diamond geezer

 Sunday, August 18, 2019

Local History Month
Bow Plaques

August is Local History Month on diamond geezer. Over the years I've followed John Betjeman's footsteps through Metroland, walked the length of the New River and explored Olympic venues outside the capital, to name but a few of my insane quests. This year I thought I'd track down the blue plaques on my doorstep in a series I'm calling Bow Plaques.

English Heritage oversee more than 900 blue plaques across the capital, a fair number of which are in Bow. In this series I intend to discover the characters and stories behind these much loved memorials and how they came to be in E3 in the first place. An impressive range of famous people and inanimate objects are commemorated, so let's kick off with this diverse quartet...

Mahatma Gandhi  Powis Street, E3

Gandhi has two blue plaques in the capital, one in Kensington where he lodged as a law student and one in the backstreets of Bromley-by-Bow. He rejected a suite at the Hilton when he came to London in 1931 to discuss constitutional reform, choosing instead to bed down in the East End "living among his own kind, the poor people". He stayed at Kingsley Hall, a pioneering community centre set up by sisters Muriel and Doris Lester to help the local populace to meet its cultural potential. Muriel is the star of this Pathé newsreel filmed just before Gandhi's arrival. He began each day with a walk around the neighbourhood - unless he was up in town speaking at the conference, off meeting cotton weavers in Lancashire or inspecting goats at the Royal Agricultural Hall - and also spent a lot of time meeting with local families. Talks with the British government did not go well, however, and after twelve weeks he booked passage home and never left his homeland again.

I love that the nearest blue plaque to my front door remembers one of the most planet's most famous role models, and also that the great man would have walked the same streets as me. They're very different streets today, with almost all of the Victorian housing wiped away and many of their residents originating from the country whose partitioning Gandhi opposed. Kingsley Hall is still an empowering concern, and opens its doors to a community cafe on Tuesdays, a Romanian church on Wednesdays, CND on Thursdays and ballroom dancing on Friday afternoons. It usually gets involved in Open House, in case you'd like to see the small cell on the rooftop where Gandhi slept. There's also a campaign up and running to give Muriel and Doris their own blue plaque outside, which I rather think he'd have preferred.

Thomas Barnardo  32 Bow Road, E3

Yes, that's the Doctor Barnardo of childrens' home fame. Originally from Ireland, he arrived in the East End in 1866 and was shocked by the poverty he saw so hung around and initiated several local philanthropic projects. This four-storey townhouse on Bow Road was his home for four years in the 1870s, a considerably more well-to-do abode than his coterie of destitute boys in Stepney would have enjoyed. Thomas was in his late twenties and had just married Syrie Elmslie, their move to Bow perhaps precipitated by the birth of their first child William. While he was living here he opened his first 'ragged' school in Mile End, started to transform a site in Barkingside into a residential village for homeless girls and had two further children of his own.

After the Barnardos departed, number 32 was renamed Sturge House and used as a training home for girls over the age of 14, then extended to fill the next two houses in the terrace. The Salvation Army took over in the early 1900s and used the facility as a Home for ‘lads’ instead. Number 32 is now divided up into ten or so flats and very very conveniently located for the tube station, not that anybody without a job these days would have a hope of affording the rent. Also Thomas Barnardo's reputation isn't quite what it was, the controversy about 'philanthropic abduction' having first started while he was living in Bow (but they never told me about that part when they gave me a little yellow house and invited me to fill it with pennies).

Flying Bomb  Grove Road, E3

This one's very much not your normal blue plaque, and commemorates the first V1 bomb to land in London. The date is 13th June 1944, one week after D-Day, and residents of the capital are pleased the war finally seems to be going Britain's way. At 4.25am an unusual throbbing is heard passing overhead, then abruptly the sound ceases and a ton of explosives crashes out of the sky. Its random target is the railway bridge on Grove Road which is completely destroyed, along with numerous adjacent houses on Burnside Street, Bellraven Street and Antill Road. Six people are killed, 42 injured and 200 left homeless. Survivors are mystified by not being able to find the body of the German pilot in the rubble. A replacement railway bridge will be operational by the end of the following day.

The Germans sent five V1s that night, the first landing short in Swanscombe, Kent, and another hitting nobody in Clapham. Londoners would soon grow to fear the noise of the 'doodlebug', especially if they heard its engine shut off because that meant it was about to crashland, but this was the very first and nobody quite knew what it was. The first even scarier V2 would arrive eight weeks later in Chiswick, and the attacks only ceased in March 1945 when the Allies overran the launch sites in northern Germany. Burnside Street and Bellraven Street were never fully rebuilt and now lie beneath Mile End Park. This end of Antill Street eventually became flats. V1 bombs killed 5500 Londoners altogether, but only the first six got a blue plaque.

Israel Zangwill  288 Old Ford Road, E3

Israel Zangwill was a famous author at the end of the 19th century, if somewhat less so now. He was born near Aldgate in 1864 to Eastern European émigré parents and described himself as a 'Cockney Jew' in later life. His launchpad novel was Children of the Ghetto, an exploration of the assimilation of Jewish culture in the East End, published in 1892 and later dramatised as The Melting Pot. Buoyed by success on both sides of the Atlantic Zangwill became a prominent spokesperson for the emerging Zionist cause, but later changed his mind on the basis that Palestine was already occupied. He married outside his religion, and in 1906 he and his new wife deserted the East End in favour of a village in West Sussex.

Israel's blue plaque, on a prestigious Victorian villa facing Victoria Park, does not reveal when he actually lived here. It's also part covered with scaffolding at the moment, as is the entire listed terrace, hence the very poor photo. But it must be within these walls that he wrote the world's first successful 'locked room' whodunnit, because its title is The Big Bow Mystery. The victim Arthur Constant is found dead by his landlady on a foggy morning after a cab ride from Bow station, and the cast of characters somehow includes Prime Minister William Gladstone. Hollywood has remade the story into a movie on three occasions, and although the denouement would be somewhat of a cliché today Zangwill got away with it by being the originator. If you fancy reading a post-Dickensian thriller on your daily commute the full text of the Big Bow Mystery is here.

Update: Except it turns out there are only four blue plaques in Bow, so there's nobody else to write about. If I lived in NW3 rather than E3 there'd be 68, but I don't. Even if I extended my quest to neighbouring postcodes there's only one blue plaque in E2, two in E9, two in E14 and none at all in E15 or E16, so essentially this feature is unsustainable.

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