The world of Basilica Fields is more than a railway…  Basilica Fields includes and represents a part of the East End of London across a broad spectrum of geography, commerce, life…  a window into a world that is beyond memory.   Just the other day, probably sometime next week, a discussion took place about the interior of the late 19th century hovels which spread across the East End like jam on butter….  smeared onto the face of the world.  Neither of the authors could recall much knowledge of how the rooms were arranged or the approximate sizes of the buildings which were “home” (or “Des Res”) to thousands of those who spent most if not all of their lives in the dismal sprawl of this part of London.

So why were we discussing such a subject…. and how does that discussion relate to the Quirky corner of Basilica Fields?

The sketches of the The Rookery and of Angel Yard depict row upon row upon row of dreary houses, many of those houses are not much better than slums and soon to be swept away.  Those rows occupy a significant area of the proposed scenes and having dimensions of a representative, typical, building will be of great value when setting out the miniature real estate.

In best Quirky tradition this post offers an opportunity for readers to help with some questions and thoughts.  What might have been the size of a terraced house, for a labourer, in the East End?  How many rooms downstairs and upstairs?  What would be the size of the yard and how big might be the requisite out-house?

Photos, drawings, pointers…  what do you have that can help us in this quest?

regards, Graham

I recently chanced upon the rather unique Spitalfields Life blog, the (gentle) author of which has committed to write one post a day until 2037 – a task which seems to me to be a very tall order, but kudos if that comes to pass! Covering not only historical, but contemporary life stories of the area, by far the greater proportion of posts are largely irrelevant in the context of Basilica Fields, but nevertheless are usually interesting, and the writing style always engaging, so I’ve bookmarked it as one of my ’10 minute coffee break browses’ as I work back through the archive of posts.

Some posts have an immediate air of relevance for us here, others appear less so at first glance, but on closer examination are a treasure trove. A fantastic example of the latter is a post on photographs of car crashes at Clerkenwell during the late 50s – a somewhat dark and macabre theme one might think, but actually that’s not the case, and there’s a tangible, attractive atmosphere to the remarkable images. However, as I scrolled down through the post the last thing I expected to see was a number of photographs unintentionally detailing not only the civil engineering of the Met & Widened lines in the vicinity of Ray Street Gridiron, but a number of the old buildings on the periphery too. Perfect!

For the connoisseur of old Victorian and Edwardian photos, the posts here, here and here give an interesting insight to not only the East End, but other parts of the sprawling Metrop. You can click a number of these images to enlarge, then click to enlarge further.

There are many more gems hidden within the site (bollards…no, seriously!), but I’m not going to spoon feed you. Well, not too much…

All change! (Peter Gabriel, Supper’s Ready)

“[The Rookery]… crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half a dozen houses, with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem to be too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud and threatening to fall into it – as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations, every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage…” Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist.

A house move on the horizon means some changes to the current plans for Basilica Fields. Don’t worry, this journal isn’t going to disappear into the ether or grind to a halt, nor am I instead going to take up a new hobby knitting my own slippers, but the intention to build Artillery Lane as the first segment of Basilica Fields is now under intense scrutiny.

None of the potential new houses we’ve looked at so far have an outbuilding large enough to house the scenic segment of AL and I don’t really want to go down the road of constructing such a building just yet. All have a larger workshop space than I already enjoy, and would see me up and running in the day job again very quickly.

The change means that this journal will at last slip into the format which I had initially conceived; that being research on one segment (in this case Artillery Lane) will continue apace, while building of another segment (The Rookery) gets under way. In fact, initially I’ll be building just a portion of The Rookery, and not the whole shebang, but that’s all to come.

So, the next few posts will be dedicated to unpacking The Rookery before you, the research for which is mostly well in hand.

© Public Domain

The backs of houses at Collingwood Street, part of the Old Nichol Rookery, Bethnal Green. It’s obviously Monday morning with the washing on the lines, and a bathtub hangs from the eaves of the outbuilding in the distance. Lots of lovely chimneys and pantiles!

After the Great War all of this slum and more was swept away and the first post-World War One London County Council housing built on the site.

Old Castle Street synagogue, Whitechapel.  ©Public Domain.

Following the dispersal of the Huguenots and Irish after the collapse of the silk weaving industry, in the middle of the nineteenth century a significant number of Dutch Jews or Chuts settled in the Tenterground area of Spitalfields, bringing with them the trades they practised in Amsterdam such as cigar, slipper and cap making. These tradesman and their families emigrated due to the prejudice which barred them from the guilds in the Netherlands and the slide of the Dutch economy.

Following the assassination of Alexander II of Russia in 1881, 120,000 Ashkenazic Jewish émigrés, mostly impoverished rural workers, fled persecution in Europe and also settled in England. A significant proportion of these refugees gravitated to the East End, often sub-dividing the old Huguenot houses to accommodate as many families as possible, until in some areas Jews accounted for up to 95% of the population. Their vast numbers initially caused much local tension, not only between themselves and the Chuts (whose practices such as eating non-kosher seafood were considered unclean), but with other local communities too.

British Brothers League poster, 1902

A popular and media backlash ensued, gaining the support of notables and the trade unions which resulted in the formation of the anti-semetic restrictionist group The British Brothers League, the demands of which prompted the government to introduce The Aliens Act of 1905. The Act sought to control immigration by preventing paupers and criminals from entering the country, but also ensured asylum for the religious and politically persecuted.

Before long, mechanised cigarette making machines caused the cigar economy to collapse and the Chuts began to disperse, some returning to Amsterdam, others emigrating to the USA, and some assimilated themselves into the wider Jewish community in the East End.

The language of the Ashkenazim – Yiddish – a High Germanic dialect formed from a fusion of Hebrew, Aramaic, Slavic and Romanic languages, and written in the Assyrian script, soon predominated the area and could be seen in shops, signs, billboards, newspapers and theatres. Food and its preparation was obviously important, and soon shops and markets began to thrive, such as kosher butchers, bakers, fish sellers, general grocers and sundry stores.

Of course religion played an important part in Jewish life, and just as everyone in England lived within the sound of a church bell, synagogues sprang up to tend the spiritual needs and to provide welfare to the living, and chevra kadisha to deal with the practicalities and rituals of the dead.

Old Castle Street synagogue in Whitechapel was a typical example of old housing converted to a place of worship within the Jewish ghetto. The entrance (to the right of the wagon) was an obvious feature, situated as it was within a residential and commercial terrace. Joseph Polowski, a china and glass wholesaler, had his export warehouse to the right, as well as a corner shop beyond the wagon in Wentworth Street (one of the border streets of the Tenterground enclave), in which, incidentally, there were no fewer than fifteen kosher butchers by 1901.

Things are going to be a little slow on the blog front for a little while longer, so here’s a follow up to the previous post to keep things moving.

York Buildings could be found in small alley off Grubb Street – the entrance can be seen under the lamp in the centre of the photo in the previous post. Although Booth’s analysis found the area populated by the poor (no kidding!), his assessment was that their need wasn’t chronic. However, just seventeen years later, in 1906, it was decided that these buildings were no longer considered fit for human habitation, and were used instead to store costermongers’ barrows.

Looking at the claustrophobic courtyard one can only begin to imagine just how unbearable life must have been for the one-time residents in both the heat of summer and the cold of winter, the filth and the stench must have been horrendous.

The walls of the building at the end had been painted with distemper by the previous inhabitants in an effort to reflect a little more light into the dingy alleyway.

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