Norton Folgate human chain hands-on protest planned by Spitalfields Trust

Now you see it... Aerial view of Norton Folgate

Now you see it... Aerial view of Norton Folgate - Credit: Spitalfields Trust

Hundreds of protesters are to join hands to form a human chain encircling historic buildings at Norton Folgate next to London’s famous Spitalfields Market in a campaign to stop developers demolishing a huge swathe of the unique Georgian neighbourhood.

Now you don't... area of proposed Norton Folgate demolition

Now you don't... area of proposed Norton Folgate demolition - Credit: Spitalfields Trust

Sunday’s protest starting at 3pm is part of the Spitalfields Trust’s ‘Save Norton Folgate’ campaign against proposals to bulldoze 70 per cent of the area.

The protest to “symbolise public feeling to protect the fragile historic enclave” is just two days before Tower Hamlets council’s planning committee meets on Tuesday to decide on the controversial proposals by British Land.

“This human chain event is an important part of the public demonstration of peoples’ concern for the future of our heritage,” Spitalfields Trust administrator Oliver Leigh-Wood said.

“It’s extremely alarming to find the City of London Corporation have bought up a large part of the area and is encouraging British Land, after nearly 40 years of us fighting for the future of Spitalfields.”

1912... Norton Folgate [photo: Bishopsgate Institute]

1912... Norton Folgate [photo: Bishopsgate Institute] - Credit: Bishopsgate Institute

The latest proposed scheme would breach Tower Hamlets own guidelines for the conservation area with its buildings dating from the 1720s, Spitalfields Trust points out.

Some 600 objections have been sent to Tower Hamlets against the plans, while the Trust has put forward an alternative scheme by architect John Burrell to keep and enhance the historic fabric of the neighbourhood.

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The area has little capacity for change, according to Tower Hamlets Council’s own Appraisal in 2007. Future needs should be met by the sensitive repair of the historic buildings, the Appraisal stated, with new development respecting the urban form, scale and block structure.

The battle is over Norton Folgate and the cobbled Elder Street conservation area with its 18th century silkweavers’ houses, which was already fought over in 1977 by TV historian Dan Cruickshank.

1977... Nos 5 and 7 Elder Street about to be demolished

1977... Nos 5 and 7 Elder Street about to be demolished - Credit: Dan Cruickshank

British Land wants to demolish 70 per cent of the Georgian enclave and put up 13-storey office towers, if it gets planning permission on Tuesday.

“If this happens, the Liberty of Norton Folgate with its architectural and social character, street pattern and tight grain of buildings would become a bland corporate enclave of the City,” Cruickshank argues on the Spitalfields Life website.

“For me, this ghastly scheme possesses a particularly ghoulish character as an awful reminder of the cyclical and seemingly futile nature of human affairs.”

There is a sinister sense of déja vu for Cruickshank, who moved into his house close by in 1978 after a battle with the same developers over the fate of early 18th century silk-weavers’ cottages.

1977... The late Sir Johmn Betjamin atNorton Folgate visiting Elder Street, being shown round by a y

1977... The late Sir Johmn Betjamin atNorton Folgate visiting Elder Street, being shown round by a young Dan Cruickshank - Credit: Dan Cruickshank

“We fought to save the two most ruinous and threated houses in Elder Street,” he recalls. “We occupied them and challenged the developers who wanted to demolish them.

“The contest dragged on for weeks and we were lulled into a false sense security, when the developers suddenly regained possession and demolition men were immediately moved in who ripped off the roof of number 7 within hours.

“But the developers failed to give 24 hours notice to the Greater London Council and were in breach of their consents.

“So the demolition men were ejected and we regained possession and patched up the shattered roof with tarpaulins.”

Historic Liberty of Norton Folgate

Historic Liberty of Norton Folgate - Credit: Spitalfields Trust

The stalemate led to national media attention and support by the Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman who visited Norton Folgate to see for himself.

“The sight of Betjeman was memorable—paper cup in hand with white wine tottering along the street,” Cruickshank remembers. “The press loved it. Then Tower Hamlets council gave Spitalfields Trust its blessing, saying we were acting to save the history of the East End for the people.”

The Trust was able to buy the properties, repair them and sell them on. The developers threw in the towel and put the rest of the houses on the market which were snapped up by people willing to repair and live in them.

“But now the shadow of demolition and over-scaled commercial development has returned within a few feet of the epoch-making victory nearly 40 years ago,” Cruikshank adds. “The same development company we fought off back in 1977 has returned.”

Norton Folgate today is a main thoroughfare linking Shoreditch to Bishopsgate in the City. But its heritage stems back centuries to the time it was a self-governing municipality, or Liberty, outside the City of London and the system of civic parishes. Its municipal authority stretched both sides of the ancient Roman Ermine Street in an area that included the Augustinian Priory of St Mary from 1197.

Locally-raised taxes were charged, based on rental value of the houses, which were used to pay for a Beadle, six night-watchmen, daily rubbish collection and street lamps fixed to houses.

The Beadle, acording to records from 1759 that Cruickshank found in his research, was to “set the watch, keep the Liberty free of vagabonds and people making a shop to sell fruit, etc.” The six watchmen—or ‘charleys’—were hired at £12 per annum to “beat the round every half-hour, apprehend and detain Malefactors, Rogues, Vagabonds, Disturbers of the Peace, those suspect to have any evil designs and any person casting the night soil in the street to be dealt with according to law.”

The Liberty survived until local government passed to the new Metropolitan boroughs in 1900, under the London County Council established 12 years earlier.

But subsequent research suggested there was a legal anomaly in the legislation transferring power away from the parishes. Norton Folgate, being a Liberty rather than a parish, was not mentioned in documentation, Cruickshank found, so it was argued that since it had not been legally divested of its powers it still existed as a sovereign local authority.

This meant the area was not subject to control of present-day Tower Hamlets or Hackney—and therefore any planning permission by them would not be valid, something Cruickshank says is “akin to Passport to Pimlico coming to life”.