The early 1800’s

Since 1679 the land on which Columbia Road (Birdcage Walk) sat had been owned by the Jesus Hospital Estate Charity of Chipping Barnet. This Charity still exists today and is primarily involved in supporting the needy in that part of Hertfordshire. The history of the cottages on the estate to the south of Columbia Road has already been covered in my previous book on the area, “Watercress But No Sandwiches.” The estate in Bethnal Green, which is still known as the Jesus Hospital Estate (JHE), was owned by the Charity for 300 years.

From researching their archives, it seems that the JHE was not of prime importance to the Charity and the management of the land was spasmodic to say the least. Sadly there is a large hole in their archives lasting from 1679 to 1823. Any history that can be gleaned for that period comes from deeds discovered in other collections.

As a result of the lack of interest shown by the Charity, the land which was purchased as “The Fourteen Acres Close” remained predominantly as pastureland until the mid 19th century. On Horwood’s Plan of the City of 1799 there is one sole building on this land, which is almost certainly the Birdcage Public House. When originally purchased, the land had just a barn and a stable which had been built in 1603 on it and thus, with the exception of the Public House, it remained for many years. From the start the land was leased out for farming, beginning with Robert Newell for the princely annual rent of £34.00.

The land was repossessed by the Charity on 25th March 1823 when it appears that they had decided to develop it.

There are few deeds left from this period, one though in the local history library in Tower Hamlets is that of the Birdcage Public House. That there was a public house in existence since the 1760’s is clear from maps and other records. On the 19th of December 1827 the Charity gave a lease for a newly built public house, called the Birdcage. Included in this was a proposal for the future building of houses and yards. The lessees of the Pub were Harvey, Combe and Delafield Brewers, which later became Watney’s.

What was the need for the new Birdcage? Was the old one so decrepit that it needed knocking down and replacing? That may well have been the case for on October 11th, 1827 the London Standard Newspaper reported that “About three o’clock (in the morning) the South of Hackney Road was visited by one of the most destructive tempests witnessed in the vicinity of the metropolis for many years.” The wind was so fierce that it laid waste to the entire range of garden and orchard grounds on Crabtree Row. Hot houses were blown into fragments, chimney and window pots rained down, pigeon traps on the roofs were blown into the adjacent brick field; “and an old stable attached to the Birdcage Public House was thrown down with a frightful crash.” This was possibly the remains of Robert Newell’s stables mentioned in the deeds of 1689. Probably the storm delivered the death knell that rendered the pub uninhabitable. In 1830, the newly built Birdcage was visited upon by the greatest threat to buildings of the age, fire. At two in the morning of Monday 25 January a fire broke out on the ground floor and rapidly spread. Part of the upper floor had been given over as a lodging house and, as was reported at the time, many of the inmates ‘escaped naked onto the street’. A weaver who occupied the top floor was burnt whilst trying to save his silks. As no other building adjoined the Birdcage, it was the only structure affected.

It’s difficult to imagine hot houses and orchards anywhere near the Birdcage Pub these days, or indeed the pub standing in splendid isolation. The hot houses described in the article, were part of the horticultural industry that had dominated that corner of Bethnal Green and Hackney for some years.

The Birdcage Public House in 1930
The Birdcage Public House in 1930

Towards Regeneration

It took the decade up to the late 1970’s to reduce Ravenscroft Buildings to rubble. The Black Buildings were demolished by the early 1960’s. With the exception of Leopold Buildings and Columbia Market Nursery by the late 1970’s almost every building between Hackney Road and Gossett Street was levelled and replaced by Council flats.

The shops at the western end of Columbia Road had been predominantly Jewish, this one could discern by names in the Post Office lists and the 1911 census. Finding people who recalled this community though was not proving easy. It is then that one of those quirks of fate takes place that makes you wonder if there is some guiding eminence.

On a serene August evening in 2012, seven hundred people, including myself, were having a drink at the lovely Kensington Roof Gardens Restaurant. We’d all been part of the 1,000 drummers taking part in the Olympic Games Opening Ceremonies and the owners had kindly offered us the space for the evening in thanks.

I got talking to someone I hadn’t really spoken much with before and mentioned that I was working on this book. Elaine Young, with whom I’d sat, chatted and shared many a laugh during the months of rehearsals we had undertaken was sitting nearby and overheard me.

“Columbia Road? We had a shop there.” She said.

Her family are Polish Jews and her grandmother had run the Haberdashers at number 5 Columbia Road for many years. Her mum Millie Samber is in her nineties and despite a little deafness and poor eyesight has great recall and a collection of wonderful photographs of the area during the 1930’s and 40’s.

Her family had come over from Tarnobrzeg, in Polish Galicia at the turn of the 20th century. The town then had a population of some 3,000 over 2,000 of which were Jewish. Millie is not sure why they came but in 1898, the non-Jewish farmers of the region celebrated 50 years of being freed from serfdom. During the celebration, three farmers attacked a Jewish tavern owner, beating him and wreaking havoc at his inn. Since the Jewish community were familiar with what happened in other places, they anticipated that a pogrom would be sparked. Some Jewish families left rather than find out if this would be the true for Tarnobrzeg. It is possible that it was this which induced Millie’s mother Annie to come to England. Today the town of 50,000 people has no Jews at all living in it. All of those present during WWII having been murdered by the Poles and Nazi’s.

Annie Samber must have had a lot of spirit. She had turned a room in the house in which they then lived in Newling Street (now demolished), Bethnal Green into a haberdashery shop. Trade had grown and they had finally taken on the shop on Columbia Road which had formerly been a drapers’.

Next door to their shop was Cohen’s who sold fruit and vegetables and then a Diploma Maxwell Laundry followed by the confectioners Mrs Moss. There wasn’t a butcher at that end of the street, but smoked fish could be obtained from a smokery in Gibraltar Walk, where you could also see French Polishers working outside their factories.

When she was young Millie used to work in the shop where she sold carpenters aprons.

“They’d throw them away after a week or so and come in and get a new one.” She told me. She made rosettes for Empire Day (24th May) from red, white and blue ribbons. The family also had a stall down Brick Lane Sunday market selling goods, but the old shop with its tinkling doorbell and the brass measure screwed to the counter was not to be Millie’s realm.

Unlike her Aunt, who had come over from Poland later and took a long time to learn English, Millie was an East Ender. She recalls this Aunt having a minder to walk her to her job in a sweat shop. One day he forgot to tell her he had a half day holiday and in the early evening the Aunt was found wandering the streets lost for want of being able to find her way home.

Millie became a hairdresser at a time when fur coats were very popular and the Jewish furrier trade booming. She reckons that the £25.00 apprenticeship money that was paid for her to enter a salon at the far end of Brick Lane found its way onto the owners back in the form of a nice fur cape.

Ravenscroft Buildings sat where Ravenscroft Park now is. ©English Heritage
Ravenscroft Buildings sat where Ravenscroft Park now is. ©English Heritage