Bethnal Green, in the heart of the East End, was once known for its blind beggar.
One of London’s twenty-eight original metropolitan boroughs, Bethnal Green was also one of the original Tower hamlets (hamlets whose residents owed military service to the Tower of London), and in medieval times it really was just a hamlet, consisting of a few houses around the actual green. The green itself was bought up by local property owners in 1678 to prevent it being built on. They let local residents graze their sheep on it before it eventually became a public park, Bethnal Green Gardens, still there to this day.
By Tudor times, the tale of the Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green – in which a chivalrous knight marries for true love the daughter of a blind beggar, who then turns out to be the prince and war hero Henry de Montfort – was so well known that it became a popular ballad.
The Blind Beggar is also the name of the pub on Whitechapel Road where local gangster Ronnie Kray shot rival gang member George Cornell in 1966. The pub is so called because it stands at the spot where (in the story) de Montfort and his faithful hound would beg for alms. The knight and his dog are also immortalized in a statue by Elisabeth Frink just off Roman Road, on the Cranbrook Estate (not open to the public, but you can see it from the street). The Krays meanwhile, who hailed from Vallance Road, are commemorated by numerous books, a handful of movies, and a few East End walking tours.
Bethnal Green’s tube station is known among enthusiasts of this kind of thing for its platforms’ unique wall tiles, featuring miniature reliefs of heraldic symbols and famous buildings, including Parliament, St Paul’s and the old London Transport HQ.
In World War Two, before it opened for train services, the station was used as an air-raid shelter, but was the scene of a terrible accident in 1943 when a woman slipped and fell on the crowded staircase in the dark, precipitating a crush in which 173 people died. Politicians tried to blame the disaster on a “panic”, but there is no evidence that anybody really did panic. A monument by the station entrance commemorates the people who died in the tragedy.
In 1965, Bethnal Green was merged with its fellow East End metropolitan boroughs of Stepney and Poplar to form the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.