My Britain: Bethnal Green

Anna Walker 28 September 2021

The East London neighbourhood is teeming with cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity—making it an absolute must-visit 

In many ways, the area of Bethnal Green in Tower Hamlets, East London, wears the history of Britain on its sleeve. It is shaped by a strong community spirit, which began with East London's cockneys and has grown to encompass families from Eastern Europe, the Carribbean and the largest Bangladeshi community in the UK.

Today the area is not only ethnically diverse, but has brought into its fold a diverse range of classes too, as city workers increasingly make their home here. Take a stroll down the main thoroughfare of Bethnal Green Road enjoying the buzz of community as family and friends meet to buy homewares, colourful fruit and vegetables or elegant saris.

Wander down the infamous Brick Lane and enjoy the tempting smell of foods from around the world (particularly the delicious aromas of its famous curry houses) and admire some of London's most cutting-edge street style. Head to Columbia Road Flower Market and you'll hear the cries of flower sellers that have flooded this Victorian street for over 150 years.

Rushanara Ali MP

Rushanara Ali smiling at the camera

Rushanara Ali, 46, has been the Member of Parliament for Bethnal Green and Bow since 2010. Born in Bangladesh, she and her family moved to the East End of London when she was just seven. She has represented the area for over a decade.

"My earliest memories of Bethnal Green are from my school days, taking the bus down Cambridge Heath Road and past Whitechapel Market. The market has been a fixture in my head from a very early age. On the way back from school, my sister and I would walk through the market and enjoy how lively it was in full flow. Visiting the shops and market stalls of Bethnal Green Road with my mum is a strong early memory too. It is one of the places my sister and I would go to as teenagers for shopping and would bump into friends and relatives.

My connection with Bethnal Green is very, very, long-standing. When my father came to the UK in the 1960s, he came on a restaurant worker's visa to work in a restaurant in Bethnal Green. His uncle came here first—he was a seafarer who arrived in London's East End—from Sylhet via Calcutta to the East End of London. He then encouraged my dad to come to the UK when the 1960s labour shortage saw new Commonwealth citizens being encouraged to come from the old Empire.

Museum Gardens

Museum Gardens by the V&A Museum of Childhood is one of Rushanara's favourite places in the area

I felt a really strong pull towards representing the place I grew up in. I became the first person from British Bangladeshi heritage to win a parliamentary seat in Britain.

The constituency I represent has the largest community of Bangladeshi heritage in the country, so it was wonderful that it is this area that elected someone from my background. I also felt it was important to have more women in public life and to make sure the area was represented by somebody who grew up here and knew the area, and the different communities.

I often say to people that I've got the most interesting constituency in the country. I feel incredibly lucky because it's such a fascinating area, historically, culturally and politically. I would define Bethnal Green as a place where the sense of family and community is very strong. It really is a place that manages to mix lots of different cultures, faiths and social classes. 

"I often say to people that I've got the most interesting constituency in the country"

One of my favourite places in Bethnal Green is Museum Gardens right by the V&A Museum of Childhood. In the summer it's full of beautiful flowers and is a park that I’m often walking through. Despite being on a busy main road, it is peaceful. When I became an MP, my office was just across the road, so that park has been a focal point for my campaigns and getting together with activists and volunteers who helped me get elected to Parliament. Columbia Road is another favourite spot of mine. It is always a delight going there, especially on Sundays!".

Antony Nelson

Antony Nelson

Landscape architect Antony Nelson, 49, is the founder of the Bethnal Green Fingers community gardening group. Follow their work on Instagram.

"I lived in South London for many years and I was, like so many Londoners, a firm transpontine. Bethnal Green and East London at that time had an emerging and exciting new scene of art and design, fashion, music, food and young Europeans who were making it their home. I was very drawn to all of this and so I crossed the river for a new life. 

I love Bethnal Green's long and rich history and the waves of people who have settled here over the last few hundred years. Huguenot silk weavers, Jewish pogrom settlers, Bengalis and of course the historic Cockneys. All of them have left a significant trace from their time here. I believe the residents feel they are in one of the most unique villages in London. The scale and tight grain of Bethnal Green means the landscape can change so much within a five minute walk. 

When I first moved into our estate, it was denuded of greenery and beset by anti-social problems with little community feeling. As a Landscape Architect I approached our Housing Association with the idea of setting up a community gardening group and to take personal responsibility in improving the estate by planting hundreds of plants and trees. After 15 years the improvements are immeasurable.

Gardeners at the allotment

The outside spaces are verdant and beautiful, residents dwell outside more than ever, anti-social behaviour has decreased and the sense of community has vastly improved. Many of us leave our doors open during a summer's day now. I'm sure that hasn't been done in this area for many decades.

The backgrounds of the members of our group really vary. We're a mix of social tenants and leaseholders, young and older and from many different ethnic backgrounds. There is a sense of comradery when we get together and it often turns into a social event. 

"There is a sense of comradery when we get together and it often turns into a social event"

It’s not all a bed of roses though and there are challenges in keeping the community gardens going. We are not funded anymore by our Housing Association and sometimes it’s difficult to encourage people to do the harder and more unrewarding work like weeding and maintenance! And tenants who come and go fairly regularly are less inclined to invest their time in the gardens. But we persevere and like all good gardeners, always look ahead to the following year."

To plan a future visit to Bethnal Green head to Visit London.

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