Hare Marsh and Rabbit Marsh: fact and fiction in Bethnal Green

Last month, a friend bought me ‘King Dido’ by Alexander Baron, a lost London novel written in 1969 that has recently been reprinted. It is set in the East End in 1911 and is about Dido Peach, a taciturn docker who almost against his will and certainly against his intentions becomes a vicious criminal, the boss of his manor. It’s a great book – lively, cynical, witty, violent yet thoughtful; it reminded me of Camus’ ‘The Stranger’, but filtered through a very exacting East End eye.

Off  Cheshire Street, south of where it meets St Matthew’s Road, you will find an easily overlooked dead-end street called Hare Marsh. This is where Baron’s mother grew up and it’s where Baron places Dido’s small and rather pathetic manor, renamed Rabbit Marsh in the book.

Originally, Hare Marsh was the name given to the entire area. It had been built on since before the 1670s, but had long been a slum by the time Baron’s book was set. He writes:

‘Rabbit Marsh acquired its name at the end of the seventeenth century, when it was a green and pleasant country place on the outskirts of London. Artisans came here to picnic, practise their sports and trap the rabbits, which abounded… The industrial revolution had turn the whole eastern quarter into an immense slum which had overrun Bethnal Green. Rabbit Marsh was swallowed up with the rest… ‘

This is why William Cobbett called London ‘the Great Wen’, a monstrous cyst that was consuming the country around it, and you can trace the development and decline of Hare Marsh in maps.

Here you can see it on this enlarged square of John Rocque’s London map of 1746. It’s towards the top of the map in the shape of a little lane coming south off Hare Street, the last turning on the right, and heading into fields. Bucolic, no?

To get some perspective, here’s a link to the whole map; Hare Marsh is in square 1F.

Now, here’s the incredible Horwood map of 1792 – Hare Marsh is on the far right, still an open and pleasant looking space but buildings are starting to encroach.

It hasn’t changed much by the time of the Greenwood map of 1827.

It’s the short street off Hare Street (as Cheshire Street was known until sometime between 1929 and 1945) directly below St Matthew’s Church right next to the big black square.

The square is the workhouse and Hare Marsh also contains almshouses, buildings that show there has been a change in the area’s status. But there’s still no sign of the railway, so even now Hare Marsh opens directly on to fields.

That was soon to change.

Here it is on Booth’s poverty map of 1898, coloured dark and light blue – not quite black (semi-criminal) on Booth’s colour coded scale, but not far off it. Bethnal Green is now entirely built over.

Again it’s the little turning off Hare Street – you can just see it between the ‘r’ and ‘e’ of street. By now, the railway is very much in place, closing in the inhabitants and offering them no escape. This feeling of dead-endness, of a lack of options, of claustrophobia, is central to the atmosphere of Baron’s book and partly explains why he chose this as the location. The railways brought London its greatest devastation since the Great Fire, and this is a great example of the adverse impact it had on individual streets.

Finally, here it is (square aD) in 1922 shortly after the period in which Baron’s book was set (and again in 1952, by which time Hare Street had become Cheshire Street). What had been a quiet lane, open to fields and on the very edge of London, was now a cul-de-sac, hemmed in by a noisy and polluting railway, in the heaving centre of London’s chaotic and overpopulated East End. The perfect location for a novel about poverty and powerlessness.

More on Hare Marsh later.

Many of these maps are available for purchase from the linked websites.


3 responses to “Hare Marsh and Rabbit Marsh: fact and fiction in Bethnal Green

  1. Pingback: Hare Marsh and Rabbit Marsh: fact and fiction in Bethnal Green, part two « The Great Wen

  2. paul azzario

    Read this book in the 70’s, and being a Londoner, it really captivated my juvenile imagination.

  3. Just read King Dido as part of my book project on London slum fiction. My blog is here:
    I am just about to add a link to yours. Great blogpost on Hare Marsh and you are dead right that the Rabbit Marsh of the book seems to be like Cheshire Street rather than Hare Marsh in terms of having dozens of weavers’ houses with shops on the ground floor. Thanks also for pointing me back to those Jonathan Barker photographs which I have seen before but which have different associations after reading the book. Yesterday I was talking at UCL’s English department about Baron. People really don’t know much about him.
    Thanks again, Jason Finch

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