Forget Old Street or the IMAX at Waterloo, London’s most magical roundabout is surely Arnold Circus. Hidden just a stone’s throw away from the hipsters, between Columbia Road, Shoreditch High Street and Bethnal Green Road, it’s surrounded by impressive Victorian redbrick buildings, complete with a peaceful garden and bandstand. This is not your average roundabout – it’s worth a visit for its beauty and also for its history. It just so happens to be the home of the very first council estate in the world.
Constructed in the 1890s from the rubble of the notorious Old Nichol slum that had stood here for decades previously, today Arnold Circus is a people-watching paradise. From families dropping their kids off at The Virginia Primary School to fashion designers heading to their studio at The Rochelle creative hub, the local community is a diverse bunch indeed. The imposing architecture that surrounds them holds a times-gone-by atmosphere, meaning you may even spot a film crew recreating Victorian or Edwardian London.
However, the picturesque beauty of Arnold Circus and the surrounding area hides a far darker history. This was once the location of London’s most infamous slum. In 1896, the author Arthur Morrison wrote a novel called “A Child of The Jago”. He never called out the Old Nichol by name, but it was clear that his hard-hitting story was set there, in the slum that once sat where Arnold Circus sits today. In the novel, he compares the slum dwellers to rats scrambling for any food, water or shelter they could find. He even suggests that many who find accommodation there eventually realise they would rather live on the streets than in their filthy, dilapidated shanty-like shacks. It paints a picture of a truly helpless underclass, leading lives fraught with disease, crime and abject poverty. The middle-class Londoners who read the novel thought it was fiction – surely in the most thriving city in the world, people couldn’t live like this. In fact, this fiction was a scarily accurate depiction of an area of London they daren’t visit.
By the time the book was published, the slum was already slowly being dismantled. The buildings that took its place, the Boundary Estate, formed the first council estate in the world. Surely there was no more necessary place for this progressive social project than London’s East End. It eventually paved the way for more around the country and around the globe. A pretty bandstand, a planned circular street design and two schools made this a practical and desirable place to live and all with cheap, subsidised rent. A huge success? Well, not entirely. Even the cheap rents were prohibitively expensive for most of the original slum dwellers, who really were London’s most poor. They were forced to leave the area, forgotten once again.
A stroll around the beautiful redbrick buildings of the Boundary Estate makes for a lovely weekend activity. Grab a coffee in Shoreditch, wander around the residential side streets, and maybe even pick up a copy of “A Child of the Jago” for a little read. The bandstand is raised, as it was built on top of piles of rubble of the Old Nichol slum. So, sit there, read your book, look out at the roundabout and the community that lives there today, but ponder on the stories buried underneath you and what life was like here in times gone by.
Emma Parker and Shaamar Samuel