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.
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.
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.