Property: The battle of Boundary Street

London's first council estate, completed in 1897, was a social experiment that was too smart for its own good. Now, as Sarah Wise reports, the local council still isn't sure what to do with it
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In a secluded backwater behind Shoreditch High Street and Bethnal Green Road sits London's first council estate. At 100 years old, the 21 red-brick mansion blocks of the Boundary Street scheme are still magnificent, though closer inspection reveals a faded beauty, with rotting window frames and decaying brickwork. Step inside and you experience more serious neglect: sour-smelling stairwells littered with uncollected refuse, leading to damp, draughty flats.

Boundary Street's centenary coincides with a minor revolution on the estate. Tower Hamlets Council, its present owner, is to ballot the estate's 1,900 residents, 80 per cent of whom are Bangladeshi, on whether to put Boundary Street into the hands of a local housing company, under the government's HARCA (Housing and Regeneration Community Association) scheme. This government/private finance initiative would drum up some much-needed money to spend on refurbishment from the private sector; but protesters claim that rents would rise, and tenure could become less secure, all as a prelude to gentrification, with City workers snapping up the Grade II listed properties as pieds-a-terre. It's not exactly class war, but there is resentment at the way the City seems to be marching eastwards.

"This estate was put up for the working class and it should stay within the domain of the working class," says Gerald Muir, tenant representative on the Boundary Street steering committee. The question is, can it afford to?

"It is an incredibly expensive estate for us to maintain," admits Tim Ravenscroft of Tower Hamlets Housing Department. "The high quality of the materials used in its construction can triple maintenance costs, and councils have limited resources. Our capital allocations have been dropping year on year. Because Boundary Street is listed, we have to use original materials, so the cost of re-roofing, for example, is high because we have to use the original natural Welsh slate. Over the last 10 years we have spent around pounds 10 or pounds 11m on improvements." An application for pounds 18.6m Lottery funding is currently before English Heritage, and Tower Hamlets expects to hear the result next year, but this money could only be spent on the exteriors and must be matched by non-Lottery money, which the council claims it does not have.

"We need far more resources to improve our stock than are available through public funding," says Tower Hamlets. "The council, like the government, supports transfers to not-for-profit HARCAs, which residents and the council will own and control. There are no shareholders, no dividends, and no 'privatisation'. Money only goes into services to residents and stock improvement. Rents are guaranteed for at least five years, and tenants will have full security of tenure."

The Boundary Street development was one of the first initiatives of the London County Council which first took office in 1889. Dominated by the Liberal Progressives, the LCC's aim was to bring about the moral and physical improvement of the very lowest strata of Victorian society by providing spacious, well-constructed and aesthetically pleasing homes, built on the site of the Nichol, the most infamous slum in London. The new flats would be clean, warm and bright and would foster "respectability" by bringing the family together behind its own front door. Before Boundary Street, new homes for the poorest Londoners had been attempted only by philanthropists and private companies. These monolithic blocks expressed their punitive, paternalistic nature in prison-like architecture - visually, there was little to distinguish them from Wormwood Scrubs.

Boundary Street was to be different, with easy-on-the-eye architecture reflecting a more humane approach to housing the poor. The use of red brick (a feature of the Queen Anne Revival) was adopted for many municipal institutions towards the end of the century (including Board schools, hospitals and Norman Shaw's New Scotland Yard), signalling a more enlightened, egalitarian and socially responsible age.

Boundary Street features Arts and Crafts-style decorative brick- and tile-work as well as an astonishing variety of roof styles, including dormer, pitched, mansard and "Dutch" gabling, making its skyline a delightfully eccentric hotch-potch. The quality of work inside the flats matched the fine exteriors: walls were built to an unheard of thickness of 131/2 inches; and state-of-the-art fire-resistance, sound-proofing and heat retention were implemented. During modernisation in the 1960s, timber joists were discovered of a quality no longer available. The Victorian panaceas of sunlight and ventilation were brought into the rooms through huge and plentiful windows and the number and size of rooms were generous. The Victorians believed that one of the more horrifying aspects of slum life was incest, and believed this was caused by families having to undress and sleep in the same room.

The spaciousness of the flats, together with a programme of some clumsily completed "knock-throughs" in the 1960s (reducing the number of homes from more than 1,000 to 600) has contributed to the unusually large Bangladeshi population at Boundary Street, since the traditional extended family requires four- or five-bedroom flats.

When the Nichol's Georgian streets were remodelled, the labyrinthine grid-pattern were replaced by broad, tree-lined boulevards radiating off Arnold Circus, which contained a shrub-filled garden and a bandstand. The LCC envisioned happy families and courting couples strolling around the garden to the sound of a band after a day's toil. Today, the garden looks very different. The Victorian saplings have grown into a dark canopy, and their roots are breaking up the asphalt. The garden is usually deserted except for teenage drinkers and drug-dealers who come to the bandstand after dark. And the last of the garden's once plentiful seats disappeared this year.

One hundred years ago, communality was fostered by a shared laundry, bath-house and club-room. The estate also had its own shops, two schools and 77 workshops for the woodworkers, furniture- and shoe-makers who had lived in the Nichol. This was integrated living in the manner of Lord Lever's Port Sunlight but without residents having to doff their caps to enlightened capitalism. But in the last 10 years, these facilities have fallen into private hands: the laundry/bath-house was sold to a housing association in the 1980s; the Grade II-listed Rochelle Street School has just been sold off by Islington council for conversion to 35 luxury homes (although it was squatted for months by The Star People, a New Age collective); and the workshops are mainly owned by non-Boundary artisans, although some suitably 19th-century trades such as marquetry, wood-turning, gilding and veneering carry on there.

OUT OF THE SLUMS

"Industry is the exception, robbery is the rule," wrote one observer who dared to venture into the Nichol in the 1860s. This was unfair, as there were many who worked hard but never made enough money to get out of the Nichol. Virtually a police no-go area, and with four times the mortality rate of the rest of the capital, there was nowhere further to fall than the Nichol in the 1880s. It was 15 acres of hell on earth, with the highest population density in an already grossly overcrowded East London. One 10-roomed house in Old Nichol Street was discovered to be home to 90 people. The area's topography had conspired to make it a slum ghetto. Its 20 narrow streets of pokey, poorly constructed houses were cut off from the surrounding neighbourhood by the lack of access roads. Gardens, yards and alleyways were built over, creating a maze that only a Nichol local could navigate. A criminal could disappear into one doorway and emerge several streets away, confounding any policeman bold enough to have given chase. Residents comprised the poorest artisans, casual labourers and men on parole. "Old Jim" Kray, father of Ronnie and Reggie, was a rag-and-bone man in the Nichol. Other residents had more desperate, ingenious livings - collecting dogshit for local tanneries and flaying cats to sell their skins. The final nail in the coffin of the Nichol's reputation came with the publication of the novel A Child of the Jago. Arthur Morrison, the Irvine Welsh of his day, captured in nauseating detail the squalor of life there, fictitiously naming the area the Jago. So powerful was Morrison's vision, people began to use the names Nichol and Jago interchangeably and "jago" entered the language as a slang word for any area of dubious reputation. When it was pulled down, the LCC used the demolished houses to infill Arnold Circus, and when, in March 1900, the Prince and Princess of Wales opened the estate officially, they did so standing on the rubble of the Nichol.

As a social experiment, the Boundary Street scheme was a failure. Around 5,700 people had been displaced and just 11 of the Nichol's poor moved into the new flats. Of the rest, 5,100 were rehoused elsewhere. There were only 15 single-room homes, which meant that the rents, though fair, were simply beyond the means of the very poor. Instead, shopkeepers, clerks, teachers and even a vicar moved in. Even today, there is a higher than usual number of white professionals than is found on most council estates; they make up the majority of the 10 per cent who bought flats under Mrs Thatcher's Right to Buy scheme (the current price for a one-bedroom leasehold flat is around pounds 55,000 on the open market).

One young Bangladeshi resident expressed his worry that the quiescence of his community may mean that the estate passes out of council control, "Most of my community's elders have poor English and haven't the confidence to question the HARCA proposals."

The LCC built Boundary Street to last 100 years, but they built it too well. And it seems that the ideals that inspired the estate have stood the test of time less well than its bricks and mortar. WHAT THE RESIDENTS THINK

WINIFRED GOULD, 90, a retired schoolteacher and former Wren, has lived in her one-bedroomed flat overlooking the bandstand since the late 1940s. "Every so often, the flats seem to get a bit squalid. That happened in the 1960s, so they did a lot of work on them. Now they're planning to put lifts in, but I don't agree with that. It's walking up and down all those stairs that has kept me young. Many years before I moved here, there was a plan to sell the homes off to what I'd call an upper-class sort of person; the thinking was that these homes were too good for working people. But one lady took this all the way to the Houses of Parliament and got it stopped.

"I find it a very friendly place. People are always coming up and saying, 'Good morning Miss Gould', especially the lovely Asian children. They're well-behaved as their parents are strict. I feel safe here, although I was burgled once, and I don't go out after dark."

GERALD MUIR, 43, has lived on the estate since 1981. "It's wonderful living here, having leaves for curtains. There's a good community spirit. There is less crime and graffiti than on most estates, but there are a small number of villains who try to spoil it for the rest.

"If they do the maintenance properly, these buildings should last for another 500 years, but they have been starved of maintenance. The security doors don't work, and vandals trash them so they can burgle flats.

"The City have always had their eye on Boundary because it's unique and just 15 minutes walk from Bishopsgate. They will take over this estate eventually. I reckon they'll support the external walls, gut the interiors, underpin the blocks and put an underground carpark in. The council is planning to put lifts in if the HARCA goes ahead, but installing them will reduce the number of flats. They're also talking about putting in CCTV. If HARCA goes ahead, I think rents could be jacked up to pounds 200 a week - far beyond the means of anyone who lives here - and that'll change the whole nature of the estate."

AN ANONYMOUS 20-year-old Bangladeshi resident, who has lived on the estate all his life, shares a three-bedroom flat with seven other members of his family. "I don't want to leave this estate. Everything we need is here, the shops, bank, mosque. There are very few racial problems. That tends to happen further east in Tower Hamlets. Most people get on very well. I think one of the reasons the estate is cleaner than some others is that Moslems do not keep dogs as pets, so there is no dog mess. But over the last two years, drugs have become a problem. You used to be able to walk around anywhere at any time, even at 4.30am when it is early prayer at the mosque in Old Nichol Street, but there are a number of teenagers dealing drugs on the estate, and the whole atmosphere has changed. The police say that we have to sort it out within our community. The elders can stop the very young kids misbehaving, and doing naughty things like graffiti, but the drugs problem is too big for them.

"Our windows are rotten, the overflow pipes are leaking and streaking the walls outside, our kitchen ceiling leaks when it rains, the corner of one bedroom is damp and my 10-year-old brother has asthma. Mum gets depressed because we are so over crowded. The council just can't - or won't - do the repairs."

Winifred Gould, above; Gerald Muir, below

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