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200 Years In Rhondda Grove

November 2, 2023
by Naman Chaudhary

Rhondda Grove resident Naman Chaudhary has written this history of the street in celebration of two centuries of a cherished East End backwater, constructed in 1823

Rhondda Grove was originally known as Cottage Grove


The river was a wide bowl of pewter then. Its bank of silt and clay – some peat – was trodden only by sailors, boat builders, rope makers, figurehead carvers, dry dockers, painters and tavern keepers. Over the crying of gulls and seamen, if you followed the pealing bells, away from the shore, you arrived at St Dunstan, the church of the high seas.

To the east of the churchyard, the land opened to a common, Rogues Well. Beyond stretched acres of fields, Fenwick, Buckridge, Grice. Some of them belonging to sea captains, Cook and Owen. These were ribboned with walks, lanes and paths – Robin Hood, Beer Binder, Salmon – all joining up to the main thoroughfare that led to Essex and East Anglia.

Rising above the pasture on either side of this road were the roofs of inns, hamlets and a few country manors of merchants. But what dominated the landscape since medieval times were large plots of market gardens and orchards. Placed on the rich alluvial soil and heavily manured, they supplied fresh vegetables, fruits, flowers and salad to the burgeoning population of London.

In the early eighteen-hundreds, when the docks were constructed and Commercial Rd laid out, accommodation was needed for the large numbers – dockers, ballast-heavers, clerks – who came to work there. The farmlands vanished and the rustic hamlets of Stepney, Poplar, Mile End and Bethnal Green were transformed into a dense web of streets.

The estate along the main road on which Cottage Grove (now Rhondda Grove) was laid out belonged to the Gouge family. In 1589, Elizabeth Culverwell bequeathed it to her daughter Elizabeth and her husband Thomas Gouge of Bow. In the same manner, Sir Charles Morgan inherited property in Tredegar, Wales, through his wife, Jane, in 1792. Rich in minerals, the land was leased by Charles to a mining company. Employing this income, his son – also Charles – purchased two parcels of land from the Gouges and developed what we see today.

James Stevens Curls in an article in Country Life on ‘Architectural Grandeur in Stepney’ wrote, ‘The estates at Mile End Old Town were unusual in that they were designed in a lavish scale, and were planned to resemble contemporary developments in the western and northern parts of an expanding London. Sir Charles Morgan envisaged his Stepney inheritance as having possibilities as a middle class residential area. In 1822, he made a new agreement with Daniel Austin for a lease of eighty years, with the intention of developing the western part of his estate for housing.’

Daniel Austin was a man of many trades. He is described in records as a surveyor, builder, brick-maker, haberdasher, dealer and chapman. He laid out a formal plan that comprised a square and five streets lining the north side of the road to Essex that became Mile End Rd. These terraces were Frederick Place (later Aberavon Rd), Cottage Grove (now Rhondda Grove), Tredegar St, Montague St and Coborn Rd. To the north of these terraces were open fields.

William King, one of the architect of this scheme, was a local man and may well have been a friend of Austin, since the design of the houses in the street Austin chose to live in was significantly different to that of the others. The paired villas in Cottage Grove, with space between the pairs, were made of yellow stock brick. Their big overhanging slate roofs with projecting eaves on coupled wooden brackets, recessed entrances with elaborate fanlights over the doors, large sash windows, sill bands on the first floor, and substantial gardens in both front and back, were much grander than houses in the surrounding streets.

Once the building works were complete, Austin lived at 14 Cottage Grove. On January 7th 1824, one of the three co-partners in his firm dissolved his share by mutual consent. On August 8th 1826, the second co-partner did the same. A year later, things took a turn for the worse and a Bankruptcy Award was issued against Daniel Austin.

Bankruptcy at this period brought not just criminal charges but humiliation and disgrace. Cottage Grove had its fair share of bankrupts, including Wm. Jos. Layel, an ‘out-of-business man’, who was ordered to be brought before the court in Portugal St as an insolvent debtor. The only person to petition against the award was James Metcalfe, of No 13, a Boot and Shoe Maker and a part time collector of Taxes, Tithes and Sewer Rates.

One of the most famous residents of Cottage Grove was George William Francis. By the time he moved into No 27 in around 1838, he had already established himself as a figure in the strata of ‘gentlemanly science’. He lectured and wrote a number of books including the best-selling Analysis of British Ferns (1837), The Little English Flora (1839) and The Grammar of Botany (1840), and he played a big role in starting the Victorian fern obsession. While at Cottage Grove, Francis founded The Magazine of Science & School of Arts, an ambitious journal extremely popular for its illustrated explanations of curiosities and discoveries in chemistry, astronomy, and craftsmanship. It was printed nearby at his brother David Francis’s workshop at 6 White Horse Lane. He left Cottage Grove in 1844 and emigrated with his family to Australia, where he founded the Adelaide Botanic Garden.

There were other ingenious resident of the street. In 1851, whe the Great Exhibition was held at the Crystal Palace, a resident of Cottage Grove, W Squires, exhibited his invention which can be found in the weapons category of the Official Catalogue: ‘W Squires, of Cottage Grove, Inv. and Manual New rifle, calculated to project a ball to a great distance with a small charge’.

Squires was not the only inventor to live in Cottage Grove. On July 21st, 1868, James Chandler, an engineer who lived at No 17, had his patent accepted for ‘Improvements in apparatus for drawing and preventing waste of water from pipes, Maines, or other sources, for domestic or other purposes’. Four years later, he could no longer afford to continue to pay the stamp duty on his patent and received a letter that proclaimed the patents void. His name was eventually published in 1874’s Record of failures and liquidations in the financial, international, wholesale branches of commerce. He continued to live in Cottage Grove, his wife occasionally selling plants, ‘old crimson clove carnations – true sort, cuttings 1s. Per dozen, post free’.

Then there were the five Wimpress siblings, the eldest of whom, George H Wimpress lived at 8 Cottage Grove and advertised his skills at typing and shorthand in local newspapers. The family were all member of the Little Folks Humane Society, an animal welfare organization. Other residents included a carpenter, a mantle maker, a butcher, a cigarette manufacturer, a tailor’s cutter, a cabinetmaker and a bell hanger.

By the turn of twentieth century, reforms were made to remove children from workhouses and move them to live in domestic houses, commonly known as ‘scattered homes’. Fifteen of these children lived at No 14, 15 & 16 Cottage Grove, operated by Stepney Union. The style of these houses is significantly different to the others in the street, terraced rather than in twinned pairs. This ‘scattered home’ had a superintendent, a steward, a matron, assistant matron and a chaplain.

There, in 1903, taught a Mrs Pilcher, who believed that ‘systematic education was a crying need for East End children’. She started a school for children in Cottage Grove, which eventually moved to more commodious premises in the Mission Hall, Stepney that Mrs Pilcher rented from the Rector of Stepney. Occasionally she took the mission children on outings to Epping Forest in a van.

At the other end of Cottage Grove, where it meets Mile End Rd, was the Assembly Room. Here, on a hot day in June 1857, the residents of Cottage Grove gathered in to witness a performance by the Bow & Mile End Harmonic Society. It also held public meetings and lectures including London Ethical Society and the East London Medical Society.

Through the summer of 1915, a year after the war was declared, the residents of Cottage Grove saw a Communist & Anarchist group organising lectures on topics such as ‘Evolution & Revolution’ and ‘Anarchist Morality’. These meetings often commenced at 8:30pm and went on till 3am, ‘Tickets, One Shilling each’.

The Assembly Room even featured in the prolific and popular novelist Jack Lindsay’s Rising Tide: A Novel of the British Way, which deals with the dockworkers’ strike:

“‘Let’s go to the Victory Dance the Stepney Y.C.L. are giving,’ he said. ‘Some of the lads were talking about it.’

‘Where is it?’ she asked, flustered.

‘At Rhondda Grove'”.

Between the two World Wars the street was renamed, becoming Rhondda Grove, as a nod to its Welsh roots.

A few months before the Second World War, Mr J Alexander, of Rhondda Grove, wrote to the local newspaper, ‘I am an auxiliary fireman and I work with the finest body of regulars and auxiliaries that anyone could wish for. Now this is what I want to know, why, when we are out on a call, people turn round to jeer at us and laugh as if it was a good joke. Do we look comical? Or perhaps we are doing wrong by wearing an axe and belt and a steel helmet which we take for protection.’

The newspaper’s answer: ‘Can Mile End be a hotbed of grinning apes? ‘Cos this is the first time we’ve received a complaint of this nature. Carry on, laddie! Stick your axe, your belt and your tin hat. You’re doing a darn good job, even if a few dimwits in your locality can’t see it.’

We do not know whether Alexander was at home or work when the first V-1 flying bomb to strike London landed not far from Rhondda Grove on 13th June 1944 or later, when more bombs fell destroying five of the paired villas built by Austin.

View from an attic window of one of the big overhanging slate roofs with projecting eaves on coupled wooden brackets. Note the pair of side passages that have been bricked up.

The paired villas with recessed entrances, built in 1823 of yellow stock brick.

Substantial front gardens make these houses much grander than those in neighbouring streets.

An 1823 villa meets post-war infill.

Large sash windows with sill bands on the first floor.

Where one half of one of the twin villas was bomb-damaged, modern flats have been grafted on.

The stone steps have an iron stair rail and the street is lined with mature lime trees.

Recent modernist houses fill the space where a pair of twin villas were completely destroyed in the Blitz.

Each front door is flanked by Doric columns with an elaborate fanlight above.

A Hindu temple stands on the site of the former Grove Mews.

14, 15 & 16 Rhondda Grove were run by Stepney Union as ‘scattered homes’ for workhouse children.

The author, Naman Chaudhary, is a resident of Rhondda Grove.

You may also like to take a look at

In Mile End End Old Town

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Lynne McBarron permalink
    November 2, 2023

    Thank you Naman for such an informative article. You have done a lot of research ..In the 70’s and 80’s
    I often walked along those streets from Mile End to Roman Road and back again , always impressed by the grand houses with front doors at the side .
    We also used to
    stop in the Lord Tredegar pub or the Coborn Arms for an after work drink and a game of darts …
    Thank you for reminding me of good times

  2. Tina Carr permalink
    November 2, 2023

    Between the two World Wars the street was renamed, becoming Rhondda Grove, as a nod to its Welsh roots.
    Do you know any more about the Welsh roots of the Grove?

  3. Kim permalink
    November 2, 2023

    Which one is Danny Boyle’s? 🙂

  4. Mark in Colorado US permalink
    November 2, 2023

    A well done pleasant read and photos..thank you.

  5. Dr Richard Turkington permalink
    November 2, 2023

    One of the most interesting articles of recent times reflecting considerable applied research. The introduction provides a lovely evocation of the area before urbanisation. It would be interesting to know the post-war history of the area. Thank you so much.

  6. Gillian Mercer permalink
    November 2, 2023

    So interesting. The houses and squares are so elegant, and you have brought the people to life.

  7. mick o'leary permalink
    November 3, 2023

    I walked these streets as a kid and as an adult and always marvelled at the simple, elegant beauty of these ‘Welsh’ streets. Another kind of East End.
    Excellent piece of local history – very evocative and beautifully written. Thank you Naman for rescuing from obscurity some wonderful EastEnders. I was fascinated to read about the ‘scattered homes’ for workhouse children

  8. November 4, 2023

    Thank you Naman and the GA for this very interesting account. I always admire the beautiful architecture of historic streets – the villas of Rhondda Grove are stunning. I also appreciate the painstaking research that went into this account. It is important to document the social history of London’s streets and how the city was shaped. I was also fascinated by the concept of the scattered homes. Workhouses were indeed no place for children ( or adults come to that). I would like to think that these facilities were more kind and homely.

  9. MV Marziale permalink
    March 1, 2024

    Walking down this street on a regular basis, I was always curious to know the full story of such an attractive side-street. It clearly had a more glorious past than some of its less imposing neighbours and this has proven to be the case. It’s a beautiful backwater with its bosky feel and Georgian proportions, and yet is only moments from Mile End station. Somehow it feels impressive whatever the season, although late spring and early summer are best. I had always assumed that the fill-in modern dwellings were inserted as a result of bomb damage, rather like the fillings a dentist might use to repair lost teeth.
    Congratulations on a well-researched and fascinating piece of local history.

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