The Whitechapel Nobody Knows (Part One)

Since I seem to have my own set of readers I have reproduced my recent contribution for the wonderful Spitalfields Life blog… a very enjoyable opportunity to explore my east end surroundings and hidden wonders with the ever-curious Gentle Author.

December 9, 2011
by the gentle author

I am delighted to resume my series of The East End Nobody Knows in collaboration with Spitalfields Life Contributing Artist Joanna Moore, by visiting Trinity Green Almshouses off the Mile End Rd. You only have to step through the emerald green gates to discover that this place has kept its age-old repose. Designed Sir William Ogbourne in 1695, as almshouses for retired and invalid mariners upon ground given Captain Henry Mudd of Ratcliffe, the conception was of fourteen cottages around a central chapel. Yet even though a bomb destroyed the rear half of this courtyard in 1943, the ship-shape sense of order is miraculously still intact. Look out for Basil, the old ginger tom who takes the role of master & commander now all the seafaring folk have departed.

Sculptor Roy Emmins lives in a tiny flat built upon the roof of a nineteen forties residential block at the rear of the Royal London Hospital, where he has created a wonderful sculpture garden to exhibit his works among plants and flowers. With a natural sensitivity to the anatomy of animals, Roy’s work is in a magical realist vein, evoking an entire of menagerie of creatures in stone, bronze, wood, paper mache and even tin foil. Six days a week, Roy walks from his flat in Whitechapel to his studio at the far end of Cable St where he has been working alone secretly for the past ten years, creating a vast body of superlative works, and up here in his sculpture garden among the chimney pots of Whitechapel, Roy’s sculpture exists in its own enchanted universe, known only to the lucky few.

These modest terraces in Walden St and Turner St – dating from 1809-15 – were derelict for fifteen years and would have been demolished if it had not been for the intiative of Tim Whittaker, Director of the Spitalfields Trust. He recognised the dignity of these self-effacing structures, built for the lower middle classes, their early residents included a surgeon, a sea captain, a plumber, a shopkeeper and a Chelsea pensioner. Completed two years ago, this award-winning restoration employs weatherboarded extensions in an historically appropriate vernacular aesthetic to win extra space and uses salvaged materials to subtle effect in preserving the shabby poetry of these old houses. As Tim put it to me, “I wanted to give Whitechapel back a bit of the romance it had lost.”

From Roy Emmins’ roof you can look down upon St Augustine with St Philip’s Church in Newark St, a soaring example of mid-nineteenth century red brick gothic that today houses the Royal London Hospital’s Library and Museum. If you walk into the ground floor you will encounter the sepulcral hush of medical students cramming for exams, while down in the crypt is the medical museum – open to the general public – where you can discover attractions as various as the Elephant Man’s hat, collections of gallstones preserved in specimen cases as if they were gulls’ eggs, Victorian autopsy sets and George Washington’s dentures.

Illustration copyright © Joanna Moore

You may also like to take a look at

The Spitalfields Nobody Knows (Part One)

The Spitalfields Nobody Knows (Part Two)

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