East London treasures

I spent a weekend in east London over the half term holiday. I was doing some research for a book that I’m working on and wanted to visit the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives, examining relevant documents, photographs and records. The staff there were fantastically helpful and knowledgeable and if you have any family connection with the area I definitely recommend paying them a visit.

East London is fascinating and historic, and if you are planning to visit the capital I would encourage you to spend some time there. It is less crowded than the more touristy beaten track, and a good deal less pricey, both for accommodation and food. Here are some of my tips for places you should definitely include on your next trip:

Whitechapel Art Gallery

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Stunning modern art and sculpture. It was the first publicly-funded gallery in London for contemporary art. It now incorporates the former Passmore Edwards library, which you can see to the right of the gallery entrance. Free entry.

The V&A Museum of Childhood, Bethnal Green

V&A

Another stunning museum, displaying toys and other child-related goods through the ages. There are always different activities and changing exhibitions on, as well as talks and workshops. Also free entry.

The Ragged School Museum

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I haven’t visited this one myself yet as its opening hours are somewhat limited, but I’ve heard it’s a great experience, giving visitors a taste of a Victorian school pupil’s life. Definitely on my must see list. Admission free.

 

 

A day’s walk around the area will be enough to give you a sense of the history of this part of London. Don’t miss the following:

Mural commemorating the Battle of Cable Street, 1936

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Stunning mural on the side of St George’s Vestry Hall. It commemorates the Battle of Cable Street which took place in 1936 when demonstrators protested against a march by Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists through this area, which had a large and well-established Jewish community. Mosley abandoned his attempt to pass along this route.

The Parish Church of St George’s in the East

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Stunning parish church which was built in the early 18th century

Wilton’s Music Hall

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Opened in the mid-19th century Wilton’s was a popular and well-known music hall venue, but poverty and war in the 20th century saw it fall into dereliction and used for other purposes, including a soup kitchen. It is now Grade II listed and gradually being restored and remains a thriving arts venue.

 

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The former Church of St Augustine and St Philip in Newark Street, amidst the vast complex of the London Hospital, now houses the university medical library, but in the crypt you will find a fascinating public museum which tells you about the history of ‘the London’ and the establishment of the NHS more generally.

St Dunstan’s Church

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Beautiful church, parts of which date back to the 14th century, that was one of the few buildings in the area largely unaffected by bombing in the area in World War II.

Tower Hamlets cemetery park

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Resting place for over 350,000 souls (mostly in unmarked public graves) it is now a vast nature reserve with a very active network of Friends which works hard to preserve the heritage of the site and make it an enjoyable local amenity. Stunning, peaceful and very moving.

I’d love to hear your recommendations for gems of east London. 

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Thoughts on writing a book #1

Genealogy is one of the most popular hobbies in the UK today. TV programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? are often at the top of the ratings tables and the largest family tree website Ancestry.com has almost 3 million paying subscribers worldwide and has access to 20 billion records in 80 countries. It is big business, for sure. Finding out where we have come from is a deep human need. Perhaps it helps us towards a better understanding of ourselves and what makes us tick. And as our world becomes ever more dynamic, busy and harder to navigate, that self-understanding becomes an important part of maintaining our identity, staying rooted

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My Grandmother Rose, with my baby brother and I, 1971

Most of us will have done a basic family tree at some point in our lives. I did one at primary school and can remember interviewing my grandparents to find out about their parents and siblings. I actually dug out this juvenile work a few months ago when I started the research for a book I am currently writing. I am writing a novel about my grandmother. The working title is Finding Rose. She was born in 1910 into a very poor family in East London, the seventh of ten children. She had a very limited education, having developed a disability called benign essential tremor. She had a ‘shake’ all her life which meant she had very poor motor skills, never able to write for example. My father, her second child, was born in Hertford on 22nd December 1940 (maternity patients were moved out of London because of the Blitz), while her husband, Charles, lay dying from tuberculosis in a hospital in Kent. He died on 26th December, without ever meeting his son, my father. Rose never remarried, but had another child in 1943 and brought up her three children on her own, though with the help of her sisters, through the Second World War. Rose outlived all her siblings, dying in 1995 at the age of 85. Incredible when you think where she started. I hope I have inherited these robust East End genes!

1911 census
Could this be my great-Grandfather’s handwriting?

Through my internet research I have uncovered some incredible information about Rose and her family. I got a shiver when I saw a facsimile of the actual 1911 census form showing the composition of 1 year old Rose’s family home. But we need more than facts, dates of birth, addresses, marriage dates, etc. It is the textural information that I feel the lack of now – what was Charles, my grandfather, like? Where did he and Rose meet? How did Rose cope when she lost her husband? There is no-one left alive to answer these questions. My own father passed away in 2010 and my aunt and uncle are now elderly. My book will attempt to write Rose’s life. It will be necessary for me to make up most of it, so it will be my best guess at the life she had. I’m sure much of it will be the life I hope she had.

Your father's roomI have been reading a lot of fictionalised biography to help me and one book I read recently I found profoundly moving. Your Father’s Room by French writer Michel Deon is part fiction, part memoir, and looks back to 1920s Paris and Monte Carlo. Edouard, or Teddy, is the only child of a civil servant and his socialite wife. The family moves to Monte Carlo with the father’s job and there is a fascinating insight to life in the south of France at that time, the characters connected to the family and the nature of the relationship between Teddy’s parents. If this is an account in part of the author’s childhood then much of Teddy’s observations will have been imagined by Deon. Perhaps like me he is taking fragments of memory, partial facts and knitting them together to tell a story. It is very engaging even though it is not clear what is truth and what is fiction. How much of any of our family history is a story anyway, ‘facts’ that have been embellished (or concealed) over the years?

Your Father’s Room is a beautiful little book (under 100 pages) with a poignant ending, and Deon writes magnificently. The translation is extremely good. I’ve learned a lot from this reading about how I might approach my own book (and if my writing turns out to be even half as good as this, I’ll be delighted!) and filling in the gaps with my own imagination. I’m about 20,000 words in now, and am hoping to complete a first draft by Christmas.

Wish me luck!

I’d love to hear your experiences of family research. What have you uncovered?

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