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The Friends Of Arnold Circus

November 3, 2018
by the gentle author

All are welcome at the Friends of Arnold Circus AGM at Calvert 22 on Wednesday 7th November, which serves as an overture to an illustrated lecture by Adam Dant on his maps of Shoreditch entitled SHOREDITCH IN THE YEAR 3000. Click here for free tickets

Responsible for the spectacular renovation of the bandstand at Arnold Circus in recent years, the Friends now seeks to recruit more volunteers to participate in their work improving the Boundary Estate. If you can help email

Today Robin Hatton-Gore unravels the mystery of the origin of the mound at Arnold Circus.

The eight-sided bandstand at Arnold Circus has been a treasured landmark at the centre of the historic Boundary Estate for over a century. The only constant hereabouts is change and the bandstand has witnessed its fair share of changes.

There is an unusual energy in this location that is perhaps preternatural and the raised mound has generated apocryphal tales of ancient myth, suggesting it is on a ley line connected to St Martin the Fields. Other local legends stem from an earlier site called Friars’ Mount nearby, where “a set of fellows lived in laziness and luxury.” A vivid but scurrilous account by the anti-Papist author, George Borrows, in his 1874 Gypsy Dictionary fancifully attributes the name Friars’ Mount to a former friary, but it is more likely derived from a John Fryer who ‘farmed the field around a small hillock on Mount Street’ in the seventeen-twenties. This mound in even earlier times may have formed part of a military rampart – a link in ‘a chain of twenty-three fortifications’ – which Parliamentarians used to defend London against Royalist forces in the English Civil War.

Yet the truth is that the mound is of more recent origin and the historical reality is more interesting than the myth. The Housing of The Working Classes Act of 1890 heralded the dismantling of the Old Nichol, the notorious rookery which stood here before. Arthur Morrison wrote a fictional account of the Old Nichol in 1896 entitled The Child of the Jago. He derived ‘the Jago’ from the name of Rev Osborne Jay, a muscular Christianity with a boxing gym below his Church of Holy Trinity. Morrison had first been invited to the Old Nichol by Rev Jay and the novel was published only after the ramshackle structures of this most scandalous of slums had been razed.

In 1897, The British Architect reported, ‘The London County Council for some years past have been devoting the energies of their staff to the preparation of a grand scheme for the rehousing of the working classes. A site near Shoreditch Church was selected for this purpose, and the Boundary Street Working Class Housing Dwellings are well worth visiting now … the plan is that of a great circus, in the middle of which, on an elevated plateau there is to be a bandstand’.

Owen Fleming became the leader of the LCC’s new Housing of the Working Classes Branch, a group of young progressive architects tasked with the creation of the pioneering collection of buildings to raise the standard of housing for labourers and artisans in one of the poorest districts of the East End. This was to be the very first council housing estate. Social housing had existed previously, funded by charity, but the Boundary was the first financed by the taxpayer. Thomas Blashill, the LCC’s Superintendant Architect, entrusted this group of architects – who were inspired by the Arts & Craft movement – to create twenty-three domestic buildings, each subtly different.

In an inspired move, the architects rejected an already-approved grid for the scheme. Fleming fought “to be allowed to build the central raised garden with its bandstand, around which he had imagined the local courting couples strolling on a summer’s evening while the band played.” Seven streets radiated from the unifying hub of Arnold Circus like the spokes of a wheel and the architectural diversity of the buildings included details and features that were in contrast to the uniformity of style which had formerly marked the housing of the poor.

It was the rubble displaced in digging out the foundations was piled up to become Boundary Gardens, a fact confirmed by Museum of London Archaeology when they excavated in 2012 and discovered artefacts belonging to the former residents of the Old Nichol.

On the Boundary Estate, street names derive from the towns of Huguenot immigrants – Rochelle, Navarre and Montclare – Arnold Circus itself is named after Sir Arthur Arnold, a Liberal and chairman of the London County Council. The surrounding buildings are named after towns along the Thames – Cookham, Chertsey and Henley. The Architects Association Journal said “the central garden…is more than a piece of pattern-making by the architects, it is a strong unifying factor which does much to make of the scheme a community rather than a collection of model dwellings.”

Continuing in this ethos, between May and September of this year Andy Willoughy and the team of volunteer gardeners have been planting new flora in the sloping beds. They are home to a lively community of tiny bugs and insects, wildlife that quietly moves along a natural freeway to the subtle rhythm of seasonal changes. The Friends of Arnold Circus Biodiversity Project also includes the installation of new bird and bat boxes – social housing for our flighted neighbours.

Adam Dant’s Map of Shoreditch in the Year 3000

You may also like to read about

The Hollyhocks of Arnold Circus

Winter Light at Arnold Circus

Who is Arnold Circus?

7 Responses leave one →
  1. November 3, 2018

    I visited Arnold Cirus several years ago and found it had a very peaceful quality. A very interesting part of London’s history.

  2. Laura Williamson permalink
    November 3, 2018

    The Boundary was certainly a vast improvement on the Old Nichol although it is questionable how many of the original residents benefited and how many were just moved on to find equally impoverished accommodation elsewhere.

    My late husband spent a lot of time on researching his East End ancestry and a very useful resource was “Sanitary Ramblings, Being Sketches and Illustrations of Bethnal Green” ( Hector Gavin 1848) which paints a vivid picture of how grim the Old Nichol area was; much of it is available online now and is an interesting read. Some of my husbands family were in Turville Buildings; the residents there tell Gavin that they frequently have no water as their landlord is in debt the water company. There are many similar stories.

  3. aubrey permalink
    November 3, 2018

    I grew up in Laleham Buildings; another town alongside the Thames. (Hedsor bldgs opposite). The “bandstand” as we kids used to called it, was usually closed to us during the ’50’s (and maybe even the ’40’s). Climbing over the railing in order to gain access to the park illegally, could be a hazardous operation.
    I can, however, recall it being opened on special occasions when a brass band played wthin the stand. I can’t, though, remember the what the celebration(s) were for.
    We had fun time when we had rare impromptu running races around the circus. (Private cars were not very prevalent then; if at all).
    I’m glad to know that the garden is now being frequented as it should be. After all it was probably designed to be used in a quotidian way.

  4. Paul Loften permalink
    November 3, 2018

    Thank you for this . It teaches us that hidden within a landmark that we see daily and do not give much thought to, is a vibrant history that never stops at one point in time. Once a likely fortress against Royalists and then a notorious rookery and there is much more. Who can walk past such a spot without feeling a sense of excitement ?

  5. Gary Arber permalink
    November 3, 2018

    In the 1950’s there used to be some small workshops in the circus, these were rented out to small traders. In those days my shop also sold toys, there was an old basket maker there named Lapidus, I used to buy children’s baskets and push along baskets from him. It was a pleasure to see “old Lap” sitting on a small stool making a basket between his legs, his baskets were neat and strong.

  6. Ian Silverton permalink
    November 4, 2018

    Good to know the old band stand still stands,as children of the 50s living local we played around it,always closed I remember,but one Sunny Sunday mourning we come across it and the Band was in full flow,great sound and a good sight, but that was the only time,as I remember.

  7. Jacqualyn Conner permalink
    November 4, 2018

    My late mother attended Rochelle Street Primary School from 1931 to 1937.

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