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The Canal Club Is Saved!

October 14, 2022
by the gentle author

Tickets are available for my Spitalfields tour throughout October & November




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

I am delighted to report that after an heroic three-year fight by the local community, the proposal for development has been withdrawn by the new regime at the council and the beloved Canal Club and community garden in Bethnal Green is saved.

Here is the feature that Novelist Sarah Winman wrote when she first visited with Photographer Rachel Ferriman to report on the threat to the community spaces at the Wellington Estate.


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 had 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 was to demolish the Canal Club and remove the open space and community asset it provides. This was 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 was taking space from those who have little to start with.

It was a complex situation that was the outcome of thirty years of right-to-buy, money held by central government and the chronic need for housing. However, what was inexcusable to the residents of the estate and the boating community and supportive locals, was the opaque nature of the dealings – the council’s lack of transparency and openness to discussion. Two years earlier, 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 explained 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 believed the council had a responsibility to share their ideas with the residents. The irony was not lost on her too, that Tower Hamlets said they were an Climate Emergency Council and yet were taking away the only green public space on the estate.

Everyone talked 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 told 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 remembered camping in Tunbridge Wells. The chance to ride horses and canoe – see a different life, be a different person.

There was nothing for kids after that, someone said. So much had already gone. And if you take away the ball park, then what? Looting across the generations, another said. Building slums of the future, said another. Erdoo, who has lived on the state all her life, told 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 cared so much about their environment and improving the lives of others. Yet what was apparent was how the agency of council tenants was 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 stood on the old wharf where the custodians, Sally and Dominique, repaired it with two-hundred-year-old bricks. Wildflowers grew there and nature had reclaimed an area once used for the dumping of waste. Kick the soil and a filament of plastic was revealed, hidden by knapweed or evening primrose, or large swathes of hemp-agrimony. Over the years, composting had built up the fertility of the soil, attracting a diversity of insects and bird population. Dominique explained that the principle of permaculture is to work in sympathy with nature and harness its natural energy. A wild colony of bees appeared every year for a few weeks when the cherry tree blossoms and then disappeared again to their unknown world. Dominique kept 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.

When the license for this garden expired, Dominique and Sally feared the council will not renew it if the demolition went ahead. I found 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 left this corner of East London, I was 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

You may also like to take a look at

At The Holland Estate

At Golden Lane Estate

13 Responses leave one →
  1. October 14, 2022


    Love & Peace

  2. October 14, 2022

    Great news! Wonderful! I’m so gald.

  3. Annie S permalink
    October 14, 2022

    Excellent news!
    What a beautiful garden area – so happy for the local community.

  4. Milo permalink
    October 14, 2022

    Excellent news. I was beginning to think doom and gloom was here to stay but this is another piece of heartening news that serves to show that it can be done. Things CAN be achieved. Bravo.

  5. October 14, 2022

    Extraordinary place! Wonderful win. Congratulations to all involved. You fire our imaginations and hope.

  6. Ann V permalink
    October 14, 2022

    Brilliant news, and just at a time when we need to hear something good.

  7. Celeste Larkin -Dion permalink
    October 14, 2022

    Good going to all that had a hand in building and saving this little gem!

  8. Mary permalink
    October 14, 2022

    Such wonderful news is very welcome these days. Well done to the local community for creating and managing to save this special place. I also loved the Robert Kennedy quote.

  9. Esther Wilkinson Rank permalink
    October 14, 2022

    Excellent news and well done to those intrepid campaigners!

  10. Saba permalink
    October 14, 2022

    GA, do people live on those boats? Write about them! I would love to learn more. Saba

  11. Lord Raphael Bouchier permalink
    October 14, 2022

    Well done what an amazing place.

  12. October 16, 2022

    What a great place and what a victory for the community over misguided thinking from the local authority. While I can appreciate the stress the local authority must be under to solve its housing crisis, the lack of joined up social and environmental thinking behind the proposal to build on the canal club and garden was astonishing. Thankfully, they have backed track.

    A smashing victory.

  13. jeanine permalink
    October 16, 2022

    Thank you thank you thank you you are meant to be here and all that you’ve done for this space its immersurable xxxxx

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