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.
Many who live in London’s East End will have had the experience of black cab drivers regaling them with stories of growing up in the area, usually followed by an explanation that they moved out to Essex long ago.
Living on Wilmot Street is no different, many drivers know the street due to its proximity to the black cab repair businesses on Three Colts Lane or will know due to it featuring in a gotcha question in The Knowledge (apparently as you’re not able to take a right turn out onto Bethnal Green Road, or so I’ve been told). A more uncommon story that I had heard from at least three taxi drivers over the years was of a guy who lived on Wilmot Street in the sixties who won the pools and paid his neighbours rent with the winnings.
There is something about this story that has held my attention over the years. I had tried many times to find a record or a name but with no luck. So much so that I started to assume he was an urban legend.
Many years passed, with many an idle evening spent chasing links on the internet trying to find even a scrap of information without any luck. This all changed last year when I started posting on Facebook and found the Waterlow Estate group. I asked members of the group and immediately everyone agreed that he did indeed exist and that he had paid his neighbours rent. Although it seemed everyone had their own slightly different take on the story.
The story opened up for me when I finally discovered his real name – Charlie Cooper. With this I was able to find newspaper articles, a photograph and tease out more facts from other members of the Facebook group.
I’m so pleased to be able to get this story down in ‘print’ and leave a small marker or memorial to one man’s kindness and the community as it remembered him.
Many people helped me sketch out the story, but it was John King who fleshed out much of the detail for me. Much of this post is formed from an interview with him. Here is the story as it has been told to me. John starts:
“Charlie did live in Wilmot St, in an airey (semi-basement) flat. I was born at 144 Wilmot street and Charlie’s flat was about 4 or 5 blocks down from there, so his place would have been numbered around the 200 mark, I can´t be more explicit.
John Mossell added that “his family all lived on Wilmot I think in the blocks on the eastern side near Ainsley”
John King and others told me that Charlie worked for the LEB (London Electricity Board) on Cambridge Heath Road. This is backed up by an article from The New York Times in 1964 which states:
“Charlie Cooper made $29 a week as a clerk at the London Electricity Board and lived accordingly. At 46, he was still a bachelor, residing with his mother in an old basement apartment without a bath.”
Many have corroborated this although a few have also said Charlie was a watchmaker. Glenn Unstead told me:
“Charlie used to mend watches for additional income. After the win, he returned to work on the following Monday morning to hand in his notice along with a brown paper bag full of unrepaired watches and an apology that he wouldn’t be repairing them.”
I also found a brief mention of Charlie in a 1964 issue of Life Magazine . A pools win seems to have sapped him of any urge to work: “I’ve had a happy working life but there’s no point in doing any more is there?” – he had just won a $630,000 soccer pool. He sipped a little champagne to celebrate (although “a mild beer is more my drink”) and settled down to a life of leisure”
John King continues:
“I delivered newspapers for a shop called Allens in Three Colts Lane, this was in part of the estate that covered Wilmot Street, Finis Street, Corfield Street, Ainsley Street and a part facing onto Three colts Lane. Charlie would come into the shop on his way to work each day. As I recall he bought a paper and tobacco. I am not sure if he continued to work after his win, it was such big news.”
Of the win itself The Times stated that:
“one night, last month, a stranger called, asking for “Mr. Charles Cooper.” Charlie greeted him suspiciously, and like many people in Bethnal Green, prepared an alibi: “I’ll pay first thing next week. But this man represented Littlewood’s Pools Ltd., and Cooper had won £225,135 ($630.375,20), tax ‐ free, for scoring a winning number of points in 3 weekly soccer pool. Charlie at once quit his job, promised £60,000 to relatives and began talking about Bentley automobiles and vacations.”
“Obviously it caused a great deal of excitement over the whole estate, when the news broke. I remember seeing Alan Whicker filming a programme about Charlie, in Wilmot Street, sometime afterwards.
I can tell you most definitely that Charlie paid the rent for every tenant on the estate, remember there were over 400 dwellings in Corfield St, over 300 in Wilmot St, probably 200 in Finis St, plus those on Ainsley and Three Colts Lane. I know that everybody had their rent paid because by that time I lived on Corfield St and my nan lived on Wilmot and it was big news when he paid the rents. There was a rumour that he gave his milkman(who I remember was a grumpy chap) a tip and the milkman told him to put a nought on the end of it and Charlie put him on his bike with nothing. Remembering that milkman, I can quite believe the story.”
This fact is backed up press coverage of the time, (although strangely I’ve only been able to find reports of Charlie’s win in US newspapers). The Dixon Evening Telegraph states: “Monday, April 13,1964 – Charlie Cooper, the $28-a-week clerk who won $650,000 in a soccer pool, has picked up a big check for his neighbors in the Bethnal Green section of London’s East End. Hundreds of people who live on Wilmot Street will be told when they show up at town hall today to pay their week’s rent: “Don’t bother. Charlie Cooper has paid it for you.” Charlie sent a check for $4,200 to the Town Council, then ducked away to the country.”
From what I heard at the time I think the win turned his life upside down he was inundated with begging letters. It struck me that he was a round block in a round hole, prior to the win and probably quite happy with his lot. Probably a case of not knowing what you have got until you haven’t got it.
I remember that there was a shop at the top of Wilmot St, where it met Bethnal Green Rd, called Phillips and Scoones which had been knocked down a while after Charlie´s win and they built some private flats above the new shops and Charlie moved into one of those.
I remember that while he was still living in Wilmot St, he bought a most beautiful Rover 3 litre Coupe, it really was a terrific car but it was rarely used.”
The Rover is also mentioned the Life article and has been further corroborated by Paul Field who added:
“Charlie bought a new Rover even though he couldn’t drive, my dad used to drive him. It sat in the garage for years in pristine condition. I was offered it at a tender age when he passed but it was of no interest to me then. I think it went to a collector/museum.”
“I don’t know what happened regarding his love life but when I look back on those times, although it was a fantastic amount of money that he won, I feel a little sorry for the man. I think Eastenders at that time were not equipped to deal with such a massive upheaval in their lives. Most people were happy living in the communities in which they lived, most had their extended family close by, There wasn’t too much keeping up with the Jones´s and peoples lives were more of an open book. Kids played out together, people left their doors open. The conditions on the estate on which we lived were more than ok, they certainly weren’t slums, so life wasn’t so bad. I bet there were many times that Charlie wished he never won that money. Maybe a few quid would have been better for him. Just my opinion of course but he certainly did not seek a mansion in the country, preferring to stay amongst his own.”
I found two articles from The New York Times from year that Charlie won the pools, both back up John’s point that Charlies win was bittersweet. One of the NY Times story states:
“By the following weekend. though, Cooper’s delirium had subsided. Drinking champagne and posing for newspaper photographers made him uncomfortable. He began to suspect that women would. angle for his money—he had already received 100 letters proposing marriage and reporters had reunited him with “May,” a girl he had dated 30 years ago. ”If it’d been £2,000 or £20,000 he said, “I could have been happy. But this is too much for a man like me. Much too much. I must be the unhappiest man in Britain.”
It’s sad to end on Charlie’s statement that he must ‘be the most unhappiest man in Britain’. But there it is. After years of searching I’m able to put a name to the legend and hopefully some facts about the story.
I’m indebted to John King, John Mossell, Glenn Unstead, Paul Field, and everyone from Facebook who helped fill in the gaps for me. If you have anything to add please get in touch in the comments below and I’ll update this story as the legend evolves.
New York Times Articles can be found here, and here. Along with the article from Life Magazine here.
Having a (very) niche obsession such as the Waterlow Estate means months of trawling the internet finding very little and then once in a while hitting the jackpot. It was in this vein that I recently happened across The Streets of Waterlow Estate and Bethnal Green Facebook group. I’m not sure why I’d never tried searching Facebook before but this group has proved to be a treasure trove of memories and photographs of the Estate.
A particular highlight was a link to a clip from Thames News in 1982 detailing the state of disrepair the buildings had fallen into by this time. You can see the clip here.
I struck up conversation with John Mossell (the founder of the group), which led to me asking if he’d mind sharing some memories from his time growing up on the estate in the 1970’s. John very kindly put together a number of lengthy and fascinating emails which I’m going reproduce on the here along with some drawings and photographs which he shared. He covered a number of topics so I thought I would break the posts into three sections.
Starting here with John’s personal memories of growing up on Corfield Street in the 1970s onwards. John has a wealth of knowledge about the conditions and layout of the Corfield Street flats during this period.
A post about the Greencoats Tenants Association who were instrumental in getting the Estate out of private hands and under the control of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in 1963. Following their success they switched focus to organising outings and social gathering for residents.
Finally some memories of the local businesses and shops who supplied the residents of the Estate.
I want to thank John for his great effort and time he put into putting all this information together. It is thanks to dedicated people like him that the social history of the East End lives on,
Over to John:
Moving to Corfield Street
My Dads eldest sister and her husband and their son lived in Corfield Street from about 1958 to the Summer of 1981. Her and my dad together with six other siblings were brought up in Blackwall buildings (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackwall_Buildings), demolished in the 1960s, located at the Whitechapel end of Vallance Road. I believe they moved to a house in Bethnal Green in early 1940s due to fire damage following bombing during the war.
In the 1950s my aunt and uncle spent some time living in Kilburn but wanted to return to Bethnal Green so their Son could attend Raines Foundation Grammar School based in Stepney at that time. They therefore secured a flat in Corfield Street which I think was a second or third floor flat in the block (Eastern side, southern end) that included the passageway arch which still exists. I think that some of the flats in this block had two bedrooms because of their configuration above the arch passageway. By 1967 I think the first modernised blocks on Corfield Street were complete and they moved into the block on the corner of Ainsley St and East side of Corfield St.
I believe through my aunt enquiring for them and them themselves looking for accommodation with the landlords, that my mum and Dad moved into their first married home on Corfield Street in March 1961. For the first 9 months of their marriage they had lived with my dad’s parents in Elwin St near. Columbia Road flower market. Due to shortages in accommodation, I think probably would have been as a result of aftermath of bomb damage / destruction, it was common for married couples in the East End to live in a room or (if in a house) a set of rooms with one of the parents.
I still have rent cards and landlord documents for their first flat, 185 (4th block. down from Ainsley St) on the western side and northern end of Corfield St.
At that point the landlords were still Greencoat properties. I have a document dated from 1963 that shows that is when many of the blocks were taken over by LB (London Borough) of Bethnal Green, which formed part of LB Tower Hamlets when created in 1965.
First wave of refurbishments 1966 to 1972
By December 1969 the middle sections of blocks on the eastern side of Corfield Street must have been ready following refurbishment, as my parents moved into a new refurbished 2 bedroom flat formed from two of the one bedroom flats knocked into one, as you probably have heard about from other people. During this extensive period of modernisation for Corfield St, which must have lasted for about 5 years or so, began in about 1966 (I am using photographic evidence that a member posted on the Waterlow Estate Facebook page which show modernisation taking place and has the year quoted is 1966) and lasted until about 1971/2. Many of the individual one bedroom flats were renovated based on the two into one format, especially on floors on the 2nd or above. To reflect the reduced number of flats the numbering was slightly different when blocks were ready for families to move back into, this is supported by seeing archive plans of block numbering posted by members on the Facebook page about three years ago. For example, in the new block my parents moved into their new flat number 301 was on the 3rd floor whereas before the renovation flat 301 was one of two 1 bedroom flats on the ground floor. In fact I know one of the Facebook group members lived with their family in the old 301 on the ground floor before the renovations.
map showing original numbering scheme
My parents new flat was modern, for late 1960s standards, and a palace compared to their one bedroom flat (scullery kitchen with indoor toilet, no bathroom and no hot running tap water) at 185 Corfield. They had a sitting room (not on bay side of block so it had a plain window) to the left of the front door, where the sitting room of original one bed would have been located. Opposite the front door a small passageway led to an individual bathroom (just bath and sink) and then to a small toilet room, each with their own window overlooking the newly created balcony structure. The bathroom and toilet room along with the small passageway would have been originally occupied by a bedroom of the original one bedroom flat.
Opposite our living room door (and to the right of the entrance to the flat) was located the new modernised kitchen which was in same location as the old flat, but the back of the blocks was remodelled with newer shorter length windows.
John’s sketch of the flat he grew up in on Corfield Street
The back of the kitchen held newly installed kitchen cupboards with a modern style sink / drainer. Underneath the sink/drainer section and worktop, were 4 sliding door cupboards where the. One under the draining board held the gas water boiler which provide hot water to the kitchen and bathroom. My memory of this as a child and right up until we vacated the flat in May 1985, was that it was not very reliable providing water not particularly hot at times, as the pilot light would constantly go out and had to be re-lite. All the original Victorian fireplaces of the original small individual flats were blocked in or demolished (when comparing to the plan of the 1 bed on your website and other people’s memories [reproduced below]).
Layout of 33 Corfield Street during the 1960s. Read the full article here: http://wilmotst.com/192-index-htm/
In the living room where the original fire chimney breast was there was installed a modern gas fire with a simple modern wood fireplace surround. I remember this worked very well compared to the boiler, and when to it’s full setting would keep the living room nice and warm. There was no other heating installed like central heating to the flats. My dad, as with many other families, installed extra heating in the bathroom and kitchen with wall fitted mounted single bar electric heaters. From memory these were hand wired in the existing electric light pennants. A common occurrence, I believe then but very dangerous by today’s health and safety standards. My dad was a competent in woodwork and electric DIY so the installation seemed to me pretty reliable and safe.
Outside balconies or verandas (as I remember some people called them back then) were created with the refurbishment of the blocks by turning the original kitchen window into a door space and linking this with a metal and concrete structure, including new rubbish chute system, creating the balcony linking to the next flat. Depending on configurations most flats shared a balcony but some had the luxury of their own balcony. We shared with the three bedroom flat on left, but the four bedroom flat on our right did not. After our kitchen the passageway led to the right into the territory occupied by the original second one bedroom flat in the same block. The original kitchen of the second flat became the smaller bedroom (my bedroom) with remodelled back wall and smaller modern window like the kitchen. The next bit would have been identical to the space of our bathroom and toilet and would have been the bedroom of the original second 1 bedroom flat but to create the bigger four bedroom flat next door to us in the next block (our good neighbours for many years at 306) this was given over to be part of that flat. So by knocking two flats into one, you could create either 2, 3 or 4 bed flats by using a space from one flat to give an extra bedroom to another, a sort of “robbing peter to pay paul” principle.
From my bedroom you turned right into the passageway of the original second flat, on the left was the wall that would have originally had the front door to the second flat. This passageway led to my parents bedroom which was the same size as our sitting room which would have been the original sitting room of the second one bedroom flat. As we were on the third floor this bedroom did not have a bay window but it was on top of the bay structure so had a larger window with three portions and overlooked an original small Victorian ornate balcony feature, which my parents would climb onto to clean the window from the outside! After the second late 1980s modernisation these were removed from the bay window structures as I think this was connected to the structural problems identified in 1982.
The new balconies that were installed in the last 8 blocks of the southern end and the seven on the western end of Corfield were different in style (I know this as the second flat I lived at from 1990 had such a balcony) further evidence to me that these were the last blocks to be modernised on the street. These balconies were solid brick extension structures added on to the backs of the original buildings, instead of metal and concrete structures as explained above.
The rear of the East side of Corfield St 1966.
With the late 1960s/early 70s modernisation one beds with two on a floor remained on the ground and sometimes first floors. I can not be certain but by visiting other flats of friends and neighbours as a child, and knowing a lot of about the size of the families that lived there, apart from one bedrooms, I would say 2 bedrooms were most common followed by 3 beds and then a scattering of 4 beds for the larger families. For example if facing the front of our block on the third floor we had a two bed (No. 301), the flat on the block on the left (good friends of the family still today) at 294 was a three bed and the flat on the same floor, that I already mentioned on the right at 306, was a four bed to accommodate a family where there were 6 children and the two parents.
To create enough floor space for two 1 beds on the same floor to have a modern bathroom and kitchen, I am fairly certain they must have used the same principle of “borrowing peter to pay paul”. For example in my block there were two 1 beds on the ground and on the 1st floors. But in each block on either side on the first floor there was only one, one bedroom flats.
The new flat my aunt and uncle lived in from 1967 (approx) was on the first end block on eastern side of Corfield St. As this was a larger block being on the end, their 2 bed flat was on the same landing as another one bed flat, so no two flats knocked into one, the layout therefore being slightly different to our flat. The front entrance door was immediately in front of the stairs (if memory serves) and not on the left or right of the stairs, however the flat that shared the same landing was in the normal position being on the right. As you went in there was small square hall. Immediately in front of the entrance door was a door to the sitting room. A door to the left of the front entrance door accessed the first bedroom where you had to walk through another door to the left of that to get to another slightly larger bedroom. I think because of the corner block situation, they all had similar sized windows and both bedrooms were similar with in size. As that second bedroom was on the corner of the block that room had two windows, one a bay balcony like our flat and one to the right a standard Victorian style sash window. To access the smaller kitchen (compared to ours which my aunt made no secret of being a little envious of!) that was accessed via the sitting room. Once in the kitchen on the far left there was another door that led to the bathroom which I think did not have separate toilet room but was combined, I seem to recall there was a little “vestibule” area before entering the bathroom. On the left of the kitchen window opposite the kitchen entrance from sitting room I think was entrance to a small balcony which was not shared, and also had one of the modern rubbish shoots like all the other flats. I am trying to recall other details but my memory is hazy on this. I don’t know why but the blocks Of the first part of the late 1960 modernisation, like Ainsley St, were installed without gas, and all had Electric fires and cookers. The blocks later on like our flat had gas fires and gas facilities if you wanted to install a gas cooker or there was electrical installation point if you wanted to have an eclectic cooker instead.
John’s Mum in her updated post 1960s kitchen on Corfield Street
John’s Mum in her updated post 1960s kitchen on Corfield Street
So from looking at my family history and looking at dates of some photos taken during construction in 1966 (posted on the facebook page) the order of modernisation by LB Bethnal Green / LBTH of the blocks were:
Whole of Ainsley Street section in about 1963.
Seven blocks on the eastern side, north end of Corfield Street in about 1966/67
From approx 1967 to early 1970, six block middle section (which housed my parents second flat), and eight block last section on eastern side. I can not work out which section of the two started first. I know my parents moved into their refurbished flat in the middle section of December 1969 (I still have the new rent card from this time and it’s image is posted in the Facebook page)
Seven blocks on southern side, north end of Corfield St, were the last to be done, as I know my parents vacated their first flat in this section to move into the new flat across the Street in December f1969. Gathering by some Facebook members comments, who lived there, the work would have started perhaps anytime into 1970 once all the 70 families were rehoused. I think that section must have been complete by end of 1971 or start of 1972.
Second wave of refurbishments and demolition (early 1980s)
When vacating the old flats it was common for families like my parents and aunt to transfer to a modernised flat in another part of the estate. Some families also moved into the new flats having lived in properties on Wilmot St or Finnis St.
The 15 blocks located on the far (9 blocks) and middle section (6 blocks) of the western side of Corfield were not modernised and I believe families started to decant from approx late 60s to early 70s.
None of the 21 blocks on Finnis St (15 blocks on the side where the red brick houses are now and 6 blocks on the same side as Hague School) were modernised, I am not sure exactly when families started moving out, but I would guess it was when some moved to refurbished flats on Ainsley or Corfield. The fifteen block section of Finnis Street that backed onto Corfield Street were demolished in mid 1970s, and for the six blocks on Hague School side these were demolished in 1980.
A guide to the development, refurbishment and demolition of the buildings of the Waterlow Estate in Bethnal Green.
I had vague memories of what the Finnis Street blocks looked like, but recent photos posted on the Facebook pages shows the fifteen block section was almost identical to the fronts of Corfield St, but the back of the blocks were completely square, where Corfield Street was not. From looking at a photo on the Facebook page that shows partly the six block section this looks slightly different to the other blocks on Finnis St. Looking at the Home guard parade photos from WWII, the three blocks that were demolished on Wilmot Street, opposite the Good Shepherd Mission, looked also very similar to the blocks on Corfield St.
Section of wall from the original IIDC buildings on Finnis Street
During the 1970s families particularly elderly couples or single people still lived in Wilmot that was not refurbished in the 1960/70s programme of refurbishment (still no bathroom and only toilet accessed via kitchen). I think when people died or families were rehoused the blocks eventually became abandoned. If memory serves Wilmot Street was completely vacated by about 1980/81. When you see it in the Thames TV clip the flats are completely empty, many windows and outer doors on lower basement and ground floors were bricked up, and all in a story state of repair.
Thank you to John for taking the time to detail the layout and conditions of the buildings, in this period.
By the 1980s it is clear that the fabric of the estate was in an extremely poor condition. Documentation and letters from the time (such as those below) show that the local authority was considering the option of demolishing the entire estate, luckily whilst a number of the buildings where demolished many were renovated and offered up for sale around 1986. These are the buildings we see today (other than some modifications to the windows on Corfield Street made in the 1990s)
Myself and other Facebook group members have many fond memories of those times and it was a sense of community with everybody, all ages and all ethnicities, living together on the same estate working together. The ethnic mix of those days reflected the area of the time. During the 1960s to the move out of the early 1980s the ethnic mix was mainly families of English/Welsh/Scottish origin, there was then a largish Irish community. Where families like mine who parents were born in Ireland and came to U.K. In 50s and 60s. There was a scattering of Afro Caribbean families, and I can can only recall one Asian family (Indian the family that lived next door to us) up until late 1970s with some Bangladeshi families moving in by early 1970s before the move out.
Looking back on my memories and from an adult perspective the modernised blocks from the late 60s and early 80s on Ainsley and Corfield seemed to deteriorate very quickly by the time we get to 1982 when structural surveys, you mention from your research, were carried out and the scaffolding goes up. The modernisation in some parts was between only about 11 to 15 years old by the time we get to them deteriorating and demolition considered (as you point out from your study of the archives). From memory, I seem to recall LBTH completed the rehousing of most people / families from a period from 1983 up until about late 1985. But if memory serves there were a few people remaining by 1986/ 1987 and some were (including the couple that lived below us) offered new flats in the council owned blocks that had in the meantime been refurbished and were now ready to move into, as part of the new deal between LBTH and the building firm you know about. I believe people got up to three offers of new accommodation, and were required to accept the third offer.
The first offer we had, about late February 1984, was a two bedroom maisonette of off Ravenscroft Street near Hackney Road. But we did not like it and the reason we gave for rejection of flat offer, was general layout and the boiler would have been in my bedroom! We did not get our next offer until over a year after, in late April 1985, in a flat in a refurbished estate off of Globe Road at the junction of Roman Road. My mother and I (my father having died a relatively young man in June 1980, loved the fact it had gas boiler for hot water and central heating and everything was new, and we therefore moved in mid May 1985 ending for my mother a 25 year period of living on Corfield Street. We both loved the new flat for the first few years or so, as it was modern and had a gleaming new kitchen and bathroom with.
Return to Corfield Street
Constant hot water and central heating, but the neighbours were not the same, and we started to miss Corfield Street, the people, the location of that part of Bethnal Green and it’s general atmosphere. It got to the point that when we knew the late 1980s refurbished flats were up and running we thought about advertising for a mutual exchange. In early 1990 we put an advert in a shop window (that is how it could be done then) requesting anyone from Corfield St interested in exchange, which we got no interest. In May 1990 we then noticed a card asking for an exchange and we successfully responded and moved, after doing the lengthy and bureaucratic exchange paper work with LBTH in July 1990. I still lived at home when my mother passed away and I took over the tenancy in 2000, living there as an adult right up until the summer of 2011, when I got on the property ladder and bought a place in Bow.
In 1995 tenants were alerted to the fact they the bay window and porch entrance structures to the blocks were unsafe and subsiding from the main building. I can not remember the precise details but I think Barrett were investigated and. considered at fault for not identifying/rectifying when they the did the late 1980s refurbishment. From attending some residents meetings in 1995, a financial compensation deal, I believe, was obtained for both the privately sold blocks on the and the LBTH ones and a 18/24 programme was underwent to demolished the original porch and bay structures and replace them with more structurally sound replicas. People living in. smaller flats were decanted and moved into similar sized flats that were vacant. in blocks already completed in the rolling programme of repair work. We had a two bedroom flat so we stayed during the works, but we lost half our sitting room where it was blocked off to allow bay section to be demolished and totally rebuilt. Therefore the porch entrances and bay structures you currently see, on all the blocks that survive on Corfield Street, are not the original Victorian built. structures but rebuilt replicas from the mid 1990s. I seem to recall similar work occurred for blocks on Ainsley Street but not for Wilmot St.
Thank you to John for taking the time to share his memories of the Estate. Along with this post my conversations with John also led to this post about the Greencoats Tenants Association. , as well as this post about the locals shops and businesses. You can find the Waterlow Estate Facebook Group here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/WaterlowEstate/
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.
On the corner of Ainsley Street and Bethnal Green Rd sits an interesting building. Numbered 458 Bethnal Green Road, it is now the home of Providence Row Housing Association who work in the local area helping people at risk of homelessness. However it was once Bethnal Green Police Station.
Bethnal Green Police Station c1984
I’m unsure when the Police Station closed but I’ve managed to find two pieces of video footage showing the Station when it was up and running. The first seems to be some exterior library shots for Thames TV News from the 1980s.
The second is more extensive and is a collection of footage and photographs from someone who worked in CID. The video is captioned as being shot in 1991.
Historically the station was home to the J Division from around 1868 until 1933 when it fell under the H or Whitechapel division. There’s a fairly detailed breakdown of the history of the station on Bryn Elliot’s Police history site.
Bethnal Green Police Station c1907
There is also a mention in the London Echo of extra police patrols during the era of Jack the Ripper:
During the month of August, and up to the 8th instant, when Annie Chapman was killed, the following beats were covered by the men of the J Division quartered at Bethnal green, these forming what is known as the “Second Section night duty.” The first police constable would commence his two beats at Wilmot street, three Colt land, Cheshire street, Mape street, Bethnal green road, to Wilmot street, and the interior, this consisting of a few streets, courts, passages, &c. The second constable would cover Three Colt lane, Collingwood street, Darling row, Dog row, Whitechapel road, Brady street, to Three Colt lane, and the interior, this consisting of about twenty streets, courts, passages