Former Jagonari Women's Centre, 183-185 Whitechapel Road

1984-7, Women's Educational Resource Centre, Matrix Feminist Design Co-operative, architects | Part of Jagonari Centre

Anne Thorne talks about designing the Jagonari Centre
Contributed by Survey of London on Oct. 24, 2017

I was working at Matrix, a feminist design cooperative which I helped found with some other women, and we were approached by various women’s groups, one of which was Jagonari, who came to us [in 1982] and said they’d got a plot of land next to the Davenant Centre which was going to be turned into a community centre for local people, and that they wanted us to help them and advise them about what they could do on the site.

They said they wanted a place [for] childcare, they wanted a place to have big meetings, to play badminton - they wanted all sorts of things. We asked how much funding did they have and how big is this building. They said they thought it could be a Portakabin and they could fit everything in there. We asked, how many people do you think there are.

What became clear was that there were a lot of women who would use these facilities if they were available, and they did a lot of research [within] the local community. It was a really interesting group of women who started it, they were from mixed Asian communities, there was a Hindu women, a Bengali Muslim woman, a Bengali woman who was not Muslim, so quite a mixed community.

We’d been talking about being feminist architects quite a lot, and talking about how few women there were around who were architects at that point. When we set up Matrix there were approximately 5% of architects who were women, so we were in the minority. And once women heard about us they were very keen to use us.

Matrix was set up in 1982, and this was the biggest earliest project that we did, so it was quite exciting. The whole ethos of Matrix was if women haven’t ever been architects, how do we know what women would like, and on the whole women haven’t actually been asked what they want, they make do and women are generally very good at making do.

So when they said they wanted to do all of these activities we said, well that doesn't sound like a single story building in a Portakabin, that sounds like quite a big building, why don’t we see how big the building is and then go to the GLC who at the time were talking about funding this project and saying that they were very concerned that there was no provision within the Davenant centre for any women’s organisation.

It was an empty site, through bomb damage, with just a hoarding. It belonged to the Davenant centre, which was a derelict school, in a real state, quite extraordinary.

[Jagonari was founded by] five women who came together and said we’ve got to something about what’s going on locally and find a space for women to meet. There were a lot of issues in the local area about particularly a much older generation of men who had been in that area for some time, and there were a young group of women coming over to marry the men, and who were finding the change really difficult and finding life in London very difficult, and actually didn’t have the family support or connections that they had back home and were feeling incredibly isolated and really needed the facilities such as the creche and a place to eat and learn to cook and understand English as a foreign language teaching, learn how to use the library as their own resource.

So the women who were involved in setting it up were very much involved in those different communities in different ways, and were quite a strong group of women.

[The founders were] mostly Bangladeshi women, two of them were not. The whole idea was that it would be for Asian women but not centred on any one religious community, and they felt that was really important this it would welcome people from all communities but be specifically tailored.

We put these drawings together and had it costed and it was estimated at £690,000. So we put in an application to the GLC and much to our amazement we got the money, so the GLC funded the project.

They [Jagonari founders] were very convincing women.

On the design of the building

An important aspect of the building was that it was the first fully accessible building, with full disabled access.

The courtyard was geometric, and we spent quite a lot of time talking about symbols and geometry and what could and couldn’t be used. It was really important issue for the women.

Initially we had a very different design [on the front elevation] from this one, but the people from the Historic Buildings Council were very concerned that it should match the Davenant Centre, which we thought was a mistake because of the rhythm of that street. So in the end it ended up being a compromise between what English Heritage would accept and [a design that reflected the cultural identity of the users].

Initially Jagonari said they didn't want the building to have an Asian feel to it. There had been an awful lot of very serious attacks on the Asian community shortly before. All of the women in the group had had something put through their letterbox. So they were really concerned about security. But gradually as we talked through the building and as they got the money and things emerged that people got really excited about they felt really proud about the building, and the attitude changed, which was really nice.

In the end we ended up with this metalwork over the windows with 11mm laminated glass behind it, because they [Jagonari] were really concerned that people would throw things, missiles, at it. The metal screening was partly about giving privacy and partly about security and the design came from studying lots of Asian buildings and talking to the group about what they wanted. We asked everybody to bring in photographs that expressed what they thought a building should look like. We had various options for the designs. [The mosaic pattern around the entrance door was] designed by [the artist] Meena Thakor.

On the first floor there is a hall which is accessed by the lift and stairs. This was a taller floor to ceiling height than the other floors, with a potential for a stage in the hall, for music and weddings, performances.

On the second floor, classrooms, a library, and a media resource room. On the upper floors admin offices and resource rooms.

The building was very well used and I was asked to come back and extend the creche at the rear. There were lessons going on, mother tongue teaching, it was used from morning to night. It was a really important hub. They were funded from the creche facilities and gradually got funding from different people.

Anne Thorne was in conversation with Shahed Saleem on 16.10.17

Sufia Alam's recollections of working at the Jagonari Women's Centre
Contributed by Survey of London on Oct. 6, 2017

I started at the Wapping Womens’ Centre in 2009…. And I was also a senior manager at the Jagonari Centre in the bigger projects, which was empowering and timely for me, it enabled me to come out of my comfort zone.

One of the projects that we did was the ‘End It’ programme for domestic violence, which was a big milestone for this community because especially women’s organisations got a lot of bad press around women breaking marriages, as perceived by men. So it was a nice project we did with the mosque, it was my first encounter of getting the mosque on board.

The Jagonari was going through some difficulties in 2013, and soon after I left it went into liquidation…. The Jagonari Centre was inclusive to women, not just Bangladeshi women, which is what it set out to be. Our focus was to empower women to be active citizens within the community, and this was happening. Women were progressing well in education, taking up careers, jobs, training. So we felt that we could offer that to more women.

One of the successful projects that came out was ‘Women Ahead’ which was working with women offenders who had come through the prison system, and we were integrating them back into society. So we had Muslim and non-Muslim women, and women from other faiths working together. Some people found it difficult because they didn’t like that change, and I think that’s where things went a bit pear-shaped. When you introduce a different community change will happen, and especially with that particular project it was women from a particular group where integrating them was a different process than integration Muslim or Bangladeshi families. These were women, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, who had been through the Criminal Justice System or they’d suffered domestic violence through which they were driven to criminal acts. We were working with them in assisting with employment and empowerment that would prevent them to offend again.

There were some Bangladeshi women, Pakistani and mostly English women. Even though the majority of the young senior managers felt this was the place where a wide range of communities could be served, the managers felt this should not be the focus of Jagonari. That, with the fact that the council put in a corporate rent, which went from peppercorn to corporate, which meant that with the market values around here, we couldn’t afford to pay, and along with funding cuts, it made it very difficult to stay.

We fought a legal battle in terms of trying to get the original lease retained, so a lot of the surplus was used up in legal costs, and that’s where it went downhill, and a lot of people were laid off.

Sufia Alam was in conversation with Shahed Saleem on 15.05.17

William Rowland's market garden and other early history
Contributed by Survey of London on Aug. 25, 2017

William Rowland was a market gardener in Whitechapel by 1637 when, age 35, he married Frances Roberts of the parish. In 1639 Rowland took a thirty-year lease (dated from 1642) of a part of a ‘great garden’ immediately east of the parish burial ground. This manorial waste ran along Whitechapel Road, with frontages corresponding to Nos 181–195 and 1–13 Vallance Road. Rowland enlarged his holding to the west, north of the burial ground, on a firmer basis and in 1643 endowed a cottage, barn and three acres adjoining the burial ground to the benefit of Whitechapel’s poor, leasing it back from the parish for 99 years. In 1654, when Rowland proclaimed himself a citizen clothworker, he further enlarged his walled garden north to the present line of Old Montague Street on land outside Whitechapel parish on the Halifax estate in a transaction with George and Sidney Mountague. By now there were four houses on the frontage corresponding to 181–187 Whitechapel Road, that to the west had been Rowland’s own and was up by 1644, the others had been occupied by George Ellyott, widow Bromefield and, at No. 187, William Daniel (a William Daniel was buried in Whitechapel in August 1640, a William Daniell in Stepney in August 1647). In 1666 the garden property was demised to Rowland’s son-in-law Robert Wareing, a citizen saddler, but Rowland remained resident, alongside William Gunn, also a gardener, in 1670. Rowland acquired freehold possession of the property that had not gone to the parish in 1672, but in 1674–5 paid tax for just a two-hearth dwelling.1

Rowland’s house on the site that became No. 181 was occupied by Nicholas Gale in 1707, by when there were nine small houses eastwards of the earlier group on the sites of Nos 189–195. Rowland’s descendants auctioned off his estate in 1734. The large market-garden holding, everything behind Whitechapel Road and the burial ground on the block now bounded by Davenant Street, Old Montague Street and Vallance Road, was depicted in the 1740s as walled round and planted as an orchard. Edward Wildman acquired land to the rear of No. 187 in 1765 and undertook to rebuild three of the roadside houses further east alongside two that Richard Tillyer Blunt, a citizen distiller and Alderman, had rebuilt earlier in the decade. In 1766 the estate was sold to Charles Digby the Elder, a Wapping ship-chandler, for £2,400. The parish leased the Mile End New Town section in 1805. Much of the rest was acquired by the sculptor John Bacon the younger by the 1830s, passing to his sons John and Thomas, both clergymen, after his death in 1859.2

The house at No. 181 had by 1800 become the Duke of Cumberland public house, run by Elizabeth Robertson. James Stephens changed its name to the Duke’s Head in 1826. Around 1815 No. 183 pertained to Elizabeth and Jemima Thompson, haberdashers, milliners and dressmakers, and No. 185 went from housing William Ballard, an umbrella maker, in 1811 to become a baker’s premises in 1820 – that use endured. The pub at No. 181 and the house adjoining (No. 183) had been cleared by 1949, perhaps war damage. No. 185 lasted into the 1970s.

The former garden ground behind the houses was divided up in the mid 1820s as, from west to east: a workhouse garden that became a stone yard by the 1840s and then through the Whitechapel District Board of Works ‘a receptacle for the sweepings of the roads’,3 with a builder’s (later stable) yard immediately to its south; a long thin livery yard; and the Pavilion Theatre. The livery yard, laid out by William Hyland and James Parish for Samuel Bartram, coach- master, was known by the 1840s as Pavilion Stables, later as Pavilion Yard, which was also applied to the former stone yard. The livery yard was long held by George Young and continued into the 1890s. Motor garage use had come in by the 1920s, with lock-up garages where the stone yard had been from 1933. Much of the area was again a builders’ yard from 1939. Northern parts were taken for the Davenant Street housing development in the 1970s. The remaining southern part of the yard is used as a car park.4


  1. Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives (hereafter THLHLA), P/RIV/1/15/1/1–2; P/RIV/1/15/2/1–2; P/RIV/1/15/3/2–3; P/RIV/1/15/4/1: The National Archives (hereafter TNA), E179/143/370, rot.33v: Ancestry: Roland Reynolds, The History of the Davenant Foundation School, 1966, p. 59: Morden & Lea map, 1700 

  2. THLHLA, P/RIV/1/15/4/2,5,8,12; P/RIV/1/15/7–9: London Metropolitan archives (hereafter LMA), E/BN/085,131–72; MDR 1807/2/109: John Rocque's map, 1746: _Oxford Dictionary of National Biography_ 

  3. TNA, ED27/3238 

  4. LMA, Land Tax Returns; Tower Hamlets Commissioners of Sewers ratebooks; E/BN/130,132,137,146–9; A/DAV/01/018; CLC/B/192/F/001/MS11936/505/1051583; 469/911926; GLC/AR/BR/07/0439; Collage 121908; 22182: District Surveyors Returns: THLHLA, P25891; P/RIV/1/15/11–17; P/MIS/127; Building Control file 15500: Richard Horwood's map, 1813: Post Office Directoris: Goad insurance map, 1953 

Former Jagonari Women's Centre, 183-185 Whitechapel Road
Contributed by Survey of London on Aug. 25, 2017

This four-storey stock-brick faced building of 1984–7 was designed by and for women as part of the wider Davenant Centre project that the GLC initiated and funded.

A scheme for refurbishment of the two surviving school buildings to the west of this site to be a community centre emerged from the GLC in 1984. In a project spearheaded by George Nicholson, Chair of the Planning Committee in the GLC’s last and defiantly radical days, more than £1m was made available for the formation of the Davenant Centre. This ‘community resources and training centre’ was to extend to include a new building on the empty site at 181–185 Whitechapel Road, all to house eight local groups: the Asian Unemployed Outreach Project, Dishari Shilpi Ghosti (musicians who had left the scene by 1988), the Federation of Bangladeshi Youth Organisations, the Progressive Youth Organisation, Tower Hamlets Advanced Technology Training, the Tower Hamlets Trades Council, the Tower Hamlets Training Forum, and the Jagonari Asian Women’s Education and Resource Centre (jagonari is Bengali for ‘rise women’).

Against a background of the frustrations of recent immigrants and the violence of 1978_–9, local Asian women, mostly Bangladeshi, had founded the Jagonari organisation in the early 1980s. It secured GLC support and the Whitechapel Road plot, and linked up with the Matrix Feminist Design Co-operative, a newly formed architectural practice led by Anne Thorne and Kathleen Morrison. GLC funding was secured and the firm explained in 1985 that the centre would ‘act as a link between Asian and European cultures’, 1 providing language, health, literacy and computer classes, with a hall for dance, music and drama, as well as a crèche. Plans were devised in close consultation with the users, though not without cultural tensions. On a brick-clad reinforced-concrete frame, motifs from South Asian architecture were incorporated, deliberately avoiding religious symbolism. Security against racist attacks had to be a major consideration, thus the window screens (security grilles) or _jali. The building was designed with full disabled access. Ann de Graft-Johnson was the job architect during construction, working with Alan Baxter & Associates, consulting engineers (Michael Coombs and M. S. Seyan), on structural and detailed design. The mosaic surround to the entrance was designed by Meena Thakor. John Laing Construction Ltd were the contractors and Jhumur Muherji was the Centre’s first Development Worker. Above ground-floor reception, kitchen and dining spaces, the main block was given a first-floor hall or meeting space, second-floor classrooms, and a third-floor library and offices. A two-storey rear range, to house the crèche, was linked by a covered open passage to enclose a courtyard, a conscious echo of a South Asian layout.

The Jagonari Centre adapted to funding difficulties and shifting demography, developing partnerships and greater cultural inclusivity, working with offenders and offering English-language training to non-EU migrants. But faced with increased rents and funding cuts it had to be wound up in 2015. At the time of writing No. 183 houses the Reset Recovery Support Centre, for the treatment of drug and alcohol problems, and No. 185 is home to the Rainbow House Nursery, run by the Centre in partnership with the London Muslim Centre.2


  1. THLHLA, Building Control file 15500 

  2. THLHLA, Building Control file 15500; LMA, ACC/3499/EH/03/037/002: Davenant News, Oct. 1985–8: eds Jane Garnett and Sondra L. Hausner, Religion in Diaspora, 2015, pp. 55–79 (chapter 3: Nazneen Ahmed et al, ‘Historicising diaspora spaces: performing faith, race and place in London’s East End’): www.thegazette.co.uk/notice/2414958: interviews with Sufia Alam, May 2017, and Anne Thorne, October 2017 

Former Jagonari Women's Centre
Contributed by Shahed Saleem

Former Jagonari Women's Centre
Contributed by Shahed Saleem

Former Jagonari Women's Centre
Contributed by Shahed Saleem

Jagonari Centre, front elevation and rear courtyard 1989
Contributed by Shahed Saleem

Jagonari Centre, entrance door mosaic, c.1989
Contributed by Shahed Saleem

Front elevation window screens
Contributed by Shahed Saleem