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Squatters Return To Elder St

April 18, 2015
by the gentle author

To reflect the strange time warp in Elder St – where British Land who were prevented from demolishing Norton Folgate in 1977 have returned in 2015 to finish the job –  five of those who were photographed on the steps of 7 Elder St in 1977 have gathered in the same location to restage the picture nearly forty years later for Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie.

Below, Kate & Michael Hodgkin who grew up in 19 Elder St, the house of historian Raphael Samuel, recall that memorable teenage summer of 1977 when they found their way into a newspaper photograph.

Dan Cruickshank standing with Katharine Hodgkin, Michael Hodgkin, Carla Mitchell & Colin Butler

Dan Cruickshank and friend stand in the doorway. Kate Hodgkin and Carla Mitchell sit in the doorway. Daniel Mitchell, Michael Hodgkin and Colin Butler sit on the step.

Katharine Hodgkin remembers Elder St

“When we first lived in Elder St at the beginning of the seventies, it was practically empty. As people left the last occupied houses on our side of the street, we would climb in and out of the backs of them. There were a few families still in the Peabody Buildings in Commmercial St, but when I went to the Central Foundation Girls’ School in Spital Sq none of the other girls lived nearby.

It was a strangely quiet place to live, beached by the outgoing tides of people. The local markets – Petticoat Lane and Club Row – were busy, and there were still Jewish shops run by Raphael Samuel’s relatives, and streets with new spicy smells that I did not yet identify as Bangladeshi. But the little cluster of Folgate St, Elder St, Blossom St, Fleur de Lys St, was a backwater run down into dereliction.

By the time of the photo, my brother Mick & I had moved out, though our older brother Dom stayed on with Raph (Raphael Samuel) and we came back most weekends. We were in the mid-to-late teens by then and busy being seventies political teenagers – it was the time of Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League and demos all the time. So we naturally gravitated to protests going on in Elder St.

The area has changed so much, and the ghost of the old Spitalfields can seem a faded and feeble one. But I was perversely heartened by the enduring shabbiness of the streets, and the sense that the materiality of the buildings continuing to hold memory of the former communities, even though the inhabitants have mostly changed.

I would rather see the graffiti and empty shells at the Commercial St end of Elder St than the neo-Georgian facades blighting Folgate St at the other. There is a stubborn continuity in the narrow turning streets and the way the houses close in around you.  The thought of losing all this to more mega-buildings is a melancholy one.

When we met to restage the photo, we stood outside 7 Elder St sharing memories of outdoor lavatories, posters all over the kitchen wall, books lining the spiral staircase. It is good that the street was saved, is lived in, and the houses are better loved and cared for.”

5 & 7 Elder St after the demolition was halted by the squatters of the Spitalfields Trust

Michael Hodgkin remembers Elder St

“Like my sister Kate, going back now, I remember how we used to scramble over the back wall from our home to the ragwort-covered building site behind. I would have fruit fights with abandoned produce in the market with a boy called John from the Peabody Buildings and the son of the family who ran the Italian shop on Commercial Rd by the top of Folgate St. And I remember painting our front step regularly with Cardinal Red to keep an East End traditional doorstep going.

One day we were sitting there barefoot, as we often did, when some passing American tourists starting taking photos as if documenting vestiges of late-nineteenth century East End poverty, rather than our late-twentieth century Bohemianism.”

Squatters gather outside 7 Elder St – fourth from left is historian Raphael Samuel

Photographs by Anne Kilby

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 outlining the current battle. Click here to book your free ticket.

10 Responses leave one →
  1. jeannette permalink
    April 18, 2015

  2. Joan Bailey permalink
    April 18, 2015

    I remember stumbling across the old weavers’ cottages in Spitalfields, a northerner – and one time London resident – exploring a part of London unknow to me. I was familiar with the elegant splendour of Bloomsbury’s squares and terraces but this was different. Here I sensed a different kind of Georgian history, older and somehow more authentic, less monied. As elegant as Gower Street yet more ramshackle. Narrower and ever so slightly oppressive, I could sense the artisans and workers, the traders and the vagabonds in the market. A preserved piece of history. I was amazed and kept walking round Fournier and the adjacent streets taking photographs.
    Later, I read about the campaign that had saved these these streets and visited Denis Severs house.
    I wish you every success in your campaign to save Northern Folgate and have it modernised in a way that preserves yet renews your area.

  3. April 18, 2015

    I hope the fight will be successful this time round, too; those greedy land-grabbers and vandals need to be stopped. Valerie

  4. Mary permalink
    April 18, 2015

    Just seen the references to Raphael Samuel and wondered if you had come across Alison Light’s latest book, Common People. tremendous. Though not about London, her quest to honour and understand the lives of her anscestors most of whom were too poor to leave any memorials. shares the spirit of your enquiries.

  5. leslie holeyman permalink
    April 18, 2015

    Returned last week to Shoreditch and walked through Curtain Road and the maze of streets that make up this locality. By the time I got to Old Street Station had lost count of the cranes and building sites around this area.

  6. April 18, 2015

    Having known and been a part of this wonderfully beautiful vibrant creative and ancient neighbourhood for the last many decades Id always wondered what had become of that group of very young people who became a symbol to stop the destruction by British Land all those years ago, me being just 10 years old, how lovely to see them all again with Dan as we are now all once again United to stop the Vast and Horrid Desruction of the last surviving part of The Liberty Of Norton Folgate for yet more towers of corporate greed.
    This is a neighbourhood that’s loved and cherished not only by the the people who live within it but by the vast amounts of people who come to visit.

    David Milne.

  7. Anna Davin permalink
    April 22, 2015

    I lived at 19 Elder St with Raph from 1970 to 1975.

    I remember the bonfire at the edge of Spitalfields market, where homeless and jobless people gathered overnight, the more fit among them getting casual work as the market set up in the small hours.

    I also remember one night when we heard cries for help. A homeless man had clambered over railings into the basement area of an an empty Elder St house and managed to push up the sash window to climb inside for shelter. Unfortunately the sash cords had gone and the window fell back down and trapped him. I climbed over the railings and down to help hold up the window and get him out, and he came back to our kitchen to warm up and be fed before (I think) retreating to the market bonfire.

  8. October 8, 2016

    I lived in 19 Elder Street with my wife Judith between 1954 and 1955, when the house belonged, or may have been rented, by David Morris, an artist I had met at Bretton Hall Teacher Training College. Our first child, Gillian, was born at that time and we moved out of our single upstairs room for reasons of space, to somewhat different Chingford. Many happy memories of that now distant time.
    If anyone has knowledge of David Morris I would love to hear.

  9. Mary sullivan permalink
    June 6, 2018

    I lived in elder st half way down 15 1955 onwards my father and mother were Irish and our cousins lived in foldgate st with me going to st Anne’s school and there was a family named the caswells at the time

  10. Mary sullivan permalink
    June 6, 2018

    Lovely times I used to play in itchychoo park across the road in commercial st and my father was going to buy 15 elder st at the time

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