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Hidden History of London

London's Hidden History
Shadwell

Shadwell, the name comes from the 'well of shadows' a local poisonous drinking well - nice! Out of the station turn left and right into Cable Street, E1.

This is an area steeped in commercial maritime history. Ships ropes and cables were once manufactured here, hence the name Cable Street. The original street starting at the Royal Mint end was 600 feet long, the length, believe it or not, of a cable! What's that in metric? By the way the Royal Mint, designed by Sir Robert Smirke (1781-1867) who also designed the British Museum has now relocated to Wales, but the original building can still be seen right next to Tower Gateway station.

Up Cable Street on a wall of the old Shadwell town hall by the Britannia pub you will be amazed to see a huge mural commemorating the 'Battle of Cable Street'. A magnificent example of street art, perhaps the best in London.

The East End of London has a long history of revolutionaries, Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Peter the Painter (who?) - some good and some bad. Perhaps the best example of the bad was Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, who on Sunday 4 October 1936 led 3,000 of his black-shirted followers on a covertly anti-Jewish march through the East End.

The locals were not having it! Mosley's marchers were met by thousands of East Enders determined to halt them and the police, there to ensure a smooth passage for the march, were not prepared for what followed.

The people of Shadwell erected barricades across the road and bombarded the Black Shirts with anything they could get their hands on. Out numbered and outmanoeuvred the police instructed Mosley to call off the march not before Fenner Brockway, Secretary of the Independent Labour Party, was injured by a police horse.

A week later the fascists retaliated by smashing the windows of every Jewish owned shop in the Mile End Road. A shameful period in the history of the East End.

Look out for a plaque on the old Town Hall front wall commemorating the Tower Hamlets International Brigade. "In honour of the volunteers who left Tower Hamlets to fight in the International Brigade, Spain 1936-39". They fought alongside Spanish people to stop fascism and save liberty and peace for all. They went because their eyes could see no other way. 'NO PASSARAN'.

Translated as 'they shall not pass', it sums up the resistance of the residents of Shadwell against the rise of British fascism.

The Government soon passed a Public Order Act giving the police greater power to ban any march that could be a danger to the general public. At the same time the wearing of clothing that could represent an unofficial military or a political uniform became an offence, so bye bye Black Shirts!

Imagine the scene - Shadwell, 4 December 1952 - the weather windless and damp, an anti-cyclone had settled over London. Fog began to form, yes, a common occurrence in London, but this was to be no ordinary fog.

It was the start of the Great London Smog. In the next five days more than four thousand people were to die from asphyxiation and bronchial asthma. The cause was the coal fire smoke from the concentration of houses and the unregulated sulphur dioxide emissions from East End factories.

London, particularly the East End, was used to fogs. Monet, the French Impressionist, would visit London to capture on canvass the fog's eerie light and no image of London was complete without swirling mist Jack the Ripper, perhaps a resident of Shadwell (could have been, no one knows) is often described as disappearing into the night fog after despatching another victim.

But this one was the mother of all "peasoupers" which made the Government pass the first Clean Air Act in 1956. Smokeless zones were introduced and the burning of cleaner fuels was encouraged. The smog never returned and Londoners were able to see where they lived and who they lived with for the first time!

Whose mother was born in Shadwell? All right, thousands, but how many are famous Americans? Well, it was Thomas Jefferson's mom Jane! She was born in 1720 and her son Thomas, (one of ten children, not as many as Elizabeth Fry had!) is one of America's greatest Presidents. Jane was baptised at St Paul's Church, so was Captain Cook's son and seventy five sea Captains are buried there. It's known, not surprisingly, as "the Sea Captain's Church", you can't miss it, just aim for the majestic Baroque Tower.


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