History of Arnold Circus: The World’s Oldest Council Estate

A 5 minute walk from Brick Lane, you’ll find a circular street called Arnold Circus.

It feels like a different world.

Arnold Circus History

Quiet and peaceful, it’s not wonder that it’s popular as a film set. However the calm exterior hides a surprising history.

The Old Nichol Slum

Originally a garden space of the nearby Holywell Nunnery, by the 18th century the East End’s population was growing rapidly and the area was needed for housing.

Fast forward to the 1850s and the area wedged between Boundary Street, Old Nichol Street, Mount Street and Virginia Road was known as the worst slum in London, the notorious ‘Old Nichol’.

 Image from Wiki Commons.

The map above shows the Old Nichol slum and is from Charles Booth’s poverty maps of London. while the red is listed as middle class, the dark blue areas are “very poor, casual, chronic want” and black simply means the “lowest class …  loafers, criminals and semi-criminals”.

5,700 people were crammed into a tiny area, crime was widespread and the violent death rate was 40 per 1,000, the rest of London was around 10 per 1,000.

The slum has been immortalised in fiction; Arthur Morrison published ‘A Child of the Jago‘ in 1896, ironically it was rubble by the time the book was widely available, but that didn’t stop the novel becoming synonymous with the slum.

Arnold Circus History

Image c.1890, the last days of the slum. From the City of London Metropolitan Archives, image in the public domain.

 There’s also vivid descriptions of the Old Nichol. One newspaper reported the following from a visit in 1863;

“The limits of a single article would be insufficient to give any detailed description of even a day’s visit. There is nothing picturesque about 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, reeking with disease and death, and without means, even if there were the inclination for the mot ordinary observations of decency and cleanliness.”

(The Illustrated London News, 24 October 1863)

Demolition of the Old Nichol

Local Reverend, Osborne Jay, didn’t get many people from the slum coming into his church.

In fact, a census of the East End in 1886 found that 92% of the population did not attend a service of any religious denomination.

He decided to work on the streets, a cheerful and charismatic presence who managed to raise £25,000 to build a new church, social club, gym and lodging house in Old Nichol Street.

In 1890 he persuaded the newly formed London County Council (LCC) to clear the slum and build new flats. The whole area was completely demolished between 1890-1894.

Arnold Circus History

Part of the Ordinance Survey map (1893-1896) showing the site of the former Old Nichol.

Building the Boundary Estate

Arguably the world’s first council estate, the architect of the Boundary Estate was Owen Fleming who lead a team under the LCC.

Arnold Circus History

The LCC had previously recorded 5,666 inhabitants in the low-rise, twisting streets. Some rooms were below street level in basements and 107 of the rooms houses five or more people.

The new flats comfortably housed 6,000 people.

Each of the 20 blocks was 5 storeys high, made of red-brick, Arts and crafts-influenced homes. The 7 streets radiating from the centre contained blocks in an irregular layout, each designed to maximise good light and air for the residents.

Arnold Circus History

So, a happy ending?

As you may have guessed, the story is not a complete fairytale. It wasn’t the unfortunate people who lived in the Old Nichol who were given the homes. It was for the ‘industrious poor’, in comparison to the slum’s ‘idle poor’.

Slum residents were moved along without further help, they went to Bethnal Green and Dalston, creating more overcrowding and more slums.

Who was Arnold?

Sir Arthur Arnold was Chairman of the LCC in the mid-1890s, it was down to his efforts that the Boundary Estate was built to such high standards of construction and design. The circus at the heart of the estate was named after him.

Arnold Circus History

The mound created as a central point of the circus is actually made of rubble from the demolished slum buildings. One can only guess at what those fragments could tell us today.

Living in Arnold Circus

Joan Rose, who grew up in Arnold Circus during the 1930s, helping her grandfather in his shop and listening to his stories about the estate.

She describes going to dance with boys in the West End but quickly learning not to say she was from the East End; ”If you said you were from Shoreditch, that was the last you saw of them.” You can read her charming, vivid recollections from Spitalfields Life here.

Arnold Circus History

Today the area has been hugely gentrified, privately-owned flats within the estate are very in-demand, but Tower Hamlets still control 500 flats, around 2/3 of the entirety.

The flats represent a similar make up of the borough today, a diverse mix of ages and nationalities with Bengalis accounting for around 40% of the estates residents.

Since 2004 the site has been cared for by The Friends of Arnold Circus. The garden, work with schoolchildren and organise events for the local area.

Arnold Circus History

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6 Comments

  • Lyndsey Smith

    Reply

    did you see the fabulous programme back in 2012 about Arnold Circus. still one of my favourite tv series yet. I wish they would do more https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Secret_History_of_Our_Streets

    September 4, 2019 at 7:58 am
  • Kim Pragnell

    Reply

    A wonderful article. As I was reading I felt as if I had been there but know I haven’t. Thank you for all the amazing information that you give us about London. I was born in Twickenham but now live on the isle of Wight.

    September 4, 2019 at 12:37 pm
  • Kate
    I know this reply is late, but quite a few years ago I saw a documentry about Booth’s survey of poverty in London, about people burning their posesions, just to keep warm in winter, really makes people today think. Also, more recently, I saw Arnold Circus on a documentry about housing in London, tracing its history. Anyway, thank you for interesting bulletins, please keep up the good work !

    yours truly

    October 15, 2019 at 11:09 am

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