TV Review: ‘The Secret History of Our Streets’. Episode 6: Arnold Circus

Review – The Secret History of Our Streets (Series 1)

Focusing on the Boundary Estate, and Arnold Circus, The Secret History of Our Streets series ends with the locus of Charles Booth’s original door-to-door survey – the East End. Whilst the narrator describes how the location of Arnold Circus was noted by Charles Booth in his survey of 1898 as ‘pink, fairly comfortable’ and how even at the time it was a step up from the surrounding area – see below, right, it is necessary to dig a bit deeper into the past, to Booth’s earlier survey from 1889, where the location was coloured on the map as black and dark blue (Very poor, casual, chronic want; Lowest class. Vicious, semi-criminal, respectively) – see below, left. Clearly the buildings of the later map are a new spatial configuration and we soon learn how this came about.

Descriptive Map of London Poverty 1889 left (scan © Sabiha Ahmad July 1999; Map of London Poverty 1898-9 right (© Museum of London)

The programme briefly explains that the estate was built to replace a densely populated warren, of streets containing appalling housing conditions, where life expectancy was just 16. The slum was known as the ‘Old Nichol’, and featured in Arthur Morrison’s ‘A Child of the Jago’ (1896, see sketch plan from book), a book which did much to raise the public consciousness of the dire conditions in this location at the time – although see also criticism of its sensationalism on the London Fictions blog). Booth’s work is portrayed as being part of the drive for reform which sought state intervention to relieve poverty conditions. Indeed, the Estate was the first construction of the newly formed London County Council, the first state social housing in the country. Nevertheless the central role of Reverend Osborne Jay, the local parish priest who was the driving force behind the clearance of the ‘Old Nichol’, and who invited his associate Morrison to write about it, is not mentioned in the programme.

Sketch plan of the fictionalised Old Nichol from ‘A Child of the Jago’, 1896 from

An interview with a local planning officer, similarly young as the architect of the original scheme, allows the episode to highlight the clever use of coloured brick to create a visually appealing architecture (see photo) set around the circus itself, a raised garden that provided both visual and spatial amenity (not forgetting that at the time open public space was a very rare commodity indeed in the East End). The programme interviews the descendant of one of the families who lived in the Old Nichol. Notably, his family did not benefit from the new housing. Like in the case of Rothschild Buildings, one of the most famous Model Dwellings built at the time, strict rules were enforced on the new estate’s inhabitants, demanding regular income – as well as regular cleaning and good behaviour. The original inhabitants of the cleared streets had to move elsewhere – they couldn’t afford to move into the new housing. Their living conditions were to be only a mite better than before.

Boundary Estate c. 2007. © Museum of London, with permission.

We learn that the first inhabitants of Arnold Circus were almost all artisans, skilled workers; many of these were newly arrived Jewish immigrants, with a large number of tailors, this being one of the main industries of the area at the time. In a neat coincidence, even today there is a bespoke tailor living in the housing, herself a descendant of the “poor but respectable” inhabitants of the past. We also see the map of Jewish East London, drawn by George Arkell to show the proportion of Jews to Gentiles on each street of the area (see earlier blog on the map, image below).  The estate is shown at around 50% Jewish at the turn of the 20th century. But, despite concerns at the time that the incoming immigrants had formed a “ghetto”, interviewees who were children living in the estate in the 1930s state that the fact that you were Jewish didn’t matter to the children. According to one of the participants – everyone got along in harmony, with the layout of the blocks creating a relatively quiet streetscape where children could play and be supervised by whichever mothers were around and available to keep a watchful eye. Whether this is a memory viewed through rose-tinted glasses is a question, but evidently there was a thriving community at the time, sustained by the fact that schooling, work and community life were embedded in the surrounding streets. Noticeably, whilst today the adjoining streets contain a few shops, these go nowhere near close to the array of greengrocer’s, kosher delicatessen, doctor, baker and rent office that lined the adjoining avenue and which served as a high street for the estate some eighty years ago.

Jewish East London. Section of map from the book ‘The Jew in London’ (1900) by Russell and Lewis. It’s interesting to see that whilst in streets to the south of Arnold Circus, blocks are either coloured as majority Jewish or majority ‘gentile’, in the estate itself the proportions are around 50%. Download map from here, text of Russell and Lewis map from here.

Jewish East London. Section of map from the book ‘The Jew in London’ (1900) by Russell and Lewis. It’s interesting to see that whilst in streets to the south of Arnold Circus, blocks are either coloured as majority Jewish or majority ‘gentile’, in the estate itself the proportions are around 50%. Download map from here, text of Russell and Lewis map from here.

About half-way through the programme’s focus shifts to Brick Lane and the Bangladeshi immigrants of the 1960s and 70s, who were living in slum conditions in the area due to lack of social housing being available to them. The squatting activist Terry Fitzpatrick rallied them together to start occupying empty housing in the area. By then the estate had fallen out of favour with local inhabitants. Its lack of internal bathrooms and hot water had encouraged the original inhabitants to move out post World War Two – a trend that could just as much be attributed to the earlier generation of immigrants having reached a stage where a move into the suburbs was a natural progression and proof that they had ‘arrived’ economically.

George Tremlett, the incoming Conservative head of the GLC was shocked by the “Dickensian” conditions being lived in and rapidly took action to re-house all the Bangladeshis in decent housing. We see the hand-drawn sketches they were invited to draw to outline where they would like to live and in which streets they would feel safe; strikingly, Arnold Circus was seen both when it was first built and in the 1970s as a haven, a sanctuary away from the “restless fury” of modern living today. The Jewish migration from a couple of generations before was seen as an example of how to house a vulnerable minority who sought to assimilate, whilst keeping safe, to “feel at ease”, to maintain their language and cultural habits. This was criticised at the time as creating a “ghetto”. But as has been discussed in my own work on the subject, clustering does not necessarily lead to social segregation (Vaughan, 2007; 2011). Dispersal was seen as the only solution by the critics and the subsequent “ghetto” headlines inflamed tensions, with violence soon erupting against the Bangladeshis. Today, we see a successful Bangladeshi community, but also the programme points out that as always, the population is in flux and they only constitute 20% of the inhabitants of the dwellings. This change is not only due to Bangladeshis moving out – having improved themselves, as did immigrants in each preceding wave – but also due to the growth in home ownership of up to 50% of the flats following the “Right to Buy” laws of the 1980s. Middle class residents are moving into the estate* and living alongside the relatively few working class families still able to benefit from social housing provision. The programme makes its political points more subtly than in previous episodes, but the message is clear: whilst the 1980s policies may have benefited council tenants at the time, the planned reinvestment of the sale of their properties into new and improved housing has not manifested. Instead, like in almost all the cases we’ve seen over the past six weeks, decent housing within reach of decent jobs, and served by all the facilities necessary to support a thriving community, has become out of reach for a significant proportion of London’s inhabitants.

* Joanna Trollope’s recent novel Daughters-in-Law features just such an incoming family. The flat found by the main protagonist’s son, Luke, for his new wife, Charlotte “was at the very top of a tall and elaborate brick building in Arnold Circus, a stone’s throw from Columbia Road flower market, from Brick Lane and… Hoxton. The building, like all those that ringed the Circus like a circle of great ships… was impressive, built of red brick banded, here and there, with peach brick like a kind of architectural Fair Isle jersey, and in the centre, on a mound flanked by flights of steps and planted with enormous plane trees, was a folksy little bandstand under a pointed roof where Charlotte had, on her very first visit, seen a pair of thin boys picking at guitars, and singing raggedly to an audience of mothers with babies in buggies, and neat old men in kurtas and embroidered caps. It had seemed to her wonderfully vivid and wonderfully exotic“. [My italics]. His mother is suitably shocked both at the shabby conditions of the flat as well as the impracticality of its location, but her son finds it perfect for him to build up his (not coincidentally trendy) business of graphic design, located in a “disused artisan warehouse” in the street below.

Further reading:

Glynn, S., 2005. East End Immigrants and the Battle for Housing: a comparative study of political mobilisation in the Jewish and Bengali communities. Journal of Historical Geography 31, 528-545.

Kershen, A., 2004. The Construction of Home in a Spitalfields Landscape. Landscape Research 29 (3), 261-275.

Spitalfields Life, a daily blog about life and history of the area, including a piece about the circus, here

Vaughan, L., 2007. The spatial foundations of community construction: the future of pluralism in Britain’s ‘multi-cultural’ society. Global Built Environment Review 6 (2), 3-17.

Vaughan, L., 2008. Book Chapter: Mapping the East End Labyrinth, in: Werner, A. (Ed.), Jack the Ripper and the East End with an introduction by Peter Ackroyd. Chatto and Windus, London, pp. 218-237.

Vaughan, L., 2011. Report: Beyond the Ghetto – An interdisciplinary perspective on patterns of ethnicity in the built environment. University College London, London, p. 8.

White J. (2003) Rothschild Buildings: Life in an East End Tenement Block 1887-1920. London: Pimlico.

Wise S. (2008) The Blackest Streets: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum. London: Bodley Head. See also


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