In 1680 John Nichol of Gray’s Inn built seven houses in this area, which is on the edge of Bethnal Green and on the boundary of Shoreditch (in the London Borough of Hackney). Nichol granted a 180 year lease of 4.75 acres of his land to Jon Richardson (a London mason) giving him permission to ‘dig for bricks’. In 1827 the 5 acre estate consisted of 237 houses with many streets named after Nichol. A lot of the houses were built by sub-lessees.
There were many trades in the area which included tailors, shoemakers, dustmen, carpenters, silk weavers and cabinet makers.
Many houses were built without foundations, there was a lack of drainage, sewerage was made worse by the ponds that formed due to the digging of brick earth, pigs and cows lived in back yards and the area became filthy due to residents noxious trades (preparing cat’s meat, slaughterhouses, dust heaps, etc.). In 1863 it was noted by the builder that there were unfit numbers occupying cellars and that due to running water being available for only 10-12 minutes a day the area had become an unsanitary slum.
St Philip’s was the church that served the Nichol area and in 1844 the vicar was quoted by Frederick Engels as saying that “conditions were far worse than in a northern industrial parish, that population density was 8.6 people to a small house and that there were 1,400 houses in an area less than 400 yards square”. In 1861 a reporter for The Morning Post, John Hollingshead, stated that the area had become more squalid in the last 20 years and that as the old houses decayed traditional trades became covers for thieves and prostitutes.
This area of London was poverty stricken. There were nearly 6,000 people crammed into the packed streets, the death rate became twice that of the rest of Bethnal Green, four times that of London and one in four children died before they reached one years old.
The Reverend Osborne Jay persuaded the London County Council to help the poor community by building a new neighbourhood from scratch, which was to become one of the earliest social housing schemes. The Friars Mount Rookery in the Old Nichol area was demolished and the Boundary Estate replaced it. The Metropolitan Board of Works began the work in 1893 and it was completed by the London County Council. Soil taken from the foundations was used to construct a mound in the middle of Arnold Circus, which was at the center of the development topped by a bandstand that still exists today. Materials from the demolished Arnold Circus flats were used to build the new development which was called the Boundary Estate. The estate is made up of multi-story brick tenements which stem from the central circus with each one named after a location along the River Thames.
The picture below shows the estate nearing completion in 1903 with only the bandstand to be added. This image is from the London Metropolitan Archives.
The new development opened in 1896 and consisted of 19 blocks of five story tenements which circled the gardens and bandstand. The churches and schools were preserved, with the schools pre dating the estate. Rochelle School was built in 1879 and Virginia School in 1887. The then Prince of Wales (Bertie) officially opened the estate in early March 1900.
The estate was built to help impoverished families but they could not afford to live there. A predominantly Jewish population moved in, forcing the poorest people to move to neighbouring slums. The new tenants were policemen, clerks, cigar makers and nurses and they all had to adhere to rules that enforced sobriety. The original inhabitants were forced further East which created new overcrowded slums in areas such as Dalston and Bethnal Green. There was no help to find new housing for the displaced which added to the suffering and misery of many former residents.
The Boundary Estate was arguably the first ever council estate.
Arnold Circus today
The roundabout at the center of Arnold Circus has a garden with a bandstand on it which is preserved by the Friends of Arnold Circus who have received regeneration grants. The flats and the bandstand are Grade II listed and the Rochelle School is now a community arts facility.
The Grade II listed buildings are architecturally unique and I love the beautiful red bricked buildings that rise from the roundabout that houses the central bandstand. The airy and welcoming feel of the area made me want to paint it. Although Arnold Circus is a short walk from the City area of London it feels like a pleasant haven away from all the hustle and bustle of city life.
The picture below is my painting of Arnold Circus. The viewer is looking through the bandstand into Calvert Avenue, with Shoreditch High Street crossing horizontally at the end. There is a lovely cafe in Calvert Avenue called Leila's and a lot of the local community socialise there.
Gentrification of the area has made privately owned flats highly sought after. Approximately two thirds of the 500 premises are still controlled by the Tower Hamlets Borough Council and thankfully a unionized resident’s group continues to protect it.