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Joanna Moore’s Spitalfields

April 23, 2020
by the gentle author

Artist Joanna Moore undertook this series of drawings of Spitalfields’ less well known landmarksThe Old St Patrick’s School in Buxton St, dating from the eighteen sixties, stands upon the grass of Allen Gardens beside the Georgian vicarage of the former All Saints church – the last survivors of the nineteenth century streets that once stood here, long before the park was laid out. Enfolded by its lofty garden wall, containing huge exotic shrubs and dripping with climbing plants, this finely proportioned cluster of buildings rises with tall attenuated chimneys, like some mysterious castle of romance. St Patrick’s School is a tantalising enigma to those who walk through here regularly and have heard tales of the secret tropical garden which is rumoured to exist behind these implacable walls.

The Watchhouse on the corner of St Matthew’s Churchyard in Wood St was built in 1754 and, with the growing trade in human corpses for dissection, in 1792 it was necessary to appoint a watchman who was paid ten shillings and sixpence a week to be on permanent guard against resurrectionists. A reward of two guineas was granted for the apprehension of any body-snatchers and the watchman was provided with a blunderbuss and permission to fire from an upper window, once a rattle had been sounded three times. The churchwarden who lives there today told me that, according to the terms of his lease, he still holds this right – and the blunderbuss and rattle are stored in the house to this day. The small structure at the rear originally housed the parish fire engine, in the days when it was just a narrow cart. In 1965, the Watchhouse gained notoriety of another kind when fascist leader Oswald Mosley stood upon the step to give his last open air public speech.

Gibraltar Walk off the Bethnal Green Rd is a handsome terrace of red brick nineteenth century artisans’ workshops that once served the furniture trade when it was the primary industry in this area. Of modest construction, yet designed with careful proportions, the terrace curls subtly along Gibraltar Walk, turning a corner and extending the length of Padbury Court, to create one long “L” shaped structure. These appealing back streets still retain their cobbles and there are even a couple of signs left from the days of furniture factories, but, most encouragingly, the majority of these premises are still in use today as workshops for small industries, keeping the place alive.

In Emanuel Litvinoff’s memoir, “Journey Through a Small Planet” describing his childhood in Cheshire St in the nineteen twenties, he recalls the feared Pedley St Arches where, “Couples grappled against the dripping walls and tramps lay around parcelled in old newspaper. The evil of the place was in its gloom, its putrid stench, in the industrial grime of half a century with which it was impregnated.” And today, with a gut-wrenching reek of urine, graced by a profusion of graffiti and scattered with piles of burnt rubbish, the place retains its authentic insalubrious atmosphere – a rare quality now, that is in demand by the numerous street fashion photo shoots, crime dramas and pop videos which regularly use this location. There is a scheme to turn the Great Eastern Railway Viaduct into a raised park – like the High Line in New York – but in the meantime wildlife flourishes peaceably upon these graceful decaying structures dating from the earliest days of the railway, constructed between 1836 and 1840 to bring the Eastern Counties Line from Romford to the terminus at Shoreditch High St.

Nestling at the base of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s monumental spire for Christ Church, Spitalfields, is the tiny private roof garden on the top of 3 Fournier St, where what was once planted as a camomile lawn has grown to become a wildflower meadow with pink campions, oxe-eye daisies and sorrel abounding. The pitched roofs on three sides entirely conceal this verdant arbor from the street and create a favoured climate where freesias, carnations, honeysuckle, wallflowers, foxgloves, wild strawberries and lettuces flourish, surrounded by espalier fruit trees and rambling roses, all unknown to those who tread the dusty pavements of Commercial St far below. Built in 1754 by Peter Le Keux, a silkweaver, this elegant old house follows the same Tuscan Order of architecture that was Hawksmoor’s guiding principle, and as you ascend the staircase endlessly winding up to the roof garden, you come upon subtle intricate details, like banisters with square capitals, that match those across the road at the church.

The Worrall House of 1720 is the quintessence of the Spitalfields nobody knows – built in a secret courtyard between Fournier St and Princelet St by Samuel Worrall, the builder responsible for many of the surrounding houses, it can only be approached through a narrow passage behind a heavily-encrusted door. When you step through this door, into the dark cobbled alley lined with ancient planks covered with paint and tar that has not been renewed in over a century, you feel – more than anywhere in Spitalfields – that you have stepped back in time. Here Samuel Worrall built a handsomely proportioned yet modest house for himself in his own builders’ yard. Just one room deep with a pedimented door and stone balls atop the gateposts, it resembles a perfect lifesize dolls’ house. Facing East and constructed of a single layer of bricks, it only receives sunlight in the morning and is not a warm building in Winter, yet there is an irresistible grace and mystery about this shadowy house of enchantment, presiding silently upon a quiet courtyard that is outside time.

Joanna Moore’s drawing of Victoria Cottages in Deal St was done upon the spot where Geoffrey Fletcher, author of “The London Nobody Knows,”sat and drew the same view in May 1977, when this terrace was threatened by bulldozers. Built in 1855 by the Metropolitan Association for Dwellings for Housing the Industrious Poor, after the design of Prince Albert’s Model Cottages for the Great Exhibition of 1851, these are one of the earliest examples of two storey cottage apartments. Scheduled for demolition in a slum clearance scheme, they were saved in 1978 through the intervention of Peter Shore who was both local MP and Environment Minister. If Geoffrey Fletcher came back today he would be delighted to step through the old iron gate and discover well-tended cottage gardens where the fragrance of flowers hangs in the air. Pairs of neat white front doors lead either to the ground or first floor dwellings, which, although designed as the minimum in the nineteenth century, appear generous and sympathetic by contemporary standards. To the rear is a peaceful flagged courtyard where residents hang their laundry and tend the shared garden.

Drawings copyright © Joanna Moore

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15 Responses leave one →
  1. Peter permalink
    April 23, 2020

    Delightful stories that bring these wonderful drawings to life. Thank you for sharing them both.

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    April 23, 2020

    Great drawings which make me long to get back to wandering the back streets of London and coming across surviving remnants of the past like these special locations.

    Also very pleased that Deal Street survived the bulldozers…

  3. April 23, 2020

    These are lovely drawings to brighten the day with. I wondered what pen Joanna used to draw them in? Thank you for posting them on your site today. Best wishes Peta

  4. April 23, 2020

    I love these drawings which capture the magic of secret places and the stories behind them. Thank you dear Gentle Author for sharing them.

  5. Chris Webb permalink
    April 23, 2020

    I went to Edinburgh last autumn and discovered a cemetery called Calton Burying Ground (which I assume is an archaic or particularly Scottish term) which was built in 1820 to be grave robber or resurrectionist proof. This was the Burke and Hare era.

    It has a wall and tower with a watchman who actually lived there with his family, and there are also many family vaults built of stone and wrought iron or the wealthier “residents”. One of the graves was of a surgeon and it occurred to me that ironically he was no doubt a regular customer of the type of person he wanted to avoid after death!

    There is a modern information board which I photographed, although it doesn’t mention rattles or blunderbusses.

    Are Joanna’s drawings available as prints or in a book?

  6. April 23, 2020

    I enjoyed looking at these lovely drawings and reading the pieces about them, miles from my ordinary place of work.
    Somehow, these drawings of an earlier London make the places into cherished, protected places, that no developer would dare approach. It’s easy to forget looking at beautiful works as these how delicate and endangered such places are now.

  7. Pauline Taylor permalink
    April 23, 2020

    These are delightful drawings which really capture the timeless qualities of the scenes depicted. Thank you Joanna and GA for sharing them, and the history surrounding them, with us.

  8. Bob Gladding permalink
    April 23, 2020

    Dear GA please consider publishing a Spitalfields Life book of Joanna’s wonderful drawings of the East End. They are gems.

  9. April 23, 2020

    Delightful, both the pictures and the stories.

  10. Penny Gardner permalink
    April 23, 2020

    Perspective is a wonderful thing.

  11. Catherine permalink
    April 23, 2020

    What lovely, evocative drawings! They remind me a bit of Geoffrey Fletcher, who did such wonderful drawings of London’s overlooked places in the second half of the 20th C.

  12. April 23, 2020

    I have been living in Pedley Street for nearly 30 years so it’s great to read stories about the area that I haven’t heard before with these beautiful illustrations.

  13. Sue permalink
    April 23, 2020

    Wonderful drawings and stories.

  14. April 24, 2020

    Magical survivors in superb drawings. For me, this is one of your *exceptional* postings. When were these drawings made? I wonder. Magic…

  15. April 24, 2020

    I should like to echo Bob Gladding’s suggestion of a book of her drawings (with backstories as with this set of drawings today). We all need a bit of awe in our lives & secret places, magical survivor buildings, nooks & grannies, with tales to tell, give it.

    I listened in awe this morning to radio 4’s The Reunion with similar wonder, awe & appreciation as 5 Maids of Honour recalled their roles at what was surely the last uber-pomp, uber ceremonial, coronation likely to be staged in England. It gave me insight into how such an occasion like that must have been experienced after half a century of wars, depression & profound change. And I pondered too…on what might follow the humbling of humanity in the new ‘age of coronavirus’ we now must wade through on the way to….whatever…to equal such a nationally uplifting event.

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