Model Dwellings 7: Latchmere Estate, Battersea

The Latchmere Estate in Battersea, opened in 1903, has a special place in the history of municipal housing – council housing – in Britain. It was not the first such estate: councils in Glasgow, Liverpool and elsewhere had already put up houses. It was not even the first municipal estate in London: the London County Council (LCC) had already put up blocks near Blackwall Tunnel, and in Shadwell. But the Latchmere was the first estate built by a London Borough, as opposed to the County Council; the first anywhere to be built by direct labour, by building workers directly employed by the council itself; and the first to feature working-class housing at the cutting edge of modernity.

It also has a special place by virtue of its connection with John Burns: trade union organiser; one of the architects of the Progressive coalition on the LCC; MP for Battersea; and a key figure in harnessing public money, as opposed to private philanthropy, to improve working-class housing in London.

John Elliott Burns by John Collier. Oil on canvas 1889. NPG 3170. Copyright National Portrait Gallery, London. Creative Commons Licence.

Burns, however, was a complicated character. His union background suggests that he should have been a central figure in the creation of the Labour Party – but he stuck with the Liberals, and actively opposed Labour’s formation. His opposition to the Boer War in 1900, in the teeth of rampant jingoism, suggests that he was a brave anti-militarist – but in fact his opposition was rooted in anti-semitism, and he argued that the war had been provoked by Jewish financiers. Burns was both a social reformer and an anti-semite. He genuinely improved the lives of many working-class families, and he was genuinely racist. Both are true. Neither cancels the other.

Burns’s connection with the Latchmere Estate arises from the fact that it was on his patch as MP for Battersea; and from the fact that he personally secured legislation to allow borough councils to build their own estates. No surprise, then, that Battersea Borough Council was quick off the mark to take advantage of its new powers. No surprise either that the estate’s street-names celebrated Burns himself, and the political and trade union tradition to which he belonged. In addition to Burns Road

the Latchmere contains Odger Street (George Odger was a leading nineteenth century trade unionist, secretary of London Trades Council, first President of the ‘First International’, and thus a colleague of Karl Marx who for several years was the International’s de facto secretary),

Freedom Street, Reform Street,

and so on.

The long-running ‘blocks vs. cottages’ conundrum, which divided the different philanthropic housing associations, was also an issue for local councils. In general, blocks tended to get built in densely-populated central areas, while cottages were more common further out in the suburbs, often sited close to railway stations. Battersea was not exactly central, but it was a crowded, poverty-stricken riverside district. In fact the Latchmere estate is located in an area described in the 1890s by Charles Booth as a “poverty trap”.

As a result, we might have expected that the district’s first public housing would take the form of multi-storey blocks, to accommodate as many as possible on the available land. But Battersea Borough Council was committed to a vision of a cottage estate – not dissimilar to the Shaftesbury Estate built by the Artizans’ company thirty years earlier, only a few hundred yards away across the railway line.

In fact the Council was committed not just to cottages, but to cottages equipped with all mod-cons: each home had a bathroom-scullery, a combined range, access to a garden, and electric lighting. Battersea’s radical Council was magnificently unapologetic about the fact that its new working-class homes on the Latchmere Estate had facilities as good as many privately-built middle-class houses elsewhere in London.

Latchmere’s 300-odd houses and flats were built in terraces, originally ranging in size from three to five rooms. These variations can be seen in the different front-door arrangements; in some cases four front-doors are grouped together, while elsewhere they appear in ones or twos.

The basic design was very simple: two-storeys; the brick a mix of yellow London stock and red; the roofs pitched slate; the flat frontages broken only by simple projecting horizontal porches. But the sash-windows bring a nice touch of Arts & Crafts/Queen Anne to the party, each divided into twelve lights, mullions and transoms faithfully whitened.

The Latchmere is a lovely little estate, bearing witness to the ambition and dignity which informed municipal housing in its formative years.

Model Dwellings 6: Tenant Co-operators Ltd.

There are over 800 housing co-ops in Britain today, and co-operative housing is a recognised part of the social housing sector. But everything has to start somewhere, and the first ever housing co-op in the country was a small organisation, based mainly in South London, formed in the 1880s.

At first sight the co-op movement may look like an unlikely partner for the middle-class, moralistic, evangelistic initiators of many of the philanthropic housing ventures already covered in this series. While the co-op movement had its own fair share of middle-class moralists and evangelists – such as the well-heeled ‘Christian socialist’ co-operators of the mid-nineteenth century – the movement was never defined by them. By the end of the century the co-op movement, with a retail operation consisting of hundreds of local societies supported by a central wholesaler, was an engine of working-class pragmatism.

But pragmatism learned in retail may be less effective in a very different area such as housing. The sheer scale of nineteenth-century London’s housing problem, and the financial imperatives of the housing market, made it very difficult to apply co-operative principles in practice.

Tenant Co-operators Ltd. (TCL), Britain’s first housing co-op, was formally established in 1887 with a management committee led by Ben Jones of the London Co-operative Wholesale Society. Others on the committee included the Reverend Gardiner from Toynbee Hall in Spitalfields; and Liberal MPs and businessmen sympathetic to the co-op movement. One of these was Pascoe Fenwick, author of an 1884 pamphlet arguing that city-centre poverty was best tackled by enabling working-class families to move out to the suburbs, using the growing railway network to commute to work.  

TCL’s first move was to buy a few already-existing houses in Terrace Road, Upton Park; followed by a few more in South Esk Road, East Ham. It also bought a run of 25 houses in Hook Road, Epsom, which it named ‘Neale Terrace’ in honour of E.V. Neale, one of the co-op movement’s elder statesmen.

Neale Terrace, Hook Road, Epsom

But Penge was the jewel in TCL’s crown. Here, in 1889, the co-op bought a piece of land close to Penge East Station, right next to the railway line. It laid out a new road, Lucas Road, and it commissioned the architect George Hubbard to design 48 cottages and flats of London stock brick with red brick trimming, and pitched slate roofs. As the first complete road laid out and developed by a registered housing co-op, Lucas Road can justifiably claim to be Britain’s first co-operative street. The houses were even put up by a co-op: the Co-operative Builders of Camberwell.

Lucas Road in 1913

What’s more, Lucas Road is a close neighbour to the Alexandra Cottages, only a few hundred yards away on the other side of the railway line. As we saw in a previous post the Alexandra Cottages, built in the 1860s by the ‘Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes’, pioneered the notion of suburban estates intended for workers using the railway to commute to work. By the late 1880s/early 1890s railway commuting was a mass phenomenon, and it underpinned TCL’s choice of the Lucas Road site.

However, as a co-op, TCL faced a fundamental contradiction. The basic fact which drives a capitalist housing market, as opposed to the retail grocery market in which the co-op movement was based, is the need for a large up-front sum to buy or build a house, which is then repaid (with interest) through rent or mortgage. TCL’s start-up capital was raised from sympathetic private investors and a Government loan, but until this money was repaid, the investors retained control through the management committee. Tenants were nominal shareholders, but in practice they had no say in the running of TCL: in other words, although it called itself a co-op, TCL could not truly function as a co-op until its debts were paid. This was not popular with some of the tenants in Lucas Road, who in 1912 organised a rent strike to protest against their secondary status. The dispute went all the way to the High Court where the judge found in favour of the investors, and against the tenants.

TCL’s problems were inseparable from its laudable ambition to house working-class families with little or no money, as becomes clear when we compare it with the ‘co-partnership’ scheme at Brentham Garden Suburb in Ealing, launched in 1901. Brentham was conceived from the start on a much larger scale: it had over 600 Arts & Crafts houses on one site, compared to TCL with less than 100 cottages and flats scattered across several sites. To live in its desirable houses, Brentham sought tenants from the affluent middle class, who were required to make substantial personal investments as a condition of joining; unlike TCL whose working-class tenants were unable to make any up-front investment. Consequently, because Brentham’s investor-tenants shared the financial risk, they also shared control; whereas in TCL, investors and tenants were two distinct and unequal groups, with investors in control.

TCL was a brave experiment, but it illustrated the difficulty faced by poor people in a capitalist society when they try to apply co-operative principles: other things being equal, they will be defeated by the power of money. The answer is to make sure that other things are not equal, which is what the co-op movement did to protect its retail network. Through the second half of the nineteenth century it argued and lobbied for a legal framework which legitimised and protected its particular model of co-operative retail, without which it would probably have been swamped by its commercial competitors. But this framework was designed for retail, and offered no help in the very different world of housing. Hence TCL’s problems.

Nevertheless, in its own small way, TCL did a worthwhile job. It provided good quality housing, at affordable rents, for many working-class families, over many years. And its physical legacy, above all Hubbard’s neat and unassuming dwellings on Lucas Road in Penge, is with us still.  

Lucas Road today

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.

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 …

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.

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 https://alexandracottages.co.uk/ .

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.

Model Dwellings 1: Lords and Chartists

London is still, overwhelmingly, a Victorian city. Most of the railway lines, many of the public parks and green spaces, and a fair number of the roads, date from the C19th. To take Penge as an example: look at a map of the place in 1890, and then at a map of the place today, and you have to squint to spot the differences. A great many of London’s houses are Victorian too: long terraces adorned with cheap floral mouldings chosen by their long-dead builders; neat little Tudorish cottages; romantic Gothic villas. For me, they are a constant joy.

But the brutal truth is that the Victorian houses which survive are a skewed and flattering sample, because this was also a time of jerry-built tenements, of dank courts and rookeries, long since demolished. In the 1890s Charles Booth and his team of social geographers found that about 30% of London’s population, 1.3 million people, lived in poverty, many close-packed in over-crowded slums.

From the 1840s onwards, there was a series of interventions intended to tackle the scandal of working-class housing in London; a series of projects, often referred to as ‘model houses’ or ‘model dwellings’, many of which survive. To visit these buildings today is always fascinating, and sometimes quite moving. But to appreciate them fully we need to understand by whom, and why, they were built.

For those who like to attach neat labels to historical periods, the 1830s and 1840s were the age of the Reform Act, or of Young Victoria, or of the first railways – or, perhaps, the age of the Chartists.

Chartists

The Chartists were Britain’s first mass working-class movement, sparked by a sense of betrayal by the limited changes to the Parliamentary franchise in 1832. The central demands of the ‘People’s Charter’ were universal male suffrage, secret ballots, and annual Parliaments. But the Chartists also supported strikes, generated a vast radical literature, and launched their own ‘Land Plan’ to settle urban working-class families on self-managed rural estates. The movement combined diligent constitutionalism and polite petitioning with industrial action and proto-revolutionary outrage.

Ruling class responses to Chartists and other radicals took many forms, from straightforward repression, through attacks in the press, to ‘softer’ initiatives intended to persuade workers of the good intentions of their social betters. Among these was the ‘Labourers’ Friend Society’ formed by Lord Ashley, an evangelical Tory aristocrat who later became Lord Shaftesbury and won fame as a champion of social reform. Ashley sought harmony. He accepted the established social order, but he also believed that the wealthy had a Christian duty to help the poor. So for instance, the Labourers’ Friend Society’s encouraged philanthropic landowners to offer plots of land for working-class allotments.

In this, it faced direct opposition from Chartists who did their best to persuade people to refuse such offers. Chartism had inherited a strong streak of agrarian utopianism from its radical forebears stretching back to the seventeenth century. The Chartist Land Plan reflected this, with its vision of factory proletarians transformed into self-sufficient yeomen. So Chartists were very keen on working-class allotments, but they wanted allotments as a right, not as a matter of upper-class charity. Hence their hostility to the Labourers’ Friend Society.

‘Society for Improving the Conditions of the Labouring Classes’

In 1844, the Labourers’ Friend Society transformed itself into the ‘Society for Improving the Conditions of the Labouring Classes’, and set about recruiting prestigious sponsors and supporters. Lord Ashley was still a central figure, and by 1850 more than sixty Lords, Earls, Viscounts, Archbishops, MPs and others were publicly associated with the Society, whose Patron was Queen Victoria, and whose President was Prince Albert.

The new Society set itself the task of building ‘model dwellings’ for the ‘labouring classes’, and engaged the architect Henry Roberts to come up with a portfolio of designs. Roberts defined the Society’s “important object” as:

“the erection and completion of one model of each description of building … and … the demonstration that such buildings may … be made to yield a fair return on the outlay”.

In other words the Society was a charitable pump-primer for commercial investment, seeking to prove that building houses for working-class tenants could be a profitable venture. Its model projects in London included family blocks at Lower Road in Pentonville and Streatham Street in Bloomsbury; lodging houses at Drury Lane, George Street and Hatton Gardens; and an asylum for destitute sailors at Dock Street.

1848

In 1848, the year of revolution across Europe, the Chartists embarked on their last great campaign. They collected an enormous petition demanding franchise reform, and called a mass rally on Kennington Common, a regular meeting place, as the prelude to a march intended to deliver the petition to Parliament.

The Government anticipated mass violence or an armed insurrection, but none occurred. The petition was ignored, and the whole episode is often cited as Chartism’s final defeat, though this was far from clear at the time, and the movement continued its agitation through the 1850s.

For instance, Chartist hostility to the old Labourer’s Friend Society was carried over to its successor, the Society for Improving the Conditions of the Labouring Classes. G.W.M. Reynolds, author of popular melodramas, editor of Reynolds’s Weekly News, and a voluble Chartist, descended on the Society’s annual meeting in 1850 with a few comrades, tried to speak, protested vigorously when he was prevented, and was assaulted by one of the peers on the platform. The incident was portrayed as an appalling example of radical vulgarity in the mainstream press, and as an appalling example of aristocratic bullying in the Chartist press. With heavy sarcasm, Reynolds used his own paper to summarise the Society’s real message:

“Working men, this Society is doing all it can for you, and you must go down on your knees and thank the disinterested noblemen and kind-hearted gentlemen who are taking so much trouble on your behalf … Whatever we do for you is for motives of pure philanthropy … Be obedient, docile, submissive and follow our advice in all things without venturing to have an opinion of your own … ”

The following year, 1851, was the year of the Great Exhibition at Hyde Park. Prince Albert played a leading role in its organisation, and given that he was also President of the Society, it had no difficulty in securing space at the Exhibition to showcase a ‘model lodge’ designed by Roberts, an ideal home capable of housing four working-class families. The style was mildly Tudor, which was also the favoured contemporary style for alms-houses. When the Exhibition was over the great glass pavilion of the ‘Crystal Palace’ was dismantled and brought to South London to be re-erected at Penge Place, and many exhibits came with it.

Kennington re-defined

But not the model lodge. The model lodge was dismantled and re-erected, but not at Penge. Instead, and uniquely, it was placed in Kennington. More specifically, it was placed on the site of the former Kennington Common, because from 1852 this edgy radical gathering-place, firmly associated in the public mind with mass meetings of Chartists, was transformed into Kennington Park.

Whether by design or accident, this was a powerful act of symbolic appropriation; the erasure of a longstanding informal gathering place with radical associations, and its replacement by a formal space structured to enable not public political passion, but polite private leisure. And the appropriation was completed by the presence of the Society’s model lodge bearing Prince Albert’s name, planted on the very ground which Chartists had once made their own.

South London Holmes: Whisper Norbury in my ear

This is the ninth and last of my series of posts on ‘South London Holmes’, inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s constantly recurring use of South London as the setting for Sherlock Holmes’s adventures. Over the course of the sixty Holmes stories, Doyle sends the detective to South London more frequently than to any other single vicinity. To the best of my knowledge, this has never been remarked upon before. If you know better, please get in touch.

Times and places

Brixton is by far Holmes’s most-visited place in South London. It plays a significant role in the very first tale, the (brilliant) A Study in Scarlet published in 1887; in one of the very last, the (lame) The Veiled Lodger written forty years later; and in three other stories in the intervening years: The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, The Naval Treaty, and The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax. It also crops up in passing in other stories, such as The Greek Interpreter and The Adventure of Black Peter, as a quick way of identifying the social standing of particular characters. Brixton was, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an expanding middle-class and skilled-working-class suburb, and Doyle returned constantly to it because he judged that its modest and diligent respectability provided a nicely ironic backdrop for his tales of passion, greed and violence.

Norwood and Lee are equal-second in popularity. Each appears in the first batch of stories written in the 1890s: Norwood in The Sign of Four, Lee in The Man with the Twisted Lip. And each appears again when Doyle resurrected Holmes in the early 1900s: Norwood in The Adventure of the Norwood Builder, and Lee in The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge.

Other locations appear only once. Grouped chronologically, they are:

The early stories of the 1890s: Beckenham (The Greek Interpreter), Croydon (The Adventure of the Cardboard Box), Norbury (The Yellow Face), Streatham (The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet).

The ‘resurrection’ stories of the 1900s: Chislehurst (The Adventure of the Abbey Grange), Kennington (The Adventure of the Six Napoleons), Woolwich (The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans).

The late stories of the 1920s: Kingston (The Adventure of the Illustrious Client), Lewisham (The Adventure of the Retired Colourman).  

Overall, about 30% of the Holmes short stories include South London settings, more than any other locality. The second most popular arena is the West End or “fashionable London”, flexibly defined to include 221B Baker Street. Next come the Home Counties, especially country houses in Sussex or Surrey. And there are one or two tales set in the City of London, and the East End.

The paucity of East End locations is especially interesting, because it was only a year after the publication of A Study in Scarlet that Jack the Ripper made his appearance in Whitechapel. Once the Ripper murders had taken place, Doyle could easily have homed in on the East End as a regular setting for his stories. He had already staked out his claim to write London-based tales of criminal detection, and fate had now provided him with a locality indelibly associated in the public mind with the most horrific crime, so it must have been tempting to cash in on this association. But he did not. He decided to set most of his stories not among London’s poor, but among its respectable middle and upper classes. This was a narrative choice rather than an expression of social conscience, and possibly reflected nothing more than a preference to focus on a social milieu with which he, and his intended readers, were familiar. Nevertheless it was an important choice, because from it emerged the Holmes, and the Watson, that we know. Holmes would not be Holmes, nor Watson Watson, had Doyle chosen differently.

Domestic drama

If I were to suggest that many, even most, of the Holmes tales were essentially domestic dramas, I think most Holmes readers would instinctively rebel. They would do so for two reasons.

Firstly: we all tend to associate Holmes with forensic skill, a talent for close observation, for analysing that observation, and for drawing inferences from the analysis. It is this talent which constantly astonishes Watson (and, in the process, underpins our affection for him). And yet: a possible consequence of this focus on physical process is to deflect our attention from questions of human agency and motivation.

Secondly: we all tend to associate Holmes with crime, complex crime, high-concept crime requiring high-concept detection. Professor Moriarty is a key figure here, Holmes’s arch-enemy, the ‘Napoleon of crime’, a perverse genius lurking at the centre of a web of evil. And yet: however darkly attractive Moriarty may be, he only crops up in two or three tales. Most of Holmes’s adventures have nothing whatsoever to do with organised crime.

Instead, if we look at the stories themselves; if we push to one side Holmes’s forensic skills; if we concentrate instead on the circumstances and motivations behind the crimes and mysteries which he investigates; then time after time we find ourselves looking not at high-concept crime, but at domestic drama. Of sixteen South London stories, no fewer than twelve feature family or sexual tension or jealousy.  

Misunderstanding or deception between husband and wife is the driving factor in The Man with the Twisted Lip, The Yellow Face, The Adventure of the Abbey Grange, and The Adventure of the Retired Colourman.

Jealousy and lust for revenge on the part of rejected lovers fuel the drama in The Adventure of the Cardboard Box, The Adventure of the Norwood Builder, and The Adventure of the Illustrious Client; while jealousy and lust for revenge between rival suitors is the motivation in A Study in Scarlet.  

A daughter’s concern for her father is the starting point for The Sign of Four; and misunderstanding between father and son provides the pathos in The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet.

Even the two tales of espionage and treason, quintessentially high-concept affairs in which Holmes successfully staves off national disaster, involve family betrayals: betrayal of brother-in-law by brother-in-law in The Naval Treaty, and of brother by brother in The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans.

To conclude: when we strip away the forensic paraphernalia of blood-stains and cigar-ash, of hat-bands and walking-sticks, we find that Sherlock Holmes’s real function is to reveal the family as a reservoir of discontent, passion and violence.

Whisper ‘Norbury’ in my ear

I finish with the final lines of The Yellow Face, the setting for which is Norbury. This is a subtle little tale of inter-racial marriage and a mixed-race child. Surprisingly, it has a happy ending, but we only reach it after Holmes has misinterpreted the evidence, jumped to the wrong conclusion, and generally messed up. However, he has the grace to admit his errors to Watson:

“Watson” said he, “if it should ever strike you that I am getting a little over-confident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper ‘Norbury’ in my ear and I shall be infinitely obliged to you”.

‘Whisper Norbury in my ear’. A poignant note on which to end: mildly ridiculous, somewhat touching, and undeniably South London.

South London Holmes: Strangers, Aliens & Conspiracies

Holmes (2)

On the first page of A Study in Scarlet, the first-ever Holmes story, first-person narrator John H. Watson, M.D., late of the Army Medical Department, describes London as:

“ … that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained”.

This is a powerful and pungent metaphor, coined by Doyle before he himself had ever lived in London at all. Over the course of the many Holmes stories which he wrote over the following decades, he constructed a version of London which is rather more subtle than a cesspool – but even so, the essential insight remained. Whether expressed in terms of drainage, or magnetism, or greed, or necessity, Holmes’s London is a centre of attraction. People of all types and conditions from across the globe are drawn to it, and bring with them their various devices and desires. And from these arise certain odd little problems which Holmes is called upon to solve.

There are two themes here which I want to explore: Doyle’s use of outsiders, of strangers and aliens, in the South London Holmes stories; and his association of these outsiders with secret societies and conspiracies.

Strangers and aliens

All detective fiction starts from a mystery, a problem demanding solution, intended to prick the reader’s interest. When the mystery is given a setting which is familiar to the reader, a setting which is comforting or homely, then the story may provoke a pleasurably unsettling shiver of estrangement. We twenty-first century readers of the Holmes stories miss this. We read them not because their late Victorian and Edwardian settings are familiar, but precisely because they are not; to us, the setting is as enticing as the mystery. But Doyle wrote these stories not for us but for his contemporaries. For them, the familiarity of the setting was at odds with the strangeness of the mystery, and this contradiction created the potential for a narrative charge, a shock, which is not available to us.

Doyle was a product of the Victorian British middle class, and his intended readers were also members of that middle class. Most of the Holmes tales were written between the late 1880s and the start of the First World War, and middle-class normality and received ideas of those years, middle-class ideology, was Doyle’s starting point, the standard against which he posited his mysteries. And an obvious source of mystery, then as now, is the stranger, the outsider, the person who is present but is not one of us – which in the Holmes stories means to say, not a member of the late Victorian and Edwardian British middle class.

The Empire, with its many peoples, was a ready source of outsiders: in The Sign of Four we meet three Sikhs and an Andaman Islander; and in The Man with the Twisted Lip a “sallow Malay” and “rascally lascar” in the London docks. People of colour are regularly portrayed in the Holmes stories as frightening or ugly in appearance, a casual racism which reminds us that these stories were written by a white, middle-class man for white, middle-class readers.

Alongside this racist description is an occasional theme of honour. It appears, for instance, in The Sign of Four, where the Sikhs are faithful to their oath, and Tonga the Andaman Islander is mourned by Jonathan Small as an honourable friend:

“He was staunch and true, was little Tonga. No man ever had a more faithful mate”.

This does not cancel or excuse the racist description, but it qualifies it. It adds another dimension to these fictional figures, it moves them beyond mere stereotype and invests them, at least in a preliminary way, with some vestige of personality and agency.

The USA was another source of outsiders which Doyle drew upon repeatedly. A Study in Scarlet tells of a murder in Brixton triggered by a marital feud in Utah. The back-story to The Yellow Face, set in Norbury, is an inter-racial marriage in Atlanta, Georgia. And there are other tales falling outside our South London remit which also refer to America, and also tell of sexual or marital dispute or disaster: A Scandal in Bohemia, The Adventure of the Dancing Men, The Valley of Fear. I’m not sure why Doyle repeatedly associated America with sexual rivalry and dispute, but he did; maybe there’s a PhD in here somewhere, but I’m not the one to write it.

Continental Europeans, and people of European descent, are another obvious category of stranger, and here we see Doyle making use of off-the-shelf national and ethnic tropes which his readers will recognise and with which they will feel comfortable. Latins and Greeks, for instance, are conventionally passionate and prone to extravagant acts of revenge, as seen in both The Greek Interpreter and The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge. In the very last paragraph of the former tale, we learn that the Greek heiress Sophy has had her fatal revenge upon the two Englishmen who killed her brother. And the convoluted plot of Wisteria Lodge turns on an assassination attempt by Latin American conspirators against their former dictator; they fail, but again we learn, on the final page, that a subsequent attempt has succeeded and that “justice, if belated, had come at last”.

The equally conventional contrast between passionate southern Europeans and phlegmatic northern Europeans is vividly drawn in The Adventure of the Six Napoleons, when Holmes and Watson visit the works where busts of Napoleon are made. The manager is German, “big, blond” with “blue Teutonic eyes”, friendly and helpful, only roused to anger when reminded of a former worker, the Italian Beppo, who knifed a colleague. Beppo, meanwhile, is a very different character, a creature of greed and passion, “an alert, sharp-featured simian man”.

This portrait of the affable German is not, however, Doyle’s last word. History matters here. As stressed above, most of the Holmes stories were written in the twenty-five years before the First World War. For much of this period, there was no popular sense in Britain that Germans were enemies, and certainly no sense of national rivalry with Germany equivalent to the historic rivalry with France. But as tensions mounted from the turn of the century, there was a growing unease, and we can see this reflected in the Holmes stories.

In The Adventure of the Six Napoleons, published in 1904, perceptions were still relaxed enough to allow for the German workshop manager to be portrayed as a genial figure. But by 1908 things were more tense: Britain was now openly aligned with France against Germany, and a public Anglo-German naval arms race was under way. The Adventure of the Bruce Partington Plans, published in that year, concerns the theft of top-secret naval documents from Woolwich Arsenal. Holmes is called in by his brother Mycroft to work on the case, and Mycroft provides him with details of the three foreign agents in London who are most likely to be involved: one (La Rothière) has a French name, while two (Meyer and Oberstein) have German names. Holmes quickly identifies Oberstein as the agent responsible.

Finally, there is the case of the missing Jews. From 1881 Britain and other countries were confronted with large-scale refugee migration as thousands of Jews came west, fleeing pogroms in Russia and Poland. Many headed for the USA, but about 150,000 settled in Britain, especially in London, around Whitechapel. Inevitably they suffered racist abuse, and inevitably there was public discussion including old and new anti-semitic slanders. The debate on Jewish immigration was live at exactly the time when the Holmes stories were being written and yet, strangely, Jewish characters hardly figure within them.

I can think of only one such appearance in the South London stories, a minor and unhappy one. In The Adventure of the Cardboard Box, Holmes takes Watson for lunch at an hotel in Croydon, and “with great exultation” tells Watson how he paid less than £3 to “a Jew broker in Tottenham Court Road” for a Stradivarius violin worth at least 500 guineas. Holmes is gleeful not merely because he got a bargain, but because he got a bargain from a Jew; all the age-old fables of Jewish usury and sharp practice lurk within the anecdote. It reflects no credit on Holmes as a character, or on Doyle as his creator.

Conspiracies

Like most of us, Doyle liked secrets. And like some of us, he liked conspiracies. He liked the idea of secret societies, sinister cabals of murky miscreants, using plots and passwords and codes to achieve their criminal aims and upset society’s natural order.

In the Holmes stories, although these conspiracies are acted out in London, they are not of London. They originate elsewhere. Conspiracy is something done by outsiders, and London itself is the setting, but not the cause, of their mischief. It is no accident that the greatest conspirator of all, Holmes’s arch-enemy Professor Moriarty, the ‘Napoleon of Crime’ who directs the activities of the under-world as a conductor directs an orchestra, has an Irish name. So too does his brutal side-kick Colonel Moran.

The South London Holmes stories offer a range of examples of conspiracy as an exotic import. A Study in Scarlet brings in a religious conspiracy from the USA; The Sign of Four, a compact between thieves from India; The Adventure of the Six Napoleons, theft and murder by members of the Mafia (which is oddly described by Lestrade as “a secret political society”); and The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge, a failed plot to assassinate a South American dictator. London hosts these intrigues, or attracts those seeking refuge from them, but it does not initiate them.

The great attraction of conspiracies, both in fiction and in life, is that they reduce the complex to the simple. They posit a world in which the common-sense of everyday life, where individual decisions have identifiable consequences, also applies beyond everyday life; a world in which economic and political trends and processes are explained not by collective agencies or interpretive categories or complex systems, but simply by sinister individuals manipulating events. Conspiracies are satisfying because they are consistent with everyday experience (we all know manipulative people); they grant a gratifying sense of hard-headed realism to the believer (those clever-dicks think it’s all about dysfunctional systems, but I know it’s all about a Bad Man); and they suggest easy solutions (solve the problem by finding and removing the Bad Man).

Hence Moriarty and the Reichenbach Falls. By 1892 Doyle was fed up with Holmes and wanted to move on to other writing projects. He sought to get rid of the detective by writing a final story featuring a doubly-fatal encounter between Holmes and the master of criminal conspiracy, Professor Moriarty. The Final Problem, published in 1893, killed off both of them, and set Doyle free of Holmes for the next decade. He only resumed the tales in 1903, in response to a generous financial offer which he felt unable to refuse.

The Final Problem was a neat solution to Doyle’s personal frustration as a writer, but it involved a shameless narrative sleight of hand, because this is the first that we have ever heard of Moriarty and his vast criminal conspiracy. There is no mention of any of this in the twenty-odd preceding stories. It is only within The Final Problem itself that we learn (a) that Moriarty exists, (b) that he is the arch-conspirator behind much of London’s crime, (c) that there is to be a show-down between him and Holmes, and (d) that both of them die. Doyle retro-fits the Moriarty conspiracy onto Holmes’s career as a detective, for the express purpose of bringing it to a clean and simple end – for if the Bad Man is dead, then the conspiracy must be over, and if the conspiracy is over, then there is nothing significant left to detect.

It follows that, when Doyle revived Holmes a decade later in The Adventure of the Empty House, he was also forced to revive the conspiracy in the homicidal form of Colonel Moran, Moriarty’s associate, hell-bent on revenge.

 

South London Holmes: The Adventure of the Cardboard Box

listening-ear-clip-art-10322405-human-ear

The Adventure of the Cardboard Box is one of my favourite Holmes stories, for three reasons. 

Firstly, to the best of my knowledge, it’s the only Holmes story which features Penge. Admittedly there are only a couple of brief mentions, identifying it as the previous home of one of the characters, but nevertheless there it is. Penge’s existence in the world of Sherlock Holmes is officially acknowledged.

Secondly, the story is set in Croydon, also close to my heart. As usual, Doyle gives us a fictional address – Cross Street – but in the course of the story we learn that Cross Street is five minutes’ walk from the railway station at which Holmes and Watson arrive; and that it is about a mile from Wallington. This means that Holmes and Watson must have arrived at West Croydon Station, travelling down on the line from London Bridge; and that Cross Street must be somewhere south and west of the station, towards Waddon.

Map - Cardboard Box

From Bacon’s Atlas of London & Suburbs 1909

Thirdly, and most importantly, as a story The Cardboard Box is strange, awkward, and unbalanced. And it is the subject of a minor mystery which is, I believe, inseparable from this awkwardness. 

The twenty-five year delay 

The mystery is simply stated: why did Doyle withhold book publication for twenty-five years? 

He wrote The Cardboard Box in the summer of 1892, during his first year in his new home in Tennison Road, South Norwood. These were still early days in Doyle’s career as a writer, and he was working hard to build on the success of his first Sherlock Holmes tales. Several of these had South London settings, including the two novellas which introduced Holmes and Watson, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four; and some early short stories including The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet, and The Man with the Twisted Lip.

The Adventure of the Cardboard Box was one of several tales which Doyle turned out during that summer. Like the others, it was published soon after in the Strand Magazine, which gave it brief public exposure. But while the other short stories written at this time were quickly re-published as a collection in book form, as The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle withheld The Cardboard Box. It was only published in book form twenty-five years later, in the collection entitled His Last Bow. Why?

One possibility is that Doyle felt that the story was simply too gruesome. Its title refers to a cardboard box containing two freshly severed human ears, delivered by post to a respectable elderly lady living in Croydon. Personally I think this is great: the juxtaposition of almost comic grotesquerie and suburban primness is a delight. But, possibly, Doyle felt differently.

Alternatively, it has been suggested that his reticence sprang from a fear that the theme, a double-murder provoked by female sexual jealousy, would be considered too racy. I’m not convinced, because he had already written several stories in which he was willing to court mild scandal in his approach to sexual themes. For instance, the back-story to A Study in Scarlet is a lurid vision of Mormonism in Utah, which he portrays as a proto-Gilead, a totalitarian patriarchy with strong implications of institutionalised sexual violence. Meanwhile, in a very different vein, Irene Adler in A Scandal in Bohemia is positively celebrated for her glamour, intelligence and chutzpah, while making it perfectly clear that she is a high-class courtesan.

I think there is a third, more convincing explanation.

Browner’s version 

Holmes finds this case remarkably easy to solve; in fact he wraps it up in a single morning and goes off with Watson for a pleasant little lunch in a Croydon hotel. But we as readers only learn the full story – or at least a version of it – when the murderer, Browner, is arrested and makes his confession. Briefly summarised, it goes as follows:

The respectable retired lady in Croydon to whom the cardboard box is delivered is Miss Susan Cushing, the eldest of three sisters. Her circumstances – she was a landlady when she lived in Penge, and can afford a young servant girl in her house in Croydon – suggest that the Cushings are lower middle class. The youngest sister Mary has stepped somewhat beneath her social station to marry James Browner, a steward on a passenger ship (Holmes calls him “a man of limited education”). The couple go to live in Liverpool where his work is based. All is well until the unmarried middle sister, Sarah, comes for a visit and takes a fancy to her brother-in-law. Browner rejects her. She seeks revenge by driving a wedge between the married couple, and by encouraging Mary to take up with another man, before returning to Croydon. Browner, who had ‘taken the pledge’ and forsworn strong drink when he married Mary, returns to the bottle, and in a drunken rage murders his wife and her supposed lover. Blaming Sarah for the whole catastrophe, he then posts the victims’ ears to what he believes to be her address, as a way of punishing and horrifying her. But the address is not hers, and the ghastly package is delivered instead to her blameless sister Susan.

Doyle clearly intends us to accept this tale, Browner’s tale, as a reliable account of this claustrophobic, over-heated, intensely domestic tragedy. In this account Browner admits the murder, but insists that the blame for it lies with Sarah, who is incapable of controlling either her passion for him, or her jealousy and spite once rejected.

A complex tale, too simply told

But there is a problem here. Doyle has been too clever for his own good. He has constructed a rich and complex situation, replete with sexual and psychological tension, capable of supporting extended treatment at least in the form of a novella. But he has done so within the confines of a short story, which he needs to bring to a conclusion. He therefore tries to square the circle by ignoring all the complexities which he himself has put in play, and by opting for a single one-dimensional version of events which has the advantage of boiling down to a familiar maxim that many readers will recognise and with which they will feel comfortable: ‘Hell has no fury like a woman scorned’.

We can perhaps dramatise the inadequacy of this strategy through a comparison with another work. There is a remarkable similarity of plot between The Cardboard Box and Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire. In both cases a younger sister marries an attractive man from a lower social class. In both cases an unmarried older sister comes to stay. In both cases there is a sexual/social uneasiness between husband and older sister. And both cases result in an explosion of male violence. Streetcar is of course an incomparably finer and more sensitive work than The Cardboard Box – but would that still be true if Streetcar’s story were told exclusively from the point of view of Stanley Kowalski? If all the intricate detail of Blanche DuBois’s life, its yearning and self-delusion, were reduced to his understanding of it? I ask because that is, in effect, what we get in The Cardboard Box; a version of complex events as understood by a male participant ill-equipped to grasp their meaning, and with a motive to pin blame elsewhere.

Browner insists that the blame lies with Sarah: she propositioned him, and her efforts to alienate Mary from him were revenge for his rejection of her. But the bald facts are equally consistent with a very different version of events in which he propositions Sarah, and she rejects him, so that her efforts to alienate Mary from him become the actions of a loving sister who knows her brother-in-law to be a faithless sexual predator.

Sarah Cushing’s silence

Of course there is no ‘true’ or ‘correct’ version, because this is just a story, a fiction. But the point is this: in both versions, Sarah Cushing has agency. Her choices and her actions alter the emotional geometry of the household in Liverpool and thus drive the story forward. Whether out of revenge or out of sisterly love, Sarah has agency. Browner however has none. He is a cipher. His response to the train of events set in motion by Sarah is simply to revert to type; to resort to the bottle and to violence fuelled by the bottle.

I think that this may explain the twenty-five-year delay in book publication. The Cardboard Box is ‘unbalanced’, and the source of its unbalance is the mis-match between content, and narrative voice. Doyle has created a complex web of domestic relations and he has – perhaps inadvertently – established Sarah Cushing as the key character, the key actor. And yet he does not place her centre-stage, and he does not give her a voice, because this would complicate his attempt to tell a straightforward short story of detection. So he condemns Sarah Cushing to silence, and gives a voice instead to the unsatisfactory figure of Browner.

The overall result is awkward and off-balance. We know that we have been told a rich, intriguing and tragic tale, but we have heard it from the wrong person, and we are left with a lingering sense of unfinished business.

I suspect that Doyle was aware of the awkwardness, aware that there was something about this story that didn’t quite work, and that this was why he delayed book publication for a quarter of a century.