Page 1

eXplORinG BetHnal GReen in tHe 19tH centuRY

Step Back in Time Bethnal Green was transformed during Victorian times. The landscape evolved – as new housing, schools, churches and parks were created – and social reformers made their mark too, seeking to improve education, healthcare and living conditions. Missions, museums and music halls all played their part.

At School, At Work, At Hom

The setting up of Oxford House in 1884 was part of this transformation. So, when Oxford House’s building underwent a major redevelopment in 2019, we were keen to find out more about the context in which it first started out.


Health and Faith – see how

We brought together a group of local residents to track down stories of Victorian Bethnal Green. This booklet shares their remarkable discoveries. We hope you enjoy it. Please share it with your neighbours, and spread the word online: John Ryan Oxford House

Graham Barker Walk East


Out and About – take a clo

Published by Walk East, 2019. We’ve tried our best to ensure the content of this booklet is accurate, and apologise for any unforeseen bloomers, blips or oversights. We’d love to hear your feedback:

44 2

me – get a glimpse of Victorian daily life




w the Victorians kept body and soul together




oser look at some Victorian landmarks


52 3


A class at Mowlem Street School (1890s).

Sylvia Cummins nips into the Victorian classroom


ever experienced during my sanitary investigations; whether this nausea should be entirely attributed to the filthy cesspool [next to the school], or was partly due to the escape of foul air from the catacombs [beneath it], I did not stay to inquire”.

efore universal education was

introduced in 1870, local children were educated at a mix of church schools, charitable foundations, dame schools and ragged schools. Provision for the working classes was patchy and sometimes the standards of school buildings were very poor. As Hector Gavin wrote in ‘Sanitary Ramblings’ (1846), space was often tight: “The day school attached to the church of St James-the-Less consists of the upper room of a cottage… and from 70 to 120 children are there daily taught.”

“How the children can use, and remain in, such a place, is almost incomprehensible.”

Hector Gavin (1846)

He was particularly damning of the schools beside St Matthew’s churchyard. “On endeavouring to examine the state of this place, I was overcome by the most distressing nausea I have

The 1870 Elementary Education Act was the first of several acts that overhauled the education system and introduced compulsory education for 5-13 year olds. It triggered a spate of new school 6

St Matthias’ Schools opened in 1843 on Granby Street, near Brick Lane.

Parmiter’s Foundation School moved to Approach Road in 1887. Now occupied by Raine’s Foundation School.

building by the School Board for London, undertaken with enthusiasm and rigour.

the building is… is a proof that in the course of time, elementary instruction will be brought within the reach of every child in this metropolis, and that is a great and noble work to be achieved.”

In Bethnal Green, twenty new schools were created and many of these buildings remain in use today. They are recognisable landmarks – triple-decker, designed in Queen Anne style, built with red bricks and gables, and incorporating large sash windows to ventilate and light big classrooms and halls.

A great and noble work The Turin Street School was typical of the new style, designed by Bodley and Garner – winners of an SBL architectural competition – for 466 boys, 468 girls and 697 infants in adjoining buildings. At the opening ceremony in 1875, there were cries of “hear, hear” as Henry Fawcett MP declared, “This school, handsome as

This 1904 listing includes schools that survive today. Others have changed name, such as Portman Place (merged with Morpeth) and Wood Close (now William Davis).


The first residents at Bonner Road Children’s Home (1871).

Life at the Bonner Road Children’s Home Research: Valerie Sheekey


The Children’s Home occupied a row of houses beside the church and a collection of buildings at the rear around a former stone yard.

oday’s Bethnal Green Methodist Church on the

corner of Approach Road and Bonner Road occupies a relatively modest 1950s building, but it stands on the site of an altogether grander edifice – the Victoria Park Wesleyan Church – which was opened on Good Friday 1868, with seating for 1,000 members.

“Each house contained 25-28 boys or girls. On the ground floor of each house was a dining-room, a washroom and a day-room, the latter fitted with small cupboards in which the children could store personal possessions. On the first floor was a dormitory together with the house-mother’s rooms.”

It was here that the Rev Thomas Bowman Stephenson arrived in 1871 as minister. Stephenson brought with him a remarkable enterprise – the Children’s Home – which he had set up a couple of years earlier in a side street near Waterloo station. Realising the plight of destitute London children, his mission was “for the rescue of children who, though the death or vice or extreme poverty of their parents, are in danger of falling into criminal ways.”


The children rose at 6.00am, and spent much of the daytime learning crafts in the workshops, studying lessons in the school, or doing housework. Evening activities included singing rehearsals, swimming in the Home’s own pool, or other ‘instructive’ recreations.

under which nearly 3,000 youngsters were ‘re-settled’ in Canada between 18731909. Judged by today’s standards such a scheme would be unthinkable, but the hope at the time was to provide children with better opportunities than those at home in the East End.

In the industrial training department, boys were taught skills such as carpentry, plumbing, shoe-making, baking, and printing to help make them more employable in later life. Girls were encouraged to study childcare.

At its peak, Bonner Road was home to more than 300 children. The confined site made any expansion difficult, however, and in 1913 the Home moved to a new site at Harpenden. Over a century later, the work initiated by Rev Stephenson continues today under the auspices of Action for Children, a charity helping vulnerable children and young people throughout the UK.

Among the Children’s Home residents was Walter Tull; the grandson of a Barbadian slave, Tull was born in Folkestone in 1888 but when the family fell on hard times, he and his brother Edward were brought to Bonner Road. Walter Tull went on to become only the second black footballer to play in League football. Enlisting in the Army, he died on the Somme in 1918 and was posthumously recommended for the Military Medal.

Re-settlement A controversial aspect of the Children’s Home was their migration scheme,

With thanks to

Children from the Children’s Home set sail for Canada (c1900).


Sylvia Cummins meets John Reeves


in the popular mind considered ‘unEnglish’, and was met with the greatest opposition which often resolved itself into antagonism and abuse of the officer.”

ohn Reeves worked for

37 years as a School Attendance Officer, primarily around the Boundary Estate. He was appointed in 1872, hot on the heels of the 1870 Education Act, which made elementary education compulsory for all children.

John Reeves

“Our first duty was to take a census of the district – names of parent or guardian, with trade and occupation, names and ages of children and date of birth (if possible), which had to be carefully entered into prepared schedules.”

(1845-1918) Despite the change in law, many parents were still reluctant to see the value of education. Children were often expected to supplement the meagre Equipped with these details, Reeves then family income, working in home-based had to find out whether there was any sweated industries, and it sometimes took good reason – such as illness – for a child a visit from the School Attendance Officer not attending school, and to warn them of to change old habits. the consequences of truancy. Ultimately

“It must be remembered that in the beginning the work was entirely new, and

he could arrange for a summons before the Magistrates, who could impose a fine.

Parents of persistent non-attenders were summoned to explain themselves before the School Board (1880s).

New School Board schools were slowly being built, and in the meantime Reeves also had to visit the charitable ‘dame’ and ‘ragged’ schools.

“The Dame Schools could in no sense be looked upon as educational... the chief thing seemed to be the charge of children while the parents were at work. Many of the ragged schools showed utter disregard of needed space or sanitary conditions.”

Rochelle Street School was opened in 1879.

Tracking down truants Some parents tried to deceive Reeves. “One woman living in Half Nichol Street said that her son was dead and buried... but after a few days I found that the boy was at work.” And at 48 New Nichol Street, a mother opened the door saying, “My daughter is very ill, come in and see, she is in bed”. The girl was indeed in bed, but Reeves – left with a nagging doubt – returned to find “the girl was up fully dressed and skipping in the middle of the floor.”

The Old Nichol Street Ragged School fell under his remit. Founded in 1836 by silk weaver Jonathan Duthoit, it accommodated 1,400 children and was a fine building of its kind. Reeves recalls the sad case of a pupil “walking with a stick like an aged man” who alleged he’d been kicked by a temporary teacher “known for his tough manners”. The poor boy died shortly afterwards and the teacher did a runner.

During his work, Reeves witnessed the transformation of the Old Nichol slum into the Boundary Estate. Virginia Road (1875) and Rochelle Street (1879) Schools superseded the Old Nichol Street Ragged School, and new housing blocks sprang up around Arnold Circus. Children’s lives improved radically.

An enquiring mind After retiring, Reeves wrote his ‘Recollections of a School Attendance Officer’ (1913). “A man of keen observation and an enquiring mind,” noted the East London Observer, “Mr Reeves speaks of a time which is fast passing out of recollection.” It’s thanks to him that we can glimpse children’s lives in Victorian Bethnal Green.

Old Nichol Street Ragged School.


Charles Webster & Co made looking glasses and picture frames at Sewardstone Road (c1910).


whilst timber merchants, glue makers, japanners, and brass dealers supplied the furniture makers.

n their book, ‘Furnishing the

World’, Pat Kirkham, Rodney Mace and Julia Porter shine a light on the cabinet makers, upholsterers and French polishers working in the East End.

Although a male dominated industry, women worked as upholsterers and French polishers. Women’s lower wages were seen as a threat by most men in a highly cutthroat world. So too was the entrance of Jewish workers, who came to London in the 1880s.

By 1870, Bethnal Green and Shoreditch had become the heartland of furniture production in London – mainly making cheaper furniture that went into working class homes and the ‘middling’ type of middle class houses.

A Parliamentary Enquiry in 1888, however, found that the root of the trade’s problems was not women or Jewish workers undercutting costs, but the subdivision of tasks and labour.

A ‘sweated’ trade East End furniture making was characterised by small workshops set up with little capital. It was a classic ‘sweated trade, based upon low wages and long hours, utilising unskilled labour and sub-contracting, with little trade union organisation.

The industry declined in the 20th century but wander around Bethnal Green and you’ll still see old furniture workshops in Padbury Court, Gibraltar Walk, the Boundary and Winkley Estates. And, who knows, you might even pick up a locally-made tallboy or tea caddy at Brick Lane market.

Cabinet making, fancy cabinet making, chair making, carving, gilding, and upholstery were all undertaken – 12



Often referred to as the ‘soft’ side of the furniture trade, upholstery was considered somewhat refined as it was carried out in dust-free conditions. As well as covering seats and sofas, upholsterers made up curtains and bed furniture.





The cabinet maker was the main woodworking furniture maker and, with the exception of the carver, the most skilled. Products made included cabinets, chests of drawers, sideboards, wardrobes and bookcases, as well as tables.

After steam powered lathes were introduced in the London furniture trade about 1825, the productivity of the turner doubled – turning chair legs, table legs, cabinet legs, bed pillars and other items to patterns supplied to them.



A highly skilled craft, though much of the carving on East End furniture was ‘scamped’ and rushed to keep the costs down. Some carvers specialised in cornices and pillars for beds, frames or overmantles.



This covered a host of small, light items – such as jewel boxes, dressing cases, work boxes, portable desks, chess boards and tea caddies – most of which were made in decorative or highly figured wood, often using veneers.





French polish was a shellac and spirit-based polish that gave a smooth glass-like finish to wood. The 1881 census recorded 248 female French polishers in the East End, mostly on small fancy cabinet work.

Many chair makers made complete chairs from start to finish but, when large numbers of similar chairs were needed, some workers were kept at the repetitive task making only legs, or arms. 13


his speculative fourblock development built in

1889-1904 by brothers Charles and Henry Winkley was designed with furniture makers in mind; there are high-fronted shops on the outer streets, warehouses and terraced housing in the centre, and small workshops – originally used by cabinetmakers, upholsterers and French polishers – nestling in gated courtyards behind. This 1905 trade directory for Teesdale Street shows a number of specialists working here: composition overmantel makers, dining table manufacturers, and umbrella stick makers.

The 1905 Post Office directory lists the workers of Teesdale Street.

Glazed shopfronts on Teesdale Street let in light and helped display the furniture to best effect.

Two-storey workshops in the rear yards suited smaller enterprises with just a few employees.

Large warehouses tower up on Catherine (now Winkley) Street, equipped with winches.

The terraced housing of Canrobert Street has been home to many furniture trade workers.

Pooler Clements and Rowena McCarthy pop into Allen &Hanbury’s Pharmaceutical Works


Bethnal Green in 1874, and the surviving warehouse was built in 1918. The origins of the business, however, date back to 1715, as a pharmacy at Plough Court, off Lombard Street in the City. A succession of Quaker owners – Silvanus Bevan, William Allen and Daniel Hanbury – “always had a strong sense of vocation, and looked upon their chosen way of life not merely as a livelihood but as a calling” according to the company history, ‘Through a City Archway’.

ander along Three Colts Lane in the late 19th century and you might well catch the whiff of cod liver oil. Horse-drawn carts come and go, taking one of Allen & Hanbury’s most popular products far and wide: “No nauseous eructations follow after Allen & Hanbury’s ‘perfected’ cod liver oil is swallowed,” proclaims one of their 1880 adverts. It became a best seller.

Moving to Bethnal Green The Quaker values – of equality, peace, truth and simplicity – percolated through, and the business flourished. A move to Bethnal Green enabled a rapid expansion, based in a former match factory at Letchford Buildings, off Three Colts Lane.

Allen & Hanbury set up in 16

As well as cod liver oil, Allen & Hanbury’s main products were malt p r e p a r at i o n s, pastilles, jujubes and milk food for infants. Their adverts extol the medicinal benefits of ‘Bynol’ malt and oil, and Allenbury’s glycerine and blackcurrant throat pastilles. Success was such that the firm expanded to a second manufactory at Ware, Hertfordshire.

from splints, trusses and bronchitis kettles, to ophthalmic frames, bone saws and postmortem kits. Allen & Hanbury was acquired by Glaxo in 1958 and the Bethnal Green works closed down. But over the years, many Bethnal Greeners worked at Three Colts Lane – giving the nation’s health a boost, and no doubt making children across the country squirm as they faced their next dose of cod liver oil.

Forging ahead In the 1880s Cornelius Hanbury, himself a surgeon, began making surgical instruments in a small workshop and forge at Bethnal Green. A dedicated factory was added in 1904. The company catalogues show the wide range of equipment made for patients and medical professionals,

Allen & Hanbury‘s factory is now an office space. Its new name, though – the ‘Pill Box’ – hints at its industrial heritage.



ehind the scenes. These illustrations inside the Allen & Hanbury works

show chemists at work in the pharmaceutical laboratory, employees operating the vacuum pan and marshmallow mixer, and boxes being filled in the packing room. The firm pioneered the production of pastilles, which extended to 80 different medicated and crystallised pastilles.

WILLIAM ALLEN (1770-1843) was born into a Quaker silk merchant’s family in Spitalfields. Allen remained active in scientific matters all his life, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society for his work on carbon, and a co-founder of the Pharmaceutical Society in 1841, set up to provide structure to what had previously been an unregulated industry.



clean Sweep. Next door to Allen & Hanbury at

Letchford Buildings was the chemical manufacturing company, Sanitas. This 1901 advert from The Graphic sets out their stall of household products – disinfecting powder and fluid, wax polish, and moth paper – as well as “free from grit” tooth powder and hygienic embrocation for “lumbago, rheumatism and veterinary uses.” 19

1890 Post Office directory



of this Bethnal Green family lived in a single room in the 1880s. The children have bare feet and ragged clothing, reflecting a hand-to-mouth existence.



are flanked by five-storey tenement blocks built by the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company (1868-80) to house 1,025 families.



Buildings, as well as Museum Buildings, and several red-brick blocks around Globe Road.



ictorian Bethnal Green was notorious for its slums

– street upon street of poorly built, insanitary and overcrowded dwellings. Such scandalous living conditions attracted the attention of social reformers; philanthropic housing companies began to develop respectable tenement blocks, and the Old Nichol slum was cleared to make way for the country’s first council estate.


LAUNDRY block, as well as


shops, small workshops, schools and St Hilda’s Settlement were incorporated within the estate.


was England’s first council housing development, built by the London County Council to replace the Old Nichol slums.




RNOLD CIRCUS forms the

centrepiece of the Boundary Estate, from which seven streets radiate. 21

Boundary Estate becoming known as ‘Stripeland’. All 19 blocks were named after places along the River Thames.

Tracy Barbe encounters Museum House’s first residents


Pay slips and rent books indicate the year was 1965. Hand-drawn portraits and personal letters tell the story of a young and tender love. Photos of a man larking with a worker mate, and a young woman dressed for her confirmation at St John’s. It gave me that unsettling feeling of déjà vu; what if I’d been born here, what life would I have had?

hen converting the area under our stairs

into storage units a few years ago we came upon a box of objects, papers and photographs; a collection of touching domesticity, documenting the intimate and daily lives of a couple who were residents exactly 50 years before.

We tracked the lady down, now a widow, and gave back her box of treasures. “My husband was always doing sentimental things like that,” was all she could say, with a tear in her eye.


Museum House – an East End Dwellings Company block completed in June 1888 – is itself something of a time capsule. I wonder what the earliest residents would have put into the capsule: a bundle of dreams, a sense of relief, an escape into a new life?

from teenagers to toddlers. The noise of children and babies crying, as well as the lack of space and privacy, becomes almost unbearable. Whilst most residents were born locally, around a third are from places further afield such as Suffolk, Northampton, and Bristol. From the staircases I hear Cockney voices – not least the Collins girls at No 42, making matchboxes at home. There’s an echo of Irish singing – the McGarry father and son are back home at No 27 after a shift at the cork-cutting works.

An 1891 visit Carrying my imaginary time capsule, and with the 1891 census in hand, I walk along Green Street (now Roman Road) to arrive at Museum Buildings, as Museum House was then known. As I follow the terrace of nine shops – set beneath the three storeys of flats – I hear the sound of boot nails being hammered at Lipman’s, and sewing machines tailoring at Swyer’s. And from other shop doorways come wafts of lamp oil, tobacco and sweet confectionery.

Guten Tag There’s a smattering of German too. Conrad Kluick (No 15) and Jacob Walz (No 36) are bakers, both hailing from Wurtenberg. At No 19, Baden-born Jacob Weil works as a School Board visitor. I drop a dash of German camaraderie into the time capsule for good measure.

I turn the corner and enter the courtyard. Mothers are gathered, talking at the communal washhouse. Gaggles of children play chase on the stairs, marbles, clapping rhymes and circle games.

Now, I enter my own flat and fast forward to 2019. The time capsule still has space. I’ll add the love of our Victorian tenement flat, renovated together with my partner as a legacy for our children, born and bred here. I’ll also add in my curiosity about Ellen and Arthur Masters, a fishmonger’s assistant, and their four children, the very first inhabitants of our home, over 130 years ago.

There are 36 tenements in all, home to 97 males and 92 females on the night of the 1891 census. Remarkably, the two most overcrowded flats each accommodate nine people: printing compositor Henry Walters (No 31) and packing case maker Edwin Argent (No 39) and their wives both have seven children apiece, ranging 23



congregating for call-on at the dock gates, hoping for a day’s work. William had struck it lucky securing the Museum Buildings flat, as casual labourers, like him, found it hard to get respectable dwellings.

ne of the earliest residents

of Museum Buildings that caught my attention, writes Tracy Barbe, was Eliza Elizabeth Collins at No 42. In the 1891 census she’s a 17-year old working as a matchbox maker, along with her sister Ellen. Together with four younger siblings, they are children of dock labourer William Collins and his wife Eliza.

Such is the world of Bethnal Green’s working poor. Two strikes – the match girls in 1888 and dock workers in 1889 – helped improve working conditions to some extent, but life remained tough.

Matchbox making was repetitive and fiddly. Although nimble fingered, the young women’s bodies ache, working twelve hour shifts to make less than a shilling a day. Some of their girlfriends, no doubt, worked at Bryant & May’s match factory in Bow, exposed to the risk of developing ‘phossy jaw’ from the white phosphorous used in match making.

A single mother Alas, harder times await young Eliza. The Collins family leaves Museum Buildings within a year or so, moving first to Russia Lane and then to Haggerston. Aged 20, Eliza becomes pregnant, a single mother. I discover a removal order showing her shift to Bethnal Green workhouse. And three years later, she dies aged 23. It’s a heart-breaking turn of events.

William Collins, the girls’ father, had equally precarious employment. Every morning he’d join crowds of men 24

1891 census.

Back to school As a school attendance officer Jacob is responsible for following up with absentee children. Jacob’s own children were duly enrolled at Globe Road Primary School, around the corner from home. Its Queen Anne architecture must have seemed rather grand when it opened in 1871.

What of other, more hopeful Museum Buildings residents? I spot Jacob Weil – a School Board visitor in the 1891 census, born in Germany – and his English wife, Sarah, living at No 19. Their children’s birthplaces indicate the family’s movements – from Twickenham to Aston to Battersea – before they settle in Bethnal Green in autumn 1888.

With hard work and good fortune, the Weils moved in 1892 into their own house on Old Ford Road and later to Anthill Road, Bow. In due course, Jacob retires to Finchley. I imagine a man proud of his achievements and contributions to society. What a delight it was, therefore, to discover online photos of Jacob and Sarah – two of the very first residents of Museum Buildings.

eaSt enD DWellinGS cOmpanY Museum Buildings and much of upper Globe Road was developed by the East End Dwellings Company. Set around courtyards, with open staircases, the EEDC’s red-brick tenements are often topped with towers, gables and domes, creating a distinctive skyline. Museum Buildings (1888) was followed by Mendip and Shepton Houses (1900), Merceron and Gretton Houses (1901), and cottages opposite (1906). 25

Alan Dann dips into Bethnal Green’s watery history


cooking; fourthly, it prevents the clothes being properly washed, and necessitates the same water being used repeatedly, even although foul.”

hese days, it’s easy to take water

for granted; turn on the tap and out it comes. Yet, in Victorian times – as this 1863 illustration shows – getting access to clean water was not so simple.

Thankfully, the situation improved – especially with the advent of the philanthropic housing associations – and there was no longer any need to queue at the water stand pipe.

There were problems too with the poor quality of drinking water “fostering a desire for more pleasant beverages, and thus leading to the pernicious habit of beer and spirit drinking.” Carrying water was a laborious task, especially to uppers floors. And the consequences of water being so troublesome to access and store? “Firstly, it limits, and in some cases prevents house cleanliness”, wrote Gavin, “secondly, it discourages personal cleanliness; water is not thrown away as useless until it has been defiled beyond using; thirdly, it prevents food being properly washed before

“The supply is, as usual, thrice weekly, and for two hours at a time, and at low pressure… and in an immense number of instances the water is not laid on to houses, but is supplied to a stand pipe in the yard, street or alley.” Dr Hector Gavin, ‘Sanitary Ramblings’ (1846)



The Tale of Two Fountains

wo enormous fountains

were constructed locally in Victorian times, the first in Victoria Park and the second in front of Bethnal Green Museum.

In 1862, wealthy philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts gifted £6,000 for the Victoria Fountain to provide drinking water to Victoria Park visitors. “Four cherubs, seated on dolphins, pour water from urns, between them are the taps for water and bronze cups engraved with the words ‘Temperance is a bridle of gold’.”

At the time there were differing views on the fountain’s suitability, but it still stands proudly, a cherished East End landmark.

Water-spouting lions Ten years later, in 1872, the colossal Majolica Fountain – designed by Minton, Hollins & Co. for the International Exhibition – was relocated to the Bethnal Green Museum forecourt. It stood over 10 metres tall, made up of 369 separate parts. In the centre, St George slayed the Dragon, perched above water-spouting lions. As the East London Observer rather snootily noted: “What strange vicissitudes it has passed through! If a fountain had the same feelings as a fine lady, how could it endure the, at best, shabby-genteel society of Bethnal Green after the polished crème de la crème of South Kensington.” The fountain greeted museum visitors until 1926; the statue of St George is now held at the Potteries Museum in Stoke-on-Trent.




Pollard Row, was founded in 1849 in the wake of a cholera outbreak. As the need grew, it was expanded; the building you see today dates from 1866. Look out for a bust of Queen Adelaide beneath the clock tower.



Road opened in 1855. It was established by philanthropic City businessmen – largely Quakers – as one of the first hospitals dedicated to treating consumption (tuberculosis). Beds were put on the veranda so that the patients could breathe fresher air.


ETHNAL GREEN ASYLUM was demolished

in the 1920s. But the present-day library in Bethnal Green Gardens incorporates the former male ward. Over its 300-year history, the asylum’s reputation went from scandalous to role model. Privately run, it accommodated many paupers, as well as those with mental health conditions.




Hackney Road, evolved from a hospital established by Quaker sisters, Ellen and Mary Philips, in 1867. During the recent redevelopment, a time capsule was unearthed containing newspapers, a donor list, and ribbon cut by Princess Beatrice at the 1902 opening ceremony.



off Hackney Road is a specialist HIV care service. It occupies the footprint of a Victorian institution, set up by Rev William Pennefather of Mildmay Park. During the 1866 cholera epidemic, two Mildmay deaconesses nursed patients – initially in a Shoreditch warehouse – and by 1892 the Mildmay Mission Hospital had opened. Emily Goodwin, Mildmay Hospital matron from 1892



Heath Road opened in 1900. It was initiated by the Board of Guardians to care for the sick of Bethnal Green Workhouse. The need was great; the 1901 census lists 619 patients, or ‘inmates’, and 117 officials here. It later became a geriatric hospital before closing in 1992.


Dust heap at Nova Scotia Gardens

Caterina Carrozza sweeps through dusty Bethnal Green


removing the effluvia. The dust was taken and piled into great heaps to be sorted and recycled.”

t seems unbelievable that

this giant heap of dust and garbage stood at Nova Scotia Gardens, close to Columbia Road. Yet it was one of many dust heaps that rose from London’s landscape in the 19th century. Dr Hector Gavin colourfully described it in Sanitary Ramblings (1846) as “A table mountain of manure which towered over a lake of more liquid dung.” It also inspired Charles Dickens’ workplace for Nicodemus Boffin, ‘the Golden Dustman’ in Our Mutual Friend (1864-5).

Recycling for profit The dust yard system was driven by the value of household waste. After sorting, rubbish was sold on at a profit. “Rotting food, offal and bones were sold for manure. Linen and rags went into the manufacture of paper… Most important of all were ashes and cinders. Ash was mixed with road sweepings to make fertiliser and both were used in brick making.”

Linda Wilkinson sets the scene in her book ‘Columbia Road, A Strange Kind of Paradise’: “Until the formation of the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1855, dust was collected by private contractors, who paid the vestries for the privilege of

Waste collection became more orderly under the Board of Works – when contractors were paid to remove rubbish – and dust heaps became a thing of the past. 30

HeRe cOmeS tHe DuStman


Board of Works

dustcart in Whitechapel District appears in this photo, taken around 1895. Householders deposited their waste into holes called dust pits or ash pits, to be collected by a crew of fillers and carriers with their horsedrawn cart.

WHat a Stink: tHe caSe OF tHOmaS ROOk


from rotten eggs and fish guts though Rook insisted, “It only smells when it’s stirred!” The evidence, as well as the smell, was overwhelming and he was ordered to clear up within 14 days.


contractors were mainly working class men, some of whom became rich. One such contractor was Thomas Rook of Gibraltar Walk – listed as a carman in the 1841 census, and later as a dust contractor in trade directories, with a second yard near Tower Hill.

But Rook was an enterprising chap; by 1863 he’s a director of the new London General Dusting and Cleansing Company looking to raise £20,000 in share capital. Where there’s muck, there is indeed brass.

Rotten eggs and fish guts In 1859 Thomas Rook was brought to court after neighbours complained of the stench from his yard. “It’s all nonsense,” Rook argued, “Why, I sleep over it every night – have lived there for twenty years – had six children born there – all are well and hearty.” The problem stemmed chiefly

Shoreditch Observer (1863).


The decline and resurrection of Victoria Park Cemetery


describing it as “a loathsome place” with “revolting practices”.

his illustrated advert

for Victoria Park Cemetery depicts an impressive landscape, with two chapels, an imposing entrance arch, and an assortment of trees and pathways. However, such sophistication was far from the truth. Having opened in 1845, Victoria Park Cemetery quickly developed a reputation for being among the worst cemeteries in London, with the Times (1856) 32

Despite its poor reputation, the cemetery was busy, with an average of 30 burials taking place each day. Many – as much as 75% – were infant burials, and the cholera epidemic of 1866 boosted the numbers further. It’s estimated that 300,000 burials in all took place here, before the cemetery closed in 1876.

By the 1880s it was clear the cemetery needed attention. The Friends of Meath Gardens take up the story: “The Metropolitan Gardens Association (MPGA) was formed in 1882 to convert ‘every morsel of land available’ into public parks in London’s poorest areas. This philanthropic body requested conversion of the former cemetery into gardens in 1885, but work was delayed until 1893 due to lack of funds.”

“Victoria Park Cemetery is nearly full to overflowing at present, it is badly kept, its directors or owners appear to have neither taste, sympathy, nor respect for the living or the dead. Their whole desire seems to be to make as much out of this hideous patch of ground as they possibly can.”

“One of the MPGA’s founding members, Fanny Wilkinson – the first paid female landscaper – was tasked with the conversion. Managing a team of 30 male gardeners, she re-landscaped the area, removing headstones, opening up new wide spaces and children’s play areas.”

(The Builder, 1871)

It’s remarkable that such neglect was allowed to persist. In contrast, nearby Bow Cemetery was a ‘garden cemetery’ designed for the enjoyment of the living as well as the repose of the dead.

Meath Gardens open Meath Gardens were opened on 20 July 1894. Initially, they were flanked with warehouses and the Devonshire Street Goods and Coal Depot. But more recently, much of that land has been redeveloped as housing, with a footbridge extending over the Regent’s Canal to Mile End Park. Far from being “a loathsome place”, Meath Gardens is now a delightful green corner of Bethnal Green.

King Cole commemorated A notable burial at Victoria Park Cemetery was that of Australian Aboriginal cricketer, Bripumyarrimin, known as King Cole. In 1868 the Aboriginal team came to England on a six month tour, during which King Cole took ill and died of tuberculosis. His grave is unmarked but, these days, he’s commemorated with a eucalyptus tree.

With thanks to the Friends of Meath Gardens. 33

Palestine Place (1835)

Jackie Gooding investigates Palestine Place


A five-acre field belonging to Bishop’s Hall in Bethnal Green was leased in 1811 – flanked by entrance lodges – to build a chapel where seems a world away from Bethnal ‘Hebrew Christians’ could Green. But Palestine Place ran worship. As the chapel east off Cambridge Heath Road was built, tension grew and, for over 80 years, it was between the Anglicans home to a mission called the and other denominations London Society for Promoting Charles Simeon (1759-1836) over the style of worship; Christianity among the Jews. Simeon gave much thought to this The mission was set up by Charles issue, resulting in the Society becoming Simeon, William Wilberforce and other exclusively Anglican in 1815. members of the Clapham Sect – a group that regularly prayed about political For the Glory of God and social issues, with a great desire The Society was well funded – on the to evangelise. Simeon’s considerable day the Duke of Kent laid the foundation influence in Anglican circles gave the new stone, “nearly £1100 was subscribed, in venture credibility and authority.

t first glance, this grand promenade


addition to a liberal donation by a lady, of £900” – and another fortune was later gifted “for the Glory of God.” Thus the project took shape, and by 1836 it had become known as Palestine Place.

cOnVeRteD Hyman Jonathan Wertheim (1854-1896) was something of a ‘model’ pupil. After fleeing Russia – pursued by his father, who accused him of stealing 36 roubles – he converted to Christianity at Palestine Place and later became a clergyman serving in Manchester, Leeds, Swindon and Camberwell. In 1892 he was naturalised as a British citizen.

As well as the chapel, there were boys’ and girls’ schools. And an Operative Jewish Converts’ Institution provided training in printing and bookbinding because it was realised that converts from Judaism were often cut off from their community, livelihood and support network. There was also a College for Missionaries.

Nevertheless, the Society’s work continued apace, and 1,765 Jewish converts were baptised at Palestine Place. From the East End, the mission expanded to Europe, South America, Africa and Palestine. In 1895 the Bethnal Green Board of Guardians offered £17,500 for the remaining 15-year lease of Palestine Place, in order to build an infirmary on the site. The Society reluctantly sold, realising it was a good offer. “To many it was a sore and grievous blow,” said the Society’s President.

Palestine Place with its chapel, schools and institute (1868).

Not surprisingly, the mission attracted opposition. One Jewish journal in 1844 dismissed the Society “whose object it is to deprive the Jews of their religion” as one that “has wrought but very little, aided as it was by an army of missionaries, preachers, and agents, backed by the expenditure of twenty-seven thousand pounds.”

The chapel’s memorial tablets and font were transferred to Christ Church, Spitalfields. The mission-schools were moved, having educated 1,253 children over 75 years. The bell turret was re-erected above the nurses’ quarters built on the site, but when the turret was demolished in 1982, the bell was “disposed of by the contractors” – the final fragment of Palestine Place had left Bethnal Green.

The Operative Jewish Converts’ Institution.



n 1899, George Arkell – inspired by

his work on the London poverty maps for Charles Booth – created a map of the Jewish population of the East End. The map highlighted the relative density of Jews living in Whitechapel, Spitalfields and, to a lesser extent, in Bethnal Green and Stepney. He devised a colour-coding system: dark blue where streets were over 95% Jewish, paler blues as the proportion declined, through to dark red at below 5%. “The number of Jewish people in the area made up only 18% of its inhabitants,” writes Simon Foxell in ‘Mapping London’, “however, the map’s colour-coded nature gave a different impression and it became a weapon of xenophobes.” 37

Salt Beef…

Kahn and Botsman started their Brick Lane shop with savings of £25. Open 6am to midnight, it sold salt beef and provisions.

Jackie Gooding shares a glimpse of local Jewish life century witnessed a transformation; street life, street food, and street talk began to reflect the changing population.

New Arrivals Between 1881 and 1914, more than two million Jews left Eastern Europe because of poverty, persecution and the promise of a better life. Most travelled to the USA, but around 120,000 settled in the UK, with the East End being a favoured destination.

Attracted to Spitalfields because it had been home to Jews in the past and was a cheap place to live, many Jews found work in the rag trade, furniture making or as traders. However, the new arrivals – generally unable to speak English or work on the Sabbath – were often exploited by unscrupulous ‘sweaters’ prepared to impose any conditions on their workers.

There were, of course, Jews already living in Britain – around 35,000 in 1850 and 60,000 in 1881 – but the late 19th

Some families moved into handsome but overcrowded Huguenot houses, and others were housed in flats such as Rothschild Buildings off Brick Lane. By 1900, Jews formed around 95% of the population in Wentworth Street, Spitalfields, which also had 15 kosher butcher-shops!

Schewzik’s Russian Vapour Baths were mostly used by men following work on a Friday, before going to the synagogue.


…and Schmutter

Tailoring, and other parts of the rag trade, provided employment for many Jews, though the conditions were often tough.

Larger ones in Bethnal Green included Bethnal Green Great Synagogue on the corner of Chance Street (1905, Ashkenazi), Teesdale Street Synagogue (1901, Orthodox-Ashkenazi), and the United Workmen’s and Wlodowa Synagogue – established in 1901 by Polish cabinetmakers from Wlodowa and moved to Hare (now Cheshire) Street in 1910.

New Cultures The incoming Jews maintained their own culture in this ‘foreign’ Christian environment. Yiddish – a mixture of German, Hebrew, Polish and English – was the main language and used in signs and newspapers. Yiddish theatres and Jewish schools were also set up. Numerous small synagogues (chevras) were built, providing welfare as well as worship. They were often named after the district from which its members had emigrated, preserving relationships from ‘home’.

Many Jews were also concerned about a loss of identity as they became more assimilated. On the other hand, the isolation of the ‘self-selected ghetto’ worried those in power, who perceived a different language and religion as a threat to British society. Jews were often accused of taking jobs from the locals, accepting overcrowded conditions and pushing up rents. With time, however, Jews became more integrated. A Board of Trade report in 1894 said that children left the Jews’ Free School “almost indistinguishable” from English children.

The Pavilion Theatre in Whitechapel became the home of Yiddish theatre in the early 1900s.


Park Hotel (previously known as the Gore Arms and Grove Arms) stood on the corner with Bishops Road.

Victoria Park Chest Hospital (1855) later became known as the City of London Hospital for Diseases of the Heart and Lungs.

Victoria Park Wesleyan Methodist Chapel (1868) occupied a grand classical building facing onto Bonner Road.

Parmiter’s Foundation School buildings (1887) are now occupied by Raine’s Foundation School .

Leslie Armstrong examines the social mix around Approach Road with superior stuccoed villas. So what began as a project to benefit the working class population of Bethnal Green might have had the unintended consequence of developing into a middle class district. However, despite the attractions of living near the new park, it soon became apparent that the upper crust could not be tempted to the East End. Indeed, it was more than two decades after the park was opened before the first houses were actually built on Approach Road.

Italianate terraces Historical records show that J Saunders agreed to build four houses a year between 1866 and 1868, then John Robson built nine more houses in 1871-74. Rather than the grand villas that Pennethorne had envisaged, however, these builders erected more modest Italianate terraces.


n 1845 Victoria Park opened with

a fanfare. The park had been created due to a growing awareness that many local residents – not least the working classes in Bethnal Green – lived in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions. The open space and fresh air of a large park, they reasoned, might help enhance Bethnal Greeners’ health.

Timber yards, a stone works and a brush factory remained as neighbours to the new terraces and, on a triangular plot of land that Pennethorne had earmarked for an ornamental garden, the Victoria Park Chest Hospital was built. Parmiter’s Foundation School, two chapels – one Methodist, one Congregational – and the Bonner Road Children’s Home, together with more terraced houses and two pubs, later completed the road.

Sir James Pennethorne, who had worked previously on the Park Villages close to Regent’s Park, was commissioned to design Victoria Park and the surrounding area. He planned an axial set of roads – centred around Approach Road – that came together at the Victoria Park gates. Pennethorne envisaged these roads would be lined 41

“Approach Road is about the best street in Bethnal Green. Houses three and a half storeys, eight rooms, houses take in lodgers but are not inhabited by several families. In one of them lodge nine or ten police constables who pay fourteen or fifteen shillings per week for their board. Robinson Road on the North side is two and two and a half storeys, not so good as Approach Road. Bishops Road, rather better on the North side than the South, several Jews living here, a few houses have turned the ground floor into workshops. Shops at the West end of the road, three and a half storeys, rents £40 to £50.”

The East London Observer carried advertisements for houses in Approach Road that emphasised the back and front gardens, the four or more bedrooms and up to three reception rooms. They were clearly aimed at attracting middle class families with servants. However by the late 1870s adverts were appearing for the sub-letting of two rooms on the drawing room floor and use of the kitchen.

The Streets of London, the Booth Notebooks, 1897

Sharing and sub-letting The 1881 census shows that some houses were occupied by single families, though none had more than one live-in servant. But by the time of the 1891 census there were fewer homes in single occupation. At 24 Approach Road, for example, Abraham Jones, an assistant classics master lived with his wife, two sons and two nieces, whereas No 20 was shared by three families and No 14 had twelve people living there. The 1895 Post Office Directory indicates that many occupants worked as tailors, haberdashers, trimming makers and boot manufacturers. Slightly better off, apparently, were William Fulford, a grocer, William Blyth, a physician and at Nos 101103, pianoforte dealer William Payne.

So although they were a step up from the 1840s slum-dwellers who caused Victoria Park to be created in the first place, none of them quite lived up to Pennethorne’s original aspirations. 42


Decorative mosaic panels were inset into the exterior: look out for scenes from the arts, sciences, industry and agriculture. And female prisoners from Woking Goal made the black and white fish-scale floor mosaic.

ollowing the success of

the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, a museum quarter began to emerge in South Kensington. One of the temporary structures built there – three iron-framed arched sheds, rudely dubbed the ‘Brompton Boilers’ – came up for grabs when the permanent Victoria & Albert Museum was built.

Building such a large museum was a bold move, a chance to bring important artworks to the East End. Sir Richard Wallace’s art collection was exhibited at the opening in 1872. Glass cabinets contained stuffed animals and scientific displays of waste products. And Queen Victoria loaned presents she’d received on her Golden Jubilee in 1887.

The ‘Brompton Boilers’ were moved – lock, stock and barrel – to create Bethnal Green Museum. Architect James Wild dovetailed the ironwork with a new redbrick shell to provide a colossal exhibition space with two upper gallery floors.

Rational recreation As Gary Haines, V&A Museum of Childhood archivist explains, “Middleand working-class people learning about natural history fitted the idea of ‘rational recreation’. This movement was led by middle-class reformers who believed that leisure activities should be controlled and educational. Leisure time should not be used for purely self-indulgent pleasure.” Thankfully, these days a visit to the museum is rather more relaxed. 43

The early days of Oxford House


n 1888, The Graphic newspaper ran

a feature on Oxford House, shown opposite. Beautiful line drawings depict the settlement’s premises and activities: a Sunday afternoon lecture in Victoria Park, a swimming race, a concert at Shoreditch Town Hall, and a sing-song in a working men’s club. It brings together, in one page, the essence of Oxford House.

“One part of the House is devoted to a Working Men’s Club: clubs are the principal work of Oxford House… There is plenty of real talent among the working people themselves, and every Saturday night there is an opportunity afforded them for displaying it at the ‘sing-song’ in the clubs.”

“The House itself is an old National School, which has been furnished and made habitable for four or five residents. The gentlemen who live there devote their time to brightening the lives, and, in any way they can, improving the condition of those who inhabit the district.”

By 1892, Oxford House had moved to purpose-built premises. “Oxford House will well repay a visit,” declared The Graphic. Since its early days as a socially innovative settlement, Oxford House has been part of the fabric of local life – bringing together people through social, recreational and educational activities. And it continues to do so – in its newly renovated building – over 130 years later.


Arthur Winnington-Ingram served as Head of Oxford House from 1889-97. In 1901, as Bishop of London, he reflected on his time in Bethnal Green.

“I was 30, a very young parson when, on All Souls’ Day 1888, I started the Oxford House Settlement. It was very bold as an initiative… to invade the very citadel of ‘Darkest London,’ and above all, to bring cultured and exclusive Oxford into direct contact with the ‘roughs,’ the ‘toughs,’ and the ‘Hooligans’ of the submerged million. But when Oxford House was inaugurated, it became the centre of enthusiastic interest.”

“The Sunday lectures in Victoria Park were memorable occasions… It was often my reward, after a heated debate, while the hundreds of artisans and labourer watched and listened, with flushed faces and eager eyes, to hear the listeners shout ‘The parson has got the best of it!’” “Vivacious, full of movement, never for two consecutive moments retaining one posture, the Bishop is the very incarnation of animated and restless nervousness, energy, and force, both physical and intellectual.”


innington-Ingram led the construction of the present Oxford House building, which was opened in 1892 at a very high church affair, with six bishops and two archbishops in attendance. Designed by Arthur Blomfield, it was described as “A Palace of Red Brick” in Sketch magazine. 46


subsumed within Weavers Fields. As the name suggests, the area was once busy with homebased silk weavers.

xford House initially occupied

old school premises by St Andrew’s Church. It was a tough neighbourhood, chosen as it offered scope to ‘make a difference’. Charles Booth’s colour-coded poverty maps and notebooks of 18989 help set the scene. “The curse of the St Andrew’s district is drink. One sex drinks as much as the other here... There is much irregular intercourse and living together unmarried.”

Since the arrival of the Huguenots in Spitalfields in 1685, there had been a long tradition of East End silk weaving, but it was a volatile industry, exposed to competitive forces and tariffs. “The silk weavers of Bethnal Green are in a pitiful plight,” reported the Standard in 1885, “Orders cease to come in, and hundreds of skilled artisans are out of work.”

Wilmot Street and the main road shops were classified pale pink – “fairly comfortable, good ordinary earnings” – but much of the area was dark pink: “mixed, some comfortable, others poor.” West and south, things were more desperate: “very poor, casual, chronic want” (dark blue) and even “lowest class, vicious, semicriminal” (black).

Weavers Fields St Andrew’s school and church have long gone,

Weavers’ cottages on Menotti Street (1896).


As weaving declined, other trades stepped up. On Seabright Street, “A few looms remaining,” wrote Booth’s clerk, “but mostly become small cabinet makers workshops.” There was also “boot making, costering, and for women, cardboard box making.”

Janna Letts surveys the pleasures of Victoria Park with a review from the Daily News in 1863

“Victoria Park may now take its place amongst the best of the London parks. It took the whole intervening period from 1845 down to the present day… but the result is now triumphant… in the innocent amusement it yields to the thousands of working people who swarm like bees in a hive throughout the streets, lanes, and alleys which abound in the great eastern section of the metropolis.”

“Islands stud the lake with highly picturesque effect, and its fleet of boats have ample scope and range for the evolutions of amateur rowers.”

“There are two gymnasia which are immensely popular, both kept in full work every afternoon by delighted children of all ages. “ 48

“So many as 13,200 intending bathers have passed the turnstiles leading to the swimming lake between the hours of four and eight a.m. on a summer’s morning, and the average attendance is 3,000 daily during the whole of the summer months.”

“It is the flower-beds of Victoria Park that give the greatest delight to its thousands of humble visitors. With the most slender means, head gardener Mr Prestoe has studded the park all over with brilliant beds of fuchsias, dahlias, geraniums, asters, verbenas… with the taste of a true artist.”

“The great point to be achieved in the formation of Victoria Park was the establishment of an airy, healthy, attractive exercise ground for the working people of the eastern districts of London and… it has been a great and creditable success.” Daily News (1863).


tea-houses offering “Ices, English and Foreign Fruits” and other delights.

“Whilst upwards of fifty public houses have sprung up within a radius of fifty yards all round the Park… the means of obtaining light and innocent refreshments within have been left lamentably deficient,” wrote the Daily News in 1863.

Around and about, street vendors would also sell snacks. Henry Mayhew gives us a taste in ‘The Street Sellers of Eatables and Drinkables’ (1851): fried fish, hot eels, pickled whelks, penny pies, plum duff, baked potatoes, and crumpets, washed down with tea, coffee, ginger-beer, lemonade, or hot wine. This was fast food, Victorian style.

The plentiful pubs stand in stark contrast to “three small tea, coffee, and ice houses” and drinking water from Miss Burdett-Coutts’ “noble fountain” available within the park. By 1873, however, there was a large lakeside refreshment house, and various smaller

Research: Janna Letts


QUEEN VICTORIA’S VISIT TO VICTORIA PARK (1873) “Immense numbers of people were in the park and at the railings outside, or standing on waggons, omnibuses, and other vehicles in the road.”

GIVING AWAY PLANTS TO THE POOR (1879) The laudable custom of distributing gratuitously to respectable poor people, the remaining surplus of plants, fit for small gardens and window boxes… has become an important social institution.”

Christine Hall tracks down the 12 Apostle Churches of Bethnal Green


The foundation stone for the first new church – St Peter’s – was laid in 1840 when jeering crowds loosed an ox at the ceremony. By 1843, St Peter’s, St Andrew’s, St Philip’s and St James the Less had been consecrated and assigned areas of responsibility. Further churches followed until the final one, St Thomas’, was consecrated in 1850.

n 1839, the Bishop of London – Bishop

Blomfield – launched a fundraising appeal to address the ‘Spiritual Destitution of the Parish of Bethnal Green’. He was concerned that the growing population, estimated at 70,000, was served by only three churches: the original parish church of St Matthew’s, St John’s, and the Episcopal Jews’ Chapel for the conversion of Jews at Palestine Place.

Crowds of well dressed persons A festival was held in May 1849 to celebrate the foundation stone laying at St Thomas’, attended by around 5,500 people. “Crowds of well dressed persons of every class, the poor in their holiday attire, might be seen traversing the streets on their way to the

Change was needed and there were no halfmeasures for Bishop Blomfield; he resolved to build 10 new churches dedicated to the Apostles, each with its own parsonage and school. A church building flurry ran throughout the 1840s. 52

St Peter’s was the first of the new Apostle churches to be built (1840-1), flanked by terraced housing, the vicarage and church school. The interior has an elaborate wooden roof structure.

different Churches,” reported the John Bull newspaper. After divine services at 2pm, the crowds proceeded to St Thomas’, near Nova Scotia Gardens – “a spot notorious many years ago as the scene of the burking [body-snatching] of the Italian boy… soon to be covered with houses for the rapidly increasing population.”

Green residents worshipped in an Anglican church. One factor, of course, was the significant increase in the Jewish population. In due course, the Blitz and demolition crews made their mark, and only four of the ten Apostle churches survive today – two as places of worship (St Peter’s and St James the Less) and two converted into flats (St James the Great and St Bartholomew). And throughout the 180 years since Bishop Blomfield first focused on the ‘spiritual destitution’ of the area, the original St Matthew’s and St John’s churches have continued to keep their doors open to generations of Bethnal Green residents.

“A slug in the Lord’s vineyard” The clergy carried out their work with varying success. With the churches being so close to one another, vicars often competed for funds and for congregations. Some vicars proved to be streetwise – St Philip’s cornered the market for weddings by undercutting the fees – whilst the incumbent at St Simon Zelotes was described as “only a slug in the Lord’s vineyard” with virtually no congregation and his schools languishing.

John Bull newspaper (1849).

All in all, it proved easier to fund and build the churches, than it did to persuade East Enders to attend church services. By 1901, only 1 in 20 of Bethnal 53

St. Matthew’s St Matthew’s Row (1746) George Dance St. John’s Cambridge Heath Road (1828) Sir John Soane

St Andrew’s stood in what is now Weavers Fields; it was closed in 1958 and absorbed into St Matthew’s.

St. Peter’s St Peter’s Close (1841) Lewis Vulliamy St. Andrew’s Viaduct Street (1841) Wyatt & Brandon St. James the Less St James Avenue (1842) Lewis Vulliamy St. Philip’s Swanfield Street (1842) TRL Walker St. James the Great Bethnal Green Road (1843) Edward Blore

St James the Less was designed with a knapped flint exterior, similar to St Peter’s.

St. Bartholomew’s Coventry Road (1844) Edward Blore St. Jude’s Old Bethnal Green Road (1846) H Clutton St. Simon Zelotes Morpeth Street (1847) B Ferey St. Matthias Cheshire Street (1848) Wyatt & Brandon St. Thomas Baroness Road (1850) Lewis Vulliamy

St Matthias was demolished in 1957, but the church school still stands.


St Matthew’s is the original parish church of Bethnal Green, shown with its extensive graveyard in this 1818 watercolour.

WHO WAS BISHOP BLOMFIELD? Born in Bury St Edmunds and educated at Trinity College Cambridge, Charles James Blomfield (1786-1857) served in a couple of rural parishes before coming to St Botolph’s Bishopsgate.

St John’s has an unusual design by Sir John Soane, antiquarian and architect of the Bank of England.

Upon being appointed Bishop of London in 1828 – a post that he held for 28 years – his energy and zeal did much to extend the influence of the church. It was this vigour that brought about the building of Bethnal Green’s Apostle churches. As his colleague Sydney Smith wrote, “The Bishop is passionately fond of labour, has no aversion to power, is of quick temper, great ability, thoroughly versed in Ecclesiastical Law, and always in London.” Blomfield married twice and had 17 children, including Arthur William Blomfield (1829-99), the architect of Oxford House.

St James the Great is also known as the ‘Red Church’, a prominent landmark on Bethnal Green Road.


Marie Sleigh treads the boards at Foresters Music Hall


One such music hall, the Foresters – shown above in the ‘Gay Nineties’ (1890s) – stood behind the Artichoke pub on Cambridge Heath Road and dates back to around 1850, when the publican Mr Buckhurst obtained a licence for music and dancing.

ife might have been tough in Victorian Bethnal Green, but a sing-along and a drink

could lift the spirits. When time and money allowed, locals might roll along to one of over 35 music halls operating in Bethnal Green between 1836 and 1917. Some halls were tucked behind pubs whilst others were large venues offering a variety of singers, comics, dancers and other entertainers.

It changed hands several times. During the 1880s, Sarah Graydon – known as Lottie Cherry during her stage career – and her husband, ran it as Graydon’s Palace of Varieties. They also ran the Middlesex Music Hall in Covent Garden and the Alhambra in Brighton. 56

Most of the great artists of the golden age of music hall appeared at Foresters, including Dan Leno as a clog dancer, male impersonator Vesta Tilley, comic Stan Laurel, and East Ender Charles Coborn, best known for singing ‘Two Lovely Black Eyes’.

Down paradise Row On Mother Kelly’s doorstep, down Paradise Row

On the back of this success, the hall was re-fitted in 1893, but it retained its chairman’s table from which the chairman acted as a compere, introducing the acts. By now, the hall was managed by William Lusby, known for Lusby’s Summer and Winter Palace on Mile End Road.

I’d sit along o’ Nelly, she’d sit along o’ Joe She’d got a little hole in her frock, hole in her shoe Hole in her sock, where her toe peeped through

Eclipsed by new technologies As new technologies arrived, so tastes changed; in 1905 the cinematograph was introduced and Foresters became one of London’s earliest cinema theatres. Singalongs were eclipsed by moving pictures. Foresters operated as a cinema, variously owned by Odeon and Gaumont, until it closed in 1960.

But Nelly was the smartest down our alley It’s thought that the music hall song, ‘On Mother Kelly’s Doorstep’ – written by George Stevens in 1925 – was inspired when he spotted toddlers Joe and Nelly Diss sitting in front of their house on Paradise Row. Whatever the inspiration, it became a popular song, covered by Danny La Rue, Barbara Windsor and Mrs Mills.

But maybe, when you next wander d o w n Cambridge Heath Road, you’ll hear echoes of Vesta Tilley singing out: “I’m Burlington Bertie from Bow.” Bravo! 57

DOWn at tHe OlD Bull & BuSH Many music halls were within or behind pubs, including the Salmon & Ball (1836-53), Morpeth Castle (1855-89), Approach (186189), and Earl of Ellesmere (1866-90).

The Birdcage operated from 1850-77 and featured “the best talent at the End End” (1867).

Choose to sit in a private box, fauteuils, the grand circle or balcony at the Royal Cambridge Theatre of Varieties on Commercial Street (1900).

Comedians, acrobats, and ‘pleasing duettists’ were on the playbill at the Royal Victor Music Hall, Old Ford Road (1885).

‘Acknowledged to be the largest and most elegant theatre in Europe’, the New National Standard Theatre stood on Shoreditch High Street.


The Birdcage on Columbia Road was one of many pubs owned by Truman’s, the brewers of Brick Lane (pictured in the 1930s).

This evocative photo of workers enjoying a beer was featured in ‘Street Life in London’ (1877).

The Old George on Bethnal Green Road was run by Harry Balls, whose family set up the Balls Brothers wine merchants (1885).

Charrington’s – the brewers of Mile End Road – owned the Camden’s Head on Bethnal Green Road (1895).

The Queen Adelaide was the brewery tap for Chandler’s Wiltshire Brewery, a few doors along Hackney Road (c1915).



his illustration by Satu Saastamoinen beautifully

brings together her historical research into 350-364 Bethnal Green Road in the 1890s. Clues come from many sources. Trade directories give names and occupations. And searching through old newspapers yields a photo of Horace Meadway, the butcher at No 354.

Horace Meadway, butcher



he 1891 census reveals that coffee house keeper Eliza Young lived

at No 364 with her daughter and son-in-law (the manager), five assistants working in the business, as well as grandchildren and servants: 13 people in all.


ld postcard views

along Bethnal Green Road help capture a sense of place. And this 2012 view shows how the shops have evolved: two jewellers, two women’s fashion shops, a pharmacy, shoe shop, and a fried chicken express.


About Our Project Over ten weeks in early 2019, a group of local residents came together on the Victorian Footprints project to investigate Bethnal Green in the 19th century. Some of us were first-time archive users, and others were more experienced researchers. Together, we delved into old maps, photos, trade directories and other historical resources in search of stories. We tracked down newspaper cuttings and census returns online. And we explored the local streets in search of Victorian buildings, large and small. Our impetus was the redevelopment of Oxford House in 2019. Could we understand the context in which Oxford House was first established in 1884? This booklet pulls together our discoveries and shares some of the remarkable stories of Bethnal Green, past and present.

Photo & IMAGE credits With thanks to: Spitalfields Life (p2, 17, 58), Mowlem Primary School (p2, 6), Victoria and Albert Museum (p2, 27, 32, 43), British Library and Newspaper Archive (p2, 16, 19, 27, 31, 32, 33, 44-45, 46, 48-49, 50-51, 53, 58, 64), Philip and Harold Mernick (p45), Peter Higginbotham at Children’s Homes (p8-9), Matthew Shelley (p11), Ordnance Survey (p14-15, 23, 40, 53), Christine Hall (p15, 35, 53, 54-55), Jackie Gooding (p15), Wellcome Collection (p16, 18, 26), The Pill Box (p17), Mike Askew (p21, 41, 43), Ancestry (p24, 61), John Toplis (p25), Natalie Clarke (p25), Friends of Meath Gardens (p33), The Jewish Museum London (p38-9), Mike Elston (p40), Peter Lanes (p41), Oxford House (p45, 46), Satu Saastamoinen (p60-61) and Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives (p1, 12, 13, 31, 37, 42, 56, 64). We have endeavoured to identify and credit all images, where possible, and apologise for any oversights.

Project participants: Fatima Ali, Leslie Armstrong, Tracy Barbe, Caterina Carrozza, Pooler Clements, Sylvia Cummins, Alan Dann, Jackie Gooding, Christine Hall, Janna Letts, Rowena McCarthy, Satu Saastamoinen, Valerie Sheekey, and Marie Sleigh.

Project team: Graham Barker at Walk East and Halima Khanom at Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives With thanks to: National Lottery Heritage Fund Sarah Murray, John Ryan and the team at Oxford House Tamsin Bookey and the team at the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives Paul Lindt at Academy Design

VICTORIAN FOOTPRINTS Bethnal Green was transformed during Victorian times; new housing, schools and churches were built, businesses expanded, and social reformers made their mark – at missions, settlements, hospitals and parks. To celebrate Oxford House’s redevelopment in 2019, and understand why it was first set up in 1884, a group of local residents came together to research life in Victorian Bethnal Green. This booklet – developed with Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives – shares their remarkable discoveries. Step back in time with VICTORIAN FOOTPRINTS.

Profile for Walk East

Victorian Footprints: Exploring Bethnal Green in the 19th Century  

Bethnal Green was transformed during Victorian times; new housing, schools and churches were built, businesses expanded, and social reformer...

Victorian Footprints: Exploring Bethnal Green in the 19th Century  

Bethnal Green was transformed during Victorian times; new housing, schools and churches were built, businesses expanded, and social reformer...

Profile for walkeast