In another era, the East End was a byword for vice and violence, a place where squalor incubated gangsters, pimps, murderers and thieves.
For generations this seedy underbelly has been populated by a revolving cast of shady characters, its history pockmarked with dramatic events that held London rapt.
So what traces of their lawlessness can be detected in today’s re-made East End – and where can you find it?
1. Channel the The Kray Twins at the Blind Beggar Pub
What happened? Ronald and Reginald Kray were born in 1933 and grew up in Bethnal Green. They worked their way from protection rackets to owning billiard halls and cabaret bars.
The twins became London identities, but remained violent hard-men. When East End enforcer George Cornell made the mistake of calling Ronnie a “fat poof” in 1966,
Ronnie went to the Blind Beggar pub and shot Cornell dead. Later that year, Reggie fatally stabbed hitman Jack ‘the Hat’ McVitie in a Hackney flat.
In 1968 the Krays were tried and convicted for murder and received life sentences. Ronnie died of a heart attack in 1995. Reggie was released on compassionate grounds in 2000, and died shortly afterwards.
What remains? The Blind Beggar pub is still standing at number 337 Whitechapel Road.
2. See where Jack the Ripper met Mary Kelly
What happened? In 1888, a series of murders shocked the East End. Between August 31 and November 9 the bodies of five prostitutes were discovered, throats cut and organs removed.
No one was convicted of the Whitechapel murders, so the mystery of Jack the Ripper still endures.
Several wild theories about the killer’s identity have been floated but no consensus exists, even on the number of Ripper murders – the five women alluded to are the “canonical five” but it could be as many as 11 – or whether the murderer possessed medical expertise.
What remains? The Ripper met his most famous victim, Mary Kelly, at the Ten Bells pub on the corner of Commercial and Fournier Streets.
3. Visit the scene of The Siege of Sidney Street
What happened? In December 1910, police interrupted a break-in at a jewellery store. In the ensuing shoot-out three officers were killed before the gang escaped. Investigations focused on London-based anarchists, and police traced them to a house on Sidney Street, where the leader of the gang, Peter Piatkow, was hiding.
Thousands of shots were fired back and forth before the place burst into flames. Police found the bodies of two gang members in the embers, but Piatkow was never located.
What remains? Sidney Street runs between Mile End Road and Commercial Road, near Whitechapel Tube.
4. Explore the stomping ground of The Sabini Brothers
What happened? Between the World Wars, the Sabini brothers – Harry, George, Darby, Joseph, Charles and Fred – ran protection rackets, targeting bookies at racecourses.
In the 1920s the Sabinis’ crew battled for control of London’s tracks with the Brummagen Boys and the Cortesi family, and the gangland war was intensified by divided loyalties within the police force.
The Sabinis later branched out into slot machines and gambling clubs, and it is widely accepted they were behind a gold bullion snatch at Croydon airport in 1936.
What remains? The Sabini boys were born and raised in Saffron Hill, near Farringdon Tube.
5. See the mural of Jack ‘The Spot’ Comer’s famous battle
What happened? Born in 1912, Jack Comer grew up in a Jewish ghetto on Myrdle Street and was nicknamed ‘Spot’ because of a mole on his cheek.
Protection rackets made him one of London’s underworld ‘kings’ for about 20 years.
Comer is forever associated with the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, when the British Union of Fascists marched through the East End.
In response, Stepney rose as one against fascism and the police protecting the demonstrators.
What remains? A large mural depicting the Battle remains on the side of St George’s Town Hall, about 200m west of Shadwell DLR.
Why the East End?
East London’s erstwhile underworld was founded on three factors: the docks, immigrants and poverty.
Thieves aiming to steal cargo being transported along the Thames often used East London as a rallying point, ensuring that there were always plenty of villains loitering in the area.
Today, it’s hard to imagine the grinding poverty that once afflicted so much of London, and few parts were poorer than the East. It’s no surprise that men turned to racketeering and violence.
The upshot of the docks and the poverty was an influx of immigrants to East London, which in turn saw whole streets ghettoised and sectarian clashes between rival criminal gangs.
Words: Tom Sturrock