Let's explore parts of Haggerston and Hoxton, and take a wander along a part of the Regent's Canal
The Regents Canal was once used for industry and transport, and is now used mainly for leisure pursuits. It passes through areas of London, which are somewhat bleak at first glance, but, on closer examination, can be seen to have some endearing features. This exploration takes us mainly through Hoxton and Haggerston - parts of London between Islington and Hackney, which were mainly rural until the late 18th century.
In 1745, Hoxton was beginning to develop on the edge of London to the west of the Kingsland Road (the Roman ‘Ermine Street’). Haggerston was a tiny hamlet slightly to the east of this thoroughfare and north of Hoxton. By the 1820s, both districts contained stretches of the recently constructed Regent’s Canal. This waterway, whose construction began in 1812, facilitated local industry and the building of warehouses.
Both Hoxton and Haggerston appear in the 11th century Domesday Book, and are now part of Hackney. Although both names end in ‘ton’, this suffix has different meanings in each case (see: “Oxford Dictionary of London Place Names”, by AD Mills, publ. 2001). Hoxton is derived from the Old English name ‘Hoc’ and the word for farmstead ‘tun’’, giving the name a meaning like ‘farmstead or estate of Hoc’. Haggerston, which appears in the Domesday Book as ‘Hergotestane’, is derived from the name (early Christian in origin) of a man, ‘Haergod’ and an Old English word meaning ‘boundary stone (of someone’s land)’. Thus, Haggerston means something like ‘Haergod’s boundary stone’. Until the 16th century, when Hoxton began to be occupied by Londoners expanding into the countryside, both places were rural. Throughout the 17th century, Haggerston remained an area of countryside, where some wealthy gentlemen had out-of-town residences.
We start at De Beauvoir Town, a housing estate whose development coincided with the opening of the Regents Canal. Just west of the Kingsland Road, this residential area is centred on De Beauvoir Square, a lovely open space surrounded by attractive grey brick houses with elaborately curved gables. Building was begun in 1821 by brick-maker William Rhodes (1774-1843), a grandfather of the colonialist Cecil Rhodes. Construction ceased in 1823, when a court determined that Rhodes had illegally acquired the lease for the De Beauvoir’s land. After the trial had run on for twenty years, the land reverted to the De Beauvoir family, and development recommenced. Houses were built there for the up and coming ‘middle classes’.
The Victorian gothic St Peters church stands south-east of the square on De Beauvoir Road. It was designed by WC Lochner (c. 1779-1861) who was born in what is now Libya (see: http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~cheyne/p20418.htm), and built by 1841. It was constructed to “enhance the character and add lustre to the new estate” (see: http://www.stpeterdebeauvoir.org.uk/history-of-st-peters/).
The part of De Beauvoir Road north of Downham Road is lined with two-storey homes built in the 19th century. The row called ‘St James Cottages’ is dated 1845.
South of Downham Road, there is a council estate built in the 1960s and ‘70s. It includes one high-rise tower and several lower buildings, all of which make a stark contrast to the prettier buildings north of Downham Road. The estate stretches almost as far south as the Regents Canal.
The AEI Group (an independent music business) occupies the Bankstock Building on De Beauvoir Crescent close to the Whitmore Road bridge. Overlooking the canal, this building looks like a modern conversion of an earlier industrial or stage building. In fact, it was originally built in the 1930s, and has had a lightweight modern structure built above its original roof (see: http://www.elliottwood.co.uk/project/bankstock-building-de-beauvoir-crescent-london-n1/).
From the Whitmore Bridge, there are good views along the Regents Canal. The bridge, single-arched and built of brick, is a typical example of Georgian canal bridge-building. A staircase leads down to the towpath. Descend this to enter another world – a peaceful contrast to the urban environment on either side of the canal. The canal is lined in places with moored canal barges (‘narrowboats’). The occasional narrowboat chugs past, often with its ‘skipper’ with one hand on the tiller, and the other holding either a mobile ‘phone or a glass of an alcoholic beverage. The old towpath, beautifully maintained, is a busy place. Cyclists and joggers compete with walkers for space on it.
Walking eastwards, we pass a greenish modern apartment block overlooking the canal. Much of its façade - its balcony rails and supporting pillars - are literally alive: a dense tangle of plants sprouts from panels of planters, looking like vertical plots of garden, attached to them. This building is a fine example of a ‘living wall’, currently fashionable in current architecture. Further east, the towpath crosses a metal bridge, which straddles an inlet of the canal: the Kingsland Basin. The basin dates from the early 1820s, when it began being used for mooring vessels next to industrial establishments. One of the earliest of these, opened in 1823, made tents (see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol10/pp33-35). In the 19th century, the area close between De Beauvoir Crescent and the basin was occupied by very poor people. Today, things have changed. The Basin, in which pleasure craft are moored, is now surrounded by luxurious recently-built apartment buildings.
One of the features that I enjoyed along the canal is the abundance of often luridly coloured graffiti, much of it skilfully executed. I cannot guarantee that what I saw in September 2017 will remain unchanged, or is even there now. Such is the transient nature of this art-form. However, I am sure that there will be some for you to enjoy when you follow my path.
Passing under the brick Kingsland Road Bridge, which has an interesting contemporary iron railing on its west side and whose span is both wider and higher span than the one at Whitlock Road, it is difficult to believe that you have just been beneath one of London’s busier thoroughfares. The tow path, lined with vegetation on one side and the slow-moving, almost motionless, canal on the other, is a peaceful haven wending its way through bustling ‘inner city’ areas. The canal is a world apart from the city surrounding it. A concrete suspension bridge of recent construction carries the lines of the Overground railway across the canal.
After passing beneath the brick built, narrow Haggerston Bridge (built about 1816-1820), which carries Haggerston Road across the canal, I spotted a cormorant perched on a moored narrow boat. Its wings were spread out widely to dry them in the sun. The north wall of the arch of the bridge is notched in several places. These grooves were caused by the friction of the horse-drawn barge tow-ropes against the abutment.
East of the Haggerston Bridge, the level of the canal drops by about eight feet in the Acton’s Lock. It was named after the Hackney land-owner, Nathaniel Lee Acton (1757-1836; of Livermere Park and Bramford in Suffolk), through whose land (agricultural fields, market gardens, and nursery grounds) the canal was built (see: http://planningdocs.hackney.gov.uk/NorthgatePublicDocs/00049992.pdf). Acton’s portrait was painted by the celebrated George Romney (1734-1802) in about 1787 (see: http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2006/shrubland-park-suffolk-england-country-house-sale-l06501/lot.294.html)
A few yards east of the lock, the canal is crossed by the Cat and Mutton Bridge, which carries Pritchard Road across the canal. This bridge might have been named after the pub with the same name, which is about 250 yards north of the canal. The pub (aka ‘Cat & Shoulder of Mutton’) was in existence by 1745, long before the canal was constructed. Whatever the origin of its name, the present bridge, which is lined beneath with steel girders, is newer than the smaller brick bridges, which were built at the time of the canal’s construction.
From the bridge, there is a fine view of some gasometers east of it. The construction of the canal facilitated the transport of fuels including coal. The Imperial Gas Company, founded by 1829, owned a plot, where these gasometers now stand, and another on the west side of the bridge south of the canal. This branch of the company supplied gas to Tottenham and Edmonton as early as 1840 (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gas_Light_and_Coke_Company#Shoreditch).
Broadway Market (named thus in 1937) to the north of the bridge was the site of a marketplace, which was already active in the 1830s. Close to Acton’s Lock, it was a place where barge-workers could obtain provisions. Today, this widened stretch of road is beginning to go ‘upmarket’, as property values in an area so close to the City rise.
After crossing the bridge, Pritchard Road continues straight south-west for a few yards before turning southwards at its junction with Goldsmiths Row. This was formerly part of Mutton Lane that led up to, and beyond the Cat and Mutton pub (see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol5/pp505-524). The present name is derived from the existence of some alms-houses (first constructed in 1703 for poor employees of the Goldsmiths’ Company). Marked on a detailed 1872 map, they do not appear on a similar map drawn 22 years later, nor on later editions of the same scale Ordnance Survey maps.
The fake half-timbered pub, The Albion, a haunt of West Bromwich football team fans stands on a corner plot on Goldsmiths Row. Well, at least it did when I passed it in September 2017. By then, it had been closed for several months (see: https://www.hackneycitizen.co.uk/2017/06/12/the-albion-closed-shoreditch-west-bromwich/), and was awaiting renovation by its new owners, who plan to open a new establishment to be called ‘The Virgin Queen’. The pub had been in business as ‘The Albion’ for about twenty years. The sign that used to adorn the pub has been removed (by a former fan of the establishment) to reveal the words “West’s Brewery Co. Ltd.”, a Hackney brewery which dated back to 1822 (see: http://www.breweryhistory.com/journal/archive/124_5/Wests.pdf). Before being called ‘The Albion’, it was named ‘The Duke of Sussex’. The building housing it was constructed in the 1920s.
Audrey Street leads off Goldsmiths Row towards a 19th century school building, constructed with red bricks and many gables, bearing the date “1873” and a carved stone with the words “Maidstone Street Haggerston School”. It was designed in the ‘Queen Anne’ style by CH Mileham (1837-1917) and his partner, a Mr Kennedy, for the Hackney Division of the School Board for London, and later (1894) extended by TJ Bailey (see: https://www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/101392464-sebright-primary-school-including-former-schoolkeepers-house-and-cookery-centre-haggerston-ward#.WgwpPGi0OM8). It was one of the first schools built by the School Board of London under the provisions of the Elementary Education Act of 1870. This Act ensured that local school boards were set-up to provide compulsory education for children aged five to twelve years. Fees were paid by parents who could afford them. Fees for children whose parents were unable to afford them were paid by the boards. Today, Maidstone Street no longer exists, and the school has been renamed Sebright Primary School.
Haggerston Park is reached a few yards along Goldsmiths’ Row to the south of the school. This irregularly shaped, pleasant green open space includes a BMX cycle track, paths through wooded areas, a lovely pond, and playing fields. The northern part of the park, which reaches up to Whiston Street is built on the site of part of the gasworks that was destroyed by a V2 bomb in 1944. The rest of the park was built where once there had been an area of derelict housing. The park’s creation began in the 1950s.
The southernmost section of the park is occupied by Hackney City Farm (established 1984). Of all the so-called city farms that I have seen so far, this one has excited me least. To its credit, it does include a nice flower garden amongst its attractions. According to old detailed maps, the large brick building that stands within the farm, and to which an old cobbled lane leads, was once a brewery: ‘Three Crowns Brewery’, a part of West’s company (see above). The former Boston Street marked on old maps) has become a path through the farm.
If you are visiting the area on a Sunday morning and enjoy street markets, then the following detour is worth taking. Cross the Hackney Road, and enter Ion Square Gardens. This small open space is on the site of Ion Square, which was surrounded by small houses built around a private communal garden in about 1845. Following extensive bombing in WW2, the gardens were enlarged to form the present park in the 1960s. The church of St Peters Bethnal Green stands near the south-east corner of the gardens. Its grey colour is due to its facing with flint. Built 1840-41, it was designed by Lewis Vulliamy (1791-1871). Its spacious nave has a plain ceiling supported by an elaborate wooden structure reminiscent of hammer-beam roofs.
The church shares a courtyard with another Victorian building. It houses Mander’s organ factory. A doorway leading into the factory has a carved stone above it, which reads “infants”, suggesting that once there was a school on this site. This is confirmed by referring to old maps. Noel Mander, who died in 2005, began his company in 1936. In 1947, the company moved into the disused school, which was built in the 1840s.
The brick and stone building on Warner Place (near the church), whose external appearance has a Tudor ‘flavour’, is St Peter’s Church Hall. It was built in 1912.
Durant Street leads south from Ion Square Gardens, passing a series of streets with neat two storey terraced dwellings, which were built in the mid-19th century. Wimbolt Street, which is one of these, leads to the triangular Jesus Green, a grassy space with several trees. This is in the centre of an area which was developed between 1822 and ’62 on land, which had once been farmland. The land had been owned by the trustees of Jesus Hospital in Chipping Barnet since 1689 (see: https://www.towerhamlets.gov.uk/Documents/Planning-and-building-control/Development-control/Conservation-areas/Jesus-HospitalV1.pdf). In the 1820s, it was planned to use this to rehouse some of the eleven thousand people left homeless when their homes were demolished to create St Katharine’s Dock. After several ill-fated attempts to develop the area, the present streets were laid out in the 1860s.
Quilter Street runs west along the south side of Jesus Green to reach Ravencroft Street, which soon crosses Columbia Road. The Columbia Market Nursery School has its signage both in English and Bengali. It stands on part of the site of the reputedly magnificent Victorian gothic Columbia Market complex, which was built in 1859 and callously demolished in 1958. Geoffrey Fletcher wrote of this building in his “The London Nobody Knows” (publ. 1962):
“No verbal description could convey the strangeness and unlikelihood of it all – that great place like a mediaeval cloth hall, with a gatehouse and cloisters. The building (also by HA Darbishire) … had atall tower; its interior was a mass of tall piers, vaults, and tracery, and full of carved inscriptions”
The school faces a row of 19th century tenements built of brick and stone with cast-iron balconies and bow windows. These are the Leopold Buildings constructed by The Improved Industrial Dwellings Company in 1872. East of the school, there are less attractive mid-20th century blocks of flats, outside one of which I spotted a flowering banana plant – a rare sight in London. The Royal Horticultural Society notes that although bananas are generally delicate plants, some species are hardy enough to survive in parts of the UK where winters are mild (see: https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?PID=311).
The stretch of Columbia Road east of Ravenscroft Street comes alive on Sunday mornings with a busy flower market. Lined by shops and a school, the street is crammed full of people viewing, and buying from a series of plant and flower vendors manning their temporary stalls. I found this popular market somewhat claustrophobic because of the seething mass of people attending it. Originally, this market was held on Saturdays, but it was moved to Sundays to allow Jewish traders to work without disturbing their Sabbath. The horticultural focus of the market originated in the 1960s, but the local interest in flowers can be traced back to the 17th century when the Huguenot refugees encouraged an interest in flower buying and selling to the area. The outer walls of the Columbia Primary School have been decorated with mosaics, which can just about be seen behind the stalls and crowds on Sundays.
Columbia Road runs to Hackney Road close to the Hackney City Farm. To the east of the farm, stands the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children, which functioned between 1867 and 1996 (see: http://ezitis.myzen.co.uk/queenelizabethhackney.html). The building was commenced in 1870, and enlarged later. Its façade has been preserved, but the rest of the structure has been redeveloped for residential use.
Yorkton Street, a cul-de-sac, leads from Hackney Road to Haggerston Park. On its west side, there is a brick building with a stone crucifix attached to it just beneath the roof. This is the rear of St Saviour’s Priory (Church of England), which was founded by Dr John Mason Neale (1818-66) in 1855. It is an order of women dedicated to caring for the sick. The present buildings date from the 1970s, when the original late 1880’s premises were demolished.
Dunloe Street, which crosses Yorkton, leads to Dawson Street. On the corner of the latter and Hackney Road, there stands a derelict cinema building in the art-deco style. This was an Odeon cinema, which was designed by Andrew Mather (1891-1938), who created many cinemas for the Odeon company. It opened in 1938. In 1961, it became a bingo hall, which closed its doors finally in 2015 (see: http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/13886). The building’s fate remains undecided.
201 and 203 Hackney Road are set back a little from their neighbours. The walls on both sides of the ‘inlet’ were covered in weird graffiti when I saw them in September 2017.
West of these, Weymouth Street leads back to Dunloe Street. Appleby Street runs north from the latter to reach the entrance to St Mary’s Secret Garden. Originally created for, and by, people with experience of mental stress, this delightful small garden - a peaceful oasis - is open to the public. Its small area is divided into several different types of garden. This creates the impression that it is much larger than it is. Paths inlaid with occasional mosaics thread their way between beds of flowers and plants and a tiny ‘wild’ woodland area.
Continuing west along Dunloe Street, we reach a large red brick church with gothic windows, a grey tiled roof, and a short pyramidical steeple. This is St Chads, a cruciform building which was built 1867-69 to the designs of James Brooks (1825-1901). Its brick and stone interior is magnificent. It nave is supported by brick walls punctuated by sweeping gothic arches lined with stone frames. The roof of the nave has a hemi-circular, almost barrel-vaulted wooden ceiling. The interior of this Anglo-Catholic church has a great feeling of space and lightness. When it was built, the church stood amongst the picturesque mock Tudor villas of Nichols Square, all of which were demolished in the early 1960s (see: http://spitalfieldslife.com/2013/02/16/the-haggerston-nobody-knows/).
Passing under the railway arches just west of St Chads, we reach Hoxton station. Outside it, there is a WW1 memorial in white stone. It is dedicated to the memory of the North London railwaymen who fell in the Great War. Geffrye Street runs south to Cremer Street, which runs west to meet Kingsland Road. Many of the buildings in this precinct are covered with attention-grabbing graffiti in vivid colours.
The last point on this exploration is the Geffrye Museum. This is housed in the central section of the alms-houses that surround three sides of a large rectangular green open space. The alms-houses, which are in an immaculate state of preservation, were built in 1714, funded by money bequeathed by Sir Robert Geffrye (1613-1703). His statue stands above the doorway to the centrally positioned chapel.
A pathway leads through a small cemetery to the north east of the grounds, around to the back of the long central portion of the building. There, behind the alms-houses, and close to the elevated railway tracks, is a series of gardens, each one planted to illustrate a phase in the history of English gardening. There is also a herb garden.
The museum is designed to illustrate the history of domestic life between 1600 and the present. This is done beautifully by a series of rooms, each one decorated and furnished appropriately for the period being demonstrated. Each room is convincing, which should not be surprising because all the furniture is original as are some of the walls and ceilings, which have been removed from actual homes that were to be demolished.
At the south end of the museum, there is a modern extension with a circular section around which there are several re-creations of rooms from the 20th century. The new section also contains a café and a shop. At the rear of the central section of the alms-houses, there is a reading room with large windows that overlook the gardens.
High above the south-west corner of the Geffrye Museum grounds, I noticed a fading painted wall advertisement. It bears a telephone number “Bishopsgate 9087 “. This system of telephone numbers was introduced in the early 1920s and abandoned in the 1960s, which means the sign must have been made in that period. It was painted on the bricks to promote Blooms Pianos, which used to be available at 134 Kingsland Road, where this walk ends.
This exploration passes through parts of London, which were hardly developed before the early 19th century. Part of this development was due to the construction of the Regents Canal, and the rest to natural urban expansion in line with population increase. Once a poor area of London, much of what is discussed above is rapidly becoming both more fashionable and more expensive to live in. The southern part of Hoxton around Hoxton Square, which I have not described, is currently very ‘trendy’ and a vibrant area at night.