Immigration and diversity in Tower Hamlets

Dan_photo_mediumDaniel Nilsson DeHanas

This article is one of a series on faith and politics in Tower Hamlets.

Tower Hamlets is seldom far from the public eye. The upcoming election for Mayor of Tower Hamlets and John Ware’s recent BBC Panorama programme on current Mayor Lutfur Rahman have returned the spotlight to this diverse area of East London. In this article, Daniel Nilsson DeHanas provides a brief guide to immigration history in Tower Hamlets, places current issues in context, and looks ahead to new concerns that may shape the East End for years to come.

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The East End of London has long captured public imaginations. While the neatly trimmed parks and avenues of London’s West End are renowned for luxury and for proximity to political power, the East End conjures images of crowded alleys and docks, a mongrel conurbation of hard toil, poverty, and criminality.

The contemporary London Borough of Tower Hamlets roughly corresponds with the historic East End[1] and has been shaped by a long history of immigration. Historical accounts of East End immigration conventionally begin with Huguenots fleeing French persecution after the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685, many of them entering the silk trade. Following the Huguenots, there was an influx of Irish who escaped the potato famine of the mid 1800s. It was next that Jews, fleeing Russian pogroms, arrived in the late Nineteenth Century. In this same period Jack the Ripper murdered hapless female victims in the overcrowded slums, Charles Booth pioneered detailed mapping of the area’s poverty, and William Booth, touched by the poverty, founded the Salvation Army. The Jewish population of the East End swelled to over 100,000 by the turn of the Twentieth Century and the area took on the informal designation of ‘Little Jerusalem’.[2]

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“Tower Hamlets is now seen as emblematic of British multiculturalism, and as such has become a symbolic territory worth decrying or defending.”

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Tower Hamlets’ immigration history is distinctive because it has taken the form of relatively discrete waves. This pattern sets it apart from other diverse places in Britain, such as the neighbouring borough of Newham or the city of Leicester, where immigration flows have been more variegated. Immigrants to the areas now in Tower Hamlets have tended to settle in enclaves, for example giving Wapping a ‘Catholic’ character while Stepney took on a ‘Jewish’ one.[3] Anne Kershen notes that for successive waves in the East End it was religion (though not necessarily religiosity) that provided cultural stability and the institutions of community life.[4] A classic illustration of this phenomenon is the religious building on the corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane, originally built as a Huguenot church in the 18th century. The building would become a Methodist chapel and then a Jewish synagogue before its current incarnation as the Brick Lane Great Mosque.

Bengalis and East End regeneration

Bengalis have in recent years become the single largest ethnic group in the East End. They have a long history of association with the locality. When the East India Company Dock was built in Blackwall in 1614, it became a focal point of contact between London and the rich Mughal province of Bengal.[5] The first substantial population of South Asians in Britain were the lascars, sailors and ship engine room crews, many of whom came from the province of Sylhet at the Northeast of modern day Bangladesh. This was, and is, a rural and relatively poor region. Sylheti chain migration from family reunification and marriage fuelled much of Tower Hamlets’ population growth over the second half of the 20th century.[6]

Altab Ali demo, Alan Denney
A demonstration following the murder of Altab Ali in 1978

The Bengalis had arrived for economic opportunities, and many began by working in textiles. Others started restaurants or small shops. Bengalis would over time come to account for the vast majority of ‘Indian’ Restaurant owners in Britain. Brick Lane in the East End became the heartland of settlement, with many businesses and community organisations originating there. As the Bengali presence around Brick Lane grew in the 1970s they were targeted by regular attacks from the National Front. Bengali men formed youth organisations to defend the community against this racist violence. 1978 became a watershed year when the murder of textile worker Altab Ali inspired thousands of Bengalis and other anti-racists onto the streets in solidarity. In the years following the Altab Ali murder, Bengalis took on a more public role. Young men who had defended the community from racist violence, such as Helal Abbas (Labour) and Sajjad Miah (Liberal Democrat), stood for election and became local councillors.

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“The proportion of Bangladeshis in the borough has actually slightly decreased in the last ten years; It is not exactly a ‘Muslim boom’.”

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The 1990s and early 2000s proved a significant period because Bengali campaigning aligned with strategic borough-level priorities. Brick Lane was redeveloped, partly driven forward by Bengali local councillors and cultural activists who desired to leave a lasting physical legacy in a historically transient area.[7] Labour councillor Michael Keith provided continuity of vision during this time, alternating between leading the council and serving as lead member for regeneration from 1994 to 2006. The Council adopted a strategy of investment in three ‘cultural anchors’: the Whitechapel Gallery, the Rich Mix Centre, and Brick Lane, with the latter gaining a distinctive arch, streetlamps, and street signs in Bengali language and being rebranded as ‘Banglatown’.[8] At the same time the nearby Truman Brewery and Spitalfields Market received extensive private investment to become de facto cultural anchors for commercial and artistic talent, and a major philanthropic campaign enabled the restoration of the iconic baroque Christ Church Spitalfields. The areas at the borough’s Western edge, bordering the City of London, were establishing themselves as attractive places to live, work, or visit.[9]

Muslim institutions have, over the past decade, taken on an increasing role in East London politics. In 2004, the large Bengali-led East London Mosque (ELM) on Whitechapel Road completed a major extension called the London Muslim Centre. The ELM has since that time become a core participant in local governance, building an impressive portfolio that includes youth work, a drug rehabilitation centre, a school attendance initiative, and partnerships with the Council, police, third sector organisations, and faith leaders.[10] Other local mosques, including Darul Ummah in nearby Shadwell, have been following this example.[11]

The expanding public role of East End Islamic organisations has been controversial. In his 2007 book The Islamist, Ed Husain drew attention to the East London Mosque as, in his words, ‘Europe’s largest Islamist hub’.[12] In 2010, a Dispatches documentary by journalist Andrew Gilligan focused the spotlight on a single Bengali politician, Lutfur Rahman. Gilligan alleged that Rahman was improperly linked with the Islamic Forum Europe (an organisation headquartered in the ELM) and facilitating the rise of ‘Britain’s Islamic Republic’. Ironically, Gilligan’s sensationalist reporting seems to have built support for Rahman who, following the Dispatches furore, went on to decisively win the first election for executive Mayor of Tower Hamlets in October 2010.[13] With the next mayoral election now looming, a recent BBC Panorama documentary by John Ware questions if Mayor Rahman has been using a faith buildings scheme to buy influence from Bengali and Somali constituents.[14] In response to these allegations, the Department of Communities and Local Government has commissioned a full audit of the Council. The initial associated Metropolitan Police inquiry failed to find ‘credible evidence of criminality,’ although other legal investigations may be pending.[15]

Perhaps the most striking aspect of these recent Tower Hamlets controversies is that they have been aimed for national media, rather than simply playing out as local debates. Similarly, the national prominence of Tower Hamlets is evident in how it has been targeted by extremist groups including the English Defence League, the ‘Muslim patrols’, and Britain First’s ‘Christian patrols’, each of which has staged activities in the borough and raised their media profiles, even though they lack local followings. It seems that the East End remains as fascinating to outsiders today as it was in Victorian times. Tower Hamlets is now seen as emblematic of British multiculturalism, and as such has become a symbolic territory worth decrying or defending.

A changing borough

The 2011 Census results revealed Tower Hamlets to be the fastest growing local authority in the country. In ten years the population increased a remarkable 24.6 per cent, from 196,100 to 254,100.[16] The Census figures also demonstrated important changes in population composition. In 2001, white British residents were the largest ethnic group by a wide margin, at 43 per cent. That figure has fallen to 31 per cent as older residents have died and others have moved out of the borough. Bangladeshis in Tower Hamlets, who are predominantly Muslim, have narrowly overtaken white British residents as the largest group. However the proportion of Bangladeshis in the borough has actually slightly decreased, from 33 per cent in 2001 to 32 per cent today. In other words, the Bangladeshi growth rate has remained just below the overall growth rate. It is not exactly a ‘Muslim boom’.

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“One in five households living in Tower Hamlets earns less than £15,000. Yet, largely because it contains Canary Wharf, the average income of those who work in the borough is an astounding £78,000.”

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The underlying story from 2001 to 2011 has been the growth of other population categories. A total of 48,000 people were added to Tower Hamlets in the ten-year period, with the largest part of this increase in the ‘other white’ category, including continental Europeans, North Americans, South Africans, Australians, and New Zealanders. This relatively affluent set grew in size from 12,800 (7 per cent) to 31,600 (12 per cent), or an increase of nearly nineteen thousand people. Other growth in the borough has included Indians (up by 3,800), Chinese (up by 2,200), and the black categories that are likely include the borough’s growing number of Somalis (black Africans up by 2,900, and ‘other blacks’ also up by 2,900).

Canary_Wharf_(8132620023)
Though based in the same borough, Canary Wharf is a long distance, economically, from much of Tower Hamlets

The Census indicates that Tower Hamlets has been diversifying ethnically while remaining divided socio-economically. The East End today is a place of contrasts. Tower Hamlets has the highest rate of children living under the poverty line[17] and, after Newham, the second highest rate of overcrowding.[18] According to the recent report of the Tower Hamlets Fairness Commission, one in five households living in Tower Hamlets earns less than £15,000. Yet, largely because it contains Canary Wharf and areas that border the City, the average income of those who work in the borough is an astounding £78,000.[19]

Young professionals have been attracted to gentrified and redeveloped areas such as St Katharine Docks, the Isle of Dogs, Victoria Park, and parts of Spitalfields. The Northern half of Brick Lane includes art galleries and clubs associated with the Truman Brewery and has become a magnet for creative professionals.[20] These fashionable areas seem a world away from densely packed council housing blocks such as the behemoth Ocean Estate.

Michael Keith has noted, rightly, that the regeneration of Tower Hamlets has made it a ‘success story’ and ‘a very desirable and popular part of London in which to live’.[21] However there is a possibility that redevelopment is now moving at such a pace that it will endanger the unique character of the East End as a refuge for immigrants and new ideas. The area has for a long time faced encroachment from the City of London. New plans for the Goodsyard by Shoreditch High Street Station, an area shared with Hackney, include a row of skyscrapers in excess of 30-storeys, in what could initiate a ‘Canary Wharf-isation’ of the East End.[22] These disproportionate plans are being opposed by various campaign groups, most notably the East End Preservation Society.[23]

Today on Whitechapel Road the East London Mosque is a dominant architectural feature. According Council plans, in ten years it may lie in the shadow of the Crossrail station skyscraper.[24] If any cultural influx threatens the future vitality of Tower Hamlets, it is homogenisation from these businesses and the new ‘wave’ of chain restaurants and luxury flats they will bring with them.

Daniel Nilsson DeHanas is Research Fellow at the University of Kent. Until 2012 he was Research Associate on the Muslim Participation in Contemporary Governance project. His sociology research has focused on post-migration religion and politics.


[1] ‘East End’ conventionally refers to the area North of the Thames reaching from the Tower of London at its West side to the River Lea at its East, perhaps as far North as Hackney. See Alan W. Palmer (2000) The East End: Four Centuries of London Life. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

[2] Anne Kershen (2013) Strangers, Aliens and Asians: Huguenots, Jews and Bangladeshis in Spitalfields 1666-2000. London: Routledge.

[3] William J. Fishman (1975) East End Jewish Radicals, 1875-1914. London: Duckworth.

[4] Anne Kershen (2013) Strangers, Aliens and Asians: Huguenots, Jews and Bangladeshis in Spitalfields 1666-2000. London: Routledge.

[5] Ansar Ahmed Ullah and John Eversley (2010) Bengalis in London’s East End. London: Swadhinata Trust.

[6] Caroline Adams. (1987). Across seven seas and thirteen rivers: Life stories of pioneer Sylheti settlers in Britain. THAP books.

[7] Claire Alexander. (2011). Making Bengali Brick Lane: claiming and contesting space in east London. The British journal of sociology, 62(2), 201-220.

[8] The physical changes to Brick Lane including the arch were added in 1997 and the area gained the designation ‘Banglatown’ in 2002. On the cultural anchors strategy, see Kate Oakley and Andy C. Pratt. (2010). ‘Brick Lane: community-driven innovation. Local Knowledge: Case studies of four innovative places. London: NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts), p 28-39. www.nesta.org.uk/sites/default/files/local_knowledge.pdf‎

[9] John Eade (2000) Placing London: From imperial capital to global city. New York: Berghahn books.

[10] On the role of the East London Mosque in local governance, see Therese O’Toole, Daniel Nilsson DeHanas, Tariq Modood, Nasar Meer, and Stephen Jones. Taking Part: Muslim Participation in Contemporary Governance. Final Report. Bristol: University of Bristol. http://www.bristol.ac.uk/ethnicity/projects/muslimparticipation/documents/mpcgreport.pdf

[11] See Daniel Nilsson DeHanas (2013) ‘Elastic Orthodoxy: The Tactics of Young Muslim Identity in the East End of London.’ In Nathal Dessing, Nadia Jeldtoft, Jorgen Nielsen, and Linda Woodhead (eds.) Everyday Lived Islam in Europe. Farnham, UK: Ashgate.

[12] Ed Husain. (2007). The Islamist. London: Penguin. Page 280.

[13] On Lutfur Rahman’s apparent ability to gain strength from opponents (called by some ‘political jujutsu’) see Dave Hill (2011) ‘Tower Hamlets: Lutfur, Labour and Beyond’ Dave Hill’s London Blog, 11/2/2011: http://www.theguardian.com/society/davehillblog/2011/feb/11/lutfur-rahman-labour-tower-hamlets

[14] The BBC Panorama documentary can be viewed online (until April 2015) at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04044km

[15] Caroline Davies (2014) ‘Police Find No Evidence of Criminality by Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman.’ The Guardian, 16/04/2014. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/apr/16/police-no-evidence-criminality-tower-hamlet-mayor-lutfur-rahman. It is worth noting that the original Metropolitan Police statement said that an investigation arising from Panorama revealed ‘no credible evidence of criminality’, but the police statement has since been amended to say that there is ‘no new credible evidence of criminality’. This change in wording may or may not indicate that there was already a preexisting investigation.  See the Trial by Jeory blog: http://trialbyjeory.wordpress.com/2014/04/17/

[16] Office for National Statistics, 2011 Census. For simplicity and ease of reading, all Census population figures are rounded down to the nearest hundred.

[17] London Borough of Tower Hamlets (2013) ‘Tower Hamlets Fairness Commission Introductory Evidence Pack.’ Available online: http://www.towerhamlets.gov.uk/idoc.ashx?docid=f8ae25ee-d394-429a-8a9d-afb8a66ca43f&version=-1

[18] London Borough of Tower Hamlets (2013) ‘Overcrowding and Under Occupation Statement: 2013-2015.’ Available online: http://moderngov.towerhamlets.gov.uk/documents/s45718/6.1b%20App2%20Overcrowding%20and%20Under%20Occupation%20statement.pdf

[19] These figures are reported in London Borough of Tower Hamlets (2013) Tower Hamlets: Time to Act. Report of the Tower Hamlets Fairness Commission. Available online: http://www.towerhamlets.gov.uk/idoc.ashx?docid=60ace821-c9ef-4577-ae1f-be114fc02a42&version=-1

[20] George Mavrommatis (2006) ‘The New ‘Creative’ Brick Lane A Narrative Study of Local Multicultural Encounters.’ Ethnicities, 6(4), 498-517.

[21] Michael Keith (2012) ‘Tower Hamlets Population Boom: A Guest Post by Prof Michael Keith.’ Trial by Jeory blog. 12/08/2014. http://trialbyjeory.wordpress.com/2012/08/12/tower-hamlets-population-boom-a-guest-post-by-prof-michael-keith/

[22] Joon Ian Wong (2014) ‘The ‘Canary Wharf-isation’ of Shoreditch.’ Londonist. 4 Feb 2014. http://londonist.com/2014/02/the-canary-wharf-isation-of-shoreditch.php

[23] On the founding of the East End Preservation Society, see http://spitalfieldslife.com/2013/11/14/the-east-end-preservation-society/

[24] London Borough of Tower Hamlets (2013) Whitechapel Vision Masterplan 2013. http://www.towerhamlets.gov.uk/lgsl/451-500/494_th_planning_guidance/consultation_and_engagement/draft_whitechapel_vision_spd.aspx

The image of the Altab Ali protest is included courtesy of Alan Denney and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License. The image of Canary Wharf is included courtesy of Chris Eason and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

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