The well-known “Boundary Estate” isn’t just a popular housing Estate – it is in fact a piece of English history! The Boundary Estate was the World’s First Council Housing! Constructed from 1890 and formally opened in 1900, the estate was the earliest social housing scheme, and was built by the London County Council, replacing the “Friars Mount slum” in the Old Nichol. The Boundary Estate bandstand (which by itself is a listed building and has been recently restored) at Arnold Circus, built with the rubble of the “Old Nichol slum”, is the centrepiece of the estate. A great deal has been talked about this area being a slum and ridden with the criminal classes but alongside that were many other poor working class families who worked hard but had to endure atrocious housing conditions created cheaply by greedy landlords. The book “The Blackest Streets” by Sarah Wise documents this well. The demolition rubble was used to construct a mound in the middle of Arnold Circus at the centre of the development, housing a bandstand which is still there today and is the focal point of Arnold Circus.
Henry Mayhew visited Bethnal Green in 1850 when it was still “The Old Nichol” and noted for the Morning Chronicle the trades in the area: tailors, costermongers, shoemakers, dustmen, sawyers, carpenters, cabinet makers and silk weavers. It shows that even hundreds of years ago, this was in area full of opportunity, variety, culture and art, – much like today! But sadly living conditions were not great back then, Mayhew noted in his article that “roads were unmade, often mere alleys, houses small and without foundations, subdivided and often around unpaved courts. An almost total lack of drainage and sewerage was made worse by the ponds formed by the excavation of brick earth. Pigs and cows in back yards, noxious trades like boiling tripe, melting tallow, or preparing cat’s meat, and slaughter houses, dust heaps, and ‘lakes of putrefying night soil’ added to the filth”. The vicar of St. Philip’s, the church serving the Old Nichol, said in 1844 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 (370 m) square” . In 1861 John Hollingshead, of the Morning Post, in his “Ragged London” noted that the Old Nichol had grown even more squalid in the last 20 years as old houses decayed and traditional trades became masks for thieves and prostitutes. The Builder in 1863, noted the numbers inhabiting unfit cellars, the lack of sanitation and that running water was only available for 10–12 minutes each day. The clearance of the Old Nichol Street Rookery, as it was notoriously known, was the result of an energetic campaign by the local incumbent, Reverend Osborne Jay of Holy Trinity, who arrived in the parish in December 1886. Nearly 6,000 individuals were crammed into the packed streets. The death rate was twice that of the rest of Bethnal Green, and four times that of London. One child in four died before their first birthday. Jay persuaded Arthur Morrison to visit the area, and the result was the influential “A Child of the Jago”, a barely fictionalised account of the life of a child in the slum, re-christened by Morrison as “The Jago“.
Demolition actually began before the publication of the book. While the new flats replaced the existing slums, where many had lived below street level and in appalling conditions, with decent accommodation for the same number of people, it wasn’t the same group of people. The original inhabitants were forced further to the East, creating new overcrowding and new slums in areas such as Dalston and Bethnal Green. At this time, no help was available to find new accommodation for the displaced, and this added to the suffering and misery of many of the former residents of the slum.The famous impresarios and brothers Lew Grade and Bernard Delfont (born Winogradsky) moved to the Boundary Estate in 1914, from nearby Brick Lane and attended “Rochelle Street School”. At that time, 90% of children attending the school spoke Yiddish. The Rochelle School was turned into a Community Arts Center and now the character-rich cluster of Victorian Buildings is a singular oasis of creativity in an already artsy neighbourhood, providing workspace for artists, a venue for long and short-term hires, and a world-renowned Canteen run by Arnold & Henderson.
Nowadays the estate consists of multi-story brick structures, all of which are residential and all surround the central mound –the centerpiece roundabout of Arnold Circus – formed around a garden with the famous bandstand, which was recently restored by the Friends of Arnold Circus having received grants for regeneration. Restoration work on the bandstand was undertaken and completed in May 2010. The estate consists of flats only – there are no houses on Arnold Circus. These Shoreditch flats are divided between 10 blocks, namely Chertsey House, Iffley House, Calvert House, Cleeve House, Leyton House, Marlow House, Shiplake House, Hurley House, Sunbury House and Sandford House. The blocks and the flats within it are all Grade II listed, together with the famous bandstand. In their day, they were revolutionary in their provision of facilities for residents. Today, despite the lack of some modern amenities compared with more recent developments around the area, they remain popular with London tenants. The apartments within, although most will have been refurbished by now, still boast the large character-windows which flood the apartments within with natural light.
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Boundary Estate is situated in the north western corner of Bethnal Green in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and on the boundary of Shoreditch, in the London Borough of Hackney. It’s picturesque setting along with it’s convenient location close to Shoreditch High Street, Brick Lane and Columbia Road Market as well as Old Street and Liverpool Street Stations, makes this very popular with professional Tenants. There is an active, vibrant and multi-cultural community in and around Arnold Circus, with Virginia Primary school and Bethnal Green Technology College only minutes away, on Virginia Road and Gosset Street respectively. The nearest supermarket is Tesco’s on Shoreditch High Street and nearby amenities include Shoreditch House, Boxpark, Cargo, The Comedy Cafe and much, much more.
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