Thursday, 12 March 2015

The Boundary Estate

Recently I've been looking into the history of the Boundary Estate on the edge of Bethnal Green as part of one of the walks that a London guiding group I belong to were putting on.

The estate will always be important for one particular reason - it was the first ESTATE built by a Local Authority in this case the LCC and hence the FIRST Council Estate - but that is aside from the history of the site itself.

The Boundary Estate was built after the passing of the 1890 Housing of Working Classes Act which was meant to deal with the many slums around London and beyond.  It put the onus on Local Authorities to clear the slums and provide more sanitary conditions. Before this Act came into effect it had been left to philanthropic families through their various trusts to provide basic accommodation for people.  The families in question are well known even today, The Peabody's, The Guinness Family and the Rothschilds to name a few.

The slum in question on this 15 acre site was the Old Nichol Estate or the Old Nichol Rookery.  This notorious estate had gained the reputation of being the worst slum in London and on publication of Charles Booth's Poverty Map in 1889 the area was shown as Black meaning people there were thought to be 'viscous and semi-criminal'.  Families of up to 10 people lived in one room in distinctly unsanitary, damp and dark conditions for which they paid rent of 2 Shillings a week. Over 5,700 people were moved out or what is now called 'decanted' from the Old Nichol and of that number only 11 were to move back! A fictitious account of the Old Nichol was written by Poplar born author Arthur Morrison in 1896 under the title of A Child from the Jago.  The 'Jago' is the Old Nichol and Morrsison spent eighteen months living in Shoreditch researching before the slum finally came down. The footprint for both are almost identical as can be seen from these maps;

The Boundary Estate was built between 1892 and 1899 and has Arnold Circus as it's centrepiece.  The original Circus did not have the Bandstand as that wasn't added until 1910. The mound that is in the centre of Arnold Circus is said to be made from the rubble of the Old Nichol.  The estate was designed by the London County Council architect Owen Fleming and radiates from Arnold Circus in 7 tree lines avenues.  There were originally 23 blocks of 5 story flats with each block having it's own Arts and Crafts style.  The plans included workshops and shops and care was given to give open space between the randomly placed blocks.  Sight lines were thought about and also emphasis given to each flat getting some sunlight each day.   There are also two schools around the perimeter of Arnold Circus.  These actually predate the rebuilding and renaming as they were built as a consequence of another late 19th Century Act, the 1870 Education Act which required that children attend school between the ages of 5 and 13.  Virginia School is still running as a Primary School, however Rochelle School is now used as a cultural hub and also houses a restaurant.  The blocks are beautiful and have patterns in their brickwork in colours of salmon pink and coral and in varying styles.

The First Council Estate, The Boundary Estate was opened in 1900 by the Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra amid flags and fanfare.  The new occupants were more likely to be clerks, nurses or policeman as it was only those more professional people who were able to afford the increased rent of 3 Shillings a week.

Now over 100 years old the estate is still thriving and the whole area was made The Boundary Estate Conservation Area in 1985.  Every block is now grade 2 Listed as well as all of the railings around the bandstand and the bandstand itself.  As well as these over 50 trees in the area have preservation orders on them! There is a community run not-for-profit launderette as well as a group called The Friends of Arnold Circus who fund raised to restore the decaying bandstand in 2010.

The Boundary Estate is a semi-hidden oasis on the edge Tower Hamlets and the City and well worth a visit. When you do go look out for a reminder of the past as you see Old Nichol Street as you enter from Boundary Street!