In this series of posts, I’m following the route taken on 26th July 1898 by a social investigator, George H. Duckworth, who was helping to compile Charles Booth’s Poverty Map for London (1898-1899). He was accompanied by a policeman, Inspector Fitzgerald, who accompanied him round a district that was:
“…bounded on the South by the North London Railway, on the East by the Hackney Marshes & the Hackney cut, on the North by Millfields Road, & on the West by the Lower Clapton Road and the Urswick Road”
The investigator made detailed notes, supplemented by Fitzgerald’s observations, and I have been comparing these to my observations of the streets and buildings as they are today. I quote often from the original notebooks, so it’s worthwhile familiarising yourself with the poverty map’s colour coding, listed to your left and explained in more detail here.
Duckworth began his day at Homerton Station, so I head down there to look around. Then, as now, the platforms were situated just off Church Road, known since 1936 as Barnabas Road. When the investigator arrived in 1898 he saw a street that was moderately comfortable but bruised here and there with want; and whilst, today, he would no longer be able to look out for bootless children or straw-hatted rent collectors, he would immediately realise that this pocket of Homerton has been left to rot.
The Alma public house would still be one of the first landmarks he saw, but instead of a busy boozer under the stewardship of delightfully-named Fanny Finch, he’d be confronted with a neglected building, left dilapidated after an attempt to convert it into flats, its tiled entrance smashed out and then engorged with breezeblocks.
I find myself wondering how Duckworth would interpret the busyness of the glass telephone boxes, one either side of the station approach. As I walk past, both are in use; and as one person vacates his booth, another man crosses the road and enters it. Duckworth was a man who could whip out a moral judgement at moment’s notice (“Some slatternly girls. ‘No brothels now but there used to be.’ But it looked as though there might be still…”). Would he see people who lacked mobiles, or men who were chasing drugs, or whores, or both?
I can’t decide; but at least the kiosks aren’t smashed and I’ve not seen anyone piss in them.
From the station Duckworth and his escort, Inspector Fitzgerald, walked up Church Street and turned into Homerton High Street, examining in turn the fibrillae of roads and closes that splay off on its journey east. First on their route were Nisbet Place and Nisbet Street (which Duckworth spelled as ‘Nesbit’ throughout).
East down Homerton High Street to Nesbit Place, which has a block of model dwellings and some small factories of tables and pianofortes. Children were making a grotto in the St[reet]. Further east into Nesbit St, which the map marks as dark blue lined with black. From Fitzgerald’s account it would perhaps be dark blue but not black. It is evidently poor. Many children and costers barrows about (2.40). Two families in each house. Houses two-storied. “Prostitutes used to live here but do not now & it was never a notorious place” said Fitzgerald. One or two houses were noticeable for torn blinds and broken windows. The houses have 7 rooms and are let for 13/- to 14/- per week. They have yards rather than gardens at the back of them.
Neither Nisbet Street or Nisbet Place now exist: both were demolished as part of the slum clearances between 1935 and 1936. By then, it was becoming unacceptable to let people live in houses like these on Nisbet Street, pictured here in 1930.
Instead, those who knew best decided that the working classes didn’t just need homes, but an “experiment in the construction of a village in modern dress.” * Of course, that was just a good way of talking up a vast, crowded, six-storey citadel of 311 council flats. The year after they were built, they looked like this:
Imposing. Vast. A ghetto dressed up as Progress. Even King George VI and Queen Elizabeth dropped by to declare the place officially open:
Note how the families hang out of their windows to greet their royal guests: although there are over 300 flats, there are only 15 communal entrance points. That’s one door to the outside world for roughly every 20 families.
Little residue of that pride is evident today. The exterior walls show where channels of water have run unchecked down the bricks. There’s litter on the communal grass patches that face the street – visible from the flats, but accessible from none. A diamond shaped placard in one window declares
All the communal doors face inwards, into what was probably conceived as a spacious courtyard. It has a playpark in its centre, ensuring that a group of bored and slouching teenagers is the main focal point in this ill-conceived, patronising design. For the first time I realise that council blocks and state secondary schools have shared the same kinds of shape and function as the decades have evolved. Back in the 30s, inward-facing segregation was sold as utopia; these days both kids and residents get shoved in flimsy glass and steel structures behind a perimeter of metal fences, spied on all the while by CCTV cameras for their own ’safety’ and ‘protection’.
Surroundings like these poison human warmth. If planners and architects don’t trust whole groups of people to live like others, and they use bricks and mortar to force them apart, pride decays into neglect. Especially when their municipal landlord couldn’t care a prickly turd about the few symbols of shared purpose that are left to its tenants:
Four bolt holes of contempt.
Duckworth and Fitzgerald moved on from Nisbet Street to Tranby Place (now gone) and then into Crozier Terrace. It too was poor – “dark blue” – and
Its inhabitants are common labourers. The men work in the dust shoot in the marshes and the women go our charing at 2/6 per day or go out/take in to do washing. Houses two storied.
Today, one side of the street is blocked in by the doorless, eastern side of Nisbet House, its six stories dotted liberally, but not uniformly, with satellite dishes. No terraces remain, although there is a pub on the junction with the High Street, The Jackdaw and Stump, which looks as though it must have been built shortly after Duckworth’s tour. It is brightly painted, with slightly sagging net curtains forming a backdrop to a series of no-nonsense notices and placards. The imposing carved eagle above the main door suggests the place has changed its name at least once, but the back of the building is dilapidated with crooked pipes, rotting window frames and an off-kilter burglar alarm.
At the foot of the road, there’s a children’s nursery. But before you reach it, there’s a secure gate leading off to an unmarked complex of buildings. I see only two people exit from the gate, whilst a Dial-a-Ride bus is given access. Only later do I discover that the street is also home to a medium secure unit, a hospital for mentally disordered criminals.
The unit’s siting makes sense. When Duckworth left Crozier Terrace and turned right into Homerton High Street, he soon walked past the Hackney Union Workhouse which, in 1911, had a lunatic block built on its western side where today’s secure unit is sited. The Workhouse also had an infirmary and, when the site came under the control of London County Council in 1930 it became Hackney Hospital for the next 57 years.
I decide to take a closer look at the former workhouse later, and in the meantime I follow Duckworth’s steps round into Sidney Road (Kenworthy Road since 1939) where:
…came a block of newly made or half made streets round the Sydney [sic] Road Board School. They are on the top of the hill which goes down into the Hackney Marshes. Chevet Street. Swinnerton St: road hardly made or very badly kept. No pavement. 2 storied houses – purple in character. Women throwing slops in the street.
The Board School is now Cardinal Pole Roman Catholic School. As I approach, Wednesday afternoon lessons have just finished and pupils are making their way down the hill in groups, seemingly unaware or uninterested of the fact that they are forcing other pedestrians off the path. Despite the policemen stationed at the school gates on both Kenworthy Road and Swinnerton Street, I feel uncomfortable with the idea of taking my camera out of my pocket, so I decide to take photographs of this area at the weekend. Instead I look around and memorise what I see, from the mobile phone mast on the top of the school block, to the girl who, in full view of the police officer, whips out a marker pen and casually scribbles on a white patch of wall before vanishing into Kemey’s Street.
The collection of graffiti contains the usual declarations of love, musical affiliation and gang worship, but also – weirdly – has a streak devoted to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Emma love’s Darren Forever
Binlarden woz ero 2006
Sadam woz ere 2006
Southwold Road E5
Swinnerton Street itself has improved little since the time Duckworth witnessed women throwing their slops into it. There are still a few two-storey cottages at either end, but the bulk of the road is lined by the back walls of houses belonging to the relatively modern Herbert Butler estate. This arrangement rips the character out of most of the road, reducing it to a sluice channel for windswept litter and schoolchildren.
One of the smaller roads, Mabley Street, which connects Swinnerton Street and Kenworthy Road, has fared better since Duckworth reported that it was “still in the course of building.” Yet the investigator would certainly have concluded that the houses on its north side showed signs of being more affluent than those on its south. The latter terrace has signs indicating two flats are being offered for rent, whilst black binbags are piled deep up the entrance steps to many of the houses. A window in one house has been boarded up, many of the buildings have flaking paintwork, and there are boxes of fried chicken, spilling bones out on to the pavement. I see one resident – a woman – poke her head out of a basement flat and quickly disappear again.
The north side of Mabley Road, on the other hand contains two properties for sale, has neatly-piled refuse (including a Marks and Spencer bag hangly elegantly off a railing) and one resident – wearing the heavy rectangular spectacles beloved of those who work in the media – smoking a cigarette outside his front door. Duckworth would have classed these houses pink to red, whilst those opposite would have been purple to pink.
I move on to the former Hackney Workhouse, which is less than a minute’s walk away. The block below, as seen from Chevet Street, is the infirmary complex that was built in 1882.
As I look upwards, an argument breaks out in the corner house that joins Kenworthy Road and Chevet Street, so I head off to a local pub to refresh myself and marvel at how Duckworth covered so many streets, in so much detail, in a single day.
Next: Up Glyn Road to Clapton Park where Duckworth finds many boys bathing nude in a ditch.
Note: I originally posted this on my personal blog (now gone) on 26th January 2008. I’ve reproduced some of the most relevant comments below.
Peter on 5 February, 2008 at 7:28 pm #
How wrong you are about Nisbet House. You will find it is the type of people there now who have turned it into a dump. when I lived there in 1952 until about 1966 at No 37 it was valued by those who lived there. As you entered the gates directly in front were the most beautiful gardens fully visible to all. They were tended by the Superintendant, Mt Bunker who lived in flat no 1. There was no access to the gardens for the general public which is probably why it remained so pleasant. There were a group of porters/maintenance men answerable to him who had a workshop /office in a central block about halfway down. They carried out all the running repairs to the flats. The block also contained a community hall and a laundry. It was two storeys. The furthest part of the grounds consisted of a childrens playground for ball games etc. It was wncircled by bike sheds with entrances at the four corners. Within each porch and its 16 flats everybody conscientiously kept their bit clean and cared about their surroundings. It was nothing like a Ghetto at all. Although I agree it has become one now!
I share the reluctance to takephotographs in this area now. You would be taking your life in your hands. The ‘Jackdaw’ was originally ‘The Spread Eagle’ Many’s the night I went to sleep to the sound of the amateur crooners wafting up from below. Many of the kids there went to Grammar schools. Poverty certainly did not provent people ‘achieving’. Nor was it ever touted as an excuse for not doing so. It was really a true ‘community’. That word is now a euphemism with slightly different connotations.
Peter – this is fascinating. I’ll drop you an email to ask more. But don’t you think the design means that, when the rot sets in, it’s much, much harder to hold back? As I said, “pride decays into neglect”. That’s what’s happened here.
Peter on 5 February, 2008 at 8:01 pm #
Yes maybe Ben. But what about the surrounding streets like Daubeney road, Durrington, Ashenden, Coopersale, Trehurst street etc. On recent ‘drive bys’ I could have wept to see the state of these places now. In my day those houses were all rented but beautifully kept, with clipped hedges, clean windows and curtains. I knew no one at all who owned even a car let alone a house and yet they had a pride in things. They had next to nothing. Their views on other matters however were just as clear cut. I have not decided yet whether that was a good or bad thing. Their views on illegitimacy for example were generally uncompromising. It met with universal disapproval. Strange that because their were some children in my school alone (Daubeney Road) who were the outcome of wartime liasons between English girls and Foreign servicemen. There were at least three in my small cirle of friends. One was half american, one half Canadian and one half Italian. Maybe that form of disapproval was necessary in order to keep communities stable and functioning (the family ethic and all that) It encouraged the whole idea of marriage, families, stability. We don’t have that now and consequently there are many more family disintegrations which could possibly contribute to the sort of effect we see manifested at Nisbet House.
john randall on 5 May, 2008 at 9:10 pm #
Like Peter above, I lived in Nisbet House, No 113, from about 1949/50 for about 10 years. I attended Berger Road school. Infants head was Miss Hawk and Junior Head was Mr Peacock. The flats had three square areas running down the centre between the accommodation blocks. Peter has mentioned the play area bordered by sheds. There were also dustbin areas in this area. I remember the laundry – I can still smell it – with a garden outside, and the other area, the first you came to as you entered from Homerton High Street, had rose beds in it. The block at the far end, we called ‘the widow’s block’ or more accurately ‘widder’s block’, as it seemed populated mainly by single and elderly women. At the far left corner, there was another playground that bordered onto the dead end of Crozier Terrace, and in the corner of that, fenced off was what we called ‘the mortuary’, I suppose because that may have been where deceased peaople were taken until the undertakers could collect them. At the back of this was the railway. We played on the railway lines regularly – I was still under 10 -putting pennies on the line to be flattened by trains, and eating raw rhubarb that grew abundantly on the trackside.
Our flat faced the side of Hackney hospital. There was a row of poplar trees along and inside the perimeter wall of the hospital, parallel to Crozier terrace; they and the pigeons in them made a great deal of noise, especially on windy days. I used to climb up onto the balcony and into the bathroom window for a dare from my sister. If I’d missed my footing I would have fallen 2 stories into the gardens below. The balconies are all blocked up now. I remeber the horse drawn milk and coal carts coming into the flats, Billy Clements who lived on the ground floor and always had the latest toys, especially guns and cowboy gear, and Maureen Bear whose blue tinted tv with a magnifying glass in front of it that we went to watch, it being the first television I’d ever seen. Penny for the Guy outside the pub in the High Street, (The Adam and Eve?)going down ‘Chats’, Saturday morning pictures at the Castle, and many more memories of growing up in this part of Hackney half a century ago; it seems like a completely different era, as indeed it was.