For ages I’ve been meaning to have a look around the Boundary Estate in Tower Hamlets, East London (map). It was the first council estate in London and was built over the worst slum in the city in the 19th century; the Old Nichol. I got a great opportunity to do so this weekend in the form of a guided walk put on by City Highlights.
There were 6000+ people living in around 700 houses on the 15 acre site in some of the worst conditions seen. To get to the Old Nichol, there were a handful of narrow lanes and passages off of Shoreditch High Street, but nobody dared to enter. There are tales of kids running out to the high street to steal from delivery carts and running back down the passages, knowing that nobody would follow them.
Once it was realised the full extent of how terrible the area was, the newly formed London County Council set about demolishing the slums and replacing it with council houses in 1890. The mound on which the bandstand in the photo above sits was made from the rubble of the old houses. This was all well and good, however there were many rules that made it difficult for people who previously lived here to move into a new council flat.
The rent was about the same price per week, however each apartment was strictly limited to two people. Where before there would be many people sharing the rent of a single room, now the same rent was only split in half.
There was issue as well with people not being able to work at home. To try to counter this, the council built workshops in the area for people to store their costermonger carts and to do their paid work in (such as making match stick boxes). However, there was a fee for using these buildings that people couldn’t afford. One extreme statistic is that out of the 6000+ people who lived in the Old Nichol only 11 were able to live in the new estate.
And so the poor people were pushed further East and people who could afford the rents moved into Boundary Estate. The first couple of housing blocks to be built were rather plan, “working class” architecture. The council decided that they wanted to inspire the inhabitants to greater things, and should do so through the architecture of the blocks. In the next few years, the design and craftsmanship of the blocks became decidedly more ambitious. You can see the difference in this photo – newer block on the left, older one on the right:
What was a nice added bonus to the walk was that we had a lady with us who was born and grew up in the estate before the Second World War as well as having a chap who has lived there for the past thirteen years. It was neat to get a first hand perspective of the past and present of the area. I also have a few more books to add to my wish list now regarding the area.
There’s loads more photos to be seen over on Flickr.