Fieldgate Mansions, E1

The history of this area traces back to the 1790s when Thomas Barnes established a narrow alley, measuring 10 feet wide, between New Road and York Street (later known as Myrdle Street) on the London Hospital estate. Over time, the alley became lined with small one- and two-storey houses, initially named Essex Street and later renamed Romford Street in 1882. However, the condition of this area did not reflect well on the hospital, prompting discussions about its closure.

In 1897, Rowland Plumbe, the hospital’s surveyor, devised a plan to widen Romford Street and redevelop both sides with terraced houses, including top-floor workshops. However, the proposal faced challenges, with concerns raised about limited space at the rear of the houses. The London County Council (LCC) denied permission for the road widening, leading Plumbe to revise the plan. Seeking LCC approval, Plumbe met with Thomas Blashill, the LCC’s Superintending Architect, and Arthur Crow, the District Surveyor for Whitechapel. Eventually, LCC approval was obtained, with the condition that the new houses would not exceed a height of 24 feet.

Davis Brothers, consisting of Israel and Hyman Davis, were chosen as the developers for the project. However, Plumbe encountered difficulties with Henry Legg, the District Surveyor for Mile End Old Town. As a result, the southern part of the project was abandoned as the land was compulsorily purchased for the construction of Myrdle Street School. The northern part was reconfigured to extend to Myrdle Street, and in 1903, Israel Davis (Hyman had passed away in 1902) planned the construction of tenements. The London Hospital granted 80-year leases and entrusted the design to Rowland Plumbe & Harvey. Construction began in late 1903, and by the end of 1905, the west side of Romford Street was mostly built-up. The eastern and western rows, along with the final pair of blocks on Fieldgate Street (known as Nos 33 and 34), were completed by 1907.

Originally, there were thirty-four blocks or sets of dwellings in Fieldgate Mansions, each consisting of eight one-bedroom flats, accommodating a total of thirty-two people. The buildings were constructed with red brick, adorned with variegated stock-brick bands on the upper storeys. Notably, the elevations featured arched gablets over fire-resistant (concrete) open staircases, adding architectural interest. The initial residents of the Mansions were predominantly Jewish immigrants.

Over the years, the ownership of the leases changed hands, leading to neglected repairs by unscrupulous companies and agents acting as slum landlords. During the war, Blocks 20 to 22 at the south end of Romford Street were destroyed by a bomb. By the 1950s, overcrowding became a recognized problem. In 1961, Edith Ramsay organized a conference to address the growing issue of prostitution in the area. The attendees advocated for improved lighting to discourage casual sexual activities in the playgrounds situated between and behind the mansions, which were often bridged by laundry lines. In the political landscape, St Mary’s Ward, including this area, elected three Communist councillors in 1964 and 1968.

Starting in 1972, Fieldgate Mansions and the surrounding streets, particularly Myrdle Street and Parfett Street, became a haven for squatters, with the exception of the eastern row of Fieldgate Mansions. This wave of squatting was inspired by the London Squatters Campaign, which was established in 1968 with the aim of providing housing for families from hostels or slums. This movement gave rise to various local offshoots and eventually led to licensed squatting. One notable figure, Terry Fitzpatrick, collaborated with homeless Bengalis through the Bengali Family Housing Association to establish squatted tenure not only in Fieldgate Mansions but also in other parts of East London. In 1976, the Bengali Housing Action Group (commonly known as ’bhag’, meaning ’tiger’ in Bengali) was formed.

In response to the situation, Tower Hamlets Council sought assistance from the Greater London Council (GLC) to address the issue of squatting and improve living conditions in the area. In 1979, Levitt Bernstein Associates, an architectural firm, along with Frances Bradshaw and Geoffrey Morris, conducted a feasibility study for the rehabilitation and conversion of the remaining 256 flats in Fieldgate Mansions on behalf of the Samuel Lewis Housing Trust. Subsequently, the Parfett Street Housing Action Area was established in 1983 through the GLC’s Area Improvement & Modernisation office. This designation enabled access to improvement grants and aimed to encourage existing residents to remain in the area. The housing action area encompassed all of Fieldgate Mansions.

The conversion plans involved creating maisonettes by merging some flats to alleviate overcrowding and accommodate larger families, particularly within the close-knit Bengali population mentioned in a GLC press release. While the overall treatment of the buildings remained conservative, the renovation included the addition of balconettes and the demolition of one block on the west side of Romford Street to make room for a tenants’ meeting room. Levitt Bernstein Associates were responsible for the design, while Fordham Bros Ltd of Dagenham undertook the construction in the initial two phases between 1983 and 1985. Subsequently, Thomas Bates & Son Ltd carried out the work in the three later phases from 1986 to 1991, which included the construction of a communal building and a playground.

Leave a Reply