The Boundary Estate was London’s – maybe Europe’s – first public housing estate, built in the late-nineteenth century on the site of one of the capital’s most notorious slums, The Old Nichol. It occupies the north-east corner of Tower Hamlets, not far from Old Street Tube station and is a Victorian philanthropists dream, grand in scale and with its red brick mansion blocks still imposing. A far cry from the stinking streets and hovels of London’s East End described by Charles Dickens, or even more graphically, in the barely disguised portrait of the area in Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago of 1896.
Not that it had always been this way. The colourful history of The Old Nichol, more or less coterminous with today’s Boundary Estate, reflects in extreme form the changing social scene across Britain over the past two centuries: from gentle rural hamlet hard up against the walls of the City to thriving centre of industry dominated by the silk weavers who had fled Europe. By the eighteenth century, it had also become the rumbustious and over-crowded haunt of rakes, artists and villains. Later still, it was notorious as a den of vice and poverty that so shocked nineteenth century reformers and philanthropists.
The London Count Council approved a scheme to clear and redevelop the area in 1890 and by 1900 the Boundary Estate scheme was completed – now the oldest surviving development of rented housing built by a local authority. The position and size of Arnold Circus at the heart of the Boundary Estate was determined by the pre-existing school buildings in the area including Rochelle School and Club Row, which both therefore pre-date the Boundary Estate buildings. The Old Nichol’s reincarnation as a model of social engineering is still visible in the high quality, solid apartment blocks and wide avenues that replaced the twisted streets and foul alleys that had characterised the area.
But the post-war years were not kind, and today the estate again shows the signs of decline and deprivation typical of many older inner city areas. This is not helped by its proximity to the glittering prizes of the City, recently rated the world’s leading financial centre, and creeping gentrification of the area.
London’s East End has, for centuries, been a refuge for those fleeing poverty and persecution at home. French Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in the seventeenth century settled in what had once been home to Jews until their expulsion from England in 1290. With their skills as Europe’s pre-eminent silk weaves, they brought prosperity and employment to the area and integrated comfortably with the local population. The Huguenot heyday is commemorated by the remaining master weavers’ houses in Spitalfields, a stone’s throw from Rochelle. But within a century, the trade had declined and those same grand houses were subdivided into tenements, a pattern that has repeated itself to this day as successive waves of new immigrants and refugees seeking sanctuary from persecution elsewhere, made the area their home.
In the mid-nineteenth century, it was Irish immigration escaping famine; by the end of the century, a new generation of Jews fleeing pogroms in Europe arrived in the area. In the 1930s, it was joined by the last great Jewish exodus, this time fleeing Nazi persecution. Today, the area is home to much of the UK’s Bangladeshi community who have been moving into the area since the 1960s and 1970s.
The local mosque, Jamme Masjid, sums up the changing face of the area: originally founded as a church for the Hugenots, it was later used by Methodists. In the late-nineteenth century, when the area became the centre of the Jewish East End, it was converted into the Machzike Adass, also known as the Spitalfields Great Synagogue. With the dispersal of the Jewish community and the influx of Bengali immigrants, it became the Jamme Masjid or Great London Mosque in 1976.
From Mosely’s fascist Blackshirts in the 1930s to more recent attempts to foment racial hatred in the 1960s and 1970s, the area has suffered its share of racial tensions over the years. By and large, it has seen them off on its own account and is today a mostly tolerant and harmonious community that continues to provide a home for the latest incomers, mainly Eastern Europeans, no longer fleeing oppression but seeking a better life in its crowded streets.