THE OPENING CREDITS of East Enders, the most watched television soap in Britain, show an aerial view of the River Thames snaking west to east through London on its way to the sea. The camera pulls out to reveal the distinctive skipping-rope loop where the river dips south around a tongue of land known as the Isle of Dogs. This almost-island, with a generous spill-over a couple of miles north, west and east of the loop, is the East End, its boundaries more or less following those of London’s poorest borough, Tower Hamlets. For more than two centuries, this bend in the river generated stupendous wealth in the midst of poverty of a persistence and intensity unmatched in any advanced capitalist nation. For most of London’s history, ships navigated around the Isle of Dogs, bringing in everything an island could consume or transform for re-export and returning with everything a rapidly industrialising nation could produce, including convicts sentenced to transportation to Australia. The rich became fabulously rich, and so did the City of London. This teardrop of land was the crucible for creating the greatest concentration of wealth in the world.
But the wealth that drove the expansion of the British Empire did not trickle down to the hordes who scratched a living loading and unloading, stitching and scrubbing, selling services and selling sex. As commerce grew, so did the needy population of the East End, more than doubling in the nineteenth century and creating the infamous slums graphically depicted by, among others, the journalist Henry Mayhew, who recorded in meticulous detail the daily lives of London’s working poor; the more florid novelist and campaigner Charles Dickens; and the social reformer Charles Booth. Like most of his class, Booth initially saw Mayhew and Dickens as peddling socialist fiction until he investigated for himself and mapped and categorised every alley, courtyard and road in the miserable East End.
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