Balfron Tower. I love it. It anchors Poplar, it looms over the A12 just by the Blackwall Tunnel approach, and it seems to defend that whole end of Tower Hamlets. In the evenings, when the sun reaches a certain point, it glows golden. You couldn’t help but find it beautiful, its slightly Escher-esque planes and shapes and perspectives changing with the weather and the light, its strange humanity, its arrow-slit windows. Just as the now-demolished gasometers in Stepney did, it casts its grandeur over everything around.
Poor Balfron suffers the slings and arrows of public disgust towards its whole genre. People think ‘the New Brutalism’ is called that just because it’s brutal, but in fact, it’s a play on the French term ‘béton brut’, for raw concrete. It’s easy to forget now that when this architecture went up, it was intended to make life better for people. Goldfinger referred to its corridors as ‘streets in the sky’, and the plan included incredibly optimistic landscaping: Balfron has private yards for the bottom flats, mature trees and shrubberies shielding it from the A12, and light coming at it from all directions. Its flats meander up and down levels, and have balconies and stupendous views.
A website by a Trellick Tower resident, Chris Paulsen, gives the flavour of its aspirations towards good living:
The flats themselves are large by tower-block standards, & packed with space-saving devices. … Doors of wood & glass slide rather than open out, & can be used to partition certain parts of each flat. Glass is plentiful in order to let in as much natural light as possible… Adjoining the main tower is a service tower. This incorporates lifts, stairs, & refuse chutes, as well as a boiler house. The lifts stop at every third floor, meaning that in some flats the bedrooms are above, & in some below, the entrance level. The flats have large balconies which, if you are high enough up, offer views across the North Downs.
My own personal knowledge of Balfron Tower reached its zenith in 2001, when, as a publicity officer for Tower Hamlets’ housing department, I toured the place with a deputation from Trellick Tower, and a member of its resident management committee. The reason they were visiting was very simple: Trellick was in trouble and needed a major overhaul. (The figure given at the time was £9m to get it up to its original standard.) Balfron and Trellick are ‘sister buildings’; Goldfinger learned some lessons from Balfron, but by 2001 they were like twins raised separately.
Trellick had, being in (even if only north) Kensington, been gentrified while the East End was still thought of as a wild space. Its tenants were that bit more prosperous, and more able to get mortgages, and had bought their flats under Right to Buy. However, many new owners didn’t have the money to maintain the flats – or else they did have the money, and took out original features. Kensington’s reputation for affluence got in the way of attempts to secure funding. They had a vandalism problem, and some of the original features – such as the marble that had been in the entry area – had been stolen. The building had been designed to have a concierge but for many years it never had one. No one was – literally – keeping an eye on things. It was in a bad spot.
Balfron, by contrast, had had a boring life, with tenants instead of leaseholders, and with several rounds of major works on it – new windows, for example, and new asphalt in the external linking walkways. It also had more of its original features, like the quarry tiles lining the corridors – different colours on different floors – and its flats had more of their original fittings – for example their bakelite light switches instead of Thatcherite gold-look ones. And Balfron had had one asset money can’t buy: it had had one very hands-on, community-spirited caretaker for almost twenty years.
I interviewed Irvine Gallagher, otherwise known as Jock, for the council’s newspaper, East End Life, around the time of this tour of the block. (I knew him a bit to have a drink with; when I rang him to suggest the interview, there was a long silence, and then he growled: ‘IN THE PUB.’) He told me, ‘When we took over this estate from the good old GLC it was a disaster area. Burnt-out cars, black soot stains, bin rooms full of old rubbish’.
‘No one knows as much as me about Balfron Tower’, he said. ‘I know how the whole building works, where everything is. I’ve had calls from housing management, architects, heating engineers. They wanted to put in new central heating but it’s listed, they couldn’t run the gas pipes up the outside – I identified where the cupboards were, and internal routes where they could run their pipes. I know how the flats fit together, this one on one level, this one on two – I always know where the water’s coming from’.
Jock was a people person, though, as well as being able to do 3D mental mapping. ‘I know everything that happens here’, he said. ‘Everybody knows me and I know everybody . I know all the kids, who their mums and dads are. I’ll knock on someone’s door if I’ve seen them doing something. Nine times out of ten people are grateful and say they didn’t know their kid was doing whatever.
‘But there isn’t much vandalism. We’ve got CCTV, and if a kid is doing something we can see them. We call out the window, “Smile for the camera!” You should see them run!’
Happy days. Also around the time of this interview, Jock had to apply for his job, as the council was bringing in ‘super-caretakers’ – a sort of Blairite caretaker-manager position. I spoke to him right after his interview and he said it had gone really badly. It lasted five minutes.
Five minutes! What went wrong?? ‘Well what was I supposed to do’, he growled down the phone. ‘Spend an hour talking about fucking BLEACH.’
So the job went to someone else, and Jock became an under-caretaker, and I heard last year that he had recently passed on.
My other personal connection with Balfron Tower is that when I was working in that job, my marriage had broken up and my children and I were living in adorable but extreme overcrowding in a wisteria-garlanded one-bedroom flat in Hackney. Things were difficult, and at just this juncture a flat came on the market in Balfron Tower for something like £37,900. But Balfron was in Poplar, and my kid were in school in Stoke Newington, and you couldn’t raise a mortgage in Poplar (or a tower block) to save your life, and I had no savings at all… In one corner of my brain I have always lived there.
I left that job few months after the Balfron tour and the interview with Jock, and have no idea how Balfron Tower fell into the situation it’s in today. It’s about to have the makeover of a lifetime, which will also catapult it into a new social class. Indeed, as life imitates art, the millennial city imitates the famous ‘I Love My Life as a Dickhead’ video, wherein the hipsters have taken over Trellick Tower. For with the ensuing works, and the the huge project of decanting all of Balfron’s tenants underway, Balfron’s flats have been let all year at cheap rents to artists, to keep the place full – and, presumably, soften up a tiny little social transformation.
Balfron went to sleep as a brave and plucky social housing experiment; is currently dreaming a strange technicolor dream; and will wake up, what only feels like a lifetime later, a princess.
And it’s some slight consolation to know that, if I had bought that flat all those years ago, I’d have a big headache just about now.
The photos are from the exhibition Balfron Tower An Unrealised Future, featuring work by photographers Michael Mulcahy, Mike Seaborne, Peter Luck and James Wakefield. This runs until this Sunday (21st September), 12 – 6 pm at Flat 89, Balfron Tower, Poplar, E14 0QT (2 min. walk from All Saints DLR). Buzz flat 89 for entry.
Steamboat, off Rainham Marshes, Essex. © Bill Pearson.
Bill Pearson writes:
There used to be a pub called The Princess Alice on Commercial Street in Whitechapel. I passed it every morning on my way to work; it intrigued me because it had a weird pub sign depicting a woman in a Victorian outfit – which, on closer examination, you saw was actually a corpse wearing a crinoline dress. I didn’t make any connection between the name of the pub and the significance of the sign until I spent a day walking along the Thames with a friend who is intimately acquainted with the history of London and the Thames Estuary in particular. He told me the story of the Princess Alice, a Victorian paddle steamer at the centre of London’s greatest peacetime disaster, a disaster especially significant for London’s East End.
Seawall, Canvey Island. © Bill Pearson.
The Princess Alice was a passenger vessel used for pleasure cruises and day trips, opportunities for working class Londoners to visit places like Southend on Sea, Sheerness and Gravesend. On Sunday 3rd of September 1878 she was returning from one such trip, packed with east enders who had paid two shillings each for the privilege of visiting Rosherville Gardens in Gravesend. At about 7.40pm she was almost in sight of North Woolwich Pier, where many passengers were to disembark, when the Newcastle-bound collier Bywell Castle – a 900 ton coal barge steaming with the outgoing tide – came into view. Apparently the skipper of the Bywell Castle, Captain Harrison, had spotted the lights of the Princess Alice and had correctly set a course to pass to the starboard of her. However, the skipper of the Princess Alice, Captain William Grinstead, followed an old seaman’s practice of finding the slack water of an out going tide and this put the two vessels on a direct collision course. Harrison attempted to reverse engines, but to no avail; his heavy iron ship rammed the dainty pleasure cruiser and split her in two.
West of Grays, opposite Erith. © Bill Pearson.
To compound matters, raw sewage from the pumping stations at Barking and Crossness had been discharged into the Thames just an hour earlier. The Princess Alice sank in less than four minutes, and the hundreds of passengers on board were engulfed in a river of filth. Over 650 died, although the exact figure is unknown. After the disaster a Board of Trade inquiry found that Captain Grinstead, who had drowned in the tragedy, was responsible, although this verdict was widely disputed. The inquiry also found that the Princess Alice was substantially overloaded and offered inadequate means of escape for her passengers. As a result of the disaster a Port to Port regime “with no exceptions” was instigated for shipping on the River Thames, and this stands to this day.
Wood ship, near Coalhouse Fort, East Tilbury. © Bill Pearson.
A memorial cross paid for by public subscription was raised at Woolwich Cemetery , and there is a stained glass window commemorating the disaster in St Mary Magdalene’s Church in the same borough. An information plaque about the disaster is at Tripcock Point (marked on ordnance Survey map as Tripcock Ness, roughly opposite Creekmouth/Barking Barrier, where the Outfall Sewer walk finishes). And, it would seem, a public house was re-named to commemorate the tragedy. In fact, it seems likely that the name ‘Princess Alice’ may have been chosen due to the supposed Jack the Ripper connection to the disaster. Jack’s third victim Elizabeth Stride had claimed that she was a survivor of the shipwreck, and that her husband and children had been lost in the disaster. The unfortunate Elizabeth was murdered ten years after the Princess Alice tragedy, and was killed just a few yards away from the location of the pub. However, her story was a pathetic fabrication, as her husband had succumbed to TB and the couple had never had children. In any case, the tenuous link to Whitechapel’s most infamous tourist attraction obviously proved irresistible to one publican, and it is not the first time that a Whitechapel hostelry has attempted to cash-in on the area’s grisly heritage. In the 1970s The Ten Bells was re-named The Jack the Ripper which, given the fact that some of Jack’s victims had been patrons of said pub, was in staggeringly bad taste.
West of Canvey Island, © Bill Pearson.
Before I could take a close-up of The Princess Alice’s sign, the pub was unexpectedly refurbished and re-named Culpeper; this is after Nicholas Culpeper, a Doctor, Herbalist and radical Republican who had set up a pharmacy in Spitalfields in the 1630’s. The Culpeper link is undoubtedly more appropriate for the 21st Century East End; where once was violence and grinding poverty, now there are designer outlets, stratospherically expensive houses and family-friendly pubs. Anyway, another link to London’s greatest ever civilian disaster seems to be lost, although the new owners of the Culpeper did tell me that they intend to keep The Princess Alice sign and put it on display. My own memorial to the tragedy is the pictures I have taken of the Thames Estuary, of the shores that would have been familiar to those aboard the Princess Alice, ghosts of the routes the doomed paddle steamer once plied.
© Bill Pearson. For more detail on the Princess Alice tragedy, see the page on the Thames Police Museum site.
See also: Edward Heath’s Feet
A University Education by Tim Wells:
The poshos behind me in the pie and mash queue
are puzzled. Firstly that there’s a queue, secondly
that the disappearing London they’d set out to discover
At the counter I order large pie and mash. Easy,
one perfect pie, mash smoothed to the side of the plate
and smothered with liquer. It fair sets a fellow.
There is some disquiet after me however.
Adding some toit to his hoity voice the chap behind
declares ‘I can’t seem to see a menu’.
The old girl serving stabs her wooden spoon
into the steaming vat of mash, stares at him blankly
and states, ‘this is a pie and mash shop dear.’
The rest of us punters burst into laughter.
A toff fumbles for change.