East London Series: Call the Midwife Historic Walk

The New Yorker recently published an article about Call the Midwife. It talked about how brutal the show is while still being wholesome and warm. When I watched the first episode, I was besotted. Finally, a historical show about women without the cat fights and soap opera elements that grace the TV these days. But more than that even, it was a show that focused on the lower classes of east London. It’s not glamorized or picturesque, and the women are real; not stick figures.

Old Babies
Life in the east end of London.

I really love historical dramas. They give a snapshot into a different time, and living in London, it has been really fun and eye-opening to see how this city has transformed over the decades. Jeff and I don’t usually travel to east London just because it takes over an hour from one side to the other, but after watching this show, my imagination begged me to walk in the footsteps of history. So, I made a trip to Poplar and the surrounding areas.

2016-06-09 08.26.00
The Poplar DLR stop in east London.

My first stop on my Call the Midwife walking tour was Nonnatus House where Jennifer Worth (the author of Call the Midwife) stayed with her fellow nurses and the borough nuns. Now, Nonnatus House is a pseudonym created by Worth for her books. I tried to do some research before setting out, and the best location I could find for the former convent was 18 Follett Street in the heart of Poplar.

This former convent is tucked away on a quiet side street and is now completely surrounded by apartment buildings and Middle Eastern restaurants. I can’t be 100% sure if this is the actual location, but if not, it was no matter because where I stood, snapping pictures, these midwives lived and walked every single day.

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The east side has humor but also dozens of tenement buildings for the ever-growing London population.

In Jennifer Worth’s second book, Shadows of the Workhouse, she talks more about the effects of the horrific institutions that inspired Oliver Twist and tortured thousands of people in the east end. None of them stand today, but I wanted to see a former location, so I made my way toward 100 Poplar High Street. Workhouses have been around as early as 1388 as a place of employment and board after the effects of the Black Death that swept the United Kingdom. But by the time the Napoleonic Wars devastated the population, the workhouses were stretched thin and the gap between the well-off and poor expanded exponentially lowering the standards of the workhouses considerably.

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A plaque on the Workhouse Sports and Leisure Center building.

So, by the early 1900s, the workhouses were seen as a death sentence. If you were too poor to afford your rent or care for your children, or even yourself, you had little choice but to enter the structure, and very rarely did you get out. People would be “hired” to work, and in return, they would get a meager wage, a room and food. But the meager wage was never enough to eventually find your feet again in the outside world.

What stands near 100 Poplar High Street today is something called the Workhouse Sports and Leisure Center. I stared at the sign in a bit of disbelief. I’m not sure if I would want to commemorate something so devastating in a sports center, but then again, the workhouse is an important identity to east London life. On the other side of this building is the Tower Hamlets College. The college, itself, certainly looked ominous, but both of these structures certainly show the incredible difference history can make.

As I made my way to my next stop, I passed by the St Saviours Church in Bartlett Close. It caught my eye because it looked completely devastated. Covered in scaffolding, the interior was destroyed and the broken stained glass looked like jagged teeth. What could have possibly destroyed such a lovely church in the middle of a cluster of homes? After some quick research, I saw it was a fire that gutted the church in 2007. It’s near a decade, and this structure is only now getting its feet back on the ground.

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The front gate of the Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park.

I continued along the high street toward the Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park. London is certainly not short of cemeteries and grave sites. You can’t go digging in this town without stumbling on a plague pit or king these days. But the cemeteries all around the city are so gorgeous and hauntingly beautiful, and this one was no different. Opened in 1841, this park is now a nature reserve. There have been no new graves since 1966.

The space looks like it has gone completely back to the woods with broken stones and crooked trees growing around the tombs. There are 279 war graves dotted among the civilians as well as hidden corners dedicated to the children of the east end. The space is stunning and so breathtaking that I sat for a few minutes to watch the sunlight fall through the trees.

To continue my trek through the east end, I made my way to the Museum of London Docklands. I spent a good hour inside learning about life in the East India Docklands and how London evolved in trade and whatnot, but unless you have a keen interest in ship life, this is a museum that can be missed. While it’s full of information, it’s just not my cup of tea, and it didn’t cover life in general in the east end, which is what I wanted. However, I will say it was pretty cool to walk through a museum that is housed in one of the original warehouses for shipping. It was just another element of walking in history’s footsteps.

The last place on my tour of the east end and following in the footsteps of Call the Midwife was the famed Cable Street. If you’ve read the books or seen the show, Mary is a young girl featured as a prostitute who frequented the area. In the books, the area is described as seedy, dark, and brimming with crime. It was the first time on my walking tour that I could see how it could have been. The bridge holding the DLR line above ground offers perfect cover for seedy transactions.

What also amazed me is as I walked from West India Docks to Tower Hill by way of Cable Street was the neighborhoods changed drastically from block to block. I went from buildings with peeling paint and trash in the streets to chrome high rises with people running midday for exercise. The waterfront offered gorgeous views just around the Limehouse Basin, but by the time I got to Shadwell, the DLR bridges offered more dark alleys for underground behavior.

Still, I think Mary’s story was my favorite to read in the series. It wasn’t because hers was one of the most tragic, but rather hers was the one that opened my eyes to the terrible living conditions people endured in the east end in the 1950s. She, as depicted in the book and series, gave birth to her child to only have it taken away. She was unfit to be a young mother at 14 years old, so the government saw it necessary to place the baby in a foster home. But Mary’s story continued a while later when she was arrested for kidnapping another baby after going a bit mad.

Hanbury Street 1970s
An old building of the east end ready for demolition in the 1970s.

As a side note: on Cable Street, a few short blocks from Tower Hill, I stumbled upon the Jack the Ripper Museum. This small gallery dedicated to the victims of Jack the Ripper had nothing to do with my walking tour for Call the Midwife, but because I was in the neighborhood and actual hunting ground of the famed serial killer, I dropped in. For £12, I didn’t get my money’s worth. Four floors of recreated rooms with wax dummies and artifacts, the space is sparse and kitchy. But with your ticket, you get a free evening walking tour of the Jack the Ripper trail, so I can see how the price could be justified.

My personal walking tour of the east side was eye opening and worth the time. While I did not get an in depth history told by a tour guide, I walked where Jenny Lee and the countless midwives did as they cared for the underprivileged, poor, and forgotten families of the impoverished east end.

Poplar Boys
Life in the east end, 1950s.

Below is a video of “Driving Through Old London” that I absolutely loved. You can see how London life was over half a century ago and try to imagine a time vastly different than today. While this doesn’t go through the east end, it’s a lovely snapshot.

To read more about the original midwives of Call the Midwife and more, check out the links below.


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