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A Brief History Of Coborn Street

February 2, 2021
by Andrew Sargent

Andrew Sargent sent me his account of Coborn St in Bow. If anyone else would like to submit a history of their street, please drop me line.

Every street London has a story to tell and Coborn St is no exception. It is a short thoroughfare leading north from Bow Rd, mid-way between Mile End and Bow Rd underground stations. On the west side are pairs of handsome Georgian houses and, on the east side, school buildings and a former sorting office.

Coborn St and the adjoining Coborn Rd were constructed in the eighteen-twenties by the trustees of the Coborn Estate. Prisca Coborn, the widow of a rich seventeenth century brewer, had left a large sum for the education of local boys and girls. A school was built and, in 1813, larger premises were opened where the former Bryant & May factory now stands. But the Trustees had overreached themselves and the money ran out, so an Act of Parliament was passed to allow them to sell and lease land from the Coborn Estate for building purposes. Thus by 1830, Coborn St and Coborn Rd (once Cut Throat Lane) had been developed.

What made Coborn St distinctive was the decision to build pairs of houses rather than terraces, like those along Bow Rd and ubiquitous throughout London for the previous hundred and fifty years. We presume the developers wanted the street to look and feel a bit special, and attract a respectable class of resident. The 1851 census reveals they were successful. Several of the residents had connections with the docks and in particular – to judge from their places of birth – with the North East collier trade. Every house had at least one live-in servant, many of whom were young girls were from the Home Counties. A reminder that rural poverty in the South East was one of the social problems of the age.

In 1871, the most common occupation in the census was “clerk.” We know from Dickens that many clerks were woefully paid yet those living in Coborn St appear to have been several rungs above that. There were also merchants, insurance and estate agents, auctioneers, teachers and an engineer with the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Several residents were famous in their day. On the east side lived William Gibbs Rogers, “formerly sculptor to the late Duke of Sussex and subsequently the Queen,” whose finest work drew comparisons with Grinling Gibbons. James Meadows, who died at 12 Coborn St in 1863, had been one of London’s top stage set designers who took to maritime painting in later life. 30 Coborn St was once the home of the formidable James Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission. Renamed the Overseas Missionary Fellowship in 1964, the mission today claims 1,400 missionary workers in forty nations. And it was because of Hudson Taylor and the CIM that the young Dr Barnardo came to lodge in Coborn St in 1866, though whether at No 30 or No 33 remains unknown.

One of Music Hall’s biggest stars, Colin Whitton McCallum, that is to say Charlie Coborn, adopted his stage name after passing Coborn Street on a tram. His most famous song was The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo which he reckoned to have sung a quarter if a million times and could perform in forty languages.

By 1880, almost all of north Bow had been filled with streets of houses. Near Coborn St, there was now Holy Trinity, a new Anglican church, as well as a Methodist chapel and, rather wonderfully, a railway station in Coborn Rd. Built in 1865, this was given the name “Coborn Rd for Old Ford” in 1883 and was finally closed in 1946.

Almost directly opposite Coborn St stood a remarkably grand workhouse now redeveloped into housing, originally built in 1849 at the huge cost of £55,000. How could the local Poor Law guardians afford such expenditure? The answer is the workhouse was built by the City of London Poor Law Union for the destitute from the Square Mile. In 1909, the workhouse became a hospital, later christened St Clement’s prior to its current identity as a luxury residential quarter.

A rapidly expanding population meant that more schools were needed and it would be heartening to record that, when the London School Board wanted to build a new school in Coborn St, the residents were supportive. Not a bit of it. The matter even reached the House of Commons where, in June 1883, the Minister was asked whether consent had been given to build the new school.

“…notwithstanding the remonstrances made by a large number of inhabitants, whether he was aware that the district consisted almost entirely of private houses inhabited by people in a good position in life, and such as was likely to be seriously depreciated in value by the erection of the proposed school”

Despite objections, the school was built and the street did not suffer unduly. Certainly when Charles Booth and his team came to map the incidence of poverty, Coborn St was coloured red, “fairly comfortable, good ordinary earnings”. Only yellow streets were better – indicating “upper middle and upper classes” – and there were none of these in the whole East End.

Another contemporary mapping exercise was undertaken to establish the extent of the Jewish East End. It is fascinating to see that, although two miles or so from Whitechapel, the streets around Tredegar Square were shown as having a majority of Jewish inhabitants. Although the mapping did not reach Coborn St, we may assume that it was a similar demographic. It is certainly possibly to name many Jewish inhabitants of Coborn Street from public records.

In the twentieth century, most of the houses on the east side of Coborn St were demolished as Malmesbury Primary School expanded southwards, a new building for Coborn Girls School was opened at the corner of Bow Rd and a postal sorting office was built in between. Light industry arrived in the buildings on the east side, and in some of the Georgian houses opposite. Spiro Naphtali manufactured waterproof clothing for a time, and Sophie Cockerton’s sausage factory lasted, in various incarnations, for a hundred years. By then, owners and landlords of the remaining houses were renting rooms to short-term tenants, skilled artisans rather than the white-collar workers who had once lived there.

Coborn St is different today. After the demolition of the depot  at the junction with Bow Road, a blocks of flats in the style of the Georgian houses was built. In 1995, “Delenco Meat Products” moved to Leyton and a century of sausage making in the street came to an end. Then the last old buildings on the east side of the street were lost to the expansion of what had now become Central Foundation School.

One by one, the Georgian houses in the street have been modernised, often expensively so. Built originally with a view to attracting professional residents, Coborn St gradually became more socially mixed and light industry arrived but, over time, many of the properties fell into disrepair. In a sense, the street has gone full circle in two hundred years.

At the south end of Coborn St

At the north end of Coborn St

Malmesbury School built in 1883 despite residents’ objections

Pairs of Regency villas in Coborn Rd

Terrace in Coborn Rd

Coborn Street is shown almost fully developed in this map of 1829

Ecclesiastical Sculptor William Gibbs Rogers lived in Coborn St (Image courtesy British Museum)

Kentish Harbour painted by James Meadows of 12 Coborn St in 1865

James Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission, lived at 30 Coborn St

Dr Barnado lodged in Coborn St in 1866

Coborn Rd Station

Only the entrance of Coborn Rd Station has survived

On this map of the Jewish East End from 1899, blue shading indicates that between 50% and 75% of the residents were Jewish

Harold Steggles’ 1931 painting of Coborn St (courtesy Estate of Harold Steggles)

House on the east side of Coborn St before demolition

Coborn St in the eighties

The last days of Delenco Meat Products

Coborn Motors (established 1960), Coborn Rd

You may also like to take a look at

In Old Bow

In Mile End Old Town

At St Clement’s Hospital

5 Responses leave one →
  1. John Price permalink
    February 2, 2021

    Lovely, thank you. A charming and distinctive street.

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    February 2, 2021

    Fascinating stuff – I think every street has a unique story to tell…

    So more please, all you people out there living in your very own bit of London!

  3. Annie Green permalink
    February 2, 2021

    Wonderful stories! More of these would be great.

  4. Cherub permalink
    February 3, 2021

    A very interesting read for me as I was a mature student at Queen Mary University on the Mile End Road back in the early 90s, when it was known as Queen Mary and Westfield College (after Westfield College was merged with Queen Mary and moved from its home at Hampstead). There were some very lovely old streets bordering the college, friends of mine rented a place overlooking Bow Common. Many of the grander houses like these were rented by groups of medical students from Bart’s.

    I also like the reference to Charles Booth. I read Charles Booth’s London in the late 80s and it is an absolutely fascinating account of Victorian times, but sometimes the extent of family poverty recorded makes difficult reading. The colour coded street maps held in the Museum of London are equally fascinating.

  5. E. Stewart permalink
    February 10, 2021

    I enjoyed the article because I went to Malmesbury Road school from 1938, graduated from there to Coborn in 1945 and lived in Tredegar Square until 1956 (apart from the time I was evacuated with Malmesbury Road school)

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