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David Hoffman at Fieldgate Mansions

October 30, 2013
by the gentle author

Children playing at Fieldgate Mansions, April 1981

This series of photographs by David Hoffman, taken while he was squatting in Fieldgate Mansions off Fieldgate St  in Whitechapel from 1973 until 1984, record a vital community of artists, homeless people and Bengali families who inhabited these streets at the time they were scheduled for demolition. Thanks to the tenacity and courage of these people, the dignified buildings survive today, restored and still in use for housing.

David Hoffman’s photographs record the drama of the life of his fellow squatters, subject to violent harassment and the constant threat of eviction, yet these images are counterpointed by his tender and intimate observation of children at play. After dropping out of university, David Hoffman found a haven in Fieldgate Mansion where he could develop his photography, which became his life’s work.

Characterised by an unflinching political insight, this photography is equally distinguished by a generous human sympathy and both these qualities are present in his Fieldgate Mansions pictures, manifesting the emergence of one photographer’s vision – as David Hoffman explained to me recently.

“It was the need for a place to live that brought me here. I’d come down from university without a degree in 1970. I’d dossed in Black Lion Yard and rented a squalid slum room in Chicksand St, before a permanent room came up for very little money in Black Lion Yard in 1971 above Solly Granatt’s jewellery shop. But the whole street was due for demolition, and when he died we squatted in it until they knocked it down in November 1973.

Then I found a place in Fieldgate Mansions which was being squatted by half a dozen people from the London College of Furniture. Bengali families were having a hard time and we were opening up flats in the Mansions for them to live there. We were really active, taking over other empty buildings that were being kept vacant in Myrdle St and Parfett St, because the owners found it was cheaper to keep them empty. We also squatted many empty houses further east in Stepney preventing the council from demolishing them. We took over and got evicted, and came back the next day and, when they put them up for auction, we used to bid and our bid won but, of course, we had no money so we couldn’t pay – it was a delaying tactic. It was a war of attrition to keep the buildings for people rather than for profit.

The bailiffs and police came at four in the morning and got everyone out and boarded up the property and put dogs in. Then we got dog handlers who removed the dogs and took them to Leman St Police Station as strays, and then we moved back in again.

When I moved into Fieldgate Manions it was late November and there was no hot water and the council had poured concrete down the toilet and ripped out the wiring. There was no insulation in the roof, it was just open to the slates and the temperature inside was as freezing as it was outside. I found a gas water heater in a skip and got it working on New Year’s Eve, so I counted in the New Year 1974 with hot water as the horns of the boats sounded on the river.

I decided to do Communication Design at the North East London Polytechnic, because I’d been taking photographs since I was a child and I’d helped set up a darkroom at university. At Fieldgate Mansions, I had a two room flat, one was my bedroom and office and other I made into a darkroom and I did quite a bit of photography. When I left college in 1976, I took up photography full time and began to make a slim living at it and I have done so ever since. While I was a student, I had a grant but I didn’t have to pay rent and it was the first time in my life I had enough money to feed and clothe myself. I stayed in Fieldgate Mansions until 1984 when I moved into a derelict house in Bow which I bought with some money I’d saved and what my mother left me, and where I still live today.”

Waiting to resist eviction in front of the barricaded front door of a squat in Myrdle St, Whitechapel, in February 1973. Ann Pettit and Anne Zell are standing, with Duncan, Tony Mahoney and Phineas sitting in front.

Doris Lerner, activist and squatter, climbs through a first floor window of a squat in Myrdle St

Max Levitas, Tower Hamlets Communist Councillor, tried unsuccessfully to convince the squatters that resistance to eviction should be taken over by the Communist Party

March on Tower Hamlets Council in protest against the eviction of squatters

Doris Lerner in an argument with a neighbour during the evictions from Myrdle St and Parfett St

Lavatory in squatted house in Myrdle St, Whitechapel, 1973

Police arrive to evict squatters in Myrdle St

Eviction in progress

Out on the street

Sleeping on the street after eviction

Liz and Sue in my flat in Fieldgate Mansions, September 1975

Coral Prior, silversmith, working in her studio at Fieldgate Mansions, 1977

Fieldgate Scratch Band

A boy dances in the courtyard of Fieldgate Mansions. Scheduled for demolition in 1972, it was squatted to prevent destruction until taken over by a community housing trust  and modernised in the eighties.

Photographs copyright © David Hoffman

39 Responses leave one →
  1. Jeannette permalink
    October 30, 2013

    OH! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
    For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
    Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
    Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
    But to be young was very heaven!

    http://www.bartleby.com/145/ww285.html

  2. marianne isaacs permalink
    October 30, 2013

    You Heros . I recently saw a documentary about saving Arnold Circus . So inspirational . Was that happening at the same time and didi you all know each other ?

  3. October 30, 2013

    A battle well won. But what a fight.

  4. October 30, 2013

    What a wonderful record. Never seen anything like it.
    What a brilliant thing you and your group achieved. Respect.

  5. Jose Cadaveira permalink
    October 30, 2013

    What a fantastic piece of history, brilliant photos!

  6. October 30, 2013

    Those people had courage and vision and did a great job! Valerie

  7. jm parham permalink
    October 30, 2013

    I remember David from the old days when i first moved into Fieldgate Mansions and here I am still. Started off living in a gloomy basement flat, now i’ve come up in the world and my flat is in the roof! Great photos from bygone days.

  8. SBW permalink
    October 30, 2013

    amazing photographs. thank you. s

  9. Sal Shuel permalink
    October 30, 2013

    One of the things I always liked about you and your photographs has been your refusal to set things up, make them pretty and commercial and behave like your average photographer who wants to be running a State of the Art car and a Trophy Wife. These are great pictures. How I do love black and white. Think how trite these would be in Glorious Velvia.

    I’m still here and await your annual Christmas Card with keen expectation.

  10. Anita Frizzarin permalink
    October 30, 2013

    I came across Mount Terrace near Whitechapel tube station, which also looks like a survival from mass demolition, and most surreal by contrast with the surrounding area (mainly the hospital). Since the map of WW2 bombed areas does not show that Mount Terrace was bombed, I don’t know why demolition occurred.

  11. carl hindmarch permalink
    October 30, 2013

    Thank you for sharing these beautiful images, and thank you David Hoffman for being there and recording such interesting times.

  12. Clark Richardson permalink
    October 30, 2013

    All of your blogs fascinate me, some of course more then others as I am not a resident. Would it be out of line to suggest that you have a like button for Facebook as I would really like to be able to share some of your blogs with my contacts?

  13. October 30, 2013

    Gorgeous… my kind of article! Visited once, and was most impressed by the ethos. Lovely to see these Hoffman photos.

  14. Miriam Delorie permalink
    October 30, 2013

    Dear David Hoffman, I could not believe my eyes when I saw this email with all the pictures…for years now I’ve been trying to find out about Fieldgate mansions and I have the number of the mansikons as this was where my grandparents and my father was born. I do have a picture that someone kindly took for me – but when I tried to find out from census details who lived in Fieldgate Mansions in 1905 (the year my father was born) – I couldn’t get anywhere and seemed to be turning round in circles. I would love to send you a direct email if you would allow this and maybe could could direct me to somewhere where I could find out possible records of my grandparents living there. They were in a basement room/flat?? and their name was Fanny (Dresden) and Louis/Lewis Levy – and they had 6 children (my father was the youngest). If you are able to tell me the jewish school that they would have been zoned for I would really appreciate it. best regards Miriam [mdelorie40@gmail.com]

  15. October 30, 2013

    Great photos. A wonderful record of the squatters movement.

  16. tony bock permalink
    October 30, 2013

    Another time, well recorded. Nice photos, David.

  17. Elli (Elizabeth) permalink
    October 30, 2013

    Wonderful photographs thank you so much for sharing David.

  18. October 30, 2013

    Fascinating copy and tremendous images. Thanks

  19. Kate Blackshaw permalink
    October 30, 2013

    Wonderful evocative photographs – beautifully capture the time, the people and the place.

  20. Shaun Peters permalink
    October 30, 2013

    Wonderfully spirited photographs; full of action that speak, no shout about the times those people are living in. Thank you.

  21. Neville Turner permalink
    October 30, 2013

    I remember Fieldgate street mansions there were continuous housing problems there I think the architects should have been designated to live in their creations before asking others to,opposite these flats there was a Rowton House for the homeless which was closed in the 60ths.
    Avery uplifting story of what people can acheive when they show determination and will.Good luck for the future.

  22. sarah ainslie permalink
    October 30, 2013

    These are are wonderful, amazing and full of so much vitality a great inspiration, and children living and playing their lives. Hope there are more to come as I love them sarah

  23. Terry Jones permalink
    October 30, 2013

    Nan and Grandfather lived in Fieldgate Mansions 50s and 60s. Remember well, even now. Especially Christmas tree that filled the whole room :) I had a Jewish ‘Aunt Julie’ even though we were all ‘Catholics’. Matzos, Fishballs, Biegles, pronounced bIgals’ :)

  24. Nilakshi Roy permalink
    October 31, 2013

    Thanks dear Gentle Author, and dear David Hoffman:

    I am from India and I do my research on migration, especially British Asian literature. We read, write and hear of all kinds of negative and politicised ideas on current and past theoretical discourse. But my British Asian women writers, dear David and TGA, have always kept alive the stories of love and bonding in those early years,without which so many Asians would never have survived.

    I would suggest particularly the novels of Ravinder Randhawa, and one by Preeti Nair, “One hundred shades of white ” which tell you about all kinds of British women who stood by semi-articulate Indian and Bangladeshi women who could thereby withstand eviction, abandonment, bereavement and a hundred other challenges around the time-frame you have captured. And like your photo essay, they too end in an overwhelming sense of JOY, JOY, JOY! Thanks to all the people who stood by each other, women like Lerner, and to David who thought it important to record the various shades of this experience.

  25. October 31, 2013

    I went to see David Hoffman speak about his work recently – amazing stuff, especially his shots of the Wet Crypt at St Botolph’s, Aldgate (not shown here). Hard to believe that the shots shown here were only taken in the 70′s and 80′s – they seem a world away.

  26. John Moss permalink
    November 4, 2013

    Interesting that “Landlords found it cheaper to keep them empty”.

    The pernicious effects of rent controls no doubt.

  27. March 21, 2014

    Re; ‘Liz and Sue in my flat in Fieldgate Mansions, September 1975′. Sue? looks like Jayne to me

  28. Luke Pease permalink
    September 26, 2014

    Thanks for these pictures and for your activism, of which I was an unknowing beneficiary, having lived in Fieldgate Mansions from 1981 to 1985. It was such a great place to live, with every flat occupied by either young students from various London colleges, or immigrant Bengali families making a hard living in dubious conditions. If the music didn’t keep you awake at night, the sewing machines from the Bengali rag trade would.

  29. Jack Balchin permalink
    November 2, 2014

    That looks like my old Fiat Dave !!

    Just got jolted back to BLY times and found this wonderful saga.

    You always could spin a yarn ………

    just wish the pix from the Sweetie Show at Whitechapel gallery survived..

  30. Misbah usdjn permalink
    December 28, 2014

    These pictures bring back so many memories. Grew up in fieldgate mansions and lived there for thirty years. Still have family there. Remember when southern housing took over in the eighties. I was only a kid and all these other things at the time were of no interest to me. I have some of my happiest memories and these pictures made them flood back! In fact I didn’t even realise we were squatters until only a few years ago after talking about these pictures to my elder brothers.

    Many of the people still living in the area are in the pics and I have been in touch with many others because of them. Thanks David for the memories.

    P.S I’m the kid in the cap with the dimple and potatoe gun.

  31. Tim Penrice permalink
    January 23, 2015

    These are lovely mementos David. Good photos too! I was there (on and off) in number 60 Myrdle Street from September 73 to June 85. Joe Heard always reckoned that these few streets were ‘sprinkled with stardust’. He was referring to the people and the spirit. You caught it well and thanks for sharing them.

  32. Shaharul Alom permalink
    June 13, 2015

    I was born in Parfett Street in ’88 but my parents, grandparents loved there since 70′s and the stories i hear are amazing. The struggle, the fights, but what’s more is the sense of community even in those hard times. I still work in the area at the little centre on Myrdle St and it’s a wonder how things change.

    These photos by Mr Hoffman are amazing and send an insight to the world of the times in which people lived. For that I am grateful

  33. Monjour permalink
    June 14, 2015

    Thank you David for sharing these photographs with us all. I spent my childhood in this lovely area. Even though I have moved out from this area, I still go there every now and then. It has transformed a lot over the past decade, with the the long standing ‘Tower House,’ which was abandoned for many years, renovated for the purpose of renting out to professionals. The area is slowly (and sadly for those of us who hold this area so close to our hearts) losing it’s community now and being replaced by professionals and students, which is great for businesses, but not so great for the character and the togetherness that the area has always had. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that the beautiful smiles and joy you have captured in your photographs can ever be found again in the next ten to twenty years. Money doesn’t buy you happiness and your photographs beautifully portray this.

  34. Christine browne permalink
    July 24, 2015

    I lived in commercial mansions with my family in the 60′s we played on the roof had an outside toilet which we shared with the next door neighbour there was a deli on the corner which sold the biggest juiciest gherkins ever and on the other corner was a sweet/ grocer shop which had a milk machine outside and chocolate milks called mickies

  35. Georgina Briody permalink
    November 8, 2015

    I worked in Fieldgate Street in 1970/71, thanks for this article, brought back to me how the people had to live from day to day.

  36. Brenda permalink
    March 25, 2016

    Thank you so much for the opportunity to see Mr Hoffman’s photographs of Fieldgate Mansions. They give such an honest account of how life was then and the difficulties encountered.

  37. Miriam Delorie permalink
    April 3, 2016

    Dear David Parham,
    If you lived in the basement of Fieldgate Mansions and so did my grandparents..would it be difficult for you t0 find out who lived there in1910? or 1901 where my father was born? or let me know to whom I should write to get info. Thank you.
    Amazing photos. thank you.

  38. Jeffrey Marshall permalink
    July 5, 2016

    In response to one or two enquiries above, records of all residents at Fieldgate Mansions since they were constructed are listed in polling registers, which can all be seen at Tower Hamlets Local history library at Bancroft Road.

    The evictions in the photos look as though they are taking place in the terraced housing on the west side of Myrdle Street and on the adjoining street, Parfett Street, rather than Fieldgate Mansions itself. This is unsurprising as these terraced houses were privately owned, whereas ownership of Fieldgate Mansions had been passed to the Greater London Council.

    I moved into Fieldgate Mansions in May 1974 and had no idea demolition of these buildings was on the cards. From this time some of the buildings began to be used as official student housing (for the London Hospital, City of London Polytechnic etc).

    Then, in 1977, the newly Conservative GLC declared an amnesty for squatters in GLC properties which stabilised their position.

  39. Helen Hewland permalink
    August 28, 2016

    Thank you for displaying this beautiful photography by David Hoffmann.

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