At Bedford House
For twenty years, Bedford House, at the corner of Quaker St and Wheler St, sat empty and rotting. Rain came through holes in the roof and thieves broke in to steal the fixtures from this handsome Grade II listed building, constructed over a century ago with the noble intention to be of service to the people of Spitalfields.
Now a group of brave young people have come along who want to care for the building, they have worked hard to clean it up, repairing the holes in the roof and are opening it for events to serve the local community. Crucially, many are homeless, either students without any financial support or those who earn such low wages they cannot afford the exorbitant rents charged today in the East End. As responsible and educated individuals who find themselves struggling in the current economic crisis, they are appealing to the owner – who has let it sit empty all these years – to permit them to stay as caretakers, bringing life and social purpose to this neglected edifice until the time for redevelopment arrives.
Built on the site of a Quaker meeting house of 1656 from which Quaker St takes its name, Bedford House is a handsome red brick gabled building constructed to a florid English Renaissance design by Rutland Saunders in 1894 to house the Bedford Institute. It was named in honour of Peter Bedford, a Quaker philanthropist and silk weaver of Steward St, Spitalfields, who formed the Society for Lessening the Causes of Juvenile Delinquency. From this building all kinds of charitable work was undertaken to alleviate poverty among the local population and educational courses, lectures and religious meetings were held there. In 1947, the Bedford Institute moved out of Spitalfields as the ambition of their activities spread across the London and today their work continues under the name Quaker Social Action. Meanwhile, Bedford House was converted for industrial use as a warehouse and bottling plant for E.J.Rose & Co Ltd, wholesale suppliers of spirits and wine, until they moved out decades ago leaving this atmospheric building in limbo as the preserve of ghosts and shadows, interrupted only by occasional vandals and ravers.
This Summer – perhaps as a response to the times we live in - some significant events occurred, suggesting a new purpose for Bedford House. Two months ago, a small group of around ten homeless people who call themselves Penge Security (after the last place they lived) came to inhabit the spartan residential quarters on the top floors. Then, three weeks ago, they were joined by a collective of artists from Berlin, calling themselves Masse und Macht, who have been organising small scale cultural events to welcome local people into the building. Yet with the owner – an individual reputed to be among the top ten in the rich list – unwilling to engage or even disclose their identity, and the possibility of a forceful eviction next week, the residents of Bedford House might have reason to feel discouraged, but instead I discovered them enthusiastically writing a proposal which might serve as the basis for an agreement to satisfy all parties.
“It makes common sense and it’s responsible to make use of space that’s neglected,” said Anastasia of Masse und Macht, “We want to work with the history of the space and improve it. We want to keep the history alive, instead of letting it just rot and be torn down.” Octave, another member of Masse und Macht, furthered this notion, “We want to open a cultural centre that is an alternative to gentrified Shoreditch. What we want to do is about imagination, not money. We try to do without much money at all. We want to open a free shop, recycling things we find in the street. We have got lots of things to offer and we want Bedford House to be open to everyone.”
“How does anyone afford to pay for a home?” asked Holly, who works in a local shop and has been living in Bedford House for the last two months, colouring with emotion at her own question. “It’s insane, I don’t know how people survive in London. There’s no extra hours going where I work, and even if I got a better job I couldn’t afford to pay rent.”
We all sat in the main hall of Bedford House, perched on large steel cans, in a room that had been six inches deep in debris two months earlier but now was clean and bright with plants and coloured sculptures. The night before a communal meal had been served with local people as guests and that evening an orchestra was due to give a free concert there.
In another time, these educated, modest young people might have received student grants and rented accommodation they could afford, but in the face of the difficult circumstances they confront – which are not of their making – they have found the moral courage to work collectively and take the brave step of inhabiting an empty building with the barest of facilities. More than this, they are thinking beyond themselves to their responsibility to a wider society too. Well-informed, they told me there are as many as half a million homeless people in our country and as many as seven hundred thousand empty buildings – figures which speak for themselves.
Let me admit, I have nothing but respect for those I met at Bedford House and it will be wrong if they should now find themselves criminalised for their actions, especially as one said to me, “It was a choice between this or the street.” If whoever owns this beautiful building can afford to let it sit empty for twenty years, they could enter into a custodianship agreement with the residents, who deserve the courtesy of being taken seriously. The irony of honest young people with no homes being thrown out of the building named in memory of Peter Bedford, founder of the Society for Lessening the Causes of Juvenile Delinquency is too great to contemplate.
At the entrance, with E.J. Rose & Co Ltd’s sign.
A mural discovered on an upper floor.
A label pasted to the reverse of a cupboard door from the time this was a store for E.J.Rose & Co
The view towards the Bishopsgate Goods Yard.
You may also like to read about The Sit-in at Spital Square and The portraits of Spitalfields Nippers commissioned by the Bedford Institute.