Model Dwellings 5: Bossy philanthropy

So far, this series has focused on ‘philanthropic’ companies, complete with shareholders and directors, which designed and built model homes for working-class families in Victorian South London. But alongside these were other smaller-scale initiatives, also ‘philanthropic’, but operating along different lines. Being smaller, they were liable to domination by strong personalities, and in South London, in the 1880s and 1890s, two such personalities stand out: Emma Cons and Octavia Hill.

Cons and Hill were exact contemporaries. They were both born in 1838, met when young, and were lifelong friends. They both died in 1912. Neither was born into money: their families were middle-class, respectable, devoutly Christian, but somewhat down-at-heel. Neither married. Both were fired by an evangelical zeal to help the poor. Both had an endless appetite for bossing about those who got in their way. And both left considerable legacies, encompassing the National Trust, the Old Vic Theatre, Morley College, and some exquisite South London cottages.

Their forays into working-class housing began in the 1860s, when Octavia Hill persuaded John Ruskin – the John Ruskin, the writer and critic – to let her manage some slum houses in Marylebone which he owned. Hill roped in Emma Cons to help her, and together they developed their own inimitable, highly personal, approach to the relief of poverty.

They started from a conception of poverty as material, behavioural, and spiritual. They agreed that material conditions must be improved; but insisted that the poor must also be educated, guided, and if necessary bullied, out of attitudes and practices which, in their view, helped to reproduce the problem. On one hand they rejected the widespread contemporary prejudice that poor people were inherently degraded; but on the other they insisted that they themselves, bossy, Christian, self-righteous, young middle-class women, had the right and the duty to tell working-class families how they ought to live their lives.

This was the philosophy which underpinned their approach to their tenants. They called themselves ‘rent collectors’, but what they actually did was more like a combination of social work, pastoral care, and scolding – all administered while also collecting the rent. They aimed to help their tenants live ‘better’ lives but they themselves defined what ‘better’ meant; among other things, it meant abstinence from alcohol and attention to personal hygiene.

For fifteen years they pursued various housing and other charitable projects, until in 1879 Hill bought Surrey Place, a derelict cottage at the junction of Kennington Road and Lambeth Road. It was this that brought her and Cons to South London, and led to their first building project.

Emma Cons took the lead. She formed the South London Dwellings Company and engaged the architect Elijah Hoole to develop the Surrey Place site by building Surrey Lodge, a quadrangle of tenements and cottages. The layout of the tenement blocks was perhaps influenced by the standard Peabody design – Peabody Square on Blackfriars Road was only a short walk away – grouped around a central open space. The blocks’ appearance was however less utilitarian than Peabody, based on an underlying classicism but with fussy and indiscriminate Dutch, French and Gothic detail. Access was by external stair-cases and balconies. Until her death Cons herself lived in one of the cottages, right in the middle of the estate, over-seeing the lives of her tenant/neighbours. Nothing now survives of Surrey Lodge, and the site is occupied by a hotel.

From 1880, Emma and Octavia Hill took different paths. They both still held to the principle that poverty must be tackled in the round, but where Cons focused increasingly on education and entertainment, Hill sought antidotes to urban life as such.

Managing a large housing estate was apparently not enough to keep Cons busy, so she also took on the lease of a failing music-hall in Waterloo, the Royal Victoria Theatre, and set out to reinvent it as a venue for respectable entertainment (nothing bawdy or vulgar); educational improvement (‘penny lectures’ by leading writers and scientists); and wholesome refreshment (tea and coffee, no alcohol). In the heart of working-class South London, in search of a bit of a laugh, this might sound like a recipe for high-minded failure, but somehow Cons made it work. The failing music-hall morphed into the Old Vic, its façade redesigned by her favourite architect Elijah Hoole;

the penny lectures morphed into Morley College, still going strong today;

and when Cons recruited her niece Lilian Baylis to help her run the Old Vic, she unwittingly inspired the later creation of Sadlers Wells.

Octavia Hill meanwhile was still involved with working-class housing, but with an increasing focus on design and environment. We have already seen in this series that, from the 1860s onwards, there was a trend for housing projects in inner areas to take the form of tenement blocks, while projects in the suburbs took the form of cottage estates. This was largely driven by money and population density: land was cheaper in the suburbs so a more generous use of space was possible; and housing need was greater in central areas, where tenements offered a large-scale response. But from the 1880s Hill argued that tenements reproduced the problem, that they trapped people in a world of brick and mortar and noise: ” … the need of quiet, the need of air, and I believe the sight of sky and of things growing, seem human needs, common to all … “.

Redcross Cottages and Redcross Garden, built in 1887-8 in the heart of Southwark, just off Marshalsea Road, sought to realise this vision.

Designed, of course, by Elijah Hoole, this short terrace of cottages is almost ridiculously picturesque, slightly Tudorish in its first-floor projection, a nice combination of brick, timber and tile. And the Garden facing the cottages is lovely, accessible yet secluded.

It’s a little patch of country-in-the-city – but hemmed in by modern tower-blocks, and just yards away from the Victorian tenements of Peabody’s Marshalsea Road Estate. This stark contrast between the cottages and their surroundings sums up the problem with Hill’s vision; appealing though it was, it could not address the sheer scale of London’s housing problem.

I’m sure Octavia Hill understood this, and would doubtless have argued that Redcross Cottages and Garden were no more than an exemplary model. And perhaps it was because she understood this that she moved on in the 1890s to pursue a similar goal from the opposite direction: if you can’t bring the countryside into the city, you can at least protect bits of the countryside as such, and make it easier for the city to visit from time to time. Hence her best-known legacy, the National Trust.

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