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.

Category: 1950s

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.


Memories of the Waterlow Estate 1928-1963

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.

Memories of growing up on Corfield Street

Since I started renewing and updating this website I’ve had some interesting comments from new readers. Very recently I was contacted by Lesley who wrote:

“I lived in Corfield Street from 1956 and the layout of the flats had changed from those shown on your archive pages. I could probably provide a rough outline of our flat if it is of interest. Also, by that time the top of the buildings were flat and provided a place for people who did not live on the ground floor (who had direct access to the communal yard between the buildings), to dry their washing in the fresh air. In the winter it was great fun to go up there and have a snowball fight across the street with kids on the roof of the opposite building.”

As one my the main goals of this site is to collect together stories and information from those who lived in the estate I was very keen to get in contact with her and find out more. Luckily Lesley was extremely generous with her time and agreed to answer some questions and even sent over some photographs and a plan of her flat as it was when she lived in it.

First here are the Photographs she sent me.

“Here is a copy of the best picture of Corfield Street I have found in my photo collection. I guess that it was taken about 1960. The photo is taken from the Three Colts Lane end looking along the street, with Ainsley Street buildings visible in the distance. The buildings on the left (that I lived in) have now been demolished as you know. The raised ‘boundaries’ around the bottom of the buildings originally housed iron railings which I guess were recycled during the war.”

It’s interesting to see the blocks on the western side of Corfield Street, they’ve since been demolished to make space for the series of houses in Cul-de-sacs and the open garden space at the north end of Corfield Street. I have tracked down some more images of these blocks which you can see here.

“This one is taken looking toward Three Colts Lane, at the same time as the original photo I sent through.”

“I think this was taken on Boxing Day 1962 – the big snow”

“Me with my primary school in the background (it is still there as a business centre I believe) – Hague Primary School. Weavers Field as is (directly behind me) was then just a bomb site.”

“The last photo is taken in Three Colts Lane at a similar place, looking back towards Wilmot Street. If I remember correctly, the building on the left (just beyond the priest) was a Barnado’s boys home at the time.”

“I have also done a ‘rough’ outline of our flat in Corfield Street. We were on the side of the block without the bay window. I remember that at the entrance to the flats there were under stairs store rooms which you could rent to put bikes etc. in.”

I commented to Lesley that the layout seemed fairly similar to their current configuration and she replied that “one of my Uncles went to view the converted flats when they became available in the 60’s and he said that to make the bigger units, the joining wall (shown as the right hand side kitchen wall in my diagram) between the two flats had been removed to make one larger flat.”

Lesley was then very kind and spent time answering some questions I had:

How old were you when your family moved to Corfield Street ? .. where they from Bethnal Green originally ?
I was 2yrs old when my family moved to Corfield St.in 1956. My fathers family are all from the area, my mothers family was from Kent.

What did your family do ?
My father worked as a production controller in the ‘rag trade’ and was based in various places in London – Aldgate, Mortimer St (W.End) etc.. My mother worked as an accountant at Allen and Hanbury’s in Bethnal Green, just around the corner in Three Colts Lane! I remember that site quite well, the main building now being the Pill Box.

Did you have any relatives living nearby ?
Most of my fathers family also lived in Bethnal Green. One sister and one brother lived in Brady Street mansions in Brady Street with their respective partners. Brady St mansions looked fairly similar to Corfield Street but with a communal ‘front courtyard’ – I don’t know if they were built by the same company. Another brother lived in St Matthews Row (west of Weavers Field) and his mother and youngest brother both still lived in Barnard House in Ellsworth Street (opposite the Bethnal Green Road end of Ainsley Street). My paternal grandmothers brothers and sisters also lived in the area, having been born there. When I traced my family tree, I gathered my grandmother had never lived further than 2 miles from where she was born, except when evacuated during the war!

Can you describe your childhood when living in Corfield Street ?
I remember living in Corfield St with mostly fond memories. I had friends from school also living in the street and we used to play outside together when our parents allowed which was usually for a couple of hours after school. At that time Corfield St was designated a ‘play street’ (there were signs at both end of the street) which meant that through traffic was prohibited. We rode our bikes and played football or cricket with the other kids in the street. Violet Street was accessible by an arch between the buildings and was a pedestrian cut through. Someone had drawn stumps on the wall at the end with chalk and it was a favourite place to play cricket. The security guards in the entrance lodge at A&H were forever retrieving balls for us! As we got older we were allowed to stray further afield on our bikes but only to explore the surrounding area of the Waterlow Buildings. On Sundays the ‘winkle man’ used to come around, pushing his barrow ladened with shell fish – winkles, whelks, prawns. I also remember the ‘Corona man’ came once a week – this time with a lorry full of fizzy pop. Of course there was always the rag and bone man.

Did you go to school locally ?
I went to Hague Primary School (Mape Street) until I was 11yrs old.

Are there any particular local shops or pubs that you remember ?
I always remember Ron’s the barber on the corner of Corfield St and Three Colts Lane and the 2 shops (a newsagent and a grocers) as previously described between Finnis and Wilmot Street. I think the now Good Shepherd Mission was a Barnado’s Home at that time. There was also a pub on Three Colts Lane, but I’m not sure what it was called, being too young to notice – it might have been the Lamb on the corner of Wilmot St but I can remember another too – which was probably The Duke of Wellington, just around the corner next to A&H. I remember the Police Station on Bethnal Green road, The Shakespeare pub next door (where a neighbour held their post marriage festivities) and the shop on the corner of Wilmot St which is Furniture Xpress now was a furniture shop then too. Obviously Kelly’s pie and eel shop was a staple and we used to go to the Brick Lane to purchase bagels from the many jewish bakers in the area. There used to be many market barrows running along the southern side of the Bethnal Green road from Wilmot St to Vallance Rd selling groceries, fruit and sundries. There was a fish stall (outside of Kelly’s I think) which sold fresh eels, which would be sleepily slithering around on ice. There’s an old story (no idea if its actually true) to the effect that one day an eel escaped and was making its way across the Bethnal Green road. A woman waiting at the stall shouted out to the stall holder ‘quick, save that eel, it’s just about to be run over by a bus!’ The stallholder stopped the bus just in time, retrieved the eel and returned to his stall. The woman who had shouted out then said ‘I’ll have that one’ at which point the fishmonger chopped the head and tail off, split it, removed the guts and wrapped it up and sold it to her.

Do you remember the buildings themselves ? .. were they in good condition at that time ?
At my time in Corfield St (1956-1966) I thought the buildings were nice and in good shape, looked after proudly by the residents. People took it in turn to wash down the communal stairs and I don’t remember there being any rubbish around, even in the alleyways. There was no feeling of ‘slum’ or ‘underpriviledged’ and most parents were able to pay for their kids school dinners. In those days if you couldn’t afford to pay for dinner, you had a different colour dinner card, so it was pretty obvious who was really poor.

Do you know if they had been altered much from their original Victorian state ?
I was far too young to realise the provenance of the buildings.

Was the roof pitched or flat when you lived there ? .. were you able to gain access to the roofs ?
The building roofs were communal (ran the length of each block) and flat. They were accessed from the top floor of the stairway which ran up to an access door which were mounted on the side of a raised rectangle. As I said previously, when the snow came we had snowball fights across the road from there with the kids from the opposite side of the road.

What state was Weavers’ Fields in at this time ? .. where any of the old cottages still present ?
Weavers Field was a bomb site in those days and wasn’t developed until after my time I think. There were no buildings there to my recollection.

Do any local characters or stories spring to mind ?
The east end was full of characters in those days, but none in my street that I particularly remember. The Krays were pretty active at that time of course and Vallance Road was not far away. Interestingly they seemed to be pretty well respected in the area by the ‘populus’ (and not from a fear of them) – as they were seen to ‘look after their own’. I remember the shooting happening in the Blind Beggar and local rumours were that some of the Krays ‘victims’ were disposed of in the concrete pillars of the then under construction Bow flyover. It will be interesting to see if this urban legend is proved correct if the flyover is ever removed!

I have found some information that the Improved Industrial Dwellings Co. changed its name to Greencoat Properties in 1962, it seems that soon after this questions were asked about the condition of the buildings and the local Authority stepped in and took them over very soon after. Here’s a quote:

“During the Twentieth century, Waterlow’s buildings, were sorely neglected. They had moved from the management of the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company to Greencoat Properties Ltd. By the early 1960s these flat were described as ‘malodorous litter dens’. In 1962 Greencoat threatened tenants on the nearby Waterlow estate with doubled rents or eviction, which led to a rent strike. The result was the purchase of all former IIDCo properties in the area by Tower Hamlets council in the 1960s.”

Do you know anything about this ?
I do not remember anything about a rent strike (I wasn’t paying it of course) and the description of ‘malodorous litter dens’ does not square with my memories of the place up until 1966.

When did you move away ?, did you stay in the Bethnal Green area ?
We moved to newer rented accommodation in South London in 1966 (before the world cup).

Have you been back and visited since you left ?
Yes, I have been back a couple of times while researching my family tree.

Lastly, I’ve heard a rumour about a man who lived on Wilmot Street in the 1960s who won the pools. Apparently he paid the rent of everyone nearby .. I don’t suppose you ever heard this story ?
I definitely remember a man in Wilmot Street winning the pools. I think he may have been widowed (or divorced) as I think that only his daughter lived with him. It was certainly big news at the time – not sure how much he won but something like £2k or £5k comes to mind. It was a fortune in those days. I cannot confirm the story that he paid the locals rent though.

I want to thank Lesley for taking the time to find and send over these photographs and answer all my questions so thoroughly. I’d also like to thank her for giving me permission to share them here. This is precisely what I had hoped this site would become – a place to share stories and piece together the story of the Estate over the years.

If you or someone you know lived on the Waterlow Estate at any point I would absolutely love to hear from you. Please drop a line in the comments and I’ll be in touch.