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 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 .

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.


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.


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.

Nairn’s Bromley: fuss and fidgets

London to Hastings (2)

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.  

His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. In this series I revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, to see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years.


I have to admit that I resent Bromley. As a Penge historian, I resent the fact that Penge, which for hundreds of years was a detached hamlet of Battersea, tied to the Surrey river-side, is now annexed to a London borough which half-believes it ought to be in Kent. And as a Penge resident and Labour Party member, I resent living in a borough dominated by a particularly obnoxious sub-species of Tory. 

But – somewhat to his own surprise – Ian Nairn liked Bromley when he visited in the 1960s. Or rather, he liked the High Street. In his view, Bromley High Street (unlike many others) had not been swamped by post-war modernisation, but nor had it set itself in aspic. Instead it had achieved its own unique “appealing suburban fussiness … the cheerful disorder of a village shop blown up to serve a population of 70,000“.   

He saw the local architecture, both good and bad, conspiring to serve this fussy purpose. Thus the inter-war half-timbered block in the Market Square was (and still is) truly ghastly: 
Market square

 “ … blubbery … really horrible … not fun in any sense … “ according to Nairn. And yet he also saw it as somehow fitting “because it bumbles along … and makes every corner into a fidget”. And Bromley’s few fragments of architectural modernism were equally apt: Dunn’s shop (1956), because it was “full of funny corners”; and Harrison & Gibson’s (1960) because it was simultaneously “flashy and sensitive”. As it happens, both were furniture stores, of which more later. 

The only problem was that, in the 1960s, the High Street was still part of the A21 from London to Hastings, with heavy traffic rattling its shop-windows. Nairn nervously anticipated an intervention by “road-wideners”, putting the fidgety yet precious local suburban ecology at risk.  

In the end it was the by-pass builders, and not the road-wideners, who won the argument: for more than 30 years now ‘Kentish Way’ has carried the A21 around and away from the old town centre, and the High Street is thoroughly pedestrianised. Where lorries once thundered, pop-up stalls now sell fresh fish and nick-nacks.  
High Street pedestrians

 In fact, if Nairn’s suburban cheerfulness still survives, it is probably due to this pedestrianisation. On a sunny day the High Street is bustling, not just with shoppers but also with older ladies and gents taking the air and enjoying the proximity, and sometimes the company, of others. Hence my encounter with the lady in the mobility scooter. Always a sucker for a bit of Victorian patterned brick, I had stopped to take a picture of a gable peeping above a modern shop front,  
Old library

 and was immediately accosted. “That was the old library, you know!” the lady announced. And she proceeded to tell me what it looked like, and where the steps were, and how often she used to visit in her youth. “I haven’t thought about the old library for years. I had forgotten it until I saw you taking a picture”. I was as delighted to become acquainted with the ghost of a library as she was to renew her acquaintance with her memories, and we parted on friendly terms.   

Back to those modernist furniture shops. They’re both still standing, but no longer sell furniture. What once was Dunn’s now houses Argos, Lakeland, Wallis and Starbucks at street level, with offices above.  


 And what once was Harrison & Gibson’s is now TK Maxx.  

Harrison Gibson

 To my eye, the Dunn’s building looks tired. And the Harrison & Gibson’s building looks drab. Whatever allure they held in the ‘60s has been dissipated by time and make-overs. 

And yet they had their moment, Dunn’s in particular. This was an old family concern, dating back to the eighteenth century. From the 1930s it was run by Geoffrey Dunn, a committed modernist, who focused the furniture part of the business on modern design. By the 1950s the shop was selling to customers throughout the UK, and in 1965 it attracted national attention when it launched its own version of a modernist icon, the Isokon Long Chair, created in the 1930s by Bauhaus designer Marcel Breuer. 

Ian Nairn’s visit in the mid-60s therefore happily coincided with Bromley’s very own modernist moment, a moment defined not by its architecture but by its furniture. And I have to admit that now that I know this, now that I know that Bromley was once nationally celebrated as a centre of modern design, I feel a certain grudging affection for the place – obnoxious Tories notwithstanding.

Nairn’s Beddington: Poetry Please

Beddington #7

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.  

His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. Maybe it’s time to revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, and see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years.

Ian Nairn liked the liminal bleakness of Beddington Lane in the 1960s.

“A forlorn, atmospheric place … Six grand cooling towers … pylons everywhere, houses all round the horizon, light industry in the foreground. Yet out of these unexpected ingredients comes a poetry which is missing from most of the preserved villages around London … “

And today? Does Beddington Lane still retain that unexpected poetry? To my mind, sadly, No.

Nairn’s 1960s view was dominated by those enormous cooling towers.

Beddington #2

They belonged to Croydon ‘A’ power station, built by the local council in the 1890s. Next door was the ‘B’ station, opened in 1950. And together they sat at the heart of a well-established industrial zone, along Waddon Marsh Lane and the River Wandle.

The First World War gave birth to a second zone to the south, on Coldharbour Lane, where first a military airfield, and then an aircraft  factory – the Orwellian-sounding ‘National Aircraft Factory No. 1’ – were built. In 1920 the airfield became Croydon Aerodrome, Britain’s gateway to the world. And in 1925 the Purley Way was built along the line of Waddon Marsh Lane and Coldharbour Lane to create a new, modern road linking the older industrial zone to the north with the airfield and newer industries to the south.

With the Second World War, planning became respectable. In 1944 town-planner Patrick Abercrombie published his Greater London Plan, a blueprint for a prosperous, healthier post-war London. In general he was hostile to siting industrial or manufacturing activity within or close to residential areas, but he was always open to ‘special cases’ and Croydon was one of them:

“Croydon is a suitable area for industries associated with aircraft engineering and maintenance, or industries likely to use air transport for the export of light luxury goods like cosmetics, high quality leather work, including ladies’ handbags, expensive pottery and delicate precision instruments … Most of Croydon’s industry is post-1918 and its expansion was greatly stimulated by the development of the aerodrome and the Purley Way … “.

When Nairn visited Beddington Lane in the 1960s the landscape he saw – power stations, pylons, light industry – was part of the industrial area described by Abercrombie. When he marvelled at the cooling towers he was on its western edge, looking back east across the Purley Way, towards Croydon.


Beddington #7

The view today is both recognisably similar and depressingly different. The cooling towers of Croydon ‘A’ have gone, demolished in the 1970s. The chimneys of its neighbour Croydon ‘B’ survive, but their function now is to advertise the Ikea superstore in the retail park.


Beddington #8

There could be no better symbol of the change which has occurred, the shift from making stuff to selling stuff. Of course this shift is bigger than Beddington Lane, it’s global; it’s about neo-liberalism; it’s about the financialisation of capital and the re-location of manufacturing. Beddington Lane is just one charmless example of this global shift playing itself out on the local level.

Why charmless? Because despite everything, despite the monotonous and often dangerous work which they demanded, and the contribution to global warming from the millions of tons of coal which they burned, there was a drama, a poetry, to great twentieth-century productive engines such as power stations. And the drama stemmed not just from their monumental scale, but also from function: the making of electricity, the making of something new. Measured against this, a ‘retail park’ is a sad decline, a maze of designed ugliness, a car-friendly abstraction of pre-fabricated sheds. Some sheds claim to be ‘superstores’, others builders’ merchants, or depots, or wholesalers, but all, essentially, are just sheds, dumb and demeaning. ‘Retail parks’ shrivel the soul.

Beddington #3

But all is not lost. Continue down Beddington Lane to the south, approaching the River Wandle and, unexpectedly, we enter a hidden historical landscape. Appearances here deceive. Beyond the scrappy hedge and fence is the uninviting expanse of Beddington Sewage Treatment Works:


Beddington #6

but beneath the sludge beds lie the remains of a Roman villa. And also near-by is a pre-Roman Iron Age enclosed settlement; and a post-Roman Anglo-Saxon cemetery. And the area has yielded finds from the Bronze Age, Neolithic, and perhaps even Mesolithic, attesting to a continuous human presence going back six thousand years or more, attracted and sustained by the modest River Wandle.

All of which is more than enough to exorcise the demeaning soullessness of the ‘retail park’ up the road, and open us up again to the possibility of poetry.
Beddington #1


Nairn’s Wimbledon: High towers in parks

Wimbledon - Oatlands Court #3

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.  

His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. Maybe it’s time to revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, and see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years.

In 1966, when Nairn’s London was published, the ‘tower block’ or ‘point block’ was an exciting architectural statement. It combined style with social mission: modernist in design, modern in materials, and progressive in its ambition to replace inadequate homes with decent ones.

Oatlands Court on the edge of Wimbledon Common was the first tower block built by the London County Council (LCC) Architects’ Department.

Wimbledon - Oatlands Court #2

It went up in the mid-1950s, and ten years later it was still, in Nairn’s view: “one of the best: compact, not too tall (eleven storeys), with one of those plans, immediately lucid, which architects dream of, fuss over, but rarely achieve”: T-shaped, with the stairs and services in the central junction, and a flat on each arm of each floor. And the whole was done, in Nairn’s view, with “charm … humanity and above all … modesty … “.

 Wimbledon - Oatlands Court #1

Oatlands Court is part of the Ackroydan estate, designed from the late 1940s and built between 1950 and 1954. Nairn doesn’t name the architect in his 1966 book, which is surprising because the architect was someone he admired and had praised in print elsewhere. Colin Lucas was a pioneer in Britain of the style which later came to be called ‘brutalist’. In the 1930s he and his partners designed several private houses which explored the practical and aesthetic potential of concrete as a domestic building material, including this one at Bessborough Road in Roehampton.

 Wimbledon - 26 Bessborough Road

Nairn described another of his creations, in Hampstead, as “the best pre-war house in England”.

Lucas joined the LCC in the late ‘40s and stayed there, through its transformation into the Greater London Council (GLC), until the early ‘70s. Oatlands Court gave his LCC career a good start, but it was the next project, Alton West, which made his name. The two Alton estates in Roehampton were built by the LCC in the 1950s, across a rolling landscape, previously a private estate adjacent to Richmond Park. Alton East was built first: its primary material was brick and its style was informed somewhat by Swedish modernism.

 Wimbledon - Alton East

Lucas’s Alton West followed on, built between 1954 and 1958: its primary material was concrete, and its style was brutalist informed by Le Corbusier’s work in France. It was widely praised, won the Royal Institute of British Architects bronze medal, and achieved a Grade 2* listing.

Wimbledon - Alton West #1

In his later years Lucas spoke of his passion for “High buildings in a park landscape”, and of all his projects Alton West best expresses this ideal.

Wimbledon - Alton West #3

But high-rise brutalism also has its dark side. More than a decade after Alton West, Lucas designed the Ferrier Estate in Greenwich. Built between 1968 and 1972, organised around eleven 12-storey towers, it became notorious as a symbol of dysfunctional social housing, characterised by lonely walkways and crime-infested nooks and crannies.

Much of Lucas’s work is still with us. Oatlands Court is still there, modest and lucid. Alton West has celebrated its 60th birthday and still looks stunning. But the Ferrier never saw 40: by 2012 it had been demolished to make way for an emphatically low-rise replacement, Kidbrooke Village.

Nairn’s Sydenham Hill: A Private World

Sydenham Hill #3

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.  

His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. Maybe it’s time to revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, and see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years.

Ian Nairn was clearly taken with Sydenham Hill railway station, hiding away in its deep woodland cutting, when he visited in the 1960s. I think what most appealed to him was its innocent artifice. It was, he said:

“ … the quintessence of true suburbia, the illusion of rurality more effective here than the real thing would be”.

It was:

“ … a complete private world …  the unlikeliness of the site reinforced by self-conscious boarding-in”.  

In fact, there is nothing intrinsically unlikely about a railway cutting. Much of the drama of railway engineering – bridges, cuttings, tunnels, viaducts – stems from the mundane imperative for trains to run on level tracks which natural landscapes tend not to provide for. A cutting is essentially a slice taken out of an inconvenient piece of countryside to allow the trains to run. Over time, as shocked vegetation recovers, a cutting may reinvent itself as a woodland dell, which is what has happened at Sydenham Hill. But it is no accident that Charles Dickens’s most effective ghost story, The Signalman, is set in a new railway cutting, where the violence done to the landscape is stark and raw and inseparable from the tale’s atmosphere of dread.   

Sydenham Hill #4

The cutting at Sydenham Hill, however, is neither stark nor raw. The scars made more than a century and a half ago are healed. But I take issue with Nairn. Its ‘unlikeliness’, its appeal, lies not in the site itself but rather in the means of access to it.

There are several stations in South London where the platforms are significantly below the level of the surrounding land: Denmark Hill, for instance. But at Denmark Hill you never forget that you are in a conventional Victorian railway station: you enter through a station house, walk down covered steps, and emerge onto a platform where you are surrounded by Victorian brick.  

At Sydenham Hill however, approaching from College Road, you enter a portal which ushers you down a rather wonderful little walkway.  

Sydenham Hill #1

As it twists and turns, dropping down the hillside in stages, the foliage presses in from both sides. Nairn whimsically imagined wild beasts crouching in hiding, and leaping out to snatch unwary commuters.    

Sydenham Hill #2

Officially, of course, this is simply the way down to the platform, but official purposes can be misleading. The Sydenham Hill walkway transcends such dumb functionality. It is an experience in itself. It is a brief woodland encounter inseparable from, but not reducible to, the presence of the railway station. 

Sydenham Hill #5

 And once you find yourself at the bottom, on the platform, you are confronted by the looming presence of Penge Tunnel, its elliptical entrance hard up against the station. The portal is rather grand with its classical side piers and cornice, though today its dignity is compromised by wear and tear and graffiti.    

Sydenham Hill #8

 For over 140 years this was the longest railway tunnel in London, an honour snatched away as recently as 2007 when the new Eurostar tunnels opened on the line out of St. Pancras. However, Penge Tunnel may still hold the record as the Longest Tunnel That Members Of The Public Can See Through End To End which, if true, is I suppose some compensation.  

Sydenham Hill #6