A Renovation at Trinity Green
A pair of quaint narrow terraces face each other across a green off the Mile End Rd in Whitechapel. Although they are lined up neatly like ships’ cabins, only the model boats upon the street frontage remain as evidence that these were built for as almshouses for mariners. But, if you step closer and crane your neck, a stone plaque high on the wall proclaims their noble origin thus, “THIS ALMES HOUSE wherein twenty-eight decay’d Masters & Commanders of Ships, or ye Widows of such are maintain’d, was built by ye CORP. of TRINITY HOUSE, ano 1695. The Ground was given by Capt. HENY MUDD of Rattcliff an Elder Brother, whose Widow did alfo Contribute.”
Even today, a certain atmosphere of repose hangs upon this small enclave, protected from the pandemonium of East London traffic by trees and delicate emerald green railings – now a preserve of cats and flowerpots and twisted old trees and lawns strewn with dandelions and daisies – where it is easy to imagine those “twenty-eight decay’d Masters & Commanders” who once sat around here competing to outdo each other with oft-repeated tales of high adventures upon the seven seas.
The architect was Sir William Ogbourne, and his design was ship-shape in its elegant organisation, fourteen dwellings on either side, each one with three rooms stacked up on top of the other, all arranged around a chapel at the centre to provide spiritual navigation. It was a rigorous structure enlivened by lyrical flourishes, elaborately carved corbels above each door, model boats and stone balls topping off the edifice, and luxuriant stone crests adorning the brick work.
In the nineteenth century, a tall mast stood at the centre of the green to complete the whole endeavour as an approximation of a ship upon dry land – complementing the concave walls at the front in place of a hull and the raised chapel in the aft where the poop deck would be. Just a mile from the docks, it was the perfect spot for Masters & Commanders to enjoy their decay, and it might have sailed on majestically, if it had not been sunk by the bombing in 1943, that destroyed the chapel and the rear eight cottages. Taken over by the LCC, Trinity Green experienced benign neglect in recent years and is now a mixture of private and public dwellings where everyone gets along peaceably, unified in their appreciation of this favoured spot.
Ten years ago, Dutch designer Eelke Jan Bles installed a floor at 5 Trinity Green and fell in love with it. He said to the owners, “If ever you want to sell, I will buy it.” and that is exactly what happened last year. Appreciating that centuries of alteration had taken the interior a long way from its original design, Eelke hired architect Chris Dyson to restore its dignity, and Chris was able to apply his experience working on old houses in Spitalfields to reconfigure the spaces, reinstate the lost panelling and create a sympathetic dwelling with modern amenities.
The ground floor room is a perfect square, a geometric elegance that may be the result of an original plan designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and when you ascend the steps from the green and walk in the door you find yourself in an amply proportioned room which catches the morning sunlight to great advantage. It is peaceful and resonant and, with an outlook only onto the wide lawn, you could easily forget you were in London. Undoubtedly, this is the room where anyone who lived here would delight to spend their time, retreating to the snug bedroom and bathroom below at night.
Throughout the cottage, each detail has been considered to create an accommodation where every area is used to maximum efficiency, just like on a ship. And there is an admirable restraint to Chris’ interventions which respect the quality of the building, allowing it to be used to its best advantage, while permitting the spaces to speak for themselves. The success of his work is to have created a sense of unity of design between the outside and the inside of the building.
Chris and Eelke developed a passion for Trinity Green in the course of their collaboration and research, and they were eager to take me on a tour. With delight at the ghostly enigma, Eelke pointed out how the numbering ends at twelve on the far left cottage and picks up at twenty on the top right, leaving a gap of eight for those vanished dwellings bombed in 1943. While Chris drew my attention to the delicate rope design upon the iron hand rail of the chapel steps, a residual nautical detail hinting at the lost naval statuary and long-gone paraphernalia from the time of those “twenty-eight decay’d Masters & Commanders.” And the result of this commitment is that 5 Trinity Green, uniquely, has both its panelling and its character back, and my good fortune in seeing this granted me a vision of how the whole place used to be.
After my visit to the cottage, I loitered on the chapel steps to savour the peace and quiet further, enjoy the sunshine, and commune with the old ginger tom who - judging by the multiple notches in his ears - is the undoubted decay’d Master & Commander at Trinity Green nowadays.
5 Trinity Green is to let, if you like to rent it contact Eelke Jan Bles firstname.lastname@example.org
View of Trinity Almshouses, Mile End Rd, 1695.
A hundred years ago there was a ship’s mast on the green with flags run up for special occasions.
The lamp post with a rope stem from the previous photograph now stands beside the chapel.
World War II bombs gutted the chapel and destroyed the rear eight cottages.
The ground floor of Chris Dyson’s renovation.
The ground floor in its previous incarnation.
The entrance today.
The entrance as it was before.
The panelling was restored by Matt Whittle.
The view from the lower room with coalhole to the right.
The lower room in 1957.
The lower room today.
The old ginger tom who is the current Master & Commander of Trinity Green.