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Tom Ridge & the Jewish Maternity Hospital

October 17, 2011
by the gentle author

For over twenty years, historian Tom Ridge has been fighting selflessly to save significant buildings that tell the story of the East End. A noble warrior who has single-handedly pursued a relentless campaign, writing letter after letter – waging what he terms “an endless battle” – Tom’s latest combat is to prevent the demolition of the former Jewish Maternity Hospital in Underwood Rd in Spitalfields.

Beyond its significance as part of the history of the Jewish East End, the edifice is important as the last example of its kind in the country. Operating from 1911 until 1940, this pioneering institution was the personal mission of Alice Model who started and ran the hospital to help the sick among the poor and women at home with babies. Popularly known as Mother Levy’s Nursing Home, it was the first organisation in this country to provide home helps and maternity nurses, and among the many generations of East Enders who came into the world within the walls of this dignified Arts & Crafts building were Alma Cogan, Arnold Wesker and Lionel Bart.

The possibility of converting the elegant structure – which resembles a painting by Vermeer upon its street frontage – has not been entertained, instead it may shortly be destroyed in a development by Peabody that is being hastened through without any significant consultation of the immediate residents, most of whom are entirely unaware of the plans. Meanwhile, Angela Brady of Brady Mallalieu – the architectural practise designing the new building – who is the current RIBA president, said in The Guardian on 5th October, “Let’s ask what people want,” emphasising that she is, “enthralled by the ‘rich mix’ of the capital’s culture.”

In harsh contrast to these sentiments, the developers have already sent a Prior Notification of Demolition to Tower Hamlets Council Planning Department and a decision whether or not to approve this will be made before this Wednesday 19th October. Obtaining this approval in advance of any public consultation in November will mean that Peabody can demolish the buildings irrespective of what the people of the East End have to say, and without any assessment of the historical importance of the existing structure or the environmental impact of a fourteen-storey block upon this quiet corner of Spitalfields. The only chance to stop this now is if readers write at once to Owen Whalley, Head of Planning at Tower Hamlets Council, to object to the demolition and request both heritage and environmental assessments:  owen.whalley@towerhamlets.gov.uk

Regrettably, this alarming set of circumstances is a familiar story for Tom Ridge, just the latest episode in a conflict in which for too long he has been a lone warrior, chasing bureaucrats around and becoming expert at deciphering their game of weasel words, as large organisations pursue their own interests at the expense of the culture of the East End. Occasionally, Tom will confess the weight of emotional responsibility he carries for his “failures” – those instances where he has lost the battle against developers and part of our history has gone forever – but it almost impossible to get him to disclose his successes.

Yet we all owe Tom Ridge a debt of gratitude for those important facets of the East End that have survived thanks to his heroic campaigning. It was he who discovered that an old building by the canal had been used by Dr Barnardo and was responsible for saving it, and creating the Ragged School Museum there - “because there should be a museum of the East End in the East End.” It was he who led the successful campaign to save the Bancroft Rd Local History Library when the Council would have preferred to close it down and sell off the collection. It was he who prevented buildings being constructed upon the small public park at the heart of Bethnal Green, by ensuring it was listed as of historic importance.

When Tom arrived in the East End from Liverpool in 1965, at the age of twenty-three, and asked the way to St Saviour’s School where he had been employed to teach geography, he was told to go over Stinkhouse Bridge and the walk down to cross Gunmakers’ Arms Bridge. Entranced by the poetry of these names – dating from 1818 – Tom did not at first realise their significance as part of a six mile ring of waterways, originating from the time when, “London was the greatest industrial city in the world  with the greatest port in the world.” Years later, Tom set up the East End Waterways group to preserve the canals and their attendant structures - “because the Waterways are the last places of peace and tranquillity in the East End.”

“I fell in love with the East End and its people – maybe it’s because I come from Liverpool which is also a port city.” Tom confided to me, tracing the origins of his passion, “I was born on a council estate in Everton, and my greatest excitement was travelling on the overhead railway along seven miles of dockland and looking into each of the docks, and seeing all the things there.”

Working in a post-war bomb-damaged East End as a young teacher, he witnessed the social effects of the closure of the London docks and the rebuilding of the territory. “I shall never forget the old cleaning ladies at the school saying to me, ‘Mr Ridge, we do miss our cottages. They took our cottages away.’” Tom recalled in sombre reminiscence, speaking of his days at St Saviour’s in Bow, -“what they were talking about were their terraced houses, that were almost entirely swept away.”

The Jewish Maternity Hospital in Underwood Rd. This elegant crow-stepped gabled building is reminiscent of a streetscape by Vermeer. Although it has lost its diamond-paned leaded windows, it retains its original doors and ironwork.

The Arts & Crafts style cottage in Underwood Rd designed by John Myers in 1911.

The three bay flat-roofed block designed by Messrs Joseph Architects in 1925.

The original coalhole glazed with prisms by Hayward Bros of Union St, Borough.

Portraits of Tom Ridge copyright © Lucinda Douglas Menzies

Sign the petition to save the Jewish Maternity Hospital by clicking here

You may also wish to write to Stephen Howlett, CEO of Peabody, to object to the demolition: stephen.howlett@peabody.org.uk

13 Responses leave one →
  1. October 17, 2011

    Sent an e-mail, I hope it may help. Good luck to Tom Ridge, I am grateful for people like him who put so much effort in saving history.

    By the way, I’m hugely enjoying the map of Spitalfields Life, which I got for my birthday. Wonderful to relive all the walks I made there last summer.

  2. Ros permalink
    October 17, 2011

    I signed too – absolutely worth saving on both architectural and historical grounds.

  3. October 17, 2011

    Thanks to the gentle author for highlighting the current plight of the Jewish Maternity Hospital and also for writing about Tom Ridge. Without Tom, as you say, there would be no Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives in Bancroft Library and we would not still have this beautiful public library building which has served us in the East End since 1902.
    A petition saved Bancroft Library from the (second) attempt to buy the listed building in 2007. To save the Jewish Maternity Hospital, this time there is an online petition. This is even easier – so to all reading this please use the link so kindly provided above and sign to Save the JMH.

  4. Alan Gilbey permalink
    October 18, 2011

    Tom Ridge was my geography teacher. GO RIDGEY! And go Spitalfields Life readers too. Come on you lot! You post lots of comments when the Author writes about organic vegetables or cats, but only three when there is a passionate post about doing something to actually save a bit of the East End? Sign the petition now! (Lovely pictures of Tom by the way. They really capture his stoic pissed-offness and determination.)

  5. Nick permalink
    October 18, 2011

    How fantastic to hear about Tom Ridge’s commitment to saving the area’s historic buildings!

    Please continue to highlight these kind of cases as it’s great to have somewhere like minded individuals who care about the area in which they live can hear about these buildings and then act. It’s just a shame the council doesn’t seem to have any creative plans or direction when it comes to shaping the area and it’s local developments.

  6. Matt Rosemier permalink
    October 25, 2011

    I live just up the road in John Pritchard House (the red brick block of flats across Underwood road from the JMH). I’ve lived here since 2004, and I have fallen in love with this neighborhood (American expat version of “neighbour*)

    Underwood Road is part of the reason why I love this part of the East End. Up until recently, Underwood Road was a beautiful, tree-lined street bordered by lovely old brick buildings. That has begun to change with the demolition of the old caretaker’s house and the original Osmani Youth Center in order to create the new Youth Center ( I admit that this was much needed) and expand the playground for Keene School.

    If Peabody goes ahead with their planned demolition of the JMH, another gigantic piece of East London character will be lost forever. I hope that they can be persuaded to change their minds.

  7. Fiona Smith permalink
    October 25, 2011

    Dear Spitalfields Life and Tom Ridge
    I happily add my support to your campaign. Let me know if there is anything else I can do beyong signing the petition and writing to Mr Whalley. I work in Publicity and can bring this to the attention of journalists and the media. Please get in contact. Best Fiona

  8. Julian Duplain permalink
    October 26, 2011

    I live at the eastern end of John Pritchard House in Buxton Street, diagonally opposite the old maternity hospital, so this development will have a direct effect on my living environment.
    I definitely oppose plans to knock the building down – it is not of “negligible” interest, but in fact a very attractive and historical piece of architecture.
    When I heard that Peabody were planning to put flats on this site, I was pleased because I knew this organization does plenty of good work to provide affordable housing in London. But now they have let us all down.
    This project isn’t worthy of them – they are just ripping down, like any commercial developer.
    They should reconsider.

  9. Avis permalink
    October 30, 2011

    The Peabody Trust provides low cost, quality housing for Londoners on low incomes, there is a desperate, desperate shortage of housing in the UK. There people living in appalling, damp, cramped and expensive housing in the East End, that would make Dickens blush, only a short distance from Underwood Road, I love old buildings. but before we try and save all of them and the JMH is an interesting building but it is not that historic we should remember by saving this building we are denying people homes.

  10. Jerri Sones permalink
    November 27, 2011

    “If you forget history, you are doomed to repeat it.”

  11. January 21, 2012

    We have been covering this story and we are stunned that the Jewish Maternity Hospital (Mother Levy’s) has been destroyed. We have put details of this act of destruction in the next edition of our magazine to let everyone, home and abroad, know what has happened. We salute Tom Ridge’s zeal along with all other campaigners.

  12. jean webb permalink
    October 16, 2014

    Good on ya mr ridge u was a great teacher and lovely man xxx

  13. Ricky Kelley permalink
    June 27, 2015

    Mr Ridge was my Geography teacher from 1972 for 4 years. Wonderful lessons. Also trips to Swanage, etc.

    The photographs show him as I remember.

    Thanks for attempting to save East End history!

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