Changing London

Transforming Old Nichol in grubby Shoreditch

Shoreditch must be one of the trendiest places in London right now. While shiny new sky scrapers and modern shopping malls are springing up in other parts of the capital, this district just a short hop from the City is growing organically. Shoreditch cafes arguably serve up the best coffees in town, shops sell the funkiest clothes and you can also enjoy some very hip music.

Once one of the grimiest place in London, the district has been transformed in the last 20 years through gentrification as yuppies from other parts have moved in and set-up base. Shoreditch has become particularly popular with creative and technology companies. The fact that it is so close to Liverpool Street has made it a popular place for property investors. Those who bought homes in the 1980s would have made a tidy sum if they were to sell-up today.

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Boxpark in Shoreditch

The progress that Shoreditch has made is remarkable given the sort of place that it used to be. Roads just a short walk from the new Shoreditch High Street Overground station and the Box Park pop-up shopping mall were particularly bad. Charles Booth, the social explorer, who conducted a detailed, street-by-street analysis of London’s poverty in the late 19th century captured how far the Old Nichol area had fallen: “In one street is the body of a dead dog and near-by two dead cats, which lie as though they had slain each other. All three have been crushed flat by the traffic which has gone over them…”

Old Nichol, a dense network of about 30 streets and courts, was home to around over 5,000 people in the 19th century. No-one can however be quite sure of the exact population size given that the development sprawled as private landlords tried to squeeze in as many paying tenants as possible. Many of the properties contravened Building Acts, there was no running water and sewage ran through the uneven streets. The arrival of the railway in Shoreditch in the 1830s only made the overcrowding situation as displaced residents arrived from nearby slums. The Illustrated London News published an article in 1863 describing the terrible living conditions in the Old Nichol:

“This district of Friars-mount, which is nominally represented by Nichols-street, Old Nichols-street, and Half Nichols-street, including, perhaps most obviously, the greater part of the vice and debauchery of the district, and the limits of a single article would be insufficient to give any detailed description of even a day’s visit. There is nothing picturesque in such misery; it is but one painful and monotonous round of vice, filth, and poverty, huddled in dark cellars, ruined garrets, bare and blackened rooms, teeming with disease and death, and without the means, even if there were the inclination, for the most ordinary observations of decency or cleanliness.”

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Old Nichol Street today

In the 1880s the Royal Commission looked at the poor living conditions that many faced, but concluded that a laissez-faire approach was better than Parliament stepping in to legislate change. But over the course of the decade attitudes changed and the Housing of the Working Classes Act (1890) became law. It paved the way for councils to provide better homes for the ordinary people that so needed them, meaning that they were not just at the mercy of private landlords or reliant on charitable organisations such as Peabody.

Shoreditch became a test case, with some 15 acres of slum homes torn down in the Old Nicol area to create in 1893 in the Boundary estate, Britain’s first public housing development. In all, over 1,000 flats were built in five-storey blocks along roads leading off what is today Arnold Circus. The rubble from the demolished slum was used to build a mound in the centre of this, with a raised communal garden created for residents and a bandstand was later added. It’s a spot that’s still enjoyed when it’s warm and sunny. The Reverend Jay described the inauguration of the estate by the Prince Wales (who was soon to become Edward VII):

“Fifteen acres, covered with insanitary and bad houses, have been cleared, and on them will rise, large, healthy houses, let out in small flats, with common yards behind them and faced by broad, well drained streets. The people of the locality will still have poverty to fight with and hard work to do, and a small chance of comforts, but they will at least be respectably housed in rooms which will make health and decency possible.”

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Boundary Estate

The buildings in the Boundary estate were, according to RIBA Journal, a tribute to “the great body of skilled artificers who have striven to make this estate a model of good workmanship…. If any members of this Institute are ever tempted to visit Boundary Street, and find the workmanship worthy of admiration, will they think of the silent unnamed workers by whose patent labour this structure has been built up?” They weren’t luxurious properties (flats shared toilets for example and the rooms weren’t huge), but they were certainly better than what was on the site in the past.

Apart from the well-ventilated accommodation in, what Booth described as the “new, imposing buildings,” the development also included a number of useful amenities. There was a range of shops on Calvert Avenue, including a grocer’s store and a butcher’s, (some of which have been replaced with less functional, but more traditional stores). There were also schools, churches, workshops provided some employment and a central laundry.

Strict rules (all 14 of them) for the Boundary estate were detailed in a book handed out to all householders. Failure to comply with them could lead to tenants being evicted with just one week’s notice. But although they could be seen as strict and heavy handed, it did at least keep the development clean and tidy (tenants were required to wash the communal staircase daily and wash them once a week).

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Rochelle School – now an arts centre

The council’s original proposal had been for residents of the demolished homes to be re-housed in the properties in the Boundary Estate once they were complete. But in the end, just 11 families from the Old Nichol were given one of the new flats. The architects of the scheme had misjudged what the slum residents would be able to afford in terms of rent; while the rents were set as low as possible, it was more than they had been paying in the past. The residents of Old Nichol, who had already struggled to make ends meet (Booth went as far as labelling them as “semi-criminals”), were forced to move to slums elsewhere while the new homes of the Boundary estate were taken by the Boundary Estate. Booth was scathing: “Thus, although the council managed the estate efficiently it failed to assist those who needed decent housing the most.” And added: “Those who cling to the original plan may think success could have been won if the ideal had been a little less high and buildings less expensive.”

As has been the case through London’s history, as economic circumstances have improved people have moved to “better” areas of the capital. Until the 1930s the Boundary was home to a large Jewish population which had largely arrived in the East End during the 19th century. But as they grew successful businesses many were able to move to bigger and more airy homes further out of the centre in places like Stamford Hill. Properties in the Boundary consequently became run-down as it moved down the pecking order in terms of a desirable place to live.

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Bandstand and gardens at Arnold Circus

Some long-standing residents did sit it out and bought their homes (for around £15,000) under the Right To Buy Scheme in the 1980s. With the recent wave of City-workers to the area prices have risen considerably and private flats in the Boundary estate are now changing hounds for upwards of £750,000. And yet again ordinary Londoners have been priced out of Shoreditch.

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