Five Buildings In Whitechapel
Photographer Louis Berk & writer Rachel Kolsky let me pick these five buildings that interest me from their new book WHITECHAPEL IN FIFTY BUILDINGS. (Click here to buy a copy for £12)
37 Stepney Green, the oldest house on the green, built 1694
37 Stepney Green was built for Dormer Sheppherd, a slave owner and merchant. In 1714, Mary Gayer, the widow of the East India Company’s Governor of Bombay, Sir John Gayer, moved in and it is her initials, ‘MG’, that are visible on the gates. Such houses are a reminder of when this was ‘Millionaire’s Row’ – their wealth derived from mercantile trade on the Thames. Later residents included a Chairman of the East India Company and Nicholas Charrington, a member of the brewing family. From 1875 until 1907, the house became a Jewish retirement home. Thereafter, it was briefly a Craft School before passing into the hands of the local authority in 1916. In 1998, Spitalfields Historic Housing Trust took ownership and it was fully restored by the new private owner.
Gwynne House, Turner St – built 1934
In a quiet street behind the Royal London Hospital is one of Whitechapel’s most unusual buildings. Surrounded by eighteenth and nineteenth century buildings, the modernist Gwynne House appears like a landlocked ocean liner.
Designed by Hume Victor Kerr, it consists of twenty-one flats over five storeys, linked by a rounded external staircase on which the name is displayed in art deco lettering. The design has an undeniable nautical flavour, with rounded windows in the front doors like portholes and the original white finish of the building survives.
Originally owned by the Royal London Hospital, it was built for as accommodation doctors and nurses but, in 2012, the owners decided to sell it to developers, citing that medical staff no longer expect or want to live in hospital-owned accommodation.
Unusually for an architect, Kerr also had a prolific military career. After lying about his age to fight in the First World War, he went from private to major between 1914 and 1919 and from gunner to colonel between 1939 and 1942.
Between and after the wars, he was a prolific architect. Also in Turner St is a factory he designed for M. Levy and in New Rd is his imposing Empire House, a warehouse and showroom, sold for redevelopment in 2015. Over in Middlesex St, he built Commerce House, which was demolished in the nineties, but the surviving buildings in Whitechapel ensure Hume has left his mark on the area.
The Co-operative Wholesale Society, 99 Leman St – built 1885-87
The impressive red-brick building on the corner of Leman St & Hooper St, complete with an imposing clock tower, was built for the CWS as its London headquarters. The name is still visible on the recessed brick, alongside the wheat sheaf motif and the ‘Labor and Wait’, motto – with the American spelling to show support for the anti-slavery campaign.
By 1900, Leman St became lined with warehouses for sugar and tea and coffee roasting and the CWS became known as the ‘Larder of Leman St.’ With its proximity to the docks, the CWS operated speedy transport links to its national headquarters in Manchester. The London headquarters remained in use until the late sixties, when nearby St Katharine and London Docks closed and the need for storage and offices declined.
The beautiful ceilings, inlaid woodwork and fireplaces of the original CWS London headquarters are no longer to be seen as the building was converted into luxury apartments in 20o9. Yet the clock tower remains, said to be a replica of Big Ben, though a quarter of the size. The makers, Thwaites & Read, restored it to working order with a digital mechanism, though it no longer chimes, which is obviously an advantage for residents.
The Eastern Dispensary, Leman St – built 1858
At the top of Leman St, a gleaming white Italianate building built in 1858 proclaims itself proudly as the ‘Eastern Dispensary’ with ‘Supported by Voluntary Contributions’ on either side of its ornate porch.
Prior to the National Health Service, public dispensaries provided medicines free of charge and provident dispensaries were run on a self-help basis via subscription. Founded in 1782 by doctors in the City, the Eastern Dispensary was originally located on Great Alie St. In 1858, it moved into this building designed by G. H Simmonds, a local surveyor and secretary to the dispensary.
Remaining as a dispensary until the Second World War, afterwards it was leased to various charities before falling into disuse. To protect it from redevelopment, the dispensary was listed by English Heritage and sold only when the new owner would ensure refurbishment. In 1998, it was restored and reopened as a pub with a mezzanine gallery overlooking the former consulting room.
The Proof House, 48/50 Commercial Rd – built 1757
This small, unassuming yellow brick building belonging to the Worshipful Company of Gunmakers has few distinguishing marks and is easily missed by the traffic hurtling down Commercial Rd.
Granted its royal charter in 1637 to promote and regulate gun making, the Company has continued this work to the present day. All guns sold must be tested to confirm soundness of barrel and action. Originally sited alongside the Aldgate, in 1675 the Proof House moved to a less-populated area just outside the City following an explosion that damaged the City wall.
The current London Proof House dates from 1757 and the Livery Hall alongside from 1872. The Receiving Room, where guns are delivered, and the Proof Master’s House to the left of the building were both built in 1826.
It is here that the London gun mark ‘GP,’ beneath a crown, is placed on guns suitable for firing and those, following deactivation, safe for collectors. For over three hundred years guns for private and military use have been inspected, proved and marked here.
Photographs copyright © Louis Berk