A Trip to Stepney, in the Footsteps of my Father

A few days ago, I set off on a trip in the footsteps of my father who was born and raised in Stepney, London E1.

He and his identical twin brother were born prematurely in 71, Aylward Street, Stepney, London E1. They were not expected to survive, so the local vicar christened them immediately using water that had been placed in my grandmother’s sugar bowl. Many years ago, their house in Aylward Street was demolished to make way for blocks of flats but there are still houses in the street and I wanted to find roughly where their house had stood. I remember going to their house when I was young although sadly, my memory of it is sketchy and I couldn’t remember its position in the street.

Aylward Street, Stepney Road Sign
Aylward Street, Stepney Road Sign

I had been rather nervous of wandering round an unfamiliar area on my own but while I was looking at my map, a gentleman stopped and asked me if I was lost and if he could assist me. He pointed out an old building that had been converted into living accommodation and told me that it had once been a police station. I know that just before my grandfather died he’d become unwell and had gone into a police station for help, so I assumed that must be the same one.
I had assumed that blocks of flats had simply replaced the houses on each side of the road but it seems that a large block had been built over the whole street, so Aylward Street is now much shorter than it was.

I found one of the schools that my dad and uncle used to attend – in the oddly named Senrab Street. ‘Senrab’ is ‘Barnes’ backwards although I have no idea why it was named so. Perhaps you’d contact me if you know? The other school, however in Dempsey Street was harder to find. Not surprising since Dempsey Street no longer exists. I found what looked like a school somewhere near where I estimated Dempsey Street School might have been but it appeared to have been converted to apartments.

I then decided to leave Stepney and try to find the Methodist youth club where Dad and Uncle went in their teens which was next to Wellclose Square, the location of their business, the Wellclose Electric Company. This involved a walk along Cable Street – the place where the Battle of Cable Street took place in 1936. The Metropolitan Police who were patrolling a march by members of the British Union of Fascists, led by Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts, clashed with various anti-fascist groups, including local Jewish, Irish, socialist, anarchist and communist groups.
It was very peaceful while I was there! As I walked along, I spotted two blue plaques, one to ‘Sir William Henry Perkin, F.R.S., who discovered the first aniline dyestuff in March 1856, while working in his home laboratory and went on to found science-based industry’. The other commemorated ‘The distinguished physician Dr. Hannah Billig G.M, M.B.E. (1901 – 1987) Known locally as the “Angel of Cable Street”. Honoured for her bravery in World War II and famine relief work in India. Lived and worked here 1935 – 1964’. If you’d like to see photos of the plaques and all the other photos I took on my trip, you can see them here on Flickr.

Turning off Cable Street, I found tiny Graces Alley, in which is situated Wilton’s Music Hall. The original Wilton’s Music Hall closed and was bought in 1888 by the East London Methodist Mission which offered support from this hall to the local community, for example setting up a soup kitchen during the Great Dock Strike of 1889. When my father and uncle lived in the area, it was a youth club, known as The Old Mahogany Bar and my dad had many special memories of the place. In 1956, the Mission closed and today, the venue presents a variety of artistic work including plays, opera, puppetry, classical music, cabaret, dance and magic shows.  A few years ago, I emailed a photo of my dad and uncle in the Old Mahogany Bar during World War Two and I was surprised to see the photo in their history room. If you want to see it, it’s also on the official Wilton’s Hall website here as well as more of its interesting history.

Graces Alley Street Sign
Graces Alley Street Sign
Wilton's Music Hall
Wilton’s Music Hall
History room in Wilton's Music Hall
History room in Wilton’s Music Hall

I was disappointed to find that there wasn’t a great deal of Wellclose Square still to be seen so I decided to walk to the Tower of London. However, when I saw a sign pointing towards ‘Pirate Ships and Tobacco Dock’, I couldn’t resist. There were indeed two pirate ships although I couldn’t find any information about them. I did discover a lovely canal which I decided to follow to St. Katharine’s Dock.

Suntrap on a boat in St. Katharine's Dock
Suntrap on a boat in St. Katharine’s Dock

I always find something unusual in St. Katharine’s Dock and my last trip was no different with a geodesic dome on top of a boat which I think was being used as a suntrap as it was full of garden furniture!

Having got as far as the Tower of London, I thought I’d try to find a ruined church that I’d heard about. Unusually for me, I found it easily! What a gem of a place! St. Dunstan’s in the East was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London in 1666. The only part of his design that still exists is the tower. The remainder of the church was built in 1817 but it was destroyed by enemy action in 1941. However, rather than flattening what was left and building something else on the site, a garden was created in and around the walls.

St. Dunstans' in the East garden
St. Dunstans’ in the East garden
Black and white shot taken from what was once outside the church, through the window, with the Shard in the background
Black and white shot taken from what was once outside the church, through the window, with the Shard in the background

If you’d like to see more of the photos that I took on my trip round Stepney, the East End and the City, you can find them on Flickr, here