You’ll find Aldenham House and Wolcot House on a side road behind Euston station. There’s nothing particularly striking about them at first glance – it’s the railways that dominate. Back in the twenties, railways occupied about 16 per cent of the built area of the Borough of St Pancras and almost one fifth of its male workforce worked in transport.
They would have been among the better-off working class but the district had pockets of severe poverty too. The 1921 census showed 11,000 people living more than three to a room in St Pancras. In Somers Town, Little Clarendon Street (shaded black at centre-left in Booth’s map below) had been described by Charles Booth in his Survey of London in 1898 as:
a narrow thoroughfare of bad repute – the worst spot in the immediate neighbourhood and a good many prostitutes and amateurish thieves are living here. The local name for the street is ‘Little Hell’.
Little Clarendon Street was renamed Wolcot Street but its older designation, Little Hell, stuck. In 1921, its 91 houses, now 120 years old, were described as ‘very dilapidated, neglected, insanitary, verminous and dangerous’ and scheduled for demolition by the council.
That council had been won by Labour in 1919 and in the immediate post-war years St Pancras was in the forefront of local authority building efforts. Its largest scheme, the Brookfield Estate, was completed in 1922 and comprised some 205 flats, maisonettes and cottages. But its rents – running from 19s 9d (99p) to 29s 3d (£1.46) – were said to be unaffordable to poorer local residents.
In 1922, reflecting national trends, St Pancras Labour lost 22 seats. It would not regain power until 1945 and a new era of politics. The Municipal Reformers (the Conservative Party by any other name) took over. Housing efforts slowed but the Aldenham and Wolcot House scheme was completed and it is arguable that the political complexion of the council lent an interesting cast to its completion.
In total, the new development comprised four blocks – a fifth would be added later – providing 88 tenements: 24 two-room, 56 three-room and 8 four-room. The blocks were placed, according to the scheme’s architect, AJ Thomas, ‘in such a manner as to admit the greatest amount of sunshine, with a free and open circulation of air and ample playing ground for children’.
They were constructed of London stock brick with red brick axed arches and quoins to windows and angles, blue Staffordshire plinths and artificial Portland stone bands, key stones and copings. Boxed sash windows, described as ‘of the Queen Anne character’, were said to give the whole a ‘general effect of dignified domestic dwellings’.
Internally the kitchens were large. They had to be as they accommodated ‘a larder, fitted dresser, gas stove, gas copper, bath and cover table, and a ten-inch deep sink with tile skirting’. A central hall contained a separate WC and small coal bunker. Living rooms contained a ‘convertible stove’ which could be used either as an open fire or a supplementary means of cooking and hot water supply.
Mr Thomas went on:
The scheme of decoration has been influenced by the desire to create cheerfulness and encourage cleanliness, all wood floors being stained creosote on the surface against vermin and decay. The floors can be polished and easily kept clean, and the staining economises use of linoleum.
Stained creosote floors don’t sound particularly cheering but if they helped the housewives of the day keep their homes clean perhaps that was a sufficient reason to be cheerful.
This is perhaps typical, though not advanced, municipal housing of the period. Some Labour activists inveighed against ‘barracks-like’ tenement blocks (see my earlier piece on the Wilson Grove Estate in Bermondsey) but in inner London – where space was at a premium – they were generally seen as unavoidable.
A more interesting and unusual aspect of the scheme was the Council’s expressed desire to rehouse all those displaced by the area’s slum clearance. Alderman Collins, the chair of the Health Committee responsible for the development, stated:
in no instance in the Metropolitan area had the possibility of actual rehousing be carried out with such intensity of purpose; the actual persons unhoused had been provided for in every case, a result of which the Borough Council was most proud.
A few tenants, not accommodated on the estate itself, were provided houses on the London County Council schemes in Becontree, Downham and Burnt Oak.
In what might have been a not unjustified dig at his Labour opponents, he went on:
the Council believed that with perseverance and courage it would achieve something in giving the poor Somers Town people the first real chance they have ever had. Borough Councils had built houses for the respectable, they attracted the nice people, and the people for whom the houses were intended never got there; but in this instance those who had lived in the old houses were now living in the new – a genuine transition.
We might pause here and note that characterisation. It was the case that early council housing did overwhelmingly cater for the ‘nice people’ – the respectable working-class with, for the most part, steady if unspectacular incomes. A council tenancy was seen as a sign of upward mobility, it might even promote a certain snobbery. If we deprecate the latter, we might nonetheless embrace the idea of social housing as aspirational, as something more than a safety-net to catch a so-called ‘sink’ population.
The commitment to rehouse poorer tenants, nevertheless, provided a challenge to the Council:
Wolcot Street tenants are not the class of tenant usually chosen for the Council’s flats, and hence the need for special consideration in surmounting the difficulties. It must not be supposed that the tenants are bad; they are very hard-working people, struggling to make ends meet and accustomed to paying low rentals.
In fact, the rents – ranging from 13s 8d (69p) for two-roomed to 18s 8d (94p) for three-roomed tenements – were not that low and it was assumed rent collection would present difficulties. The Council resorted to special measures – they appointed two ‘lady surveyors’, Mrs Irene Barclay and Miss Evelyn Perry.
Mrs Barclay, courtesy of the 1919 Sex Disqualification Removal Act, had been the first women in Britain to qualify as a chartered surveyor and would be a significant figure in social housing through her pioneering surveys and active involvement in local housing associations.
We must assume the choice of these two women represented a belief in a ‘woman’s touch’. The Council professed itself:
fully conscious that the experiment would necessitate patience and help on their part. There could be no magic, for they realised how slow progress is when changes of so radical a nature were made in the lives of people who seemed to be content for so many years with the misery of their surroundings.
In a world where strong women were making their name in ‘caring’ roles in the domestic sphere – frequently as councillors with a special interest in infant welfare and the health of the mother, for example – we should overlook the peculiar mix of paternalism and sexism here.
The scheme was officially opened by Princess Mary, the daughter of the reigning monarch George V, on 25 July 1928. The local press reported how the new tenants ‘crowded the windows and balconies, and, by the display of flags and cheering, showed their loyalty and added to the general interest and enthusiasm’.
We should assume there was a genuine pride and patriotism on display here. The tenants organised a whip-round to purchase their own bouquet for their distinguished visitor and a ballot was held to determine who would have the honour of presenting it – Mr and Mrs Crapper of no. 14 and Mr and Mrs Tippett of no. 18 were the lucky ones.
Naturally, the local great and the good were in attendance too. The Metropolitan Police Band provided musical entertainment. And Alderman Collins got to make the speech from which I have quoted extensively above.
The detail and quotations above are taken from the programme published by St Pancras Borough Council to mark the ‘Official Opening of Aldenham House and Wolcot House, Somers Town, by HRH the Princess Mary, 25 July 1928’.
My thanks to Camden Local History Library for their help in locating this and other sources.