The World's Oldest Council Estate: Then And Now

By James FitzGerald Last edited 13 months ago
The World's Oldest Council Estate: Then And Now

In the mind's eye, social housing does not have soft edges — at least not aesthetically. The term conjures up images of Brutalism, stern geometry and — excepting the occasional washed-out shade of local authority turquoise — a reserved visage.

But the Boundary Estate, which has stood since 1890, defies this stereotype. It’s arguably the world’s oldest council estate, but it also has a claim to being one of the most architecturally unique.

Its Grade II listed buildings are modest, but have dignified curves and embellishments; the estate spirals outwards from Arnold Circus — a splendid community fulcrum with gardens and a bandstand. The shapes which radiate from that roundabout are receptive and airy, rather than imposing.

Rubber-stamped in 1890 by the then new (and now defunct) London County Council, the estate trialled a new form of philanthropy. Officials opted to flatten the Old Nichol slum — a notorious no-go zone whose fearsome reputation was promulgated in novels like A Child of the Jago. In its place went up beautiful red-brick, Arts and Crafts-influenced homes for those they felt "deserved" them.

Judging who deserved a tenement in the new builds, and who should be banished to some other slum, was deemed by some to be a cruel and arbitrary process. But the Victorians were capable of blurring poverty and immorality even more than our own tabloid era of "benefits cheats" and "sink estates".

Gentrification of the area has seen privately-owned flats within the estate become increasingly sought-after. But around two-thirds of the 500-odd premises remain under the control of Tower Hamlets Borough Council, and a unionised residents’ group is determined they remain so. In 2006, they rallied against a move to hand over the estate to a housing association.

Although there's not much traffic, the Circus is a bustling social cauldron. But it’s also a destination in its own right, easily explored from the northern extents of Brick Lane and Shoreditch High Street. On the Sunday we visit, tenants clutching plants from the nearby Columbia Flower Market cross paths in the Circus with pushchair parents and Hoxton’s coffee nerds who filter into the artisanal outlets occupying the old Victorian workshops.

Historical photographs kindly provided by the London Metropolitan Archives. You can see over 130,000 historical images of the capital — from the 16th century onwards — via its Collage website.

The campaign to raze the Old Nichol Rookery slum was spearheaded by Rev Osborne Jay. Looking south east in 1895, all that remained of the former slum was St Philip's Church. Jews, and later the Bengali community, brought greater diversity to an area which was already a cultural melting pot. Image from London Metropolitan Archives, City of London.
The campaign to raze the Old Nichol Rookery slum was spearheaded by Rev Osborne Jay. Looking south east in 1895, all that remained of the former slum was St Philip's Church. Jews, and later the Bengali community, brought greater diversity to an area which was already a cultural melting pot. Image from London Metropolitan Archives, City of London.
The estate is nearing completion by 1903, with only the bandstand still to be added. A 2009 Museum of London excavation (PDF) proved that the central mound was raised from the rubble and left-behind items of the former slums. Image from London Metropolitan Archives, City of London.
The estate is nearing completion by 1903, with only the bandstand still to be added. A 2009 Museum of London excavation (PDF) proved that the central mound was raised from the rubble and left-behind items of the former slums. Image from London Metropolitan Archives, City of London.
The new tenements housed some 6,000 residents at their peak, which exceeded the number displaced by the construction. Tellingly though, it's said that only 11 of the former slum-dwellers could afford the new rents. Chertsey House in 1897, from London Metropolitan Archives, City of London.
The new tenements housed some 6,000 residents at their peak, which exceeded the number displaced by the construction. Tellingly though, it's said that only 11 of the former slum-dwellers could afford the new rents. Chertsey House in 1897, from London Metropolitan Archives, City of London.
... And in 2015. Photo by Tom Corbett, @rook_tx
... And in 2015. Photo by Tom Corbett, @rook_tx
Looking west towards Shoreditch at the junction of Boundary Street and Calvert Avenue in 1901. As the name implies, Boundary Street had been frontier territory - a line some Victorians would fear to cross, with others downplaying the depravity of the old rookery. Image from London Metropolitan Archives, City of London.
Looking west towards Shoreditch at the junction of Boundary Street and Calvert Avenue in 1901. As the name implies, Boundary Street had been frontier territory - a line some Victorians would fear to cross, with others downplaying the depravity of the old rookery. Image from London Metropolitan Archives, City of London.
... And in 2015. Photo by Tom Corbett, @rook_tx
... And in 2015. Photo by Tom Corbett, @rook_tx
The estate's provision of green open space was considered radical in a city with longstanding spatial challenges consequent on the Industrial Revolution. Looking north from Rochelle Street to Culham House in 1907. Image from London Metropolitan Archives, City of London.
The estate's provision of green open space was considered radical in a city with longstanding spatial challenges consequent on the Industrial Revolution. Looking north from Rochelle Street to Culham House in 1907. Image from London Metropolitan Archives, City of London.
... And in 2015. Photo by Tom Corbett, @rook_tx
... And in 2015. Photo by Tom Corbett, @rook_tx
Designer outlets now line the east-west approach to Arnold Circus, with few traces of the old industries left. But an historic laundrette, doubling as a local history forum, remains a key throwback. Photo by Tom Corbett, @rook_tx
Designer outlets now line the east-west approach to Arnold Circus, with few traces of the old industries left. But an historic laundrette, doubling as a local history forum, remains a key throwback. Photo by Tom Corbett, @rook_tx
Two schools stood on Arnold Circus, both surviving the flattening job which allowed the estate's construction. This one is now an arts centre. Photo by Tom Corbett, @rook_tx
Two schools stood on Arnold Circus, both surviving the flattening job which allowed the estate's construction. This one is now an arts centre. Photo by Tom Corbett, @rook_tx
View from the Boundary Estate bandstand. Photo by Tom Corbett, @rook_tx
View from the Boundary Estate bandstand. Photo by Tom Corbett, @rook_tx
The digressions and asymmetry of the overall layout recalls the chaotic architecture which went before the current estate. Photo by Tom Corbett, @rook_tx
The digressions and asymmetry of the overall layout recalls the chaotic architecture which went before the current estate. Photo by Tom Corbett, @rook_tx

Last Updated 06 October 2016

Herts Cockney

As somebody who grew up on several East End council estates, I found this a fascinating piece of social history. Thanks James!

Tor Cromwell

Child of the Jago was the book that awoke my interest in reading and in history. Found out many years later that I was born there (we moved before I was 2 years old).

Christopher Walker

Moved to boundary estate in 1955 when I was 6 spent the next 16 years there and have some fantastic memories and foreever in my heart

Colleen Andruszkiewicz

I love this stuff! Thanks so much for passing it along. Here in Canada, the relatively brief history we have is often simply ignored, typically torn down. We're still in our infancy as a nation - 150 years - double that and it's pretty much where the recorded history starts. We simply can't even imagine what it's like in a country like the UK ... but i'm trying!!!!

derek

my grand parents lived there 1898