The First Social Housing Project in the UK
By 1850 Shoreditch, Bethnal Green and Whitechapel was a booming hub of furniture manufacture and the east end employed tens of thousands of people in the furniture and upholstery trades alone. Cheap timber coming into east London’s docks saw an influx of sawmills and upholstery workshops around Commercial Street, Hoxton and Shoreditch High Street and by 1900 the thriving Jewish community, displaced from Eastern Europe, added to the area’s commercial growth by establishing businesses within the food and rag trade.
The rise in population, however, only added to the squalid and dangerous living conditions within the local community. Back-to-back slums meant that poverty and disease were, by now, endemic in the area around what is now Redchurch Street and Old Nichol Street, a direct result from poor sanitation and overcrowding aggravated by the attraction of cheap rent and food.
By the 1890s the Old Nichol Street Rookery, between Shoreditch High Street and Hackney Road, was a notorious area depicted by social reformer Charles Booth in his survey and map of London as, “Poor, very poor and chronic want”. The area, confined by Boundary Street, was considered the worst slum in London and, under the government’s Housing the Working Classes Act, the newly established London County Council was granted permission to condemn the area and make way for new social housing.
The estate was designed by Owen Fleming with his young team at LCC and building work started in 1893. The plans retained the original Boundary Street, to the west, with the addition of seven tree-lined avenues that emanate from a central garden and bandstand in a star formation. Handsome red brick tenement style blocks of varying size, inspired by the Arts and Crafts approach, make up the majority of the estate and include shops, workshops, a laundry and two schools which predate the project but were retained. The housing was completed in 1900 and although the scheme was cited as, “setting new aesthetic standards for housing the working classes,” only a handful of the 5,524 new residents were from the original slum. New tenants included nurses, policemen, clerks and cigar makers and all were encouraged not to drink.
Today the estate still retains a sense of late Victorian elegance with its embellished mansion blocks and planted area around the bandstand. Virginia School remains a state primary and Rochelle School, opposite, now houses creative studios and a restaurant. There’s a cheerful sense of community within Fleming’s authentic design; shops, a launderette and cafés stretch down tree-lined Calvert Avenue under the ornate apartments of Cleve Buildings. Many of the stores, with their original glazed brick fronts, serve coffee to a new generation of working folk and whilst the area is a destination in its own right, with the local attractions of Columbia Road and Brick Lane close by, the Boundary Estate is still very much a culturally diverse residential neighbourhood.
Image: The bandstand at Arnold Circus, named after Liberal politician, newspaper editor and reformer Sir Arthur Arnold, he was also chairman of London County Council in the mid 1890s. Rubble from the condemned slums was used to create the elevated platform that it stands on.