As it happens, I am extremely interested in the Shoreditch and Bethnal Green area of London and the 15 acre site once known as The Nichol. In 1875 The Nichol was regarded as London's most notorious slum where up to 6,000 people existed in appalling poverty but where ‘slum lords' were profiting by anything up to 160% in rent from houses described by pioneering social reformer and founder of the Salvation Army, Charles Booth: ‘as broken down and deplorable as their unfortunate inhabitants.' After investigation by Government Inspectors in 1875, the Nichol was one of the first slum areas to be cleared, but promises of rehousing the inhabitants were not fulfilled: a familiar story?
Originally, The Nichol was provided for Huguenot refugees; very profitable where silk was woven and the introduction of French upholstered furniture proved very successful until the industrial revolution overtook their unique skills and all spiralled downwards.
My paternal great-grandparents lived in Boundary Street, The Nichol c.1849 -1856. In 1849 they returned there from Upware in Cambridgeshire where my Great Grandfather was a Toll Collector connected with river trade which failed completely when the railway came alongside.
Great Grandfather was involved in the furniture trade but in hard times they ended up in *Homerton Workhouse where my Grandfather was born on the same day his sister died, aged 18 months. My Great Grandmother registered the birth of her son and - so expressive of the tragedy - the Death Certificate records, ‘mother present at the death' of her daughter. I am slowly piecing their story together. There is a family legend that they were of Huguenot stock, difficult to prove, and were returning to The Nichol to be with other families they had known. My Great Grandfather disappeared c.1855 - but Great Grandmother struggled on, making a marriage of convenience (to a widower with 3 children) and eventually got her two surviving sons out of the Nichol. Both boys became Master Craftsmen: one went out to Canada, the other, my Grandfather (1849-1894) remained in the East End. The ‘Canadian' had nine children; my ‘London' Grandfather had a family of seven, the youngest being my father 1890-1956.
[*Ironically, Homerton Workhouse became one of the first lying-in hospitals, now The Homerton NHS Trust where our younger son, Dr Adam Croucher, is now a Consultant specialising in AIDS/HIV, STDs, and Contraception.]
During my ongoing research of the area, I came across two interesting buildings: 19 Princelet Street which once housed weavers, then became a “hidden” Synagogue, a place of world refuge. The building is so fragile that private tours are limited. There is also another house at 4 Princelet Street, with its original Georgian interior maintained. One of our sons has visited and found it fascinating. Could this area of interest be a suitable follow-on from the lost house/business at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry? (Sadly, we missed out on the Ipswich Society visit to the Foundling Hospital.) The East End is always full of life and colour including the shadier side, of course. Whether Bethnal Green & Shoreditch could become the subject of another Ipswich Society outing only our indefatigable Chairman John Norman could say; but my wheelchair, husband Martin and I have pens poised to sign up!
Booth, Charles: In Darkest England and the way out, London, 1890.
Wise, Sarah: The Blackest Streets: the life and death of a Victorian slum, Bodley Head, London, 2008.