ADVERTISER 150: Thousands evicted to make way for ‘showpiece’ Victorian Boundary Estate
- Credit: Archant
1891-1900: We continue our nightly journey through the pages of the East London Advertiser marking our 150th anniversary this month with a look back to 1900 and creation of the world’s first municipal social housing estate, The Boundary in Shoreditch, opened by the Prince of Wales. The LCC scheme gets rid of London’s worst notorious slums, known as ‘The Nichol’ behind Shoreditch Church, but at enormous social cost to thousands of slum-dwellers evicted from their homes...
1891: Demolition of The Nichol slums of Shoreditch begins, ready to make way for the world’s first showpiece public housing project which is set to be officially opened by the Prince of Wales by 1900, writes historian Gary Haines.
The notorious Nichol quarter behind Shoreditch Church is London’s worst slum, which the Victorian press of the day describes as “vice and debauchery in dark cellars reeking with disease and death”.
A vivid description three decades earlier in the Illustrated London News of October, 1863, reveals: “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.”
The Nichol is the basis for Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago which shocks Victorian readers of a child’s struggle against poverty, crime and violence. He is invited by The Rev Arthur Osborne Jay, who struggles to improve the lives of the slum-dwellers, to see ‘The Nichol’ for himself. Morrison turns up every day for 18 months to interview the families.
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Morrison finds: “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.”
The 20 cramped cobbled turnings are home to 5,666 slum-dwellers including 2,196 children crammed in 2,545 rented rooms—many being used as manufactories by home workers. There are 12 pubs and beer shops, 21 shops and factories and two registered lodging houses in this tight-knit neighbourhood.
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The new London County Council is lobbied to give priority to the Boundary Street Improvement Scheme.
The estate is to be designed by architect Owen Fleming who believes the poor can appreciate beauty in architecture as much as the well-educated middle class.
But it means the LCC is now faced with moving nearly 6,000 slum-dwellers out. Many don’t want to go and police are called in to help bailiffs evict those refusing to budge.
Woodworker Charles Hanson writes to the LCC, appealing that his livelihood is being taken away by the eviction from the home he and his father have occupied for 45 years. Mrs Vanchard, who runs the local fish and chip shop, also has to go. Similar fates befall Mrs Reynolds, who has earned a living for 25 years taking in laundry, and the local barber Mr Wright who earns a reasonable £4 a week after building up his reputation over the years. There are thousands like them who are being moved out.
Author Sarah Wise in her book about The Nichol writes: “Bakers, fish-smokers, dog-breeders and all sorts of metal and wood workers could not be easily accommodated outside The Nichol.”
But the mortality rate in ‘The Nichol’ is four times higher than the London average. For every four newborn babies, one would not live to see its first birthday.
This is London’s first a slum clearance which finally comes about with the 1890 Housing for the Working Classes Act, giving local authorities of the day the powers to undertake slum clearances. The Nichol demolition beginning in 1891. The first of the new housing is completed four years later, Streatley Buildings in 1896.
1900: The new estate officially opened by the Prince of Wales on March 3, 1900, less than a year before be becomes king, has been laid out around a central raised garden with a bandstand at Arnold Circus.
Seven 60ft-wide wide avenues lead off from the Circus, each named to recall Huguenot associations—Calvert, Hocker, Falissy, Rochelle, Ainsworth, Camlet and Navarre.
The 23 red brick blocks with honey-coloured stripes and terracotta mouldings lining the new avenues are named after towns along the Thames like Taplow, Sunbury, Marlow and Wargrave.
A communal laundry, bakery, 188 shops and 77 industrial workshops are also included. The 12 taverns of the old slums, however, are not included.
But few of the former slum-dwellers take up the offer to move back into the showpiece municipal housing because of high rent and being required to live by strict estate rules. Only 11 of the 5,719 who have been evicted return to the new Boundary Estate.
The LCC is not too concerned. A letter to interested parties states: “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 is a landmark in rehousing the poor. Whether those thrown out of their homes thought so is a matter of historical debate.