Return To Trinity Green
A few years have passed since I first walked through the gate off Mile End Rd into the quiet enclave of London’s oldest almshouses at Trinity Green where cats preside over a green lawn shaded by gnarly trees and enfolded by two lines of seventeenth-century brick cottages that glow in the October sunlight.
This extraordinary survival of Sir William Ogbourne’s seafarers’ almshouses from 1695 is almost solely due to the efforts of CR Ashbee, pioneer of the Conservation movement in this country and founder of the Guild of Handicrafts in Bow, who rescued them from demolition in 1895. It was the first historic building in the East End to be saved and exists today as an early example of the benign provision of social dwellings.
Regrettably, my return was at the invitation of the residents who wish to draw attention to the spiral of neglect by the council and to the imminent threat of a tower of luxury flats overshadowing Trinity Green, about which they have received no consultation. Built on top of Sainsburys in Whitechapel, they told me this proposed block will be as tall as Centrepoint.
After post-war restoration, the almshouses were handed over to the council, pursuing an enlightened policy of reusing these historic buildings for social housing, and celebrated by a visit of the Queen in 1963. More recently, many of the flats have been sold to private owners although the council still owns many of the dwellings and the chapel, and is responsible for the green which is a public park.
The residents wanted to show me how the council is failing in its duty of care to this grade I listed property. Cast your eyes along the front wall and you notice that four stone ball finials have gone missing. Step inside the gate and a vacant council-owned dwelling has water damage where a cistern was allowed to overflow for months. Next door, at another of the council-owned cottages, a ball has been removed from the pediment years ago and not replaced, while the pediment itself has been needlessly pierced by a flue outlet which could have been sited at the rear of the building.
I visited the chapel for the first time and discovered one of the East End’s finest architectural spaces. Within living memory, this chapel used as a satellite for St Anne’s, Underwood Rd. Today, although it retains its magnificent original features – its panelling, cornice and octagonal vestibule – it is a municipal meeting room marred by stacks of ugly furniture, corporate carpet and strip lighting. Most-disappointingly, the pair of seventeenth century brass chandeliers have gone in recent years leaving just the chains on which they once hung. Outside upon the stone steps, crude repairs in concrete will exacerbate problems with the ageing stonework over time.
With poignant symbolism, the hands have been removed from the clock face on the top of the chapel. If you step in through the main gates from Mile End Rd and cast your eyes upwards, this clock appears to meet your gaze as the central focus of Sir William Ogbourne’s entire architectural conception.
After it was saved by CR Ashbee at the end of the nineteenth century and restored for social housing in the twentieth century, I hope we shall not be the generation that presides over the decay of Trinity Green, leaving it to languish for future generations in the shadow of a monstrous tower.
A pair of quaint narrow terraces face each other across a green off the Mile End Rd in Whitechapel. Although they are lined up neatly like ships’ cabins, only the model boats upon the street frontage remain as evidence that these were built for as almshouses for mariners. But, if you step closer and crane your neck, a stone plaque high on the wall proclaims their noble origin thus, “THIS ALMES HOUSE wherein twenty-eight decay’d Masters & Commanders of Ships, or ye Widows of such are maintain’d, was built by ye CORP. of TRINITY HOUSE, ano 1695. The Ground was given by Capt. HENY MUDD of Rattcliff an Elder Brother, whose Widow did alfo Contribute.”
Even today, a certain atmosphere of repose hangs upon this small enclave, protected from the pandemonium of East London traffic by trees and delicate emerald green railings – now a preserve of cats and flowerpots and twisted old trees and lawns strewn with dandelions and daisies – where it is easy to imagine those “twenty-eight decay’d Masters & Commanders” who once sat around here competing to outdo each other with oft-repeated tales of high adventures upon the seven seas.
The architect was Sir William Ogbourne, and his design was ship-shape in its elegant organisation, fourteen dwellings on either side, each one with three rooms stacked up on top of the other, all arranged around a chapel at the centre to provide spiritual navigation. It was a rigorous structure enlivened by lyrical flourishes, elaborately carved corbels above each door, model boats and stone balls topping off the edifice, and luxuriant stone crests adorning the brick work.
In the nineteenth century, a tall mast stood at the centre of the green to complete the whole endeavour as an approximation of a ship upon dry land – complementing the concave walls at the front in place of a hull and the raised chapel in the aft where the poop deck would be. Just a mile from the docks, it was the perfect spot for Masters & Commanders to enjoy their decay, and it might have sailed on majestically, if it had not been sunk by the bombing in 1943, that destroyed part of the chapel and the rear eight cottages. Taken over by the LCC, Trinity Green is now a mixture of private and public dwellings where everyone gets along peaceably, unified in their appreciation of this favoured spot.
One of the guardians of Trinity Green
This stone ball was removed from the roof of a council owned cottage and never replaced, meanwhile a vent punctures the cornice of this grade 1 listed building
While this council owned cottage sits empty, the water tank has leaked for months damaging brick work
Council owned property to the left and privately owned property to the right reveal comparative levels of maintenance
Unappreciated interior of the chapel, where seventeenth century chandeliers have recently been removed leaving just the chains
Finely carved wooden cornice in the chapel
After three hundred years, the hands have recently been removed from the clock face
When I visited in 2011, the hands were still on the clock at Trinity Green
The proposed tower of luxury flats as tall as Centrepoint that threatens Whitechapel & Trinity Green
Letter by Charles Robert Ashbee, designer & founder of the School of Handicraft in Bow, to the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings about the Trinity Almshouses.
Trinity Almshouses, Mile End Rd, 1695
CR Ashbee letter published courtesy of Society for Protection of Ancient Buildings
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