Holly Street Estate: Past and present

Photo by Chris Dorley-Brown

The Holly Estate lies on the eastern edge of Hackney, among rows of Victorian terraced streets and squares. It was built on the site of buildings bombed during the war and others that had just been left in a state of disrepair. Everything was razed to the ground to make way for the new development.

The picture above gives a historic view of the area (it was taken in 1988) – when the four towers of the estate were still standing. Built between 1966 and 1971, it lies to the north of Hackney Road between Queensbridge Road and Kingsland Road.

Because of the footprint of the buildings the estate earned the nickname ‘The Snake.

Its buildings were all named after trees Silverbirch, Pine, Rosewood among others, with the four towers called Rowan, Cedar, Lomas and Grange.
Like so many estates of the time the construction wasn’t that great. Even worse was the layout of the buildings. “At the foot of the towers are 16 five-storey deck-access blocks; at the fourth-floor level these are connected by one continuous, quarter-mile-long ‘street in the sky’. This has been a dream rat- run for the estates’ many muggers and a nightmare for most residents. Those living on the fifth floor have been robbed by burglars who have punched their way through flat roofs,” said a report in the Independent.
One resident said: “I remember walking around corrdiors and not even seeing daylight for at least 20 minutes.”
Despite these problems it was initially seen as a desirable place to be. “Holly Street was not a bad place to live in those days but slowly it declined and never recovered. The parks which were always full of young children became empty, the flats became shakey and some of the newer residents brought mayhem,” said another resident.
There were widespread reports of prostitution and drug deal and all the menace that comes with it. The estate even had its own gang The Holly Street Boys, who still hang around the area to this day finding ways to harrass the neighbouring London Field Boys.  
Luckily for the estate it was on Tony Blair’s hit-list of places to improve (no doubt fuelled by the fact that he used to live in a house on nearby Mapledene Road) and the prime minister himself came there to express his concerns.
“I got used to the society of fear in the Eighties canvassing on the Holly Street estate in Hackney, now thankfully greatly improved, when people were too scared to open the door and the letterboxes had burn marks around them where lighted rags had been shoved through them,” he said.
By that point 80% of the residents themselves said they no longer wanted to live in the estate, so armed with money the council began demolition of all but one of the towers.
The Holly Street Estate post demolition
And here is the masterplan, as designed by Levitt Bernstein Associates to mimic traditional London streets. You can see the one remaining tower to the right which was fully renovated for housing for the elderly.
Levitt Bernstein Associates
 The new estate opened in 2003.
It wasn’t an immediate success. Residents reported continuing anti-social behaviour of various kinds, brought to a head in 2006 by the murder of Stevens Nyembo-Ya-Muteba.
The father of two girls, aged five and eight at the time, was stabbed through the heart and lungs by 19 year-old Joseph Ekaette in Evergreen Square – an open space in the middle of the new estate.
Ekaette, who was with a group of other youths who filmed the attack on a mobile phone, has been jailed for life.
Evergreen Square
Work is now ongoing to finish the final phase of the regeneration of the estate, Queensbridge Quarter.
It’s style is unique for Hackney and a welcome relief from the blandness of the rest of the regenerated estate.



16 thoughts on “Holly Street Estate: Past and present

  1. I remember the towers being built, great photos of the original snake blocks; another of them was called Sycamore Court which was near the adventure playground.

  2. I was one of the lucky ones who got away from holly street in 1995. I agree you could walk around the hall ways for 20 mins without seeing day light,I lived in willows court, some of the flats that had a cupboard on the outside next to the front door, burgles used to break there way though the cupboard door, than break though the thin wall to the flat, other flats used to have a fire door leading from their flat to the outside hall way, but the doors were very thin and unsafe, one good push and the door would be opened, that’s how a lot of the flats were robbed. my dad had to build a bookshelf covering the fire door, which kept us safe for the first 10 years, but when we had a fire ourselves in 1994 we couldn’t get out. we wasn’t moved far after the fire, in fact in was only 5 doors down from our old flat, because if that cupboard door we was broken into 13 times in that one year, I moved in 1995 after i was robbed myself i couldn’t go back into holly street. but I did go back once to watch the blowing up of one of the tower blocks, great day.

  3. I only have fond memories of holly street i suppose because i was young you dont realise how bad the estate was. i lived in cedar court the first tower block opposite the middleton arms pub with my mum, dad and little brother from 1971 to 1984. I remember the adventure playground, we had to cut through the estate to get to it. i suppose looking back it was quite a rough estate but i remember my mum saying that when we first moved in the flats where new and very modern. I havent been back it looks like holly street has changed a lot

  4. I also lived in Cedar court (17a)until 1981 when my mother passed away and I went to live in Ireland with my Aunt. Very mixed memorys from cedar court.When I think of it reminds me of my mam but It wasnt a very nice place to live if my memory serves me right.I was only 10 when I left though

  5. Contrary to popular belief at the time, Hackney worked very closely with central government, and one area of close collaboration was the Council’s “Comprehensive Estates Initiative” in 1993. The PM at the time was John Major. In the wake of the inner-city riots in the late 80s, various councils had been identified for the Tory government’s “Estate Action”. There were five estates in Hackney considered to be close to terminal decline because of the poor quality of the buildings and their surroundings.

    Holly Street was the worst of the five, and the strategy was accordingly pretty radical, involving complex public/private partnerships to carry out almost total demolition followed by renewal (with over 85% change of tenure, reflecting a vote by residents).

    The first phase of decanting in the south-west corner of the estate, quickly followed by demolition went very easily as residents couldn’t get away quickly enough, but after the first phase of new-build houses appeared many changed their minds and decided they wanted to stay.

    Over 1150 medium-rise and high-rise flats were demolished but even with a number of new non-housing community projects like a Health Centre, Under-5s, Sports Hall and Community Centre, about 1000 new dwellings were built on the site (mainly houses with gardens), including dwellings for sale, housing for rent from housing associations, self-built homes, sheltered housing for the active elderly, and flats in the remaining tower block for the over-50s without young children.

    Although he’d lived locally, Tony Blair was not involved until after his election in 1997. He came to Holly Street in the early 2000s with half the Cabinet, to the new Queensbridge Centre, to launch Labour’s New Deal for Communities. For a while afterwards, it is said the Cabinet Office viewed Holly Street as the model for all other regeneration projects to follow.

    The final phase combines housing for sale and the only new-build Council housing in the scheme as the tenants opted to stay with the Council as their landlord. The sale units paid for the Council homes and the Council was able to design the scheme more imaginatively than the earlier dwellings had been.

  6. Here’s a bit of trivia for you. On his passport the address of Sex Pistol Sid Vicious was given as Grange Court, Holly Street, London, E8.

  7. I lived in elm court raised 4 the eldest goin on to get a degree later a masters an a doctorate. U can rise above the carnage. I look bake as they do with only fond memories. Live was hard back then. But such is life it jus makes u work harder.

  8. We moved to Holly Street in 1949 after the 2nd World War I was 4 years old we moved into number 56 which was a new build after most properties were damaged or destroyed by the bombing. The house we moved to had both bathroom and indoor toilet, absolute luxury, I have mostly very happy memories living in this area we were safe to roam the streets and never had any problems later in the early 50s the area was developed with tower blocks and rabbit warrens ( underground car parks) and became very unsafe and later lots of mugging so we got married and moved to Essex, we later had to move our elderly parents away due to the constant muggings.
    An area that we raised in an loved and always felt safe had been ruined now looking on line there are properties being sold for 3 to 500,000 when we married in 1964 and bought our first brand new 3 bed roomed house it cost us £4,500.00
    My happiest memories are from living in Holly Street.

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