Angel Alley, Whitechapel. East London’s most historic alleyway

Angel Inn & the entrance to Angel Alley c.1887
Photo kindly used by permission of Rob Clack, historian
Angel Inn, Angel Alley 1887 Photo:Rob Clack

  ANGEL ALLEY, Whitechapel

The Definitive story of East London’s most historic alley

                                       by Ian Parson


angel alley 1970s photo: Mike Pattinson

Anarchist graffiti in Angel Alley from the early 1970s

London’s East End used to be full of secret meeting places, hidden short cuts and dangerous dead ends. There were numerous, indistinct alleys and lanes leading off all the main highways.

These were often dark and uninviting, other times lit up and positively welcoming. Drinkers, gamblers and potential customers skillfully enticed in.

Brick Lane, running off Whitechapel High Street, was busy then and its busy today. It could easily be described as one of the best-known lanes in East London.

Slightly west of Brick Lane along Whitechapel High Street, is Green Dragon Lane. It was here, in the spieler, according to Lennie Hamilton that George Dixon was shot with Ronnie Kray’s ‘magic bullet’.

So called because when Ronnie pulled the trigger and the gun jammed, he removed the bullet and handed it to Dixon. The intended victim had it made into a pendant that he wore round his neck as a lucky charm.

The other way along Whitechapel High Street, east of Brick Lane, you will find Angel Alley.

So called because the first Inn on this spot was The Angel.

The Angel opened its doors in 1612.

Over the years it evolved into the Griffon, the Olde Angel, then back to the Angel again.

Originally Angel Alley ran from Whitechapel high street through George Yard to Wentworth Street. It was a short cut to the top of Brick Lane.

At its Northern end there were run-down lodging houses.

By 1793 the lodging houses had evolved into market day brothels for the conveniently located Spitalfields market. At the same time the north end was turned into a dead end.

In 1840 the brothels were full-time permanent features.

Meanwhile, in the same year, at the southern end, opposite the pub, a print shop was opened on Whitechapel High Street. It went by the name ‘Express Printers’.

By the mid 1840s Angel Alley was a thriving Victorian community.

Through the 1850s most residents were Irish immigrants.

They had come from famine and starvation. They needed to be tough if they were going to survive. The Irish of Angel Alley possessed the required toughness in spades.

The men became notorious for chasing rent collectors away. Occasionally they caught one and handed out a beating. Their wives, like many desperate women of the time, flirted with prostitution.

The Fenian Brotherhood held illicit meetings and used Express Printers for their pamphlets. Those with opposing views stayed away.

By the 1870s the Irish tenants were starting to be replaced by Jews. These were often young men escaping the pogroms. The attitude towards rent collectors and inconvenient laws remained unchanged.

Angel Alley, like many alleys and lanes throughout the East End, was a den of iniquity and political unrest. Civilised society must have seemed a long way off.

In 1873 the very respectable Reverend Samuel Barnett moved to Whitechapel. He was married to the independently wealthy Henrietta.

Henrietta Barnett belonged to a pioneering group of rich women. Led by the philanthropist Octavia Hill, they genuinely wanted to improve the lot of the poor.

Mrs Barnett was, not surprisingly, desperately worried about the disorderly inhabitants of Angel Alley. She felt the young girls in particular needed saving from a life of prostitution and violence.

It was 1875 when Mrs Barnett bravely intervened. Fortunately she remained true to the hands-on, non-judgmental approach. This was indeed revolutionary when most do-gooders insisted needy people show gratitude for charity.

The inhabitants of the alley treated Mrs Barnett with respect. Their children, who ran riot most of the time, were forced to modify behaviour in her company.

Mrs Barnett set a precedent. Angel alley was on the path to righteousness. There was room for improvement it was true. But this was a definite start.

Around midnight on the 6th of August 1888, Pearly Poll, a lady well known by the police, took a soldier down Angel Alley.

At the same time her friend Martha Tabram did likewise in the next alley, George Yard.

Ms Tabram was found at 3.30 the following morning with 39 stab wounds. She had been brutally murdered by someone using the modus operandi of the killer soon to be known as Jack the Ripper.

That same year two dedicated young Salvation Army women moved into rooms in the infamous alley and set up a women’s refuge.

They chose the location because on Saturdays the alley provided living theatre. The kind where a woman is beaten senseless by her partner or a female neighbour as a baying crowd watch on.

Also in 1888, no doubt with the help of the new respectable tenants, the ground in the alley was opened up and a mixture of carbolic acid, iron sulphate and water was blasted through the ancient 12-inch sewage pipes to try and improve the flow. It didn’t work.

The pipes were then dug up and replaced by an 18” version. It was officially noted the changes were ‘not successful’. There were simply too many residents for the system to cope.

Just around the corner in Toynbee Hall, on Sunday evenings and within earshot of the alley, the Reverend Samuel Barnett liked to put his mixed drum and pipe band through their paces.

The Salvationists of Angel Alley disapproved. They did not think the Sabbath was a suitable time for music and laughter. They thought it a sin to spend money on entertainment when children were starving.

It is notable that the Barnett’s tried to give the poor a little happiness here on Earth, whilst the Salvationists focused on purifying their souls for the afterlife.

Perhaps partly explaining why Reverend Barnett and his wife are both fondly remembered in the East End.

Angel Alley was different to all the others along Whitechapel High Street because it was home to Express Printers. This gave it a certain amount of intellectual credibility. Writers, Publishers, Anarchists, Fenians and Missionaries could intermingle. Conversation easily turned to politics or societal issues.

By the 1920s some of the Jewish residents legitimately manufactured paper bags in the alley. It was an honest living. Once again things were looking up for this little corner of east London.

Then came World War Two. The area, being adjacent to the Docks, was carpet-bombed and Express Printers was severely damaged. The owner Judah Shenfield died, the neglected premises became even more run-down.

Then in 1944, presumably once certain the bombers weren’t returning, the appointed landlords offered Express Printers at 84a Whitechapel High Street to an anarchist group, Freedom Press. They had been bombed out of their premises in Holborn and had been looking for a new permanent base in the Capital.

The Freedom group purchased the shop with financial help from a local Jewish printer on condition he could take the Hebrew typeset. A further £500 was raised within the group.

The name ‘Express Printers’ was changed to ‘Freedom Press’ and they were back in business.

They considered themselves progressives. In October 1942 they had published the very first article proposing women should have the ‘right to choose’.

Eleven years later, after the Bentley affair, at the Angel Alley print shop they published the first articles arguing against capital punishment.

Meetings on this delicate subject were organised and attended by Methodists, Union Leaders, writers, actresses and the Labour MP Sidney Silverman. He would later prove to be instrumental in getting the law changed.

In 1945 the Freedom group had support from such luminaries as George Orwell, Bevan (before he founded the NHS), Bertrand Russell and Michael Foot MP.

In 1947 one of the Angel Alley team, Vernon Richards took photographs of his friend George Orwell. They are some of the best-known portraits available of the great man.

In the 1950s some of the earliest meetings ever held concerning Women’s Liberation and Gay Rights were organised here, combined with the pioneering work on capital punishment, this proved the High Street end of the alley was acquiring an aura of intellectualism.

Workshops of the small variety now dominated the Northern end.

The anarchists were then offered 84b Whitechapel High Street. They took it.

They now owned outright the properties either side of Angel Alley.

Major engineering work was undertaken to strengthen the floors for the weight of printing machinery and vast volumes of books. Things were again looking up. Could it last?

On the 27th February 1968 Angel Alley was raided. The police were specifically looking for bombs.

Throughout Europe revolutionary anarchist movements were on the rise. As a well-known den of political activism Angel Alley was ‘on the list’.

The authorities weren’t to know that Mary Canipa was running Freedom at this point. A lady who had fallen out with the more militant anarchist groups due to her pacifist approach.

No bombs were found.

Later in 1968 84a Whitechapel High Street was sold to the Whitechapel Art Gallery. However London at that time was attracting Hippies, who found squatting the simplest way to live in the Capital. The East End was particularly popular for this and in ’68 before the Art Gallery was able to take ownership of their new property it was squatted.

On the other side of the alley the anarchists at Freedom Press couldn’t complain too loudly. After all weren’t they all about this type of thing? No matter that the hippies partied all through the night. These were the new neighbours, they would all have to try and get along.

However the hippy parties of ’68 attracted the Hells Angels from their base in Walthamstow. Despite sharing a name with the alley they clearly felt no sympathetic affinity.

In October of that year they allegedly took the opportunity to break into the print shop under cover of darkness and steal all the metal. From giant printers to window lead, they took the lot. The anarchists who should have been financially stable after the sale to the Art Gallery had to replace everything. As usual they ended the year with a hole in their accounts.

Ian Parson in Angel Alley

Ian Parson in Angel Alley, Whitechapel, London

As the 1960s came to an end the Establishment were concerned about social order. They successfully associated the Freedom bookshop in Angel Alley with the bombers of the Red Army in Germany and the Red Brigade in Italy.

With bombs from the IRA and Basque separatists very much in the headlines, people grew concerned.

Ronnie Kray’s favourite boozer, the Grave Maurice, was just around the corner. It was not difficult to persuade the general public to stay away from the bookshop.

The 1970s were a grim time for this part of London.

Crime was rampant and the drug epidemic was in full swing. East End gangsters were heavily involved and the squats around the alley, the alley itself, were places to score drugs or prostitutes or trouble.

Fewer academics visited the bookshop during this period than they had previously.

In 1981 the police again raided the alley. This time it was the turn of the anti-terrorist squad. Four people were arrested and taken to Leman Street police station. They were later released without charge. It was the year of the Brixton riots and the police were justifiably twitchy.

By the 1990s this part of London was enjoying the beginnings of a renaissance.

Squats still had militant tendencies but more arty types were swelling the ranks. Cool Britannia had arrived; Shoreditch and Whitechapel were suddenly trendy. Not everybody though was ready for this new, more inclusive, arrangement.

On the 27th of March 1992 the bookshop, by now a haven for the Anti-Fascist movement, was paid a visit in broad daylight by five men wearing balaclavas and yielding baseball bats.

They proceeded to smash the place to pieces whilst terrifying the staff and customers. There was just time to spray the logo of Combat 18, a far right group, on the wall before they left. Nobody was ever arrested.

A few weeks later on May the 7th the shop was robbed at night and all the new replacement equipment stolen.

On the night of June the 4th a window was smashed, petrol applied and the place was set ablaze.

Fortunately a passerby raised the alarm.

One of the Freedom printers came out of the White Hart pub in time to see fire raging.

It should be noted that other Anti-Fascist organisations across London were also targeted at this time, as was the mural on Cable Street.

Far from being discouraged, late night fires were taken as a sign the fascists were on the retreat.

The people of Angel Alley play an important part in this ongoing fight.

On 1st February 2013 at five in the morning there was another arson attack on the bookshop.

By now the Internet was very much a thing. The attack was reported far and wide and despite no appeal being launched, money poured in from all over the world. So much so that after repairs and replacements there was enough left over to ensure the future of the shop into the digital age.

So no matter how hard the money crazed city encroaches eastwards, Angel Alley will remain a little island of irritation to developers. An insignificant, easily overlooked alley that is a living, breathing part of East End history.

                                                         Ian Parson

Sources: –

The Streets of East London – William Fishman

East End 1888 – William Fishman

London a social history – Roy Porter

A Beautiful Idea – Rob Ray

 1st published by the Whitechapel Society April 2019

Ian Parson has 3 books set in the East End of London.

A Secret Step‘ A 50 year tale of a slum family between 1888 & 1941. From Jack the Ripper to the Blitz of London.

The East End Beckons‘ An epic story travelling from Cornwall to London as the world danced to a dangerous tune.

The Grind‘ The story of two young girl’s growing up in Dorset Street, the worst slum in Victorian London. Murder, crime and intrigue are all they know. 

All books by Ian Parson are available on Kindle and Audilbe @ Amazon and all good retailers

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