East London Walk – Slums and Stencils

Recently, I decided I needed to get to know my new area a little better, so I printed off a couple of walking tours of East London. I’ve seen a lot of guided street art tours around the Brick Lane area, but not wanting to feel like a tourist in my own backyard I opted for a discreet map, surreptitiously hidden inside my notebook. This also gave me the freedom to veer off the path whenever I felt like it, stop for lunch when and where I wanted, and explore things which either aren’t mentioned in the guide or have sprung up since it was written – equally skipping the features that have now vanished. Although I’ve included a few photos here, I have already posted a full gallery featuring all of the shots I took (there were lots!)

The first tour was Time Out’s Slums and Stencils. What I love about this is that it focuses on two very fascinating – and very different – aspects of East London. On the one hand, the history – specifically that of the Old Nichol slum which once stood on the site which is now Boundary Estate. History remains fixed and unchanged, no matter how obscured by redevelopments. On the other hand is the street art scene, which is ever changing: fleeting, transitory, constantly updated and over-painted, lost to the weather or the forces of redevelopment. In light of this rapid change and the ever changing nature of the area itself, I have completely ripped off the Time Out guide, worked in my own updates (and a bit more information), chopped out the bits that are now pointless and added in the new bits that are. And now I will share it with anyone interested in exploring East London. Enjoy!

The Old Nichol slum was the most notorious slum of Victorian London, in part due to it’s fictionalisation in Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago. The six thousand or so inhabitants were known for drunkenness and criminality, and police feared to walk the streets of the estate. Decaying tenement buildings, with extortionate rent and corrupt landlords, housed whole families in single room apartments, often sharing one bed. With a quarter of all infants dying before their first birthday, the mortality rate was exceptionally high, with illnesses such as whooping cough, scarlet fever and tuberculosis prominent. It all paints a rather bleak picture, but since the slum’s clearance – which began in 1891 and included 730 houses inhabited by 5719 people – and subsequent re-birth as the Boundary Estate, which officially opened in 1900, the area is now composed of grand buildings and serene streets, the past forgotten. A fantastic example of East London’s ability to re-invent itself, just like next door Hoxton and Shoreditch, formerly down-and-out areas now trendy flags on the cultural map.

The history of the slum is fascinating, and I recommend for further reading this Daily Mail article by Christopher Hudson, and Sarah Wise’s book Blackest Streets.

ONE. Start at Swanfield Street, where it turns off Bethnal Green Road. This is the eastern perimeter of the Boundary Estate and was previously Mount Street on the Old Nichol slum. On the left are the sturdy red-brick buildings which replaced the slum at the beginning of the 20th century. It’s very hard to picture the bleak, polluted streets of the Victorian slum now, with the grand apartment buildings lining a wide, leafy street.

TWO. Just up Swanfield Street, on the right, is the last remaining weaver’s cottage of the re-developed slum. Now a foam cutter’s workshop, this is a rickety, lopsided building with a red tiled roof and wood trimmed shop front. Standing out among the matching terraced houses, it has become a quaint relic, making it easy to forget the terrible living conditions of it’s former occupants. A high number of tenants in the Old Nichol were silk-weavers, descendants of Protestant Huguenots who migrated from France in the late 1680s and 90s. This had a direct influence on the architecture of the area; most of the cottages featured long upstairs windows known as “long-lights” or “weaver windows”, which allowed the maximum amount of daylight into the upper storeys.

THREE. Turn into Rochelle Street and head up to the Arnold Circus bandstand, the centrepiece of the rebuilt estate which sits on top of a mound of the demolition rubble from the Old Nichol slum. In spring and summer this is a very pleasant area, surrounded by greenery and blooming flowers, the elegant red brick buildings sheltering the empty streets from the noise of nearby Shoreditch and Brick Lane. The bandstand is a popular meeting place among locals; while I was there a few young kids were playing table tennis, an elderly couple sat enjoying their lunch in the sun, while a group of men in tennis-whites and the clownish wigs of a stag-weekend drank Pimms and played games. It seems that one of those great, old-fashioned community hotspots has sprung up – literally – from the dust of the old slum.

FOUR. Head down Club Row – more wide, tree lined streets – and onto Old Nichol Street, one of the few roads on the estate to retain it’s former name when the slum was razed. Apparently, number 19 used to be the Old Nichol pub – out of business for years – but it now houses one of those uber-trendy whitewashed clothes stores with initials for a name that over-populate the Shoreditch/Hoxton area.

FIVE. Left into Chance Street, where you will start to see hints of the street art this area is famous for; lots of paste-ups but not much in the way of permanent, painted work. At the moment one of the shops across the road is covered by the faces of colourful cartoon animals by Malarky. There are also a couple of fantastically unique shops selling jewellery and bric a brac; as a tourist sporting a wicker hat put it, “a treasure trove of things to find”.

SIX. Head right into Redchurch Street and walk towards Shoreditch High Street. This is a fantastic area for street art, but you’ll have to explore for yourself as the work there is changing every other minute. One of the more recent additions was the very popular Olympic Rings piece by Pure Evil. If you nip into Ebor Street you will find Eine’s Pro and Anti walls, a fairly permanent installation which has been around for a few years now – I love the bright colours of the repeated text on the ‘Pro’ side of the road.

SEVEN. Turn right into Boundary Street, where on your left you will see Boundary Passage, marking the western edge of the estate and allegedly as far as the Victorian police would head into the old slum. At the moment these is one remaining Dr Gee cartoon tile from an earlier display – but the beauty of E1 street art means something will most likely take it’s place soon enough. Head through the passage and turn right onto Shoreditch High Street.

EIGHT. Keep going until you reach Rivington Street, then turn left. This is another popular place to find ever-changing street art, as well as more permanent pieces such as Scary by Eine under the bridge. Look carefully around this area as there is a lot going on above eye level, or too small to notice casually. Above the street sign on Standard Place you’ll find a row of torsos; carved from the same material as the wall they are almost completely hidden. Another hidden gem around here is the hard to find Lati Ri gallery on Rivington Place, where the amazing café – focusing on local, organic ingredients and fair trade coffees – makes an excellent place to take a break. Also, if you’re a fan of art books don’t miss Artwords Bookshop, home to an incredible selection of books and magazines focusing on contemporary visual culture including the most recently published titles.

NINE. Head out onto Curtain Road. Over the road in Mills Court, a winding trail of white paint next to some bins is the only hint that this passageway used to be packed full of graffiti. The paint trail is a lingering trace of an old Banksy piece, the coke-snorting policeman, which seems to have been lost before the Banksy’s were safely tucked behind sheets of glass. The main attraction on Curtain Road is now Cordy House, a warehouse with it’s own facebook page. The corrugated front shutters sport a very clever double sided paste-up – albeit a little shabby now – while the rest of the outside wall is cluttered with dozens of ever changing pieces pieces.

TEN. Continue down Curtain Road, crossing over Great Eastern Street, to find a huge mural covering the building between Christina Street and Scrutton Street, some kind of neon alien landscape. This is a stop off point for one of the guided tours of the E1 street art – I know because one was there while I was. I heard the question “how long does it take to paint something like that?” but not the answer, so you’ll have to live without – one of life’s unanswered mysteries! Follow the mural up Christina Street for a few more fantastic pieces, including one by Malarky, as well as some hidden gems in a rubble strewn courtyard. I stuck my camera through the gate and discovered a fantastic Street Fighter portrait.

ELEVEN. Nipping back the way you came and taking a right onto Great Eastern Street will bring you to the final stop. The abandoned Broad Street Viaduct has been turned into a “legal wall” and artists are regularly commissioned to create adverts. Recently Oakley sunglasses have been advertised here, as well as a very impressive tribute to the film Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. Across the top on the left hand side of the road, Steve Power’s bright and bold mural has a very touching message for us: “Lets adore and endure each other”. Look up even further and you’ll see two graffiti-strewn jubilee line carriages dumped atop the building, marking the old tracks that once led to the now-demolished Broad Street Station. These decommissioned carriages have been converted into artists studios and are home to the noteworthy Village Underground project, a non-profit space for culture and creativity. Back at eye level, there’s still plenty to see next door and it’s ever-changing; while I was there the doors of the Graffiti Life building were getting a new paint job!

So, that’s it for the journey through East London’s gritty history and brightly impermanent present. Hope you enjoyed! Now get out there and explore – and don’t forget your camera!


Art Words 
69 Rivington Street, London, EC2A 3AY
Tel: 0207 729 2000
Lati Ri 
Rivington Place, Rivington Street, London, EC2A 3BE
Tel: 0207 739 5909
Village Underground 
54 Holywell Lane, London, EC2A 3PQ
Tel: 0207 422 7505
Shoreditch London Art Wall 
17-19 Great Eastern Street, London, EC2A 3EJ
Tel: 07530 152032
NB  – All photos are owned by me and have been retouched by Sam Larner. 

About Emily Luxton

An award-winning writer and travel blogger on a mission to explore the world through deeper, more intelligent travel. Seeking out adventure, cultural exchanges, food experiences and more as she attempts to get to know the world. Lover of the great outdoors, sunsets, good food, and the odd bit of luxury!


  1. Great stuff, Emily, and I’ll make sure I make my own little tour of the area before the summer’s out, using this post as a guide :).

  2. I’m firmly convinced London has more interesting street art than Dallas, but we do have one guy that hangs out in the West End on weekends speed-painting other-worldly landscapes with spray paint. He works on paper so you can buy his masterworks. Leave it to a Yank to turn street art into a money making enterprise.

    • Haha, it’s nice that his works are more keep-able though! People in London make a nice business selling photos of the street art in markets which I always think it’s pretty cheeky!

  3. This is a wonderful article, well-researched and documented. Bravo!

  4. Hello there, The content of this website is
    really informative. I think a lot of people will benefit from your writing.

  5. Nice post. Makes me miss London now. Can’t believe I lived there for 4 years without ever visiting Brick Lane or paying much attention to the East Side!

  6. Do any of the old slum buildings in the East End, now rehabilitated of course, survive?

    • If you see section number two, there’s a photo of the last remaining weaver’s cottage which is still there on Swafield Street. I think all the others have been demolished and rebuilt. At least in the area I was visiting – maybe in some other East End Burroughs you’d find slum buildings still standing.

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