Block A

1880-1, Peabody Estate dwellings | Part of Peabody Estate Whitechapel

Peabody estate A Block
Contributed by danny on June 4, 2017

I have lived in this block since 1970. My mum and dad moved into this block when it was modernised. Before that, we lived in one of the other blocks on the estate - C block, further down (south) on the street. When we moved into A Block it was the first time ever that we had a proper bathroom and separate toilet as well as running water (hot and cold) inside.

Before then, we shared two communal toilets along the landing in C Block with four other flats and we got our water, cold only, from a tap at two communal sinks adjacent to the toilets.

Before the modernisation was completed, I remember climbing with other kids up the scaffolding surrounding the block as work was underway and peering in the windows hoping that we might get a chance to live in one of these new flats.

At the time, my dad worked for London Transport on the underground at Monument Station and I think my mum worked in a clothing factory at that time as a tea lady. Both had come from Co. Donegal in Ireland in the late fifties. I was born like my two sisters in the London Hospital in Whitechapel Road.

1970 was a big year, it was the year I transferred to secondary school - I had until then attended my local primary. Tower Hill Catholic School which had originally been in Chamber Street and which had transferred to a new building in St Mark Street when it became English Martyrs JM&I Primary School in 1969. In 1970, I started at the London Oratory School in West Brompton, Fulham which was also a brand new building.

During the summer of 1970, me and my sisters had all learnt to swim at the new St George's Swimming Pool on the Highway just past Cannon Street Road.

A Block was, in its modernised condition, home to 20 flats. Four on each of its 5 floors (ground to fourth floor). Our neighbours were a mix of English, Irish, Maltese, but at that time few Bangladeshi or Black people. Over the years, the block had many comings and goings of people and in more recent times our neighbours have included people of Irish descent like us, Poles, Ethiopean, Sudan, Portuguese, Scottish, St Lucian, Bangladeshi, Brazil, and even some English people who were always a rarity!!

Eventually, my dad and then in more recent times, my mum died and I got married to a girl of Irish descent too. We were given a flat and have raised three daughters here. We brought our girls up in a two bedroomed flat. I found the only place I could get treble bunkbeds was in France and I bought some and travelled to France to pick them up in our car in the mid 1990s. The girls have grown up very close to each other and we remain a typical closeknit London Irish family.  All the girls went to the same primary school I did, and to the same Catholic secondary girls school in Hackney that my sisters went to. They all got places at UCL in London, one of the world's top universities and have graduated with 2.1 degrees.

As a family, we were fortunate to have had Irish parents who came from that generation who although not having benefitted to a great extent from education themselves, because of poverty and the need to contribute to family incomes by going to work at fourteen, they did recognise the joys and importance of learning. We always had books in the house, and our parents always took us out on trips when they could afford to do so by train or bus and neighbours kids too if possible. We did quite well at school and we passed on this joy of learning and knowledge to our own kids. I strongly disagree that poverty is a barrier to learning and success. Cultural influences and support from a strong family can overcome these potential obstacles.

In recent years, the block has remained a great community to live in with a good set of close neighbours who have always kept an eye out for each other. I was fortunate to work in a public sector role for many years and then in the business consulting arena with lots of opportunities to work with big companies overseas. I even spent a short time working in the Middle East. These chances to travel and to facilitate the rest of the family to do so, stood in often stark contrast to many of our neighbours. Poverty, joblessness, low-paid jobs and mental health issues took their toll on many of our neighbours. It is clear to me, that having access to a little extra money, doing jobs that are not hard manual labour nor involving long, anti-social hours with little reward, have a major impact on one's health. My own father worked many night shifts in his job for London Transport and did not live more than three years beyond his retirement. I hope I will not befall the same fate. I'm assured that at least having worked for forty years, I have some reasonable additional pension available above and beyond the state one to see me through.

The local area has seen many changes over the years - an increasing Bangladeshi population although that group may well be following others on that journey to the suburbs and home ownership. We never had the concept of Right to Buy in these Peabody flats and I'm politically opposed to it and what it has done to affordability of homes for most people in Britain. Certainly, my own kids see no way they can afford to live in the area they grew up in, nor in London because of prices. Drugs dealing has become a major problem in recent years. A local charity once had a hostel in a former seaman's home locally, and their residents brought major dealing and purchasing to local streets. That problem persists today even though the hostel is now a BackPack hostel for travellers. Many tenants seem to have serious mental health or dependency issues and these also cause disruptive behaviour in the area. A gang culture amongst local youths also leads to problems and occasional clashes. Much of this gang culture is also related to drug dealing and lack of opportunity as well as some degree of alienation from their parents' generation because of language and traditional cultural expectations about jobs, relationships and religion.

The area has at the same time become more gentrified. In the late 1970s - the area was actually dying - the docks has closed, this was still a place littered with post-war 'bomb sites' and derelict warehouses that we kids took great pleasure in playing in. But with the incessant increase in house (or should I say apartment) prices, new builds have been going up all round the area bringing many new Europeans and other world citizens who frequently work in financial services, the law or other business in the City. This has led to us seeing a local Safeway store in St Katharine's become firstly a Morrisons and then (best of all) a Waitrose. These are generally positive developments but the area has become even more divided between haves and have-nots.

Our block is well over 140 years old. It features in an illustration from the Jack London book People of the Abyss and records of the Old Bailey even recount a vicious murder in the block in the late 1800s. But it still provides decent homes as George Peabody, the founder of the Peabody trust sought to do, and long may it do so.

Whitechapel Peabody Estate
Contributed by Survey of London on May 1, 2019

The housing to either side of Rosemary Lane in the early nineteenth century was bad even by the low standards of that time. In 1838 Thomas Southwood Smith highlighted the area’s disease-infested insalubrities as exemplifying poor conditions in Whitechapel more generally. Blue Anchor Yard, he said, ‘abounds with narrow courts, in which the accumulation of filth is excessive, and it is scarcely possible for any air to penetrate.’1 In the mid 1840s, John Liddle, Medical Officer of Health to the Whitechapel Union, oversaw paving and drainage improvements in an area that he characterised as having many 200-year old houses. After a serious outbreak of cholera, Thomas Lovick, Assistant Surveyor to the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers, visited in 1848 to cleanse Hare Brain (elsewhere Hairbrain) Court. He reported that his assistants found it the most offensive place they had encountered. Its thirteen ‘wretched and dilapidated’ houses had thirty-two rooms inhabited by 157 people, the court outside had ‘fish, soil, and offal and refuse of various kinds … strewn about the surface’, and there were overflowing cesspools, with no water supply and pig-keeping.2

Henry Mayhew followed on with reports that the cheap lodging houses in the courts off Rosemary Lane were occupied by poor Irish, many of them street sellers, and ‘dredgers, ballast-heavers, coal-whippers, watermen, lumpen, and others whose trade is connected with the river, as well as the slop-workers and sweaters’. He explained that this was ‘a large district interlaced with narrow lanes, courts, and alleys ramifying into each other in the most intricate and disorderly manner... The houses are of the poorest description, and seem as if they tumbled into their places at random. Foul channels, huge dust-heaps, and a variety of other unsightly objects, occupy every open space, and dabbling among these are crowds of ragged dirty children who grab and wallow, as if in their native element. None reside in these places but the poorest and most wretched of the population, and, as might almost be expected, this, the cheapest and filthiest locality of London, is the head-quarters of the bone-grubbers and other street-finders.’3

There was some rebuilding in the early 1850s, around thirty new houses going up, mainly on Hare Brain Court and in Blue Anchor Yard, but these too were evidently of a poor standard and little else was done. Cholera revisited a district that retained its reputation as one of London’s worst. Once Royal Mint Street had been widened on its north side, there was local dismay in early 1875 when accommodation for railway companies was preferred over the building of artisans’ dwellings as a use for the cleared land.4

Within weeks a major new opportunity opened upon the passage of the Artizans and Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act of 1875, sponsored by the Home Secretary, Richard Assheton Cross. This legislative milestone made it possible for the first time for the Metropolitan Board of Works to over-ride local reluctance to tackle London’s slums through its own compulsory purchases of areas designated as unhealthy. The idea was that acquisition and clearance by the metropolitan authority would facilitate development by model-dwellings companies. In practice there were significant difficulties and delays as regards land value, compensation and rehousing. John Liddle, now the Medical Officer of Health for Whitechapel District Board of Works, jumped in immediately in July 1875 to make representations as to the urgency of applying the new Act to the area south of Royal Mint Street, citing disease, poor health and housing ‘unfit for human habitation’. He defined a six-acre redevelopment area with a population of about 3,750 averaging more than eight persons per house. Approvals following a local inquiry led to the Whitechapel and Limehouse Improvement Act of 1876, which made this part of Whitechapel the first area anywhere so to be addressed. The legislation stipulated no reduction in overall housing capacity, so the project as first agreed aimed to build tenements to house 3,870. The target was not quite met; after fifteen years of convolutions, thirty-six blocks had been built to house 3,600. The MBW had spent £187,558, almost all of it on buying property and recouped only £35,795 from the sale of land.

Plans adumbrated before the end of 1875 from within the MBW (so prepared under George Vulliamy) proposed widened streets and twenty-one blocks across the whole district, generally laid out as parallel, mostly east–west ranges. One constraint on planning was the Great Eastern Railway viaduct, which bisected the clearance area, others were Peek’s new premises on the west side of Glasshouse Street and the Weigh House School on Providence Place just west of the parish boundary. Robert Vigers, who was surveyor to the Peabody Trustees, was consulted in 1876. He put forward an alternative scheme for blocks laid out more north–south. A year later at the request of the Whitechapel District Board of Works, already deploring delays, it was decided to start at the east end of the area, phasing the project to avoid too much displacement. Terms for letting sites for development were settled in 1878, but complications with purchases, arbitration and rehousing made progress slow.5

The financing of the project, with the MBW generally having to pay market prices and, while keen to minimise losses, obliged to sell for the purpose of working-class housing, played out to make the site unattractive to investors. In January 1879 no buyers could be found when building leases of the easterly ground were advertised envisaging seven blocks. After private negotiations, the Trustees of the Peabody Donation Fund offered £10,000 (only half the MBW’s reserve price) in May 1879 for the freehold of the area around the north end of Glasshouse Street as part of a package that embraced five other sites across London. An auction generated just one bid for the Whitechapel property and none for the others; the Peabody offer was accepted in July. The MBW was thus compelled to sell below its asking price, so accepting a considerable loss and effectively and controversially subsidising tenement construction.6

The Peabody Trust had been building tenement blocks to house London’s ‘respectable’ poor since soon after its foundation in 1862 by George Peabody, an American merchant banker. The Trust’s architect, Henry Astley Darbishire, had introduced courtyard layouts or squares in Islington in 1865 and maintained a consistent and distinctive house style. Darbishire stuck to his preferences, revising the scheme for the Glasshouse Street area to project eleven five-storey blocks (in ten buildings) to house 1,372 in 286 flats with 628 rooms. He ignored the parallel block ideas and introduced a western courtyard or square, albeit compromised by a block at its centre, necessary to meet the required densities. These plans were personally approved by R. A. Cross in early 1880 and this was the first of the MBW’s slum-clearance projects to be taken forward. John Mowlem & Co. had widened the north end of Glasshouse Street in 1879; their granite-sett road surface survives. Blue Anchor Yard was also reshaped. The housing blocks went up in 1880, some not completed until early 1881 when ownership of the land was transferred. William Cubitt & Co., Peabody’s usual contractor, carried out the building work, which cost £57,704.7

Whitechapel’s Peabody Estate maintained heights of five storeys where other slum-clearance projects of the early 1880s were obliged to rise to six (basement dwellings were not permitted). Despite the density, irregularity in the layout and the detachment of the blocks maintained an openness that made this accidentally one of the more attractive Peabody estates. Outwardly the blocks were standard Peabody structures, if more than usually austere with pale yellow gault-brick elevations broken up only by dentilled bands and cornices. There are terracotta-dressed porches in entrance elevations, those to the west of Glasshouse Street (Blocks D to K) having the central three bays breaking forward, a matter of making space for staircases more than an aesthetic gesture. The internal planning of the blocks followed that used in Peabody estates since 1871 at Blackfriars Road, one- and two-bedroom flats compactly grouped so as to be free of corridors, with a laundry on each floor as had been introduced at Pimlico in 1876. Blocks B and C were different with four-bedroom flats in the main range and single two-bedroom flats and laundries per floor in rear annexes. Block A was another variant that the nature of the site forced on Darbishire.8

Even before they were complete, the Whitechapel Board of Guardians was criticising the Peabody blocks as unsuitable ‘for the class of tenants requiring rooms’ and ‘unhealthy because they are so arranged that no sunlight and little air are admitted’. The District Board of Works also found fault with internal ventilation.9

In July 1881, six weeks after it had opened as the first fruit of the MBW’s slum-clearance efforts, the Whitechapel Peabody Estate was visited by a Parliamentary Select Committee on Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings. The committee found it to be almost fully occupied, by 1,260 people in 286 families, but only eleven people previously housed on the site had moved into the new buildings. Rents, which started at 3_s_for a one-room flat, had risen greatly and it was in any case Peabody policy to aim for ‘respectable’ tenants. The committee had already been told by Liddle that the buildings were inhabited ‘by a superior class to those who have gone away’, mostly Irish, gone he knew not where, the new people being from ‘the artisan class, the respectable class of working men’.10

This kind of tenancy was maintained into the twentieth century. In 1910 Block L was added between Blocks A and B on the east side of Glasshouse Street, on the site of Glasshouse Buildings, an early nineteenth-century court north of Shorter’s Rents that had escaped clearance in the 1870s. W. E. Wallis was Peabody’s architect and William Cubitt & Co. were again the builders. This block of twenty-one flats represents changes in Peabody’s standard forms that had been manifested elsewhere, notably a sixth storey to the centre for a laundry, and white-brick bands in yellow stock-brick elevations.11

Coal stores flanking Block F and bicycle and pram sheds around the estate’s perimeters went up in 1909, 1911 and 1920. A plan in 1931 to replace 53–54 Royal Mint Street with a three-storey block comprising a bathhouse under two three-bedroom flats was not carried through. A communal bathhouse was still intended in 1949, but again not built.12

Block K on the west side of Glasshouse Street was destroyed in the Blitz, on 8 September 1940, killing seventy-eight people, most of whom were in the block’s air-raid shelter. A plaque of 1995 on Block L commemorates this disaster.13

Overall modernisation was carried out in 1967–77 to make all the Peabody flats self-contained, that is no longer ‘associated’ with shared WCs and sculleries. Ward & Paterson Ltd, builders, carried out this work to plans by F. E. F. Atkinson, Peabody’s surveyor. Block D, damaged in 1940 but repaired, was now demolished to reduce density and open up the courtyard. The building’s footprint was retained for a sunken ball-game area within brick walls in 1977 by H. N. K. Gosewinkel Ltd, contractor. Contemplation of a comprehensive redevelopment in the 1970s came to nothing. In 1999 Farrar Huxley Associates relandscaped the playground and gave it play equipment within iron railings.14

The northeast corner gap between Blocks E and F was infilled in 2001–2 with the building of the Threshold Centre at 80 John Fisher Street, Peabody employing Greenhill Jenner Architects and Roper Construction Ltd, contractor. Under a monopitch roof and with bright-red facing, this gave the estate community facilities with an upper-storey children’s play-space/nursery over offices, a meeting room and a computer workshop.15

The site of K Block remained empty save for car parking until 2012–14 when Peabody erected a residential block on the site that it named Darbishire Place. This was built by Sandwood Design and Build, to designs by Niall McLaughlin Architects (McLaughlin working with Tilo Guenther, one of his associates). It provided thirteen ‘affordable’ family flats in five storeys, maintaining the estate’s height, massing and open layout, but extending southwards to make the project financially feasible. It complements without copying the existing brick elevations (the specified colour changed during the design stage when the other blocks were cleaned) and deep white window reveals, here in precast concrete. There is an elegant curved staircase, and balconies overlook the central playground. Darbishire Place was praised for its contextual subtlety and shortlisted for the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Stirling Prize in 2015. The once cramped array of Victorian tenements was now hailed as having ‘a generously dimensioned square’.16

  1. Fourth Annual Report of the Poor Law Commissioners, 1838, p. 145 

  2. ‘Report of the Select Committee on Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings’, Parliamentary Papers, 1881 (358), pp .8–9: London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), MCS/476/043 

  3. Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor, vol. 2, 1861, pp. 45–6, 140 

  4. LMA, District Surveyors Returns (DSR): The Builder, 1 Sept. 1866, p. 655; 3 April 1875, pp. 295–6; 10 June 1876, p. 570 

  5. Metropolitan Board of Works Minutes (MBW Mins), 30 July 1875, pp. 178–9; 3 March, 28 April and 16 June 1876, pp. 334–5, 592, 847–8; 9 Nov. 1877, p. 546; 1 March 1878, p. 340 and passim: LMA, MBW/1838/17; SC/PM/ST/01/002: The Builder, 24 Nov. 1877, p. 1181: Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives (THLHLA), I/MIS/6/1/1: ed. C. J. Stewart, The Housing Question in London, 1900, pp. 112–18: Anthony S. Wohl, The Eternal Slum: Housing and Social Policy in Victorian London, 1977, pp. 92–140 

  6. MBW Mins, 4 July 1879, pp. 25–8 and passim: LMA, MBW/1838/17: The Builder, 28 Feb 1880, p. 267: ‘Report of the Select Committee on Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings’, Parliamentary Papers, 1881 (358), pp. 204–5: John Nelson Tarn, ‘The Peabody Donation Fund: the role of a housing society in the nineteenth century’, Victorian Studies, Sept. 1966, pp. 7–38: Wohl, p. 162 

  7. MBW Mins, 14 Feb. 1879, p. 232; 26 Nov. 1880, pp. 726–9: LMA, DSR; LCC/VA/DD/167: The Builder, 1 March 1879, p.241; 19 Feb. 1881, p.230: Peabody Archives, WHC.03; WHC.07 

  8. Tarn, loc. cit., p. 32: Irina Davidovici, ‘Renewable Principles in Henry Astley Darbishire’s Peabody Estates, 1864 to 1885’, in (eds) Peter Guillery and David Kroll, Mobilising Housing Histories: Learning from London’s Past, 2017, pp. 57–73 

  9. The Builder, 26 June 1880, p. 810; 4 Dec. 1880, p. 683 

  10. ‘Report of the Select Committee on Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings’, Parliamentary Papers, 1881 (358), pp. 10,103: Stewart, op. cit., p. 117: Tarn, _loc. cit._ 

  11. Peabody Archives, WHC.17: DSR: London County Council Minutes, 14 Dec 1909, p. 1348: THLHLA, Building Control (BC) file 22151: The National Archives, IR58/84824/4148 –4216 

  12. DSR: THLHLA, L/THL/D/2/30/129; BC file 22151 

  13. THLHLA, P08106: Peabody Times, winter 1996, p.4 

  14. THLHLA, BC file 22151: LMA, ACC/3445/PT/08/033 

  15. THLHLA, BC file 25375: Tower Hamlets planning applications online 

  16. Architects Journal, 4 July 2011; 8 Oct. 2015: Tower Hamlets planning applications online 

Peabody Estate
Contributed by Christine.Wagg

The estate was built by the Peabody trustees on a site acquired from the Metropolitan Board of Works in one of London's first slum clearance schemes. The blocks were designed by Peabody's architect, Henry Astley Darbishire, and the estate was opened in 1881.  On 8 September 1940, the second night of the London Blitz, one block took a direct hit, and nearly 80 people were killed. In 1995 a war memorial listing their names was placed on the external wall of Block L.

Block A, Peabody Estate Whitechapel, entrance in 2017
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Block A, Peabody Estate Whitechapel, from the south-west in 2017
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Block A, Peabody Estate Whitechapel, from the west in 2017
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Metropolitan Board of Works slum-clearance area and first scheme for redevelopment, 1875
Contributed by Helen Jones

Metropolitan Board of Works, slum-clearance redevelopment, scheme of 1876 and as completed by 1894
Contributed by Helen Jones

Whitechapel Peabody Estate, typical ground-floor plans as built
Contributed by Helen Jones

Peabody Ironwork
Contributed by danny

Peabody ironwork
Contributed by danny

Whitechapel Peabody Estate, view of central square from southwest in 2019
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Whitechapel Peabody Estate, central square from the northwest in 2019
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Whitechapel Peabody Estate, view through central play area in 2019
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Darbishire Place and Block J in 2019
Contributed by Derek Kendall