The Bethnal Green Poor

The area now occupied by Bethnal Green Gardens, Paradise Row Gardens, and Museum Gardens, actually comprises the remnants of the area’s medieval green, which was known as “the Bethnal Green Poor’s Land.”

From the 1860’s onwards, there was a huge amount of public debate over what should be done with this valuable piece of real estate.

Some wanted to build housing on it, whilst others saw it as a much needed open space that could provide some respite from the overcrowding and grime of the living conditions that were endured on a daily basis by the poverty-stricken residents of the area.

One person who favoured the latter usage was businessman and philanthropist Sir Edmund Hay Currie (1834 – 1913).


On Saturday, 10th January, 1891, the following article, in which Sir Edmund extolled the benefits of open spaces in the East End of London for the poor of the area, appeared in The Graphic:-

“The name of Bethnal Green, pleasantly rustic as it may at one time have sounded, carries with it today a flavour of sordid squalor almost as pronounced as that which hangs about the name of Whitechapel.

Neither of these places deserves all the bad things which have been said about it, for the condition of life within the bounds of both are too varied to admit of sweeping generalities; but many of the bad things are true, and there are spots in Bethnal Green, as there are in Whitechapel, where almost every imaginable bad thing is true.

The congregation of filthy tenements, for instance, which the London County Council propose to replace with improved Artisans’ Dwellings, could not, from the point of view of sanitation and cleanliness, be much worse than it is.


The question as to whether a clean sweep should be made of these places, as the Council wish, or whether the landlords should be compelled to place them in proper order, is one upon both sides of which much is to be said, and perhaps most on the side adopted by the Council.

But it must be remembered that a house constructed on the latest and most approved sanitary principles will never remain healthy and clean in the hands of people who have never learned the value of health and cleanliness.


The people who inhabit these dirty and fever-breeding retreats are, too many of them – not by any means all – unhealthy by inheritance and usage as well as dirty by custom and preference. They will be only too likely, if placed in model homes, to be uncomfortable until their occupation has brought those homes down to the familiar level of smell and dirt which they have been accustomed to in their old tenements.

The houses certainly need improving, in every possible respect; but so do the tenants.


It has often been brought forcibly to my mind that a long-continued want of fresh air and proper exercise is mainly responsible for the apparent affection for dirt which would seem to exist in places like this.

People who have never known the exhilaration of clean, bright country air, and whose daily drudgery leads them to look upon a person who exerts himself bodily to any larger extent than is necessary to earn a living as rather a fool; these persons will live and sleep in a horrible room, where no window is ever opened, and where impurity reeks from walls, floor, and ceiling, until a bath or a puff of fresh air become discomforts to avoid.

The various local and municipal authorities and the Metropolitan Playgrounds’ Association have done much to provide an antidote to this state of affairs by the many fine open spaces which they have provided, and the gymnastic apparatus with which many of them have been supplied.


Of course, a great difficulty has to be contended with in the fact that the necessity for these “lungs” has been too tardily recognised, and dense populations have for years upon years been allowed to spring up, shutting in the thick population already existing, and leaving no sod of ground uncovered by buildings.

Such an opportunity as that which the County Council is now endeavouring to seize, by opening as a recreation-ground what is known as the “Bethnal Green Poor’s Land,” but too rarely occurs in the old inner districts, where, when anything at all has been possible, nothing better than a small transformed graveyard has as yet been achieved.


This “Poor’s Land” is a piece of 6 1/4 acres in extent, bequeathed under an old charitable trust, which provides for certain “doles” to be paid from the rental income.

Its situation is a most suitable and central one in the main Cambridge Road, at the corner of Green Street, immediately adjacent to the grounds of the Bethnal Green Museum, which are already laid out and are being maintained by the County Council as a public recreation ground.

The chief part of this land is enclosed and let on a yearly tenancy to a large private lunatic asylum adjoining, and is used as an exercise ground for the patients.


The Charity Commissioners had this trust, among many others, under their consideration and prepared a scheme for dealing with it which was not received with great favour.

Their proposals were to use one-acre and-a-quarter as a site for a town hall and public library, and a further two acres and a half as a site for a parish infirmary, leaving only two-and-a-half acres available for the purposes of a recreation ground.

The town hall and the infirmary would have been, no doubt, very excellent things in their way, but their erection would have broken up the space and spoiled the benefit which it was already conferring upon the neighbourhood; for a large unbuilt-upon space, even if fenced in, will give the lower air somewhere in which to circulate and do much towards clearing the surrounding atmosphere.

The County Council were invoked to avert the town hall and the infirmary, and their representations have been effectual in inducing the Charity Commissioners entirely to amend their scheme.


The scheme – which has yet to be finally approved – now in effect provides that the land shall be thrown open completely to the public, and controlled by the London County Council – measures, of course, being taken to ensure that the income of the old charity shall not suffer.

Equally, of course, the patients in the lunatic asylum will not suffer from the deprivation of their exercise ground, since the Lunacy Laws provide for the attachment of adequate grounds to every asylum, and the institution will remove to another place.

Thus it would seem that the question of the Bethnal Green Poor’s Land is in a very satisfactory way of a solution.


It might have been objected, and with some show of reason, that the Victoria Park being within fairly easy walking distance of the spot no open space was needed.

But apart from the fact that the air and light of the close neighbourhood will receive benefit, it must always be remembered that when it is intended to give poor people that which is good for them, but of which they are not very anxiously inclined to avail themselves, it must be placed at their doors.

Many will walk and sit in the  Bethnal Green Poor’s Land, and be the better for it, who never would have travelled three-quarters of a mile to Victoria Park, and three-quarters of a mile home again.


I have, however, before now expressed an opinion that these open spaces, while affording a great benefit, and while being, in fact, an absolutely necessary thing, in some respects rank second in importance to institutions where recreation, exercise, and instruction may be placed within the reach of the poor under a roof.

As a place of recreation, an open space is available, at best, for only five months of the year, and then only during such fine weather as the variable climate of the country vouchsafes those months.

Healthy exercise is obtainable in a gymnasium all the year round, and many good things can be done from year’s end to year’s end in an institution of the class I refer to.

But open spaces have great and valuable functions, and perhaps a comparison of the importance of the two things is not altogether admissible.


Nevertheless, it seems to me that an immense good would be done if one corner (there is one particularly suitable) of the Bethnal Green Poor’s Land were utilised for the erection of a covered gymnasium.

The building would be a low, and not necessarily a very large one, and would not interfere with the efficiency of the recreation ground, while it would make it a very useful thing every day and night of the year.

Such a building, provided with plain, strong, and simple apparatus, would not be costly, and only those who have witnessed, as I so often have, the wonderful effect of the use of such a place upon the physical and moral qualities of the young men of such a neighbourhood as Bethnal Green, can fully appreciate the return for the expenditure.


The temptation to enjoy fresh air should go hand-in-hand to Bethnal Green with the temptation to physical improvement and cleanliness.

Anybody who has watched the progress of a properly-conducted gymnasium in a poor East End district, has seen a crowd of sickly, stunted, hollow-chested youths gradually transformed into an orderly, well-behaved body of bright, healthy, and active young men with cleaner skins and cleaner hands than they ever knew before.

I am not aware that any of the multifarious powers of the County Council have relation to the erection and maintenance of public gymnasia; and I know that the resources of the Metropolitan Playgrounds Association are already taxed to their utmost to keep going the splendid work they have initiated; but I do not despair that, once the necessity is recognised, the Bethnal Green Poor’s Land will be, in the future, something more than an ordinary open space.”