Grit and the glamour: Steve Lewis's 1960s East End photographs show an area as diverse as it was divided

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And it's a world that's gone for ever, as Rob Sharp reports

As Peter Ackroyd writes in his London: The Biography: "It has been observed that the West End has the money, and the East End has the dirt." London's history is a tale of the haves and the have-nots. In the sixth century, victorious invading Saxons settled in the west of the capital, with poor Romano-British natives populating the east. This gap in Londoners' fortunes has persisted until the present day.

While bad news for society, this was good news for newspaper readers. Between 1963 and 1969, Steve Lewis, a former photographer for The Sun and the Newham Recorder, captured the East End in all its dilapidated glory. He tilted his lens towards everything from the era's bomb-site reconstruction to its political graffiti daubed across walls east of the City and north of the Thames, the area traditionally considered to be the East End. To mark his recent retirement from the business, the photographer has assembled an array of images from the time – miniskirted waifs, pearly kings and queens, even portraits of David Bailey – for his forthcoming book London's East End: A 1960s Album, which will be released on Monday.

"The thing that first struck you was the poverty," Lewis says. "One of my first experiences was reporting on a black family who had just moved to east London. Someone had put a fire-bomb through their door. The whole area was changing so quickly. And some people had a problem with that. It was a turbulent time, what with Vietnam, and Enoch Powell stirring things up. That's reflected in the images."

The post-war East End was a palimpsest of the past. It was a mixture of terraced housing from the 1880s and 1890s, Georgian domiciles, 1920s estates, and new developments. It was a realm of dark canals and gasworks, of old pathways and rusting bridges, of waste ground strewn with weeds and litter. The people, as evinced through Lewis's photographs, were just as colourful: the elderly and disabled twisting out of their slippers; cloth-clapped gents dealing for a game of rummy while sipping pints in Forest Gate's Old Spotted Dog; cockles and whelks sold by costermongers, or street-sellers; cries of "Peanuts, lovely peanuts" from vendors plying a roaring trade around those queuing for football matches.

Lewis was born in Cheam, Surrey, in 1944, though his family moved to Barking when he was a teenager. His first job was for the Ilford Recorder, latterly the Newham Recorder. Lewis lived in Upton Park while working there. "I ended up doing a regular photography slot called 'The Lewis View' showing the changing face of the East End, or anything else which I felt was of interest. The book comprises mainly these pictures, along with any features I happened to be working on," he explains.

These articles tackled subjects such as "The Legacy of War", illustrated with photography showing vistas from new tower blocks – many of which have remained in place until today – and rubble-strewn gaps in terraces, marking the pattern of the Luftwaffe's aerial onslaughts. Entire rows of houses were razed to the ground.

Then there were the "Nissen huts", named after Major Peter Norman Nissen, the Royal Engineer who designed them in 1916. These arch-shaped, barrack-like properties were built across east London in the 1940s as makeshift accommodation for families left homeless by German bombing. Lewis's photographs show that many of these buildings were still occupied 30 years after the war ended. Elsie Osborne, an elderly lady, is pictured crouching in front of her makeshift corrugated-iron home (originally constructed by Italian prisoners of war) in 1969, insisting she will never move. "I've been here since 1945 and I've become attached to the place," she said at the time. Her neighbour Charles Mears added: "I'm quite happy living here, just as long as I'm left in peace to get on with my paintings."

Lewis can look back with fondness at such scenes now. "But it was very hard work then," he continues. "There wasn't a lot of money about. I wasn't really aware at that very young age really how deep the repercussions of the war had become. The people we encountered were still living in the Nissen huts and were the last of an entire generation who occupied them. They were promised they were going to be rehoused. What happened after we encountered them is anyone's guess."

East End racial tension is another familiar topic. Lewis captured numerous images of black and white children playing alongside each other. The Race Relations Act of 1965 had outlawed discrimination in public places. Even so, legislation failed to stem intolerance and intimidation. Powell's 1968 "Rivers of Blood" speech accompanied clashes between Neofascist and far-left groups. Political graffiti was emblazoned across walls, missiles were stuck through immigrants' letter boxes, race-hate messages were scrawled across people's front doors. Romany communities near Canning Town were also the subject of intense discrimination. Slogans splashed across the sides of buildings included "betrayal", "Powell, no", "Workers control" and "Victory to the Vietcong". "In the East End it could have worked, but people never ended up mixing with one another," Lewis says. "Some places have since become like ghettos."

No photographic summary of the time would be complete without kaleidoscopic woollen microdresses, hot pants and miniskirts. Lewis photographed Bailey, a fellow East Ender, with his American girlfriend, Penelope Tree, in 1969. Bailey is shown lounging in his kitchen in a lurid shirt and kneeling in front of his camera in a park. Bailey was preparing to fly to India on a five-week assignment for Vogue, though apparently Bailey's mother, Gladys, remained unimpressed by Bailey's celebrity status. "She would much rather I'd been a nice, happily married bank clerk. But I just wasn't clever enough for that," Bailey said.

Such anecdotes make it difficult not to bemoan gentrification's contribution towards the area's loss of character. "Can you imagine now if a greengrocer travelled around with his horse and cart and all his stuff on the back?" Lewis adds. "His belongings would be nicked in a shot. I just liked the people back then. Every face told a different story."

Even so, there are dangers to labelling every denizen of the East End with the same "cheeky chappy" tag. Any loss of individuality has accompanied a radical improvement in living conditions. Back then, alarming numbers of Newham's elderly and disabled were confined to their homes because of a shortage of wheelchairs. Scenes where eight adults and 15 children were crammed into a single terraced house in urgent need of repair were not uncommon. Thankfully, improvements followed, partly taking the form of tower blocks being replaced by low-rise housing during the 1980s. As Ackroyd concludes: "If the East [End] seems like a more denuded place, it is also a less impoverished one; if it is more remote, or less human, it is also healthier. No one would willingly exchange a council flat for a tenement slum, even if the slums were filled with a communal spirit."

'London's East End: A 1960s Album' is published by The History Press (£14.99). To pre-order a copy for the special price of £13.49 (free P&P), call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit independentbooksdirect.co.uk.

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