A wry view of life for the world-weary

The Streets Of London – Part Fourteen


Cable Street, E1

Near where I work is to be found Cable Street which runs from the Tower of London parallel to and south of what is now the Docklands Light Railway and Commercial Road. It is not the most attractive area and, it seems, it was ever thus.

Firstly, its name. It was so-called because it started off as a straight path, precisely the length of hemp rope which, twisted into a cable, was used to supply the ships in the nearby docks – a sort of dynamic measuring stick. There were a number of other rope walks in the area as the docks increased in usage.

The street bore a number of other names along its length until in Victorian times the whole street became known as Cable Street. Some of its other names included Knock Fergus, supposed to reflect the high concentration of Irish immigrants in the area but, in truth, the name appears in church records going back to the early 1600s, and Chaurghur, perhaps reflecting trading influences from the Indian sub-continent. From Victorian times to the 1950s it had a reputation for cheap lodgings, brothels, drinking establishments and opium dens.

The name is probably best remembered these days for the so-called Battle of Cable Street, fought on 4th October 1936. Oswald Mosley and supports from the British Union of Fascists planned a provocative march through the area en route to the East End. An alliance of communists, anarchists, labour and Jewish folk from the area sought to resist it. A bus was overturned and used as a barricade, Mosley’s car was pelted with bricks and there was some of the fiercest hand-to-hand fighting witnessed on the streets of London. Eventually the march was abandoned. A plaque at the corner of Cable Street and Dock Street marks the spot.

Two less well-known facts about Cable Street.

In 1834 a certain Charles Henry Harrod opened up a wholesale grocery and tea merchants’ store at No 4, Cable Street. The shop probably remained on Cable Street until the mid-1850s and it wasn’t until 1863 that a branch of the store, under the direction of Charles’ son, Charles Digby Harrod, appeared in Knightsbridge. From humble beginnings what is now an over-priced Qatari-owned department store was born.

The second little known fact is that the junction of Cable Street and Cannon Street Road was the scene of the last occasion in England when a stake was hammered through the heart of an alleged sinner at an official burial. The recipient of this officially sanctioned form of barbarity was one John Williams who been arrested on suspicion of committing a series of gruesome attacks, known as the Ratcliff Highway murders, in December 1811 which resulted in 7 fatalities. There is some doubt as to whether Williams was the culprit but that is another story. The unfortunate was found dead in his cell and the accepted wisdom was that he had committed suicide, a mortal sin in 1812 and the usual practice was to bury the cadaver upside down and drive a stake through its heart. Such was Williams’ grisly fate.

When the areas was being excavated in the 1960s in preparation for laying some gas pipes , his skull was found. The landlord of the nearby Crown and Dolphin pub helped himself to the skull and put it on display on the bar where it remained until the pub was closed in 1992 and converted into flats. A draw of sorts, I suppose.


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