St George's Estate

The past: Wellclose and Prince's [Swedenborg] Squares
The architectural writer Ian Nairn said in 1966 of all the things done to London in this century, the soft-spoken this-is-good-for-you castration of the East End is the saddest ...
Embedded in [Cable St] are the hopeless fragments of two once splendid squares, Wellclose and Swedenborg, built for the shipmasters of Wapping when London began to move east. Those who could care about the buildings don’t care about the people, those who care about the people regard the decrepit buildings rather as John Knox regarded women: unforgivable blindness. Nobody cares enough, and the whole place will soon be a memory. He was referring to the demolition of historic housing in the name of slum clearance and social progress, on which opinion remains divided. Some of the 18th century housing in Spitalfields was saved, and has contributed to the regeneration (and gentrification) of that area; at the same time, the remaining Georgian houses of Wellclose and Prince's [remaned Swedenborg in 1938] Squares were totally obliterated to make way for a new council estate. Why was this, and was it a tragic mistake?

There were certainly attempts to preserve some of the historic buildings in these squares that had survived the Blitz, and the environment in which they were set. The borough architect surveyed them after the War, and concluded that many of the houses were in good order excepting for want of attention due to the war, and worthy of preservation on architectural grounds.
Some were rehabilitated - for instance, 33-35 Prince's Square, in 1945. The London County Council's 1949 Survey of London produced measured drawings of some of the houses in the squares, but this was never published, and their attention turned to bomb-damaged housing in the West End. The tide was turning, and dangerous structure notices were served. In March 1959 a memo from the the LCC valuer stated that, although a number of buildings were listed, the whole area was a slum. The squares were earmarked for total demolition, and 76 families were rehoused on compulsory puchase orders (at a cost of £93,000). There was an air of resignation, and the death blow came in 1961, when a public enquiry was held and the Minister rejected all objections, deeming the area past preserving. There is no doubt Fr Joe Williamson's high-profile campaign, linking vice and poor housing in his parish, with much emotive photography, was a factor, for good or ill, in the indiscriminate destruction of the two squares.

Compare Spitalfields, mentioned above: rather more affluent, and less vice-ridden, and public momentum got going in time to preserve some of its heritage. It's interesting to speculate how life in this area might be different had our two squares been preserved. Prince's Square has gone for good - in Will Palin's words, in 'The Lost Squares of Stepney' (Spitalfields Life December 2012), the area was simply erased from history. At Wellclose Square, the houses came down too but the street pattern was retained, creating a strange non-place. Forty years on, the south side of the square remains empty, and, on the site of the Old Court House, a sad wasteland stretches down to the busy Highway beyond. But there are still sufficient vestiges of the layout of Wellclose Square (now a conservation area, including Wilton's Music Hall) for local groups to press for imaginative developments, particularly along its south side, untouched by the estate, that would recover something of what has been lost.                                                 

The present (1): New Brutalism

When the site to the west of the church was cleared, a new estate was begun by the London County Council and completed by the Greater London Council between 1963 and 1970 [model right 1961]. It has been described as a tough example of the council's post-war 'mixed development' , and more speicifically (in the current Pevsner) a mature example of the principle of mixed development' first adopted in the 1950s, built just before this type of housing went out of favour. This refers, not to present-day notions of mixed types of ownership (council-rented / 'affordable' / commercial - this came later), but a pattern, partly inspired by government policies, of providing social housing with a mix of low, medium and high rise accommodation, rather than the uniform deck access blocks of previous generations. See further Judith Lever Home Sweet Home (Greater London Council 1976).

At the St George's estate, this was done in a confident brutalist composition, using contrasting textures of dark brick, pebbly-faced concrete and white boarding. It was one of the first London estates to include garaging, below raised terraces fronting a small park leading down to The Highway.
Shearsmith House is named for Elizabeth Reynolds, a domestic servant and then second wife of Richard Shearsmith, a peruke [wig] maker in whose house at Coldbath Fields, Clerkenwell Emanuel Swedenborg died. Johann Brockmer was a Moravian at whose house in Salisbury Court near their Fetter Lane chapel Swedenborg had also stayed. Hatton House is presumably named for Swedenborg's New Church or 'temple' in Cross Street, Hatton Garden. Richard Hindmarsh, organiser of this church, gave his name to Hindmarsh Close; Solander Gardens is named for the Swedish botanist Daniel Solander.

The present (2): infill development
In recent years EastendHomes have taken over the management of the estate. Before Stock Transfer, they gave residents an undertaking that they could fund essential repair and refurbishment work, and that 'cross-subsidy' - money raised from any new homes built on estates - would only be needed to pay for general environmental improvements such as lighting and landscaping.

However, the current cross-subsidy scheme, approved in principle by Tower Hamlets Council in 2008, was in fact designed to fund the ongoing internal refurbishment programme, as well as external renovation of the whole site. Free-standing stairwells between the Noble Court and Brockmer House blocks were demolished, and at nine points around the site 193 additional dwellings (54 social rented and 139 market units) have being created by Telford Homes, in nine towers up to nine storeys high (including one fronting The Highway), plus 4 townhouses and a community centre.

The advantage - apart from financing restoration in a tight economic climate - is that it will serve to widen the social mix of the estate. The disadvantage is that the estate was already densely-populated, and a 40% increase in the number of housing units will put severe pressure on local infrastructures. Although consultations were held, many residents feel that they had little voice in the detail of the process, and that promises were broken. Further details of the planning application can be seen here, and the St George's Estate Residents Portal provides updates on the work.

Here are some photomontages of what it might look like when all is done and dusted - from Cable Street looking west (Crown & Dolphin on the left) and east; from the corner of The Highway and Cannon Street Road (a new 9-storey block), from the north-western corner of the estate and internal routes. Many of the blocks have been remaned - confusingly, and in most cases inappropriately (giving the impression of leafy suburbs).

In 2012 work on constructing the new towers was completed and internal work began. The open space opposite the main church entrance, pictured right, was turned into the works yard. (Previously it was in fact accessible neither from Brockmer House nor from the road.) Although it falls just outside the Conservation Area, the 2009 report hoped that it could become a public open space, linked to traffic calming measures in Cannon Street Road. Right is one vision of how it might look, from the new community rooms on the corner of the estate.

Back to History page