Waterlow Estate History

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.

Author: Sydney (page 1 of 3)

A conversation with Ray Herrington

Ray Herrington lived with his family on the Waterlow Estate for the first 17 years of his life (from 1939 to 1956). His (step) grandmother was also the landlady of The Lamb pub. A few months ago Ray’s son Mark contacted me about talking with his father.

Ray’s life story would fill a book, and in our short conversation we managed to cover gangsters, street parties, bombs, nazi bashing and even the royal family. It was a real pleasure talking with Ray, his stories bring to life the real community spirit of The Estate. So grab a cup of tea and settle in, as Ray has a lot of memories and local knowledge to share !

The Lamb, 36 Wilmot Street.

As well as The Lamb pub, Ray and his family occupied a number of properties on The Estate. I started by asking Ray to tell me about his early life in Bethnal Green until he moved away in 1956.

“I was born in 1939, at Bethnal Green Hospital on the 1st May to Mrs. Herrington. My mum and dad had a flat – number 428 Corfield Street. It’s the second block from Three Colts Lane on the left as you looked out. Corfield Street is still there. I don’t know what it’s condition is now. It was quite a super place then”

“Anyway, the war started (because I was born, I think!) and dad got called up into the RAF. It was quite hectic there at that time. From then on, just me and my mum was there and it was the one flat from the top. As my dad was away, she had to get a job. She was a top machinist. She worked just off Brick Lane, she had a room full of machinists and they made clothes and she was in charge of them all. It was a Jewish firm, because they were all Jewish down there, you see.

My gran who lived at 108 Wilmot Street (with my granddad) looked after me while mum went to work.

When war was declared and the bombs started falling, we used to go back home [to 428 Corfield] on weekends, but then we had an incendiary bomb fall on the flats and it landed on our landing, next to our houses. When the people came up to get my mum out, she says, “No, I’m not going out. I’m staying here. If we go, we’re going to go together.”

Anyway, all the children down there, about 95% of them were then evacuated away into the country, but my mum wouldn’t let me go. [laughs] She said, “I’m going to have to come and live with you mum.” That’s at 108 Wilmot Street.

She kept the flat on for when my dad came back, which he never got any leave or anything, you know those days. She lived with my gran over at 108 Wilmot Street. In the meantime, when the bombs started falling, the council built big shelters in the middle of the road along Wilmot Street.

One of the air raid shelters on Wilmot Street

I was then going across the road to Wilmot Street School. That was my first school. After that I went to Lawrence Street School (Author – I think this is now Lawdale School on Mansford Street), the other side of Bethnal Green Road. Then after that I took my 11 plus and I went to Parmiter’s Grammar School that was up near Victoria Park, but I couldn’t stand it there because it wasn’t my sort of school. Not only did I have to wear a cap and everything, but the teachers walked round in these bloody great Batman gowns and you’re supposed to use Latin and Greek and all this stuff and you had to play rugby and cricket. I was a very good swimmer, I wanted to do swimming and football. I complained a lot my mum and dad they decided to go to the council and asked if I could be transferred to a technical school.

So I left Parmiter’s school and went to Morpeth Street Secondary school which was completely technical, woodwork, metalwork, football, swimming, and everything. Which was all more my thing.

I was getting famous because in the newspapers it was,”Herrington’s beaten three records at the swimming galas” and all this business. While I was at Morpeth street and at the Lawrence School, I swam for the school for Bethnal Green, for East London, for London, for southern England and England. I went up to Lancaster and appeared in the finals England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales at Lancaster in the swimming finals.

When I finished at school I went to work for Robert Dyas. That’s an ironmonger, you’ve probably heard about Robert Dyas. I was an ironmonger’s assistant, selling tools and all the tools and engineering stuff. I started at Cheapside in London – right by St Pauls. That’s where I first started, then I moved from there to Bishopsgate – right near the Tower of London. Then from there I moved to South Kensington High Street. You do a section at each shop you see. Anyway, at 17 and a half, I got me call-up papers for national service because of the Suez Crisis. That is when I left Bethnal Green.”

Talking to Ray about his life after Bethnal Green he described a life of adventure. I asked him if he stayed in the forces after his National Service.

“22 and a half years. I was in the air force initially. I was very successful in the forces. There’s some things I can’t tell you about because of security”

Ray hinted at many intriguing adventures, but wouldn’t be drawn on too many details.

“I went all over the world. I went to Cyprus, Jordan, Libya, Egypt, Kenya, Aiden. Everywhere I went.

During this time I trained to be a chartered engineer. It took loads and loads of college work. I also was persuaded to move on to the Queen’s Flight and I flew the Royals all over the world. I took the Queen down to Australia in 1973 to open the Opera House. I took Charles and all of them all over the world. Did eight years there and I was due three years before I came out.

I went up and saw Air Commodore Winskill and said, “I’m sorry, sir. I need to leave the Queen’s Flight because I’ve just been offered a job over in Canada by Hawker Siddeley.” I said, “I don’t want to get on those sort of aircraft. These aircraft that I’m flying at the moment, I want to go to something more modern.”

When you’re on the Queen’s Flight and you decide you’re going to leave, you can have whatever job you want wherever you want. I said, “Well, I’d like to go over to Abingdon,” which was only 15 miles away from Benson, “and do the Jaguar majors that are going to start there.” Air Commodore Winskill just phoned them up and said, “Our chief tech coming over who’s got to run Jaguar majors for you. Give him a hanger and give him all that he needs” I was there for three years doing the Jaguar majors.

I used to have CWP. A company work in British Aerospace. This director of British Aerospace came down just before we were due to come out and said, “We need a chartered engineer to be the accident assessor for British Aerospace. We can’t get anywhere. Would you work for us?” Luckily where Walton was up here is where my wife was born. I said, “Yes, okay.” I went there and I spent so many years there before I retired.

Sepecat Jaguar GR1 at RAF Abingdon © Robin A Walker

We got back to talking about his childhood memories of Bethnal Green and the Waterlow Estate. Ray and his family lived in a number of flats in the Estate, including The Lamb pub. He was living with his gran at 108 Wilmot Street, while his mother and father lived at 428 Corfield Street. I asked him about these flats and his memories of the estate itself.

“Once my dad was home, he started playing about with other women. So my mum divorced him. She swapped 428 to 275 Coldfield Street and I went to live with her there. Because I’d been with my gran before. But then my granddad got, It was cancer I suppose, they didn’t know what it was in them days, so he died. My mum then was courting my new stepfather down in the pub. She eventually married him and she moved up to the 275 flat with me and him. Although I couldn’t get on with him, we were always fighting.

I moved to me gran’s down in Wilmot Street. She had moved from 108 Wilmot street to 156 Wilmot street because my granddad couldn’t walk properly. 108 was one floor up and 156 was one floor down. So she’d moved there. My granddad died. My mum said you’ll have to go live with your gran. So I went to live with me granny at 156 Wilmot street.”

The Lamb was owned by Alice Clarke , who was my step father’s mother. I think it was 1938. I think that she took over The Lamb. I never moved in until my mum and step dad got married.

Before she bought the pub she was, this is where she got her money I’m sure, she was a bedroom steward on the P+O lines. England to Australia and back.

She had four children working with her there. That was Ronald Clarke, Patricia Corrick, Jeff Clarke , and Maria Allen who was married to an RAF fighter pilot, he used to have all these coats and guns swinging on his hips. They were all Clarke originally.

Alice Clarke behind the bar at The Lamb pub in Bethnal Green

Before mum met dad, in the pub, Alice used to have a big red setter called Judy. I used to go and knock on the door and say, “Mrs. Clarke can I walk your red setter Judy, please? She’d say, “All right, but you take her to Barmy Park and you don’t let her off until you get on the park, will you?” I used to take the dog down Three Colt’s Lane under the arch till we got to Cambridge Heath Road, and there was a big park there then which everybody called Barmy Park.

The reason they called it Barmy park, when I was a kid there was a big library there, which used to be a lunatic asylum. I used to walk her down there and bring her back and she gave me a penny which was a lot of money in those days.

Note – you can read more about the history of Barmy Park and Bethnal Green Library here.

Bethnal Green Library opening in 1922

Whilst I was at the Lamb, diagonally across was the British Railway entrance to go up to the steam trains. That arch there led down to Brady Street, there used to be one of these old Gypsy caravan type things that used to be parked there. That was ran by Ted. He used to open one side of his caravan and he used to sell tea, coffee, glasses of water, arrowroot biscuits, and all the stuff that he could get a hold of to the railway blokes.

The train would stop, they’d run down, “Give us a mug of tea, quick. I’ve got five minutes before the trains goes again.” He used to have that under there. When my mum used to go down outside the pub, I used to stand outside the pub and my mum and gran would go in and have a drink and I’d get a biscuit or a bag of crisps or something like that. If it was raining and I used to go over to Ted’s and he’d let me go up the steps into his caravan and hide under the counter where it was warm.

You can always tell somebody who lived in Bethnal Green if they knew the answer to this question – “Why didn’t the lion eat the lamb?”. The Lamb was on one corner and if you turned right into Three Colt’s Lane and went up to the next junction, on the other corner was a pub called the Lion. Somebody would say, “Oh, yes, I come from Bethnal Green, I did this, I did that.” Then you’d say, “Why didn’t the lion eat the lamb?” Then if they didn’t know the answer, you would tell them to shove off. The answer is, because The Good Shepherd is on the opposite corner of Wilmot Street to the Lamb. It was a Christian place where you had to go and have Sunday school and all that.

The Good Shepherd Mission

The Lamb had a massive great big flat roof on the top. It’s got a load of flats up there now, but anyway, massive great flat roof with a big water tank where me, Peter, Jerry. (who were the son and daughter of Patricia Clarke , we used to call her Aunt Pops). Anyway, we used to go up the top there and swim in this water tank and obviously if we wanted to go to the toilet, we used to go to the toilet in there. It was only later we realised that that was the water they used it at the taps. [laughter]”

Regulars in The Lamb  – Ray’s mum Eileen Clarke has the handbag. His grandad Geoff Clarke is behind the bar behind the ladies on the right. Alice Clarke , the landlady is the tall lady on the far left , with a tall gent … think he was a gold prospector who travelled to South Africa. I think the chap in the centre was one of the local ‘enforcers’ (says Ray’s son Mark). Photograph taken between 1945-48

I asked Ray about the customers of The Lamb, he started by telling me a toe curling (and unfortunately unprintable) story of local hard man Razor Eddie and the consequences for any upstarts who showed disrespect to Alice.

He also told me about another gang of fake war heroes who appeared at the pub one day.

One day my gran said that was these four blokes came in. It was just after lunchtime on a Sunday and four blokes came in and- “Give us four pints Alice would you?” She said, “Are you the band that goes down the Brick Lane?” He said, “Yes that’s right, we got a bomb today”. She said, “Would you mind leaving because I don’t like people like that, and refrain from coming in the pub in future”. Now this is told to me. I said to my mum, “What did they do?”

She said there have been men who come in that big car, they get out and what they do, they strap one leg up and put a false wooden leg on, and the other one puts blind patches over his eyes and another one makes his coat all floppy. She said they go and play rough old tunes, down on Brick Lane, as war veterans. She said they never went to war in their lives. It was only then my gran realized who they were. She won’t have them in the pub anymore.

It was very nice down there. Everybody knew everybody most of the time.

I asked Ray when did Alice moved away ?

It was 1956 I think, I was gone in the RAF, nan sold the pub and moved down to Sandwich in Kent and bought another pub called The Bricklayers Arms which backed onto the River Stour. It’s right next to the yacht club it was, beautiful pub very oldie worldy.

The Lamb public house sometime pre 1861. Reproduced with the permission of The Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives.

Ray and I talked a little about how the pub became The Sporting Life in 1964 and eventually closed down in 1993 before being turned into flats.

I did go back to Bethnal Green and what they’ve done, because I think it became The Sporting Life for a little while. They got hold of the pub and they’d ripped all the outside tiles off. There were these beautiful deep mahogany red tiles with pictures made out in the tiles for coaches and horses and men. The windows was scribed with all these lovely things on the windows.

You went into the pub itself and the bar was mahogany. Between each of the bars was a mahogany wall with glass you could see through. They’d ripped the whole lot out. Painted the outside matte black. Inside, all the lovely chairs had gone and they had plastic armchairs and settees along there- along the sides. The bar .. it looked like somebody put a load of stones there and a marble bowl on top. It was absolute rubbish. Completely taken the bloody place apart. It didn’t last long anyway because then it got sorted out. Somebody made it into flats or something.

We then got to talking about his memories of the local businesses he remembered around the Estate.

“I saw you had some Facebook messages from Patricia Allen who said her grandfather used to run the paper shop down next to the pub? – I used to sell papers for him as a lad. I used to go around, he give me them all in a canvas bag and I used to go down Three Colt’s Lane to a place called Allen and Hanburys. I used to go under the arch, around the back where all the goods used to go in. I used to stand there saying, “Star News or Standard. Star News or Standard.” As they come out of work they used to get the papers off me.

Another little shop sold groceries and things opposite Allen’s there. Right across the road was a taxi place. There was a huge big taxi firm across the road from the pub.

If you came out of the Lamb and started walking up Wilmot Street, the first place you come to on the left-hand side was a cafe. Now, not a lot of people know that because it’s closed down just after the war, anyway, it was a cafe, but the next one was Arnold’s. It was a big shop that sold all sweets and lemonade and all that sort of thing.

Now there was no more shops on Wilmot Street at all. Until you got right at the top. Right at the top on the corner was a sweet shop.

Now I’m going to tell you something now that will curl your hair. At the end of the war and just afterwards there was a big royal do and everybody was going to have a street party. All the kids had come back off of evacuation and everything else. There’s going to be this big party. He used to sell sweets and all sorts of things in that shop. He was the one who was allocated to be responsible for getting all the money, so he had a book in there and you used to go in and give them so much a week and he put it down in the book and everything else. He did Wilmot Street, Ainsley Street, Finnis Street, Corfield Street. On the day all the ladies got their tables out and they’d laid all the tables with sheets and seats and everything and all this stuff was supposed to arrive, nothing arrived. The shop was locked up, nobody saw him again.

We had musicians turning up, we have magicians turning up. What the blokes did, they said, “We’ll get him, don’t worry.” Anyway, they smashed open the door, took all his sweets and stock out and put them all on the table. They just went back indoors and made sugar sandwiches. That’s the only thing they had in those days, sugar sandwiches. We got loads of them, these big cans of lemonade and big bottles that had those little glass things in thing. We pinched everything out of the shop to do it. They still had their party. The magician did it for nothing. The people who were helping out did it for nothing, a shop off Bethnal Green Road. They sold bread and cakes and all that sort of thing. All the stuff that they had left over and it was mid-afternoon, though brought down and gave them to them. We had the party.

When you got to the end of Wilmot Street, Bethnal Green on the right-hand side, the corner shop was a butcher’s. On the left-hand side was Philips and Scoons. Philips and Scoons used to take money after people monthly and then every so often you could go in and get a shirt or some socks or that, out of the book.

They didn’t do it to anybody else except for Waterlow estate. So if you went up Ainsley Street, off of Wilmot Street, along Ainsley Street, turned left to go out towards Bethnal Green Road on your right-hand corner was the police station. All the way up that side was the police stables. When you got to the top, on the left-hand corner was the Camden’s Head, a pub. “


“The Estate was a good place to live, it was wonderful. No women were ever touched. No kids were ever touched. The doors were always open. They didn’t have much there. You go in anybody’s house and on the floor would just a wooden floor with paper on. On the table, when you’re at your dinner, it was paper. When I used to live in with my gran there wasn’t another bedroom, so I used to live in an alcove with blankets and a straw palisade sort of thing between the blanket. There was newspaper between the blanket that went over and the coats. We used to have the coats on to keep warm with newspaper as well.

The actual buildings themselves, they all had flat roofs. When you went up the stairs to the flats, when you got to the top, you continued up another flight of stairs, and there was a door there, you open the door, you went out, you are on the flat roof.

But there was a wall all around it, with railings on, so as you couldn’t fall over, you know, and the ladies from the top two flats used to go and hang their clothes up there, and on the top there were small water tanks, as well up there so you could go up one block if the “coppers” were chasing you, right, one up the block, right to the top, get to the top, go out of the door at the top onto the roof, put the bolt on, because then the police couldn’t get on, you see, then you’d go one, two, three, four blocks away, say down towards Ainsley street, along the top of Corfield street, open up and go down and out that way and they would never caught you.

Note – There is still one block on Wilmot Street with a flat roof, on the East side. Unlike the rest of the estate this block wasn’t modernised by Barrett Homes so it has a slightly different layout inside, and retains the flat roof with access for tenants.

The open roof on Wilmot Street in 2018

“There’s a thing that I saw, was just after the war there was a person called Oswald Mosley who led the black shirts who supported Hitler and all that. He decided he was going to show off and walk down Wilmot street with his men, got them to march down with all their placards. They marched in from Bethnal Green Road.

As they walked down the men got-started to go down, about a dozen policemen just formed a line across the end of it that meant nobody else could go in following them down, and when they went past Ainsley street, you have to picture this, once they got past the entrance to Ainsley street another load of policemen came and formed a line there so as nobody could go on to Wilmot street.

When they got down to Finnis street, another line of policemen closed off Finnis street so as nobody could go down there. Once they got down by the side of the school they were all marching down, suddenly in front of them they found about a hundred blokes with pickaxe handles, and lumps of wood, and all sorts, waiting for them.

Now those blokes started to move back up Wilmot street, and as they did that the policemen at Ainsley street moved out of the way, and a load of blokes with pick axe handles and everything walked into Wilmot street. So they were trapped in the middle of it, and the police wouldn’t do anything about it. They just stood there whilst the Bethnal Green lads gave them a bloody good hitting and there was ambulances, and all sorts to take them away. The police never did a thing.

Mosley was chucked out, and the load of them were badly injured and ended up in the London hospital, and Bethnal Green hospital.

After a bit of research it seems that The Waterlow Estate had a number of brushes with Mosley. I can find reports of events in 1947, 48 and 49. In this 1947 report from the Daily Mail, there is a description of violence – 

“Fighting broke out in Wilmot St., Bethnal Green, last night after a “secret” meeting had been addressed in an LCC school by Sir Oswald Mosley. Several demonstrators prevented from approaching the school said they were members of the 43 Group of Jewish ex-Servicemen, and were demonstrating in a peaceful and orderly manner, not as “organised gangs” as alleged by Sir Oswald Mosley. When the meeting ended Sir Oswald drove away at top speed, accompanied by members of his bodyguard. Fierce street fighting lasted about 20 minutes.”

(Daily Mail, 28/11/47)

Sourced from this article

I’ve even managed to find a photograph of him speaking at The Wilmot Street school in 1948.

Embed from Getty Images

Finally this Daily Worker newspaper report from 1949 details a dance (!) at the Wilmot Street school which billed as an anniversary of the 1936 Battle of Cable street.

I’m hugely indebted to Ray for taking the time to talk me through his early life on the estate. When I set up this site I couldn’t have dreamed that people would be so generous with their time and allow me to record and share their memories with the world. Thanks also to Mark Herrington for arranging our conversation.

If you’d like to share memories, photographs or anything else please get in touch in the comment section below.


Waterlow Estate in 1965

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.

Related – Here’s an image of these Finnis / Corfield Street blocks during demolition

The legend of Charlie Cooper

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.”

Embed from Getty Images

John continues:

“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.”

John continues:

“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.

More press coverage in The Reno Gazette Journal.

Waterlow Estate shops

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 corner​ ​shop​ ​on​ ​1​ ​Ainsley​ ​Street​ ​was​ ​a​ ​fantastic​ ​shop​, of which many​ ​people​ ​living​ ​on​ ​the​ ​the estate​ ​have​ ​many​ ​great​ ​memories​ ​of.​ ​​​It​ ​was​ ​a​ ​combination​ ​of​ ​a​ ​grocers​ ​shop​ ​and newsagents. and​ ​was​ ​known​ ​for​ ​most​ ​of​ ​my​ ​time​ ​as​ ​”Phil​ ​and​ ​Pete’s”.​ ​As​ ​it​ ​was​ ​run​ ​by​ ​a married​ ​couple​ ​called​ ​Peter​ ​and​ ​Phyllis​ ​Hambleton. ​They​ ​were​ ​very​ ​popular​ ​and​ ​got​ ​on​ ​very well​ ​with​ ​the​ ​residents.​”

Photograph – Lee Rice

Photograph – Lee Rice

“​​​During​ ​the​ ​1970’s​ ​supermarket​ ​shopping​ ​was​ ​still​ ​a​ ​relatively​ ​new thing,​ ​and​ ​families​ ​including mine​ ​still​ ​got​​ lot​s ​of​ ​their​ ​provisions​ ​from​ ​these​ ​shops.​ ​​​There were​ ​three​ ​main​ ​supermarkets​ ​you​ ​could​ ​go​ ​to – ​a​ ​Coop​ ​store​ ​in​ ​the​ ​section​ ​of shops​ ​before​ ​where​ ​the​ ​trendy​ ​​ ​cafe​ ​338​ ​and​ ​Peliccis are​ ​located.​ Where ​the​ ​McDonalds​ ​is now​ ​was​ ​a​ ​very​ ​popular​ ​supermarkets​ ​called​ ​”Keymarket”​ ​that​ ​was​ ​larger​ ​than​ ​Tesco​ ​at​ ​the time.​ ​​​

Up​ ​until​ ​1982​ ​Tesco​ ​was​ ​smaller​ ​than​ ​it​ ​is​ ​today and ​only​ ​occupied​ ​the​ ​small grey building​ ​but​ ​then​ ​expanded​ ​with a ​red​ ​brick​ ​extension​ ​that​ ​you​ ​see​ ​today.​ ​​​Tesco​ ​then​ ​had two​ ​floors,​ ​the​ ​food​ ​section​ ​where​ ​the​ ​entrance​ ​is​ ​today​ ​and​ ​above​ ​this​ ​was​ ​a​ ​popular clothes​ ​and​ ​homeware​ ​section.​ ​​”

Tesco in Bethnal Green around the time of it’s opening in 1969

“Phyllis​ ​and​ ​Pete​ ​had​ ​the​ ​corner​ ​shop,​ ​I​ ​think​ ​from​ ​mid 1960s ​to​ ​moving​ ​out​ ​to​ ​live​ ​in​ ​Clacton​ ​in​ ​summer​ ​of​ ​1979.​ ​The​ ​shop​ ​was​ ​then​ ​taken​ ​over​ ​by a​ ​man​ ​who​ ​already​ ​was​ ​running​ ​a​ ​shop​ ​and​ ​got​ ​his​ ​step​ ​daughter​ ​Linda​ ​and​ ​her​ ​partner John​ ​to​ ​live​ ​in​ ​and​ ​run​ ​the​ ​shop.​ ​Linda​ ​and​ ​John​ ​were​ ​also​ ​popular​ ​and​ ​nice​​ ​but​ ​unfortunately​ ​business​ ​was​ ​hit​ ​by​ ​completion​ ​from​ ​the​ ​two​ ​local supermarkets.​ ​​She​ ​closed​ ​the​ ​shop​ ​in​ ​December​ ​1983​ ​and​ ​moved​ ​out.​ ​​Apart​ ​from​ ​a brief period ​after that the​ ​shop​ ​has​ ​remained​ ​empty​ ​since​ ​then.”

The​ ​two​ ​shops​ ​on​ ​the​ ​ground​ ​floor​ ​of​ ​the​ ​flats​ ​on​ ​Three​ ​Colts​ ​lane​ ​were​ ​also​ ​very​ ​popular. On​ ​the​ ​left​ ​was​ ​a​ ​newsagent​ ​and​ ​sweet​ ​shop,​ ​known​ ​to​ ​all​ ​as​ ​Barry’s,​ ​that​ ​was​ ​run​ ​by​ ​Barry Kirk,​ ​the​ ​son​ ​of​ ​the​ ​Landlord​ ​Tommy​ ​Kirk,​ ​of​ ​the​ ​Lamb​ ​pub​ ​(then​ ​became​ ​the​ ​Sporting​ ​Life Pub​ ​in​ ​late​ ​70s​ ​or​ ​early​ ​1980)​ ​up​ ​until​ ​the​ ​mid​ ​1970s.​ ​​​”

The Lamb Public House in 1931. Later to become The Sporting Life pub, and eventually converted into flats. In the background you can see the shops on Three Colts Lane.

The Lamb public house sometime pre 1861. Reproduced with the permission of The Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives.

“The​ ​shop​ ​on​ ​the​ ​right​ ​was​ ​a​ ​grocers (can​ ​not​ ​remember​ ​the​ ​official​ ​name)​ ​run​ ​by​ ​brother​ ​and​ ​sister​ ​team​ ​called​ ​Emmie​ ​and​ ​Ernie, and​ ​was​ ​referred​ ​to​ ​as​ ​”The​ ​Dairy”​ ​or​ ​sometimes​ ​as​ ​​ ​”Emmie’s”.​ ​I​ ​seem​ ​to​ ​recall​ ​that​ ​they also​ ​had​ ​a​ ​shop​ ​on​ ​Brady​ ​Street​ ​and​ ​was​ ​run​ ​by​ ​Emmies​ ​husband?​ ​​ ​I​ ​believe​ ​the​ ​Three Colts​ ​Lane​ ​shop​ ​was​ ​in​ ​their​ ​procession​ ​until​ ​the​ ​late​ ​1980s.​ ​Like​ ​Phyllis​ ​Emmie​ ​was particularly​ ​a​ ​lovely​ ​lady,​ ​and​ ​my​ ​parents​ ​would​ ​buy​ ​from​ ​there​ ​as​ ​well,​ ​they​ ​did​ ​lovely​ ​sliced meats particularly​ ​ham​ ​off​ ​the​ ​bone.​ ​Other​ ​people​ ​recall​ ​two​ ​shops​ ​where​ ​two​ ​small​ ​houses are​ ​now​ ​located​ ​on​ ​Wilmot​ ​but I do​ ​not​ ​remember these​ ​being​ ​shops​ ​in​ ​my​ ​time,​ ​however​  ​I​ ​have​ ​a​ ​very​ ​vague​ ​memory​ ​that​ ​one​ ​of​ ​those​ shops​ ​became​ ​an​ ​Indian​ ​takeaway​ ​for​ ​a while​ ​in​ ​the​ ​late​ ​70s/early​ ​80s,​ ​​they ​are​ ​both​ ​now​ ​small​ ​residential​ ​houses/flats.”

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/

The Greencoats Tenants Association

This is the second of three blog posts based on my email conversations with John Mossell of The Streets of Waterlow Estate and Bethnal Green Facebook group. The first post detailing his memories of the estate can be found here.

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”.

In “Sociology and the Stereotype of the Criminal” by Dennis Chapman details the conditions –

“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.”

The effect of the strike is also described in Anarchy Magazine

“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.

Children’s Christmas Parties/Childrens Summer Outings

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).

Pensioners Outings

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.

Later years

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/

John Mossell – Memories of Corfield Street in the 1970s

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. Whole of Ainsley Street section in about 1963.
  2. Seven blocks on the eastern side, north end of Corfield Street in about 1966/67
  3. 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)
  4. 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/


Marketing leaflet from Barrett Homes

Today I was contacted by Gareth, who said

“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.


Marketing leaflet from McInerney homes

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.

Minstrels in the Courtyard

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!”


The Waterlow Estate under scaffold

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 !

Credit to John Mossell of the Waterlow Estate group for finding this gem (https://www.facebook.com/groups/WaterlowEstate/)

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