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In Search Of Flower & Dean St

February 26, 2023
by Gillian Tindall

Contributing Writer, Gillian Tindall, went in search of Flower & Dean St

Fishman’s Tobacconist, Flower & Dean St, seventies, by Ron McCormick

It is a disappointing fact that some dwellings are built to be poor, you can find examples all over Britain. But in parts of London, once desirable streets had poverty imposed upon them. The streets of Spitalfields, whose early Georgian houses are now expensive and desirable, were from the Victorian period until well after the Second World War under this shadow. It is only thanks to the energies and determined actions of a few in the sixties and seventies that a number of these streets have survived, but many have not and one of these is Flower and Dean St.

In Tudor times, Spitalfields was actually fields beyond the City wall, though by the late Elizabethan days a sprinkle of individual wealthy gentleman’s houses began to dot the roadside up to Shoreditch and, by the reign of Charles I, there were more of them – typical ribbon development. This ceased during the Civil War but once peace was established, even before the Cromwells were seen off and Charles II was restored, builders got busy again in this desirable-almost-rural setting.

In 1655 two brothers called Fossan, one of whom was a goldsmith, acquired an odd-shaped chunk of land not far from an ancient, muddy track to brick fields, now Brick Lane. Much of the ground was used for tenter fields, where woollen cloth woven locally was hung up to dry. Already the City clothing industry was impinging on the rural land. The Fossans leased the land for ninety-nine years to two builders, John Flower and Gowan Dean. Such was the system under which most of Greater London was created over the next two hundred years. There they built Fossan St, whose name a generation later came to be misunderstood as ‘Fashion St,’ and gave their own surnames to the street just south of it.

Fashion St still exists with the handsome early eighteenth century Christ Church, Spitalfields, and its graveyard just to the north, but its present buildings are of a later date. The original Flower & Dean St is gone as if it had never been. 

It must have been a pretty street and a respectable one for much of the next century, when it was mainly occupied by Huguenot silk-spinners. These were protestants who had come to England to find a more welcoming society than the Catholic France of Louis XIV. They arrived in far greater numbers in the 1680s when Louis tore up a legal agreement tolerating Protestantism and real persecution set in. Some arrived across the Channel in dangerously small boats, making their way into the Thames estuary and up the river by night. Nothing in the life of nations really changes.

These hard-working spinners and weavers flourished, and by the mid-eighteenth century many had established themselves in other businesses, entering prosperous British society. Those who remained began to do less well, imports of silk and cotton from India were damaging the home trade. By the middle of the century the houses in Flower & Dean St were being sub-divided into smaller lodgings. There were also questions about their stability, the  brickies employer by Flower & Dean were said to have used inadequate mortar. 

Fifty years later, the land east of Whitechapel was entirely built up with houses and these were extending further along the Mile End Rd. Within another generation, the hamlets set in countryside that was visible from the Tower of London would be turning inexorably into the great mass of the East End. To the prosperous residents of expanding West London, this might as well have been a foreign country.

In reality, of course, much of the East End was filled with decent hard-working people who themselves regarded such places as Flower & Dean St as dangerous slums. It was now where lodging houses offered a bed for a few pence a night and where, it was said, thieves felt at ease and prostitutes plied their trade, though it is unclear who would seek them out there.

Ford Maddox Brown, the painter, described it as ‘a haunt of vice… full of cut-throats’, and it was a place where policemen were said only to venture in pairs. But the street acquired a sudden and much more general fame when, in 1888, two women who lodged in there in different houses met their demise in the Whitechapel Murders. Enough was enough. With the not-entirely rational logic that has often been applied to places that get a bad reputation, it was decided the street should be pulled down. 

Just to add to the drama, during demolition in 1892, two skulls and some bones were found in a box under the yard. More murder victims, it was at once assumed. In reality, the examination of the bones seems to have been cursory and it is likely these relics were from a field-burial hundreds of years earlier.

What rose in the place of Flower & Dean St was Rothschild Buildings, a massive tenement block bestowed on the large newly-arrived population of Jewish people from Eastern Europe. The bestowers were the Rothschild banking family, and it was a classic example of ‘four percent philanthropy’ – a charitable cause, yet one which nevertheless brought in a modest but steady income.

Moral views change and the improvements of one era attract the disapproval of later times. By the seventies, many of the descendants of the original Jewish occupants of the Rothschild Buildings were established in more salubrious northern suburbs and Bangladeshis arrived to take their place. The Buildings were steeped in soot and the lack of bathrooms in the flats was considered unacceptable. They were pulled down leaving only the grandiose brick archway. Today, the site is a dug-out games pitch at the end of the short stub of Lolesworth Close off Commercial St.

Just to the south is Flower & Dean Walk, a modern low-rise pedestrianised development, looking oddly out of place amidst the complex of old alleys and new tower blocks, with the raucous salesmanship of Petticoat Lane a few minutes away. I went for a stroll down there recently on a snowy day. There was a thin mist floating above the whiteness and it seemed as if the monstrously tall constructions that have transformed the City were dissolving into the sky, as if they were disappearing while the older, traditional buildings remained. Would that it were so!

Rothschild Buildings by John Allin, seventies

This bollard in Lolesworth Close is all that remains of Flower & Dean St

Entrance to the former Rothschild Buildings

Flower & Dean Walk

Flower & Dean Walk

Flower & Dean Estate opened by HRH The Prince of Wales on 18th July 1984

Gillian Tindall’s The House by the Thames is available from Penguin

You may like to read these other stories by Gillian Tindall 

The Bones of Old London

Memories of Ship Tavern Passage

At Captain Cook’s House in Mile End

In Stepney, 1963

Stepney’s Lost Mansions

Where The White Chapel Once Stood

The Old South Bank

Leonard Fenton, Actor

In Old Deptford

Lifesaving in Limehouse

From Bedlam To Liverpool St

Smithfield’s Bloody Past

The Tunnel Through Time

18 Responses leave one →
  1. Paul Loften permalink
    February 26, 2023

    My mum was born in Nathaniel Buildings in the “Flarry “in 1916, as it was known to the locals and lived there until she got married. .She told me many stories about growing up there. She said it was known as the worst street in London. I never believed it because she was such a kind and cultivated woman . She took an exam aged 11 and won a free place at a music school from amongst hundreds of children all over London. Her piano tutor was Meyer Rosenstein an up and coming concert pianist. Her father decided against her taking the place despite Rosenstein’s protests.
    Although Flower and Dean Street always had a terrible reputation it produced so many wonderful people . It’s an untold story.
    Thank you GA and Gillian. I am very proud of where my parents came from .I think it was the best place ,certainly not the worst

  2. Christine Swan permalink
    February 26, 2023

    Thank you for this piece. My ancestors, John and Frances Crudgington, lived in Flower and Dean Street in 1829 when they had no fewer than four children baptised in one swoop. I too have visited Flower and Dean Walk and it is a pity that so little remains. I stood and tried to imagine what it would have been like in the early nineteenth century. I imagined quite smelly with lots of children. The Crudgingtons were very prolific but not all survived to adulthood. The Crudgingtons were shoe and bootmakers but strangely, two of them were prosecuted for stealing shoes! Unfortunately, there were a number of additional pursuits to the family trade which brought them into contact with the justice system but times were very hard and poverty rife. I’m not sorry that poor housing is improved but sad that so much of the old city has disappeared. I had no idea that the name came from the builders themselves so thank you for settling that mystery!

  3. Anthony Quinn permalink
    February 26, 2023

    Great piece, fascinating history.

  4. Mark permalink
    February 26, 2023

    A really interesting piece, followed by interesting photos and interesting comments.
    London obliterated.

  5. Lucy Neville permalink
    February 26, 2023

    Another excellent piece. Anyone interested in Rothschilds Building might find Jerry White’s book of interest. His research on the building of London is always interesting.

  6. Stephen Watts permalink
    February 26, 2023

    Many thanks, Gillian Tindall & GA, for this piece. I guess I’ve walked through the site of Flower & Dean Street maybe twice a week, back & forth, for the past 45 years & I am always delighted to see the ‘Flower & Dean Walk’ signs precisely because they do keep memory of Flower & Dean Street somehow alive when so much is lost to rupture & amnesia. I also recall first coming to Aldgate East in late 1974 & walking into the Rothschild Buildings when they were empty & derelict but still intact. It was quite extraordinary to see & feel the presence of those buildings (reminiscent of others in London & Glasgow) & I felt lucky to have seen that. But I also love the new sloping-roofed homes that replaced Rothschild’s : and just as Rothschild’s housed families fleeing pogroms or rural poverty, so these new ones housed many families displaced by the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence. I’ve no personal family stories to share, but one of the finest modern East End films was made in & out of one of these new homes. Many thanks again !

  7. John Eversley permalink
    February 26, 2023

    People familiar with Rothschild Buildings will probably wonder about the contemporary location of the arch. It was originally near the Commerical Street end of Wentworth St but was taken down when the new estate was being built and re-erected on its current site.

    Also if you are wondering about the architecture of the new estate with the roofs which stretch from the top of the ground floor to the second floor. Government funding at the time was not sufficent to build the larger housing required so atttic or loft space was integrated into homes to produce extra bedrooms.

  8. February 26, 2023

    Although Gillian Tindall writes “What rose in the place of Flower & Dean St was Rothschild Buildings” the street itself wasn’t replaced by this tenement. Flower & Dean St was still there, running from Brick Lane to Commercial St until at least the late 1970s and, I think, a good while longer.

  9. Doug Zegers permalink
    February 26, 2023

    Further to my previous comment. I’ve done some more research and found that Flower and Dean street was actually demolished after the photograph of Fishman’s Tobacconists was taken, so apologies are due but I was actually going by the date mentioned in Gillian’s piece where it said the street was demolished in 1892 probably a typo’.

  10. February 26, 2023

    I had no idea the Rothschild buildings, designed by my g-g-father, had gone. I thought that the Brady Club, designed by his son was there too

  11. Robin permalink
    February 26, 2023

    Very evocatively written, a materialist excavation of a fascinating bit of history.

  12. Bill Hall permalink
    February 27, 2023

    I am working on transcribing Stepney St Dunstan’s parish records for FreeREG. At present I am working on Baptisms of the 17th and early 18th centuries. Throughout these records this street is always referred to as Dean and Flower Street. I wonder when and why the names switched about?

  13. Gillian Tindall permalink
    February 27, 2023

    The answer to Bill Hall’s query is that the Flower/Dean names appear both way rounds on the oldest maps – those of Restoration London. I imagine that originally the street was not accorded any particular name and was therefore just referred to casually by the names of the locally well-known builders, either way round.

    In the same way the street to the north of it was just `that run of houses built by Fasson’ and so became `Fasson Street’ and hence `Fashion Street’.

    As to how much of F and D street was pulled down to create Rothchilds Buildings (not all of it, I agree) that is too complex a topic to go into in the space of a blog!

  14. Terry Burns permalink
    February 28, 2023

    I lived in Nathaniel Buildings (born there),from 1957 until Flower and Dean Street was demolished in 1972 (many readers will be familiar with the much loved Garfinkles grocery shop in the street, and I played every day in the yard shown in the cartoon drawing. (I have a lovely actual photo of the inside of that yard). Hardly any research into the street mentions the fascinating fact that the street had a famous resident and I have a photo of the plaque on the wall of the buildings which confirms this. Abe Saperstein, the founder of the famous Harlem Globetrotters, was born there. The plaque reads “Abe Saperstein, born July 4th 1902, died March 15th 1966, Founder of the Harlem Globetrotters Basket Ball team. This plaque was placed by the Amateur Basket Ball Association”.

  15. Mandy permalink
    March 1, 2023

    My mum lived in Nathaniel Dwellings (as she called it) on Flower and Dean Street, approx. 1944 – 1960 I believe. She went to the Brady Girls Club and has many fond memories of it. I’ll print this out for her (and the comments), she’ll enjoy reading it! And if she has any memories to add of Flower and Dean Street I’ll come back to comment. I took her back for a visit a while ago, but of course it had all gone, and that was a sadness. I didn’t know about the arch or that it was available to find.

  16. michael edward hardie permalink
    March 10, 2023

    there were 2 brady clubs.
    the boys was just of Brady st. Whitechapel and the girls
    in Hanbury St.
    I knew Flower and Dean St. well and
    in the 50s they were slums with people
    living in them who deserved better.
    Michael Hardie

  17. Laura V permalink
    March 21, 2023

    Thanks for this wonderfully detailed piece.

    Like Paul Loften, my father’s Yiddish-speaking grandma used to refer to “Flarrydin Street” in her thick accent. It took a while till he worked out that she was referring to having lived on Flower and Dean Street.

    And like Lucy Neville, I recommend the book by Jerry White, Rothschild Buildings: Life in an East End Tenement Block 1887-1920 (Foreword by Raphael Samuel), History Workshop Series (London: Routledge, 1980).

  18. Mandy O’callaghan permalink
    May 11, 2023

    I was trying to go over my life. The earliest picture I saw of myself, I must’ve been about two or three, born 1967 now I’m 55 years old with a great big doll bigger than me on the sofa. I asked my Nan now passed where the photo was taken. Her reply was flower and Dean Street, Whitechapel and the picture was taken from a photographer on the corner of flower and Dean Street. A number of years later I went to find flower and dean Street to find that history of flower and Dean Street, been demolished and now it’s Flower & dean walk. It was quite emotional and upsetting that I wanted to find a piece of my life in the place it’s been demolished. ?

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