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Ancient Arches

November 5, 2014
by Sarah Wise

Writer & Historian Sarah Wise, author of The Italian Boy, The Blackest Streets & Inconvenient People – Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England, explores the recent cultural history of the Bishopsgate Goodsyard and outlines the background to the current proposals.

Braithwaite Arches

Bishopsgate Goodsyard vanished in the summer of 2003 – when a ten-acre railway city became a very large pile of rubble, and an empty space was to be found where once stood three tiers of stations, twenty-three tracks, hydraulic lifts to heave locomotives between the three levels, engineering workshops, offices, its own dedicated police station, and over one hundred brick and steel arches.

The long atmospheric Wheler St tunnel that ran beneath the Yard down into Spitalfields from Bethnal Green Rd was, for the most part, laid open to the skies. The only survivors of the complex are its perimeter wall and grade II-listed Braithwaite Viaduct built in 1839.

A fire in 1964 wrecked the superstructure buildings and, in the thirty-nine years that followed, the area was home only to a coach park, a car-breaking business and a wilderness of vegetation. But, from 1998, a regeneration scheme saw the arrival of football pitches, tennis courts, a swimming pool, a night club, a performance and exhibition space, artists’ studios, a go-kart track and large Sunday market. These were, in turn, supplanted by the arrival of the new Shoreditch High St Station in 2010 and the Boxpark outdoor shopping mall for designer brands in 2011.

The Yard has a murky and poignant history. The Wheler St tunnel was one of the largest of East London’s informal doss-houses in the eighteen-eighties and nineties. The pavement on the western side of Wheler St would fill up with those with nowhere else to sleep, while the police patrolled the eastern pavement, ignoring them. From 5am, dockers and porters began to pass on their way to work, and some would throw coins and even their lunches to the neediest-looking children.

Open air preaching by various evangelical groups focused on Wheler St, nearby Sclater St and Bethnal Green Rd on Sunday morning market days. Miss Annie Macpherson took her followers, a portable harmonium and hymn books and began loudly singing beneath the arches. The arches were also, at this time, the site of a child labour market – not illegal then – where boys and girls would wait to be hired by the day, or even the hour.

When the complex first came into being in the late eighteen-thirties, it obliterated medieval streets and courts. Peering through a magnifying glass at a map of the area in 1746, we learn that the station’s construction eradicated such tiny thoroughfares as Peacock Yard, Buttermilk Alley, Farthing St, Swan Yard, and Cock Hill – which was (no word of a lie) contiguous to Balls Alley .

The Yard station was an industrial age megalith that brought massive upheaval, noise, filth and crime into Shoreditch. So why should anyone mourn its destruction? The answer is that a characterful corner of London – darkly beautiful, awesome and with its own peculiar personality – was lost for ever. To pulverise this was an act of Philistinism, and it gave a powerful indication of how London was to change in the coming years.

The Yard’s history is not the sort of tale that would ever be served up in a consultation document for planners and developers. This is not the kind of history that would have held sway over Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell, Mayor Ken Livingstone (who described the yard as “a load of old crap”), the Corporation of London, London Underground, Railtrack and the planning departments of Hackney and Tower Hamlets – who between them brought about the destruction of the Yard.

The red herring in this dismal tale is the new East London Line. None of the seventy-five local groups who fought to save the Yard ever wanted to prevent, or even to delay, the building of the Line linking New Cross to Highbury, yet that was the accusation made by those determined to send in the bulldozers. In fact, independent structural surveys proved that the Yard would support not just the new Line, but also a building of at least four storeys. It was the insistence on total demolition and rebuilding, rather than retention, that caused the delay.

So why did the Yard have to come down? Because developers prefer to work with a completely cleared site and, in their determination that London will remain a pre-eminent financial centre, the Mayor and the Corporation are doing all they can to ensure that generic large buildings with as little local idiosyncrasy as possible are erected, in order to appeal to corporate multi-nationals looking for headquarters. The City of London is keen to outdo Canary Wharf as a home for business, and Tower Hamlets and Hackney councils need to welcome big money into their boroughs and – hey presto! – the past is reduced to dust.

A cleared site means that architects do not have to design around existing elements, seeing little merit in retaining older structures as part of a new design, which is a shame since the interplay of old with new is popular with the mere mortals who use buildings and has won critical acclaim for projects such as Tate Modern.

For many in the development game, the past is something to be conquered – it should have no role in the present and certainly not in the future, and anyone who says otherwise is declared to be an enemy of ‘progress.’

Bishopsgate Goodsyard with Spitalfields and the City beyond, drawn by Lucinda Rogers

You may also like to read about

On the Bishopsgate Goodyard

A Brief History of the Bishopsgate Goodsyard

Bud Flanagan in Spitalfields

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Milo Bell permalink
    November 5, 2014

    What a great photo. Very evocative. If that’s the right word.

  2. Ian Silverton permalink
    January 25, 2020

    If only those Bricked up Arches could tell you some true East End folk stories from there past,how people got rich just by using them!!!! Most are now dead and buried, but the myth or truth still abides in True East End fashion. Sad picture that,it was never that dirty,even when I was a boy. Stay Save GA and your Blog.

  3. John Ditchfield permalink
    October 4, 2023


    Many thanks for your excellent articles.

    May I have your permission to copy extracts of your ‘Ancient Arches’ article into my Grace’s Guide entry, bottom of page here? :-

    Kind regards,

    John Ditchfield

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