Peabody (Whitechapel) Estate, Glasshouse Street

(now John Fisher Street)   see also Katharine Buildings

17th and 18th century: Glassmaking
By the late 17th century there were two dozen Thames-side glasshouses for the manufacture of all kinds of glass. Needing large quantities of coal, sand and potash, they were located near the river, and had tall chimneys and large yards. It became a significant local trade. One of the first, dating from 1651, was in The Minories, on the south side of Goodman's Yard; it later became the site of a soap factory. Another was in Saltpetre Bank [now Dock Street], owned by the Dallow family - Phillip Dallow was appointed King's glassmaker to Charles II in 1689. As a by-product, it offered 'antiscorbutic water' for the treatment of scurvy and other diseases. All have now gone, but names such as Glasshouse Yard (further along The Highway) survive as a reminder. A glasshouse in Vauxhall was carefully excavated in 1989 - it is now a block of flats - and Kieron Tyler & Hugh Willmott John Baker's Late 17th Century Glasshouse at Vauxhall (Museum of London Archaeological Service 2005) describes this site and the trade generally; see also this site. For more local details, see Derek Morris & Ken Cozens Wapping 1600-1800 (East London History Society 2009), pages 140-141.

The 19th century: Peabody Estate
White's Yard and Glasshouse Street, running between Rosemary Lane [later Royal Mint Street] and East Smithfield, had been another glassmaking site. By the mid-19th century, the area was a maze of slums - cramped courts and alleys. It lay in the administrative district of St Mary Whitechapel, rather than that of St George-in-the-East.

The 'Cross' and 'Torrens' Acts (more detail here) made possible large-scale slum clearance, and various schemes were undertaken by the Metropolitan Board of Works, which from 1855 until the creation of the London County Council in 1889 was responsible for developing infrastructure, by clearing sites, laying roads and selling sites to developers. It was an appointed rather than an elected body, so was never popular. They cleared 40 acres of the worst slums across London, concentrating on congested and unventilated areas with the highest death rates. (In the Glasshouse Street area this was 54 per 1,000 in 1865-75, twice that of the rest of Whitechapel and of London as a whole). They did not necessarily seek to reduce the density of population (indeed, in some schemes it increased): this was so as not to squeeze people out of the area or to increase rents (though local rents in the Royal Mint area doubled when the land was cleared).

The Metropolitan Board of Works worked with several providers of 'Improved Model Dwellings for the Respectable Working Class'. Some provided self-contained flats, but most (including those of the Peabody Trust) were on the 'associated' model, with shared kitchens, lavatories and sculleries on each landing (only the very rich had bathrooms at this period!) Tenants were carefully selected from those in steady work; it was not their task, the developers said, to provide housing for the very poorest classes, though they were criticised for this. This became known as the principle of 'five [or four] per cent philanthropy' - rents must be high enough to produce a 5% [or 4%] return on the capital invested, as advocated by the two main campaigning bodies, the Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes (founded in 1841) and the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes (1844 - whose honorary architect was Henry Roberts of St Paul Dock Street). Two other bodies were the Central London Dwellings Improvement Company (1861) and the London Labourers' Dwelling Society (1861). But it was a struggle to achieve this aim, as the more prosperous workers aspired to homes in the new inner suburbs, not flats adjacent to the old slums. The Housing of the Working Classes Acts of 1866 enabled societies to borrow from the Public Works Loans Commissioners to buy land.

The major developers at this period - others arose later - were the Four Per Cent Industrial Dwellings Company [founded by Lord Rothschild and other Jewish philanthropists, with mainly Jewish tenants - see here - and renamed the 'Industrial Dwellings Society (1885) Ltd'], the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company (whose chairman was Sir Sydney Waterlow - see Harry Jones' 1875 comments here), the Artizans', Labourers & General Dwellings Company (who initially concentrated on low-rise suburban development rather than blocks of flats), and the philanthropic Peabody Trust, who probably made the largest impact by the scale of their developments (which made the '5%' principle more achievable), and set decent, if not exemplary, standards for others. Because of the difficulties of the Whitechapel site (bisected by a curved viaduct leading to a Great Eastern Railway depot, and hard up against the Royal Mint) it was the Peabody Trust that was to develop most of it.

George Peabody (1795-1869) [picture 1857 by James Reid Lambdin] was a New Englander who made a fortune during the rapid growth of Baltimore as a port and trade centre, and moved to London in 1837, aged 42, to consolidate his empire (financing American railroad expansion and the first transatlantic cables, and establishing the merchant bank that was to become Morgan Grenfell). He financed the American exhibits at the 1851 Great Exhibition. Ironically, for one who aged 17 had volunteered as a soldier to fight against the advancing British fleet, he did much to foster Anglo-American trade and political relationships; and come the Civil War (which divided the American community in London) pressed for educational opportunities for blacks. His major benefaction was the £150,000 Peabody Donation Fund (the Peabody Trust), later increased to £500,000, for the construction of such improved dwellings for the poor as may combine in the utmost possible degree the essentials of healthfulness, comfort, social enjoyment and economy for Londoners, a gift acknowledged by Queen Victoria as wholly without parallel. Its creation was marked by a statue in Threadneedle Street unveiled by the Prince of Wales. When he died in 1869, the carriages of the Queen and the Prince of Wales followed the hearse to Westminster Abbey, where Gladstone was among the mourners. He was the first American to be awarded the Freedom of the City of London.

See here for a good summary of earlier programmes to build model dwellings and lodging houses.

Building the estate
In 1875 [first map left]  two Medical Officers of Health reported on the Whitechapel site, and Parliament approved the scheme in 1876 [second map left - it was modified several times up to 1890]. The Metropolitan Board of Works cleared the site between 1879 and 1881 and remade Cartwright Street and part of Glasshouse Street. Because it was an awkward site, there were no takers for leasing the land, so the Peabody Trust bought the area east of the railway viaduct (the spur to the Docks) for £10,000. There they built nine blocks (A to K) in 1880, each 5 storeys, housing 1372 people. Goad's 1887 insurance map [right]  shows the site before L block was added in 1910. The Whitechapel MOH's 1882 report, somewhat frustrated at the slow progress in slum clearance, commented

The Whitechapel District has already been greatly benefitted by the operations of the above Act, and should all the official representations which have been made to the Metropolitan Board of Works, of the several areas referred to in former Reports, be carried out, will be still further benefitted. The five areas of which the Medical Officer of Health has made official representations, are—
1. The Royal Mint Street Scheme.
2. The Flower and Dean Street Scheme.
3. The Goulston Street Scheme.
4. The Great Pearl Street Scheme.
5. The Bell Lane Scheme.
The whole of these several areas, together, comprise near twenty acres. At present, however, only three of these areas have been purchased by the Metropolitan Board of Works, viz., the Royal Mint Street, the Flower and Dean Street, and the Goulston Street areas.
All the houses, with the exception of the 'Crown' public house, in Butler's Buildings, and the Schools in Darby Street, within No. 1 area, have been taken down, and blocks of Peabody Buildings have been erected on part of the area. These buildings consist of eleven blocks, and are built to accommodate 286 families. The population in these buildings was, at the end of March last, 1207. Some idea of the wretched condition of the Royal Mint Street area may be formed, when I state that it consisted of about six acres, and contained 450 houses, which were occupied by 3,750 persons, thus allowing to each, on an average, a space of only 8.3 square yards; but in a court called Crown Court, which formed part of this area, and joined Blue Anchor Yard with Glass House Street, there was only an average space of 3.4 square yards for each person.

Henry Astley Darbishire was Peabody's principal architect until 1885 (he had designed their first scheme, Commercial Street in Spitalfields; the memorial drinking fountain to his patroness Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts - then the richest woman in England, and known as 'Queen of the poor' - in Victoria Park is also his work). He undoubtedly created a recognisable, standard formula for their estates, though the constraints of the sites that the MBW had prepared often shaped the design, and the tricky Whitechapel estate is one of his most flexible plans. Less concerned with streetscape - so that his buildings look grim from the road - they concentrated on inward-facing blocks with internal spaces between them. He was keen on the use of coloured bricks for string courses and other details - he read a paper on the subject to the RIBA in 1865. (Pictured is the standard street entrance door used after 1875.)

Between 1884 and 1890 six other sites, west of the viaduct, were sold off, resulting in a total estate population of 3,600, each block accommodating over 100 - much the same density as before. Lord Rothschild (closely connected with the Royal Mint Refinery - the family had taken on the lease in 1852) built a 5-storey 'staircase' block, the (Royal) Albert Buildings, on the newly-formed Cartwight Street for the Four Per Cent Industrial Dwellings Company (architect Nathan S. Joseph), an ugly building with heavy terra cotta ornamentation [rear view pictured right].

The site opposite, abutting the back of the Royal Mint, was sold to Mr Bond for the East End Dwellings Company, who erected Katharine Buildings for tenants outwith the '5% philanthropy' targets. The rest of the site, including what became Royal Mint Square, was sold privately; it was to include accommodation for French and Belgian engravers (many of Huguenot descent) who worked at the Royal Mint. The total cost was £187,558, of which £35,795 was recovered from the sale of land.

See further chapter 4 of John Nelson Tarn Five Per Cent Philanthropy (Cambridge University Press 1973) and chapter 6 of Anthony S. Wohl The Eternal Slum  (London 1977).

On the south-east corner of the development, at 54 Glasshouse Street, was the cocoa factory of Peek Bros & Winch - detail right from Goad's 1887 insurance map. Their head office until 1958 was at 20 Eastcheap, built in 1870 on a corner site with a sculpture [far right] of three Arab-led camels bearing tea, coffee and spices - now HSBC premises) -  see here and here for the company history: until they re-united in 1895, rival family companies with London and Liverpool bases, major players in the tea trade but also dealing in coffee, cocoa, chocolate and spices. Francis Peek (1834-99), who ran the company from 1870, was a philanthropist who gave over £500k to charitable and religious causes, built Holy Trinity Church in Beckenham, was a member of the London School Board and chairman of the Howard Association, forerunner of the Howard League for Penal Reform.

(See here for Charles Booth's comments on Shorter's Rents and New Martin Street.)

Later history
The processions are from English Martyrs Church, Prescot Street; right  in John FIsher Street (with the closed railways viaduct in the background).
In 1936 Glasshouse Street was renamed John Fisher Street, and at the same time Nightingale Lane, on the other side of East Smithfield, as Thomas More Street. Both were martyrs of the Reformation era, and made saints by the Roman Catholic Church. They are commemorated together in the Church of England on 6 July.

John Fisher (1469-1535) studied at Cambridge and in 1502 became chaplain to Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII. Together they reinvigorated the university, restoring the teaching of Greek and Hebrew, bringing Erasmus over as a lecturer, and endowing chairs and scholarships. In 1504 Fisher was made Chancellor of Cambridge and Bishop of Rochester. In 1527 he became chaplain to the new king, Henry VIII, and confessor to the queen, Catherine of Aragon. Henry regarded him highly, saying no other realm had any bishop as learned and devout.

Thomas More (1478-1535) studied law and was called to the Bar in 1501. He spent four years at the Charterhouse considering a vocation to the religious life, but instead married (twice, because his first wife died) and raised a family - insisting, unusually, on giving his three daughters and stepdaughter as good an education as his son and stepson. Erasmus and Colet, and other moderate Reformers who did not seek a break with Rome, were among his friends. Henry recognised his learning and integrity, and he became Lord Chancellor. (Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons, later made into a film, tells the story of this humane and principled man.)

Both fell foul of Henry for refusing to support the annulment of his marriage to Catherine (on grounds of consanguinity), and further refused to acknowledge the King as having supreme authority over the English church. They were imprisoned and beheaded, Fisher on 22 June 1535 and More on 6 July 1535.

In 1940 'K' block was destroyed by a German bomb. Seventy residents and visitors were killed - they are named on the nearby memorial [left]. As this 1940s picture, and maps [right] show, the block was not rebuilt. In I Know a Rotten Place (Arlington 1975) Bryan Breed, evacuated from the estate, describes returning to see it as filthy, grimy and lovely as ever,  with gaping holes or rough brick walls to fill up the gaps in terraces, but still K block was Peabody's only tragedy. (The book's title comes from an evacuees' song, sung to the tune of Old Soldiers Never Die.)

Left is the Square today, and blocks A, E and L. On the corner of the estate the Peabody Group recently built the Whitechapel Learning Centre, to a 'green' brief, providing a bright building in a drab setting. It is a 'threshold centre' with a nursery, and courses in IT, literacy and numeracy linked to the creation of employment opportunities [pictured here, and in the snow of February 2009].  'D' block, which stood in the centre of the estate, has now been demolished to create open space; it lay behind 'G' and 'H' blocks, pictured here from Cartwright Street. See here for a 1973 view of the railway viaduct to the Docks before its demolition.

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