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Notable & Lost Buildings Of Columbia Rd

November 13, 2014
by Linda Wilkinson

In her fourth story, Linda Wilkinson traces Columbia Rd’s architectural heritage, notable & lost

Nineteenth century glass side of Columbia Market, courtesy of Bishopsgate Institute

By the latter half of the nineteenth century, it was fashionable to send affluent young men to live in the East End as part of their societal duty. One suspects this was partly voyeurism of a class of people who were often regarded as sub-human, but no doubt it also had the effect of disseminating first-hand information about the prevailing conditions in the slums and rookeries. So it is no surprise that some of the newly self-made men of the Victorian middle classes pursued Philanthropy, nor that the poverty-ridden quarter which Columbia Rd became should have come to their attention.

The provision of social housing for the “deserving poor” was begun here by Angela Burdett-Coutts and Charles Dickens who, through the vision of architect Henry Darbishire, built an architectural masterpiece that few can believe ever existed in the East End. Photographs cannot do justice to the sweeping majesty of this series of buildings which rivalled any of that era. Part market complex and part housing scheme, this vast structure has been replaced today by Sivill House and the flats around it that comprise Market Sq.

As a market, it was a spectacular failure and the housing element hardly fared better. Purposely built with ill-fitting doors and no glass in the corridor windows, they were an icy, inhospitable series of dwellings. The basement and other parts of the structure were damaged by bombing in World War Two. It was certainly salvageable yet, despite protests at the time, the entire complex of buildings was demolished in the nineteen-sixties.

The next tenement block to be erected was Leopold Buildings in 1872, by the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company. Built upon land leased by Angela Burdett-Coutts, the block was run on similar lines to Columbia Sq with a strict selection and discipline regime, thus ensuring a healthy return on investment. It housed one hundred and twelve families and was of such individual design that, in 1994, the block received a Grade II listing. In 1997, the premises were upgraded and refurbished to a high standard, and today they enliven the otherwise architecturally bland west end of Columbia Rd.

The next tenement block to be built was in 1892  by the Guinness Trust. As theTtrust announced at the time, “The Guinness Trust … acquired a triangular site on the east side of Columbia Rd (formerly Birdcage Walk), north of the Barnet Chantry estate, in 1890. It replaced sixty-three houses with six blocks of mostly two-roomed tenements designed by Joseph & Smithem, completed in 1901.”

Finally, Ravenscroft Buildings, which stood where Ravenscroft Park sits today was built in 1897 and comprised one hundred and ninety-four flats. It was built around three sides of a rectangle to a height of five storeys. Designed in an ornate style by Davis & Emmanuel, it has not survived and the only extant photograph of the front is the one below, taken in 1898, probably from the Birdcage Public House.

Angela Burdett-Coutts (Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery)

Columbia Market Hall, 1914

These gateposts and railings are all that remain today of Columbia Market Hall

Leopold Buildngs, 1872

Architectural detail of Leopold Buildings

Leopold Buildings

Guinness Trust Buildings, 1892

The only extant shot of the frontage of Ravenscourt Buildings, taken in 1898 probably from the Birdcage Public House (Courtesy of English Heritage)

Joan resident of Ravenscroft Buildings, 1954 – her niece Carol is portrayed below

Hoardings after demolition of Ravenscourt Buildings in the eighties, on what is now Ravenscourt Park

Carol Court, long-term resident of Ravenscroft Buildings, in the park which replaces them today

Jesus Green, the Jesus Hospital Estate was built in the eighteen sixties

Nineteenth century furniture workshops on Columbia Rd

Nineteenth century shopfronts with dwellings above

Looking west down Columbia Rd towards the City of London

14 Responses leave one →
  1. November 13, 2014

    Amazing and very sad to hear bout Columbia Market – but v interesting too.

    I heard some top architect or another describe shop below / living above as the single most conducive approach to building communities.

  2. Barbara permalink
    November 13, 2014

    Hi Linda, love all these posts which are educating me about a place I have known for years but had very little idea of it’s history . Have you had a chance to see the Bell Jacks yet which were rescued from the roof of the old market ? They are now stored by English Heritage at their new Archaeological museum , Wrest Park , Bedfordshire. Would be good to get them back to Columbia Road??? Looking forward to tomorrows post already !

  3. November 13, 2014

    Another very interesting read. The old buildings certainly had more charm than the soulless new houses and flats which replaced them. Valerie

  4. Eileen Withrington permalink
    November 13, 2014

    Thank you again Linda for your fascinating insight into the history of the area around Columbia Road where I grew up. I remember the Columbia Square tenement (which we used to call the Black Buildings) being derelict until their demolition – such a pity it was never viable for housing as architecturally it was surely on a par with St Pancras Station. I’m so glad the Bell Jacks were saved, picture here which says they are on loan from English Heritage and located at Tower Hill Terrace in London. Wish I’d known that before my last visit to see the Tower poppies!

  5. November 13, 2014

    Angela Burdett Coutts grave is worth a visit. It is in St Pancras Church Cemetery, just north of St Pancras station – a beautiful zigurat with glazed tiles of flowers.

  6. Pauline Taylor permalink
    November 13, 2014

    Thank you from me too Linda, I so much enjoy learning about the history of the East End. I did not know about Charles Dickens’ connection with Angela Burdett-Coutts before but I have recently discovered, from the memoirs published in the 1950s of a lady who was then aged 103, that Dickens was a visitor at the home of Frederick Greenwood, and that she had met him there. All this interests me as Frederick Greenwood was also concerned about the plight of the poor in London, and he and his brother James, who wrote an article about a night spent in Lambeth Workhouse, were members of my Greenwood family. Frederick Greenwood was the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette and he published articles by Charles Dickens I believe.

    Someone mentioned, on here recently I think, the strong pull that there is when you have ancestors from areas of London and I agree. I have never lived in London myself but all my father’s family came from parishes close beside the River Thames, and I definitely feel the pull!!
    All these fascinating insights into history interest me so much so thank you again.


  7. Ron Pummell permalink
    November 13, 2014

    I attended Columbia Road School from 1943 until 1948 when Mrs Smith was the ‘Milk Lady’, Mr Nelson was the Headmaster and Mr Evans was the Caretaker. Other teachers were Mr Bridel, Miss Clark, Miss Doe, Mr Hawkins, Mr King, Mrs Munns and Miss Johnson. Very good photos.
    Ron Pummell.

  8. Michael Glynn permalink
    October 10, 2015

    I lived in flat 9 Ravenscroft Buildings from about 1945 until about 1955, and attended Columbia Road Primary School. My mother’s sister lived in flat 12. She was a war widow and married David Evans who was the milkman from Jones’ Dairy, Ezra Street. The families all now live in Norfolk.
    Michael Glynn

  9. Brian Smith permalink
    November 8, 2015

    My name is Brian smith and I lived in 144, Ravenscroft buildings from 1945 until 1951.
    My friend Barry Gad lived in the block next door, my grandad Mr Lee owned the wet fish shop on Columbia Road, called lee’s and as far as I know it is still called lees. I attended the primary school opposite and remembered sleeping in the main hall, on camp beds in the afternoon, and also went to the Odean cinema on Saturday mornings paying 6 pennies for entry. Any comments!

  10. Leanne Newman permalink
    March 3, 2016

    A fascinating article

    Please could you tell me who did the illustration of Columbia Market and in what year.

    Also have you any idea of the name of the gardens/park next to the market

  11. Paul Russell permalink
    July 1, 2016

    I lived in Ravenscroft buildings on the second floor directly opposite the bird cage public house. I had two brothers John and Brynmor, parents John(jack) and Elsie, my Gradparents lived in the middle front their names were Charles Gray and Nell. I was also sent to Harry Blanco’s to get flour from a barrel packed into a blue paper bag. Does anyone remember any of this or my family.

  12. Renee Pepper permalink
    October 21, 2016

    I was in the Mildmay Mission Hospital when I was 7 and I can remember my sister and my
    mum waving from the corner of columbia road school. The nurses used to push my bed
    out on the balcony of the hospital. I remember the Bell Jacks in situ and people used to
    say that enemy “spies” used to be up there sending secret messages!!. Of course this was
    in the war. So glad the Bell Jacks have been rescued.

  13. Ken Britton permalink
    December 7, 2016

    Lived in Ravenscroft Buildings from 1947 until 1953 with my Grandmother whose name was Foster – Cannot remember the flat number but was on the first floor. Remember the courtyard in the middle where we use to play. My dad’s local was the Bird Cage just across the road and I remember my auntie Mary playing the piano there in the evening. Went back a few years ago and there is now a park where Ravenscroft Buildings was but the pub hasn’t changed much apparently

  14. Christine kerrison permalink
    October 1, 2017

    I lived in the Columbia square buildings from 1949 – 1952 when my uncle and aunt moved into our ground floor flat. We used to visit often and I remember well how awful the place was with dark corridors and shared toilets. The square where the market had been was where we played and seemed to have a lot of broken glass. My uncle had previously lived at 99 Ravenscroft buildings.

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