Tom Ridge & the Jewish Maternity Hospital
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: email@example.com
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: firstname.lastname@example.org