The Latchmere Estate, opened in August 1903, was the first council estate in Britain to be built by direct labour – by the Council’s own workforce. It remains a superb exemplar of the practical idealism of Labour’s first generation of municipal reformers.
For those Labour pioneers, the case for direct labour was obvious: it safeguarded workers’ pay and conditions, it respected trades union rights and – as importantly – it guaranteed better value and higher quality than any that could be delivered by private interest.
The Battersea Trades and Labour Council thought direct labour vital: as ‘necessary to the well-being of the community’ as ‘municipal housing, electric light, libraries, baths and…many other things.’
Those arguments had peculiar power at a time when jerry-building private contractors dominated the housing market but they may seem as relevant today when privatisation is thought of by many as a panacea, when we know the cost of everything but the value of nothing.
At the turn of the last century Battersea had become the ‘Municipal Mecca’ – a bastion of left-wing politics which reflected the powerful local presence and radicalism of the Progressive Alliance. The Alliance had already secured a majority in the pre-reform Vestry in 1894 but it came into its own when metropolitan borough councils were created in 1900. In the first elections for the new Battersea council, Progressives won 37 seats against 17 for their Conservative opponents. John Burns, former union leader and campaigning socialist, now a leading independent Progressive, was the local MP.
Good quality and affordably priced housing was central to the progressive vision. An area of allotments on the former Latchmere Common had long been identified as potential building land but it took the perseverance of Burns and others to secure acts of parliament in 1899 and 1900 which finally granted the right to build.
The Council acted quickly. A design competition, attracting 58 entries, took place in 1901 and building began shortly after. The Estate, a mix of houses and tenements, was attractively designed and built – unapologetically – to high specifications. As the Mayor explained:
The dwellings were novel of their kind, containing as they did what had once been regarded as luxuries, such as baths, combined ranges and electric light. Not many working men had such accommodation in which to bring up their families, but the Battersea Borough Council had come to the conclusion that such accommodation was an absolute necessity.
The provision of electric lighting was particularly controversial. There were those who did ‘not see why the working people of Battersea should be allowed electric light at all: it [was] a luxury…which should be confined to the well-to-do’.(1) The Council’s pragmatic response was that the scheme was self-supporting.
That electricity was supplied from the Council’s own generating station whilst the Estate’s water supply came from an artesian well sunk by the Council which served the adjacent Latchmere Baths. Sidney Webb’s satirical account of the ‘individualist councillor’ who walked ‘along the municipal pavement, lit by municipal gas and cleansed by municipal brooms with municipal water…’, penned in 1890, was becoming reality.(2)
315 dwellings were provided in total: 28 five-room houses, one four-room house, 70 houses each with two three-room tenements with bath scullery and 73 houses each with two four-room tenements with bath scullery. Each tenement had its own entrance and its own back garden (with stairway access in the case of first-floor tenements). Of 11 acres, three were preserved as open space.
The Estate was granted Conservation Area status in 1974. In planner-speak, it is the houses’ good quality stock brick and decorative red band courses, their window quoins and entrance canopies with moulded brackets and Welsh slate roofs capped with red terracotta ridge tiles which merit attention.(3)
And, no doubt, the early tenants appreciated the sturdy build and good-looking design of the Estate. They were surely equally pleased by the new and cutting-edge Cornes and Haighton’s combined range, copper and bath that each home contained.
There were absences too which were as important. John Burns, a fierce temperance advocate, who formally opened the new estate, expressed his pleasure that it ‘would not be tainted by an off-licence or degraded by a beer-shop.’ It was for him – as it was probably for the large majority of the respectable new tenants – a ‘sanitary oasis in a wilderness of jerry-built houses’.
Indeed, Burns went further:
The home was the centre of health, the cradle of character. If they wanted to arrest drinking, and stop the decay of physique, they should multiply colonies like this estate all over London and the United Kingdom
Burns’ sentiments were a conscious reflection of the National Efficiency arguments of the day. These, in the light of recruitment concerns during the Boer War and fear of rising German competition, combined patriotic alarm at the poor physique of the British lower orders and genuine concern for working-class living conditions with – from both left and right and with no obvious differentiating logic – a repugnance at a working-class lifestyle too often tainted by alcohol and unredeemed by self-help.
It was, in contrast, exactly the slightly better-off and definitely more ‘respectable’ – sometimes rather self-consciously so, it might be admitted – working class who populated both the local labour movement and the Latchmere Estate itself. Indeed, as Sean Creighton demonstrates in his long list of working-class activists who settled in the Estate , there was a very close correspondence between the two. It was this self-improving working class – aided perhaps (whisper it) by a certain favouritism in allocations policy – that found in the early municipal housing schemes their natural home.
There are those now – with the awful knowledge of where precisely these eugenicist currents led later in the century – who condemn the judgmental sanctimony and loose talk of racial health of earlier progressivism. We will be less anachronistic and more humble: is our free use of the word ‘chav’ any different?
And we’ll remember just how radical and how brave in many respects this early labour movement was. Battersea itself was a centre of anti-war sentiment, fiercely critical of the imperial overreach and pretensions of the recent Boer War. This was evidenced in the naming of Joubert Street after General Joubert, a commander of the Boer forces. (Other streets in the Estate were named after Burns himself, local labour leaders and – in celebration of the movement’s aspirations – Freedom and Reform.) The politics of the so-called ‘loony left’ councils which invoked so frequently the name of Mandela look rather safe by comparison.
As a footnote here, it can also be recorded that the Latchmere ward elected John Archer, a black man from Liverpool, as its councillor in 1906 and that Archer became – in 1913 – the first black mayor in London.
Ultimately, we can only share John Burns’ ‘delight that one of his ideals of his early days had been realised, the securing of happy, healthy homes for sober and industrious workmen.’ Moreover, as he stated of the Latchmere Estate:
The land has a communal origin, the streets bear democratic names; the whole plan, history and achievement is redolent of the common victory of the common people.
(1) James Cornes, Modern Housing in Town and Country, 1905
(2) Sidney Webb, Socialism in England, London, 1890, pp115-116
(3) Metropolitan Borough Council of Wandsworth, Latchmere Estate Conservation Area Appraisal and Management Strategy, 2007
Other quotations and much of the detail of this essay are taken from Sean Creighton’s excellent history of the Estate.