The story of council housing in the postwar period is, most notoriously, the story of high-rise which had once seemed to offer a modern and comprehensive solution to the problem of housing the masses. Well, that didn’t go so well – though the reality is more mixed than popular perceptions allow. This post looks at one council’s move to high-rise – the ideals and pressures behind it and how it turned out.
Between the wars, Woolwich Borough Council took pride both in a building programme unequalled among London boroughs and in its commitment to direct labour. The Council had built 4000 homes, notably at the Page Estate in Eltham, using its own workforce. These were, in the language of the day, ‘cottage homes’ – houses with front and back gardens – built in extensive suburbs.
A large-scale drive to redevelopment – slum clearance – began in the 1930s, with Greenwood’s 1930 Housing Act and the 1934 Housing Act. After the Second World War and, particularly in heavily-bombed Woolwich, this imperative was strengthened – in Woolwich, most powerfully in St Mary’s, a bomb-scarred area of ‘small, undesirable dwellings, narrow, badly-arranged streets and few, if any, amenities.’ (1)
The site had already been earmarked for redevelopment in 1935. By 1939, 11 acres had been identified for clearance. It was planned to demolish 317 houses and build 15 four-storey and eight two-storey blocks for a population of 2309. Woolwich resisted tenement blocks. The London County Council – the planning authority – responded that it had already made concessions to Woolwich’s open development preferences by proposing four- rather than its usual five-storey blocks.(2)
The War intervened and the plan stalled. By 1945, Woolwich had 9739 families on its council house waiting list but it was able, at first, to maintain its ideals. The Coldharbour Estate in Eltham, begun in 1947, was a cottage suburb comprising 1800 homes. But the writing was on the wall. It was already clear to Woolwich’s civic leaders that it was ‘henceforth necessary to knock down before putting up’.
Here, typically, Woolwich was ambitious. As attention focused once more on St Mary’s, Town Clerk David Jenkins sent a plan devised by Wallace Gimson, the Borough Engineer, to the LCC. It identified a 75 acre site as the ‘St Mary’s Neighbourhood Reconstruction Area’ – such areas, though not this particular one, had been designated in the 1943 County of London Plan – and proposed a twenty-year programme which would house 5000.
The LCC was wary of delegating the planning powers it enjoyed under the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. But Woolwich had one thing, apart from chutzpah, in its favour: its Direct Labour Organisation, 1000-strong, could build 400 homes a year – this at a time when the Lansbury Estate development in Poplar was hamstrung by the problem of multiple private contractors.
The LCC made Woolwich take full financial responsibility and refused assistance with rehousing but conceded Woolwich’s power to build houses rather than blocks. St Mary’s became the eighth and last Comprehensive Development Area to be listed in the County of London Development Plan and the only one delegated to a borough.
Woolwich began building work on the project – which it described as a stupendous piece of pioneering work’ – in July 1952 but it was slow-going. Construction took place on an ad hoc basis as sites became available – firstly with a three storey block of 18 flats on St Mary Street.
At this point, Woolwich remained committed to a maximum build of three storeys but even this meant that most of the development would be flats and it left a problem of numbers – not all the displaced residents could be rehoused. The LCC proposed five 11-storey blocks be included in the plans on Frances Street.
I’ll spare you the back and forth but by 1955 Woolwich had yielded to the necessity of the LCC proposal. The final twist came with the 1956 Housing Subsidies Act which increased central government subsidies the higher the building. The 11-storey blocks were upped to 14 and a block on Kingsman Street was raised to nine storeys. It was further agreed to replace the houses planned for the south side of Kingsman Street with a four-storey block.
The new point blocks were technically a bridge too far even for Woolwich’s highly capable in-house team. The Council appointed Norman & Dawbarn, who had worked on the Lansbury Estate and Harlow New Town, as architects. Wates were appointed as the building contractors.
All this might be taken as a defeat for the Council and, in some ways – through force of circumstance – it was. But the Survey of London hails the ‘architectural panache’ of the new buildings – the only ones, it says, to be written up in the architectural press. And they do look striking.
The 138 feet blocks were designed on a butterfly-plan to maximise light and constructed of reinforced-concrete frames with pinkish flint-lime brick infill panels and patterned cast-concrete panels under the windows. Internally, as estate agents would say, they benefitted from under-floor heating – though this proved problematic – and electric panel fires in living rooms. Each block had two lifts and communal laundries in basements. In the first instance, four 14-storey blocks were built – a fifth was added in 1965 – containing 159 two-bed and 60 one-bed flats.
Born out of necessity – the drive to rehouse and the pressing lack of space to do so – they had come to represent modernity and innovative design. A show flat was furnished by the Royal Arsenal Cooperative Society – ‘furnished to dream specifications…graceful contemporary furniture, sumptuous carpets, dazzling curtains. And every single item available from any RACS store’.(3)
On 11 May 1962 the flats were formally opened by Princess Margaret – she opened the notorious Woolwich Autostacker on the same day but that’s another story – and the Council celebrated its achievement: (4)
The area is now being transformed by the Woolwich Council into a pleasant, well laid out neighbourhood with open spaces, shopping centres and other amenities. The new buildings have been appreciated greatly by the former residents of the area and these new tower flats, with a commanding view over the River Thames, are a further stage in the scheme.
On the whole, that seems justified. At that point, some 600 properties had been demolished and 718 families rehoused. In 1970, when the St Mary’s scheme was completed – on the schedule outlined twenty years earlier – 1434 new homes had been built.
The Frances Street blocks were refurbished for Greenwich Council – Woolwich disappeared in the local government reorganisation of 1965 – and they, and the area, look pretty good.
(1) Woolwich Borough Council, Programme of the Visit of HRH Princess Margaret on the occasion of the completion of the St Mary’s Tower Flats and Council’s Multi-storey Garage, 11 May 1961
(2) Much of the detail of this piece is taken from the draft chapter, available online, of the London Survey on Woolwich St Mary’s.
(3) Kentish Independent, 12 May 1961
(4) Woolwich Borough Council, Programme of the Visit of HRH Princess Margaret on the occasion of the completion of the St Mary’s Tower Flats
British Pathé has newsreel of the official opening ceremony.
Thanks again to the Greenwich Heritage Centre and its helpful staff. Original images above are used with permission from their collection.