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The Haggerston Nobody Knows

December 20, 2022
by the gentle author

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Today William Palin recalls the lost wonders of Haggerston, once a coherent and distinctive nineteenth century neighbourhood.

Tudor Gothic Villas in Nichols Sq, 1945

Haggerston, in the Borough of Hackney, remains one of those ‘lost’ districts of London’s inner suburbs. Even the boundaries of this elusive locale have fluctuated, yet although the current electoral ward extends deep into Shoreditch, I would draw the borders of Haggerston at Hackney Rd to the south, Queensbridge Rd to the east, Kingsland Rd to the west and Regent’s Canal to the north.

Just a few important public buildings remain in Haggerston, including the old Haggerston Library  – which was left to rot in the seventies before being facaded in the nineties – and the magnificent Haggerston Baths on Whiston St with its gilded Golden Hind weather vane. Poignant indicators of the glories that once were here.

Although Haggerston suffered some bomb damage – St Mary’s Church by John Nash was completely destroyed in 1941 – it was the post-war planners who erased most of the superior nineteenth century terraces, with streets of sound houses succumbing to the bulldozers as late as 1978. While the estates that replaced them may have provided superior accommodation and new amenities, they were brutal and uncompromising in their disregard for the intimacy, cohesion, humanity and community spirit of the old streets  – attributes embraced in other similar London neighbourhoods wherever the terraces were retained.

As London’s population grew rapidly in the nineteenth century, Haggerston became a densely populated industrial suburb. In many eastern districts, land ownership tended to be fragmented, resulting in a series of relatively small-scale building speculations that eventually came together to form a coherent if quirky network of streets with pubs, shops and small industry, all adding to the diverse character of the streetscape. Although individual speculators – whether a few houses or a whole street – imposed a uniformity of design, there was surprising and delightful variation between streets with even modest houses exhibiting decorative flourishes in their brickwork, fanlights, shutters and front doors. Where streets met, the junctions were resolved with an effortless dexterity which was one of the striking characteristics of the London speculative builder and, on the rare occasion a pub was absent, a corner house was built with a side entrance.

In common with most of south Hackney and Shoreditch, the dominant industries of the area were the furniture and finishing trades. An insurance map of 1930 shows timber yards, French polishers, enamellers, cabinet factories, mirror frame factories, wood carvers and a plethora of other related trades. Interestingly, the legacy of these industries is still evident today in the Hackney Rd, where D.J.Simons maintain their thriving business supplying mouldings for picture framing after more than a century, as well as in the handful of second hand shops trading in the furniture once made locally.

Unquestionably, the centrepiece of Haggerston’s nineteenth century development was Nichols Sq, situated east of the Museum of the Home beyond the railway viaduct. Built in 1841 and featuring two outward facing rows of picturesque Tudor gothic villas at its centre, Nichols Sq was further enhanced in 1867-9 by a splendid church and vicarage – St Chad’s – by the architect James Brooks. Surviving in good condition until blighted by a Compulsory Purchase Order, the square was swept away in 1963 for the Fellows Court Estate. Geoffrey Fletcher, author of ‘The London Nobody Knows,’  lamented the impending loss in 1962 by illustrating the houses in the Daily Telegraph, and describing “the delightful Gothic villas … in excellent condition [which] if they were in Chelsea would fetch anything from £10,000 to £15,000.” Savouring the architectural detail, he comments “Typical of the finesse of the period is that, while the terrace railings have a Classic flavour, the similar ones of the cottages have a Tudor outline. But after next year none of this will matter any more.”

The London County Council planning files record no evidence of any robust defence of Nichols Sq. The principal concern was the effect of the new tower blocks upon the setting of the Museum of the Home. Nichols Sq had only one entrance, which led from Hackney Rd at the south east corner, and this was guarded by a Tudor lodge. The secluded location had helped it retain an isolated respectability until the very end, despite the incursion of the railway viaduct across its western extremity just a few years after completion.

To the south of Fellows Court Estate is Cremer St, the only direct link between Hackney Rd and Kingsland Rd, which was once graced by a series of modest but elegant semi-detached villas (a building type that became a defining characteristic of Hackney). These villas are captured in a beautiful series of LCC photographs of 1946, which also show a double-fronted detached house with a wide fanlight, where an old man perches on the high front steps, lighting a pipe. In Cremer St, The Flying Scud pub, with its distinctive blue Truman’s livery survived until only a few years ago, while running south from there – now reached via a rubbish-strewn alley – is Long St, whose distinctive yellow brick houses are also illustrated in the LLC old photographs. Of these, only a few paving stones survive.

To the north of the Fellows Court Estate is Dunloe Street, once lined by neat terraces, now bleak save for St Chad’s Church – the last fragment of Nichols Sq. Dunloe St linked into a network of small streets, including Appleby St and Ormsby St, where well-maintained and well-loved terraces endured until 1978 when they were controversially emptied of their occupants and demolished. A handful of houses on the west end of Pearson St are now the only reminders we have of this once vibrant and homogenous neighbourhood.

In 1966, architectural critic Ian Nairn spoke eloquently of the lost opportunities of the rebuilding of the East End, in words that perfectly describe the fate of old Haggerston – “All the raucous, homely places go and are replaced by well-designed estates which would fit a New Town but are hopelessly out of place here. This is a hive of individualists, and the last place to be subjected to this kind of large-scale planning. Fragments survive, and the East Enders are irrepressible …but they could have had so much more, so easily.”

Nichols Sq by Geoffrey Fletcher, 1963

Plan and perspective of Nichols Sq, 1845 – not really a square at all but highly picturesque. (Copyright Hackney Archives Department)

North side of Nichols Sq, 1960.

Washing the doorstep in Shap St with the Fellows Court Estate beyond, 1974. (Copyright Hackney Archives Department)

A rich and coherent cityscape – Shap St, looking north, 1974. (Copyright Hackney Archives Department)

Elegant dark-painted sashes and immaculately maintained shutters in Ormsby St, 1965. (Copyright Hackney Archives Department)

Hows St, c.1960. (Copyright Hackney Archives Department)

Whiston St in the hot summer of 1976, just before demolition. (Copyright Hackney Archives Department)

Intimate streetscape – Ormsby St, 1965. (Copyright Hackney Archives Department)

Weymouth Terrace shortly before demolition, 1964. Note the stuccoed ground floor facade. (Copyright Hackney Archives Department)

Geffrye St, 1960s (Copyright Hackney Archives Department)

“All the homely places have gone”– Sitting room at 50 Shap St c.1959. (Copyright Hackney Archives Department)

Fellows Rd, 1959. Neat terraces with blank panels at parapet level. (Copyright Hackney Archives Department)


A perfect corner, courtesy of the London speculative builder. Pearson St and Fellows St, 1951. (Copyright Hackney Archives Department)

Ormsby St before demolition, 1978 – note the photographer’s blackboard on the window ledge. (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)


Cremer St, 1946. (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)

Cremer St, 1946. (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)

Detail – Man lights a pipe in Cremer St, 1946. (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)

Cremer St, 1946. (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)

Tudor Gothic villas in Nichols Sq, 1950. (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)

Tudor Gothic villas in Nichols Sq with fleur de lis railings, 1950. (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)

Iain Nairn described the East End as “a hive of individualists” – this applied to the builders too, as shown in the delightfully quirky design of these houses in Long St, photographed in 1951. (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)

Fine eighteenth century doorcase at 171 Kingsland Road. The house and its neighbours came down in the late sixties. (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)

21 Responses leave one →
  1. December 20, 2022

    More wonderful photographs, I especially love the Tudor Gothic Villa’s, they are beautiful and wonderfully photographed.

    Vicki Heneker
    Adelaide, South Australia

  2. Lee Cooper permalink
    December 20, 2022

    Wow, a flood of childhood memories came flooding back with these photos I remember the old terraces around my school junior Randall Cremer the prefabricated houses on Pearson Street we lived on the Fellows Court Estate next to St Chads Church I had a few beers in the Flying Scud later on in life one of the many pubs on Hackney Rd great area to grow up in.

  3. Mark Smith permalink
    December 20, 2022

    Fascinating article, beautifully illustrated and glorious photos.
    Another crime committed against the working class. Oh to be a time traveller.

  4. Mark Smith permalink
    December 20, 2022

    p.s. Terry Hall loved forever in the fight against racism.

  5. Lesley permalink
    December 20, 2022

    My nan was born in Scawfell Street in 1907.
    The street is still there but the house is long gone.

  6. December 20, 2022

    what a loss…sheer vandalism. Work out what all those lovely houses, cared for & well maintained, wd now be worth..billions…let alone the social/emotional/cultural price…

  7. December 20, 2022

    A wonderfully insightful and well-illustrated study uncovering a lost layer of the East End and finally answering the simple questions, what and where is Haggerston? What’s amazing now, in a state of near permanent public sector austerity, is that the resources were available for such extensive demolition and rebuilding. It’s also astonishing that there was such institutional blindness to the qualities of some older housing that could have been improved. The destruction you describe is indicative of the 1950s’/60s’ preoccupation with modernity and rejection of the past. Demolition as late as 1978 is surprising as the tide had certainly turned by then led by ground level opposition to clearance and redevelopment and symbolised by the introduction of central government-funded General Improvement and Housing Action Areas from 1969. Thankyou.

  8. Yvonne Pope permalink
    December 20, 2022

    Thank you for this unexpected trip down Memory Lane. Most of my family lived in Cremer Street. We had the house next to The Flying Scud. One-off the photos was of my Great Grandmother’s house. Brilliant. Thanks again

  9. Karen permalink
    December 20, 2022

    amazing buildings and such a loss – but no doubt some people were happy with the replacement and with out doubt the builders, planners and architects for the business.

  10. Avril Towell permalink
    December 20, 2022

    This is where my family and I lived until the planners decided to replace the terraces with flats. Such a sorry site of destruction we moved away in 1955. My family had lived in this area for generations and if you read the census taken annually, the families stayed together in these streets. I loved living there and I know many others mourn the destruction of a way of life. Nothing more to add ; it’s too painful

  11. Lizebeth permalink
    December 20, 2022

    Plus ca change…

    This should remind us to keep at the fight to retain what is left of London’s heritage.

    The Gentle Author is to be congratulated for their part in this struggle. Thank you.

  12. Bernie permalink
    December 20, 2022

    Cast-iron railings: what a varied fate befell them.
    In my home district (Stoke Newington, Bayston Road) they were harvested in 1940 for scrap no matter who was the owner, no matter what role they served. Here in Haggerston, not very far away, they were evidently conserved.
    How and why, one wonders?

  13. December 20, 2022

    Avril Towell, I feel your pain. This is a heartbreaking story, both in the loss of beautiful roads and buildings but in the senseless breaking up of whole communities. The Haggerston nobody knows, and now never will know. RIP.

  14. Christine Maiocco permalink
    December 20, 2022

    I love that you’ve provided an inside photo – the sitting room. I always imagine what the interior of these wonderful places looks like and now I have a picture to use as a springboard! Thank you for all your lovely posts!

  15. Susan permalink
    December 21, 2022

    This is really so sad.

    Our ever-burgeoning population seems to produce ever-burgeoning cities, in which single family homes no longer are practical, unless we all want to commute for hours and hours every day, or somehow miraculously build very local economies. We’ve kind of doomed ourselves to big, multi-story apartment buildings. (Plus, of course, we no longer have quaintly priced homes for 10,000 pounds…) Oh, modern life. 🙁

  16. Helen permalink
    December 21, 2022

    So sad to see these house and many others of this type in all parts of the Country demolished during this period. The house I live in was built in 1911, and though many of the original features are gone those that remain and the house itself testify to how very well built it was (the original slate roof for example has only recently become in need of significant attention) and when you think of some of the rubbish that went up to replace houses like the ones shown, in many cases already in dire need of rebuilding or massive repair it really was a terrible mistake in most cases, and that is before you get on to the awful effect it had on communities that were broken up as others have also mentioned. A great shame.

  17. Gilbert O’Brien permalink
    December 21, 2022

    Tragic. And nothing has changed, it continues today, an endless repetition of greed and destruction. Breaks yer ‘art.

  18. December 21, 2022

    So many buildings that could doubtless have been saved ….
    You mention ‘Elegant dark-painted sashes’, but to my mind it is dark, perhaps a very dark green, glazing bars that contribute to the general griminess of the street scene. Now the default is white, which I think brings life to a façade, but it’s my impression that white only became a thing after WWII. I wonder if there was a big price differential between light and dark. It’s not as if there was a shortage of titanium dioxide from Cornwall

  19. Gillian Tindall permalink
    December 22, 2022

    The awful destruction of good, liveable townscape and of people’s homes was very nearly replicated in the 1960s and early ’70s in Kentish Town – but fortunately, by that date, there were just enough owner-occupiers living in the district to fight back against the wholesale destruction of habitat and to make Camden planners back down on quite a bit of their `comprehensive redevelopment plan’. Well-informed squatters also helped save some key terraces. If only the Haggerston area could have been helped in this way –

  20. molly ayton permalink
    December 23, 2022


  21. Marcia Howard permalink
    December 23, 2022

    A world lost for ever. Thank goodness for the amazing archive of photographs, so thank you for sharing.

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