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Life, Death, and More Good Times in London's East End

My name is Ed Glinert. I’m a new 111 Places author, although I’ve had many books published over the years. I’m based in Great Britain (hate the ridiculous term “UK”), dividing my time between London, Manchester, Edinburgh and most places in between.

My first 111 Places book, 111 Places in London’s East End That You Shouldn’t Miss, came out this March. No sooner had it hit the shelves than, would you believe it, a virus swept in and locked down the planet. Holed up in my Manchester lair writing a new volume – on Yorkshire – I’ve taken some time out to promote my East End book, which you can buy to discover where you can’t go to for a little while.

The East End of London is about one and a half miles north-south and four miles east-west. It is mysterious, mystical and misunderstood. It has always been "the difficult part" of the capital. Jeez, the authorities are still trying to solve the 1811 Ratcliffe Highway Murders, and as for the better known and unsolved problems involving J. T. Ripper – well at least I know who was responsible, but I’m not letting on for now.

Instead, here are five of my favourite East End picks, including some things that surprised even me.

Alcotraz Penitentiary

The East End is the place to go to in London for truly bonkers experiences, and nowhere is more bizarre than this new bar on Brick Lane, itself the hippest street in London. Alcotraz is a theatrical cocktail bar based on the notorious Alcatraz Prison in California, former residence of Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly, probably one of the last places anyone would want to invoke.

In this joint, inmates, sorry, revellers, choose to be convicted, and once inside, despite being on the right side of the law, enter an exciting world of mischief, smuggling in liquor to make bespoke cocktails forged by the mixologistical warders. Alcohol has to remain hidden from the warden whilst inside; however visitors are also encouraged to be as creative as they can while attempting to smuggle in liquor. Another way of looking at it is that the crooked guards are on your side and have a system for hiding contraband. Just make sure the warden doesn’t spot anything amiss.

As with all such units there is a regular routine. Once inside Alcotraz, revellers are met by Inmate No. 88. Felons are then expected to change into orange prison suits and sit inside the metallic cells to follow the legend of the Cassidys, a family of pirates, bootleggers and criminals. There is even shouting, or should that be shooting, interrogations, cell searches and even a line up as hipsters are punished for their love of a pop-up.

How appropriate that the bar should be on Brick Lane, a street that has long been immersed in violence, though not these days fortunately, and was at the centre of the 1888 Jack the Ripper killings.

The Immigrants’ Landing Stage

Hundreds of thousands of Jews fleeing persecution in the late 19th century in Eastern Europe disembarked at Irongate Stairs, a landing stage by the Tower of London. Until passports were introduced in 1914, there was no legislation preventing immigrants entering the country. At Hamburg, unscrupulous racketeers would charge one mark for passage to London, two marks to New York, and then turf off those who had paid the higher fare at London rather than bother taking them on the considerably longer journey. Many went around for years thinking they were in New York. Of the many immigrants, the most celebrated has to be Józef Korzeniowski, Ukranian, but not Jewish. Although he did not master English until his twenties, he later wrote some of the greatest works of English literature as Joseph Conrad, whose terrifying Heart of Darkness, which begins on the Thames further east presaged the horrors of the 20th century and was turned into the equally powerful film Apocalypse Now.

Meridian Line

Of all the invisible lines that run through the planet, the Meridian, O degrees longitude, is one of the most important, as it sets time, which runs east-west. Perhaps it’s too obvious to say, but I’m going to say it anyway. If you live in London, the time on your clock is the same in Togo, West Africa, but moving east, it is hours ahead and moving west hours behind. The line runs through the East End and is marked with a gorgeous piece of street art in Poplar that I had never previously noticed, despite having walked through every street in the East End many times.

But why does this vital geographical feature run through London at all and not say, Atlanta? It’s all down to John Harrison, an 18th century scientist who invented the means of finding the time at sea. He operated out of Greenwich Observatory in South-East London. When technology improved the next century with the railway and the telegraph, and it was now incumbent on world leaders to set time internationally, London argued for the Meridian line to go through Greenwich and from there north to the North Pole and round the other side to the South Pole and back to Greenwich. At a conference in Washington in 1884 there was general agreement on choosing London, apart from the French who wanted Paris. A compromise was reached: It would be London as long as the British immediately agreed to adopt the metric system, something which more than a hundred years later they have failed to do.

Suffragettes’ Meeting Place

East London played a leading role in the lengthy battle to secure women the vote in general elections in Britain. This was because the leading activist in the campaign, not Emmeline Pankhurst, but her daughter Sylvia, was based in the East End around the time of the Great War.

Frustrated at the lack of success in the campaign in her native Manchester, Sylvia moved to Bow, rented a bakery (since demolished) and painted “VOTES FOR WOMEN” on the fascia. People threw fish-heads and bits of rolled-up newspaper soaked in urine at her. It didn’t put her off. Next up: direct action. The Suffragettes organised a meeting for Valentine’s Day 1913. When it ended, supporters marched to the local bank and police station, and smashed the windows. They wanted publicity in the papers. Sylvia Pankhurst and her American assistant, Zelie Emerson, were arrested.

In the run-up to the outbreak of War in August 1914, Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested eight times. In jail, she would go on hunger strike until her dangerous condition meant she had to be released on compassionate grounds. Once she had recovered, she could be re-arrested due to a new law passed by the Liberal government derided as the “Cat and Mouse Act”. Sylvia mocked it in her own way. Released, she organised a public meeting at Bromley Public Hall, East London, in 1914. Police were massed at the back. As soon as she started speaking, they stormed towards the stage as supporters shouted “Run, Sylvia, run!” She was out the back quicker than the cops and off in a hay cart to Epping Forest.

Tayyab’s Curry House

I’m not sure who came out with the line “Love me tandoor” to signal the chapter for this legendary curry house – me, the photographer, Ros the editor, or the food critic Jay Rayner – but it fits perfectly. Curry eating in England is a religion, but finding quality curry houses is not easy. In the East End, the most famous street is Brick Lane, which is lined with curry restaurants, and they’re nearly all dreadful. The waiters stand outside, imploring you to go into theirs, which they must surely realise is so annoying; patrons want to study the menu in peace. Well, stay away from Brick Lane and eat where the locals eat: Tayyab’s. It’s more than a curry house. It’s an addictive way of life. Which is why the queues stretch along the street near the massive East London Mosque. But the queues move fast. Back to Jay Rayner. He once explained there are two things worth eating here – all of its meat and all of its breads. That’s true.


Ed Glinert is a Manchester tour guide & historian, and author with 32 years experience as a journalist (founder City Life, production editor Mojo, 10 years with Private Eye).

Photographs by Marc Zakian

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