The Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green
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 (one half of the notorious Kray Twins) in the Blind Beggar pub in Whitechapel Road.
On a more positive note, the Blind Beggar pub was also the location of the first sermon preached by William Booth the founder of the Salvation Army.
So who was the Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green?
The story was first told in the 15th century, although it did not appear in print until 1765 when it was included as one of the 'Reliques of Ancient Poetry' collected by Bishop Thomas Percy.
The beggar was supposed to have been a soldier who lost his sight during the Battle of Evesham in 1265. He was nursed back to health by a noble lady with whom he fell in love and by whom he had a daughter called Besse.
When Besse grew into a beautiful young woman she attracted the attention of four suitors, namely a knight, a rich gentleman, an innkeeper’s son and a merchant. Besse 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 clearly 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. These sums were, of course, huge fortunes at the time - the equivalent of millions today. The knight naturally thought that these were fantasy offers - how could an old blind beggar possibly be in possession of such sums? However, he was willing to marry for love, whether the money was real or imaginary.
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 but 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 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.
Statue by Elisabeth Frink
The legend of the Blind Beggar is commemorated not only by the pub mentioned above but by a striking bronze statue in an unexpected setting a mile or so to the north.
Elisabeth Frink's bronze entitled 'The Blind Beggar and his Dog' stands on a plinth in a small green area bordered by retirement bungalows on Roman Road, close to the Regent's Canal. The statue dates from 1957, when Frink (1930-93) was beginning to make her mark as a major figure in 20th century British sculpture. The piece incorporates two of her abiding themes - the male figure and dogs - but is also highly distinctive with its stylized form and rough surface.
The fact that this piece stands in a working-class east London setting - far removed from the glitzy West End - bears witness to the Blind Beggar legend of love conquering adversity.