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Dereliction of care

January 18, 2010
by the gentle author

Not so long ago, almost all of Spitalfields was shabby or derelict but today there is very little that has not been cleaned up. Dereliction is now the exception where it was once the rule, and I have become a connoisseur of the tragic poetry incarnated in these rare anachronisms. Just like those ambivalent gypsy children who came to the aid of the upright protagonists in Enid Blyton novels, many buildings in Spitalfields have been grabbed by the collar and scrubbed within an inch of their lives to make them acceptable at the tea-table. It would be disingenuous not to embrace these edifices that have been rehabilitated, but sometimes the patina that records the history of human presence gets lost – which is why I am drawn to these pitiful ruins, because they still hold their mystery intact, even if the fabric is falling apart.

At 4 Princelet St the patina has been scrupulously maintained and the house regularly serves as a location for film and television dramas. This is where Sharon Stone tied Hugh Dancy naked to the bed in Basic Instinct 2, where Little Dorritt had coffee with Arthur Clennam and where Rupert Pendry Jones discovered one of the victims of the Ripper copy-cat in “Whitechapel” last year. It is a familiar sight to see actors in full nineteenth century costume, enjoying a cigarette or talking into a mobile, on the doorstep here between takes. Once, I overheard a couple of visitors on the pavement outside, innocent of the deliberate preservation of the house in this state, debating whether they could get it cheap, considering that it would need a lot spent on it but concluding it might be a good investment once it was cleaned up. That day is long past.

To many people, properties that have no human life are rendered invisible, blurry holes of emptiness in the neighbourhood. So, in a small selection that is entirely subjective and far from comprehensive, I decided to take a single walk, photographing for you some buildings that deserve better. Multiply these a hundred-fold and you would have the neighbourhood thirty years ago. I hope that illustrating the qualities of these stubbornly neglected edifices, restoring their visibility, might encourage someone to cherish them for their intrinsic worth. Although I am not claiming all of these buildings are of historical or architectural importance, each has a modest dignity which complements the place and it would enrich the city if they were sympathetically restored. Above all, I know these buildings will not remain in this state forever, so I consider it my duty to record these last shabby remnants as they are today.

The first stop on my walk was Toynbee St, just a hundred yards from Christ Church Spitalfields, where there is this early twentieth century two-storey building with the unusual proportion of a long barn or stable block, filling the eastern side of the street. The ground floor comprises a row of shops, mostly boarded up now, and on the first floor, workshops or living spaces with wide casement windows. This attractive property belongs to the council and sits decaying when it could be repaired and put back to use.

Next I walked over to Elder St, where at the junction with Commercial St is the gaping facade of a nineteenth century house with fragments of brickwork structure visible behind. Rebuilding this property would be most effective way close the gap in a run of nineteenth century buildings, thereby restoring the streetscape.

Continuing onwards up Great Eastern St, there are these two monumental nineteenth century warehouses, with an extension comprising workshops at the rear and bare remnants of the ground floor facade of a curved building at the street corner. It was here I took the photo at the top of the article, holding my camera through a gap in the hoarding. Both buildings have well-proportioned frontages with cornices and fine detailing but have rotted so long the floors have fallen in. The attendant at the car park behind told me the owner was under no pressure to do anything with them but sent surveyors to check the structure regularly. This seemed particularly absurd given the collapsed state of the floors but maybe he just wants to be sure he will not find himself liable for damage if the buildings collapse into the street?

This derelict terrace at the junction of Redchurch St and Bethnal Green Rd includes two eighteenth century weaver’s houses. Dan Cruickshank visited these the day before I interviewed him last year and enthused to me about the architectural detail that survives here.

I climbed up a step ladder in the car park to take this photo of the back yard of one of the terrace of three old house in Sclater St that are surrounded in scaffolding and have been boarded up as long as I can remember. It is amazing what you can discover if you look over a fence.

Finally, there is this railway building in Pedley St, just off Brick Lane, with its fine curved windows and door, that still has its decorative lamp fitting above it.  This is a property that could be suitable for any manner of uses and bringing it back to life would lift up this sad alley, that primarily serves as a toilet at present.

Once I had taken these pictures, the light was fading, the rain was coming on and it was time to go home and end my short melancholic tour of dereliction. As I stood in the kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil for tea, I realised there were plenty I had missed and, spreading the radius further, there were more I would like to have photographed. Also, I did not include buildings in the Bishopsgate Goods Yard or the Truman Brewery because these sites raise many other questions. Those pictured are examples where the possibility for restoration is apparent, they are structures that could become serviceable again and are buildings worthy of keeping. I hope none are left to fall down or neglected until the case for their demolition becomes persuasive.

However, the neighbourhood is full of eagle eyes and, even as I took my pictures, others were doing the same. Photographing derelict buildings in Spitalfields has become a popular sport over these last thirty years, though, like some rare species, there are less and less to photograph as time passes, attracting proportionately more and more photographers. All these buildings pictured are spoken for and there are plans for some – in fact, I hope to report to you about one in particular shortly. We shall wait and watch for developments.

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Anne permalink
    January 18, 2010

    Your comment about ‘sympathetically restored’ struck a chord. There are so many buildings that are ‘restored’ but restored to what? I suppose we must be careful not to ‘Disneyfy’ these areas too much.
    A balance is what is needed to respect the past but also to look to the future. Some owners of these buildings do nothing for years for investment reasons as the sites are worth a lot more with no building there at all and if they can get away with it will let them fall into complete ruin way beyond any restoration. Very sad .

  2. Pat Brooks permalink
    February 1, 2010

    Visited Toynbee St recently with mum and sister. Thought how sad it all looked.I had spent many happy days playing around this area with my cousin while my mum, nan and grandad worked with my aunt and uncle. It was then called the Mellody bar, catering for shoppers and stall holders. A very busy and friendly place, always laughter and food for us children. The local stall holders were also very generous with beigels and sarsaparilla. Thank you all for wonderful childhood memories of the 60s.

  3. January 9, 2011

    it’s an unfortunate situation when urban properties that could be put into appropriate use are left to their own devices; this is also a problem in my own town, and it always seems to happen to the most well-located older buildings

  4. steven harris permalink
    August 16, 2016

    The picture of the backyard of Sclater street terrace houses reminds me of a building I, and a few friends, got into during the mid 60s. Upto no good of course. As a group of 8 year olds there was no sense of what to expect other than we might find something interesting or valuable. Imagine our disappointment when all we found was huge stacks of crockery.

    I wonder if this photo was that building?

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