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Charles Saumarez Smith’s East London

April 27, 2017
by the gentle author

Charles Saumarez Smith and his wife Romilly have lived in the East End for over forty years, and are custodians of a beautiful old house in the Mile End Rd. Today I present a selection of photographs with captions from his new book EAST LONDON, published by Thames & Hudson.

‘Stepney City Farm – an unexpected piece of hippy rusticity next door to where construction workers are currently tunnelling for Crossrail, with geese, donkeys and chickens wandering freely among the lettuces.’

‘Novo Cemetery – As one walks through the grounds of Queen Mary University, past the engineering building and next to the arts and law faculties, one finds a large, well-preserved Jewish burial ground. It was opened in 1733, next door to Bancroft’s Hospital, and is shown clearly on Roque’s map in the following decade.’

‘I called in on Mile End Place one Christmas morning– one of those snickets of artisan housing, backing on to the Jewish cemetery, with only trees beyond.’

‘I’ve always liked Whitechapel Station, where the District Line emerges blinking into the daylight and curves round to head eastwards towards West Ham and Upminster, while below one could catch the old branch line of the Metropolitan down to New Cross, now revitalised by becoming part of the London Overground. The station opened in 1902 and one used to be able to get the Whitechapel & Bow Railway all the way to Southend. It once had four platforms, but is now reduced to two and is gradually losing its character as it is submerged by the changes required for Crossrail.’

‘Abbey Mills Pumping Station stands proud in the valley of the River Lea on the site of a monastic water mill. It’s an amazing building, with so much decorative care and Byzantine and Gothic detail lavished on Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s powerhouse of engineering. Inside is full of hand dials and maps of London’s sewers and Piranesian vistas, down to the big pipes that transport London’s sewage out to Beckton, all of it constructed after the Great Stink of 1858.’

‘Walking down a road I’ve walked down a thousand times before, not far from our house, I found myself in a time warp of 1890s communitarian social idealism: a well-cared-for courtyard full of plants, a small house for the caretaker, bicycles and beehives. It is Cressy House, austere on the outside, designed by Davis & Emmanuel, architects of the West London Synagogue, for the East End Dwellings Company, with communal staircases leading off the internal courtyard.’

‘Three Mills is an unexpected piece of industrial archaeology, next to Tesco in Bromley-by-Bow. As mills, they were first established before the dissolution of the monasteries to supply grain to the bakeries of Stratford-atte-Bow. They were later acquired in 1727 by three Huguenots to distil gin.’

‘Owen Hopkins’s ‘From the Shadows: The Architecture and Afterlife of Nicholas Hawksmoor’ made me look afresh at Christ Church, Spitalfields, in the light of his very clear account of the way that Hawksmoor was influenced by the interest of his ecclesiastical contemporaries in the churches of the Primitive Christians. This may have given Hawksmoor some of his characteristics of bold, unornamented, structural clarity.’

‘Just off Commercial Road, halfway to Limehouse, is Albert Gardens. A square of nearly perfect, neat, early Victorian houses, it was laid out in the 1840s with a garden in the middle by the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association. A sculpture of a ‘Shepherd Boy’ with sheaf and sickle, dated 1903 and bought in Paris, stands in the centre of the square.’

‘I was walking down Stepney Green past the dwellings at the south end beyond the Manor House, when I realised what fine ironwork and stucco detailing they have. They were built in 1895 by Solomon Joseph for the Four Per Cent Industrial Dwellings Company, founded in 1885 by Nathan Rothschild after an enquiry by the United Synagogue into ‘spiritual destitution’. Stepney Green court provided ‘the industrial classes with commodious and healthy Dwellings at a minimum rent’. Each of the flats had two rooms only and a shared washroom and kitchen, together with a communal club, reading room and baths. The original tenants were mostly Jewish artisans and there was a large synagogue next door, now converted into flats.’

‘It is a pleasure walking past the Geffrye Museum and seeing how the crisp November sun lights up the space in front of the early eighteenth-century almshouses. They were built out of a bequest from Sir Robert Geffrye, a big wheel in the Ironmongers’ Company, appointed Sheriff in 1674 and elected Lord Mayor in 1684. He died in 1703, leaving the residue of his estate to be used to construct fourteen almshouses, with a chapel in the middle and a statue commemorating the founder.’

‘I admire the work that the Spitalfields Trust has done in regenerating the streets off New Road – Turner Street, Walden Street and Varden Street – where the small artisans’ houses have been spruced up’

‘A magnificent piece of surviving industrial lettering incised into a side wall just off the Hackney Road.’

‘Wapping still retains a curious sense of isolation, with areas of greenery around the parish church of St John and Hussey’s, a good old-fashioned butcher, in Wapping Lane. One can get down to the Thames by way of two small alleyways off Wapping High Street. The first is alongside New Crane Wharf.’

Photographs copyright © Charles Saumarez Smith

EAST LONDON by Charles Saumarez Smith is published by Thames & Hudson

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9 Responses leave one →
  1. Jim McDermott permalink
    April 27, 2017

    A lovely reminder (with a keen eye for detail) that all’s not yet lost!

  2. April 27, 2017

    Wonderful photos of some of my favourite places. Valerie

  3. Geoff Frewin permalink
    April 27, 2017

    Thoroughly enjoyed these photos …memories of a time passed often harsh but often visibly idyllic…thank you

  4. Ronald McKenzie permalink
    April 27, 2017

    I would love to hear more about the “Great Stink of 1858.”

  5. Helen permalink
    April 27, 2017

    I love these untouched pockets of London, sadly becoming fewer and fewer. Just being able to walk down an old street amidst all the new developments, is a joy and can still evoke a strong sense of the past. Thanks for the photos.

  6. April 27, 2017

    Made me feel very homesick!

  7. David Bishop permalink
    April 27, 2017

    Beautiful photographs and descriptions. Thank you. David

  8. Ros permalink
    April 28, 2017

    Absolutely lovely photos and descriptions. I enjoyed them all very much. I have a particularly soft spot for the photo of the corridor at Whitechapel station, alas no more. I too am sad to see the old station go. However, I saw the magnificent lettering about locks, safes etc carved into the wall just off Hackney Road only yesterday.

  9. Milo Bell permalink
    April 29, 2017

    They were so beautiful i went back again…and again.

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