Dan Cruickshank speaks to SAVE NORTON FOLGATE at Shoreditch Church at 6:30pm on Wednesday 22nd April, with guests Sian Phillips reading the poetry of Sir John Betjeman and Conservation Consultant Alec Forshaw dissecting the British Land scheme. Dan will be telling the story of how British Land were defeated in Norton Folgate in 1977 and today he gives us a taster, reminiscing about battles old and new in Spitalfields. Click here to book your free ticket.
Seven years ago, I became involved in a strange East End adventure. At that time there was a plan to level the buildings on the west side of Norton Folgate, destroying a robust piece of railway architecture from around 1890 which, at the time, was used as a bar called The Light. All was to be replaced by a large-scale development named Principal Place, designed by Foster and Partners and incorporating a fifty-storey residential tower.
I have lived in Spitalfields since 1978 – my house is only a few minutes walk east from the site – and, like many, I could not see why a fine building in productive and convivial use, making many people happy, should be swept away so that a few people could make a great deal of money. A campaign to save the building was launched but the going was tough since the developers insisted that all had to be cleared, so their ‘vision’ for the new Norton Folgate could be realised, and local authorities showed little interest in the existing buildings or the extraordinary history of this small yet ancient part of London, that has a somewhat mysterious and exotic past.
The Liberty of Norton Folgate sits astride the Roman Ermine St in an area that contains part of the northern cemetery of Roman London, an early twelfth century emergency cemetery (perhaps related to a disastrous famine) and, from 1197, the main portion of the Augustinian Priory of St. Mary. The Liberty’s association with death continued after the foundation of the Priory, so that by the time it was ‘dissolved’ in the 1530s around 10,000 bodies had been deposited in its grounds, mostly in the Liberty of Norton Folgate.
Given the radical nature of the Reformation, the winding-up of the Priory seems to have been inevitable but, in fact, it almost survived. The Lord Mayor and Corporation of London lobbied Thomas Cromwell for its preservation for the reception of the ill and those needing medical assistance, notably woman in labour. Elsewhere, the Lord Mayor and Corporation were successful in their campaigns to save the former monastic establishments that became St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, St. Thomas’s Hospital and Bedlam. The fact that these medieval institutions survived the Reformations to continue their useful functions is one of the more pleasing tales of sixteenth century London.
But, sadly, Lord Mayor and City Corporation failed to save what would have become St. Mary’s Hospital in what, by the mid-sixteenth century, had become known as Spitalfields, named after the hospital – or ‘spital – in the fields. So St. Mary’s is London great ‘lost’ London hospital, with the vacuum not filled until 1740 when the London Hospital, serving the City and the East End, and funded through subscription, was founded in Moorfields before moving to Goodman’s Fields and then in 1757 to Whitechapel.
In the 1530s, the land of the Liberty of Norton Folgate passed to secular control with its government eventually vested in the hands its ‘antient’ inhabitants. This secular Liberty inherited some of the key characteristics of its monastic predecessor. The Augustinians, with their fine and large church, were outside the system of parishes, three of which lapped around its borders – St. Botolph to the south and west, St. Leonard to the north, and St. Dunstan to the east. Parishes were not only centres of religious life but also units of local government and – potentially – of political and social control. In addition, the Liberty of Norton Folgate was also largely outside the control of the City of London because the boundary of the City’s ward of Bishopsgate Without met, but did not overlap, the Liberty’s border. Governed by officers chosen annually from among its eligible residents and maintained through taxes raised within its boundaries, the Liberty survived until parish-based local government passed into the hands of the newly created London County Council in 1900.
At the time of the threat to The Light, I was horrified by the ignorance and brutalism of the building industry and the authorities but, while I was left feeling painfully impotent as disaster loomed, a fellow campaigner came up with a brilliantly creative idea.
Research suggested that there was a legal anomaly in the legislation that transferred power from London’s parishes to the LCC. The Liberty of Norton Folgate was not mentioned in documentation so – it was argued – since the Liberty had not been legally divested of its powers, it still existed as a sovereign London authority. This meant that its territory was not subject to the control of the London Boroughs of Hackney or Tower Hamlets and therefore permissions granted by them were not lawful or valid. Instead, governance was legally the right of its elected ‘antient’ residents. It was heady stuff – ‘Passport to Pimlico’ come to life – and instantly the local residents held an ad-hoc election to nominate officers of the Liberty.
The structure of the Liberty’s government, medieval and manorial, is well described in a draft Act of Parliament for running the Liberty that dates from 1759 and is preserved in Tower Hamlets’ Local History Library. It records that, by tradition, the officers chosen from among the Liberty’s ‘antient’ inhabitants were Headborough, Constable, Overseer and Scavenger who – collectively – were responsible for lighting, cleansing, policing and courts of the Liberty, and for the collection of the local taxes. The Headborough was the senior officer akin to Mayor. These jobs were not token but practical, and could be time-demanding and onerous. Eligible inhabitants might decline the honour of serving the Liberty when their turn came, but had to pay a fine of £10 – a large sum in the mid-eighteenth century when the average wage for a London journeymen was around £50 a year.
The draft Act of Parliament of 1759 offers fascinating detail about life in what was a well-ordered and prosperous part of London at that time. The locally-raised taxes – which, like the national Land Tax, were charged to occupants and based on the rental value of the houses they occupied – were used to pay for a Beadle, six Night-Watchmen, the daily collection of rubbish and a handsome array of globular street lamps, fixed to houses and on stanchions. The 1759 Liberty minute books reveal the mechanism by which the residents acted to assure the smooth governance of their Liberty. The minute book for June that year records that twenty-eight residents were present at a meeting and resolved to employ the beadle at £20 per annum. The Beadle was to ‘set the watch, attend at the watch house, attend collectors in collecting ye rates…keep the Liberty free of vagabonds and people making a shop to sell fruit etc…keep the book which of the watchmen’s turn it is to be on each stand [and] to be a constant resident of the Liberty.’ It was also resolved that six Watchmen (or Charleys) were to be hired at £12 per annum each. These Watchmen were to ‘Beat the round every half hour, watch from 9 o’clock in the evening to six in ye morning from Michaelmas to Ladyday, and from 10 in the evening to four in the morning from Ladyday to Michaelmas.’
A subsequent meeting of occupants of the Liberty determined how its paid work-force was to conduct itself. They were to ‘apprehend and detain Malefactors, Rogues, Vagabonds, Disturbers of the Peace and all Persons whom they have just reason to suspect have any evil designs…deliver to the Constable or Headborough…or the Beadle’ and then ‘with all convenient speed…to…some justice or justices of the Peace to be examined and dealt with according to law.’ The Watchmen were especially instructed to ‘apprehend any Person casting the night soil in the street and carry them to the watch house.’ This instruction suggests this was a particularly common offence.
The effectiveness of the Liberty’s body of Watchmen is open to question. The average age of the six appointed in 1759 was fifty-two, two were described as having bad eyesight and, by October 1759, one of the Watchmen had been dismissed after an earlier reprimand for missing thirty-three nights in one quarter. But, decrepit as the Night Watchmen may have been, it seems clear that in the mid-eighteenth century the Liberty was a model piece of city – well lit, cleaned and watched – which is not surprising since, at that moment of history, it was a wealthy neighbourhood. Spital Sq – developed from the late seventeenth century in ad-hoc manner out of Spital Yard, a former monastic space – was home to some of the leading occupants of the Liberty, with terrace of merchant palaces built along its eastern arm in the early 1730s.
Thus it was that, seven years ago, I became Headborough for a day with various of my neighbours filling other posts and we were joined by distinguished visitors, including Suggs of Madness. Our re-launch of the Liberty was not entirely fruitless. Ultimately, it succeeded in saving a large portion of the railway building occupied by The Light but, while the body of it was saved, the fate of its soul remains in doubt. The Light has gone today, the place stands boarded up and shorn of its western wing, awaiting its fate. Its future is currently scheduled as a place of fine dining in the shadow of the fifty storey tower that will eventually loom over it. Yet this tower is now the least of the problems challenging the survival of the Liberty.
On the east side of Norton Folgate, the former Nicholls & Clarke buildings stand in the way of a dread and brutish British Land proposed development. British Land’s proposal would, if given planning permission, create a terrifying precedent undermining all historic quarters throughout the country.
The particular site in British Land’s target has in recent years been acquired by the City of London Corporation as British Land’s collaborator in this scheme and it lies entirely within, and forms a large portion of, the Elder St Conservation Area. By law, developments in Conservation Areas must protect, reflect and enhance the existing architectural and social character, and preserve existing historic fabric. Tower Hamlets Council in its 2007 Appraisal of the Elder St Conservation Area puts the case correctly, ‘Overall this is a cohesive area that has little capacity for change. Future needs should be met by the sensitive repair of the historic building stock …….. Historic structures and buildings should be retained, and new development should respect the urban form, scale and block structure.’
The existing buildings include a fine row of warehouses of 1886, some of which contain their original, iron-framed interiors. These would be demolished, with only portions of their facades retained, if the British Land scheme gets planning permission. Indeed British Land proposes to demolish over seventy per cent of the existing buildings within the portion of the Conservation Area it controls, mostly replacing them with large-floor plate commercial buildings that rise as high as thirteen stories, instead of the general four-story height of existing buildings. If this happens, the Liberty – whose architectural and social character is still discernible in its street pattern and the tight grain of its buildings and mix of uses – would become no more that a bland corporate enclave of the City of London.
For me, this ghastly scheme possesses a particularly ghoulish character as an awful reminder of the cyclical – and seemingly futile – nature of human affairs. There is a sinister sense of déja vu. Before I moved into my house, I had battled for the existence of the early eighteenth century houses on Elder St’s east side. I was a trustee of the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust which had just been formed and, in the late summer of 1977, we fought to save the two most ruinous and threated houses in Elder St – 5 and 7 – which in their plan and details were particularly interesting. We thought if we could save these houses – or even if we failed but made a huge and public fuss – the rest of the street might be saved. We occupied 5 and 7, and we challenged the Development Company (which owned them and desired their demolition and the conversion of neighbouring houses into offices), the Housing Association (that hoped to acquire the site of 5 and 7 for flats), the Historic Buildings Department of the Greater London Council – and, of course, Tower Hamlets Council.
The contest dragged on for weeks – seemingly for months – and we had been lulled into a sense of false security when the developers regained possession of 5 and 7, and demolition men were immediately moved in. The roof of number 7 was ripped off within hours, but then it was demonstrated that the developers, by failing to give the GLC twenty-four hours notice of demolition, were in breach of their consents. So the demolition men were ejected and we regained possession, and patched up the shattered roof structure with tarpaulins. It was a stalemate. Tougher anti-squatting legislation was on its way – time was against us. The developers would not talk with us, so we moved things forward by occupying their offices in Portman Sq and seeking publicity. A high point was when we were visited and offered public support by Sir John Betjeman in Elder St. The sight of Betjeman – paper cup in hand (with I seem to remember white wine) – tottering along the street, ducking under raking shores, was memorable. The newspapers loved it.
Finally, against all expectation, the Leader of Tower Hamlets Council spoke up and gave the Spitalfields Trust his blessing, saying that we were acting to save the history of Tower Hamlets for the people of the area. This timely political support made all the difference and the Trust was able to buy 5 and 7 Elder Street, repair them and sell them on. This was a watershed in the recent history of Spitalfields. Then the developers put the rest of the houses on the east side of Elder Street on the market and they were bought by people willing and able to repair them and live in them, and this set in motion the revival of houses in the main Georgian streets of Spitalfields. It seemed – at last – Spitalfields was saved.
But now the shadow of demolition and over-scaled commercial development has returned to threaten buildings within a few metres of the site of the Trust’s epoch-making victory nearly forty years ago. And to highlight the frightful symmetry of events then and now – the predatory development company we fought off back in the seventies has returned and is the current opponent – British Land.
As the Trust fought then, we will fight now – with a firm belief in the justice of our cause. We want to save Spitalfields – with its rich mix of historic and old buildings, distinct character and special atmosphere – for the people of London and for visitors expecting to find something beyond familiar, bland corporate plazas. We are arguing that Spitalfields has vitality and economic potential that can be reconciled with the preservation of its existing buildings and character. But this gentle approach is not compatible with greed. Just as we did forty years ago, we want to save Spitalfields from those who seek merely to exploit it as a means to make themselves rich at the expense of the happiness of others.
Fleur de Lys Passage
Star of David in Blossom St
Corner of Elder St
Crochet courtesy of the Revolutionary Crafting Circle of Edinburgh
Take a walk around Norton Folgate with Dan Cruickshank
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You only walk in the alleys if you have a strong stomach and stout shoes, if you are willing to ignore the stink and the sinister puddles for the sake of striking out alone from the throng of humanity coursing along Bishopsgate.
This whole place was once characterised by the warren of alleys and yards which laced the streets. And, when the fancy takes me to enter those that remain, it is in thrall to the delusion that maybe I can find a way back through the labyrinth to old Spitalfields. There is part of my mind that wonders if I will ever find my way out again and another part of me that yearns for this outcome, longing to find an alley that is a portal to a parallel world.
Of the alleys that tempt the innocent pedestrian emerging from Liverpool St Station, only Catherine Wheel Alley actually leads anywhere, delivering you by means of a dog-leg to Middlesex St. Stepping beneath the arched entrance and passing under the low ceiling above, you emerge behind the buildings which line the street to discover yourself at the bottom of a well where sunlight descends, bouncing off the ceramic bricks lining the walls. You walk dead straight in the blind faith that a route lies ahead and enter a tiny yard, where you may surprise a guilty smoker enjoying an illicit cigarette.
“Can I get through?” asked a lone woman I encountered, approaching from the opposite direction with a disarming lack of wariness. I stood against the wall in the yard here to consider the confluence of buildings that intersect in elaborate ways overhead and, to my surprise, a door opened in the wall behind me and an Eastern European woman asked me to step aside as she hauled out two sack of rubbish before disappearing again. From this yard, a narrow street leads uneventfully to Middlesex St – the drama of the alley diminished once the destination is apparent.
Perhaps most people avoid these empty alleys for fear of what they might discover? Individuals engaged in lewd activity, or relieving bodily functions, or injecting pharmaceuticals, or threatening violence, or robbery, or worse? Yet every corner of every alley has a film camera gazing down, removing the possibility of any truly clandestine activity.
The lack of space in these passages demands that people acknowledge each other and the code of mutual disregard which prevails in the street cannot hold. This is the true magnetism of alleys, as escape routes from the hegemony of the crowd. The spatial disorientation, leaving street sounds behind you, as you enter an ambiguous architectural maze is a welcome respite. You can turn in the alley and look back to the people on the pavement, and you discover you have become invisible – they no longer see you.
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Now is season to welcome the blossom back to the East End again for another year
In Bethnal Green
Let me admit, this is my favourite moment in the year – when the new leaves are opening fresh and green, and the streets are full of trees in flower. Several times, in recent days, I have been halted in my tracks by the shimmering intensity of the blossom. And so, I decided to enact my own version of the eighth-century Japanese custom of hanami or flower viewing, setting out on a pilgrimage through the East End with my camera to record the wonders of this fleeting season that marks the end of winter incontrovertibly.
In his last interview, Dennis Potter famously eulogised the glory of cherry blossom as an incarnation of the overwhelming vividness of human experience. “The nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous … The fact is, if you see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it.” he said and, standing in front of these trees, I succumbed to the same rapture at the excess of nature.
In the post-war period, cherry trees became a fashionable option for town planners and it seemed that the brightness of pink increased over the years as more colourful varieties were propagated. “Look at it, it’s so beautiful, just like at an advert,” I overheard someone say yesterday, in admiration of a tree in blossom, and I could not resist the thought that it would be an advertisement for sanitary products, since the colour of the tree in question was the exact familiar tone of pink toilet paper.
Yet I do not want my blossom muted, I want it bright and heavy and shining and full. I love to be awestruck by the incomprehensible detail of a million flower petals, each one a marvel of freshly-opened perfection and glowing in a technicolour hue.
In Weavers’ Fields
In Weavers’ Fields
In Bethnal Green
In Pott St
Outside Bethnal Green Library
In Bethnal Green Gardens
In Museum Gardens
In Museum Gardens
In Paradise Gardens
In Old Bethnal Green Rd
In Pollard Row
In Nelson Gardens
In Canrobert St
In the Hackney Rd
In Haggerston Park
In Shipton St
In Bethnal Green Gardens
At Spitalfields City Farm
In Columbia Rd
In London Fields
Syd’s Coffee Stall, Calvert Avenue
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Holland Estate in the eighties photographed by Phil Maxwell
More than six hundred residents of Brune House, Bernard House & Carter House on the Holland Estate (between Brune St & Wentworth St) are understandably alarmed to discover that East End Homes, the housing association which manages their Estate, has applied for pre-planning permission to demolish their homes prior to any consultation.
Meanwhile a twenty million pound refurbishment programme, including the installation of lifts, promised in 2006 has not materialised and an image of a twenty-five storey high rise development replacing the current dignified brick structures dating from 1928 has done nothing to allay residents’ fears. Consequently, they are reluctant to take part in any ‘consultation’ lest this be interpreted as tacit consent.
Instead, they are planning a protest against the proposals outside the offices of East End Homes at Resolution Place next to Denning Point, tomorrow Saturday 11th April between 11am & 3pm, and anyone who would like to learn more and show their solidarity with the residents is very welcome to attend.
In celebration of the vibrant community of the Holland Estate, I publish this gallery of photographs by Phil Maxwell recording life on the Estate in the nineteen-eighties.
The Holland Estate today
Looking north-west across Spitalfields from Denning Point, East End Homes’ proposal for the redevelopment of the Holland Estate with a twenty-five storey block in the centre
Photographs copyright © Phil Maxwell
You can follow the Residents Against Demolition campaign on
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The auriculas on my window sill have begun to sprout in the spring weather, inspiring me to publish this account of the history and lore of the auriculas of Spitalfields
An Auricula Theatre
In horticultural lore, auriculas have always been associated with Spitalfields and writer Patricia Cleveland-Peck has a mission to bring them back again. She believes that the Huguenots brought them here more than three centuries ago, perhaps snatching a twist of seeds as they fled their homeland and then cultivating them in the enclosed gardens of the merchants’ grand houses, and in the weavers’ yards and allotments, thus initiating a passionate culture of domestic horticulture among the working people of the East End which endures to this day.
You only have to cast your eyes upon the wonder of an auricula theatre filled with specimens in bloom – as I did in Patricia’s Sussex garden – to understand why these most artificial of flowers can hold you in thrall with the infinite variety of their colour and form. “They are much more like pets than plants,” Patricia admitted to me as we stood in her greenhouse surrounded by seedlings,“because you have to look after them daily, feed them twice a week in the growing season, remove offshoots and repot them once a year. Yet they’re not hard to grow and it’s very relaxing, the perfect antidote to writing, because when you are stuck for an idea you can always tend your auriculas.” Patricia taught herself old French and Latin to research the history of the auricula, but the summit of her investigation was when she reached the top of the Kitzbüheler Horn, high in the Austrian Alps where the ancestor plants of the cultivated varieties are to be found.
Auriculas were first recorded in England in the Elizabethan period as a passtime of the elite but it was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that they became a widespread passion amongst horticulturalists of all classes. In 1795, John Thelwall, son of a Spitalfields silk mercer wrote, “I remember the time myself when a man who was a tolerable workman in the fields had generally beside the apartment in which he carried on his vocation, a small summer house and a narrow slip of a garden at the outskirts of the town where he spent his Monday either in flying his pigeons or raising his tulips.” Auriculas were included alongside tulips among those prized species known as the “Floristry Flowers,” plants renowned for their status, which were grown for competition by flower fanciers at “Florists’ Feasts,” the precursors of the modern flower show. These events were recorded as taking place in Spitalfields with prizes such as a copper kettle or a ladle and, after the day’s judging, the plants were all placed upon a long table where the contests sat to enjoy a meal together known as “a shilling ordinary.”
In the nineteenth century, Henry Mayhew wrote of the weavers of Spitalfields that “their love of flowers to this day is a strongly marked characteristic of the class.” and, in 1840, Edward Church who lived in Spital Sq recorded that “the weavers were almost the only botanists of their day in the metropolis.” It was this enthusiasm that maintained a regular flower market in Bethnal Green which evolved into the Columbia Rd Flower Market of our day.
Known variously in the past as ricklers, painted ladies and bears’ ears, auriculas come in different classes, show auriculas, alpines, doubles, stripes and borders – each class containing a vast diversity of variants. Beyond their aesthetic appeal, Patricia is interested in the political, religious, cultural and economic history of the auricula, but the best starting point to commence your relationship with this fascinating plant is to feast your eyes upon the dizzying collective spectacle of star performers gathered in an auricula theatre. As Sacheverell Sitwell once wrote, “The perfection of a stage auricula is that of the most exquisite Meissen porcelain or of the most lovely silk stuffs of Isfahan and yet it is a living growing thing.”
Mrs Cairns Old Blue – a border auricula
Glenelg – a show-fancy green-edged auricula
Piers Telford – a gold-centred alpine auricula
Taffetta – a show-self auricula
Seen a Ghost – a show-striped auricula
Coventry St – a show-self auricula
M. L. King – show-self auricula
Mrs Herne – gold-centred alpine auricula
Dales Red – border auricula
Pink Gem – double auricula
Summer Wine – gold-centred alpine auricula
McWatt’s Blue – border auricula
Rajah – show-fancy auricula
Cornmeal – show-green-edged auricula
Fanny Meerbeek – show-fancy auricula
Piglet – double auricula
Basuto – gold-centred alpine auricula
Blue Velvet – border auricula
Patricia Cleveland-Peck in her greenhouse.
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