As East End as jellied eels and daisy roots, the former metropolitan borough of Poplar also includes Bow, within the sound of whose bells all true Cockneys are born. Or are they? In fact, “Bow bells” originally referred not to the bells of Bow Church, but to the Great Bell of Bow, or in other words, the bell of St Mary-le-Bow on Cheapside in the City, which Dick Whittington was able to hear from Highgate. “Bow bells” is nonetheless widely assumed to mean the bells of Bow Church, but a more recent theory is that “within the sound of Bow bells” could mean the area between Bow Church and St Mary-le-Bow, which would happen to handily cover the East End.
Bow was also the birthplace of grime music. Many of the genre’s originators and pioneers – including Wiley, Dizzee Rascal and Mercston – hail from E3, as does DJ Slimzee, whose grime-championing pirate radio station Rinse FM (now legalized) made its first broadcast from the roof of Ingram House in Old Ford in 1994. Bow ties, on the other hand, do not come from Bow, and are not in fashion locally.
The black poplar trees that gave Poplar its name now barely survive, with just a few mature specimens in Victoria Park, and one outside the boundaries of the old metropolitan borough, in Meath Gardens in Bethnal Green. The good news is that Tower Hamlets, the London borough formed in 1965 from Poplar, Bethnal Green and Stepney, is taking its heritage seriously in that respect, and has been planting the borough with black poplar seedlings, some fifty to date.
Local heroes (besides the grime pioneers mentioned above) include former Spurs defender Ledley King, sometime Spurs manager Harry Redknapp, and post office engineer Tommy Flowers, of whom you may perhaps not have heard. Most people know that, in the Second World War, Alan Turing (who was from Paddington) broke the Nazis’ Enigma code machine, but that’s only half the story. Hitler had an even more fiendish machine, called the Lorenz (although British intelligence called it “Tunny”), to communicate with his generals. Working largely alone, and using his own savings, Flowers created the world’s first programmable computer, which could decode Lorenz messages at speed, enabling the Allies to listen in on the Nazis’ most secret communications. Flowers was born at 160 Abbot Road, at the corner of Aberfeldy Street; the house hasn’t survived, but there’s a pub named after him just down the road.
In 1921, the borough council, Labour-controlled and the poorest in London, launched the Poplar Rates Rebellion. They were doing their best to alleviate poverty, but their only funding was rates – council tax, based on property values – and low land prices forced them to charge high rates. Rich boroughs with less poverty had high-value real estate, so they could charge much less. Poplar argued this was unfair, and withheld their statutory contributions to London-wide authorities in protest. Thirty councillors were eventually rounded up and sent to prison for refusing a court order to pay, and one died as a result, but they got so much public support that the government were forced to push through a law redistributing rates. Tories started calling high-spending local government welfare policies “Poplarism”, but the rebellion’s leader, George Lansbury, went on to lead Labour nationally in the 1930s. A mural on Hale Street commemorates the rebellion.
The West India Docks opened in 1802 to bring in sugar from the Caribbean, where the people making it were still slaves. The East India Docks followed in 1806, for goods from India. Heavily wrecked in the Blitz, the docks were sidelined when containers took over, ending thousands of jobs. The Isle of Dogs, at the southern end of the old borough, was particularly hard hit, and with barely any transport services, was cut off and all but abandoned, leading it to try to declare independence. In desperation – and a warning of where other left-behind communities might start to turn – the island’s Millwall ward even once elected a neo-Nazi party councillor. But the seeds of gentrification had already been planted.
In the 1980s, the London Docklands Development Corporation started developing the area. New office blocks included the Canary Wharf Tower, London’s tallest building before the Shard. Seen at first as a big white elephant, the development really took off with Big Bang and the Docklands Light Railway, and still more so when the tube arrived. However, a lot of local people were excluded, and many sold up and moved out. Now, new housing is attracting buyers from abroad, including many Chinese, and Canary Wharf may yet be the kernel of a new East End Chinatown. But that will only really work if existing residents also benefit, which could be hindered by corrupt-looking stitch-ups designed to reduce affordable housing and avoid local taxes.
Poplar has been the backdrop for several episodes of The Bill, which were filmed locally. But Call The Midwife, though set in Poplar, was filmed partly around Roupell Street in Southwark, and partly at Chatham in Kent.