Visit to Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives

On Thursday the 5th of June, a team of eager volunteers from the Best Days of Our Lives project attended the Tower Hamlet’s Local History Library & Archives with the intention of discovering how children living in Tower Hamlets borough from the 1950’s onwards used to play.  Overall, the day was a fascinating experience for all and many interesting insights were gained, some of which I am going to share with you in this post.  Before starting, I’d personally like to thank the team at Tower Hamlet’s archives, particular Anna & Perdita, who were extremely accommodating throughout the day.  I am sure this is a sentiment that would be echoed by everyone who attended.

Tour of the archives

We were given a behind the scenes tour of the archives, including areas that are being renovated and are off limits to the public.  Some of the architectural features in these rooms were beautiful and it is great to know that they are being restored to their former glory.  It’s just a shame, in my opinion, that public buildings like these in other parts of London are being replaced by soulless modern purpose-built facilities that, despite the best intentions, do not the offer same level of utility or atmosphere in which to simply study or read.


Discoveries made by the volunteers

The team of volunteers were kept busy throughout the day with a wide range of primary and secondary source materials to sift through, including photos, newspaper clippings and yearbooks from various youth organisations in the borough.   The opportunity to handle these materials was an obvious highlight of the day for me, as the chance to touch a bit of history and formulate your own opinions on it is a rare one.


‘Are you a juvenile delinquent?’

In post-war East London, ‘boys’ clubs, which are paralleled by the modern idea of a youth centre or club, were set up to tackle perceived problems with juvenile delinquency.  The first question asked in a questionnaire for the New Cambridge Boys’ Club, ‘Are you a juvenile delinquent?’, is amusingly direct and I am not so sure it would have gone down well then and I am certain it wouldn’t today!

The club was started in the post-war era of national service (1945-1957) and was based in the Virginia Road School.  The aim of the club was to turn working class boys into good citizens, which perhaps echoes the unintended consequences of national service and spirit of Londoners during and after the war. Their activities mainly consisted of structured play, including football (matches played with other clubs in an inter-league), athletics, swimming (at York Hall baths), badminton, woodwork, clay modelling, camping and club trips to Amsterdam.

The Brady Club

The Brady Club, which still exists today albeit as the Brady Arts and Community Centre, was a sort of finishing school for Jewish girls and boys in and around the Brick Lane area. Again, activities consisted of mainly structured play, including the Bradians’ drama groups, sports tournaments, recorded musical practice and social /educational events. 

Bow Bridge Estate

I was personally tasked with discovering more about how children played on the Bow Bridge Estate, which is a large housing estate that was built shortly after the war to house families whose homes were destroyed by the Blitz.   I read a very interesting piece by the Bow Group (Farrell and Tomlin) titled ‘A glancing view of childhood: Bow Bridge Estate 1947-1962.’   The most interesting thing about this piece for me, particularly being a member of generation Y, were some surprising similarities between 1950s London and the London of today, as well as the parallels and obvious differences between the 50s and how children in my childhood and other parts of the world used to/still play.   The sentiments of the author as to the way children have been marginalised in today’s society and not simply given the space and opportunities for play were also particularly thought provoking.

I do apologise that there is a bias in the amount of space dedicated to the things I discovered relative to discoveries made by other volunteers.  With the amount of material there was to go through, it was simply impossible for me to take detailed notes on everything.


Children on the Bow Bridge Estate used to make ‘camps’ out of corrugated iron (presumably from obsolete Anderson shelters), bricks, old doors and other bits and bobs.  The author and his ‘gang’ would get ‘throwaway’ potatoes from market traders and cook them over fires inside their camps.   Unfortunately for them, the camps wouldn’t last long as rival gangs on the estate would inevitably demolish them within a couple of days of them being built (more about this below). I certainly remember doing something similar to this both in and outdoors, though we were not as creative as tents and bed sheets were more readily available.

Pre-cursor to Pokémon

The estate was built on an area that was heavily bombed in the Blitz.  The areas of the estate that were not developed beyond their bombed out state are referred to as ‘bombsites’, which were like the ‘countryside and gardens’ for the kids on the estate where flowers would grow and ‘summer safaris’ would take place i.e. insect collecting.  This is something that was particularly interesting for me as I often used to see kids in Japan collect insects from bushes and trees – mainly huge beetles and cicadas that were kept as pets and fed with special food – when I lived there between 2008 and 2010.  It was the lack of green spaces in Tokyo that gave a game developer the inspiration to make Pokémon, a video game where children collect mythical creatures in a bid to ‘catch ‘em all’.

Bogey cars

It seems like what the author calls bogey cars, also known as soap box carts, is something that boys all over London and indeed the world over have made at some time or another, although I cannot personally remember having the pleasure of doing this.  I do, however, vividly remember racing down hills on anything with wheels on it (copying the 1995 X Games street luge event lying down on skate boards, for example!).

On this particular estate, the cars were made out floor boards and pram wheels, and decorated with beer bottle tops. One boy, however, managed to acquire pneumatic wheels for his car, allowing him to thrash everyone and in the process dampen the others’ enthusiasm for racing.  By the author’s account, the participants frequently used to crash and, to paraphrase the author, he was surprised that no one was seriously injured (injuries thankfully being limited to bumps and grazes).  I remember this being a weekly or even daily occurrence for me and similarly I do wonder how I made it into adulthood in one piece.

Interestingly, the races were held on the roads outside of the estate around Bow as cars in the 1950s were a rare occurrence.    In many areas of London now, the dangers presented by cars would sadly make this sort of play impossible.

Ahead of their time

The author also mentions how the kids on the estate used to ride their bikes on off road tracks, the boundaries of which were formed using bricks.  If you bear in mind that they were doing this in the 50s, they were quite ahead of their time as BMXs were not formally invented until the 80s.  The author states that they would be rich if they had called their off-road bikes BMXs.   The bikes themselves were rarely bought complete; rather they were a mishmash of components found in and around the estate.

Having been a keen BMX rider in my own childhood, I was always led to believe BMXs had their genesis in chopper style bikes being ridden off-road on dirt trails in California. Maybe the reason that these off-road bikes did not take off in the 50s is due to the lack of exposure to mass media and modern marketing techniques at the time (BMXs became especially popular after appearing in the iconic flying scene in the 80s film ET).


The lack of exposure to mass media cannot, however, account for how some children’s games in 50s were suddenly and inexplicably ‘in’ and ‘out’ as quickly as they came into existence.  It was interesting for me to reflect on how ideas might have propagated among children in the 50s and indeed during my childhood.  Personally, I remember the revival of yoyos, football stickers and trading cards, which I took an interest in purely because my friends did. I do not doubt, however, that this was the intended results of marketing efforts somewhere.

On the Bow Bridge Estate, marbles, lolly stick breaking and flickers were among the games or ‘fads’ that the author remembers playing at one time or another.  He states that he couldn’t work out how these games became popular on the estate, which is sort of its own entity or ‘island’, when they were popular in other parts of the country at the time.  From the article, I couldn’t quite work out what the latter of the two games entailed.  If you have a better idea, I’d be pleased to know!

Gangs then and now

For me what was particularly interesting about the account of life on the estate was the fact that there were three ‘gangs,’ the territories of which were divided according the three blocks of flats making up the estate and the natural divides that were the ‘bombsites’.  It was here where what the author terms as ‘gang wars’ or pitched battles between the three gangs were played out.  It seems that these fights were slightly more innocuous than what you might read about in tabloids today.  The gangs, however, exchanged bricks, rocks and even darts, and the author states that he bears many scars from these battles.  There’s even an account of one boy’s cheek being impaled by a dart (ouch!), though the battles stopped for a while after this particular incident.

The reason that this surprised me is because the older generations – perhaps with rose tinted spectacles – would lead us to believe that ‘gangs’ are a recent phenomenon. I believe what is being alluded to by the baby boomer generation is the extent of violence that is unfortunately heard of nowadays, rather than the problem being children forming groups or ‘gangs’ based on something they have in common.   It is my opinion that children, particularly teenagers who are formulating and experimenting with their identities, will always feel a need to belong to a clique or what would have innocuously been called a ‘gang’ some years back, and this is by no means a bad thing in itself.  The issue also lies is semantics; the term gang has become synonymous with groups of kids who take violence too far and do not know where the line is drawn (in contrast to the author’s account of Bow Bridge Estate where ‘gang wars’ stopped after a child’s cheek was impaled with a dart).

Space and time to play

In a world that is increasingly adult-centric, children do not seem to have as much space to be children anymore, and as a consequence are being forced to grow up too quickly and play with things that have been created by adults rather than their own ingenuity.  The author would seem to support this as he describes how the roads in and around the estate have been redesigned only with cars and not children in mind.   The new playgrounds built in the estate are empty, he contends, because they have been built by adults without any input from their intended end users.  Nor do children today necessarily have the time for play as they are almost constantly assessed in academic exams from the day they start school on top of the pressures of having a presence on social media, amongst other things.

I think it is important that the trend of marginalising children and restricting their ability to be creative, have fun and simply play is reversed as, according to many psychologists, play is an extremely important part of a child’s development.  Some would also say that the problem simply lies with today’s youth just being plain old bad.  The real problem, however, is arguably us adults who simply haven’t given children the space and time to be themselves.  Moreover, perhaps there is a tendency for each generation to look at the new generations with a sense of superiority, as if we were somehow better behaved, and more talented and productive.  If we remove our rose tinted spectacles and consider the lack of space and time that children have for play today, is this necessarily the case?

And this was an excellent 15 min video we watched about play in the 1960’s: 

If there’s anything you would like to share, please feel free to make comments below.  If you would like to volunteer for the Best Days of Our Lives project or share your stories of own childhoods in East London, we’d love to hear from you.  Please refer to the contact details page.


Posted by JL


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