Ed Swan looks at the growing number of tributes in Leytonstone to the famous film director
Alfred Hitchcock reportedly said of his early life in East London: “The sky was always grey, the rain was grey, the mud was grey, and I was grey”.
But there’s no dispute that the influence of London was central to his style of filmmaking, and several of his films, such as The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog and Frenzy convey a sense of deep affection, in particular a respect for the tradition of dark and sinister history and urban legends that have long been part of London’s popular narrative.
As a native of Leytonstone, Hitchcock had his earliest experiences in and around what is now the borough of Waltham Forest. There are several hidden ways in which the effects of the area on his upbringing can be found in his films, just as there remain clues to the identity of one of Waltham Forest’s most famous sons imprinted on the local area.
Hitchcock was born in Leytonstone in 1899, the youngest of three sons in a working-class Anglo-Irish family. He was born at 517 High Road Leytonstone in the house above his father’s grocery shop. The place where the house stood is now a petrol station.
By the time of his birth, the area had already largely been transformed from a rural Essex town to an industrial and residential suburb by the arrival of the Eastern Counties Railway at what is now Leytonstone tube station in 1856, which linked the area to central London.
The young Hitchcock was said to have been fascinated with the transport system, memorising every station on the route by the age of eight. Fans will know that transport and stations are a recurring motif in many of his films, with his famous director’s cameos often involving him getting on or off different forms of transport.
A defining moment in the young Hitchcock’s life took place at Harrow Road police station which once stood near the intersection of Harrow Road and High Road Leytonstone, a site which is now occupied by a branch of Costcutter.
When he was five years old, Hitchcock’s father sent his son to the station with a note requesting that he be locked up there for five minutes because of his bad behaviour. Harsh and authoritarian police actions and wrongful accusations would be another recurring motif in his films. In the words of the director himself: “I’m not against the police, I’m just afraid of them.”
Perhaps the most striking testimony to the director is the series of 17 mosaics in the underpass at Leytonstone station, commissioned by the council to celebrate the centenary of Hitchcock’s birth. The mosaics feature scenes from his best-known and best-loved films including Vertigo, Psycho and The Wrong Man, as well as scenes from his life. Waltham Forest Council also commissioned the large mural depicting The Birds opposite the site of Hitchcock’s birth at the corner of High Road Leytonstone and Lynn Road.
Nearby, the Sir Alfred Hitchcock pub and hotel on Whipps Cross Road stands imposingly over a corner of Epping Forest and embodies a slightly bleak grandeur that also characterises some of his films.
Inside, photos and memorabilia from his films make it an atmospheric place to meditate on the local legacy of the director.
It was once said of Hitchcock: “Like Freud, he diagnosed the discontents that chafe and rankle beneath the decorum of civilisation. Like Picasso or Dali, he registered the phenomenological threat of an abruptly modernised world”.
By going back to his roots in Leytonstone, we can still imagine how he first experienced these discontents of civilisation and newly modernised world.