Bethnal Green’s blind beggar was a legendary character who gave his name to a pub that was to acquire a sinister reputation in more recent times.
Bethnal Green is deep inside London’s “East End”. It is an area that suffered considerable damage during the London blitz of World War Two and the rebuilding was not always done with a lot of sensitivity. It has a very mixed population due to centuries of immigration and is one of Britain’s most ethnically diverse regions.
In the past it was “ruled” by criminal gangs, most notably the Krays and the Richardsons in the 1960s. Bethnal Green after dark was a dangerous place to be. The war between the gangs came to a head in March 1966 when George Cornell, a member of the Richardson gang, was shot and killed by Ronnie Kray in the Blind Beggar pub in Whitechapel Road.
A little further north, just off Roman Road close to where it crosses the Regent’s Canal, is a 1957 bronze statue by Elizabeth Frink entitled “The Blind Beggar and his Dog”.
So who was the Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green?
The story goes back to the 13th century. The beggar was supposed to have lost his sight at the Battle of Evesham in 1265. He had a beautiful daughter called Bessee who was sought after by four suitors, namely a knight, a rich gentleman, an innkeeper’s son and a merchant. Bessee told them that they would have to ask her father for permission to marry her, but when they saw that her father was a beggar in rags, and in no position to bestow any sort of dowry on his daughter, three of them changed their minds.
However, the fourth of the suitors, namely the knight, went ahead with his request and was amazed when the beggar offered him a dowry of £3,000 plus a gift of £100 to pay for his daughter’s wedding dress. At the wedding the beggar threw off his rags and revealed himself to be Henry de Montfort, the son of Simon de Montfort, once the most powerful man in England, who had been killed at the Battle of Evesham. Henry had spent the years since the battle begging in order to raise his daughter’s dowry, which he was now ready to hand over.
The story, first told in the 15th century, has legend written all over it, as the evidence points to Henry having been killed rather than just blinded in the battle. It does, however, have a lesson to teach, namely that blindness is not restricted to those who have lost their sight – the outer aspect of someone is not always the full story.
No doubt the same could be said today for the whole of Bethnal Green.
© John Welford