We delve into the myths, legends and folklore that coats the streets of London’s East End.
London’s East End is steeped in folklore. These are the tales, passed down through the generations, that teach us about the history of the city around us, and our place in it. Stories of tough workers who fought for their dignity and rights from money-grabbing employers are entrenched in our neighbourhood. Of a steadfast old tree, and a communities’ love for it’s sweet berries. And of a cheeky ghost, causing mayhem in the lavatories.
‘The East End is a melting-pot of different groups of people throughout history,’ The Folklore Society told Roman Road LDN; ‘ranging from the historically marginalised, through to immigrants, and various specialist occupations. All of this contributes to a unique and colourful body of folklore, that continues to be produced and reproduced today.’
We invite you to pull up a stool by the fire, and dive into these old tales of justice, trickery and trouble.
Bessee of Bethnal Green (and her father, the Blind Beggar)
In the first act of this well-known legend, Henry de Montfort, son of the sixth Earl of Leicester, was wounded in battle and lost his sight. Smitten with the baroness who nursed him to health, together they had a daughter named Besse.
In some strange and unforeseeable circumstances, he lost all of his wealth, and had to resort to begging for alms at the Bethnal Green crossroads, earning him the title the ‘Blind-Beggar of Bednal-Green.’
But it’s the beggar’s daughter, Bessee, who is that star of this twisting tale of changing fortunes. The beautiful Bessee had four suitors – a knight, a gentleman of fortune, a London merchant and the innkeeper’s son at the Queen’s Arms in Romford.
Suspicious of these men who had taken one look at her and declared their undying love, Bessee told them that they must obtain the permission of her father, the poor blind beggar who traipsed the streets of Bethnal Green with his scraggly dog.
Hardly an attractive father-in-law to these highflying gentlemen, all but the knight declined. Luckily, Bessee’s father agreed to his daughter marrying a knight, who had proven his intentions to be noble.
But – plot twist – Bessee and her father had been in cahoots. He had remained a wealthy man all along, only pretending to be a pauper. To ensure that whomever would win the heart and love of young Bessee wasn’t marrying her for their family money, he had chosen to live the life of a beggar.
At the wedding feast, he revealed his true identity – as Henry, son of Sir Simon de Montfort – to the astounded guests. The scandal!
Between Roman Road and the Cranbrook estate, you’ll find a bronze statue of this cunning chap, accompanied by his dog, created in 1958 by the sculptor Elisabeth Frink.
You may also know The Blind Beggar as a great spot of a pint, and the favoured watering hole of the Kray Twins. This pub on Whitechapel Road takes its name from the ballad, and is a great place to ponder the unpredictable nature of wealth and fortune.
The Phantom Flusher of the Bow Bells
Is there anything worse than accidentally flushing the loo while you’re still sat upon it? This is the weapon of choice of ghost terrorising the ladies’ loos at the Bow Bells.
Those daring enough to place their derrière upon the seat should beware an unexpected flush, particularly startling after one too many glasses of Vera Lynn.
The ghost – who may or may not be related to J K Rowling’s Moaning Myrtle who haunted the second-floor girls’ bathroom at Hogwarts – has been felt by many over the years.
In 1974 an unsuccessful séance was held to rid the pub of the phantom. As the spirit was asked to make itself known, the toilet door swung open with such force that it smashed a pane of glass in the door.
If you’re brave enough to visit the Bow Bells, you’ll find this orange-edged East End boozer at 116 Bow Rd, Bow, London E3 3AA.
William Gladstone’s bloodied hands
Take a walk down Bow Road and you’ll pass the bronze statue of a man, draped in a dusty Victorian frock coat, right arm outstretched.
His effigy has stood before St Mary’s Church for over 150 years. Yet, there is blood on the old man’s hands…
Theodore H. Bryant, who co-owned the Bryant & May match factory on Fairfield Road, wanted to pay tribute to – or curry favour with – the Prime Minister of the time, William Gladstone, by commissioning a statue of him.
Rather than pay out of his own pocket, it is said that he docked the wages of his lowly-paid workers, matchmakers including girls as young as 13.
This was not, as Bryant claimed, a ‘gift to the east of London’. Rather, it was an insult to the plight of matchworkers who suffered phosphorous poisoning while Bryant himself grew rich.
Witnessing the unveiling of the statue to the outraged onlookers, social activist Annie Besant wote; ‘So furious were the girls at this cruel plundering, that many went… with stones and bricks in their pockets, and I was conscious of a wish that some of those bricks had made an impression on Mr. Bryant’s conscience.
Later they surrounded the statue – “we paid for it” they cried savagely – shouting and yelling, and a gruesome story is told that some cut their arms and let their blood trickle on the marble paid for, in very truth, by their blood.’
To this day, Gladstone’s hands have been coated in rusty red. No amount of cleaning will remove the staining from them – the rusted blood always returns to remind passersby of the injustice of its creation.
Here we go round the mulberry bush
For our last tale, we have a story that has not faded to distant memory, as others might call it, myth. It is an ongoing battle, with the victor yet to be decided.
Bethnal Green’s black mulberry tree is believed to have started its life in 1540, in the gardens of the palace of Bishop Bonner, later known as Bishop’s Hall. Planted by none other than ‘Bloody Bonner’ himself, nicknamed so for his persecution of heretics in the 1500s, generations have danced around its gnarled trunk.
The grounds later became a part of the London Chest Hospital, opened in 1855 by a group of Victorian philanthropists, where the tree stands to this day.
During the Blitz, a bomb hit the London Chest Hospital on 19th March 1941, destroying the hospital chapel. Miraculously, the four hundred year old Mulberry tree survived.
All the branches were blown off, leaving a sorry stub of trunk jutting out of the ground. Charring can still be seen on the tree to this day.
In celebration of the tree’s refusal to wither at the hands of the German Luftwaffe, nurses from the hospital joined hands, skipping merrily around the newly sprouting trunk.
But where did the idea of going ‘round the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush, all day long’, come from?
According to historian RS Duncan, at Wakefield Prison in England, female inmates were ushered, likely quite reluctantly, on their daily exercise around the prison yard’s mulberry tree.
This is probably not the connotation your six-year-old self had in mind. And we all know how little fun mandatory daily exercise can be.
After surviving bombing and, undoubtedly, regular plundering of its fruit for hundreds of years, the Mulberry Bush is again under serious threat. For the past three years, devoted campaigners have fought against the decision of Tower Hamlets Development Committee which gave permission for developers Crest Nicholson to uproot the tree to make room for luxury flats.
The campaigners are certain this ancient tree would not survive the move. With the patronage of Judi Dench, they have taken their case to the courts. Having been recently granted a Judicial Review and full public hearing at the High Court on 5 and 6 May 2020.
If you’d like to support the campaign to save this long-suffering – but ever-enduring – tree, you can support the campaign here. If your pockets are deep enough, you’ll even receive a tub of sorbet made of the mythical mulberries, surely packed with age-defying properties.
So how will the story end? As the candle burns low, we await the news with baited breath.
If you enjoyed this, take a look at the lost stories of the Bow Suffragettes.
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