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    Altab Ali Park, Whitechapel

    By the Survey of London, on 15 April 2016

    On 4 May 1978 Altab Ali, a 25-year old clothing machinist of Bangladeshi origin, was murdered in Adler Street, Whitechapel, beside the park that was then called St Mary’s Gardens, a name that recalled the Church of St Mary Matfelon (the medieval ‘white chapel’) which had stood on the site until 1952.

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    Altab Ali Park was named in 1994 in memory of a young man murdered near by in 1978 in a racist attack (© Jim Linwood, photo reproduced without changes under a Creative Commons attribution licence). If you are having problems viewing images, please click here.

    This attack galvanized resistance to racism in the area and beyond. A decade on, Tower Hamlets Council commissioned David Petersen, an artist–blacksmith, to make the park’s wrought-iron gateway arch to commemorate victims of racist violence. Put up in 1989 at the park’s Whitechurch Lane corner, it playfully combines Bangladeshi and Gothic ornamental motifs. Following a local campaign, the Council renamed the gardens Altab Ali Park in 1994. Five years later the south-west corner of the park gained a Shaheed Minar (Martyrs’ Monument), a semi-circular concrete plinth with five white steel screens, representing a mother and children, the former to the centre bow-headed in front of a blood-red circle. This is a smaller version of a Shaheed Minar in Dhaka, Bangladesh, designed by Hamidur Rahman, which commemorates activists of the Bengali language movement killed in 1952. Long desired and petitioned for, a Whitechapel monument began to be planned in earnest in 1996, though not at first with this site in mind. The Bangladesh Welfare Association marshalled contributions from 54 organisations and worked closely with the Council. Another copy of the Dhaka monument was made in Oldham in 1996–7. Its designers, the Free Form Arts Trust, were brought in and commissioned to make Whitechapel’s structure larger. Landscaping and the plinth were handled by the Council, and Arts Fabrications made the monument. It was unveiled on 17 February 1999 by Humayun Rashid Choudhury, Speaker of the Bangladeshi Parliament.

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    The Shaheed Minar (Martyrs’ Monument) was erected in 1999 as a smaller replica of a memorial to nationalist student activists in Dhaka, Bangladesh (© Historic England, Lucy Millson-Watkins, photographer).

    Further landscaping followed in 2002 with a new diagonal path through the churchyard that bore an inscription of part of a poem by Rabindranath Tagore, ‘The shade of my tree is offered to those who come and go fleetingly’. The lettering disappeared when another relandscaping of Altab Ali Park was undertaken in 2011. The layout that followed was designed by muf architecture/art as ‘a matrix of the religious and the secular’, [1] and celebrated as ‘a grand collage’. [2] It includes a raised green terrazzo walkway and bench that marks parts of the outline of the site’s Victorian church. Stone fragments carved by apprentices at the Building Crafts College were scattered to suggest the lines of the preceding church. Further south, hillocks, boulders and tree stumps articulate the land east of the Shaheed Minar and, with a small platform, open up a longer view of the monument.

    Whitechapel’s churchyard, which has its origins in the thirteenth century, had been walled round and made more or less co-extensive with the present-day park by the 1720s – the eastern part was occupied by a rectory and its private garden. Notable burials in the churchyard included those of Richard Brandon in 1649, said to have been the executioner of Charles I, and Sir John Cass in 1718. The burial ground came to be badly overcrowded and in 1846 its appearance was said to be ‘very far from creditable to the parish’. [3] It was planted with trees and shrubs in 1850–1 under the supervision of Samuel Curtis (who had landscaped Victoria Park), and burials ceased in 1854. A record from 1875 lists 87 gravestones and monumental slabs in the churchyard. These have since been largely removed or tidied to the site’s edges, a notable exception being a chest tomb for the Maddock family (local timber merchants), a stout early nineteenth-century monument of Portland stone with a marble armorial panel. This remains in place in what was the south-east part of the churchyard.

    The Maddock family's late-Georgian chest tomb is a reminder that the site was a churchyard (Survey of London)

    The Maddock family’s late-Georgian chest tomb is a reminder that the site was a churchyard (© Survey of London). 

    The drinking fountain that now faces Whitechurch Lane was originally on the Whitechapel Road, put up in 1860 ‘from one unknown yet well known’, as it is inscribed, perhaps a reference to the Rev. William Weldon Champneys, Whitechapel’s long-serving and reforming rector who left the parish in that year. Early for a public drinking fountain, it has a Norman arch with pink granite colonettes and back panel set in a gabled ragstone surround. The form of the central motif closely followed the example of London’s first free drinking fountain, put up at Snow Hill in 1859 to great public acclaim. The larger Whitechapel fountain was moved round to Church Lane in 1879, then in 1894 moved again a bit further north to make way for the red-brick building at 2 Whitechurch Lane, formerly St Mary’s house, which was built to house the parish clergy, and now houses a Japanese restaurant. A K2 telephone kiosk was placed to the fountain’s right around 1927 and a K6 kiosk followed in the 1930s. The former remains in place.

    Whitechapel's drinking fountain of 1860, moved later in the nineteenth century (Survey of London)

    Whitechapel’s drinking fountain of 1860, moved here later in the nineteenth century (© Survey of London).

    Rebuilding of the church in the 1870s presented an opportunity to widen the adjacent stretch of Whitechapel Road, so in 1878 a (still existing) stone-coped red-brick boundary wall went up along a new setback line. It was designed by the church’s architect, Ernest C. Lee, using Suffolk bricks identical to those he had used to face the church. Two former entrances from the Whitechapel Road are now blocked, the larger one still marked by remnants of stone steps.

    When the churchyard wall was built it was proposed that tombstones and human remains should be moved to allow part of the grounds to be an ‘ornamental garden’. [4] This objective was achieved in 1885 when the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association assisted in opening the churchyard to the general public as gardens with an improved layout, seats and a caretaker. There was an entrance charge of a penny. But public use was not sustained and in 1938 proposals for reviving the public garden were blocked by the Rev. John A. Mayo who was concerned that the churchyard would ‘become the resort of undesirable characters’. [5]

    The church and rectory were bombed out in 1940. Once the ruins had been cleared, and with the unfenced land indeed attracting uses that aroused criticism, the London County Council set out in 1957 to buy the churchyard to be a public open space, preparing a scheme for planting and landscaping. Legal delays as to title meant that it was 1966 before St Mary’s Gardens could be opened. The lines of the seventeenth-century church were set out in concrete blocks flush with the ground. First intentions had been to mark the medieval ‘white chapel’, but without funding for archaeology this proved impossible. Future posts will describe the history of the church.

    On 4 May 2016, Tower Hamlets Council launched Altab Ali Commemoration Day as an annual event.

    The park is the site of the church of St. Mary Matfelon, the medieval 'white chapel' (Historic England)

    The park in 2011 when blocks delineated the location of the seventeenth-century church of St. Mary Matfelon (© Historic England).

    References

    [1] Building Design, 11 March 2011, p.4
    [2] London Evening Standard, 16 Nov. 2011
    [3] The Builder, 15 Aug 1846, p.388
    [4] The Builder, 3 Aug. 1878, p.812
    [5] East London Observer, 3 June 1939

    Whitechapel

    By the Survey of London, on 22 January 2016

    This blog post is not a history of a site, nor is it like its predecessors about Marylebone or Oxford Street. It is about the Survey of London’s other major current study area, the parish of Whitechapel. This project is still in its early days, so it is too soon for us to be able to offer researched and considered new insights into the area’s architectural history. However, a blog post is an opportunity to keep readers informed of progress, to add to what is on the project’s page on our website.

    (© Historic England, Lucy Millson-Watkins)

    Altab Ali Park in 2015 (© Historic England, Lucy Millson-Watkins). If you are having trouble viewing images, please click here.

    As is explained there, a major new departure for the Survey is being enabled by a significant Arts and Humanities Research Council grant. Starting this month, Dr Duncan Hay, based in the Bartlett’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis with Dr Martin Zaltz Austwick, is working on building an interactive map-based website that when launched in late 2016 will permit public co-production of histories of Whitechapel’s buildings and sites for synthesis by the Survey of London. We are also benefiting from the participation of two research fellows, Shahed Saleem, the architect-author of the first major history of English mosques (forthcoming from Historic England), and Dr Shlomit Flint Ashery, a demographer who is deeply familiar with Whitechapel. Shahed and Shlomit will both facilitate public engagement and further study the area’s recent history. We are also about to employ an archivist for a six-month period to catalogue Whitechapel material at Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives ranging from seventeenth-century property deeds to twenty-first century Building Control records. This new catalogue will be accessible to all. Another historian will soon be recruited, and Derek Kendall (formerly of English Heritage) will contribute photography. Around the time of the website launch in the autumn there will be a series of public events to promote awareness of the project and its possibilities.

    The Royal London Hospital from Whitechapel Road (© Historic England, Chris Redgrave0

    The Royal London Hospital from Whitechapel Road (© Chris Redgrave)

    Typically for the Survey of London, early research into Whitechapel’s history has comprised systematic trawls through basic sources, such as District Surveyors’ Returns, The Builder, and the minutes of the Metropolitan Board of Works and London County Council. We have also had a great boon in that Derek Morris has generously given us use of his database derived from eighteenth-century Land Tax records, a core source for his Whitechapel 1600–1800 (2011). All this is vital, but, undigested, not the stuff of blogs.

    Cass School of Art (© Historic England, Chris Redgrave)

    Central House on Commercial Road, home to the Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design (© Chris Redgrave)

    Location-specific research is beginning on some of the area’s major sites: Altab Ali Park (formerly the parish churchyard where the Church of St Mary Matfelon stood through several rebuilds), the Whitechapel Art Gallery, Toynbee Hall and, largest of all, the Royal London Hospital. Warm archival welcomes promise productive investigations. The former hospital buildings are set to become a town hall for Tower Hamlets Council. We are also keeping an eye on other vulnerable sites where change is in the offing, from a terrace of the early 1870s on Vallance Road (see this post on Spitalfields Life), to Maersk House, Central House (for now still home to the Cass) and the East London Mail Centre on Whitechapel Road.

    © Chris Redgrave

    3-7 Vallance Road, part of an 1870s terrace that has been threatened with demolition (© Chris Redgrave)

    We have also benefitted from contact with students. From our position in the Bartlett School of Architecture the Survey of London is pleased now to be involved in teaching. This academic year, for the first time, the Bartlett is offering a Master’s degree titled Architecture and Historic Urban Environments. For this the Survey has been responsible for a module titled Surveying and Recording of Cities. This has been huge fun, and an excellent opportunity to pass on some of our peculiar practices. We are delighted that two of the students, Niki Tsirimpi and Ananthi Velmurugan, chose sites in Whitechapel for special study. Their work on Gwynne House on Turner Street, Half Moon Passage and the former Whitechapel County Court building on Prescot Street that is now Café Spice Namaste, has given our project significant boosts for which we are most grateful.

    Maersk House, 1 Braham Street, from the east (© Historic England, Lucy Millson-Watkins)

    Maersk House, 1 Braham Street, of 1976, R. Seifert & Partners, from the east (© Historic England, Lucy Millson-Watkins)

    For the time being the Survey’s blog will continue to be dominated by Marylebone and Oxford Street, where study is far more advanced. But if you are interested in the history of Whitechapel please watch this space. Much more, of a more particular nature, will follow, later this year and beyond.

    The Royal London Hospital from the north-west (© Chris Redgrave)

    The Royal London Hospital from the north-west (© Chris Redgrave)

    Welcome to our blog

    By the Survey of London, on 25 November 2015

    The Survey of London provides essential reading for anyone wishing to find out about the capital’s built environment. In its 120-year history the Survey has explored a wide variety of London districts, from Soho, Mayfair and Covent Garden in the West End to Woolwich, Highgate and Norwood in the inner suburbs. In 2013, the Survey of London joined the Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL.

    Our detailed architectural and topographical studies are published in volumes, each of which generally covers one parish. Each book describes the evolution of an area, giving a description of its buildings, explaining how they came into being and outlining their significance and historical associations. The text, which is based on original documentary and field research, is profusely illustrated with a mixture of archive images, architectural illustrations, photographs and maps.

    Areas covered by the Survey of London

    Areas covered by the Survey of London. If you are having difficulty viewing images, please click here.

    The volumes are listed on the Survey of London map and access to the online versions of all but the most recent volumes on Woolwich and Battersea is available at British History Online. You can also follow our updates on Twitter and Facebook.

    Now we are launching the Survey of London blog. This will provide a pre-publication outlet for stories that come to light during our research and will include our architectural illustrations and photographs.

    Elevation drawing and phase plan of Gilmore House, Battersea

    Elevation drawing and phase plan of Gilmore House, Battersea (© Survey of London, Helen Jones)

    Marylebone

    Our most advanced current area of study is a large swathe of the parish of St Marylebone, bounded to the south by Oxford Street and to the north by the Marylebone Road, and stretching from just west of Marylebone High Street to the parish boundary along Cleveland Street to the east. The area is rich in historic buildings and includes some of London’s most celebrated addresses, such as Portland Place, Cavendish Square and Harley Street. As the study has progressed, we have gained fresh insights into the history and significance of many aspects of this built environment. We hope that you will enjoy peeking into the buildings and places that we have explored (sometimes quite literally, with an upcoming fly-through of St Peter’s Church on Vere Street).

    Queen Anne Street (Chris Redgrave)

    Queen Anne Street in 2015 (© Historic England, Chris Redgrave)

    Oxford Street

    Only the north side of Oxford Street falls within Marylebone and although we often just cover one side of the street when it is at the edge of a parish, this seemed particularly unsatisfactory in the case of Oxford Street. Here was an opportunity to produce a separate volume on the entire street, recognizing its historical integrity and its importance as Europe’s premier shopping street, a status which it has enjoyed for a remarkable 200 years. The south side has been touched upon in earlier Survey volumes, though not the section in the parish of St George, Hanover Square. But only a selection of buildings were included, and a few of those have since been demolished. With Crossrail and the rebuilding of Tottenham Court Road station, the entire eastern end of Oxford Street is undergoing rapid change. This volume, with, we hope, a companion photographic panorama, will provide a snapshot of the street as it is today and explore its architectural and sociological development.

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    Panorama of Oxford Street in 2015, north side from Hanway Street to Tottenham Court Road (© Historic England, Chris Redgrave, Lucy Millson-Watkins and James O. Davies)

    Whitechapel

    While work is continuing on the editing and production stage of the south-eastern Marylebone volumes, ahead of publication scheduled for November 2016, we are launching a study of Whitechapel. Whitechapel is at the heart of London’s East End and has a multifaceted history that is reflected in its diverse built environment, which includes the Royal London Hospital, the East London Mosque, Toynbee Hall, Wellclose Square and the Whitechapel Art Gallery. Whitechapel is currently in the throes of intense and rapid change due to its proximity to the City; speculative developments are now giving parts of the area a new, glassy and much taller character.

    A major grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council will permit us to break new methodological ground in collaboration with the Bartlett’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis. We will create an interactive website for public co-production of research, tapping into the insights of local communities and others to document experiences and understandings of all manner of places.

    As these projects develop, we look forward to sharing stories from our explorations into the history and architecture of Whitechapel and Oxford Street.

    Alie Street in c.1999 (Chris Redgrave)

    Alie Street in c.1999 (Chris Redgrave)