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Crowds out in force as houses throw open doors to public

PUBLISHED: 20:44 24 September 2008 | UPDATED: 13:39 05 October 2010


Picture: Spencer Griffiths

Picture: Spencer Griffiths

Spencer Griffiths

THOUSANDS queued for a rare glimpse of the inside of historic and interesting buildings in London’s East End that aren’t normally open to the public. The buildings included a police station on the Thames waterfront, Huguenot cottages, London’s second oldest synagogue, a college campus, a famous Georgian church saved from the bulldozers by a poet—and even an ex-council flat in a 1960s concrete tower block built by Goldfinger. It was all part of London’s annual Open House weekend

ABOVE: Queues to see inside two 18th century Huguenot houses and watch demonstration of Huguenot silk weaving

BELOW: Open House volunteer Adrian Truan demonstrates the original kitchen taps in Goldfinger’s iconic 1965 Balfron Tower

Julia Gregory

THOUSANDS queued for a rare glimpse of the inside of historic and interesting buildings in London’s East End that aren’t normally open to the public.

The buildings included a police station on the Thames waterfront, Huguenot cottages nearly 200 years old, London’s second oldest synagogue, a college campus, a school, famous Georgian church saved from the bulldozers by a poet—and even an ex-council flat in a 1960s concrete tower block built by Goldfinger.

It was all free and part of London’s annual Open House weekend, with 27 buildings in the East End alone opening their doors to whoever wanted to look around.

Most unusual was the Spitalfields Charnel House, a medieval burial place where the bones of the dead were stored and only recently rediscovered when a new office development went up in Bishops Square.

It was the site of former burial grounds going back to Roman times just outside the city gates known in the Middle Ages times as the Hospitall Fields’ from where Spitalfields is thought to derive its name.

Nearby, two Georgian terraced Huguenot houses dating from the 1720s in Princelet Street, off Brick Lane, had queues outside.

No 19 has a restored synagogue which was added to the terrace in 1869, finally closed around 1968, which had 1,800 visitors over the two days.

Three doors down, No 13 Princelet Street, another Huguenot dwelling, demonstrations were being given in Huguenot silk weaving.

Visitors at Hawksmoor’s famous 1720 Spitalfields Church, whose spire in the Commercial Street dominates the East End skyline, saw its restored splendour which took 25 years to complete following a campaign by the late Poet Laureate Sir John Betjamin.

Unthinkably, it was once going to be pulled down in the 1960s by the local authority at Tower Hamlets to make way for blocks of flats in the 1960s—until Betjamin got wind of it.

The historic Bromley Hall at Bromley-by-Bow, dating back even further to Tudor times where Henry VIII hosted hunting parties on the banks of the River Lea, also threw its ancient oak doors open top the public, along with Kingsley Hall nearby where Mahatma Ghandi stayed in 1931.

Whitechapel’s Mulberry School for Girls off the Commercial Road and Queen Mary’s College in Mile End allowed visitors to look round, as did the preserved Limehouse Accumulator which powered a Victorian hydraulic power supply system for East London.

The Thames River Police HQ and museum at Wapping had 712 visitors, with numbers boosted by the Mayor of London Boris Johnson’s Freewheel’ bike event which included Tower Hill just half-a-mile upriver.

Many cyclists who heard that the river police HQ was open parked their bikes outside for a quick look round the police museum housed in an old carpenters’ workshop.

They also saw a Special Branch armour-plated Rover used to guard former Prime Ministers Jim Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher and the Royal Family. Thatcher used the car to visit police outside the Libyan Embassy during the 11-day siege in 1984.

Visitors also looked round a flat on the top floor of Poplar’s 1965 iconic Balfron Tower by the Blackwall Tunnel.

The flat still has the original taps in the kitchen and original light fittings. In its day, the first tenants would have paid a weekly rent of around £6 for what is now a much-sort after des res’ overlooking the capital.

The 24-storey tower was designed by architect Erno Goldfinger—whose entry in the London telephone directory in the 1950s inspired Ian Fleming to create his Goldfinger character in James Bond 007.

Visitors were shown round by proud apartment owner Richard Bee—but most came for the view from his balcony that takes your breath away with its panoramic view of the London skyline.

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