Bethnal Green: Building and Social Conditions from 1915 to 1945

A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 11, Stepney, Bethnal Green. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1998.

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'Bethnal Green: Building and Social Conditions from 1915 to 1945', A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 11, Stepney, Bethnal Green, (London, 1998), pp. 132-135. British History Online [accessed 24 June 2024].

. "Bethnal Green: Building and Social Conditions from 1915 to 1945", in A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 11, Stepney, Bethnal Green, (London, 1998) 132-135. British History Online, accessed June 24, 2024,

. "Bethnal Green: Building and Social Conditions from 1915 to 1945", A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 11, Stepney, Bethnal Green, (London, 1998). 132-135. British History Online. Web. 24 June 2024,


The population continued its decline, both because the birth rate fell to 22.1 per 1,000 in 1925 and 13.3 in 1937-8 and because emigration was much greater than immigration. (fn. 2) Between 1911 and 1921 a natural increase of 14,871 and a migration loss of 25,816, left a net decrease of 8.5 per cent; in the next decade the increase of 8.5 per cent was offset by a loss of 16.2 per cent. (fn. 3) People moving to outer suburbs were replaced at a much lower rate after the 1905 Aliens Act. Inhabitants born in continental Europe, mostly Jews, numbered 6,255 (6 per cent) in 1921 and 5,276 (5 per cent) in 1931. The proportion of London-born inhabitants, 87 per cent in 1921 and 85 per cent in 1931, remained amongst the highest in the capital and would have included some Jews. (fn. 4) There were c. 13,000 Jews in Bethnal Green in 1930, about 12 per cent of its population. (fn. 5)

Anti-semitism, which had died down, flared up during the First World War when suspicion of aliens was coupled with resentment over the failure of Jewish refugees to distinguish between conscription under the Tsars and 'doing their bit' for England. Bethnal Green had the highest record for voluntary enlistment in London and it was felt that immigrants were making money by taking the volunteers' jobs. The manufacture of military uniforms was in the hands of Jews who were thereby exempted from military service. (fn. 6) In 1917 there was a fight between more than 2,000 Jews and gentiles in the Jewish enclave of Blythe and Teesdale streets. (fn. 7) In 1919 returning troops, finding the street markets taken over by aliens, petitioned for a market exclusively for ex-servicemen. (fn. 8) Anti-semitism was reflected on the left in opposition by the M.B. to Jews becoming tenants of its new Lenin estate in 1927. (fn. 9) It developed most virulently in the 1930s among the right-wing Mosleyites, drawn from costermongers and cabinet makers, thrown out of work by Jewish-owned factories, and local criminals hoping for trouble. (fn. 10)

The New Survey of c. 1930 classed 80 per cent of the population as skilled and unskilled artisans, compared with Booth's 51 per cent. At the ends of the social scale, only 2 per cent was middleclass and 18 per cent poor. The middle class still lived mostly along the main roads, but there had been deterioration in the east which c. 1930 included the lowest category, 'degraded and semicriminal', around Quinn Square and Russia Lane. Almost all the areas built up in the early 19th century were poor, with some of the worst slums along the canal and railways, especially west of Cambridge Heath Road. (fn. 11)

Although overcrowding, in terms of people to an acre, fell from 168 in 1911 to 142 in 1931 (fn. 12) and, in terms of people living more than two to a room, from 33 per cent to 28 per cent respectively, a minority (6,600 in 1921 and 7,322 in 1931) still lived more than three to a room. Conditions were as bad as ever in that there were more families to a dwelling (1.54) in 1931 than in 1921 (1.51) because families were smaller, their size having shrunk from 4.48 in 1911 to 4.14 in 1921 and 3.79 in 1931. (fn. 13) In 1933, when seeking government help, a local M.P. stated that 43 per cent of the population was overcrowded, 17 per cent below the poverty line, and 23 per cent of the male population unemployed. (fn. 14)

The period saw greater activity by the local authorities, under the pre-war Acts and further housing Acts of 1925, 1930, and 1935. (fn. 15) In 1917 there were five condemned areas, the most notorious being Brady Street. (fn. 16) A speech by the mayor at a meeting over housing conditions in 1919 led to the involvement of Queen Mary. (fn. 17) In 1922 the L.C.C. proposed to clear over 7 a., displacing 1,875 people and replacing the 310 old houses (393 tenements) with accommodation there for 1,600, to be provided by the L.C.C., the M.B., housing companies, and others; the rest were to be housed elsewhere. (fn. 18)

The L.C.C., having resolved to improve part of Sebrights under the Housing Act of 1925, agreed in 1930 to buy large sections west of Pritchard's Road and south of the Shoreditch border. (fn. 19) The scheme, called Teale Street, was drawn up in 1931 under the Act of 1930 to provide for 727 people on 5 a., displacing 843 people from 143 houses (196 tenements). Work was delayed by lack of finance until 1933 when the L.C.C., after an appeal by the Minister of Health, (fn. 20) drew up a scheme for nearly 3½ a. of Nag's Head Field, displacing 903 people from 172 houses (215 tenements). Housing for 206 people was to be provided on the site by others, the L.C.C. merely issuing clearance orders. (fn. 21)

In 1934 the L.C.C. designated four more clearance areas: Potts Street, just over 2½ a. displacing 709 people in 134 houses and providing for 676, Hollybush Gardens, displacing 115 people in 18 houses (29 tenements) on less than ½ a., Ada Place and Pritchard's Road, displacing 368 in 61 houses (83 tenements) on 2 a., and Delta Street, displacing 95 in 18 houses (29 tenements) on 1 a. The M.B. had listed 11 insanitary areas for demolition in 1934 but the L.C.C. considered them too small for council housing (fn. 22) and in 1935 the programme was hampered by a lack of sites for rehousing. (fn. 23) Pedley Street, just over 1½ a. housing 353 people in 85 houses (96 tenements), was declared a clearance area in 1935. Areas declared in 1936 were Darling Row, 146 houses (258 tenements) housing 981 people on just over 4 a., and James Street, 91 houses (101 tenements) occupied by 402 people on 2½ a. (fn. 24)

In 1936, under an Act of 1935 which provided for redevelopment on a much larger scale, the L.C.C. drew up a plan for 46 a. around Cambridge Heath Road from the Hackney border to Old Bethnal Green Road and Bethnal Green hospital, bounded west by Pritchard's Road and Temple Street and east by Lark Row and Russia Lane. The area contained 1,210 properties, made up of 693 working-class houses, 183 flats in Peabody Buildings, 134 houses over shops, 59 factories, 54 commercial premises, a school, a church, 12 public houses, empty buildings, and a population of 5,471. Of the working-class dwellings, 583 were overcrowded or unfit. The L.C.C. planned improved streets and new blocks of flats and zoning to separate industry and business premises from housing, although the latter was to be built by private enterprise. It was thought that 4,700 would be rehoused. Under the same Act the L.C.C. acquired 20 a. of Hackney marsh for those residents who could not be rehoused in Bethnal Green. (fn. 25)

Seven clearance areas were announced in 1937. Three, Minerva Street with 1,364 people in 272 houses (362 tenements) on over 8 a., Emma Street with 585 people in 94 houses (159 tenements) on 3 a., and Vyner Street, 572 people in 125 houses (166 tenements) on 3½ a., all lay within the 34-a. redevelopment area. The other areas were Tent Street, with 505 people in 80 houses (123 tenements) on nearly 2 a., Cooper's Gardens with 424 people in 99 houses (123 tenements) on just over 2 a., Punderson's Gardens, 1,245 people in 226 houses (339 tenements) on nearly 5½ a., and Lansdell Place, with 432 people in 78 houses (109 tenements) on 2½ a. Herald (formerly Abingdon) Street, 2½ a. with 89 houses (122 tenements) for 467 people, was declared a clearance area in 1938. (fn. 26) The L.C.C. also decided to clear Turin Street (fn. 27) and in 1939 was planning to dislodge 1,706 people from 10 a. around Squirries Street. (fn. 28)

Apart from bricking up some weavers' windows and rebuilding factories, building had virtually ceased during the First World War, at the end of which there was a housing shortage. Clearance was always hampered by the need first to rehouse the dispossessed. Generally the L.C.C. built on the larger and the M.B. on the smaller sites. The L.C.C. produced four typeplans in 1934 and erected mainly five-storeyed blocks (fn. 29) in brick in a neo-Georgian style.

The first post-war L.C.C. housing (fn. 30) was the Collingwood estate, on 5 a. of the cleared Brady Street site between Brady and Collingwood streets. Work began on the first block in 1922, which opened in 1923, on the second in 1924, the third in 1925, (fn. 31) and by the end of 1927, together with Codrington House fronting Scott Street on the west side of Brady Street, the four blocks provided 185 flats for 1,126 people. Rowley Bros, built Harvey and Blackwood houses at the southern end of the site fronting Merceron Road. Rutherford House, fronting Brady Street, completed the scheme in 1930, providing a total of 272 dwellings for 1,600 people. (fn. 32)

As part of the Teale Street scheme, the L.C.C. began building Dinmont estate in 1934 on 4¼ a. west of Pritchard's Road. Four blocks, each containing c. 60 flats, had opened by 1938 for 1,076 people.

Hollybush House, 90 flats for 400 people on 1½ a. between Hollybush Gardens and the railway, opened in 1936. In 1934 the L.C.C. made a compulsory purchase order on Penn estate, 2 a. south of Bethnal Green Road around Pott Street. (fn. 33) Building began in 1936 and 110 dwellings, called Horwood estate after the earliest of three blocks, opened in 1937 to house 511 people. (fn. 34)

In 1935 the L.C.C. decided to take over the site of Waterloo House, the former workhouse, and also acquired the adjoining properties in Lark Row and Lyte Street, giving it 5¾ a. north of Bishop's Way (Road). In 1936 R. J. Rowley began building the first of four blocks, which was opened in 1937 as Waterloo estate; (fn. 35) of 312 flats planned, 152 had been completed and 107 were under construction in 1939. In 1936 the L.C.C. began the first of two blocks (Ada and Pritchard houses) on a 1½-acre site, Ada Place, off Pritchard's Road at the northern tip of the borough, within the 36-a. redevelopment area. Called Pritchard's, the estate opened with 77 dwellings in 1938. A small block of 8 dwellings opened at the junction of Brady and Scott streets by 1936, another 1¾ a. between Scott and Tent streets was cleared in 1937, and work began on Northesk House, containing 61 dwellings, in 1938. (fn. 36) The last two developments were later classified as part of Collingwood estate.

By the beginning of the Second World War the L.C.C. had built or were building 2,170 flats and planned another 1,830 mostly on new sites throughout the borough, the largest being Minerva Street (375) within the redevelopment area, Turin Street (640), Darling Row (198), and James Street (188).

Meanwhile political changes had led the M.B. (fn. 37) to undertake rehousing. (fn. 38) Its first estate, called simply Bethnal Green estate, was in the heart of the borough on the site of Kirby's Castle. Privacy had been threatened at Bethnal House asylum (Kirby's Castle) by the construction of Sutton Dwellings and in 1920 the asylum moved to Salisbury. The M.B. purchased the site in 1921, demolished the old house, retained the Cottage, and between 1922 and 1924 built four-storeyed brick blocks named after poets (Burns, Milton, Moore, Morris, Shelley, Swinburne, and Whitman), containing 137 flats. (fn. 39)

The second estate, called Lenin by the Communist-Socialist council, opened in 1927 on a corner between Cambridge Heath Road and Parmiter Street. Containing 32 flats in a four-storeyed brick block by the borough architect E. C. P. Monson, who designed most of the subsequent pre-war estates, and described as the 'best in the East End', it provided free electric light and was considered extravagant. (fn. 40) In 1928 the name was changed by the new Liberal-Progressive council to Cambridge Heath estate. (fn. 41)

Weaver House in Pedley Street, part of the Hare Marsh estate, opened in 1929 with 16 flats. The M.B. had applied to build two blocks in Diss Street, off Hackney Road, in 1922 but the Vaughan estate, containing 20 flats, did not open until 1931. In 1932 the red-brick and concrete Hadrian estate, containing 83 flats, opened south of Hackney Road on what had been Sickle Penfield and work began on Claredale estate, a little to the east on Rush Mead, where a single block of 73 flats opened in 1933. (fn. 42) In 1935 the foundation stone was laid of Digby estate, a five-storeyed brick building containing 55 flats east of Globe Road, which opened in 1936. (fn. 43) Another 5-storeyed block, Delta estate, north of Gosset Street on Turney estate, which had been proclaimed a clearance area by the L.C.C., was started in 1936 and opened in 1937 with 35 flats. (fn. 44) Although started in 1934, the 5-storeyed block of Butler estate, 40 flats fronting Digby Street east of Bacton Street and Digby estate, did not open until 1938. (fn. 45) The last pre-war council estate was Burnham, two 5-storeyed blocks containing 80 flats between Globe Road and Burnham Street, started in 1937 and opened in 1939. (fn. 46) Bethnal Green M.B. by then had built 601 flats.

The only non-municipal building on a large scale was on Nag's Head Field, declared a clearance area in 1933. The Nag's Head Housing Society then started building flats, north of Shipton Street and west of Ropley Street, which were completed in 1937. A second phase, to the west and bounded by Ravenscroft Street, started in 1939. (fn. 47)

The Bethnal Green and East London Housing Association was formed in 1926 by an Industrial Housing Fellowship Group. It was supported by the Poplar Ruridecanal Conference and Hackney Council of Social Services and opened its first block of 15 flats, the four-storeyed Queen Margaret Flats designed by Ian Hamilton, in St. Jude's Road. It also built in Hackney and Poplar and by 1934, when it acquired three houses in Bonner Road, had provided nearly 100 homes at low rents. (fn. 48) Philanthropic societies after the First World War provided only Mulberry House, built in 1934 by the East End Dwellings Co. fronting Victoria Park Square north of Montford House in an Art-Deco style. (fn. 49)

Private building included Coventry House, 10 flats in Coventry Street for Allen & Hanbury, tenements and workshops at the corner of Cheshire and Menotti streets, (fn. 50) a block on the site of nos. 34-40 Viaduct Street for Sebright estate, and a four-storeyed brick and concrete building on the site of nos. 107 and 109 Cambridge Road by S. Leapman, all in 1936, and 24 flats in Cheshire Street by New Era Estates in 1937. Louis de Soissons's application to build on the site of nos. 202-52 Hackney Road in 1938 was presumably frustrated by the war. (fn. 51)

Factories, often themselves 5-storeyed, were built between 1918 and 1939 but not individual houses, in spite of the unpopularity of flats. There were objections to most of the L.C.C.'s schemes, both because residents preferred houses with small gardens and because shopkeepers resented losing businesses and paying higher rates. (fn. 52)

Colville House on the Waterloo estate was completed by 1940. (fn. 53) Building otherwise ceased during the Second World War, when bombing had one beneficial effect in clearing slums. Some 80 tons of bombs fell in the borough, no part of it escaping damage; 555 people were killed and 400 seriously injured. They included 173 who died on 3rd March 1943 in Bethnal Green Underground station when anti-aircraft gunfire caused panic among those rushing down dimly lit stairs to shelter. Evacuation accelerated the decline in population, which in 1945 had fallen to 50,641. (fn. 54) Bombing affected 21,700 houses, including 2,233 which were destroyed, 893 made uninhabitable, and 2,457 seriously damaged. (fn. 55)


  • 1. Section based on Dist. Surveyors' Returns, G.L.R.O., AR/BA/4/284, 297, 309, 319, 331, 346, 361, 377, 391, 406, 423, 437, 451, 466, 500, 539, 561, 585, 606, 628, 650, 672, 694 (1915-39).
  • 2. L.C.C. Lond. Statistics, xxx. 42; xxxix. 38.
  • 3. Census, 1911-31.
  • 4. Ibid.; New Lond. Life and Lab. i. 83; iii. 345.
  • 5. Jewish E. End, ed. Newman, 37.
  • 6. Vicar of St. Jas. the Gt., quoted in Morning Post, 1918 (G.L.R.O., P72/JSG/118).
  • 7. J. Bush, Behind the Lines: E. Lond. Lab. 1914-19 (1984), 181.
  • 8. The Times, 26 Sept. 1919, 7c.
  • 9. Ibid. 10 Sept. 1927, 9d.
  • 10. J. A. Gillespie, 'Economic and Political Change in E. End of Lond. during 1920s' (Cambridge Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1984), 269; J. Pearson, The Profession of Violence: Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins (1984), 32; below, local govt.
  • 11. New Lond. Life and Lab. iii. 138, 147, 149, 151; iv, Maps, sheet 1; R. Barnes, Coronation Cups and Jam Jars (1976), 22, 98.
  • 12. A suggested density of 186 in 1938 was probably exaggerated: J. H. Forshaw and P. Abercrombie, County of Lond. Plan (1943), 83.
  • 13. New Lond. Life and Lab. iii, 236, 251; Census, 1911-31.
  • 14. The Times, 14 Feb. 1933, 7g.
  • 15. 15 & 16 Geo. V, c. 14; 20 & 21 Geo. V, c. 39; 25 & 26 Geo. V, c. 40. Inf. on clearance areas from L.C.C. Lond. Housing (1937), 263-6; L.C.C. Lond. Statistics, xxxix. 134.
  • 16. The Times, 15 Sept. 1917, 3b.
  • 17. Ibid. 15 Feb. 1919, 16f; 24 Feb. 2a; 15 Mar. 12c; 18 Mar. 10d; 19 Mar. 8c.
  • 18. L.C.C. Lond. Statistics, xxx. 111.
  • 19. T.H.L.H.L., TH/8351, box 1 (Agreement, 1930).
  • 20. L.C.C. The Lond. County Council, 1938, 116.
  • 21. L.C.C. Ann. Rep. (1935), ii. 33.
  • 22. Hackney Gaz. 4 July 1934 (T.H.L.H.L. Bethnal Green Cuttings, Housing 1915-53).
  • 23. L.C.C. Ann. Rep. (1935), ii. 26.
  • 24. L.C.C. Lond. Statistics, xli. 138-9.
  • 25. L.C.C. Lond. Housing (1937), 26-9, map; The Times, 1 March 1937, 11a; 26 Apr., 16d; L.C.C. Ann. Rep. (1936), ii. 36-37; G.L.R.O., LCC/CL/TP/1/27.
  • 26. L.C.C. Lond. Statistics, xli. 139-40; The Times, 8 Mar. 1938, 21f.
  • 27. L.C.C. E. End Housing (1963), 20.
  • 28. The Times, 13 Mar. 1939, 11a.
  • 29. L.C.C. The Lond. County Council, 1938, 116, 121, 127.
  • 30. Inf. on L.C.C. ests. from L.C.C. Lond. Housing (1937), 258-9; L.C.C. Housing Ests. (1939), map in G.L.R.O.; L.C.C. E. End Housing (1963), 30 sqq.; L.C.C. Lond. Statistics, xli. 150-4.
  • 31. The blocks were Bullen, Pellew, and Fremantle hos.
  • 32. L.C.C. Housing 1928-30 (1931), 59.
  • 33. Bethnal Green News, 14 July 1934 (T.H.L.H.L., Bethnal Green Cuttings, Housing 1915.53).
  • 34. The other blocks were Norden and Newcourt hos.
  • 35. The Times, 2 Mar. 1936, 11e; L.C.C. Ann. Rep. (1935), ii. 45.
  • 36. Not Trent St. as in The Times, 15 Feb. 1937, 9c.
  • 37. Below, local govt. (local govt. 1900-64).
  • 38. Inf. on boro. council housing from Tower Hamlets L.B. Year Bk. (1981/2); Opening Programme of Reynolds Ho. 1953, containing list of M.B.'s housing schemes (T.H.L.H.L. 331.2B); Bethnal Green M.B. Official Guide (8th edn. c. 1950), 88-9.
  • 39. Robinson and Chesshyre, The Green, 16; Programme for opening of Bethnal Green Est. 1922 (T.H.L.H.L., 331.2B).
  • 40. Programme for Parmiter St. Rehousing Scheme, 1926 (T.H.L.H.L., 331.2B); Daily Mail, 24 Aug., 27 Aug. 1927 and Sunday Worker, 25 Sept. 1927 (T.H.L.H.L., Bethnal Green Cuttings, Housing, Cambridge Heath est.).
  • 41. The Times, 3 Dec. 1928, 16c; 7 Dec. 1928, 10e.
  • 42. Stone-laying programme, 1932 (T.H.L.H.L., 331.2B, Claredale est.).
  • 43. Bethnal Green News, 19 Oct. 1935 and N.E. Bethnal Green Citizen, Aug. 1937 (T.H.L.H.L., Bethnal Green Cuttings, Housing, Digby est.).
  • 44. Opening programme, 1937 (T.H.L.H.L. 331.2B).
  • 45. Stone-laying programme, 1934 (T.H.L.H.L., 331.2B).
  • 46. Stone-laying programme, 1937 (T.H.L.H.L., 331.2B, LC 939).
  • 47. E. Lond. Observer, 18 Feb. 1939 (T.H.L.H.L., Bethnal Green Cuttings, Housing 1915-53).
  • 48. The Times, 16 Apr. 1929, 20; 17 Apr. 130; 8 Oct., 13f; 4 Apr. 1931, 6a; 5 May, 18; 6 May, 11e; E. Lond. Observer, 23 Apr. 1932; City and E. Lond. Observer, 9 June 1934 (T.H.L.H.L., Bethnal Green Cuttings, Housing 1915-53).
  • 49. Connor and Critchley, Red Cliffs of Stepney (1984), 20.
  • 50. Possibly Harwell Ho.: O.S. Map 1/2,500, TQ 3482 (1966 edn.).
  • 51. Cf. O.S. Map 1/2,500, TQ. 3483 (1955 edn.).
  • 52. Bethnal Green News, 25 Sept. 1937; 2 Apr. 1938; E. Lond. Observer, 2 Oct. 1937; Hackney Gaz. 22 June 1938 (T.H.L.H.L., Bethnal Green Cuttings, Housing 1915-53).
  • 53. P.O. Dir. Lond. (1939, 1940).
  • 54. G. F. Vale, Bethnal Green's Ordeal 1939-45; The Times, 19 July 1944, 8a.
  • 55. Bethnal Green M.B. Official Guide (8th edn. c. 1950), 85.