Broadcaster to the rescue
Broadcaster to the rescue

Published The Times September 8 2006

Joanna Moore's sketch of the Whitechapel houses.

John Nicolson tells Paul Shearer of his passion for restoration

TELEVISION viewers may be surprised to learn that the journalist and broadcaster John Nicolson is as much at home repointing a garden wall as he was in the studios of BBC Breakfast News. Those who know of Nicolson’s love of old buildings will not be surprised,however: he has restored property in London and Glasgow; it is a passion that was sparked by the purchase and renovation of an 18th-century house in Spitalfields in 1995.

At the time that part of East London was a shabby enclave favoured by artists and architectural historians.They were happy to live sandwiched between the extremely rich City of Londonand some extremely poor pockets of Tower Hamlets, because they cared about the fine collection of Huguenot weavers’ houses that occupied a small grid of streets just off Brick Lane.

Many of the houses have rooms,still with the original panelling, which survived over the years because of the poverty of the area. Proximity to the City has meant that the houses are popular with bankers, and the newly opened redevelopment of the formerSpitalfields vegetable wholesale market has pushed the district into prime residential territory. Nicolson says: “While I was looking around for another project, it was Whitechapel that seemed to me to have some of the same qualities as Spitalfields ten years ago.”

He thought there was plenty of architectural promise in the area, with some fine 18th and 19th-century properties that had been left to decay. Nicolson spotted a row of boarded-uphouses tucked away behind the Royal London Hospital Whitechapel. His inquiriesled him to a developer who had attempted to restore them but made a bit of amess. “He bought the buildings, started to redevelop them badly, turned downoffers to buy at the wrong moment, and ended up with a headache,” Nicolson says.

The row of four was to be auctioned. He knew he wanted one of the houses for his next project and, even though he was on holiday in Greece at the time of the sale last October, he arranged to bid over the telephone.

“It was one of the most nerve-racking things I’ve ever done,” he admits — and this from a man who has interviewed prime ministers on television. “Every time the bid price goes up, that’s another £5,000 of your own money going into the deal.”

His auction bid of less than £300,000 was successful, and he managed to persuade like-minded friends to buy two of the other properties when they came up for sale.

The interior of Nicolson’s GradeII listed four-storey building was in a sorry state because of the shoddy work that had been carried out. He says: “There were water pipes going straight across the ceiling. Unsupported floor joists and wet rot had been covered up with plasterboard. We found a rainwater drainpipe emptying straight into the foundations. Hallway arches and panelling had been ripped out.”

He immediately set about stripping the building back to its original state. To do this he enlisted the help and considerable expertise of the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust, which has been involved in the restoration of East End buildings for more than20 years.

Near Nicolson’s house — which he is letting for £500 a week — there are some 18th-century houses that were built for wealthy sea captains whose ships were berthed at Wapping. The trust was largely responsible for saving the dense cluster of early Georgian houses near Christchurch, the Hawksmoor masterpiece that towers over the area of the EastEnd around the market. One such house, bequeathed to the trust by Dennis Severs, is open to the public.

Tim Whittaker, the director of the Spitalfields trust, says: “As their families expanded they bought plots of land in the then greenfield site of Whitechapel, where a series of slightly smaller three and four-storey houses were built.”

The census from the time shows a mix of occupants, ranging from surgeons working at the Royal London Hospital to Chelsea Pensioners. A cross carved into an attic door illustrates the Christian leanings of the families living there in the early 1800s. By the early 1900s the area was mostly Jewish, whereas now it is predominantly Muslim, with the East London mosque not far away.

The trust has access to a range of skilled craftsmen who are able to work in traditional ways on old buildings: lime plasterers, bricklayers who can tuckpoint (the process of repairing a mortar joint) and carpenters who canrepair and replace old panelling, often working with salvaged materials.

Whittaker tells a story about a pair of fluted pilasters he rescued from a Georgian building near by that was demolished five years ago. The columns found a new home in Nicolson’s hallway as a pair of carved supports to the new archway that frames the bottom of his staircase. Old sash windows and fireplace surrounds rescued from the same demolition site across the street were also putto new use. It is this attention to detail that makes the trust’s restoration work stand out.

By working closely with private owners such as Nicolson, the trust has been able to demonstrate a way of reviving derelict old buildings and to bringa terraced row back into residential use. This is a model for sensitive urban regeneration that preserves an important element of historical character in a neighbourhood. It is also a way of protecting decrepit buildings which are often threatened with demolition.

With floor space at such a premium within striking distance of Central London, retaining rows of small townhouses is a small antidote to the relentless march of anonymous office buildings and apartment blocks. Such efforts do, however, rely on a high degree of personal commitment from theproud new owners. Which is why John Nicolson was happy to get trowelling on thegarden walls separating the properties when they needed repointing.

Spitalfields Trust, 020-7247 0971


Dennis Severs’ House, London — walk into the 18th Century 020-7247 4013, The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) — resource for traditional materials and methods, 020-7377 1644,

The Georgian Group — advice on houses builtduring the Georgian period, 087-1750 2936,

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