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The Return Of British Land

July 1, 2014
by the gentle author

British Land were responsible for the destruction of the northern half of Elder St in the seventies

A famous battle took place here forty years ago between British Land, who wanted to create a large-scale commercial development at the edge of the City, and Conservationists, who believed that there was merit in the existing buildings, both architecturally and as social history – and that people still wanted to live here, given the chance.

Half of one of London’s most beautiful early Georgian streets was demolished before the destruction was halted by a group of young architectural historians, of whom Dan Cruickshank was one. They occupied the buildings to stop the bulldozers and with the support of Sir John Betjeman, then poet laureate, drew national press attention. British Land did not get their way, retreating after they were refused planning consent and the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust was born – in a seminal moment – as the tide of public opinion turned away from needless destruction and towards preservation of old buildings.

Now British Land are back and again they want to create a large-scale commercial development, combining a string of sites in this corner of the Liberty of Norton Folgate, which they choose to rebrand as ‘Blossom St.’ Consequently, Writer and Historian Dan Cruickshank, who has lived in Elder St since 1977, faces the unwelcome return of an old enemy to his own doorstep. “They’ve come back and maybe it’s new people at British Land but nothing’s changed – these guys don’t care about anything but money,” Dan assured me when I dropped by to visit him yesterday and we took a stroll around the streets under threat.

To add insult to injury, Dan and many other local residents attended a recent consultation which – as is too frequently the case  – turned out to be a consultation in name only, at which British Land and the architects vehemently resisted any genuine debate. “It was simply the presentation of a worked-out design – with the public’s role being to comment on a strategy and details already decided,” Dan admitted to me in disappointment, “British Land, in response to our questioning of the very nature and purpose of the meeting, stated that we could scribble down our thoughts and post them in a box at one end of the room!”

There is a distinctive quality to this ancient web of streets at the edge of Spitalfields, justifying its designation as a Conservation Area. Behind an appealing mixed terrace of shops – a rare fragment of those that formerly lined Bishopsgate – lie old washhouses and yards, indicative of the courtyards and alleys that once laced this area with crowded housing. At the north of this terrace is the fine art deco faience facade of Nicholls & Clarke and a paved alley with worn flags, that appears unchanged since the nineteenth century, leading you back to Spitalfields. At the rear of terrace lies Blossom St, a quiet back street overhung with tall dark brick buildings dated 1886 and formerly in service as warehouses, but possessing large windows suggesting an earlier use for unspecified manufacturing. In between here and Elder St, sits a crude pastiche Georgian block constructed as a bad compromise in the seventies, after the genuine old buildings here were pointlessly demolished.

British Land has employed five architects to work upon different parts of their scheme as a means to introduce diversity, yet they have all come up with mediocre generic designs that betray their primary concern with fulfilling the economic demand of delivering the maximum volume.

They wish to reduce the 1886 warehouse buildings to a mere facade simply for the sake of maximising floor space and destroying their greater value, if repaired, as prestige offices for the Tech firms that have proliferated over the last decade in the former industrial premises of Shoreditch.  On Bishopsgate, the art deco facade will be destroyed entirely and they intend to compromise the old brick terraces and dissolve the corner of Folgate St in order to create an entrance to their ‘Blossom St’ development without any respect for the wider architectural geometry of the existing streetscape. Meanwhile, the unspecified nature of the replacement for the block on the western side of Folgate St remains a vexed question and all this damage to the Conservation Area exists within the context of vast swathes of demolition of old buildings.

Thus, the intricate detail of this neighbourhood that has evolved over centuries will be sacrificed for crude commercial development which serves nothing but the interests of capital, if no meaningful dialogue between British Land and the residents of Spitalfields is forthcoming.

The timbre of discourse to date may be characterised by a comment thrown away by the leading architect of the proposed scheme, Paul Monaghan, at a subsequent meeting to the ‘consutation.’ When asked about an adjoining site, he retorted disdainfully, “It’s up for development, along with everything else in your neighbourhood.”

Yet British Land’s disregard for history, both of the buildings and streets they plan to develop, and of the events that occurred here forty years ago could be their downfall. They need to get planning permission quickly and move this scheme forward to satisfy their shareholders, but their imperious approach is provocative, inviting conflict – and there are those in Spitalfields who have fought this fight before and won.

Elder St in 1977 after demolition commenced

Dan Cruickshank shows the destruction to John Betjeman

The deputation by Spitalfields Trust to occupy the headquarters of British Land, Mark Girouard stands centre with social historian Raphael Samuel, second from right.

Nineteenth century Nicholls & Clarke warehouses in Blossom St drawn by Lucinda Rogers

Tallis Street View of houses in Norton Folgate backing on to Blossom St – several are still standing

1811 Act for the paving of Norton Folgate including Blossom St – cobbles and paving date from this era

Bishopsgate Without viewed from Norton Folgate, 1912 (Photo by Charles Gosse)

Bishopsgate Without viewed from Norton Folgate, 2012

Colour photographs © Simon Mooney

Archive images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

53 Responses leave one →
  1. Janet M permalink
    July 1, 2014

    So sad.

  2. Martin G permalink
    July 1, 2014

    It is a telling sign when there is a section named “Responsibility” on British Land website that has absolutely no substance apart from awards. One has to wonder how these awards were obtained – just saying.

  3. jeannette permalink
    July 1, 2014

    the arrogance is really shocking. do they learn this at eton?

  4. jeannette permalink
    July 1, 2014

    apparently not.

    2006 RIBA Client Design Advisor
    1989 RIBA Part III
    1984 – 1986 Diploma in Architecture, The Bartlett, UCL
    1980 – 1983 BSc (Hons) Architecture, University of Sheffield
    1973 – 1980 4 ‘A’ levels. 10 ‘O’ Levels, St Edwards College, Liverpool

  5. Jenny Atins permalink
    July 1, 2014

    Never, ever, ever give in!

  6. Bron permalink
    July 1, 2014

    Go for it lads! Fight the bastards!

  7. Annie permalink
    July 1, 2014

    Chilling comment indeed. I don’t think present day Norton Folgate is particularly beautiful but then neither was a great deal of pre-Victorian London and that was swept away with disregard in the light of thrusting development and City money. That is how we lost the human scale of our streets. Non passerans!

  8. July 1, 2014

    This makes me so mad and sad. I can hardly believe that they want to destroy still more. I hope and pray that there plans will be thwarted. They are a band of greedy vandals. ‘The higher the building, the lower the morals’. Valerie

  9. Billy Tennent permalink
    July 1, 2014

    We can’t let this happen again. Enough of our city has already been eroded by these people.

    Do you know if there is there a campaign and petition already underway, and if so could you possibly post details? If not can we get together and start one?

  10. Candida permalink
    July 1, 2014

    How can we fight this…what is the best way to get involved and speak out?
    It does not only affect those living in the immediate environs, but all of us who have chosen to make our lives in the wider area of the old East End, and those who travel by, admiring the history and atmosphere. Developers never truly understand the value of history. I believe that sympathetic renovation of space and original buildings can have as much, if not more real commercial value as the usual treatment, as planned here…a mere facade to rabbit-hutch style offices.

  11. Greg Tingey permalink
    July 1, 2014

    Arrogant, aren’t they?
    Do they never learn?

  12. Been G permalink
    July 1, 2014

    How can one help/lend support?

  13. July 1, 2014

    Thank you for bringing this to a wider audience. It is tragic that old battles have to be re-fought. As Raph Samuel might have added, history does repeat itself-the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

  14. John Daltrey permalink
    July 1, 2014

    How can we help stop this meaningless destruction. The government talks endlessly about shifting the centre of the country’s economic performance to other large cities and away from the south east and in particular London, yet does nothing. One way to encourage this would be to substantially reduce the seemingly easy to get planning permission for development.

  15. Jean permalink
    July 1, 2014

    We can only hope and pray that this needless destruction of these historic buildings
    will not go ahead. When will the powers that be realise that we need to conserve these
    wonderful old buildings and not destroy them. They are beginning to make London a
    very bland and uninteresting place by building these ugly monstrous buildings. Sadly
    I think money talks too much. We can only hope that commonsense prevails and enough
    people express their worries and dislike for the proposals.

  16. Harry Harrison permalink
    July 1, 2014

    All so depressingly familiar.
    Developers NEVER go away, they just bide their time waiting to pounce.

  17. July 1, 2014

    Madness had an L.P. “The Liberty of Norton Folgate” & lead singer Suggs has presented a T.V. series of quirky London history. This could lead to a possible explosion of publicity against British Land’s proposed capitalist destruction of the area’s architecture & history.

  18. July 1, 2014

    What do we do? Tell us, we’ll mobilise!

  19. RaspberryPip permalink
    July 1, 2014

    Where do we sign-up to protest?

  20. Mark B permalink
    July 1, 2014

    How can we get involved – that area needs conservation not redevelopment – I started out life in London in Spitalfields – we cant have the soulless City continue to creep through such a wonderful area.

  21. July 1, 2014

    “If you fight you might lose, if you don’t you have already lost.”

    Love & Peace

  22. July 1, 2014

    It’s sickening, thank goodness for Dan and the Spitalfields Trust. Thank you for letting us know about this.

  23. alison homewood permalink
    July 1, 2014

    I’ll squat with you this time!

  24. Mary A permalink
    July 1, 2014

    Are there any plans to do a sit, or rather squat in, like last time around?

  25. Peter Holford permalink
    July 1, 2014

    Here we go again – greed first and to hell with the people affected. Time to lodge our objections!

  26. Colin Gray permalink
    July 1, 2014

    It would appear all the hard work making Spitalfields a conservation area now counts for nothing? The proposed development is all about financial gain for some without any thought for the historic value of the area. Man The Barricades – Power To The People!!!

  27. July 1, 2014

    how do we stop all of this destruction…not against new build where appropriate…but to take away history of an area and put up nondescript buildings…??

  28. Carole permalink
    July 1, 2014

    British Land were also instrumental in the demise of Biba in 1975. The old Derry & Toms building which had been so lovingly restored was turned into the hideous M&S that it is today.

  29. spabbygirl permalink
    July 1, 2014

    I don’t see how developers can possibly argue that their schemes are attractive, there are so many tedious and ugly big office blocks in London another simply isn’t needed.

    The charm of the well-worn and shabby continues to delight tourists, visitors and locals every day and will continue to do so well beyond our lifespan. There is a special magic, an ethereal and beautiful pleasure that cannot be replicated, in seeing something that has withstood the gaze of generations before us.

    Please don’t take away what little remains of our antiquity, go and build new places somewhere else.

  30. ROBERT GREEN permalink
    July 1, 2014

    British Land represent an attitude that has spread throughout the construction and property development sector like a cancer, = TOTAL SHAMELESS GREED, the development in question hear provide’s ample opportunity for a re development company to provide much needed re generation and with it substantial financial return in the process WITHIN the remit of social conscience, but sadly for the people who live in these target area’s social conscience seem’s to be regarded by the vast majority of property developer’s as nothing more than an unnecessary barrier to MAXIMUM profit, as someone who has only ever run my own business I am well aware of the need to make profit, but designing a re development with the priority on the aesthetic appearance of the finished project and even more importantly, the people who will have to live with it in no way necessitate’s the need to jeopardize the profitability of the project, it simply requires a genuine expression of CONSIDERATION for your fellow citizens.

  31. Elaine Napier permalink
    July 1, 2014

    I’d be happy to support any action against yet another piece of mindless, arrogant destruction. My family history is of English orris weaving in the East End, and my daughter has a property just around the corner from the Geffrye Museum, where a successful action recently prevented the destruction of another historic building.

    I’m sick of developers driven only by financial greed who care nothing for the heritage of the rest of us. I notice they haven’t knocked down Kensington Palace, leaving only the façade, and built 20 fabulously modern apartments on the site!

  32. Adrianne LeMan permalink
    July 1, 2014

    Yes, where do we sign to protest against this?

  33. Ann Featherstone permalink
    July 1, 2014

    I absolutely agree that we stop this arrogant disregard, this juggernaut mentality of might is right in London and everywhere else. (It happens here in Derbyshire on a regular basis.) But at the same time, isn’t it shocking that we should have to fight to preserve our history in a country that used to pride itself on its sense of the past?

  34. July 1, 2014

    The site also has a fascinating and little-known history. The 1886 building the Gentle Author depicts was built to replace a menagerie that burnt down two years earlier. The press accounts of the time talk of lions on fire and a bear so out of its mind in fear that it started eating broken glass. More here:

  35. July 1, 2014

    There exists through the wonders of the internet the possibility of starting an on line petition to prevent British Land carrying out it’s evil intent, there is a website called upon which interested parties can work together to bring a subject to the wider public arena for debate, comment and social pressure. Issues covered to date have been as diverse as attempting to stop folk being removed from the UK because they fall foul of immigration rules, to attempting to persuade MP’s that continuing a luxury tax on sanitary protection is ridiculous. There is currently one at large which is trying to persuade the Govt to launch a public inquiry in to how it was that Cyril Smith managed to access so many children in care at atime when he was an MP, and why it was no one stopped him. There is room on the bus – for a group of like minded folk to launch a petition to stop the needless eradication of beautiful historically significant buildings and the erection of yet more boring office buildings, soulless in intention and design. If British Land has committed past ofences,(the Biba building has been mentioned), then it might be helpful to put some before and after shots of their past acts of architectural aggression – and their current design, so that there can be no doubt about what it is they are about.

  36. sprite permalink
    July 1, 2014

    I have a pic of the pub The water poet on my Facebook page, with a clear sign of Blossom Street. I love that corner. It carries a lot of meaning to some Haiku writers.

    Just tell us what to do and I’m in the fight with you all.

  37. July 1, 2014

    To paraphrase the motto of the Salvation Army band with regard to its songs: Why should the devil have all the good land? Well we know this kind of cannibalism here in Ottawa…money talks…

  38. Bob Hale permalink
    July 1, 2014

    Obviously this has to be resisted. I assume that there is already a campaign under way. Is the East End Preservation Society running it? I thought I was on the mailing list, as I went to the founding meeting and gave my details, but I haven’t heard anything.
    I am sure there are many of us in the East End who will want to oppose this. All we need is a focus for action.

  39. July 1, 2014

    Grotesque. Pointless destruction. I’m sick to the back teeth of money taking precedence over the desire of people and thus obliterating our beautiful past that should also be our present. There are too many ugly buildings in London as it is. Wishing all of you strength for the fight and if a campaign is started, I’ll be first on the list of supporters!

  40. July 1, 2014

    Please add another name to your supporters. -I wonder where the British Land architects themselves live?

  41. Bee [Tingey} permalink
    July 1, 2014

    Yet again greed rears its ugly head. The thought of being left with the same clone-like eye-sores is sickening.

  42. July 1, 2014

    Beautifully written article that highlights the constant battle to save our ancient streets and neighbourhoods from ever more commercial development.
    We must unite to preserve and save the last streets of this historic neighbourhood of Spitalfields and the district of Norton Folgate that these few streets sit within.
    The possibility of what might happen is one of great sadness as the streets of human scale still hold onto so proudly the last surviving houses of the 18th and 19th centuries along with the warehouses of commerce from the 19th and 20th centuries. That surely must be retained and restored thus uniting the neighbourhood once again bringing with it the people who would wish to live and work within its ancient structures and beautiful cobbled and flag stone streets.

    David G Milne.

  43. Neville Turner permalink
    July 1, 2014

    British Land is multi million pound PLC and has been in the land grab business for decades maybe a century or more and has no concern for preservation of area development and will go to extreme measures to fullfill it’s agenda,as a resident who’s family lived in Elder St over 30 years I recall the company making enquires about Blossom St,Elder St,Fleur de lis St from 1950 onward with a view to demolition faceless office building without any resident living population.Achim got it right with the quote from Bertold Brecht.Dan Cruickshank and the Spitalfields Trust got it right in their squat in the 1970’s.British land should be opposed with vigour and an alternative vision which will win local and general support.British Land does not like bad publicity,the head office is just off the Edgware Rd 45 Seymour St London WIH 7LX near Marble Arch underground station.

  44. Donald Parsnips permalink
    July 1, 2014

    ‘Facade-ist’ development is ignorant of the fact that we must leave somewhere for The Ghosts.

  45. HHGeek permalink
    July 1, 2014

    The problem this time is not British Land in particular, or any developer in general. We may not like their proposals or actions, but it’s the business that they run, they choose to run it that way, and that’s how it has been and will always be.

    The problem this time is Boris. No matter how strong the opposition, no matter how destructive the proposal, he’s liable to overturn any Local Authority planning decision if the proposed development is high profile enough to him to get further political traction out of it. The man cares nothing for London except as a source of publicity for himself. Unfortunately London sees fit to vote him in as mayor because he comes across as a cuddly duffer rather than the acute politician that he is.

    So someone, somehow, will need to get him onside. Else it’ll be Brushfield St all over again.

  46. Grant McIntyre permalink
    July 2, 2014

    Obviously Spitalfields should be preserved as fully as possible. There’s plenty of room elsewhere for dull generic developments, and if British Land have to forgo some tiny percentage of profit – well, how terrible is that?

  47. heather dyer permalink
    July 3, 2014

    On line campaigning must be the way forward – e.g.
    Please keep your readers posted of any moves in this direction as I for one
    would be signing any petition to curb British Land’s greed and ambitions
    for Spitalfieds.

  48. Juliet. Shipman permalink
    July 14, 2014

    Slowly and surely, bit by bit the character of London with its skyline and hidden corners of historic houses and warehouses is being destroyed – through the greed of developers and the indifference of Boris who cares only for high rise skyscrapers to enhance his vision of a London like Dubai or Shanghai.

  49. Phillip Lucas permalink
    July 15, 2014

    The worst aspects of the current British Land proposals can perhaps be summarised shortly:
    i. To demolish 18th century town houses in Norton Folgate and to replace them with a modern building;
    ii. To gut the interiors of the historic warehouses on Blossom Street;
    iii. To demolish a large 1970s building on Elder Street which was designed as a Georgian pastiche in sympathy with the neighbouring 18th century buildings. British Land will replace the Georgian facsimile with a large modern building which makes no attempt to harmonise with the surrounding historic buildings and which is completely unsympathetic to the historic character of the area;
    iv. To demolish an attractive derelict 19th century brick building at the end of Elder Street and to replace it with an additional footpath.
    The plan involves the large scale demolition of historic structures which will be replaced with large, unsympathetic modern buildings.
    The authors of this plan have apparently failed to acquaint themselves with the “Character Appraisal and Management Guidelines of the Elder Street Conservation Area” (Published 20 February 2007). It is a surprising omission. A conservation area is defined thus: “an area of special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance” It is immediately obvious that the current proposals do not “preserve or enhance” the historic character of the area. The document notes that the architectural value of the Elder Street conservation area “comes from the consistent proportions of the street, the richness of the brick textures, the refinement of the architectural details, the harmonious relationship of the buildings and the prevailing residential character”. The British Land proposals are fundamentally inconsistent with the published management guidelines. The “consultation” was clearly a sham and constituted a public relations disaster for the company. It is apparent from the comments on social media and from discussions with local residents and interested groups that there is already groundswell of public opinion against these proposals. The architecture of Spitalfields ranks amongst the most beautiful in Britain. Visitors come from afar to admire the architecture and to enjoy the historic character of the area. It is vitally important that people register their views against these proposals before British Land is permitted to cause irreparable harm. The threat is sufficiently serious to justify national publicity. Interested parties should prepare themselves for Judicial Review. British Land has a long and expensive fight on its hands.

  50. MIRIAM DELORIE permalink
    December 1, 2014

    I feel that all the area around Whitechapel where my father was born is ‘falling down’ in leaps and bounds – it’s so sad to see history disappearing even though I live far away in South Africa. Well done to all those who are doing their best to resist. And thank you to the Gentle Author who keeps all of us updated (and backdated!). Miriam

  51. Michael Walker permalink
    December 4, 2014

    “Sickening” as one commentator said, but for me there is a heartening element to this, namely to find that there are so many people who react in the same emotional way as I do to the whole sorry tale of much of so-called development over the last 60 years. Sometimes one thinks one is alone and “whakky” because nobody else feels the same way and one is a backwoodsman for not greeting the glass and concrete boxes of development with approbation or at least resignation (“you cant stop Progress”) . That is exactly what developers like the Orwelian sounding “British Land” wants people to think but it is wrong! We are many! The Internet provides an opportunity for more people to get to know each other and organize and take strength from one another. Fight, fight and fight.

  52. February 5, 2015

    British Land are also involved in the London Fruit & Wool Exchange demolition plan. They were the City of London Corporation’s first development partner (before Exemplar Properties) and it has always been a demolition plan. Never a scheme to reuse our historic Market area buildings and thus respect our heritage and our livelihoods. Only their agenda to extend and aggrandise their City and obliterate what stands in their way. They have already smashed down 60% of Spitalfields Market. As someone says above they never go away.

  53. marcia hurst permalink
    July 21, 2015

    Yet again the greedy hand of developers is in action proposing ugliness and mediocrity in place of elegance and architectural variety. All over London we are subjected to boring lumpen cubes on cubes, lacking any architectural integrity, often replacing handsome pubs and other everyday buildings that are part of our everyday experience.

    Please let me know how I can get involved in fighting the hand of mammon

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