Built on the Docks there is only one road into Silvertown and one road out, namely the Royal Albert Way. At the beginning of the road is a large major relief road, Silvertown Way, which was completed in 1934 followed by the Silvertown bypass which opened in 1935. At the time this was hailed as creating a broad new ‘Road to the Empire’, at the end of which lies North Woolwich. Silvertown consists of a lost, ageing, small but strong community with powerful ties and long standing traditions in Newham. Known in the past for the Docks, Tate and Lyle, many factories and a large ship building industry. Today it is renowned for London City Airport, Excel and home of the University of East London.
The Royal Dock is on Silvertown’s doorstep has one of the largest bodies of enclosed water in the world, comprising of some 245 acres developed in a piecemeal fashion. The Victoria Dock, later to become the Royal Victoria, was completed in 1855. Years later the Royal Albert Dock was opened in 1880 and the King George Dock in 1921 after being delayed because of the war.
The Royals were the first Docks to be directly connected to the railway system. This meant large warehouses were no longer necessary, only transit sheds. The Docks themselves acted as the warehouse of the ‘Empire’, importing raw materials from all over the world and in turn exporting a vast range of finished and manufactured goods. The vastness of the Docks resulted in West Ham, Canning Town and Silvertown eventually becoming the largest manufacturing centre in the South of England, and renowned for chemicals, engineering and food. Sugar refining had always been important to the area and became even more so when Henry Tate set up shop in Silvertown in 1877. Tate’s principle product was white cube sugar, their rivals Abraham Lyle produced mainly Golden Syrup. The companies were amalgamated in 1921 to create Tate and Lyle one of the largest sugar refiners in the world. From wherever you are in Silvertown you can see Tate and Lyle. It was a major employer in the area and offered many opportunities for local people to hold a job for life. Many residents’ parents and grandparents worked all their lives for Tate and Lyle, however the only legacy today is the smell. Tate and Lyle no longer hold the same level of security for local people. Today it’s workforce is less than half of what it was twenty years ago, and most employees commute from other parts of London as they say the job now requires transferable skills.
When the Docks first opened the Victoria Dock could take the largest steamships and had the largest hydraulic machinery to open the dock gates in the country. The Victoria Docks specialized in tobacco, South American beef, New Zealand lamb, citrus fruit and bananas. The closure in 1981 had a serious impact on the area and on local people. Many industries, factories, shops, pubs, cafes, restaurants and many local amenities have since closed leaving Silvertown with a history but nothing more, it is now a neglected rundown place to live. Young people move on and out but still the community stays together, it wants to stay and be heard.
People sought to improve their working and living conditions through Trade Union and political activities and sought office on West Ham Council and in Parliament. Canning Town had become the focus of a number of new movements and a leading voice for working class people, Will Thorne and James Keir Hardy became leading figures in the Labour Party. Women played a significant part in the struggles Eleanor Marx, Sister Edith Kerrison, Daisy Parsons and Sylvia Pankhurst all worked to improve the plight of working class people and helped to shape the new services provided by the council, they were especially concerned with housing, health and welfare.
Voluntary orgainisations such as churches, were very active in these areas especially during the early 1900s which was a period marked by high unemployment due to the closure of the Thames Ironworks. The start of the First World War brought employment to the area with industries involved in the war effort.
Silvertown was well known for it’s munitions factory, where many women worked. On Friday January 19th 1917, a fire started in a room at the top of a factory in West Silvertown which produced TNT and munitions to go to the front. The Silvertown explosion killed 73 people and injured over 400 seriously. The Silvertown explosion highlighted the lethal conditions that people had to work and live in, the munitions factory was in the midst of a closely built up industrial and residential neighborhood which was most unsuitable.
Between the wars the residents of Silvertown felt a strong sense of common identity often helping one another, especially when times were hard. Families lived together or near each other. People worked and spent their leisure times together, pubs, dance halls, boxing or football.
The Second World War brought dramatic changes. Silvertown was a prime target for bombing due to the docks and industries. Much of the area between North Woolwich and the Thames was destroyed. Once again the “Silvertown community was under attack”. On 7th and 8th September 1940 the whole area was, for a time, encircled by fire. Hundreds were evacuated to safer areas or moved away never to return. Despite the dangers many stayed on and worked for the war effort in the docks, factories and the civil defense services. Silvertown was very badly bombed, one of the most heavily bombed in Britain and many families suffered tragedies. People who lived through these hard times felt that they deserved a better future for themselves and their families.
After the war the demand for housing could not be met, the area had been devastated. Many people moved away to new estates in Essex and new towns such as Basildon. It was not until the early 1960s that most of the bombsites were replaced by new houses and shops. Once again Silvertown’s struggle continued and in the 1960s and 1970 proved to be a devastating time as long-established industries closed or moved away. Containerization had changed the whole nature of work in the docks, reducing the workforce by half. The docks, which had provided the base for much of the areas economic and community activity, closed down in 1981.
The sharp rise in unemployment has been reflected in the area’s increased level of poverty, vandalism and past racism, coupled with deteriorating housing and health. A run down and neglected area. The local communities have seen little benefit from the developments around it.
Stories from Silvertown: Growing up in Silvertown
I was born in West Silvertown, at 20 Eastwood Road in June 1923 and I went to the local school in West Silvertown. It was called West Silvertown Elementary School and I left there when I was fourteen and I got a job pushing a barrow in Tate & Lyle. I remember on our last day having assembly in the main hall with headmaster congratulating the headboy who came top at everything. He had just been given a job as a telegram boy, the headmaster told us he would be a future Post Master General.
Of course kids still got up to mischief, but the difference – then I don’t think I can remember going down six streets without seeing a copper, they always seemed to be about. If you were going to get into mischief you’d spend half your time trying to see if there was a copper about anywhere.
I went to West Silvertown School, it was a big, lovely old school and we had boys section and girls section. I joined the choir at St.Barnabus Church, we would get paid to sing at weddings, we were all good choir girls. We used to have socials at the church that was the only place to go. A friend used to go to tap dancing classes and she would teach me all the steps. Once we put on a show. It was a great show, all the mums and dads came along.
Poverty was an everyday reality for most residents. Poverty was an everyday reality for most residents. Mothers had an impossible job trying to feed and clothe their families so that they were healthy.
As one resident remembers:
The only time we got any decent food was when my dad was out of work. We used to go and see the headmaster in school and get a free dinner and breakfast, the only time we ate well was then – it was so good. I was always happy when the old man was out of work I got fed well, the only thing was I didn’t get any pocket money.
When you went to bed you’d go to bed with tears in your eyes for something to eat, and you had to wait till the next morning, two thin slices of bread that was all we could afford.
Few women could manage for the whole week on the money given to them by their husbands, even if they were endlessly resourceful, the money/wages was not adequate to support a family. Debts would pile up and most often possessions would be pawned to raise a small amount of money just to buy food till the end of the week.
Many a time I had to go to school with no shoes even if it was the winter. I remember once it was raining the old teacher looked at me, called me over, said, “why didn’t you put your shoes on”, “I aint got any shoes”, “oh”, and he put me down for a pair of boots. When I got the boots from the council, inside in gold letters it said, ‘not to be pawned’.
We used to pawn the old man’s suit on the Monday. We would pawn anything, suits, saucepans, my dad’s best boots. They would go in on a Monday and get them out Saturday, we did not get much for them but enough to get a bit of food for the week.
If a suit cost about four pounds, you’d get about ten shillings. And if it was a good watch, they would cost about £20, you’d get about a fiver. The pawn shop would keep items for a year, then it was sold as unredeemed. Watches or anything that we could would get pawned.
When I was a kid there was an old woman lived down our street used to make money taking items from other women to the pawn shop no one wanted to be seen in the pawn shop. So she would take the items in an old pram to the pawn shop for us, that was how she made her living.
My mum used to take her wedding ring in every Monday morning to be pawned and wear a brass curtain ring all week.
- Interviews in Cundys.
The Street was an important focus for the community everyone knew and helped each other. Kids would play out in the street there was always plenty to do and see.
There was not a lot to do down here in Silvertown, but we would always play out in the streets, I was a proper street-raker I was always out in the street playing with my mates. The times I got told off for being out too late.
We didn’t have cricket bats, couldn’t afford cricket bats, you would have two bits of wood and another stick of wood, that you played, you used one paving stone on the pavement as a wicket, and if that piece of wood fell in that paving stone you was out, so that was our pavement cricket. With football, the same thing, we had pavement football, but with a tennis ball, but the good thing about the times then was the fact that although the street was your playground, it was the playground in the evening for the whole family. The mums and dads would come out and sit on the windowsill or the old granddad would sit on a little stool, and they would be joining in with you, and the girls would be skipping with a big rope stretched right across the road, it was a real community spirit that wasn’t actually organised.
I’d go out in the street to play, as the park was ten minutes walk, quarter of an hour to Beckton park. But, as I say, we made our own enjoyment. As kids we used to play all different games that kids don’t do now. We had seasonal games, in summer a wooden top, and cricket. Winter time football, that was the only entertainment we got. There wasn’t no television or radios. In fact my oldest brother had a cat’s whisker earphones, and 2 L O radio station, that was before we had the BBC.
A Cat’s whisker. – You had a little bit of quartz and a piece of metal, like a cat’s whisker. And you wound it round the quartz and through the earphones you could hear 2 L O. When my father found out about it he didn’t give me a chance to listen. He said, “come on where’s them earphones”.
Stories from Silvertown: Work
With the many factories in Silvertown and the docks, work was not always difficult to find if you were prepared to work long hours for low wages. The only protection that the working class had were the unions but they could not do much for the workers in hard times.
“My father worked at Tate and Lyle piling sugar. Men would work in teams of four piling 200 Two cwt (approximetly 120 Kilo) weight bags of sugar. Before that he took whatever work he could get as a navvy with string round his trousers.”
“My dad was a Labourer, he would stand outside the Docks and outside Lyles trying to get work. This was in the 1930s there was no work about so he did various jobs, he then got a good steady job working for E.W.Rudd. They used to put big machinery in factories and dad was a Driver’s Mate. It was because of that he did not go into the armed forces during the war. My dad worked there till he retired.”
“It was really busy here – there would be the old steam trains always packed solid and they would run on this line. Then you had the docks, ten thousand five hundred worked just as dockers and in the steam port. It was noisy until six when everything closed. Then it was just the pubs that were very busy.
“And you could go on what we called the stumps, and you would wait to pick up a job, if you didn’t fancy the job you didn’t hand your book in.”
“There was a lot of work locally, the big employers were Tates, Crosse & Blackwells and Phillip Morris, the cigarette firm. There were other small places, but they were the big employers, and of course the docks. Most of the people round here worked in those places and there weren’t many people who worked outside of Silvertown.
“So many went into Tates and had apprenticeships there. Mick was an apprentice there at one time and then he went to the docks and worked in the docks most of his working life. Then he worked at Phillip Morris after the docks closed.”
“The London docks was a major source of employment for the surrounding local communities, many generations of East Enders held jobs for life until the docks closed in the 1980s. Many not only lost jobs and livelihood and never worked again, but also most missed the camerardery and solidarity that kept workers united.
“Not every one was working, the poverty was real poverty not like today. My father was a docker he was one of the registered dockers he had a dockers ticket, but that did not always guarantee him work.”
“The population was very high and there was a lot of unemployment. The industry and the various companies that ran the docks had systems and they ran the docks like a belt, they all had their regular workers, it was hard at times to find work. The Stevedores had a ticket to work in the docks they were very hard to get, you needed to be born into a family of stevedores.
“The workers did suffer, if they didn’t have a white ticket, they would wait outside the dock gate to see if there was any work. And the fighting that went on when I was a kid, especially outside Tate and Lyles. Men would line up daily hoping to get a days labour.
“They would have their busy periods, when they would have to take on casual workers and when they did it was a scramble, the manager would come down with a handful of cheques for a days work and he would throw the cheques into the air, and there’d be a scramble to get a cheque. If you got a cheque you got a days work. That applied to all the industry along the belt. And so life wasn’t easy. It was grim for people – I can remember the time I was sent to the local shop to see if I could get an egg for my father’s breakfast on tick, that’s all we could afford one egg. Things weren’t awfully easy.”
Men would line up daily hoping to get a days labour
“My Dad worked in Hollis’s, the timber firm. And there was a dispute there I don’t remember the details but he was lucky and the union got him a docker’s ticket, and through my father, that is how I got my docker’s ticket.
Well, you had perms, what we called perms (permanent men), and they worked for a company, and you had port men. I was a port man, same as all my family, we were all port men.”
“The industrial belt down the river it was a golden mile the docks here was flourishing. The Local Authority never got a penny out of the docks as they held a special charter from the crown which exempted them from paying any rates. The only income from the docks was by the various spin offs such as Ships Chandlers, Paint Factories and other local industries that serviced the docks.”
“I went into the Army in 1946 and came out in 1948 and then went into the docks where all my family had worked for 50 years as stevedores and dockers, that was our family trade. All the male members of the family, that included cousins, brother-in-laws they were all docker stock. That was how you got your dockers ticket through your father. Dockers were always casual work, and it wasn’t until 1920 that under the Shaw Award they took part of the casual system out by giving registration to people who applied to be hired for work down there. And from that registration that was the only way you could get work. That was controlled by the Trade Union Branches, so that’s how it became that you could only be nominated at your branch by your father.”
All the male members of the family, that included cousins, brother-in-laws they were all docker stock.
“I remember a person saying to me “Look, ships, no one wants to sail a ship all the way up the Thames, ships only make money when at sea, it costs money when they come to port”. The people who recognised that in the beginning, also realized with containerisation, the docks were doomed. There was an attempt to stave off the inevitable for a while by using containers in the docks.
“It was the beginning of the end and by this time they were beginning to build 100,00 ton ships. There was no way a ship of that size could come up the Thames, you could only get ships that size into a sea port and there they could be turned around in a day.”
Throughout the 1920s to the present day the stuggle for equal pay for women continues to be a main priority for Women Trade Unionists. In 1968 the 50th anniversary of the first achievement of women’s suffrage, the women machinist at Ford’s in Dagenham started their strike for equal pay. In 1969 The National Joint Action for Women’s Equal Rights was established. Women around the country were united in their demand for equality. The Equal Pay Act introduced in 1970 was the result of a successful campaign, Women Trade Unionists had played an important role. The act improved the working pay and conditions for many women. Iris, a Trade Union delegate for many years, recalls the many changes:
“I needed to go to work my dad said, “factory you have never worked in a factory, you will never like it”. But I needed the work. I started in November, I said I will give it till Christmas and then I wont be coming back. After Christmas I thought about it the money came in handy and so I stayed for twenty-three years.
“I started in the icing sugar department that was awful, it was like a smog the icing sugar was everywhere; I used to feel sick walking through those gates. It was terrible when I first went in there. We used to have to ask to go to the toilet you would put your hand up and it was “don’t be long”, it was a right rigmarole. You would get a fifteen minutes break in the afternoon and in the morning. But on a Thursday you had twenty, you had five minutes to run round to get your pay packet and then get upstairs and there was always a queue for your wages, and then your five minutes is well gone by the time you get to the canteen for your cup of tea. We used to sneak down for our money and I got caught.
“I became a Union delegate and a key girl. The key girls used to relieve the girls on the machines and take the sugar over to the laboratory. I couldn’t do the Union work and stay on the machine. That was a nice paying job. Some of the foreladies were awful, if they did not like you or if you had had a day off they would give you the worst job available. But things did slowly change.
“There was a lot that changed in Tates, over the years they had to change with the times. Men used to get paid differently to the women and that changed with the equal pay campaign in 1968, the men used to bank their hours and they would get time in lieu so the union campaigned for the same for women. And we were able to get our days, off in lieu. Other things changed as well, they got more relaxed about the toilet, and you could pick up your wages anytime on a Thursday afternoon instead of only in your break time – things did get better for the workers there – but now it is mostly contractors – very few locals work there now.”
“I tried to get a job, there was work driving taxis in Stepney. I went round all the firms that were round here but there was no work. I could get work but the pay was hopeless, I met a mate who was one of the bus inspectors in the Old Canning Town area and I was on my motorbike and he stopped me and he said “What are you doing”. I said “Nothing at the moment” and I told him that I was looking round for a job. With my experience and knowledge of motorcycling, he said, “Oh if you cannot find what you want or the rates you want come and give us a try we are hard up for drivers”. So I did, and I worked as a bus driver for thirty three years, Elsie spent over twenty-five years as my clippy.
“The routes I worked on was out of West Ham and on the buses 69 and the 685 which were trolley buses in those early days and then I used to do the cross runs up to the city and so on. Elsie would come with me. Elsie during the war worked in a local factory making parts for bombers and then she went on to London Transport. So it was quite easy for Elsie to get a job on the buses. When I started on the buses I got into playing bowls with the local teams and the manager of the bus garage was a keen bowler and we used to take a bus and go down to the coast. And one day he came along and said to me “I have been looking up Elsie’s record with London Transport. She ought to come back to work on the buses, I tell you what we are badly short of conductors, tell her to come back and I will team you up”.
“Elsie did and we worked as a team until they done away with the route masters and I had to go on my own for five years, until I retired. So that was the history of my time with London Tansport. I got on the branch work committee and union. I finished up on the Transport and General Workers Union, which I am proud of. They pay a sum when you pack up or when you die. I am proud to have been given life membership.”
At one time you could leave work in the morning and get a higher paid job within an hour, so you could virtually go from one factory to another. But all that changed in the 1980′s. The docks closed and everything started closing down, the factories, shops pubs everything seemed to go.
“It was so fantastic when I first came here, then everything started to close down around the late sixties early seventies. Tates is still there, but we used to have Tate and Lyle’s doing three shifts, we used to have Cross and Blackwells doing three shifts. We used to have all the units over there full of factories all doing shift work, we used to have the tomato place and we used to have the tobacco place, there were loads of factories. The street used to be packed we would have a number 40 bus and 58 and 69 and all those are gone. When the docks closed it all closed.
“It took a while, but you felt the loss, you really felt the loss. You found that a lot of men were unemployed and a lot of men turning to drink because, there was no way of getting a job it was so depressing – everything seemed to go away from the area and nothing coming in. Before they built the airport they told us there will be jobs.”
When the docks closed it all closed
“Tate and Lyle was a family firm but now they have ditched everyone local. I do not think it has done them any good. But it was the 1980s management style I think. What actually happened was that the 1980s suddenly caught up with us and those very brutal attitudes – you know management dominance and downsizing.”
“Every new thing that has come in, we have been told will bring in lots of jobs. Excel was going to bring in thousands of jobs but they have hardly brought in any. We are always told to give it a chance and we have but they are all menial jobs, no proper jobs for local people. It is like Silvertown is a forgotten part of Newham.
“It is a very small number who have been employed by Excel and I do not know any of them – and most of the work is part time. I have been to have a look at Excel. It certainly has facilities.
“The University did not bring any jobs. The University mostly brought their own staff with them, the airport does employ a few people but even that is mainly menial in catering or shoe shining. We are told to go and get an education.”
“There’s a lot of people who haven’t been able to get a job I mean the Managing Director (I won’t say from where) he actually stated in a newspaper that the people from North Woolwich and Silvertown were illiterate and he had to apologize. I mean there’s quite a few who have jobs now over at the airport, but there should be quite a lot more. And it is only because the council pushes them to employ locals. There are a few youngsters over there, but they don’t actually work for the airport they work for the Concessionaires so the money isn’t as good. And when the airlines or Concessionaires change contracts, they lose their jobs, so there’s a very big turnover. There’s only about four or five hundred people who actually work for the airport itself, the rest are all employees of Concessionaires or some sort of other private company that the airport get to do the work, so the figures that they give out aren’t true figures.
“They don’t do their own interviews now it’s all done at the job centre so they can vet who goes through. I have been working there about eighteen months I do I enjoy it. I’m a catering supervisor we do the meals for the planes.”
Stories from Silvertown: World War Two
“My mother was very nervous about the war and I was evacuated to Oxford and then to Wales. I came back towards end, but I remember the doodlebugs.
“We used to sleep under the arches. We called them ‘Old Ram’ mum had chest trouble and couldn’t run very fast and when the air raid started going she would panic,”Come on Iris, let’s go” and then we would run round to the arches and guns would be going, you could hear the planes and knew the bombs would be comming over. In the end we slept down in the arches, it wasn’t very pleasant. We’d come out every morning and then I got what they called ‘shelter feet’ and I had big yellow festers, that was the War for us, under the Arches, opposite The Ram. We did have great fun, we were just kids.
“In the Arches there was one big room. There was a coffee bar and we would have a cup of Oxo at night and I used to look forward to that Oxo. There was a gramophone and records and it used to be great, it was fun. Us kids enjoyed that. It didn’t matter what was going on outside.”
“I was about five and I remember the bomb siren went one day and we was just behind the pub, down the road, the Albert, and my mother’s going frantic, my mother’s up and down the road, while the bombs was dropping, looking for me, and all of a sudden, she heard, “come on boys, it’s all clear now- the all-clear sign went on”. And we just walked out as though there was nothing- nothing going on. The place got destroyed, all the houses got destroyed, by the bombing, there was not one left standing the only thing left standing down my road was the brick shelter.”
Stories from Silvertown: Families
“My father came from Ballymoney, County Antrim in Ireland and my mother was a local Silvertown girl. My dad’s family they were in farming in Northern Ireland they came over here due to the economic difficulties on the farm, around the time of the potato famine. He came over with his brother and they worked for a while in Greenock, Scotland. Then when Abraham Lyle decided to move to London. They both came to Plaistow to find work. My father stayed, but his brother Wilson decided to go back to Greenock where he married, and settled. My family stayed in Silvertown.”
“My mother lost her arm, and her eight year old brother died in the Silvertown explosion. The blast killed him. She was only 12 – and was never able to work after that, even though she did everything herself. She never talked about it, the only thing she could not do herself was change a light bulb and do her windows. At that time there was no insurance or compensation claims so the Catholic Nuns would take her round all the factories in the area to ask for money.”
“My Dad was Irish, he started working in the Sheffield mines then he came to London on the big unemployment march and he met my mum, she was from West Silvertown, she worked in Tates until she got married. The house I was born in is still there. Fifteen Lord Street it is hard to believe after all that bombing.”
Stories from Silvertown: Housing
“The arrival of the railways together with the development of the Royal Docks from 1850 onwards, spurred on a further massive growth of West Ham’s industrial capability. The Thames side marshes were transformed into a huge manufacturing and engineering complex which rivalled the great northern cities. Housing sprang up with great speed to attempt to meet the needs of the growing workforce. Many of the new terrace houses that were built had no connection to mains water or sewage supply, and infectious diseases rampaged freely. Many people flocked into the area in search of jobs and a better life. Despite the many industries and factories work was still not that easy to find and for many the only reward was poverty and harsh living conditions.
“The story of the late Victorian and early twentieth century West Ham was one of stuggle to cope with the social consequences of this immense population crammed into one area.
“All the houses had two families living in them, one upstairs one down below in three rooms. In our house there was ten of us in three rooms, outside toilet, two bedrooms and a kitchen where we ate our food and also lived in. I was in a bedroom with my five sisters, the old man and the old lady was in the front room.”
“Two families would live in one property and in some cases there was not enough homes for people. The war years had destroyed a lot of homes, Silvertown was very badly damaged by the Blitz.”
“When we first got married we moved in with my wife’s uncle, who had his mate living with him, my wife’s gran, who looked after her eldest son who was unmarried and his mate who was also unmarried. Unfortunately my wife’s gran died a few weeks before we got married, so we actually moved into the front room of the house. Which was good as we had everything going for us including the fireplace, so you could get dressed and undressed in the winter, in front of the fire it was marvellous. And then of course the wife got pregnant and all of a sudden the room got very, very small. But then unfortunately Uncle Joe’s mate died and we got another room and later Uncle Joe died and we took over the full house. And we were in that house for thirty-five years.”
- Interview in Cundys
“Since the War there was plenty of work until the docks closed. What happened here was one of the inevitable things that had to happen, if you’ve got a community where there is two or three families living together along with all the houses that were destroyed during the war, there is a real shortage, and so you’ve got to move people, Greenwood, who was the Housing Minister in Wilson’s cabinet, came up with the idea, not only for us, it applied to most major towns to reduce the housing pressure people would have to move. That’s how the new towns were created, Milton Keynes, and various other places.
“It was no good moving a lot of the population if there was nothing for them to do so then they raided the gold mile which was the area from Canning Town to North Woolwich, it was not only here but in all manufacturing areas, and the government enticed people to move – by this time I was on the Local Authority and up to my neck in the Labour Party. The idea was brilliant they came along and said that a lot of the industry here was built prior to the 1880′s. Nothing had been updated, factories and industry were offered cheap land, a peppercorn rent, and given cash grants to move and update with new equipment and modernise. In one big bang the whole of the industry left the area, suddenly over a few years leaving only Tate & Lyle and the Paintworks.
“I remember standing up at one meeting and saying,”Well look no-one is going to criticise the goverment for de-crowding properties and creating new towns, giving people new houses and space, but you’ve left behind a big void”. They should have allowed only a percentage of industry to leave, on top of that the docks started to decline and employment went.
Stories from Silvertown: Community
“Every street had a midwife – if someone was having a baby,”go and fetch Mrs so and so”, and that’s how it was, and you would help each other out any time. I’ve had to go and knock on doors “Can Mum borrow this, or that” and people have knocked on our door “can I borrow half a cup of sugar till Dad gets home with his wages”, but no- one thought anything of it because that was the way of life and if you didn’t do that you was a right meanie and you were uncaring and people had that said about them.
“Community spirit then it just evolved, there was no organisers, no funding for this and funding for that, you just organised yourself and it worked well. I suppose it still could today.”
“We were always hard up, my mother used to take in washing – there was a really close community which nobody has now. I remember my mother with a group of women, at birth, you would see them going off with their bundles, there was no one to call so the women would get together and help out. People managed all those occasions in the community. No doors were locked, there was nothing to nick anyway, but there was this solid community spirit which over the years I tried to re-create.”
There was a really close community which nobody has now
“I got involved with the local church in the early 50s and I became interested in working with the young people in the area. By this time I had a motorcycle, and in those days a lot of the young lads 16 and 18 year olds were getting motorcycles. I formed a motorcycling club in the church room at St Barnabas and then the local vicar got me involved in running things. When the old King died, it was the Queen’ s Coronation we held events to raise money. I remember the Mayor a chap called Patton would come along to support us.”
“West Ham was the cradle of the modern trade union movement, and socialism. The first Labour council in the country elected to power in 1898, and in 1902 James Keir Hardie elected to serve as the first Independant Labour Party Member of Parliament for South West Ham. His election victory was seen as a triumph for socialism and the working class. Local politics and Labour party activists have always played an important part in Newham’s history: as BD recalls in his first introduction to local politics.
“One evening a man appeared on my doorstep named Cllr Murphy who lived in Knights Road he ran the local ward Labour Party. He announced on my doorstep that he was leaving the area. There was no one around who could pick up the Labour Party books and with that he said to me, “Well, you are the only person who lives around here with an interest in the area, here’s the books for the Custom House and Silvertown Labour Party ward, I’m off” and he dumped them on my doorstep. And that was my introduction into political life. By this time the motorcycle club had grown quite large and had lads from all parts of West Ham. I took the books to a meeting of the motorcycle club, and I said “We got these books, I don’t know what to do with them, what shall we do?” We decided to do something about the housing, we went round the streets knocking on doors and held our very first public meeting in the school.”
“I’m from Stepney. When we moved to Silvertown it was all prefabs the area had been so badly bombed during the war. When I got married, we then moved to Silvertown I worked for the Electricity Board so for me I could get to wherever I was working by public transport. I thought it was great and I really enjoyed The Royal Albert pub. I used to play for the darts team, I got really involved in the team and from Christmas up to June we would have all different types of competitions. It was more like a village then. You knew everybody so the social life was busy. And talking of noise, on New Year’s Night, the boats in the docks would blow their hooters from half past ten until three o’clock in the morning. It was really good, we would meet in the pub and never got out of there until the early hours of the morning. It was good because at that time everybody knew everybody, a very, very good atmosphere. People seemed happier more content even though they had it hard.
“I got to know everybody because I used to take in sewing so I got to know people through that. Some had lived here for so many years, it was very different then you had shops around the corner. We would sit outside in the evenings and have a chat with our neighbours, everyone knew everyone and all their gossip, but it was good. I really enjoyed it the kids would play outside but now all the old ones have died and the flats were built and that changed it all, people just don’t mix as much now not like it used to be. You could go out, you could let the kids play out, leave doors open. Now you can’t.”
You knew everybody so the social life was busy
“I met my husband in a pub in Upton Park, he used to help his friend run it, his friend was the Manager. I went in there one day with a friend and we were introduced and when he said he lived in Silvertown, I said “People don’t live in Silvertown, it’s the docks” and he said “Oh, yes they do, I was born there”. And of course the biggest surprise I had was that there was a whole community round here, I never knew this, although I’d been through a couple of times on a bus, going to the ferry, I didn’t realise how many people actually lived here. My first thoughts of Silvertown were horror, when I got off that train and looked around, this was twenty-two years ago.”
Stories from Silvertown: Time Out
“Cundy’s as it is known to the locals is now the only pub in Silvertown, with a rich and long history. known to have hosted meeting’s organised by Eleanor Marx, after the great Dock Strike in September 1889. She supported the efforts of the workers at the India Rubber Factory in Silvertown to obtain an increase in pay. The strike committee held meetings in Cundy’s. Today the pub is “full of ex dockers and their memories.
“In those days there were loads of pubs around here, most of them had closed down before I moved here, but there were lots of pubs in Silvertown and North Woolwich. There were also clubs and the Tate and Lyle Institute which has been here for years and years. When Mick was a teenager he used to go there for dances, that’s where all the boys and girls met up. There were other clubs down the road, lots of pubs and that’s where people went for their entertainment. There was at one time a little cinema, but that was before my time.
“Saturday nights in the local club there would be a band or a disco and loads of people off the estate, children would come along as well. A lot of the children actually grew up in there, in that club, they were taken in there as babies in a pram and many of them now are in their 20′s, and they can remember being brought up in the club. My daughter-in-law was, she was round there from a child to when she got married and moved away.
“There was a good sense of community, we would arrange to meet people there on a Saturday night it was busy in that club – it’s still here, but not used as much as it was, but I think there’s more of a sense of community here than in most places in London. It’s still like a village.”
“We used to socialise and drink round here at the Tate & Lyle Institute. Children used to stand outside with a glass of lemonade and a bag of crisps or arrowroot biscuits, just the dad would go in for a few drinks.”
“It’s got to be something like eighteen years ago when we had the Ferry Festival. We used to get crowds of people in the park, it was quite a big event there would be a beer tent and there’d be five a side football and lots to do. We used to have many different events leading up to the festival over the months. That was really good because the other events would get people involved in the festival.
“There would be competitions in the park or the pub and trophies won, and then we would hold the finals on the festival day and it would be darts or crib, cards, football, cricket, all sorts of things. There would be competitions for the children they would make decorations and costumes. It was a really great day, everybody enjoyed themselves.
“They used to decorate all the streets, the pubs would be decorated, that was a big day, during the Summer, it was the biggest event of the year, and it’s such a shame that it all stopped, but then it was such hard work for so few people to organise the event.”
“There was always a float, called Victorian Capers, the women dressed up I didn’t, I was dressed as a man in a flat cap and silk scarf like they did in the old days, there was a piano on the float and crates of beer (laughs) and we were all blind drunk by the time we got to the park. That was really good, I think somebody nearly fell off the float one year (laughs) going along the road.”
Stories from Silvertown: Change
People over the years have moved into the area and made Silvertown their home. It has changed over the last twenty years. One resident recalls her first impression of Silvertown:
“There was loads of people around here, it was bustling with life because the docks were going strong and there were factories all the way along the road. I think somebody once told me that 50,000 men used to converge on this area every day to work which you can well believe. Of course, it was a very run-down, dull looking place. I think my first sight of it was on the 5th February 1978, I imagine the weather was not very nice, and that turned me off even more. Most of the children of the older generation have now moved out, the price of property now is too high, they can’t afford to live here. I think some of them would have stayed because Silvertown is like a village and it’s a place where people cling to. I’m sure they would have stayed here because they did for generations, it seems that only the younger generations have moved out but their parents and even grandparents are still here but they are now a dying generation.”
“It was depressing when the docks closed. Where we have the airport now we used to have huge liners, big boats and you could see them. And Christmas and New Year it was really nice they were all lit up. I’d rather have the boats here, than the airplanes. We have always had something down the bottom of our street – but it was different. It was poorer, but it wasn’t rough like it is now. But this is not a bad area, not as bad as a lot of areas – I like living here, and I would not move, we were saying the other day if we won the lottery we would only move down the road to those nice flats overlooking the Thames.
“Change, It’s just one of those things that creeps up on you, as you drive along you notice docks beginning to look derelict, cranes at a standstill more than they were twelve months before, they weren’t loading or unloading ships, it was just something that gradually crept upon us. Before we moved down here, I used to work for a ship repair firm on the Isle of Dogs and all their ship repairs were moving towards Tilbury, so even before we moved into this area, I had a feeling that the docks were in decline, because repairs were taken down river to Tibury and Gravesend. Ships coming in with cargo were being transferred onto container ships, and container ships were moving down to Tilbury and up the coast to Felixstowe, where there were purpose built container handling areas. So I had a feeling that things were moving away from the docks in London. It will never be the same.”
“Silvertown now is very worrying. I have seen the increase of vandalism, increase of poverty. Very worrying symptoms. Cundy’s, The Railway pub opposite my flat, which was flourishing when I came, is really just getting by. Two pubs I used to go to regularly have closed down. And of course now horror upon horror we shall have the Yuppie Community moving in at North Woolwich and I am told that is going to double our numbers from five thousand to ten thousand. Then we have got the millennium site at the other end of the town – West Silvertown. I think we are besieged and I am not the only one who is worried that we are going the same way as the Isle of Dogs.
“Ten years ago, I don’t think we’d realised what had hit us. Everything was beginning. We were constantly deprived of necessary things. I have only been involved with the Tenants Residents Association (TRA) for four years. I’ve been with the Area Team (now the Community Forum) for about two years. I could see things happening but I did not know what they were.”
“The place has got much quieter. When the docks were open you could not have sat here like this, all you would have heard is, bang, bang, crash, crash, clang, ship’s hooters going.Tremendously noisy place and lots of people around.
“They see that as the good old days and they forget the bad part of the good old days, we all look back and say “Oh, that was wonderful”, but of course it wasn’t wonderful. When you look back on your childhood, you think ” that was marvellous” but really we lived in appalling conditions in those days, but you can’t stop people thinking like that. I think people round here do have a narrow point of view, but it’s not their fault, it’s from always living here.”
“It was very interesting when I first came back here, as I did have some family that lived in this area, I hadn’t been here for thirty years. And my first reaction was somebody has moved all the roads! I actually came down the North Circular to get here and I couldn’t find my way at all. I thought I know my way there I used to go there in my twenties. When you don’t come to somewhere for a long time then you appreciate the change. But the whole infrastructure, the whole skyline had changed. The last time I came here the docks were still operating and there were big ships and now they weren’t there and there were huge gas works, huge industrial sites which were all gone, where the dome is now was a thumping great gas works when I last came to the area.
“And so I noticed all this, this dramatic change straight away. I still didn’t feel the people had changed very much, what surrounded them had changed dramatically, now I think that’s moved on. I think the population has now radically changed as well, as perhaps five, six years ago that wasn’t the case. Some people have moved out, lots of people have moved in, from a wide variety of backgrounds not just ethnic backgrounds but nationality backgrounds its become a very cosmopolitan part of the world, in a way that it probably always was going back fifty or a hundred years. And it’s interesting to ask the people that regard themselves as long term local people where they originally come from, and it’s quite fascinating you find in this local community people from Scotland people from Ireland people from the west country and from Wales, and it’s been this cosmopolitan, sort of melting pot forever. In a way what’s happening now is that it is just continuing.”
Silvertown Stories: The People’s Plan
The People’s Plan for the Royal Docks in 1983 had two aims, the first was intended as evidence for the public enquiry into the airport. One of the points for the inspector of the enquiry was to weigh up the strength of the alternatives for the area. The second aim was to produce a plan for the area that included and involved local communities, voicing their needs and producing a plan of action to bring jobs into the area, improve transport infrastructure, better housing, and more lesiure, childcare, education and training facilities. And above all to make changes in the lives of the people that lived in North Woolwich and Silvertown. The document called the area ‘the forgotten people, the forgotten Island’.
“Before they built the airport they told us there will be jobs, but there wasn’t jobs. There is a few people who are working there, but they promised us so much more, it’s not happened. They promised us that there wouldn’t be Jets coming in here, but Jets are in here. You know as far as we knew when the airport started it was a STOLport, next minute we look, London City Airport. And even today if we’re at a meeting and we say STOLport they will correct us and tell us it’s London City Airport we were never told we just got papers through our doors. There was a lot of upset and anger about it, we had marches we went up the House of Parliament, the GLC (Greater London Council), they sold us out. They were the one’s that sold us down the line.”
“When I first heard about the airport, I remember reading about the first plane, the Dash 7, landing near Canary Wharf. I remember, plans and people talking about an airport in the docks. I remember people having a protest meeting outside the entrance to the airport, I remember attending meetings at a local school run by the Airport to explain things.
“Anything that brings employment into the area I will back one hundred percent. There wasn’t much employment in the airport at that time, but I maintain that if there is one hundred people working at that place and ten of them are from the local area, then that’s brilliant, that’s ten people who have got a job from the local area.
“The people here they were born to the docks, they’ve grown used to it. Now the same people can’t tolerate the airport, they complain non-stop about the planes and yet to somebody coming into the area from outside, you realise that it was much, much noisier when the docks were open. The planes are alright, one takes off now and again, but you haven’t got the non-stop clattering and banging that you had. Also the area is much cleaner here now. We used to have all the factories belching out smoke, there was a lot of smoke and pollution round here.”
“I think people here they are frightened now and I think that they have become more suspicious. Poverty does awful things to people. The reason I got so involved with the transport issue is that there is such a link between poverty and poor transport. Until, we are able to improve transport people won’t be able to get in and out of the area easily in order to get jobs. There are no local jobs and that is the other big change that has happened since I came here.”
We tried to redress some of that balance
“When I started here five, six years ago there had been a lot of involvement, but I felt not enough. The airport had been very good at passing out information. What I think wasn’t happening then was we weren’t engaging ourselves as part of the community, and if we have achieved anything in the last five/six years I think we have partly achieved that, we’re now accepted, I think generally, even by those who don’t like us – we’re accepted as being part of the furniture now. And we are very active in a number of the local groups and whenever there’s a committee for anything we seem to be on it, and we do support, sometimes tangibly – sometimes emotionally a wide range of local things.
“That I think has been the change that we have brought in the last five/six years – that is more engagement with the community, so we have demonstrated ourselves to being part of the community. One of the things that helped, is a number of us who had come from what you might regard as outside actually live in the general area of Docklands, nearly double figures of people are living in Britannia village, and people that are moving into the new Fairview development – Thames Barrier Park, I’m not very far away in The Isle of Dogs – and we now have people who are living as part of the community – we didn’t have that five/six years ago. We had people that lived locally and then came and worked here but we hadn’t had people that had moved in – and that showed I think once we started doing that, it demonstrated peoples commitment – people weren’t just long distance commuters who would go away – probably fed up with commuting.
“I still have some commuters but not many, the vast majority of people do live locally, that’s the second big change in the last five/six years. We wanted to have a reasonable relationship with the local community – we certainly didn’t want to fight, it’s counter productive for them and for us, so what was the thing we could do best. With an airport the benefit would be to fly to the places local people want to fly to, and a few people do that, but that wasn’t going to engage the majority of the population because they were economically disadvantaged. And the flights didn’t go where they wanted to go, they might want to go for two weeks to Spain, to the Costa’s for example. But we fly to Zurich which was no good to them whatsoever. So although the product side was no good, there was the economic success side.
“We did employ a number of the local people at the airport, but I felt we could do a lot better. The unwritten understanding between the community and ourselves is that we will do whatever we can to promote people living locally working at the airport. It’s been our biggest success in terms of relationship, with the population living around here and the local authority and the government. We have delivered that, there are now 1500 jobs – full time jobs here on the site, and off site – the taxi drivers and the bus drivers. Of the on site jobs seventy percent live within five miles and of the seventy percent half of those live within Newham.
“This is way ahead of any recent other incoming business has done in this area. It’s way ahead of what Tate & Lyle do – who have been here for over a hundred years, it’s way ahead of the council themselves in terms of local employment, and that has been the most powerful thing we have done.
“We had to do a lot of things to achieve that, we had to put money into the education system, and particularly into the remedial side -people who had left school without sufficient skills. We have had to put a lot more money into training people once we have got them on the payroll – but what we found was people were not more stupid than anywhere else in the country – it was a myth, they were equally as intelligent as people in other parts of the country – but what we’ll call the system had let them down, the education system – not just that, housing and health were equally awful. That was disadvantaging these folk when they were competing against people who had better opportunities.
“We tried to redress some of that balance, I’m sure we haven’t redressed it all, but we’ve redressed it a bit, to the point where I don’t think you’d find anybody now who would fundamentally disagree that we have created a lot of jobs for local people. Now if you had asked that question 5/6 years ago then people would have thrown a lot of vegetables when I had said that. But I made a promise to them that I would do that, and we truly believe we have delivered that promise – still doesn’t make us friends with everybody we’re not naïve people, but it has moved us to the point where people see the value of the airport, local people and the community.
“Official documents always describe people as having ‘poor self-esteem and low aspirations’, saying that they need ‘reskilling’. People round here have plenty of skills. How many of the people who describe us as ‘unskilled’ could cook school dinners for hundreds of children or build a wall? In ten years time computers will be so user-friendly that we shall no longer think using them is a skill. When people say we have low aspirations they mean we don’t want to be like them – and they’re probably right about that! We don’t!! Again, I get tired of people saying there’s twenty two percent illiteracy in the area. How do they know? Nobody’s ever banged on my door and asked me if I’m illiterate! And I would like to know how they define the term!
“Maggie gave me a copy of the Peoples Plan. It was such a shock. It was not just a protest against the arrival of the City Airport. The plan for using the docks contained so much that would make use of the local people’s skills. It was so imaginative – and they had so many skills to give – which have now been lost – or are at least invisible and denied. With the best will in the world, the primary role of the City Airport is to benefit business people. Not us.”