Francis Aldor, author of a book on Hitler, and also a publisher, considered compiling his unusual guide to the lesser sights of London after meeting an American tourist from Los Angeles in Venice. When asked if he had visited the city’s ghetto, where Shakespeare’s Shylock was supposed to have lived, the American confessed that he had not. Alas, there was no time for Aldor to show him, as the American’s plane was due to leave the following morning, but the encounter did give Aldor the idea of a book on London, one of the cities he knew most intimately, that would uncover a city whose ‘attractions are innumerable, but notably shy and elusive’. Another reason to publish such a book in 1951, although Aldor doesn’t admit it, was, of course, to cash in on ‘The Festival of Britain’.
Aldor gathered together some talented writers to help him lift the lid on the metropolis– people like navy expert Commander Trevor Blore, K. Kay, G. de Semley, Lee-Howard, Sheila Bridgeman, and Michael Pechel, among others. More extraordinary is the list of artists Aldor and the art editor Imre Hofbauer (1905 – 89), a Serbian immigrant whose brilliant expressionist vignettes had been published in many magazines, called upon to provide the text illustrations—including book illustrator Edward Ardizonne, Terence Bowles, M and V. Bulkely-Johnson, Ray Evans, the caricaturist Fougasse, art critic William Gaunt, Peter Jackson, the gifted painter Fortunino Martania, Francis Marshall, Feliks Topolski, Vertes and some of the best artists of the Grosvenor school of lino cutters. Many of the drawings had already appeared in other books or magazines on London, but their reappearance in this new guide was a stroke of genius.
Many followers of Jot 101 over the age of 75 might recognise some of the aspects of London described in the guide, but for much younger Jotters Aldor’s London of 1951 seems another world away. Take the description of the Dockland district. Aldor is quick to dispel the colourful and somewhat sensational image of Chinatown painted by Thomas Burke in his Limehouse Nights (1916), the Fu Manchu novels of Sax Rohmer and films of the time:
‘Sinister Chinese slinking silently through luminescent fog, with the moan of foghorns in the background; shoreside sharks and tough dames skinning poor sailors home from the sea; ruthless smugglers shooting their way out of police traps; East End dives where” master-minds “ plan commando raids of crime and send out their swarthy plug-uglies to get the Crown Jewels.
However, the picture Aldor paints of Limehouse thirty-five years on from Burke is not that dissimilar:
‘ Oh, yes, there is a thriving little colony of Chinese in the waterside district of Limehouse. From time to time the police do discover the occasional opium or gambling ‘den’ After all, gambling is the very breath of life to Chinese, as it is to many Occidentals too. But in the main the Limehouse Chinese shop-keeper or restaurant owner is a highly respectable citizen. As for sinister mandarins in gilded chambers of Oriental luxury behind slum facades, ready to torture beautiful girls who wander into their spider’s web of crime. Well—-hardly’
Aldor takes West India Dock Road as a focus point:
‘Around here are the ‘ bright lights ‘ of dockland, where the seamen of the world still congregate. Scandinavians rub shoulders with Negroes, and, as the human tide flows along West India Dock Road you can stand and see Malays, West Indians, Arabs, Chinese, Frenchmen, Greeks, Spaniards, all out for a run ashore—for a drink, a bit of fun…Around here are the seamen’s hostels, their pubs, their cinemas, their eating places, chop-suey joints of this little Chinatown…and you will need to be watchful to see the local Chinese. Dockland’s Chinese population is, in the main, a floating one of a few hundreds. ‘
Fast forward to 2021. The Docklands have gone, of course, and with it all of those foreign sailors, though some Europeans have remained. Also departed, it would seem, are most of the Chinese who had settled in Limehouse. Today there may be one of two Chinese restaurants, but these are far outnumbered by takeaway chicken shops and kebab joints and the occasional curry house, if a recent visit by your Jotter to West India Dock Road is any indication. The road and adjoining thoroughfares have an unkempt, seedy look, which hopefully will deter any hedge fund managers and investment bankers from living there, although of course, the Georgian terraces of Narrow Street will always appeal to well- heeled workers from the City and Canary Wharf.
In 1951 Aldor could hardly have predicted the total destruction of the Docklands that would take place thirty years later. Back then it was still a thriving district, though hints of a decline could be detected if one looked deeper. But the statistics quoted by Aldor are impressive, all the same:
‘This body ( the Port of London Authority) which operates one of the oldest, biggest and busiest ports in the world, has an estate of 2,945 acres, with 37 miles of quays and 47 miles of railway line. Its biggest property in the area of the Royal Victoria and Albert and the King George V dock from Blackwall to Gallions Reach, a distance of three miles, connected by deepwater channels, to form the largest sheet of impounded dock water in the world…’
The focus then shifts to West Ferry Road and the Isle of Dogs:
‘…over swing bridges which bar entrances to inner docks, more masts and cranes, an occasional glimpse of a ship. And now we are on the Isle of Dogs, the very heart of dockland, some of whose inhabitants are reputed never to have set foot on the ‘ mainland’ . Here are dusky descendants of the tough Thames ‘ watermen’ who ran the original ‘ taxis’—the boats which conveyed much of London’s traffic by water centuries ago before the advent of roads and coaches. The Thames was the highway of king and commoner in those days…’
And finally Wapping, evidently a hot bed of crime back in the fifties:
‘…Behind the miles of walls we have passed in dockland, this war goes on day and night. A war between and crooks. For within these warehouses lie millions of pounds ‘ worth of goods from all corners of the world and England—ivory, rum, silks, spices, and, above all, such items as nylon stockings which are the foundation of the modern black market…’
Yes, the docklands have certainly changed.