Best books about the East End

If you’re looking for a good read in which to immerse yourself, with all the spare hours we have suddenly found ourselves, you need not look further than our own neighbourhood.

The East End’s rich, multilayered history means the many peoples from the cultures and social movements of our area have contributed their own stories, which are captured in the written word through autobiography, non-fiction, biography – every way imaginable.

Are you a fan of the gangster genre? Perhaps you like Dickens? There’s a book that for all tastes, inspired by the extraordinary people and events within our very streets.

Books about the history of the East End

Fancy getting lost in history? Try The Story of the Huguenots by Joyce Hampton, about the French settlers in the 1700s who left their mark on our culture and way of life. 

Let’s go forward a century or so, to the East End during the Industrial Revolution.

The Victorian slums captured the imaginations of many writers at the time – most famously, Charles Dickens. But let’s not forget Israel Zangwill, the renowned Jewish historical literary figure who grew up on Old Ford Road and was known as ‘the Dickens of the ghetto’.

Check out the full list of Victorian novels, East-End style:

  • If you like Great Expectations try Children of the Ghetto: Zangwill’s influential novel about the working-class Jewish community.
  • A Sherlock Holmes fan? For a classic Victorian detective mystery with a local twist, check out Zangwill’s The Big Bow Mystery, which has had three Hollywood film adaptations. 
  • Enjoyed the realism of Dickens’ Little Dorrit? Then you will like Jack London’s People of the Abyss: a first-hand account of the East End slums.
  • Carolyn Clarke’s East End Canal Tales, published on this 200th anniversary of the Regent’s Canal, looks at how the waterways were a key part of moving products around – powering the industrial boom of the area.

Books about East London Federation of Suffragettes

The East End’s story is also that of women’s rights. After all, we walk through streets where Sylvia Pankhurst was active, drink in pubs where the suffragettes held meetings, and live in buildings where young, working-class girls fought for their rights. Read about their stories:

  • Or learn about the extraordinary life of an extraordinary woman, Sylvia Pankhurst: Rebellious Suffragette by Shirley Harrison. 
  • Helen Pankhurst is Sylvia’s granddaughter, and it is safe to say she carries on her family’s legacy. Try Deeds Not Words: The Story of Women’s Rights, Then And Now by Helen Pankhurst, in a playbook for advancing women’s rights.

Books about the Jewish East End

Many celebrated Anglo-Jewish writers come from this area, and many of their works are inspired by their experiences growing up in the East End. 

  • Emanuel Litvinoff’s mid-20th century novel, Journey Through a Small Planet is about growing up in this area’s Jewish community in one of the most well-known works of Anglo-Jewish literature. 
  • Wolf Mankowitz is another mid-century novelist interested in the social realism of East End communities.  A Kid for Two Farthings is a semi-autobiography about growing up among local traders.

Bookd about the Krays and East End gangsters

The Krays continue to be a controversial subject thanks to their reign of terror, but their story has undeniably become synonymous with the East End.

  • Perhaps the most well known account of the Krays is the best-selling The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins by John Pearson.
  • The most recent publication, Krays: The Final Word by James Morton is an investigative novel that tries to piece together answers to remaining questions of the Kray Era. 
  • For a fictional interpretation of the twins’ life, try J.H Gaines’ The Krays Not Guilty Your Honour, imagining their story if they had been found ‘not guilty’ in their 1969 sentencing.
  • The Krays and their associates have also written their own stories, including Our Story by both twins, Born Fighter by Reggie and My Story by Ronnie.
  • My Dad, The Guv’nor is an emotional autobiography by Kelly McLean about the complexities of having Lenny McLean ‘The Guv’nor’ as your father.  He was a complicated, sometimes feared, figure, having been a Krays associate, strongman and eventually – a well known actor.

Books about the social history of the East End

Whether it is shops who have been handed down for generations, or families who stick together during thick and thin, family loyalty is a big theme for East Enders. 

  • Or how about the interesting and varied life of Les Clayden in Swimming with Stingrays? His life is full of unexpected twists and turns, including a run as an armwrestling champion.
  • Fancy something more contemporary? Breaking Dad by James Lubbock is an autobiographical account of a East London family whose father turns out to be the largest meth dealer in the country. Expect plenty of crime, with family drama at its heart.
  • Perhaps you’ve been getting into cooking recently? Modest Living, Memoirs of a Cockney Sikh by Suresh Singh is a story about familial love that will give you the warm and fuzzies, only made better with traditional Sikh recipes by his wife, Jagir Kaur. 
  • Food, it seems, indeed does speak for East Enders.  Pie and Mash Down the Roman by Melanie McGrath a historical non-fiction spanning a century about our most beloved of pie-vendors, G. Kelly

Books about grime music

  • Experience the birth of grime from Wiley –  the Godfather of Grime – himself. His autobiography  Eskiboy, is an electric, exciting recounting of the emergence of grime at before Spotify and Youtube.
  • Or how about Grime Kids, an exploration of the genre by DJ Target: a Bow-native, and was a part of Wiley’s old crew. He is now a host at Radio 1 Extra.
  • Inner City Pressure by Dan Hancox charts the cultural influence of grime. First it changed the Bow music scene and a decade later, galvanised a political movement with  #grime4corbyn

Coffee table books about East London

  • An Opinionated Guide to East London is published and curated by Hoxton Mini Press is a list of East London’s best spots, accompanied with delightful images of our parks, cafes and public spaces. 
  • Missing the simple pleasures of browsing through a shop? Eleanor Crow’s gentle images of Shopfronts of London might be the one for you. We love flicking through and spotting our own locales in the pages. (Hello, G.Kelly!) 
  • Why not thumb through Paintings by Doreen Fletcher: a chronicler of East End life through her dream-like paintings capturing the beauty of the everyday: bus stops, buildings, local parks.
  • A history of art fan? East End Vernacular, by The Gentle Author of the Spitalfields Life fame, has published a book about how artists past and present despite the changing faces of the East End.

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2 thoughts on “Best books about the East End

  • Mister Emmanuel, by Louis Golding. It was filmed.

  • Also Expectation by Anna Hope


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