diamond geezer

 Thursday, June 08, 2006

The East London line: Whitechapel

It's only right that the East London line passes through the very heart of London's East End. And Whitechapel is very much a place of 'passing through'. It grew up as a medieval village on the main road into town from East Anglia, a last staging post before the city walls at Aldgate. Being outside the jurisdiction of the City it attracted workers, traders and chancers, but also ever-increasing poverty. A succession of Irish, Jewish and German immigrants moved in, worked their way a few rungs up the ladder and moved out. Generations of salt-of-the-earth Cockneys grafted a living crammed into back-to-back terraces. Since the 1970s the Bangladeshi community has been on the ascendant, absorbing their culture into the local mix. The worst slums may be long swept away, but the colourful heritage of this historic neighbourhood continues to evolve.

Whitechapel Road, which passes the front of the station, shows the contrast more than most [photo]. The white chapel which gave the area its name is long gone, and a tall modern mosque stands proud over the roadway. The street market still sells fruit, clothing and carpets but with an Asian flavour. Blacksmiths, tailors and pawnbrokers have been replaced by betting shops, sari emporia and Poundbusters [photo]. The vast Royal Hospital, home to London's air ambulance, is due to be almost completely replaced by a landmark 18-storey monstrosity within the next six years. The Grave Maurice pub, haunt of the Krays and the odd Morrissey cover, has been transformed into a charmless salsa bar [photo]. The famous Whitechapel Library has been closed down, replaced further along the street by a gleaming glass 'Idea Store' [photo]. The bland shell of the East London Mail Centre, where the Royal Mail's miniature underground railway once terminated, looks ripe for demolition. And the stableyard in Buck's Row, where Jack the Ripper slashed his first victim, has been razed and replaced by an anonymous parking bay [photo]. History doesn't hang around for long in Whitechapel.

In just two days' time this will be the end of the line. That's nothing special because the East London line always terminates at Whitechapel on a Saturday, but it won't be going any further for several years after tomorrow. Platform 6, awkwardly located over a winding footbridge, can be mothballed. There'll be no more trains arriving round the curve from Shoreditch [photo], not until 2010 or thereabouts when the upgraded ELL extension finally opens. But by 2015(ish), when Crossrail finally arrives, today's Whitechapel station will be almost unrecognisable [plans] [plans]. An enormous new ticket hall will be slammed down on top of the open-air District line platforms. Long escalators will burrow down to a new interchange concourse beneath the East London line tracks. Two deep wide-bore tunnels will help whisk commuters away to Heathrow, Docklands and Romford. The whole station will become a complex mix of sleek modern engineering and an endearing Victorian shambles. Like I said, it's always all change around here, but the past never quite fades away.


Opened: as Whitechapel (Mile End) in 1869
Renamed: Whitechapel in 1901
Distance from Shadwell: 1.0km
Change here for: District and Hammersmith & City lines (up the stairs from platform 5) [photo]
Change here one day for: Crossrail (a bit contentious, this one)
Platforms: a deep brick cutting, half open to the elements, crossed by various roads and railways [photo]
Up at the far end of the platforms: lots of huts and portakabins
Platform murals: cuddly local scenes in vibrant colour
Exit: up some old steps into the old ticket hall, through new ticket barriers
Outside the station: non-white, no chapels
Annual passenger throughflow: 8.9 million

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