Hare Marsh and Rabbit Marsh: fact and fiction in Bethnal Green, part two

In ‘King Dido’, his 1969 novel about Dido Peach, a docker turned criminal, Alexander Baron set the action in a shabby Bethnal Green alleyway called Rabbit Marsh. This was directly inspired by Baron’s memories of Hare Marsh, a tiny cul-de-sac that still exists near Brick Lane. Here, Baron gives us a careful description of the squalid street.

‘In 1911, although the crowding was less abominable and the old Hogarthian bedlam had vanished, the street was still a slum, the roadway narrow and cobbled, the houses black and decayed, many of the ground floors turned into miserable shops and workshops… the railway lines ran behind high brick walls on an embankment behind Rabbit Marsh.’

It hasn’t changed much, has it?

Although a new block of luxury flats sits on the right-hand side, the left wall is an old workshop, the street is still cobbled and it ends abruptly and noisily at the railway. Dido Peach lived above his mother’s rag shop, so it is perhaps apposite that the building to the left is now a second-hand clothes shop.

Here it is again in 1973, in a brilliant, bleak image by Jonathan Barker on Flickr. Scroll down and Barker also has a great picture of it later that year with Cheshire Street’s atmospheric market in full swing.

Baron writes.

‘Imagine a narrow ravine whose floor consists of worn cobbles running between pavements of uneven flags. Such was Rabbit Marsh. That was all the street was; two narrowly facing rows of such buildings, leaning forward with age, cleft by an alley here or there or pierced at the base by a porch leading into a yard.’

Alexander chose his location carefully – the contrast between the rural idealism of the name and the reality of the space is crucial; the words ‘rabbit’ and ‘marsh’ also have insinuations, of over-breeding and of getting stuck  – but he also cheated a bit. Although we know that Rabbit/Hare Marsh is a short dead-end street in the book it is still large enough to contain several dozen shops and houses (Dido lives at No.34) as well as a pub (the Railway), and we are told it hosts a street market on Sundays. The real Hare Marsh simply isn’t large enough for all of that.

Nowhere in the book does Baron mention Hare Street (as Cheshire Street was then named), the now trendy road that links Hare Marsh to Brick Lane, and my assumption is that the author conflated Hare Marsh and Hare Street to give Rabbit Marsh a little extra space for him to play with than really existed. So Rabbit Marsh is stretched, the residents allowed more room in which to breath.

He did not have to imagine much. Opposite Hare Marsh is a pub that looks a lot like the one described in the book.

This is the Carpenter’s Arms. In another nod to reality, there is real villainy here. Dido Peach ends up becoming a kind of local enforcer, taking protection money from local shopkeepers, and the Carpenter’s was once owned by the Krays. All three Krays – Ron, Reg and Charlie – had their funerals at the nearby St Matthew’s church.

Baron’s descriptions of Hare Marsh are captivating, but they are necessarily evocative. Dido Peach’s universe is tiny, and we have to believe in it. This was true to life. In this era, the average Londoner was born, lived, worked and died within a three-mile circle and Peach’s world is similarly shrivelled. The furthest north he gets is Dalston; south is the impenetrable barrier of the river. His one trip west takes him as far as Liverpool Street station, where he heads for the Tube platform and sits watching the trains coming and going, but never considers getting on board.

In ‘The People Of The Abyss’, Jack London’s 1902 account of the East London poor, he writes of one young soak: ‘From the moment of his birth, all the forces of his environment had tended to harden him, and he viewed his wretched, inevitable future with a callousness and unconcern I could not shake.’

This is also the tragedy of Dido Peach’s life, the limitations of possibility and how poverty destroys self-belief and any means the protagonist has of escape, but it is what makes the book so acute and so realistic. Seek it out, then take the pilgrimage to this tiny and otherwise forgotten dead-end alleyway in E2, where fact and fiction collide in gritty, grotty greatness.

Part one is here.

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5 responses to “Hare Marsh and Rabbit Marsh: fact and fiction in Bethnal Green, part two

  1. Lovely post, though all a bit close to the bone for those wondering whether to bring up children the other side of the road.

    NB the rag shop is the best around, according to my sources.

    NNB your photo doesn’t do justice to the aesthetic disaster of the new yuppie flats, with their variegation of brickwork, dark-green-and-white squares and cheap faded-green plasttic strip panels… I will have to supply a photo.

    NNBB the old warehouse that the flats replaced played home to the Hauser & Wirth gallery, just to fill out your history of gentrification.

  2. Thanks for recommending ‘King Dido’ – really enjoying it and feeds into plans for a book I’m (slowly) writing. Do you know the memoir ‘A Hoxton Childhood’ by A.S.Jasper (1969) … really good book capturing low-rent Hoxton/City Road in the 1910s/20s … recommended, if not!

  3. Hi Lee
    Glad you like ‘King Dido’. I’m next going to read Baron’s book about Jewish Londoners, ‘The Lowlife’, which was reprinted last year.

    And thanks for the recommendation, will seek it out. There is a real wealth of books about this part of London.

  4. Great site. Baron got to know this area from childhood visits to his grandparents.

    Another Baron novel ‘Rosie Hogarth’ – set in the Chapel Market area of Islington in the 1940s – has just been republished. It’s worth checking out.

  5. I was searching for my grandads seed shop on the left that I use to visit when I was young. but the shops are no longer there. I remember the stalls outside the shops, the cobbled street and the railway arch that was accessible for horses and carts about 1950.

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