On a street surrounded by modern glass and steel office blocks, can be found this slightly ramshackle but quite delightful row of workshops and flats.
Known officially as 91-101 Worship Street, this set of workshops were built in 1861-3 by Philip Webb, father of Arts and Crafts architecture, and architect of William Morris’s Red House in Bexley.
Webb usually designed large individual domestic homes but was asked to build this terrace of affordable artisans workrooms, shops and houses as a charitable commission by Lieutenant-Colonel William Gillum, a friend of William Morris and the pre-Raphaelites.
They were all drawn to supporting artisan crafts, so could be seen as the original hipsters. Regrettably, for all their aspirations to support the working man, the products they produced were unaffordable as craftsmanship is very expensive. Mechanization did more to make consumer goods affordable, even if the craft was lost.
But back to the workshops, and this row of buildings would be distinctive anywhere, but are more so considering the modern office environment that they sit within. A series of shop windows for the workshops under a pent tiled roof., and above, the homes for the workers.
The roofline is striking, with pitched tiled roofs, each having a tall hipped gabled dormer with oversailing gable end. The height being further accentuated by ridge stacks. A gothic drinking fountain of stone and marble is incorporated into south-east angle of No 101, although on my visit, rather neglected and hidden.
Although now surrounded by offices, the sitting for the workshops was at the time, both sensible and philanthropic. This whole area was workshops, and at one time three-quarters of local shops would have been furniture warehouses.
The land had been owned by the Gillum family since around 1745, and the areas was known as Gillum Fields. The road itself, befitting its rural nature was originally Hog-lane, but renamed later as Worship Street as the first blocks of houses built here were made from stone taken from the old church of St Mary Islington.
Over the decades, the area built up as housing, which were later badly converted into warehouses, with people crammed into often dilapidated rooms above their places of work, surrounded by the fumes of the furniture trade.
These new workshops replaced a block of “miserable, ill-ventilated, tumble-down” buildings that had sat on the site.
The decision by Gillum to fund the construction of purpose built workshops on his land with modest, but decently built homes above was a radical idea for the area. Unfortunately, constructing purpose built workshops is a lot more expensive than doing a bad conversion of an existing home, so the rents were higher, but the interior finishes basic.
When completed in 1863, The Builder magazine said that the interior of the homes suffered from a “degree of rudeness in the finishings internally, which may militate against the speedy occupation of the houses and shops by persons able to pay the amount of rent which would be required.”
Today, the shops are either empty or feeding hungry stomachs, the flats above occupied, but the original lofty aspirations for craftsmen living in harmony with their work seems to have faded.
Article last updated on March 24th, 2020 at 08:30 am