The Boundary Street Estate in Bethnal Green, in the east end of London, was built between 1894 and 1900 by the London County Council (LCC) and set the precedent for future social housing in the capital. It was designed around a central hub, Arnold Circus, and featured tree-lined avenues and housing blocks radiating outwards. The blocks were built without the architectural uniformity that would come to characterise later social housing schemes but it was the first large-scale, multi-storey municipal housing estate and, with a few notable exceptions, the majority of council housing built in London after this date followed the same route, upwards. The estate was built in what had been one of London’s most notorious slum districts the ‘Old Nichol’ which featured living conditions that were so bad that boards were placed on the ground so residents could traverse the permanent seas of mud and grime. Death rates were more than double the London average and the area was home to street gangs and a hotspot for crime.
Using the new legislation of the Housing of the Working Classes Act 1890 the social reformers in the LCC set about demolishing the Nichol Street slums and building markedly improved tenement blocks. Owen Fleming was the architect leading a team working directly for the LCC and the estate was built in brick, with blocks being five storeys high. Although the stylistic flourishes of arts and crafts architects are sadly absent from any of the subsequent LCC or London borough council housing schemes much of London’s municipal housing utilises five storey high, brick tenements, arranged around open spaces, with adequate light and air, the pattern set by Fleming at the Boundary Street estate.
The architectural style was influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement with a variety of unique elements and features. The seven spokes or segments form an irregular layout with blocks arranged to maximise good light and air, something the German Modernists and New Objectivity movement would place value on too. Radial layouts were a common theme of the period in the work of many civic designers like Thomas Mawson, Edwin Lutyens and K P C de Bazel, and can also be seen at Seven Dials in Covent Graden. Despite its’ situation on the borders of the City of London in Bethnal Green, and its’ clear historic (and financial) value thus far it has remained as social housing (in 2012.. the future is of course unwritten). The estate was designated a Conservation Area in 1985.