London’s Cockney culture is being driven out of one of its last remaining bastions, Newham in East London, which has seen its white population halved in the last 15 years. The area now has the lowest white population in London leading to pubs and working men’s clubs are closing down and a loss of Christian traditions.
The borough of Newham lies just five miles east of the City of London, banking capital of the world, but locals say it now looks less like a British city, more like Baghdad.
The area was once characterised by its white working class population, mostly cockneys who moved in during the 1800s as dockworkers during an era of unprecedented global trade. But now ethnic minorities make up 76 percent of the borough’s population, making it the most multicultural place in Britain.
“People who haven’t been for many years come out of Upton Park Station and say: ‘I can’t believe what’s happened here, it could be Baghdad,’” says Peter Bell manager of the East Ham Working Men’s Club.
His customers agree. “It’s hard to find somebody who speaks English in Newham,” one says. “We’ve always been a country where immigration plays a part, but not on the scale you find now.
“You go from Aldgate to Barking and there is very few English people left.”
Another says: “The biggest change I think is the pubs shutting, there are so many pubs closing down. Muslims don’t drink, so that’s another major change.”
They are among a few East Enders interviewed by the BBC as part of a documentary on the white minorities of East London, The Sun reports.
“I’ve been here 25 years,” Bell says. “I love everything about this club, everyone is a character in here.
“For example, there’s a bloke called Boring Paul who drinks here – you don’t want to get into a conversation with Boring Paul. Or Gary Lager, he gets so drunk it’s unbelievable.
“These are proper East Enders.”
But now, he says, East End culture is being swept away; his club with it. Located just feet from West Ham’s Upton Park ground, the club makes £13,000 on match days, but is likely to close when the football team move their base to the Olympic stadium.
As well as football fans, the club caters for pensioners twice a week with specially organised tea dances. Its closure will leave them with nowhere to go.
“Old ladies who’ve got no husbands come here with their walking sticks. Some of them can hardly make it up the stairs, but it’s the highlight of their week.
“If we go, what are they going to do?”
One of those ladies is 91-year-old Eileen Kerslake, who comes every week with her friends. She reveals that she is now being forced to move out of the area following the death of her husband of 68 years, as her children have already moved away.
“I have to move because there is nobody here to keep their eye on me,” she says, “[But] I don’t want to go.”
At the other end of the age scale, the flight of white families has meant that fewer white children are being born into the area, making them a rarity in local schools.
Drew Primary in the Docklands area now only has three white children per class. Australian head teacher Emma Peltier is proud of the school’s multiculturalism, telling documentary makers: “We no longer live in a mono-cultural society, we have 43 languages spoken and at least once a week we have a child arrive who has no English.
“Schools and children can be a fantastic way of people assimilating into society because children don’t see colour and children don’t see religion.”
But the children are unlikely to see any religion other than Islam outside of school.
Bus driver Tony Cunningham hails from a family who have lived in Newham for 150 years. Married to a Romanian immigrant, Tony says he has seen the Christian culture of the area die out, and although eastern Europeans are starting to turn that around, the change isn’t happening fast enough.
“I’ve been to church before and I’d say half the people there are eastern Europeans,” he says. “I think they’ll bring something very good to the area but not quick enough for [his daughter] Charlotte.
“These schools around here will make her lose her identity. There are no more nativity plays, no more Christmas cards, nothing like that is celebrated any more, it’s rubbed out.
“I don’t care if Charlotte goes to a school where there’s a mix of races and everything is on an even keel, but that’s not the case around here.”
Tony’s father was a Jamaican immigrant, one of the first ethnic groups to move into the area in the 1950s and ‘60s. Growing up mixed race in the area led to abuse, as he reveals: “We were called ‘n***** when we were growing up. To be honest I had to educate my nan, she had a cat called that.”
But now the tables have turned, as 29-year-old Darren Lovechurch recalls being picked on for being white during his days at college, a decade ago. “I remember hearing, ‘White Boy! Drop your phone and walk off’ shouted by three boys. No disrespect, but I was probably the only white kid in the college,” he says.
Tony is now planning to move his family to Hornchurch in Essex, and they’re not the only ones.
Leanne Oakham, a sixth generation Cockney, is planning a move to Rayleigh, Essex. “It’s not like the old East End where everyone knew everyone and we all left our doors open,” she says. “It’s just scary now.”
Her sister, who lives on the same Newham street predicts the whole family will eventually go. “If I move then my mum will follow, and if my mum moves my nan will follow.
“That will be another local family up and gone to Essex.”
Last Whites Of The East End will be shown on BBC1 at 10.45pm on Tuesday, May 24.