I wrote here about the Boundary housing estate in Shoreditch, built by the London County Council in an Arts and Craft Style in the 1890s. It was the first council housing in England, designed to a high standard of town planning. There was a bandstand at the centre of Arnold Circus, raised so that residents could see green when they looked out of their windows. Those standards make it attractive today.
The BBC made a good documentary about it in The Secret History of Our Streets, which you can see on BBC iPlayer here. It showed the researche of Charles Booth before the estate was build, when it was a area of dangerous slums, and after, when it housed the respectable working class, many of them Jews.
So much I had written. But the documentary went on to the years after the Second World War. The population had declined and flats lay empty. Poor Bangladeshis – the latest wave of east-end migrants after the Irish, the Huguenots and the Jews – came in search of a better life and, like their predecessors, started off in poverty. It was the 1970s, the height of the squatter movement. Terry Fitzpatrick, a local agitator, encouraged them to take over empty flats in the Boundary Estate.
Then something extraordinary happened. George Tremlett, the chairman of the GLC’s housing committee, which owned the estate, allowed them to stay. This wasn’t the loony left GLC of Ken Livingstone: Tremlett and his leader, Horace Cutler, were right-wing Tories and fans of the new party leader Margaret Thatcher. But they seemed to be pragmatists as well and men of common sense. Tremlett didn’t want to be known as the man who threw sixty desperately poor families into the street and he said that wasn’t his idea of running a housing department. He said he admired the squatters because they were entrepreneurial – they hadn’t waited to be housed, they’d done it for for themselves. Fitzpatrick recalls, “We were gob-smacked. We never expected it! They just said ‘You say to us where you want to live and we will give you a flat’.”
Today gentrification is shifting the estate into owner occupation, but still a fifth of those who live round Arnold Circus are tenants of Bangladeshi origin. There remain signs in Bengali on the buildings. These are buildings that learn. Now 120 years old they, are part of the new life of Shoreditch.