What lies beneath … East End of London
It’s just a handful of East End streets. Two centuries ago it didn’t exist at all – and if it weren’t for an army of determined residents fighting urban ‘improvement’ it might not exist today. Mile End Old Town has seen the end of East End agriculture; industrial development and decline; and economic boom, bust and recovery. It’s a story traced in a new book – much of it in first-person accounts by long-time residents.*
To find the area in question take a map and draw a line around Mile End Road to the south, the Liverpool Street rail line to the north, Coborn Street to the west and the Regent’s Canal to the east. The original Mile End Old Town had been sited to the north and south of Mile End Road, to the east of the London Hospital. It had been settled from the late 17th century, as City residents fled the plague, and merchants and sea captains of the East India Company sought country dwellings near to the docks. But our small square of land was fields and market gardens in the early 19th century – over the next few decades all that was to dramatically change.
The first factor was an incredible population explosion. During the first half of the 19th century, the population of England and Wales more than doubled, from under 9m in 1801 to 18m by 1851. In the latter half of the century the increase was to be even more dramatic, rising to 40m. Next, industrial development in the cities put huge pressure on existing housing. In addition, following the economic disaster of the Napoleonic Wars, money and men were freed up again in the 1820s and were poured into raising homes for the new industrial working class (and their bosses).
The new terraces on the Mile End and Bow Roads were swiftly raised in the early 1820s, and were quickly followed by the side roads of Frederick Place (Aberavon Road), Cottage Grove (now Rhondda), Coborn Street, Coborn Road and Morgan Street. The south and west of Tredegar Square followed in the 1830s, and the square was complete by 1847. By 1862, 40 years after the first farmland was turned over to the builders, the area was more or less complete – though a comparison with a map of the day will show how many of the street names have changed.
Nearly all the houses in the area were built on ground belonging to two estates – Coborn and Morgan. Prisca Coborn, the wife of a wealthy brewer, had died childless in 1701. She left her fortune to found a school to teach 50 poor children to read and write, and to help poor families in other ways. One sure way to keep the money flowing in to the foundation was to lease land, and the trustees exploited the new demand for real estate. In the 1820s, the fields the Coborns had left began to be peppered with new housing developments. The Morgan Estate owned the lands nearer to Bow, and from 1823 these too began to disappear under new estates.
But the new prosperity brought its own pressures on space, and by the end of the century, craftwork and light industrial work was increasingly being carried out in the ordinary houses of Mile End Old Town.
The economic boom of the mid-1800s was followed by bust. As the new century approached so did recession, and the 1891 census gives a clear snapshot of the declining fortunes of the Old Town. There were now more lodgers and boarders, even in the grand houses of Tredegar Square, whose owners were now struggling to pay the bills. There were fewer families with private means. Earnings came from the crafts rather than the professions and there were fewer live-in servants.
Decades of slow decline followed – and the Blitz turned a shabby area into a crumbling one. The first flying bomb hit Grove Road on 13 June 1944, with six people killed, 30 injured and 200 made homeless. 20 years later not much repair work had been done, and Mile End Old Town still had gap sites, prefab homes, bombed-out shells of buildings and a pervading atmosphere of decline.
To the modernist planners of the 1960s the answer was obvious – demolish the whole area and start again. But in the 1970s the Mile End Old Town Residents’ Association (MEOTRA) was formed to fight the multitude of redevelopment plans threatening the area. Gradually the conservation movement gathered momentum, with the Tredegar Square conservation area being established in 1971 and extended in stages over the next years.
Next, right-to-buy legislation transferred ownership (and power) from big landlords to individual owners. And by the early 1990s a shabby and rundown area was spared from the wreckers ball – and thriving once again.
*Changing Places: a short history of the MEOTRA area, by Nigel Glendinning, Joan Griffiths, Jim Hardiman, Christopher Lloyd and Victoria Poland, is published by the Mile End Old Town Residents’ Association, 2001. Price £4.50
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