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THE streets behind the historic Shoreditch Church in London’s East End were redeveloped in the last decade of the 19th century as a showpiece’ estate, the world’s first public housing project. The new Boundary Estate replaced London’s most notorious slum, The Nichol’ or Friar’s Mount,’ which the Victorian press of the day described as “vice and debauchery, filth and poverty in dark cellars reeking with disease and death.” East End historian GARY HAINES looks at how the newly-established London County Council set about clearing the slums and what happened to the thousands evicted to make way for the new showpiece

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ABOVE: The notorious Nichol’ quarter behind Shoreditch Church was London’s worst slum—but was soon to become the showpiece Boundary Estate, the world’s first public housing project.

BELOW: The innovative Arnold Circus, the hub of the new development opened in 1900

THE streets behind the historic Shoreditch Church in London’s East End were redeveloped in the last decade of the 19th century as a showpiece’ estate, the world’s first public housing project.

The new Boundary Estate replaced London’s most notorious slum, The Nichol’ or Friar’s Mount,’ which the Victorian press of the day described as “vice and debauchery, filth and poverty in dark cellars reeking with disease and death.”

East End historian GARY HAINES looks at how the newly-established London County Council set about clearing the slums and what happened to the thousands evicted to make way for the new showpiece:

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A VIVID description of a slum neighbourhood in the East End of Victorian London at Friars Mount, known as the Nichol,’ was “nothing but one painful and monotonous round of vice, filth, and poverty, huddled in dark cellars, ruined garrets, bare and blackened rooms, reeking with disease and death, and without the means for the most ordinary observations of decency or cleanliness.” That was according to the Illustrated London News of October, 1863.

It continues: “The fetid yards are devoted to the donkeys, while fish are cured and dried in places which cannot be mentioned without loathing. Bandbox and lucifer box makers, cane workers, clothes peg makers, shoemakers and tailors, mostly earning just enough to keep them from absolute starvation, swarm from roof to basement.”

This area was known as Friar’s Mount, probably originating from the garden of the historic Nunnery of St John the Baptist.

It ran along the parish boundary between Shoreditch and Bethnal Green, where today stands the aptly-named Boundary Estate.

Back then, the cramped little turnings were home to 5,666 slum-dwellers and acknowledged by the mid-1800s to be the worst in London.

The Nichol was also the basis for Arthur Morrison’s book A Child of the Jago in 1896 which shocked Victorian readers with its story of a child’s struggle against poverty, crime and violence. Morrison was a journalist and writer who had success with his Tales of Mean Streets, a collection of 14 stories of life in the East End of London.

As a result, he was invited by The Rev Arthur Osborne Jay, who struggled to improve the lives of the slum-dwellers, to see the Nichol.’

Morrison came daily for 18 months and interviewed many living there, some making it into the finished novel.

Official statistics showed 653 houses in 20 streets within Friar’s Mount with an average occupation of 2¼ people to a room, but 107 rooms having five or more each. There were 12 pubs and beer shops within this tight-knit community, 21 shops and factories and two registered lodging houses. The population was 3,370 adults and 2,196 children, all crammed into 2,545 rooms, many rooms being used as manufactories by home’ workers. Most of the dwellings were in a dreadful state. Houses were erected using what was termed billy sweet’ mortar that included street dirt and never dried out, creating damp conditions. Many were also below street level.

Large profits were to be made as landlords would buy these properties cheaply, collect rents but never carry out repairs. The mortality rate in the Nichol’ was 40 per 1,000, four times higher than the London average.

For every four newborn babies, one would not live to see its first birthday. The Nichol was known as a hive of criminal activity. In one street alone, 64 people had served time in prison.

The Rev Jay came to the neighbourhood in December, 1886. He worked on the streets and through his fundraising built a church, social club, and gymnasium to help the inhabitants and improve their lives and wrote three books on the area including Life in Darkest London.

He used his position to lobby the newly-formed London County Council to give priority to the Boundary Street Improvement Scheme.

This was London’s first a slum clearance which finally came about with the Housing for the Working Classes Act passed in 1890, giving the local authorities of the day the powers to undertake slum clearances. The Nichol was declared a slum that year. Demolition began the following year, in 1891.

So was born the Boundary Street Improvement Scheme, designed by a leading architect of the day, Owen Fleming, who was sympathetic to London’s Working Class living conditions. He himself lived for many years in a workers’ tenement in Stepney Green, two miles from the Nichol.

Fleming believed the poor could appreciate beauty in architecture as much as the well-educated Middle Class.

His Boundary Estate was laid out with a central raised garden with a bandstand called Arnold Circus, after the chairman of the LCC’s Main Drainage committee Arthur Arnold, which was designed to break the monotony’ of the East End’s drab terraced housing.

Arnold Circus was to be the hub of the estate, with seven wide avenues leading off, each up to 60ft wide, named to recall Huguenot associations: Calvert, Hocker, Falissy, Rochelle, Ainsworth, Camlet and Navarre.

The estate would have two things not experienced in the old Nichol, fresh air and sunlight. Existing churches and schools would survive the clearance, but 12 pubs would go. This was to be a dry’ estate.

The 23 dwelling blocks lining the new avenues would also reflect Fleming’s thoughts on style, named after towns and villages along the Thames like Taplow, Sunbury, Marlow and Wargrave.

They would be in red brick with honey-coloured stripes and terracotta mouldings. A communal laundry, bakery, 188 shops and 77 industrial workshops were also included.

But the LCC, established by Act of Parliament only two years before the slum clearance began, was faced with the problem of moving nearly 6,000 slum-dwellers out so that clearance could start.

To those living there, this “notorious slum and centre of criminal activity” was their home and their workplace, their means to earn a living.

Costers kept their donkeys and barrows there. Where would they go when they were moved out?

Author Sarah Wise in her book about The Nichol, The Blackest Streets: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum, writes: “Bakers, fish-smokers, dog-breeders and all sorts of metal and wood workers could not be easily accommodated outside the Nichol.”

Many protested and police would be called to help bailiffs evict those unwilling to go who faced losing everything, despite offers of compensation.

Woodworker Charles Hanson wrote to the LCC appealing: “Gentlemen, your great changes will take away my living and remove me from premises held by me and my Father before me for 45 years. Our business is wood chopping and has been carried on here all that time. We have honestly paid our way, but these changes will ruin me without some help.”

Similar fates befell a Mrs Reynolds, who had earned a living for 25 years taking in laundry, and the local barber Mr Wright who earned a reasonable £4 a week after building up his reputation over the years. Mrs Vanchard, who ran the local fish and chip shop, also had to go.

There were thousands like them who were moved out.

The first block of the new Boundary Estate was completed in 1896, Streatley Buildings, later demolished in 1971.

But few took up the offer to move back. The rent was higher and they didn’t want to abide by the rules and regulations that went with the new estate. Only 11 of the 5,719 evicted from the old slums moved back into the new estate.

The LCC was not too concerned. A letter to interested parties stated: “The people have been so long accustomed to live in dirty rooms that they cannot be induced to keep them clean, nor do they desire to live in rooms of this class.”

There is no doubt the new Boundary Estate, officially opened by the Prince of Wales on March 3, 1900, was a landmark in rehousing the poor.

But whether those thrown out of their homes to make way thought so is a matter of historical debate.

Garry Haines

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