Homes with a slice of history

Mike Grimshaw, a resident of Bakers Almshouses, tells the fascinating story of one of the borough’s oldest housing estates

Bakers Almshourses

Bakers Almshourses, today council homes, were originally built for local bakers who had ‘fallen into poverty’

Just a few yards from the busy crossroads in Leyton known as Bakers Arms is a walled enclosure. Many strangers – and even locals – stop and look through the wrought-iron gates and wonder: “What manner of establishment is this?”

Some think it an exclusive residence reserved for retired army officers. Some have thought it to be a convent. Surely somebody important must live here – someone rich and famous?

The buildings in question constitute the London Master Bakers Almshouses (Bakers Almshouses for short). As charitable housing provided for people, typically elderly people who could no longer work, almshouses were often targeted at the poor of a locality, such as those from certain forms of previous employment, or their widows. They were generally maintained by a charity or the trustees of a bequest.

The 52 almshouses in Leyton were built between 1857 and 1866 by the Master Bakers’ Benevolent Institution, now the Bakers’ Benevolent Society, for “any respectable member of the baking trade fallen into poverty, eligible according to the rules, or to the widow of such”.

They were constructed on three sides of a square, with turrets at the angles, in the Italianate style by architect Thomas Edward Knightley. At the time, this area was little more than a crossroads between Leyton and Walthamstow, but gradually became built up in the late 19th Century. The Bakers Arms pub from which the area now takes its name was itself named after the almshouses. Closed in 2010, today the pub is a Paddy Power bookmakers.

On 24th September 1916, during the First World War, 22 of the almshouses were damaged by bombs dropped by a German airship, Zeppelin L31, as part of a raid that killed eight people along Lea Bridge Road.

More than 50 years later, the almshouses were compulsorily purchased by the Greater London Council for a road-widening scheme. The last retired baker moved to new accommodation in Bakers Lane, Epping, in 1971. However, the almshouses were saved from demolition because of their ‘architectural merit’ and given Grade II listed building status.
They were subsequently purchased by Waltham Forest Council and refurbished as residential homes.

Yes, today the Bakers Almshouses are home to council tenants, and my wife and I consider ourselves very privileged to live there. Ten years ago, like thousands of others in the borough, I was on the list of those waiting to be housed by the council. Every time I made a bid for a property that became available, I was about 90th on the list – often for a featureless high-rise flat.

When one of the Bakers Almshouses became available I applied, thinking I didn’t stand a chance of getting it, but to my surprise I was only fourth in the queue. I couldn’t believe that there would be so few applicants for it. Although our first bid was unsuccessful, when a second property came up we were second on the list, and were amazed when a lady from the council later phoned to say the first applicant was no longer interested.

We were so happy to move to the Bakers Almshouses, and have been ever since. Each home is modest in size (ours is a one-up, one-down) but full of character and old-world charm. Having been brought up in what had been an 18th Century coaching inn, I have always had a great love for old houses, and the almshouses are probably the oldest in the area.

Being a Grade II-listed building carries some limitations – for instance, double-glazing is not allowed – but the privileges far outweigh anything which might be considered by some as a disadvantage. Tenants are the envy of many of our friends.

The baking firm that was the benefactor of the almshouses later became known as Rank Hovis McDougall, manufacturer of the famous Hovis bread brand. The names of many of the members of the Rank family still adorn the walls. It was the same family that gave us Rank Organisation films, and I often wonder why film companies don’t use the premises when they are shooting period films.

The Bakers Almshouses are an oasis of the East End and it certainly provides a local place of interest. Let us treasure such beauty spots and do everything we can to ensure they are not encroached upon, overshadowed or spoilt in any way. May this spot, which gave the area of Bakers’ Arms its name, be preserved in a good state forever.

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