‘Our own little kingdom’ : Hackney history through the eyes of one photographer

Tom with ‘Model of Holly Street Estate’ (1997-98) at The Hackney Museum. Pic : Rosie Harris-Davison

Photographer and artist Tom Hunter has documented his life and that of other Hackney residents. Words and pictures by Rosie Harris-Davison

At first glance, Tom Hunter’s ten foot tall model of The Holly Street Estate in Hackney looks like a well fashioned plastic replica of a 19-storey tower block building, based on Lamas and Cedar Court.

But as you look closer, peering into the glowing doll-size windows, you’ll see the real residents in their real rooms, made into photographic transparencies by Hunter and placed inside the model.

The model, designed to commemorate the building before it’s demolition in 2001, is currently on show at ‘At Home in Hackney : A Community Photographed 1970-today’ in The Hackney Museum. The exhibition was co-curated by Hackney Museum, Tom and photographer Sue Andrews and explores 50 years of Hackney life through photography, also featuring work from other photographers such as Rachel Whitereeve and Don Travis. It continues until February 24.

Holly Street Estate residents in the model
Pic : Rosie Harris-Davison
The Holly Street Estate model
Pic : Rosie Harris-Davison

Hunter spent six months living on The Holly Street Estate for six months in 1998, and then two years photographing it’s residents as a commission from Hackney Council, before they were evicted after the building fell into disrepair. Just before the tower block was demolished, Hunter hosted an exhibition on the 19th floor of the building, plastering his photographs all over the walls for the residents to see.

Council Estates like Holly Street became synonymous with poverty in 1990s East London, representatively boasting a myriad of social issues. It was a hotspot for gangs and violent crime, Hunter told me as he pointed to a toy car at the front of the model, painted black with ‘Welcome to Hackney’ brandished on the roof. The burnt out car was a recognisable feature in actuality and “stayed there for about ten years”, he said to me as I took his portrait with the model after our interview.

Many East London tower block buildings fell into ruin structurally in the 1990’s-early 2000’s that local councils and authorities planned to demolish them to build newer, safer housing. This was achieved through implosion, placing explosives inside so the building was felled in seconds.

Hunter coined this process as being “festival like”; people would gather at a distance and dance and drink in commemoration, screeching as the buildings were blown up and disintegrated into dust before them in a firework-esque display.

Details from the Holly Street Estate model
Pics : Rosie Harris-Davison

Hunter moved to Hackney, aged 25, in 1986 from a small village in Dorset, getting work in Regents Park as a tree surgeon. He took up photography evening classes at Kingsway College and realised his love for storytelling, then applying to London College of printing to study conceptual photography.

Before Holly Street, Hunter lived on Ellingfort Road, near London Fields. With a community of others he squatted in what are now a quaint collection of identical Victorian townhouses on a tree lined passage connecting Mare Street to London Fields. Ellingfort Road was a battleground in the 1990s between Tom and his network of friends on the street and Hackney Council in continuous attempts to evict them.

“When the Council is trying to evict you and you’re fighting, you really come together as a group and share those highs and lows. It was an amazing bonding experience.”

Ellingfort Road, 2022 Pic : Google Maps.

Hackney Council and food distributors The Don Group planned to invest £6m into the area, demolishing the houses to build a food retail distribution park, promising 200 new jobs. An article published in the Hackney Gazette in 1993 said the plan was to “make beautiful a derelict, crime ridden ghetto” naming it “one of the borough’s most run down areas.” The Ellingfort Road dwellers took the nickname “the ghetto” in their stride with affection. In 2023, the average price for a house on the street is around £750,000.

Article in The Hackney Gazette, 1993. Pic : Tom Hunter

In 1994 his degree work saw Ellingfort Road become a three dimensional model complete with true to life signage and graffiti, and photographic transparencies in the windows and doors which were lit from behind, created in the same manner as The Holly Street Estate model.

Ellingfort Road boasted a “really eclectic mix of people”, Tom told me. Growing up in the countryside where “everyone had the same houses, lived with their parents and were so family oriented”, this new world fascinated him.

“Next door was a group known as ‘The sisters of perpetual indulgence’. They dressed as nuns, and were like a nun order but into sex, drugs and rock and roll. Then the next house was full of dispatch riders, a door down a house with women only allowed. Next you’ve got a marxist house, then

they’d be travellers too, so it was a mad group of all sorts of different people.”

Hunter with ‘The Ghetto’ model, 1994. Pic : Tom Hunter

His fascination peaked with the “urban exploring” when discovering derelict buildings. His mouth curled into a fond smile as he relayed the excitement of climbing a drainpipe at the back of a building, through a window and into a huge open space which felt like “a playground”. Tom derived inspiration from making sense of the physical and emotional structures of this uniquely ever-changing microcosm.

“I wanted to take pictures of this world just appearing in front of my eyes, how it was changing from a really poor working class district into something else.”

Narrative is at the core of his work, dancing on the blurred line of reality and fiction, merging with social commentary. He often references fine art, admiring how painting “tells a story rather than just depicting it.” His most renowned piece “Woman Reading Possession Order” re-imagines Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s ‘Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window’.

‘Woman Reading a Possession Order’ (1997) Pic : Tom Hunter.

“I loved making beautiful pictures, but they became flat without purpose. It seemed everyone had something interesting to say, and I realised every story is important.”

He wanted to convey the borough’s disconnected feeling and how “for people that lived in Hackney, it felt like you were in a ‘hole in the wall gang’.

We made our own little kingdom, cut off from the rest of London, living in our own free housing. We had our own parties, our own bars and cafes. We were pretty much self-sufficient, and it felt really interesting, the politics and the dynamics of all the people. Anywhere else in London, you could just hop on the tube and pop into town. In Hackney it felt like you had to do everything for yourselves.”

Hunter’s Holly Street model is on show at The Hackney Museum until February 2024 before being permanently exhibited at The Museum of London.

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