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At The Canal Club

July 21, 2019
by Sarah Winman

Novelist Sarah Winman visited the Canal Club in Bethnal Green recently with Photographer Rachel Ferriman to report on the threat to the community spaces at the Wellington Estate

Toslima Rahman with her daughter Saima & son Ayaan at the Canal Club

The Canal Club sits at the corner of Waterloo Gardens and Sewardstone Rd in Bethnal Green. It consists of a playground, a ball park, a community centre and community garden between the vast Wellington Estate to the east, of which it is part, and the Grand Union Housing Coop to the west. At the southern border is Belmont Wharf, a small boating community established by Sally and Dominique who were granted permission by the council nine years ago to have moorings along this stretch of Regent’s Canal and to create a sustainable garden for boat dwellers and land dwellers alike.

The garden is incredibly beautiful, a biodiverse haven. The sound of children playing carries across the water from Victoria Park and faded bunting flutters in the breeze. Flowers of every colour bloom and bees are plenty and go about with purpose. Butterflies delight around the nettles and even bats have found a home here. This garden has been created with care and thought and, more importantly, time. The air is sweet and clean, far removed from the fug of Cambridge Heath Rd and Hackney Rd that pollute nearby.

I met residents Sally, Dominique, Alex, Ricardo, Helga, Erdoo, Mr & Mrs Ali, and Toslima to learn that this beloved site has been selected by Tower Hamlets Council for a housing infill scheme. These schemes are becoming common practise by councils, who target sites – usually recreational – on existing estates and build further.

The proposal for the Wellington Estate is to demolish the Canal Club and remove the open space and community asset it provides. This is to construct a further twenty-two flats on an already densely populated estate which was built in the thirties as an answer to slum clearance – basically, it is taking space from those who have little to start with.

It is a complex situation that is the outcome of thirty years of right-to-buy, money held by central government and the chronic need for housing. However, what is inexcusable to the residents of the estate and the boating community and supportive locals, is the opaque nature of the dealings – the council’s lack of transparency and openness to discussion. Two years ago, they thought they were simply looking at the refurbishment of their community centre, until they later found out that the decision to demolish the Canal Club site was already under way.

Alex explains that the Canal Club land was given by the GLC  to the people of the Wellington Estate in the late seventies and early eighties to offset the overcrowding and the lack of balconies and gardens. It was their land and she believes the present council had a responsibility to share their ideas with the residents. The irony is not lost on her too, that Tower Hamlets say they are an Climate Emergency Council and yet are taking away the only green public space on the estate.

Everyone talks about the eighties and nineties when the community centre was thriving. It was hired out for weddings and birthdays then. There was a youth club, opportunities to learn a second language and for recent immigrants to learn English, space for pensioners to get together, and for the residents association to meet and share ideas. Dwight tells us he was a member of the youth club and it was the only chance for kids to have day trips out of London. He remembers camping in Tunbridge Wells. The chance to ride horses and canoe – see a different life, be a different person.

There is nothing for kids now, someone says. So much has already gone. And if you take away the ball park, then what? Looting across the generations, another says. Building slums of the future, says another. Erdoo, who has lived on the state all her life, tells me that her dad Joseph looked after the Community Centre for years before the council took away his key and barred the local residents from using it anymore. Then the Community Centre was offered up to private use for private rents. The popular Scallywags nursery is the present tenant, but ill-feeling from that time remains.

This engaging group of people care so much about their environment and improving the lives of others. Yet what is apparent is how the agency of council tenants is being eroded in the widening chasm of inequality.

The right to space and light and clean air can never only be for the rich.

I stand on the old wharf where the custodians, Sally and Dominique, repaired it with two-hundred-year-old bricks. Wildflowers grow here now and nature has reclaimed an area once used for the dumping of waste. Kick the soil and a filament of plastic is revealed, hidden by knapweed or evening primrose, or large swathes of hemp-agrimony. Over the years, composting has built up the fertility of the soil, attracting a diversity of insects and bird population. Dominique explains that the principle of permaculture is to work in sympathy with nature and harness its natural energy. A wild colony of bees appear every year for a few weeks when the cherry tree blossoms and then disappear again to their unknown world. Dominique keeps a daily diary of the changes and visitations. The secret life that we do not see, either because we move too fast or because the insects are too small.

The license for this garden expires next year, and Dominique and Sally fear the council will not renew it if the demolition goes ahead. I find it unbelievable that such a necessary and beautiful urban green space could be sacrificed especially in a time of declining mental health. The benefits that access to nature provides are irrefutable. This community garden is more than a garden, it is a destination for the carers and patients who come down from the Mission Practise or readers looking for solitude. It is a resource for artists seeking inspiration and children who want to know how the natural world works – or simply those who need to be reminded that they are more than their circumstance.

As I leave this corner of East London, I am reminded of a speech delivered by Robert Kennedy back in the sixties about how the value of a country is measured – “It does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry… It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion… it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”


The Wellington Estate

Save Our Community Spaces – Refurbish Not Demolish

In the Community Garden

Dominique Cornault at the Canal Club

Sally Hone at the Canal Club

Mr & Mrs Ali outside the Canal Club

Helga Lang at the Canal Club

Dwight James at Belmont Wharf

Erdoo Yongo outside her mum’s house on Wellington Estate

Barbara, resident of the Estate, and Bonny her dog

Photographs copyright © Rachel Ferriman

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15 Responses leave one →
  1. rebecca bowden permalink
    July 21, 2019

    What a lovely place! I can well understand the need for councils to provide housing, but why do the councillors (presumably elected by the local people) choose to be so underhand? London councils in particular, seem determined to destroy everything good about an area and make it as overcrowded and horrid as possible…. good luck with the petition.

  2. July 21, 2019

    Great pics Rachel. It looks like days gone by when we were freer to express ourselves and the land was ours…long gone now in LBTH

  3. July 21, 2019

    What an amazing much needed space. I was going to sign and then ask all my social media contacts to sign the petition but then I read anyone who signs must have a close connection to Tower Hamlets and I don’t. And neither do 99% of my social contacts. While I totally get the local aspect, there is a wider principle about preserving community and preserving urban community space, which transcends the locale. I realise local authorities are under pressure but this is deeply counterproductive to the lives of those they serve.

    Brilliant photos. The one of Helga Lang – especially – touched my heart.

  4. July 21, 2019

    Looks like the council is carrying on the tradition of Boris the Bad. What an appalling thing to even think of destroying this piece of living nature and taking it away from the residents. Valerie

  5. Pete Biernis permalink
    July 21, 2019

    What a lovely place must be kept for the community

  6. Pauline Taylor permalink
    July 21, 2019

    Everyone needs access to spaces like these in an urban environment and councils who behave like Tower Hamlets in seeking to destroy them should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. I hope so much that the petition will be successful but I fear that money will talk as always. We are faced with a similar problem here in Colchester, Britain’s First City, where our council has supported a developer’s plans for a hotel and student accommodation on a derelict area of land that it owns in the town centre. The planning department refused the application but we have just received a letter telling us that the developers will appeal. The alternative scheme was a) for a proper archaeological dig to be carried out as much of our roman city remains hidden there and b) for it then to be developed as an open garden space.

  7. David Akinsanya permalink
    July 21, 2019

    This oasis on the west of Victoria park is magnificent and a lovely community resource. I love taking my 3 year old – who loves watering the plants and watching the frogs grow. I fully support your campaign to keep this space as so many other spaces are taken for flats.

  8. Lucy permalink
    July 21, 2019

    This is horrendous and happens all over London, the resident population is ignored and cheated out of their assets. Councils give with one hand and take with the other.

  9. Dorothy Lindsay permalink
    July 21, 2019

    Does this proposal ignore the current building regulations requirement that there should be 6 acres of adjacent green space available for every 1,000 residents?

    I too was going to sign the petition but then read, like Bailey Jones that anyone who signs must have a close connection to Tower hamlets – and, like him, I don’t.

    But this is sheer social vandalism and Tower Hamlets appears to be treating its residents with brutal indifference……

  10. Jill Wilson permalink
    July 21, 2019

    I have signed the petition anyway under the ‘other ‘ connection… I hope it is succesful!

  11. Lyn Prendergast permalink
    July 23, 2019

    This a beautiful, colourful space in Sewardstone Road used by many, many of

    the local residents, kids, mums, dads and the many animals and insects that

    live and breed in this lovely wild garden area. I walk by the garden at least

    twice a day and the anticipation of reaching glorious Victoria Park grows as you

    pass by.

  12. Rachel Blake permalink
    July 24, 2019

    I read the recent post by Sarah Winman about the Canal Club and wanted to share some more information about the proposals. I appreciate that Spitalfields Life will come to its own conclusions about the proposals but was surprised and saddened by the absence of key information about the proposals in the article. I would be happy for you to publish this.

    The article states: ‘These schemes are becoming common practise by councils, who target sites – usually recreational – on existing estates and build further.’

    In Tower Hamlets, ‘these schemes’ are providing genuinely affordable homes for families on Tower Hamlets housing register. The statement ‘usually recreational’ implies a majority of sites are recreational. Currently, the council is building or has received planning permission for 240 genuinely affordable council homes on its own sites. Of these 183 were on former garages and 57 were on former service centres which have moved or been re-provided.

    The article also states: ‘The proposal for the Wellington Estate is to demolish the Canal Club and remove the open space and community asset it provides. This is to construct a further twenty-two flats on an already densely populated estate which was built in the thirties as an answer to slum clearance – basically, it is taking space from those who have little to start with.’

    The final number of genuinely affordable council homes has not been confirmed and the open space and garden will be re-provided. The community centre will also be re-provided as will the community co-operative nursery (so that they both have independent space, an improvement on the current situation). The homes would be genuinely affordable to people on the Tower Hamlets housing register. This is providing homes and space to those who do not have any.

    The article refers to: ‘the council’s lack of transparency and openness to discussion.’

    I have met with several of the residents mentioned in your article and have been open to discussion, as have council staff. 2 consultation events took place in 2018 – these were the 1st sessions of 2 planned rounds of consultation. One of these sessions was a drop-in and the other was a ‘Community Forum’ led by LBTH planning officers. The steering group (comprising the E2 Collective, the Wellington TRA, Grand Union Residents Association and Scallywags Nursery) met 31 January 2019 and I attended.

    As the consultation process has been a cause of concern, the Steering Group discussed the format of the final consultation events. As a result of this, the council commissioned a range of events to boost community engagement. The design of the potential new community centre has also been raised as an issue for discussion and it is hoped that the residents’ requirements for the new community centre can be explored in the consultation.

    The article states: ‘she believes the present council had a responsibility to share their ideas with the residents. The irony is not lost on her too, that Tower Hamlets say they are an Climate Emergency Council and yet are taking away the only green public space on the estate.’

    As I’ve already mentioned, the council has shared these ideas in an open steering group and engagement events for the last 18 months. In addition to the engagement which has taken place so far, the proposals would be subject to a planning application and the residents would be able to respond to the proposals as part of statutory processes.

    The green space would be re-provided and the Council would comply with National, Regional and Local Planning policy which require climate mitigation measures and buildings which reduce or eliminate carbon emissions.

    The Councils proposals at this site include a community centre, a community garden, a new ball court, a new nursery and new genuinely affordable council Homes.

    With approximately 10,000 households living in Temporary Accommodation or Overcrowded homes, the council is committed to delivering genuinely affordable new homes and this location offers a chance to provide something to those who do not currently have a home. As providing new homes was a core element of our manifesto, there is a clear mandate to pursue a programme of council homes.

    Please do let me know if you would like any more information or to discuss this.

    Thank you,


    Cllr Rachel Blake

    Labour Councillor – Bow East

    Deputy Mayor – Planning, Tackling Poverty and Air Quality

    LB Tower Hamlets

  13. Save Our Space E2 permalink
    July 27, 2019

    We welcome Cllr Rachel Blake’s interest in sharing some more information on the proposed plans for the Canal Club site. However, it is difficult to understand why Cllr Blake, the borough planners and architects are so confident that their brief acquaintance with the site could outweigh the experience and needs of local residents. It should be noted that Tower Hamlets Council has not given the Wellington Estate TRA unsupervised use of the Canal Club, its community hall, for regular meetings and has not supported any community use of the hall.

    The fact remains that the decision whether to build or not on the Canal Club space was taken by Tower Hamlets Council without consultation with the tenants and residents of the Wellington Estate, to whom the land was given by the Greater London Council.

    The Save Our Space E2 Campaign and the TRA, as Cllr Blake knows, have stated throughout their support for genuinely affordable council housing to be built in Tower Hamlets. However, we would point out that ‘building on former garages and former service centres’ as Cllr Blakes states the Council has done, is a very different proposition from building on public, open space land which has been given to an estate expressly for recreation and on which there is already a community hall, community garden and ball park.

    The need for social housing and open, green space should not be seen as opposing choices, for both are needed, nor can the proposition of ‘re-providing’ be deemed the same as retaining the original space. The play spaces which is an option in the proposed new build scheme, would need to be included to meet the new build planning requirements, and not as a favour to the TRA. The statement that existing facilities will be ‘re-provided’ in practice will constitute a loss of existing green and open space to which, at present, tenants and residents from the estate and surrounding area have free physical access. The Tower Hamlets Open Space Strategy 2017, notes that: green and open space is ‘linked to greater levels of physical activity and associated health benefits ‘(pg75) St Peter’s Ward is predicted to have a high level of open space. deficiency across the next 13 years (figs 48-49); and a strategy for addressing this deficiency in the ward is noted as ‘improved connectivity with existing sites’. (fig49) The Chest Hospital development, also on the same road, will lead to higher density in the area.

    This is not the first programme of infill housing on the Wellington Estate. There have been several. Unfortunately, they leave a permanent state of ‘catch-up’ as regards communal facilities. Each of these schemes has lost the estate the resource of pockets of land and other useful facilities. For example, the Peabody, Lark Row development was supposed to fund a bridge to Victoria Park to mitigate not providing play space within the scheme. This didn’t happen.

    Cllr Blake’s remark about ‘the absence of key information’ is misplaced because the context in which Sarah Winman conducted the interviews was, unlike the requirements of a formal meeting, one in which the concerns of the participants regarding the proposals could be expressed. Tower Hamlets Council appointed architects, who approached the TRA, the Community Canal Club Garden and other organisations in the area with their brief to make plans for building on the site and as Cllr Blake says, ‘consultation events took place in 2018 led by LBTH planning officers.’

    However, her letter lacks key information in that a majority of tenants and residents expressed opposition to the proposals and the TRA expressed concern at the way the consultation had been conducted. Subsequently, another team of consultants was appointed and again many of those who attended the ‘consultations’ expressed their opposition to building on the site and reiterated the formal position of the TRA and the Campaign, Save Our Space E2 which was to refurbish the Canal Club and not build on the site.

    Unbeknown to local residents, the Council made the decision to build on the land based on a Feasibility Study (September 2017), which presented the cases for a) Refurbishing the current, Canal Club building or b) Re-developing the entire site. However, the TRA believe that the report was biased towards the re-development (Option ‘b’), and that figures were based on some seemingly inaccurate observations. These included: (1) a 50% contingency added to refurbishment, but not to redevelopment costs, (2) a £17,000 estimate for painting the building, (3) the building being incorrectly stated as ten years older than it was, which in return could suggest asbestos was an issue here.

    Furthermore, Rushanara Ali, Member of Parliament for Bethnal Green and Bow, raised the issue of the Canal Club Community Garden with the Mayor John Biggs in May and the Canal Club Community Garden is still awaiting a response.

    Historically the site was an ‘open space’. It was bought by the Greater London Council as part of the GLC Canal Way Parks programme. The architect for the original building was Julian Sofaer, who died last year, and this may be his only surviving Tower Hamlets building. His Pevsner entry mentions include Hugh Myddleton school in Islington (

    In summary, we think that a better use of the Canal Club Site is to recognise its value to the estate and locality as a Tower Hamlets Open Space such that it engages with the borough’s Strategic Priority of a ‘borough that our residents are proud of and love to live in.’

    We hope Cllr Blake and the Mayor do listen to residents’ call to refurbish, not demolish the Canal Club site.

  14. July 30, 2019

    Really lovely photos. I was very sad to see fellow residents are experiencing similar issues to us and I wonder just how many other communities in Tower Hamlets are in the same position. It really does seem like existing communities do not matter. I note Ms Blake said the council is building or has received planning permission for 240 genuinely affordable council homes on its own sites. Of these 183 were on former garages and 57 were on former service centres which have moved or been re-provided. In April she attended a council development committee where a proposal to build 17 homes was pushed through. This was part of the estates infill programme too but not on a former garage or service centre site that has been moved elsewhere but on a green space the council have neglected since at least 2015 when it was taken out of the maintenance schedules. This site was previously given council funds and became a biodiversity haven. We have many ideas for the site which are much more in line with longer term thinking and not at odds with the climate emergency declared in the borough. Our site is opposite a primary school and has two other schools in the immediate vicinity . You can read more here and sign our petition The site is the second infill on our estate, the other 33 flats they chose to build are on a former recreational football pitch. Maybe there is a reason why these are not part of her 240 mentioned above. We met the council on 8 May and the mayor on 11 July to stress we feel that although they have planning permission, it is an option not to build here. We too are still waiting for a response.

  15. Shama Raman permalink
    December 24, 2021

    Why is it that when elected representatives speak of homes for locals, “truly affordable” homes or when addressing climate change they need to squeeze existing local resources in order to achieve these? Meanwhile behind closed doors huge deals are being made with private developers who make £millions from being allowed to get away with providing next to nothing for local people and for not consulting properly! It’s near impossible to recreate something like a community garden once it’s been demolished. Tower Hamlets representatives appears to want to demolish everything that’s successful for communities, while they uphold dull corporatised places that nobody wants to visit… people have had enough of these ‘spin’ doctors that lack imagination and don’t care for communities. These elected representatives should work for developers if they love them so much… oh, sorry they do already – !

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