Model Dwellings 2: Five Per Cent Philanthropy

The previous post covered the earliest interventions in working-class housing in mid-nineteenth century London, by prosperous Christian philanthropists. But the sheer scale of the housing problem would always dwarf the efforts of philanthropy alone. Something else was required – a model capable of delivering practical results in a society which took laissez-faire capitalism for granted.

Hence ‘Five Per Cent Philanthropy’, an early exercise in ethical investment, a business model with a moral twist, in which investors were invited to help fund a social good in return for a modest but dependable return. The first company established specifically for this purpose was the Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes (‘the Metropolitan’) whose founding resolution declared it to be:

” … an association … formed for the purpose of providing the labouring man with an increase of the comforts and conveniences of life, with full return to the capitalist.”

Without this promise of a regular return, there would have been no investors, and therefore no houses. But in order to honour this promise the Metropolitan, and companies like it, were obliged to follow the money. They were obliged to prioritise their rental income, which in turn meant that they were obliged to favour not the tenants in most need, but the tenants best placed to pay their rent in full and on time. In other words, they favoured skilled workers and artisans in regular employment, whether in traditional areas such as building and decorating, or the furniture trades; or in newer occupations such as gas supply, print, or public transport. Consequently, labourers’ dwellings of the later nineteenth century were mostly aimed at these relatively prosperous workers, and not at the unskilled, casually-employed or chronically-unemployed who, according to Booth, made up nearly a third of London’s population.

The Metropolitan was formed in 1841, around the same time as the Society for Improving the Conditions of the Labouring Classes (‘the Society’), the well-connected Christian charity discussed in the previous post. The two organisations worked closely together. Both engaged the same architect, Henry Roberts; the Society played a ‘public relations’ role promoting his designs, while the Metropolitan applied them practically through its building projects. Most of these projects were in crowded central areas where, land prices being high, it built multi-storey blocks of flats so as to maximise the number of dwellings on any given site.  

The same strategy was pursued by another ‘five per cent’ company, the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company (‘the Improved Industrial’), set up in 1863 by politician and philanthropist Sydney Waterlow. (His name lives on in Waterlow Park, next door to Highgate Cemetery where Karl Marx is buried). The Improved Industrial built only one project south of the river: Cromwell Buildings, a block of flats put up in Southwark in 1864.

Waterlow’s company had no formal links with the Society, but Cromwell Buildings provides a sort of connection. Its design is said to have been inspired by the Society’s ‘model lodge’, displayed at the Great Exhibition in 1851 and then re-erected as ‘Prince Albert’s Model Lodge’ at Kennington Park (pictured in the previous post). But of the two, Cromwell is by far the finer. Not only is it on an entirely different scale, but its tiered balconies, with iron railings fronting classical arches which hint at arcades beyond, are immensely dignified. Cromwell Buildings is in a different class altogether from the lodge at Kennington.

In the mid-1860s, the Metropolitan struck off in a new direction, pioneering a trend which would become increasingly important in the following decades. Through the 1850s and 1860s, London was acquiring a dense network of suburban railways stretching out into Essex, Kent, Middlesex and Surrey. Parliament had responded to this by legislating for ‘Workmen’s Fares’, obliging the railway companies to run special early services, with cheap tickets, enabling workers to commute. The directors of the Metropolitan realised that this opened up new housing possibilities. Rather than concentrating exclusively on blocks of flats on central sites, they could start building dwellings out in the suburbs, close to railway stations, for tenants who could benefit from the Workmen’s Fares. And because land in the suburbs was cheaper than land in the centre, there was less pressure to put up multi-storey blocks of flats; instead, they could build estates of neat little workers’ cottages. An early flowering of this new approach can be seen in Penge.

The Alexandra Estate was built by the Metropolitan in the late 1860s, a few yards from Penge Station (now Penge East), on the London Chatham and Dover Railway Company’s new line from Victoria. It consists of semi-detached cottages, with entrances at the sides rather than facing the street; the brick is London stock, with modest red-brick adornment; the roofs pitched slate. Because the estate is made up of many separate buildings rather than terraces, there is room for gardens, sheds, trees and shrubs, and the whole has a distinctly village feel.

More information about its history and architecture can be found at the Alexandra Residents Association website at .

Hard on the heels of the Alexandra Estate, just three miles away, a second estate appeared, driven by the same logic. The Suburban Village and General Dwellings Company (‘the Suburban’) was set up to build working-class homes in Herne Hill, again taking advantage of the Workmen’s Fares. The Suburban’s start-up money came from families keen to acquire these new homes, who nearly lost everything when the company came close to collapse. But it was saved at the last minute when a firm of architects stepped in, and building started in 1868, along Milkwood Road, Lowden Road and surrounding streets. At the official opening in March 1869 the “first stone of the new village” was laid by Lord Shaftesbury, founder of the Society back in the 1840s – so here again we have a connection reaching back to his original philanthropic initiative.

Like the Alexandra Estate, the Herne Hill dwellings are built of stock brick with red brick dressing and slate roofs. But unlike the Alexandra, whose separate cottages made a generous use of space, the Herne Hill project aimed at a higher ratio of residents per square yard by erecting long uninterrupted terraces. Even so, it was not built to a rigidly uniform design. Many different builders were involved, and within the common theme of terraces, and stock with red brick, they delivered a fair measure of variety.

For instance: much of the rationale for terraced housing is that the repetition of party walls enables neighbouring houses to ‘mirror’ each other and to share structures and services such as chimneys and plumbing. One visible sign of this is the regular appearance of pairs of front doors, sometimes even with a single shared porch. But even within the confines of a brick-built two-storey terrace, the porch provides an opportunity for variety. So, on the Herne Hill estate, we find classical arched porches:

and pointed Gothic porches:

and even baroque porches with pediment:

There are also some bigger, three-storey houses, clearly intended for a more prosperous class of resident:

The Suburban was set up to promote this single project in Herne Hill, and unlike the Metropolitan and the Improved Industrial which built for rent, its houses were built for sale. Prices started at £200, and residents bought them outright, or by instalment, according to circumstance. Perhaps this focus on owner-occupation, plus the involvement of numerous builders with their own ambitions, explain why the original notion of housing for working-class families was eroded somewhat, and gave way to a reality which was more socially-mixed. Certainly, some of the larger dwellings were beyond the means of any working-class family, however skilled and respectable. In the early 1870s five houses on Lowden Road went onto the market for over £1,700 each, a very considerable sum.