Photo: Andrew Smith

David Rosenberg’s new edition of Rebel Footprints includes a chapter on housing struggles set on the boundary of Bethnal Green and Shoreditch. Here, he breaks down what happened and why, followed by a guided walk around the Boundary Estate, the world’s first council estate.

In the summer of 1889, the East End was paralysed by a dock strike that won the sympathy and solidarity of workers in many surrounding factories and workshops. By the end of August that year, more than 100,000 workers were on strike.

The dockers’ wives played a crucial role in sustaining the dispute by organising rent strikes. They put banners in front of their homes advising landlords to not bother calling for rent. One poetic banner where Star Street met Commercial Road read:

Our husbands are on strike; for the wives it is not honey, and we all think it is right not to pay the landlord’s money. Everyone is on strike, so landlords do not be offended; The rent that’s due we’ll pay you when the strike is ended.

Charles Mowbray was well known as a socialist to the press in the 1880s. The Globe, 21 September 1885. © The British Library Board, courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive

Evidence suggests it was the first organised rent strike in east London. That same decade, a local activist, Charles Mowbray, started to develop a ‘No Rent Campaign’. He spoke at platforms in Victoria Park, mobilising enthusiasm through leaflets which condemned “the slow murder of the poor… poisoned by thousands in the foul, unhealthy slums, from which robber landlords exact monstrous rents”.

The poor, the leaflet argued, “have paid in rent the value over and over again of the rotten dens” in they were forced to dwell. “Government has failed to help you,” it continued. “The time has come to help yourselves. Pay no rent to land-thieves and house-farmers who flourish and grow fat on your misery, starvation and degradation.”

Mowbray lived with his wife (daughter of Paris communards) and four children on the Old Nichol in Bethnal Green, one of London’s worst slums. More than 5,700 people were crammed into 652 houses in 20 narrow streets and alleys, the widest just 28 feet. Some streets were barely seven feet wide. They were stereotyped as loafers and semi-criminals. In reality many had useful skills, but work was precarious and poorly paid.

A modern street sign referencing the former Old Nichol

In the same year as the dock strike, the first elections were held for the London County Council (LCC) and returned a progressive majority of labourites, liberals and radicals with a mandate to tackle the appalling housing situation. The Old Nichol was swept away in a slum clearance. Compensation was paid to the landowners, several of whom had enhanced their families’ fortunes through owning plantations in the Caribbean. A magnificent new estate radiated out from a raised bandstand, underneath which was the rubble of the Old Nichol.

The Boundary Estate provided better quality homes, especially for artisan grades of the working class. And because they were paying rent to the London County Council rather than a rogue slum landlord, their housing was more secure. But sadly, very few residents of the Old Nichol found a place to live there. Most of the flats on the new estate were two roomed (or more), whereas the displaced families were accustomed to scraping the rent together for just one room. They mainly moved within a mile radius, taking the slum with them.

The innovation of council housing in London was slow to take off. Many of the survivors among the 12,000 serving soldiers who went from Bethnal Green in the first world war, returned to poor and overcrowded accommodation. New laws in the 1920s and 30s generally benefitted the landlords more than the tenants. Nevertheless, the late 1930s saw a mushrooming of grassroots organising among tenants, especially through the Communist Party and some labour activists, and there were many successful rent strikes. Through these strikes, rents became more regulated, many arrears were written off, and commitments were made to invest in proper repairs and refurbishment.

A walk around Shoreditch’s social housing history

Here’s a walk included in Rebel Footprints, in which David guides you around the key sites in Shoreditch’s social housing history.

Click for larger version.

1. Shoreditch High Street

St Leonard’s Church: the latest incarnation of churches that have stood here for more than 900 years. This one was built in 1740. Behind the church lies Boundary Street, which separates Shoreditch in Hackney from the Bethnal Green parish of St Matthews in Tower Hamlets. Boundary Street, until the 1890s, comprised the infamous Old Nichol slum. Charles Mowbray and comrades ran a print shop on this street.

2. Columbia Road

The impressive block of flats with black metalwork on the right are the Leopold Buildings built by Sidney Waterlow, who developed the semi-philanthropic “5 per cent Improved Industrial Dwellings” company, which built tenements in five areas of London. These tenements were targeted towards ‘morally upstanding’ families of skilled workers.

3. Corner Columbia Road/Gascoigne Road

Columbia Road is famous for its flower market. Historically, cut flowers and caged birds were merchandise typically sold by Huguenots — hence the name of the road’s Birdcage pub. On Swanfield Street you glimpse the tall red-brick buildings on the right-hand side that comprise the north-eastern edge of the Boundary Estate.

St Leonard’s Church. Photo: Tranter Dewy

4. Swanfield Street

The striking-looking old building on the left is the premises of a Mauritian-born foam and mattress seller. The building was once a weaver’s cottage.

5. Brick Lane/Padbury Court

The houses in Padbury Court, indicate the dimensions of houses that typically stood within of the Old Nichol slum.

The former mattress seller’s house on Swanfield Street

6. Rochelle Street/Montclare Street

An unusual building on Montclare Street is signposted ‘The Old Laundry’. This was once the central laundry staffed by an engineer, a stoker, a matron and matron’s assistant, paid for by the users’ fees. The laundry was completed in the summer of 1896. Above it there were two club rooms for use by the tenants.

7. Bandstand, Arnold Circus

From the bandstand you can obtain the best view of the estate’s layout: a set of free-standing blocks, each with unique style and influences, which emanate like sun-rays from the bandstand, with much space between them for light and fresh air.

Columbia Road is best known for its flower market nowadays. Photo: Dave Gorman

8. Club Row/Old Nichol Street

The involvement of charitable bodies with the Boundary Estate is exemplified by St Hilda’s Community Centre, which is based on the corner of Club Row and Old Nichol Street. St Hilda’s grew out of a settlement established by Cheltenham Ladies’ College, with the aim of combating deprivation and social exclusion through education, recreation and social care. It continues to play that role today.

9. Playground, Old Nichol Street

One of the few buildings that survived the Old Nichol slum clearance was Britain’s only consecrated church — called Holy Trinity Church — established on the first floor of a building. It had stables underneath. It could not survive the bombs of the second world war though, and was never rebuilt. Instead a playground was developed on this site.

Holy Trinity Church was turned into a vibrant community hub by Reverend Osborne Jay, who nonetheless harboured sinister eugenicist views about the inhabitants of the Old Nichol. He believed that the best thing for them was to be transferred to a penal colony, with men separated from women so they could not bring further ‘inferior’ generations into the world.

10. Boundary Passage

At the end of the passage stood Shoreditch High Street, along which those who were already wealthy made their way to the City every day, hoping to add to their fortunes. Unless they ventured down this passage, they could remain oblivious to the plight of those struggling daily in the Old Nichol slum.

The second edition of Rebel Footprints: A Guide To Uncovering London’s Radical History, by David Rosenberg with a foreword by Ash Sarkar of Novara Media, is published by Pluto Press

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