Tower Hamlets is the East End of London, and takes its name from the historical association between the Tower of London and the hamlets that surround it. It covers the areas of Stepney, Whitechapel, Spitalfields, Poplar, Limehouse, Mile End, Bethnal Green, Docklands, the Isle of Dogs and Wapping. The area has Roman origins and several Roman roads - on Tower Hill, just outside the tube station, a section of the old Roman city wall still stands, now nearly 2000 years old.

The Tower of London, one of the borough's main tourist attractions, dates from the reign of William the Conqueror. Through the 11th and 12th centuries the castle consisted of the whitewashed White Tower and the outer defensive wall. Later the exterior was restored by Sir Christopher Wren but the Norman work was left largely untouched. The Tower is famous for the many people executed both within and on Tower Hill. Among them were Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII's queens Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, as well as Lady Jane Grey, her husband Dudley and the Duke of Monmouth. The Tower served not only as a prison until the 19th Century but also as a Royal residence.

In 1741 the Royal London Hospital was opened. It was set up to provide medical care for the 'sick-poor' of east London. The "Elephant Man" John Joseph Merrick was an inmate at the hospital for 4 years until he died.

The maritime character of Tower Hamlets changed dramatically during the 19th century with the building of huge warehouses behind the docks. West India, East India, London and St. Katharine's Docks were all established. One of the largest and most famous ships to be built was the Great Eastern which was launched in 1858 and laid the first telegraphic cables across the Atlantic between North America and Britain. It was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel who, with his father Marc, also designed the Thames Tunnel in 1825. This was the first tunnel to be built under a navigable river and it now forms part of the East London Underground line.

By 1867, despite the thriving warehouses, economic decline set in and desolation spread through Ratcliffe, Shadwell and Wapping. On the Isle of Dogs, the shipyards were replaced by other types of industry which were attracted by the river transport facilities and the services provided by the Port of London Authority. Master builder William Bubit, twice Lord Mayor of London, developed the eastern half of the 'Iskand'. By the end of the 19th Century, the bank from Limehouse to Blackwall was crowded with factories and warehouses which finally closed down in the 1960s and 70s, reflecting the decline of London as a port and a manufacturing city. Then, in 1981, the London Docklands Development Corporation was formed and set about regenerating the area.

An extraordinary transformation has taken place. Empty warehouses have been converted and derelict sites have been replaced by towering office blocks and 'groundscrapers', new housing and transport, including the novel computerised Docklands Light Railway. This operates without a driver and winds round the steel and glass buildings to Island Gardens for a breathtaking view (reportedly the best in London) across the river to Greenwich.

An outstanding feature of Tower Hamlets past and present is the number and variety of its street markets, from Petticoat Lane to Roman Road. Columbia Road is famous today for its 100-year-old Sunday flower market.

In the late 1800s, in an effort to raise the level of education among the poor and to improve social conditions, there were a number of university settlements in the East End, notably Oxford House and Toynbee Hall. Other institutions brought the arts into what was considered a cultural desert. The National Museum of Childhood opened in 1872. Its structure was originally the temporary home of the Victoria & Albert Museum and was re-erected in Bethnal Green to house the V & A's collection of toys and dolls.

In 1881 the world famous Whitechapel Art Gallery opened in a schoolroom. This moved to its present building, designed by Charles Harrison Townsend, in 1901. The People's Palace opened in 1887 to provide education and leisure facilities for local people and is now Queen Mary and Westfield College, part of London University.

Throughout Victorian and Edwardian times, theatre and music hall flourished in the East End. Stars such as Marie Lloyd, George Robey and Harry Champion all started here as well as Charlie Chaplin, whose career began at the Cambridge Music Hall in Whitechapel. These halls became modernised into 'palaces of variety' but few survived the advent of cinema and radio in the 1930s. Wilton's, off Cable Street, is the only hall still standing. It was built in 1850 and is currently being restored for use as a popular entertainment centre.

Two famous east London strikes played an important part in organising unskilled worker into unions. In 1888, Annie Besant led the 'match girls' of Bryant & May's factory at Bow in their struggle for better conditions and in 1898 the successful 'Dockers Tanner' strike raised dockers' wages to six pennies or a 'tanner'. The Dockers Union was formed.

During the first half of this century two notable incidents took place on the streets of the East End. The first was the Sidney Street Siege of 1911 - An attempted robbery of a jewellery shop by three anarchists went dangerously wrong and three policemen were killed. Two of the anarchists fled to a house in Sidney Street where they held armed police and soldiers at bay for over six hours. The Home Secretary, Sir Winston Churchill, was present at the scene and ordered a field gun to be brought. The anarchists realised the hopelessness of their situation, set fire to the building and perished in the blaze.

The second incident was the 'Battle of Cable Street'. On 4 October 1936, fascists led by Sir Oswald Mosley marched through the East End. Opponents of the march gathered along the route and barricaded the street. Fighting broke out and the police made many arrests but were unable to control the crowd and the fascists abandoned the march. Soon after, restrictions were placed on marches and the wearing of political uniforms in this country was banned. There is a plaque commemorating this event on a building in nearby Dock Street.

Of the many political figures in the borough's history, George Lansbury - Councillor, Mayor of Poplar, MP and Leader of the Labour Party (1931-35) did much to try and improve conditions for local people. Sylvia Pankhurst headed the militant East London branch of the Suffragette movement based on Old Ford Road.

In May 1907 the 5th Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party was held at the Jewish Social Club Hall in Fulbourne Street. Among the delegates to this momentous meeting resulting in the Russian Revolution were Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Litvinoff and Gorky.

Tower Hamlets has always been a haven and home for ethnic minorities, often fleeing violence and persecution. During the 17th century the Huguenots (French Protestants) came to Spitalfields. Nearly two centuries later a Chinese community was established in Limehouse as a result of merchant trading and during this period Jews from Eastern Europe, also fleeing persecution, settled in Stepney and Whitechapel. Now newcomers from Bangladesh have settled here along with Somali and Vietnamese refugees.

The borough suffered more than any other part of London during World War II - 24,000 homes were destroyed. Tower Hamlets has a history of responding to change. It has seen traditional industries decline and expansion of new employment. It has been the forcing ground for many individuals who have enriched British life in the fields of politics, the arts, commerce, social welfare and entertainment.

Adapted from a borough information sheet found in the Metropolitan Archives

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