The Rookery


Angel Yard has been entered into the ScaleSeven Group’s Challenge 33 competition.  The decision doesn’t affect what has been planned so far, and provides a  deadline of October 2014 to work towards.  Shouldn’t be too hard (sez he), and by then I’d like to have the rest of the Rookery section underway, into which, like a jigsaw piece, the yard will eventually slot.

Coborn Road – one stop down from Basilica Fields and the very essence of the GER in the East End, some of which I hope to capture in Angel Yard. Photograph ©Public Domain.

With the competition in mind these are the key elements I’ll be concentrating on for the next couple of years (though I’m sure there will be distractions and diversions):

  • At least two 0-6-0T GER ‘buckjumpers’ and a ‘Coffee Pot’.
  • A handful of GER open wagons for loco coal, ash disposal and other needs, loco sand wagon and a brake van.
  • Laser-cut viaduct, house and pub carcasses.
  • Baseboards.
  • Track & electrics: Graham will be building the track which will incorporate  early 24′ rails (some with staggered joints) to tie in with the earlier use of the sidings as a part of the Eastern Counties granary as well as 30′ long sections for more recent track. This first segment will be DCC controlled through the rails, though I’m anticipating a move towards wireless DCC powered by rechargeable batteries (wirelessly charged…hurry up technology!) for future sections.
  • Scenics.  I’m setting the whole of Basilica Fields in winter;  slushy with a light snow falling, so lots of experimenting ahead. Not forgetting millions of setts to be scribed and posts on how best to model horse manure.

The general direction the blog in the immediate future will take into account all the above and more, so expect a move towards incorporating updates of a practical nature mixed in with the historical and whimsy.

Here is the view on 12th May 1988 – the industrial building on the right has been extended upwards. (© Copyright Ben Brooksbank and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence )

© Copyright Ben Brooksbank

Here is  the modern day view – despite the buildings on the left surviving (the bridge took a direct hit from a Doodlebug),  much of the character of the scene has been diluted.

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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

A quick, and very rough sketch to show the levels. That it looks like part of Ricey’s Cornfield Street is no accident – it fits the bill perfectly, so there’s no need to reinvent the wheel.

Rough sketch of The Yard

We’re looking south. In the foreground I’ve added the an impression of the far side of the brick lined cutting for the Met Lines (stage 3 of this segment) and the position of the future road bridge over it on the right hand side. On the viaduct at the back will be the quadruple tracks of the GE Main and Through lines with the beginnings of some sidings on the left (stage 2). These three stages will only encompass one half of The Rookery with about half as much again either side bringing the Rookery to about 20′ in length. However, what you see here shows the extent of the visible Met lines for this whole section as they disappear into cut & cover tunnels either side. Over the top on the right (west, towards The City) will be a network of grimy East End streets and courtyards with the main lines on the GE viaduct forming the backdrop. Beyond that is a goods depot and then Artillery Lane where the Met lines reappear. To the left the sidings eventually lead to a large coal depot. But that’s all some way off…

In the space in the left foreground are some dilapidated buildings of a small courtyard (H. Dowling & Sons, Decorators, perhaps?) accessed through the viaduct. It all looks to be a tight squeeze and that’s intentional; I want to impart a cramped, claustrophobic feel. I think a mock up will be essential so I can move things around if necessary to make the best of it.

Mad houses, poor houses, work houses, whore houses, slums, hospitals, feculent rivers, churches and cemeteries have all succumbed to the steady onslaught of the coming of the railways to East London from the late 1830s to the present day. As the Eastern Counties Railways and its successor the Great Eastern Railway marched inexorably onwards towards the City, they cut a huge gash through the densely populated streets where pickpockets, housebreakers and prostitutes live in great numbers alongside destitute street sellers and home-based artisans in Sweater’s Hell, each struggling to survive through every waking minute of every day on meagre pay and little food of the poorest quality. Rookeries abound; compacted courtyards and wretched streets of ancient, rotting housing stock are linked by a network of dilapidated low-roofed subterranean corridors and passageways vastly overcrowded by second and third generation Londoners and more recent migrants. Newer housing invariably contravenes building regulations and are almost always without foundations, often with windowless cellars or wooden flooring laid directly onto bare earth where entire extended families live in a single low-roofed room sharing one damp bed. Exteriors of cheap timber and ash-adulterated clay brick are held together with billysweet (a by-product of soap making from local factories) instead of mortar which never dries out, resulting in sagging, unstable walls sometimes faced with blooming plaster upon which badly pitched leaking roofs sit, supported by mouldering rafters. Damp and mildew seeps through the very fabric of the buildings, disease and sickness abounds. Mortality is high and never more so than during times of contagion, the death toll is often twice that of other poor areas outside of the Rookeries.

Fifty years ago viaducts constructed from millions of handmade bricks rose up and bisected foetid communities; the resultant archways were quickly leased out as housing, workshops, warehouses and even public houses. Goods depots, factories and granaries, each several stories high, have erupted from cleared slums and link with the railways at viaduct level. An array of hydraulic hoists delivers wagons of merchandise into the deep Stygian gloom beneath via a viper’s nest of street-level inset tracks, each one dragged, shoved or otherwise coerced by horse, rope, capstan and pinch-bars over of ranks of wagon turntables into small dark unloading bays. Every two hours dozens of fresh wagons of steam and domestic coals are lined up on rows of tracks with hatches astride and between, their contents hurled into the depths below to be weighed and bagged. Six hundred and twenty five thousand souls live within a few furlongs of the railway, between them burning some 937,000 tons annually; every day ten 300-ton trains of coal from Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire are brought into the capital via the GN&GE Joint Line satiating their household needs.

As time passes, new depots arise and older sidings are ripped up, altered or allotted a new use. Here in the Angel Rookery, the old ECR Burial Street goods depot of 1840, built on the site of a disused cemetery, was largely swept away by the Great Eastern during widening of the viaduct and quadrupling of the line in 1891. The remaining few sidings at street level on the north side have been converted into a small locomotive servicing yard for engines shunting the nearby warehouses. The yard is accessed by way of a severe gradient from the main line, local crews bestowing upon it the grand epithet The Pipe to Hell. Some ancient squalid housing remains in Burial Street, a dirty, amputated stump of a road, no more than a shadow of its former self, their small rooms seething with damp, disease, death and worse…

Less than a decade ago the streets of the Angel Rookery were within the stalking grounds of Jack the Ripper. Some residents worry that one day he will return, and in quiet, unguarded moments, one can see uncertainty mixed with the suspicion of strangers in their eyes, sometimes a flicker of fear traces across their careworn features. Fables abound, mostly generational folklore handed down from the Irish, Jewish, Romany and Huguenot migrants to frighten the children at bedtime, but adults confide to me that at least the relatives of Jack’s victims had remains to bury, whereas the victims of other psychotic murderers or phantasms have no such remains to mourn over. From various sources I have collected the names of dozens of local souls who have vanished in recent years, and at first I greeted such tales with no small degree of scepticism – stories of children and adults, sometimes one walking alone, sometimes one in a group, simply disappearing into thin air, never to be seen again. One of the strangest and most recent of these events concerned an old man, a lunatic in his seventh decade who turned up on the doorstep of a house in Burial Street and claimed he was the child of the occupant and his wife in their thirties whose eldest son, a boy of seven, had disappeared last year. The old man’s disclosure obviously upset the couple, they angrily refuted his claims which grew louder and more passionate until chased away by a clearly unnerved crowd of locals who had gathered around. Later that evening the old man stole onto railway property and threw himself into the path of an oncoming train. One might easily consider such stories to be fuelled by alcohol, or inventions woven to cover infanticide, fratricide, or even an accidental death as five sixths of all infant deaths in these Rookeries are by suffocation from overlaying due to overcrowding in family-shared beds. However, so consistent are the stories, and so earnestly are they told, that even a man grounded in scientific principles might begin to wonder if something dark and sinister is indeed abroad.

Standing sentinel over the junction of Burial Street and Angel Yard is a lone remnant of the old cemetery rudely crushed beneath industrial progress. Myths surrounding it are legion; older children put the fear of God into their younger siblings who tremble at the stories, giving wide berth to the statue they are told moves and drags you silently into the ground to consume you alive. I am quietly amused yet nevertheless interested by these pagan fables, but sometimes a little less of the statue’s mournful face appears to be covered by raised hands. It is, of course, a trick of light and shadow created by the flickering of a spluttering gas lamp or from patterns swirling in the dense, greasy yellow-green fog of another pea-souper settling over the dismal East End. In the blink of an eye one can see that of course no such movement has taken place, but if the mind of a methodical scientist can be tricked, how much more so these poor, ignorant, uneducated souls?

Tonight I heard the tanks of a locomotive being filled with water and the clanging of mineral upon metal plate as the bunker was filled from wicker baskets of coal stored on the timber staging. I stood by the wall adjoining the public house near the sub-surface lines and watched a small black engine  in a siding. One of the crew exited the grounded carriage, trudging towards it through the accumulated slush and climbed into the cab. Words were exchanged, conversation drowned out by a short blast on the steam whistle and was followed by a staccato bark from the chimney. The exhaust gave way to near silence, just the quiet clanking of rods and the thud of wheels passing over rail joints echoing down Burial Street, before disappearing under the iron bridge leading to the rest of the world. In the distance and high above, the muted, heavy labouring of a mineral train punctuated the air, brakes squealing in protest as it slowed towards the coal depot located a quarter of a mile away. In the brick-lined cutting below, an aspirating train filled with passengers burst from the gloom of a long tunnel, a cloud of sulphurous exhaust roaring into the moonlit sky caught me unaware, causing my heart to suddenly race. I looked at my pocket watch; the hour was late, and before returning to the warmth of civilisation and society there was a long walk across London ahead of me. Laughter and song spilled out from the Weeping Angel public house, light from the front window bathing the flagstones in a soft yellow glow. I stood and watched through the etched glass before crossing the muddy street towards the sorrowful angel, and for the first time in all my visits here, as I glanced up, the gas lamps in the street flickered and for a moment I thought saw the horror of living eyes staring back.

Extract from the Journal of Doctor J. Smith, army surgeon (retired), entry dated 12th December 1901. Less than two months later the doctor himself disappeared, the last entry in his journal indicating that he believed he had solved the mystery of the vanishing residents of the Rookery.

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.