Monday 29 June 2020

Whitechapel Road - The Working Lads' Institute

It's interesting that we can walk past a building hundreds of times without really noticing it and then one day it catches the eye. I must have walked past the former Working Lads' Institute on Whitechapel Road hundreds, possibly thousands of times but only recently noticed it. It stands next to the main and currently closed entrance to Whitechapel Underground Station, a six storey red brick building, completed in 1885. Designed by Scottish architect George Baines, the facade features Portland and Ancaster stone dressings and a three sided Oriel window flanked by additional bay windows at first floor level. It was formally opened to great fanfare by the Prince and Princess of Wales on 31st October 1885. The Illustrated London News reported that "despite the rain which continued throughout the day, there was an immense assemblage of people along the roadway through which the Royal party had to pass".

The Institute began life as an organisation in 1878, in Mount Place, also in Whitechapel, and was founded by Henry Hill, a successful merchant in the City of London. Hill's objective was "to supply a counter attraction to the low music halls and other east end resorts for the young which are so fatal to their social and moral well-being". To this end a library, lecture hall, classrooms, laundry, kitchen, gymnasium and swimming baths were provided for the area's young working class men. The lecture hall could accommodate up to 600 people and boasted stained glass windows with representations of art, religion and industry as well as nine semi-circular lights with images of the seasons and sports. The main facilities were advertised by the words Lecture Hall, Gymnasium and Swimming Bath carved in stone above the two entrances at street level on Whitechapel Road. It was these signs that finally drew my attention to the building and led me to notice the much larger Working Lads' Institute sign emblazoned across the full width of the building at the upper level. How did I ever miss it? 

The total cost of the project was £12,000, a significant sum for the time. Hill did not manage to raise all of the required capital before construction started and so the works were completed in two phases. He managed to secure additional funds from Reverend Thomas Jackson who ran an Evangelical Mission in Clapton and had a history of working with the poor. Jackson was to have a long association with the Institute and eventually purchased the building in 1896, saving it from the threat of closure due to a constant lack of funds.  He was influential in increasing the organisation's work with young homeless men. From the beginning, accommodation was offered for those in need with an initial 24 beds and space to expand to 60. Additional beds were made available to young men aged 17-21 including some who were referred by the courts with Jackson sometimes acting as probation officer. However, it is important to note that not all of those who made use of the hostel had been involved in criminal activity and that some would have committed what would be considered very minor offences today.

As well as providing education, leisure and refuge to young men, the Institute occasionally hosted other activities, including in 1888 the inquests into the deaths of Mary Ann Nicholls (also known as Polly Nicholls) and Annie Chapman, two victims of the Whitechapel Murderer.  

The Institute no longer operates from Whitechapel Road and has been renamed the Whitechapel Mission. The building now contains a number of flats with retail units at ground floor level. The facade was restored in 2012 as part of a wider improvement project linked to the London Olympics. This online edition of Spitalfields Life includes pictures of some of the lads who attended activities or lived there as well as of one of the stained glass windows. It also makes reference to the Institute being one of the first organisations of its type to admit Black men and includes a photograph of Reverend Jackson with a group of Black soldiers at the time of the First World War. So much history in one building.