Stop 2: The Truman Brewery
Once Britain's largest brewery, the Black Eagle Brewery is indicated by a striking black and gold sign hanging outside. It was established outside of the city's walls (as it was considered a dirty, smelly industry) here in Brick Lane in the early 1700s, although brewing began here in the 1660s. As it grew, the Brewery drew on the local immigrant labour of the day. These were Huguenots who had fled religious persecution in France and were creating new lives in nearby streets. Although most commonly recognised for their mastery in silk weaving, the Huguenot's legacy vis-à-vis the British brewing industry is worthy of note. Introducing new ingredients (fermented hops) and production techniques at this brewery the Huguenot's helped create a highly popular dark beer called 'porter' which gave the brewery a competitive edge in the market and helped fuel the business' expansion. In its heyday The Black Eagle Brewery (subsequently renamed the Truman Brewery) was producing more than 200,000 barrels a year and employing more than a 1000 people, many of them immigrants.
Mounted on the wall of the brewery is a blue plaque commemorating Sir Thomas Buxton, a parliamentarian, reformer and abolitionist who joined the Truman Brewery in 1808 and lived in the Director's House here. His campaigns to abolish the slave trade, raise the wages of Huguenot weavers, reform the prisons and his friendship with leading lights of the social reforming Quaker movement mark him out as a key 19th century philanthropist. In fact you can see him with his Quaker reformer friends on the current five-pound note.
In the 19th century, serious exploitation of immigrant labour was the rule and the working class, immigrant or otherwise, were considered a race apart by the elite in society. The philanthropists of the 19th century were drawn to Enlightenment thinking that, for the first time, argued the potential of all humans to be equal and no doubt had humane intentions. But this was also a period in history of massive industrial expansion and many anti-slavery campaigners were industrialists – who saw freedom to work or wage labour as essential for their ventures, and slavery an outdated, unhealthy obstacle. These ideas were coupled with a missionary zeal to spread Christianity to the colonies and the poor in the UK.
The 1800s onwards saw a growing class of industrialists concerned to hold on to their wealth and power and an expanding working class living in desperate conditions. Early proponents of the free market such as Adam Smith had assumed that the growth in capital and industrialisation would lead to wealth for everyone, but the reality of huge income inequalities were very evident. People in this area lived in terrible slum conditions while the rich more usually lived in London's West End. In the 19th century ideas on race began to provide an explanation for these huge disparities in wealth. It was believed that the working masses, the poor and immigrants may be a lesser human species – a lower race. Following Darwin's Theory of Evolution, 'scientific racism' as historians now call it, sought to apply the idea of different stages of species development to human societies.
Amidst expanding industrial wealth, enhanced by the fruits of the British Empire, the British elite believed in their own racial superiority and national supremacy. This meant disdain for the working poor, for foreigners and those deemed members of lesser races in the Colonies. They saw the colonies as 'a jungle over there' and the East End as 'a jungle over here'. For the Quakers this meant there were less able people in dire need of help and saving. In fact such were the levels of poverty in this area the place became a virtual magnet for missionaries, so much so that by the beginning of the 1900s historians have suggested there were more missionaries in the East End than in India. Mr Buxton may have earned his blue plaque as a humane man of his time but it was definitely a time when backward ideas on race ruled.