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.
A few weeks ago I was contacted by reader Peter Gasson who mentioned that he had a photographic slide he had taken many years ago. I was very keen to see the photograph and so dropped him a line.
Peter said: “As promised, here is a copy of the colour slide of Waterlow Buildings. The date on the slide is September 1965; this would be the date it was processed, but it would have been taken not more than a month or so earlier”
Photograph of Waterlow Estate taken in 1965 by Peter Gasson
I was right to be excited by Peter’s offer, this is a rare glimpse at the blocks that used to sit on Finnis and the western side of Corfield Street. They and the inscription are now lost as the blocks were demolished in the mid 1970s (you can glimpse them along with the inscription in this image).
The full text of the inscription reads –
Waterlow Buildings Bethnal Green Dwellings for 1025 Families Erected by the Improved Industrial Dwellings Co. Ltd
I asked Peter how he came to take the photograph: “I used to live in Highams Park and regularly took the train to Liverpool Street, so I saw Waterlow Buildings from the train and was quite taken with the distinctive Victorian style of the inscription: “Erected by the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company” which I had often seen from the train. One day I got off the train at Bethnal Green and photographed it. The photo was taken from the platform of Bethnal Green Station.
All I knew of Waterlow Buildings was what I could see from the train. As it happens my father was born in the Bethnal Green Road and attended the school in Wilmot Street, but he had moved away during the 1920s.
I think I would have been interested in Waterlow Buildings in any case. The sheer scale of the estate was impressive, if rather forbidding”
Other than the inscription I was also struck by the dark and grubby condition of the brickwork, I asked Peter if this was a product of the film stock or whether the buildings did appear to be so dark in person –
“The photo was taken on Kodachrome. I’d say the colours are fairly accurate, allowing for the fact that – to judge from the sky – it was taken on a dull day. At that date much of inner London, including many of the famous buildings, was still blackened from a century of London soot. Some films of the time bear this out – e.g. The Ipcress File. Cleaning was just starting; I think St Paul’s Cathedral was one of the first of the famous buildings to be cleaned. It is sometimes hard to believe how London looked then compared with today.
Recently I took a nostalgia trip on the same line from Liverpool Street to see what had changed. I tried to make out what had happened to Waterlow Buildings and how much had survived, and this was what led me to your website”.
Thank you to Peter for taking the time to share his photograph and memories of the buildings as he saw them on his daily commute in the 1960s.
I went up to the Bethnal Green Station platform today and took a photograph from roughly the same spot.
The same view of Finnis Street taken from the platform of Bethnal Green Overground station in 2018. You can see the block on the eastern side of Corfield Street still standing.
Many who live in London’s East End will have had the experience of black cab drivers regaling them with stories of growing up in the area, usually followed by an explanation that they moved out to Essex long ago.
Living on Wilmot Street is no different, many drivers know the street due to its proximity to the black cab repair businesses on Three Colts Lane or will know due to it featuring in a gotcha question in The Knowledge (apparently as you’re not able to take a right turn out onto Bethnal Green Road, or so I’ve been told). A more uncommon story that I had heard from at least three taxi drivers over the years was of a guy who lived on Wilmot Street in the sixties who won the pools and paid his neighbours rent with the winnings.
There is something about this story that has held my attention over the years. I had tried many times to find a record or a name but with no luck. So much so that I started to assume he was an urban legend.
Many years passed, with many an idle evening spent chasing links on the internet trying to find even a scrap of information without any luck. This all changed last year when I started posting on Facebook and found the Waterlow Estate group. I asked members of the group and immediately everyone agreed that he did indeed exist and that he had paid his neighbours rent. Although it seemed everyone had their own slightly different take on the story.
The story opened up for me when I finally discovered his real name – Charlie Cooper. With this I was able to find newspaper articles, a photograph and tease out more facts from other members of the Facebook group.
I’m so pleased to be able to get this story down in ‘print’ and leave a small marker or memorial to one man’s kindness and the community as it remembered him.
Many people helped me sketch out the story, but it was John King who fleshed out much of the detail for me. Much of this post is formed from an interview with him. Here is the story as it has been told to me. John starts:
“Charlie did live in Wilmot St, in an airey (semi-basement) flat. I was born at 144 Wilmot street and Charlie’s flat was about 4 or 5 blocks down from there, so his place would have been numbered around the 200 mark, I can´t be more explicit.
John Mossell added that “his family all lived on Wilmot I think in the blocks on the eastern side near Ainsley”
John King and others told me that Charlie worked for the LEB (London Electricity Board) on Cambridge Heath Road. This is backed up by an article from The New York Times in 1964 which states:
“Charlie Cooper made $29 a week as a clerk at the London Electricity Board and lived accordingly. At 46, he was still a bachelor, residing with his mother in an old basement apartment without a bath.”
Many have corroborated this although a few have also said Charlie was a watchmaker. Glenn Unstead told me:
“Charlie used to mend watches for additional income. After the win, he returned to work on the following Monday morning to hand in his notice along with a brown paper bag full of unrepaired watches and an apology that he wouldn’t be repairing them.”
I also found a brief mention of Charlie in a 1964 issue of Life Magazine . A pools win seems to have sapped him of any urge to work: “I’ve had a happy working life but there’s no point in doing any more is there?” – he had just won a $630,000 soccer pool. He sipped a little champagne to celebrate (although “a mild beer is more my drink”) and settled down to a life of leisure”
John King continues:
“I delivered newspapers for a shop called Allens in Three Colts Lane, this was in part of the estate that covered Wilmot Street, Finis Street, Corfield Street, Ainsley Street and a part facing onto Three colts Lane. Charlie would come into the shop on his way to work each day. As I recall he bought a paper and tobacco. I am not sure if he continued to work after his win, it was such big news.”
Of the win itself The Times stated that:
“one night, last month, a stranger called, asking for “Mr. Charles Cooper.” Charlie greeted him suspiciously, and like many people in Bethnal Green, prepared an alibi: “I’ll pay first thing next week. But this man represented Littlewood’s Pools Ltd., and Cooper had won £225,135 ($630.375,20), tax ‐ free, for scoring a winning number of points in 3 weekly soccer pool. Charlie at once quit his job, promised £60,000 to relatives and began talking about Bentley automobiles and vacations.”
“Obviously it caused a great deal of excitement over the whole estate, when the news broke. I remember seeing Alan Whicker filming a programme about Charlie, in Wilmot Street, sometime afterwards.
I can tell you most definitely that Charlie paid the rent for every tenant on the estate, remember there were over 400 dwellings in Corfield St, over 300 in Wilmot St, probably 200 in Finis St, plus those on Ainsley and Three Colts Lane. I know that everybody had their rent paid because by that time I lived on Corfield St and my nan lived on Wilmot and it was big news when he paid the rents. There was a rumour that he gave his milkman(who I remember was a grumpy chap) a tip and the milkman told him to put a nought on the end of it and Charlie put him on his bike with nothing. Remembering that milkman, I can quite believe the story.”
This fact is backed up press coverage of the time, (although strangely I’ve only been able to find reports of Charlie’s win in US newspapers). The Dixon Evening Telegraph states: “Monday, April 13,1964 – Charlie Cooper, the $28-a-week clerk who won $650,000 in a soccer pool, has picked up a big check for his neighbors in the Bethnal Green section of London’s East End. Hundreds of people who live on Wilmot Street will be told when they show up at town hall today to pay their week’s rent: “Don’t bother. Charlie Cooper has paid it for you.” Charlie sent a check for $4,200 to the Town Council, then ducked away to the country.”
From what I heard at the time I think the win turned his life upside down he was inundated with begging letters. It struck me that he was a round block in a round hole, prior to the win and probably quite happy with his lot. Probably a case of not knowing what you have got until you haven’t got it.
I remember that there was a shop at the top of Wilmot St, where it met Bethnal Green Rd, called Phillips and Scoones which had been knocked down a while after Charlie´s win and they built some private flats above the new shops and Charlie moved into one of those.
I remember that while he was still living in Wilmot St, he bought a most beautiful Rover 3 litre Coupe, it really was a terrific car but it was rarely used.”
The Rover is also mentioned the Life article and has been further corroborated by Paul Field who added:
“Charlie bought a new Rover even though he couldn’t drive, my dad used to drive him. It sat in the garage for years in pristine condition. I was offered it at a tender age when he passed but it was of no interest to me then. I think it went to a collector/museum.”
“I don’t know what happened regarding his love life but when I look back on those times, although it was a fantastic amount of money that he won, I feel a little sorry for the man. I think Eastenders at that time were not equipped to deal with such a massive upheaval in their lives. Most people were happy living in the communities in which they lived, most had their extended family close by, There wasn’t too much keeping up with the Jones´s and peoples lives were more of an open book. Kids played out together, people left their doors open. The conditions on the estate on which we lived were more than ok, they certainly weren’t slums, so life wasn’t so bad. I bet there were many times that Charlie wished he never won that money. Maybe a few quid would have been better for him. Just my opinion of course but he certainly did not seek a mansion in the country, preferring to stay amongst his own.”
I found two articles from The New York Times from year that Charlie won the pools, both back up John’s point that Charlies win was bittersweet. One of the NY Times story states:
“By the following weekend. though, Cooper’s delirium had subsided. Drinking champagne and posing for newspaper photographers made him uncomfortable. He began to suspect that women would. angle for his money—he had already received 100 letters proposing marriage and reporters had reunited him with “May,” a girl he had dated 30 years ago. ”If it’d been £2,000 or £20,000 he said, “I could have been happy. But this is too much for a man like me. Much too much. I must be the unhappiest man in Britain.”
It’s sad to end on Charlie’s statement that he must ‘be the most unhappiest man in Britain’. But there it is. After years of searching I’m able to put a name to the legend and hopefully some facts about the story.
I’m indebted to John King, John Mossell, Glenn Unstead, Paul Field, and everyone from Facebook who helped fill in the gaps for me. If you have anything to add please get in touch in the comments below and I’ll update this story as the legend evolves.
New York Times Articles can be found here, and here. Along with the article from Life Magazine here.
I’ve always been fascinated by the old corner shop on Wilmot and Ainsley Street, especially as there did seem to be a business in there but they never seemed to be open. I had managed to find the planning application to switch the premises from use as a shop to an office back in 1998, but other than that the current occupier was a mystery. It was a great coincidence that I took a taxi a few months ago and got talking to the driver, it turned out that his brother was the current tenant running a sports shoe business.
1a Ainsley Street today. Photograph from John Mossell
During my recent conversations with John Mossell I managed to learn a lot more about the history of the original corner shop. John says:
The shops on Three Colts Lane in 1992. Reproduced with the permission of The Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives.
The shops on Three Colts Lane in 2017
Thank you to John for taking the time to share his memories of the Estate. Along with this post my conversations with John also led to this post on the layout and conditions of the flats on Corfield Street in the 1970s, as well as this post about the Greencoats Tenants Association. You can find the Waterlow Estate Facebook Group here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/WaterlowEstate/
John has many memories of the Greencoats Tenants Association, an organisation I’d previously only known in relation to the rent strike in the early 1960s. The community spirit evident in the wide range of activities was forged in the residents struggle with their landlords Greencoat Properties Limited.
Before we get to John’s recollections I thought it’d be useful to detail the events of the strike which was held in response to the state of the buildings and the ever rising rent demands.
Greencoat Properties was the final incarnation of The Improved Industrial Dwellings Company, having changed their name in 1958. By all accounts the estate had fallen into a poor state of repair by this point, and the newly formed Greencoat did little to rectify the situation. The poor state of repair along with an increase in the rent eventually drove the tenants to organise under the banner of The Greencoat Tenants Association and call a rent strike along with a march on the home of the company chairman Lord Broughshane (apparently they found his home empty on arrival).
Members of the Tenants Association gather on Corfield Street before marching on the home of Lord Broughshane
It seems that the publicity generated from the march had the right effect leading to questions being asked in parliament and eventually a compulsory purchase order allowing the local borough council to take over the entire estate in 1963.
I have gathered a number of newspaper cuttings from various sources.
Newspaper clipping from Dave Bregula on the Waterlow Estate Facebook group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/WaterlowEstate/)
Newspaper clipping from Kim Maynard on the Waterlow Estate Facebook group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/WaterlowEstate/)
There are a number of vivid descriptions of the conditions found on the estate by the early 1960s. For example this passage from Connor and Critchley’s” Palaces for the Poor” –
“All the property of the Improved Industrial Dwellings Co. was disposed of, having by the early 1960s become ‘malodorous litter dens’”. There was an enquiry and Dr S.A. Boyd (the borough medical officer) examined the flats and found that they were ‘dark, ill lit and inadequately ventilated”.
“The Minister of Housing, Sir Keith Joseph, has confirmed a compulsory purchase order covering 20 blocks of tenement flats at Bethnal Green. In a letter to the owners (Greencoat Properties Ltd.) published yesterday, the Minister states that he is unable to resist the conclusion that they have failed to look after the property with proper consideration for the tenants.”
The letter added: “The Minister adds that he agrees with his inspector that the new rents are exorbitant for what the tenants are getting or seem likely to get.” The flats are in Waterlow Buildings. The order involves 198 of them and two shops with attached living accommodation. The buildings, which are 90 years old, consist of 102 terrace blocks, of which Bethnal Green council originally proposed compulsorily to purchase 21.
In his letter to Greencoat Properties, Sir Keith Joseph said it was clear that there was a threat of homelessness which the Bethnal Green council was in no position to meet. Of the new rents, he said there was a conflict of evidence about whether these could be said to be in excess of market value.
The flats in the estate have one to four rooms, plus scullery, with electricity, gas, and cold water and their own lavatory, but no bath. The gross values vary between £14 and £28. In the estate as a whole, the rents are from 4.4 to 6.5 times the gross value and the new rents in the flats covered by the order are from 4.4 to 6.2 times the gross value. The 30 tenants who refused to pay had been asked for between £1 and £2 a month more.
At the public inquiry, Dr S. A. Boyd, the borough medical officer, said he had examined 81 flats. The kitchens were all less than 100 square feet, “dark, ill lit, and inadequately ventilated”. There was no proper food storage provision. The Minister’s letter of yesterday states: “The inspector has drawn attention to the poor condition of the property, to serious defects in maintenance and management, and the absence of any serious attempt to improve the property notwithstanding the progressive rent increases in recent years”. The Ministry of Housing statement said that the inspector in his report had concluded that there were 29 families under threat of eviction.
Greencoat Properties Ltd. is a £3 million concern. Its chairman is Lord Broughshane and Mr Ronald Armstrong-Jones, Q.C., is the deputy chairman. The company, which changed its name in 1958 from the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company, was formed in 1863 “to provide homes for the working classes” ‘ (Guardian, 2-8-62). Greencoat Properties Ltd paid dividends of 26 per cent in 1958-59, 20 per cent in 1959-60, 1960-61, 1961-62, and in 1962 paid 20 per cent plus a centenary distribution of 21/2 percent free of tax. The recent legislation offering grants for the provision of baths, hot-water systems, and inside water closets shows the situation quite clearly: their houses improved and would gladly pay the few shillings a week extra, find that their landlords just cannot be bothered with having the work done.”
“Every Liverpool Street commuter knows the next exhibit, the endless parallel blocks of the Improved Industrial Dwellings, where Alderman Waterlow expected a net return of six per cent on his philanthropic capital. Ninety years later, after the successful direct action of the tenants last year- a rent strike and spectacular demonstrations, the Minister confirmed a compulsory purchase order on the grounds that the rents which have been progressively increased in the last few years “are exorbitant for what the tenants are getting or seem likely to get.” Millicent Rose once remarked that the chief architectural feature of these blocks is the galvanised iron tub hanging on a nail outside every scullery window, revealing that there is not a single bathroom in the place.”
Further details of the compulsary purchase order can be found on Hansard.
It seems that the close relationships formed during this period of activism continued over the following decades with the association turning it’s attention to organising outings and activities for local residents. John brought the wider work on the GTA to life in our discussions:
“Not sure if the Greencoats tenements association existed prior to the rent march / strike of 1962, if not it certainly started gaining strength from this time. They took the name from the landlords, and after Bethnal Green council took over the flats they never changed this name. I don’t know when they all started but by the time I was born in 1971, and old enough to remember, and until the time they disbanded in 1982, its main body of work was social enrichment of the tenants and their families.
The various activities were financed by tenants paying “subs” which I think was collected by committee members visiting blocks and collecting from families every month. I am not sure if the subs were calculated based on number of people in a family or was a set fee per flat. I think these subs financed most of the activities but they may have required extra payment for some like the Association dance?
The main things, I recall, being organised by the Tenant’s Association over the years:
Bethnal Green Carnival Entry
From at least the late 1960s (I remember years ago seeing some photos of some of the lovely floats) they organised and built a float display to enter into the annual Bethnal Green carnival. I took part in the last float they entered in Spring of 1976, where some photographs exist that myself and others have posted on the Facebook group page. The theme was “Nursery Rhyme Book”, with estate children gathered around a maypole as various nursery rhyme characters, with a older teenager sat at a throne as the Queen of Hearts, behind her is a giant story book made of hardboard, written on it the titles. of many nursery rhymes. I played little boy blue and can be seen not looking too happy as a five year old wearing a blue shirt and blue trousers!
Greencoats Carnival in 1976. Photograph from John Mossell
A lot of the costumes, I think were made by my aunt mine certainly was, who was a very talented seamstress and worked for many years in the “rag trade”. At that point in 1976 she had been working in the administration of a firm that was wholesale in providing shipping supplies to the industry, in a premises where a student accommodation block is located now on Three Colts lane (after the garage). I mention this as those admin skills were put to good use in the organisation of the tenants association. Everyone that was on or helped on the Greencoats committee had a skill/skills that would come in handy for events like the carnival. My uncle and Dad, and some of the other men, were good with carpentry skill when needed. Other float themes from previous years I know of included children’s fantasy films at the time, “Bedknobs and broomsticks” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”.
With the chatty chitty bang bang float they were very close to winning. The team of residents/committee members built the frame of the car themselves but did not win that year as I believe there was a rule that everything had to be original, and judges were convinced they a real car frame as the model was used as it was so convincing. I think my aunt held some trophies in her cabinet for many years, as I do believe Greencoats may have won at least once and come second or third place on other occasions.
About 18 years ago I saw some photographs and an invitation from one of the parties, in my aunts photograph albums, held at Oxford house in 1968. Belinda, admin of the Facebook page, has memories. Of these parties in the mid 1960s being held at York Hall. I don’t remember these and have a feeling they stopped at least by the early 1970s, and instead they organised the June/July annual. Children trip to Windsor Safari Park (now Legoland) or Chessington Zoo (now Chessington World of Adventures).
The estate had quite a lot of OAPs mainly living in ground or first floor flats on Corfield but some still living in Wilmot Street. These were annually on a Saturday in June/July close to the children’s outing. This was an annual coach trip put on for the OAPs on the estate, to a seaside place, I remember several times to Margate.
Spring / Summer Fete
These were well organised and held in the courtyard triangle area back of eastern side of Wilmot and western side of Corfield. I have seen family photos taken of these held their from 1960s, but I personally only remember. one being held in the summer of 1976.
Annual Association Dance
Held from at least the late 1960s, the last one I clearly remember being in 1980. It was held in York Hall and was a formal dance evening with disco, a. bar and food put on the by the tenants association. One of the annual highlights was a net full of blown balloons would descend onto residents near the end of the dance! As I needed to be baby sat in the 70s my mum or dad would attend but they always bought me home one of the balloons! Friends and family of tenants also attended, so I think it was financed by the purchase of a ticket.
1977 Queens Silver Jubilee Party
Silver jubilee celebrations at The Hague school organised by The Greencoat Tenants Association
This was a large event which are remember with fond memories of my family, and neighbours that are on the facebook page. The original plan was to have a children’s Street party with trestle tables lining the northern end of Corfield. The evening was given over to a disco/party for the enjoyment of the adults. Sadly, it never took place on Corfield but was held in the first floor hall of Hague School due to the inclement weather. I think the intention was to always have it on Corfield Street but they had Hague School as a standby. I have fond and vivid memories of seeing the adults including my Dad help put up three large union jacks, during a weekday summer evening a day or two before, that were hung along the north end of Corfield attached from 4th floor (I think) stairwell window landing of a block on west side to a block on the other eastern side. The children’s part had the usual food, a puppeteer children’s entertainer, fancy dress, and at the end each child got a goody bag including a jubilee Mug and 25 pence commemorative “crown” coin.
Most children on the estate I believe went to Hague School with a scattering going to the nearby Stewart Headlam named after a well known clergyman who for a time, who I believe is well known as material about him is on the internet, he lived in a flat on the eastern side blocks of Wilmot (there is a dedication plaque on the last block. Before Finnis St, which you might have seen?), the only person relatively well known to live on the estate.
I do not recall the precise reason for it, but the activities of the tenants association seemed to suddenly come to a halt by the end of 1980. This was the last year of the children’s and pensioners trips and the last association dance. It may have stopped as some of the committee members did not live on the estate anymore, my aunt and uncle moved in August 1981, and some of the families started to move away, but this was before the scaffolding / structural problems where everyone moved out in the mid 1980s. Some association funds were left from the work of the tenants association and this was used to finance a trip in early 1982 to Disney on Ice at Wembley Arena, after that the Greencoats Tenants Association was no more.
Thank you to John for taking the time to share his memories of the Estate. Along with this post my conversations with John also led to this post on the layout and conditions of the flats on Corfield Street in the 1970s, as well as this post about the locals shops and businesses. You can find the Waterlow Estate Facebook Group here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/WaterlowEstate/
Having a (very) niche obsession such as the Waterlow Estate means months of trawling the internet finding very little and then once in a while hitting the jackpot. It was in this vein that I recently happened across The Streets of Waterlow Estate and Bethnal Green Facebook group. I’m not sure why I’d never tried searching Facebook before but this group has proved to be a treasure trove of memories and photographs of the Estate.
A particular highlight was a link to a clip from Thames News in 1982 detailing the state of disrepair the buildings had fallen into by this time. You can see the clip here.
I struck up conversation with John Mossell (the founder of the group), which led to me asking if he’d mind sharing some memories from his time growing up on the estate in the 1970’s. John very kindly put together a number of lengthy and fascinating emails which I’m going reproduce on the here along with some drawings and photographs which he shared. He covered a number of topics so I thought I would break the posts into three sections.
Starting here with John’s personal memories of growing up on Corfield Street in the 1970s onwards. John has a wealth of knowledge about the conditions and layout of the Corfield Street flats during this period.
A post about the Greencoats Tenants Association who were instrumental in getting the Estate out of private hands and under the control of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in 1963. Following their success they switched focus to organising outings and social gathering for residents.
Finally some memories of the local businesses and shops who supplied the residents of the Estate.
I want to thank John for his great effort and time he put into putting all this information together. It is thanks to dedicated people like him that the social history of the East End lives on,
Over to John:
Moving to Corfield Street
My Dads eldest sister and her husband and their son lived in Corfield Street from about 1958 to the Summer of 1981. Her and my dad together with six other siblings were brought up in Blackwall buildings (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackwall_Buildings), demolished in the 1960s, located at the Whitechapel end of Vallance Road. I believe they moved to a house in Bethnal Green in early 1940s due to fire damage following bombing during the war.
In the 1950s my aunt and uncle spent some time living in Kilburn but wanted to return to Bethnal Green so their Son could attend Raines Foundation Grammar School based in Stepney at that time. They therefore secured a flat in Corfield Street which I think was a second or third floor flat in the block (Eastern side, southern end) that included the passageway arch which still exists. I think that some of the flats in this block had two bedrooms because of their configuration above the arch passageway. By 1967 I think the first modernised blocks on Corfield Street were complete and they moved into the block on the corner of Ainsley St and East side of Corfield St.
I believe through my aunt enquiring for them and them themselves looking for accommodation with the landlords, that my mum and Dad moved into their first married home on Corfield Street in March 1961. For the first 9 months of their marriage they had lived with my dad’s parents in Elwin St near. Columbia Road flower market. Due to shortages in accommodation, I think probably would have been as a result of aftermath of bomb damage / destruction, it was common for married couples in the East End to live in a room or (if in a house) a set of rooms with one of the parents.
I still have rent cards and landlord documents for their first flat, 185 (4th block. down from Ainsley St) on the western side and northern end of Corfield St.
At that point the landlords were still Greencoat properties. I have a document dated from 1963 that shows that is when many of the blocks were taken over by LB (London Borough) of Bethnal Green, which formed part of LB Tower Hamlets when created in 1965.
First wave of refurbishments 1966 to 1972
By December 1969 the middle sections of blocks on the eastern side of Corfield Street must have been ready following refurbishment, as my parents moved into a new refurbished 2 bedroom flat formed from two of the one bedroom flats knocked into one, as you probably have heard about from other people. During this extensive period of modernisation for Corfield St, which must have lasted for about 5 years or so, began in about 1966 (I am using photographic evidence that a member posted on the Waterlow Estate Facebook page which show modernisation taking place and has the year quoted is 1966) and lasted until about 1971/2. Many of the individual one bedroom flats were renovated based on the two into one format, especially on floors on the 2nd or above. To reflect the reduced number of flats the numbering was slightly different when blocks were ready for families to move back into, this is supported by seeing archive plans of block numbering posted by members on the Facebook page about three years ago. For example, in the new block my parents moved into their new flat number 301 was on the 3rd floor whereas before the renovation flat 301 was one of two 1 bedroom flats on the ground floor. In fact I know one of the Facebook group members lived with their family in the old 301 on the ground floor before the renovations.
map showing original numbering scheme
My parents new flat was modern, for late 1960s standards, and a palace compared to their one bedroom flat (scullery kitchen with indoor toilet, no bathroom and no hot running tap water) at 185 Corfield. They had a sitting room (not on bay side of block so it had a plain window) to the left of the front door, where the sitting room of original one bed would have been located. Opposite the front door a small passageway led to an individual bathroom (just bath and sink) and then to a small toilet room, each with their own window overlooking the newly created balcony structure. The bathroom and toilet room along with the small passageway would have been originally occupied by a bedroom of the original one bedroom flat.
Opposite our living room door (and to the right of the entrance to the flat) was located the new modernised kitchen which was in same location as the old flat, but the back of the blocks was remodelled with newer shorter length windows.
John’s sketch of the flat he grew up in on Corfield Street
The back of the kitchen held newly installed kitchen cupboards with a modern style sink / drainer. Underneath the sink/drainer section and worktop, were 4 sliding door cupboards where the. One under the draining board held the gas water boiler which provide hot water to the kitchen and bathroom. My memory of this as a child and right up until we vacated the flat in May 1985, was that it was not very reliable providing water not particularly hot at times, as the pilot light would constantly go out and had to be re-lite. All the original Victorian fireplaces of the original small individual flats were blocked in or demolished (when comparing to the plan of the 1 bed on your website and other people’s memories [reproduced below]).
Layout of 33 Corfield Street during the 1960s. Read the full article here: http://wilmotst.com/192-index-htm/
In the living room where the original fire chimney breast was there was installed a modern gas fire with a simple modern wood fireplace surround. I remember this worked very well compared to the boiler, and when to it’s full setting would keep the living room nice and warm. There was no other heating installed like central heating to the flats. My dad, as with many other families, installed extra heating in the bathroom and kitchen with wall fitted mounted single bar electric heaters. From memory these were hand wired in the existing electric light pennants. A common occurrence, I believe then but very dangerous by today’s health and safety standards. My dad was a competent in woodwork and electric DIY so the installation seemed to me pretty reliable and safe.
Outside balconies or verandas (as I remember some people called them back then) were created with the refurbishment of the blocks by turning the original kitchen window into a door space and linking this with a metal and concrete structure, including new rubbish chute system, creating the balcony linking to the next flat. Depending on configurations most flats shared a balcony but some had the luxury of their own balcony. We shared with the three bedroom flat on left, but the four bedroom flat on our right did not. After our kitchen the passageway led to the right into the territory occupied by the original second one bedroom flat in the same block. The original kitchen of the second flat became the smaller bedroom (my bedroom) with remodelled back wall and smaller modern window like the kitchen. The next bit would have been identical to the space of our bathroom and toilet and would have been the bedroom of the original second 1 bedroom flat but to create the bigger four bedroom flat next door to us in the next block (our good neighbours for many years at 306) this was given over to be part of that flat. So by knocking two flats into one, you could create either 2, 3 or 4 bed flats by using a space from one flat to give an extra bedroom to another, a sort of “robbing peter to pay paul” principle.
From my bedroom you turned right into the passageway of the original second flat, on the left was the wall that would have originally had the front door to the second flat. This passageway led to my parents bedroom which was the same size as our sitting room which would have been the original sitting room of the second one bedroom flat. As we were on the third floor this bedroom did not have a bay window but it was on top of the bay structure so had a larger window with three portions and overlooked an original small Victorian ornate balcony feature, which my parents would climb onto to clean the window from the outside! After the second late 1980s modernisation these were removed from the bay window structures as I think this was connected to the structural problems identified in 1982.
The new balconies that were installed in the last 8 blocks of the southern end and the seven on the western end of Corfield were different in style (I know this as the second flat I lived at from 1990 had such a balcony) further evidence to me that these were the last blocks to be modernised on the street. These balconies were solid brick extension structures added on to the backs of the original buildings, instead of metal and concrete structures as explained above.
The rear of the East side of Corfield St 1966.
With the late 1960s/early 70s modernisation one beds with two on a floor remained on the ground and sometimes first floors. I can not be certain but by visiting other flats of friends and neighbours as a child, and knowing a lot of about the size of the families that lived there, apart from one bedrooms, I would say 2 bedrooms were most common followed by 3 beds and then a scattering of 4 beds for the larger families. For example if facing the front of our block on the third floor we had a two bed (No. 301), the flat on the block on the left (good friends of the family still today) at 294 was a three bed and the flat on the same floor, that I already mentioned on the right at 306, was a four bed to accommodate a family where there were 6 children and the two parents.
To create enough floor space for two 1 beds on the same floor to have a modern bathroom and kitchen, I am fairly certain they must have used the same principle of “borrowing peter to pay paul”. For example in my block there were two 1 beds on the ground and on the 1st floors. But in each block on either side on the first floor there was only one, one bedroom flats.
The new flat my aunt and uncle lived in from 1967 (approx) was on the first end block on eastern side of Corfield St. As this was a larger block being on the end, their 2 bed flat was on the same landing as another one bed flat, so no two flats knocked into one, the layout therefore being slightly different to our flat. The front entrance door was immediately in front of the stairs (if memory serves) and not on the left or right of the stairs, however the flat that shared the same landing was in the normal position being on the right. As you went in there was small square hall. Immediately in front of the entrance door was a door to the sitting room. A door to the left of the front entrance door accessed the first bedroom where you had to walk through another door to the left of that to get to another slightly larger bedroom. I think because of the corner block situation, they all had similar sized windows and both bedrooms were similar with in size. As that second bedroom was on the corner of the block that room had two windows, one a bay balcony like our flat and one to the right a standard Victorian style sash window. To access the smaller kitchen (compared to ours which my aunt made no secret of being a little envious of!) that was accessed via the sitting room. Once in the kitchen on the far left there was another door that led to the bathroom which I think did not have separate toilet room but was combined, I seem to recall there was a little “vestibule” area before entering the bathroom. On the left of the kitchen window opposite the kitchen entrance from sitting room I think was entrance to a small balcony which was not shared, and also had one of the modern rubbish shoots like all the other flats. I am trying to recall other details but my memory is hazy on this. I don’t know why but the blocks Of the first part of the late 1960 modernisation, like Ainsley St, were installed without gas, and all had Electric fires and cookers. The blocks later on like our flat had gas fires and gas facilities if you wanted to install a gas cooker or there was electrical installation point if you wanted to have an eclectic cooker instead.
John’s Mum in her updated post 1960s kitchen on Corfield Street
John’s Mum in her updated post 1960s kitchen on Corfield Street
So from looking at my family history and looking at dates of some photos taken during construction in 1966 (posted on the facebook page) the order of modernisation by LB Bethnal Green / LBTH of the blocks were:
Whole of Ainsley Street section in about 1963.
Seven blocks on the eastern side, north end of Corfield Street in about 1966/67
From approx 1967 to early 1970, six block middle section (which housed my parents second flat), and eight block last section on eastern side. I can not work out which section of the two started first. I know my parents moved into their refurbished flat in the middle section of December 1969 (I still have the new rent card from this time and it’s image is posted in the Facebook page)
Seven blocks on southern side, north end of Corfield St, were the last to be done, as I know my parents vacated their first flat in this section to move into the new flat across the Street in December f1969. Gathering by some Facebook members comments, who lived there, the work would have started perhaps anytime into 1970 once all the 70 families were rehoused. I think that section must have been complete by end of 1971 or start of 1972.
Second wave of refurbishments and demolition (early 1980s)
When vacating the old flats it was common for families like my parents and aunt to transfer to a modernised flat in another part of the estate. Some families also moved into the new flats having lived in properties on Wilmot St or Finnis St.
The 15 blocks located on the far (9 blocks) and middle section (6 blocks) of the western side of Corfield were not modernised and I believe families started to decant from approx late 60s to early 70s.
None of the 21 blocks on Finnis St (15 blocks on the side where the red brick houses are now and 6 blocks on the same side as Hague School) were modernised, I am not sure exactly when families started moving out, but I would guess it was when some moved to refurbished flats on Ainsley or Corfield. The fifteen block section of Finnis Street that backed onto Corfield Street were demolished in mid 1970s, and for the six blocks on Hague School side these were demolished in 1980.
A guide to the development, refurbishment and demolition of the buildings of the Waterlow Estate in Bethnal Green.
I had vague memories of what the Finnis Street blocks looked like, but recent photos posted on the Facebook pages shows the fifteen block section was almost identical to the fronts of Corfield St, but the back of the blocks were completely square, where Corfield Street was not. From looking at a photo on the Facebook page that shows partly the six block section this looks slightly different to the other blocks on Finnis St. Looking at the Home guard parade photos from WWII, the three blocks that were demolished on Wilmot Street, opposite the Good Shepherd Mission, looked also very similar to the blocks on Corfield St.
Section of wall from the original IIDC buildings on Finnis Street
During the 1970s families particularly elderly couples or single people still lived in Wilmot that was not refurbished in the 1960/70s programme of refurbishment (still no bathroom and only toilet accessed via kitchen). I think when people died or families were rehoused the blocks eventually became abandoned. If memory serves Wilmot Street was completely vacated by about 1980/81. When you see it in the Thames TV clip the flats are completely empty, many windows and outer doors on lower basement and ground floors were bricked up, and all in a story state of repair.
Thank you to John for taking the time to detail the layout and conditions of the buildings, in this period.
By the 1980s it is clear that the fabric of the estate was in an extremely poor condition. Documentation and letters from the time (such as those below) show that the local authority was considering the option of demolishing the entire estate, luckily whilst a number of the buildings where demolished many were renovated and offered up for sale around 1986. These are the buildings we see today (other than some modifications to the windows on Corfield Street made in the 1990s)
Myself and other Facebook group members have many fond memories of those times and it was a sense of community with everybody, all ages and all ethnicities, living together on the same estate working together. The ethnic mix of those days reflected the area of the time. During the 1960s to the move out of the early 1980s the ethnic mix was mainly families of English/Welsh/Scottish origin, there was then a largish Irish community. Where families like mine who parents were born in Ireland and came to U.K. In 50s and 60s. There was a scattering of Afro Caribbean families, and I can can only recall one Asian family (Indian the family that lived next door to us) up until late 1970s with some Bangladeshi families moving in by early 1970s before the move out.
Looking back on my memories and from an adult perspective the modernised blocks from the late 60s and early 80s on Ainsley and Corfield seemed to deteriorate very quickly by the time we get to 1982 when structural surveys, you mention from your research, were carried out and the scaffolding goes up. The modernisation in some parts was between only about 11 to 15 years old by the time we get to them deteriorating and demolition considered (as you point out from your study of the archives). From memory, I seem to recall LBTH completed the rehousing of most people / families from a period from 1983 up until about late 1985. But if memory serves there were a few people remaining by 1986/ 1987 and some were (including the couple that lived below us) offered new flats in the council owned blocks that had in the meantime been refurbished and were now ready to move into, as part of the new deal between LBTH and the building firm you know about. I believe people got up to three offers of new accommodation, and were required to accept the third offer.
The first offer we had, about late February 1984, was a two bedroom maisonette of off Ravenscroft Street near Hackney Road. But we did not like it and the reason we gave for rejection of flat offer, was general layout and the boiler would have been in my bedroom! We did not get our next offer until over a year after, in late April 1985, in a flat in a refurbished estate off of Globe Road at the junction of Roman Road. My mother and I (my father having died a relatively young man in June 1980, loved the fact it had gas boiler for hot water and central heating and everything was new, and we therefore moved in mid May 1985 ending for my mother a 25 year period of living on Corfield Street. We both loved the new flat for the first few years or so, as it was modern and had a gleaming new kitchen and bathroom with.
Return to Corfield Street
Constant hot water and central heating, but the neighbours were not the same, and we started to miss Corfield Street, the people, the location of that part of Bethnal Green and it’s general atmosphere. It got to the point that when we knew the late 1980s refurbished flats were up and running we thought about advertising for a mutual exchange. In early 1990 we put an advert in a shop window (that is how it could be done then) requesting anyone from Corfield St interested in exchange, which we got no interest. In May 1990 we then noticed a card asking for an exchange and we successfully responded and moved, after doing the lengthy and bureaucratic exchange paper work with LBTH in July 1990. I still lived at home when my mother passed away and I took over the tenancy in 2000, living there as an adult right up until the summer of 2011, when I got on the property ladder and bought a place in Bow.
In 1995 tenants were alerted to the fact they the bay window and porch entrance structures to the blocks were unsafe and subsiding from the main building. I can not remember the precise details but I think Barrett were investigated and. considered at fault for not identifying/rectifying when they the did the late 1980s refurbishment. From attending some residents meetings in 1995, a financial compensation deal, I believe, was obtained for both the privately sold blocks on the and the LBTH ones and a 18/24 programme was underwent to demolished the original porch and bay structures and replace them with more structurally sound replicas. People living in. smaller flats were decanted and moved into similar sized flats that were vacant. in blocks already completed in the rolling programme of repair work. We had a two bedroom flat so we stayed during the works, but we lost half our sitting room where it was blocked off to allow bay section to be demolished and totally rebuilt. Therefore the porch entrances and bay structures you currently see, on all the blocks that survive on Corfield Street, are not the original Victorian built. structures but rebuilt replicas from the mid 1990s. I seem to recall similar work occurred for blocks on Ainsley Street but not for Wilmot St.
Thank you to John for taking the time to share his memories of the Estate. Along with this post my conversations with John also led to this post about the Greencoats Tenants Association. , as well as this post about the locals shops and businesses. You can find the Waterlow Estate Facebook Group here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/WaterlowEstate/
“I recently rediscovered some of the Barratt sales literature from the mid-eighties redevelopment. I found the Barratt sales folder at the back of a drawer in the kitchen – respect to the various owners for keeping it. The printed folder is A5 with a few inserted sheets providing plans of a couple of property types.
The idyllic illustrations on page 4 are a joy to behold.”
I’ve very excited to share the pages from the brochure here.
You can also download the PDF that Gareth sent me.
All that talk of being near to Channel Ports sounds quite dated, I can’t imagine many residents were jumping their car and nipping off for a weekend in the South of France but perhaps I’m wrong.
You can see a more complete breakdown of the Barrett layouts in the two blueprints reproduced below.
Speaking of idyllic scenes there was a plan at one point to close off Wilmot Street to traffic. There is a drawing of how that could look in some of the original plans from Barrett. This seems to be looking south down Wilmot Street with the school on the left.
Barrett also explored the idea of putting two bed houses along one side of Corfield Gardens although that never came to fruition.
On a related note I also recently spotted these Barrett ‘ghost signs’ on the corner of Wilmot Street and Bethnal Green Road. I’m guessing that they date from the early 1980s redevelopment.]
I’m always excited to hear from readers who have stories, photographs or any other material from any era of the estate. If you do have something to share then leave me a comment below and I’ll get back in touch via email.
I recently came across this brochure from McInerney homes for the houses on the South West side of Corfield Street and along Finnis Street. These homes were built around 1981 and so far this is the only information I’ve been able to find about them. They are very typical of suburban homes built in the 1970s and early 80s but as such seem a little out of place in Bethnal Green.
I also found an advert from an Prevost estate agents (now Look Property Services) for one of the houses from around 1983 which I’ve also reproduced below.
Reproduced with the permission of The Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives.
On a related note there’s now a very interesting (and tiny) house on Finnis street which seems to have been added to the side of one of the existing houses. You can see inside via the Rightmove website.
It’s impossible to shake the shock of seeing black face, but this is a fascinating image that captures something of the era and shows how the rear yard would be used in the buildings. I love finding these sort of scattered and fragmented images of the buildings and the lives lived in them.
I found this photograph a few years ago whilst on one of my many internet excursions searching for historical information about the Waterlow Estate. Unfortunately it seems the original site has disappeared, if you are the owner I hope you don’t mind me reusing the image. Please drop me a line or respond in the comments so I can add your credit.
The website I found it on stated that “It was taken around 1910-14 at Waterlow Industrial Dwellings in East London. The players names, I was told, are: Standing, Bertie Kirby, Bill Kirby. Seated, Messrs Avis, Warner, Thompson, Warner and Harry Reynolds.”
He continues “This group would play in the courtyard of the block of flats where they lived. This was real home entertainment. Neighbours from the flats would assemble in the courtyard, bringing food and drink and enjoy the show. I believe this type of show was very popular at the time. Today some ‘modifications’ would certainly be needed!”
A fantastic news report from Thames TV in 1982. It seems that the buildings were starting to become dangerous in the early 1980s and scaffolding was erected to protect the residents from falling masonry !
A few months ago I received message from a gentleman named Bernard. He outlined his long relationship with the estate which went all the way back to his birth on Finnis St (No 21) …
“..In 1928 , and in time went to Wilmot St. school. We then moved to Wilmot St.(No22) and I went to Stuart Headlam school, through the arch across Three Colts Lane,on the right hand side, opposite Barnsley St. From there I was evacuated to Suffolk until after the bombing stopped. That’s another story. After the war my wife and I lived in No.327 Corfield St. for a time”
He also responded to my post about a photograph I’d found of Wilmot St before or during WW2. His Message:
“A bomb did fall in Wilmot Street and although I was evacuated at the time, my mother told me about it.The bomb landed in the backyard and went under my parents bedroom at number 22. Fortunately, it didn’t explode. After this everybody had to leave. After a few days and before the Bomb Disposable people arrived my mother went back in she said ”to get the insurance books”. The air raid warden saw her and she got a severe ticking off ”Don’t you know that walking on that floor could have set that bomb off”
I dropped Benard a line and he very kindly agreed to talk further with me about his memories of the Waterlow Estate.
You mentioned that you were born on Finnis Street in 1928, do you know how long your family had lived there ?
I suspect that it was near enough from the time they were married in 1926.
What did your family do ?
My father was an iron moulder, which was an apprenticeship, so he must have started at about 14 yrs old. He was excluded from armed forces service because his job was in the exempt class. My mother in her early days worked as a ‘finisher’ for a baby clothes firm, then worked for Godfrey Phillips – the cigarette manufacturer – then on to Allen & Hanburys – the well-known pharmaceutical company as a cook in the Directors restaurant.
The rear of the Corfield Street buildings in 1966. Taken from the Allen and Hanburys carpark (now the Pillbox building). Reproduced with the permission of The Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives.
Did you have any relatives living nearby ?
My aunt lived in Corfield Street on the corner with Ainsley St, and a cousin who lived near the top end of Wilmot St, not far from Phillip & Scoones, a drapers store.
How old were you when your family moved to Wilmot Street ?
I must have been around 5 or 6 yrs old when we moved to Wilmot St.
Can you describe your childhood when living on Finnis and Wilmot Street ?
I have very few memories of my time in Finnis St, just snatches of memory of Wilmot St School, although it was a period when I wore leg irons but still annoyed my mother in running around the yard there. I can’t remember moving to Wilmot St, but went to Stewart Headlam School from there. Was also evacuated to Suffolk, aged ten.
Can you tell me about your experience during the war ?
During the war i went to a small village and was billeted with 3 other boys. school was intermittent. after a time I learned I had passed the 11-plus exam, and went to the West Suffolk County School. Sometime, I think in l944, I came home and went to Parmiter’s School in Approach Rd. until the VI’s and V’2 – flying bombs and rockets – began to fall. I then went back to Suffolk, but to a different area.
Considering the size of the estate it’s amazing that it remained unscathed from the Blitz, was there a lot of damage nearby that you remember ?
I have mentioned elsewhere on the website about the unexploded bomb under my parents flat. A buzz bomb landed on the Francis of Assisi Church at the Cambridge Rd end of Three Colts lane.. but as far as I know that was the nearest damage.
You then mention that you married and that you and your wife moved into a flat on Corfield Street, which year was this ?
My wife and I married in 1950 and moved into a flat in Corfield St (No.327) and We lived in Corfield St for 7 yrs.
It’s quite extraordinary that you lived in nearly every street in the Estate. Do you remember the buildings themselves ? .. were they in good condition at that time ?, Do you know if they had been altered much from their original Victorian state ?
I certainly remember the buildings, and they were in very good condition, except in certain areas, for instance, we lived then in No.22, which was a basement flat and the front room was damp. I slept there and as a consequence became asthmatic in later years. There was no sign of any alterations to the original building having taken place.
Was the roof pitched or flat when you lived there ? .. were you able to gain access to the roofs ?
The roof was flat. Sometimes we played up there, and some of the residents hung washing on the roof.
Do any local characters or stories spring to mind ?
I remember that Sir Percy Harris was our Liberal M.P. and my Wife was at school with the Kray twins (dubious claim to fame, but says they were nice enough boys then).
Are there any particular local shops, businesses or pubs that you remember ?
Phillips and Scoones, the only apartment store in the district. Wastells, the local greengrocer in 3 Colts Lane. Three pubs, The Lamb on the corner of 3 Colts lane and Wilmot St.The Lion, through the arch opposite Wilmot St. The Good Shepherd Mission on the other corner of Wilmot St. Feganbaums, the fish shop at the corner of 3 Colts lane – who later moved business to the main B.G road. The third pub was at the end of Three Colts Lane and Dunbridge Street.
Were you still living in the area when any demolition or remodelling took place ? .. I’ve been unable to find much photographic evidence of the Finnis Street buildings so I’m not sure how they looked .. Do you remember if there were blocks on both sides of the road ?
No, I left before the changes took place. There were blocks on both sides of Finnis St, except were the school was.
When did you move away ?,
Have you been back and visited since you left ?
Yes,our family took us back for a visit 2 yrs ago. We couldn’t trace our flat as I believe they had been made larger by incorporating 2 flats into one and the numbers had been changed.
I’m also doing some research at the moment on the streets that were eventually demolished to become Weavers Fields, (Mape, Seabright, Viaduct, Sale St etc etc), do you remember this area at all ?
My wife and I remember those streets. She lived in Sale street until she was 16 years old and then moved to Loughton Essex. There was nothing memorable about them.
Photograph of Seabright and Cheshire Street, pre 1939. Reproduced with the permission of The Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives.
I’m especially interested in Saint Andrews Church as no photographs of it seem to exist .. do you remember the church ?
I know of it. I was baptised there because somewhere I have a card that says so but I cannot find it.
Thank you to Bernard and his wife for taking the time to give such full and detailed answers. If you have memories of the area and would like to share please leave a comment below and I’ll drop you a line.