The East End In Colour 1980-90: photographs of a disappeared London










London, like other ‘alpha cities’ is an irresistible pull for millions. 

And if they’re young and fashionable (and there are goat-herders on the Asian steppe who can serve a decent flat-white these days), then the place they head to is the East End. From Hackney to Brick Lane, Hoxton to Canary Wharf, this chunk of grit, pollution and organic grocery shops is the only choice for those in search of a more interesting life and better jeans. 

But it wasn’t always like this.

Before Shoreditch became the area’s first beacon of cool in the mid-’90s, the East End was London’s most unlovely, and unloved, area: a tumbled mess of warehouses, industrial units, grimy-windowed offices and shops that sold stuff that no one – well, seemingly no one you knew – could ever want. Compared to the funky, spliffy Georgian splendour of the West, it was to be avoided. You only went there if you needed to or couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. 

A new book, The East End In Colour 1980-90, is a photographic record of the place just as it was starting to change. The pictures were taken by Tim Brown, a London Underground driver who wanted to document the effect the new Docklands Light Railway was having on neighbourhoods like Westferry, Beckton and Canary Wharf. 

“It was a very tightly budgeted railway as I don’t think anyone was sure it was going to be used,” says Tim. “But as soon as Canary Wharf started to get built it created a momentum, so they practically rebuilt it and extended it. The land at West India Quay had a negative land value, but once the DLR started to go in, the value then started to scroll into the millions.”

Much of the book concentrates on Docklands, which today is characterised by its endlessly multiplying skyscrapers and colonies of suit-wearing worker-drones. But in 1987, when many of the images were taken, it was in limbo, between its past life as the British Empire’s main shipping hub and its present incarnation as a gleaming monument to Champions’ League capitalism. 

“In the image of what is now Westferry Circus, there’s a billboard opposite a bus shelter which shows a fantasy photomontage with the slogan ‘Canary Wharf: it will feel like Venice and work like New York’,” says Tim. “I was standing on a pile of rubble in the middle of a wasteland when I took that picture, and I was thinking how absurd the vision was and how unlikely it was to come true. But I suppose it has come true.”

As the book progresses, we come further into town, with images of glass and concrete pushing out the ornate Victoriana of Bishopsgate and Liverpool Street, while Spitalfields – now a pleasant, but slightly sanitised retail centre – is at this time still dominated by its wholesale market and piles of rubbish. 

It would easy, and obvious, to mourn this past: there’s much to love about the revitalised East End. But there is also something pleasantly melancholic about a revisiting an area that had been left to fend for itself and in doing so, had developed a culture and environment unlike anywhere else. 

Something, that as we sip our beautifully crafted coffee – the international symbol for tasteful gentrification – we should mourn a little, and appreciate the fleeting beauty of those empty streets, falling-down pubs and photogenic wastelands. 

The East End In Colour: 1980-1990 is published by Hoxton Mini Press, priced £16.95. You can get it here 

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