‘It’s a disgrace,” says Rose of the employment program at Westfield’s grand new shopping centre in Stratford.
“It was supposed to be jobs for the local people. I want to know who they class as local people. There’s a lot of foreigners here, but they don’t class as local people who have lived here forever.”
Rose, who asked that her real name not be used, was born and grew up in Stratford, a suburb she no longer recognises. She waves an arm at the multiracial crowd walking through the old, modest shopping centre of 99p shops and £5 clothing stalls like the one she runs: “You see what people are walking through here. There’s no one talking English. It’s loads of blacks and eastern Europeans. And all the money they get from the government.
“It’s very depressing when you have lived here all your life. I feel like a stranger in my own country.”
Rose is 62, an Anglo cockney of the kind traditionally associated with the East End. The people she grew up with are now in a minority. Only 34 per cent of people in the borough of Newham, where Stratford lies, are white. Like Rose, many of them are embittered by what they see as their entitlements to work and welfare being shared with newcomers who are seen as not having earned them.
Rose still works in Stratford but moved out a few years ago to live in the home county of Essex, where many East Enders relocated as the world changed around them, and she feels sorry for the ones who stayed behind. “A lot of the youngsters still here, they ain’t got a job, none of ’em,” she says, shaking her head. “They’re often down here helping pack up stalls for a few bob.”
The young people are the descendants of the dock and factory workers left bereft when their workplaces moved or closed. Not only has their work disappeared but so has the close-knit community described in a 1957 book, Family and Kinship in East London. That study found that “everybody knew each other there, everyone was related to each other”, says Professor Anne Power of the London School of Economics.
Power did a 10-year study of today’s East End families for the book Towards a More Equal Society and found locals who felt the heart had been ripped out of their community.
“The white community there used to be the elite of our [working class] workforce and they have not got over the loss of that tradition,” she says.
“Families that stayed in the East End do tell you that their community has gone and that they have lost all purpose and hope. The skills they had are no longer valued and the schools clearly haven’t been able to capture enough of the ones that are left.”
But Anglo cockneys themselves are only one small moment in time in the history of the East End, which has, for hundreds of years, been a magnet for migrants. It has taken in country folk from the farms of England and Ireland, French Huguenots fleeing religious persecution and eastern European Jews fleeing 19th-century anti-Semitism and then the Nazis.
The Institute of Social and Economic Research reports that Britain now has more than 2 million people of mixed race, outnumbering those who class themselves as black or as being of Indian origin. Earlier research by the Policy Studies Institute found that by 1997 half of black men and a third of black women in relationships had a white partner, as did a fifth of Asian men and one in 10 Asian women.
While there is unhappiness among some who feel displaced by ethnic change, it is clear that on that most intimate of levels, integration is going very well indeed.
First published in the Sydney Morning Herald.