I wrote about Woolwich a couple of weeks ago – its interwar health services were among the most comprehensive in the country. But its housing programme was, if anything, more ambitious, particularly for a borough council in London where generally the County Council took the lead.
The Page Estate in Eltham was formally inaugurated in February 1920 by then Minister of Health, Christopher Addison. Addison’s 1919 Housing and Town Planning Act epitomised the drive of immediate post-war plans to build improved housing for working people on a massive scale.
He resigned in 1921 when the programme was axed but in 1920 he could praise Woolwich’s ambitions – ‘the largest housing scheme undertaken by any Metropolitan Borough’ – and urge that the ‘work be got on quickly’.(1) To Woolwich’s Labour councillors, the need for pressing action was obvious. A 1918 survey had concluded that over 2000 new homes were needed in the borough. The Eltham scheme was designed to provide 2700.
Woolwich had identified a site one year earlier – 344 acres of land bisected by the Southern railway, served by two stations and by LCC tramways to the east and south. Of these, 85 acres, unsuitable for building, would be set aside for open space and recreation.
Woolwich had a model of high quality working-class housing immediately adjacent in the Progress Estate. Whilst the Council’s own designs could not match this – finances were always tight for building on such scale and constant battles were fought with the Ministry of Health regarding government subsidies – the Page Estate represented an earnest attempt to implement the influential garden suburb ideals of the day.
The Estate’s layout included large open greens and smaller greens as children’s playgrounds. Most of the houses were semi-detached, each with front and back gardens, and all were provided with a bathroom and scullery. Housing density was around 12 per acre which came close to garden city ideals.
The first 448 houses were built by private contractors but the Council believed it could build more cheaply and to better quality itself. It was also quite certain that building workers’ conditions and trade union rights were better safeguarded by a Labour council. ‘Results for the People not the Profiteers’ was its slogan.
In 1923, Borough Engineer, John Sutcliffe, was appointed architect to the next stage of the programme – 60 houses to be built by direct labour. The trial was so successful that the 1618 houses which completed the Estate were all constructed by the Council.
Of these, 862 were built under Laing’s Easiform system – a form of concrete construction intended to be quicker and cheaper than traditional brick building. Whilst some of the system-building of the day has not survived the test of time, these seem to have stood up pretty well.(2)
The smallest houses on the Estate and the most numerous – 1446 with a living room and three bedrooms – were to be let at 14/4 (71.5p). Larger houses with a parlour and three bedrooms and a parlour and four bedrooms were let at 16/8 (83.5p) and 19/0 (95p) respectively.
In November 1929, the then Labour Minister of Health, Arthur Greenwood, formally opened the 2186th house on 49 Kidbrooke Lane. It was a suitably festive occasion – the house itself bore ‘a gay and festive appearance’, flags streamed across the roadway. A British Legion band provided musical accompaniment.(3)
Greenwood flattered his hosts by pointing out that the Council had built one-fifth of the total built by London’s 28 Metropolitan Borough Councils – though he added that Woolwich had building land which others lacked. He knew also, as did local councillors, that this massive effort was not enough – 3900 applicants remained on the waiting list. Still, for the moment, the Council could take some pride in what it had achieved.
This was an all-electric estate – the electricity generated and supplied by none other than Woolwich Borough Council, of course. The Council was on hand to hire out electric cookers, irons and radiators at genuinely reasonable rates. This was a time, remember, when Woolwich believed its Electrical Supply Department was ‘Another great health service!’ in keeping homes ‘free from dirt, dust and fumes’.
At the same time, more direct healthcare was planned by the provision of a Council health centre on the Estate, opened in February 1931.
And, in a period when progressive local councils felt that they had the duty and to some extent the power to promote the overall wellbeing of their people, the unemployed were not forgotten either. £17,000 was secured from the Unemployment Grants Committee to employ local men without work in levelling and draining Harrow Meadow, the main open space.
The total cost of the Estate was £1,144m, a sum including the four new LCC schools constructed. The only thing lacking in the Estate’s early days were shops but a terrace of shops was operating by 1929. These included a bakers, a fishmongers and a chemist but the flagship, naturally, was a branch of the locally powerful Royal Arsenal Cooperative Society.(4)
When our lives are dominated by the private sector and the myth of its virtue, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for this era when working people were creating through collective means and collective power an alternative and improved world which placed their needs and rights uppermost.
And, in fact, the Council didn’t rest on its laurels. Arthur Greenwood was back again in February 1931 and, once it was ascertained he was a union member, he was allowed to cut the first sod of the new Middle Park Estate.(5)
It comprised 1740 dwellings on its completion in 1936 at which point the Council started work on the adjacent Horn Park Estate. This would not be finished until the 1950s. Both were built on land purchased from the Crown Estate belonging to the former Eltham Palace.
In total, at the point at which its efforts were interrupted by war, the Council had built 4473 houses and flats – 2995 by direct labour and 1478 by contract. The figures speak for themselves.
Today the Estate still looks in pretty good nick – in some respects, but for the added greenery of mature vegetation, not so different from it did in the interwar period. About 60 per cent of it is still rented from the Council.
The health centre was destroyed with some loss of life in March 1941 and not replaced. In the 1950s, Westhorne Avenue was designated part of the new South Circular arterial road in line with Abercrombie’s 1943 County of London Plan but – fortunately maybe – a major upgrade was never completed. The A2 Rochester Way Relief Road, opened in 1988, which drives through Eltham is less kind.
On 22 April 1993 Stephen Lawrence was murdered in Dickson Road on the eastern edge of the Page Estate. I’ve thought long and hard about how to incorporate this senseless, brutal act into my analysis and have, in a way, decided not to.
SE9 – a racist identifier for some – doesn’t need any more people parachuting in and pronouncing on its racism or otherwise.
This blog celebrates the practical idealists of Woolwich’s Labour council who were building a new and better world for working people. The struggle continues.
(1) ‘New Houses for Eltham’, Eltham Times, February 6, 1920
(2) Collier Stevens Chartered Surveyors, ‘Laing Easi-Form Housing‘
(3) ‘Opened by the Rt Hon Arthur Greenwood’, Eltham Times, December 6 1929
(4) John Kennett, ‘Municipal Housing‘, SEnine, June 2010
(5) ‘The New Estate, Houses, Schools and Trams’, Eltham Times, 20 February 1931
My thanks to John Kennett and the Eltham Society for his help in preparing this article.
Thanks again to the Greenwich Heritage Centre and its helpful staff. Original images above are used with permission from their collection.
Much has been written on Eltham and Stephen Lawrence’s murder. Perhaps the most thoughtful pieces are by Darryl on his 853 blog, by Collective Invective, by Bob from Blockley, by London Masala and Chips and by Sunder Katwala.