A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 11, Stepney, Bethnal Green. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1998.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.
BUILDING AND SOCIAL CONDITIONS FROM 1876 TO 1914. (fn. 1)
The population reached its peak, 129,727, in 1901. (fn. 2) Mobility was such that a school inspector in the 1880s calculated that, of 1,204 families on his books, 530 (44 per cent) had moved within the year. (fn. 3) Those who prospered left the area (fn. 4) but most remained continually on the move within the East End. Emigration rose from 1,088 in the decade 1851-61 to 15,233 in 1871-81 and 21,546 in 1901-11, when it produced a net loss of population, (fn. 5) but mostly was more than balanced by a natural increase and by immigration. Although there was a high death rate (26.5 per 1,000 in 1883, 25 in 1899, 19.5 in 1904, and 16.1 in 1912), (fn. 6) especially for children, (fn. 7) there was an even higher birth rate, 40.1 per 1,000 in 1887, 34.9, compared with a London average of 27.9, in 1904, and 30.7 in 1912, (fn. 8) largely due to child-bearing at an early age. In 1891 only Whitechapel and Spitalfields had more women married under 25 (fn. 9) and the failure to get married was always shocking missioners. In 1881, of the 16.5 per cent of Bethnal Green's population who were not London born, the largest category, especially in Green ward, came from Essex and the next from Middlesex. (fn. 10) As the native Londoners, 'for the most part noticeably undersized', (fn. 11) died out, they were replenished by people from the country. (fn. 12)
A typical family in many ways was that of Arthur Harding, a criminal. (fn. 13) Descended on his father's side from Cornishmen who settled in the Borough and then in Spitalfields and on his mother's from Norfolk farm labourers who moved to Hoxton c. 1875, he was born in 1886 in a rented room in a three-storeyed tenement in Boundary Street on the borders of the Nichol. His father kept a public house and was later a cabinet maker. His mother worked in a rag factory, until she was crippled in an accident, and then as a matchbox maker. When the Nichol was cleared in the 1890s the family moved to Hoxton, then to Bacon Street, in 1902 to Queen's Buildings in Gosset Street, and in 1904 to Gibraltar Buildings, a tenement block in Gibraltar Gardens.
In 1881 only 872 people in Bethnal Green were Irish and 925 foreign-born. Foreign immigrants formed 0.7 per cent of the population in 1861, 1871, and 1881, 3.6 per cent in 1901, and 6.1 per cent in 1911. Mostly born in Germany, Poland, and, from the 1880s, Russia, (fn. 14) they were usually poor Jews who had fled pogroms and whose concentration made them much more prominent than their numbers merited. They spread, as had the Huguenots, from Spitalfields and Whitechapel. In the late 1880s the area of the Byde, Red Cow, and Hare Marsh estates had 'many Polish Jews'. (fn. 15) By 1899 Jews formed at least 95 per cent of the population south of Hare Street and 75-95 per cent in Brick Lane and the Boundary Street estate (the former Nichol), but less than 25 per cent and often less than 5 per cent in most of Bethnal Green. (fn. 16) Wood Close school near Hare Street had so small an attendance on Jewish fast and feast days that it applied to the L.C.C. to become a Jewish school. (fn. 17) The ghetto, 'full of synagogues, backroom factories, and little grocery stores reeking of pickled herring, garlic sausage, and onion bread', (fn. 18) was occupied by exotic-looking people speaking a strange language. Among those raised in that culture were the Grades who arrived from Russia in 1912. After two years in rented rooms in the northern part of Brick Lane, they moved to the Boundary Street estate and Louis (later Baron Grade) and Bernard (later Baron Delfont) attended Rochelle Street school, where Yiddish was spoken by 90 per cent of the pupils. (fn. 19) Sweating, overcrowding, and high rents were associated with Jews, as victims and sometimes as perpetrators. Some Jews were middle-class, for example Woolf Goldstein who lived in Vivian Road on the Broomfields estate, (fn. 20) and invested in property which they rackrented. Anti-Jewish feeling, fuelled by the resentment of slum dwellers expelled in clearances, exploded in a revolt against landlords in 1898. It was supported by the liberal Jewish establishment of the United Synagogue, including Sir Samuel Montagu and the Rothschilds who perceived the danger of the unassimilated alien. Besides opposing the sweating system and rackrenting, they founded the Four Per Cent Industrial Dwellings Co. to provide homes for Jewish artisans. (fn. 21) One benefit from Jewish settlement, acknowledged by its opponents the missioners, was the decline in drunkenness and, possibly because of that, in infant mortality. (fn. 22)
The influx of Jews aggravated poverty and overcrowding. By 1901 there was an overall density in Bethnal Green of 170 people to an acre. The number of houses reached 17,283 in 1881 and 17,354 in 1891, a density of 23 houses to an acre, after which numbers appeared to decrease, to 14,848 in 1901 and 13,649 in 1911, because tenement blocks were counted as single dwellings. There were 28,209 tenements in 1901 and 27,693 in 1911, compared with 10,975 'ordinary houses'. Most people (76 per cent in 1901 and 79 per cent in 1911) lived in tenements of fewer than five rooms and nearly a third of those in two rooms. (fn. 23) In the 1880s there were old houses where the upper room, once used for weaving, had been partitioned into two or three rooms for two families, with another family on each floor. (fn. 24) Overcrowding was made worse by the loss of gardens to workshops and warehouses, although sanitation improved.
Overcrowding was caused by poverty, since the poor could not afford more space and needed to stay near their work, whether or not they moved within the area. In the late 1880s the largest category of the population, 39.86 per cent., was 'comfortable', with standard earnings, mostly artisans in the furniture trade or regular labourers. Although St. George-in-the-East possessed the poorest district, Bethnal Green had the highest proportion, 44.6 per cent, of poor and very poor, mostly casual labourers and people under-employed in the furniture and dress trades. Only 4.2 per cent were classed as middleclass, small manufacturers and shopkeepers in Cambridge Road, the east side of the green, Bethnal Green Road, Green Street, and the eastern part of Hackney Road. (fn. 25) 'Comfortable artisans and clerks' lived near Victoria Park and a similar 'fairly comfortable' population in the more recent Broomfields houses. Elsewhere a mixture of old, crowded houses and workshops was general. There was very great poverty in the large old weavers' houses bordering Spitalfields but the worst area was the Nichol, dilapidated and with 'several bad characters'. (fn. 26)
The Nichol's average death rate for 1886-8 was 40 per 1,000, compared with 22.8 for Bethnal Green as a whole and 18.4 for London. (fn. 27) Houses were built with 'billy-sweet', a mortar including street dirt which never dried out, and were often more than a foot below street level in alleys less than 28 ft. wide. (fn. 28) If houses had been closed as unfit for human habitation, (fn. 29) they stood empty and the inhabitants crowded into the rest. When the area was surveyed for clearance in 1891, there were 730 houses of which 43 were empty; 5,719 people lived there, 2,265 of them in 506 two-roomed dwellings, 2,118 in 752 one-roomed dwellings, 1,183 in 211 three-roomed dwellings, and 153 in two common lodgings. Very few weavers were left, most of those in work being labourers, hawkers, furniture makers, general dealers, shoemakers, washerwomen, sawyers, and costermongers. Many were criminals, one street containing 64 people who had been in prison. (fn. 30) A warren of alleys and courts, the Nichol was a haven for rival gangs, vividly described by Arthur Morrison. Arthur Osborne Jay, the incumbent of Holy Trinity, read Morrison's Tales of Mean Streets (1894), and invited him to the parish. Morrison made several visits to the Nichol, then being transformed into the Boundary Street estate but of which enough remained to provide a setting for his novel A Child of the Jago, published in 1896. He made use of the old street plan, substituting the names Jago for Nichol, Honey for Mead, and Edge for Boundary. (fn. 31)
Jay himself, (fn. 32) a colourful and controversial local figure, published several books on the area and its problems in the 1890s. (fn. 33) It was during the 1880s and 1890s that Bethnal Green assumed its symbolic importance as the heart of the East End, the land of the outcast, attracting writers and social reformers (fn. 34) such as Charles Booth (fn. 35) and Sir Walter Besant with its streets 'full of costermongers' barrows and its mingled odours of unwashed garments and fried fish'. (fn. 36) The scene was later recalled by a Huguenot descendant who spent his childhood near Old Ford Road in the 1870s and 1880s: the constant movement of women with bundles of match boxes, men with baskets of boots or rolls of cloth, barrows with furniture, hawkers with all kinds of food, pawnbrokers, pie shops, cows in the streets, drunkards, pigeon lofts and caged birds and rabbits and, until they disappeared under workshops, the gardens whose plants were sold in the streets on Sundays. (fn. 37)
Except on the remaining south-east corner of Broomfields, where Palmer and Ward built 179 houses in 1882-4 (fn. 38), and the nursery in Russia Lane, where Thomas Quinn built 10 blocks of model dwellings (Quinn Square) in 1882-3, development after 1875 was on occupied sites. Slum property collapsed and other houses were replaced, especially when long leases fell in, (fn. 39) to increase profits and sometimes to benefit the inhabitants. Warehouses and workshops multiplied, often as solid rear extensions to houses, and many blocks of 'industrial', 'model', or 'artisans' dwellings, essentially tenements in the form of flats, replaced the terraces. (fn. 40)
Most building was small-scale. Among the major projects was work on the Red Cow estate by Christopher Forrest of Victoria Park Square, who built 40 houses in Edward Street between 1877 and 1881 and 12 in Busby and Granby streets in 1881 and 1886. In 1884 he was also building model dwellings in Boundary Street and 22 houses in Cambridge Road and Punderson's Gardens. Forrest was a vestryman, guardian, and trustee of the Poor's Land, which in 1889 he tried to free for new parochial buildings, presumably with an interest in the building potential. (fn. 41) On Turney estate George Cannon built over 90 houses between Pollard Row and Squirries Street, including the new North Street, in 1883-4 and B. Wire of Church Row, whose family had been building in Bethnal Green since the 1800s, (fn. 42) erected 10 houses in Brady's Buildings on the east side of Hart Lane in 1891. Between 1891 and 1894 52 houses were rebuilt in Hart Lane (renamed Barnet Grove in 1897). (fn. 43) All the houses in Daniel Street, also part of Turneys, were replaced by 12 on the east side in 1895 and a board school on the west in 1900.
Henry Winkley of Homerton was the main builder in 1886-7 of over 60 houses in Felix and Clare streets and Cambridge Circus on Parmiter's estate, where leases were falling in. (fn. 44) He also built 18 houses in Derbyshire Street in 1888 on Willetts, where Frederick Higgs built 14 houses in 1887. Balaam Bros. built 20 houses in Mape, Cheshire, and Menotti streets, also on Willetts, in 1888-9. Charles Winkley, Henry's brother, (fn. 45) rebuilt in Rush Mead: 37 houses, 33 shops and workshops and at least 8 warehouses in Temple, Canrobert, and Catherine (after 1938 Winkley) streets from 1899 to 1901 and 18 warehouses in Teesdale (before 1875 Durham) Street in 1904.
On Fitches William Jones of Tufnell Park built 17 houses in Mount Street in 1884 and Jackson and Todd built a factory in 1887. (fn. 46) Between Prince's Place, Gosset, and Prince's (Chambord) streets, six model dwellings (Queen's Buildings) were erected in 1884 and another two in 1887, designed to house 200 people. (fn. 47) Another 21 houses were built in Chambord Street in 1893-4 and 10 in 1913; 14 were added in Mount Street in 1893-4.
Davis Bros. of Bishopsgate, probably a Jewish firm, (fn. 48) built 11 houses in Brick Lane in 1899 and most of the 32 houses erected in Boreham Street on Snow's estate (next to Fitches) in 1899-1900. A more ambitious project was on Saffron Close where in George and Middle walks, south of Old Bethnal Green Road, cottages inhabited c. 1880 by 'respectable mechanics' had been condemned by 1898, when they were occupied by those driven out by clearance schemes, mostly costermongers and casual labourers. (fn. 49) In 1901 Davis Bros. replaced the cottages with Teesdale Street, continuing the street of that name north of Old Bethnal Green Road, where they built 95 houses. They also replaced the houses in Blythe Street, which had gardens, with 50 new houses, three-storeyed, red-brick in front and stock-brick behind, containing workshops for cabinet makers and tailors on the top storey. The estate became a Jewish enclave. (fn. 50)
Teesdale Street was an example of how the old pattern of alleys and gardens was simplified when streets ignored estate boundaries to form thoroughfares between main roads. Also on Saffron Close, Mansford Street had been put out to tender in 1877 (fn. 51) as a through road linking Elizabeth (renamed Rushmead in 1876 and Mansford in 1881) (fn. 52) Street on Rush Mead with Bethnal Green Road and, in the process, destroying Wilmot Grove and Square and Abbey Place. Most of the ground was allotted in 99-year leases in 1878, 8 houses were built in 1879, 4 in 1883, a chapel in 1881, a board school in 1883, and model dwellings on the east side from 1880 to 1889. From south to north, probably the order in which they were built, they were named Wilmot House, Mansford Buildings, and Toye's Buildings, after the builder Samuel Toye. (fn. 53)
About the same time the alleys and courts on Fitches in the triangle formed by Crabtree Row, Gascoigne Place, and Virginia Row, in 1871 in a 'wretched condition', (fn. 54) were replaced by Fountain Street in the east and the broad Herat Street, which ran from Crabtree Row (renamed Columbia Road in 1874) to link with Turk Street. The name Brick Lane was extended to include Tyssen Street in 1882, Turk Street in 1883, and Herat Street in 1855, (fn. 55) thereby linking Whitechapel Road with Columbia Market. Some 80 houses were built on the triangular site on Fitches between 1879 and 1888, many by A. Ewin.
Other houses included 23 built in Darling Row 1878-80, mostly by Charles Firne of Mile End Road, 29 in Key (formerly John) Street east of Dog Row 1880-4, 12, mostly by George Chambers, in Peel Grove 1883-4, 18 by John Peppiatt in Ramsey Street in 1884, 17 in Victoria Street and Cooper's Gardens on Austens in 1885-7, and 16 in Bonner and Mace streets, south of Old Ford Road, in 1892 by A. W. Price. Privately built model dwellings included four by J. H. Johnson in Pereira Street in 1884, a small block for M. & A. Davis, designed by C. A. Legg in Half Nicholl Street in 1885, (fn. 56) three in Lisbon Street in 1887, three for the G.E.R. Co. between the railway and Winchester Street in 1890, (fn. 57) and two in Brick Lane in 1904. Small houses on Jarvis's estate were replaced 1903-6 by Barnsley and Somerford houses, eight joined blocks between Somerford, Tapp, Barnsley, and Collingwood streets, built by Frank Dolly for A. Davis. (fn. 58)
Most blocks of flats were built by the philanthropic companies. The East End Dwellings Co. (fn. 59) was founded in 1884 to house the very poor while realizing some profit. The M.B.W. having cleared the north side of Green Street between Victoria Park Square and Globe Road under the Metropolitan Street Improvements Act of 1883, making 111 people homeless, the company was leased a central plot where in 1888 it opened the four-storeyed Museum House, for 166 people. (fn. 60) Meadows Dwellings, two parallel four-storeyed blocks on the west side of Mansford Street, opened in 1894, featuring a new staircase access plan. (fn. 61) The architects were Davis & Emmanuel, who were responsible for the company's most ambitious scheme, Ravenscroft, completed in 1897 under a 99-year lease from Barnet Chancel charity (fn. 62) for most of its 2-a. estate, where 194 tenements were constructed in a five-storeyed red-brick building in an Italianate style; a more ornamental roof-line with octagonal towers and cupolas relieved a continuous frontage to Ravenscroft Street, Columbia Road, and Hassard Street. In 1900 the five-storeyed Mendip Houses in a baroque style and four-storeyed Shepton Houses, 'most uninspired', (fn. 63) opened on part of Pyotts east of Globe Road, between Gauber (or Gawber) Street and Kirkwall (once North) Place. The company then turned to the heart of the green, north of Sugar Loaf Walk, which finally took on the surrounding workingclass character after the Mercerons in 1900 leased the plot stretching from nos. 22 and 23 Victoria Park Square to Globe Road. (fn. 64) The flamboyant red- and yellow-brick Merceron Houses and Montfort House, designed by Ernest Emmanuel with a Georgian porch and internal staircase, had been completed by 1901, as had Gretton Houses, five-storeyed parallel blocks with terracotta decoration, to the north. In 1905 the company opened the larger but similar Evesham House, fronting Old Ford Road, and in 1906 a terrace designed by Henry Davis on the site of weavers' cottages in Globe Road opposite Merceron Houses.
The Guinness Trust, founded in 1889, acquired a triangular site on the east side of Columbia Road (formerly Birdcage Walk), north of the Barnet Chanty estate, in 1890. It replaced 63 houses with six blocks of mostly two-roomed tenements designed by Joseph & Smithem, completed in 1901. (fn. 65) The Four Per Cent Industrial Dwellings Co., founded in 1885, built the six-storeyed Mocatta House next to the Jews' burial ground in Brady (once North) Street in 1905. (fn. 66) The Sutton Dwellings Trust, founded by W. R. Sutton (d. 1901), head of a firm of carriers, to house the poorest class, acquired an acre on the west side of James Street (once North and later Sceptre Road), formerly part of Kirby's Castle estate. Having cleared 'one of the worst slums', the company applied to build in 1907. The first of eight five-storeyed red-brick blocks containing 160 tenements, each with its own sanitation, opened in 1909. (fn. 67) The Peabody Trust, although dating from 1862, did not come to Bethnal Green until 1910, when seven plain five-storeyed blocks containing 140 flats opened on a site bounded by Cambridge Crescent or Circus, Minerva, Felix, and Centre streets on the Cambridge Heath estate. (fn. 68) An eighth block was built in 1915.
The Bethnal Green House Property Association was formed of local tradesmen who, on a small scale, emulated the big companies in improving conditions while taking a modest return. They replaced ruinous property, often cottages in culs-de-sac, with three-storeyed tenements in more open settings. In 1880 they employed J. H. Johnson of Limehouse to build 35 houses designed by A. & C. Harston in Gale's Gardens, 'heretofore a most insanitary area'. (fn. 69)
Bethnal Green vestry preferred to restrict its improvements to widening roads, Patriot Square and George Street in 1879 and Hollybush Gardens in 1883, for which it received contributions from the M.B.W. (fn. 70) Probably as part of the widening 15 houses and model dwellings were built in Hollybush Gardens in 1884-5.
It was to improve access from the City and Finsbury to Bethnal Green Museum and Victoria Park that the vestry in 1870 sought major changes to Bethnal Green Road (Church Street), (fn. 71) which, where it joined Shoreditch High Street, was less than 30 ft. wide. An Act of 1872 (fn. 72), in addition to changes in Shoreditch, provided for a broad thoroughfare from the existing road at Gibraltar Walk to Anchor and Sclater streets, where it joined Shoreditch High Street. Work began in Bethnal Green in 1878 and the new road, completed in 1879, displaced 800 people where it crossed Red Cow and Byde estates. (fn. 73) The surplus land on each side was leased for 80 years in building plots, the M.B.W.'s architect to approve the plans. (fn. 74) All the plots had been taken by 1884, (fn. 75) including two large plots on the north side of Bethnal Green Road reserved for 'dwellings for the labouring classes'. (fn. 76) One, bounded by York (later Ebor), Little York (Whitby), and Little Anchor (Chance) streets, was where Huntingdon Buildings were opened in 1879 by the Improved Industrial Dwellings Co. (fn. 77) The other, behind the main road frontage between Tyssen Street (Brick Lane) and Shacklewell Street, was auctioned in 1882 to Henry Foskett, who erected model dwellings (Linden Buildings). (fn. 78)
Neither the vestry nor the M.B.W. were anxious to tackle the worst slum, the Nichol. In 1883 the board dismissed as 'too small' an appeal by Shoreditch's medical officer of health to deal with Boundary Street involving only 29 houses (fn. 79) and as too big a scheme by Bethnal Green's medical officer to demolish all the houses in the Nichol under the Artisans' Dwelling Act. Instead the board decided to apply the Torrens Act requiring owners to repair and render the premises 'tolerably comfortable'. (fn. 80) At a government inquiry in 1887 the Nichol buildings were said to be in a fair condition but in 1890 they were declared a slum and the new L.C.C. answered another appeal from the medical officers with its first ambitious plan to rebuild the Nichol and Snow estates, together with a small piece on the Shoreditch side of Boundary Street (once Cock Lane), an area of some 15 a. (fn. 81) Demolition began in 1891 of the 730 dwellings holding 5,719 people, 144 of whom were housed in cottage dwellings built on land in Goldsmith's Row (fn. 82) purchased by the L.C.C. in 1892. Owen Fleming designed the Boundary Street scheme for the Nichol, which retained only Boundary Street in the west and Mount Street in the east, both to be widened to 40 ft. Old Nichol Street to the south was to be widened, extended to Mount Street, and renamed Calvin Street. (fn. 83) Other streets, 50-ft. wide, whose names recalled Huguenot associations, radiated from an ornamental space called Arnold Circus. One of them, Calvert Avenue, 60-ft. wide, led directly to Shoreditch High Street. T. Blashill, one of the L.C.C.'s architects, designed 21 and Rowland Plumbe two of 23 blocks containing between 10 and 85 tenements each, named after places along the Thames. A total of 1,069 tenements, mostly twoor three-roomed, accommodated 5,524 persons and set 'new aesthetic standards for housing the working classes'. (fn. 84) The scheme included a laundry, 188 shops, and 77 workshops, and preserved churches and schools. Building began in the east in 1893 and was completed for opening by the Prince of Wales in 1900. There were then 5,380 tenants, a density of 359 people to an acre compared with 381 in the Old Nichol.
Twelve public houses were cleared away, giving the new, 'dry' estate a respectability lacking in the area for well over a century. Its tenants were, with few exceptions, not the original ones whose preference for small houses had been ignored (fn. 85) and who could not afford the rent of 3s. a room even if they could stomach the enforced sobriety. The newcomers were clerks, policemen, cigarmakers, nurses, and many Jews. Former inhabitants moved into old property nearby, spreading, if diluting, the squalor of the Nichol eastward. (fn. 86) It was recognized that statutory clearances often aggravated overcrowding, (fn. 87) since owners merely closed buildings and the evicted tenants camped out in backyards. (fn. 88) Demolitions, as part of sanitary or street improvements, or for schools or 'business premises', far outnumbered replacements. Between 1902 and 1913, for example, 1,656 working-class rooms were demolished, only 859 of them to provide sites for working-class dwellings. (fn. 89) One ex-vestryman declared in 1898 that local authorities should house the poor (fn. 90) but in 1911 the only municipal housing was the 23 blocks of the L.C.C.'s Boundary Street estate, out of a total of 322 blocks of 4,716 flats and 13,327 other dwellings. (fn. 91)
The L.C.C. planned redevelopment under a housing Act of 1890 and the first Town Planning Act of 1909. (fn. 92) The case for clearance around Brady (formerly North) Street near Whitechapel was made in 1904 and again in 1912, when Bethnal Green's medical officer stressed its overcrowding (430 people to an acre) and high death rate (24.74 per 1,000 compared with a borough average of 16.71). The Local Government Board in 1914 ordered the L.C.C. to deal with at least part of the area under the Act of 1890, but work was delayed by the war. (fn. 93)