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The Time of My Life
East End of London: 1910s and 1920s
Programme Outline
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East End of London: 1910s and 1920s

Programme Outline


15-year-old Alice Livingstone talks to 90-year-old Emily Giggins about Life in the East End of London during the early part of the twentieth century.

Emily Giggins was born in 1908. Most of the interview deals with food. However, many other themes are touched upon, including housing, transport and the impact of the First World War.


Emily lived in a two-up-two-down terrace and shared a bed with her sister. She was brought up by her aunt. The house had no bathroom: they had to go to the public wash house, where it cost 2d to have a bath. Emily points out that there are many things which are taken for granted today which she did not have in her home when she was growing up: electricity (Emily’s house was lit by oil lamps), refrigerator, washing machine, telephone and television.

People burned coal, both for cooking and for heating. The smoke from the chimneys (combined with the pollution from factories) caused London to suffer from thick smog. This thick ‘pea souper’ fog, which could last for days, affected low-lying areas of London’s East End; many people died as a result of respiratory problems caused by it. The problem was not solved until the government introduced new clean air laws in the 1960s.


Barges, pulled by shire horses, would transport coal, wood and food along the River Thames. Emily also describes the way horse-drawn milk floats would deliver every day — without refrigeration, milk would only keep for a short time.


Ice had to be delivered to shops so that they could keep perishable foods fresh. Emily describes how she and her friends would pick up small pieces of ice, from the side of the street, to suck.

Emily makes the point that people tended to shop every day for their food, as it was difficult to preserve fresh food; she also points out that there were no supermarkets.

Much of the interview takes place in a ‘pie and mash’ shop, which Emily has known from her childhood. It still looks the same — simple tables and benches. And you are still not allowed a knife to cut your food — Emily explains that when she was young, knives were banned because of fighting between the customers.

Milk was delivered to the doorstep — but not in bottles. Families would leave a milk can outside which would be filled each morning.

Emily describes various meals, clearly showing that people would eat every part of an animal — sheep’s head (including the eyeballs), tripe (the inside lining of a cow’s stomach). Also served at the shop is jellied eels (caught from the Thames). Emily’s family also kept pigeons, which they would eat.


Emily talks briefly about food shortages caused by war. She mentions the fact that food was rationed and that the only way to get certain items was on the ‘black market’ where certain rationed items could be obtained illegally. (Emily is probably talking here about food rationing during the Second World War.) Emily also talks about the air raid shelters during First World War: she sheltered in Darwin’s sack factory. (Zeppelin raids during the First World War caused 2,300 casualties — this is in marked contrast to the 30,000 deaths and 5,000 injuries suffered during the Blitz in London during the Second World War.)