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Return To Trinity Green

October 13, 2015
by the gentle author

A few years have passed since I first walked through the gate off Mile End Rd into the quiet enclave of London’s oldest almshouses at Trinity Green where cats preside over a green lawn shaded by gnarly trees and enfolded by two lines of seventeenth-century brick cottages that glow in the October sunlight.

This extraordinary survival of Sir William Ogbourne’s seafarers’ almshouses from 1695 is almost solely due to the efforts of CR Ashbee, pioneer of the Conservation movement in this country and founder of the Guild of Handicrafts in Bow, who rescued them from demolition in 1895. It was the first historic building in the East End to be saved and exists today as an early example of the benign provision of social dwellings.

Regrettably, my return was at the invitation of the residents who wish to draw attention to the spiral of neglect by the council and to the imminent threat of a tower of luxury flats overshadowing Trinity Green, about which they have received no consultation. Built on top of Sainsburys in Whitechapel, they told me this proposed block will be as tall as Centrepoint.

After post-war restoration, the almshouses were handed over to the council, pursuing an enlightened policy of reusing these historic buildings for social housing, and celebrated by a visit of the Queen in 1963. More recently, many of the flats have been sold to private owners although the council still owns many of the dwellings and the chapel, and is responsible for the green which is a public park.

The residents wanted to show me how the council is failing in its duty of care to this grade I listed property. Cast your eyes along the front wall and you notice that four stone ball finials have gone missing. Step inside the gate and a vacant council-owned dwelling has water damage where a cistern was allowed to overflow for months. Next door, at another of the council-owned cottages, a ball has been removed from the pediment years ago and not replaced, while the pediment itself has been needlessly pierced by a flue outlet which could have been sited at the rear of the building.

I visited the chapel for the first time and discovered one of the East End’s finest architectural spaces. Within living memory, this chapel used as a satellite for St Anne’s, Underwood Rd. Today, although it retains its magnificent original features – its panelling, cornice and octagonal vestibule – it is a municipal meeting room marred by stacks of ugly furniture, corporate carpet and strip lighting. Most-disappointingly, the pair of seventeenth century brass chandeliers have gone in recent years leaving just the chains on which they once hung. Outside upon the stone steps, crude repairs in concrete will exacerbate problems with the ageing stonework over time.

With poignant symbolism, the hands have been removed from the clock face on the top of the chapel. If you step in through the main gates from Mile End Rd and cast your eyes upwards, this clock appears to meet your gaze as the central focus of Sir William Ogbourne’s entire architectural conception.

After it was saved by CR Ashbee at the end of the nineteenth century and restored for social housing in the twentieth century, I hope we shall not be the generation that presides over the decay of Trinity Green, leaving it to languish for future generations in the shadow of a monstrous tower.

A pair of quaint narrow terraces face each other across a green off the Mile End Rd in Whitechapel. Although they are lined up neatly like ships’ cabins, only the model boats upon the street frontage remain as evidence that these were built for as almshouses for mariners. But, if you step closer and crane your neck, a stone plaque high on the wall proclaims their noble origin thus, “THIS ALMES HOUSE wherein twenty-eight decay’d Masters & Commanders of Ships, or ye Widows of such are maintain’d, was built by ye CORP. of TRINITY HOUSE, ano 1695. The Ground was given by Capt. HENY MUDD of Rattcliff an Elder Brother, whose Widow did alfo Contribute.”

Even today, a certain atmosphere of repose hangs upon this small enclave, protected from the pandemonium of East London traffic by trees and delicate emerald green railings – now a preserve of cats and flowerpots and twisted old trees and lawns strewn with dandelions and daisies – where it is easy to imagine those “twenty-eight decay’d Masters & Commanders” who once sat around here competing to outdo each other with oft-repeated tales of high adventures upon the seven seas.

The architect was Sir William Ogbourne, and his design was ship-shape in its elegant organisation, fourteen dwellings on either side, each one with three rooms stacked up on top of the other, all arranged around a chapel at the centre to provide spiritual navigation. It was a rigorous structure enlivened by lyrical flourishes, elaborately carved corbels above each door, model boats and stone balls topping off the edifice, and luxuriant stone crests adorning the brick work.

In the nineteenth century, a tall mast stood at the centre of the green to complete the whole endeavour as an approximation of a ship upon dry land – complementing the concave walls at the front in place of a hull and the raised chapel in the aft where the poop deck would be. Just a mile from the docks, it was the perfect spot for Masters & Commanders to enjoy their decay, and it might have sailed on majestically, if it had not been sunk by the bombing in 1943, that destroyed part of the chapel and the rear eight cottages. Taken over by the LCC, Trinity Green is now a mixture of private and public dwellings where everyone gets along peaceably, unified in their appreciation of this favoured spot.

One of the guardians of Trinity Green

This stone ball was removed from the roof of a council owned cottage and never replaced, meanwhile a vent punctures the cornice of this grade 1 listed building

While this council owned cottage sits empty, the water tank has leaked for months damaging brick work

Council owned property to the left and privately owned property to the right reveal comparative levels of maintenance

Unappreciated interior of the chapel, where seventeenth century chandeliers have recently been removed leaving just the chains

Finely carved wooden cornice in the chapel

After three hundred years, the hands have recently been removed from the clock face

When I visited in 2011, the hands were still on the clock at Trinity Green

The proposed tower of luxury flats as tall as Centrepoint that threatens Whitechapel & Trinity Green

Letter by Charles Robert Ashbee, designer & founder of the School of Handicraft in Bow, to the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings about the Trinity Almshouses.

Trinity Almshouses, Mile End Rd, 1695

CR Ashbee letter published courtesy of Society for Protection of Ancient Buildings

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CR Ashbee in the East End

23 Responses leave one →
  1. October 13, 2015

    I am sad to say that I am not even surprised that the council are letting this wonderful property decay. The same thing happens here, too, where historical buildings are allowed to deteriorate and decay until it is too late, and have to be pulled down or sold off cheaply to make way for modern developments. It would really be a crime to let the Trinity Almshouses get further run down. I hope a campaign can be started to get it back into good condition. Valerie

  2. October 13, 2015

    The almshouses are an absolute jewel and their neglect is shameful.
    Let us know what we can do

  3. Elizabeth cornwell permalink
    October 13, 2015

    What an absolute disgrace!Wonder who is now the proud owner of the brass chandeliers!?This really is a scandal.

  4. October 13, 2015

    Very sad that such a wonderful example of our history is overlooked and neglected.

  5. October 13, 2015

    Thank you for highlighting this decay and neglect, sadly this was also the case in 2010 when I last worked on one of the houses in the green. I fear the houses being part privately owned and part council owned are treated as if privately owned, which of course is wrong. They are grade 1 listed and require tender loving care to restore them for many more generations to come wether privately or publicly owned.

    It would be particularly attractive and beneficial to restore the gardens and the chapel for public to enjoy? Perhaps on Speacial occasions in the nautical calendar reminding us that these were indeed once Mariners houses.

    They might become a shining example of placemaking by the london borough of tower hamlets?

  6. Robert Green permalink
    October 13, 2015

    This story is particularly relevant to me, for years I have often stood outside the gates of this little haven of relative tranquility and looked longingly through the railings at the charming row of cottages within and my mind would drift off into an imaginary vision of how nice it would be to live in such a delightful and historic place, then only last year I noticed one of the cottages came up for sale, so I looked into the possibility of trying to buy it which in turn gave me the opportunity to at last step beyond the locked gates and explore close up all that I had previously only surveyed from a distance, and it was then that my former enchantment was shattered, I to, like the residents mentioned in this article was alarmed at the surprising level of neglect of some of the buildings that was not so obvious when viewed from a distance and a chat with one of the residents opened my eyes to a whole raft of potential drawbacks that I was previously unaware of, so in the end all this plus my own research which also uncovered many alarming plans for extensive OVER development to nearby properties concluded in me deciding to let my head over rule my heart and I decided to drop the idea, and now a year later I have concluded that for once I am convinced I made the right decision.

  7. Zulfqar Ali permalink
    October 13, 2015

    This is awful. I’ve walked past these on many occasion and admired them greatly, wishing I could enter to have a better look. Please let us know if there is anything to be done in support of the residents.

  8. October 13, 2015

    Where is English Heritage (or whatever it’s called these days)? Doesn’t it have a statutory duty to protect listed buildings?

  9. Anthony Zacharzewski permalink
    October 13, 2015

    I used to live at no 4 in the early 2000s and my wife and I had our wedding reception on the green and in the chapel. How very sad. Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help. You should have my email from my posting this.

  10. Ken permalink
    October 13, 2015

    This expose of the total failings of the ramshackle Tower Hamlets Council is truly shocking. I agree that Historic England should be taking action if the Council is so utterly irresponsible. An urgent repair programme is needed. As for the removal of the chandeliers, this needs to be pursued since they were an integral feature of a Grade I listed building and listed building consent would be needed to remove them. If it was not obtained, a criminal offence has been committed – or were they simply stolen? Are the police involved? The junk in the chapel should be thrown out and the interior restored. Please don’t let this issue drop – LBTH has a lot to answer for.

  11. barbara permalink
    October 13, 2015

    This is a terrific investigation and I feel sure you will be taking it further, to SPAB or English Heritage.. It would be terrible to lose it. Imagine if there were such a site in Chelsea.. it would be cherished and become a well known tourist landmark. What is LBTH doing?

  12. MsMischief permalink
    October 13, 2015

    Where is English Heritage? What on EARTH has happened to that dedicated team of people who used to be concerned with the listed buildings in every part of London? There should be funding for this, and someone should have responsibility for getting it. Shame on the local council for letting awful damage pass like this. I know the government is mean as all hell, but the local council should be making a noise about it, not just letting it pass. Where is the local official concerned with conservation of the built environment?? And, how shameful that almshouses built charitably for the poor elderly, should be neglected and sold off into private hands. The charity of the past shows up our ‘austere’ aka mean government so eloquently, and its uncharitability.

  13. October 13, 2015

    Is there not a Preservation Society, local Civic Society, English Heritage, residents association, local MP, which/who can wade in and make a big fuss to keep these buildings from being allowed to decay?!! This is real history, which Ashbee saved once. Where have the balls, clock fingers and chandeliers gone – safe keeping or just stolen/destroyed? Action quickly!!

  14. Tony Wheeler permalink
    October 13, 2015

    Chris Dyson that is a little rich coming from yourself who supported the demolition of the wool exchange and is working on the Goodsyard development.

  15. Catherine Morris permalink
    October 13, 2015

    Please tell me who I can write or where I can sign a petition. I think both LBTH and English Heritage should both be contacted. Whoever manages Trinity Green should have a record of what happened to both the brass chandeliers and the clock hands. If not placed somewhere for repair or safekeeping, then it was a theft and should have been reported so at the time to the police

  16. October 13, 2015

    This group of buildings is SO special the quality of workmanship can not be matched the choice of materials is a joy anything that is considered adjacent to this project must compliment this context not contrast …take a look at Portcullis house against Westminster Palace.

    This maybe an ambitious ask but then this will be the new west end of the east end in a matter of years the sun is shining in the glorious east end of London, so let us not build things cheaply, let us make things to last the test of time as has been proven by Trinity Green ….

    with buildings we rarely have a second chance let the share holders at Sainsbury’s take a little less profit for all our gain – for too long, the east end has suffered from a lack of investment in its buildings.

  17. October 13, 2015

    Truly shocking, and thank you GA for publicising this. Tower Hamlets has a statutory duty to maintain the fabric of the almshouses it owns, but the council is hardly going to serve a Repairs Notice on itself. I remember visiting Trinity Green as an architectural student in the early 1970s, and the buildings seemed to be meticulously maintained at that time. As unauthorised work or alteration to a listed building the removal of the chandeliers constitutes a criminal offence.

    Like Tony Wheeler, I cannot take Chris Dyson’s comments seriously having watched on youtube his contribution to the destruction of the Fruit and Wool Exchange.

    As for the proposed tower, words fail.

  18. Tony Wheeler permalink
    October 13, 2015

    Chris what is the difference between the Sainsburys development and the Goodsyard. Of the two Whitechapel Square (Sainsburys) is actually much better architecture and will be less damaging to Whitechapel than the PLP Goodsyard design will be to Spitalfields and Shoreditch.
    I guess the difference is your company is being paid to add local credibility to the Hammerson team for the Goodsyard. There is rumour that you are working on the Whitechapel Estate redevelopment and if that is correct it would great if you could persuade them to drop the Miami style towers PLP have designed and go to planning with something that at least attempts to belong to East London. In the meantime playing the conservation card whilst working on the single most damaging project that will ever happen to Spitalfields lacks a certain amount of credibility.

  19. ROBERT GREEN permalink
    October 13, 2015

    I have no wish to argue with Mr Chris Dyson but the comment of –> ” anything that is considered adjacent to this project must COMPLIMENT ? ? this context not CONTRAST” made me burst out laughing, Mr Dyson have you visited this place RECENTLY ? ?

  20. Caroline Gilfillan permalink
    October 13, 2015

    Thank you, GA, for another timely and important piece of investigative blogging. It’s shameful that these beautiful buildings should be allowed to fall unto this state of decay. Perhaps the East End Preservation Society could do more to publicise their fate. Their post on FB brought your report to my attention.

  21. Ros permalink
    October 13, 2015

    Surely it is not just the Council’s fault – central government is deliberately starving local authorities of money with which to run services, telling them that instead they can and should set their own business rates and make their money from those business rates instead. And the Mayoral system adds to the problems when the Mayor of London and doubtless other Mayors are allowed to override decisions made by local authorities. This is what he has just done again in Tower Hamlets in the case of Norton Folgate. Public service and the upkeep of assets that do not make a financial ‘profit’ have become concepts consigned to the scrap heap. The government imposes ‘austerity’ on spending that benefits the less well off but doesn’t demand austerity from the wealthy, does it?

  22. Jan Marsh permalink
    October 14, 2015

    Can SPAB be re-energised once again in defence of Trinity Square?

  23. Shawdian permalink
    June 3, 2017

    The neglect of Trinity Green is a model reflection of just how much society is hammered into walking away from its past and flogged into a pit of self regard and ignorance by the elected few who choose to remain blind for self attainment. When once ‘Town & City Pride & Self Worth”, ‘all’ they see now is “£££££££”. Speaks volumes of self self self and hypocrisy. Shame on them all.

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