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: iidc

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 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/

More from the Archives

Here’s some pages from the Register of Estates :

Looking at the plans below of the Estate as it stood in 1870 it seems that there were once blocks on either side of Corfield Street, where the Barrett style houses and Ainsley Gardens are now situated.

A close up of the signed and dated text :

There’s a page missing here, I wonder if that had featured the layout of the blocks on Corfield Street ? :

I think this is the layout of the blocks on the West side of Wilmot Street :

And this the plans for the blocks on the East :

Pictures from the Archives

As mentioned in another post, I visited the Metropolitan Archive a little while ago and managed to get a look at two IIDC documents. There was a book of land valuations and another of plans for various blocks around London. Both books seemed to be very old or at least featured original plans and documents that were very old (the drawings are dated 1870).

Firstly here’s some images from the valuation book :



The Improved Industrial Dwelling Company

There were a number of philanthropic organisations coming into being from 1860 onwards, set up in reaction to the squalid conditions many of the working classes experienced in areas such as Bethnal Green’s notorious Jago (now the Boundary Estate).

Sir Sydney Waterlow proclaimed of his Improved Industrial Dwelling Company that

“We build for the future and look forward to the time when no family need be compelled to live in a single room. It is impossible that either sanitary or moral conditions can ever be satisfied under such a system. No proper feeling of decency or self-respect can be cultivated in families living in a single room”.

The Improved Industrial Dwellings Company started in 1863 by constructing the Langbourn Buildings in Mark Street, Finsbury (now demolished). Other than the Waterlow Estate other notable developments include the Leopold Buildings on the corner of Columbia and Hackney Road and Clarendon Flats in Mayfair. The company lasted until the 1960s by which point they owned around 6000 tenements in and around London.

The IIDC operated on a freemarket basis, although the profits were limited to 5%, the rest of the money being reinvesting into further properties and developments. Waterlow also encouraged investment from others, unlike Peabody who seemed to fashion a legacy for himself as much as he wanted to help the poor.

Links about the IIDC :
Workhouses – A site about the various Victorian philanthropic organisations.
Five per Cent Philanthropy by John Nelson Tarn

The Waterlow Estate

The Waterlow Estate is the collective name for the Victorian blocks of flats lining Wilmot, Ainsley and Corfield Streets in Bethnal Green, London. It was constructed from 1869 to 1890 by Sir Sydney Waterlow’s Improved Industrial Dwellings Company. The two blocks nearest Bethnal Green Rd were built first, they would have been surrounded by the old weavers cottages which were eventually cleared as the road layout was progressively altered.

This quote gives a pretty clear picture of the order in which the Estate was constructed :

“The first blocks, in the north, opened in 1869. Homes for 72 families had been completed by 1871 and for another 130 by 1873 and 90 by 1875. The School Board for London purchased ½ a. between Wilmot and Finnis streets in 1873 and work began on 21 blocks (for 210 families) in the rest of Finnis Street in 1875 and on 12 blocks for 295 families in Corfield Road in 1878. The estate, later called Waterlow, complete by 1890 and the largest built by the company, was grim and canyon-like in appearance.”

Source : A History of the County of Middlesex by T.F.T. Baker

The photograph below is taken from what is now Finnis street (then Pettits Walk) looking northwest towards Bethnal Green Rd.

Looking at the scaffolding I’m assuming it was taken during the construction of the first two blocks. It’s interesting to see that the blocks weren’t quite the shape they are now, with the top floor being set back a little.

I visited the Metropolitan Archive recently and found a number of original IIDC documents. I’ll post a few more of them in the future but this plan shows the layout of the estate on the completion of the first blocks.

Extra bits,
A chapter about the establishment and layout of Bethnal Green Streets

Maps showing the development of the nearby road layout

1853

1882

1952