In the 1970s, a youth worker captured a rapidly changing East London in a series of photographs that have now gone on public display.
The photographs were taken by Philip Cunningham who was a youth worker at Oxford House while studying art at Ravensbourne College of Art in the 1970s. While a student, Philip became interested in photography and Oxford House had a fully equipped darkroom and was home to Tower Hamlets Arts Group. Philip took hundreds of photographs of local people at a time when Bethnal Green was seeing great change.
Presented in the Oxford House cafe with a very 1970s pop music colour splash around the room, these photographs capture daily life, friendship, streets, and youth culture in the late 1970s.
It was an age of change, with post-war clearance still taking place and whole streets being flattened and industrial buildings closing down. Many of the photos show children and teenagers playing in the building sites and amongst the rubble, but amongst the dereliction, the people stand out in their latest fashionable clothes of the day.
The captions add colour to the black-and-white photos, with reminiscences about the people by the photographer.
The reverend who retired to be replaced by someone so obviously not that good that his name was forgotten. The chap who “lead a pretty hectic life and had many girlfriends”, the time a fireworks display was arranged, but just as it started, a factory caught fire and everyone ran over to watch that instead.
It’s the mix of snippets of history that bring the photographs to life turning them from anonymous people into real characters.
Most of these photographs haven’t been seen in over 40 years and some local people may recognise themselves or their family members in the photographs. The exhibition, Youth of Yesterday is in the cafe at Oxford House in Bethnal Green until Friday 17th December 2021. Entry is free and it’s open Mon-Fri 10am-5pm.