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How Mile End Place Was Saved

May 12, 2024
by the gentle author



Philip Cunningham sent me his account of living in Mile End Place in the seventies when it was under the shadow of redevelopment

In the sixties and seventies, planners were still pursuing the rebuilding programme that began after the Second World War. Percy Johnson-Marshall, a leading London County Council planner opined that unfortunately there was too much pre-war building left in the East East, which made comprehensive planning really difficult. It was as if would have preferred a few more Nazi bombs to have dropped. The attractive pair of terraces of nineteenth century cottages at Mile End Place where we lived were destined to be demolished to provide a bigger car park for Queen Mary College.

The residents would have been ‘decanted’ into a single tower block but fortunately for us the local council and the LCC had run out of blocks. After some time, the government introduced grants to install bathrooms and eradicate the ‘slums’. As a resident of Mile End Place, I applied for such a grant and met with a completely hostile response from council officers. ‘They’re comin’ down! Take the two hundred pounds now, ’cause if we start pullin’ ’em down and you are still there you won’t get two pounds then. If we come to your house and you’re still in it you won’t get two hundred pounds, you’ll get nuffink.’

Yet we persisted and eventually got the grant because they could not decide when the street was due to be demolished. We were poor in those days and if it had not been for Mr Marcus in the off-licence taking post-dated cheques, we would have had no food on the table. He said the same thing every time we cashed a cheque, ‘The banks only offer you an umbrella when the sun’s shining!’ God bless him.

We had to match the grant and, to find our share, I borrowed money off my brother and mother. The work to install the bathroom was slow and we had a new-born baby, but eventually the work was done and then we had an indoor toilet, shower and bath. No more running out to the loo in the pouring rain.

Time passed and one day there was a knocking at our front door. It was a council officer. ‘You’ve had a bathroom built and I’ve got to inspect it.’ he said. “Do come in” I replied. He looked at the bathroom. ‘Very good,’ he said, ‘but I’ve got to look upstairs too.’ As he went up stairs he said, ‘These are steep, you should have a handrail.’ I said I was having one made out of mahogany and it was coming next week. ‘Very good’ he concluded.

He told us the future of the street was to be discussed at a council meeting that evening. That night our street was taken off the slum clearance list. This ignited fury in some residents and we were abused by neighbours for having deprived them of their luxury flats. The other side of the street had been entirely sold off already, but then individual houses came up for sale and the character of the place changed entirely.

Tenants could now demand their landlord install a bathroom and one neighbour, Lou Rieggio, did this. He was temporarily rehoused in a council flat while it happened and then refused to move back. I met him in Bethnal Green and he declared, ‘Phil, we’re living in absolute luxury. We got a sink in our bedroom with hot and cold water!’ I met him again two years later and he declared ‘Phil, that was the worst mistake of my life. You remember when I used to go out and clean my car? Well, I went down the other day with a bowl of suds but forgot the sponge. I went in to get it and, when I came back, the bowl had vanished. It’s an absolute nightmare. Piss and shit on the stairwell. The windows are broke and rattle all the time. You can hear people in the corridors all night long. That was the biggest mistake I ever made, moving out of Mile End Place.’

I was sorry for him but there was nothing I could do.

Found under the floor

The arch leading to Mile End Rd

Photographs copyright © Philip Cunningham

You may also like to take a look at

Philip Cunningham at Mile End Place

A Walk With Philip Cunningham

East End Portraits

A Lost Corner of Whitechapel

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Andy permalink
    May 12, 2024

    It all looks familiar and the photos tell me one of my cherished memories .

  2. May 12, 2024

    Thank you Philip and the GA for posting this little tale of hope. When I was an impoverished student, living south of the river, in Tooting, I lived in a little flat which was the lower half of the original house. A little old lady lived next door, which still had its outside toilet with tin bath hanging outside. I often wondered how she managed but she seemed to.
    My Dad knew a lot of Bethnal Green residents who were similarly moved into tower blocks when houses were demolished, and I remember how he said that he didn’t see them as much. It was more effort to negotiate endless stairs or the smelly lifts. People can be put in a box and forgotten.
    It is lovely to see little patches of housing that have survived. I wandered around Jesus Green yesterday, which is delightful but entirely unaffordable to most. Former slums, now only for the well-heeled!

  3. May 12, 2024

    Just took a recky on Google Maps. Thank goodness these lovely cottages were not demolished.
    Modernisation seemed an anathema to local authority planners in the 1960s. One thinks of the fate of much of Haggerston. How different London might have looked, with a different housing policy.

  4. Cherub permalink
    May 12, 2024

    I was a mature undergraduate at Queen Mary College 30 years ago. Mile End has some lovely old houses and nice streets behind the college, sadly they had become unaffordable for locals by then and many were being rented by fairly well off medical students who spent their summers at the family holiday pile in France. Friends of mine rented a place at Bow Common Lane, it was a house but they only had the use of the upper part as the rooms on the ground floor were kept locked by the landlord. A kitchen had been installed in the smallest of the 3 bedrooms and they had no livingroom. The bonus was a nice view.

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