Whitechapel in 50 Buildings 'History through a Lens' by Louis Berk
The renowned British photographer, Don McCullin once said of Whitechapel “This district is the most visually fascinating in the whole of London, in fact in the whole of England.” I feel exactly the same way. Even after more than a dozen years photographing in and around the area there are days I feel I have barely scratched the surface.
The key attraction of Whitechapel to me is the enormous amount of social history contained within its streets and buildings. You can barely walk a hundred yards without finding an architectural gem which links to the impact of immigration, philanthropy and social history. I am not drawn to photographing people. Our lives are but shadows (to echo the sundial of the former Huguenot chapel in Fournier Street) but the buildings have a permanence belying the often powerfully changing circumstances of the people associated with them.
It was opportune that in Rachel Kolsky, a historian and award-winning London tour guide, I discovered someone whose passion and interest for the back streets of this fragile hinterland (increasingly fragile as the City pushes eastwards) matched mine. The combination of her energy, extensive knowledge and passion for Whitechapel with my attempts to capture the buildings in photographs allowed the idea for this book to become a reality.
Recent popular television programmes (“Whitechapel”, “Ripper Street”) have brought a resurgence of interest to this area and while these series tend to focus on the notorious late 19th century history of Whitechapel, the area contains buildings that cover a much broader historical period.
The book spans from the 16th century all the way to the modern day, from the famous Whitechapel Bell Foundry to Shoreditch High Street station, the latest gateway to the area. The story associated with each building explains the social history of the area which has seen successive waves of immigration going back more than 400 years.
Deciding on 50 Buildings out of the many hundreds, if not thousands contained within the area of Whitechapel was not an easy task. Rachel and I agreed very quickly on a number of landmark examples, including the magnificent 17th century Hawksmoor Churches which are at the west and east end of the area but we also wanted to include many of the buildings associated with the different immigrant communities who found refuge here. In turn Whitechapel has been the refuge for Huguenots in the 17th century, Irish and Jewish immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries and more recently the Bangladeshi community in the late 20th century. What is interesting is how each successive wave has not only added new buildings but also modified old buildings to their use.
For example, the Jewish population has often reused former chapels as Synagogues. A fine example is the Sandy’s Row Synagogue which began life as the L’Eglise L’Artillerie formed by the local Huguenot population. After time as a Baptist chapel it then became the ‘Society for Loving Kindness and Truth’, a Dutch-Jewish congregation which moved into the building in 1867. The strength of the Jewish community in the East End endures even today and the Synagogue is still in use.
Whitechapel has some great surprises in store for anyone who wanders the back streets. One building Rachel and I agreed on emphatically that had to be included in the book is a magnificent example of 1930s Art Deco, Gwynne House. Landlocked by 18th and 19th century buildings all around it we both think it has a distinctly nautical flavour to the design and reminds us of an ocean liner ploughing its way steadily through the back streets behind the Royal London Hospital (who owned the building until recently, as accommodation for medical staff).
The architect, Hume Victor Kerr had an interesting life serving as an officer in both world wars of the 20th century. In the interwar years he left his mark on Whitechapel with a number of distinctive buildings in Turner Street, New Road and as far as field as Middlesex Street in Aldgate.
Nothing stands still in London and central Whitechapel is planned to have a facelift that will make it closer in look and feel to Canary Wharf. No doubt this will lead to casualties amongst some of the least loved buildings in the area. Whatever the future holds for Whitechapel, its buildings will continue to tell its fascinating and important story. May they remain for future generations to discover and enjoy.
Louis Berk & Rachel Kolsky's new book Whitechapel in 50 Buildings is available for purchase now.