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.
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.