This is a cobbled passage in Bethnal Green that runs around the back of a Victorian block of flats and at first glance doesn’t seem that interesting, but read on.
The area was still fields in 1800, but by the 1820s, the first hints of urbanisation had appeared, with a row of buildings fronting onto Roman Road, marked on an 1828 map as Chester Place.
Those buildings don’t seem to have lasted long though, as the current block of flats with shops on the ground floor was built in 1888 by the East End Dwellings Company (EEDC), a philanthropic model dwellings company, that built homes to improve the living conditions of the working poor.
The EEDC’s declared aim was to “house the very poor while realizing some profit” – following the five percent model, “their particular purpose being to erect blocks of dwellings, to be let by the room so that the poorest class of labourers could be accommodated”
Unlike many of the model dwellings companies who only rented to full-time workers, the EEDC also offered accommodation to the casual poor and day labourers.
Along the principles of Octavia Hill’s schemes, the company used female rent collectors, including Beatrice Potter (later Webb), one of the founders of the London School of Economics & Political Science and Ella Pycroft, who ran the Buildings alongside Maurice Eden Paul. Ladies were thought to be able to offer moral support to their tenants that male rent collectors couldn’t offer.
They built a number of blocks around the East End, and this block, called Museum House, opened in May/June 1888. It was described as offering “all the new and modern appliances for the comfort and accommodation of families”.
According to the 1891 census, the 36 flats were home to 97 men and 92 women, with two flats housing 9 people each, thanks to a prolific number of children being born to their parents.
Typical occupations of the residents included Henry Walters, a printing compositor, Edwin Argent, a packing case maker, Conrad Kluick and Jacob Walz, both bakers, and Jacon Weil, a school inspector. Arthur Masters was a fishmonger’s assistant, while the 17 year old Eliza Collins was a matchbox maker, the daughter of a casual dock labourer.
Built for renting to working classes, today the flats are for sale and will set you back a very middle class £375,000.
The alley passed around the back of the building and leads out to Burnham Street, which was originally called Pitt Street, possibly after William Pitt the Younger, the former Prime Minister. Later renamed Chester Street, and now Burnham Street.
The alley used to have housing along the north side as well, but that was destroyed during WWII, probably targeted thanks to what’s on the other side of the houses — a military barracks.
The barracks was the base for the Tower Hamlets Engineers, a military volunteer unit of the British Royal Engineers (RE). Created in 1868, it provided engineers for two London infantry divisions of the Territorial Force during World War I. In World War II it operated as an RE headquarters, particularly on D-Day and at the Rhine Crossing, while its subordinate companies served in a number of campaigns.
After WWII, they took over the land from the houses that had been cleared by enemy action. The site is still used by the military and is today home to the 25th Cadet Detachment of the Army Cadets, a 150 year old national voluntary youth movement.
That does mean a potentially picturesque cobbled alley lined with a row of nice houses is now dominated by a long concrete wall.
The western side of the alley was also mainly houses facing onto the main road, but with much of the area damaged during WWII, the government took over the site, which is now dominated by Bethnal Green police station and Bethnal Green fire station.
So Helen’s Place has a surprising amount of history.
But who was Helen?