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CR Ashbee In The East End

January 12, 2015
by the gentle author

As The East End Preservation Society announces the Inaugural CR Ashbee Memorial Lecture at the Bishopsgate Institute on April 14th, I trace a brief outline of the life and work of a man who deserves to be celebrated in the East End for his prescient thinking and creativity

Rebus of Charles Robert Ashbee (1863 – 1942)

Very few in the East End are aware of CR Ashbee today and even those that recognise the name have only a vague idea of his achievements. Yet in recent years, as I have come upon his work, it has fostered a curiosity about the man and his concerns – and I have found that they reflect those of our own time with unexpected relevance.

Perhaps the ‘Ashbee Room’ at Toynbee Hall is where most people become aware of his presence. It was over six weeks in the summer of 1887 that Ashbee worked there with the students of his Ruskin class to create an elaborate mural of trees, punctuated by golden rondels to his design and bordered with a frieze of the crests of Oxford & Cambridge colleges. The rondels contained a letter ‘T’ in the form of a tree which remains the symbol of Toynbee Hall, even if the mural is long-gone. A battered low-level table survives, manufactured to Ashbee’s design, it was conceived as a means to encourage debate by placing those seated around it in an informal relationship.

Born into an affluent liberal family, while an undergraduate at Cambridge, Ashbee had acquired the friendship of Roger Fry and Edward Carpenter, and embraced their common enthusiasm for Romantic Socialism and the Arts & Crafts Movement. At first, while training in the office of Bodley & Garner, Gothic Revival church architects, Ashbee travelled to Toynbee Hall at the end of each working day but, encouraged by the collaborative experience of creating the mural, he consulted Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, regarding his notion to found his own workshop and school of arts and crafts in the East End.

On 23rd June 1888, Ashbee’s School & Guild of Handicraft opened under Samuel Barnett’s supervision at 34 Commercial St next to Toynbee Hall as a workers’ co-operative with just four members. By 1890, the Guild moved to Essex House on the Mile End Rd in Bow, where it operated as an independent entity. Thanks to the skill of the craftsmen and their apprentices, executing Ashbee’s fashionable Arts & Crafts designs, the Guild enjoyed a degree of success, creating works to private commission and selling furniture and metalwork through a shop in Brook St. When William Morris died, he left the machinery from his Kelmscott Press to the Guild and more than a thousand books were published under the imprint of the Essex House Press.

Yet an event on the Guild’s doorstep was to take Ashbee’s interests in a new direction. In 1893, the London School Board bought an old brick house nearby on St Leonard’s St and commenced demolishing it to construct a new school on the site. Ashbee realised that the structure was part of a former Palace of James I but was only able to save the panelling of the state room which was transferred to the Victoria & Albert Museum. He saw that if the existing building could have been included within the structure of the new school, it would have been an inspirational educational resource for the pupils.

Grieved by this loss, Ashbee realised that a register of significant historic buildings was required if they were to be saved from destruction and he established a Watch Committee to record all those in East London. Meanwhile, in September 1895, Ashbee learnt that the seventeenth century Trinity Green Almshouses in Whitechapel were threatened with demolition and he led a campaign to save them, not just for their architectural merit but as manifestation of the charity and fellowship of past ages – and it is thanks to Ashbee’s initiative that these buildings survive. In fact, his Watch Committee of 1894 became the Survey of London which continues to publish today.

Saving old buildings and establishing the Guild were integral beliefs for Ashbee. Beyond his own career as a designer and architect, he was concerned with the dignity of craftsmanship as a means to liberate individuals, permitting them financial and moral independence through working in an environment which was collectively managed with shared profits. Similarly, regarding old buildings, he believed these were the shared legacy of all and that we need to preserve structures of quality, in order to better appreciate our own past and have a perspective upon our own time.

An architect and designer of significant talent, CR Ashbee lived out his progressive beliefs in his work, whether collaborating with a metalworker in the design of a piece of jewellery or conceiving a plan for a garden city that would give the best quality of life to its inhabitants. As a measure of the respect he drew, when he transferred the Guild of Handicrafts from Bow to Chipping Campden in 1902, one hundred and fifty East Enders moved with him and, astonishingly, there are practising silversmiths in the Cotswolds today who are the grandchildren of those who moved there with Ashbee. Ultimately, the Guild was disbanded and the participants went their separate ways, but his was a worthy endeavour that we do well to remember in the East End.

The first Guild of Handicraft workshop at 34 Commercial St

Essex House in Bow, opposite Mile End Tube, became the headquarters of the Guild of Handicrafts

Members of the Guild of Handicraft in 1892

The cabinet making workshop at Bow

Jewellery workshop

Jewellery workshop

Metal workshop

In the print shop

A page set in the ‘Endeavour’ typeface designed by CR Ashbee and printed at Essex House, 1901

CR Ashbee writes a campaigning letter to the Society for Protection of Ancient Buildings enlisting their support to save Trinity Green Almshouses in Whitechapel from demolition, 1895

CR Ashbee’s symbol for the Guild Of Handicraft, 1889

CR Ashbee by William Strang, 1903

The East End Preservation Society & Bishopsgate Institute are delighted to present the Inaugural C R Ashbee Memorial Lecture, Tuesday 14th April 7:30pm


Across the city, planning policies are continually flouted, affordable housing quotas waived, height limits breached and the interests of residents endlessly trampled, as our streets are bullied by ever more bloated developments.

In this lecture, Oliver Wainwright will unpick the forces that are making the city a meaner and more divided place, as public assets are relentlessly sold off and entire council estates flattened to make room for silos of luxury safe-deposit boxes in the sky. From the slippery spreadsheets of viability assessments to the exploitation of planning loopholes, it will shine a light on the darker sides of how the city gets made.

Oliver Wainwright is the architecture & design critic of The Guardian. Trained as an architect at the University of Cambridge and the Royal College of Art, he worked in practice – on competitions for OMA in Rotterdam and public realm design for muf in London – as well as on strategic planning at the Architecture & Urbanism Unit of the GLA, under Ken Livingstone and Richard Rogers. He has written extensively for a wide range of international publications.

Tickets are free but must be booked in advance by clicking here

4 Responses leave one →
  1. January 12, 2015

    A most interesting report, and I wish I could be there for the lecture. Valerie

  2. Hugh Macfarlane permalink
    January 12, 2015

    An excellent piece on C.R.Ashbee.
    Just to expand on the Essex House Press, in the picture of the Print Shop the three pressmen on the right worked for William Morris, on the far right is Thomas Binning, master printer. Ashbee purchased the equipment of the Kelmscott Press, but not the Morris typefaces or blocks, and continued printing in the tradition of Morris. The first books produced continued to use Kelmscott watermarked paper, Ashbee later had his own handmade paper produced, with his watermark design. He later designed his own typefaces ‘Endeavour & Prayer Book’. One of the Albion presses was later sold to the American type designer & printer Frederic Goudy, which sold in 2013 for $233,000.00.
    Further reading on Ashbee; C.R.Ashbee by Alan Crawford 1985, for Eseex House Press books, A Select Bibliography of Modern Presses by G.S.Tomkinson 1928.
    Hugh Macfarlane
    Private Press Printer

  3. January 12, 2015

    CR Ashbee’s letter shows a little bit my own handwriting in my diary! Astonishingly!

    Love & Peace

    *** I AM CHARLIE ***

  4. Jill eljadi permalink
    January 25, 2016

    Fabulous, fascinating, educative, mind opening and informative stuff as ever. Thankyou thankyou………

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