Just southeast of Shoreditch Church...
is the Boundary Estate, centred on Arnold Circus (map). Built in 1899 by London County Council in the Arts and Crafts style...
The cramped dwellings wept with damp. The sanitation would have made a horse retch. Whole families were jammed into barely furnished rooms with broken windows. Many of the occupants had precarious hand-to-mouth jobs, from commercial embroidery to the selling of livestock. The streets themselves were a semi-enclosed maze of fetid courts and passageways that eventually gave on to Shoreditch High Street.
There's an excellent Wikipedia entry on Old Nichol, aka the Old Nichol Street Rookery; much of it, to judge from the citations, taken from Sarah Wise's book The Blackest Streets: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum. On "Trades and Work", for instance:
The Old Nichol was locally known as "The Sweaters' Hell", in references to the prevalence of home-based artisan work that paid little among Old Nichol inhabitants. Work was plentiful, but pay was poor and wages got lower. Hundreds of Old Nichol inhabitants made couches, chairs, mirrors and toys, or worked as sawyers, carvers, French polishers, ivory turners and upholsterers, with their tiny homes doubling as workshops. The Old Nichol had several timber yards and on weekdays the streets of the Old Nichol saw carts and barrows carry newly sawn planks and freshly turned furniture components. Finished tables, chairs and wardrobes were sold to the local wholesaler. Close to the Old Nichol were Shoreditch's Curtain Road furniture depots and wholesale emporia. The proximity to the London Docks, which required vast amounts of casual, ill-paid labour, made the Old Nichol home to low-paid labourers. Street sellers also lived in the Old Nichol, which was ideally situated just outside the City of London boundaries, a 15-minute walk from Liverpool Street station and a 25-minute walk from the Bank, Mansion House, and Guildhall.
In 1863 an article in The Illustrated London News described the living and working conditions in the Old Nichol:
"In the neighbourhoods where the inhabitants follow poor trades the condition is but little better: a few streets where there is a more cleanly appearance do but lead to a repetition of the horrors just witnessed; and from garret to cellar whole families occupy single rooms, or, if they can find a corner of available space, take a lodger or two. In some wretched cul de sac, partly inhabited by costers, the fetid yards are devoted to the donkeys, while fish are cured and dried in places which cannot be mentioned without loathing. Bandbox and lucifer-box makers, cane workers, clothespeg makers, shoemakers, and tailors, mostly earning only just enough to keep them from absolute starvation, swarm from roof to basement; and, as the owners of such houses have frequently bought the leases cheaply and spend nothing for repairs, the profits to the landlords are greater in proportion than those on a middle-class dwelling."
Arthur Morrison's 1896 novel Child of the Jago made the area famous. It's a Dickensian tale about the boyhood of poor Dick Perott, and gives a vivid account of the violent crime in the neighbourhood. Dicky's father is hanged for murder and Dicky must struggle to follow his better instincts in spite of his vicious environment. [Child of the Jago is now the name of a trendy clothes shop on nearby Great Eastern Street. ]
A couple of years after Morrison's book came out, the newly-formed London County Council demolished the whole lot, put a bandstand on top of the rubble in the middle of Arnold Circus...
and built the new Boundary Estate, introducing to the world the first example of what would in the next century become a staple of sociological treatises and TV dramas: the council estate.
And it's still there, in all its lovely red brickiness:
The classic council estate story - well-meaning council knocks down old slums, builds brand new estate which soon turns into something even worse than the original, with crime, drugs, plus that special 20th Century malaise (whisper it!) alienation - doesn't seem to have happened here. It's too well-built. But also it was populated by the better-off artisan class, and the old inhabitants who couldn't afford the new accommodation had to fend for themselves, and took their problems with them to Bethnal Green, Dalston, or Hackney.
By the time of the First World War 90% of the children in the local primary school spoke Yiddish, including the Winogradsky brothers, later to be known as impresarios Lew Grade and Bernard Delfont.
Nowadays you'll find people relaxing up by the bandstand:
If you're lucky - it's happened to me a couple of times - you'll find musicians playing; maybe a saxophone echoing out down the side streets. It's hard to imagine many council estates looking and feeling this good after 110 years.