Tower Hamlets, London: The Friends of Arnold Circus

A white material background with purple, red, burgundy, organe and yellow embroidery stitches forming a series of concentric circles in the centre.
  Close up of a section of the Bagaan (Garden) Textile, made by women at the Boundary Women's Project. Courtesy of Mary Spyrou




Tower Hamlets, London

At the heart of the Boundary Estate lies Arnold Circus, a circular garden featuring an historic bandstand. Set up in 2004, the Friends of Arnold Circus worked to renovate the bandstand and the garden, turning it from a run-down space into a well-tended ‘oasis’.

As well as physically caring for the garden and its historic features, the Friends, chaired originally by Naseem Khan, fundraise and organise art projects. One such project resulted in the creation of the Bagaan (Garden) Textile.

… dedicated to the regeneration and upkeep of the Arnold Circus bandstand and surrounding Boundary Gardens, located in the centre of the historic Boundary Estate

From the Friends of Arnold Circus website

Made by a group of 16 women at the Boundary Women’s Project at St Hilda’s East Community Centre, the wall hanging took over a year to create and was inspired by the bandstand, the garden’s plants and animals, as well as the local architecture.

The Boundary Women’s Project gives local women development opportunities in a ‘culturally sensitive and safe space’, helping them to integrate into their community (including the Boundary Estate and Arnold Circus) and to realise their own potential.

An embroidered wall hanging with a white background depicts an historic bandstand and garden trees, flowers and animals.
The Bagaan Textile was inspired by Arnold Circus and its surroundings, as well as kantha making, a traditional Bangladeshi textile heritage.
Courtesy of Mary Spyrou

Throughout its history, a theme surrounding Arnold Circus and the Boundary Estate has been one of a desire for community improvement and development for residents.

During the mid-1800s the area, known as ‘Old Nichol’, was known as the worst slum in London. A huge number of people were crammed into a tiny area, crime was rampant and the death rate four times higher than elsewhere in the city.

Reverend Osbourne Jay arrived in 1886 and quickly realised that preaching would not change the plight of those who lived in Old Nichol. Not dissimilar from the Friends of Arnold Circus today, he raised money to build new infrastructure. However, he knew that nothing would really change until Old Nichol was destroyed and rebuilt afresh.

There is nothing picturesque about such misery. It is but one painful and monotonous round of vice, filth and poverty. Huddled in dark cellars, ruined garrets, bare and blackened rooms, reeking with disease and death, and without means, even if there were the inclination for the most ordinary observations of decency and cleanliness

Description of Old Nichol from The Illustrated London News, 24 October 1863
Street map of the Old Nichol area in London. Streets are colour coded in red, light blue and dark blue.
Poverty map of ‘Old Nichol’ from Charles Booth’s Labour and the Life of the People, Volume 1: East London, 1889
Charles Booth, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Jay pursuaded the London county council to demolish the slum and to build new flats. What was rebuilt was one of London’s first council estates – Boundary Estate. New red-brick, arts and crafts-influenced buildings could easily house 6,000 people.

However, despite the best intentions it was not the slum dwellers who ended up living in the new buildings. The slum’s ‘idle poor’ were moved into other nearby slums, with the ‘industrious poor’ bought in to inhabit the new estate.

Today, the area has been gentrified, but Tower Hamlets council still controls about two thirds of the flats built in the 1800s. The area is a multicultural one, with Bengalis making up about 40% of residents.

It was the women from this and other communities that art projects sponsored by the Friends of Arnold Circus sought to cultivate. 

How does the Bagaan textile compare with the Chilean arpillera from Sheffield [link?]? How do they use the textile traditions of a different culture to say things about living in Britain?

What does each textile say about the feelings of its creators?

Do you know other examples of artwork that does this? Why is it effective?

The Bagaan textile was a collaborative piece: people created it together. Can you arrange something similar that conveys feelings about where you live, study or work? Perhaps it can be based in artistic traditions of a part of Britain or the world linked to people in your community.

Naseem Khan later became Head of Diversity for Arts Council England and received an OBE in 1999.

“What has always struck me … was Naseem’s commitment and dedication to making things happen for the regeneration of Arnold Circus bandstand and garden, and her community.” (textile artist Mary Spyrou)


Naseem Khan later became Head of Diversity for Arts Council England and received an OBE in 1999

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