If you’re visiting Tate Britain take a little time to walk just to the north and have a look at the Millbank Estate. It represents another aspect of Britain’s artistic heritage – the impact of the Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century – and it speaks, moreover, of a vital moment in our social and political history.
The Millbank Penitentiary occupied the present site of the gallery and estate from 1816 to 1890. This was the first national prison designed supposedly on ‘model’ lines. In practice, it was beset with problems and scheduled for closure by 1885 when a Royal Commission recommended that 11 acres of its land be set aside for housing. This area was acquired in 1896 by the new London County Council (LCC).
The LCC had been established in 1889, replacing a variety of local ad hoc bodies and the rather inert Metropolitan Board of Works. Just one year later, the Housing of the Working Classes Act gave the Council the power not only to clear slum areas but to build municipal housing for displaced residents. It happened that the first elections to the new body had returned a reforming majority ambitious to use its new-found powers. Progressives, a largely Liberal grouping which also included some labour leaders and Fabians such as Sydney Webb, formed a majority on the Council till 1907.
In 1893 a new department was established in the LCC’s Architects’ Department, a branch dedicated to the Housing of the Working Classes. It possessed a permanent staff of eight, of whom most had drawn inspiration from the design classes of the Architects’ Association and the influence of William Morris, Philip Webb, Norman Shaw and WR Lethaby.
Lethaby outlined his philosophy of design in Art and Workmanship in 1913:
If I were asked for some simple test by which we might hope to know a work of art when we saw one I should suggest something like this: Every work of art shows that it was made by an human being for an human being. Art is the humanity put into workmanship, the rest is slavery.
The opportunity, then, was not only to build accommodation for the working class but to do so with some style – with an eye to aesthetics and beauty. This was a reaction to not only the slums in which most working people lived but against also the barracks-like starkness of the philanthropic Peabody Estates which had represented the largest attempt to rehouse the poor of London to date.
The new estate, largely designed by R Minton Taylor, was intended to accommodate 4330 people, in principle mainly those displaced by the redevelopment of Clare Market in Holborn. It represented an advance on the LCC’s first housing scheme, the Boundary Estate in Shoreditch, as none of the new tenements were to share both a WC and a scullery and the large majority were self-contained.
The design itself was a little plainer than the Boundary Estate but any uniformity of appearance was offset by variations of window placement and rooflines and by the disposition of the blocks to each other and around generous courtyard space and tree-lined streets.
The blocks are generally five storey with the ground storey in dark brick punctuated by some impressive doorways.
The upper storeys are medium red brick with stone dressing. The dormers, gables and rendered brickwork of the top storey offer more visual interest and clearly show the influence of both the Arts and Crafts movement and the Queen Anne style discussed in relation to contemporary London schools in last week’s post.
Hogarth House – all the blocks are named after British artists – was the first to be finished in 1899: 54 tenements, 24 entirely self-contained and 30 self-contained with private, detached WCs It is now Grade II* listed. The estate as a whole was completed by 1902.
It was widely praised in the architectural press, the Architect’s Review concluding that (1):
there is a reasonableness and picturesqueness of disposition as well as a certain simple refinement of treatment about these dwellings which is very pleasant.
But with rents ranging from 7s to 13s (35p to 65p) a week for two and three-roomed flats, the Estate was generally beyond the reach of the unskilled working class for whom it was nominally intended. This, of course, was the prevailing problem of the new council housing and would remain so for some time to come.
The Turner Buildings were severely damaged by German bombs in May 1941 (and some 25 killed) but the Estate has generally worn well. Now the Estate comprises 561 flats of which around half are council tenancies and half leasehold.
The estate agents will tell you that a ‘well-presented one-bedroom property with contemporary furnishing located on the first floor of this established, secure development’ can be had for £450,000. A three-bedroom flat is available for rent at £600 per week. The pressures on affordable housing in London, and social housing in particular, are obvious. Meanwhile, Westminster City Council spent over £2m in a nine-month period in 2012 housing homeless families in three- and four-star hotels.(2)
The Estate is managed on behalf of Westminster City Council by the Millbank Estate Management Organisation (MEMO), ‘run by and for the residents’. The Estate looks well cared for though there were mutterings about enforced ‘gentrification’ when MEMO recently attempted to remove clothing line poles that had been in use for 70 years. (3)
For Susan Beattie, however, Millbank remains (4):
a stirring memorial, not only to the Housing branch, but to Victorian social conscience and to the committed endeavours of local government to improve the quality of Londoners’ lives.
Given the money spent on housing some of our poorest and most vulnerable families in bed and breakfast accommodation, we might wish for a return to such Victorian values.
(1) Quoted in Susan Beattie, A Revolution in London Housing: LCC housing architects and their work, 1893-1914
(2) Karl Mercer, BBC News, ‘Homeless Westminster Families in Four Star Hotels‘, BBC News Online, 7 February 2013
(3) Mark Blunden, ‘Residents get shirty in battle to save their washing lines‘, Evening Standard, 20 May 2013.
(4) Susan Beattie, A Revolution in London Housing: LCC housing architects and their work, 1893-1914
Other detail for this post is taken from City of Westminster, Millbank Conservation Area Audit, ND