shiny canyons of Gotham on Thames in the glittering Docklands commercial center.
Set off on a short walk away from the river and the glitzy rigging of the yachts and sailing boats moored at St. Katharine Docks, and you will find Wilton’s Music Hall. Down a nondescript pathway, this jewel of Victorian music hall is still a thriving musical and entertainment venue.
The restoration of the site has resurrected the interior and invites those who love live theater. Its exterior remains elegantly wasted, distressed yet alluring. Self-styled as The City’s hidden stage, it has an off-Broadway approach to entertainment that rewards the theatergoer.
Farther along, stroll down Cable Street. Now a mix of Victorian and postwar development, this modest street was once the most famous in the land. In late 1936, a battle there between Sir Oswald Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts and Communist and Socialist locals brought political violence to the streets of London. A provocative march by Mosley into the East End, at the time heavily Jewish, was resisted by a left-wing coalition. The Battle of Cable Street is marked by a massive mural on the side of the former city hall.
Aim back toward the river and to the district of Wapping. Once home to impressionist master J.M.W. Turner, where he lived in a public house with one of his mistresses, this was, until the middle of the last century, one of the most important docks in London. These are long gone, but in their place redevelopment has seen fine housing and communities replacing the silent quaysides. Find the river and you see some of the finest gentrification that has saved the river edge warehousing to create some of the most expensive housing in the capital.
Passing down Wapping Lane, past two landlocked sailing ships at an abandoned shopping mall, you are in Wapping. Here, docks were created when ships had outgrown St. Katharine Dock in the early 19th century. A canyon of bijou loft apartments marks where Wapping Lane and the High Street meet.
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