27 Osborn Street

1901 and 1928, offices of Stepney Borough electricity substation, now UK Power Networks | Part of 27 Osborn Street

Former Whitechapel electricity-generating station
Contributed by Survey of London on Oct. 4, 2019

The site of the Coope sugarhouses and Ind Coope & Co. Ltd’s beer stores and offices, has been in use for electricity generation or distribution since it was acquired by the Whitechapel District Board of Works in March 1899. It is currently a substation for UK Power Networks.

The Whitechapel Board acquired a Provisional Order for electric lighting from the Board of Trade in 1892 but was slow to act on it, probably because of impending local-government reorganisation, rather than because, as was alleged, members were ‘bewildered in their perusals of the latest inventions’.1 The Osborn Street site was especially attractive as it adjoined the Board’s George Yard works depot to the west. By October 1899 cables had been laid in several major streets and there was a temporary generating station, consisting of six turbines driving an engine working two dynamos. The permanent turbine hall was built on the north-west part of the site in 1899–1901, to the designs of Matthew William Jameson, the Board’s and, from 1900, Stepney Borough Council’s Surveyor. Arthur Wright was the consulting engineer and W. Griffiths of Bishopsgate the builder. Jameson followed through in the manner he had deployed in the adjoining depot, using orange-red brick with engineering-brick plinths. The hall was open to a light steel-truss roof, with white-glazed tiles facing blind-arcaded internal walls, with grey-blue tile dressings to the arches and pilaster capitals. Along Osborn Street a plain three-storey red-brick range, eleven windows wide with an off-centre entryway went up in 1901, the south end with a rear range, the north end backed by a chimney, octagonal in plan and around 180ft high, erected by Wilson Bros of Kensal Green in 1900–2. The front range housed offices above and below a first-floor committee room and meter-testing station. Demand for electricity doubled annually between 1901 and 1905 and the hall was extended southwards for further boilers and generators in 1905 by B. E. Nightingale, builders. It was twice further extended to the east by 1909, when a showroom opened to display electric motors, fans and lights, the shopfront lit with four large pendant globes.2

By 1903 it had been recognised that additional capacity would be needed to cover all of Stepney Borough. A larger station was built in 1908–9 at Blyth’s Wharf, Limehouse. The limited size and enclosed nature of the Osborn Street site were constraints, and, distant from the river, it necessitated expenditure on coal cartage. By 1909 it was anticipated that Osborn Street should become a distribution substation, for transmitting electricity generated at Blyth’s Wharf, a transformation that had happened by 1918. The turbines were removed and replaced by transformers, and the chimney was dismantled in the 1920s. In 1928 the building at No. 25 was acquired and demolished, and a further three-bay office block was built, extending the three-storey red-brick frontage of No. 27.3

The substation sustained significant damage in 1941 and ceased supply until post-war repairs, when the original office and shop range was cut down to two storeys. Following the nationalisation of electricity supply in 1947 the premises passed to the London Electricity Board. In 1954–5 the yard was extended to the south for open stock-brick pens to house transformers with a switch-room beneath.4

Privatisation of the electricity supply network in 1990 led to the LEB becoming part of Electricité de France (EDF) Energy Networks in 1998, which in turn was sold in 2010 to the Cheung Kong Group, which operates the Osborn Street substation as part of UK Power Networks. The shop ceased to be an electricity showroom by 1990 and was sublet till it closed in 2007.5

By 2008, the substation required updating and augmenting to increase capacity, and the original turbine hall, long since empty save for car parking, was in poor condition. Permission was secured to demolish the hall, entrance and shop blocks of 1899–1905 to the north, retaining only the transformer bays of the 1950s and the office building of 1928 to the south-east with three bays of the reduced original front range adjoining. A replacement north block was approved in 2009 and built in 2011–13 to designs from Freedom Power Networks. It is a bulky, red-brick faced, three-storey box, mildly enlivened by white-brick courses and blue-brick decorative patterning. To reduce the bulk visible from the Dellow Centre and Universal House, the north and west elevations have white-brick facing to the top stage, with a graphical replication in polychrome brick of the pedimented west gable end of the original turbine hall. The Osborn Street front, with the site’s entryway retained, also references its demolished predecessor in a three-bay block with white banding and blank windows, for the embellishment of which a competition was held in local primary schools. Designs featuring aspects of East End life including docks, textiles, bridges, and music-hall entertainment by, inter alios, Sadhia Rahman, Momota Akter, Samirah Sultana, Isfahan Masud, Maria Ahmed and Rumah Begum, were executed in mosaic by an artist, Julie Stedman, and unveiled in 2014.6

  1. East London Observer (ELO), 13 Oct 1894, p.5 

  2. Pall Mall Gazette, 7 Oct 1899, p.4: The National Archives, IR58/84800/1762–3: London Metropolitan Archives, District Surveyors Returns: Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives (THLHLA), LC9360; L/SMB/D/4/1: ELO, 2 April 1904, p.4 

  3. THLHLA, LC9360; L/SMB/D/4/8: Post Office Directories: Tower Hamlets planning applications online (THP) 

  4. THP: Goad insurance maps 

  5. www.ukpowernetworks.co.uk/internet/en/about-us/our- ownership/: uk.reuters.com/article/uk-edf-ukgrids-exclusive/edf-sells- british-grids-for-5-5-billion-sources- idUKTRE66S6EK20100730?pageNumber=1 

  6. THP: Docklands and East London Advertiser, 5 July 2012: EastEnd Life, 20 Jan 2014, p.25 

Coope's Yard
Contributed by Survey of London on Oct. 4, 2019

In the 1670s the tenter field north of Swan Yard, bounded west and north by Angel Alley and Wentworth Street, and possibly in the tenure of John King, had a single large building on its east or Dirty Lane side. Of nature unknown, this may account for recent small late fifteenth- or early sixteenth-century finds. The site remained largely undeveloped until the 1730s when John Stracey (1698–1749), later Recorder of London, held the property. By 1736 a sugarhouse had been built on the Angel Alley side, to the north of Samuel Lane’s earlier sugarhouse. From this a well has been excavated.1

The new sugarhouse was leased in 1737 to George Heathcote, Conrad de Smeth and John Witherston. De Smeth (d. 1758), a German naturalised in 1726, and Witherston were sugar refiners previously in Goodman’s Fields.  Heathcote (1700–1768), the nephew of Sir Gilbert Heathcote, said to be the wealthiest commoner in England, was an MP and a Jacobite. By 1739, when he became a City Alderman (he was Lord Mayor in 1742), he was in sole control of two sugarhouses here and a house built in 1737 on another part of the site by John Campion, a carpenter. The sugarhouses had come to be occupied by Christian Schutte (1698–1763), another German sugar refiner, more recently arrived, with interests in sugarhouses in Lambeth Street and the City.2

In 1740 Richard Coope (1689–1765), another sugar refiner with premises in Goodman’s Fields, took occupancy of the two sugarhouses in which Heathcote retained an interest until 1748. Heathcote and Coope, both directors of the South Sea Company, had a family connection in Chesterfield, where Coope’s father had been an alderman and mayor in the 1660s and ’70s.3 Their association was yet deeper, both men being trustees for the establishment of the province of Georgia in the early 1730s. Coope had also been involved in City politics, though not from the same side as Heathcote. He operated from 1715 as a grocer in Broad Street ‘at ye 3 Sugar Loaves’ and agitated in the Whig interest as a Common Councilman for Broad Street Ward from 1724 to 1730. Coope was also involved in the development of trade and settlement in the Leeward Islands from 1718, appearing for debenture holders in Nevis and as Agent for St Christopher’s in the 1730s.4

Coope appears to have been a pragmatic Nonconformist. His eldest children were baptised in the Presbyterian chapel in Carter Lane, Blackfriars. He was resident in both Peckham and Hammersmith, attending the dissenting chapel in Hammersmith Broadway, where the minister preached a sermon in his honour at his death. Yet he had a family grave at St Giles, Camberwell. Coope also acquired four houses in Cheyne Walk in 1733 and had a house in Oxford Court in the City next to Salters’ Hall; he was Master of that Company in 1734.5 Though not resident in Whitechapel, Coope was also active locally as a founder of the London Hospital (see p.xx). His son, John Coope (1731–1806), joined him as a partner in 1757 when their business included the large sugarhouses on the west side of Dirty Lane and a smaller one in Rupert Street; John was in sole charge by 1761. By this time the property included two small houses at the north end of Angel Alley and another four on Dirty Lane running up to the Wentworth Street corner. Fire was a constant threat in sugarhouses, where the processing involved the application of great heat. Coope’s property here seems to have been especially flammable. The premises burnt so violently in 1772 that a wall collapsed, burying two children. Another fire in 1797 was said to have caused £15,000 of damage. When John’s will was executed in 1802 the business was run by his sons, Joseph (1764–1817), an eccentric bachelor who lived in a substantial house on the site, and John (1766–1845). Further rebuilding was necessary after yet another fire in 1807.6

By 1828 John Coope had taken the site on the east side of Angel Alley, formerly part of the Swan Yard holding that had housed Samuel Lane’s sugarhouse, later run by Nicholas Beckman and others up to about 1826. In 1823 it consisted of three-pan and two-pan sugarhouses, each of seven storeys, a six-storey scum house, all strung out along Angel Alley, and a long narrow yard to the north extending to Osborn Street, along which were ranged offices, a brewhouse, a counting house, a lodging house for men working in the sugarhouse, and a ‘capital Family residence’ (probably demolished in 1928).7

John Coope took over a less-enclosed refinery at Betts Street, Ratcliff Highway, by 1829 and sugar refining ceased in Osborn Street around 1838. The Angel Alley sugarhouse was adapted to be a starch works then, from the late 1840s, Charles Thorp’s paper-staining works.8 The main Coope sugarhouses were dismantled in 1840 when the Betts Street refinery closed and a vast quantity of materials – a million stock bricks, fifty iron columns, cast-iron windows – was auctioned off in seven large sales in 1840–1. The cleared site was put to use by William Sykes as a timber yard. Immediately following John Coope’s death in 1845 his sons, Octavius Edward Coope (1814–86) and George Coope (1824–63), went into partnership with Edward Ind of the Star Brewery in Romford.9

In 1852 yet another fire ravaged Thorp’s factory in the former Angel Alley sugarhouse, an event described with relish: ‘there must have been 100 windows in the edifice, out of which the flames were … roaring with a noise resembling that of a hurricane, until at length the roof gave way, when they shot up in a tremendous body, at least 60 feet above the surrounding houses.’10 Tottering walls had to be taken down and Thorp lost thirty ‘rolling engines’ on the upper floors and a vast quantity of paper. Damage to adjacent properties was assessed as £27,000. The Angel Alley site was leased by the Coopes to Ind Coope and redeveloped in 1852–3. Ashby and Sons of Bishopsgate Street built a stock-brick walled beer-barrel warehouse, comparatively modest in scale with just two storeys over a basement, relieving arches articulating its west elevation to Angel Alley. Eleven bays of this building survive as part of 25 Osborn Street, set well back.11 Sykes’s timber yard lasted till around 1859 when Ind Coope expanded, demolishing a cottage on what had been Thorp’s site to link the yards. They put up further two-storey buildings, similar to the barrel store but open on the ground floor to the north and west, for van sheds, a paint store and a wheelwright’s shop. A house on the street (No. 27), once a small warehouse used by Sykes, was made the brewer’s manager’s house. Remaining houses in the former Thorp yard accommodated employees, a clerk, storekeeper and drayman.12A larger house (No. 25), of three storeys and four bays wide, probably the refiner’s house of about 1820, was Ind Coope’s offices until 1896. The former Thorp site was then leased to William Bossey, a carman. He added a forge and smith’s shop, used the barrel store as stables, the cottages for his employees, and sublet the house (No. 25) as a small hotel and restaurant. Ind Coope retreated to the original Coope site, but only until 1899 when they sold the freehold to the Whitechapel District Board of Works for £16,000 for the building of an electricity generating station.13  Bossey’s Yard was sold to Stepney Council in 1935, the former barrel store adapted for the public cleansing department (storage for dustbins), its vaults used as an air-raid shelter during the war. It remained a Council store until about 1984, when it became part of the site at Nos 15–25.14

  1. Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives (THLHLA), LC140194: Four Shillings in the Pound Assessments: Cath Maloney, ‘Fieldwork Round-up 2008’, London Archaeologist Supplement, 2009, p.76: Debrett for Stracey: Nicholas Rogers, ‘The City Elections Act (1725) Reconsidered’, English Historical Review, vol.100/396, 1985, pp.604–61: Tower Hamlets planning applications online (THP) 

  2. London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), MDR1737/4/545–6; MDR/1739/5/5; Land Tax Returns (LT): Bryan Mawer's sugar industry website: The National Archives (TNA), PROB11/892/29: London Chronicle, 27–30 Aug 1763, p.207: Margrit Schulte Beerbuhl, The Forgotten Majority: German Merchants in London, Naturalization, and Global Trade, 1660–1815, 2015, pp.125,173,178,194: House of Lords Journal 1726, vol.13, 1726, p.213: ed. William A. Shaw, Publications of the Huguenot Society of London, XXVII: Letters of Denization and Acts of Naturalization of Aliens in London, 1701–1800, 1923, pp.133,143: Geraldine Meroney, ‘The London Entrepot Merchants and the Colony of Georgia’, William and Mary Quarterly, vol.25/2, April 1968, pp. 230–44 {p.233}: Ian R. Christie, ‘The Tory Party, Jacobitism and the 'Forty-Five: A Note’, Historical Journal, vol.30/4, 1987, pp.921–931 

  3. LT: Ancestry: Gentleman’s Magazine, vol.3, Feb 1733, p.97: Parliamentary Papers: Report of the Commissioners appointed in pursuance of … “An Act for appointing Commissioners to inquire concerning Charities in, England, for the Education of the Poor”; and … “An Act to amend an Act of the last session of Parliament, for appointing Commissioners to inquire concerning Charities in England, for the Education of the Poor”, 1828, pp.173–9: George Hall, The History of Chesterfield, 1839, pp.30–1,235–40,269–72 

  4. Meroney, p.242: I. G. Doolittle, ‘Walpole’s City Elections Act (1725)’, English Historical Review, vol.97/384, July 1982, pp.504–29: Frank Wesley Pitman, The Development of the British West Indies, 1700–1763, 1917, p.105: F. G. Spurdle, Early West Indian Government, Showing the Progress of Government in Barbados, Jamaica and the Leeward Islands, 1963, p.190: ed. K. H. Ledward, Journal for the Commissioners for Trade and Plantations from March 1714/15 to October 1718, 1924, pp.397,400,427: ed. K. H. Ledward, Journal for the Commissioners for Trade and Plantations from November 1718 to December 1722, 1925, pp.8,229: ed. K. G. Davies, Calendar of State Papers Colonial Series: America and West Indies, vol.42: 1735–6, 1953, pp.vii,129,192,205,253: ed. K. G. Davies, Calendar of State Papers Colonial Series: America and West Indies, vol.43: 1737, 1963, pp.252,260,283: ed. K. G. Davies, Calendar of State Papers Colonial Series: America and West Indies 1739, 1994, pp.20,219,221,231: William Bacon Stevens, A History of Georgia, from its First Discovery by Europeans to the Adoption of the Present Constitution in 1798, vol.1, 1847, p.470: Allen D. Candler, The Colonial Records of the State of Georgia, 1904, pp.28,165: James Ross McCain, Georgia as a Proprietary Province: The Execution of a Trust, 1917, pp.31,33,38,53–4,174–5 

  5. George Turnbull, The Blessedness of Those Who Die in the Lord: A Sermon Preached at Hammersmith on Occasion of the Death of Richard Coope, 1766: Ancestry: TNA, PROB11/915/359; PROB11/1447/193: Survey of London, vol.4_: The Parish of Chelsea (Part 2)_, 1913, pp.3,6 

  6. Hampshire Chronicle, 7 Sept 1772, p.2: Oracle and Public Advertiser, 5 Oct 1797, p.3: Oxford Journal, 17 Oct 1807, p.4: LT 

  7. Morning Chronicle, 15 March 1823, p.4: THLHLA, P/SLC/2/16/35/1: LT: Post Office Directories (POD) 

  8. LMA, CLC/B/192/F/001/MS11936/517/1099664: POD: LT: THLHLA, L/THL/J/1/16/2–3 

  9. Morning Advertiser, 24 March 1840, p.4; 3 June 1840, p.4: 25 May 1841, p.4: LMA, CLC/B/192/F/001/MS11936/574/1355612: POD: THLHLA, P/SLC/2/16/35/1 

  10. London Evening Standard, 3 March 1852, p.3 

  11. The Globe, 4 March 1852, p.4: LMA, District Surveyors Returns (DSR): THLHLA, L/THL/J/1/16/2 

  12. Census: Goad insurance map, 1890: POD: THLHLA, P/SLC/2/16/35/1 

  13. TNA, IR58/84800/1756–62: POD: Census: THLHLA, L/SMB/D/4/8: Tower Hamlets Independent and East London Advertiser, 5 Aug 1899, p.8 

  14. DSR: POD: THLHLA, L/THL/D/2/30/110 

27 Osborn Street electricity building, August 2017
Contributed by Derek Kendall