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Reminiscence at Home

Bow and the East End 

The history of Bow and its residents has for many years shaped the development of London as a whole. The East End berthed the ships that brought trade and wealth to the city. The area hosted a wealth of entertainment venues and was a place where industry, commerce and markets thrived and came together to create a strong sense of community. 

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One resident recalls the friendly, welcoming atmosphere of the Roman Road market 

Bow and its surrounding districts have seen extensive development and change over the past 100 years. Efforts in the 1930s to clear the slums and improve sanitation and housing conditions were stalled by the outbreak of World War Two. Bow, and the East End as a whole, was devastated by the Blitz which saw the destruction of countless homes, shops and schools and the loss of thousands of civilian lives. The Bethnal Green tube disaster of March 1943, in which 173 people were killed and hundreds more injured, was the single largest loss of civilian life during the war. After the war, Bow underwent a period of great renovation and regeneration. Bombed buildings were re-built and slums were cleared, making way for the creation of many new housing developments. The docks also saw great change: 100,000 men had worked there during the 1930s, but by the 1960s this number had halved. As modern cargo-handling methods arose, dock workers became redundant and increasing numbers of factories were shut down. The docks were finally closed in 1980. 

Eastside Community Heritage has carried out numerous reminiscence sessions and oral history interviews with local residents to record their personal experiences of growing up in the area.

These residents also visited local schools to share their memories with the children, thus ensuring that their voices and experiences are celebrated and remembered across the generations.   

Childhood 

“As soon as we finished school we would walk from Bow Common Lane up to Victoria Park and go swimming in the lake. There was a great big pond. If we didn’t fancy the walk we would swim in the canal. That was where I learnt to swim. You had to pay a penny to go to the swimming baths and a penny was a lot of money in those days.”    

“There used to be a shop opposite my school that sold home-made sweets. It was four ounces for a penny and you could get spearmints, toffee, coconut ice, candy…you name it, they sold it.”

At home 

 “We had oil lamps because it was the early 1920s. Very shortly afterwards gas was installed along the road and there were gas posts put up. The man used to come round on his bicycle with a long ladder and a hook, and he switched them on by pulling on the bottom of the pilot light which was burning in the gas lamp, and the gas came on and made quite a nice light.” 

“My father was one of the first in the district to have a wireless. In 1925 it was a Crystal set with head phones and you had to tune it, it was all crackly…” 

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A resident explains how their old newspaper used to be recycled as toilet paper.

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This man describes how ice-boxes were used before fridges were established.

“One of our big attractions was going to the cinema, because there was no television and the height of luxury was to go to the Broadway in Stratford. It was a big, very ostentatious cinema with a tea room attached.” 

“You didn’t buy toys, you didn’t have the money. You’d make them, just played with what you could find.” 

School 

“When we were at school, we all used to get a third of a pint of milk for a ha’penny in these special little bottles, and you poked the middle out of the top and put a straw in.” 

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One resident remembering how girls and boys were taught different skills.

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This man remembers giving his old shoes to poor children at his school.

Work 

“Many people worked at the docks. I’ve got an uncle who was a Docker and at one point they had to go down there every morning and the gangers would pick out who they wanted and send the rest home. You didn’t get paid for that. You only got paid if you got taken on for the day. That was a pretty bad time… it didn’t do him very much good.” 

“I used to go to work at 4 o’clock in the morning and see women outside their houses scrubbing in front of the doorstep. And that was before they went did their cleaning job in the city.” 

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Desciption of how milk used to be delivered before milk-men.

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One resident explaining why feathers used for stuffing eiderdowns were cooked.

Life during the war 

“We could see like the whole of the Eastern sky appeared to be alight.” 

“When I was at the junior school, when all the schools were full of bombed-out people, and we just didn’t have any school, we just sort of played.”   

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This man explains how asbestos used to be in gas-masks.

“When I got married, it looked like the world was going to end, because Russia and China were allied against the West, and there was talk of nuclear war and everything.  Got married in 1959, and I said to Ruth, I said, ”There’s no future to bring children in this war,” I said, “It’s all going to go in a nuclear desert.” 

Bow 

“The market was open until ten o’clock at night, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. It was lovely at Christmas time. There were great big gas lamps hanging over the stalls and every one was decorated. We used to buy everything on Christmas Eve; you didn’t have to do your shopping in advance.” 

St Leonards street 1937