The 1951 Festival of Britain – born in an age of hope and austerity – was envisaged as a ‘corporate reaffirmation of faith in the nation’s future’(1). In social democratic Britain, a key element of this future was housing for the people and the Lansbury Estate in Poplar was to be its exemplar.
Its first beneficiaries were Mr and Mrs Snoddy, their two children and pet tortoise. They moved in to a three-bedroomed flat in Gladstone House on Valentine’s Day, 1951.
But the origins of the Estate pre-date the Festival. The London County Council’s ambitions to rebuild and rehouse had been spectacularly demonstrated after the first world war. The second added urgency and, in a way, opportunity – 24 per cent of Poplar’s buildings had been either destroyed or seriously damaged in the conflict.
The LCC’s County of London Plan, drawn up by Patrick Abercrombie and County Architect by JH Forshaw in 1943, intended to seize this moment and reconstruct London on rational and humane lines.
One of the Plan’s great themes was the ‘neighbourhood unit ‘, seen as a lesson ‘learnt from the urban co-operation and sturdy individualism’ of existing London communities.(2)
A feeling of neighbourliness and social responsibility is much more likely to develop where dwellings are grouped than where they are strung out in long terraces or repetitive blocks of flats.
There was also a simple belief that London’s population needed to be reduced – the LCC proposed a 42 per cent reduction in the population of Stepney and Poplar. Alfred Salter’s earlier hopes for Bermondsey were not so fanciful after all.
These ideas met in the New Town movement of the day and in the Lansbury Estate, its metropolitan counterpart.
The Stepney and Poplar Reconstruction Area – which gave the LCC the compulsory purchase powers it needed – was authorised by the Minister of Town and Country Planning in December 1947. Of 11 neighbourhood units declared, the Lansbury Estate would form Neighbourhood 9 – 124 acres bounded by East India Dock Road, Burdett Road, Limehouse Cut, and the North London railway line. One year later the LCC compulsorily purchased 37.75 acres within the Neighbourhood – around 1,000 properties in about 370 separate ownerships.
To all this the Festival of Britain was essentially irrelevant. The Exhibition of Architecture, Town Planning, and Building Research was originally planned for Battersea Park but in 1948 Frederick Gibberd, architect-planner and Festival adviser, offered a new concept – ‘to take a bombed or cleared site of four to six acres as near as possible to the site of the main Exhibition [and] develop it as a cross section of a Neighbourhood’.(3)
Herbert Morrison, former leader of the LCC and the minister in charge of the Festival, seized on this idea and, for various reasons, the Poplar site was taken as ideal.
A Reconstruction Group was established within the LCC’s Town Planning Department – a multi-disciplinary team of architects, planners and surveyors and the first sociologist to be involved in such a project, Margaret Willis.
This was a planning-led project, intended to create a viable and self-sustaining community with all the shops, schools, churches and community buildings it needed. It would include too the first modern purpose-built old people’s home in London. Surveys of local circumstances and needs were carried out though, in practice, the public consultation was largely symbolic – plans were too far advanced to be stymied by local opinion.
In some ways, the Festival added little permanently to the Estate. It did, however, ensure a larger number of private architects contributing – Geoffrey Jellicoe, Peter Shepherd, Graham Dawbarn and Edward Armstrong – and a greater variety of styles than was typical of most LCC estates.
It also gave the scheme some urgency though it wouldn’t escape the bureaucratic hold-ups, Government economy measures and contractor shortages that were the inevitable mark of these ambitious and constrained times.
The first housing opened in February 1951. The Live Architecture Exhibition and its temporary buildings opened in May, featuring the Building Research Pavilion and ‘Gremlin Grange’ –a jerry-built house in all its horror – and the Town Planning Pavilion. The latter’s exhibits capture the ideals and priorities of the day.
The Battle for Land, The Needs of the People, How can these needs be met? Work in Progress
There was a café too – the Rosie Lee. And, of course, the Estate itself was named after the East End’s own favourite socialist, George Lansbury, who had died in 1940.
There were 478 new homes in the exhibition area – a fifth in six-storey blocks of flats, a third in blocks of three storeys or less, two-fifths in ‘mixed’ blocks of houses, maisonettes and flats, the rest in two-storey terraces. No. 14 Grundy Street and no. 2 Overstone House were opened as show homes. The 30 acre Estate as a whole – still some way from completion at the time of the Festival – would comprise 1,197 dwellings by the end of 1951.
Sadly, the Exhibition itself was a bit of a damp squib – just 86,646 visitors made it out to the East End compared to the 8 million who attended the main Festival site on the South Bank.
Architectural opinion was also unimpressed. The yellow stock brick and grey slates – selected to fit with established local housing – were widely seen as plain and uninspiring.
JM Richards, editor of Architectural Review, described ‘the general run of the small-scale housing at Lansbury as worthy, dull and somewhat skimpy’. He felt that ‘the aridity of design from which the Lansbury housing suffers is undoubtedly due to so much having to be sacrificed for the sake of cheapness’.(3)
Irrespective of aesthetic judgements, there was truth in this. The Architecture Exhibition had been costed at between £300,000 and £500,000 but in June 1949 its budget was cut, at Government insistence, to £240,000. In the same year, prices had risen by 6 per cent. The result was that standards had to be lowered – literally in the case of the ceilings in parts of the scheme (to 8 feet) as building bye-laws were waived.
But architects shouldn’t have the last word. The sociologists Ruth Glass and John Westergaard were measured in their appraisal. It was true that the Estate offered ‘hardly any examples of really outstanding contemporary design: its layout and elevations reflect modesty and competence’. There was nothing which appeared inspired by ‘flights of imagination and adventure’. Still, they concluded:(4)
‘an environment has been created – or re-created – that is neither a pale imitation of suburban boredom, nor an apologia for city life.
And then they asked the vital question: ‘What does Lansbury mean to the people who live there?’
This question and the later life of the Estate will be examined in next week’s post.
(1) Ian Cox, The South Bank Exhibition: A guide to the story it tells, HMSO, 1951
(2) ‘The Lansbury Estate: Introduction and the Festival of Britain exhibition‘, Survey of London: volumes 43 and 44: Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs (1994)
(3) From the Architectural Review, December1951, quoted in the Survey of London article above.
(4) John Westergaard and Ruth Glass, ‘A Profile of Lansbury’, The Town Planning Review, Vol. 25, No. 1 (April 1954)
Hayes People History, The Lansbury Estate 1951 – It’s what Labour Councils do, is a lovely post on the furnished show flat kitted out by the London Cooperative Society.
The Love London Council Housing piece on the Estate has good additional photographs and detail.