Bethnal Green Blues

We had a fine day for our book-related walk around Bethnal Green and a good audience. Our meeting point was, for various reasons, the Museum of Childhood, which features in two of my pictures in Cathy’s book (‘The Romance of Bethnal Green‘ (ISBN 9781901992748), Cathy Ross, 2007). One shows the sculpture which was in the space at the front of the museum for many years, and I was surprised to find it now inside, at the rear of the cafe area, and given a white coating (perhaps so the ice-cream won’t show), and the other features some of the panels on the outside of the building about agriculture.

Bethnal Green, (C) Peter Marshall, 1986

So I chose to talk here instead about perhaps one of the most significant changes to the geography of London in the past 50 years, the small card rectangle of the Travelcard. My father lived in the London area for the first 70 or so years of his life, but probably never visited Bethnal Green, and the convoluted journey I’d made that morning on the way to the Museum would, before its introduction have involved me queuing to buy two train tickets and paying separate fares to 4 bus conductors. The Travelcard (and slightly later the Capitalcard), introduced by the Greater London Council led by Ken Livingstone in 1981, was a revolution in travelling across London.

It made a significant change in my photography. Previously I’d photographed Hull, a much more compact city, walking almost everywhere with just the occasional bus journey back to base from the city centre (a fairly massive project from which a gross of pictures were shown as ‘Still Occupied, A View of Hull‘ at the Ferens Art Gallery in 1983.)

Before the Travelcard, my work in London – with a few exceptions – had been limited to very specific areas, largely within walking distance of Waterloo or London Bridge, as well as pictures taken on visits to tourist attractions and other specific trips. The Travelcard opened up the whole of London in a new way – and among the areas I visited in a fairly systematic coverage of the capital was Bethnal Green.

Roman Road (C) 1988, Peter Marshall

Bethnal Green (C) Peter Marshall, 1993

Arnold Circus, Bethnal Green (C) Peter Marshall, 1986

Arnold Circus, shown above, was one of the places our walk took us, though it has come up in the world considerably since 1986. The first major slum clearance scheme from the London County Council, it was built due to the urging of the local vicar, Rev Osborne Jay, in 1890. Charles Booth’s great survey had marked ‘Friar’s Mount’, better known as the ‘Old Nichol’, as London’s worst slum. Jay also brought the writer Arthur Morrison to the area, and his ‘A Child of the Jago‘, published as the demolitions were taking place gives a horrifyingly real picture of the old area, and its people. Those who lived in the Old Nichol of course got no benefit from its clearance, simply being evicted and having to fend for themselves, decanted into the slums of surrounding areas, the new flats being let by the council to the ‘industrious poor.’

Around the corner at the new Rich Mix Cultural Centre lay the great disappointment of my day. Earlier, standing opposite the former site of ‘Camerawork’ I’d talked about the great days of the ‘Half Moon Photography Workshop’ based in Aldgate, and the magazine, ‘Camerawork’, the early issues of which – before it sank into theory-laden senescence – helped vitalise British photography, and of two very different important photographers associated with it I had known, Jo Spence and Paul Trevor. And I’d promised that people would be able to see why I think of Paul as one of the most important British photographers of the 1970s when we arrived at Rich Mix, although I had yet to visit the show myself.

Unfortunately we couldn’t. This is what we found:

Installation view: Paul Trevor’s work on display at Rich Mix (see note)

Images projected at a slight angle onto a wall mostly in fairly bright light from the large window area at the front of the building, pale and washed out. Of course they would look better at night, although the air vent will still hide the upper left part of the image . But more , but even then they all suffered from a curious squashing effect, presumably due to some digital reprocessing to make the images fit the format of the projector, but resulting in figures that looked like caricatures.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone could do something this badly. This is a show that has been well advertised and is in many respects the major event of the East London Photomonth. But it seemed to have been presented with less care than most people would take over showing their holiday snaps. (See note below)
Peter Marshall


What we saw at Rich Mix was not the real show, which we should have seen when we went and sat down on the sofa downstairs. We sat down and had a little rest there (it had been a long walk) but there was nothing to see. I’d actually walked down the stairs expecting to see more, and was surprised to find nothing there.  It just hadn’t occurred to me that a gallery would switch an exhibition off during opening hours.

One Response to “Bethnal Green Blues”

  1. […] most notorious slum, the ‘Old Nichol’. You can read a little more about it in my post Bethnal Green Blues, and much more about the area as a whole and its people in Cathy Ross’s ‘The Romance of […]

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