Model Dwellings 4: The Artizans: Two estates and a scandal

The origins of the Artizans Labourers and General Dwellings Company – ‘The Artizans’ – differed from those of the other companies covered so far in this series. It was created neither by philanthropic aristocrats nor by philanthropic businessmen. Its founder was William Austin, farm labourer, navvy, drainage contractor, teetotaller, and a passionate advocate of working-class self-improvement. In 1867, at the age of 63, with minimal capital, he got together with a few friends and colleagues to form The Artizans. Over the following decades the company would build thousands of homes – but would also descend into bitter rivalry and intrigue.

First, the housing.

The Artizans started out as a boot-strap operation, with company members sinking their own personal assets in the construction of a few houses in Rollo Street and Landseer Street near Battersea Park – both roads are now long gone, Charlotte Despard Drive occupying the space where they once stood. Austin mortgaged his own home to underwrite the job, and once the new houses were up the company had to sell them at once in order to get its money back, which it promptly reinvested in its next project. In this hand-to-mouth way it got projects off the ground, not just in London but throughout the country: Birmingham, Gosport, Liverpool, Salford, and elsewhere. In South London it is best known for two estates: the Shaftesbury Estate off Lavender Hill, and the Leigham Court Estate in Streatham.

It was the Shaftesbury Estate, designed by Austin, which made the company’s name. We have seen in previous posts that different ‘philanthropic’ housing companies had different views about the relative merits of blocks of flats and cottage estates. Thus the Peabody Trust was known for its blocks, while the Metropolitan built the first cottage estate in Penge in the 1860s, sited close to a railway station. The Artizans were also champions of the cottage-estate-with-railway-connection: the Shaftesbury Estate is only a short walk from Clapham Junction.

The site covered 40 acres and work began in 1872. The houses were solid Victorian terraces of London stock with red brick dressings. The most striking aspects of the estate’s design are its generous use of space, and its commitment to greenery. All the houses had gardens, and the streets were not only wide but were planted with trees, a real innovation for a working-class district in the 1870s. It has been suggested that the Shaftesbury was a precedent – perhaps even an inspiration? – for the garden-suburb and garden-city concepts of the early twentieth century.

Front doors were set in pairs, many with high pointed porches carrying the company’s logo and date of completion.

When finished, the estate provided 1,200 new dwellings. Not only was it the company’s biggest project to date, but it also marked its acceptance by the establishment: the foundation stone was laid by the Tory social reformer Lord Shaftesbury (hence the estate’s name), and the second phase was opened by the Tory Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli.

By the time the Artizans turned its attention to the Leigham Court Estate, almost twenty years later, it was well-established. This was a large site of 66 acres, close to Streatham Hill station, and although most of the building was done in the 1890s, some dates from the 1920s.

As with the Shaftesbury, there is a generous use of space here, with wide roads and trees. The first impression is of long frontages of red brick,

but this encompasses a variety of different designs, porches, materials, mouldings and decorations. Pevsner describes the style as “faintly Jacobean”.

The 1920s houses, of course, express a very different aesthetic, the inter-war suburban style in which windows expanded, air and light trumped red-brick dignity, and stark white replaced patterned brick and mouldings.

When finished, the estate contained almost 1,000 dwellings, maisonettes, flats and houses, some of which included such luxuries as fitted baths, undreamt of in the days of the Shaftesbury.

So much for The Artizans’ South London houses. What about the rivalry and intrigue?

This takes us back to the company’s earliest years. We’ve seen that William Austin was the founder, but quite quickly another figure, William Swindlehurst, became a key player. Swindlehurst was an engineer who established himself as the company’s manager and secretary as well as being a director. He was responsible for day-to-day administration, was closely involved in the management of building projects, including purchases of land and materials, and until 1877 he seemed to be doing a good job. It was on his watch that Lord Shaftesbury was persuaded to act as patron of The Artizans, and Disraeli agreed to open the second phase of the Shaftesbury Estate.

However, in 1877 one of the company’s shareholders accused Swindlehurst and others of taking bribes from suppliers, and inflating profit estimates in order to justify excessive dividends. Among the shareholders were three Liberal MPs, Evelyn Ashley, Samuel Morley, and Thomas Brassey, all of whom joined the Committee set up to investigate the accusations.

Things very quickly got very nasty. Swindlehurst was forced to resign, and was then arrested for fraud along with two others. All three were tried at the Old Bailey, found guilty and imprisoned. Meanwhile, control of the company fell into the hands of shareholders who had taken part in the Committee of Investigation, including Evelyn Ashley.  

Swindlehurst, however, continued to protest his innocence, and published a pamphlet after his release from prison to try to clear his name. In this he admitted that he had naively accepted financial ‘gifts’ in good faith, but insisted that when he realised they had been improper, he had offered to pay them back. All well and good – but these ‘gifts’ had been enormous, equivalent to hundreds of thousands of pounds today. It seems to me that it would have required an heroic level of naivety not to suspect something dodgy.

Nevertheless, Swindlehurst put up an interesting defence against the other charge, of inflating profit estimates. He argued that his estimates had been justified given the company’s practice of managing its building projects in-house, rather than putting them out to tender and handing them over to contractors. And he pointed out that the new management, after briefly experimenting with tenders, had reverted to exactly the same practice.

There is little doubt in my mind that the whole scandal was linked to the company’s origins as an under-capitalised boot-strap operation, and to its attempts to transform itself into a reliable investment prospect. In order to attract investors, it talked up its potential profitability – whether naively, or dishonestly, we will never know. But a consequence of this talking-up was that it prompted some suppliers to offer bribes in order to secure a slice of the promised action; and it seems that some of the company’s officers found the offer impossible to resist.

There is also another, quite different but equally murky aspect to all this. The Artizans’ political support when Swindlehurst was running the company came from Tories: from Lord Shaftesbury, on the evangelical social reform wing of the party; and from Disraeli, the champion of a new cross-class alliance embracing respectable workers. Meanwhile, prominent among the shareholders who forced Swindlehurst out were three Liberal MPs, Ashley, Morley and Brassey. There seems to be a party-political angle to the whole affair, with Liberal shareholders up against a Tory manager.

And the plot thickens even further when we realise that the Liberal MP Evelyn Ashley was the son of the Tory Lord Shaftesbury! So we have not only party politics in play, but family politics too.

There is clearly a story here, begging to be told, but right now I don’t know quite what it is. At some point, when I have the time, I mean to find out …

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