Robin Hood Gardens and along Poplar High Street

I’d been meaning to go for a proper look around Robin Hood Gardens for a while (a journal entry from July 2008 notes the idea of making a documentary about the estate’s proposed demolition), the eventual visit made more urgent by news that its demolition had begun. An iconic council estate designed by lauded architects Alison + Peter Smithson and completed in 1972, Robin Hood Gardens was being demolished to make way for a new development called Blackwall Reach consisting of 1575 new homes of which 550 are said to be available for social rent. The Evening Standard, a paper not noted for its support of social housing campaigns in the past, reported in 2017 that flats in the new development were already being marketed to investors in the Far East.

Robin Hood Gardens Poplar

Robin Hood Gardens demolition

Climbing the central mound in the open space designed by the Smithson’s as a ‘stress free zone, a calm pool’, you could see into the shattered shell of the western block, some of which is being preserved by the V&A. It’s odd to think of people visiting a museum to look at how people used to live in a brutalist council estate of the 1970’s in the way that we visit a reconstructed Iron Age Village. Is that where social housing is heading – a curiosity in a museum? I sincerely hope not.

Robin Hood Gardens demolition

Blackwall Reach development Poplar January 2018

Blackwall Reach development Poplar

Robin Hood Gardens

A kit of pigeons fly synchronised circuits of the interior space returning to their roosts on the upper ledges of the eastern block that still houses the last of the remaining inhabitants, although fewer in number than their feathered neighbours. What will the pigeons make of Blackwall Reach, I wonder?

Poplar Town Hall / Lansbury Hotel

Poplar Town Hall / Lansbury Hotel

Moving along Poplar High Street we see how the old Poplar Town Hall has been converted into a boutique hotel named after Poplar’s Labour MP George Lansbury, although ironic, at least the conversion saved the town hall from a mooted demolition and joining Robin Hood Gardens in the annals of the disappeared.

St. Matthias Church Poplar

St. Matthias Church

Beside the East India Company’s Meridian House, built in 1806, lies a semi-hidden East End gem. St Matthias Old Church was built in 1642 by the East India Company, both as a company chapel and to serve the riverside parish of Poplar and Blackwall. Apparently churches built in the civil war period are a real rarity, a booklet published by the LDDC and English Heritage lists two others (in Berwick-upon-Tweed and Leicestershire). There appears to be a children’s playgroup inside, so I decide not to intrude with my camera and instead make a loop of the quiet churchyard.

The wind blowing down Poplar High Street is starting to bite, my circuit has returned to Poplar DLR station and a glide along the rails back to Stratford.

Battle of Cable Street 80 Years On

Fantastic uplifting scenes yesterday at the march and rally to mark the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street when the people of the East End poured onto the streets to stop Oswald Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts marching through the Jewish East End on 4th October 1936. As Jeremy Corbyn pointed out in his speech, it marked an important turning point in the fight against fascism in Europe in the 1930’s – Mosley had strong support among the British Establishment and had gained the sympathy from powerful right-wing newspapers (you can probably guess which). ‘The Battle’ that took place in 1936 was between the Metropolitan Police and the public defending the East End Streets – the Met there to protect Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. A Police Liaison Officer I spoke to in the march joked about how a he’d have received a very different reception from the crowd in 1936. He’d have been baton charging them on a horse most likely.

80 Years on and this was not a day of conflict but of celebration, a day to remember an important moment of unity and reflect on the lessons we still need to learn today. Nearly everyone I spoke to in the video above stressed that echoes of the rhetoric of division and hatred from the 1930’s were rearing their heads again. Racially motivated attacks in post-Brexit Britain are on the rise. Our tabloids spread fear and hatred of refugees.

The Great Yiddish Parade band soundtracked the day with interjections from a vocal anti-fascist section who chanted slogans in Italian and lit the way with multi-coloured flares. Banner of the event for me was the Woodcraft Folk – satin green hoisted on heavy-looking wooden poles and catching the wind blowing down Commercial Road. I was told how the Woodcraft Folk had lined up alongside the rainbow coalition of Jewish, Anarchist, Communist, Irish, and Trade Unionist groups who turned out on that day in 1936.

I also spoke with a friend of Altab Ali – the young Bangladeshi man stabbed to death by racists in 1978. The park where he was murdered today bears his name and was the mustering point for the march.

Cable Street 1936 is a powerful resonator in the history of London and events such as those yesterday remind us of the power of unity and community that we must never forget.