Documenting the history of the Waterlow Estate in Bethnal Green, East London. Comprising Wilmot, Corfield, Ainsley and Finnis Street the Waterlow Estate was built by the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company starting in 1869.

The lost streets of Weavers Fields, Part one – Growth (1700 – 1938)

Introduction

Since I started researching the Waterlow Estate I’ve unearthed lots of historical details and photographs of neighbouring Weavers Fields Park and the streets that are now buried beneath the grass.

There are three parts to this post, the first deals with the history of the area up until 1938, the second the clearing, demolition and eventual development of the park and the third and final part details each street in turn.

Looking south west over Weavers’ Fields – a comparison between then and now
Map over the area in 1900 overlaid with the modern Weavers Fields park.

Much of the information I present here has been gathered over the past ten years from the web, oral histories from various people I’ve spoken to, along with visits to a number of archives. One of the most fascinating sources has been the Tower Hamlets Archive which holds many of the original County Council documents detailing the demolition of the houses and the conversion into a park.

Wherever possible I’ve linked to my sources and at the end of this post there are lots of links to other sites that feature further historical details of the area.

As ever I’m hugely dependent on people reaching out and sharing their own memories, family histories and experiences, so if there’s something you want to share please get in touch using the comments form below.

Weavers Fields in 2021

Today Weavers Fields is the largest park in Bethnal Green. It sits between Bethnal Green Road and Dunbridge Street to the North and South, with Vallance Road and Wilmot Street flanking East and West. Starting in the late 1950s those densely populated streets were cleared to make way for the park.

The story of those now vanished streets mirror that of Bethnal Green as a whole. The area grew increasingly populated from the 1500s up until the late 1900s when the local Authority started it’s slum clearance programme and demolition began. By 1967 most of the streets had gone and the park was opened.

A few reminders of those original streets still survive, namely the old Hague School on Kelsey Street (now a Nursery), along with a few of the original roads (although now much shortened). The layout of the paths in the park roughly follow some of the original paths of the now vanished streets.

  • Weavers Fields 2021

The name Weaver Fields is a reference to the park’s history as home to Bethnal Green’s once thriving weaving industry. At one point the streets were lined with small houses, many with their distinctive large upper floor windows designed to allow in as much light into a Weaver’s workshop as possible.

You can read more about the East End weaving tradition here.

Typical weavers’ cottages in Bethnal Green with large upper window.
Interior of weavers’ cottage 1894 (© Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive)

The History of Weavers Fields

Bethnal Green grew from plots of land and settlements centred around “The Green” (now Bethnal Green Park on the corner of Cambridge Heath Road and Roman Road).

You can read more about the growth of Bethnal Green here.

map from 1703, showing the plots of land including Willet

The streets that formed Weavers Fields were originally part of the Willett Estate. There is a detailed description of the development of the area in from the late 1700s until mid 1800s in “A History of the County of Middlesex” –

“In 1788 much of Willetts (George and Gravel fields) south of Bethnal Green Road was divided into lots, most of which were leased for 99 years to John May Evans, a Surrey builder, and William Timmins, a local brickmaker. They immediately built along the main road, including Shepherd’s Place or Row, and in the streets running south from it, named from the estate’s owners: White, Thomas, and Charles streets. Houses ‘in the background’ were probably in the narrow street parallel with Bethnal Green Road, called White’s or Thomas Passage or Granby’s Row. Abbey Street, at the west end of the development, existed as Benal Abbey Street in 1788. Part of the land was still a brickfield in 1803.”

Map from 1769, note St Matthew’s Church, the George pub and some of the future streets already in existence.
Map from 1802, note Wilmot Street has appeared.

Throughout the early 1800s more and more streets were established, many of which still exist today.

A History of the County of Middlesex” continues –

“Building meanwhile continued on Willetts, extending southward in streets named after the White family and places associated with it: Hereford, by 1823, and Derbyshire, Manchester (after 1864 Menotti), Cheshire, Sale (Ches.), Mapes (Willesden), Ramsey, and Hague, all by 1826. In 1836 there were 785 houses on the estate, all but 79 in the central area.”

Weavers Fields in 1827, there are now more streets that we’d recognise today (Along with a St Matthew’s Workhouse on Winchester and Cheshire Street).
Weavers Fields in 1838.

By 1838 all the fields and farming plots had gone and the area was fairly built up. Although it wouldn’t be until 1869 that the Waterlow Estate would be established on Wilmot Street, up until that point there would have been rows of low cottages just as found in the Weavers Fields area.

The rear of Wilmot Street buildings, c1869.
Possibly under construction judging by scaffold. Photograph taken from what is now Finnis Street.
(reproduced with the permission of The Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives).

Typical of the time the streets were cramped and narrow, with conditions sounding fairly dire according to “The Builder” (January 28th 1871):

“Off Bethnal Green Road proper we found many streets and lanes in a similarly neglected condition. In the back and low places are choked drains, inundation, and heaps of unremoved refuse. In White Street and its offsets, and Derbyshire Street, there was no end of sludge, and not a scavenger or sweeper to be seen anywhere. Round about this quarter a great many poor are located, eking out a subsistence in making articles of household use for children, costermongers, wood-splitters, chair-carvers, pill-box makers, and several other shop and house articles for sundry uses, the profits from which enable them to keep body and soul together”

By the early 1900s attention was starting to shift to the poor housing conditions of the Bethnal Green as a whole. In 1890 the nearby Old Nichol had been cleared to create The Boundary Estate (which still stands today). The Weavers Fields area continued to be occupied even though it was clear that much of the housing was of a poor standard.

In the next section we’ll look at the moves to clear the area and regenerate.

Weavers Fields in 1900.
Menotti Street in 1927
Little Collingwood Street c1900, this street has now vanished underneath the Collingwood Estate south of the railway tracks and near Sainsbury’s. Not part of the Weavers Fields area, however it gives a good indication of conditions of the area.
Little Collingwood Street c1900, this street has now vanished underneath the Collingwood Estate south of the railway tracks and near Sainsbury’s. Not part of the Weavers Fields area, however it gives a good indication of conditions of the area.

Interesting links

2 Comments

  1. John Perry

    Love the history. I was born in 266 Corfield Street in 1937. I worked for Bethnal Green Council and then Tower Hamlets Council from 1952 till 1988. My family history based in BG goes back over 200 years.

    • Sharon rigby

      My dad Ron was a caretaker for Waterloo estate

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