One of the capitals’s most notorious slums, 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 Old Nichol’s reincarnation as a model of social engineering is still visible in the high quality, solid apartment blocks and wide avenues of the Boundary Estate that replaced the twisted streets and foul alleys that had characterised the area.
The Boundary Estate was London’s – maybe Europe’s – first public housing estate, built in the late-nineteenth century on the site of 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.
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 pre-date the Boundary Estate buildings.
Under the supervision of architect Owen Fleming the original design for a series of rectangular plots was re-conceived as a central open area (Arnold Circus, a circular raised garden within a ring road) from which seven tree-lined streets radiate, this seven-pointed design echoed those built in other areas of London such as Seven Dials in Covent Garden.
Planned as free-standing blocks, separated by open spaces for light and fresh air, each building was designed for its situation rather than the architectural uniformity typical of terraces and other existing social housing estates of the time such as the Peabody Trust.
The architectural language of the Arts and Crafts movement was adopted as the common theme and the estate accommodated a live/work community, with small workshops included in the design to promote local business and employment.
EDUCATION FOR ALL
The Elementary Education Act passed in 1870 made it compulsory for all children between the ages of five and twelve years old to be given basic, publicly provided education. Prior to the Act, education had been voluntary and provided on a charitable basis or privately. The Board Schools were to be absolutely free for the poor.
Consequently, boards were set up across the country to provide and run the new schools. In London, it was initially calculated that 100,000 new school places were needed, yet this was a massive underestimate, and by the end of the century half a million school places had been created.
The architect who oversaw this huge building enterprise was E.R. Robson, a student of celebrated architect George Gilbert Scott and undoubtedly influenced by John Ruskin in his passion for high quality craftsmanship in the school buildings.
The two former London Board schoolhouses at the heart of todays Rochelle campus are fine examples of Robson’s early work and stand testament to his passion for artisan craftsmanship.
AN AREA OF REFUGE
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.