The East End and Tower Hamlets is the most diverse and historically fascinating region in London – arguably of any city on the planet. Containing within its boundaries Tower Bridge , the tower of London and the glittering new city rising around Canary Wharf and Click for enlargementDocklands, this is an area that has given us philanthropists such as Thomas Barnardo and Hannah Billig, but also the likes of Jack the Ripper and Jack Sheppard. East London history is that of visitors too – people like Jack London and Charles Dickens. And this is a bustling set of distinct communities – connected by a lot more than the London Underground and cockney rhyming slang, they are collectively the heart and soul of London .
Tower Hamlets has been inhabited for 2000 years, with a detailed history going back to the Roman invasion of 43AD. The world famous Tower of London stands on the River Thames on the western boundary of the borough. It dates from the reign of William the Conqueror in the 11 th century and in the past 900 years it has been used as a fortress, royal palace, zoo and state prison.
Much of the borough was marshland at this time. As London expanded and the pressure for development intensified, the land was gradually drained and reclaimed. A cluster of small communities was established, known locally as the hamlets around the tower – which is the origin of the borough’s name.
The area’s population spread South from Spitalfields and Whitechapel as works to prevent flooding of the Thames allowed many new houses and wharves to be built at Blackwall, Poplar, Shadwell and Wapping. These areas grew as centres of shipbuilding and repair. Lime kilns to make mortar for the building industry were established, giving their name to Limehouse. The construction of Bow Bridge over the River Lee in Henry I’s reign improved access to the tide mills on the east bank.
It would be impossible to describe the borough of Tower Hamlets in one sentence. There is not one borough in London that has changed so drastically in the last two decades. Its boundaries include very different areas: Bow and Bethnal Green, the original East end, in the North, and Docklands, taking up the South side of the borough.
In the West you have Spitalfields and Whitechapel (again very different in appearance): busy commercial areas with new developments. The East mainly provides Victorian and Georgian houses, and a vast amount of council buildings, whereas Docklands properties are almost solely built over the last 15 years. Big chunks of the Docklands are still under construction, but it is no longer the desolate, concrete land it was 15 years ago. If some parts still have a somewhat artificial character, this is rapidly improving with the so much needed shops, bars, restaurants and cinemas to make it into a real neighbourhood.