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Crimes and times of Bethnal Green ‘boss’ Joseph Merceron unearthed in book

PUBLISHED: 10:31 26 April 2017 | UPDATED: 10:31 26 April 2017

Julian Woodford, right, exposes the crimes of Joseph Merceron in The Boss of Bethnal Green (cover design by David Pearson) Picture: George Woodford

Julian Woodford, right, exposes the crimes of Joseph Merceron in The Boss of Bethnal Green (cover design by David Pearson) Picture: George Woodford

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This relentlessly fascinating account of the sordid schemes of Joseph Merceron, a 19th century magistrate of Bethnal Green, charts the rise, fall and return of a man who shamelessly stole from the East End’s poorest.

The attempted assassination of King George III was just one of many examples of political turbulence, some of which resulted in a vicious crackdown on civil liberties Picture: Julian Woodford The attempted assassination of King George III was just one of many examples of political turbulence, some of which resulted in a vicious crackdown on civil liberties Picture: Julian Woodford

Ten years in the making, The Boss of Bethnal Green is the definitive and thrilling tale of a criminal whose infamy has been largely ignored by writers and historians until now.

From his Brick Lane base, the venal Merceron controlled and cultivated East London’s underbelly of brothels, breweries and flash houses while stealing government relief for the poor, who were left to starve or sleep seven to a bed in workhouses.

Considering Merceron’s notoriety in the East End, it’d be all too easy for The Boss of Bethnal Green to descend into a myopic character study that neglects the social upheaval of 18th and 19th century London.

Thankfully, Julian Woodford’s account not only exposes the second-generation Huguenot’s ruthlessness, but explores the circumstances that bolstered his brutality, allowing it to cripple the poorest communities of what was then known as Middlesex.

The gun that was used in the attempted assassination of King George III was among Merceron's belongings Picture: Julian Woodford The gun that was used in the attempted assassination of King George III was among Merceron's belongings Picture: Julian Woodford

It is a world in which the marshy, infested hamlets of Bethnal Green and Mile End are reeling from Thomas Paine’s writings against monarchy and the impoverished working classes march under the French Tricolour, inspired by the republican fervour of their European neighbours.

It is an England in which the ruling classes, fearful of revolution, collude with Merceron and his vestry cronies to crush dissent and keep the poor in line, inadvertently fuelling their resentment.

Woodford weaves battles for social justice into Merceron’s story, documenting the barbaric conditions of the Coldbath Fields, the House of Correction for the County of Middlesex, in a careful, historical analysis that nonetheless delivers the squalid excitement to be expected from his book’s title.

The Wanstead Tap in Winchelsea Road, Forest Gate, welcomes the author on Thursday next week for a talk on his book at 7.30pm. Tickets are £5 and can be booked at thewansteadtap.com

Published by Spitalfields Life, The Boss of Bethnal Green is available on Amazon in hardback for £16.59

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