Dan Cruickshank writes on 'old Shoreditch slums' in fight for Arnold Circus

Seasoned campaigner Dan Cruickshank turns up at Arnold Circus in 2020 to stop council bulldozers.

Seasoned campaigner Dan Cruickshank turns up at Arnold Circus in 2020 to stop council bulldozers. - Credit: Spitalfields Trust

TV's Dan Cruickshank has taken time off from his heritage campaigns to write a book on the East End's pioneering Boundary Estate, which evolved out of the notorious Old Nichol slums into the world’s first municipal social housing.

He is in the process of writing the story on from the hovels that were cleared to make way for the scheme in 1900, with the new Arnold Circus and its bandstand as its focal point. 

Dan, who was out campaigning to prevent Arnold Circus being churned up by a traffic scheme some 120 years later in October last year, was giving a talk on the as-yet unpublished title at the Friends of Arnold Circus's July 22 AGM held at the bandstand.

Bandstand at Arnold Circus where campaigns gravitate towards  

Bandstand at Arnold Circus where campaigns gravitate towards - Credit: Nicola Contini

The Old Nichol was described in the Illustrated London News in October, 1863, as “vice, filth, and poverty in dark cellars, garrets and rooms reeking with disease”.

Fetid yards housed donkeys and fish was cured and dried in "places which cannot be mentioned without loathing”, it said.

Many of the dwellings were below street level in the cramped cobbled turnings that were home to 5,666 people. 


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Additionally, a fictional version of the Old Nichol was depicted in Arthur Morrison’s 1896 Child of the Jago, a story about a struggle against poverty, crime and violence which shocked Victorian gentry.  

The slums had to be cleared — but dwellers protested and police were called to help bailiffs evict those unwilling to go.

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Woodworker Charles Hanson wrote to the London County Council appealing: “We have honestly paid our way, but these changes will ruin me.”  

Similar fates befell Mrs Reynolds taking in laundry and Wright the barber who earned £4 a week, while Mrs Vanchard’s fish and chip shop also had to go.  

All that was replaced by the aptly-named Boundary Estate along the divide between Shoreditch and Bethnal Green at the dawn of the new century. 

Its creator Owen Fleming believed the poor could appreciate architectural beauty as much as the gentry; his estate was laid out with a central garden called Arnold Circus with seven wide avenues leading off it, Calvert Avenue on one side and Club Row the other. 

The 23 blocks along the new avenues had fresh air and sunlight, built-in red brick with honey-coloured stripes and terracotta mouldings. A communal laundry still exists today along Calvert Avenue.

Boundary Estate laundry staff did the washing for you during pandemic

Boundary Estate laundry staff did the washing for you during pandemic - Credit: Mike Brooke

It also had a bakery, shops and 77 manufacturing workshops.

The scheme was opened by the Prince of Wales in 1900. Dan Cruickshank’s mission today is to save that legacy for the 21st century. 

Calvert Avenue seen from Arnold Circus

Today's Calvert Avenue seen from Arnold Circus - Credit: Mike Brooke

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