Last week, we looked at the Metropolitan Borough of Lambeth’s very own garden suburbs – housing estates of real quality constructed in the 1920s in the south of the borough. But such accommodation was unaffordable to many of Lambeth’s poorer residents – those most in need of rehousing – and often lay at too great a distance from their employment.
Initially, the Borough had left the most significant rehousing efforts in its poorer northern districts to the London County Council. The Kennings Estate in Kennington – seven four-storey blocks – was completed in 1928. The China Walk Estate – six five-storey blocks – was begun in 1928 and completed in 1934. Both were typical LCC tenement schemes providing solid and sanitary inner-city housing.
But by the later 1920s, the Borough Council was also beginning to rethink its own policies and priorities. In the earlier period, the ‘Lambeth Policy’ of reconditioning slum properties had held sway while the Council concentrated on building in the suburbs. In this the Council reflected a widespread assumption that, even as a better-off working class occupied new municipal housing, their relocation would have beneficial knock-on effects for their poorer compatriots.
In 1929, Lambeth’s Medical Officer of Health challenged this belief: (1)
the type of dwelling subsidised by the 1923 and 1924 [Housing] Acts is far too expensive for the people who are most in need of other accommodation. It has been argued that every new dwelling erected and occupied means a relief to the overcrowding elsewhere, and that its effect is felt through several strata of society. This is probably so, but the effect does not sink to that portion of the population which must live near its place of employment and cannot afford a rent of more than 8s to 12s a week, including rates.
He went on to suggest that two-room tenements – comprising living room, scullery and bathroom and one bedroom – would be adequate for smaller families of three to four. In 1918, the Tudor Walters Report – which would set post-war expectations of municipal housing design – had stipulated a minimum of two bedrooms. Lambeth’s Conservative-controlled council probably felt more comfortable in challenging these standards than would contemporary Labour councils but it was, to be fair, also grappling with the genuine issues of affordability that we examined last week.
By 1931, Lambeth’s Borough Engineer, Osmond Cattlin, presumably either reflecting or informing Council opinion, was offering his own critique. Postwar Tudor Walters standards of housing density – even as statutorily amended and relaxed (from 12 homes per acre to 20 where necessary) – could ‘not provide the largest number of dwellings within reasonable access of the place of work’. Centrally located ‘block dwellings’ were the inevitable solution. (2)
In fact, Lambeth had begun to implement this policy four years earlier. The Council’s first tenement scheme was built on Princes Road (now Black Prince Road) in 1927 – four five-storey blocks containing 108 flats and accommodating around 500. This was ‘a high quality design…of stock brick with generous red brick dressings, given additional height and elegance by the tall chimneys’. Two smaller blocks were demolished after the Second World War to create additional green space but Sullivan House and Deacon House remain along with a pair of iron gates bearing the initials of the Borough. (3)
Further tenement blocks followed. Edward House, a four-storey block on Newburn Street in Kennington built on land leased from the locally powerful Duchy of Cornwall Estate, opened in 1931.
The scheme comprised 24 two-room flats and 12 three-room – each flat also contained a scullery and bathroom – let at rents of 11s 7d (58p) and 15s 1d (76p) respectively. We saw last week that rents on the most expensive of the Council’s housing estates in the south of the borough lay between 20s 11d (£1.05) and 23s 7d (£1.18) a week.
Cattlin described the Newburn Street tenements as ‘of an experimental character…an attempt to provide accommodation at low rental…for this reason the two-room flat has been included for suitable tenants’. (4)
Four further five-storey blocks with 96 flats in all were built on Cottington Street, just north of Kennington underground station, in 1932. Three of the blocks were demolished in the 1980s but Isabella House survives.
Once more Lambeth’s ambitions grew as its experience expanded. While, as we’ve seen, the Borough was initially reluctant to ‘represent’ and clear slum districts, by 1930 Medical Officer of Health had concluded that ‘much of the older property in the Inner Wards was so worn that no expenditure can now render it fit for human habitation’. He singled out the Hemans Street area which comprised 210 houses accommodating 1381 people as a particular case in point. (5)
The shift coincides, of course, with the change in national policy marked by the emphasis on slum clearance in Greenwood’s 1930 Housing Act. Lambeth’s first slum clearance scheme would also be a test case for Cattlin’s policy as many of the residents were said to be traders on the nearby Lambeth Walk and Wilcox Road markets and unwilling to move even as far as the LCC’s Vassall Road Estate which lay less than a mile away. For this reason, Hemans Street would be Lambeth’s largest interwar tenement scheme – 112 flats to accommodate around 600 people.
A compulsory purchase order was agreed in 1934 and building began in the following year. The scheme originally comprised six five-storey blocks – twelve two-room, 63 three-room, 17 four-room, eleven five-room, six six-room and three seven-room at rents between 8s 7d (43p) and 21s 5d (£1.07). Now just a single block remains but, even in its present very sorry state, it gives some idea of the design ideals Lambeth brought to its project: (6)
It is a well-articulated design combining art deco references found in Miami Beach (particularly the brise de soleil horizontal streamlined flats of the façade and the bold, white rendered balconies on the rear elevation) and more traditional vernacular influences – notably the tiled mansard roof and red brick central elevation.
The architecture of Hemans Street echoes that of the almost exactly contemporary LCC Oaklands Estate in Clapham, further south in the borough. Both represent a break with the sober neo-Georgian that had characterised earlier tenement building though Oaklands’ sweeping ‘moderne’ design is a little more daring.
The first blocks were completed in 1936. In March 1938, the Estate was visited by George VI and, according to Cattlin’s obituary, officially opened by his wife. Contemporary images show civic dignitaries and excited crowds and offer glimpses of the buildings in their heyday. (7)
Away from the dignity conferred by architecture and the royal presence, more prosaic matters engaged the Housing Committee. Sanitary inspectors were posted at homes being vacated to disinfest the furniture and effects of the families – moved at the rate of four or five a day – being relocated. Bedding was disinfested at the Council’s Wanless Road depot which remains the present Lambeth Council’s pest control HQ. (8)
Tenement accommodation, though an increasing element of both the LCC’s and London boroughs’ inner-city rehousing efforts, remained controversial. There were those in the Labour movement who disliked its ‘barracks-like’ – always the adjective used by critics – appearance and lack of garden space. Others lamented the loss of the close community life said to be fostered by earlier cheek by jowl conditions.
A middle-class observer – the secretary of a Lambeth Care Committee – stated that flat-dwellers were ‘much more inclined to keep themselves to themselves’ and that ‘the children of the little streets [seemed] to enjoy their play more’. Given that one of the abandoned games she laments is ‘chasing rats with the help of the family dog’, one might be forgiven for not completely sharing this rosy-hued nostalgia. (9)
Interestingly, Mary Chamberlain’s study of Growing Up in Lambeth is far less romantic about earlier slum life in its description of neighbourly disputes and domestic violence. (10) The simple reality, of course, is that poverty is not ennobling. The complex truth is that the lives of the poor are part most frequently of someone else’s agenda.
That agenda in the interwar period focused on housing. Lambeth’s faltering but ultimately impressive efforts in this regard – both its cottage estates and tenements – reflect both the typical pressures and dynamics of the period and the peculiarities of the borough and its ambition to do things well.
(1) Metropolitan Borough of Lambeth Housing Committee Minutes: Report from the Medical Officer of Health, 10 January 1929
(2) Osmond Cattlin, ‘Provision and Planning of Working-Class Dwellings: Post-War Policy’, Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health, March 1931, 52
(3) London Borough of Lambeth, Vauxhall Gardens Conservation Area: Designation report and character assessment
(4) Cattlin, ‘Provision and Planning of Working-Class Dwellings: Post-War Policy’
(5) Quoted in Social Services in North Lambeth and Kennington. A Study from Lady Margaret Hall Settlement (1939)
(6) Edmund Bird, Survey of Historic Housing Estates of the 1920s and 1930s, London Borough of Lambeth Conservation and Urban Design Team (July 2003)
(8) Metropolitan Borough of Lambeth Housing Committee Minutes, July 9 1936
(9) Quoted in Social Services in North Lambeth and Kennington.
(10) Mary Chamberlain, Growing Up in Lambeth (1989)
My thanks to the staff of the Lambeth Archives in the Minet Library for their advice and help in accessing some of the sources listed above.