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Cherishing The Fabric Of Arnold Circus

July 19, 2020
by the gentle author

Original York stone paving and blue granite setts in Boundary St

Use of good quality materials was intrinsic to the Arts & Crafts movement and this principle is evident on the Boundary Estate, built in Shoreditch as Britain’s first council estate. In this development, the choice of materials was part of the ambition of the architects to deliver decent housing that respected and elevated the lives of the residents, in deliberate contrast to the slum which it replaced.

Dan Cruickshank, who is currently writing a book about this visionary endeavour, told me that London County Council spent £36,944 on sewers and paving in constructing the Estate. More than a century later, the legacy of this prudent investment can still be seen in the attractive York paving throughout and the fine blue granite setts in Boundary St.

In recent years, we have seen the successful renovation of the bandstand and the park at the centre of Arnold Circus, thanks to initiative of the Friends of Arnold Circus. Now the park fulfils its original function again, as a peaceful place for residents to meet within the green shade of the magnificent gardens.

Next it is proposed to pedestrianise the road around Arnold Circus as part of Tower Hamlet Council’s Liveable Streets initiative designed to reduce emissions and create more public space for recreation. While this is generally welcomed by the residents, the inferior corporate style designs for street furniture do not reflect the formal dignity of the architecture. And the proposal to use ‘Yorkstone-type pavers’ reveals that the materials intended are of inferior quality to the existing stone pavements.

The original blue granite setts are still visible in Boundary St and Dan Cruickshank believes those in Arnold Circus were simply covered over with asphalt in the twentieth century at the advent of the motorcar. An established technique exists to freeze asphalt and remove it, so the obvious solution is to uncover and repair these setts.

This would be less wasteful than adding new paving and revealing the granite would link all the buildings together visually, as was intended when they constructed the Estate a century ago. Such a heritage-led approach respects the ethos of the surrounding buildings which are all listed and the fact that the Boundary Estate is a Conservation Area. Covent Garden Piazza and the circuses of Edinburgh are granite cobbled public spaces that serve as precedents.

Readers are encouraged to comment on the proposals.

Click here to study the details of the Liveable Streets scheme and download a pdf

Click here to comment – today is the last day to do so online

Alternatively, you can email 

Pedestrianisation proposal for Arnold Circus with corporate street furniture and inferior quality paving

Original granite setts are still visible where Boundary St meets Navarre St

York paving and granite setts in Boundary St

Blue granite setts in Boundary St

South end of Boundary St

North end of Boundary St

Fragment in Navarre St

Glazed bricks and York paving

York paving and blue granite setts

Nearby, at the entrance to Virginia Rd School

Nearby, in Gascoigne Place

Nearby, in Ezra St

Nearby, in Padbury Court

Nearby, in Ebor St

Nearby, in Sclater St

Nearby, in Grimsby St

You may also like to read about

At the Boundary Estate

The Return of Joan Rose

The Return of Aubrey Silkoff

Who was Arnold Circus?

15 Responses leave one →
  1. Jill Wilson permalink
    July 19, 2020

    I am a massive fan of the architectural work which the LCC did a century ago, and in particular the Boundary Estate which shows that it is possible to build good quality, well designed and attractive high density social housing.

    Wouldn’t it be great if the original cobblestones could be uncovered and used instead of the dodgy sounding ‘loose gravel’ mentioned in the current proposals? A much better solution!

    And it would also be great if the reinstatement of the cobbles could be a fitting final chapter in Dan’s book about the Boundary Estate… I look forward to reading it.

  2. July 19, 2020

    I visited in 2018, as part of Open Garden Squares Weekend and found the Circus to be a wonderfully atmospheric site: I am sad to hear that it will be ‘modernised’.

  3. Julia Lafferty permalink
    July 19, 2020

    The restoration of the York stone paving and blue granite setts will be in tune with the rest of the Conservation Area and in line with Arts and Crafts philosophy which guided the design of this part of Bethnal Green. The original materials were used because they would stand the test of time and conserving them is the only sustainable course of action.

    Julia Lafferty

  4. July 19, 2020

    My father’ s family (Mekelburg) lived in Butler St. Spitalfields and later moved to the Boundary Estate. He was born in 1917 and went to Virginia Rd. school.
    I remember some of his stories about playing around the “Bandstand”.

    My regret is that I did not question him more about those times, must have been hard days ?

    Greg Leigh

  5. aubrey permalink
    July 19, 2020

    We played and idled away our youth in Navarere Street in the 40’s and fifties and I was (and still am) intrigued by the fact that the surface of the road, and adjacent roads were (are) not made up of granite setts but of a very smooth, wearable stone coloured “play area” material. It looks to me to be the original surface or at least quite old and fitting to the street. I would add that the original setts have been refurbished from time to time as one would expect when road and its attendant underlying facilities need replacing.

  6. July 19, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, blessed be the memory of those original designers:

    “…In this development, the choice of materials was part of the ambition of the architects to deliver decent housing that respected and elevated the lives of the residents, in deliberate contrast to the slum which it replaced.”

  7. July 19, 2020

    I love this area of London. Walking there makes me feel as if I am traveling through time I can almost hear the conversations of the past and the people and animals that used to inhabit it.

  8. July 19, 2020

    The cobble stone streets, the old buildings are So Lovely!! Thank You So Much!!???????

  9. Neil Bartlett permalink
    July 19, 2020

    Love this estate and had the privilege of refurbishing one of the blocks many years ago. External works including recovering the roof. Got to know the buildings quite well and enjoy the vibrant community.

  10. Dr Jonathan Halbert permalink
    July 19, 2020

    I live in a Conservation Area. But you know the Young People do not care
    a dam.. They will ride roughshod over it all with their L Plated Mopeds.

    Provisional Licences are handed out t0 them every year by the DVLC.
    like Lucky Bags..

    They are the worst cause of Pollution.. The Air is Blue in the Asian Countries
    with their use.. Sort that lot out first……

  11. DR JONATHAN HALBERT permalink
    July 19, 2020

    Once upon a time people lived on the doorstep of where they worked..

    So what went wrong. Why did our society change into Commuters?

    Was it because of a Black & White Film showing Residents living above

    a Bank drilling through the Ceiling?? And Robbing it.. So to-day all

    those properties are EMPTY….. Similar scenario.. The BBC shows

    footage of women in Australia fighting over Toilet Tissues at the start

    of Covid 19.. Result.. Big rush on Toilet Tissues in the UK.. AM I

    disgusted in the Human Race? Yes.. I think it is time for me to leave

    this earthly body…….

  12. sprite permalink
    July 21, 2020

    I am all for renovations but can not help having feelings thinking it will benefit more hipsters than front line workers, the kind of which the estate was built for in the first place, and who are mainly ignored in urban plannings nowdays despite their flitting moment of glory at the height of the pandemic.

    I know there are articles elsewhere on this blog about the diversity of tenants and leaseholders on that very estate but the trend is still strong, pushing out lower income households away from the Borough and the impossibility for most people to get on the property ladder.

  13. Nick Fiveash permalink
    August 31, 2020

    LiveableStreets will ruin this area from Arnold Circus through to Cambridge Heath Rd. The road blocks, the planned pocket parks outside The Birdcage and halfway along residential roads will increase ASB, street drinking, drug dealers and users. The ‘pocket park’ on Old Bethnal Green Rd has already seen a huge rise in youths hanging around littering the area with gas canisters & needles. The low footfall walkways & cul de sacs will create quiet, unsafe areas encouraging a rise in crime across the whole area. Emergency service access along with elderly & disabled transport will be severely re-routed adding time & money to journeys. And the materials planned to be used will not complement the historic conservation areas such as Arnold Circus and the Jesus Green streets close to Columbia Rd. Tower Hamlets must be encourage to hold a moratorium and work with residents, the emergency services, care home and schools to implement a scheme that works for all; not a one size fits all scheme that LiveableStreets is, that benefits the few not the many!

  14. Stefan permalink
    November 24, 2020

    I think blue granite sets and the existing York stone paving should be incorporated into the design

  15. January 14, 2021

    Hi there – Please help get over 2,000 signatures by 19th january

    Next week 20th jan the petition is being presented. This petition Opposing Tower Hamlets non-Consultation on matter such as this – the attempted quick rollout horror that would have been modernisation of arnold circus without Consulting Residents (~1,200 households), English Heritage etc Etc etc

    Petition name if the link above doesnt work:
    Stop the structurally discriminating Consultation process on Liveable Streets programme

    The end date is extended but the council are ignoring the extension to 31st jan (lockdown prevents getting out and telling residents about this petition) and the 20th jan next week it will be presented to the council

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