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This fashionable London address was the world's first council estate

By Jan Moys

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Nestled between Shoreditch High Street and Bethnal Green Road, the Boundary Estate is now a sought-after Victorian red brick development arranged around the circular park of Arnold Circus. London's most notorious slum, the Old Nichol, was demolished to make way for the new social housing scheme – London's first and arguably the first of its kind in the world. We take a look at its history and explore available properties in the area.

Abingdon House and Benson House on the Boundary Estate

The Old Nichol: "vice, filth and poverty"

The Boundary Estate tenements were constructed by the newly-formed London County Council (LCC) in the 1890s. Local vicar Revd. Osborne Jay was the visionary behind the scheme, having moved to the parish in 1886. He worked hard to improve the lives of his parishioners, but eventually concluded that the Old Nichol slum he was ministering in had to be demolished to remedy the social ills fostered within its squalid streets.

Images of housing in the Old Nichol slum and maps of the area before (top left) and after (bottom right) redevelopment.

To give an idea of the living conditions in the Old Nichol slum, the Illustrated London News included this vivid description in 1863:

It is but one painful and monotonous round of vice, filth and poverty, huddled in dark cellars, ruined garrets, bare and blackened rooms, reeking with disease and death, and without the means, even if there were the inclination, for the most ordinary observations of decency and cleanliness.

Conditions in the Old Nichol were also brought into the public eye by the novel A Child of the Jago by Arthur Morrison. This account of a child's struggle with various vices was inspired by a visit the writer paid to the area at the invitation of Revd. Jay.

The book had such an impact on Victorians' perceptions that it was referenced by the Prince of Wales during the opening ceremony of the new Boundary Estate in 1900. Sadly, the new development did not benefit the 6,000 or so residents of the original slum, as most of them could not afford the new flats and simply moved into other nearby slums.

Building the Boundary Estate

The bandstand at the centre of Arnold Circus park (image credit: Jwslubbock)

Architect Owen Fleming designed the layout of the new neighbourhood. He widened existing streets, such as Boundary Street and Mount Street, and ensured the new roads running off from the central Arnold Circus were wide and tree-lined.

New tenements were built from yellow and red brick, with 23 blocks eventually constructed to house just over 5,500 people. Shops, workshops and a laundry were included, while existing schools and churches were preserved.

The new development included wider, tree-lined streets (image credit: Clem Rutter)

Arnold Circus park and roundabout at the heart of the new development was constructed using the rubble from the demolished slum. This raised enclosure is topped with a bandstand – now Grade II listed along with the park and all the original buildings.

Old Nichol Street remains as a reminder of the area's past (image credit: Clem Rutter)

Today, two thirds of the Boundary Estate remains in the hands of Tower Hamlets Borough Council, while the remaining private properties are highly sought after among buyers and tenants. Along with its heritage and Arts & Crafts style, the estate's proximity to Shoreditch High Street, Brick Lane and Columbia Road Market places it at the heart of a thriving and creative community.

Benson House, Arnold Circus, Shoreditch, E2

2 bedroom flat | £695,000

This spacious two bedroom apartment is located in the heart of the Boundary Estate, within Benson House. A bay window to the reception area creates a bright and airy feel, while clean modern decor and dark stained wood flooring throughout adds a contemporary feel to this Grade-II listed property.

Boundary Street, Shoreditch, E2

2 bedroom flat | £2,384cpm

Located on the street that gives the Boundary Estate its name, this beautifully converted apartment features exposed iron beams and wood floors in the large dual-aspect reception/kitchen area. Two carpeted double bedrooms, a modern shower room and separate WC complete the picture for this outstanding Shoreditch home.

Explore all our Shoreditch properties or contact our Shoreditch office for more information on properties in and around the Boundary Estate.

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