So Long, Mother Levy’s Nursing Home
Last week, Peabody demolished the historic Mother Levy’s Nursing Home in Spitalfields – in arrogant disregard of the widespread public demand for it to be preserved. Today, I am republishing my profile of Tom Ridge as a salute to the valour he showed in leading such a magnificent campaign which culminated in a unanimous vote by Tower Hamlets Council to save this beautiful old building. Yet even this was not enough to succeed, and my feature is accompanied by Tom’s recent statement which is touching in its dignity and restraint at such an emotional time.
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 has been to prevent the demolition of the former Jewish Maternity Hospital in Underwood Rd in Spitalfields.
Beyond its obvious significance as part of the history of the Jewish East End, the edifice was also 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 – was never entertained, instead it was destroyed in a development by Peabody that was hastened through, in which a token consultation of the immediate residents was invited and then their wishes were ignored. 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 2011, “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 sent a Prior Notification of Demolition to Tower Hamlets Council Planning Department that same month. Obtaining this approval in advance of any public consultation meant that Peabody could demolish the buildings irrespective of what the people of the East End had to say, and without any assessment of the historical importance of the existing structure or the environmental impact of a new block upon this quiet corner of Spitalfields.
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. An elegant crow-stepped gabled building reminiscent of a streetscape by Vermeer. Although it had lost its diamond-paned leaded windows, it retained its original doors and ironwork.
The Arts & Crafts style cottage was designed by John Myers in 1911.
No amount of commemoration by Peabody will compensate for this shocking and needless destruction of a little building which meant so much to so many people. And as an affordable family home, it would have been a living memorial to a unique maternity hospital.
There are now only two historic Jewish welfare buildings which stand testament to that extraordinary outburst of vitality and creativity known as the Jewish East End. But the old people’s home in Mile End Road and the soup kitchen for the Jewish Poor in Spitalfields are relatively unknown and unloved buildings, compared to the pride of place which was embodied in the name “Mother Levy’s.”
This name and the remarkable history of the unique hospital run by women for women will live on in the history books about the East End, but as built evidence and a living memorial for future generations to understand and appreciate the Jewish East End, and the East End as an historic point of arrival for migrants from Europe and indeed the whole world, Mother Levy’s is dead.
All the buildings at the former hospital are being demolished by Peabody, aided and abetted by officers in Tower Hamlets Council but against the unanimous wishes of its elected Councillors.All four hospital buildings on Underwood Road could and should have been adapted for residential use (with the utilitarian buildings at the back replaced by new homes). We began the campaign with this proposal but discovered that Peabody’s architects had already drawn up their plans for new buildings on the site of the former Jewish Maternity Hospital, which Peabody had purchased from Tower Hamlets Council in March 2011. It was at this point that Dr Sharman Kaddish, as director of Jewish Heritage UK, made her compromise proposal for the retention of the two cottages and their conversion to family homes.
Our petition to Peabody was based on this proposal and signed by about 760 people, including Arnold Wesker and former MP Mildred Gordon and councillors from all four political groups on Tower Hamlets Council. Dozens of letters were written to Peabody’s Chief Executive, Stephen Howlett. They included letters from the chairs of the Jewish East End Celebration Society and the East London History Society, Cllr Rabina Khan, and Cllr Bill Turner, the secretary of SAVE Britain’s Heritage and Lord Janner of Braunstone QC.
At the full council meeting on 29 November 2011, Cllr Judith Gardiner proposed the Labour group’s motion calling on the Mayor to negotiate with Peabody, and Peabody to spare the cottages. The motion noted that Peabody has a duty to optimise the amount of housing it provides but also to protect the borough’s heritage. Cllr Peter Golds, Leader of the Conservative group, spoke in support. Additionally, John Penrose MP, Minister for Tourism and Heritage recommended engagement between the Campaign, Council and Peabody for an amicable settlement to keep the two cottages. But Peabody was unmoved and, in demolishing the oldest and most attractive part of the former hospital, Peabody has committed the gross act of cultural vandalism which we all tried to prevent.
Tower Hamlets Council has the highest housing target in London and unless it formally identifies all its unlisted buildings which are heritage assets, and insists on their retention and adaptation by developers and housing associations, the borough will go on losing historical buildings capable of re-use. It is said that the Council has a list of 600 planned building sites for new housing. Most of the 600 sites will have existing buildings and doubtless many of them are unlisted buildings of some architectural and/or historic interest. Although none of them are likely to have been loved as much as Mother Levy’s, her tragic death must signal a new start for Tower Hamlets.
Had the 2008 Planning Statement for the redevelopment of the former hospital been made available for public comment, an altogether more transparent process may well have resulted in the retention and adaptation of the two cottages. Several years ago, Planning Statements for three redundant Tower Hamlets Council buildings were made available for public comment. As a matter of extreme urgency, all present and future council disposals must be subject to the same good practice. And as an integral part of this process, the Council must draw up a list of all unlisted heritage assets for retention and adaptation.
This is what became of the former Mother Levy’s Nursing Home where Alma Cogan, Lionel Bart, Arnold Wesker and many thousands of Jewish East Enders were born.
Portrait of Tom Ridge copyright © Lucinda Douglas Menzies
You may like to leave your own salute to Tom Ridge on the Save Mother Levy’s Campaign Facebook page