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

London: adjacent to England

I want to talk about the EU Referendum, London, and history. And I want to flag up my talk at the Bookseller Crow Bookshop on 4th July.

History first: a slippery term. We use it to refer both to the historical process, the raw sequence of past events; and also to the study, interpretation, and teasing out of meanings from that process. Historical interpretation is always about a past which is addressed from the standpoint of the present. It always involves a dialogue between past and present and – at its best – a new understanding of the past in the light of the present, or vice versa, or both.

So let’s talk about past and present. Let’s talk about yesterday and today. Yesterday – 23rd June 2016 – was the day when we all voted in the EU Referendum. Today – 24th June 2016 – is the day when we learned that we had voted to leave. By any measurement, this is an historic moment, a dramatic moment. It is also, in my view, a catastrophic moment. The 17 million people who voted Leave have set us on a course which will blight and belittle this country for the rest of our lives.

As for the national and regional breakdown of the vote, as expected, Scotland and London were the two great strongholds of the vote to Remain. The Scottish case is, I think, well understood: a direct outcome of its national politics over the past 15 to 20 years, including the 2014 Referendum and the current domination of the SNP. But what about London?

I think the London vote, and the divide between London and the rest of England and Wales, is the latest manifestation of an historic truth which goes back to the Civil War: that London is not part of England; that London is its own place.

What characterises London, and has done since the seventeenth century, is its sheer size, its weight, by comparison with the rest of the country. In the middle of the sixteenth century, when Elizabeth I came to the throne, London was an average-sized European capital city. But by 1650 when Cromwell was in power, London’s population had grown five-fold. By 1700 it was the largest city in western Europe. By 1800 it was a city of a million people, an unprecedented urban phenomenon. No other capital city matched it either for size, or for the sheer weight of its economic, political and cultural dominance.

London’s population growth was based not on native Londoners having lots of children, but on sustained inward migration from the rest of Britain. The city’s death-rate was sky-high because it was over-crowded, filthy and disease-ridden – but immigrants continued to arrive on such a scale that, despite this mortality, it still grew.

And this had dramatic economic consequences, because each migrant from the countryside to London was one less agricultural worker, and one more urban consumer. London’s growth depopulated parts of the countryside, and gave farmers both an incentive and an opportunity to rationalise and reorganise agriculture on a capitalist basis in order to feed the city’s enormous appetite. Similarly with clothing: cloth trades were London’s biggest industry, again organised as a highly competitive sector, from petty-bourgeois artisans at the top end to deadly but profitable sweatshops at the bottom. And similarly with building: the absence of any city-wide administration meant that London’s suburbs simply sprawled outwards into the surrounding countryside, facilitated by the building-lease system which split risks and profits between landowners and builders. London drove the commercial logic that led to Britain’s emergence as the world’s first capitalist country.

London’s phenomenal growth was not a pleasant process. It involved enormous violence and misery. It was only in the nineteenth century that city-wide institutions started to appear to tackle dirt, disease, poverty and poor housing. I am not arguing that London was – or is – intrinsically nicer, or more sophisticated, or more advanced, than the rest of the country. What I am arguing is that London was – and is – utterly different from the rest of the country. It was – and is – a different place, in which politics and culture work in different ways. It was – and is – a city predicated on migration, in and out. It was not – and is not – England’s biggest city, but rather an extraordinary urban prodigy adjacent to England.

And I reckon London’s vote in the Referendum is the latest reflection of this difference. What we do with it, whether we can put it to work against the catastrophic consequences of Brexit, isn’t yet clear. But getting a grasp on London’s unique history should at least give us food for thought.

I’ll be tackling some of these issues in my talk at the Bookseller Crow Bookshop in Upper Norwood, at 7.30 pm on Monday 4th July. All welcome. For more go to


Talking of the London election …

To be honest, until now this blog wasn’t talking about the London election. But two weeks ago Sadiq Khan was elected as London’s Mayor – and even when all the journalistic hype is stripped out, the election of a Muslim Labour Mayor with a record personal mandate is an historic event. Sadiq is a South London boy, so this seems like a good moment to get a bit of South London historical perspective.

The 2016 election for London’s government was the latest in a series which goes back over 120 years. The first in that series was the election to the newly-created London County Council (LCC) in January 1889.

In 2016 London reaffirmed its status as a Labour city. North of the river, Labour’s ascendancy is clear. In South London, the Tory/Labour balance seems to be split 50:50 if we look only at directly elected Assembly members – but when we break down the votes cast for Mayor, South London too favours Labour. Sadiq got 450,000+ votes to Zac Goldsmith’s 420,000+. So in 2016 South London, like London overall, leaned to the left. How does that compare to 1889?


First, some context. In 1889 the area covered by the newly-created LCC was smaller than that covered by the Greater London Council (GLC) from the 1960s, or the Greater London Authority (GLA) today. In South London the LCC took in a string of industrial communities along the river – Battersea, Lambeth, Southwark, Bermondsey, Deptford, Rotherhithe, Greenwich, Woolwich – and a clutch of mixed residential suburbs to their south – Wandsworth, Clapham, Brixton, Kennington, Newington, Camberwell, Dulwich, Lewisham, and a bit of Norwood. But it excluded Richmond to the west, Croydon and Sutton to the south, and Bromley to the east.

Secondly: in 1889 the electorate consisted of just over half of adult men – about 60%. This included upper- and middle-class men, and skilled or better-paid working-class men who could show that they were ‘householders’. But many male workers who weren’t householders, or who couldn’t negotiate the complex registration process, were excluded. Women, of course, couldn’t vote at all, whatever their social class. But as we shall see, this didn’t necessarily mean that they couldn’t stand for election.

Thirdly: the main political parties in 1889 were not Tories and Labour, but Tories and Liberals. The Labour Party didn’t yet exist. Its forerunner, the Independent Labour Party, was formed in 1893, and the Labour Party itself in 1900. But trade unions were actively organising, and there were various socialist groups, including the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) which organised large and combative demonstrations against unemployment.

Finally: in addition to reflecting local issues, local elections often also respond to national politics. In the 1880s the great issue dividing the parliamentary parties was Ireland. Most Liberals were in favour of Irish Home Rule, while the Tories were against. In 1889 the Tories were in power, having won the 1886 General Election with support from a breakaway faction of ‘Liberal Unionists’.

Tories and Liberals were effectively – but not officially – the two main parties in the LCC election as well. Most of the candidates were middle class men – businessmen, professionals, ‘gentlemen’, even one ‘Lord of the Manor’ – and most stood as individuals rather than as party candidates. But once the election was over, the successful candidates with seats on the Council quickly organised themselves into rival factions: the de facto Liberals called themselves ‘Progressives’ while the de facto Tories were ‘Moderates’.

And as for the result: in 1889 as in 2016, London leaned left. The Progressives (Liberals) won 72 council seats to the Moderates’ (Tories’) 46. And since elected councillors had the right to top up their numbers with ‘Aldermen’, the Progressives were able to make their majority even safer.

South London also leaned left. Each voting area elected two councillors, and the Progressives won clean sweeps in North Camberwell, Peckham, Greenwich, Norwood, Walworth, Newington West, Bermondsey, Rotherhithe, and Southwark West. The Moderates were dominant in Clapham, Dulwich, Lambeth North, and Woolwich. And elsewhere – in Deptford, Kennington, Lewisham and Wandsworth – the spoils were shared.

Battersea and Brixton, meanwhile, each had its own special story to tell, as we shall see.

The LCC election results give us a snapshot of South London politics in 1889. Unsurprisingly, the industrial working-class riverside constituencies were overwhelmingly Progressive except for Deptford, Lambeth North, and Woolwich. The special factor at Woolwich was perhaps the presence of the Royal Arsenal, providing thousands of local jobs and a reservoir of popular patriotism, at a time when the Tories were using the Irish question to present themselves as the ‘patriotic party’.

In the suburbs to the south the election results also hint at class distinctions, with Progressive votes coming from working class and lower middle class terraces in Peckham, Norwood and Walworth, while Moderates won support in the upper middle class villas of Clapham and Dulwich. But then as now, South London’s suburbs were a social patchwork, poverty cheek by jowl with affluence. And then as now, it’s dangerous simply to ‘read off’ political allegiance from social class. In our own recent election, the result was certainly influenced by class, and by issues of gender, ethnicity, and age-group; but also by party policies, campaign wheezes and gaffes, perceptions (accurate or not) of candidates’ personalities, and the rules of the electoral game. So it was in 1889. This is illustrated by events in Battersea and Brixton, each of which offered a glimpse of things to come.

In Brixton the two elected councillors were a Progressive and a Moderate. But the two candidates with the highest votes were both Progressives. Question: why was a successful Progressive candidate ousted by a defeated Moderate candidate? Answer: because she was a woman. Lady Sandhurst was the winning Progressive candidate, an upper-class lady of liberal views, hardly a threat to the established order, but her defeated Moderate opponent, Charles Thompson Beresford-Hope, went to court to argue that as a woman she was not eligible to sit on the LCC. The court agreed, and in this way Beresford-Hope slunk into a seat that he been unable to win.

North of the river another similar situation arose, but with a different outcome. In Tower Hamlets, Jane Hobden was one of the two elected candidates, and in third place was another Progressive, Edward Cook. Cook was a supporter of female suffrage, and refused on principle to follow Beresford-Hope’s example by challenging Hobden’s election. She therefore took her seat – at which the Tories once again went to law and obtained a ruling that she could sit but not vote. Despite this, Jane Hobden played an active role on the Council, attending Committees and taking part in its discussions.

In Battersea, meanwhile, the candidate with the highest vote was John Burns.


NPG 3170; John Elliott Burns by John Collier
by John Collier, oil on canvas, 1889. Copyright National Portrait Gallery, licensed under a Creative Commons licence.

Burns was a local folk hero, a socialist and trade unionist. Through the 1880s he had been active in the SDF, and helped organise their massive demonstrations against unemployment. Within months of taking his seat on the council, he was back on the streets helping to win the Great London Dock Strike. But that didn’t stop him from throwing himself into Council work, where he outraged his SDF colleagues by pragmatically allying himself with the Progressives. He was a passionate supporter of the LCC’s programme of slum clearance, and fought for the law to be changed so that both the LCC and borough councils could act directly to build new homes. One result was the Latchmere Estate on Burns’s home ground in Battersea: good-quality housing built directly by a local authority, on ‘Garden City’ principles. (For more information go to )

Despite all this, John Burns never joined the Labour Party. Despite being a socialist, trade unionist, and pioneer of council housing, he joined the Liberals, was elected to Parliament as a Liberal, and in later years was a minister in a Liberal Government. Burns believed in a broad progressive alliance, with the Liberal Party as its natural centre.

How times have changed.

Talking of navvies …

“These banditti, known in some parts of England by the name of ‘Navvies’ or ‘Navigators’, and in others by that of ‘Bankers’, are generally the terror of the surrounding country …”. So said Lieutenant Peter Lecount, assistant engineer on the London to Birmingham railway, in 1838.

In my previous post I referred to ‘navvies’ coming through Penge in the first years of the 19th century to build the Croydon Canal. And in the 1850s ‘navvies’ built the Crystal Palace when it moved from Hyde Park to Penge Place. But who exactly were these ‘navvies’? And how did they come to be called ‘navvies’?

‘Navvy’ is a slang version of ‘navigator’, which from the late 18th century was the name given to canal-builders. Southey in 1819 referred to “navigators, as canal men are called in the midland counties.”

However, navvies were not general labourers. They were the shock troops of canal-building, specialising in all the heaviest and most dangerous work: mining, tunnelling, blasting. Some of them learned their skills building ‘banks’ or sea-walls in Lincolnshire and the fens – hence the alternative name ‘banker’. But navvies always held themselves aloof from mere labourers, whom they “out-worked, out-drank, out-rioted and despised” according to Terry Coleman in his brilliant book The Railway Navvies. 


As canals were superseded by railways from the 1830s, creating even more opportunities for mining, tunnelling and blasting, navvies moved into the new industry. And because the railway industry was so much bigger than canals had been, they became much more visible. This was when they acquired their fearsome reputation for drunkenness and fighting – and for heathenism, so that some missionaries, rather than setting off for Africa, chose instead to take the good book to the godless navvies on the railway workings.

In the 1850s navvies arrived to build the Crystal Palace at Penge Place


sparking a moral panic, as middle class residents in Upper Norwood’s fine mansions suddenly found themselves living cheek by jowl with new and alarming neighbours, housed on Central Hill. A wall was built to separate the two communities, and there were regular police patrols.

While the Central Hill navvies were working on the Crystal Palace, others went over to Canada to build the ‘Grand Trunk’ railway (which you can find about at: )

And when these jobs were finished, navvies from both crews went off to the Crimean War, to build a railway for British troops besieging Sebastopol. This was after all a time when Britain was the world-leader in railway technology, laying down more miles of track than any other country, and the experience of British railway navvies made them – for a while, at least – into a unique workforce, not just nationally but internationally.

So: respect to the navvies. They built our canals. They built our railways. They built the Crystal Palace. And they drank a lot of liquor along the way.


Talking of commons …

The previous post found that in the seventeenth century, what is now Sydenham Hill was apparently called ‘the common of Rockhills’. So what exactly is a ‘common’?


As Raymond Williams said 40 years ago, the word ‘common’ “has an extraordinary range of meaning”. On the one hand there is a plebeian dignity in the notion of ‘the common people’ as opposed to the elite, or resources ‘held in common’ as opposed to private property. On the other hand, ‘common’ can also indicate vulgarity or lack of refinement. This ambiguity isn’t new. In the Civil War in the 1640s, Parliamentary troops refused to be called ‘common’ soldiers and insisted that they were ‘private’ soldiers; but with the War won and the king executed, the reformed state ushered in by those same soldiers was known as the ‘Commonwealth’.

The notion of ‘common land’, local ‘commons’, also carried both meanings depending on who was speaking. My book describes the long battle over Penge Common, between the Battersea Vestry and various private landowners. For the Vestry and local poor, Penge Common offered a customary right of access to food, firewood and grazing. For the landowners, all ‘common land’ was waste, squandered by the ignorant, unproductive and unprofitable.

In the case of Penge, the common was eventually enclosed or privatised: carved up, sold off, and developed for housing. Other South London commons were also lost, such as Kennington Common, famous for its enormous Chartist demonstrations in the 1840s,

which is now the site of Kennington Park.

Others fared better. Streatham Common is still with us, despite attempts by the Duke of Bedford to sell off bits of it in the 1790s: the local commoners intervened, and he beat a retreat. We’ve still got Clapham, Eltham, Mitcham, Tooting Bec, Wandsworth, Wimbledon, and others. And interestingly, perhaps paradoxically, the Corporation of the City of London preserves the commons at Coulsdon, Farthing Down, Kenley, Riddlesdown, Spring Park and West Wickham. Each patch of common land, a part of our common history.

Talking of the Battle of Hastings …

Talking of the Battle of Hastings and its connection with Penge, as I was in my last post: on a recent visit to the Oxfam shop in Rochester I picked up a packet of miscellaneous postage stamps which included this lovely little item:-


This is the fourpenny stamp which was part of the special set issued in 1966 to mark 900 years since the Battle. I remember this stamp well. It came out on 14th October, the anniversary of the Battle, and I was 11. Something about the lovely little image taken from the Bayeux Tapestry, its colour and movement, appealed to me and stuck with me, and I recognised it  immediately years later in Rochester.

It also moved me to dig out my equally wonderful King Penguin about the Bayeux Tapestry.

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Published in 1943, this was part of a series of beautifully neat and meticulously designed small hardbacks, put out by Penguin during and after the War. King Penguins were part of the wartime drive for democratic self-education. They were edited by Nicolaus Pevsner, the German émigré who went on to teach us about our own architectural heritage with his guides to the Buildings to England.

One of the great things about King Penguins is their use of colour. At a time when publishers were subject to War Economy Standards, which governed the quality of paper, ink and bindings, I really don’t know how Pevsner or Penguin got permission to splash out on colour reproductions: maybe they convinced someone somewhere that a bit of colour would be good for morale. Whatever the truth, it’s the colour that made – and makes – King Penguins special. So – in glorious wartime colour – here’s King Harold receiving news of the comet that betokened an upheaval in the state and the advent of William …

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One last thing. 1966, the 900th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, was exactly 50 years ago. 2016 is the 950th anniversary: not as iconic as the 900th, perhaps, but certainly significant, and even poignant, given that this is also the year when we’ll be voting on EU membership. Food for thought.

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