The Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green
Updated: Jul 27, 2021
One of the earliest records I have of my Huguenot families in France is the marriage entry of my ancestors Isaie Martin and Marie Desmarets.
This took place in summer 1668, at the Chateau de Rambures, a picturesque castle at Oisemont, on the banks of the river Somme, in Picardy, which served as the local Protestant Temple. It had long been associated with Marie's family, a David Desmarets recorded as Pastor there in 1625, and Charles Desmarets, a French Knight in the service of Charles VII, using it as his base to launch attacks on the English during the Hundred Years Wars of the 15th century.
The couple’s first child, a daughter Susanne Martin, was baptised there a year later, but following allegations a funeral had been held before nightfall, and a wedding announcement published in the assembly during worship, contraventions of the limited freedoms granted to Protestants by the Edict of Nantes at the termination of the French Religious Wars, services were forbidden and the family were afterwards forced to trek 90 kilometres from their home to baptise their children and worship at the nearest Protestant congregation still in operation.
Interior of the Chateau de Rambures, Picardy, France
In 1685 the Edict of Nantes was revoked entirely by the despotic monarch Louis XIV, and at that time, or shortly after, Isaie and Marie Martin fled France clandestinely with their three young children to England, settling in the refugee community based at Canterbury in Kent, where records show Isaie was buried, in May 1702, aged seventy.
Soon after his death, the rest of the family relocated to London, finding work like most Huguenots in England in the Spitalfields silk industry. This was often a difficult life, my ancestor Jacques Martin, just two when taken from France with his parents, later died in La Providence, the French Hospital of London, during the terribly cold Arctic Winter of 1739/40, as did three of his own children in the 1790s, and his great grandson, my ancestor Isaiah Martin, a foreman in a silk factory, who died there aged ninety one, on Christmas Eve 1860.
Isaiah's death coincided with the final demise of the East London silk industry in the 1860s, after a long difficult decline in trade. Though a few were able to continue until the 1930s, most were forced to find alternative careers at this point. With over four thousand drinking establishments in London, particularly concentrated in the East End, many naturally gravitated towards the thriving pub industry.
This included my great-great-great grandmother, Caroline Martin (1856-1914) four years old at the time of her great-grandfather Isaiah's death in the French Hospital. As a teenager she worked as a barmaid at her uncle George Le Heup’s pub, the Barley Mow, in Bethnal Green, and when George died, as a result of legacies he left, Caroline was able to set herself up as the landlady of the nearby Maryland Arms in Stratford. Her marital home at Brierly Road, Leytonstone, remained in the family after her death, and was later my mother’s first home in the 1950s.
Portrait of Peter Le Heup (1699-1777) banker and son of one of the original directors of La Providence the French Hospital London. His relation George Le Heup, an entrepreneur owning and running several East End Pubs, was uncle and employer of my ancestor Caroline Martin.
My ancestors Caroline Martin and husband William Bellenger, East End Publicans, photographed in the 1890s.
Another of the East London Martin family, Caroline's cousin Charlie Martin, was at the same time the landlord of the Blind Beggar, an ancient inn which stood on the Whitechapel Road since at least 1654.
This owed its name to Henry de Montfort, subject of a minstrel ballad, popular since Tudor times, who legend claims took to the life of a beggar after being wounded and blinded at the Battle of Evesham in 1265, his true noble origins only being sensationally revealed at the wedding of his beautiful daughter Besse.
15th to 18th century depictions of the enduring legend of Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green
When Charlie took over the license of the Blind Beggar in 1894 he had the existing building demolished and completely rebuilt in the form it now stands. He was the proprietor for the next thirty years, and a very popular local figure, appearing in newspapers as the ‘genial Charlie Martin’. He stood for Mayor of Bethnal Green in 1906 and was a member of the local Order of the Druids, through which he formed ‘The Pride of the East Cowboy Society’, described as a 'Cowboy Troup of Collectors’ raising much money for the London Hospital which stood almost opposite his pub.
In June 1900 to celebrate the official adoption of the legend as the logo of the arms of the Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green, Charlie led the Bethnal Green Carnival on a float depicting the Blind Beggar and his daughter.
In Spring 1916 the local corporation sponsored a bed at the war time Anglo-Russian Military Hospital in Petrograd, [modern St Petersburg] and Caroline’s son, my great-great grandfather Francis Bellenger, a brass moulder, was one of a team who moulded a plaque, depicting the Blind Beggar, which was sent to Russia to sit above the bed. It was the last job he ever worked on, as sadly he died of Typhoid fever just weeks later, aged 40.
The creation of the London Brass Corporation Plaques, their unveiling at the Anglo-Russian hospital in St Petersburg in April 1916, and a plaque in place above a bed of a wounded soldier.
Depictions of the legend still proliferate in the parish today. Most famous of these is the Bronze art work ‘Blind Beggar and His Dog’ which stands proud outside the high-rise flats of the Cranbrook estate, which was home to my late uncle Alec Gordon, and which was given Grade II Heritage status a year after his death, in 1998.
Commissioned in 1957, as part of the post war regeneration of Bethnal Green, this was the work of 27 year old sculptor Elisabeth Jean Frink, later made a dame.
Frink's scuplture, Blind Beggar and His Dog, Cranbrook Estate, Bethnal Green, London.
The Beggar, his daughter and dog, carved on the Mayor's Chair in Bethnal Green's Council Chambers.
Though Charlie Martin’s Blind Beggar Pub still stands largely unchanged, it has since sadly acquired a dark air of notoriety, and a steady clientele of ghouls, due to the high-profile killing of an unarmed man committed on the premises in the mid-1960s by local gangland figure Ronald Kray, a sufferer of paranoid schizophrenia.
The current sign of the Blind Beggar draws it's inspiration from Josephus Laurentius Dyckman's 19th century painting now in the National Gallery. Local lithographer, Henry Joseph Kray, baptised in Bethnal Green in 1866, a next door neighbour of my own family on the 1871 census, published the above postcard depiction of the Dyckman's Blind Beggar in the early 20th century. In a strange twist of fate it was a member of his own family, the great grandson of his cousin, James Kray, who later brought notoriety to the local legend through the above mentioned public killing of a gangland rival in the Blind Beggar Pub, since recreated and senesationally depicted several times on film, most recently in 2015's Legend with Tom Hardy.
Actor Tom Hardy and the dark events that occured at the Blind Beggar Pub on the evening of 9th March 1966, depicted in the 2015 film Legend.