Model Dwellings 3: Peabody

The choice between ‘blocks’ and ‘cottages’ has already come up in this series, and was a constant theme in the provision of working-class housing in nineteenth-century London. Many factors played upon it: questions of taste; architectural and philanthropic assumptions about working-class family life; land-prices; public transport. In broad terms, tenement-blocks were likely to have the edge in central, densely-populated areas where land-prices were relatively high; while cottages might be favoured further out in the suburbs, where land was cheaper, so long as transport links were good. But institutional tradition also counted, as can be seen in the case of the Peabody Trust in two very different projects: Peabody Square on Blackfriars Road in Southwark; and Peabody Cottages off Rosendale Road in Herne Hill.

Of all the nineteenth century associations set up to provide working-class housing in London, the Peabody Trust was then, and is still, the best known. The reason is simple: money. All these housing associations were more or less philanthropic, but Peabody was under-written by an act of philanthropy the sheer scale of which dwarfed the rest. In 1862, the American banker George Peabody established the Trust, funded by personal donation, to improve the living conditions of the working classes in his adopted home-city of London. His initial gift was £150,000, and the final total was £500,000 – a huge sum, equivalent to over £6 billion today. The Trust’s legal charter allowed for a range of charitable activities, but it quickly came to focus on housing.

Peabody’s early projects were all in densely-populated districts north of river, in Spitalfields, Islington, Shadwell, Westminster, and Chelsea. Henry Darbishire, the Trust’s architect from the 1860s to the 1880s, produced its characteristic design: brick blocks of tenements, typically five storeys high, arranged around a central open space, all on a scale which other associations were unable to match. Within each block, individual dwellings were organised into ‘associated’ groups with shared sculleries and toilets. And as for the tenants, Peabody’s policy was the same as that of most of the other philanthropic housing associations: it aimed to house ‘artisans’, respectable skilled workers and their families. It did not aim to house the very poor: casual labourers, chronically unemployed, or paupers.

Peabody Square

The Trust’s first venture south of the river came in 1870, when it acquired land on Blackfriars Road, a short distance north of Elephant and Castle.

The site was larger than usual, reflecting the fact that land-prices south of the river were reliably lower than those to the north, and here yet another ‘Peabody Square’ took shape.

As elsewhere the design was based on open central courts surrounded by tenement blocks, but here the site’s size allowed for two linked courts, a more imaginative arrangement and variety of blocks, and a more generous use of space.

It was generally felt that this was Peabody’s best project to date, and other South London estates followed in Camberwell, Lambeth, Southwark and Walworth. By the 1880s the Peabody Trust had a significant presence south of the river.

Peabody Cottages

For years the Trust remained wedded to the block concept, which achieved its climax in its vast estate at Pimlico, twenty-nine blocks laid out like barracks. But the cottage idea was always in the air, and eventually Peabody responded. It purchased a suburban site in Herne Hill, at the top end of Rosendale Road by Brockwell Park, and there in 1901 it constructed its first cottage-estate.

Just as the Blackfriars Road project still holds its own, so too do the Peabody Cottages. Technically of course, like most ‘artisan cottages’ of the period, they are not cottages at all but terraced houses. Essentially they share a common design, though with two choices of front entrance: either individualised; or with neighbouring doors sharing a single arched porch.

The repeated gable-ends with vertical beams hint, perhaps, at Arts & Crafts – but if so it is only the faintest of hints, for Arts & Crafts is above all picturesque, and the very fact of repetition works against it. In fact the street layout is marginally more picturesque than the architecture, a hybrid parallelogram/rectangle generating gentle but pleasing visual collisions.  

Like Peabody Square on Blackfriars Road, and like most (all?) of the other Peabody projects, the Cottages bear the Trust’s name: perhaps this relentless in-your-face branding helped establish Peabody as the nineteenth-century association which we still remember. This, plus the fact that the Trust is still alive and kicking. And, of course, all that money.