Thursday, 15 November 2012

Filth and poverty, huddled in dark cellars

Chapter 4
The Old Nichol
When the Devil Gave Way to Flowers

Just off Hackney Road in east London lies one of London's most colourful markets. Columbia Road Market, often called the Flower Market, opens every Sunday, selling flowers, plants, trees and everything else one might associate with gardening.

During the 18th century, sheep were still being driven along this street, on their way to the slaughterhouses at Smithfield. It wasn't called Columbia Road then of course, it was in fact just an unnamed dirt track. It has had several names over the centuries, but was finally named Columbia Road in honour of the heiress and philanthropist Angela Burdett Coutts, who had not only built Columbia Market (now demolished) but had instituted a Bishop's diocese in British Columbia. She built the original Columbia Market in 1869 upon an area known as Novia Scotia Gardens. This had originally been a brickfield, but the brick clay had long been exhausted and the area turned into a laystall, where waste and rubbish are dumped.

There is no doubt that Burdett Coutts had every good intention when she ploughed money into this project, as a covered food market for 400 stalls, but she had failed to take in the fact that because of the lack of proper foundations and poor quality land, later day buildings would be prone to flooding.

A railway line, running from nearby Bishopsgate to the Market was planned, for the delivery of fresh fish, but the costs became too prohibitive, and the project was abandoned. Prompted by Charles Dickens, Angela Burdett Coutts also built a separate U-shaped building at the Hackney Road end of the street, called Columbia Dwellings, which was several storeys high, with a three-storey Gothic arch built into the brickwork of the central section. Columbia market closed in 1886, after use as warehouses and small workshops, and was finally demolished in 1958.

The row of small Victorian shops that line Columbia Road today were built during the 1860's to provide service for the population of the nearby Jesus Hospital Estate.
Apart from providing all the necessities of life, many of the shops were taken over and used as workshops by the upholstery trade, to compliment the already thriving furniture trade in the area. Furniture manufacturers, wood turning, wood mills, and French polishing factories peppered the area until the late twentieth century.

The Flower Market began as a Saturday trading market, but was moved to Sunday, by an Act of Parliament, in order to accommodate the needs of local Jewish traders. This also provided the opportunity for Covent Garden and Spitalfields traders to sell their stock left over from Saturday.

The people of the East End have long had an interest and demand for cut flowers and plants, which almost certainly stemmed from the Huguenot immigrants, who tried to recreate a little of their native colour in an area of narrow gloomy streets. There was also a strong fascination at this time for caged songbirds, which lasted well into the 20th century. The pub at the end of Columbia Road is called The Birdcage.

The whole area went into decline during the 1970's, leaving it wide open for developers who could no doubt see the huge potential it offered, but local opposition was too strong; they fought back with a vengeance and the area and market were saved. Since the 1980's the market has grown into one of international repute. The Market opens every Sunday from 8 am to 2 pm and the whole area is transformed into a kaleidoscope of colours.

As well as flowers and plants, the small Victorian shops also sell a variety of artefacts, including antiques and garden accessories, as well as original Jewish beigals, cheeses, and other tasty edibles.

To stand in the centre of Columbia Road on a Sunday morning and to watch the photographers and film crews who constantly film there, and to listen to the trendy people sitting outside the local Spanish tapas bar or the corner pub, talking of how they are developing their rood terrace or patio, one could be forgiven for thinking that this is how it has always been here. The truth, I am afraid is anything but that!

If we travel back to July 1830, two men, John Bishop and Thomas Williams rented number 3 Nova Scotia Gardens, where Angela Burdett Coutts later built Columbia Market. Bishop and Williams, along with two other men, Michael Shields, a Covent Garden porter, and James May, also known as Black Eyed Jack, formed a notorious gang of resurrection men, stealing freshly buried bodies for sale to anatomists.

On Saturday 5th November 1831 the gang turned up at the King's College School of Anatomy, in the Strand, where they offered for sale, the suspiciously fresh corpse of a 14 year old boy, who had some very suspicious facial bruising. After some arguing about the price and obvious delaying tactics by the College's staff, the police were called and the gang were arrested.

During the subsequent investigation, Joseph Sadler Thomas, the superintendent of police in charge of the case, searched a number of the cottages at Nova Scotia Gardens. He found items of clothing in a well in one of the gardens, he also found more clothing, both male and female, in one of the communal lavatories, suggesting multiple murders.

Bishop and Williams were found guilty of murder and were hanged at Newgate Prison of 5th December 1831. The police however, were not slow in seeing a golden opportunity, and amazingly by today's standards, opened number 3 Nova Scotia Gardens to the public, charging 5 shillings a head to view.. The public however were not content with just viewing the scene; they actually carried away the dwelling, piece by piece, as souvenirs. The body of their young victim was finally identified as that of Carlo Ferrari, an Italian boy, from Piedmont.

By 1840, the area, which also encompassed the 'Old Nichol', had degenerated into a notorious slum. It is for this reason that Burdett-Coutts purchased the land, and established Columbia Market.

The Old Nichol, also known as the Nichol or the Old Nichol Street Rookery, was an area of housing in the East End of London, between High Street, Shoreditch, Hackney Road in the north, and Spitalfields in the south. The main streets within the Old Nichol were Boundary Street, Old Nichol Street, Half Nichol Street, The Mount and Church Street. The Old Nichol was home to 5,719 people, living in a dense network of about 30 streets and alleys. The late 18th-century houses included workshops and stables.

In 1863 'The Builder Magazine' reported of the Old Nichol that: "With few exceptions, each room contains a separate family; some consisting of mother, father, and eight children. The first two adjoining houses that we looked into, of six rooms each, contained forty-eight persons. To supply these with water, a stream runs for ten or twelve minutes each day, except Sunday, from a small tap at the back of one of the houses. The houses are, of course, ill ventilated. The front room in the basement, wholly below the ground, dark and damp, is occupied, at a cost of 2 shillings. a week for rent."

Another report, this time by 'The Illustrated London News' on 24th October 1863 entitled "Dwellings of the Poor in Bethnal Green" which described the living conditions in the Old Nichol, as follows:

"This district of Friars-mount, which is nominally represented by Nichols-street, Old Nichols-street, and Half Nichols-street, including, perhaps most obviously, the greater part of the vice and debauchery of the district, and the limits of a single article would be insufficient to give any detailed description of even a day's visit. There is nothing picturesque in such misery; it is but one painful and monotonous round of vice, filth, and poverty, huddled in dark cellars, ruined garrets, bare and blackened rooms, teeming with disease and death, and without the means, even if there were the inclination, for the most ordinary observations of decency or cleanliness."

Most Londoners preferred to forget that the Old Nichol even existed. When the reporters from 'The Builder Magazine' or 'The Illustrated London News' trudged through the narrow, muddy streets, skirting the pools of urine, excrement and other filthy liquids, and stepping over the carcasses of dead dogs and cats, they could feel the eyes of the poor and the hungry, watching them through filthy and broken window panes. There was no grass or greenery in this putrid labyrinth, no sun, no colour at all. Everything seemed to be dark, gloomy and grey from the constant smoke and soot.

Many of the rooms in these houses were below pavement level and so flooded when it rained. Tenants who unfortunate enough to live in these underground rooms not only had to endure the constant damp, but many also had no fireplace, and no means of keeping warm, other than to wrap themselves up in as many clothes as possible, or to squeeze as many of their family into the one family bed, which was usually on the floor. When asked how she and her six children managed to sleep in such conditions, one poor unfortunate answered, 'Oh, we sleep however we can.'

A quarter of all children born in the Old Nichol died before their first birthday and Old Nichol Street itself was described by the local medical officer, as being unfit for human habitation. In 1887, five out of every six infants to die in Bethnal Green homes where the whole family shared a bed were found to have suffocated.

Coroners attributed most of these deaths to 'overlaying', which is where a sleeping parent or sibling rolls onto the infant and accidentally smothers it. Others alleged that many were intentionally suffocated, by desperate mothers with too many mouths to feed.

The close quarters and shared beds, which the slum dwellers inhabited, did have other inevitable consequences. A mother, a father and maybe six or seven siblings, all sleeping in one bed, all washing together and regularly seeing each other naked, would and quite often did lead to sexual promiscuity.

These children watched their elders having sex; it was an almost natural occurrence to them, and although there were many who denied sexual promiscuity, sexual perversion and the violation of little children ever happened, it most certainly did, as has since been confirmed.

Not everyone hated the Old Nichol, Arthur Harding was born in the Nichol in 1886 and lived there most of his life. He came from a family of six who lived in a single room, which cost them three shillings a week, in Keeve's Buildings, Boundary Street. The family room was small, probably no more than 12ft by 10ft. The only furniture in the room was a table, two armchairs, a chest of drawers, a small stove and one straw mattress where the whole family slept.

When Arthur's mother, Mary Ann, was in her teens, she found work in a factory, sorting old rags, but then she met Arthur's father, 'Flash Harry' and told him about it. He made her leave immediately, saying it was one of the most dangerous jobs in the East End, as she risked infection from lice and fleas.

Not long after this, the couple were married and had Arthur, their first baby. Mary Ann found another job, this time making matchboxes, while Flash Harry was reduced to casual pub work and cadging food from stalls and restaurants.

There were two women in Arthur's life at this time, the first being his mother, and the second, his Aunt Liza, who was always ready to help the family out. She owned a small grocery store from where she bought and sold stolen goods from. She allegedly had a secret cellar where she stored the goods and a passageway leading from that to the next street. Visiting thieves would be whisked away into the cellar if the police called and make their escape with the police being any the wiser.

Living in this sort of environment, Arthur was brought up to know no better. He never had any schooling, and came to accept the life of deprivation and stealing to exist as normal. As a young child he would accompany his mother to church jumble sales where she would steal almost anything she could lay her hands on, and encourage young Arthur to do the same.

Mary Ann also knew a thing or two about acting, and would use her failing hip almost as a prop, to hobble along the street and perch herself upon a wall outside some rich person's house in the hope they would see her plight, come out and offer something. Her acting paid off, for she was showered with items of clothing and other goods, which she would take straight round to the local pawnbroker, get paid, and that was another day's dinner solved!

Arthur and his friends would go to the nearby Ragged School Mission Hall during the winter months, where they would be served a free breakfast of bread and milk. After that, they would sometimes hang around a corner shop where under the pretext of helping shoppers with their shopping, they would steal their purses or pick their pockets. The Old Nichol was made for the likes of Arthur, with its labyrinth of narrow alleys and dark streets; he managed to fend for himself from a very early age.

Arthur and his gang would often buy a bag of broken biscuits for a halfpenny, and even though they were still not even in their teens, they would buy pipe tobacco, which they smoked from penny clay pipes.

By the time Arthur was in his teens, he had formed his own gang and was involved in stealing and demanding money from shopkeepers. It was inevitable that he would eventually be caught by the police, and when he was, he faced imprisonment with a smile, saying at least he knew where his next meal was coming from in there. He spent a great deal of his formative years in prison, which, ironically, saved him from a far worse fate, as many of his early friends later died in the trenches at the Somme.

Arthur Harding was one person who didn't regret being brought up in the Old Nichol, he became a household name among the criminal fraternity in London, running his own gang for many years. He lived a long and fruitful (under the circumstances) life, and as late as the 1970s was still giving interviews about his early life in the Old Nichol.

Not everyone of course, was as satisfied with their life in the Old Nichol as Arthur was, as previously stated, many people died very young there, and at least 97% lived in extreme poverty. Today, people would complain to their landlords or the local authority about such conditions, but at that time hardly anybody in the Old Nichol actually knew who their landlords were. They were shadowy figures who acted through lawyers, and the whole system was ratified by the Bethnal Green Vestry, a squad of unscrupulous councillors who operated as the local authority.

The landlords were interested in one thing only, and that was earning as much profit as possible, and there was little if any profit to be made by improving the properties.
They knew they were sitting on some of the most profitable property in London; making returns on their investment of up to 150 per cent. The landlords sometimes complained about the odd tenant not paying their rent or thieves stripping the lead from roofs, but these were minor irritations in the light of such extortionate profits.

The Vestrymen continued to block the repeated attempts by politicians, from the 1850s onwards, to have the Old Nichol demolished. Then, in 1889 the new and vigorous London County Council (LCC) came into being, and one of its first, flagship tasks was the demolition of the Old Nichol, and the eviction and re-housing of its inhabitants.

The major landlords now started emerging from their previous anonymity, in order to claim compensation owing to them. It came as a great surprise to many people that the largest landlord in the Old Nichol was none other than the Church of England's Commissioners.

In March 1900, seven years after the first demolitions had begun, the Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra processed in a carriage down a broad, tree-lined avenue, at the centre of which was built a large bandstand. This is the Boundary Estate bandstand at Arnold Circus, which was built with the rubble of the Old Nichol slum, and is the centrepiece of the Boundary Estate

Ugliness had finally been replaced by beauty. The only losers were the evicted inhabitants of the Old Nichol. People who were too poor to move elsewhere, they were shoved into neighbouring streets, which in turn became slums in their own right.

For London's poor, it seemed, history was doomed to repeat itself, and for the following half a century it did just that. Thankfully now, these types of conditions are seen no more, and colour and a better way of life have returned to this area of London.

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