Is Whitechapel more sinister than Kentish Town?

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Author Louis Berk on the architectural parallels (and differences) between east and north London


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It is said that London is a series of villages that have, over the last century-and-a-half, joined together into the metropolis we see today. My new book Whitechapel in 50 Buildings (Amberley, 2016), written in collaboration with historian and author Rachel Kolsky, describes the history and development of one distinct part of London through its buildings.

I am no expert of Kentish Town history but it is interesting to see the parallels between these two areas. The former villages of London are now joined by major arterial highways but many retain their own unique appearance. It is only when you arrive at the outer suburbs with their rolling vales of 1930s semis that architecture begins to look consistent.

Whitechapel evokes a much more sinister image than that of Kentish Town – reinforced in recent years by popular television programmes – but there are still surprises to be found in the back streets.

1. Victoria Cottages & Reed’s Place

Victoria Cottages. Photo: Louise Berk
Victoria Cottages. Photo: Louis Berk
Reeds Place. Photo: LB
Reeds Place. Photo: LB
Just like Reed’s Place NW1, which could be a rural backwater, Victoria Cottages (1858) in Deal Street, quite literally at the centre of Whitechapel, has a similar character. Built as social housing by a philanthropic organisation, they attracted some criticism at the time for not using the land for higher density housing which dominates most of Whitechapel.

2. Neuve Eglise & St Andrew’s

Jamme Majid. Photo: LB
Jamme Majid. Photo: LB
St Andrews. Photo: LB
St Andrews. Photo: LB
Religion has left a recognisable stamp on all the communities within London. Possibly the most famous example in Whitechapel is that of the former Neuve Eglise (1743) in Brick Lane. Built as a Huguenot place of worship in its lifetime it has been a Wesleyan Chapel, a Synagogue and now is the Jamme Masjid mosque.

Although younger in age, the history of St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral which lies at the southern end of Kentish Town high street is also a reflection of the changing population of the area. Built as St Barnabas (1885) as an Anglican church it was transformed in 1957 to meet the needs of the Greek community.

3. Durward Street & Holmes Road

Durward Street. Photo: LB
Durward Street. Photo: LB
Holmes Road. Photo: LB
Holmes Road. Photo: LB
Since the pioneering Education Act of 1870 schools have often been an important and visible part of the local area. The Board School in Durward Street (just behind Whitechapel Road) remains an iconic landmark in Whitechapel. After a slow start it became a high performing school in spite of the deprived background of its pupils. Its location also has a sinister association in that the first victim of the Whitechapel Murders, which so inflamed the atmosphere of the East End in 1888, was found close to the edge of the school which is the only contemporaneous building left in the street.

Kentish Town was no exception when it came to the building of Board Schools and a fine example remains in Holmes Road where it hopefully has happier associations with the surrounding area.

4. Dunstan House & Royal College Street

Dunstan House. Photo: LB
Dunstan House. Photo: LB
Royal College Street. Photo: LB
Royal College Street. Photo: LB
As a result of the social conditions raised by the events of 1888, several charitable organisations strove to improve the housing for the population of Whitechapel. The East End Dwellings Company established in 1882 created decent housing for workers. A prime example, built in 1899, is Dunstan House in Stepney Green Gardens on the edge of Whitechapel. Strangely, the wave of philanthropic dwellings only penetrated to south of what is now the Borough of Camden but these dwellings at the end of Royal College Street are reminiscent of many social housing buildings of the late Victorian era found in Whitechapel.

5. Blind Beggar & Assembly House

Blind Beggar. Photo: LB
Blind Beggar. Photo: LB
Assembly House. Photo: LB
Assembly House. Photo: LB
The public house in Whitechapel comes in for mixed feelings by historians. Life was desperate in the East End and many a family was forced into destitution by the drinking habits of the father and breadwinner. On the other hand, as life improved in the 20th century, they often became important social hubs. On any tour of Whitechapel, the Blind Beggar is a notorious stop with its link to the gangland activities of the Kray Brothers.

The dominating presence of the Assembly House, at the northern end of Kentish Town, could not be further from the sinister associations of its East End counterpart. Until the urbanisation of the 19th century it was a destination for walkers in search of a pleasant country inn.

6. Royal London Hospital & Kentish Town Baths

Royal London Hospital. Photo: LB
Royal London Hospital. Photo: LB
Kentish Town Baths. Photo: LB
Kentish Town Baths. Photo: LB
The high spot for me of the architecture in Whitechapel has to be the Royal London Hospital – which has now been replaced by a new building just behind it. I always feel the Georgian façade is a benevolent presence amongst a sea of buildings with a distinctly malevolent history. It is currently empty but will shortly be redeveloped as the offices of Tower Hamlets Council – indeed it is a central showpiece of the somewhat controversial plans to redevelop Whitechapel as Crossrail arrives in 2018.

For me, Kentish Town has an equally wonderful building in the shape of the Baths (1903). Although from a different era, the same attention to detail and objective of improving lives joins it in a small way by to the Royal London.

Architectural and urban landscape photography for me is a way of linking the past to the present, and the beauty of London as a subject for any photographer is the wide variety of buildings of all ages and the stories they can tell.

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Whitechapel in 50 Buildings by Louis Berk is available for £12 inc P&P online from here or from the Owl Bookshop and Amazon (rrp £14.99).

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